She grabs his wrist suddenly. He turns. She is so close. Her eyes, gray from a distance, are the palest, weakest shade of blue up close; she smells like confinement and that unsettling, ambiguous space vessel scent. She can’t be placed. Her gaze flicks across his face, reading again, and her fingers press against his pulse point, an unsubtle gauging. He doesn’t realize that he’s holding his breath.
Before he hacks the computer system, he stops. Clears his mind. Sets all the spinning details and theories and maybes down in a line and orders them, because he needs to understand everything, needs to be sure. It’s been so long since anything mattered. And she’s watching him through that one last invisible barrier, the only obstacle still in her way.
She won’t want to kiss like humans do. That’s what he’s thinking. But no, that’s wrong, she’ll want to try everything, experience everything. She’ll be curious. He can teach her, and she can remind him. She traces the side of his face with her fingertips and her touch feels cool and calming and she tells him, quietly, “Still your thoughts,” and he does.
Hacking the system will be simple. Computers are something he knows. He will let them out, the Commander and her twelve crew members, and they will take the phasers from the security guards Spock left unconscious by the door. They won’t have much time. The ship will alert her crew to the security breach. They know that. But it’s the middle of the night; they have the element of surprise; any opponent they meet will be a mere human, easily outsmarted and overpowered.
They will divide into three groups, and target the three most important rooms in the ship: six Romulans to the bridge, six to the transporter room, and the Commander and Spock to Engineering, and from there the whole ship will fall easily to their control. With it, they can fly to New Vulcan. Then—then—a challenge. He does not know what to expect, but he can’t admit it, not yet. One goal at a time. One step at a time. He knows that she is waiting for him.
“You must tell me everything,” he whispers low to her.
She quirks up one corner of her mouth.
“You don’t trust me?”
It’s too confusing, how he feels that he has always known her, and how he understands so sharply that he knows nothing of her, and so he pushes her back against the wall with two hands to her shoulders, sudden, rough, and violent. She doesn’t even flinch. It wasn’t distrust that made him speak, nor anger that made him act, only curiosity, and attraction, and need. His hands on her shoulders touch only cloth, and even when he reaches one hand, gently, a mirror of her gesture, to skim his fingertips across her cheek, still he feels nothing. She is sending him nothing. He closes his eyes.
“Romulans aren’t telepathic,” she reminds him, and closes her fingers around his fingers so hard that it hurts. He jerks his hand away. He feels his whole body jerk away.
“That is why you must tell me,” he growls.
Around them, the ship hums with a disconcerting, incongruous calm. Somewhere beyond their hearing, her men are taking over.
The bright bars of light marking the entrance to the cell flicker and blink off. She doesn’t look at him as she steps out, starts talking right away to the men she has roused from their sleep. Spock stands to the side; his body feels gangly and wrong.
They don’t break up right away. Spock teaches them the layout of the ship as he’s learned it, and they stop twice on their patrol through the level to take out four more security guards and grab their phasers. The Romulans would kill them, but Spock insists on simply knocking them out; he stores their bodies in side rooms and does not let himself feel regret. It’s too late for that, now.
What she tells him: she was a student at the military academy. In her spare time she read histories. She knows all about the Vulcans, she’s been wanting to meet them for years, but the school was too slow, and Romulus too small, and she needed so much more. She’s not really a Commander. She’d say, rather, a runaway. Her parents, her sister, most of her instructors—they don’t know where she is. She could be anywhere. She could be dead. And would they even believe it if they heard that she is here, in the Engineering room of a Federation flagship, with him, a Vulcan boy in Terran clothes, and as she speaks she holds up her hand, and he slides two fingers between her fingers. She is exquisite.
It’s over so quickly he could hardly say it had begun. The Engineering room was easy to take—his fingers, her gun, the shock of surprise—he thought it would be easy for all of them. But as his lips touch her lips the alarm bells start to sound, and it doesn’t matter how long they were careful, they’re caught now, and she’s pulling away from him. It’s over.
“Lock the doors!” she’s yelling, “Lock the doors!”
He feels dazed and her voice is too loud even over the klaxons and they lock the doors, but they’re outnumbered now, more than outnumbered. The Captain’s voice comes through the walls and tells them it’s done. The others are captured. The Chief Engineer can override whatever changes they’ve made to the system and they can expect to be back in the brig in under an hour.
They make a slight effort to counteract the Engineer’s actions, but Spock knows it’s futile. His hands move, his brain whirrs, but he’s divorced from all of it, drifting farther and farther, so that when the doors open and he’s face to face with the Captain again, it’s like meeting a man in a dream. He meets his gaze but doesn’t speak. There is no reason to speak. To the Captain’s question—“What do you think you are doing?” spoken so softly it’s all but inaudible—there is simply no answer to give.
Kirk has the Commander brought to the conference room on level three, and while he waits, he sits alone with the lights on harsh and bright and lets himself feel as dark and as angry and as hurt as he wants. He’ll put it all away when she steps through the door.
He’d been asleep when the alarms went off, asleep and dreaming dreams he no longer recalls. He remembers that moment of waking, when his scattered unconscious crystallized, when everything became clear, a million shards of thought forming perfectly into a whole before his conscious self had even put together time and place and problem, and so he knew before he knew, his instincts were on, dragging him forward whether he wanted to move or not. Scotty’s people had the transporter room under control before he even got to the bridge. It was hardly a challenge, he thinks now. The Romulans, he’d learned, were military school dropouts, no match for the seasoned Enterprise crew and they made dumb mistakes. Over before it started. In the records of the five year mission it will hardly be a footnote.
He doesn’t have a headache because of the Romulans. They aren’t the source of the sharp, stabbing red pain just above his left eye.
He tells himself it isn’t betrayal. No. He hadn’t convinced that kid of anything, and they have no history, and they do not love each other. What happened, whatever it was that just happened, is not about him at all, it’s about Spock’s confusion and his pain, about thoughts Jim can’t read and emotions he can’t understand. But telling himself these things doesn’t mean he’s convinced himself of anything.
The doors slide open. She steps in, flanked by two guards and her hands secured behind her back. He stands up on instinct, like a gentleman would, even though he’s never been one and isn’t starting now.
She greets him with a question—“You wanted to speak to me, Captain?”—and a not quite smile.
He dismisses the guards, then answers as casually as he can, his voice distant despite his efforts. He knows she can hear the strain beneath it. “I thought you might be wondering what’s going to happen to you now.”
“My vessel crossed into Federation space, and then my crew and I attempted to take over a Federation flagship. I believe I know what will happen to me. If our positions were reversed and this were Romulan space you would already be dead.”
“We’ll be taking you to Starbase 23,” he tells her, as if she hadn’t spoken. “It isn’t far. We should be there in a matter of hours. They can decide what to do with you and your crew there. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason for us to speak—”
“And yet you brought me here.”
“I just want to know if you honestly believed your plan would work.”
Finally, now, he looks at her. He waits for her to speak. But at first she only stares. He wants to know what she’s thinking, wants to scan through her thoughts, wants to know it all, as if knowledge were comfort, as if understanding were the salve to these strange, unexpected wounds.
“If I answer your question, you have to answer one of mine,” she says, at last, and quickly, a phaser stream of words pulled from behind her back. He laughs, short and frigid, in response.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to negotiate anything,” he answers.
He has a bit of sympathy for her, he does, he cannot help but, the way she looks down and looks defeated. She’s used to giving orders. Felt herself born for it. That’s why she left her Academy, why she jumped to the front of the line, and maybe he didn’t jump so much as he was thrust but he certainly cut ahead, and he’d be lying if he didn’t admit it had been, in one way or another, his plan since the day he enlisted. Ambition is one thing they have in common. He does not want to think what else they may share. But what is strangest is that, despite it all, he thinks he could have been her friend in another life.
“I wanted it to work,” she says. This isn’t an answer to his question but he’ll read between her lines; he has everything he needs to know, really, from how she avoids a true answer, and he’s prepared to let it go. But she continues anyway. “I thought it had a chance.”
“I’d be insulted,” he answers, “except I think your confidence has more to do with your trust in yourself than anything you might think of me or my crew.”
She doesn’t answer, but she looks him in the eye with insistent bravery.
“Ask me your question,” he says.
“Who is the Vulcan boy?”
Of course. He should have expected just that question, should have had his answer prepared. The trouble is that he was too busy wondering just the exact same thing. He can’t tell her the truth, but he feels he owes her more than a lie.
“He’s a survivor,” he says, finally. “He’s…confused, and he’s lost. Probably in more ways than either of us knows. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you. It’s all I know myself.”
As a precaution, as much as out of sympathy, he orders Spock to be kept in one of the unused Ensign’s quarters, under heavy guard, instead of in the brig with the Romulans. He doesn’t expect Spock to see it as a favor, doesn’t expect anything from him but another trashed room and some insults. So when he commands the door of the room open and sees Spock sitting on the bed with his legs tucked beneath him and his eyes closed, he’s actually surprised. This quiet and familiar scene, this well-known silhouette, startles him more than he thought possible. He thought he’d seen everything. He thought he was beyond this subtle taking away of breath.
“Go away,” Spock tells him, without opening his eyes.
He walks over slowly, but doesn’t dare sit down.
“I thought you said you didn’t meditate,” he says.
“I’m not meditating.”
He’s half sure that Spock is lying, but then, he never did understand the finer points of the practice, so aloud he says only, “My mistake.” He doesn’t make any move to leave, and Spock doesn’t open his eyes or change his position. Still, the silence, the knowledge that Jim is standing there and watching him, seems to irritate him.
“What do you want?” he snaps.
“You tried to steal my ship. I thought a conversation might be in order.”
“I didn’t. She did. She wanted it.”
Jim sighs, such a long rush of breath he hadn’t even thought himself capable of breathing in that deeply, of forcing his lungs that full, and tells himself not to close his own eyes, not to get frustrated, not to view this as an argument. It is only a discussion. Still he wonders what he’s doing. Scotty, never sure of himself until he’s bending the laws of physics themselves, is uncharacteristically optimistic, almost eerily so; he says he almost has it, or has something—this Spock could be gone and his own version back in a matter of hours. So he tells himself. This whole mad adventure could be over soon.
That’s why he needs this conversation. That’s why he needs to find out what he can, while he can.
“And that you looked like her number one accomplice—that was just a misunderstanding?” he asks.
Spock’s head jerks, a sharp and involuntary movements, but his eyes stay stubbornly closed. “I know what I did,” he says. “You know, too. Leave me alone, Captain Kirk. There’s nothing I want from you.”
“And you haven’t considered the possibility that I may want something from you?”
“Like what?” Spock all but snorts, his lip curling up strangely. “Do you want me to explain myself? There is no reason I should. There is nothing you can do to me and no way you can threaten me. Do what you wish.”
Jim has his hands at his side, curled into fists he’d never use. He just needs to feel nails cut into skin. He just needs to ignore the feeling of a cord tightening slowly around his lungs. “I’m not here to threaten you,” he says, and that he’s saying these words, that he is actually forming these words, that he has to, is proof enough for him that this isn’t his Spock. His Spock would know by some deep imbedded instinct that Jim Kirk is always on his side.
“Not here to send me to jail?” Spock asks, like he doesn’t believe. “Not here to punish me for what I did?”
“I’m here to ask you why you did it.”
Spock opens his eyes, finally, and looks up at Jim with a hard edged, forced defiance. He’s out of practice, Jim thinks, at hiding his feelings, because every single one is writ there, shining clearer than Jim has ever seen, on anyone. “Tell me what happens to me first,” he says.
The flow of sympathy through him loosens the cord, and he breathes deep and slow.
He walks over to sit next to Spock on the bed, not so close that they’re touching, but close enough for Spock to flinch. He pretends he does not notice that passing expression on his face, that pained, uncertain look. He lies easily, and tells himself it will be over soon, and he hopes this Spock will remember nothing of any of the day. “We’re sending you back to your Father,” he says, with a sigh as if this were not a story, made up as he goes along. “As soon as we get to New Vulcan, we’ll beam you down.”
“I’d rather you send me to jail,” Spock answers, “instead of telling him I tried to hijack a starship.” It’s the kind of thing Jim would have said with a laugh, but Spock is sober, and the flat tone of his voice makes him seem older, and more familiar in the same stroke.
“I wasn’t planning on telling him anything about that,” Jim says. He knows Spock is watching him, knows his gaze has snapped right to him, but he looks at the far wall instead, fingers laced casually between his knees and his voice deceptive and light.
“What’s the catch?”
He knows Spock won’t believe him, not at first, but the longer the pause stretches, the longer Spock waits for the however and doesn’t hear it, the more he will let himself slip into assurance. There’s a tension in the room, in the one-third lights, in the shadows on the anonymous blank walls, and he finds himself wishing Spock would fidget, would move just a finger as if such movement were a signal Jim could read. He knows what he’s hoping for but not what to expect, when Spock says, harsh and sudden and sharp, “I don’t know why I did it.”
Jim glances over to him, and sees that Spock is watching him as if daring him. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even frown.
“I went to visit her,” he continues, “and we spoke, and she made me think…that I owed them.”
“Owed who?” He finds it hard to imagine that even the Romulan Commander could convince Spock he owed her people anything, not when he’d been ready to kill her without question an hour before.
Spock shakes his head, and answers in a clear and slow tone, chastising Jim for his obliviousness. “Vulcan,” he says. “I owe it to Vulcan.”
“Spock—” He hesitates, and realizes he’s lifted his hand to place it on Spock’s shoulder. He drops it back down to his lap instead. “The Commander—she isn’t responsible for what happened. But she isn’t exactly one of the good guys either. And whatever you think you owe your people, it certainly isn’t the Enterprise.”
“It wasn’t about the ship,” Spock scoffs in answer. “It was—never mind, Captain Kirk, this is stupid, this is—” He grits his teeth, and stares out into the middle distance, hands twisting so hard against each other, Jim cannot believe the sensation isn’t painful. “She wanted to bring us back to how we were. I’ve been thinking about it and I know now, she was wrong, but I’ve been wrong, too, I’ve been…” These words come out in one great rush, flipping and rolling over each other. Jim just listens. “I’ve been something strange.”
Jim’s lips quirk up at the wording of this confession, but he forces his expression sober, glad that Spock didn’t see him slip. If Spock were an adult, the man he knows and can never stop thinking about, he’d try to joke. He’d say something like Bones would agree or We all are a little. But this Spock is young and fragile and mourning and lost. He’s breathing shaky breaths. Jim waits until the movement of his shoulders up and down becomes smooth and steady before he pats Spock once between the shoulder blades. It’s no more than a friendly gesture but it’s too much; he should have thought before he did it, should have stopped himself again; Spock jerks under the touch and glares at him, like he’s trying something, like he’s taking advantage. He moves his hand away quickly.
“People have treated you terribly, haven’t they?” he asks.
“Only a few,” Spock answers. “And a part of me enjoyed it.” He shifts his legs underneath his body, retwisting them into some new and inexplicable pretzel shape, and then he adds, “I know I shouldn’t have—I’m glad you didn’t come here to lecture.”
“Ah, well,” he replies, slight sigh and slight smile, “I do hate to lecture.”
Spock doesn’t smile in return. He doesn’t say anything, and so, a certain silence stretches.
He notices only after minutes have passed that Spock has closed his eyes. He wonders where he is now, where he has wandered in that mind of his, if he is thinking about Vulcan or about the Romulans, perhaps, or about his family. In profile, his face not yet as sharp as the face Jim knows, and his eyelashes fluttering dark black lines against his skin, he looks almost peaceful. Jim has never seen his Spock look this way. He has never been allowed, he thinks, to see his Spock this way.
He jumps when he feels Spock’s hand on his wrist.
“I feel I should thank you,” Spock says quietly. Jim has the strong feeling, and he’s not sure if Spock is sending it to him or if he’s only reading it himself, in Spock’s posture, in the tone of his voice, that these words are only a cover, not what Spock means at all. He’s not quite sure what’s underneath. “I was expecting you to be angry. I still don’t…understand why you’re not.”
“Rebellion is only fun when you get a reaction,” he answers. “I don’t want to encourage you. Now you have to move your hand from my wrist.”
“Why?” He snaps the question back quickly, too quickly, his eyes open now and his grip, if anything, tighter.
Jim just shakes his head, disappointed and feeling too much like every father figure he’s ever let down. “Don’t tell me you need me to answer that question,” he says. “Come on, Spock. You know better than this—”
“You don’t know anything about me—”
“I know enough.” Spock might be right, that’s fair, that’s true, but it’s not a thought he can afford right now, not with desperate fingers hanging on bruise-tight to his wrist. “I know you’re smarter than to think that sex is the currency for everything.”
Spock scowls at him, looks so young, looks like he’s on the edge of an argument that he can’t quite piece together, and this is such a strange look on him that Jim finds himself jolted out of place yet again. Finally, Spock pulls his hand away. “But wouldn’t everything be easier if it were,” he says.
“Easier,” Jim repeats. “Maybe. But certainly not better.” Then, before Spock can question him or comment, he continues, “Spock, I think you will be glad to know that I have never encountered a bigger mystery than you.”
Spock considers, head tilted and the slightest narrowing of his eye, a familiar look that makes Jim want to smile. “Thank you,” he says. His brow furrows at Jim’s sudden, light laugh, and he feels bad for causing the boy confusion, but he couldn’t help it. That was his Spock in that voice, clear and true and enough to make him believe everything will be all right. Spock asks him what is so funny and he doesn’t know how to explain that it is not funny, nothing about this is funny at all, but he needs to laugh to lighten this persistent weight against his chest. It is amazing to him that it should work, how easy it is to right oneself again. In the pause that follows, he hangs his head, and then passes one hand slowly down his face.
“Captain Kirk,” Spock says again, insistent and loud this time, almost worried. “Captain Kirk, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Spock,” he answers. “Really. Just fine. And—for what the opinion is worth—I think you will be too.”
“I am sure,” Spock says, but his words are unpolished and dull and say clearly enough that he is not confident at all in the prediction.
“Give me the numbers,” Jim says, then licks his lips once, stealthily, because they are chapped and his throat is dry and his stomach is rolling unevenly.
“I—I don’ know that’s possible, Cap’n.” Scotty looks at least as nervous as Jim feels, which isn’t a comfort. “Engineering’s more of an art than a science—”
“Just tell me how worried I need to be, okay? What are the chances I’m getting my First Officer back, and what are the chances he’s going to turn into…I don’t know, a slug?”
“A slug? Well…small. The chances of that are small.”
Jim’s stomach takes another massive high-dive flip at this answer, because, positive though it may have been, it took Scotty just a few too many seconds of thinking to come up with it. The only response he has is a vague, awkward gesture, his hand palm out slowly closing into a fist before it hits, lightly, still painfully, the sharp edge of the transporter room console. His face squints together more in frustration than in agony.
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Captain?” Uhura asks from behind him. “What if he is from an alternate universe? I know it isn’t your theory, but you’ve hardly disproved it and if we send him back with the knowledge of what happened to Vulcan—”
“Well we can hardly keep him, either, can we?” he snaps. He turns to look at her in the same movement, and her wide eyes and slightly open mouth, the utter surprise on her face, deflates him utterly. This is the second time in two days he’s lost it in front of his crew. He just hopes the damage can be undone, eventually. “It isn’t fair to him,” he says, more quietly this time, his voice a register below a normal volume now. “If he’s—if he’s from some other time, he needs to go back to it. If he’s our Spock we need him…we need him back to normal. I need him, okay? So I just—will he live?” He turns back to Scotty. He thinks he might actually be begging, this time. “That’s what I need to know. Will this kill him? Will this—experiment—kill him?”
He hates the word experiment, and it sounds vulgar on his lips. The only way he can do this, lie to that confused teenage kid who somehow, maybe, trusts him, take a risk with his life and his identity, is to think of this as a rescue.
Scotty takes a long moment to answer. Then he says, “It shouldn’t,” in a voice that isn’t quite confident.
“Shouldn’t,” Jim repeats. He glances over his shoulder again, at Uhura, watching him with her arms crossed tight against her chest and a certain set determination on her face, perhaps disapproval, and at Bones, who only meets Jim’s gaze for a moment before he turns away. Jim taps two fingers against the transporter, hard, the jolt of contact painful, and pretends that this is decisiveness. “I guess that will just have to be good enough,” he says.
Jim insists that the transporter room be cleared except for himself, Scotty, and Dr. McCoy, but even though he’s ordered the bare minimum of witnesses, still Spock eyes them warily as he walks into the room. Jim expects he’ll argue, but he only squares his shoulders and turns his back to them, and he doesn’t even lower his voice when he says, “So I guess we’re saying goodbye, now.”
“Yes,” he answers. “We are.” It’s partially a lie and partially the truth, but the words sound so stiff and stilted that he knows there’s no question they’re the wrong thing to say.
Spock has his hands buried deep in his pockets, his arms straightened and his shoulders hunched, as if he were cold. He shifts from one foot to the other. He looks like kids Jim knew in high school, the shy and quiet and studious ones, and nothing like the Spock he’s been flying around in space with for the last two years, nothing like the boy who stepped off the transporter pad yesterday, issuing challenges, hands formed into fists. If this is his Spock, if somehow this boy in front of him becomes his professional, intelligent, restrained, adventurous, curious, fascinating First Officer, then he knows what his job will be for the next three years. He’ll have to figure this man out. He’ll have to find again all of these sides of him, everything he wraps up and hides away.
“And you’re not—you’re not telling my father?” Spock asks. “About any of this?”
“No,” Jim promises. “It will be our secret, this time.”
“But if I find myself on your ship again and I do something stupid, it will be different.” He bobs his head back and forth with the words, as if reciting some old, well-worn mantra, of which he has long become bored.
Jim just smiles. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I promise, Spock, we’ll refrain from bringing you up onto our ship again without warning.”
Spock eyes him, brows leaning in over his nose. He glances to the transporter pad, then back at Jim. “That’s too bad,” he says.
Before Jim has a chance to answer, though what answer he could give, he doesn’t know, Spock has stepped past him and started to climb the two steps up to the pad. He steps carefully into place, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if testing his ground, then fiddling with his sleeves, unsure how many times to roll up the cuffs. “I hate this, you know,” he says, mostly to his feet, but Jim steps forward anyway, the words a siren. “Going back to—to wherever I’m going. I think I prefer space to any planet.” He takes a long, sweeping look around the room, from the floor all the way up to its ceiling, before his eyes rest on Jim again. “Do you think Starfleet would ever be interested in someone like me?”
“You know Spock,” Jim smiles, “they just might be.”
Spock smiles an awkward, thin, smile back, as if he weren’t used to twisting his muscles in quite that way. His eyes flick over Jim’s shoulder, ready perhaps for Scotty to send him off, but then abruptly his focus shifts again and he says, the realization coming to him unexpectedly, “You never told me how you know who I am.”
“You’re right,” Jim answers. “I didn’t. But I’ll make you another promise, Spock. Next time we meet, I’ll tell you everything?”
“Next time?” he repeats, painful note of hope in his voice. There will be a next time, then?
He tells himself to savor this, to burn it into his memory, because he’s never going to see Spock smile so brilliantly like this again.
“I will remember you said that,” he vows, and Jim just nods. He almost hopes he doesn’t. He hopes that wherever Spock goes or whatever he becomes, he won’t have any memories of this strange day, of the moment he learned of the loss of his planet, of the Romulan Commander. But he doesn’t say any of this. He only steps back, once, twice, his eyes on Spock until the moment that he glances over his shoulder and gives Scotty the signal. Then he turns back to watch Spock’s body disintegrate into a series of minute white circles.
He is only gone a moment, but Jim’s lungs stop working and even his heart seems to stop beating, through the aching, uncertain silence.
Then there is his man again, his familiar First Officer, familiar clothes and expression and even familiar posture, for a second, until he crumples quite suddenly to the floor.