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Chapter One: The Lyre

Disclaimer: I own nothing in the Star Trek universe. I own little enough in the real one.

Her first day is almost her last.

Well, not really. Nyota Uhura is not a quitter.

But in the running patter that she keeps up in her mind—in the narrative of her own life that she tells herself, almost as if she were reeling off the details of someone fictional—Nyota can imagine walking up to Commander Spock and telling him that she is through, that she has made a serious error in judgment in accepting his offer of teaching assistant.

She can imagine it.

She can't do it.

Her own reaction surprises her—after all, she knows him. He has been her teacher—twice—and she has spent more than a few hours listening to other cadets complaining about his fussiness, his aloofness, his maddening quirks that drive every teaching assistant away.

Not her. She will not be driven away. Not the first day.

The day had started innocently enough. After assigning her a personal passcode, Spock asked her to check his work email and organize some computer files. The sheer number of emails was daunting—347!—so she started with the filing instead. No sooner had she finished than Spock asked her to send the sorted emails to his terminal—and she had to admit that she had not yet looked at them.

Annoyance flashed across his face—she was sure of it—and she scrambled to explain. His silence as he listened was almost worse than if he had scolded her, or made some rejoinder.

"In the future," he said when she finally grew quiet, "please do your assigned tasks in the order given."

"Yes, Sir," she said, mortified. I deserved that, she thought, not quite sincerely. Of course he would have everything arranged in logical order.

Perhaps I should quit now, she thought. But she had shrugged off her embarrassment and turned back to the emails.

The emails do not take as long as she fears. A great many are requests for lectures at conferences or colloquia—discard those, Spock tells her when she shows the first one to him. Some are replies to queries he has made for data from other researchers—save those to a chip, he tells her when she tries to forward one to his terminal.

None are marked personal, though Nyota isn't surprised. This is his work email account, after all. She amuses herself briefly trying to imagine what his personal mail would look like—and who would send it.

In the end, only one notice requires any further action on her part, an alert that the post office is holding a package.

"I can pick it up for you when I head out to lunch," she says, and Spock nods without looking up from his personal PADD.

The package is surprisingly large and bulky—though fortunately not heavy. When she places it on Spock's desk he looks up, a flicker of surprise whipping across his brow.

"I had to sign for it," Nyota says. "The post master almost didn't let me have it!"

She smiles to show that she is joking—but Spock's expression is unreadable. Has he always been this reserved? No, not reserved. Withdrawn. Almost unfriendly.

"The return address says it's from Vulcan," she says, pointing to the package. "Do you still have family there?"

She is horrified to hear herself babbling—a nervous habit she thought she had broken long ago.

Shut up! she wills herself, and at last Spock meets her gaze.

"Yes," he says. And then he adds, "My parents are there."

"I see," Nyota hears herself say. "Well, aren't you going to open it?"

"Curious?" Spock asks, lifting one eyebrow, and for a moment Nyota is relieved. This is more like she imagined working for him would be—his quiet wit peeking through his dry delivery from time to time. She smiles.

With a quick motion Spock pulls the release tape from the edge of the package and bends back the top. Leaning forward, Nyota sees a glint of wood.

"A harp!" she exclaims, and Spock says, "A ka'athyra. My family's."

"So that's what one looks like," Nyota says, her voice almost reverent. "I have heard recordings. May I?"

She reaches her hand toward the box and Spock folds the top back down.

"I am sorry, Cadet Uhura, but….you may not touch it. The oil in your hand—in a human hand—would damage it."

His tone is oddly dispassionate but Nyota feels stung. That emphasis on human, as if she were somehow less for being so. She takes a breath and looks him in the eye—and is shocked to see rage there.

As soon as he realizes that she is looking at him, his face becomes the unreadable mask once more.

Confused, she nods, and as she leaves his office, she says, "Of course, Sir. I apologize."

X X X X X X X X X

He knew its sound before he ever saw it.

Or so he assumes. His mother told him once that Sarek played it throughout her pregnancy—to soothe her when she was exceptionally restless.

That image—of his father playing the ka'athyra for his mother—is not necessarily a tender one. Using music to regulate mood is—practical, and logical. Even humans use music to augment their shaky emotional control.

Perhaps his father's concern about Spock's more human control was why he placed the ka'athyra in his hands so early—certainly before he started formal schooling. For Sarek—for most Vulcans—the lyre is a tool. Indeed, if his father ever remarked on the aesthetic qualities of the music it can produce, Spock can't recall.

The judges in the all-Vulcan music competition cited Sarek's "mathematic precision" as the reason he was awarded first place.

The judges did not explain why Spock finished second. They didn't need to.

But that was years after his father first handed him a ka'athyra modified for children, smaller in scale with raised frets and with six strings instead of twelve.

"He'll break it," Amanda warned, but Sarek gave her a stony look and reached for his son's left hand, wrapping his fingers around the tonal modulator.

"Hold it thus," Sarek said, holding up his own ka'athyra, a family heirloom for at least three generations, its wooden soundboard polished to a gleam by the fingering of musicians long dead.

He had lifted his right hand to the strings as his father showed him—dimly aware of his mother clucking and hovering nearby—and then ran his fingers across them, evoking a sound that even now shames him with its power to cause him to feel.

"A good start," Sarek said impassively, and Spock flushed with pleasure at the unexpected praise. Immediately Spock felt his father's disappointment flicker through their familial bond.

"It is a good start," Amanda said swiftly, darting a warning glance at her husband.

But it was too late. There it was again—like a pebble in a shoe—the friction between his father and mother that never quite went away….and he knew, again, as he always knew, that he was the cause.

Despite Amanda's prediction, Spock did not break his first ka'athyra—at least not technically. He did, however, take it apart—much to his mother's amusement, though why she found his curiosity a source of humor, he could not fathom.

When Sarek saw the disassembled pieces laid out on the living area floor, he turned on his heel and left the house for a few hours….but when he returned, Spock was waiting for their evening lesson, his lyre in his hands.

Since then he has owned two other ka'athyras. The first he bought when he was 12 years old from a street seller in the open-air market section of the city. It was a full-size instrument, obviously old, somewhat worn, but when Spock hefted it in his hands and pulled his fingers across the strings, he felt such an irrational need for it that he would have agreed to any price the merchant asked.

"Dry rot," Sarek said later, pressing his thumbnail into a soft section near the headstock.

Struggling to contain his dismay, Spock took a breath and said, "But it plays well."

From the corner of his eye he could see his mother pause in her dinner preparations. As she stepped to the door of the kitchen and looked out to the patio, Spock took note of her expression—consternation, confusion, anger. Spock wasn't sure which.

She said nothing then, though after he had retired to his room for the evening, Spock had heard the argument—his mother's insistent, strident voice punctuated by his father's occasional quiet rumble. Do you always have to shoot him down? Can't he ever do anything right for you?

Shortly afterwards Sarek's duties as ambassador took him off-planet for seven months, and Spock began studying with a teacher who lived south of Shi'Kahr. Once a week Spock took a public flitter after school to her house, usually arriving a few minutes before the end of the last student's lesson.

On those occasions he waited in the anteroom, ostensibly reading his lessons for school but actually listening closely to the other students. Most of the time the student before him was a girl much younger—slim and dark, her notes precise and well-practiced, the tonal qualities pitch perfect. His own performance did not compare.

When he began to beg off going to his lessons, Amanda became alarmed.

"But you've always loved playing," she said one night when the two of them were lingering over their meal at the kitchen table. "If you don't like T'Cara, we can find another—"

"Mother, I neither like nor dislike my teacher. I just do not wish to continue the lessons."

Amanda set her fork on her plate and looked hard at her son.

"Unless you give me more reason than that, the answer is no. What would your father say? T'Cara is highly respected—"

"And I am a mediocre student," Spock blurted out, glancing up at his mother.

"You are not!" Amanda said swiftly, and Spock felt a wave of exasperation with her.

"I am not being falsely modest," he said. "The other students are much more accomplished."

"Then you have something to aspire to," Amanda said, standing and taking her plate to the sink. Her tone was clear—the discussion was over.

The next week, Spock put into motion his second plan for discontinuing the lessons. As usual, he arrived while a student was with T'Cara and he waited for the lesson to end. As usual, the student walked past him without a word and exited the front door, and Spock took her place in the dim, cool room with only two wooden chairs.

T'Cara was older than his father, though by how much Spock didn't know. Her short, cropped hair had once been light brown but was now shot with gray. At the edge of her eyes Spock could see tiny wrinkles; the skin of her hands was lightly mottled, something Spock had observed in his elderly relatives.

Unlike most of the older Vulcans Spock knew, however, T'Cara seemed less driven, less intense or serious. His teachers at school were much more focused on objectives, meeting benchmarks, following standards. T'Cara rarely spoke of goals—and Spock intended to use that to his advantage.

"You have something to say?" T'Cara said as soon as Spock settled himself on one of the wooden chairs. That she could read his intentions startled him.

"I—" he began, suddenly uncertain about how to proceed. He took a breath and added, "I am not progressing satisfactorily. My skills do not seem to be improving."

He risked a look at his teacher and was surprised to see her eyebrows furrowed, her lips pressed together.

"And how are you measuring your progress?" T'Cara asked, straightening in her chair.

"I—I am uncertain how to measure it," Spock said. "In my academic studies, I am able to establish norm-referenced goals for myself. "

He glanced up to gauge T'Cara's response and then hurried on.

"I believe my musical skill would improve if I were able to establish data-driven measures—"

"Spock."

T'Cara's tone was quiet but firm. Spock averted his gaze.

"Some teachers do use such measures," she said, and Spock hazarded a look at her. Her brow was no longer furrowed—indeed, she looked more amused than anything else.

"If what you want is technical proficiency, then perhaps you are right to be dissatisfied with my teaching."

Spock opened his mouth to protest, but T'Cara went on.

"But if what you want is to make the ka'athyra your own—part of who and what you are—then you have to stop comparing yourself to my other students."

Again Spock had opened his mouth to protest—but his words died in his throat.

"Now," T'Cara said briskly, "the student who was here a little while ago. She is an excellent student—a gifted musician—with more skill than most students her age."

Spock nodded agreement—and felt a flash of jealousy that embarrassed him.

"But for her, music is just another exercise. It does not speak to her—not the way it does for you."

Flushing furiously, Spock had tightened his grip on his ka'athyra and considered getting up to leave. He had never told anyone his feelings about music—about the release he felt when he pressed his callused fingers into the strings, about the pleasure of strumming atonal chord progressions.

"Ah, yes," T'Cara said, "you appreciate the mathematics of music—but your own playing is far more expressive. For you, music is more. Not many Vulcans can play as you do—perhaps no others. It is not precise, but it is beautiful, in its own way."

And then T'Cara had nodded toward him—an invitation to begin the lesson—and he had.

When Sarek returned a few months later and offered to resume his tutoring, Spock had demurred.

"You chose an excellent teacher for me," Spock had explained to his slightly miffed father.

The second ka'athyra he owned was a gift from his mother the night before he left for Starfleet Academy. Unlike the family heirloom it was new, made to order by a well-regarded craftsman from Kir.

"I know it needs time to cure," Amanda said, her voice unnaturally cheerful—a strategy, Spock had come to realize, that she used when she was trying to reign in a strong emotion. "But I hope you enjoy it anyway."

Spock had not known what to say. The last few weeks before he left for the Academy were fraught with both great tension and great silence—his father's disapproval settling over the family like a storm, his mother's sadness even more pervasive.

He ran his hands over the bright wood and gave the tonal modulator an experimental twirl. Even new, this instrument was far superior to his old ka'athyra.

"Thank you," he said at last, and his mother nodded once and went back to arranging dried fruits and protein bars in a package she insisted Spock take with him on his trip the next day.

In the middle of the night he had gotten up and drifted into the living area. He had the sense that this might be the last time he would see this room—these things in it, this furniture.

A fanciful notion—he knew it—but he walked softly around the room, gently reaching out and touching the objects on the bookshelf—the hard copies of treatises his father looked at often, holovids of himself and his mother through the years, two archaeological pieces he had found in the desert.

And then he came to the cabinet where his father kept the family ka'athyra—safe from the constant threat of dust and heat. With a start he realized that he had never held this ka'athyra—that the only time he had seen it outside the cabinet was when his father played it.

Later he would wonder how much he was motivated by curiosity and how much by anger. Vulcans in general were hardly materialistic—not that they couldn't be possessive, but too much energy spent on acquiring and maintaining objects was an illogical waste, particularly objects which could easily be replaced.

The family heirloom, however, was irreplaceable.

Spock opened the cabinet and slipped his hand around the curved neck. It was slick and cool to his touch, and though he hadn't planned to, he lifted it and placed his hands on the strings.

The house was still. For a moment Spock hesitated, and then he sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa and let his fingers begin to slip across the ka'athyra.

For the first time that he could remember, he found the sound jarring instead of soothing, and after only a few moments, he dropped his hand and waited for the reverberations to stop.

What would it feel like to smash this instrument to the floor?

Shaken, he stood up quickly and replaced the ka'athyra in the cabinet. He returned to his own room and lay across the bed, awake, until he heard his father stirring just before the sunrise. Perhaps his father would share a cup of tea with him before he headed out to catch his transport to Earth? He wouldn't know unless he asked.

Sarek was not in the kitchen as Spock had guessed but was in the living area, sitting in the dark, holding the ka'athyra, his face unreadable.

"Father?"

No answer. Spock reached behind him and palmed on the light. The room sprang into being.

"Father?" he said again, and Sarek looked up at him.

"Your fingers," Sarek said, gesturing to the ka'athyra in his lap. "You touched it."

For a moment Spock was disoriented. What was his father saying?

"Yes," he said. "For a moment."

And then Sarek had seemed to pull himself from a far distance.

"The oil on your hands has damaged the wood," he said, tipping the ka'athyra up.

Spock took a step forward, ready to deny it—but there on the soundboard were dark smudges that had not been there before.

"I don't—" Spock began, but Sarek waved his hand and stood up, walking toward the cabinet and opening it.

"Sher skah is an interesting wood," Sarek said, replacing the ka'athyra and shutting the cabinet door. His tone was detached, professorial. "A good example of how interconnected the flora and fauna of a planet can be. Vulcan physiology has no ill effects on it. Human touch, however—"

Without a word Spock turned and left the room. Although he had planned to wait until his mother woke before leaving for the transit station, he shouldered his backpack and walked out the front door.

It would be many months before he and his father would speak again.

X X X X X X X X X

Her first day is almost her last.

If he could, he would rescind his offer of an assistant's position.

He had reservations when he hired her—not because she was one of his best xenolinguistics students, nor because she was easily the most qualified cadet to apply as his teaching assistant—but because he finds her….distracting. When she is in the room—even the large lecture room with rows of chairs in a cascading semicircle—his eye is drawn to her an inordinate percentage of the time.

Unwittingly he scans every student crowd for her silhouette. When he is rewarded with a view of her, he feels an odd rush that he resists identifying as anything more than innocent appreciation.

He's on dangerous ground…and at some level he senses this.

He assigns her work that will keep her at her desk across the room, but he has not counted on how….distracting….he would find her scent, her small noises. From her breathing he can tell that she is startled when she first calls up his email. She breathes faster and huffs—and then scrolls through several screens too quickly to be reading them.

Her breathing evens out for a few minutes and he glances at her—she is obviously sorting his files, her tongue flicking over her lips as she concentrates. As he watches her surreptitiously, he realizes that the room temperature controls must be broken. He is uncharacteristically too warm.

His own work is momentarily forgotten.

When he asks her for his emails he feels disingenuous—he knows she hasn't opened them yet—and he is punished with her look of dismay. How inconvenient this is. He has to get control of himself.

"In the future," he says, "please do your tasks in the assigned order."

His voice betrays no signs of his disquiet, and for the next 63 minutes he is able to focus on research he wants to present in his next lecture on a species of hominids recently discovered on Mura Omega. From time to time she asks him questions about the dispensation of various emails, and by keeping his eyes on his screen and giving short replies, he is able to continue working.

But it is exhausting. When she offers to leave for lunch he is relieved.

He has been expecting a package from a collaborator on Vulcan, but the box Nyota sets on his desk is far too large to be simple data sheet printouts. His attention is drawn to Nyota's slender hand waving toward the box.

"The return address says it's from Vulcan," she says, pointing to the package. "Do you still have family there?"

Spock is momentarily flustered at her question—but they have never spoken about their personal lives with each other. He realizes that he knows almost nothing about her other than what she has shared indirectly.

"Yes," he says. "My parents are there."

He looks more closely at the return address and notes his father's small, careful handwriting.

"I see," Nyota says. "Well, aren't you going to open it?"

He has a sudden memory of watching his cousins in Seattle one holiday—Christmas? Someone's birthday?—opening presents. Nyota's face is lit with a similar anticipation. It is quite pleasing to see.

"Curious?" Spock asks.

The release tape comes away in one long strip. Nyota steps closer to his arm and leans over the opened box.

"A harp!" she exclaims, and Spock says, "A ka'athyra. My family's."

It is, indeed, the heirloom ka'athyra, its polished surface nestled in soft batting.

Spock's mind whirls. Why has his father sent this to him—and why now? His father is not prone to subtlety—nor to hidden messages. Perhaps a note?

But he sees none. He tips the box forward and there, in the interplay of the ambient light, he sees the dark smears of his fingerprints.

"So that's what one looks like," Nyota says. "I have heard recordings. May I?"

Before she can touch the ka'athyra, Spock folds the top of the box back down.

"I am sorry, Cadet Uhura, but….you may not touch it. The oil in your hand—in a human hand—would damage it."

A human hand. His human hand. For the second time in his life, he imagines smashing the ka'athyra into splinters.

The air stirs gently and he realizes that Nyota has pulled back, that she is looking at him, hurt and confusion on her face.

"Of course, Sir. I apologize."

Too late he realizes that she has taken his words as an indictment—but before he can explain, she leaves his office.