From the very beginning, James Kirk had the illogical habit of not matching Spock's expectations. A cadet of his academic standing had no reason to draw negative attention to himself for the sake of something so trivial as beating a simulation. Beyond that, he refused to be properly chastised for the event, responding to Spock's allegations of misconduct with anger and self-righteousness rather than the remorse that would have cleared his name within minutes. Yet he did not lash out when Spock mentioned his father, did not lose that odd blend of furious calm that let him stand before the Admiralty without admitting any degree of culpability. It was, Kirk protested, the program itself that prompted his response.
When Vulcan sent out its distress call, Kirk should have relented. He should have either admitted his fault and requested flight clearance or resigned himself to waiting for the fleet's return. Instead, he coerced his friend into sneaking him aboard the Enterprise. When he was caught, Spock expected him to yield to Captain Pike's command, since Pike was one of the few authority figures with whom the cadet seemed to share a positive rapport. Instead, Kirk stood his ground, turning the whole situation on its head and continuing to do so for the remainder of the mission.
He leapt off drilling platforms when logic dictated he stay put. He fought security officers when he should have submitted, but submitted to physical abuse to the point of strangulation when he should have fought. When the situation was his in control, he accepted with ease the input of those around him despite a long and well-documented Starfleet history of willfully standing alone. He was a dichotomy unto himself, a walking contradiction that seemed governed by a set of rules so convoluted even Dr. McCoy was often blindsided by them. Spock could not have been more amazed when his older alternate self proclaimed Jim Kirk to be the truest friend of his lifetime. Kirk was one infuriating contradiction after another, and they were to be friends? Such an eventuality was almost inconceivable. It positively boggled the mind.
So now Spock was in the unfortunate position of being inappropriately fascinated by the enigma that called itself James T. Kirk. There had to be some sort of explanation for why the cadet behaved the way he did, some rationale for his reactions. With enough study, Spock might even be able to devise a manner of predicting Kirk's insanity before it drove the galaxy further into chaos. True, Kirk's methods had saved Earth and probably the majority of the Federation, but similar anomalies occurred every day. Spock was hesitant to believe Kirk's next display of rule-breaking would end quite so favorably. Luck, as Humans called it, could only carry a man so far.
Before Spock got the chance to establish his research method for covert James Kirk observation, the Vulcan's next mission arrived. This was a surprise, since most of Starfleet had standing orders to keep close to Earth until the survivors of the senior cadet class could be graduated and put to work filling the staggering gap left by Nero. There weren't enough of them, not by half, but they were strong and determined. Starfleet hadn't seen a similarly dedicated class in many a year.
Spock's unusual mission had to be important: His orders came by private courier rather than the usual comm, and the details were absent. Instead, his presence was requested in Admiral Barnett's office at Spock's earliest convenience.
Spock abandoned his early lunch, going immediately to Admiral Barnett's office. The admiral's assistant indicated that he was currently speaking with a cadet, but Spock would be announced regardless. Spock inclined his head a fraction of a degree in acknowledgement, crossing the hallway to stand before the admiral's door in wait. A large satchel bag filled to capacity rested heavily against the wall on the other side of the doorway. Spock eyed it thoughtfully but refrained from mentioning it to the admiral's assistant.
When Spock decided to wait by the door for his appointment, it had not been his intention to eavesdrop. However, the cadet inside rendered Spock's intentions irrelevant when he said, quite clearly, "Sir, my scores in advanced programming and database construction are unparalleled since the inception of the Academy, to say nothing of my performance in the tactics curriculum. Furthermore, I can provide reference letters from the entire Computer Languages and Programming division, including the chairs, that support my ability to not only redesign but improve—"
The cadet fell silent, presumably interrupted by the admiral for either his tone or the announcement of Spock's arrival. Perhaps both.
"Commander Spock," Admiral Barnett called as the door signaled its status change from Meeting in Progress to Proceed. "Just in time."
Spock stepped inside with both hands locked behind his back. A brief visual sweep of the office revealed the admiral seated at his desk, a slightly exasperated expression on his face as he weathered the undivided attention of—
"I believe you know Cadet Kirk." The admiral's mouth quirked in recognition of the ironic understatement as he indicated Kirk, impeccably dressed in Academy red, with a weary flicker of one hand.
"Indeed, Admiral," Spock agreed mildly. "Am I interrupting?"
"He's been here for an hour already," Barnett said with resigned irritation. "I'd say our appointment's about over."
Kirk, who had been peering at Spock with open curiosity, snapped his attention back to Barnett, expression going hard and determined in a microsecond. "Sir, I—"
"Listen," Barnett said, pointing one stern finger at the cadet, "you're not telling me anything I don't know already, and with the recent death of twenty percent of the teaching staff of this Academy, I've got a lot on my to-do list lately. Let's save ourselves the time here."
The cadet took an unconscious step forward, hands curling into frustrated fists at his sides. "But sir—"
Barnett held up a hand. "Don't jump to conclusions, Cadet. Not everyone in authority is out to get you." Kirk's expression closed, his posture shifting back to regulation parade rest. Barnett sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Alright, Kirk," he said, lifting his eyes to the brilliant blue of one of the Academy's brightest and most troublesome students, "you can have your little…project." Kirk' eyes widened in shock, his hands falling slack as his shoulders tensed. "But," the admiral added firmly, "if you spread yourself too thin and collapse again like you did last week—"
"No sir," Kirk interrupted immediately, shooting Spock a sidelong glance. "That was, uh…medical, sir. I kind of escaped from the recovery unit. But I'm better now and it won't happen again."
"Just see that it doesn't. That doctor friend of yours is a menace."
Kirk grinned. "Yes sir. He is. I'll tell him you said so."
"Very well." Barnett eyed Kirk suspiciously, as though he knew he'd been hoodwinked but wasn't quite sure how yet. "Dismissed, Cadet. Get back to your classes."
"Sir!" Kirk snapped a smart salute, tossing first the admiral, and then a bemused Spock, his best grin before striding away with undisguised enthusiasm. He slung the abandoned satchel in the hallway over one shoulder, digging out a PADD that he began typing on furiously before the door even closed behind him.
"That kid," Barnett sighed, rubbing his forehead again.
Spock glanced briefly at the office door. "Forgive me for asking, Admiral, but has Cadet Kirk been behaving in a manner unbecoming since his release from the recovery unit?"
Barnett frowned at the phrasing. "What exactly do you mean by that, Commander Spock?"
The Vulcan arched an eyebrow. "I meant to inquire after the cadet's behavior since his recent trauma, Admiral."
The admiral's unexpectedly defensive expression turned thoughtful as he studied Spock. "Why the interest? Most of the Admiralty doesn't think you and Kirk can even stand each other."
Spock's face and posture were without any hint of emotion when he replied, "It was a simple query, sir. I admit to no interest in Cadet Kirk beyond that which I extend to all surviving members of the senior class."
"No," Barnett mused, still thoughtful, "I don't suppose you would. Well." He brushed a hand through the air as though to dismiss the topic. "To answer your question, his actions since his return have been well above what even the Academy might consider becoming."
After a slight hesitation, Spock clarified, "Then it is not his behavior that has caused you frustration."
"I'm not frustrated," Barnett agreed, shuffling the papers on his desk before returning each item to its previous location. "I'm exasperated. How that boy can even think about taking on additional projects with his current workload—" The admiral cut himself off, shaking his head. When he looked back at Spock, his eyes were dark with a delicate mix of admiration and concern. "You are aware, of course, of how desperate the situation at the Academy is."
"The loss of both instructors and student aids has rendered several sections incapable of maintaining daily functions," Spock agreed readily. Officers throughout the fleet had been assigned to temporary teaching positions for which they were woefully unprepared as they waited for the students that would round out their compliments. No one, so far, was pleased by the results of this solution, and a new one would have to be devised before infighting broke out between resentful Starfleet officers and frustrated Academy cadets.
"Then you also know that we began asking the cadets to volunteer for extra duty within any and all of their specializations beyond their usual course requirements."
Spock inclined his head: The science division was filled with the clumsy, if determined, efforts of cadets who had the arduous task of absorbing the responsibilities of the seasoned officers who would never be returning to their stations.
Barnett shrugged a little helplessly. "When Kirk signed up for the volunteer program, he gave a blanket request to be used by every and any division that needed him. I believe his exact phrasing was 'Use me like a cheap whore, sir.' Then he submitted a list of his abilities and aptitudes that have not been previously known to the Academy, and damned if he hasn't lived up to every one of his claims."
So here was James Kirk, again behaving in a manner that was quite outside the parameters Spock had set for him. The Vulcan turned this new angle over in his mind for a quiet moment, trying to understand how the puzzle looked with the addition of an unexpected piece. "Does Starfleet intend to make use of Cadet Kirk as requested?" he wondered aloud.
"Spock." Barnett laid both hands palms-up on his desk in an expression of exasperation. "You probably don't know this, since your interest in him is admittedly limited, but he was in the top three percent of his class before the mess with Nero. And now he's taking it seriously." The admiral gave a disbelieving sort of laugh, incredulous and admiring and vexed. "In order to maintain a normal grading curve, Kirk's instructors have to exempt his scores. Of course we're going to use him, Commander Spock. We wouldn't know what to do with him otherwise."
"Anyway." Barnett took out a PADD, examining it a moment before passing it to Spock. "Let's try to focus on why you're here. This is your new mission."
Spock accepted the PADD, flipping through the information for a cursory examination. What he read caused both eyebrows to lift in interest.
"We've located three planets so far that might work for a new Vulcan colony," the admiral explained, leaning against his desk. "A team is going to survey them for habitability. It isn't a long-term mission; we aren't projecting anything more than a few months. We want to send the team out tomorrow, but civilians can't be cleared that quickly. So if there's going to be a Vulcan on the mission, it has to be you."
"Mission accepted, Admiral," Spock said immediately, looking up from the PADD's data. "I shall procure the necessary equipment and be prepared by 0700 tomorrow." He hesitated, glancing back at the PADD before adding, "Also, I wish to extend my gratitude that Starfleet would permit me to leave the area with our forces so diminished."
Barnett smiled, his expression warm and understanding to a degree that Spock couldn't look at for more than a moment. "Who better than a Vulcan to pick the best place for Vulcans?"
"Indeed," Spock agreed.
"Well then." Barnett nodded. "Dismissed, Commander Spock."
Filled with the challenges and problems presented by the opportunity to aid in the selection of a new Vulcan homeworld, Spock's mind tucked the lingering question of Cadet Kirk into a small box and put it aside.
But not for long.
"We're going to give Jim Kirk the Enterprise."
For a moment, Spock thought his hearing must have become faulty during the last three months in space. He shook his head to clear it, a nearly imperceptible motion, and said, "Pardon?"
Barnett looked up from Spock's mission report, a grin in his eyes even if it wasn't reflected in the calm of his face. "At his graduation ceremony a week from Friday, the Admiralty intends to uphold Cadet James Kirk's field promotion and give him the flagship Enterprise. She'll be ready for a shakedown mission by then, which is as good a way to start as any."
Vulcans didn't gape, which was the only reason Spock managed to maintain his well-honed expressionless demeanor. "…Sir, if I may make a query."
Now Barnett did grin, sitting back in his chair with his elbows propped on the arms. "By all means, Commander Spock. We drew straws to decide who got to break the news to you. I've been looking forward to fielding your response for weeks."
"Sir," Spock began, ignoring the odd non-sequitur about straw and fields, "while I can appreciate the need Starfleet must have for qualified captains, it is highly illogical to base a promotion as…unprecedented as this upon one successful mission that was, in itself, unprecedented."
The admiral's expression then was odd, amused and compassionate by turns, as though Spock were the victim of a cosmic joke that Barnett himself had suffered through on a previous occasion. He seemed to relate to Spock's befuddled confusion every bit as sincerely as he derived hilarity from it. "I know you just got back," he said eventually, "but let me make a suggestion. Find Jim Kirk and follow him around for a while. We can draw up an excuse if you need one, but I really don't think you will. Kirk hasn't been notified of where he'll be serving after his graduation, much less in what capacity. If you still think we're wrong about this promotion after walking his path for a few days, we'll take your concerns into account."
Spock struggled with the idea of Captain James T. Kirk for a heartbeat before releasing the turmoil as illogical.
Barnett saw his fleeting concern and offered him a small, understanding smile. "We were badly wounded when you left," he said softly, lacing his fingers together so he could observe the tangle they made. "Nero took our cadets, and in doing so effectively gutted the fleet. We had to heal quickly, and in any way we could, before the hurt became a weakness."
"Understandable," Spock agreed. "However, giving a cadet his own flagship might highlight our current difficulties more than alleviate them."
"Situations like ours become something of a baptism by fire for everyone involved," Barnett continued, nodding once in acknowledgement of Spock's assessment but ignoring it otherwise. "You get to stress people, test their limits, see what they're really made of. Sometimes people just can't stand up under it. We've lost some good recruits recently. But sometimes," he murmured, meeting Spock's dark eyes with firm conviction, "you find a man who takes everything you throw at him and more, and doesn't give up so much as dig down. Jim Kirk dug his heels deep on this one, and he hasn't let anyone around him surrender so much as an inch to the losses that should have crippled us. We need him and his ilk badly, Commander Spock."
"Using that logic," Spock replied smoothly, "his ilk, as you call them, should be similarly rewarded. What of the others who served with him on the Enterprise? Will each be given his or her own ship in the fleet?"
Barnett laughed, which was strangely annoying. "Not quite," he admitted, digging through one of the drawers on his desk. He produced a small pile of hardcopy assignment requests that he passed to Spock with a grin.
Each request ticked Spock's eyebrow a notch higher. "…This is the entire surviving crew of the Enterprise as it existed during the final stages of the Nero mission."
The admiral nodded, looking rather like a small boy given his first interactive 3-D puzzle. "Each and every one, from every department, cadet and otherwise, with the notable exceptions of you and Kirk."
Spock looked up, eyebrows nearly hidden in his fringe. "They all requested to be posted to the Enterprise?"
Barnett shook his head. "Read a little more carefully. All of them, save Mr. Scott, requested to serve either with or under Kirk, wherever he was posted, in whatever capacity they could. Even Chekov, who is in demand by pretty much everyone, just wants the opportunity to work with Kirk again."
"And Mr. Scott?" Spock hazarded after a moment's contemplation, sifting through the stack for the relevant form.
"He requested to serve on the Enterprise specifically," Barnett admitted, "but the rumor mill says Kirk made him promise to look after her, which is the only reason he differs from the others."
"What has Kirk requested?" the Vulcan asked, unable to locate the exasperating cadet's form.
"When we asked him," Barnett explained, shaking his head in amazement again, "he said that his previous blanket statement stood. He requested to work wherever he was most needed. Everyone knows he wants to captain the Enterprise again," the admiral added, "wants it like he wants to take his next breath, but he didn't ask for it. Which is, actually, one of the reasons we're giving it to him. Toward the end of this week, we're sending a courier with Kirk's orders and a camera. The look on his face should be pretty unique when he reads that letter."
This was not going at all the way Spock had expected his debriefing would.
(We have located an appropriate planet, Admiral.
There is one slight issue.
We'll fix it.
Thank you, sir.
You're dismissed, Commander. Take a few days off.)
Instead, his mission statement was barely a side note, and James Kirk was being given the Enterprise.
James Kirk. With his own flagship.
Spock thought an appropriate Human response to a situation such as this one might be: What the hell?
Barnett laughed again, but it had the strangest note of hysteria tickling its last note. "Believe me," the admiral said fervently, leaning forward to stress his point, "I know how crazy this sounds, how unbelievable and illogical. You haven't even been gone three months, after all. Your confusion is both understandable and expected. That's why we drew straws to tell you. But, Spock, the data you're using to draw your conclusions about this is three months old, and I can't tell you in coherent words how much has changed in just three months."
"…Yes sir," Spock acknowledged blandly. He set the request forms back on Barnett's desk and locked his hands at the small of his back.
The admiral sat back with a slightly defeated air. He rested his elbows on the chair's arms once more, twisting one wrist to check his watch. "It's nearly nine," he observed. "Go find Kirk and watch him for a while. Bring yourself up to speed. Let us know your findings." He drummed the fingers of his right hand on the PADD Spock had given him. "In the meantime, I'll go over your mission report with the rest of the Admiralty and determine the best course of action for the difficulties your people are likely to face."
Though he looked as though he wished to sigh again, Barnett only nodded. "Good. Dismissed, Commander."
Spock left without another word, striding thoughtlessly from the building. Sunlight washed over him, completely unimpeded by clouds or other obstructions, causing his pace to slow as he subconsciously tilted his face up to absorb more of its warmth.
So. James Kirk, captain of the Enterprise again. At least this time he would be able to accept the title properly instead of simply taking it.
Ah, but that was anger again, and no small amount of frustration, steering his thoughts from logic. Spock took a deep breath, locking his hands behind his back. He measured his steps carefully, setting them on the path to the only garden at the Academy dedicated to desert flora. It was quiet there, and secluded. A good place for thought. He selected a bench in the furthest corner, settling himself with another deep breath.
So. James Kirk, considered by the Admiralty to be competent enough for captaincy, to be ready for the Enterprise. But then, it wasn't Kirk alone who would make the ship unusual. Most of the flagship's compliment and her entire command crew, save possibly whoever became her first officer, would be freshly-graduated cadets. It certainly made a statement about the direction Starfleet intended to take having survived Nero's blow.
Did the Federation mean to make such a statement, or was it incidental?
Three months ago, Admiral Barnett had all but admitted that the Academy teaching staff had its collective hands full just trying to keep Kirk challenged. Around the same time, Kirk had volunteered to be "used like a cheap whore" by whatever department had need of him. Three months later, Kirk had either charmed or worked his way into such good graces that Starfleet was giving him command of their most coveted ship, skipping over an uncounted number of better qualified captains who had proven themselves through years of service.
Kirk must have done something, then, that made a better case for his promotion than all those others. But what?
Admiral Barnett had seemed convinced that Kirk's assignment would make sense if Spock observed him. Walk his path, he'd said.
Well, alright then.
It was, of course, more difficult than Spock expected it to be. A search of the housing assignment database listed Kirk's apartment as one that quite clearly had not been inhabited for an extended period of time. Queries made to residents suggested Kirk had never lived there. So Spock began to search for Kirk's friends, assuming they would possess the cadet's address. Unfortunately, the only friend of Jim Kirk that Spock knew of was one Leonard McCoy, who had been nearly hostile to the Vulcan since Kirk's…regrettable experience on Delta Vega.
Apparently, Dr. McCoy understood the necessity of marooning a mutinying crewmember only to the point of his closest friend nearly being eaten by local wildlife. At or after that, his understanding turned into what Humans called a "grudge." He was quite skilled at maintaining this grudge and tended to snarl whenever he came into contact with certain half-Vulcans.
This tendency was not the sort that diminished with time.
"What do you want?" McCoy snarled when his door opened to reveal Spock. The doctor was bleary-eyed and rumpled, as though he'd been sleeping or only recently woken.
"I wish to ascertain the location of Cadet Kirk," Spock replied, hands behind his back as he resisted the urge to peer around McCoy's shoulder to see if Kirk was visiting.
The doctor's lip curled. "What, you want to bring him up before the Admiralty personally this time? Spare him the effort of calling you out?"
One of Spock's eyebrows quirked. "I withdrew my charge of academic dishonesty before the Enterprise returned to Earth, Dr. McCoy. As I left the planet shortly thereafter and have only this day returned, I find it highly unlikely that Cadet Kirk could have done anything to merit such action on my part. Furthermore, as I have already stated, I am here to locate him, and logically cannot have been previously—"
"Alright!" McCoy interrupted, scowling in the doorway without any indication that he would either step out or allow Spock entrance. It was a breach of social custom Spock accredited to the "grudge." "Then why do you want to see him?"
"Admiral Barnett requested it."
"Yeah?" The doctor eyed him warily. "Why?"
"I, unlike some others, do not make it a habit to interrogate superior officers."
For a moment, Spock thought McCoy would attempt to do him physical harm. He released his obvious fury with a barked "Fine!" instead, ducking back into his apartment to snatch a PADD off a long, narrow table in the entryway. He scrolled through the data quickly, scowling. "What time is it?" he demanded without looking up.
McCoy shut his eyes for a moment, shaking his head slightly. "Vulcans can't round up and just say nine-thirty?"
"Vulcans prize accuracy above simplicity, Doctor."
"Sure they do." The doctor sighed deeply, shaking his head again as he scanned the PADD. "We'll placate the Human and say it's nine-thirty. If Jim's keeping his schedule—and wouldn't my life be easier if he ever did—he's got the programming seminar right now. But it's over soon, and there's a gap afterwards until two. That's 1400 hours, for you. And good luck finding him if he gets away after the seminar. My responsibilities," he added with a snarl, "don't start for another six hours, since I was up until dawn doing rounds in recovery. So if you'll excuse me, Commander, I'm goin' back to bed." He stabbed an accusatory finger at Spock's face. "Do your job and go away. That kid has enough on his plate without you adding your crap to it. You leave him alone, you hear me?"
Before Spock could respond, the door slid shut.
…All in all, a successful encounter.
Then the Kirk factor crept into his expectations, because the cadet was not at all where McCoy had predicted he would be. The programming seminar was just letting out when Spock arrived, but Kirk was not among its chattering throng of students. Eventually he stopped a pair of passing cadets to ask about the man's absence, and the looks he got could only be described as baffled.
The girls glanced at each other, then Spock, then back at each other, as confused as if Spock had asked them the particulars of warp core mechanics.
"Well sir," one offered hesitantly, "Mr. Kirk's pretty busy. He's usually the first to leave, so you've got to come a little early if you want to catch him. I mean, he doesn't even hang around to answer questions."
"To ask questions," Spock corrected her absently, already planning the best method of locating the cadet.
"…No sir," the second girl corrected, shy but firm. "To answer questions."
Spock's attention turned to her fully for the first time. Large gray eyes behind even larger glasses, she was pretty but did not strike the Vulcan as someone with whom a man like Kirk would likely dally. "It would be the responsibility of your instructor to answer any questions you might have," he explained as simply as he could. Both girls scowled, though he wasn't sure why. "If Cadet Kirk has been taking advantage of—"
"No," they both snapped. A exchanged glance of embarrassed humor allowed their emotions to settle. Then the first, slightly taller and without glasses to hide her brown eyes, said again. "No. Sir," she added hastily. "Mr. Kirk wouldn't ever take advantage of his students in any capacity."
Both Spock's eyebrows shot toward his hairline.
"His students," the second girl emphasized. "We're the junior class, sir. Our instructor was killed during that big mess a few months back. Mr. Kirk started as an interim instructor until someone else could be found, but he ended up being so good at it that the Academy didn't bother."
"Our class test scores have been up an average of six percent," the first said defensively, "so if you're here to suggest he isn't doing his job—"
"He is still a cadet," Spock pointed out. "Teaching an upper division elective seminar reserved for students with a programming specialty is not, in fact, his job."
The girls scowled again, shifting their books and assorted PADDs in a jumble of motion than was more frustrated than it was necessary. "It is his job," the first insisted. "We've all had to step into roles not meant for us. I've been programming alongside senior analysts for nearly two weeks now. That shouldn't technically be my job either, but as a surviving Starfleet cadet, it is, and it will be until our numbers can support our efforts again. So excuse me for arguing with you, Commander. But it is his job. And he'd doing it brilliantly."
"Come on," the second girl urged, tugging her friend's elbow. "We'll never figure out Mr. Kirk's assignment if we don't start working on it now."
"Yeah," she agreed, turning her back on Spock with deliberate intent. "Let's get out of here."
Well. Not quite as successful an encounter, but productive nonetheless. Kirk had developed responsibilities to and supporters in the junior class over the last three months, which Spock had not expected.
Ah. That Kirk factor again. There was a definite pattern emerging.
Spock spent the next several hours combing through the Academy for anyone who knew where Kirk was. Most of his encounters resulted in people who knew where the cadet hadbeen, but not where he would be.
("Kirk? Oh, yeah, he was here. He instructs most of the beginner-level combat tactics courses. Kind of a think-or-sink situation with him. But he left, like, fifteen minutes ago."
"You just missed him! He usually volunteers to assist with the flight simulations for another hour or so, but I guess he's busy with something else today. You know that one, always go-go-go!"
"His study group just let out. The man's a walking library, I swear. If you'd been here a minute ago—"
"Oh, no, he had to skip this week's meeting. Chess can't be a priority in these times, after all!"
"No, man, he doesn't attend this class anymore. Are you nuts? Sir. He and the division chair have lunch once or twice a week in the cafeteria. He explodes her brain with all the stuff he knows that no one ever expected him to and she clears him to volunteer in engineering. It's been tradition for months. We all eavesdrop, 'cause sometime he can trick her into telling what's on the next test. You've never seen so many engineering students in the caf for vegan day.")
It should have been frustrating. Somewhat contrarily, Spock was fascinated. Every fruitless conversation left him feeling as though he'd been given another clue, and by lunchtime his metaphorical hands were filled with the unexpected trove of a dozen interactions. After one last inquiry (a young man who flushed brightly and stammered, "Mr. Kirk? Oh I don't, uh… I don't really talk to him. He's, er…well, he's Kirk, y'know. But it's awesome when he fills in for my database reconstruction class. Those are the best days."), Spock abandoned the chase and took his lunch in the quiet desert garden that remained a haven to him.
Who would have expected such growth in only three months? Who could believe it? Was this well-respected pillar of Starfleet Academy really the same man who had once mocked and desecrated one of its simulations? Had this Kirk been in that angry cadet the entire time? And if so, which Kirk was the truest representation of who he would become?
How had such a puzzle existed for so long without Spock noticing it?
"Commander Spock! When did you get back?"
Something in Spock almost wanted to smile, because here was that Kirk factor again. "Cadet Kirk," he greet placidly as the object of his search wound his way along the delicate garden paths to stand grinning before him with that enormous satchel slung across his shoulders. "I returned only today."
"It's good to see you," the cadet observed, taking in the Vulcan's health with a brief glance. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Indeed. Of the several sights surveyed, two would be appropriate, though one is preferable to the other." Spock collected details of Kirk's physical self as more clues for later deconstruction: His wounds from the Nero mission were healed, though the way the fabric of his Academy shirt rested over his left elbow suggested a layer of bandages. Interesting. Other than that, the cadet appeared as bright and bold as ever, eyes wide and blue and clear.
If Starfleet had to have a face to give the media, they could have done much worse than James Kirk.
"What makes it preferable?" Kirk asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Spock glanced away from him. "The planet's surface temperature and humidity are nearly a ninety-three percent match to what Vulcan's were."
"Oh. So why don't you all just settle there then?"
"That is classified," the Vulcan admitted carefully. "But it is an issue with which the Admiralty is well equipped to deal."
Kirk grinned again. "Man, the way you talk is amazing." When Spock's bearing became a degree colder, Kirk laughed. "No, it's a compliment. I've been learning a lot about Vulcans lately, so I'll probably give a warning before I start messing with you."
"So!" Kirk clapped his hands once, rubbing them together in an excited fashion. "Enough with these pleasantries. What's up? The gossip mill's working overtime today," he clarified when Spock ticked an eyebrow. "Apparently you've been looking for me?"
Spock's expression blanked even more than usual before his dark eyes dropped to the last remnants of his afternoon meal. "Yes," he confirmed at length. "Admiral Barnett asked that I find you."
"Oh?" Kirk appeared to puzzle through a mental list of why, exactly, Barnett would want that. "I'm stumped," he decided. "Barnett doesn't usually like talking to me if he can avoid it. I think I give him headaches or heartburn or something. Bones says I'll kill him eventually, but I'm betting I'll grow on him before that."
"The admiral did not send me after you for his sake," the Vulcan said, lifting his eyes again. "He sent me after you for my own sake. In order to reacquaint myself with the daily activities of the Academy, which he professed to be greatly altered since my absence, he suggested I observe your routine."
Kirk visibly startled. "He what?"
"I expressed a similar disbelief," Spock admitted.
"Why'd he do that?"
"I could not reasonably attempt an answer. His methods are quite illogical."
For some reason, that made Kirk grin again. "Well, whatever. Here we are then." He crossed his arms, looking thoughtful. "So do you want me to make something up for Barnett when he asks, or are you actually okay with tagging along?"
Spock hesitated. "While I am unclear as to what or why we would be tagging—" He paused to let Kirk laugh. "I would not be…opposed…to following Barnett's order. Providing, of course, I will not be in the way."
"'Course not," Kirk agreed pleasantly. "It'd probably be better to start fresh tomorrow, but my schedule's pretty crazy of a Wednesday, so be warned."
Kirk lifted his eyes skyward for a moment before turning a grin on the trio of first year cadets who trampled the garden to reach him. "Hey, respect the foliage, kids."
The three looked sheepish for a moment before remembering themselves. "Mr. Kirk!" the only boy began in a pleading tone. "We've been working on that engineering problem Mr. Scott gave us all day, and we're completely stuck! He won't teach us to swear in Gaelic if we don't figure this out by dinner! Can you help us?"
"Here's a bribe!" one of the girls added, holding out a large cup of coffee.
"Let me finish with Commander Spock and I'll see what I can do," Kirk said, accepting the coffee with a grin. He drew a deep, appreciative lung-full of the heady aroma. "But Scotty's a lot smarter than I am," he warned the cadets, "so no promises."
The cadets grinned to each other, trading covert hand gestures of success when Kirk turned his back on them.
Ah. Apparently Kirk had made more of an impression on the lower years than previously anticipated.
"I have assorted nonsense to cater to for the rest of the day," Kirk said with a motion to the giggling trio, "so I've gotta head out. How about we meet here tomorrow at 0700?"
The cadets stilled, looking between Kirk and Spock with wide eyes. Kirk rounded on them immediately. "None of that!" he ordered. "You leave Commander Spock alone, alright? He never did anything to the rumor mill to deserve that kind of gossip. Okay?"
The cadets visibly struggled to contain themselves. "Yes sir," they managed at last.
Kirk looked skeptical but nodded. "So," he repeated to Spock. "0700?"
"Agreed," the Vulcan replied immediately. It was only after Kirk and his entourage had gone that Spock began to wonder if crazy of a Wednesday might not be a poor way to start his observations.
It was even later when he considered that perhaps he was not the only one who possessed curious speech patterns.