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Zenith

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I'm so sorry. If I die, I'm so sorry. But let's face it, in the long line of stupid things I've ever done, can I be given a break for doing just this one? This one, because I love you? Because I can't see myself doing anything differently, without regret.

 

 

 

Chapter One: Goddammit California, how the hell am I supposed to leave you?

 

You know there's the ocean, and the iconic steep hills with their streetcars, and a mish-mash of local culture. The morning fog, always rolling in – covering the real world, the one I'm leaving far behind.

I mean, I'm going to a place where corn is probably the state vegetable. Couldn't you at least look a little bit miserable for me, San Francisco? None of this perfect-blue-sky crap.

"Jim, you have your bag, don't you?"

I look down at it - unfortunately, I do. Packed away are some of the last things I kept in San Fran before we needed to head out one last time. I can see the peek of my sunglasses over a pocket and I confess, I feel like I'm betraying them.

"Jim?"

I turn from the window view of the airport to see Mom. She props her chin on my shoulder and gives me a slight smile. Her green eyes have a knowing look, the kind that moms use everywhere to guilt-trip their offspring into telling the truth – and which has maybe worked on me, more than once.

I concentrate on strands of her blonde hair over my shoulder instead of answering them.

She notices. "You have a book, don't you? It's a long flight."

"Yeah," I mutter as I try to feign a half-smile. She really doesn't have to remind me as we've taken this trip more than once. For love, of all things.

Damn love, damn it up the ass.

I'll admit that in previous years when Mom would date somebody it'd be a trial to (begrudgingly) tolerate their presence, while they (begrudgingly) tolerated mine. Mom had a string of bad boyfriends from as far as I could remember – men who used her for money, or for arm candy, or even a nice, home-cooked meal. Men who kind of didn't want a teenaged son to contend with but liked the adoring mother that came with him – a mother for them, perhaps.

Which was kinda fucking irritating because, well - I knew Dad had been some really great guy. Besides the picture that Mom kept of him on the wall – of him young, sweaty and dirty from work, but smiling like the sun – I could tell by the way she talked of him that he was kind of her hero. Not only someone she loved a lot, but someone she could also respect and admire. Who apparently helped lots of people, and kittens up trees, and helped little old ladies cross the street.

My dad, the firefighter. The guy in the stupid red truck. Who, on the same day that I was born, died while rescuing a woman in apartment 2233 – somebody that had fallen asleep with a cigarette and set the whole damn complex on fire.

But he saved a lot of other people, I guess. Just not himself.

Okay, maybe it had been unfair to measure up everyone she had ever dated to some guy who died a long time ago. But I suppose if you give the universe some gold standard they are bound to find somebody who'd measure up, right?

Meet Frank, who a year ago met my mom and fell in love – and who I couldn't really complain about. At all. Especially when Mom seemed to really like him back.

And honestly, for once there was a guy whose existence didn't bug the shit out of me, and vice versa. I didn't think some small-town cop from Riverside, Iowa would have much in common with us on the West coast – and I was right. But in the last year he proved himself in ways that really mattered; that honesty, integrity, and faithfulness were qualities that were timeless and existed anywhere.

Really, Frank was actually rather... nice. And not in the fakey-way that sometimes happened out here. I even liked him, and I can't say that about most people I've ever met.

But fucking police conventions - especially ones that congregated after-hours to bars, where women hung out. Couldn't they have stayed at their fancy hotel and chatted up designer taser guns and eaten donuts? Whatever the fuck cops do where they didn't intervene with my life and cause it to go crazy and move it to Iowa.

Because see, once Frank proposed I knew we'd be moving out to Riverside. The dude was too much of a bumpkin to get around out here, and Mom has a business – astrology readings, believe it or not – that she did online and could take anywhere.

Really, it was just me that kept us in San Fran. And who was I to keep us here? Especially when Mom was finally happy.

"Hey - " Mom whispers, "you know we can still turn around." She tilts her head towards the aisle. "I can hail the flight attendant, claim a phobia, and we can run away and back to our little apartment?" She kisses my cheek. "It's okay to change your mind. I would understand."

I finally look up at her earnest face and try to smile - really. Because it's just like her to say that; just like her to put me first. Because even though Mom has been in love before, there has never been a guy that has come between us – never a guy that didn't get the boot if I didn't like him, or if we couldn't get along. Never a body on Earth, or in the celestial heavens, that ever prevented Mom from being there for me - always. No exceptions.

"Really, Mom." I manage my winning smile this time, with teeth. "I love Iowa."

She gives me a raise of the eyebrow – okay, so maybe that had been pushing it. But perhaps it's what she wants to hear, because she turns around in her seat and dutifully listens to the flight attendant; who tells us all how not to die if we somehow survive a plane crash.

So my smile wanes. Because if you haven't guessed, it's all a fucking lie: I don't want to leave my home. I don't want to leave San Francisco. I would rather inflate my emergency life jacket right now and take my chances in the Pacific Ocean than in some hick town in the middle of nowhere.

But instead I pull out my iPod and a book and try to drown out the world. Good thing I'm not by the emergency exit, because there's no way I'm paying attention or leading us out of shit.

***

So I have to admit that Iowa could be pretty. When you hear the name in advertisements or on TV there are those clear blue skies, and fields of corn, and picturesque views... of cows.

Well, I'm seeing lots of cows. When you drive down I-380, you're bound to. As you plug your nose.

"Hey Jim – I almost brought it down to greet ya, but Mitchell was still puttin' on the new tires."

I look at Frank over the maroon upholstery of the back seat as my fingers clench the shoulder padding. I'm almost afraid to ask.

"What's that, Frank?" I lean in close to his ear because all the windows are rolled down – Mom doesn't seem to care about the smell, just wants the wind tousling through her hair.

Frank yells back, "I asked Mr. Anderson about that pickup I was telling you about and it just needed new tires."

I gulp. Frank had told Mom about this '84 pickup for sale...

Well, I'm going to keep in mind that it's a truck. A truck. Some sort of mode of transportation for me to escape Riverside – whenever the fuck I possibly can.

But I wonder if there's a delicate way to frame the question.

"Does it... run?"

Frank barks a laugh, and Mom squirms in her seat to look at the two of us; her gauze, boatneck sweater clinging to the flapping waves of her skirt as she smiles.

"You always wanted a car, didn't you Jim?"

That was true. In San Fran there really wasn't a need, but I always kind of wanted a set of wheels of my own. Something to call mine and beat up and tear apart if I wanted to. Something to roll the windows down on and scream and whoop and holler out of at the top of my lungs.

"Yeah, Mom," I say as I lean back. I turn my head to watch the world go by and I notice we're slowing down a bit – this must be the turn off.

There's a quaint red barn in the distance and a grain tower hovering over it. Even if it weren't for the water tower in view, I would know from these things that we've reached Riverside.

I sigh. It's really... real. I'm not just visiting with Mom and then expecting to head to the airport a week later; the dust and nature rolling off my conscience as I can rejoin society.

I fold my arms across my chest – not there, not yet.

It's a slower pace down the main road – paved, thank God – into town where Frank lives. Where we live. Soon.

You know, you'd think it would've sunk in when we moved all our shit here. When I got to put all the boxes in my new room, and had to register for school, and – fuck – fill out that form at the post office; letting them know that hey, all my junk mail can now be sent to Bumfuck, Egypt and not that cozy apartment where I had the star stickers on the ceiling and can smell the bay and the ozone and the world.

But yeah, it's real when we pull up to the rambler on 2nd Street and roll into the wide grass expanse that is the driveway. Our driveway.

I slouch in the backseat, until Mom whirls around like a little kid and gleams at me.

"We're here, babe!" She maneuvers over the armrest and pats my knee. "Go look at your truck while we get the bags, okay?"

Normally I'd look at her like she's nuts, but I'm a bit... dazed.

Oh God. I'm in Iowa.

As Mom slams the car door, I finally snap out of it and shift over to lift the door handle. As I get out it's practically the first thing I see:

A red rust bucket, with its bulbous tires and fender a glorious swelling of my damn anathema of this place. Both of us perhaps with a damn allergy to the end of the world.

But as I get closer to it and glance over the bed of it – fuck, I love it. I love this piece of shit to bits. It has a damn pine tree on the rearview mirror; faded with sun and age.

"What do you think, honey?"

Mom has her arm over my shoulder as I reach for the door handle. I turn my head and grin.

"I'm calling him Gary." I throw open the door and jump inside. The interior is just as horrid as I expected – faded brown leather, and holes worn in at spots to expose the yellow foam padding. I reach up to adjust the mirror and flick the pine tree freshener - which doesn't even have a scent, the poor bastard.

I roll down my window – and I do have to manually roll it down – as Mom lays an arm across the bottom and peers in with a smile.

"Gary has that well-worn sweater feel to him." She leans in and wrinkles a nose at the floor. "Although sometimes sweaters do need a good washing."

I put my hands at 9-and-3 o'clock and sit up straight in the driver's seat. As I turn the ignition and hear the engine slowly wake and growl to life, I beam at no one in particular.

Gary is better than a well-worn sweater. Gary might just my new BFF, ready and willing to drive me out of Riverside. And – someday - out of fucking Iowa.

***

But right now I'm jet-lagged, and a plethora of other adjectives that basically state that I am so not at optimum. I help Mom move the furniture around, and then sit around in my room setting up Internet and whatever other necessities need to be out. But before I can unpack my clothes I have to go rescue a box of mac 'n' cheese from Mom's well-intentioned (but really, let's face it – doomed) hands.

"I know how to boil water!"

I look at her outraged expression and cocked hip, but then turn back to the pot of water; already orange by the cheese packet Mom threw in.

I dump it in the sink. "Do you ever read instructions?"

She huffs, but she knows I'm right – there's a reason I did all the cooking in San Fran. Well, whenever she didn't succumb to all the great take-out in our area.

Our former area.

After taking a bowl of mac to my room, I do a search on Google for our zip code – 52327 – and discover a sub shop and an A&W.

I wonder if Mom thought through giving up authentic Mexican when she came to a place like this - but whatever. Since we didn't pass a McDonald's on our way to town, I guess that means I'm going grocery shopping after school tomorrow.

That is, if I can ever fall asleep in the unnaturally intense darkness, filled with an out-of-sync orchestral din of crickets outside my bedroom window.

 

Chapter Two: I'm starting to think I smell weird, because that would explain a lot.

 

I don't know if there's a worse noise in the world than the grating, biting sound of a digital alarm clock. It's impassive drone as the red numbers keep flashing, flashing in the darkness - until I roll over and slam my hand across a variety of buttons to shut that bullshit off.

I mean really, when does a person ever set their alarm just because? It's only for annoying shit that they don't really want to do but have to get up early for, right? Otherwise you would just naturally let yourself wake up and be awesome on your own time – like on Saturday or Sunday mornings when I'm not running errands with Mom, or scheduled for work, or –

You know what? I'm not sure I've had a weekend free in a long while. But it doesn't matter, because I have to get up for school now or run like hell to get my ass there on time.

Although I did give myself a few extra minutes so I can get to the main office a little early – well, assuming that Gary doesn't give me any problems – and hopefully have no issues with my class schedule and finding my first class. Knock on wood/head/laminate surface that looks like wood.

I throw on a black t-shirt over blue jeans, and then run downstairs for a quick bite to eat. Mom is not-surprisingly up, but thankfully just prepared with buttered toast and a glass of milk – I love her, but the last time she made pancakes I had to use the fire extinguisher.

She is wearing her fluffy pink bathrobe with wolf-shaped slippers as she kisses me goodbye. "I love you. Try to have some fun, okay?"

This was the standard parting in San Fran, and I understand it here.

I give her my most reassuring smile. "You bet." Then I down the glass of milk and take the piece of buttered toast – okay, it's cold and hard as a rock – and shove it in my mouth as I wave and try to walk backwards out the door.

After almost killing myself on the steps, I somehow make it to Gary and rip the heavy door open. I throw my green canvas messenger bag on the passenger side and then hop on in – rubbing my arms and resisting the urge to use the heater for a 10-minute car ride. Note to self: Jackets, you own one. Even in September, as Iowa is closer to the Arctic than San Fran, apparently.

But Gary (thankfully) growls to life, and I grin. Maybe I won't sneak into school incognito, but Gary is a sassy bitch – I adore him a bit too much to care.

I pull out and try to remember the exact cross street to the school. In a way, the center of town is pretty logical – all the streets are parallel and perpendicular to Main Street; which runs directly through the center and out. So if I take the wrong cross street, well – it's a box, and not even a huge one. I won't need to phone home to figure it out.

At any rate, I wind up following behind a yellow school bus and then veer off into a lot of student parking. In San Fran I would've needed a sticker in the corner of my window to authorize my presence; but here I was informed at registration that I would only need that if I intended "to park a tractor or a snowmobile during school hours."

Gary is pretty loud, but I don't think he's in tractor territory.

Anyway, I park in back – fuck if I'll get into a space war with some preppy on my first day - and then jump out and slam the truck door shut. The sound is cranky to my ears – sorry Gary, I'll be nicer next time - and that's when it occurs to me to maybe notice the other cars in the lot who aren't, you know, as cranky as mine.

Walking to the main office, I notice that a lot of trucks aren't all that different from Gary, in the age category. The newer vehicles are Saturns from the mid-90s and –

Okay, there's a Volvo. A shiny, silver Volvo, right in front. And a pretentious black Ford Expedition that might outshine and weigh as much as the sun.

...Well, at least I know who's not going to stick out in a crowd.

"Mr. Kirk?"

The moment I walk through the entry a sweet-faced, yet stodgy secretary is already greeting me with a taupe-lipsticked smile and my name.

"Yep," I answer and walk towards the high desk. In California I would've had to pass a security gate and then walk a block to be here already.

"Just sign here and I'll print your schedule."

It's nice to be greeted with a smile, actually. It was too easy to disappear in San Fran – no one ever really knew your name unless you were a troublemaker, and no one ever bothered to smile unless the conversation lasted more than a minute.

But the receptionist is wearing a hunter green sweatshirt with ducks on it, with a white turtleneck peeking out from underneath. Her hair is curled to plastic-ringed perfection and smells a bit of hairspray.

"Have fun, dear." Her blue eyeshadow is vibrant as she reaches up to hand over the warm class schedule to me.

I smile. "You bet." And then I walk out of the office and to the hallway on my right.

That was another thing from San Fran. Here I didn't have to go outside all the time; all the classrooms were connected under one roof. A slightly revolutionary thing, and a bit of a challenge for those who usually ditched... not that I usually did. But it did add to the feelings of being trapped and monitored, à la Pink Floyd.

Not that I don't experience the same thing the moment I walk into the crowded hall of students and can feel all eyes turn in my direction. Um, what? I mean, I wasn't trying to be a dork with my schedule and school map pulled out, but fuck if I was going to get lost on my first day. I have priorities, being cool isn't one of them.

So I compare my schedule and see that I have World Lit first thing – joy oh joy – and that it's supposed to be directly ahead. In a way, the building was like the middle of town: A main street with two crossways that lead out to the auditorium, a cafeteria, and the track fields outdoors. I should hypothetically not get lost, but sometimes... I'm really kind of special, so here's hoping.

But my English class is at the corner of a hallway and thankfully easy to spot. I walk in, trying not to fuck up a casual entrance, but am somehow noticed anyway – even though I could see that everyone had been chatting animatedly before I entered. Fuck my life.

But I keep on walking and see there's a guy at the teacher's desk, who I'll assume is Mr. Dumka.

He looks like a drunk Irish bastard who doesn't give a fuck, and I suspect we'll get along swimmingly. Especially since he barely glances at my schedule before signing, and hands me a stapled packet of materials as he waves me to the back of the room.

"There's a copy of Madame Bovary on the shelf," he says before he proceeds to open the local newspaper to the next page; as I suspect he does every morning before the first bell.

I can't say I'm thrilled with Madame Bovary; especially since I already read it and hated it in AP Lit a year ago. But I take a well-worn copy off a shelf from behind my desk and then sit down.

Which is apparently incredibly fascinating to my captive audience, who are watching my every move – and pretending not to watch my every move – from the corner of their eyes.

There are exceptions though. A really young curly-haired kid and his Asian compatriot slide into desks next to me, both wearing white t-shirts with blue and neon green. Focusing, it takes me a moment to realize that there's blue-and-red outlined writing that says NASA, while the neon green is an alien waving next to it.

"Hey zhere." The curly-haired kid smiles and bends his head to catch my eye.

He can't be more than ten. Twelve? Short, too.

"You are James, yes?"

I look between the both of them and realize the sci-fi patches on their backpacks for what they are: The geek squad. Back home we – oh yeah, I do mean we - were the outcasts.

Of course it didn't matter that I hated Star Wars, never read Asimov, and abhorred reading 1984. Building little animatronic robots was where I established my street cred – especially ones that could fly across a tight clothesline in an auditorium and sprinkle glitter all over the principal in our yearly welcoming assembly.

... Not that that was me, of course.

I smile at them. "Yeah I am, but call me Jim."

The curly haired kid – perhaps I should call him "The Russian" - holds out his hand, and his friend follows suit.

"I'm Pavel Chekov, but my friends call me Pasha."

Although by the look of his friend as we shake hands? I probably shouldn't dare.

Not that I backed down from dares.

"Nice to meet you, Pasha."

Pasha slaps the back of his hand against the shoulder of his friend, who looks down at it a moment before glancing back at me.

"Zis here's Hikaru Sulu."

I shake Hikaru's hand and he gives me an uneasy smile. But I don't really sense that he wants to kill me, so I suspect it's from the unknown rather than any death-avenging animosity.

Pasha leans over to look at my schedule that's lying on top of my Lit packet.

"Vhat class you have next, Jim?"

I look down at it – to be honest, I hadn't paid much attention to what I had signed up for. I was entering during the first few weeks of the semester, when much was already filled; and as a senior from San Fran I already had many of my educational requirements. That day in the registration office had been the longest and hottest day in Hell on record. (I mean, I know it was August – but, hello? God supposedly invented A/C for a reason, and it wasn't just for the Chosen Plastic People.)

I kind of prayed I wouldn't look down and see Home Ec – I did my dues in a baking class in 9th grade, thank you very much (and managed to score admiration for my already-advanced baking skills – thanks, Mom.)

But actually, my next class was Keyboarding. Keyboarding? What, with computer keyboards?

I groan. I've done a typing class, as well.

But Pasha takes the sheet from me and looks it over. "Zat is in ze music rooms. Wery hard to find. I should show you?"

Fortunately the bell rings at that moment, so I don't have to think of what to say to Hikaru's frowning face.

"All stand for the pledge of allegiance."

Oh God. This was one of those schools.

However, Mr. Dumka keeps reading his paper, and Pasha leans over to me.

"You don't have to if you have religious objections."

"Actually," Hikaru leans back, "you don't have to if you objections to standing."

I chuckle, because the pledge is already over and I think the most patriotic thing in that minute was Mr. Dumka flipping open the section for Local News.

"The Riverside Red Ants defeated the South Bend Squirrels yesterday evening – "

I look over at Pasha. "Seriously?"

Pasha looks up from my schedule and slides it back. "Red ants are wery ferocious."

Hikaru nods solemnly. "You get 10,000 at a time and you're doomed."

I raise my brows at both of them. "Are they imposing in groups of, say, eleven?"

Hikaru considers that a moment. "... Nah, we normally get stomped out."

I shake my head – one of those places. Not that I ever watched any of the school sports teams back home.

"But zey are wery strong and... not zat bad looking." Pasha winks at me.

I do have to say, it takes me a moment. I mean, has this kid even gone through puberty?

But Hikaru watches my expression as I go from wondering if Pasha had guessed about me to wondering if others had guessed about me – if by one look they could see it all.

I mean, Mom didn't care, and Frank knew, and - back home the reactions had been mixed to me being gay. But Riverside, Iowa? It wasn't that I wanted to hide, but it was my first day, man. My first day.

"I guess California isn't all that enlightened, after all." Hikaru gives me a sideways glance before turning forward in his seat.

I look over at Pasha, who is glancing at me worriedly.

I shake my head, then lean over as I lower my voice. "Sorry, it's just that – back home I did get some flack for it. I wasn't quite sure about..." I point towards the ground, "here."

Pasha looks wide-eyed at me a moment, before he bites his lips and does the most adorable giggle-snort.

Hikaru whips his head back around.

"Jim, don't vorry – you are talking to one-half of ze gay-straight alliance."

Hikaru narrows his gaze at me. "For real?"

I shrug.

"Ve meet on Vednesdays. You should come?"

I smile at Pasha because – okay, this moment? Would have to be chalked up to the best welcomings to anywhere I've ever had, ever.

"This has been your announcement, have a nice day."

There is still a slight buzz of chatter in the room until Mr. Dumka loudly huffs and smacks down his paper. Everyone turns around, and Pasha and Hikaru straighten up in their seats.

Looking at the syllabus, I see we're supposed to be discussing Chapter Three. I try to remember – is that before or after the selfish cheating bitch protagonist is a selfish cheating bitch?

Mr. Dumka looks around at all of us and takes off his reading glasses. I've opened the book to page 57, trying to scan the opening paragraph for something familiar, when he clears his throat.

"So, which one of you kids was responsible for the crop circle in Amundsen fields yesterday morning?"

I look up – Mr. Dumka has a finger pointed to an interior page of his paper and is glancing skeptically at each of us.

I look back at my classmates, where no one seems surprised by the divergent topic at all.

Actually, Pasha is leaning forward. "Ve saw it driving to school zis morning!"

"So did I Chekky, so did I. I suppose you have a sighting or something to go with it?"

Pasha shakes his head. "No, sir. Ve vere out all Saturday ewening and didn't see anyzing."

Mr. Dumka tsks. "You fail us all."

I look between Dumka and Pasha, because I have no fucking idea what's going on. While I did have a conspiracy theorist as a political science teacher once (the government killed JFK, of course), aliens weren't something I expected in my Lit class.

Hikaru's arm is practically on my desk as he lounges back and answers, "The MUFON page did report sightings in this area for the last week, though."

Everyone in class is looking in our direction, and I am so uncool with that. I mean, I was on a geek squad – but a nerdy paranormal geek squad?

Okay, the waving aliens on t-shirts probably should've been a clue. But I might be so out.

"Well," Mr. Dumka closes his paper. "One of you jocks will confess to it sooner or later. And then I'll have to rib you for making it the lamest set of swirly-circles ever."

"Zey vere in perfect concentric positions, vith angles at zirty-degree – "

"Yeah, whatever." Mr. Dumka picks up a piece of chalk. "One of you try making a penis next time, will ya?"

There's giggling around the room, until I see that Dumka is writing numbers attached to sentences.

"Everyone get out a piece of paper. This is a pop quiz – even for you, Jimmy."

I groan. Mr. Dumka must've had a hunch I read this before, the perceptive bastard.

Pasha pokes me in the arm.

"Normally ve'd be getting essay questions for a paper by ze end of ze veek." He smiles. "You must have caught him off guard."

I smile back because, gee, I'm so glad I bought a new set of notebooks for the occasion.

***

Mr. Dumka does winds up being an amusingly-drunk Irish bastard, with a rambling lecture style and an analytical ear of every answer spoken by everyone – including me. I mean, I got asked about fucking Madame Bovary on the first day. The first day!

"I know you California types," he says to set up his question. "What do you liberal heathens say about a woman like this?"

I know some Birkenstock lesbians who'd probably protest heavily to the question, but I somehow eke out something – although the relief is short-lived, as we do receive those essay questions by the end of class. ("I vould consider him ill if he hadn't.")

We walk down a cross sectional hallway to a small flight of steps, where to the left was an exit to the outside fields, and to the right was an auditorium. We walk near the auditorium to a small hallway, which has another small set of steps that lead to doors of glass.

"You vill vant to go down zhere and turn right." Pasha points. "I am normally zhere for choir, but zat is next hour."

I smile down at him – overly helpful and friendly. I can't hate the kid, as I didn't have to pull out my school map, after all. "I'm sure I can figure it out. Thank you for showing me, though."

"I vill see you later, at lunch?" He starts walking backwards with a small wave, and when I nod, he jogs out of sight.

Hopefully he didn't make himself late because of me, but that's kind of inflating my self-importance - and I have a class to get to.

Walking through the glass door, I can immediately hear the dulled acoustics of a practicing group; plucky and warming up. It's not an all-together unfamiliar sound, as I've done my time in music courses and I played piano as a kid. But I do wonder why I signed up for a music class here. In San Fran I had taken an experimental electronica course and passed with flying colors.

At any rate, I follow the box of the hallways – yeah, I guess everything is square here – and count the numbered rooms until I find my own; padded in gray carpeting and almost vacant.

There is a neatly organized desk without a teacher as I enter, and I wonder if I should wait here or try to find a seat. The seats themselves are elevated on levels – kind of like any music room, I suppose. Off to the far left are what appear to be full-sized keyboards - piano keyboards.

To the right are about twenty chairs, three of them occupied. Everyone sits apart, but there is one chair in particular that I'm drawn to.

I smile – one person I do fucking recognize out of this whole school.

"Bones?"

He jerks his head up, blinking from sleep, and I grin at him. I decide to walk over to his chair.

"Keyboarding, man?"

"Hey, I could say the same to you - when did you get in?"

Bones is someone I met on my first visit here this past summer and tried to keep up with. It had been quite on accident – Mom had rear-ended his truck, because she had been too busy trying to eject the prehistoric bug from the front seat as opposed to noticing that the light hadn't changed.

Fortunately while Bones looks grumbly, he actually gives people the benefit of the doubt.

"Yesterday. But I kind of just unpacked and went to bed." I look at a few seats next to him. "You think it's okay if I sit down?"

"Yeah, she ain't gonna yell at ya."

A female music teacher – not so bad, nor unexpected.

I take a seat on Bones' right and place my folder on the small-as-fuck desktop. I turn towards him, because I actually haven't seen him for awhile - and really, despite not knowing him forever, we get along rather swimmingly.

He gestures with a loose hand. "So, why the hell did you sign up for this?"

I shrug. "I honestly don't remember. I was catatonic from heat at the time."

Bones rolls his eyes. "Well, you need either this or an art requirement."

"Which is why you are...?"

Bones nods. "If I could draw more than a stick - or at least a stick that wasn't a scraggly line - I wouldn't be here."

I look at him, and I buy it. Because really, I don't know a damn thing about Bones. We met a few months ago and hit it off on the spot, but – where does the guy come from? What does he generally like? No idea. I just know that apparently he wants to be a doctor when he grows up, and that he looks rather grown up already. But considering that I can pass for 21 sometimes? I know that looks can certainly be deceiving.

"You can't draw a stick either?" he asks, his Southern drawl one more piece of a puzzle I can't exactly form. Why the hell is he in Iowa, when he sounds like he should be on a plantation in Georgia?

"I do okay. I guess the other class was full." Honestly it doesn't matter to me, and I look over at the keyboards. "At least I used to play piano as a kid."

"Then you've got the advantage."

"Well, I guess – "

The room resounds with the door slamming, and any advantage doesn't seem like it really matters. Because yeah, the acoustics are obviously beautiful - but the teacher? Beautiful, but in a way that looks like she could bend and break me in half.

Her dark brown hair curls above her shoulder as her at least six-foot-tall frame stands high above her desk. She looks around the room and immediately spots me with a piercing blue stare that freezes me to the spot. (Why the hell did I suddenly think of a spotlight?)

"Mr. Kirk."

Is it possible to hide under the desk?

"Right here." I give my best smile. Everyone likes a good smile, right? Especially this one, got out of whole load of trouble with -

Her rose-tinted mouth is in a straight line as I fumble down the music room steps and bring my schedule to her desk.

Damn, it's not like I did anything wrong... yet.

She looks it over and then hands me a packet, which is stapled in the corner and thick with music sheetwork and notes.

"I am your instructor, Mrs. Robbins. I am told you have some experience in this area. I sincerely hope that I can utilize your talents and expand your knowledge during this duration of study."

I kind of look at her because.... who the fuck says that?

"You may be seated."

Oh yeah, this class sounds like fun.

I go back towards Bones, where I realize that a lot of people must have entered when we were talking, because there is at least a dozen more of us.

Us? Nah, none of them look scared in the slightest.

"She takes some getting used to," Bones whispers in my direction, and I give a nod.

When I take a seat next to him I can see heads turn and look at the both of us. I wonder if it'll give Bones some street cred to be sitting next to me – not that I'm hot shit, but just that few have really dared to talked to me, so far.

I guess California has a sort of reputation.

I look back towards the teacher, who has just set a pencil down in taking attendance, when a student glides in and opens and shuts the door quietly behind him.

...I do wish I could say that "glide" was figurative, but the tall, slender figure is smooth and fluid in his movements. A bit too fucking graceful, as Mrs. Robbins exchanges papers with him and he accepts them with a quiet nod. He is dressed in a gray cable-knit sweater and black slacks, shoes polished and clean – who fucking polishes their shoes?

When he turns to leave I can see the bottom edge of his white skullcap, a dark fringe of hair peeking out to tickle the back of the neck. But that's pretty much all I can observe, as he leaves just as quickly and quietly as he entered.

"Mr. Kirk, you may choose an open keyboard for practice."

I turn my head and realize that Bones is staring down at me, as if he were about to tap my shoulder.

I get up quickly – bending behind me when I remember the stapled packet – and then walk towards the small group of keyboards. Bones is already motioning beside him, and I pull out the chair as he takes the headphones to rest around his neck.

"You okay, man?" he leans over to murmur.

"Yeah," I say, when really I want to ask, Who the hell was that?

But instead Mrs. Robbins walks around the group of us and explains that we can proceed with practicing for our next exam this coming Friday. Which apparently means playing a piece for the class and getting scored on our progress.

I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do on this measure of "progress", until the rest of the class puts their headphones on and Mrs. Robbins talks to me personally.

"I suspect that you are beyond the level of your peers in this class. So I have arranged for a different set of coursework in your packet. Please turn to page five."

I somewhat want to object – I mean, I learned a while ago, and I'm probably rusty as hell – but when I turn to that page I refrain from rolling my eyes.

Or by the look of Mrs. Robbins, perhaps I hadn't refrained at all.

"Do you have an issue, Mr. Kirk?"

"No, this is great – thank you." I fold back the front sheets around the stapled corner and place it flat on a metal stand hooked to the keyboard. I fiddle with the headphones, waiting for her to leave, before I look over at Bones.

His sheet music has Frère Jacques typed clearly on top of the page, and I do have to say, maybe Mrs. Robbins is right.

I watch him a moment, his fingers fumbling to remember which notes are which, before I turn back to my own music.

Clair de Lune. I place both hands on the keyboard and start to play – maybe a bit faster than I'm supposed to, but it's not like I'm looking at the sheet music.

Of all the things we left behind in San Francisco, I think Mom cried over our upright piano the most. The one dad had almost broken his back for, I guess, when they first moved in after the honeymoon. The one that they supposedly bought for "the family", even though "the family" hadn't existed yet.

It sat against a wall in our entryway and was often caught in an errant beam of light from the front windows. I can still remember the mahogany, the warmth of the wood in sunlight, the deep thrum beneath my hands – my eyes adjusting against the blinding glow off the keys as I was learning scales and specifics notes.

I gotta say, I only ever learned Clair de Lune, but I learned the shit out of it.

I played it the last night we were there, and I wish that maybe, maybe -

My hands stop in midair, the thought skipping in my brain. Which makes me notice my captive audience.

... Apparently I forgot to plug the headphones in.

Bones has his set cradled around his neck, and his mouth is slightly open – about to say something, but electing not to, I guess.

"Class," Mrs. Robbins steps near me. "You still have 30 minutes. Please utilize your time wisely."

I look around sheepishly and then up at her. "Sorry, I'm a moron, I didn't realize – "

"Your speed is irregular and you missed several stanzas entirely. Please review your sheet music carefully. Also, I deduct points for looking at your hands."

I gulp – okay, okay, no playing for fun around here, gotcha. "I'll do that. Thank you."

I put my headphones on, with one hand reaching behind the keyboard to make sure they're actually plugged in this time. But before I can tap the keys I feel a hand on my shoulder.

I look up again and see a smile on her face – the coral lips slightly upturned at the corners. Pretty, in a real-life way.

"I do reward points for effort and enthusiasm, however."

Which is nice to know, because - most of the time? That is all I've got.

***

After Keyboarding, Bones points in the general direction of my next two classes – World History and AP Calculus – much to Pasha's consternation. With choir for him next hour, Pasha of course ran into me wondering if I "needed ze help". But thankfully I don't need a human compass, and Bones sends me off with an exaggerated eye roll – although at Pasha or myself, I didn't stick around to find out.

My next two classes aren't exactly painless, although I consider myself a geek in both subjects. In History, Mr. Nogura makes me introduce myself in front of the class; which must've been an enlightening experience for those who might have thought "California" instantly equated "cool and awesome". I scuff the linoleum with the soles of my sneakers before I'm finally allowed to take a seat – in the back of the classroom away from the snickering, thank God.

Calculus is somewhat better, in that Hikaru is in it and waves me over. Although I can tell we aren't exactly at the friendship bracelet stage of our relationship, it is still nice to see a familiar face – and one that seems to not leech off of me and can hold his own in study groups.

After class lets out he follows me into the hallway, and I don't even bother to look at my schedule.

Hikaru tilts his head towards the other end of the main hall. "You've got lunch, yeah?"

I nod, and we both head that way. There's a crowd en masse weaving through the hall, and I'm already guessing the lunch table politics that are about to come.

If this were California I would've ditched for a fast food joint with John Finnegan. But I walk into the lunchroom and survey the scene of what Iowa school food apparently has to offer.

There is a cafeteria line way in back, and the entire front has scattered green hexagonal tables. Off to the right there appears to be a concession stand. A cursory look suggests junk food and maybe some school merchandise.

Hikaru glances at me as we make our way forward. "Do you actually want lunch?"

I shake my head, hesitating a moment at what I'm about to say, but: "My mom packed me a lunch?"

Hikaru smirks, but then leads me to a table near some windows. When we sit down he unzips his backpack and pulls out an insulated lunch bag.

He shrugs. "My dad makes mine. God, I hope your mom can cook."

Actually, I'm a bit frightened by what might be inside – she did insist on placing it in there the night before, saying it wouldn't hurt anything.

I pull out a plastic baggie of Wheat Thins, an apple, a juice box, and a smushed sandwich that looks vaguely like it once was peanut butter and jelly, but is now mostly flat and purple.

We both stare down dejectedly as Hikaru pulls out a bologna sandwich and a can of V8.

He looks at my sandwich. "Somehow I think you still wound up on top."

"I can share the Wheat Thins?" I open the baggie and notice his hand slipping inside as I try to remember the hazardous mechanics of opening a juice box. I grip the top of the box lightly as I press in the tip of the straw – my hand making a small arc of ta-da as I wait for it to overflow.

"Nice." Hikaru cracks open his V8 as Pasha finally comes into view to join us.

"You have lunch vith us!" He smacks down his piled-high tray and starts to unload it, handing a carton of chocolate milk to Hikaru who pounces eagerly onto it, along with angling his tray for a better reach to some macaroni and cheese and a slice of pizza.

The mac 'n' cheese looks disgustingly yellow, but my stomach growls anyway as I sip fruit punch out of a matchbox-sized carton.

Pasha looks over at my sandwich and wrinkles his nose. "You don't have someone to make lunch for you?"

"I do." I pick up the apple and pick at the produce sticker. "I just kind of wish my mother wouldn't."

Hikaru snorts and Pasha has a giggly sort of laugh.

"Hikaru have same sort of problem." Pasha pushes his tray forward and I notice a stack of fries. "You have some?"

I shake my head. "No, thank you – this is actually okay, I promise. I normally don't eat, anyway."

"How you grow big and strong like zat?"

I smile as Pasha delicately picks up a fry and Hikaru tips his can up to completely empty his V8.

I gesture wordlessly. "I'll somehow... manage?"

Pasha shakes his head at me as I take the sticker off my apple and place it at the corner of his tray. He picks it up immediately and places it on his chest.

Hikaru laughs. "Dude, not 'Product of China'."

"Closer zhan you!"

I chuckle to myself as I hear them bicker. I lift my apple to take a bite, when I turn my head –

Fuck.

Our eyes lock across several tables as my teeth scrape the red skin. In the sunlight his skin seems even lighter – accenting the dark, brown eyes that are curiously scanning my face.

"Jim, vhat is difference between lunch here and in California?"

The dark eyes look away. As he tilts his head to look at a companion, I see that his eyebrows slant up and seem to disappear into the edge of his white skullcap – still wearing it, even inside and in the sunlight.

"Jim?"

I blink and turn back to Pasha, who watches the apple go back to rest on the tabletop.

"Um." My brain is a bit frazzled as I try to remember the question.

But Hikaru looks at the long line of tables by the windows and smirks. "Somebody just got dazzled by Spock Chasarek."

I look at Pasha, who isn't quite as amused.

Instead he drops a french fry and takes a quick glance in - Spock's? – direction, before giving me a wan smile.

He sighs. "He is indeed beautiful."

"He's just…" and to refrain from looking at him again I take a bite of my apple.

Hikaru pops a fry in his mouth. "Beautiful. You can say it, everybody does."

I hazard another look in Spock's direction and notice more about his companion - companions, now. A dark-skinned woman, delicate as a bird, sits to the left of him; her black hair in a simple up-do that accents her cheekbones and shines with health in the sun. Even from profile she is classically gorgeous – I would even say model-gorgeous – with an air of dignity and grace in her quiet disposition.

"Zat's Nyota Uhura," Pasha says to my left, but I don't turn my head. "She's the head of the Spanish club."

"And Japanese club."

"And French and German."

As if on cue, Nyota turns her head and catches me staring. I quickly lower my eyes to the tabletop, embarrassed, and then take a moment before I look back at Hikaru and Pasha.

Hikaru still has a knowing smile as he's finishing off my Wheat Thins. "She's dating the guy to her right, by the way."

For some reason I'm incredibly disappointed – until I realize he said her right.

I glance up again under my lashes and notice a skinny, animated boy next to her. Boy is really the term – his round face and bright eyes have the excitement of a young kid as he talks to the group before him, gesturing with his hands. He's wearing a gray t-shirt and black jeans with too many straps, and I have to wonder - reallyHe's dating Nyota, who looks as though she would crush his face under her heel?

"Opposites attract," Pasha says, "but zey live togezer."

I whip my head back at him. "Really?"

Hikaru gives a small laugh. "What, you guys aren't all wild and having underage sex in California?"

My mouth gapes open, before I fumble out, "There are still rules. I mean, it doesn't matter on the – "

Hikaru waves a hand at me. "They're 18 and everything, and their adopted father let's them." He shrugs. "Different strokes for different folks."

I kind of want to say that the analogy doesn't entirely fit here, with logical societal decorum, but then Pasha interrupts.

"Spock lives vith zem too. Vith Captain Pike and his vife, Mrs. Robbins."

Mrs. Robbins?

I probably look like an exaggerated cartoon in my shock, but seriously - none of them look alike. How was I to know?

Pasha gathers all of Hikaru's trash – and some of my own – and places it on his tray. "Zey adopted all of zem, and zhen moved here to Riwerside."

"How many are there?" I say, and then look down at my browning apple.

"Well, there's Nyota and her boyfriend Montgomery Scott. Then Spock, then Leonard McCoy – "

I actually choke on my apple. "Bones?"

Hikaru narrows his brows. "Huh?"

I shake my head. "Sorry – I think I actually know Leonard."

Pasha nods. "Indeed. Ve met outside ze music room."

It only added to the mystery – but then made some sort of sense. After all, during the times I came here this past summer, Bones never invited me back to his place; even to grab a jacket or meet his mom.

Not that we really had the deepest friendship. In fact, maybe I had done most of the talking - and perhaps getting us into trouble.

"You forgot Gaila," Hikaru says as Pasha gets up from the table and walks away a moment to dump his tray. Hikaru faces me as he says, "She's their actual kid – I mean, born from them and everything." He leans close and whispers, "It's probably why they adopted the rest. She's, well – "

"Gaila is green."

I narrow my eyes at them. I'm not quite sure what that means.

Hikaru huffs. "Not like little green guys, but just – like the mucus membranes, or whatever they call them." He points to his eyelids. "She's pale as fuck and everything, but where the pink usually is there's… green." He shakes his head. "It's weird."

"But she have beautiful red curls." Pasha actually sighs - the exaggerated, teenybopper kind. "I don't like girls zat much, but she is pretty."

I have to confess, I still don't know what the fuck they're talking about. I can't picture it in my head. All I get is an albino with red curls and green eyeliner, or something like that.

I look that way again, but I only see three people – Montgomery, I guess, still talking wildly with his hands, while Nyota and Spock seem to pay attention.

A bell rings and Pasha taps my shoulder.

"Vat you have next?"

I show him my schedule, although I could've told him it was AP Biology.

"I have Physics next door – I can show you?"

I look over at Hikaru, who is already marching off towards the cafeteria exit.

I guess maybe we're burning friendship bracelets.

"Sure," I say to Pasha because, well – if we're right next door, how the hell can I avoid that?

As I get up and pass the trash, I throw in my half-eaten apple – looking up to see if they're still at the table.

To my shock, we lock eyes again. Maybe Spock was watching the throng of people passing by, or –

"Come on, ve must not be late!" Pasha pulls the sleeve of my shirt and I feel myself moving sideways.

Although I don't want to, I look back at Pasha and try to seem interested in casual conversation as we walk to class.

***

Biology winds up being on the other side of the building, how fun is that? Running to my next class everyday after lunch. Great.

Of course, with the way that Pasha huddles close, my guess is that I'll only be late if Pasha intends to be late.

"Ve are going to Amundsen fields late tonight. Zhere have been some sightings over zheir fields."

"The crop circles?"

"Right. Hikaru and I vant to see if zey come back."

I have a gut feeling about this, a tightening and twisting in my stomach. Mom would probably say that it means something, and probably have some aligning in the heavens that would explain it all.

Pasha looks up at me with the most hopeful expression, and – let's face it, I don't think I have anything better to do later tonight. Except make sure that Mom doesn't set the house on fire, of course.

I smile down at him. "Sure. You want to meet up somewhere?"

His face looks like his birthday and Christmas happening at once. "Meet us here? And zhen ve vill all drive togezer."

I nod at that, although having Gary there would be my preference. But it's not like I know what fields they are talking about.

The bell rings before I can inquire further, and Pasha pats me on the arm as he crosses over to his class.

"See you zhen!" And he waves before disappearing inside the classroom door.

Which is where I should be, now that I think about it.

I step inside just as the teacher is at the front, looking at his attendance book on a large table. He doesn't see me, yet he's probably the only one who doesn't.

Except Spock, of course.

My plan at that moment had been to walk up to the table and wait to be noticed. But what happens is that midway down the aisle I'm halted by an intense stare.

His eyes are so… dark. Fathomlessly dark. His pale hands are folded on the black tabletop, with his manicured fingertips cleanly woven into one another as he watches me walk forward.

Or I thought I had been walking forward.

"Mr. Kirk, once you have commenced gaping at Mr. Chasarek I will sign your schedule."

I snap to attention by the sounds of everyone giggling around me.

Fuck, that was smooth.

I look at Spock who is watching me coolly; as if I'm the aberration on the scene, taking up valuable time in the course of a day.

Well, fine then. I guess it is just me.

I look at Mr. Banner, who is staring down at me over thick-rimmed glasses and properly looking annoyed. I march forward quickly to hand over my sheet.

He does a quick scribble, then slides over a thick textbook with a packet laid out on top - packets. They were sure detailed here; detailed enough to weigh down my bag.

"Please find a seat, Mr. Kirk. We haven't got all day."

I hear more laughing behind me, but I roll my eyes – maybe the amount of packets were indicative of the level of dickness. Or smallness of dickness.

The list could go on, except I turn around and - fuck me, the last available seat is next to Spock.

Of course.

Everyone watches as I slide onto the stool and set down my messenger bag at my feet. But soon Mr. Banner clears his throat and the class comes to attention. He has chalk raised to chalkboard already and there are groans around the classroom.

I pull out my notebook and try to quickly find the right page – and yeah, as I suspected, it is something I've already covered: Cellular Anatomy.

Well, this was going to be a fun lecture.

I pull out the notebook I've been using all day and flip to a clean page. Pen to paper, writing a header and date, I hear a cleared throat beside me and a murmured:

"You may wish to use a different notebook."

Out of all the things Spock could've said to me, this would be it?

I look over at him and notice that Spock has his chair almost backed against the wall, the furthest away from me as possible. His shoulder rubs an "I learned this through osmosis" Garfield poster, which is ridiculous next to such a severe expression.

I narrow my eyes and whisper back, "Excuse me?"

He huffs quietly as he taps an end of his pencil to a red pristine folder. "It is clearly stated in the syllabus that our notes will need to be handed in. As you have not had an opportunity to peruse them, I was offering my knowledge to waylay a potential waste of time on your part."

I look down at the syllabus and – he's right. In the class requisites, it is actually underlined – twiceONE SUBJECT NOTEBOOK FOR CLASS NOTES.

I reach down into my messenger bag, but whisper a, "Thanks" in his direction.

When I pull out a green notebook and flip to the first page, I take a peek at him before hastily trying to catch up. He is cool and calm as a cucumber, his hand fluid in writing verbatim what Mr. Banner is speaking and also writing.

I grit my teeth, because there's at least a half-page of catch-up. And although I know about the different phases already, there's a nagging suspicion in my head that Mr. Banner won't take that as an excuse to shorthand a sentence – or maybe even a word.

The class is an hour and it's already boring as fuck. Once I catch up, I peek out of the corner of my eye to look at Spock – which I find myself doing more than I expected.

Maybe Spock won't notice.

But he's sitting ramrod straight, although his right side must be entirely brushing the wall. His left hand moves quickly yet smoothly across his notebook, and I feel a grand desire to see what that scrawl looks like. Probably calligraphy, for all I know. Some piece of fucking art.

I brood and slouch over my notebook. I have to say that while I've never been a graceful swan, I sure as hell didn't figure I was an awkward and ugly duckling.

And the notes seem to drone on forever until the bell finally rings and life pops back into the classroom.

I look over at Spock, who has his items neatly arranged and packed already.

"Thank you," I say to him as I flip over the cover of my notebook.

He raises an eyebrow at me – and man, does it look like it disappears up into his hairline.

"Thanks are unnecessary, but I understand the sentiment."

I furrow my brow. Maybe it's just me, but… the tone? What the hell did I say? It's not like I made fun of his hat; which he's still wearing indoors, by the way.

"Um… yeah?" I fumble out, but it's probably unheard as Spock is already rushing past me towards the door.

When he zips into the hallway, Pasha looks behind him and watches Spock go.

"Is zhere a fire?"

I guess it isn't just me.

"Maybe?" I round up my items and shove them into my bag.

"Normally he is wery calm and polite." Pasha looks a bit pleased with himself as we walk into the corridor. "Did you say anyzing to him?"

I shake my head. I kind of don't believe it's about me, but I answer, "Thanks? He helped me out, and I said thanks."

Pasha raises a brow – not unlike Spock, although his eyebrows firmly stay in view. "Zhen I don't know." We walk towards the gymnasium, which is unfortunately my next class. "But he is short vith everyone, I doubt it is you."

"Yeah," I say automatically, although I'm not quite sure about anything. For some reason, Spock cutting out like that makes me uneasy. Not that I wasn't used to people hating me on the first go, but Spock hating me felt like a different story.

We hadn't even talked. Did I smell funny, or what?

As we walk down a small flight of steps towards the gym, Pasha smiles up at me. "You have gym next?"

I nod. "You?"

He nods back. "I vill show you around."

When I get into the locker room, I lift up my arm and sniff quickly.

I probably smell like every other human male on Earth, but I think about buying and bringing more deodorant, anyway.

***

After school, I head to the main office to hand in my signed schedule. The helpful secretary is still there, but talking to someone else – whose voice I recognize the moment I step to the lower level and walk towards her desk.

"I believe Mrs. Robbins would have no qualms of switching her teacher's aide to fifth period – "

"I'm sorry Mr. Chasarek, but there is no Biology in second period to switch to."

I grit my teeth. What the fuck is up with this guy? He seriously is changing classes - both classes - that we somehow pass each other in?

It can't be about me. It just can't.

My sneakers cause a shriek halfway towards meeting them, and Spock looks up sharply, his eyes pinning me to the spot.

"I see," he says softly. He turns back to the secretary. "I appreciate your assistance."

I watch him march to the right and out the main doors into the parking lot. He doesn't even see the long line of students as he cuts through and clears a path, leaving them in his wake.

My mouth must have been hanging open, as eyes lined with blue eyeshadow turn to me with a sympathetic gaze.

"Did you have a good day, dear?"

I blink, and then realize why I'm standing here. I hand over my schedule, which she takes over the top of the desk and looks over.

After a moment, she looks up with a smile. "You're set, hon. See you tomorrow."

I nod absently, then join the thinning line out into the parking lot.

***

I try not to think of Spock as I turn on Gary and drive away from the school. Thankfully by then the lot itself is mostly empty and I can just rip out of there without much spectacle.

Because seriously, what was his problem? The semester started two weeks before I got here. If Spock had an issue with his Biology and Teacher's Aide classes before I walked in, wouldn't he have changed them by now? I mean, my impression was that Mr. Banner did fucking boring lectures all the time. It wasn't like the dude saw me and decided to turn the class into a snooze fest for my benefit.

I turn onto Main Street, and I don't realize I'm speeding until I almost pass the one lone supermarket on a corner. I swerve sharply and a wheel goes over a curve to the entrance into the parking lot.

Fuck Spock. I mean, the most I did wrong was say Thank you and not read the syllabus. What sort of outrageous crime was that?

I cathartically slam the door as I jump out – although I caress the hood as I walk around and mumble sorry to Gary. I have a temper, I'll admit it, and inanimate objects seem to bear the brunt of it most of the time.

I yank a cart from a long throng and try to think it through calmly. In retrospect, I suppose gawking at him throughout my classes was not exactly, well, nice on my part. Creepy, even. If someone had done that to me –

"Pardon me, just sneaking in." I grab a carton of milk from around a curvy chick with a basket and try to finish my thought. When had anyone ever stared at me creepily?

"You're the new kid, aren't you?"

I look up from placing the carton in my cart and see her watching me – her lips curved, with a shade of orange somehow not clashing with her bright red locks.

Her blue eyes, and the strange green eyeliner around them, bring to mind who this might be.

"Yeah, I am." I straighten up and smile back. I mean, it's not the most normal face I've ever seen. But she is also one of the few to actually talk to me today, and not in scientific fascination.

I hold out my hand. "I'm Jim Kirk."

"Gaila Pike." Her hand outstretches and I see the nail beds are a light green. In reality the hue just makes her seem paler than a ghost, but it's ethereally pretty in its own way.

When we drop hands, her fingers curl over the opposite edge on my cart.

"How are you liking Riverside?"

I follow her hand up to the wrist, the inner elbow, and to the edge of her shirt – a ribbed, navy blue tank top, with a turquoise necklace dipping into ample cleavage.

I hear a laugh and I snap my face up.

I manage to blush. "Sorry, I was looking at your necklace."

She smiles at me coyly as she pulls it out of her shirt and fingers it. "You're into gemstones? I like this one – I think it strangely matches my coloring."

I let out a breath when I realize that she clearly meant it as a joke.

I laugh. "I'm sorry, I bet you get that a lot."

"What, men staring at my cleavage? Definitely." She reaches over to pat my hand. "But sometimes I don't mind."

She outrageously bats her eyelashes and I grin. For some reason there's no doubt in my mind that she knows I'm being honest. Because, well, boobs are nice. But I wouldn't want to really see them naked.

I lean on the cart and look up demurely myself – which garners a laugh from her and she pats my arm.

"Jim Kirk," she says, "I have a feeling your reputation might be just as sordid as mine."

"Well, considering I've only heard nice things about you, I hope that's true."

She takes a long glance up and down my frame – not even caring to disguise it, as it's part of her charm – before she raises her brows at me.

"You don't have a boyfriend, do you?"

I purse my lips in thought, before ticking a finger at her. "Is there something you're trying to tell me?"

Her grin is mischievous as she rounds my cart and heads further into the dairy section. "Maybe. You do know Homecoming is in a few weeks, don't you?"

Her tanned cowboy boots click on the linoleum as I give that further thought.

"Ta-ta, Jim." She waves daintily behind her.

As I wave back, I still don't know what Homecoming would have to do with me.

***

When I get home, I'm a bit cooled off and ready to make dinner. I mentally prepare myself – Mom will probably ask a million questions about my day, although I don't know if I have much to talk about. Except Spock of course, but I'm certainly not telling her about that.

"Who got under your bonnet, hon?"

I had just walked in and put the paper grocery bags on the counter. What the hell?

I wave my hands to express just that, and she rolls her eyes.

"You can't fool me, Jim. Your hands are twitchy."

I wipe them on my pants before I huff. "Maybe because I'm carrying stuff in?"

She folds one of the bags I emptied and gives me a look. "If you say so."

don't want to tell her about Spock. I know the moment I do I'll never hear the end of it – and I'd probably get bugged to find out his sun sign, too.

"Venus is retrograde in your fifth house, anyway." She pulls out a pan for the steak and potatoes I left on the counter. "I bet he's really handsome, but annoying the hell out of you."

As she turns around I mock-hit her over the head with a can of tomato soup. Because seriously, I thought astrology was supposed to be fucking hokey, anyway.

"I don't know who you're talking about."

She smiles coyly at me, and I know the gig is up. But I'm not giving an inch until it's dragged out me.

"So you say."

I grit my teeth as I rip the plastic off the steaks. "I'm meeting some friends later."

Mom hands over a cutting board and seems to perk up. "Oh? Some people you met at school?"

"Yep." I pull out the tenderizer and give the steaks a few smacks, imagining a white skull-capped head. "Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov. We're meeting later at school, near 9."

The moment I say it I know that it needs an addendum. But Mom doesn't make any reaction towards it except, "Is it about those crop circles?"

I roll my eyes – seriously, does everyone know about these things except for me?

"Yeah?"

"Ooh, can I – ?" But then she flaps a hand at me. "Tell me if you boys see anything, okay?"

I smile, because I'm pretty sure Mom would enjoy the experience much more than I would. "I will."

She walks over to the cutting board, where I've julienned some green bell peppers, and she takes one and pops it in her mouth. "I heard it was made of some weird swirls and lines from Egyptian typography, or something."

I throw the peppers onto the steaks and frown. "I thought they had hieroglyphs, or whatever?"

She shrugs. "I don't know, but people on this message board were talking how they had some other meaning."

I roll my eyes as I cut the onions – I know those types. "Well, if we see something, I'll be sure to take out my phone and snap a picture."

"You better." She takes the cutting board away from me as I scoop up the onions. "And then you better call, so I can head down there and see for myself!"

"Wouldn't dream of anything else." As I stick the steaks in the oven, Mom leans in and kisses me on the cheek.

"Then you better call that boy you like afterwards so he can see it too."

I move to hit her with an oven mitt, but she's already out of the kitchen and away from my scowl.

 

Chapter Three: It may have been dark, but what I saw was still huge (that's what she said).

 

When it comes to Gary's loudness, perhaps it is better that I'm just driving him to the school and not around these quiet country roads.

I pass a lot of lit houses on Main Street, and as the engine revs and growls I'm thinking – yeah, Frank may be the Sheriff around these parts, but I'm pretty sure he'd still pull me over for a noise ordinance.

Well, whatever Gary, I still love you.

When I pull into the school parking lot I notice a beat-up gray Camry waiting towards the back. I can see Pasha and Hikaru sitting on the hood talking, their white t-shirts barely visible in the darkness. They both turn their heads quickly when I drive up to them and roll into a nearby space to park.

Pasha flashes me a grin as I turn off the ignition and jump out of the truck.

"Your friend is quite loud, yes?"

I pat Gary's side mirror – although not too hard, since there's duct tape on the thing. "Yeah, it's part of his charm?"

"You should have Mitchell fix that for you," Hikaru says as he slides off the Camry's hood. "But we're a quiet ride." He twirls a set of keys on a carabiner and motions with his head. "Hop in."

It's a two-door car, and I go to the passenger's side where Pasha graciously pulls the seat forward so I can sneak in. It's a tight fit – there's a lot of equipment in the space next to me, and the car isn't all that big to begin with.

When the car starts up I hear an 80s pop station in the background, and Hikaru looks at me through the rearview mirror. It's an expectant look, and it takes me a moment before I reach behind me for the seatbelt and fasten myself in.

His face relaxes, and he puts the car into gear and we drive out of the parking lot. It's only when we're out of the city that he leans towards Pasha and tilts his head to ask me, "So, you ever been to the farms before?"

"Not really," I confess as I lean an elbow on a box and feel the gray seatbelt cut into my pelvis.

"Zey are big corporate fields owned by family farmers." Pasha turns in his seat towards me and pushes the seatbelt behind his back. "Mr. Amundsen has been getting most of ze activity lately."

"So a crop circle can happen in the same place twice?"

Hikaru glances at me in the mirror. "In the same proximal area, yeah. Especially if there are cattle mutilations to go with it."

"Why are they here though?" I look at the windshield just in time to see a prehistoric bug epically splat.

"Zat's ze question." Pasha turns back to the front, leaning on the middle armrest. "Ve have lots of cattle, but not lots of anyzing else."

"My mom says the circles are like, ancient symbols or something?" My body sways to the right as we turn off to another road and start going upwards – to where, I have no idea. I didn't even think Iowa had ever heard of a hill.

"Yeah, the MUFON 'site has a lot of people saying that." I hear the blinker as we turn again and then – unexpectedly – the lights go out entirely as Sulu drives another few feet.

Pasha turns around again and whispers. "Ve are not supposed to be here."

Considering what they told me about a corporate entity that doesn't surprise me. But we're all quiet as Sulu rolls to a stop and the cut engine gives way to a chorus of crickets.

"They are so loud here," I mumble, but Pasha just jumps out and quietly pushes back the seat. Hikaru has the seat folded on his side as he fumbles for a red knapsack and lifts it up and over.

When I get out there is dirt underneath, and I can't see much in the unending depth of black - I mean, what the fuck, streetlights aren't just meant for the big city.

But as my eyes adjust I can see little by little how lights wouldn't really be expected out here.

"Holy fuck." I turn away from the car and notice that, hey – Iowa does have a big fucking hill, like a ledge over a wide expanse of countryside. While I can't see the individual rows of corn I can tell they're out there – a slight breeze sending ripples through the indistinct blocks of farmland, while at the same time brushing the line of bushes behind us where the car is parked.

"Ze circle – " Pasha whispers behind me and points slightly to the right, "is over zhere."

The tone is hushed and reverent, and I can understand instantly – it is an eerie wildness out here, like camping somewhere forbidden, and I don't want to break the thrall.

"What about the mutilations?" I whisper back, although I hadn't heard about any cows.

"There haven't been any." Hikaru stands next to Pasha and hands him a set of binoculars. "But there have been some here in the past."

"Ze vere in fields next to zis one." Pasha hands me the binoculars and I take a peek through them for some reason – which does bring a row of corn into clearer view, but not by much.

"So you think there will be some soon, then?"

Hikaru shrugs. "They might not even come back. But we haven't had a circle in a while, so it's worth waiting to see if they do."

Pasha moves away from us and I turn to see him opening the car door again. It doesn't turn on a dome light, strangely, but I can see him fishing for items in the backseat.

Hikaru is walking towards him as I see that Pasha has a huge blanket. They both take an end, and watching them makes me feel like a slacker – but once it's laid out on the ground in a nice patch of grass they both plop down without much complaint.

Pasha smiles up at me and pats the space next to him. As I go to sit down, Hikaru is pulling out everything from the knapsack – which turns out to be a bag of Kit-Kats, Starbursts, and some off-brand of rippled chips.

"Ve forgot to tell you," Pasha hands me a bottle of Mountain Dew, "zat it takes a vhile."

I feel kind of dumb because it hadn't even occurred to me. But once Hikaru offers me a Kit-Kat it makes sense.

"I can pay you guys – "

Pasha shakes his head. "Nyet. My treat." He grins as he unwraps a piece of chocolate, but Hikaru's eye roll doesn't escape my notice.

"Thanks," I say, and I look out into the expanse of darkness before us. We're far enough from the ledge not to plummet of course, but the space between that and the car is maybe twenty feet at best. We're in the middle, so I can still see the indistinct fields below.

It's quiet for the first five minutes as we chew our snacks. I'm not oblivious to the fact that it's normally just the two of them here and that probably changes what they can talk about.

But as Hikaru is stacking colors of Starbursts, Pasha turns to me.

"Have you heard zat ze Homecoming dance is in a few veeks?"

I see Hikaru's hand pause over a stack, and I can tell this is not the way to start a long evening of UFO watching.

I clear my throat. "Yeah. I met Gaila Pike and she told me it was soon?"

"Vat did you zink?"

I shrug. "She's… pretty?"

He shakes his head. "Did she ask you?"

I narrow my eyes at him. "What? No, not at all."

Pasha's back hunches with obvious relief, and I can see that Hikaru is still fiddling with his neat stacks – yeah, not sure if they could get any straighter on blanketed ground, there.

But Pasha looks back at the fields and my mind starts processing all the ways I can hopefully get out of Homecoming. I mean, even in California I never bothered to go. I fucking hate football, and I can't stand formal wear – well, not that I mind a tight-fitting tux on some guys, just not me.

Hikaru coughs. "We never go, anyway."

Pasha whips his head to look over at him, and while I can't see Pasha's expression, Hikaru's What? says it all.

"I never go either," I blurt out. Which is the absolute truth. Mom made me go once - something about "rites of passage" and learning experiences – but after dancing with my next door neighbor for an hour and dropping, and then stepping, on her corsage, I gave the whole business up.

Pasha looks back at me and I can sense something else brewing.

He hesitates before asking, "Vell, maybe ve can go do somezing else? A movie zat veekend, or vhatever?"

I look at Hikaru, who is shoving a whole stack in his mouth, and my mind blurts out the only thing it can come up with.

"I'll be out of town."

Pasha blinks at me, and Hikaru looks up with chipmunk cheeks.

"Vhere?"

This is the problem with partially lying – I mean, I did intend to go to the nearest large town to stock up on some goodies so I wouldn't have to drag them from San Francisco. Some specialty food that Mom likes – Kombucha, which apparently helps her "clarity" or something – and then some books and magazines for me.

Although I could order them all online, with Gary I'd like the excuse to leave town. Even if the place is only a few hours away, I'd still like to make a day of it.

"Des Moines?"

Pasha frowns. "Couldn't you go some ozer time? Or ve can all go togezer?"

Hikaru watches me carefully. I have a hunch that he had plans of some sort – although really, it's not like I'm fucking psychic.

"Sure," I say. Because really, all of us shopping and going to a movie wouldn't hurt, would it? Plus they probably know Des Moines better than I do.

Pasha breaks out into a grin, while Hikaru chews slowly.

"Ve can show you around!" Pasha excitedly claps his hands, which breaks loudly in the din of crickets. "Zhere are some museums, and ve both know some bookstores – "

Hikaru nods his head and a corner of his mouth pulls up in a slight smile. "There's a few comic and gaming places, if that's your thing?"

I nod. It definitely is. I might not be into Star Wars, but everything else is fair game.

Hikaru gives me a smile, and maybe - maybe that's a peace offering. Because who knows, perhaps I could break off to go grocery shopping for an hour and give them some alone time?

Pasha grins at my acceptance and I can't contain the small laugh that I have at his exuberance. I'm pretty sure if Riverside Electric wanted to hook up wires to Pasha they'd have sockets sparking from the walls.

"Vhat exactly are you going zhere for?" He angles towards me. "Perhaps ve may know ze best – "

"Whoa."

Pasha and I turn quickly to Hikaru, who has moved to sit on his knees. He's fumbling for the binoculars next to him, and when his fingers clasp onto them I look into his line of sight.

At first I don't see it. Despite my eyes adjusting the fields are so far away. Everything still looks indistinct, with the slight ripple –

Okay, that ripple is going in the wrong direction. The opposite of the wind in the fields from before, in fact. And once I spot it, it's like I had been missing a tidal wave – it's an exaggerated rush across the tips of the cornfields, like I'm witnessing the start of a tsunami made of shadows.

There's a brush backwards, then sideways, and then –

"Holy fuck," I spit out as I see the first strikes of caricature before my eyes.

I want to look up, see what's making it, but I can't pull my gaze away. The corn stalks are disappearing under an invisible scythe; the cutting away like a brush stroke, or maybe even a quarter on a lottery ticket.

I can't help it – what the fuck is doing that? I do look up and I see nothing, nothing to the naked eye. And it's fucking creepy as –

"There." I point upwards and feel a hand on my arm.

"Vhat?"

I stand up and feel the hand sliding to my elbow and then off. "I see a shadow. It's moving – " I can't let it out of sight. It's so faint, a small aberration of darkness shifting in the night, but I can see – "It's going that way!"

Maybe my eyes are conjuring things, but a strange patch of darkness seems to be moving – moving away from us. Like a cloud camouflaged that if I look away I won't find again.

"Jim, I don't zink – "

I walk quickly in front of the both of them and along the ledge – I want to see it move out, I want to know where it's going.

"Dude, be careful, the ledge isn't that – "

At once it seems to zip and I break into a run. I quickly glance in front of me and know the ledge is maybe only another hundred feet before it drops down –

"Jim!"

A hundred feet is quick as I stumble back and watch my toes kiss the edge. Maybe it only curves down – it's Iowa, after all, not the Grand Canyon – but I can't see further in the darkness and I don't want to –

No, it's a hill leading down a ways, and fuck – why is everything suddenly illuminated?

I look up and turn, expecting to see Hikaru's car beams. But if the bright blue light is a fucking car I want to know when we discovered hovering technology.

As my eyes focus on the intensity of the light, I realize that it isn't actually close. There's an object whose metallic edges are barely visible and I shield my eyes to get a better look. But there are spots in my vision, and I can't tell if the light is pulsing and changing shape or if it's just an illusion with everything else. A strong current of wind is already pulling me and folding in the world -

"Dude! Fucking move it or – "

There's dead silence and the wind stops. The light is gone and the object is still before me, but it's far away and with… arms?

I hear a shriek of horror in the night, and I turn towards my friends.

Hikaru and Sulu are backing away in shock as the gray Camry slowly lifts higher and higher – hovering some six feet above the ground on its own volition, with dirt falling off in clumps – before it is thrown by invisible hands in my direction.

I don't know what the fuck to do – I can't even fucking breathe. My mind screams to duck, to run – but where to?

"Jim!"

Just as I hear Pasha's cry, a strong force pushes me to the ground. I smack my head, and then I see a vague human silhouette as the Camry is hovering some 20 feet above us.

Us. My eyes finally discern a set of brown – almost black in this darkness – staring down at me in wide-eyed bewilderment, before they turn towards the colliding Camry. An arm is straight before us, a pale hand visible, before that hand – that hand - clearly slams into the side of the Camry and punches it with a biting chaw of metal; the impetus smacking Spock flush against me as we hear the car roll away on the grassy ledge.

I'm breathing heavy from adrenaline before my brain seems to catch up with what I'm seeing: Spock, laying on top of me, his pale features now clearly in view as he looks down with concern.

"Are you well?"

My mouth gulps like a goldfish before I answer, "You fucking pushed a car!

That is what I saw, isn't it? The Camry hovering above us and then his hand – fucking pushing the car. Out of our way!

"You have hit your head."

"I didn't hit it that hard."

At that moment I realize the heated iron on my side isn't a cut or burn but Spock's hand - Spock's hand is touching my bare hip, holy fuck.

"That is impossible to discern, as you have just experienced – "

"You pushing a car. Out of our way!" I sit up quickly and hiss as I feel the blood rush to my head.

Spock looks at me knowingly and I want to punch his face.

"I know what I saw," I say as I glare into his eyes.

"As you insist." His gaze doesn't waver. Despite his stoic expression, I sense I am being glared back at.

"Vhere are you – Jim! Oh God."

I turn my head and see a rustling near the line of bushes. The car had flipped in front of us, blocking most of the ledge.

When they both appear I see Pasha and Hikaru's shocked expressions – which is when I realize what this must look like.

Spock quickly pulls away from me and stares impassively up at them.

"You may wish to call emergency services, as James has bumped his head – "

"Fuck you, I didn't hit it that hard."

I'm not going to the hospital, I'm not backing down from this -

But Pasha already has his cell phone pulled out before I can wave a hand.

"Whoa, wait – we'll drive there, okay?" I look around and notice the darkness is seemingly the same as before – well, with a smashed Camry perhaps, but quiet. Serene. Not the place for an ambulance.

"Is your vehicle operating, Hikaru?"

I look at Spock, who is standing up and brushing off his pants. Before Hikaru can answer, Spock looks down at me and offers a hand.

I stare it a moment, with the immaculate pale fingers upturned and beckoning towards me, before they reach down and grasp my forearm.

Hikaru just gapes at the action. "Uh, I don't know?"

Spock hauls me up, with his palm searing my skin in the action. I stare at it - goddamn, maybe he should go to a hospital?

"My body temperature has always been naturally warmer than most."

I blink at Spock, then rub my arm when he lets it go. Maybe I am out of it if I don't know when I'm speaking out loud.

At any rate, I look over at Hikaru who is in his car, checking things over and shifting stuff around. After a moment the engine rumbles, and through the window he gives us a thumbs up.

"Pavel, if you would make room in the back seat for the both of us."

I look at Pasha, who gives us an uneasy glance – but then quickly nods before scooting off to do what he's told.

The both of us?

"Didn't you bring your own – " I take a step back as I realize that Spock is advancing towards me, and I can just tell – "Dude, I can certainly wa-alk – "

Before I can really protest my knees are pulled upwards and my left arm is slung over his shoulders.

He's looking down at me, and I glare at him.

"I'm not a fucking girl."

His lip twitches as he walks forward. "Your language is most unbecoming."

"Fuck you, you fucking asshole of a mother – fuck."

We're at the car already and Pasha has the seat pulled downward. I push at Spock's chest as he clumsily lets me down and onto my feet.

"I fucking had to stand, anyway." I balance against the car. "Fuck."

"Perhaps the language center of your cerebral cortex is impaired."

I stare at Spock a moment before the insult actually registers – but by then I'm being pushed inward and I collapse inside with a scowl.

I look over at Hikaru, whose shoulders are shaking with silent laughter.

"I'm going to kill all of you," I groan as I rest my head on a box squished to the side and feel a warm thigh press against mine.

"If you – " Hikaru actually snorts – "say so."

I hear a car door slam and then see Pasha's eager face looking between me and Spock, like one of us will jump and strangle him at any moment.

"Are you okay, Jim?" he asks, with his light brown eyes filled with worry.

I try to politely smile. Remember, Homicidal Self: Pasha isn't the one being irritating right now.

"Yeah," I say, although there's a dull ache behind my eyes; probably from the bright lights and waning adrenaline.

"If you would, Hikaru," Spock says in a low voice. I look over and his stoic profile is insistently looking ahead.

The sound of gears shifting is loud in the car. I feel the car move left tentively, then drive onward to get the hell off this ledge.

***

The hospital lights are too bright after being out in that darkness for so long. It's like all the whiteness is stabbing my brain and I blink rapidly.

"Mr. Kirk hit his head in a fall – "

"Not that hard!" I growl as I glare at Spock from the patient bed.

Somehow in this tiny room Pasha, Hikaru, and Spock have all smushed in. Hikaru involuntarily, as Pasha wasn't willing to wait out in the lobby. Spock insistently, because he was there at the time of the –

"You hit the back of your head on the ground."

I grit my teeth. "I didn't smack it or anything."

The doctor looks between all of us helplessly, as we're a mismatched group with various different stories and unsure of which one to stick with.

Oh yeah, we're a brilliant bunch.

"All right, Jim." The doctor huffs and unwraps the stethoscope from his neck. "I'll just give you a glance over and ask you a few questions."

Which is painless enough, although being watched like a performing monkey is awkward as hell. Pasha watches anxiously, like he's a wound spring ready to move at any moment. Hikaru reads a brochure on "Childbirth and You" from a magazine rack – I suppose more preferable than the one on "Herpes: Treatment and Care".

As I breathe deeply in and out Spock is watching carefully, and I can't help but watch carefully back.

Because seriously? I'm confused as fuck and I don't know what's heads or tails.

"Have you experienced any dizziness, nausea – "

"Mr. Kirk had trouble standing earlier."

I huff. "Yeah, because you were carrying me."

"In order to assist you in movement."

I gape at him, because – yeah, Spock is actually fucking serious.

The doctor looks me up and down, and I can see the decision is made already.

"Really, I'm okay – "

"I'd like to keep you for a few hours of observation." The doctor has already clicked his pen and written it on the chart. "Your friends can stay here or in the lobby while we call your par – "

"No."

The doctor raises his brows and I can tell already I'm defeated.

"Nurse Chapel has already – "

I bury my face in my hands. I don't bother to look up until I hear Spock and the doctor exchange murmured words and then hear the exam room door slam.

I tilt my head in order to glare at Spock properly between fingers. "I fucking hate you."

Spock seems to consider that before he says, "That is unfortunate."

I raise my head. "I swear, I'm gonna kill the person who gave them my mom's number."

Pasha shakes his head quickly, while Hikaru barely gives me a cursory glance.

"I vould not!" Pasha insists. "I do not ewen know it, I don't zink."

Which is true, now that I think on it.

I look over at Spock, and I can't imagine he would know it either. The fact that he's even sitting in the room with me as we wait out my imprisonment is mind-boggling enough.

Hell, hadn't he been the guy who couldn't tolerate my presence twelve hours before?

The door suddenly opens, and in walks a man in navy blue scrubs – who, when he tilts his head, is awfully fucking familiar.

I sputter out, "Bones?"

He has a box of medical supplies that he's arranging and throwing into certain drawers before he nods his head. "Heard you were in here. What the hell did ya get yourself into?"

I open my mouth to explain, but then two cogs align in my head and I narrow my eyes at him.

"You did it."

Bones slams a drawer closed with his hip and he raises a brow at me. "I've... been here all night?"

"You totally gave them my number!"

Bones shrugs at that, then glances over at Spock. There's a look that passes between them that reminds me of another cog that had slid into place.

"And by the way," I say hotly, "you didn't tell me you two were related."

Bones snorts. "We live in the same house." He shifts the box under his arm before he gives me a considering glance. "You really mad at me?"

My mouth presses into a thin line. I have to confess, I'm really not sure. It's not like Bones and I were BFFs, but damn - I kind of don't feel friendly right now.

He rolls his eyes and then props the door open with his foot. "Come on, kids – the staff lounge has Satellite TV and pretty ladies. Nobody will give a damn if you're there."

Spock seems to frown at that, but when I anxiously jump off the bed – fuck if I'm staying in this room to learn about "Chlamydia and You" for the next few hours – then everyone else rises and follows me out.

We do settle in a breakroom of sorts. There are a few vending machines, and I treat Pasha and Hikaru to hot chocolate while Spock watches in – fascination? – at the decimation of my Cheetos.

"Your fingers are coated in a neon, powdery substance."

I lick the pads of them, which stain them a bright orange. "Well, duh." I hold out the bag. "Try one?"

He blinks slowly at me, before he peers inside with mild curiosity and pulls out a crinkled puff. I'm not quite sure why it's so interesting to watch him analyze it, like he's a scientist with a magnifying glass. If it were anyone but Spock doing such I'd kick the seat of his chair in retaliation for weirdness.

But his tongue darts out briefly to taste the tip of it, before he places it in his mouth and crunches.

... Yeah, I forget I'm holding a bag of Cheetos and squeeze them.

"The flavor is unremarkable."

Which is really too fucking bad as I'd kind of like to see that tongue again.

Wait, what?

I shake my head. "Well, this is just the regular flavor." I glance towards the TV where Hikaru and Pasha are watching Goodfellas. "The flamin' hots are my favorite." I casually pop another puff in my mouth.

"I doubt they are any more nutritionally sound."

I look sideways at Spock because, seriously - do any of us look like we give a fuck?

But I glance down at the package and read the label. "Nah, these are full of iron."

"Artificially enhanced to be so."

"Yeah, imagine that. We're watching Satellite under fluorescent lighting in a glorified Medicine Man hut." I smirk. "I think we bypassed 'artificial' a long time ago."

"That is a large leap in subject."

I shrug. I kind of don't care. Although in a weird way, I do like chatting with Spock like this – it feels easy, yet jabs in the right places. It feels almost companionable, despite sitting on opposite sides of a round table as Pasha and Hikaru are slunk down in padded lobby chairs a few feet away from us.

I'm about to open my mouth to retort, when a figure appears suddenly in the doorway and I gulp.

"Jim!" Mom is rushing harried towards me. "Gods, Jim – "

She's hugging me fiercely and I manage to squeak out, "I'm – okay - really."

"Don't give me that. You wouldn't be here otherwise!" Her hands are on the sides of my face, visually checking me over as I send daggers through my eyes at Spock – who of course looks unfazed.

"The nurse called me and wouldn't tell me what was wrong – "

I see Frank step through the doorway and come over to rub Mom's shoulder.

"You okay there, Jim?"

"Yeah, Frank." I swear Mom is picking through my scalp like a chimpanzee and I shrug her off. "Seriously, I just landed wrong and barely bumped my head."

"Did they do x-rays, or MRIs, or – "

"The physician in charge has deemed that waiting a few hours is more than sufficient."

Mom looks over at Spock and has the expression that I'm usually wearing - Huh?

But Spock continues to look indifferent as he extrapolates. "James did not experience symptoms of any duress and the waiting period is a precaution."

Mom is still blinking at Spock when I unwrap her hands from around my face and hold them. "Seriously Mom, I'm okay."

Frank squeezes her shoulder, and then pulls out a chair next to us for her to sit down. As she does so, Frank finds one of his own while Pasha and Hikaru sit up and turn around to face us.

"Missus Kirk," Pasha says nervously, "Ve are wery sorry, ve do not know – "

I send a look to Pasha for him to shut up, but Mom catches it anyway.

"Oh Gods Jim, what did you get into?"

I glance over at Spock, who seems to find more interest in Frank pulling out a small notebook than in anything I'm about to say.

Which, I'll be fucking honest – do I even know what the hell we saw?

"I got knocked over by a strong… wind?"

Oh, that's lame. So much so that Hikaru has gotten up from his chair to walk towards us.

"We saw one," he says while looking at me. "A UFO."

Mom's eyes go wide, but Spock clears his throat.

"On the contrary, there was a surveillance helicopter in the vicinity that spotted the breach in their zone – "

"That was no helicopter!"

"And it happened to cause spatial disturbance as it approached us – "

I throw up hands between the both of them. "Whatever it was, it knocked me over and probably pissed off whatever farmer has his fields cut up right about now."

Mom clapped her hands. "You saw one?"

"It is a natural occurrence for stalks to bend a certain way when encountering – "

Hikaru sputters, "Not in a – "

"Yeah, Mom," I grab her hands to keep her directed to me. "Yeah, I saw one."

Because let's face it, I would rather have her distracted by some fucked-up paranormal phenomena than ask too many questions about my head. Questions that I'm still wondering about myself.

"What was it like?" She huddles closer as I lean forward.

"I don't remember the pattern exactly, but it was like – I don't know, somebody etching or lasering – "

"Zey are more lines and circles." Pasha seems to have joined us and is standing next to my other shoulder, between me and Spock. "Similar to vhat happened ze night before, but I don't know vhat zey mean."

Mom nods in thought. I'm pretty sure she is trying to connect angle to aspects and conjunctions in the sky and see what houses under all of this fits.

But Frank is pulling out a cell phone as he stands to walk towards a corner of the room.

"Yeah," he states into the phone. "I was just callin' 'bout that. I have some kids who were witnesses – "

Pasha, Hikaru and I straighten up at that. I don't think either of us forgot it was corporation territory we had been spying from.

"There is no cause for alarm," I hear a low voice mumble next to us, and I look over at Spock. He has his hands neatly folded on the table and he leans towards us. "You may be interested to know that the ledge is considered public property of Riverside."

"Yeah, but how do you think we got there?" I look back towards Mom, who doesn't seem the least bit perturbed by the news. "I don't think we took a public access road."

"Ve didn't." Pasha sighs behind me and then leans over the table between us. "Ze ledge may be unowned, but ve had to get zhere somehow."

I look over at Frank, who is pacing between a potted palm and a vending machine before he leans against a wall and nods. "I'm already here, just send somebody over."

Oh yeah, that sounds good. My second night in Riverside and already I'm getting booked somewhere – and over fucking aliens.

Hikaru looks just as panicked. "We really didn't do anything!"

Frank walks back towards us with his hand outstretched. "Relax, boys – it's nothing like that. Amundsen just called it in and they have surveillance tape this time. We just want statements." He looks over at Spock. "You too, Mr. Chasarek."

"I will cooperate."

Frank nods, then taps Mom's shoulder. "You want something to drink?" He looks around at all of us. "Anybody?"

We all shake our heads while Mom asks for a Diet Coke. When Frank walks away she leans closer and whispers, "You totally saw lights, didn't you?"

I hesitate to answer as Pasha eagerly nods his head.

"Yes! Ve saw – it vas like a… octopus? Vith arms, of some sort, but vith lights all avround ze edges and inside – "

"I saw no such thing."

We all look over at Spock, who has his arms folded now. He would look incredibly severe if it weren't for the idiotic white skullcap – yeah seriously, will he ever take that off?

"Yeah, but it's not like I saw you," I point out to him – hell, where had Spock been hiding? And why the hell had he been hiding to begin with?

"I was on the opposite side of the ledge."

"What opposite side?" Hikaru glares over the tabletop. "There's barely room for the car!"

"I was on the opposite side of the bushes."

"What, you were hanging off the small width of ledge?"

"I had heard the same rumor as you, Mr. Sulu. That lights had been seen on both sides of the corporate farms."

"Yeah, but you can see the lights from our side." Hikaru narrows his eyes. "What, were you watching us?"

That was the question, wasn't it? Spock must've heard our conversation from the other side of the bushes; we really hadn't been all that quiet.

Spock doesn't even take a minute to answer as he stares steadily back at Hikaru's glare. "I did not wish to disturb any of you, as I was quite comfortable on the other side of the ledge."

"You didn't want to associate with us, you mean." Hikaru snorts. "Jerk."

"Come on now, boys," Frank puts out a hand. "If it's public property, like Mr. Chasarek states, then you all can share."

"Whatever, man." Hikaru throws up his hand as he stalks away from the table, and Pasha gives a quick glance to me before following him.

I watch Spock, who seems to still be watching Hikaru's retreating form. My mind goes through the bits of conversation I can remember – Homecoming, going out of town for Homecoming – nothing too incriminating, to be honest.

But at the same time, I think I can understand. If I had come across Hikaru and Pasha casually talking I might not have wanted to bust in on their conversation, either. Especially if we weren't all on friendly terms.

And considering where Spock and I had last left off? Definitely not friendly terms.

Spock lowers his gaze and suddenly we're staring at each other. It's not quite like before, in that I'm paralyzed to the spot. But fuck man, if something inside me doesn't give a startled jump.

"I need to use the restroom." Mom pats my hands and I whip my head towards her. She's trying to contain a grin and I know what that means.

Fuck my life.

Frank's cell phone rings right afterwards and both of them spring out into the hall – with only Hikaru and Pasha's muddled conversation left reverberating in the room, competing with gunshots from the TV.

I glance over at Spock, who seems to find the tabletop interesting.

"Look, I'm not an idiot," I say softly. I glance at Hikaru and Pasha before looking back at Spock's inattentive face. "You were there, you didn't want to talk to us. But – " I take a deep breath, because I'm kind of a proud guy and saying this sort of shit is weird "Thanks. For saving me and stuff."

Spock looks up from the table, and again his eyebrow disappears under the cap.

I shake my head in exasperation. "Think all you want, but you still attempted to shield me from whatever it was, anyway."

"What do you believe I am thinking?"

I laugh because – like the hell I can even guess that.

"I don't know. That I'm delusional or something." I lean closer over the table until the ledge is digging into my chest. "But you knocked me down and then put your hand out –"

"Instinctual."

" – And the car slammed against your hand – "

"The car happened to stop rolling in front of us."

I shake my head in disbelief. "Are you serious? It was flying in the air!"

"That is what you perceived."

"Perceived," I mock-echo. I try to take a deep breath as Spock holds my gaze, but it's a bit intense; the hard stare daring me to back down. "I saw your arm reach out and the hand push into the metal – "

"As it was dark outside, I am not quite certain – "

I let out a low growl of frustration. "Deny all you want, but it's what I saw."

"After you hit your head on the ledge." Spock is glaring coolly back. Although his face appears stoic and unnerved, I can tell his eyes hold a fierce determination. "Which you are being documented for treatment of such."

I lift my head back a little because – whoa, what?

"You're hiding something." I watch his face, although nothing gives a hint of my hunch. "You're so damn insistent because the consequences of it being true mean you're – "

"I am done with this conversation." Spock stands up and pushes in his chair. "There is only so much logic that can be thrust upon an individual before they infect everyone else with madness."

I huff at that. "There's only so much bullshit I can shift through before the waders eventually need to be – "

"Goodbye, Mr. Kirk."

"You can't just leave, Frank wants a statement!"

"I shall give him one at his earliest convenience." Spock isn't even looking at me as he springs for the door.

I follow, because I'll be damned if he escapes. "You can't just walk out – "

Spock turns and draws me up short. I fumble a step back in order to avoid colliding with that solid wall before me.

His eyes could cut me, and I lose my breath.

"I can, and I will."

At that Spock leaves through the doorway, and I balance my arms on the frame as I watch him go.

It's a minute before I hear a Southern drawl behind me. "Who put a bee in his bonnet?"

I clench my jaw and turn towards Bones, who looks overly amused with the situation.

"I did." And before Bones can protest I grab him by a fistful of scrubs and drag him inside for a nice and friendly chat.

***

It's another two hours before we're all cleared to go home. The cops take each of our statements in turn – except for Spock, who manages to mangle Frank to take his early so he can leave – and then Mom wraps her arm around me and ushers me out the hospital doors.

I wave goodbye to the skittering and anxious forms of Hikaru and Pasha as we walk through the parking lot and to Mom's SUV.

"You're not going to school tomorrow," she announces once the truck doors slam.

I wince at the thought. "Yeah, because Gary's there?" Because really – I'm cleared? And yeah, it's 2am and all that shit, but it's not like I haven't been sleep-deprived before.

She turns around in her seat and gives me Serious Mom Face. Which I have to confess she rarely breaks out on me, but always makes me pause.

"You've had a long night."

"I feel fine." I lean forward between the armrests to look at her directly. "And I just started school yesterday. I have all these advanced classes and I don't want to miss anything."

Okay, truth be told? The only place I'll get to look Spock in the eye is at school – and I'm not letting that bitch go easy this time.

Mom huffs and jerks the gearshift, just as Frank lays a hand over hers in support.

"Honey," he says – and Frank is a brave man for actually attempting this – "he feels fine. He just made all these new friends and is still trying to get adjusted." He gives me a glance before settling on Mom's seething visage. "And people will talk if he's not there."

She whips her head at us before giving me the eye. "Will they talk bad about you, Jim?"

I shrug. Because I'm not even sure why the whole school would suddenly know about what happened, or why they would even give a fuck if I'm not there.

Although today, being the focus of attention…

"Yeah they would, Mom."

I'm suddenly reminded of when my middle school BFF, Ruth Salinas, was out for a month to help take care of her dad. Kids at school had circulated all sorts of things – that she had Mono, Leukemia, no legs.

Okay, the last? We always had a good laugh over whenever I brought Ruth her homework. Because seriously, who hung up that other end of the clothesline in the auditorium? Just saying.

People are always willing to spread stupid shit.

But in the present, Mom is sighing in a way that hints she has to adjust to an idea. Her knuckles are white on the steering wheel, but honestly Mom doesn't have a bad temper. Just, you know, disproportioned and unreasonable paranoia.

"All right," she says, looking at me through the rearview mirror. "But I'm driving you to school tomorrow."

I press my lips in a thin line and nod. I mean, I'm guessing my only other alternative is Frank's squad car, and yeah, let's not.

When we get home it's closer to 3 than 2am, and Mom lets me just crash in my room, which is what I need.

Because all I can think is: Spock pushed a fucking car out of the way. With his bare hand.

I put my earbuds in and turn on my iPod as I stare at the ceiling. I allow myself to fall asleep to ambient sounds as I wonder what the hell all of that actually means.

 

Chapter Four: Okay, I think I underestimated how fast news travels in a small town.

 

"Spill, Jimmy," Mr. Dumka says as he looks over the edge of his newspaper. "I hear you fell and hit your head, some Jack sans Jill."

"Um, I didn't really?"

"Ve saw it ower ze fields!" Pasha chimes in for me, thank God. "It vas a large object vith bluish lights."

"Did it try to abduct Jimmy?" Mr. Dumka looks at me, and I'm pretty sure how I'm trying to mentally sink myself through the floor is only adding to his analysis.

Pasha gives me a quick glance before shrugging. "I do not know, it vas far avay."

Hikaru doesn't even bother looking at me. "We all saw it and it beamed a light on him."

Friendship bracelet so being burned.

"So you're saying," Mr. Dumka lays the paper flat on the desk, "it shined a light, but didn't want any of you?"

"Harsh," I mutter, which garners some snickering around us.

Mr. Dumka only smirks. "Haven't you seen The X-Files? You're supposed to have black oil pouring from your eyes right about now."

"I'm actually glad that's not happening, thanks." This actually makes Hikaru turn around at me and grin.

"Better luck next time," is all Mr. Dumka says to that. "Now take out your stuff, so we can chat about the chapter you were supposed to have read last night – Jimmy, what page are we on?"

"I don't know," I admit as I flip open my folder to look at the syllabus.

"Now see, if you were actually abducted? That would be an accepted excuse."

"Really?" I mutter as I locate the page. "Sixty-seven."

"Everyone, page sixty-seven – including you, Chekky."

"I am zhere," Pasha says as we share a commiserating look. He then leans over to whisper, "I hear he only does zis to students he likes."

I roll my eyes. Gee, am I honored.

***

But Mr. Dumka had a very valid question. One I couldn't stop thinking about during the class hour, which spilled into the rest of the day.

What was the light business all about?

To be honest, I had been thinking too much about Spock to consider all the implications. I mean, an object shined a light on me and then - I'm assuming - threw a car at me?

What sense did any of that make? Was it an accident of the object's design or was it really trying to kill me?

And then there's also what Spock said about it possibly not being a UFO. Which is utter bullshit of course, but feels safer when I try to rationalize it. Truth be told, I didn't want a UFO to have shined a light on me and then try to kill me. I would rather it had been something of this world; something that my brain can wrap around and understand.

"How do ya know it ain't a helicopter?" Bones asks as we're about to leave the music rooms. We had been whispering to each other all hour as my piano playing "correctly" hadn't been working for shit.

"It was – it was just a weird shape." To be honest, when the light hit me I could barely see it. Although what Pasha said before about an octopus wasn't far-fetched. "It had like… tentacles?" I shake my head. "I know what a helicopter looks like."

"Yeah, but it was dark and everything, with a light shinin' in your eyes." Bones pats my shoulder as we stop in the outside hallway next to the auditorium. "But at least you're okay."

I look at Bones. Really look at him. Because while I don't doubt that he cares and that what he's saying isn't a possibility, this seems – okay, it actually is - the same argument that Spock presented last night.

"Yeah, I guess." I try to smile for him, but when he narrows his eyes I decide a quick retreat would be less suspicious. "I'll catch you later?"

And as I walk towards my History class I catch him frowning at the ground. Though to be honest, that could just be a natural Bones expression.

***

I didn't realize how much I had been expecting to see Spock until at lunch when he wasn't at the end of a long line of tables or next to me in Biology.

In a way, it only allowed me more time to think. Which could be dangerous sometimes, but in this case I couldn't help it. I keep thinking of the UFO – definitely not a helicopter – and what it possibly wanted or didn't want from me. I kept thinking how Spock somehow showed up at the knick of time and managed to – and I'll insist on this with a gun to my head - push away the car from us with a pale hand.

And then the UFO disappeared quite suddenly, without a sound. In fact, I'm mostly certain it wasn't a helicopter just based on the lack of noise alone.

"It vas not a helicopter," Pasha insists as we're leaving the gymnasium to go back to our lockers. "You may not have seen it clearly, but Hikaru and I both did."

It's some faint reassurance on that front. Although as I get home and pull out homework to be done – including those fucking essay questions – it's still in the back of my mind. So much so that in the middle of writing the essay I hop on Google to see what MUFON possibly has to say about it.

Mom had warned me that rumors of my hospital stay were cropping up. I know Mom wouldn't have done it herself, and probably not Pasha or Spock.

Frank accidentally. Hikaru?

The guy was thrown to the ground as the UFO beamed a light and threw my car at him.

Yeah, I could make an educated guess.

They even have images of the crop circle, which look like doodled circles to me and not unlike the margins of my notebooks. They look almost pretty in the cornfields, but I might be with Mr. Dumka on this one – can't they come up with something more interesting? You know, geometric shapes perhaps? Mickey Mouse? E.T.?

I guess we're not all artists. Especially Octopus ship.

Which draws my curiosity to other areas of the website. There's a section with drawings of encounters and UFO shapes. Abduction stories.

None of them mention anything like Octopus ship. They're mostly objects like discs or triangles; and yeah, I'm kind of disappointed. No tentacled military aircraft, even.

But on the other hand? If no one knows of an octopus ship, maybe we are possibly making it up and none of it ever happened.

"Feeling okay, babe?" Mom asks as she brings me dinner – some of the canned tomato soup I bought yesterday.

"Yeah." I take the bowl and set it next to the computer keyboard.

Mom squints at the screen. "I didn't see your UFO on there."

"Yeah, I don't know. Maybe it really was something else."

"It was a strange object at least. That's technically a UFO." She sits across from me on the edge of my bed. "Too bad you didn't see any aliens."

"No, I'm pretty sure I'm glad I didn't see any aliens."

She pouts at my bedspread and picks off a large piece of fuzz. "Better luck next time?"

"People keep saying that," I mutter.

To my bad luck, there will be a next time.

***

The next day, Spock still isn't at school. By Thursday when he's again a no-show I start to suspect that he's definitely trying to avoid something – and gee, I wonder who that could be.

Pasha and Hikaru don't seem all that disturbed about it. Apparently Spock and his siblings disappear all the time, although Nyota, Montgomery, and Bones are still around. And Gaila, supposedly.

"Zey take trips around ze vorld," Pasha tells me at lunch as I try to surreptitiously watch Nyota and Montgomery at their table. Nothing seems amiss with them – in fact, Montgomery is even getting Nyota to crack a smile, which is too fucking beautiful on a mortal human.

"Are they rich or something?"

"Oh yeah," Hikaru answers as he finishes my Wheat Thins once again. "Who did you think owns the shiny Volvo?"

I shrug, because – okay, all the houses are average around here, but it's not like I knew the rules yet.

"Zey own a house by the Mississippi," Pasha states as he sips his chocolate milk. "It is out of town, in ze voods."

"You guys have woods?"

Hikaru just laughs. "Dude, it's not just corn everywhere in the Midwest."

"Cows," I feel keen to point out, although it's the same diff.

"The river gets some foliage and stuff. There's some nice places to go fishing during the summertime."

"But a lot of it is priwate property. A few parks, but mostly houses."

In a way it makes sense. But why the hell own riverfront property in the middle of nowhere?

"It is wery pretty."

So is a far-out tropical island, but I would never choose to be stranded there.

***

I spread Madame Bovary flat on my chest as I lay under a tree in Frank's backyard.

I can't stop thinking about it – the hand. The pale hand that stopped the car. The pale hand that was unnaturally white, even in contrast with Spock's skullcap.

To coin a phrase from Mom, it was entirely too alien in the scene – a strange detail amongst a host of others that have finally started shifting to form a pattern in my brain.

The way the dark eyes looked at me as we fell to the ground. I couldn't see exactly, but I would've sworn there was some shock tinged with… fear.

Fear. From Spock? I only knew him a few hours, but that seemed the unlikeliest of things. Shock, too. I mean, he's the one who thought the whole extraordinary incident didn't really happen. What was there to be surprised about?

But all the same, just the plain fact that he had been there was curious. He may have thought thanks were unnecessary, but it showed a bit of him I wouldn't have expected; to jump in front of a car like that.

I close my eyes to the last remnants of the afternoon sunshine and imagine Spock as he looked at the hospital: The skullcap with the tufts of hair at the edges; the brown eyes that gave away everything and nothing; the stern posture as he folded his arms and dissented against us all. The attitude as we fought, and before when he darted out his tongue and tasted a Cheeto.

I sigh. The last fills my chest with something, although I don't want to know what.

Would we have had any of that conversation if Spock hadn't saved me? Remembering him in Biology with his chair against the wall, I highly doubt it.

"Jim?"

I open my eyes to the pitch-black darkness – the chorus of crickets a burst of sound - and see Mom with a flashlight, shaking my arm.

"Honey, dinner is ready." She wraps a blanket around my shoulders as I dazedly stand up. "Get in there and get warm."

I am so out of it that it isn't until I'm at the threshold of the house that I smell it – the burnt crusts of two frozen pizzas, barely masked by charred bacon.

***

"Cedar Rapids has some decent movie theaters," Bones states as we wait for class to begin. "They have Invasion of the Body Snatchers at an art house."

"Sounds like fun." I yawn as I tap my pencil impatiently. Today is exam day for Keyboarding and my Clair de Lune probably hasn't improved all week. "What time does it start?"

"Six. There are plenty of restaurants and shops there, too. I know there's nothing around here, so we can hang out until it starts up?"

I grin. "I can't think of a better way to spend a Friday night." Which is absolutely true. Old movies? Old sci-fi movies? Rock on World, I'm so there.

"I can follow your truck to your place and then we can take mine? Newer and all that. If that's all right?"

"Yeah, sure. So does the shiny Volvo belong to somebody else then?"

The moment it leaves my mouth I want to smack my forehead to the unreasonably-small desk. I mean, why should I care anyway? Maybe Bones does drive a pretentious European car.

But Bones just gives me a face and waves a hand. "That's Spock's car. Likes the speed of it, strangely enough. Me, I prefer something that doesn't make me feel like I'm skimmin' along the road. Spock is like some speed demon, I tell ya."

Really? I smile at the thought of Speed Racer Spock, before Mrs. Robbins enters the room and starts class.

I'm convinced that there's something masochistic about teachers that do this sort of thing – make kids get up in front of everybody else and sweat it out. I'm not exactly the shyest person, but it's not like I want to stand out in a crowd, either. I mean really, who does?

So I'm not sure if she's the worst, or the most compassionate, for making us go in alphabetical order.

The sweating starts in that I don't know all these people and have no concept of when Kirk will be called out. For once I'm staring at all of them instead of the stares being on me.

But after four different – and sometimes offbeat – versions of Frère Jacques, I finally hear my name called.

Oh boy.

I have to say that playing piano for Mom is a much less stressful experience. For one, she doesn't seem to give a fuck when I speed up suddenly in bravado or slow down for the parts that can still get a bit tricky after a time.

But really, the most jarring part is finally playing the tune with headphones off and on an entirely different medium. Not the deep bellow of the upright piano in San Fran, but the overly-loud blaring of notes from crappy speakers, located just above voices on this stupid keyboard.

I play a few notes in warm-up, stretching my hands. I look up at Mrs. Robbins, whose desk is in direct sight of the keyboard, and internally flinch at her disapproving expression. But after a minute of all the notes sounding hollow and nothing like I desire, I have to say… well, fuck it. I'm not going to think so hard on this anymore, on anything. It all rings hollow in the end, everything my mind seems to conjure.

I play the best I can with the reality I'm in and try to think about nothing at all.

When life got rough in San Fran – and I love Mom so much that I don't want to talk bad about her – but sometimes when she was in a mood, or there was a fight between us or with her boyfriends, it was one of the only ways to clear my head. Keep the logical mind busy on the notes, I suppose, and allow the other half to feel absolutely nothing at all.

But I'm nervous, and I have no fucking clue what notes I'm hitting. Instead of being mindless and empty, everything starts to rush at me – the way Mom looks when she smiles and how her hair tumbles when she's driving with the windows rolled down. The annoying sound of crickets after dusk, and how the unnaturally dense darkness of the country at night is overwhelming and endless. How quiet and eerie the world was before I saw that UFO, and the way the corn bent softly in the field with an invisible hand. Or how my stomach flipped when Spock grasped my waist on the ground, with his warm body pressed against mine –

"Mr. Kirk?"

I stop abruptly and look up at Mrs. Robbins, only to lock eyes with a familiar umber instead, just inside the classroom door. Spock's expression, I would swear, holds something that I haven't seen on him before.

Curiosity.

"Mr. Kirk, you have played a sufficient amount of time. Please be seated."

I jerk my gaze to look at Mrs. Robbins, who doesn't seem to be affected by anything we are doing at all. In fact, she is marking something by pen on her desk – no doubt how shitty my performance had been.

So I get up quickly and grab my sheet music, only to trip over a leg of the plastic chair. I hear laughter, but I'm only looking for Spock.

Who of course is gone from the doorway, seeming like a brief glimpse of imagination.

"You sound like some Mozart," Bones whispers to me as I eventually find my legs to sit down.

The compliment settles and flits off the top of my brain, as I still can't get over seeing Spock for the first time in three days.

***

He still isn't at lunch or Biology, however. So the slight… apprehension? Tension. Stress - in confronting him of course – is short-lived.

"He might have been here to collect his assignments, yes?" Pasha says to me as we walk out of the gymnasium.

I'm not sure what assignment he would've had as a teaching aide, but whatever. In this case it doesn't seem to be an exotic trip to anywhere, but just a clear avoidance of school… for some reason.

I'm so distracted by what that reason might be that I only half-listen to what Pasha is gabbing on about as we walk to my locker.

"Hello, Leonard."

I jerk my gaze at Pasha, who is giving Bones a polite smile.

"Hey there... Pavel."

I look over at Bones, and once again my mind is sidetracked.

Look, I'm not exactly the dumbest person on the planet. Maybe close, but I suppose even an idiot would be able to figure out that these two are wary about the other and... seem to be measuring each other up?

Why the hell is that?

Bones catches my eye. "I'm ready whenever you are, Jim."

My history book is slow to hit the palm as I look over at Pasha's face, which is…

"Oh, so you are getting a ride from Jim?"

Bones gives me a wary glance before looking down at Pasha. "Not exactly?"

"Oh, vell," Pasha adjusts the notebooks in his arms. "I vas just going to ask vhat he had planned for later. Maybe after you both are done – "

"Actually," I don't stuff the book in my bag but in the crook of my arm – protective barriers, you know. "Bones and I are going to Cedar Rapids for a movie."

Yeah, perhaps I should have phrased that differently. Considering that Pasha is looking – oh, I don't know – akin to a rich housewife about to throw her shoe?

But instead he lifts up his chin a bit. "Oh? Vhat movie?"

Bones looks over at me again, as if to say, Are you joking?

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers," he states, although he still looks unsure of whether to run or to stuff a kid half his size into a nearby locker.

"Oh, zat movie." Pasha sniffs, then turns his head to look at me. "Hikaru and I vere going to go see zat, too."

"We were?" Hikaru is on my other side, bending over to adjust his shoe and almost tripping over himself in the process. "I thought we were – "

"Going to see a movie. So maybe – maybe ve can meet you zhere?'

I look between Hikaru and Pasha and decide – okay, it's not like Bones and I were actually on a date or anything. (Although truth be told, I had been concocting three different openers on why Bones lived in Iowa, along with Spock. In the same house.)

I give a quick glance to Bones before I see a flash of red hair bounce behind him – then wrap herself around his shoulders as she leans in to kiss his cheek.

"Len!" Gaila's smile is wide and bright, while Bones turns to her with less-of-a-frown. "Are we leaving?"

I raise my brows at his sheepish expression as Gaila combs fingers through his hair, then molds herself under the crook of his arm.

I hear murmurings of Sugar, we will, and her sweet giggle, and – okay, that's all too fucking cute. She's coming with.

I close my locker. "Why don't we all just go together?"

"Really?" Gaila still manages to bounce, despite Bones' hand on her waist. "Where are we going?" She turns to Bones. "I'll go tell Scotty not to wait for us then."

Bones and I exchange a look and I nod. At least I don't have to fit all these people in Gary.

"Are ve going right to Cedar, or to your house, first?"

I adjust the strap on my shoulder. "My house. I have to change and let Mom know where I'm going."

I'm hoping that Mom doesn't have a "Family Night" planned or something. Not that I don't love them, but sometimes she could be a bit impromptu with Monopoly and pizza without any sort of pattern or warning.

So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

"Ve vill go to your house zhen?"

I look over at Hikaru, who seems resigned to the situation. "You don't have to ask your parents or – "

Pasha shakes his head. "Ve'll call."

And with that, I can't help Hikaru much.

Once Gaila returns ("What are we seeing, again?") we all pile out into the parking lot; where Bones, Gaila, and I head to our trucks, and Hikaru and Pasha divert to the Camry.

Which, by the way? In sunlight, you can tell has a huge fucking dent on the side.

 

Chapter Five: Sorry Spock, but that was definitely not a bird - nor a fucking plane.


Thankfully Mom and Frank had dinner plans for the evening and were planning to leave me to my own devices. (An unopened can of soup in a microwave-safe bowl? Thanks, Mom.)

“I’m so glad you’re going out, honey!” Mom blows me a kiss as I drop off my shit in my room, and then race past her and back downstairs – who knows what all those people are doing in the driveway. “Have fun!” 

“You bet!” I yell out as I slam the front door and race out to Bones’ truck.

Which, by the way, is quite a badass motherfucker of machinery. While I thought with Gary’s bulbous fenders that he was pretty big, the Ford Expedition is probably killing a rainforest every time Bones fills up. It’s black and sleek, with a caboose that can probably carry a redwood – not that I’m near them anymore. 

But out here in Iowa, Bones probably fits in with his obnoxious truck. 

Heeey, guys.” I grab a handle to climb into the backseat, where Pasha and Hikaru are sitting comfortably, while Gaila rides shotgun to Bones in the driver’s seat. 

I might’ve pulled something in my arm with that heavy door, but once I’m in the engine revs. Quieter than Gary, but well… is that really saying much? But it’s smooth as we pull out of the driveway and then head to the center of town. 

Once we’re on Main Street, Gaila squirms and turns around in her seat, peering around gray leather upholstery. 

“Have you been to Cedar Rapids before, Jim?” 

Pasha stares a moment at her spilling cleavage, with the turquoise necklace tapping the scalloped edges of the brown crocheted tank top. I raise my brows at him – not that I’m really one to judge. 

“No. But it’s not far from here, really?” 

Gaila waves a hand. “Nah. Most of it is straight highway, but with not much to see in-between. Think you boys can handle it?” She looks over at Pasha and winks. 

And yeah, Pasha is even adorable when he’s turning several different shades of red. 

“I think so,” I mutter as the momentum of the truck gains further speed on Main Street and pushes me back, before we punch out of town. 

The drive itself winds up at about 45 minutes, which isn’t so bad with four other people in the car. Gaila and Pasha manage to hit it off well, which seemes to intensify the hate beams bouncing throughout the truck. I kind of want to yell, Just make him your goddamn boyfriend already, but somehow refrain. I mainly watch the scenery rolling by, which is – yeah, pretty damn boring. 

But as we approach Cedar Rapids we’re in an epic battle of Twenty Questions. Pasha is claiming it’s alive but not an animal, vegetable, or mineral, when the turn-off signs for Cedar Rapids pass by my window. Bones takes the third one we see and looks back at all of us in his rearview mirror with a smirk. 

“It’s an electric current, ain’t it?” 

We all groan because, yeah - never playing with Pasha again. 

When we reach the center of town it’s near 4pm, with the sun dying in shades of orange and dark blue around us. When Bones finds an empty space to park it’s on a lonely side street without parking meters; which feels a bit like winning the lottery, but no one else seems to care or take notice. 

“Okay, where to now?” Bones states as he clicks a pad on his keychain and the truck beeps goodbye at us. 

Gaila is already pulling Pasha to a brightly-lit bookstore, which I heartily endorse. Hikaru is moseying behind them, while Bones and I walk over and peer casually inside the storefront.

“Look at zis.” Pasha points to a series of covers, which I see have the hookiest photoshops of aliens and UFOs. “Zey are starting to hear of it here.”

“I would imagine if it’s on MUFON it’s probably known everywhere.” I look closer at the author names, and despite being all different covers, they are all the same writer. I point at them myself. “Is this guy any good?”

I feel my shoulder bumped as Gaila sneaks in between us to read the author sign. 

Hikaru shrugs. “I haven’t heard of him.” 

“Ooh, he’s handsome.” She takes Bones’ shoulder. “Let’s go inside and take a closer look, Hon.

“What, I don’t want – “

But she drags him aside and I move over to read the small author bio. The picture is surprising, as the guy looks a bit too young to be crazy, but whose “pursuit of the truth” doesn’t exactly sound sane

“It looks like he’s coming here,” I murmur, as I see the speaking date is a week from now. 

“Ve should see him, maybe?” Pasha is leaning into my side to look over my shoulder. “Maybe hear vhat he’s seen, in person?” 

I absently nod. Although to be honest, the idea that this author is having a speaking engagement in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as opposed to some big-shot place? Kind of suspicious. But at the same time, if it’s true with the UFO sightings, maybe it’s excellent marketing on Samuel George’s part. 

I look over to see Bones arguing quietly with Gaila, before she tugs his hand and drags him indoors. I follow them, holding the door open for Hikaru and Pasha, before I enter myself. 

I’m not sure what plans I had before about needing a bookstore, but once I glance around and spot the New Age/Paranormal section I head towards it. 

To be honest, it looks like a lot of crap Mom would be into – the astrology books, the psychic healing, the tomes of “Ancient Egyptian Love Spells” (wouldn’t that just have been having an awesome cat, or whatever?). But tucked in the corner is a whole shelf onextraterrestrials, which is where I sit down and cross my legs to peruse it.

Really, I’m not sure what I’m looking for. In some ways I’m following a hunch – my fingertips almost seem to have a life of their own as they skim the spines of various encounter stories, or abduction stories, or conspiracy theories.

Despite living with Mom all these years it’s still kind of new to me. Mom might be a New Age hippie, but mostly of the Earth kind. I was the one who watched The X-Files as a kid while she hid behind fingers next to me on the sofa. 

But at the end of the row is a book I instantly seize and grasp with my strained hands. It is thick and heavy and I have to lug it onto my lap. 

Encyclopedia of Aliens, Unknown Flying Objects, and Other Unexplained Extraterrestrial Phenomena. 

Which, gee, I guess that explains the size. 

I don’t want to even guess at the price, so I flip to the center of the book and let it fall flat against my thighs. It opens to a two-page drawing, with various perspective sketches around it.

I try to twist the book in my lap to get a better look, although I wind up twisting myself instead. The figure is tall and slender, and perhaps a bit different than I’m used to seeing with Little Green Men. But there are some pointed ears – I thought those belonged to elves? – and dark, round eyes. 

I start reading the small print of descriptors, where this type of alien is apparently called The Greens. Green-blooded and environmental… while apparently abducting and torturing people to get information about our planet?

Yeah, they sound like really nice folk. 

I flip forwards and backwards a few pages – I should probably be looking at actual UFOs or something – but instead my thumb sticks to the page of The Greens and I stop to stare at it.

Unlike a lot of other aliens, these guys also have hair – dark hair, manicured but plainly styled. Not bald with weird heads, like I normally see on TV. These guys are almost… human?

“Vhat have you got, Jim?”

Pasha plops down next to me and I give him a slight smile. 

“Oh, I’m just browsing this – “ for some reason my hands flip back a few pages nervously, and when I look down I see that my index finger is over the words alien implants.

I gulp. I’ve seen that episode of South Park before. 

But Pasha only glances at it, then nods. “I don’t zink zat happens wery often.” 

I look down at the grainy pictures of microchips, which are either small squares or granules, and a question pops into my head. 

I’ve been thinking about in a roundabout way this past week. But I still hesitate a moment before I look over and ask, “Why do you think they come here, then?” 

Pasha shrugs. “Vhy do zey have to be aliens?”

I stare at him because – that’s actually a good point. Who's to say that they aren’t piloted by some conspiracy-laden military, or something, or even piloted at all?

Although our UFO was some monstrosity with tentacles, not just some slick top-secret aircraft.

“You think that – that ship was from Earth?”

Pasha thinks a moment. “Zat ship vas strange.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I confess, because it’s true. Maybe if it had been a spinning disc it wouldn’t have freaked me out so much. It would’ve still been something familiar, maybe even comical. 

But this seemed to reach towards me from the sky and – 

“It shined a light on me,” I whisper. 

It takes a moment for me to realize that I had spoken out loud. With that I close the book quickly and lean over to put it back on the shelf – only to have to get on my knees, in order to push the other books back to make room. 

Once I sit back down on my haunches, I feel a hand on my elbow. 

Pasha is looking at me thoughtfully. “Do not vorry, Jim. Ve vere still and you vere running. Maybe zey saw you instead of us?” 

I take a deep breath. I like that answer. I like it way more than the idea of a UFO trying to kill me, to kill me

“Hey, what are ya guys up to?”

I look up to see Bones amble in our direction and take a cursory look over the shelves we’re next to. 

I get up quickly and offer a hand to Pasha, who smiles in acceptance. 

“Just browsing.”

“Well, it’s 5:25. We should probably head to the theater and get some good seats.”

I’m bewildered by the amount of time passed – had I really been staring at aliens for an hour? But slowly follow everyone out. Hikaru has a bag under his arm, of which Pasha keeps bumping into him to see, but Hikaru only shakes his head with a slight smile. 

I hope it’s a “LET’S GO OUT OKAY” card, but I’m not holding my breath. 

After a brief walk under the glow of lamplight we get to the theater, which is surprisingly crowded. Granted it’s a small place, but there are a lot of people our age hanging about. 

“Do they not have real movie theaters around here or something?”

Bones chuffs. “What, you want to see Miss Congeniality III?” 

I laugh - okay, the previews for everything have been lame lately, yeah. 

As we get our tickets, I admire the assumed authenticity within. The velvet curtains and ropes, the gold plating in fixtures and banisters. The colors of deep purple, burgundy, and verdant in the upholstered seats and shared in the carpeting throughout. 

It’s fancy, all right. I love it. 

And when the lights dim and the movie starts it’s actually the first hour in a long while that I haven’t thought of anything, thank God. Despite Pasha leaning towards me in his movie seat, with palms turned upward on the armrest - just in case

***



I must have been really distracted when we bought the tickets, because Invasion of the Body Snatchers wound up being a double feature with Teenagers From Outer Space. (Gee a theme, you say?) I can’t say I was complaining – Bones and I would lean towards each other, making cracks throughout both, much to everyone else’s consternation. (Good thing we were several rows away from people who didn’t like us.) 

It was a quarter after 9 when we finally let out, and I have to confess it was the first time in weeks that I felt… exhilarated. Like I was happy in the present tense and not just recalling a previous time to carry me through. When we exited the double doors to the nightlife of Cedar Rapids I was still laughing as Bones bumped my shoulder to cap a joke, and my face hurt from grinning ear-to-ear. 

Basically: It felt nice to have fun. Living life lackadaisically, taking the evening as it comes. 

“Len – Jim.” Gaila sneaks between us and links with our arms. “I know a really nice restaurant down the way.” She leans to look behind us, where I assume Pasha and Hikaru are following. “You boys in the mood for Italian?”

“Heck yeah! Pash, you in?” 

I look behind me and see that Pasha isn’t exactly the cheerful self that he usually is, but Hikaru pokes him in the shoulder and gets him to crack a smile. 

“Yes, Italian sounds wery good.”

“Then that’s that!” Gaila is looking forward again when we all stop for a red light and wait for the crosswalk.

While most of the shops down the main road seemed to be closed there is a bright light that catches my eye, along with an expanse of parking lot. The neon sign Country Market is visible when I lean a bit forward, and that’s when it occurs to me to look for something. 

“Hey guys,” I say as the walk sign lights up. “Can I meet you at the restaurant? I just remembered that I want to pick up something for my mom.” 

Bones nods and then points down the way. “Just a few blocks further and on this side of the street. Can’t miss it. Will be the only place lit up that isn’t a bar.” 

I grin and press the walk button for the opposite direction as they pass me. “Thanks, I shouldn’t be long.”

“We’ll have a table!” Gaila calls out and waves. Hikaru grasps Pasha’s arm as he turns to look at me and gives a weak wave himself. 

Really, I could probably wait for Des Moines to look for Mom’s Kombucha – but since I’m here and this looks like a bigger market, why not try it? (And hey, if I only have to drive an hour or so back and forth once a month to get at it, that would be way easier.) 

I walk into the brightly lit supermarket and blink a few times before I can orientate myself. It’s a crowded little place and nothing like Whole Foods back in California, but I’m guessing it’s big enough to know what organic means and perhaps to have a section. 

After some wandering I actually find the dairy section, where after looking down a long line of juices I spot a few glass bottles with rainbow labels. I pick up one of orange liquid and shake it, watching the bottom where the probiotic slime is slowly descending in a swirl. 

God, that stuff is gross. The juice is fine, but it’s like avoiding a fly in a soda glass – it just isn’t appetizing. But I grab a few bottles of the Kombucha anyway – damn, it’s expensive here – and then make my way to check out.

There’s an older woman with bright pink lipstick smacking her gum, who gives me a long look at my purchase. 

“Do ya actually drink that stuff?”

I smile at her as I take my change. “Nah, but my mom does.” 

She shakes her head and does a little sigh. “God bless her, that slime just reminds me of something from Alien.”

I laugh – she kind of has a point. “Trust me, I feel the same way. Thanks.” 

I take my plastic bag, being careful not to jostle the bottles too much, and then head outside. 

The parking lot lights help me adjust to the darkness while I’m trying to remember where to go. I walk towards the street that I’m familiar with, being careful not to swing my bag. 

Cedar Rapids seems decently nice, actually – although there appears to be a lot of bars in this part of town. I pass two of them and can smell whiffs of cigarette smoke and the sour stench of beer, along with bits and pieces of music and dangling conversations.

It’s only when I’m waiting at the stoplight again that an actual person passes me – a group of them, really – one of which stumbles heavily and bumps into my shoulder. 

“Hey!” He steps backwards and sways to look at me. “You!”

I look towards the light and wait for it eagerly to change.

You. I’m talkin’ to you!”

I look around – not really hoping, but trying to avoid the inevitable, anyway.

“Yeah you, kid!” He walks back up to me and gets rather close - too close – to my face. “You bumped me!”

“Uh,” I state and look again towards the street. “I was standing still?”

“Fuck you, you jittery fucker, stop moving all over the place!” 

I look at my feet – okay, I’m still aware that they’re not moving without my cognition. 

“You got a problem, pal?” 

“Not yet,” I say under my breath and plead with the light, only to feel myself shoved backwards. 

What did you say?”

I lift the bag up to steady it, while trying not to further aggravate the drunk asshole in my face. “I said no.”

“That don’t sound like what he said.” I hear a voice behind Drunk Asshole and I roll my eyes. 

Drunk Asshole shakes the front of my shirt. “You got something to say to me?”

“Yeah, I do.” I look over to the side and see the street is mostly clear. 

“What’s that?”

“Goddamn you’re an ugly motherfucker.” And at that I swing-throw the Kombucha in his face and make a run for it. 

I hear glass shatter behind me – sorry, Mom - but I’m just running. For all I know I’m in the direct path of a speeding semi and about to recreate Frogger. 

“You fucker!”

I’m kind of wondering whether the “few blocks” is accurate of Bones’ description, because I feel like I’m running forever and not seeinganything.

“Get back here you little shit. I’m gonna pound your ass!”

I don’t even have time for an easy retort as I spot a sudden alleyway and bolt down it. 

It’s dark and dank and small, and one of those they always tell you not to run down. Where the heroine always seems to fall over something and break her stupid ankle, or the bad guy is somehow sneaky and waiting at the end. 

Fortunately for me it just leads to a side street on the edge of the district. I’m still running, but my chest heaves with the exertion - fuck, everything burns. My legs jerk to a stop and I bend over a bench, panting at the ground. How the hell did I even get into this, anyway?

It can’t be more than a minute later that I hear footsteps on the pavement and feel a shove into my side.

“Fuck you, you little bitch. Thought you could cut me?”

There’s about five punches to my back – yeah, and a good old kick to the side – as I fall to the ground and smack my head. 

“What do ya gotta say, bitch?”

I hold up my arms in defense, but they’re useless. As I feel another kick to the back, my vision swims – hey, Mom? Sorry that we didn’t stay home and have a pizza night. Sorry Bones for not getting to know you better. Sorry Pasha and Hikaru for ruining your UFO watching. And sorry Spock – 

“I believe the gentleman may wish for you to desist.”

The world is suddenly less crowded and painful, and I blink to look up at a sky of stars and city lights – and the welcome visage of someone lean and pale. 

“Who you be?” Drunk Asshole spits out, and I can see Spock visibly flinch. 

“I happen ‘to be’ someone you should be very, very concerned about.” Spock looks down at me with mild curiosity. “Are you able to stand, James?”

I wipe my face, and feel the warm blood on my hand. “Give – give me a moment.”

“Fuck you, you pansy-ass – “

I happen to have blink at the wrong moment, because one minute Spock is staring at me and the next Drunk Asshole is collapsing to the ground like a ragdoll.

I hear “oofs” and “ughs” around me, of which I can only assume are Drunk Asshole’s friends. A part of me wants to laugh, because I expect to hear ka-pow! at any moment, complete with comic bubble. 

But when I can only hear the traffic of the city, I open my eyes and once again see Spock peering down at me. 

“It has been three minutes and 27 seconds. Do you require assistance?” 

I choke a laugh. “Yeah, you could say so – Batman.”

Spock’s left eyebrow disappears under his skullcap. “That is not my name.”

“Whatever, just – help me up? Please?” 

Spock seems to hesitate a moment, before stretching out his hand. I take it gingerly, where it is grasped with surprising strength and heat – seriously, am I that cold or what? But I’m on my feet faster than I expect and I can feel my vision spin. 

“You are not well.”

“Yeah, Spock,” I bend over and place my hands on my knees. “I almost had the shit kicked out of me, I’m not exactly rosey.”

“You require medical assistance. Where is your friend, Leonard McCoy?”

I give Spock a sideways glance, because yeah – Bones may be a candy striper for the local hospital, but I’m not sure if I can even trust him to put on a band-aid

“They’re waiting for me at this Italian restaurant.” I point in the general direction and pant. “Yeah.”

There’s a pause before I hear Spock say, “I believe I am familiar with this restaurant you speak of.”

I huff a laugh. “You should be, your pals Bones and Gaila are there.” 

I don’t even have time to bite my lip before I hear a murmured, “Are they.”

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to take that as a question, but I feel a warm hand on my lower back. 

“Will you be able to walk?”

I nod minutely, although I’m actually not sure about that. Frankly I’m more sure about falling flat on my face, but I’m not about to tell Spock that. 

We take a step and Spock wraps my left arm over his shoulder. He pulls me against him as he settles a hand on my right hip.

God, that hand is large and strong. 

“I am assisting you to our destination.”

Oh, he can assist me all he wants. In fact, he can – 

There is a squeeze to my hip, which doesn’t help anything at all but brings a pleasurable burn to concentrate on. 

“What were you doing alone at this time of night?”

I swing my head up and narrow my eyes on him – his profile calm and collected, as if he were only carrying my messenger bag and not an actual person. 

“Walking,” I state, and then smile when his eyebrows furrow. 

“How did you bring hostilities upon your person?”

“By being bumped by another person.”

Oh, I think I like that look. Where Spock doesn’t seem sure whether to frown in confusion or frown in disapproval. 

“I do not understand.”

“Some drunk asshole bumped me on purpose to start a fight.” We’re at the alley that I ran down before when Spock stops and leans me against a brick wall. 

“You preceded with the altercation?”

“I kind of wasn’t given an option.” 

It’s dark in the alley, with a faint yellow glow that causes the darkness to gray at the edges. It’s strangely comforting and familiar, having grown up in the city and not in the pitch-black of Riverside. 

But Spock’s skin looks pallid and sickly in this light, and his eyes burn with a lit coal. 

“There is always an alternative to violence.”

“Yeah, you saw my alternative - running. Until I was caught.”

Spock steps closer, and I can discern the dip of the lip as we breathe in tandem. 

His eyes scan my face as he murmurs, “You seem to be a magnet for the polarities of your well-being.”

I feel my lip quirk, despite wanting to play it straight. “Well, welcome to my world?” 

His head tilts slightly to the right as his eyes scan the edge of my hair, my ears, my neck – God, can he see the flush crawling up from over there?

“I am more concerned for your physical safety, at the moment.”

“Well, thanks,” I state. Although I have to confess it sounds borderline creepy – and okay, heroic and hot all at once.

“Are you independently mobile?” 

I make a face at that. “You mean, can I walk?”

He steps away from me. “I believe I said that.”

I push away from the wall, despite a lot of different muscles protesting the action. I take a few steps, letting my fingers skim the brick, until I’m sure of my balance. 

“You do not require assistance?”

I would turn my head to smile, but I’m too busy putting one foot in front of the other. “I’m fine - Mom.”

“That is the second instance tonight of which you have referred to me by an incorrect name.” 

I somehow have the energy to roll my eyes. “I’m joking, Spock. Let a guy have his pride, will ya?”

We’re quiet as we reach the end of the alley and encounter the main street that I jaywalked – well, jayran - before. 

Spock moves to the left. “The restaurant is in this direction.”

“If it winds up being an indistinct hole in the wall, I’ll kill him.”

There’s a pause before, “I was under the impression that yourself and Leonard McCoy were friends.”

There’s a tone to his voice, where I can’t decide whether to beat him senseless or find him endearing. 

“I am, it’s just – I was trying to find it while running earlier, that’s all.”

“It is quite a ways from your previous destination.”

I mentally shrug – there were a few twists and turns so far, sure. But we’ve only been walking away from the baddies for a total of ten minutes, tops. 

However it takes another few minutes before we reach the end of a line of shops and discover a little café – tucked into a corner with large windows, yet warmly lit from within. 

I look behind us and realize that I can’t even see the grocery store from here at all.

“Jim!” 

I turn clumsily to see Bones, who grasps my shoulder to take a better look. 

“Goddamn, man – what the hell happened? You’ve been gone near 40 minutes!”

I frown at Bones – 40 minutes doesn’t seem right at all. And yet I see Hikaru, Pasha, and Gaila pouring out of the building, carrying white to-go boxes. 

Pasha rushes forward, his worry and anxiety bouncing off him keenly. “Vhat happened? You look beat up!”

I suck my bottom lip, because – yeah, I’m not sure if there’s a delicate way to put this one. 

“Jim was pursued by hostile assailants and threatened with bodily harm.”

“Dude,” Hikaru walks up to me and tilts his head to visually scan the side of my face. “No shit.” 

I give him a look, before Bones steps into my vision. His eyes sweep my entire body, top to bottom. 

“You have some nasty cuts, there -” He pauses on one of my eyes. “They need some cleanin’. I’ve got a med kit in my truck if you want to walk back there?”

“On the contrary,” Spock cuts in and steps to my side. “Jim appears weak, and perhaps could benefit from some sustenance. I recommend that we enter the restaurant while you retrieve your medical supplies.”

Bones levels a look at Spock before stating pointedly, “Are you sure about that?”

There’s a moment before Spock answers in a low voice, “I am quite certain.”

There’s a tense electricity in the air; a current of knowledge I can’t tap. I would wager that my face mirrors how Hikaru and Pasha look about now – blatantly confused, yet a bit in awe. 

However Gaila steps in and sneaks her hand around a bicep. “We’ll drive back with the med kit. It’ll be real quick, won’t it Len?”

Bones is still looking at Spock when he says, “Yeah – yeah, fine.”

“You too, boys.” Gaila tugs the sleeve of Hikaru’s shirt. “We might as well all go together.”

But Pasha walks up to me and grasps my elbow. “Vill you be all right, Jim?”

I manage a small smile. “You bet.”

Although to be honest, when the lot of them leave the pit of my stomach actually drops. I watch them walk for a block or so before Spock enters my view, with his eyes cold and distant and his body a force of danger. 

He says in a low tone, “We should enter.”

And because I’m not sure whether I should be frightened or succumb to the nerves that I feel, I walk forward a bit too quickly and stumble as I open the café door. 

Spock holds the ledge above my head as I enter and walk towards a wooden podium of menus. The restaurant looks pretty dead and it occurs to me – yeah, we’re probably near closing time, or during the slow time of the night. 

However a young woman walks forward, slightly annoyed, and pulls out two menus. “Two?” 

I am about to answer yes when I see her eyes change – not when they look at me and the bloody mess that I must appear as - but when they take in Spock.

Which, yeah. Spock is pretty damn good-looking, regardless of the ugly hat. 

“Right this way,” she says as she straightens to lead us proudly to a table. I look over at Spock, who follows with patient politeness. 

But when we get to our table – in the middle, and within clear view of the entire establishment – Spock clears his throat.

“If we may, perhaps, have somewhere more… secluded.”

I bite my lip as the hostess’ face clearly falls, before she schools it with a tight smile. “As you wish.”

Yeah, I can guess what she wishes. Especially when we follow her further to the back and she bends over at a wait station to grab silverware, then napkins, then salt and pepper shakers - 

“Thank you,” Spock says politely once we reach a quiet corner booth. I slide in after maneuvering around our hostess, whom Spock has bestowed a patient look. 

Her lips press into a thin line as my cushion squeaks - yeah, I’m pretty sure she’d zap my annoying ass out of existence if she could – before she manages a polite smile for Spock. “Someone will be with you shortly.”

“Thank you,” I say, but it falls on deaf ears as she quickly turns and leaves. 

There’s a quiet moment between the both of us, as I presume old Italian classics play in the background. I don’t recognize a word of it, but I assume that’s not the point. Really, as we’re settled in a more candlelit portion of the café, I get the sense diners usually have more important things to concentrate on. 

Like I do. Spock is sitting before me with hands folded, staring dispassionately in my direction. There’s a part of me that wants to justwatch as he watches me – observing my musing and theorizing. But I’m well aware that Bones and the others will be back soon.

“So,” I say.

Spock’s expression doesn’t change as my fingers tool with the edge of a cloth napkin. 

I go to open my mouth, but predictably my brain fails me and nothing comes out. Funny how that fucking happens when I finally corner the guy with privacy to talk. Well - until the thin, brunette waitress suddenly appears before our table and looks expectantly at Spock. 

And trust me, she’s only looking at Spock. 

“Would you like to start off with refreshments?”

Spock looks to me and I shrug. 

“Coke’s fine.”

The waitress doesn’t even turn to me as she asks Spock, “What would you like?”

“I am not in need of a beverage at this time.”

I can see her posture shift as I’m sure she’s wondering how to hold on to Spock’s attention – especially if she bartered the other waitresses to gain it in the first place.

But after a moment she stands straight. “I will be back with your Coke.” 

She turns quickly and I look at Spock – whose focus is back on me. 

I can’t say I’m sure of what that means, but I know certain things it does not

I tilt my head in the departed waitress’ direction. “You know, you shouldn’t dazzle people like that.”

“Dazzle?”

I roll my eyes. “Come on, Spock. I think you could ask her to lick your shoes and she wouldn’t mind.”

Spock shifts his gaze to the maroon tablecloth. “Is that so.”

I nod. “The hostess, too.” 

He looks up, his eyes shadowing delicate eyelashes, and I can’t help but think – demurely? No shit, he is looking demurely at me. 

“Do I dazzle you?”

I’m about to choke on air when the waitress sets a glass of soda in front of me and turns to Spock. 

“Are you ready to order?”

Spock looks over to me. “Jim?”

I am swallowing a large gulp of soda, which results in an obnoxious ah

“Um,” I say, not even sure of the menu. I see the laminated sheet in front of me and say the first item I see. “I’ll have mushroom ravioli.”

I’m not even sure what that tastes like, but Spock nods and hands over both of our menus to the waitress. 

She takes them without blinking. “And what will you have?”

“I have already eaten this evening.”

The waitress clutches the menus closer to her chest as she takes a moment to process that. I swear there’s a flash of red with a twist of the head as she quickly glares at me – yeah, maybe the hostess wanted to zap my ass, but the waitress probably wants to incinerate it. 

What, sweetie? It’s not like he's eating me

“I’ll bring your order shortly.”

Which is just as well, because I’m not sure how much time has passed and there’s still so much I want to know. 

“Spock.” I lick my lips and decide to just be out with it – say the first thing in my head. “What are you doing in Cedar Rapids?”

“I believe Cedar Rapids is a popular destination among those of the rural communities.”

I roll my eyes. “I mean, I guess – “ I gesture the wordlessness with my hands before settling on, “How did you find me?”

This appears to be a delicate question, as Spock looks once more to the tablecloth before he is staring in my direction. 

“Why do you assume that you were found?”

“Because I was about to get the shit kicked out of me, without much hope of rescue – which by the way, thanks, even though I’m pretty sure you hate my guts – and then you were there, fighting off Drunk Asshole and his friends. I don’t think that’s a chance meeting.”

“Why do you assume I hate your guts?” 

I wag a finger at him. “Na-uh. My question first.”

“It is perhaps a part of my answer to the first.”

“Well then, get it all out and I won’t have to ask twice.” I fold my hands and stare pointedly at him. “Well?”

Spock looks distinctly uncomfortable – another expression that I find I like on him. A lot. 

“I was in the vicinity for other matters.”

“So on a dimly-lit portion of a regular city street, you just happened to come across me?”

“I was not anticipating our meeting.”

“Well, I wasn’t ‘anticipating’ getting beaten up.” I lean forward. “Why did you stop to help?”

Spock considered that a moment. “Would I have been correct in ignoring the situation?”

I shrug. “A lot of other people would have.”

“I am not like most people.”

I snort. “No kidding.”

At that moment a plate of steaming pasta is placed before me, and the waitress tilts her body once again to look at Spock.  

“The kitchens are still open if you would like to reconsider – “

“No,” Spock states simply. 

I might have imagined the exasperated huff, but she sharply turns on her heel and leaves. 

Spock looks at my plate of pasta as he contemplates. “I do not believe she was pleased with my vocalization.”

huh around a bite of ravioli, because isn't that the understatement of the year. 

“In fact, I suspect she would rather prefer I were alone.”

“Is this your way of telling me to pick up my own check?" I stab a mushroom and point the fork at him. “You insisted.”

“I was suggesting nothing of the sort.”

I nod at that and continue chewing – this stuff tastes decent, although I’m not usually into vegetarian. 

As I swallow it down with a drink of soda, I try to think of more to ask Spock. Although it must be 15 minutes by now and Bones and company still aren’t here. 

“Do you think everybody’s okay?”

“I assume you mean McCoy and your friends. I suspect they are giving us time to be alone.”

I stop chewing. “Why the hell would they do that?”

Spock decides that instead of the tablecloth the white lace curtains are suddenly more interesting – great, a guy that’s interested in interior design. 

“Because McCoy knows that there are things I wish to speak to you about.”

I almost drop the glass of Coke, but I manage to steady it against the edge of the table. 

“What the hell would you want to ask me?”

His eyes draw back to my face, and I’m left with a shiver up my arms – this idea that there is something incredibly wrong here and that I don’t know it because it’s me

“You have not spoken about your incident.”

I manage to push the glass far away from me, because - son of a bitch.

“Okay, I’ve been trying to corner you all week, and now you suddenly want to talk about it?”

“I am more interested in the aftermath rather than rehashing theories.”

“Well, let me tell you something.” I lean forward over my pasta. “There’s a dent on the side of Hikaru’s car that pretty much looks like someone punched it.”

“Is that so.”

“Yeah, and not only that? Pasha and I can describe the UFO as the same object – and we did that before even conferring with each other.”

“Mass hallucinations have been known to occur in traumatic incidents.”

“Well, say what you want.” Actually, I think I’m going to punch something if he does, but I’m going for diplomacy here. “But the facts add up.”

“As you propose they are.”

I gently put my fork down and place my hands on the table. “In fact, other things seem to add up.”

Spock is looking at my fork. “Your math is rather peculiar.”

I wave over my plate. “Here you are, all concerned about the topic. You’ve been adamant since then of what did and did not occur. You skipped three days of school right afterwards – “

“I was ill.”

“With what?”

“That is none of your concern.”

I roll my eyes. “Whatever, fine. So maybe you’re just a hard-assed skeptic who can’t seem to be open-minded to what you saw.”

“I would state similar for you.”

“But there’s one more thing.” I pick up the fork again and take another bite, pointing the empty prongs at him. “Bones was pretty adamant in the same way.”

“He is a scientist.” 

I make a face. “No he isn’t. He’s a fucking high school teenager and so are you.”

“A scientist is one who examines the unknown with logical guidelines – “

Spare me. Because that’s not the point.”

“If there is one, I would wish to hear it.”

I imagine that I’m stabbing him between the eyes. “Bones’ statements – and yours – are almost identical. If you want to talk about conferring, I’m pretty sure I have a good example.”

“It is not unreasonable to gather and explore all factors of a situation.”

“No, but I’m pretty sure it is unreasonable to insist something, despite those factors.”

While Spock is usually not emotive, I’m pretty sure the look he has right now borders on the dangerous. 

Not that I ever back away from the dangerous.

“You’re hiding something.” I randomly stab my fork onto the plate. “And I’m going to find out what it is.”

I chew obnoxiously as Spock seems to sit there and contemplate – which is perfect timing for Bones to walk towards our table. 

“Sorry Jim. Gaila thought she left something at the theater, so we went back before getting the truck.”

I don’t even nod, because I kind of don’t give a fuck. 

“The hostess looked about ready to stab me. I guess the restaurant closed 15 minutes ago?”

I keep chewing as Bones angles his head into view. “I’m going to clean these cuts. It would be better if we did this in the bathroom.”

I suck the fork between my lips before setting it on the cloth napkin. “Let’s do it.”

I get up from the table, not even seeing Spock’s reaction – for all I know he will stick me with the damn check. I don’t even know if I have enough to tip, nevertheless pay for fucking mushroom ravioli. 

But I lean against the white vanity in the men’s room as Bones washes his hands thoroughly and then cracks open his kit. Which is a case far larger than most first aid sets I’ve ever seen and is more like a toolbox. 

“Care to tell me how this happened?” Bones actually has gloves on as he takes the swab of disinfectant and goes to work. 

I hiss as it stings. “Probably something I imagined, no biggie.”

Bones glances up at me and then shakes his head. “Unlike your UFO, I can see the evidence of this one.”

“Yeah, and I suppose you haven’t noticed the dent in Hikaru’s car?”

“Christ, Jim.” Bones smacks the alcohol towelette into the trash. “Save your snip fest for Spock. I’m just concerned for you.” I clench my jaw as he unwraps another alcohol wipe and mutters, “Might as well be usin’ water.”

I look into his kit as he pats at my face again. “You have a lot of crap in there.”

“Just stuff I’ve gathered over the years.” Bones hurries back to it, where he pulls out liquid skin and then snaps the lid shut. “Hold still.”

The stuff smells like nail polish and goes on like the stuff. It manages to sting even more. 

“All right,” Bones caps it. “Will you freak out if I want you to take off your shirt?”

“What, without Gaila here?”

Bones huffs, and I smirk as I tenderly take my t-shirt off. I peel it away with careful fingers, noting that I’m more sore than I expected. 

“I’m not seeing any bruising.” Bones touches my ribs with gloved fingers and I suck in a breath. He gives me a sharp look. “Does that hurt?”

“Nah, just – your fingers feel weird.” And truth be told so does getting touched up by my BFF, no matter how good-looking he is. 

“Well,” and he finally snaps off his white gloves and tosses them in the trash, “I want you to go to the hospital. But considering you’re still walking around, I assume you aren’t going to die this instant.”

“I ate ravioli,” I offer. 

Bones chuffs. “And you’re keeping it down, too.”

“Don’t worry Bones, I used to get in fights all the time.” And never win, but a guy’s got to keep his dignity.

“Oh, I’m sure.” He returns to his med kit and I turn around to look in the mirror. 

Fuck. Maybe I’m sure I’ll be okay, but I can only guess that Mom will take one look at me and want to send me straight to the hospital. 

“Damn, I’m a wreck.” 

“Shouldn’t be picking on guys larger than you.”

I look at him in the mirror. “They totally bumped me.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” Bones motions with his head towards the door. “I’ll be out there with Spock. You coming?”

As much as I doubt that Spock is waiting for us, I nod and follow Bones out.

 

Chapter Six: There are three things I know about Spock. Too bad none of them make sense.

 

Spock is not only waiting for us, but also making awkward chitchat with the hostess as we approach the entrance.

"What do your 'rents do in Riverside?" the hostess asks as she leans over the wood podium, no doubt for visual enhancement.

"My adopted mother is a teacher, and my adopted father is a retired military officer."

"Wow, that's so cool." She stretches out her hand to pat an arm - only for Spock to look pointedly at it as she withdraws.

It's then that Bones and I come into view and she straightens up. "Have a nice night, gentlemen."

Bones nods at her. "You too, ma'am."

I look between him and Spock. "Don't we still have the – "

Spock hands me my Styrofoam to-go box and then answers the hostess behind me. "Good evening."

I am quickly ushered out the doors. When we're in the light-haze of the city night, I turn to Spock and say, "Thank you?"

"If you do not mind," Spock turns to Bones, "I am willing to drive Jim home."

Bones looks right at me, and I have to confess I'm looking bewildered back. But when Spock turns his head at the questioning silence and says to me, "We have matters to discuss," I nod my head.

Bones huffs, but he only shakes a finger at me as he says, "If you feel any sort of weirdness, or disorientation, or nausea – "

"I'll know it's because I'm dying and not because of the ravioli." I put up my hands. "I'll behave, Bones."

He nods, then looks at Spock. "You make sure he does."

There isn't an answer, but Bones walks away anyhow. When he's a block off and crossing an intersection, I turn to Spock.

"So does this mean you're finally going to spit it out?"

Spock clenches his jaw, but doesn't say anything as he walks off in Bones' direction – which isn't quite from where we came.

I follow quickly behind, trying to gauge Spock and also notice our surroundings. It seems we're taking a different back alley – one that if I look straight down might be in the vicinity of where I was being beaten up. But it's still a distance away.

"How did you see me?" I murmur as the silver Volvo comes into view on a side street.

I stop to watch Spock as he approaches his car, his legs lean and footsteps quiet. In this light I can tell he's a bit paler than most, with the dark shades of evening bringing out bruise-colored undertones. Combined with the black turtleneck and dark slacks, he could pass as a vampire – well, if it weren't for that stupid hat.

"You are in the center of the street." He is standing at his open car door, waiting expectantly.

I mentally shake myself, then walk quickly to the other side of the silver Volvo and lift the handle. I don't even think as I get in, I just know that I must; that Spock has to drive me home.

The interior is a dark gray. Not quite leather, but comfortable and soft. It's impeccably clean no matter where I look. Down by my feet the carpeting still seems brand new.

And maybe it does or doesn't say a lot about Spock. But with all the shiny buttons and green lights on the dash and gadgets that seem to be set up for the casual driver, Spock looks at none of them – but instead drives ahead, completely relaxed as the turn signal goes blink, blink, blink.

However at the second stoplight I see his lips move slightly. "Your seatbelt."

For some reason I tug it sharply and let it snap. In my car and in anywhere else I'd be pretty annoyed. But Spock took the initiative to get me alone this time – and, I don't know, can you blame me for wanting to know why that is?

We're driving out of Cedar Rapids and back onto the freeway before Spock breaks the silence.

"You told no one."

Oh, so we're back to this again?

"No one would've believed me," I mutter as I force myself to look out the window. I hope I look undisturbed and nonchalant, when really I'm reeling from Spock still wanting to talk about this.

"Your friends did not sense the same restriction."

"Yeah, but they were asked. Not to mention that they're kinda fans of that stuff."

Spock is still looking dead ahead. "And you are not."

I shrug. "Maybe? I don't know. Mom is an astrologer."

"That is calculating the positions of the stars in relation of the Earth. That is not believing in paranormal events."

"Isn't whether they determine your personality a paranormal thing, though?" The words come out in weird short bursts – there's a part of me so nervous about moving forward,  yet so ready at the same time.

In a way, as much as I don't believe I'm crazy, it's like I need to hear it from Spock to know it's true.

However he only tilts his head slightly and keeps looking forward – in one act making it seem like he doesn't agree and yet is not willing to criticize.

There's a moment of silence, and my eyes wander in the quiet space. Spock is not relaxed, yet not uptight. His hands are at the 4-and-8 positions with his eyes alert. I can't tell if in the 45-minute ride back he'll eventually recline and mold his back into the seat or lean forward with intense concentration. He seems stuck, poised for either, his hands curled entirely around the steering wheel as –

"Holy shit." I lean forward and gape at the yellow lines flashing below us; the world whizzing so smoothly by, yet entirely too fast.

Spock glances in my direction. "I believe that is a statement of alarm."

"Um, Spock – you're going over 100."

"I am aware of the velocity of this vehicle."

"Yeah, well, I know we're in the middle of nowhere, but – "

"I am quite capable of handling this speed." I could swear a corner of his mouth quirks up, just a tad. "I am in favor of traversing distances in a reasonable period of time."

"You are a speed demon." Bones was right – and can I say, despite facing an empty highway at 112 mph, it is kind of sexy.

"Leonard McCoy has curious vernacular."

I am almost too caught up in the thrill of it – my hand gripping the dash, trying to rein in a whoop as Spock speeds even farther – that I almost miss that one.

I turn my head and see his cool and collected profile.

"I didn't say it was Bones."

I watch the pedometer drop and bob at 105, and after a minute I let go of the dashboard and lean back in my seat.

Spock isn't saying anything, which seems to mean I'm on the right track – although to exactly what, I'm not sure. He looks borderline tight-lipped and about to crash the car and I find myself missing the Spock from a few moments before.

I fake a laugh. "I'm not saying you're like a mind reader or something. Just weird, that's all."

I try to keep it light, but when I look over at Spock I can see his knuckles tighten.

What the fuck is his problem, anyway?

"Leonard McCoy has been known for that phrasing."

I wave a hand. "Yeah, and everyone else on Earth." I shift my body a bit to lean towards him and rest my head on the seat. "I keep forgetting you're all in the same house, all the time."

I watch the pedometer drop even further and I can't really understand why. It seems the more I comment, the more I seem to freak him out – not that I can't use that to my advantage, but what is there to be freaked out about?

"We live on the same premises."

"With your mom and dad, right?" I watch his expression closely. I don't think he's quite calculating, but I can see the wheels - lots of wheels – turning in his head.

"They are not my biological parents."

I nod. I want to say how that sort of thing doesn't always matter, but I keep silent. Spock seems to want to fill the silences sometimes. I'm betting on that now.

"My biological mother unexpectedly perished in an… accident, some time ago."

I want to ask, but all I do is turn my head to watch the open road. While I want to see Spock's expression, I feel like scrutinizing would censor him.

"Captain Pike and his wife were familiar with my mother."

"And they took you in? That was nice of them," Which is kind of true. Taking on a teenaged boy, no matter how good he seems? They could've wound up with me.

"I am fortunate."

A sign catches my eye and I see we're almost halfway home. How the hell are we not getting pulled over by Frank right now, or by one of his friends?

"Leonard McCoy also knew the Captain and his wife. When his circumstances changed he also found residence with us."

A corner of my mouth downturns – I already know how life sucks without one parent, despite how awesome my mom was on her own. But to have no parents – no one in the world to turn to if Mom suddenly died?

"Did Captain Pike know everyone from being in the, uh," I want to say military, or navy, or –

"From the military, correct." Spock seems to relax slightly at that – and it isn't a slouch, but more like sitting normally rim-rod straight is comfortable for him. "The same goes for Nyota Uhura and Montgomery Scott."

"But Gaila is related to your parents, right?"

Spock seems to consider that a moment. "In a sense."

I make a face at that. "So she isn't biologically related, either?"

"No." He glances at me and his expression is not defensive like I expect. "However we have been in acquaintance for quite some time."

"That must make living together easier."

Spock tilts his head towards me. "We are discordant personalities."

Well, no kidding. I smile just imagining Spock and Gaila in the same living space. "What is Captain Pike like? I've met your mom."

Spock gives me a look. "I do not refer to them as my mother and father, but as Captain and –" Spock hesitates a moment. "Eurelia."

That would make sense, I suppose. Especially if Spock's mom died later in life. I can't imagine ever calling Frank 'dad' either.

I watch a few bugs splatter the windshield in the darkness as I wonder what I can even ask. Is it nosey to want to know more about his family? Especially when Hikaru and Pasha talked about them in hushed whispers and they were enigmas to me as well?

"It is an outwardly odd arrangement," Spock confesses with his eyes still on the road.

"I'm not judging."

"I did not suggest such. It is the opinion of many of your peers."

"Our peers," I automatically correct. Although really, Spock does seem a bit different than everyone else. "I'm not exactly normal either."

"I have noticed."

For some reason I find that thrilling and I inwardly smile to myself. Spock noticed.

"Your mother recently remarried."

I look back at him and nod. It seems only fair to share. "Yeah, she met Frank a year ago and they really hit it off."

"You moved to Riverside as a result."

"Pretty much."

"And San Francisco was not satisfactory."

I shrug. "Frank couldn't deal with San Fran and Mom didn't mind moving. We were only there out of habit, anyway."

"Frank is the sheriff for the local department."

I squint at Spock because – why doesn't this feel like casual conversation anymore?

"Yeah, he is. And what a small world," I prop my elbow on the door handle and lean my head. "Dad is from here too. Left when he was young or something. So it's kind of like  coming back to my roots."

The air perceptibly changes – you know, the sleepy atmosphere of a quiet conversation from one that is suddenly alive with too much intellect? It feels like a shotgun of interest.

"So you have relatives in the vicinity."

I shake my head. "Nah, they're all dead or something. There's not a Kirk around here." And I have to say, I really haven't bothered asking.

"You have researched."

It's an awkward question. I've been here a few times in the last year when Mom and I would fly over to visit Frank. It was just something I hadn't bothered to do – not because I didn't care, but because Dad had been gone for, well, as long as I could remember.

I miss him, but it is an ache of potential, not of anything that I ever knew.

"I haven't."

Spock looks straight ahead in a moment of silence and I can tell he is thinking. Thinking so loudly.

"You're wondering about my dad."

He turns his head sharply, with his eyebrow disappearing under the knitted hem. "Indeed."

I'm quiet a moment, thinking it through. Not that it isn't a question that inevitably comes up whenever I meet someone - anyone. Bones hasn't asked, but I have anticipated; imagining the conversation in my head. For dealing without a father most of my life I've become used to explaining him, creating throwaway lines for casual inferences and many situations. Ones that don't make the other party feel bad for asking or making me out to be a Debbie Downer.

But this is different. Here we are, discussing it not on accident, but because Spock wants to genuinely know. It's… strange. For being among those who have always had their parents to some degree and have never known what it is like to miss one, it is weird to get asked.

But Spock knows what it is like, doesn't he? At least once?

I take a deep breath. "He died when I was young."

Spock is further silent and I'm grateful for that. Sometimes people will murmur condolences, but it's not like I really knew him. Why are they ever sorry for me?

"Mom says that he died rescuing someone."

Both eyebrows disappear now and he does murmur, "Is that so."

I look out the windshield. "He was a firefighter. He went into a burning apartment complex and tried to save some woman. He never made it out."

"How old were you at the time of the incident?"

I shift my gaze to the side window. "Newborn. Mom says she had just brought me home from the hospital that week."

There is further silence in the car, and it suddenly occurs to me that maybe Spock isn't familiar with these rituals. The kind where someone will apologize or offer an assuring word. Instead Spock's mind seems to be thinking it over and processing some bit of information.

"I grieve with thee," he says softly, before his knuckles clench the steering wheel.

It's an odd phrase. Who says 'thee' anymore? But it feels, strangely enough, more adequate than what anyone else has ever said before.

I manage a small smile in his direction. "Thank you."

He doesn't even nod, and I have to say that I also like that about Spock. So I look forward again to the endless highway, which has signs clearly stating we are, indeed, at the end.

It's been a half-hour, at best.

"Yeah, I don't think Gary could twice the speed limit, even in his dreams."

The quiet blink, blink, blink of his turn signal to the off-ramp punctuates his confusion, with the muffled din of crickets like an audio ellipsis.

Fuck the crickets, even with the windows closed. Don't they ever shut up? Go to sleep? Something?

"From inference, I believe that is a misnomer of a vehicle."

I grin. "Yeah, my truck. I think he would pray for sixty on a good day."

"Your vehicle has consciousness."

Spock says this in a way that makes me feel five years old, but I only laugh.

"I name my things, okay? Gary and I are spending a lot of time together."

"As I have heard."

I narrow my eyes at Spock, who has reduced to a generous 40 on a main road.

"You're making fun of my truck." Spock says nothing, but I point a finger at him. "You're making fun of an ancient piece of machinery that could've kicked this car's ass, pal."

"I am merely stating an opinion."

"Pffft." I turn in my seat and grumble with folded arms, "Stupid, shiny Volvo driver."

"I did not insult your intelligence. Rather I commented on the lack of your vehicle's muffler in the quiet hours of Riverside."

"Whatever, people can't hear it if they're sleeping."

"I would assume the crickets feel the same."

I whip my head to the side, trying to suck in air as I look at Spock – who is doing his best impersonation of a driving statue, if I ever saw one.

"What is that?" I ask quietly as I feel the gravel of a side road not far from home.

"Riverside is known for its diverse flora and fauna. The crickets are loud this time of year, especially in the evening hours."

I didn't realize my heart had been pounding my ribcage until I swallow and choke for breath. It was a normal observation, wasn't it? That country life really was loud around here, compared to living in the city.

The car stops in front of the grass and dirt driveway, and I look over at Spock with a sudden question.

"Where did you live before?"

Spock looks down at his hand on the gearshift.

"I mean – I'm from the San Fran, so the crickets are loud to me, too. I was just wondering if it was the same for you. If, I don't know, you were from somewhere totally different."

I huff a casual laugh, trying to get whatever easiness we had back. But it doesn't seem so likely.

Especially when Spock looks up at me, with dark eyes morose, and says, "Indeed… it was different."

God, what the fuck is this? This need, this desire to close the one-foot space of distance between us and ask why he looks that way. He is just a guy – a weird guy – who happened to hate me at school, but for some reason wanted to save me in Cedar Rapids. Some guy who has this fancy car and has this deep and sexy voice, with eyes that seem to rob me and make me feel stupidly giddy for no real reason but that they noticed me.

And we're still looking at each other. It should feel awkward, but Spock's face doesn't even hint at annoyance. Instead the electricity seems to build up and enfold us as his eyes scan my face, and he takes a short breath before speaking.

"Goodnight, Jim."

I blink and realize how close my body has angled. I am practically leaping into the guy's lap - fuck. Way to be desperate, Jim.

I jerk back. "Yeah, um – thank you, for the ride."

He minutely nods. "It was agreeable."

It was agreeable. For some reason that makes me smile as I turn to jump out of the car.

But instead a hand on my bicep stops me and I turn to look back at him. Spock's pale fingertips grasp lightly around my arm, just under the short sleeve of my t-shirt.

He stares at them a moment before letting go. When his eyes find mine again, he is almost dazed. "May your weekend be enjoyable."

God, I don't know who fucking says that either, but I give a large grin in response.

"The same to you, Spock." I quickly get out of the car before I convince myself to stay rooted to the spot. "Thanks again."

I close the door politely – not trying to scratch that shiny Volvo – and then back away slowly towards the house, praying I don't trip.

I wait to hear the engine speed off as I walk up the house steps. But my intentions succumb to curiosity as I look behind me while opening the front door.

I shouldn't be disappointed - but I am anyway - when I see that the Volvo has long-gone and taken off.

***

I had some luck on my side, as Mom was in the kitchen when I got home. This meant I could quickly dart up the stairs without being seen if I kept my cool.

"Jim? Hon? You're home early."

Unfortunately my mind was still trying to think back to normal and I hesitate an answer. "Yeah Mom, I'm – uh, going to go upstairs and get cleaned up."

I wince as I know the inevitable question.

"Why are you – "

I can see the glint of her hair as she comes out from the dining area, and I try to turn quickly to run upstairs.

"James."

Oh shit.

"Turn around when your mother is speaking to you."

Which, okay, I do. Because while we may have a dysfunctional relationship of sorts, that has only been because I'm a generally good kid and she has been able to trust me.

And mainly because - Mom voice? Always works.

She puts a hand to her mouth as she quickly grabs me from the stairs. "What happened to you?"

Just got the shit kicked out of me, that's all. "I walked into a lamp post."

She gives me a look as she maneuvers me to the sofa. "What, a short lamp post?"

I wave my hands in thought. "It had…. pointy things on it?"

"Which cut your face into a bloody pulp!"

Okay, I have seen my face and I know it isn't 'a bloody pulp'. "It's just a few cuts from a scuffle, Mom."

"With a vicious midget lamp post."

I really should have thought of this on the ride back. Put Spock's brilliant mind to good use.

I rub my hands over my face. "Don't freak out – "

"Oh Jim, I am way past that."

I roll my eyes. "I walked the wrong way and wound up bumping into a drunk."

"In Cedar Rapids."

I nod. "I went to check out something real quick, and on my way back to a restaurant I walked next to the wrong guy."

She considers this a moment, and from the expression of puzzlement on her face I know it isn't a consideration of which way to spend a month being grounded.

"I didn't consider that there would be drunks on a weekend there."

I let out a breath. "I'm sorry, Mom. We were in a group, and it was my own fault. One of them came back for me though, and – "

Mom looks up quickly. "This other boy didn't get into a fight, did he?"

I shrug. "He got them off of me."

She looks over my features and a hand darts out to smooth my shoulder. "Do you feel okay? Did you call the cops?"

I shake my head. "Mom, I'm fine – it was over before I could even think of anything. Spock was there at the right time."

Mom raises her brows at the name – and yeah, I can tell this really isn't about me being injured anymore.

"Spock was with you?"

Oh God, she can just tell can't she? Maybe if I try to act normal she won't notice –

"Isn't that the boy you like?"

I stand up. "Can I go wash my face?"

She leans back into the sofa and gives me a knowing smile. "Sure thing, babe."

I grit my teeth as I head to the stairs and march to the bathroom.

As I'm turning the corner, I can see the glow of the TV in Frank and Mom's room and hear audience laughter. Frank laughs along as I close the bathroom door – yeah, I get it.

But as I turn on the faucet and splash cool water on my face, my body takes its moments to calm down and try to sort through the craziness.

I look at myself in the mirror and notice the water drops gathered on the tips of my eyelashes – a few more cling to my cheeks and slide to the curve of my lips. My nose and eyes look a bit too bright, a bit too eager in the world.

I take a deep breath and my mind slams it all down, apparent as the chill on my skin and the beating of my heart. I list them in my head; three things that suddenly seem so apparent, so obvious. All of them about Spock, and all of them stranger than I could have imagined.

One is that Spock can apparently read my mind. How that's humanly possible I can't even begin to fathom.

Two is that Spock is apparently linked to the UFO I saw. Maybe he's a fucked up version of the Men in Black, I don't know, but his denial just sounds hollow to my ears.

And three – the last is embarrassing to speak out loud, but I whisper the words to my mirrored expression. My breath clouds the surface:

"Fuck, I'm in love with him."

 

Chapter Seven: Warning, teenage crush - may cause brain damage.

 

I didn't sleep well that weekend. It wasn't the strange country noises that kept me awake this time, but rather too much thinking in the midst of other things I needed to get done. There was always homework of course – finishing 100 pages of fucking Madame Bovary, and an essay for World History on Emperor Constantine, and a take-home test for Calculus. But in a way those things were good. I liked the steady drone of doing equations as I sat on the floor of my living room on Saturday morning, notebook out, and cartoons bleating sound effects in the background.

No, what kept me anxious and occupied all my thinking was Spock, of course.

It seems borderline unhealthy. Teenage girls do this over the captain of the football team while waving their pom-poms. Is it really any different if my captain is Chess Club champion and a science nerd, who says weird shit and keeps to himself?

But that's how I roll, I guess.

"Vhat did you talk about?" Pasha asks as I keep the cell phone in the crook of shoulder and neck.

"Nothing much." I rinse a dish and set it in the drying rack. "Just stuff."

I hear a huff of static, but I'm treading a line here. It feels almost too private to talk about Spock's family with Pasha when Spock doesn't even seem to know him.

"Are you feeling okay?" he adds and I nod – then realize we are talking on the phone.

"Yeah. Mom wasn't too happy, but she knows that life can throw curveballs." Especially hot ones.

"Are ze cuts looking better?"

I wince – some of them still look bad, but thankfully I'm home for the weekend. "Yeah, the ones on my face should be okay by Monday."

"Zat is good. So you are staying in for ze veekend?"

I drain the sink and rinse out the suds. "I've got homework and stuff, so it's probably for the best. Plus Mom and I haven't spent much time together, anyway."

I know that I'm kind of turning him down, but I doubt Pasha would bring Hikaru for a movie marathon or something.

"Vell, I hope you feel better. See you Monday?"

"You bet." I hang up my cell and hastily shove it in my pants pockets, just as my mind drifts to the inevitable.

I wonder what Spock is doing.

It's stupid, all this thinking since I said it out-loud – that L word. I would chastise myself for even thinking it, but I know it's fucking true.

He turns my insides out and lights all my nerves on fire. What else could that be but love?

Lust. Yeah, there's been a bit of that too. I woke up this morning so aching hard that the fabric of my boxers rubbed just right and I moaned a loud "Oh" into the pillow. Thank God I normally sleep on my side or Mom would've had a smirk at the breakfast table about that one.

But now as it's turning into Saturday evening, and I've done all the house shit I need to do, and Mom and Frank are out – he's at work while she is getting supplies for their trip next week – my imagination wanders.

I wonder how much Spock can really sense. Would he get embarrassed right now, knowing all the dirty thoughts in my head? Or would he just be able to guess - too accurately guess, perhaps.

But I'm done with doubting myself. Yeah, there's reason to think that Spock is a good guesser – but that's the same camp that thinks I saw a helicopter and that Spock just happened to be wandering the neighborhood.

No, I'm going with my gut instinct on this one; that Spock can somehow do extraordinary things.

I take a can of Coke out of the fridge and open it with another thought: If Spock can read minds, what does that make him?

When I was younger, Mom used to say I was some special Indigo kid. She was always into that New Age stuff and proclaimed I was gifted with creativity or insight or some shit. I mean, I can walk into a room and tell who's upset or have a generally strong gut feeling - but isn't that like everyone else? It's just that everyone normally ignores their instincts, while I've been taught to embrace mine.

Maybe Spock embraces his, too.

But what else does my gut instinct say on that one? I climb the stairs and stop in the middle when it comes to me: No, Spock is different. Way different.

I reach my room and set my soda on the computer desk before collapsing onto the bed.

I close my eyes and try to fit together the pieces. There are some things that Spock seems uncomfortable about – the UFO, mostly. There's his origin story being very indistinct; that some guy and his wife somehow adopted all these random people. And then there's the air of the unknown, settling over it all, and giving nothing to ground him to something I can relate to.

So foreign. Maybe he's an undercover guy from the Russian Mob, transporting the precious commodity of corn to his government. Stealing things undercover, with James Bond lasers and shit.

Or maybe he's a royal from Europe, hiding in the US to escape from the public eye. Trying to be a commoner, go to a public school, and perhaps live a simpler life.

Or maybe – maybe he's in a witness protection program. He's some killer that gave away dangerous gang secrets and is now trying to live the straight and narrow.

Or – well, whatever he is, I can't lie and say those don't sound sexy to me. Strange, but sexy.

Not that I've ever disliked strange.

There's a buzz in my pocket and I open my eyes. I slip out my phone and slide the face of it up to read the text message.

Don't forget the leftovers in the fridge.

Seriously Mom, I'm not gonna die if I don't eat for four hours.

I ate them.

I slide the phone back up, before the screen lights up and buzzes again.

It's a different number:

You busy?

I type slowly with one hand:

No, what's up Bones?

It's a frantic mixture of messages, as Mom writes back – don't set the house on fire, love you – then Bones, I'm coming to your house with a pizza, be there.

I type back my assent, when the phone lights up again.

This time it's a photo, and I'm not sure what it is or who the number is from.

It's blurry and pixilated, but it's obviously a picture of a red planet; one that I've never seen before. I want to assume it's Mars, but that's not quite right. This one looks like something out of a Sci-Fi novel, with lights and areas that seem to have things on them. Blobs of things that don't look like mountains, or lakes, or continents.

I'm puzzling over it when the icon for another message pops up again. I mean to hit it quickly out of my way, but instead -

Ra'khoi nim Vulcan

...Okay, maybe somebody is just drunk-texting me.

But my brow is still furrowed when the phone actually vibrates for ringing this time.

"Can a man ask another man to open the door for him?"

"I'll be right down." I slide the phone shut and then sit up too quickly, letting my eyes fuzz for a moment as I look back down at the screen.

Maybe these aren't for me. Maybe some dude from Russia thinks he's texting his friend down the block, and he won't know 'til he gets his exorbitant phone bill next month – well, if he keeps texting, anyway.

Although maybe he's a hot Russian – oh God no, now I'm thinking of Pasha.

There's a distant shout: "I'm gonna eat these damn things myself if you don't hurry up!"

I shake my head clear as I yell in the direction of the window, "Coming!" before racing downstairs.

I throw open the door, opening my arms for the pizza boxes that Bones is trying to juggle, along with a few bottles of soda and a plastic bag of movies.

"Here, take these – " he shoves the boxes into my arms, and simultaneously my phone slips out of my hand and clatters to the floor.

Whatever, it's a piece of shit, I'll get it in a moment.

"You can put the bottles on the coffee table," I call behind me as I head into the living room to set the pizzas there myself.

"I got a few different – shit."

I look over to see one of the bottles dropped and spilling all over the place.

"Hold up!" I run into the kitchen and grab paper towels off the holder. I race back into the entryway, where I see Bones is just outside with the overflowing bottle upright and capping it against the fizz that's leaking into the bushes.

"Sorry." He winces as he touches his fingertips and hands for stickiness.

"Don't worry about it." I wipe it up the mess with enough sheets to represent an Amazon rainforest. "Bottles are always tricky, man."

"Unreliable is what they are," he grumbles. Which is perhaps going a bit too far, but I give him a smile.

"The bathroom is upstairs and to the left, if you need it." I point as Bones hands off the bottle and heads that way.

It isn't until we're fully cleaned up and Bones and I are debating choices - Manos: The Hands of Fate or Mitchell - that I remember my phone.

"I cleaned it for you, since there was soda all over it."

I take it from Bones hesitantly and see the thing is shiny for once. Not filled with dirt and grime like I'm used to.

I slide up the face of it and see no new messages. "Thanks, man."

"Pizza is getting cold, let's put something in."

And I have a really good time with Bones. I don't even think of Spock until Mom gets home and she asks whether Bones is him.

 

***

Monday morning is slightly cranky for me, since most of Sunday I searched for the weird text messages in vain and tried not to convince myself I imagined them. But they've disappeared from my phone, and fuck if I'm not stupid enough to forget that Bones did it.

On the other hand? When I Google for red planets I get nothing really, except Mars and some hypothetical planet diagrams. So what if Bones did delete something, but it's just spam that doesn't mean anything, anyway? Maybe it was even on accident.

It would certainly help if after hooking my phone up to my computer that searching through its memory brought up something to confirm such. However my cell isn't my hard drive, and I'm no FBI or Geek Squad.

But I stayed up late with it anyway, and I wind up being comatose at the dining room table this morning. Which is actually okay, since Mom is pretty out of it too; holding her mug like it's a fount of ambrosia.

"Have a good day," she mumbles and then smiles sleepily as she walks me to the door in her wolf slippers. I kiss her cheek, murmur a "You bet", and then almost fall down the house steps on the way to Gary.

Fuck steps. They can all fuck themselves.

I reverse out of the driveway and try to blink my way to alertness. I roll down the window and hope that the freezing morning will beat me awake. Instead I almost run over a squirrel and want to shut my eyes even more in hibernation mode. But thankfully Riverside with its boxy layout is decent for the sleep-deprived mind, and I somehow make it behind a long line of cars and buses into the school parking lot.

I knock my head gently against the steering wheel when I park and close my eyes. I somehow start to convince myself that angling my head just so isn't in any way uncomfortable, when a voice slips in from the left.

"You appear fatigued."

I huff into an open space below the steering column. "No shit."

"Your vehicle is not an adequate sleeping environment."

"It is now," I mumble, before a part of my brain – the one that's been struggling to the surface for the last half hour – sparks and alights in my head, saying Hey, it's Spock.

I sit up abruptly and take a deep breath, blinking rapidly in Spock's direction.

He's observing, in the way that one watches a wild animal. "Are you in need of medical attention?"

Spock has his head bent slightly inside, with his fingers curled on the rolled down window. His skullcap brushes the top frame, and a part of me wants it to snag.

I shake my head sleepily and then lean towards getting out of the car - step back, you weirdo.

As I reach for the handle, Spock does exactly that.

My sleep-addled brain wants to declare that a victory, but I know better. Instead I try to focus on manually rolling up my window before I slam the door shut.

"Are there refreshments that may aid your conscious transition?"

I shake my head again. I just need to walk, Spock.

After I slam the door I take off – with Spock trailing in step beside me.

We are halfway through the parking lot when Spock turns to me again. "You appear to be in a mood."

"I'm just sleepy." I yawn for emphasis. "Besides, I didn't know we were suddenly friends."

My heart jerks at that – fuck me, that's not the way I wanted it to come out.

But Spock doesn't miss a beat. "It may be ill-advised on our parts, but I am tired of avoiding you."

I turn my head and scrunch up my brow. "What the fuck does that mean?"

We stop before the entrance, where Spock pulls open a glass door and motions with his head. I want to roll my eyes, but it is slightly endearing, I must confess.

I yank open the next set of doors anyway.

"I am only referring to the fact that you seem to get into precarious situations quite often."

I sputter, "Two! You've seen two. How is that even a trend?"

"I believe I may be able to predict a likely turn of events."

I huff as we walk up another set of stairs – where I promptly trip over my bag strap and practically fling it at Spock. Seriously, fuck inclines.

"Well, when you get the memo on what disaster shall befall me next," I rip my messenger bag back from Spock and hold it snug to my body, "send me a signal, Batman."

"I still do not understand the reference."

"Well, I don't understand you, so we're even."

We walk the rest of the way to Dumka's class – which I only realize, once I'm about to head through the doorframe, that Spock has walked me there.

I turn around to see his impossibly-straight posture and intense attention, and yeah – I'm not exactly mad anymore.

"I cannot say that those circumstances will change," Spock says quietly, yet it's the only voice my brain allows me to hear. "But I do not remain unknown out of spite."

It's an interesting statement. It really hadn't occurred to me that Spock could be spiteful. But before I can think on it further the bell rings and we lean back from each other.

"Uh, thank you," I say, which sounds grossly understated for the moment. But Spock looks unperturbed, as usual.

"Hey Spocky, either manhandle Jimmy in front of the class or stop loitering in the hall."

I roll my eyes, but smile when I hear a muttered, "His familiarity is peculiar." Oh, don't you know it.

However Spock only tilts his head slightly as he retreats towards the science classrooms. I give a little wave myself as I enter mine.

When I sit down between Hikaru and Pasha, it's a sense of being before an encroaching storm – one side completely sunny, while the other is a raging tornado.

"Next time invite your friend in, Jimmy," Dumka says before he folds up a section of his newspaper.

There is a round of giggling, and I don't even have to glare as Pasha does it decently well for me.

 

***

I somehow make it out of World Lit alive. Although there's a part of me really worried about being described as Spock's "friend", I'll confess that I'm also a bit thrilled.

It's only mildly dampened by Pasha making off to his next class without saying much and the weird look from Bones when I reach Keyboarding.

"See, I was gonna ask what ya did with Spock, but now I'm wonderin' what the hell he did with you."

I drop my folders onto the small expanse of desktop and slump down.

"We're just friends," I grumble.

"In a pig's eye!" He folds his arms as he leans back for a good look. "Do ya even remember the movie we watched yesterday?"

"Yeah," I say, "just as well as I remember the text messages that are mysteriously deleted from my phone."

Okay, I could've phrased that better. But he only frowns in epic grumpiness, just as Mrs. Robbins walks through the door and closes it with a reverberating thud.

"Please be seated," she states – which is to say, she's referring to the one guy in the back of the class who isn't sitting up straight. "I have your marks."

Before this weekend I would've gulped at that announcement, but instead I'm watching Bones squirm. He turns in his seat, faces our teacher, and tries to look attentive.

I fold my own arms and decide that's really all the answer I need.

A white printer sheet is turned face down on my folder, and I look up at the stoic Mrs. Robbins.

She says quietly, "I have reserved a room for your use. I will show you when class is underway."

She moves a step behind me as I turn the paper over.

98.6%.

There's a moment where my brain tries to calculate how she reached that score – but no matter. I guess I'm getting an A, and that's all Mom will care about.

I hear Bones curse softly and I turn to see the score through his white sheet – 83%.

"No breaks for family, huh?"

Bones turns towards me and rolls his eyes. "How about harsher standards to avoid favoritism?"

I smirk. "Nepotism, it's insidious."

Bones gives me a quirked smile before Mrs. Robbins calls our attention again and sends everyone off to their keyboards.

Except me, I guess.

Bones gives me a little wave before he puts on his headphones.

"This way, Mr. Kirk."

I follow Mrs. Robbins out of the classroom and into the square hallway. We walk around a small booth in the center that appears to hold a small desk and some supplies, with music rooms branched around it. One room is definitely for choir, the tones of which I can hear from a student opening the door a crack to let herself out.

Off one length of square hall is another small hallway, about two shoulder-widths and lined with doors.

Mrs. Robbins peers in a small window, before beckoning me to one side and opening it.

It might be... a closet. Or in this instance it's definitely a small practice room with an upright piano. A real piano, with a lighter shade of wood than the one we had back home.

And yeah, there's a broom against the doorframe, not going to lie.

"I have booked this room for your use for the duration of the semester. If you wish for more practice time outside of class please see me, and I can arrange more periods for your convenience." She walks to the piano and thumbs a sheet from her folder to lay against the music stand. "As you have clearly grasped the basics, I have given you a more challenging piece this week."

I walk over slowly - for all I know she has given me fucking Beethoven this time.

"Your exam will be on Friday, in this room."

Für Elise. I swear under my breath,

"How is everyone going to watch me in - in this space?"

She steps back to allow me room to sit down, and I swear she might be smirking.

"If you desire an audience, I'm sure I can gather someone to watch your performance."

I look up at her, but refrain from the sarcastic comment I feel coming. Instead I try to smile. "Thank you, Mrs. Robbins."

"I look forward to your presentation, Mr. Kirk." And with that she quickly slides out of the doorway and closes it behind her.

I look up and around – it's probably a good thing I've never felt claustrophobic. In elementary school I would hide in janitor closets like this, trying to escape the bullies that picked on me for any asinine reason. But mostly I just liked any space that meant only I could inhabit it, and inhabit it alone. A den of sorts.

Except my dens never had anything to help me think, like this.

I put hands to keys and play a phrase. Scales. A warm-up of fingers working independently and yet together. A wave and then an expression, the beginning of a familiar hymn morphing into 'tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free and ending in he's got the whole world in his hands.

Mom's stuff. I never really saw notes to learn them properly, so I'm sure Mrs. Robbins would be horrified.

With the warm-up over, I start to pull apart and interpret the notes. There's a bit of memory at work here, helping me to decipher what's on the page. I scan ahead, skimming to the bottom when –

Okay, I've seen those symbols before. And no, I'm not talking about the music notes.

My left hand is still poised for A minor as I bend over the keys to take a closer look. They are right at the border of that last page; five sets of lines that swirl at the edges and have cross markings in the center.

They're kind of… beautiful. In a doodling-during-lecture sort of way. But I don't know what to do about them or what to make of them. They look distinct, like they mean something.

There's an instant sense of win as I realize I can probably take this sheet home and try to look on the Internet – the library - anywhere, really. Anywhere that would have… pictoglyphs? Hieroglyphs? Kanji.

I quickly look behind me, with an intense moment of paranoia gripping me as I wonder what anyone would think if they spied me. Or would they just think I'm concentrating on my sheet work?

I flip back to the first page and struggle to play the musical phrases. Not really caring if they hit exactly on target, but just wanting something to do with my hands - anything to keep me busy, as long as I can think.

Where had I seen those before? And why would they be at the bottom of my music sheet? Did Mrs. Robbins want me to find them or were they left on accident?

I shake my head quickly, starting the first musical line over again as I read the end of the second page – repetition, repetition, repetition; practice, practice, practice. There was maybe something to repeating a phrase so often that it would resonate from muscle memory.

That sort of discipline didn't allow for mistakes – as I'm sure Mrs. Robbins wouldn't allow for mistakes. If I could notice those markings, then so would she. And wouldn't she be the type of teacher to erase them, or do white out, or get me a new copy?

So I'm going to go with intent, and I think she did intend it. Then why would the mother – or mother figure, anyway – of Spock's family want to share these with me? Did it have anything to do with stuff we've been dealing with lately?

For a moment I panic, wondering if it's some sort of test. Here I could go on a wild goose chase of symbols that lead to nowhere and somehow bundle my exam. But then, why would Mrs. Robbins want that?

She wouldn't. I start the same phrase again for the fourth time and get it smoother than before, more akin with memory.

I have seen these before. I have definitely seen them before. If I could only –

There's a knock at the door, and I look at the clock instantly and see my hour is up.

"Is the music satisfactory, Mr. Kirk?" Mrs. Robbins says as she peeks through the door.

I pick up the edges of the sheetwork in my hands and close it flat.

"It is, Mrs. Robbins." I get up and see her expression – stoic as it usually is, but I can't pinpoint that it is the same.

"You will be late for class if you do not leave now." She steps out into the hallway and holds the door open.

I nod, and breeze past her to get out of that fucking room.

 

***

I don't really pay attention the next few hours. I somehow survive a pop quiz in World History and manage to make conversation with Hikaru in Calculus, but my mind isn't entirely there.

Most of it is wondering whether life is fucking with me.

I mean, let's consider last Monday: I was new in town and wandering the halls stupidly looking for my classes. I didn't know anybody, except Bones. The most I had thought about last Monday was getting home in one piece and making dinner for Mom and Frank.

Since then? I've seen a UFO, been taken to the hospital, had the shit kicked out of me, and have somehow fallen in love with the weirdest fucking guy on Earth.

And to top it all off, Mrs. Robbins left me symbols.

"Dude, you okay?"

I'm picking up my folders and getting out of my desk when I see Hikaru's concerned gaze on me.

"Huh?"

"Don't bullshit me, man. You're totally out of it." Hikaru pats me on the shoulder as we both turn to walk out of class.

"Yeah," I confess. Not that I was doing a stellar job of hiding it anyway, I guess.

"Well," and we both turn a corner towards the cafeteria, "not that I'm your best friend or anything, but... I'm all ears?" Hikaru points absently at his head and tries a smile; it looks good on him.

It's not like I don't know what Hikaru's been bugged about. But either he got used to it over the weekend or he's decided the whole damn situation's not my fault.

And I have to say, despite him being an asshole, we could probably be great friends.

"I'm just thinking of stuff," I say as we walk through the cafeteria doors. I'm not sure what I do and do not want to tell Hikaru, but I go with the thing that has started it all. "Has there been any more crop circles?"

Hikaru shakes his head. I'm pretty sure Dumka would've mentioned something, now that I think on it.

"Nothing over the weekend. Which isn't so weird, since we got two last week." Hikaru shrugs as he unzips his insulated lunch pack. "They might be gone, or maybe something else needs to trigger them."

I nod as I flip open my messenger bag and pull out a small bag of chips and a bottle of water. "Do UFOs usually do that a lot at a time, or just in spurts, or what?"

Hikaru makes a so-so motion with his hands. "Eh, it really depends. Some places are hot spots and get stuff often. But the Midwest does get a lot of circles in general, since we have the open fields to do them in."

That makes sense. "Didn't you say there were circles here before?"

"We get them from time to time – but what makes these weird is that they look so different from usual circles." Hikaru crinkles my small bag and steals a chip. "I don't think we can really judge from previous instances because these seem like a different breed of UFO."

"'Cause of the different designs." I look down at my hands on the tabletop and think on that a moment. What would suddenly make things different in Riverside to warrant a whole new type of UFO? Not that I knew Riverside well, but it's not like they just built something, or destroyed anything, or had a beacon that said HEY LOOK AT US.

I glance up at the sound of my bag being crumpled and blurt out, "Do you think we can – "

"Vhat, Jim?" Pasha sits between us, as had been custom in the last week.

I look startled at him as Hikaru steals a potato wedge.

"Um," I mumble and then decide that Pasha would be more receptive to my request, anyway. "Maybe we could all go – "

I see Pasha's eyes widen and Hikaru's bitchface. They are looking behind me, and so I turn my head.

Right next to me is a tall figure, dressed in black slacks and a charcoal turtleneck, with a white skullcap covering most of his head.

"If it is not a disturbance," Spock says carefully, holding his tray level with both hands, "I would like to sit with you."

Hikaru actually has his hand stopped mid-potato wedge and Pasha is looking at me, anticipating.

It's only when I glance back at Spock that I realize he's asking me.

I try for an easy smile. "Sure, Spock." I move over and motion to the big gaping spot on the other side of the round table, since the three of us are usually grouped together. "Plenty of room."

"Thank you," he says politely and then manages to glide gracefully to his seat, equidistant between myself and Hikaru.

It's a slight spectacle, as Hikaru and Pasha are still gaping in their own way, and I turn easily to watch Spock open a bottle of water.

"Do you normally eat cafeteria food?" I blurt, which is the first stupid thing to come to mind.

I notice two wedges enter Hikaru's mouth and Pasha's head lean closer to his, almost in spectatorship.

Spock takes an elegant sip from his water bottle – fuck, how is that even possible with the air pressure and dynamics of the thing – but he sets it down smoothly and looks at me. "I am able to find some items suitable to my palate."

"I'm not sure school food is suitable to anyone's palate," I joke and watch Hikaru and Pasha's eyes go wide.

Spock takes a plastic spork and tries to poke at a cherry tomato. "There are some vegetarian options available, which are adequate."

I raise my chin a bit in knowing - ah. One of those. Not that I didn't know some things about meat-free diets, being from the West Coast. But it was one of those things that I never really thought too much about, except that Mom sometimes gets veggie sushi rolls and buys grass-fed beef.

But looking at Spock, I'm really not surprised. "That's good. Better than eating mystery meat, probably."

"It is not quite a mystery." Spock looks over at a table next to us, where a slathered and breaded patty of some sort is being entered into someone's mouth. "I would assume it is a ground compound of darker poultry, which is often cheaper due to the factory byproduct – "

"Yeah, I think I'm sticking with fries," Hikaru announces by dropping his nugget back onto the tray.

Spock looks over at him. "It is edible, with some minute nutritional properties."

Hikaru picks up a fry with disinterest and shoots Pasha a look.

However, when I turn my head, I notice Spock watching me. My heart jogs in my chest as a reaction.

"You have eaten already?"

Spock is looking at my water bottle, where my fingers are peeling away the label.

I shrug. "Yep."

Spock chews his lettuce thoughtfully – what the fuck, he makes eating anything seem elegant – before looking back at me. "What did you consume?"

Looking at Spock's plate of greens, I can already tell this won't go over very well.

"Chips."

Spock is still looking at me a moment later, as if I were reciting a list.

"I alvays offer my tray," Pasha speaks up for the first time. He is not looking at Spock, but rather tilting his tray just-so for my maximum exposure.

Spock doesn't seem to care. "Are you financially unable – "

I shake my head. "I just never eat lunch. Really."

"And yet you ate an apple the first day you were here."

I look Spock in the eyes, which is a dangerous action in the middle of the day, in public. But I can't help but stupidly think, yeah – Spock had been watching me as I had been watching him.

I smile as I hear a cough next to me.

"Jim did not finish his apple," Pasha proclaims to his plate and then chomps into a chicken nugget, with more gusto than I had seen him eat anything this past week.

However Spock only takes a napkin and wraps it around the red and green-mottled apple on his tray and – hands it off to me.

I look at it, and Spock sighs loudly.

"If you will not provide proper nourishment for yourself, then I insist that you not waste what is readily available."

I look at the apple again and – okay, Spock just wants me to eat his apple. What sort of ass would I be to refuse his apple?

Except when I take it from him my fingertips brush across the top of two nails. I don't miss as his bottom lip exhales a breath, before I bring my hand down again and set the apple in front of me.

Spock is watching me - and it's not unlike the electricity in the car, when he grabbed my arm. Except this time I barely touched him and yet sparks are shooting like I've ripped a live wire, spinning it around the room.

After a moment, Spock looks back down at his tray. I blink and find myself doing the same.

It occurs to me to look over at Pasha and Hikaru – the latter of which looks entirely too amused, while Pasha is crumpling his napkin.

"I forgot," Pasha says abruptly as he stands with his tray, "I must meet my teacher before class."

I catch Pasha marching away out of the corner of my eye, with Hikaru struggling to catch up. Admittedly there's a part of me that feels bad - knows that I'm not making this easier for him at all.

But suddenly I don't care. It's just Spock and me at the table, and somehow I've maintained his interest and he isn't leaving.

He doesn't say a word as he lifts the lip of the bottle and sips.

For my part I bite into the apple, and we are silent until the bell tells us to leave.

 

***

Since we were sitting together at lunch – garnering looks for our association, even from Montgomery Scott and Nyota Uhura at another table – Spock decides to walk with me to Biology.

Once we leave the lunchroom we walk in slow tandem, as if wading through the uncertainty instead of trying to think through it.

"I must confess," Spock says quietly as we make our last turn to the science area of school, "that until today I had no idea how strange my mannerisms were to others."

I look at Spock, wondering if he really got what Pasha's problem was. But he minutely shakes his head.

"I am familiar with the gossip about my family and how those react to our situation." We pause at a corner just before our classroom. Spock is standing straight, while I lean against a wall. "But today it seemed every move I made was scrutinized and interpreted."

He had a point – and I wasn't innocent of this, either. I give a sympathetic quirk of the lip as I refrain from reaching out and touching his arm.

"You know, we're all high school kids. Except we haven't grown up in such…" I try to think of what might apply to the military, "stringent conditions. So we don't know how polite and proper people act yet."

It's the best I can offer, although it's pretty fucking weak. But by the look on Spock's face I guess I couldn't fool him.

"You seem to behave differently from your peers, however," he says quietly, with his eyes seemingly concentrating on the features of my face.

Which must be turning red. "Not that differently."

He leans into the corner not too far from me and says, "There is a difference between curiosity and judgment. I see many benefits to the former."

As if on cue, the bells rings – leaving Spock and I barely a moment to straighten ourselves before heading inside our classroom.

It was a lonely week without Spock there, against the wall. Although now he sits like everybody else and doesn't try to ignore my existence. He is again very neat as he lays out his folder and items, while I drag out stuff from my bag before dropping it to the floor.

The teacher is writing out instructions on the board and I sigh – microscopes. Group participation. In pairs.

Once the instructions are written out and Mr. Banner has given his curt warnings, Spock is already out of his chair for our microscope. I push our folders to the side, then watch Spock carry it back by the base carefully.

Mr. Banner hands me a box of unmarked slides and I sigh again – the stages of mitosis. With the cells of an onion root, even. I think we did this in tenth grade, and it was pretty easy then.

But I put our names on the worksheet for Spock and I, then look at the questions – stuff about each numbered slide, its characteristics, and then putting the slides in order.

Spock is setting up the microscope. Which, thank God - I hate doing that, since I always seem to dirty up the lense.

But once we appear to be set, I take out the first slide and lean closer to our microscope.

Spock's brow disappears under his cap. "I am capable of confirming what is on these slides."

I shake my head. "We're doing this assignment and – no offense - I need to confirm what's on these, too." I slip the slide onto the stage. "I'll look first, then you go second, and we'll figure out a way to write our answers."

Spock stares at me a moment. It's a look I know well – one that I usually imply when working with a lab partner and expecting to carry most of the workload.

But I move into microscope space and barely register that he has taken a step back.

When I light the stage I can see a round dot, the cell, which appears to be separating; with vague strings of chromosomes seemingly being pulled apart.

"Prophase," I say, stepping away from the microscope to give Spock room.

He looks into the viewer quickly, then hums in agreement. "Prophase."

I write the answers to question one, letting Spock check them over. Then in fairness I pass the sheet to him, along with slide two.

"Okay, you first this time."

He takes a quick peek into the viewer before muttering, "Anaphase."

There is a part of me that wants to see something different than Spock, but at the same time doesn't want to disagree with him.

I look into the viewer and see two sets of chromosomes going to opposite ends of the slide.

"Anaphase," I reluctantly agree, then look over to see him scritch on the answer sheet.

Unlike my handwriting, which is a bit boxy and large in printing, Spock's handwriting is rather small and angled. An elegant penmanship, like I expected anything else.

So we take turns like that. Both of us trying to prove the other wrong, but not being able to do so. We check the other's work, and it is precise and clear: We know what we're doing and perhaps going through the motions.

Mr. Banner walks up to our station and sees that we're almost done. He sighs heavily. 

"Mr. Chasarek, it would be nice if you allowed Kirk to answer a few questions."

I want to roll my eyes, but instead Spock says in a calm voice, "On the contrary, Jim was insistent to share half the work, and we arrived at similar conclusions."

Mr. Banner looks at me and I almost want to smirk, knowing what's coming.

He narrows his eyes. "Did you do this lab before?"

I nod. "Yeah, but it was a few years ago."

Mr. Banner looks between the two of us before huffing as he walks to the next table. "More reason for advanced Biology classes," he mutters as he leans down to help a student with slide three – telophase.

Spock and I finish with 15 minutes left to spare,  which we spend cleaning up our station and then handing in our work. Afterwards we sit on our stools, watching the others struggle to finish up as they argue details amongst themselves.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see Spock leaning towards me.

"Are the sciences an interest of yours, or were you truly recalling your former assignment?"

I turn my head towards him, with my chest leaning into the messenger bag, and shrug. "I like mechanics better." Which is the truth, but they really didn't have a science curriculum for that.

Spock nods. "As in vehicle or computers?"

"Both. I just like working with my hands."

"It is intricate work." Spock looks at my hands then, and – I don't know why, I feel a bit self-conscious about them. I unconsciously flex my fingers, like a piano warm-up.

"Um," I look away and shove my hands under my bag. "You're good at this too."

He looks at the countertop with a contemplative expression. At this point I know that sometimes Spock needs a moment to formulate a reply. What I haven't figured out yet is whether it's in aversion or in trying to be precise.

"It is my intention to be a scientist."

"What kind?" I imagine Spock in a white lab coat, discovering new types of medicine or holding up the tail of a rat.

Correction – gently picking up a rat. I can't imagine Spock being that cruel.

"I am interested in space."

I purse my lips in thought. Galaxies, supernovas, stars and moons?

"More specifically the biological components of our universe."

"So like ETs?"

Spock gives me a look of consternation – although really it's just an intense air of disapproval - before he looks down at his folder and pretends to straighten it.

"Geological ruins of asteroids and former planets may be more accurate."

"Not from Earth." I lean an elbow on my bag. "Do you ever want to go into space, then?"

Spock stops straightening and he gives me a sideways glance. Maybe he's wondering if I'm joking or just trying to make conversation. But really, where else would you logically find that stuff?

"It is an interesting area of study for me."

"I can see that. So much that is unknown, without any answers." I sigh, looking at the osmosis poster behind Spock. "Probably the only place left where you can really discover something new, for the first time."

Spock's eyebrow disappears under his skullcap. "Indeed."

We share another look - which doesn't throw me entirely anymore, as this one seems to be more of understanding rather than surprise or of sizing the other up. Rather, it feels… comfortable. Like being okay with someone else seeing your true skin.

And honestly, I think I might love the idea – Spock with an insatiable curiosity, yet with stringent rules on the unknown. No wonder he was dubious of the UFO.

The bell rings at that moment and I fully expect to get left behind. Not unlike that first day we met, nor unlike most times after.

But Spock stands and pushes in his stool, then waits for me to do the same.

I throw all my stuff in my bag and get up quickly.

"Um," I say as we enter the hallway. "I have Gym next." I point in that direction, which is at the end of our long hall of science rooms.

Spock doesn't even look. "I have a Human Geography course."

He motions to a hallway to the right of us and I nod.

"So are you as interested in humans as you are in space?"

We are at the intersection of the hallways when Spock gives me a peculiar expression – one that actually does stop me dead and holds me to the spot.

There is a slight upturn of the lip as he seems to consider it. "I find humans a more perplexing area of study, but no doubt just as fascinating."

And the way he says fascinating makes me cheesily go weak in the knees.

God, I am a teenage girl.

"I will see you shortly," Spock states and then – despite being surrounded by bodies trying to weave around us – Spock reaches down and gives a slight caress to my inner wrist with his thumb.

It is so quick, so devastating, that when he finally turns to leave I am glad he doesn't see my legs buckle.

 

***

After school that day Spock meets me at my locker – not that far from the humanities rooms, actually – and then walks me to my car.

It is a ritual we repeat for the next few days. He walks me from my car in the mornings, meets me in-between classes, and then walks me back after school.

Pasha is not pleased. Not that I expected him to be.

"Has he inwited you to Chess Club?" he asks Wednesday morning as we are ignoring the announcements over the intercom.

I smile at him and his new t-shirt: Pluto: Revolve In Peace.

"He hasn't, actually." Although to be fair we've chatted about lots of other things. Spock has been peppering me with a ton of questions, some of which I've never really answered before. About life in San Fran, growing up with just Mom, more about Mom and how she met Frank. Stuff that wasn't just about my favorite color.

"Vell," Pasha says, leaning towards me with a hushed tone. "Ve have meeting of Gay-Straight alliance after school."

"What do you guys do?" I return in a whisper.

Hikaru turns around. "Organize parades, put on makeup."

I raise my brows and huff a laugh, because I'm pretty sure he isn't serious.

Well, mostly sure.

Pasha throws a pen cap at him. "Ve talk. Sometimes vatch movies." He glances up and down my arm before his shoulder bumps mine. "It is mostly a place for zhose to talk vith people like zemselves, about anyzing."

Huh - that didn't sound like the worst thing. Back in San Fran I had thought about joining one, but in my younger years I had actually worried about being caught.

Now I'm 17 and a senior and I kind of don't give a fuck about exposure.

"Do I need to bring anything?"

Pasha breaks out into a large grin. "You come?"

I return his smile. "You bet."

"Zhen bring yourself. Ve alvays have snacks."

Hikaru turns in his chair. "But we are still doing planning stuff today, since we didn't finish last week."

I nod. I remember Pasha mentioning something about the group when we first met, but then I wasn't invited after that. Probably due to whatever the planning was about - and almost getting killed by a UFO.

I shrug. "I'm willing to just hang out. You guys planning an event?"

"Ve are brainstorming future actiwities – like ze Day of Silence and Aids Avareness Day."

That actually sounds like an excellent use of my time. "I know how to… color? Are you going to have posters or anything?"

"Ve have already started – you vill see, after school. I vill meet you at your locker?"

"Sure." But as soon as that leaves my mouth I remember Spock, who also meets me at my locker. Meets me there and then walks me out to my truck. The club will probably last an hour or something, and I doubt Spock would wait that long.

I inwardly sigh - it's a simple thing, but it has started to matter so much.

But I can't dwell on it, as something else occurs to me then with an uneasiness in my stomach: What if Spock wants to know why? Why I'm not going directly home or what club I'm attending? If I just call it the GSA, will he want to know what that's about?

Oh God, what if I have to explain it to him?

I mean, I don't care if Spock knows that I'm gay. I don't care – right? With the electricity between us, I'm almost sure he's inclined that way himself.

But… maybe I'm wrong. For all I know, Spock is just making friends with me. Since we've crossed ways so often and sit together in Biology – and since Spock seems like such the "making friends" sort.

I shake my head – I'm being silly. I may be in love with Spock, but I'm really not at the stage of asking him out. I've admittedly been too immersed in the mystery of who he could be to think about where I would take him for dinner and a movie.

Not that we already haven't had dinner together.

The announcements end and I look towards Mr. Dumka, sitting at his desk. Having been here a week I can already tell what's coming.

He folds over the paper and looks directly at us.

"Chekky, explain that weird mess I saw on the drive this morning."

I look over at Pasha – this can only mean one thing, can't it?

"It is veird," Pasha starts with his hands folded solemnly on his desk. "It is shorter zhan ze ozers."

"It looks like one of you got drunk and fell asleep half-way through." Mr. Dumka sips from his coffee mug - aptly adorned with the phrase, Who needs rhetorical questions? - and then folds up his newspaper.

Hikaru laughs. "They're saying it's from a script of some language – "

"Which nobody understands, yadda yadda yadda." Mr. Dumka waves a hand, then stands up from his desk. "You didn't see a white light in your bedroom last night, did you Jimmy?"

I put a finger to my chin. "Oh. And here I thought someone was breaking into my house to steal shit."

The class laughs, and Hikaru even chuckles as Pasha giggle-snorts.

"Language, Jimmy. For that, I'm having you turn to page 157 – "

Oh God.

" – And read out loud for us."

I roll my eyes at Pasha, who doesn't seem to have an answer this time but merely shrugs.

Not that we didn't already know that Dumka's a sadist.

 

***

Spock has been eating with us at lunch the last few days. While I'm pretty sure Pasha and Hikaru privately protest to some degree, it must over-ride their utter fascination. With curiosity plain on their faces, like with everyone else in the lunchroom - wondering why Spock would ever choose to sit with us while Nyota and Montgomery sit alone.

But with each day we are sitting closer together. It's a thrill I get, knowing that Spock and I are sitting across from Pasha and Hikaru. In my mind's eye I almost go full-out teenaged girl and draw hearts around our pairs sitting together.

Maybe I need a lobotomy.

But on the third day Pasha thankfully loosens up and actually tries to make conversation – although maybe it's because he knows I am going to his group later in the day.

"Vhat do you make of ze crop circle in Amundsen fields zis morning?"

I narrow my eyes at him – like I don't know a baiting technique when I hear one.

Spock pauses with a carrot as it is about to be dipped into a container of hummus. "I am familiar with the incident."

"I hear it doesn't really look like anything," I say while looking at him.

Spock crunches, then swallows. "It is not circular."

Hikaru rolls his eyes. "Crop circles don't really have to be."

"It's sounds like – " I wave a hand in front of me, trying to think of the right way to say this, "like maybe they got interrupted this time?"

Spock gives me a blank stare and I continue. "I mean,  the other ones seem to be really intricate. This one is simpler and doesn't really fit the pattern. So maybe it's not finished?"

Spock nods at that one. "Perhaps those who own Amundsen fields have apprehended the perpetrator."

"I would've liked to have seen that," Hikaru says, stealing a nugget from Pasha's tray.

"I think Frank would've said something, though." I think about this morning when Frank had enjoyed toast with Mom and me. "I mean, he would've gotten a call about anything in the night, I would think."

"Perhaps the corporation has dealt with matters in their own terms."

"Isn't zat illegal?" Pasha leans over his tray and Hikaru snakes in a hand for a fry.

Spock considers that a moment. "If the individual or individuals feel their treatment was unjust, I assume they would notify the proper authorities."

I snort. "What, where they would have to confess to trespassing, right?" I shake my head. "I mean yeah, they can't bury the body in a field somewhere, but I don't think Frank would want to deal with someone complaining of being pushed around."

"And zey do zat all ze time!" Pasha gestures wildly with his hands. "Because zey know zey can get avay vith it!"

"We got caught late at night in the National Grasslands not far off – " Hikaru points behind him, " – and they did everything close to illegal, but not quite."

"You indeed were trespassing."

I frown at that. I mean, I get Spock's point, but it isn't like people should be treated like dirt for trying to find out the truth.

Pasha leans back from his tray and looks about to stand up, which I expect with the lunch hour drawing to a close. But instead he smiles shyly at me before getting up.

"I vill see you after school, Jim."

I smile politely back. "You bet."

Pasha looks directly at Spock, who doesn't seem concerned with the proceedings. Kind of what I predicted, to be honest. Spock doesn't ever seem the type to be perturbed by anything – or at least let it show.

"Bye," Pasha says sweetly with a little wave, while Hikaru has already marched off.

So here I am, alone with Spock. And even with a hundred other people around us, it definitely feels like we're in our own space.

I take a bite of my apple as he tilts his head for a question.

"Are you a participant in any of the clubs after school?"

I shrug. "Pasha invited me to one and I thought I would go."

Spock neatly folds his paper napkin, then places it under the side of his tray. "If you find it does not meet your requirements, perhaps you would be interested in Chess Club."

Oh God do I want to jump and say yes. But really, this only means one thing, doesn't it?

Spock isn't a part of Gay Club. Okay, the Gay-Straight Alliance. But still - Spock isn't a part of Gay Club.

Then again, how did I find out about it? Not to mention that Spock doesn't seem like the type to agonize over his problems or wish to meet others like himself.

"I'll keep it in mind." I try to think of a way through this that doesn't sound like I'm turning down possibilities in the slightest. "I really do like chess."

Spock looks up at me. "Do you play often?"

I shrug. "Mom and I play against each other sometimes. She's pretty good – wipes the floor with Frank and me."

Spock stands to discard his tray. "Then perhaps I should ask your mother to join us."

fuhh at that and stand up to follow, taking one last bite of apple before throwing it in the trash.

"Well, considering Mom is leaving in a week, I guess you'll have to wait to meet your ultimate challenger."

Just as we're walking outside the cafeteria doors, Spock turns abruptly and I almost run into him.

"I can wait a week to challenge your mother. But perhaps not that long to challenge you."

And just as quick as the solid wall of Spock was there, it disappears – and I find myself needing to catch my breath before I hurry after him.

 

***

Despite knowing that I was meeting Pasha after school, Spock stops by quickly to wish me well – in Spock-speak, anyway.

"I will see you tomorrow, Jim. I hope your club is an enjoyable experience."

It is so inane – we had pretty much said the same thing at lunch. But I smile anyway because, truth be told, I would've been sad not to see him, even for a moment.

As he walks away – conveniently in the line of sight of Pasha, may I add – I have to shake myself: He isn't my boyfriend.

We may be checking in like couples do, but maybe Spock just doesn't know the rules. Although why wouldn't Spock know the rules? Everyone on Earth knows them.

Right?

"Hello," Pasha states, slumping against the locker next to mine. It is an ungraceful move however, as the locker's owner taps him on the shoulder a moment after that and Pasha jumps out of the way.

He sheepishly smiles, then asks, "Ready?"

I take a deep breath, then nod. Ready as I'll ever be.

As I'm following Pasha through the halls there is something that is happening in my mind. I don't know how to explain it exactly - it might be like sheer terror - but it all comes down to: Oh. I am confessing. It's just one more thing added to the chalk slate of my personality; constantly erased and marked, depending on who happens to talk to me or who happens to hear of what I am.

High school is petty, but it matters. It matters so much at the moment. It wasn't easy being gay in San Fran and I can't imagine it'd be any easier in Riverside, Iowa.

We go towards the administrative office and pass the front secretary, who is wearing her teal sweatshirt with kittens that matches her eyeshadow. She gives us a smile and a wave as we walk through, with Pasha waving back as we open a door to the counseling rooms.

No secret handshakes, no knocking Morse code – got it.

The place seems deserted as we enter a carpeted hall. The last time I was back here it was to see my class advisor and people had been bustling about. That stuffy and hot day in August, where I watched her enter my name on an ancient PC that probably ran Microsoft ME and was scared of Firefox – I can feel a headache coming on, just thinking about it.

But I don't see her as we pass those offices and go further to a side room, where lots of people are sitting and chatting animatedly.

One of them I recognize instantly.

"Jim!" Gaila says cheerfully and jumps up from her plastic chair to give me a hug. "I knew you'd come!"

I part from the hug and give her a look. "Yeah?"

She keeps her arms around my neck and smiles coyly. "Oh yeah."

I squeeze her waist. "Then you saved me a chair, didn't you?"

She drags me to where she was sitting, then pats the chair next to her. "You bet, pretty boy. Come chat with me."

I grin myself, because her mood is contagious. It's good to have some friends here already, even though I had barely walked into the room.

When I sit down I do look around. Pasha and Hikaru are sitting together of course, talking to a girl I don't know but have seen in passing. The same goes for the other three group members, which isn't so bad – nobody I know in my classes, yet people I see all the time.

It's a small school, after all.

The coordinator is a counselor I haven't seen before, who is young and petite with long auburn hair.

Her smile is bright as she straightens up from organizing papers at a desk. "Well, hi there! Pavel told me you were coming."

Pasha motions between us. "Zis is Jim Kirk. Jim, zis is Anna Roberts."

I do a small wave back and Anna beams at me – she couldn't be anyone but an 'Anna'.

"Here are some hand-outs to get you caught up." She hands me a small stapled packet. "We were strategizing last week about possible activities our club could do."

I look at the list, which has stuff Pasha already mentioned, like the National Day of Silence and World Aids Day. But there were also group activities and places to go on field trips. It looked like fun.

But when the meeting starts Anna makes me introduce myself. I mean, yeah it's a club, so I suppose I can't hide in the corner. But I also can't lamely say, Hi, I'm Jim, and I like to blow shit up.

"Hi, I'm Jim, and um – I guess I like building things."

The four other group members murmur their hellos. I learn they're Cassie, Adam, Shanna, and Daniel, and then we're all on our merry little way.

Which winds up being more of a gabfest, really.

Cassie and Hikaru really get into the idea of a GLBT history month. Which I kind of always thought was in June, but winds up causing a debate for a list of topics – people to include, activities to consider – and leads all the regular members to chat amongst themselves.

Except Gaila, who has pretty much leaned on me most of the time from scooting our chairs closer together. She pokes the side of my head.

"So what do you think, darling?"

I tilt my head back and forth. "Erm, it looks like it could be interesting?"

"It will be. I saw some of the stuff they did last year." Gaila points behind us and I see a cheeky poster in glitter, saying, Beware, this poster may start to flame!

I lean back in my chair. "Were you guys here last year?"

She shakes her head, with her red curls bouncing slightly around her face. "We moved here during the summer – near the end of June – so we missed all of this."

I nod. "You didn't have this at your old school?"

She smiles slyly as she contemplates that. "We kind of didn't have a need."

That seems odd. I doubt any high school is acing at tolerance; it's just not perfect anywhere right now.

"Where did you – "

"Did you have – " She laughs and then motions with a hand. "You go first."

"Well, I was just gonna say that my high school had one, but it wasn't perfect and I never went."

"Aww," she says, her lips slightly pouting. "Were you scared people would find out?"

It isn't a mocking tone and so I answer honestly, "Well, nobody ever really found out about the members, but I didn't want to risk it, anyway."

"It's pretty safe here, although I don't care who knows that I'm bi."

I smile at her because – yeah, I kind of guessed. But it was nice of her to share, anyway; like it made her more of a person I could relate to as opposed to just being Bones' girlfriend.

We turn towards each other in our chairs, angling our bodies.

"So," she starts, tapping my exposed elbow with a fingertip. "How did the ride home with Spock go? Len never tells me anything."

"It went okay, I guess." I shrug. "We just talked."

I analyze her expression, which seems pretty open. But at the same time I know which group she belongs to, no matter how friendly she may get.

Although thinking on it, Spock belongs to that group too.

"It takes a lot for Spock to open up, you know. Nyota and I have been trying for years, and Bones and Spock just don't get along." She makes a face. "Two stubborn boys, butting heads all the time. So much alike, yet they can't stop arguing long enough to recognize their commonalities."

I only nod, because – as much as I feel like I know Bones and Spock at the moment, I don't think I would call them similar. But yet, I haven't seen their bickering in action.

"Even though he'll debate anything, Spock doesn't really open up. He's kind of the mystery child to all of us. He's a bit…" her finger twirls in the air, trying to conjure the word, " …different."

I laugh. That might be the understatement of the century.

"But yet," and she leans closer to lay her head on my shoulder, her big blue eyes peering up at me. "You get him, somehow."

I snort at that. "Really?"

She smiles. "You see him walking anyone else to their classes?"

I might be blushing – or perhaps overcome with such wistful hopefulness that it's burning all my insides.

"Spock and I don't talk of much, though." I sigh inwardly at that. "I seem to do most of the talking."

"Yeah, but Spock just doesn't let anybody ramble on." She counts them off on her fingers. "There's Captain Pike of course, and Eurelia. Sometimes Nyota. And Lenny – he just rambles, no matter who is in the vicinity and whether they would care to."

I laugh at that. "Have you been the recipient of that, more than once?"

She puts the tip of her tongue to teeth. "I think it's cute."

She would, too.

"Lenny really cares about people, although he has a funny way of showing it. He doesn't let things go easily, but that's to everyone's benefit. It means that once he loves you he'll never give up on you."

I quirk a lip. "I've kind of had that impression."

"So even though he bickers with Spock and chastises you, you're both important, if that makes sense." She grins. "Not to declare anything on y'all's bromance or anything."

I laugh. I love Bones, I really do. "I'll keep that in mind."

She looks up at my face suddenly, studying it, and I know what she's looking for. "Those healed pretty well."

"I kind of had the weekend. They were just pinkish on Monday."

"Did your mom say anything?"

I roll my eyes. "Yeah, and a lot. But once I told her about Spock she seemed to have other ideas instead."

Gaila smiles at that. "She can tell you're fond of him?"

I give a nervous laugh. "What?"

Her smile turns wicked. "She knows you're in looove with him?"

I make a pshaw noise and shake my head. "That's so weird."

"Love often is." She plays with the hem of my t-shirt. "You want to know what Spock thinks?"

Bwuh - what is this, someone is actually merciful to me day? I'm not falling for that.

I raise my brows. "And what does Spock think?" Especially since we just had that convo where Spock doesn't open up to anyone at all.

"In Non-Spockese, he thinks you're the shit. Of course this is all disguised in 'interesting' and 'fascinating'."

Fascinating. It still sends tingles down my spine.

"But he talks about you often."

That starts a flutter in my chest, while a very cheesy Me? Really? resounds in my head.

"So it just makes me want to know more about what you think… especially since Spock is attracted to the mind."

She taps my head with a fingertip, but I'm just too ecstatatic to be annoyed.

I can hear bits of conversation from Pasha and Hikaru as they brainstorm ideas about trivia month, but I don't really register what they're talking about.

Gaila isn't paying attention, either.

"I heard he eats lunch with you now."

I nod. "He eats with me, Pasha, and Hikaru. It doesn't always go smoothly, but it works out."

"Oh?"

I make a face. "Well, at lunch today we talked about the new crop circle. Spock isn't really fond of those."

"Spock has his reasons." Her eyes focus on me. "How about you? Are you fond of them?"

I shrug. "I haven't really studied them. My mom is more into that stuff than I am."

She nods. "Do you think they're aliens from outer space?"

"I don't know. Maybe? They're kind of freaky and no one can figure out what they're about. There are some interesting theories floating around on the Internet."

Gaila nods again. "And which of those theories do you subscribe to?"

I'm not sure what to even say. What, will she debase and doubt my UFO encounter like Spock and Bones? Will she take what I saw back to either one of them?

It's all too creepy when I think too hard on it.

"I think something happened."

She huffs. "Obviously. But who did it?"

I can feel her corralling me into a box and I'm not sure I like it. "I don't think we can really know who did it. I just know what I saw."

She reaches out with a finger and puts a strand of hair behind my ear. "Lenny told me - no worries, honey. I don't think you're crazy." She gives a sharp laugh. "Far from it."

I open my mouth to ask what she means, but that's when Anna decides to reconvene the group again.

"I think you guys should start with your poster campaign. It'll be a great way to get our message out there, along with open-Wednesdays for movie viewings – and no Pavel, no Queer as Folk."

Pasha does a mock pout and I laugh.

Actually, I laugh a lot during the rest of the meeting. Despite everything that is going on and Gaila just confusing things even more, it's good to be with a group of people who are talking about other stuff that matters.

So it's only when we're leaving the admin offices and walking out to our cars that I realize something.

"Hey," I say to Pasha, who stops just before Hikaru's beat-up Camry.

"Yes, Jim?"

I smile at him. "Nobody asked if I was gay."

Pasha bursts into a grin. "It is gay-straight alliance. It does not matter vhat your stripes are."

I decide then that even if I adore chess, this club may be one worth sticking to.

 

Chapter Eight: Today's horoscope says - You're an idiot.

 

It's a nice fall day out and I leave the window open as I drive Gary home. I make plans in my head – there's homework, yeah. But there's also making dinner and spending quality time with Mom, since she leaves for her astrology conference on Friday. Maybe we'll watch a movie together, say hi to Frank if he gets in early. Have ice cream out of the carton. (That is why they make them pint-sized, right?)

So life feels good at the moment, with a decent evening ahead. Although I know when I contemplate things later the whole world might come crashing down. Like what Gaila meant by 'far from it', or that Spock talks a lot about me, or –

I pull into the driveway at home and park Gary off to the side. He jerks to a halt as I sit in the cab, thinking that last point through.

I really, really like Spock. It's almost scary how much I like him. We've known each other barely two weeks – hell, most of those days we weren't even talking, or he couldn't tolerate my mere existence. But now I can't imagine what it would be like to wake up tomorrow and not have him walk me from my truck or walk me back to it. Or not say hello in-between classes, or not be there at lunch.

His presence has slipped into my life, like oxygen in the blood; so necessary now. And I don't even fully understand why.

Sometimes, when Spock looks at me, his eyes seem to say he's wondering the same.

"Jim?"

I turn my head and see Mom at my window, peering in. She is frowning a bit, trying to decipher my expression. Her powder blue sweater is catching on the doorframe, but she is too busy squinting at me.

"You okay, babe?"

I quirk a lip. "Yeah, Mom."

She makes a face. "You gonna come inside or think out here all night?"

I twirl my keys on my carabiner, letting them jangle a bit, before I slowly grin at her. "What, and leave you defenseless without dinner?"

She playfully slaps my arm. "Oh - you. Frank cooks, you know. And he's even been teaching me."

"God help him," I mutter as I get out of the truck. But I'm mauled by a Mom-hug from behind, which I return once I back us away from closing Gary's door.

We're laughing as we stumble against each other and head inside. Mom is holding me tightly at the waist, and it occurs to me that we haven't spent much time together since we got to Riverside. I make dinner usually and we see each other every day, but Frank is usually at the dinner table too. It's different from San Fran.

Not that I don't love Frank in a manly fashion, since he's a great guy – but I adore Mom. And I feel like trying to beat her ass at chess, single-handedly.

"So," Mom says as we head through the door and I put my jacket in the hallway closet. "I bet you heard about the new crop circle?"

I want to inwardly sigh, but I refrain by saying, "Yeah, people were talking about it at school."

"It looks really weird." Mom goes over to her open laptop on the dining room table and spins it so I can see. "It's more like squished lines or something."

I stare at it. And the longer I stare at it, the more that gears seem to turn and connect in my head, until finally, "Mom, I'm going to go get changed."

"All right, but then you better get down here. Unless you have a lot of homework to do?"

I shake my head and wordlessly make my way upstairs. I try not to break into a run, but I wind up taking the top two stairs at once as I barrel into my room.

I drop my backpack on my bed and hurriedly tear into it, ripping out a few notebooks and textbooks until I find a blue folder from one particular class.

I flip open Für Elise and look right at the bottom.

There it is.

Maybe not as sharp as a pencil line can make it, but the arrangement leaves no mistake.

It is the third in a line of five, different from the others. The previous two look like staffs, yet this one looks like adjoining punctuation.

"It's a language," I whisper. My breath hits the paper as I have it so close to my face, as if the words would suddenly become infinitely clearer.

Since Mrs. Robbins gave this to me at the beginning of the week it seems to only suggest three things. One, that it's a distinct enough phrase in whatever language it is, so that Mrs. Robbins was able to connect it to the previous crop circles.

Two, that Mrs. Robbins knows that the crop circles are real and not some hoax.

And three – perhaps more importantly – it connects her family to the crop circles. Definitely.

I sit on the bed, not paying attention to the history textbook digging into my upper thigh or the notebooks crunching underneath. I just don't care.

Spock is connected to Mrs. Robbins. And therefore Spock knew these things were real, no matter how much he tried to persuade me otherwise.

So did Bones.

And so did Gaila - but she didn't try to play around and fool me into believing something that wasn't real. She didn't try to make it sound like I was losing my mind.

"No worries honey. I don't think you're crazy - far from it."

I look around my room, not sure whether I want to find a trashcan to vomit in or throw around.

How can I be in love with a guy who is trying to mess with my head?

"Jim, honey, are you okay?"

I look up at the closed door and get up quickly, trying to shove shit into my backpack before Mom walks in.

Thankfully she always knocks before she does.

"Everything all right?"

I'm zipping up my backpack and I nod. "Yeah Mom – sorry, I was re-reading one of my assignments real quick to make sure I had the due date right."

She smiles as she props my door wide open and turns around. "Well, I started dinner, so if you want to just work on – "

"No! I mean, I'm coming – "

I drop my backpack and practically run out and towards the staircase. It isn't until I'm at the bottom of the banister that I realize Mom is laughing at me, in on the joke.

 

***

When I wake up Thursday morning I tumble right out of bed and stumble towards my computer desk. Waiting there for me is the MUFON website already up, just not refreshed.

As I wait for it to reload, I blink against the harsh computer glare and try to adjust to the light. Then I blink again to make sure I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing on the screen.

I grab the sheet music by my monitor – there because of research the night before when I Googled in vain about what the fuck any of it might mean – and confirm my hypothesis on the matter.

The fourth crop circle is the fourth marking on my sheet music.

Which leaves one left. Although what happens after that? That is kind of frightening, when I think too much on it. Will something really horrible happen? Am I supposed to figure out what it is? Does this phrase in the crop circle language clearly spell it out? (And does it matter, since I can't read these fucking symbols anyway?)

Then with the frequency of them – two this week, two last week – I bet I only have a few days to attempt figure them out, if I'm lucky. If the UFO isn't eager to get the deed over and done with on its admittedly erratic schedule.

I stumble towards the bathroom, where I skip my shower due to sitting at the computer, and then hurry downstairs. Mom and Frank are eating breakfast there, discussing things casually – not reflecting the anxiety that is crawling up my throat, just bursting with impatience to spell things out.

Mom thankfully doesn't notice as she hands me a plate of eggs and toast. I look at the clock – I have five minutes – then smush everything together to make a sandwich.

"This is great," I say with a mouthful. I eat too quickly due to the adrenaline flooding my bloodstream, although with anxiousness at what I'm still not sure.

"Thanks, hon." Mom grins broadly at me, and I actually stop shoveling a moment to stare at her.

Mom. Eggs. Mom? - Eggs?

Frank looks rather smug about it, but I'll give Mom credit where credit is due.

"Thanks, Mom. These are really good." And not burnt, or runny, or anything else. I remember reading once that if a person can make eggs then there was hope for them in cooking, after all.

I take a last bite while holding the plate close to my face, then walk it to the sink where I rinse it. "Sorry, but I'm going to be so late."

"Don't worry hon, I'll be here after school. We can talk about the new crop circle then."

I feign a smile at her and do a little wave at the both of them. "See you guys then."

"Try to have fun, dear."

"You bet." And I stumble out the door - almost killing myself on the steps again - before I reach Gary and realize what this anxiety is about.

I'll see Spock at school today.

This is so fucked up - so fucking fucked up. How is it that the one guy in the history of forever that I go completely crazy for is now the last person I would like to see?

I yank Gary's door open – afterwards apologizing by patting the steering wheel – and then crank out.

There's a part of me that wants to put foot to the pedal and just drive the fuck out of here. Ditch, perhaps go to Chicago or Des Moines for the day, and try to avoid Spock while I'm figuring out whether he's a good guy or a bad guy.

At the same time, I'm pretty sure somebody would eventually tell Mom and Frank that I ditched. And Pasha, as sweet as he is, would probably show up at my door after school with my homework, wondering how I am.

I reluctantly pull off Main Street and drive towards the long line of buses and cars entering into school.

I fiddle with the stereo as I try to patiently dampen down my growing nerves. Except the stereo only brings in some really twangy country music, which aggravates me further.

By the time I park I want to smash somebody's head in.

"Good morning."

I grit my teeth and turn my head to look at Spock – who, like many mornings this week, will pop his head in to see whether I'm comatose.

"You appear troubled."

I sigh.

"Is there something disturbing you?"

"Yeah, lots of things." I get out of the truck without much warning, and yet Spock backs away just in time. I slam the door again – sorry, Gary – and then march away stomping.

Then I turn back to Gary to retrieve my messenger bag.

"May I be of assistance?"

Yeah Spock, you can try telling me the truth for once.

He looks at me a moment, before I huff and turn towards the school.

We walk in silence, with me being aggravated and Spock matching my hurried strides. He even opens the door for me - which I barrel through - and then catches up again as we are silent in the halls.

When we reach the language classrooms, Spock asks quietly, "Have I done something to offend you?"

I stop my pace and start to walk slowly – I don't know, Spock. But the fact you asked is kind of crushing my heart.

I take a deep breath before we stop outside my classroom and I turn to him.

"I'm sorry, Spock." I just don't know how to act around you.

"No apologies are necessary. However, I wish to know what is troubling you."

You are, Spock.

He straightens up from that.

I know you can kind of tell what I'm thinking. Please don't treat me like I'm dumb.

"I consider you intelligent and perceptive."

I blink in slight shock while Spock reaches down and slightly caresses my wrist, like the days before. It doesn't fail to make my blood sing.

"If I treat you otherwise, it is only because I wish to keep you safe."

"What do you mean – "

But Spock swipes a thumb on the delicate skin and I go silent. Then without a word he turns to join the crowded throng of students in the hallway and disappears.

Leaving me weak in the knees. As always.

"Jimmy, are you going to gawk after your friend or come in and join us?"

Mr. Dumka has just passed me with a huge mug of coffee and is standing in the doorframe, awaiting my answer. He actually isn't smirking at me for once, which feels like the kindest thing he could do right now.

I walk in ahead of him and find Hikaru and Pasha.

"Good morning, Jim," Pasha greets warmly, obviously in a good mood – either from the crop circle this morning or that Spock and I aren't exactly in sync right now.

I hum a greeting, not quite ready to say anything about what's been happening, but Pasha is already leaning towards me.

"I'm glad you could come yesterday," Pasha says eagerly. "Ve have a meeting next veek, too."

I nod – I plan on going. The idea even conjures a small smile out of me.

"Next veek ve vill probably talk about ozer zings, so it von't be so boring."

I shake my head. "It wasn't boring at all."

That makes Pasha grin brighter. "Vell, you are velcome again."

We exchange a smile as the announcements start up.

"The Riverside Red Ants delivered a crushing blow to the Harding Knights last night as they intercepted a pass at the last minute – "

Hikaru turns around. "So, you and Spock seemed tense in the hallway."

I take a deep breath as Pasha throws a pen at him.

Hikaru puts out his hands. "Hey, I'm just verifying that he won't have a date or something Friday night."

I look over at Pasha – I kind of thought we might be over this.

But Pasha glowers at him before turning back to me. "I vas just going to ask vhether you vanted to go see zat author in Cedar Rapids tomorrow."

I look over at Hikaru, who doesn't seem bothered by this in the least.

"Me and Hikaru vere going to go and zought you could hitch a ride vith us?"

Ah, that explains it.

I can kind of remember the author, in that his books were about alien abductions and about this particular area and UFOs. He may have seemed kooky at the time, but now I wonder if he might have something insightful after all.

"You bet. Didn't it start at like six, or something?"

Pasha nods. "Ve should head out right after school."

"I'll need to drop off Gary – follow me to my house?"

Pasha gives me a confused look for a moment before I wave my hand. "Gary's my truck. Sorry, I name things."

"Gary is great truck name."

Hikaru snorts. "That's not what you said about Janice."

Pasha shakes his head. "Janice is too dainty of a name!"

He waves a hand. "Whatever – that's been her name for two years, now. Doesn't prevent you from… riding her."

I snort as Hikaru giggles, and Pasha extends the glowering to me.

Fortunately at that point the announcements have ended, and I know Mr. Dumka is going to be all dramatic with his paper again.

Except –

"You guys, if you're going to make crop circles, you should probably try completing the one you started before instead of messing up another good field." He flips down his newspaper. "It's only polite."

"Well," I say, "at least this one looks like a penis?"

Laughter erupts throughout the classroom, with Hikaru perhaps laughing the loudest.

Mr. Dumka actually cracks a half-smile.

"Well played, Jimmy." He stands up. "But you forgot one little thing." He moves in front of the chalkboard and writes a large 1. "Too much sass makes a teacher want to get all sassy back."

As Mr. Dumka starts writing the question the whole class groans – and takes out a sheet of paper.

"Fifteen minutes, you guys. Shouldn't be that hard, just thoroughly annoying."

When I look over at Pasha, he shrugs.

Yeah, that's pretty much par for the course now.

 

***

Thankfully by Keyboarding I've gotten over most of my awkwardness – or at least I don't hold it against Bones. I am able to chat with him a few minutes, hear that Gaila apparently gushed about me last night ("Was that in or out of bed, Bones?"), and then run away to my reserved piano room to practice.

In some ways, the piano has been my one sanity saver this week – and it is now. Whenever I am confused about Spock, or feeling too elated to plant feet on the ground, the piano has been there for me.

Today, it's about what the fuck I'm doing.

At this point I know most of the notes. It's just hitting them at the right time and smoothing out the phrases that are giving me trouble. This is mostly just establishing a muscle memory, which allows me to think.

I almost feel like I'm doing too much thinking. I am staring at the hieroglyphs at the bottom of my sheet music, wondering what phrase they might say. Is it something simple and ominous? Is it a warning to protect us or against us?

And if Spock and Bones know it, why won't they tell me?

I hit a flat accidentally and fall out of A Minor – fuck my life, why won't they just tell me?

Okay, maybe Spock is a part of some secret organization, which is apparently infiltrating a high school. Concerned about the UFOs - concerned about me, for some reason. Maybe only because one tried to kill me.

I fall flat again, but my hands stutter.

Fuck my life – what if Spock is only talking to me because he has to? Because it's his job to keep me safe, or some stupid shit?

All of this chemistry I feel between us - just some stupid one-sided crush, where I can't tell the difference because I'm too deep into it.

I pound randomly on the keyboard. I want to rip out each key and throw it at the wall.

"If I treat you otherwise, it is only because I wish to keep you safe."

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

I try to focus on the work at hand, but it goes all wrong – fuck my life. I don't fall often – hell, I haven't even dared to have crushes in the past for knowing how unlikely they were. But this time, this time.

I stop abusing the keys and close my eyes for a deep breath.

I've never felt that way. Never. Maybe Spock is tricking me, or maybe he isn't, but the one thing I think I can count on is that Spock has tried to be genuine.

He hasn't made me any promises, and thus hasn't broken any, either.

I touch the keys tentatively, and then press a bit harder with each passing stanza. This is dumb, and this is stupid, and I'm only 17 and don't know shit about anything.

But fuck it if I don't love Spock and – and – if Spock doesn't care about me.

"Mr. Kirk."

I jump and turn around quickly. Mrs. Robbins is just inside the door, holding it behind her as she gives me an appraising eye.

"Your technique is improving." There is a small quirk to her smile. "Instead of spouting off randomly it is making a statement."

Yeah, I guess that's what I intended.

"Your hour is up. I look forward to your performance tomorrow."

So do I.

 

***

The next few classes don't feel so bad. I feel less stressed from the piano, and both subjects have review hours for tests tomorrow, which I know I'll do fine at. When I see Hikaru in Calculus we joke around a bit and talk about watching Mythbusters.

Maybe I should try duct-taping that friendship bracelet together, after all.

"I was looking around online about that author we're seeing," Hikaru says as we walk to the cafeteria. "A lot of people who write these books usually have some connections within the community, or at least have some standing somewhere to prove they're not a flake."

I don't even remember the guy's name, so I'll have to go with Hikaru on this one. "I take it he's practically unknown?"

"Pretty much. I mean, he doesn't have a hometown in the back of his book or anything. Just the place where he resides now, which is apparently not far from here."

It sounded a bit suspicious. For all I know, someone saw the recent going-ons here as an opportunity and decided to publish their ramblings.

"So basically, be skeptical about everything he says?" We walk to our usual table and sit down.

"Well, he could just be someone who had an experience and had no idea about the community before it happened." Hikaru shrugs. "Then again, maybe he's on new psychotropic drugs."

"Are ve talking about Samuel George?" Pasha sits between us, as usual.

I nod. "The guy sounds fishy."

"I vould ask Spock, but…"

I see Pasha's line of sight, but I don't want to look. Not when Spock has been usually punctual in eating with us and he isn't here now.

I'm not going to look.

Hikaru gives me a sympathetic sigh. "That blows, man."

Pasha angles his tray, offering me the majority of his fries. "Maybe he just needs space?"

I tilt my head to take a sideways glance, and sure enough – Spock is sitting with Nyota and Montgomery, seemingly concentrating on whatever Montgomery is (again) excitedly saying.

Except when I glance at Spock, he looks up at the same moment and our eyes lock.

I swallow – he's not my boyfriend. He may look beautiful in that light, and I miss his company, and he even has an apple on his tray –

I turn back at Pasha, who is now even giving me a sympathetic look.

"Fries and ketchup, yes?"

I take one and dip it, and try to ignore the heavy gaze I feel from across the room.

 

***

Pasha walks me to Biology, which is nice of him. It would've been awkward walking alone, since apparently I alienated Spock now.

"Good luck," Pasha says with a pat to the shoulder. As he walks away the anxiety mounts, and it seems like I'll really need it.

When I walk in last-second to bell, I see that Spock is already seated, and he turns to look at me.

It's not quite what I expected, as I sit down. I kind of thought he'd be closed off, or affronted, or angry. And maybe he looks that way on the outside, but I can tell with his eyes that he's anything but. It's an impression I get, that he's…

Well, I'm not even sure I want to go there.

But Mr. Banner has a TV rolled out in front of the class, and I'm thinking – yeah, maybe I'll get too much time to think, after all.

"Everyone please take out your notebooks and be prepared to take notes. You'll need these for the test tomorrow."

Another test. Don't any of the teachers congregate around here?

But as the lights are dimmed, I peek at Spock – whose eyes are trained on me.

Oh God, this is going to be a long hour.

I see Spock stretch out a bit, angling his stool like many others to see the screen better. It brings him so incredibly close. When he sets his notepad not a foot from mine, I can feel my skin tingle.

I position my chair as well, although it was fine before. But it is now perhaps an inch closer to Spock.

I lay out my notepad, elbow on the countertop, and try to pay attention to the documentary on microscopic life influencing ecosystems. Except the moment I shift my arm, Spock positions his the same way. I didn't think it was possible, but I can feel the intense heat emanating from him and it sets my nerves on fire.

I can remember what it felt like, that night he pushed me to the ground and how his hand seared my hip. I had been dreaming about that hand ever since, and especially in the daytime hours. About how it would feel in other places – in places below the t-shirt I'm wearing. The way that hand would taste if I could grab it and tongue the palm – that wet palm over my lips. Would it burn my sensitive mouth; like sucking a furnace, or singe like coffee, or tea, or –

I can hear a hitched breath beside me.  I turn my head to see Spock watching me, with large, dark eyes.

I just want you to touch me.

He looks down at his notes and scribbles furiously – his scrawl looking strangely jilted from the impeccable writing I saw before; no longer perfect or smooth, but sharp and bent.

I look down at my own notes, which are also haphazard. I think we passed several layers of an ecosystem or something, but why does it even matter?

I try to write what I'm hearing now, but I feel a fuzzy warmth bursting through my veins; a champagne flowing throughout my body. I have to shift in my chair.

I look over at Spock, and unfortunately it is too dark to tell if I'm alone.

There's a flush crawling up my skin as I'm trying to write any sort of name I hear – red-bellied frog, the milky serum of which heals – I can feel the heat on my neck, even my arms receiving the signal now, as the countertop feels so cool, so cool compared to my skin and the close proximity of Spock's.

God, I really didn't get to talk to you all day and you're so close to me. So close to me.

I'm almost startled when our elbows touch and there's a burst - the hard bump sending a flood, as a corner of our forearms also press together.

My face immediately heats up, and I want him – I want him. I want him to touch, and devour, and taste, and feel close and feel need and feel entangling and combining and –

Danger death revengedeathdanger protect -

Spock jerks back suddenly, and I feel the world strangely dull as I stare at him and he stares back.

It feels like the world should stop and take notice, but all that happens is the bell ringing and stools skidding across the linoleum as students file out.

I look at the TV and then down at my notes, but I'm not really registering either.

I look back at Spock, who seems to be having the same experience, but is frozen at what is written on his page.

Mr. Banner flicks on the lights and we both blink.

"Gather yourselves, gentlemen." He gives us an annoyed look, and it suddenly straightens me up.

Not unlike that first day we met, Spock gathers his supplies quickly and races out of the classroom.

 

***

Pasha had been kind enough to walk me to Gym, as well – where he again noted Spock's quick departure ("I am wery sorry you are fighting"), but then lets me be for the rest of the day. I suppose Hikaru had caught up with him at some point, so the abandonment hadn't been intentional.

Wow, now I'm an overly sensitive teenage girl. Fuck my life.

But walking back to my locker in an emo mood, I'm left to think too much. Think about how Spock isn't waiting for me,  and how he might not be waiting outside either. Perhaps not standing next to Gary with perfect posture, with hands behind his back. All lean lines and calm disposition. With that stupid fucking hat.

So when I walk out to the parking lot and see no one by Gary at all, and that silver Volvo nowhere in sight - I shouldn't be disappointed.

But I am. Fuck, I am.

I remember earlier this morning, when Spock had been the one concerned about offending me during my aggravated stomp from the truck to Dumka's class. But now it's the other way around and I want to know what I did - except project inappropriately lustful thoughts to my crush.

Okay, maybe that had been it.

I shut Gary a bit too hard – pat the steering wheel again for my temper – and then drive lazily out of the parking lot. I have to confess that, yeah, I did look for the shiny Volvo as I drove out to Main Street.

I guess – and this is really fucking depressing – that I'm wrong, after all. I feel so damn bi-polar, how in the morning I'm unsure, then determined, and then despondent, and then –

Oh man, did I want to jump him. Right then and there on that countertop.

But if Spock was just being nice all this time, I guess it fits. He was being kind to me, trying to be my friend, but then I envisioned it as something more. Entirely my imagination.

God, that fucking hurts. Am I really that much of an idiot or what?

I drive home in a sort of stupor, remembering all the times that I really got it wrong. Especially the last – how Spock touched my elbow, even though he knew my blood was boiling. He must've known.

But obviously he hadn't wanted that and fled. And I might have screwed up something wonderful, something amazing that could've been a great friendship, at least.

I sniff a bit – I'm not crying, I'm just – I wipe my arm across my face, and press my nose because it itches, and try to calm my thoughts.

Oh God, Mom is going to know the moment I walk into the house.

But I check my face in the rearview mirror – not red, not puffy – and then grab my messenger bag and quietly shut Gary (I'm so sorry Gary, I'll try to stop slamming you, honest.)

I walk into the house with my game face and smile at Mom.

"Hey," I say, as I see her moving suitcases and bags in the living room.

She looks up and smiles at me. "Hey, babe." But as she walks closer she furrows her brow and holds out her arms. "Come here. I want a hug from you."

I move into it slowly, but once she has her arms around me I sink into it. It feels so good after the weird day I've had.

She rubs my back before she pulls away. "What did he do?"

I make a face at that – dammit Mom, I'm a brooding teenager, and sometimes I want to brood and stomp on my lonesome.

"Nothing," I say, and then move towards the stairs with my bag.

She puts a hand out. "Go get changed. But afterwards we're having some family time."

I try not to huff. "I have four tests tomorrow. And an essay, which I'm only half-way through with."

She gives me a look. "You could ace those in your sleep, and you know it. It won't kill you to have dinner with me, hmm? Especially since I'm leaving tomorrow."

Oh yeah, the guilt trip. Like I really stood a chance of getting out of it anyway.

After I change, I head downstairs to where Mom is already in the kitchen and looking into the freezer.

"I could make something really fattening," she starts, closing the freezer and then opening the fridge. "Or really rich, or heavy – what are you feeling up to, hon?"

She opens a cabinet and I stop her hand. "Whatever you're in the mood for, Mom."

She gives me a face - before an idea seems to alight in her brain and she runs with it.

"I know!" She looks into a lower cupboard where she pulls out a can of soup, and then into the fridge where she pulls out cheese. "You go in the living room and sit on the couch, I'll have this out in a few minutes."

I raise my brows at her, but she bats me away with her hands.

"Honey, I actually can't screw this one up – out, out!"

I walk into the living room, where I see Mom's laptop already up and I sit before it.

For Mom's astrology business, she uses software that reports the coordinates of stars and planets at any given time. It's a weird science – as Spock called it, not me – where she may know these coordinates, but it's actually technical to map them out. Use the data to figure out where the houses and aspects overlap and determine what all that means.

In a way it's figuring out a puzzle and trying to fit a million pieces into a coherent picture.

But I see the entry form is blank for a date and time – I suppose Mom had been looking up stuff about the trip – and so I put in my data: March 22nd, 1993; 12:33am.

I really don't know much about this sort of thing, except I see an expanse of star chart appear before me, with aspects and alignments of the planets at my time of birth. The way the night sky appeared when I was born, and that the Sun was in Pisces and the Moon rising in Aquarius at the exact minutes of my arrival.

Maybe astrology is a bogus science, but it still requires more thinking than maybe I'm capable of.

"Hey hon, make room on the coffee table."

She brings out two mugs and sets them down before our respective places on the couch, then runs back into the kitchen.

I peer inside – tomato soup, with what looks to be basil and pureed chunks of tomato in it.

It smells amazing.

I'm tentatively taking a sip as Mom walks in with a plate of… cheese sandwiches? And sets them before us.

"I toasted them, then placed a piece of cheese between them and mic'ed them a minute." She picks up one and takes a bite. "Not as crunchy and buttery, but it works?"

I pick one up – a bit soggy, all right – but when I take a bite it isn't the worst thing in the world. Entirely reminiscent of the grilled cheese and soup experience, and I'm not about to complain – I could molest some of that cheese right about now.

"Mmm," I say as I dip my sandwich. "This is great. Pretty soon you won't need me at all."

She pats my knee. "I'll keep you around 'cause you look pretty."

The chuckle is deep in my chest, and it feels good.

She takes a sip of her soup and then looks at her computer. "What were you looking up, dear?"

"My birthday." I look at the screen and take a sip of soup myself. "I want to know if the universe thinks I'm having a weird day, too."

Mom gives me a look before glancing at the star chart. "Well, pull up a new screen – you're doing it wrong."

"Thanks," I say, although I'm grinning. I do pull up a new profile and then wait for her to tell me what to type.

"Do today's date. Then I'll see what your sun sign and rising signs are doing today, in relation to everything else going on."

Like I said, it's a complicated science.

I type in September 23rd, 2010 and another star chart pulls up, looking entirely different to what I had before. At the bottom is a list of numbers, giving new coordinates of the stars and planets as they are right now.

She tilts the laptop towards her and scrolls around. "Your sun sign is Pisces, which is influenced by a lot of conjunctions in the houses of romance and career today. Your Moon sign is the same, and so – "

"No it isn't." I shake my head and put the mug down by my lap. "I just looked it up, and it said Aquarius."

Mom gives me a quizzical look. "Babe, I gave birth to you. I know your chart inside and out – "

"Pull it up," I say as I set down my mug on the table. "You are always doing this stuff. It'd be kind of nice to know how you did it."

While I wasn't entirely interested while growing up, it seems that now that I'm close to adulthood maybe I should actually try for a change. Especially since Mom has always been so supportive of me and whatever I attempted to do – even if it was glitter all over the high school principal.

But now, instead of the patient look she usually employs, there is some incredible hesitation – which makes me feel instantly bad. Have I ever been critical of this before? I mean, I do consider it fake and hokey. But whenever Mom did readings for me I would always try to accept them.

She types away from the screen, and I see her make a few clicks of the mouse before she shows me the chart again.

Well hell, it is entirely different.

"Huh," I say, reading some of the aspects I remember. "This isn't what I got before."

"Did you put in the right time?" She says with an understanding smile on her face, except – no, it's more like, Believe me, please believe me.

God Mom, you were always a bad liar.

I look at the corner of the screen and see the date of the star chart. I frown.

"Mom, why does it say – "

She turns the laptop from me. "Anyway, for today, your antecedents are kind of predicting some issues." She closes the hood of the laptop before moving closer to me on the couch. "Now, what did Spock do?"

I try to remember the date for safekeeping – some 2's and 3's in a row – before I pick up my soup mug again and take a sip from it.

"We weren't getting along today."

She smiles understandingly, and it's like I don't need to say anything else.

 

Chapter Nine: There are not enough 1’s and !’s in the universe, really.


The last time that Spock ran out on me, he disappeared for almost a whole week. 

So after saying goodbye to Mom (with well-wishes for her trip) and then driving to school – hoping against hope that he would be there, peering into my driver window to say hello – I shouldn’t be surprised that he isn’t. 

In fact, he seems to have decided to ditch the entire day, even Mrs. Robbins’ class. 

While I’m watching everyone else perform “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” – including Bones, who even sasses it up a bit with half-notes – I keep waiting for him to walk in with an office envelope. A stack of papers, a note from a teacher – with something, like Spock did that first time I ever saw him. 

Except he doesn’t. And in the last 10 minutes of class Mrs. Robbins calls me up, and we walk to the practice room to hear my version of Für Elise

While I’m pretty sure there’s no chance that’s Spock watching me this time, I do play as if he were. My version of the bagatelle in A Minor is perhaps a bit mournful rather than cheerful, but maybe more optimistic than I intended. 

At the end of my performance, Mrs. Robbins hums with approval. 

“You are showing improvement,” she states while marking in her gradebook. “Class is ending in one minute. You may go back to collect your items.”

I am grateful that she doesn’t ask for my sheet music back, and I stuff it in my folder as I go to collect my things. It would’ve been another issue to deal with today, since most of my mind is frazzled about Spock and not focusing on my million other tests. 

I tell myself it shouldn’t matter – I had a crush, so what? If Spock couldn’t deal, then it wasn’t meant to be after all. 

Lunch passes without him – although Nyota and Montgomery are there, and Pasha seems to be in the best of moods. Biology is vacant, despite another test - and my mood seems to degrade further and further. 

It’s stupid to be hung up over a guy, but it’s the truth. By the time school ends and Pasha, Hikaru, and I walk out to our vehicles, I’m about as dejected as I can get. 

“Cheer up, Jim,” Pasha says, bumping my shoulder. “Ve are off to see a genuvine crazy.”

I manage a half-smile. “Sorry, I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.”

Hikaru gives me a look. “Lie to everyone else all you want, but we’re your friends.” He pats my arm. “Spock will come back around.”

I try to believe that, I really do, but instead I put on a better smile. “Okay. Follow and meet me at my house?”

Hikaru nods, and I watch him and Pasha climb into – Janice? - before I turn to the driver’s side of my truck.

When I open the door I see a note perched delicately on my steering wheel, a piece of notebook paper folded twice. 

I open it:

Please remain safe and cognizant of your surroundings.

I smile down at the familiar penmanship, and it is the first genuine smile I’ve had all day. 

***



The ride to Cedar Rapids is filled with ABBA. Which, considering the company I’m keeping, shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. With Pasha and Hikaru in the front seat while I’m squished next to equipment in the backseat, I am putting up with their renditions of – 

Dancinng queen, young and sveet – only sewenteeeeeeen!” 

You get the idea.

Anyway, we arrive at Cedar Rapids near 4:30, and we decide to wait out the time by hanging out downtown and grabbing food. 

And while doing so, I have to confess - I really like both of these guys. Chatting about things that aren’t just UFO-related, or gay, proves we do have a lot in common. It seems to suggest that even without the crop circles we’d all still be friends. 

Not that we aren’t still geeks. 

“Do you remember on X-Files, ze man vho had ze sucky-sucky face?” Pasha makes goldfish lips. “He hid in suevers and stuff.” 

“Flukeman,” I say, and both of them turn to me with questioning looks. I shrug. “Mom banned me from watching TV for a while, thanks to him.” 

“I don’t remember any of the monsters – I was too busy staring at Mulder,” Hikaru says.

Pasha rolls his eyes. “File zat under ‘reason 312 zat I should’ve know I vas gay’” - and we all laugh in agreement. 

And we spend the time like that, until we arrive at the little bookstore from a week before. 

We walk in about a half-hour early, with not much of an audience sitting in the short rows of 100-or-so folded chairs. Pasha picks out some seats near the back, and we get comfy while noticing our surroundings

At a table, a younger man is speaking to the gray-haired owner, and I make a guess. 

“I bet that’s our author.” I lean over to Hikaru, who is to my left. “He does look pretty young.”

Hikaru stares a bit too long and nods. “He doesn’t look like he’d be a crazy, that’s for sure.” 

“He is wery good-looking.” Pasha leans into my arm as he openly stares. “I vonder he if vill sound as good as he looks?”

Hikaru doesn’t look back at Pasha and tries to hide a pout. I lean back in my chair - I’m just glad it isn’t about me this time. 

Not long after, the author does turn around – and I have to say, he is kind of good-looking. 

He’s dark blond with hazel eyes, with an expression open and friendly. He stands about six feet tall, with a broad build that is dressed in a blue flannel shirt over black jeans. When he steps up to the podium I can see his boots are black, perhaps Doc Martens or army-issued. 

“Hi,” he starts, and then swallows. “Thanks for coming to my book signing and talk. I’m Samuel George, and uh, I’d like to tell you about my experience.”

He looks down at his boots for a moment, which allows me to see a whorl in his hair and the tenseness of his stature. Whatever he’s about to say seems to be important and stressful to him.

He takes a deep breath and looks back to us. “I know in Riverside there have been a rash of unusual crop circles, made of symbols that no one can really explain. There are lights in the sky – and even on the MUFON website someone posted an account of a car being thrown at a young man.”

I glance at Hikaru, who doesn’t even bat an eyelash.

“But I can say that all of these things look familiar to me. Maybe you won’t believe me, because I can’t give much of a bio or tell you my credentials or prove the places that I’ve been. But – “ and he points “ – I’ve been up there. In that UFO that everyone has been seeing.”

As Samuel George leans closer to the podium, so does the audience lean closer to him – including myself, as I lock my hands between my knees. 

“A year ago, I started remembering strange visitations – alien faces so weird, so different from anything I’ve seen before. They haunted my dreams, the visions of nightmares – or so I told myself. But then one night, when I thought I was dreaming, I realized that it was all too real – that the entire time I was actually awake. It seemed that my conscious mind had been trying to hide those terrors in the daytime and that these aliens had been abducting me for awhile.”

He looks down at the podium a moment, leaning over for a quick sip of water before continuing. 

“I was tortured and made to answer questions. Questions that made no sense to me, but yet they asked me every night for the last year. These aliens – “ he lets out a shaky breath “ – were almost humanoid, except for their ears.” A hand went to Samuel’s face. “They were pointed and curved up. And their heads – “ he motioned to the top of his head “ – were bald, except for a tattoo. It was in the center of their foreheads and going – “ his hand moved in that direction “ – up. Tribal.”

He placed both hands back on the podium and leaned further into the microphone. “And after the last few times they have abducted me, I have woken up in a field. I’ve seen their starship above – hovering, with its long tentacles and bright blue lights, blazing down at me – “

I sit up and listen carefully.

“And I know it’s the same aliens who’ve made it a point to be in Riverside.” He looks at all of us, and there’s a moment where I feel that if he turned his hazel eyes on me I’d be rooted to the spot. 

“I partially feel responsible. But all I can say is that I’ve never seen another human aboard that ship.” 

He takes another deep breath, and then tries to smile at all of us. “Questions?”

I can only sit there in awe and feel the universe collapsing in around me.

“I zink he vas abducted by our aliens, Jim.”

And as scary as the prospect of that being true is – I happen to agree.

***



The question and answer section winds up being longer than the presentation itself, as it seems many abductees from miles around wanted to come and share their stories. But it’s less like a support group and more like an angry town hall, with the abductees strangely skeptical of Samuel for not having their type of alien.

“I have been abducted,” starts an older man, hunched over, “every week for the last thirty years of my life. By the Greys, by the Greens, by the Elvans – but I have never, and I mean never, heard of your type of alien.”

Which of course devolves into a discussion about what the real types of aliens are and how each one has treated them differently. 

I look over at Hikaru, and it’s good to know that I’m not the only one feeling stuck in a room of crazies. 

Pasha, on the other hand, still looks smitten as Samuel dodges and weaves through many trapping questions. 

“He appears sincere.” Pasha sighs. “I vonder if he vill still vant to talk to anyone zhough, after all zhese questions.” 

At the end of the hour, I can see Samuel George getting tired, and I am inclined to agree.

But in actuality he does sign about 50 books – from those of us who attended – and then starts packing up before 8pm. 

Pasha, Hikaru, and I all look at each other as we huddle in the graphic novels section of the bookstore. 

“Vell?” Pasha whispers in our circle. 

“Well,” I repeat, “I think I’m going to say hello.” 

Hikaru grabs my arm as I’m getting up. “Need backup?”

I huff a laugh. “What? In case he wants to reject a teenager who politely listened to his entire presentation?” 

Hikaru shrugs, and I see him lean closer to Pasha as they watch me approach Samuel, who is folding chairs. Maybe angrily folding chairs, as they creak and slam together from being picked up and dumped on a carrier. 

Well, what is the worst that can happen? He could throw one at me, I suppose. 

“Um,” I walk into his line of vision. “Would you like help?”

Samuel George looks at me, and then begrudgingly nods his head. 

He smacks another chair together. “This gets tedious after a while – thanks.” 

I don’t even need to wave Hikaru and Pasha over as I start folding up a row. 

“So,” I break the silence, “that was an intense Q and A.”

“Yeah.” He takes my folded chairs and places them on a rollout carrier. 

“Is it like that wherever you go?”

He sighs. “Pretty much.” He takes some chairs from Hikaru and Pasha and knocks them against the carrier frame. 

“Well,” Hikaru speaks up, “it seemed kind of unfair, since you’re here to, you know, share your story.”

Samuel straightens up and looks squarely at all of us. “What are you boys playing at?”

Hikaru and Pasha try to protest, but I cut them off with a hand and lean closer to him. 

“We saw it,” I say quietly. 

Samuel looks unimpressed. 

I add, “No one will believe us.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, and I decide then and there that I’ll have to pull out all the stops to get him to talk. 

“I’m - I’m the kid you read about on MUFON. The one who got thrown to the ground and had a car tossed at him.”

He analyzes me for a moment, and I hope like hell that I look sincere. 

He seems to take forever, but then he speaks. “Well… why do you want to talk to me?”

We continue folding chairs as I answer. “I guess I want to know why the aliens would do that. Why they would want to create crop circles or – “ I gulp " – want to throw a car at me.”

Samuel sighs as we finish the last of the chairs. “That, I have no idea. They spoke a language that was strange to me – sounded nothing like English, or anything I had ever heard before.”

I bide my time, until Hikaru and Pasha move away with the remaining chairs. I turn and whisper quickly, “I think the crop circles are scripts from a different language.” 

Samuel considers that a moment, before Hikaru and Pasha return and gather around us. 

He looks at all three of us in turn, before looking directly at me. “Well – I believe you, if that gives you any sense of mind. I certainly think you are telling the truth.”

“Vell, Hikaru has damage to his car to prove it!” Pasha gushes, and then, “You could come take a look?”

Samuel absently nods before being dragged by an excitedly talkative Pasha out of the store. 

Hikaru rolls his eyes as we watch them go, and I smirk.

“You know, you could always just ask him out.”

Hikaru gives a sharp laugh. “We’ve been friends forever. You want me to ruin that by asking him out?”

I shrug. “Well, it’s better than languishing, isn’t it? You don’t seem to do any better just by staying friends.”

Hikaru clenches his jaw, but doesn’t say a word. It’s a minute before Hikaru seems resigned with our conversation and looks apologetically at me. 

“I’m – I’m gonna go see what they’re doing.”

I let Hikaru take a few steps in front of me before I decide to follow him out. But as when we reach the store entrance, Samuel comes in and pats Hikaru on the shoulder. 

“That’s some dent, there!” 

“Yeah,” Hikaru says, before turning his back and leaving abruptly. 

Samuel and I watch him go, and I turn to apologize when he whispers:

“Meet me at Amundsen fields later tonight.”

I narrow my eyes at him. But he steps closer and says with a hushed tone, “At the ledge, near the field of the second circle. Midnight, so we can really talk.”

I look into his hazel eyes and know that agreeing is pretty stupid. But I do it anyway, because he seems – as strangely fucked up as this is – to be the only person willing to be completely honest with me, with some sort of answer. 

He holds out his hand to shake mine. “And you can call me Sam.” 

We do a brief handshake and I answer back, “You can call me Jim.” 

And just like that we go our separate ways, with the agreement thrumming between us. 

***



I am not averse to keeping secrets – not by a long shot – but this is one that is actually hard to keep. Not just from the thrill of potentially finding answers, but also from an honest-to-God terror that tinges the excitement from the unknown menacingly beckoning me.

Hikaru drives us home as Pasha talks excitedly about Samuel George. What he thought about the dent in Hikaru’s car, and the answers to some of the rude questions by participants, and his abduction story (“He described octopus ship, exactly!”) – which, you know, basically drives Hikaru crazy. 

But I am grateful for it, because it means I have no opportunity to blurt that I am meeting an alien abductee about the UFO I saw, near the field where I saw it, later that night. 

I get home near 9:30 and thank both Hikaru and Pasha for the ride. For once, Pasha isn’t interested in staying long and chatting. After his “Goodbye, Jim!” he turns back to Hikaru and continues on about the nuances of aliens that Samuel George talked about. 

I would be affronted, except this means that maybe Hikaru and I could really become friends now. 

But I have to confess that after an entire night of alien abduction stories - and hearing one so keenly related to my own experience - that coming home to an empty and dark house freaks me out. Mom usually leaves a light on, but she isn’t here now, and I was too preoccupied to remember on my way out the door. 

But I go up to my room and turn on the computer. Knowing I have to stay awake for at least two more hours anyway, I start to really think things through. 

Maybe the other abductees in the audience had a point. It seemed like this guy was a special case and seemingly the only guy to have reported being abducted by these sorts of aliens. And it wasn’t like he was so nondescript that he just didn’t see them properly – he had an entirely different alien than what the paranormal community wanted to accept.

When I Google several websites on the topic, I come to a similar conclusion – Samuel George’s aliens just weren’t the norm. There were little green guys, and grey guys with large black eyes and almond heads, and even humanoids who had long blonde hair and blue eyes. But no other bald aliens with large black tribal tattoos on their heads. 

However, the alien abduction stories themselves were pretty in sync. While some reported aliens that wanted to help mankind, most talked about being abducted randomly, only to be abandoned in strange places with missing time. And some were tortured – although a lot were strangely forced to have Human/Alien hybrids that they supposedly never saw again. (I mean, if we’re a totally different species, how would those slices of DNA even match up to create something, anyway? Unless it’s like Bat Boy or whatever.) 

But at any rate, my head is spinning by the time I head out to Gary and drive out to Amundsen fields. 

The darkness is eerie in this countryside. I may have been living here for a few weeks now, but even in town there’s at least a house or some street lamp that sheds a light in the darkness. But out here it’s so pitch black – impossibly black, with light almost completely sucked out of the world. 

But it is just before midnight that I make it to the field and decide to park Gary some ways off. I know he can’t make the hill, and besides, I probably already alerted half the world to my presence before I even parked here, anyway.

There’s a worn and grassy entrance to the field that leads to the ledge. I can barely see it in the darkness, but once I reach it I make my way up – it’s a steep incline of dirt, strangely narrow for a car to get up there. 

But once I reach the top I can make out a figure waiting for me, his blue plaid barely discernible as he comes closer in the darkness. 

Once we’re less than a few feet from each other, I can see he’s smiling.

“This is it,” he says in a whisper. “This is where they are coming.”

He stands near me and points to our far right. 

“That is where I was first abducted and where the first circle happened.” He turns back to me. “You said that you think they’re using some kind of language?”

I nod. “I think it’s a phrase, like they’re trying to spell out something.”

“What is it?” And then he shakes his head. “Why do you even think it’s a phrase, to begin with?”

I’m not sure I want to incriminate Spock or any of his clan in this, and so I state the obvious. “Each symbol isn’t like the typical crop circle – it looks like a set of pictoglyphs or hieroglyphs. And they are all so similar that it seems like maybe… they are connected?”

My eyes are adjusting to the pitch-black, and I can see Sam considering what I’ve said. 

“I don’t think it’s good.” Sam scuffs the dirt and grass with his shoe. “After what they’ve done to me, there’s just no way.” He sniffs and looks up, with his head shaking. “I don’t know what they want with us humans, but it seems like they are searching for something.”

I want to ask what, but it’s already in my head – the questions that the aliens keep asking, while never receiving the right answers. 

Sam walks closer to the ledge. “But why did they want you?” He looks out over the field. “They have only been abducting me. Why did they want someone else?”

I don’t know what to say as Sam starts to pace back and forth.

“I was found naked in a field, about a year ago. Some farmer found me in a row of corn about a mile from here. He called the police, and when they questioned me I had – I had no idea of my name or who I was.” He gives a sharp laugh. “They think I’m thirty-eight years old, but I don’t remember the last thirty-seven years of my life. The only things I can remember are these abductions, these aliens that keep taking me and robbing me of - of everything.” 

He stops pacing and stares out into a cornfield. “I just want to know what they want. That maybe, if I knew that, they would leave me alone and I can remember who I was.”

There is silence, and I have no idea what to say. Sorry that your life was ruined by these assholes? Sorry that your life has been turned upside-down by beings that most people don’t even seem to believe exist? That your experience is so hush-hush, that even Spock seems to have been sent from somewhere else just to make sure that I try not to convince others that this is real?

There is nothing I can say, I don’t think. And I’m not even going to try.

“Jim...” 

It’s a breathless whisper, and I look in the direction that he’s peering. I can see instantly what it is, and I’m not sure what I should be doing, but I’m rooted to the spot.

“They can finally hunt me down for a change, instead of just taking me whenever they want.” Sam stands with a wide stance, as if ready to battle a hurricane. “I am sick of this – they can take me on my own terms!”

I can see the lights coming towards us from a distance, and the blood in me runs cold and freezes to my veins. As the seconds tick past, the tentacled arms become clearer with their approach – nearer, nearer, nearer. 

“Come here, you bastards!”

Oh God, please no. With the speed they’re approaching, I’m not sure if I could even out-run them.

In no time at all, it seems the ship is too close to us – its tentacles seemingly grabbing at us from thousands of feet above in the sky, yet remaining too uncomfortably near. In the moment I take to look it up and down its blue beams focus all on Sam, who is bellowing up at it. 

“I told them all about you assholes! And they told me, for the hundredth time, that you are not supposed to exist!” He takes a loud and shuddering breath. “So tell me why you are ruining my life and getting away with it in front of so many people!”

I see the blue light on him become brighter, and I’m waiting for it – the flash of fire or the thrown rock, or for him to start floating upwards like in the movies. 

I lurch towards him, but he puts a hand out. The light is intensifying and I can see his eyes – determined as they take one last glance at me, before the beam envelops him whole. 

And there is screaming – oh God, there is screaming. The light fades back and it looks as if he is dissolving into pixels, the visual display of him being wiped forward, a spoiled painting, a smeared print – 

The screaming is like glass shards in the veins, and I can’t make out anything - 

Run! R- “

The pixels shift back and it looks like the whole of him has melted and collapsed in on itself - a grotesque figure reminiscent of a wax figurine on a heater or in the sun. The bright blue intensifies and hurts my eyes, and I can’t see him anymore – the blue is there, and then it is gone along with Samuel George. 

It takes me a moment, but then – I should probably be running. Oh fuck, I should be running

I know my only chance is down. So I run to my left towards the dirt path, paying no attention to what is going on around me. 

Which is great, because I’m pretty sure if I saw where that bit of laser to my right came from - before it exploded a wooden panel of fence – I probably would’ve gaped and been done for. 

I can hear the pew of a laser behind me, and it sounds so comical, so unreal, that when it stops I can’t help but turn around to see what the fuck happened. 

And holy fucking shit, it is even worse than I imagined. 

How can I – I don’t - there is my octopus ship, so fucking high in the air, that it seems I could pluck it with my fingers. But then there is a lighter ship, about the same size, circling it and exchanging brightly-colored laser fire.

I step backwards, and there’s a part of me that believes that at any moment I’ll see the edges of the movie screen. That all of this will be some elaborate fantasy, with graphics so real, so terrifyingly real, that I feel I’m about to die. That I’ll explode from the adrenaline and fear running through me, just begging to fucking run - 

The lighter, roundish ship fires one more shot – and the octopus ship starts to back off, then speed out of sight. In a breath’s time the round ship seems to flash and then follow into the night. 

... Oh my fucking God. I have to get the fuck out of here. 

I hope I am running in the right direction, as I race in a panic to find Gary in the darkness. I practically run into him as my eyes have to adjust all over again. But once I feel that handle and see the dome light come on, I am fucking jumping in and going - without any awareness of what I might be running into as I speed out. 

Because Jesus fucking Christ, I don’t know what’s real anymore. I’m praying that in the middle of driving I’ll suddenly wake the fuck up.

 

Chapter Ten: !!!

 

My hands are shaking as I try to grip the steering wheel and my concentration is shot. It's probably a good thing it's near 1am and not in the middle of the day, when I could actually kill somebody for driving so erratically.

But fuck, I saw some guy melt in a beam of light. And then they chased me, and then I saw –

I jerk into the dirt driveway and turn off Gary, not really cognizant of the time of night but slamming his door shut as I jump out. I have never desired more to be in my own bed, under the covers, with my parents home in my entire fucking life.

But it's just me and a house I can deadbolt, and I'll have to deal with that.

Although if they are aliens – yes, this window kind of sticks, but then Tribalistic dude won't be able to open it easily either – then I suppose locking anything would be a laughable point. They could probably laser the top of my house off, or kick in the door, or any number of things.

God, I am by myself. What am I going to do by myself?

I have just made the rounds to every window I can think of, when there is a knock at the door.

... Fuck, maybe if I don't answer, they'll just go away.

A minute later, another knock resounds. Okay, so I have the dining room light on, but maybe they'll just think I left it on when I went out –

There is a more insistent knock, and I try to think this through. Would some Tribalistic aliens that just melted Sam really be knocking, right about now?

Well, who fucking knocks in the middle of the night, anyhow? Some cheeky serial killer fucker, I bet. And maybe I can throw a mean punch sometimes, but I am grabbing the largest implement I can find – okay Frank, your golf clubs are not as menacing as they look – and staying right here, in my room, almost under the fucking bed and out of sight.

Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck –

"Jim?"

I jump up with my golf club in hand and aim to swing – which Spock catches deftly in one hand and pulls towards him.

"Jim, you did not answer the door."

I can't help it, but I am shaking. I can't believe how fucking scared I am. How my mind can't seem to overcome these stupid instincts to just run or curl up and block off –

Spock grips my shoulder. "You are safe. You do not need to be in fear."

I look towards my bedroom window, where I see that the glass has been cut out and the window pushed up.

Oh fuck me, I can't even hear things.

"Jim, I will not harm you."

I look up into his eyes, which seem larger than the weeks before. Pleading with me perhaps, to just believe him. But I push against his chest and try to step away.

Except Spock has me in an iron grip.

"Let me go!"

"I do not believe that is wise."

"Fuck, just –" I push again, to no success.

Oh God Spock - I just saw two objects battling each other in the night sky, some guy melt in a blue light, and I am scared as shit and don't know what the fuck you are –

Spock loosens his grip, and I finally get to push away and stand on the other side of the room.

"Yeah," I growl, "you read my mind, didn't you? I knew you could do it all along!"

Spock walks a step forward - which makes me back away - and Spock puts up a hand.

"I am able to sense general impressions and strong spikes of emotion, especially in close proximity." He takes a step. "All I can sense now is your fear."

"Yeah, well." I grab the neck of the lamp on my nightstand. "I just saw all this shit, and now you're breaking into my house."

Spock tilts his head at that one. "I wished to ascertain your status."

"You could just knock or call, like anyone else – "

"You were not about to answer the door." Spock is perhaps only a few feet away now, and I can feel myself backed into an unintentional corner.

"You're connected with them," I spit out. "You want me to think they're different, but really you're just covering for them or something – "

Spock shakes his head. "That is not my intention."

"Then what is?" The last comes out whinier than I intended, but I don't give a fuck. "You try to make me think I'm crazy for seeing them, and then you befriend me and make me think – "

"Jim, this is not a conducive environment to speak of these matters – "

"None of this is fucking conducive to anything! There were some aliens who tried to fucking kill me – "

"I am aware of the incident."

"How? Were you there, spying on me again? Or were you in that other fucking object?"

I clap a hand over my mouth, because that was one thing I hadn't considered - hadn't considered in the slightest.

I feel my back against the wall and I begin to slide down. But Spock grips my arm, with his face mere inches from my own.

His heat emanates like the sun, and there is something almost comforting about that. I can feel it melting the panic, soothing the adrenaline that keeps running rampant and making my heart race to an unknown finish line.

"I will keep you safe," Spock says in a low voice, and it travels from the base of my skull and down my spine. "And I will tell you everything. But at this moment, it is difficult to guarantee your safety from this location and to speak of such matters in these circumstances."

I try to breathe as I feel my body slipping further. But his hand wraps around to my lower back.

"I request that you come with me."

I try to calm down as I take a deep breath, and I let my head roll forward to rest against Spock's chest.

It is so warm here. I close my eyes and try to listen to what his body sounds like – the blood pushing through the veins and the heart I should be able to hear –

"We do not have much time." Spock grips my hip. "Are you able to stand?"

"Yeah," I say and reluctantly pull away from him. When he steps back I miss the warmth keenly, and it feels more obvious now how exhausted I am.

But he is at my bedroom door, waiting for me to follow. I take a few tentative steps towards him and he reaches out to grab my wrist.

"Come. We do not have time to waste."

When his thumb swipes up a vein, I want to fall over. Instead I grab the door for a moment's balance, and then follow him as we walk calmly downstairs.

 

***

He drives us in the shiny Volvo, while he speeds to get us where we need to go. The ride is unbearably long and silent as I look out my passenger window to the night sky, wondering if I'll see any objects following us. But it's only been 15 minutes as Spock takes us out of Riverside and near the Mississippi river.

There is a small gate already open and Spock drives through a wooded area, traveling along a dirt path that I suspect is a driveway. I'm proven correct when the trees part and I see the most beautiful white house built into the river rock – overlooking the rushing and wild Mississippi, so close to their back door.

Spock looks over at me as he parks and turns off the ignition.

"We are at our destination." He looks at the gearshift before looking back at me. "This is my place of residence, and I wish for you to meet others who are inside."

I slowly nod, and at this we both take off our seatbelts and exit the car. I hurry to Spock's side, and he touches my shoulder briefly to guide me towards the house.

I look up and see that all the windows are large and seem to expand over entire walls of the structure. I can see inside that there is a light on and that people are waiting for us.

As Spock slides open a glass door, it occurs to me that this could possibly be the stupidest thing I've ever done. After all, I am traveling with a guy I don't exactly trust, miles from anywhere I really know, and am about to walk into an enclosed space that features many of his friends.

But when we step inside I immediately see Bones – and he races towards me with a small boxy device in his hand.

"Hold still."

I look down at the box in his hand and frown. "What the fuck is that?"

"Makin' sure you're okay. Damn kid, racin' out into a field with a complete stranger in the middle of the night – "

I pull back. "How do you know that?"

Bones looks up sharply at Spock. There must be a telling expression there, for Bones pulls the box away from my arm and lowers it pat my shoulder instead.

"I'm sorry, Jim – all of this is probably confusing." He pats the side of my head. "Are you doin' okay?"

I nod dumbly, which Bones makes a face at. But he seems to understand as he gives my shoulder a slight squeeze before backing off.

People from another room come pouring in. Most I recognize, like Gaila and Mrs. Robbins – the former coming forward to give me a hug.

Wait, Gaila -

"Honey!" she squeezes a bit too tight. "I'm so glad you're safe."

It is definitely her voice. But when she pulls back, it is definitely not –

Well hell, she's green. And not just her eyes and nailbeds and – fuck, her skin is actually green.

Bones comes next to her and pulls the chain of the turquoise necklace until the stone is in his palm. He presses the back of it, and suddenly her visage is different, it's –

Gaila looks over at him and then covers her mouth.

"Oops." She does an exaggerated shrug. "Sorry?"

"Yeah," I mutter, but - fuck it's a bit overwhelming. Like I've been thrown a surprise party after being run over by a semi truck.

But Gaila just painted her body, it's just paint on her body, it's just -

"Come on, Sugar," Bones murmurs as he pulls Gaila to the side. They stand beside two people I recognize - Nyota and Montgomery – but there's also an unfamiliar, older man next to Mrs. Robbins.

He is grayed and looks like he's been a sea-faring man all his life. With weathered skin and light eyes that contrast with his tanned features. He is wearing a simple black undershirt with a pair of dark slacks, but he looks – and seems to command respect – just by mere presence alone.

I stand up a bit straighter as he approaches me.

I can see him trying to smile, but the lines near his eyes appear more worried – and I have no idea why that would be. I have never seen this man in my entire life, and yet there is a strange gaze of affection in his kind expression.

"My name is Christopher Pike." He holds out a hand – which is also weathered and appears to have seen many things. I try to grip it strongly as we shake hands.

"You seem to have met most of us," he motions behind him, "except for me. So I wanted to meet you and let you know that you're welcome here."

He seems the kind of man that I would trust instantly under any other circumstance – the air of authority, with genuine sentiments behind his greeting. But, right now? While the fear has finally worn off, I can feel a growing agitation.

"Thank you," I say, trying not to sound entirely false. "It's nice meeting you."

He gives a polite smile before glancing past me at Spock. At this point I want to turn around and see what amazing expression Spock keeps showing to everybody, for Pike nods at him before looking back at me.

"I'll leave you two. You both have things to discuss."

I hope my smile isn't sarcastic, but there is a quirk to Pike's lip anyway. I watch him leave the room, with the others quickly following. Gaila gives me a quick wave before Bones pulls her along by her free hand.

It would be cute, except I can't think of anything cuter right now than some actual fucking answers.

I turn to face Spock, who is already watching my expression.

"Did you tell everyone to clear out?" I say quietly. The expanse of house seems to demand it, like it would spoil the wilderness.

Spock bows his head. "If you would come with me, we do have matters to discuss."

"We better," I mutter – but then Spock takes me by the wrist and leads me forward, not letting go even as we traverse a set of stairs to an upper level.

 

***

It feels like I'm in some sort of architectural paradise. All the walls are a muted gray or cream, and the space is spare of living details. Walking up the flight of stairs keenly demonstrates this – I think in any other house there would be pictures there, maybe of this family being together as a cohesive unit. But instead the walls are bare everywhere, highlighted by large windows that show a clear view of the Mississippi – which I imagine in the daytime is lovely and a grand expanse of nature. But in this darkness it's a choppy blackness, seeming to promise to swallow me whole.

When we reach the top of the stairs we turn a corner and Spock pauses before the first mahogany door. He pushes it open, then stands parallel to the doorframe as I peer inside.

One whole wall is a window, of course. But it's shrouded by a dense blanket of trees; that are probably vibrant with fall leaves in the daytime, yet look dead in the dark. There is a lamp in a far corner illuminating half of a large space – probably larger than my living room at home - yet it also seems sparsely decorated.

I give Spock a sideways glance. "You don't really live here, do you?"

I am leaning against the opposite side of the doorframe, when Spock tilts his head towards the inside.

But I'm not sure if I want to go in, Spock. The only way out would be to epically smash my head against the window, and even then, why do I suspect I would just bounce off like a confused bird?

"The windows are made for hurricane prone areas in the southern and eastern United States. I would not recommend it, although your personality is aptly described by one."

Cheeky bastard.

I walk inside and see the carpeting is an industrial gray, which is the same as the other parts of the house. It only reinforces my question as Spock quietly closes the door behind us.

"There is nothing really in here."

"I am not compelled to collect meaningless objects."

"Yeah, but life – life throws them at you, regardless of whether you want them or not."

Spock starts walking towards me. "I seem to have missed that announcement."

I remind myself that Spock and his family have only lived here a few months. Maybe it's possible to be without the details of a place well-lived - without fuzz on the carpeting, or an empty glass by the bed.

Except that, yeah - where is the bed?

"If you require rest, we may continue this conversation at another time."

I round on him with a look. "Don't bother getting out of this, Spock. You know what I mean."

Spock looks straight at me. "What did you mean?"

I meant that it looks more like a hotel than an actual home, and that I don't think anyone lives here.

"We do reside here."

"But that doesn't mean you sleep here."

"And why would that suggestion come to mind out of many others? Instead of the likelihood that perhaps we are not design-minded, nor wish to compete with others for our individual aesthetics."

"Because that's not reality, Spock."

Spock's eyebrow disappears under his skullcap, the white cotton hued blue in the moonlight. "Then if you would care to enlighten me on what reality is, Jim?"

It's bubbling up inside of me – all of the accusations, all of the pieces I want to fit together. Everything I want to yell at him, about what the fuck is actually going on.

But instead I just say, "You don't really live here." Spock doesn't say a word as I take a step closer. "In fact, that's why you disappear for days at a time. You go somewhere else and then come back here when you need more info."

I take a wide berth as I look to circle him - really look at him, the whole of him. "You have an ulterior motive, Spock. You're connected with that UFO – " and I point as he opens his mouth, "don't deny that it is a UFO now, because you know I saw the whole of it with my own fucking eyes."

"I am no longer interested in changing that point of view."

I take a stabbing step forward. "So you were trying to change my mind."

"I was concerned with your safety."

"And knowing that I saw some alien spaceship was jeopardizing whatever you were keeping quiet." I nod. "You're like the men in black, or something."

Spock's eyebrow disappears again. "I beg your pardon?"

"You come in, wipe everything blank, then try to clean up after some alien disaster."

"In a manner of speaking."

"Because the government doesn't want us to know."

"… I am not sure of which government you are referring."

I scrunch my brows. "You work for them?"

Spock seems to consider that a moment. "I am a representative for a governing body."

"Military."

"Correct."

I smirk. "Are you going to kill me for knowing that, now? That you're some military higher-up, covering up knowledge of aliens?"

"You have some interesting ideas of my agenda."

"So there's more to it?"

Spock quietly huffs, allowing me to cross back in front of him, before he looks me in the eye. "Unfortunately."

I wave a hand. "Then spit it out. I thought we had 'things to discuss'?"

"Indeed, so did I."

He looks at me pointedly and I shut my mouth.

Spock looks to the carpeting, as if he is debating the way to say something but rolling it around in his mouth.

I let out an exasperated sigh. "Can't you just say it?"

He takes a breath. "There is someone with a vengeance against you."

"...Huh?"

"He blames your father for his misfortune, and thus has decided to exact revenge on his progeny."

I sift through the words. "So you're basically saying someone is out to kill me because of my dad."

"Precisely."

That isn't exactly what I expected. "Well… why?"

Spock looks at the carpeting again. "Your father committed an act against him of which… he took great offense."

I frown. "My dad was a firefighter."

Spock says nothing, so I ask the obvious question. "Well, what did my dad supposedly do?"

"He prevented the deaths of many innocent people."

"Well, I guess that could piss someone off." I shake my head. "Why did he want to kill them, anyway?"

Spock thinks a moment. "That is an interesting question. From log tapes of the incident, Nero appeared to be looking for someone in particular. When he did not receive his answer, he went for decimation."

"Decimation? Like wiping out an entire city?"

Spock looks ready to open his mouth, but then closes it.

I narrow my eyes at him. "There is way more to this that you're not telling me. Especially since we're supposed to be talking about that UFO."

Spock looks up at me, hesitant. "We are talking about your unidentified object."

I look around the room in my confusion - as if I could find the answer more clearly with a different point of view, or hidden on that loveseat tucked into the corner, or on that bookshelf.

I shake my head. "I don't get it." I shake more fervently. "My dad was a firefighter. He never dealt with UFOs."

Spock breathes out deeply. "It appears… you have been misled."

I snort. "About what? Are you going to tell me that my entire life is a lie or something?"

Spock walks towards me and keeps his voice low. "If you will listen, I will tell you everything you need to know."

I throw up my hands. "Like you aren't supposed to already!" I shake him off in agitation, then cross my arms. "Fine - spill."

Spock's gaze doesn't waver. "Nero is the Romulan commander of the starship you have witnessed."

"Romulan?"

Spock gives me a look, and I shut my mouth.

"He arrived here from another… location and has been unable to return home for the last 10 years. In the interim, due to lack of technology to fix his vessel, he has decided to take up a search."

"In Riverside?"

"Nero was able to obtain your father's genealogical information."

I nod. "We have roots here, supposedly."

Spock nodded. "Indeed. In the year 2025, Walker Kirk buys out the failing business of Amundsen fields and starts planting a new line of genetically modified seeds. It is a business that his family keeps for many generations."

I frown at that. "What?"

Spock looks at me pointedly. "However in the year 2220, the youngest son leaves the Kirk family farms in order to pursue his dreams of exploring space. He enters Starfleet Academy and graduates with excellent marks."

I shake my head. "Wait a minute - 2220 isn't just a number."

"Indeed not."

"It's a year. In the future."

"Precisely."

I look around the room again, wondering if this is the point where the drugs wear off or if I start melting into the floor. "What - why are you stating things about the future? A supposed future." I look closer at him, his pale face solemn in the muted light, and I tilt my head. "I'm sorry, but are you saying you're psychic or something?"

"While there are some species who exhibit those cognitive abilities, I am not one of them."

I point, "Okay - those species. Those. You're not talking about humans, it's like – that Rommy-whatever dude you were talking about."

"Romulan. He is from the planet Romulus, which is several light years from here."

"Light years," I murmur. I search Spock's face, and when I don't see even a smirk to give him away, I shake my head. "You're fucking bullshitting me."

"I assure you, I am not."

"Here we've been, going back and forth about me seeing a UFO, and you're fucking telling me about aliens?"

"I am giving you the relevant facts."

"Yeah, but not the one that concerns me – what the fuck does this have to do with my father?"

Spock purses his lips. "In the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin - "

"Cute, we have scientific names for starships."

"- encounters a phenomenon in space known as a black hole. What emerges from that anomaly is a vessel that those of the Federation had never seen before."

"I thought black holes ate things."

Spock's eyebrow rises. "In this instance, it appears to have been a method of dimension and time-traveling for Nero and his crew aboard the Romulan vessel the Narada."

I put my hands up to my face, because – there is so much fucking bullshit here, that all I can do is listen and try to understand a miniscule of what Spock has said.

"The Kelvin approached the Narada, the latter of which decided to take hostile actions against a peaceful scientific research vessel. Nero took hostage their captain, and when he did not receive the information he wanted, executed him without mercy and targeted his ship. This left the Kelvin's first officer as Captain."

Why do I have a sinking feeling in my gut? The kind that wants to jump from the confines of my body to disappear through the mantles of the Earth below?

Spock is silent a moment, and I feel the precipice of the bullet. Perhaps one I'm dodging, if Spock has no more to tell me - who can't have more to tell me -

"That first officer's name was George Kirk."

I whip my hands from my face. "Fuck you. Fuck you and your little story. If you're about to tell me that my dad – who was a firefighter with the SFFD for five years – "

"He was not."

"My dad saved fucking kittens. He saved people from burning buildings. He was known in the community for being a hero. He died while saving a woman from apartment 223- "

I stare at the ground, not wanting to click the pieces together.

Spock says quietly, "Have you met these members of your community?"

I raise my gaze to the glass wall and don't even bother to shake my head. "My dad was a firefighter," I say meekly.

"Your father was captain for 15 minutes and saved 300 people from Nero's grasp."

I look around the room, hoping to see a wastebasket. Instead I touch my stomach and turn away from Spock.

"While your father ordered an evacuation of his vessel, he armed the Kelvin to self-destruct before collision with the Narada. in an attempt to distract and perhaps maim the larger ship. However, due to technical difficulties from previous enemy fire, your father could not compute the destruct sequence and leave – it had to be done manually."

My fingers reach up to rub the inner corners of my eyes and I don't want to hear anymore.

"His actions have been considered the model for self-sacrifice and true leadership, ever since."

I swallow. "I don't understand. I don't understand what this has to do with me."

I hear a few steps behind me. "Since that incident, your mother and the infant she gave birth to were considered casualties."

I wave my hands. "Fine - fine." I turn around and see Spock not more than a few feet away. "But if Nero is from the future, how did he wind up here?" I point to the floor. "You know, here - the 21st century, the year 2010, where we are currently standing and speaking? Reality."

Spock contemplates that a moment. "Twenty-five years from the date of the Kelvin, another vessel appears through the black hole. It is carrying a substance which can destroy planets…"

Spock looks out the glass wall and there is – there is something there. I get the sense that it isn't just idle viewing but that Spock sees something there, perhaps in remembrance.

"Starfleet headquarters receives a distress call from Vulcan, a planet which is – was – in the Federation." Spock looks down. "However as they respond, Nero is quick to destroy aid. Except for one vessel, the Enterprise, which Nero recognizes from his own timeline."

I patiently wait as Spock clasps his hand behind his back and looks at the night. "That vessel was manned by Captain Christopher Pike, with his wife and first officer, Lieutenant Commander Robbins. When Nero demanded that Pike speak to Nero on the Narada, Robbins was left as acting-captain."

Spock looks over at me and – yes, yes I know you're talking about the people downstairs. Go on with your bullshit.

Spock looks straight at me. "Nero destroyed Vulcan, despite the attempts of our vessel to prevent him. Against my advice, First Officer Robbins decided to pursue Nero in an attempt to rescue our captain and prevent him from destroying Earth. It wound up being… more complicated than we imagined."

Spock takes a step towards me. "We pursued him to this galaxy, of which we stopped beside the rings of Saturn. Myself, Robbins, and… Security Officer Kirk beamed aboard the Narada, in an attempt to rescue Pike."

I narrow my eyes, but Spock continues. "When we boarded the Narada, Kirk was assumed to have been killed while protecting Robbins as she escaped with Captain Pike." Spock watches my face carefully. "However I piloted a small vessel within the ship, which contained the planet-destroying device known as red matter. I was… rescued from the vessel before it collided with the Narada."

I swallow, remembering how that other ship went before.

"This created a black hole within the Narada, which devoured the vessel. The site of impact impaired our capabilities to warp immediately out of orbit and thus – we were consumed along with it."

I thought black holes ate things.

"When Nero entered this time period, it was ten seconds before us. This resulted in a ten year gap between the arrival of the Narada and ourselves."

I shake my head. "Why didn't the black hole destroy either one of you? This isn't making sense to me – they eat things. And the planet-killing-thing ate a planet, but yet both of you survived?"

Spock tilted his head. "We expected the same. However the vessel you have seen is not the vessel we have dealt with in the past – in actuality, it is a length close to a third of the original size. We assume Nero escaped in this vessel once he realized he did not die with his ship, but was more incapacitated."

I huff a sharp laugh. "How convenient is that? And that, gee, you just happened to follow along and be in the same place and all that bullshit." I wave a hand and start to turn away. "You know, you could've stuck with the men in black shit, I wouldn't have told anyone. This is just – just – " I wordlessly look around " – this is just insulting my intelligence."

Spock is within a foot of me and I want to back up – but instead he reaches out towards me.

"I have one last piece of evidence which may help in your pursuit of the truth." We are in breath space and Spock takes both of my wrists, sliding down to the hands and pulling them forward. "If you will give me one more opportunity, I will show you."

My hands are tingling and his skin is warmer – warmer than lying in the sun on a hot day. Like the metal of a car in the summer, about to scorch as he pulls my hands towards his face and pushes them upward.

I can feel the cotton on my fingertips as his eyes stare into mine, and I realize he is asking permission.

I hold my breath as I nod. I feel wisps of hair as my fingers are pushed under the hem.

The white skullcap catches at the curve of the head. But once it is above the forehead it slides off, and Spock holds my hands at the back of his neck as the cap falls soundlessly to the floor.

At first, I don't know what I'm looking for. The hair is mussed, long and curled into tendrils around his hairline and ears and –

He pushes my fingers to tuck a strand of hair behind an ear and - I feel it. I feel it, the shape, the shape of his ear -

"Oh God," I gasp, my mouth gaping without my volition. My body curls inward to pull out, to pull away –

They are pointed. His ears, Spock's ear – like a fucking elf. Except they are more grotesque, much larger, exaggerated –

"Oh God," I cry again and Spock releases my fingers and silently watches – his eyes not unlike a lion. Watching, watching me as I back up –

"Shit," I say as I feel an end table at my hip. Fuck, fuck my life – I can't grapple for purchase, and I can't escape, and I can't get away –

Spock says quietly, "I will not hurt you."

Oh God, Spock, what the fuck are you?

"I am from Vulcan."

The name is ringing familiar in my mind, not just from Spock's mention, but –

That text message.

Fuck, I'm going to vomit -

"You shall sleep," Spock says as he reaches up and cradles my head gently with both hands.

I doubt a moment, and then I do.

 

Chapter Eleven: The things that could have been, but weren't – and the things that could be, but probably won't.

 

I try to open my eyelids but they are so incredibly heavy, my mind not really wanting to fight the battle, but I struggle.

There is a female voice. Too high-pitched at first, then settling lower in tone.

" - Found faint traces of DNA – "

My head feels underwater, but I swim to the surface, just as a gruffer male voice answers.

"Ain't no doubt about it - damn."

There is shuffling around me as I open my eyes.

To my left I see the faint outline of Spock. He has his white skullcap completely off, with his long hair parted behind his ears.

As I try to focus, he says softly, "It was necessary."

Why?

"You were in distress."

Oh. Oh. Fuck my life, I remember now.

"Hey there, Jim – not so fast."

I turn my head to the right, the motion feeling like sludge, until I spot Bones out of the corner of my eye.

My ears filter the noise in the room until I hear Nyota Uhura – that was the voice, I guess – speaking from the other end near the door.

"Permission to trail the spacecraft, sir."

"Denied." I see Pike looking regretful. "I know Sam Kirk was a friend of yours. He is a loss to us all, but – "

"It's not just that, sir. Nero appears to have a plan, and I wish to figure out exactly what that is."

"The Enterprise is monitoring all frequencies and tracking all possible movement – "

"But we always seem a step behind. No offense Captain, but I would rather keep an eye on him far away from base than right on top of us."

At that moment, Pike and Uhura look at me. Her eyes widen and she looks back quickly at Pike, who minutely shakes his head.

Sam Kirk.

There is a slight buzzing – chirping? – from my right, and I look over to see Bones hold the gray box from before, scanning up and down my form.

"He looks fine. Just some shock." Bones quirks a lip at me. "You doin' okay?"

I stare at him wordlessly. If Spock is from the future, then –

"He is."

I look back at Spock – yeah, when will this ever stop being freaky?

"It is a matter of acclimating to the information you have received and then processing – "

Sam Kirk. Who is Sam Kirk?

Spock's lips close and form a slight line in thought.

Bones leans forward. "Thinky Vulcan, what is it?"

Spock doesn't really answer, and I just watch him – not about to give any hints for what Spock might be trying to bullshit through.

I'll find my answers. Somehow.

"It is a matter of the present not being the proper time, with questionable liabilities."

I furrow my brow. "What?"

At that, Captain Pike marches into our space and peers down at me, where I finally realize that we've been around and on a sort of… lounge chair? Chaise, this entire time.

"Hello, Jim." Captain Pike gives a brusque nod, not wavering his hazel gaze. "How are you doing?"

I fumble with the right words and they croak out, "Shitty?"

Pike gives a slight smile. "That sounds about right." He looks down at the edge of the chaise, and holds my ankle as he finds room to sit down. It's… a strange action from this guy I've never met.

He looks straight at me. "Some things have changed since Spock last talked to you."

I turn to Spock. "How long have I been out?"

"Approximately four hours and 23 minutes."

I huff – damn, it's weird to not know when you're missing out on that much of the world.

"There appears to be – " and Spock looks back at Pike " – a new concern with Nero."

"You mean besides wanting to kill me?"

Captain Pike glances at Spock, who tilts his head slightly in my direction.

Pike frowns. "Well, it seems he has a more… direct focus in doing so."

I look at him sideways. "So he really wants to kill me now?"

Captain Pike quirks a lip. "Again, sounds about right."

I nod. "What a pissy guy."

Pike smirks again, and when he looks back at me I can see there is a slight fondness.

I'm going to play that for all it's worth.

I wave a hand and let it flop on the chaise. "So, what – I'm gonna go home, and just be sure to keep a bat by the bed?"

Captain Pike puts on what I imagine to be his über serious business face. "Absolutely not."

"Okay," I say and gesture with my hand again. "So, I'm gonna go out into a field and be the bait for you guys?"

Captain Pike gives a look to Spock, and I would swear I hear a quiet huff.

I lean forward. "I mean, I know what happened to that other guy, but – I can run around again and then you could – "

Bones snorts. "Tame the martyr instinct, kid. They ain't letting you do no such thing."

Captain Pike nods. "Dr. McCoy is right. We would prefer – "

"Doctor?" I look over at Bones and – okay, seeing him in this kind of light does explains a few things.

Captain Pike shakes his head. "Listen to me – it would be a bad idea to go out there right now. Nero has his sights trained on you and – "

"He can't penetrate houses?" I motion around us. "What, is this an extra-special house of steel or something, proofed to keep the baddies out?"

Spock tilts his head. "It is indeed 'proofed' in a manner, which may qualify for your – "

Pike gives an exasperated sigh. "What I'm saying Jim, is that it would be safer, and much easier for us to protect you, if you stayed here."

There is a pause in the conversation as I take a moment to think about that. The idea that Nero, the alien in the spaceship who fucked up that guy - melted him, I don't even know – is after me? Could do the same thing to me?

Staying here makes sense, I guess. And then I think, "What about my mom?"

Pike seems to relax a moment – maybe because I've agreed to stay, I don't know.

"We have surveillance on your mom and her husband Frank." Pike leans in to whisper. "I will keep them safe, I swear on it."

A part of me relaxes, too. I feel a moment of guilt for even forgetting, even for an instance –

Mom knows all of this, doesn't she?

Pike starts to get up from the chaise. "I will leave you gentlemen, as I have some business to attend – "

"Why don't you just take us all to your ship?"

Pike halts, his legs still bent as he looks at me.

But I persist. "Mom knows about you guys, right? She just hasn't told me." There is a small wave of anger building up in my stomach, but I push it down. "So wouldn't it be safer – "

"Believe it or not – " and Pike stands now " – the safest place for both of you is here on Earth."

I make a face. "Seriously?"

Pike looks over at Spock and tilts his head in my direction. "Convene with me after you're finished."

At that, Pike walks to the door and leaves the room – and there is a remarkably grand absence of presence.

I look around us, and notice that it is only Spock, Bones, and me in this expanse of room.

It feels private and solitary and I'm not sure why.

"You are not alone."

I look over at Spock. "What did he mean?"

Spock makes that thinky face again and I narrow my eyes. 

"You can just flat-out tell me, you know. I think my delicate flower moment passed like five hours ago."

I feel a pat on the arm and glance at Bones.

It's not the smirking or grumbling expression I expect. But instead there's softness around his features, kind of similar to Pike's – except seeing it on Bones? Kind of scares me.

"This is bad, isn't it."

Bones quirks a lip, then looks past me towards Spock. There's a moment where they must've agreed through super-secret sign language of the future or something, 'cause Bones turns back to me and starts to explain.

"So you know that guy you saw in Cedar Rapids?"

I nod.

Bones looks past me again, and then, "Well, um, you see – "

"Samuel George was indeed George Samuel Kirk, our former security officer."

I turn to Spock. Former, huh?

"It appears he perished in an incident with the Narada."

I think about the guy melting again – the man with hazel eyes who stared at me, and then plead with the sky for what the meaning of his life was.

I take a deep breath. "He said he was found in a field or something."

"His mind was fractured by the Romulan crew."

"How?" I shake my head. "So they fucked him up and then left him here?"

"It is quite possible the Romulans did not want to deal with him. After he exceeded his usefulness, he was initially discarded on what they deemed to be his home planet."

"But they didn't kill him. Why?"

Spock thought a moment on that. "There are several plausible scenarios. It is possible than Sam Kirk was used as a lure for our purposes here."

"But you never rescued him."

I didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation, but Spock only nods. "It was regrettable. We believed he had been killed on the Narada, in our own time. We were not aware of his presence until recently."

I narrow my eyes at him. "How recently?"

Spock looks at the chaise, before raising his gaze. "When you expressed interest at his book signing, a week before."

I look over at Bones, who looks busy with his medical kit.

I glance quickly between the two of them and let the thought blurt out. "You were in Cedar Rapids to check it out."

"I was not this evening - "

"No." I say, twisting my body to face him. "When you rescued me before, you actually were just in the neighborhood, but for Sam."

Spock nods. "I could not tell you at the time."

Obviously.

"So, what, Sam's been missing for a week and you didn't go look for him?"

"There were certain complications. Once we ascertained his previous locations, he had seemingly disappeared."

I nod. "He mentioned something about being abducted by them."

"Well hell, that seems to suggest it was a trap after all."

We both look at Bones, and he looks past me.

"Nero's been using him to get to us."

"Or perhaps Nero was using him to get into contact with Jim."

I scrunch my brow. "Why? I mean, I'm guessing from the name we're related, but it's not like I knew him – "

I'm stopped by the intensity in the room suddenly ramping ten notches. What the hell am I missing?

I look at Spock. "What, is he my long-lost cousin or something?"

There is a grand hesitation, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

"This really is bad."

"Kid," Bones lays a hand on my shoulder. "I'm gonna give it to you straight."

"Well, thank God somebody will – "

"I knew Sam Kirk throughout my time at the academy. He was bright, enthusiastic, and one of the greatest men I ever knew. He pulled me out of more sticky spots than I could ever repay him for, and he still managed to live his life the way he wanted and pursue a passion of his 'til – until that damn Romulan ship."

He glances at his medical kit, where we both can see a bottle of amber liquid, before he looks back at me.

"Jim, Sam Kirk was your brother. Your older brother that was left on Earth when your father died and you and your mother escaped Nero."

I feel that rising panic bubble up again in my throat, but I swallow.

"Mom never…" Of course she wouldn't. She didn't even want to tell me that we came from the fucking future.

"He excelled at Starfleet, Jim. His goal was to someday get into space. He wanted to meet the… the way he put it, 'the demon night', the one that took away his family."

There's a part of me squeezing, like a fist around my heart. I think about all the times at the piano, at how lonely I'd been. How it had been Mom and me for so long. How there were times when I had asked her for a brother and she had looked… so sad.

Maybe Mom had been running away from 'the demon night', since there was no way, it seemed, to run towards it.

Bones squeezes my shoulder and I feign a smile at him.

"I'm okay."

"You don't look okay."

I don't know what there is to say. I remember his agony when he was melted – eviscerated - tortured in that light beam, that laser beam.

Nero took someone away that I could've really cared about – twice.

"I'm a little angry," I admit quietly.

"We all are." Bones sighs. "I wish I could tell you what he meant to me." Bones gets up and starts to gather his supplies. "If you want to talk about him some time, I'm always willing." He looks past me to Spock. "But I'm guessing you guys have business, still."

Once Bones gathers everything into his kit, he nods to both of us and then walks out. When he does, it is like a plug being pulled and the world crashing down to finally being real.

I suck in a breath and look at Spock, who seems distinctly uncomfortable, with hands folded neatly in his lap.

But he says softly, "I grieve with thee."

And it is still one of the most apt and comforting phrases I have ever heard.

 

***

Spock thankfully seems to understand the notion of needing space. Afterwards he lets me lay in his room a while as I look up at his ceiling and think about it all.

I had a brother.

I don't know what it is, exactly. All of these combinations of things I was so unsure of before, entirely skeptical, but now are compacted into one thought or fact that I am holding onto so strongly.

Sam Kirk was my brother. And he sounded like a great man.

I don't know if I would've felt like this if I had heard that he had lived an ordinary life – one without this space service, where he felt free to live the way he wanted.

But he had been looking for us – for me. And in a way found me, without the satisfaction and fulfillment that would bring.

I swallow a lump in my throat. He had been here at least a year and Mom and I had no idea – nor a way to bring back his memories, even if we did.

I suddenly have to move, and I get off the chaise. I don't have an exact idea of the passage of time, except that the trees look less dead and more menacing in the gray-turned-umber hue of night. Things look fuzzier, but with the imminent expectation of dawn.

Spock is reporting to Pike, and I wonder what exactly he is telling him and vice versa. What they are saying about me - about all of this.

I run my fingertips across a small end table and feel the tug on the corner of my mouth when it leaves marks – trails in the dust. I rub my fingertips together, watching the small cylinders roll across the pad of my finger and fall to the carpet.

There isn't much to look at, really. I rub my hands on my pants and then walk towards a section of bookshelf.

All considering, it seems strange that Spock would even bother with books. I mean, who would even come here, really? Who would he fool in this world that has no clue? And some of them do look like plain filler – things I wouldn't imagine Spock reading, even with his brain: Medical dictionaries from 1970 and old copies of Reader's Digest.

Of course I never asked whether they built this house or if it was new. Maybe a lot of this shit was here before, ready for them on the spot when they moved in.

On the other hand, on the top shelf, there appears to be a row of books that look incredibly different from the others. A bit darker with age, perhaps worn from use.

My fingers grasp the top edge of one and I pull it towards me, bringing a small sprinkling of dust with it. I turn my face and hold my breath as I let the particles settle.

I brush off the book carefully with a sleeve and - nothing becomes clearer about it, nothing at all.

I expect to at least recognize the language that it's in. Whether it's Asian, or Egyptian - or a whole variety of possibilities, considering who Spock is.

But I flip open the book and narrow my gaze at a middle section, covered with the same sort of curved, simple script.

No, it's still mystifying.

Considering that Spock is apparently an alien, that is my best guess. Inconspicuously hanging out on a bookshelf with a variety of other items, trying to blend in. Maybe it was his only life raft and sort of amusement for whenever he was ever stuck here, for whatever reason.

I shake my head - man, can you imagine coming from the future and dealing with this world? Our wars, our bullshit and bigotry, our world hunger.

Mom used to say that we were too angry and dirty for any aliens to ever deal with us - way too violent - hence why we've never been contacted. And I have to confess, knowing the truth, that maybe there is some mild embarrassment - some wish that we were better. Better for these guys.

But I sit on the chaise again and flip through the book. This is what aliens talk about, how they communicate.

There are sections to the book, and when I flip through each header, one stops me cold.

"You are curious."

I whip my head behind me to see that Spock had entered soundlessly – the door had shut without even giving a clue.

I don't know whether I should feel guilty, but – fuck it.

"These are the crop circles – these are the hieroglyphs!" I blurt out breathlessly as I stand up to meet him.

When Spock makes no indication of thought, I bring the book with me, index finger to mark my spot.

"Those crop circles that Nero is making - they're directed at you."

Spock still makes no movement as I get close to him and I let the book fall open in my hands.

My finger moves along the five hieroglyphs in the header. "What does it mean, Spock?"

He is looking out towards the trees, and I wait a silent minute, trying to patiently wait.

Please tell me, Spock.

He looks back at me with his eyes holding similar from hours before, when he told me about his timeline. There must be something painful.

"Nero has a vendetta against my alternate self."

I frown. "What?"

He breathes out deeply. "Nero was not the only one to cross dimensions. An older version of myself passed with him and inspired his vengeance against Vulcan… my home planet."

I let the book shut and hold it close to me. A whole planet.

Suddenly it connects for me – Spock is Vulcan, but Vulcan was destroyed. I look up at him, not sure of what to say, but state the only thing that has comforted me: "I grieve with thee."

Spock tilts his head and we watch each other. I see his eyes analyzing my features, making what he will of them. Maybe he thinks I'm being shallow or have no idea what he's going through – I don't. But fuck man, your entire planet. Your home.

Spock looks down at the book I've clenched. "That is a book of philosophical teachings." His hands pause a moment, before he reaches out with gentle fingers to caress an edge. "It is written in ancient Vulcan calligraphy, and may be one of the few remaining copies of such a text."

I look down at it and wordlessly take my finger out of the bookmarked spot, pressing the pages gently together. I go to hand the book back to him, but his fingertips touch my own and there is – there is a spark. Not a bolt, or something jarring, but the muscles of my fingers and through my palm tingle pleasurably.

Spock doesn't move away. "The chapter you saw refers to a legend among my kind. The possibilities of which are rare, yet intensely cherished."

"And Nero knows of it?" I ask quietly.

"He is aware." Spock's fingers slide over my own before they take the book back. "The bond of t'hy'la is envied by many."

The word is at the tip of my tongue, but the syllables still sound strange. "What is it?"

Spock looks up at me, and his eyes – they fucking pierce me, nail me to the spot. I lose all thought as I stare too long, overwhelmed by what I can only feel as want in his eyes, with pure, unadulterated need.

It is heady – and it's directed towards me, of all people.

Spock breaks the gaze and reaches out to take my wrist, caressing the vein underneath and causing my breath to hitch.

He glances at me curiously - Spock can't be ignorant of what he's doing to me, can he?

Spock doesn't let go, not for an instant. "T'hy'la means brother, friend, and lover in my language. It was formerly a bond between male warriors, when Vulcan was a more primitive planet." He lets out a harsh sigh. "It is the combination of those words, and yet beyond them."

Spock's fingers trail slightly upward, causing all the nerve endings in my body to alight and catch fire. How could I be so turned on from a single touch? A finger soothing small circles, repetitive yet electric each time.

I want him to keep touching me - I want the universe to end before he ever stops.

His finger trails down to the wrist, and he grasps lightly as he peers back at me.

"Nero knows that in his dimension our alternate selves had a history." His grasp tightens as his voice rasps, "He is accusing us of being t'hy'la."

His hand shifts just enough that an errant finger of mine can caress his wrist, and the feeling intensifies. Not only through his gasp, but through an electrical current skating our skin, traveling throughout our bodies. The same finger traces a vein and his fingers jerk to squeeze my wrist.

He doesn't stop me, and I ask in a rough voice, "How are you sure?"

He swallows. "It is more than the interpreted intention in his messages." He looks directly at me. "It is also what I feel, when I am with you."

He releases his grip and lets his palm slide down, whispering against mine, until my fingertips brush a mound of flesh and his breath becomes ragged.

Not wanting it to end, I twist our palms together and thrust my fingers through his so our hands smack, crushing and demanding never to let go.

It is explosive – a harsh gasp ripped from me, a shuddering breath from Spock - as he takes his other hand and traps our clasped frenzy.

I want to collide with him, but our hands are more intense than anything I could ever dream. Their electricity more stark than touching myself, or having someone touch me, taste me – tasting him.

I feel lightning throughout my head, and my face goes hot as I look up at him and try to concentrate on what he's saying.

"It is what allows me to interpret your impressions."

"What?" I rasp.

"My mind, sensing t'hy'la, formed a link with yours, sought yours, without my knowledge." He steps closer. "When I saw you, I knew – and when I touched you, collided with you, it came to life."

"When?"

"When I pushed – when I pushed the car away."

I pant, standing still, not wanting to let go – God, what does it mean? You confessed.

"On Vulcan, we are joined through our minds." He licks his lips. "It is a part of a union, merged with body and spirit. A bond."

His eyes cast down and there is a moment – his gaze darts to the floor, and I can feel him slipping away.

"Spock," I say as I see him lift his top hand. I squeeze his fingers.

I love you Spock, please don't let go.

He rips his fingers from me and we're both panting as he stumbles a few feet away.

He leans against the wall. "A bond is irrevocable. It cannot be broken without harming its participants."

I bend over, pressing against my knees as I look at the floor.

God, Spock doesn't want me? We both felt that, and yet –

"It is not a matter of wanting."

I look up and see him watching me.

"It is a matter of realizing what may occur and its consequences."

I shake my head. "I don't understand."

"With this link, it can form a bond. If we – touch too often, or progress further, it would merge on its own without an ability to stop it."

I stand up, my heart heavy. "I still don't understand."

He looks out towards the trees. "If we followed this and we bonded, it would be an immeasurable loss to both of us if I went back to my own time."

I choke out a breath with that punch to the gut.

That is something I hadn't realized. Spock would want to go back, wouldn't he? He would leave me here and go back to where he belongs – where I was supposed to belong.

I look up at him and the remorse in his eyes is so naked, yet his face is the same – stoic, masked. But I can see it and I feel the burning of it at the edges of consciousness as it mirrors mine.

Oh, Spock. This shit always happens to me – but for once, I care more that it bothers you.

The room lightens perceptibly, starting to merge with the yellow glow of the lamp behind us. I feel so exhausted - this night, these feelings.

Spock takes a moment to compose himself, before his hand leaves the wall and he straightens.

"You may rest here," he states quietly.

I want to rest with you.

He looks towards the chaise and then back at me, the action speaking more than the no that will probably fall from his lips and crush me.

But instead there are thumping footsteps in the hall, and then a mad swing as Captain Pike enters and lets the door smack against the wall.

He takes a moment to look between the both of us before saying gruffly, "We must leave. Now."

 

Chapter Twelve: I went on a road trip and all I got were these feelings.

 

Spock and I follow Captain Pike out and down the long flight of stairs. His pace is hurried, and both of us match steps until we reach everyone gathered in the living room.

All of them look gunned up for something. I look over at Spock, who seems to have his game face on, all strict and straight-backed with sharp angles.

Pike is handed a small gray object, which he tucks under the back of his shirt.

"Jim," he says as he nods to Spock and me. "I'm sending you with Mr. Scott and Mr. Uhura."

I make a face. "Why?"

He gives me a patient look, probably meaning he only wants to bash my head in somewhat. "Nero is on the warpath, big time. He's got guys all over the planet for you, scoping you out."

"Captain, would it not be more reasonable to beam aboard – "

"No." Now Pike looks about to bash Spock's face in. "You know why."

"Jim already has knowledge of our activities. I am in agreement with Lieutenant Commander Robbins and Ensign Gaila that he should not be ignorant – "

"I'm not bringing them aboard, Spock. That's not about ignorance, that's about avoiding an epic space battle in the range of some telescope." He turns towards me. "My guys are professionals."

I tick a finger. "So I should just do what they say?"

He claps me on the back and grins at Spock. "This kid, he learns fast."

Captain Pike walks past us and I can tell – without even looking – that Spock is most definitely not appeased.

But Spocks follows him by walking towards the group, who are passing out equipment and exchanging information.

I catch bits and pieces, as it sounds like Pike and Spock will guard Mom and Frank – and thank God, really. I don't know everyone else, but I feel sure that Pike and Spock would do everything in their power to protect them.

That's all I can ask for really, as I hang back and watch them work.

Nyota Uhura has out a tablet, which appears to have a map on it. "We are going to drive in this direction and get him as physically far away from here as possible."

"We goin' tae take stops at tae major cities, but  jist keep oon drivin' 'til we get word."

Spock nods at Montgomery Scott. "We will keep track of Winona and Frank Malloy's whereabouts in Chicago. Enterprise reports they arrived there yesterday afternoon."

I pipe up, "I know the exact hotel and everything."

They all turn towards me, and I sheepishly grin – yeah, why do I feel like the little kid who just approached the adult's table?

"That would be helpful," Spock answers me. Which seems to prompt Nyota to put away the tablet while everyone straightens up.

It all seems to happen so fast, but when I look outside there is a clear fall morning. And yeah, the trees do look vibrant with fire, with the Mississippi not belying the anxiety in the air.

Or perhaps it's just me.

I'm corralled out to a black SUV, which does not look shiny in the slightest and about the furthest from what Spock and Captain Pike head to.

As I hear Bones and Gaila get into his truck, I stare at Spock until he returns my gaze.

We'll see each other again, won't we?

Spock gives a slight nod, before he opens the driver's door to his silver Volvo and gets inside.

I'm still watching when I feel a hand on my shoulder.

"Get in, lad." I turn and see Montgomery's slight smile. "Doon want tae make my lass angry – she gets feisty on a mission."

"What's the hold up?"

Nyota looks out her driver's window with a furrowed expression and I wince.

"Sorry, just –" I point towards the back door and pull it open. "Yeah, getting in now."

As it shuts I look at the gray leather interior and realize that the inside is way nicer – and roomier – than it appears on the outside.

And thank God, 'cause it sounds like this could be the longest road trip in existence.

As Montgomery gets in, he is a bit… chipper. He puts on his seat belt, lets the shoulder strap snap, while Uhura huffs and looks at her rearview mirror.

I see the silver Volvo pass us, and then we reverse and turn around to go out the long driveway and onto the main road.

When we're there, Montgomery turns around in his seat.

"I doon think we've properly met." He holds out a hand. "I'm Montgomery Scott, but e'eryone calls me Scotty – ye can, too." He grins and sticks a thumb in Nyota's direction. "This be Nyota Uhura, but she doon let anyone call her Nyota 'cept me and Spock."

"Not true." She looks in the mirror at me. "You can call me Nyota, but there is a level of respect I try to keep with my co-workers."

"Underlings."

"Co-workers." She turns to glare at him. "Don't make me sic Keenser on you when we get home. You know he gets testy when you tease me."

He holds out his hands. "I'm no sayin' anythin', just makin' conversation."

I try to smile, but all I can think about is the silver Volvo – and what Nyota and Scotty would think if I turned in my seat to watch out the back window.

Instead I meet eyes with Nyota in her rearview mirror.

"He's okay, Jim. He knows what he's doing."

I have no doubts. It's just me needing him that I have no idea what to do about.

 

***

Scotty isn't as annoying as I expected.

Sure it's 18 hours into the drive, with few breaks in-between that I've mostly slept through - my jacket bunched up as a pillow, while the car smoothly rides along. But Scotty does interrupt occasionally with his observations.

"Ye think they're buildin' shipyards in this wasteland, what with only a few wee beasties for miles around – "

"National Grassland. It's protected for the botanical value, probably."

"What, I've – I've seen better grass on the moon than this here wheat field!"

I glimpse out the window – yeah, I was with Scotty on this one. The whole of Wyoming could sink with that massive volcano in Yellowstone, for all it was worth.

"They've found a lot of fossils out here and all up into the Badlands."

"Ach, then dig the bloody things up 'n be done with it!"

She gives him the side-eye. "You are aware that there are no shipyards here now, in the 21st century, right?"

Scotty snorts. "It's all the same in oor time, as well. Protectin' nothin', when we have tae wait years fer space."

Nyota sighs. "It might be different now, what with... everyone gone."

There's silence, and I'm not sure what it's about.

It gives me time to look at the ceiling, however, and trace shapes into the upholstery. Think about Spock, think about what's going on.

Mostly about Spock.

I feel a buzz in my pocket and pull it out – damn, I don't have a charger, I hope it isn't running low.

But instead I see a text message.

 You doing okay, hon? We're in Chicago having a great time. Love you, miss you. Mom.

I look at the number – it's not her usual in my address book, but maybe she had to get a prepaid replacement or something. It happens.

My thumbs hover over the buttons. What could I even say? Yeah Mom, just having an existential crisis, love you. Xoxoxoxox. .

Doing okay. Glad you're having fun. Love and miss you too.

Yeah, she didn't need to know the rest of this crap - although technically she knows most of this crap.

I frown at the ceiling, and my expression doesn't change much until we pull over at a gas station in Pavillion, Wyoming; surrounded by truckers in the evening haze of station lights.

I get out to use the restroom and pad a pocket for my wallet - I could probably do with some Twizzlers, a Pepsi, and some Cheetos. Once inside I pass a mounted Jackolope head on my way to the bathroom, where again I feel a buzzing in my pocket.

I push open the door and look at my cell. New text message.

This time it isn't actually words, but a picture. As I stand before the stalls I tilt the small screen around, trying to determine what I'm looking at. There's a sidewalk, I think. A building? It's too dark and blurry to really tell.

A feel a bump to my shoulder and I twist a bit.

"Sorry," a gruff voice says. When I look, the guy is already at a sink in his maroon uniform, washing his hands.

Right, I came in here for something.

I'm still looking at my phone though as I finish and wash up. There's just… something about it.

Mom probably had her camera option on by accident. It happens.

I exit the restroom and find Scotty near the snacks. Just where I was headed.

"These things," he pokes a package of Pringles, "they come in a tube." I open my mouth but he keeps going. "And like, you can stack thirty of 'em and eat 'em all at once!"

I nod slowly... they must not make thin, crispy snacks in the future?

He takes two tubes, thinks a moment, and then takes a third.

"Nyota'll be ragin', but a man's gotta eat!"

I notice the sandwiches he has under an arm, and for some reason I don't think he has much issues in that regard.

But as I find my requisite snacks of awesome and join Scotty in checkout, I feel the buzzing again. I pull my phone out, and this time it's a messy hotel room.

"What ya got there, lad?"

I shake my head. "Stuff from Mom." I take one last look at the photo and stuff the phone back in my pocket.

It still bothers me though, as we're back on the road again and I haven't touched my Cheetos.

"You are so vacuuming this car the next time we get out."

Scotty waves a hand, crunching a stack in his mouth. "Wot?"

Nyota shakes her head and wipes a few crumbs off her side of the car.

I would smile normally, except my gut is telling me not to.

I pull out my phone and send a quick text.

 Hey – I got 2 pictures from you? Just wondering about them.

I wait for the confirmation of my silliness as I continue to hear Scotty and Nyota go back and forth.

"Ye fancy a crisp?"

"No."

"They are tasty?"

"No."

"You can stack 'em and – "

"No."

I feel the buzz in my hand and quickly look.

Instead of the reassuring words I expect, I see a dark and blurry photo. There are a bunch of curved objects – maybe white objects? Slivers, like fingernails, all forming an arch.

I can't even guess what that is. And it bugs me that it doesn't even feel like Mom.

Scotty turns on a radio station again, resorting to the only signal that comes in clear, which is twangy country. I don't even wish for my iPod as I sit with my worry.

I sit up, putting my head between the seats.

"Nyota?"

She turns her head slightly. "What's up?"

I lean my cheek again her seat. "Have you heard from Spock?"

Her lips set into a thin line. "I heard from them when you did, when they reached Chicago. But no."

That doesn't make me feel any better. It's been 12 hours. "When are they going to check in again?"

"Anytime now." She looks back at me and narrows her eyes. "Why?"

I make a face, but shake my head. "Nothing. Just a bad feeling I have."

She takes a deep breath and tries a reassuring smile. "Don't worry Jim, they're both professionals. They'll keep your mom safe and themselves safe."

At that moment the gray box in a cup holder chirps, and Scotty grabs and opens it.

"Scott here."

"Spock here. We have ascertained Winona and Frank Malloy's location. They are at the Hilton resting for the night."

"Ye gonna get yerself some rest, Commander?"

"Negative. We are on survey. Please report on your status."

Scotty sighs as he looks out the window into the darkness. "We're halfway through Wyomin'. Thinkin' aboot pullin' o'er in a few hours."

"And I trust all of you are doing well."

That gets a small smile out of me, as Scotty looks at Nyota with a grin.

"Doin' as well as we're able, sir."

"Indeed." There is a pause, and Nyota looks at me with a soft expression before Spock continues. "Be sure to check in once you have found shelter for the night."

"Aye, Commander."

"Spock out."

Scotty closes the box and drops it back into a cup holder. "See, Jim. The Cap'in and Commander got it covered."

I suppose they do. Spock wouldn't let me down – I know this. I can feel that in my gut, as well.

Yet I'm trying to remember if the first picture had a hotel sign.

"This map 'ere shows a national park comin' up."

"We don't have any camping gear."

"Aye, but there's a few towns around – maybe with some hotels?"

Nyota pulls the map onto her lap and hazards a look. "Yellowstone is right above it." She gives a sharp laugh as she hands it back. "There are definitely some hotels. Don't know if we'll get into them, but there'll be plenty of places around."

Yellowstone. I remember we went there once when I was a kid – Mom trying to expose me to nature, show me the sights. Things that she stated wouldn't be around forever because they are disappearing so fast.

I wonder if in the future she is right.

"Hey," I speak up, "right outside Yellowstone there's Jackson Hole. That's where everything is, besides camping."

Nyota looks at me in the rearview mirror and nods. "Jackson Hole it is, then."

"Looks to be, ergh – " Scotty measures with his thumb and forefinger on the map. "250 kilometers? Take another few hours, at that rate."

I lean back against my seat with a sigh. If I can last those few hours, I would be amazed.

Nyota nods. "Doable."

Scotty has his hands on the radio dial. "Pedal to the medal, lass." And when he turns it up, Scotty twangs a drawn-out line of Garth Brooks.

I look out the window and see the darkened prairie go by. No, I might not really last those few hours at all.

 

***

I don't recognize Jackson Hole once we get there. Granted it's the most lit-up place I've seen in the last three hours, but anywhere looks different in the dark and after 10 years of absence. We've shifted around tall walls of rock to get here, a reprieve of scenery, but now we're pulling into the first hotel Nyota spots.

I wait in the car with Scotty, while Nyota goes to the main office.

He avidly watches out the windshield as it takes less than five minutes for her to go in and then to come marching right back out.

"Well?" Scotty asks as she gets into the SUV.

"Well," she huffs, "full. And the guy there said everything is probably full, even at this time of year." She shifts out of park and starts to turn around in the parking lot. "He said our best bet is a campground outside of here – a KOA, I think it was."

I nod. "A KOA is basically a franchised ring of campgrounds."

Nyota looks at me in the rearview mirror. "You'll know it when you see it?"

"The sign is bright yellow, you'll know when you see – "

My mouth is left hanging open as I stare out the window.

"What?" Nyota says, but I can't answer.

Nyota is about to turn near the National Elk Refuge, but all I can see is an arch of antlers lit up in the night.

"Ain't that somethin'? A bunch of horns, just put together like that."

I pull out my phone and I see it, I see the resemblance: My arch of slivers is this stupid sculpture right here – 20 hours away from Chicago.

"Jim, ye okay back there?"

No, no I'm not. Why is Mom sending me a picture of this arch?

"Um," I fumble – just as I receive a new text.

I open it up, only to discover a new picture – the back of Mom's blonde head.

Get out of the car and no one gets hurt.

"Jim? What ye got?"

Another buzz.

Now. Or she dies.

I don't even think. As the light turns green, I open the door and bolt from the truck.

"Jim! What are you – "

I sprint in the direction of where we came, and don't even bother stopping until I've reached a group of trees and cut through away from the main road.

 

***

I slow my pace and try to catch my breath in front of a log building. I pull out my phone, waiting for the screen to light up – waiting for it to say anything.

I walk aimlessly across a grass lawn, keeping the phone in sight. I'm also listening distantly - no doubt Nyota and Scotty have alerted the troops, and I'm not sure what that will entail. For all I know Spock has an internal GPS – which, normally him being focused on my ass would be a splendid idea, but it would probably hinder things right about now. Especially since I need to find Mom – I need to know she's okay.

Fuck, why couldn't she have just texted me back with a "Sorry honey! Love you!" and be done with it? Why the hell are things so much worse than I expect, lately?

Especially with this Nero guy, who I have no idea about. With his huge fucking octopus ship and lasers that –

I gulp. No, he wouldn't. He wanted my attention - he wouldn't get that with her dead.

And Frank? Was Frank there, too? Up in that ship, maybe?

It occurs to me that either I'm going to be on a ship, or perhaps Nero had to land somewhere – and where could he land that thing?

Although I've never seen the other ship land in Riverside's backyard, so maybe not.

I'm in a parking lot and feeling too damn exposed. Fuck, Nyota and Scotty could just round up that street and see –

The phone lights up, and I'm so nervous that my sweat-slick thumb misses it at first before pressing the read option.

Behind you.

I look immediately and see the log building. What the hell is here? Some touristy stuff, it looks like – and then a dance studio, a massage parlor –

There's a shadow that passes at the door of the studio and I swallow.

Fuck, I'm so dumb. But I have to go - I have to make sure Mom is okay. Put one foot in front of the other and see if that glass door with the ballet shoe decal actually opens.

When I touch the metal handle and twist, it certainly does.

There's no light on, of course. I can barely see a reception desk and the lobby that is carpeted – it doesn't look like a studio to me. But when I pass a corner, there's an entrance  completely covered by darkness. I can't deduce whether it's a door, a corner, or even worse – like the Iowa night in Riverside, completely in shadow.

I have nothing, absolutely nothing. No baseball bat, no random metal pipe – not even a set of ballet shoes. As if that would help.

God, Mom – I'm so sorry. If I die, I'm so sorry. But let's face it, in the long line of stupid things I've ever done, can I be given a break for doing just this one? This one, because I love you? Because I can't see myself doing anything differently, without regret.

I walk towards the black and put my hands out, feeling with a slight jolt the fabric at my fingertips.

I sigh inwardly. Fuck, I hope it isn't that dark inside. Please let there be a goddamn window or something.

With that hope I stab an arm through and pull the curtain aside –

And his face is more horrifying than Sam's description, with it so close to mine. My fingertips can feel his huffs of breath, moist and acrid from his grinning mouth.

My nerves feel shot; exploded and rung out from the skin as we stare at each other. Errant beams of lamp-light fall into the studio and give mere hints of what lies beyond Nero – trapped darkness, where any hope seems lost and crushed.

I swallow my fear again and try to come up with something forceful and loud. Something to catch this fucker.

Instead I say, "Where's my mom?"

A corner of Nero's lip twitches. He raises his arm at his side and I catch a glint from a phone.

My own cell buzzes. I don't want to look at it, but Nero's eyes glance at the phone in my hand.

I press to read the text with a feeling of dread.

Hey honey! Sorry to make you come out all this way, but it's only because I want to kill you. Love, Mom!

Fuck my life - fuck it.

Nero smiles as I feel a forceful shove from behind and wind up smacking into him.

"Jolan'tru - Viduus au paeti, Jim Kirk."

I feel hands grip my upper arms – so strong, so fucking strong. It is like being caught in a compacter and forced to wait out the inevitable.

I look into his eyes and he doesn't have to tell me.

"Rham ourhhehr, sienr." He grins. "Ra'khoi aihr'ouye – " his face comes so close to mine, his lips bypassing my cheek to the ear, a breath from a whisper: "H'hafiv'au-d? Khaeri illai."

A chill runs through my body as his hand reaches up to the side of my face. It's a sadistically gentle cradling as he puts his tattooed forehead to mine and whispers in a hiss, "My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts…"

I close my eyes and try to swallow the fear I must feel – this pressure at the back of my brain, bursting forth through my body that I haven't felt before. Must be of death, must be of dying and death and revenge and – God, Mom, I hope you are okay, you are not you are dead you are – Spock I'm sorareinnye'n-hnah sorry I'm sorry, I'm veherr sor-ssuej-d'fiv I wish we sthea'hwill I don't –

Fvah? Her'u'mi lu'v and this slipping I can't n'u'lleadi snta'rh toubh hwiaer a'rh'hdh h'nyrruh uu'ssiaer this is - ihe ae dridt' hwi! This is my mind this is my ra'khoi aihr'ouye, ra'khoi aihr'ouye –

"Bed aoi, Jim Kirk."

Crawarham illiu as I fall to my aetea vaelg, a bone-hurt sound as it tu'crawarham nokhos u'rafvah ht llia'rhirhiyta'ewh eallu. Eummas isikhei crowded, can't think in peace and uwheieu'hher and kill taortuu –

Isikheiuu'ssiaer, and we all turn to look, eummas isikhei nim Federation lokhos and I can hear h'ta-fvau, fuck it's - no don't come don't come in, you guys will -

"He's over there!"

Rehharham areikh s'hdhuissari aedhoot'det and I see the humans u'rafvah hu llia'rhirhiyta'ewh'ru Captain Pike and -

"Spock."

I can't believe he's u'seari nvehraah aeihdue'hhiaer, his eyes coming to rest on i'hllu iimmam as he u'teakha khta'fva.

"What have you done with James Kirk?" Spock adiam au fveik troiaeh'naa, as if ready to fight.

"What haven't I done," adrham, ae lhinn Spock's caernai aeunta'rhuhwe.

Iuohw'ih akidi daoh, but I can't let them take me alive, I can't – u'eu u'rafvahai, as I have taken my last ra'khoi, the one eu khei Spock.

Uhtrarham dhhaol Nero yhfev, lokhos aeh'niam llia'rhirhiyta'ewh, the action more bilireahi aou'nel I would anticipate for fire to the chest.

I drop khhiu, u'crawarham nomaes nim daothi'rhi.

Ueok'huyt caernarham, uhtrarham Bones irh irr'am, evaidrulh out u'aedhootarham, with its beeping.

"His mind, it's – " Bones adiam, nim hren Spock.

Lokhos Spock is shaking nomaes, vailhaeu nveiswioei stern.

"I know you hate doing this, but he is only a boy! How can you – "

"It is more complicated than that."

"Any more complicated than if he were to die, because you refused a mind meld?"

U'meivie aellomn silence, nim uhtrarham Spock aeh'niam, dhat! – the fire the death the fire the revenge the fire –

Crawarham pokot nnea nai cradling the back nnea nomaes, u'meivie sa'kuaon the pulse points.

"My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your - "

Thoughts. Areinnye'n-hnah.

I feel the strands untangling, unraveling to disintegrate - the mind stitching back together. A gentle hand checks the knots, the strengths, before soothing in a caress to seam the edges. I close my eyes and feel myself slipping, an endless fall as a hand stretches out.

A fond farewell, or a wave hello?

I fall into the warm abyss and feel at home.

 

Chapter Thirteen: What we struggle to do is what brings us the most happiness.

 

I wake up with an odd aching in my bones. The kind that makes them seem hollow and breakable, with a strong wind whistling through. 

Also, this is the worst headache I've ever had. Like someone broke open my skull and crushed the insides like a walnut.

"A curious metaphor, but perhaps apt."

It hurts to keep my eyes open, but I tilt my head towards the voice and see the shadow outline of Spock before he steps into view.

I feel a deep overwhelming worry in my chest – twisting knots and making ropes to strangle myself with – along with a hopeless affection.

It's a curious feeling, as alien as a chest cold.

"You must rest."

Like hell I will – okay, trying to get up wasn't my greatest idea, but there's no way I'm letting Spock get out of this one.

Those feelings weren't mine, were they?

Spock sits on the edge of the hospital bed – yeah, those metal bars kind of gave that away a minute ago – and I feel that worry again. Except this one isn't about my well-being, but about me in particular.

"I must apologize," Spock starts, and then doesn't bother to finish.

I even wait a minute, but Spock seems to have run out of words.

I swallow and wince at how dry my mouth is. "You're going to have to explain that one."

Spock already has a cup of ice and is placing a cube on my chapped lips. His fingers melt the cold before I can even open my mouth to take it in. I feel immense disapproval as I'm thwarted from kissing the pads of Spock's finger and thumb.

"I am apologizing for actions which have affected your life without your decision."

I swallow again. "That's nice Spock, but I still don't know what you're referring to."

Spock takes another piece of ice and smoothes it over my lips. "Do you remember what happened?"

I hum in uneasiness, and Spock continues talking.

"You were deep in a meld with Nero and he was destroying your mind, piece by piece. It gave him immense satisfaction – " I feel a lick of fire race across my heart "- to destroy the son of George Kirk, the one man who dared to stop him in his quest for revenge."

He pulls his fingers away again and I wait patiently for the rest. It takes a moment, as Spock looks down at the cup of ice and contemplates.

"When we arrived he was entangled in your mind. While he knew the dangers of just abruptly pulling away from you, he did not care. Instead he watched you writhe in agony."

I can feel what he doesn't say – that it tore at him to see me in pain. Which is kind of fucking sweet really, but I know it is deeper than that. Spock thought he was witnessing the destruction of another being, and especially one that he cared for.

"In order to save you from the meld…" He strongly grips the container of ice before he leans over to put it on my side table. It is an anxious gesture.

"Spock," I hoarsely whisper, "just tell me. I already have an idea." Because it's not like I really knew what he was feeling before.

He meets my gaze. "I melded with you. I went into your mind without permission and dug up the remnants that I could find to piece together."

Which, okay - sounds pretty damn heroic and amazing. But that isn't the issue that Spock is getting at.

"You bonded us," I whisper.

Guilt pours over me in waves. There is a minute where I can't counteract it, and I feel myself despairing over something I never gave a damn about.

"Spock – Spock, listen to me." I lick my lips. "I told you before – "

"But this was without preparation." Spock looks away from me. "Without your implicit agreement."

"What part of 'love you' did you not get, Spock?" Seriously, if I could actually lift my damn arm I would probably smack him with it. "You told me this and it didn't freak me out, remember?"

"You are not even 18, and I am – "

"Fuck that." I feel my voice crack, and Spock goes to grab the cup of ice. I tilt my head to avoid it, as I want to say one last thing. "You either trust what I'm feeling, or don't. But what does this bond tell you now?"

I try to quiet my anger, so that Spock can actually think it through and know the depth of my conviction. I can feel a slight blossoming in the corner of my thoughts and a tentative touch. It is soothing, not invasive, and I take a deep breath to welcome it in.

However, we are interrupted by a familiar harried voice.

"Jim!"

I hear a frantic click of heels and then see the visage of Mom, who is freaking out in my line of vision.

"Gods, I can't even leave for a weekend!" She touches the side of my face and I feel the blossom curl in on itself. "What happened to you?" She looks across from me and narrows her eyes. "What the hell happened?"

I get the sensation of trying to fit blocks into the proper-shaped holes, before I just speak up for the both of us. "Just an accident, Mom."

"Just an accident – you're Spock, aren't you?"

I can feel Spock trying to deflect the glare, and I huff.

"I wouldn't get too mad, Mom. It's only because Dad was from the future, after all."

The air in the room is suddenly static, like the white noise from a television, yet crackling and sparking.

I can hear her sit down abruptly, and I hope to God it was in a chair.

"How did you..."

I can feel Spock is a bit uneasy and I decide to speak up again.

"Nero has been making the crop circles," I whisper. "From the Narada. That's the ship that killed Dad, Mom – not the apartment 2233 that you told me about."

I can tell that Spock feels a tiny bit awkward, but this is different. I try to send a reassuring vibe that it's okay for him to know this stuff, to hear it when I do.

Really, I just want to hear it. Finally hear what Mom couldn't tell me.

"It was the most frightening experience of my life," she whispers, and yet it is loud in my quiet hospital room. "Your father was the first officer on board the U.S.S. Kelvin, a scientific vessel used for exploration. I – I was the navigator. I plotted courses and took us through them."

I can't picture any of it – what the inside of a starship would even look like, and what my parents would even be doing on one.

"We encountered a strange phenomenon as we were exploring a region of space. When we investigated we got into a complication with Nero, whose ship was larger and more powerful than ours." I hear her gulp. "When they took our captain and killed him, your father took over and led an entire crew of 300."

I can imagine that from anyone else, maybe there would be pride in her voice. But all I can hear is an inevitable ending thundering from far away.

"When they threatened to destroy us, we evacuated. Your father came up with the idea to implode the ship, like a missile in the heart of it. But - " and I hear a sharp laugh "- Nero caused us so much damage that he couldn't autodestruct as a decoy, unless there was one person remaining on board."

I don't need to hear what happens next – Spock already told me. A man sacrificing himself to save so many. It is not so different from when I thought he had a saved a woman in apartment 2233. I feel I almost know him the same.

"I was on an escape pod, waiting for him. The stress of the battle started my labor with you early – your father and I really didn't think we had to worry, just being on a research vessel, so close to the end of our mission contract. But I had you just as the ship was about to impact and – and – "

I reach out my hand blindly, and her tight grasp tells me all I need to know.

"He named you, and I took that name with me."

I take a deep breath and squeeze her hand back – I understand, Mom. I really do.

But I ask, "How are we in the past?"

I hear another deep breath. "The implosion of the Kelvin was magnificent. We thought it had damaged the Narada permanently – maybe even destroyed it – from the shock waves we received. When we found turbulence, we thought it was just the after-effects of the explosion."

"Your vessel went through the wormhole."

Spock's voice is a stark contrast. But even though Mom doesn't say anything I can tell that it's true.

"When we tried to contact Starfleet there was dead silence. We almost thought – we almost thought we were all strangely dead. It wasn't until we found ourselves in this star system that we discovered what had truly happened."

"What happened to the survivors who were with you?"

"My doctor had died in the aftermath. There were three other survivors - Lieutenants Sulu,  Chekov, and my nurse - all human, who have since blended in with society. I've kept sporadic contact." Another sigh. "They are married now with kids and nobody knows."

"As you have also married and made a new life."

Spock's tone isn't accusing, but Mom seems to take it that way and says with a tired, "I tried the best I could."

I squeeze her hand again. I consider what I would've done in another time and place. How would Mom have gotten back, in what sounds to be a wooden raft on a ravaging sea?

"I do not blame you. Your actions were logical."

"But I still made a mess of things, it seems like. I really thought Nero was dead and gone." She stands up and comes into my line of vision. She is teary-eyed, but I can see the hint of a smile. "I'm sorry, Jim."

I try to smile back at her, but Spock speaks what I want to say.

"Nero is destroyed – the Enterprise has made sure of that. However, there is the matter of your son."

Mom touches my hair. "Jim is okay now, isn't he?"

I sense the ticking time bomb waiting to happen, and I brace myself for it.

"I am referring to your other son, Sam Kirk."

Although the lighting isn't the best, I see Mom's face fall.

"Is he...?" she whispers, and it breaks my heart to know the answer she does not want.

"He was abducted by Nero and brought to this time period, where he perished."

Mom lays her forehead on my stomach, and I move my hand to touch a shoulder. I feel a quiet sob and I bite my lip.

"Mrs. Kirk – I grieve with thee."

Mom sniffs, and she looks up at him with wet eyes. "Vulcan, huh?"

"I am one of the remaining survivors of my race."

There is a light gasp. "Nero - ?"

"You could say he has destroyed the lives of many."

There is so much that I wish I could tell both of them, but that I don't think I'm wise enough to say. That everything that happened wasn't their fault, that Nero was a madman with an agenda, also twisted by fate.

But then a look comes over Mom's face and she whispers, "Are you involved with my Jim?"

I send as many vibes as I can to Spock, and I hear him clear his throat.

"It seems that an ancient bond has formed between us. In order to save your son, it was necessary to invoke it."

She looks at Spock for quite a while. The thought process in her head is so loud that I would almost swear I was telepathically connected to her.

Yet her conclusion surprises me.

"You can't stay here, Spock." She tries a cheerful laugh. "I bet your ears are adorable, but they would give you away."

I know that Spock nods at this, and Mom continues. "So, Jim has to go with you."

There is silence in the room, and after a minute of waiting too long I squeeze her hand.

She looks down at me with new tears. Ones I hate to see – but knew had to come, anyway.

"We all do what we must." She sniffs. "But sometimes what we struggle to do is what brings us the most happiness."

She leans down and places her hands on both sides of my face. She kisses me firmly on the forehead, a silent blessing containing all her agony and hope.

She whispers as she leans her head against mine, "You were always too much for this time period." She huffs a laugh. "You were meant for greatness. It was always in your chart, and I had no idea how you would do it." She kisses me again, this time on the cheek. "Seize your destiny. Be true to yourself."

While I always wanted to be here to fulfill my fate, I can feel the final weight lifting from my shoulders.

Freedom is potential that flies strongly like a bird.

 

Epilogue

 

I swear I never fucking intended to go to a Homecoming dance. I never liked the suits and I never liked the formalities. I never cared about taking anyone, or living the high school experience.

"I have heard that it is a formative experience."

No shit, Spock – that's because it's embarrassing as hell.

But here I am in the tux, taking a breather outside of Riverside High, standing next to Spock and Gary. After a night of dancing and hanging with all our friends, we're outside because Spock is feeling a bit too much with all the humans in there.

He looks pensively up into the night sky filled with stars and potential, and I look up, too.

I mean, I never cared before and I shouldn't care now. I am about to leave this place and there are so many people I am going to miss. Mom, Frank, Hikaru, and Pasha – even John Finnegan out west, who promised to email me every once in awhile.

Except he won't know that I've literally fallen off the face of the earth.

"You will miss it," Spock states simply, his breath leaving a trail of vapor with the cold.

will miss it – Spock already knows this. While I had always felt I was born out of time, I had grown to like some things. Spock tells me, for instance, that Cheetos don't exist in the future.

"We will program them."

But it's not like hitting the 7-Eleven at 2am and walking out with a bag and a slushie.

Spock looks down at me and I can sense his concern – his concern that since he had to bond us, that he is stealing my life away.

I wish I could assure him that in this instance it is actually okay.

"You know what else humans do in their formative years?"

Spock raises an eyebrow under his white skullcap – which is even more humorous now, considering I know what that looks like uncovered.

Even more hilarious is knowing that the crazy dancing suggestions in my head will get sent to him.

"You are joking."

I grab his arm and pull him away from Gary, wrapping an arm around his waist.

I whisper in the space between us, "Did you really think that just because we're undercover gays that you'd get away without a slow dance?"

"I was merely hoping as much."

I squeeze him tighter, the warm wall of body against mine so delicious – so damn delicious every time we touch and press against one another.

No one else would feel the same, and I know that I'll never need to experiment to figure that out. Even if Spock hadn't been wrapped in my head for good, he has been wrapped in the blood and tissue and heart of me and I would never want to let him go. Not for the world.

My ears pick up the faint hint of music and I start to sway us back and forth. Spock gets the message and leans into me, although I can sense the newness of the entire act. In the last three weeks Spock has protected me and led the way – and perhaps this is the first time I've really taken the start, with Spock not knowing what I'll do.

It might be the only thing I can take the start on, with where we are going.

Spock says I would pass Starfleet entrance exams with flying colors and that I could go anywhere I wanted to. That even without Starfleet I could still find work on a starship, or be housed with him under bondmate contingencies with the Federation. But I'm not going to be some hanger-on – and Spock knows this. I think he likes it.

Spock presses our foreheads together, and I close my eyes at the gentle contact. Where we touch there is a golden glow in my mind's eye, emanating out from both of us. Not something I can exactly see, but feel in my bones – the way it grows outward and envelopes us.

I think it is called love. Mellow and warm, the structural thicket in the wilderness of us.

I want to rub against it like a cat. I tilt my head to the side and bump our noses together and hum with the simple pleasure of it.

I never thought I'd be doing any of this. But I never thought I would meet someone like Spock.

He wraps his arms lower, his hands on the small of my back, and I don't even hear the music anymore. I don't need it, not with this singing in the blood. I know what is about to happen next and I welcome it. We are bonded and we have touched – but we have never touched like this.

He tilts his head to mirror mine and whispers across my lips, "Some would call this the kiss of death."

But Spock, this is not the death of my life, only the zenith of this one. A strange life that I am leaving behind, where I never belonged. Bonding with him may have prevented my staying here, but it has not prevented my living – in fact, it has saved it.

I press gently at first, the soft brush of contact enough to glow my body and make it breathless and waiting. When I open my mouth, Spock is already there – licking into it, meeting the tip of my tongue with his own and wrapping around it; our lips smashing together as we can't wait to go deeper, further past our comfort spaces.

We are the same space. There is no time where he won't belong here, won't be welcome to delve as deeply as he wants. I never thought I would want that, but I do. Want someone who would not only know me inside and out but would also know my mind – and I have that. We have that.

I pull away for breath, and I open my eyes to see him looking into mine.

You can say it's cheesy as hell, but if I could always look at him and feel like I do at this moment, it would be a fantastic fucking life. No complaints.

"They are waiting for us."

I smile at him. "You lead the way, Spock."

He looks down to take my wrist and strokes his thumb across the vein. Our fingers slip together in a light grasp.

He doesn't pull me along, and yet we don't walk in step.

I trust him. Just as he trusts me to fall into the future with him, as we crash into the inevitable uncertainty and wonder in tandem.

Together we walk across the parking lot and into another world.