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At the going down of the sun

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Debriefing takes most of a day, which shouldn't be at all surprising given the convolutedness of recent (and not-so-recent) events. Every time someone in the room repeats "from the future", Jim feels his need for a drink growing. When he finally bursts out of the interview room, he's parched like a desert, dry as despair, starting to get fucking melodramatic with it.

Spock's already in the hallway, neck bent gracefully in quiet conversation with Uhura, and Jim has a flash of irritation. Surely the twisty fucker must've had as much to explain as Jim, if not more. Of course, he probably would've avoided embellishments, editorial asides, tangents, getting lost and having to go back to fill in a bit, and rampant speculation. At least Jim had more fun.

"Nyota Uhura," an aide calls from behind Jim. Well, he thinks that's what he says. Almost certain. And surely, if he doesn't get the girl for saving the universe (OK, just the Earth, but he likes to leave himself room to improve) he should get the girl's name, but Uhura just gives a curt nod and brushes past him into the interview room.

Jim glances the other way down the hall. Sulu's asleep in a chair with a datapad on the seat beside him that looks like the one they handed Jim before he went in. The list had blurred in front of his eyes as he held his thumb down on the scroll tab, but when it cramped and he let go, he was still only up to P.

Sulu's asleep and there's no sign of Chekov, but Jim can hear McCoy's dulcet tones filtering out of one of the interview rooms. Probably won't be very long until he's yelled them into submission, but Jim has never been great at waiting, and he hardly has to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for Bones to be able to find him.

Spock's expression doesn't so much as twitch when Jim thumps him in the arm. "C'mon."

"We have been assigned further duties?" Spock asks, with all those tissue-thin layers of skepticism and mockery and reluctance and other things that Jim hears - yeah, he hears them - but just doesn't pay any attention to.

"Sure," Jim agrees. "Important duties. Very important. Utmost urgency."

To his credit - and Jim's a fair guy like that - Spock turns the full bald power of his Vulcan stare on the tavern, the state of the bar, the bartender, and the shots of bourbon, but does not at any point actually register anything like disapproval or a question regarding Jim's representation of 'duties'.

It's the main cadet haunt, and a week ago, Jim wouldn't have been allowed in the door, barred since an incident where... well, a lot of incidents, really. Today, the bartender just gives him a slow nod and sets out two glasses before they're halfway across the room. There are only a few, quiet tables of people, empty even for this hour of the afternoon. The shelf of Academy decals pilfered from generations of gates and buildings is shrouded in black velvet.

Seventy-five percent of this year's graduating Academy class died in what used to be the upper atmosphere of Vulcan. Three-quarters of the graduating class, and seven skeleton crews of experienced officers. The official day of mourning is the day after tomorrow. That still leaves plenty of time for the unofficial stuff; the bourbon's a perfect, sweet burr down the back of Jim's throat.

Spock's empty glass is set precisely upon the bar a mere moment after Jim's own hits it. "I surmise that further consumption of alcohol would be appropriate," Spock says.

Who says the guy doesn't get it? Oh, yeah, that would probably be Jim, but he's man enough to admit when he's wrong. "Hell yes," Jim approves, clapping him on the shoulder. "But pace yourself. We gotta still be standing when the others get here." Because they will get here. The look Spock's giving him is blank, but the notes in the margin suggest he believes Jim is impugning his manly (Vulcanly?) ability to hold his liquor, but Jim's just saying that having him passed out on a table when Uhura arrives sounds like all kinds of entertainment, but wasn't actually his plan for this evening. Though... "I can see how you might want to get fall-down drunk, of course."

Spock signals the bartender with a finger, a digit which somehow conveys all the necessary information, because the guy brings two beers - just regular old non-blue ones, Jim's happy to note, because he meant it about still being upright to greet the others, and who knows how long the brass might take about their grilling. "I'm sure it will come as a surprise to you," Spock says, "but there are other ways of processing the cycle of grief."

"Yeah," Jim says, picking up his beer, "but I've still got the bruises from your last bout of processing, so let's go with my way for now." He clinks his glass against Spock's, and wanders off to select a table from the virtually unimpeded buffet available.

One of the guys already seated gives him a nod. Jim doesn't really recognise him, but all the faces he's taken a swing at sort of blur together in his memory; he nods back, and slumps into a booth near the back corner. Spock slides in across from him a moment later. The Vulcan, of course, sits perfectly upright; Jim could loll for a living. Everything they have in common is less than a week old. Oh, Jim has these faint shadows of memories from the Other Spock, whispers around the back of his skull that disappear when he turns to look at them, but they're completely fucking foreign. This deep, softened, trusting comfort, and Jim can't even imagine wanting that, let alone having it. Not with Spock, not with anyone. Jim likes hard edges and dangerous curves and the outer limits where no one else figures into your definition. Trust is just one of those things - like restraint or euphemisms or patience - that he can't be bothered making space for in his life. He and McCoy get on so well because Bones doesn't seem to want or need it either.

"I assume by the intensity of your attention that I do not have beer foam upon my face," Spock says, "but I confess to being at a loss as to another possible cause for staring." His curiosity is so mild it doesn't interfere with further drinking of his beer.

"Nothing," Jim declares, putting his back to the wall and his feet up on the seat beside him.

"I see," Spock enunciates, but Jim's not really worried that he does.

Jim watches him drink his beer with a precision that might be called fastidious, if he were human, and says, "Do Vulcans even do this?"

He'll be damned if he's going to use the past tense. There are still thousands of Vulcans. He's not saying they'll bounce back, but they haven't been relegated to history.

Spock's silent for a moment, then gives in. "To what are you referring?"

Jim waggles his beer glass, lifting it to drink.

"We are not without our own forms of intoxicants," Spock answers.

"Really?" Jim shoots back, partly because he actually finds it odd, partly just because it's a conversational habit, and not actually at all to see the muscle under Spock's eyebrow tick up in annoyance, though he knows it's going to, because why would I say so if it were not true? "I mean," he leans in, "it doesn't seem very logical."

"The purposes for which such substances are applied do not correlate entirely with those on Earth," Spock allows.

"But you can get drunk?"

There's a slight twitch on Spock's face that on anyone else would be a long-suffering sigh. He's not so inscrutable. Jim's willing to bet his pants that he could own Spock at poker, if he could just get the boring bastard to ante up.

"Earthly alcohols have no effect upon the race of my father," Spock says, which is circuitous and oblique, even for him (or maybe especially for him) by which Jim assumes:

"But you can and you have!" He snaps his fingers, points, gives his best annoying grin. "How, when, where and what did you do that's so embarrassing you don't want to talk about it?"

Spock sets his beer aside, half-full, that faint frown puckering his brow that covers everything from I appear to have been given the wrong breakfast again to rampaging miners from the future are blowing up planets. "Is the purpose of this session," he says evenly, "some manner of bonding ritual you believe should be undertaken?"

"Hey," Jim says easily, "it's not me. It's the inherent demands of the universe."

A blink does not seem to clear things up for Spock, who says, "I am no further enlightened."

"The rules," Jim says, because it will get a reaction.

He's not disappointed. "The..." A pause, which probably isn't so Jim can appreciate the full weight of Spock's Vulcan scepticism, but if the shoe fits. "Rules?"

Life, he reflects, was so much easier when he didn't have to give a fuck about making sense to Spock. Never mind; in a few days time, the Vulcan will be back to traumatising final-year candidates and Jim will have been keelhauled for being annoying and right, and everything will be back the way it's supposed to be.

"Rules of the universe," he declares, and then corrects himself before Spock can get his astrophysics on. "Rules of humanity. Warriors who've drawn weapons, shed blood, triumphed together must drink together."

Spock blinks and looks down, moving his glass of beer to something near enough to precisely in front of him. "I had not," he says, "hitherto applied the term 'warrior' to myself."

It's probably a grievous insult in Vulcan. Well, if Jim cared about insulting people, he'd never get anything done. "Well, I'm one," he says. "And you kicked my ass pretty definitively in front of witnesses, so I think we can skip the entrance exam."

Spock's still about thinking this - or maybe something altogether different, who can really tell - when the door to the bar lurches open. It's not the first time since they sat down. There's a table full of techs from the Enterprise's targeting systems crew, and a trio of nurses at the bar, not to mention a scattered handful of younger students. This time the new arrivals are a knot of cadets Jim recognises by face if not name, but at the back of the group, catching the door and pausing to survey the bar as it swings shut behind him, is Hikaru Sulu. When their eyes meet, Jim lifts his glass in salute, and Sulu makes his way over.

"Spock," he says, with a little nod that gets a tilt of the head in response. Sulu claps a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Drink up, I'll buy you the next one," he states.

Jim laughs and drains his beer. "See?" he says to Spock, sliding out of the booth. "Sulu gets it."

The group of cadets, it turns out, are associates of Sulu's, and pilots to a man. Seriously, pilots; Jim can probably-not-crash with the best of them, but one of these guys has his ticket to fly commercial atmospheric craft. Two of them were junior staff on now-destroyed starships, pilots of two of the few escape pods to make it. The other two were on academic probation during the incident for violations of the Academy no-fly zone. (Huh. So Jim wasn't the only one, just the only one with a soft-touch doctor best friend.)

On cue, Bones comes in, Chekov in his wake like a pale shadow. Jim tips him an acknowledgement with his new glass of beer, but doesn't excuse himself. There's going to be plenty of time tonight to catch up with everyone. He drinks this round with the pilots, while Bones joins the growing huddle of miscellaneous medical staff at the other end of the bar. Jim tells the story of their jump onto the drill, making Sulu sound at least six times a wittier badass than anyone actually has time to be in a situation like that, and managing to stretch the telling of himself hanging by his fingernails almost as long as it actually felt at the time.

He hears the full tale of the two grounded pilots buzzing the waterside lawn when the first-year girls were sunbathing. "Worth it," one of them chortles. "We should do it again - we'll take you up too," he declares, knocking his knuckles against Jim's arm, "before you leave."

Jim freezes, glass at his lips, and the other guy frowns and says, "Graduation's just next month, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Jim says, a beat too slow, a hair too loud, just a little off.

The pilots don't notice, nudging each other and launching into a story about Sulu once duelling with golf clubs for the honour of a girl whose name he didn't know.

"Oksana!" Sulu shouts over the hoots of derision. "It was Oksana!"

Amidst claims that he was making it up, Jim finishes the last of his beer and takes his leave. He orders half a dozen shots of whiskey, takes them over to the table where Scotty has a mixed dozen of nerds more animated than Jim has ever seen any of them before. He's not sure any of them need, want or even notice the whiskey, except Scotty himself, who knocks back a measure mid-sentence, then goes back to making his point with one finger stabbing down in the middle of a puddle of something sticky. By the sounds of it, the argument got too esoteric for Jim's understanding about ten minutes ago, and they're only a further ten minutes away from either pulling out pencils and scribbling proofs all over the tabletop, or going outside to start throwing rocks at each other. Jim's seen both happen before.

He claps Scotty on the shoulder, says, "Yeah!" in a supportive fashion, downs his own shot of whiskey, and heads on to the table in the corner. It's three tables, actually, all dragged together, and even so it's not really big enough for the twenty-odd cadets crowded around it. They're all members of Jim's year, junior officers who served on the big tech banks on the Enterprise. Jim counts an even dozen bandages, three visible instances of the bright green of anti-burn goo, one eyepatch, two neckbraces, and a pair of crutches propped up in the corner. But no one's complaining. They're talking about those who didn't make it, and those who were rushed to hospital facilities the moment the Enterprise docked. Jim doesn't even try to join in, just exchanges nods - a girl he slept with once, a girl he slept with twice, a guy he swears he's never spoken three words with - and says, "My round."

The least he can do with fucking genius-level aptitudes is remember twenty-three drink orders accurately.

When Jim gets back to the bar he elbows in between Chekov and a couple of comms guys. The kid's bouncing away to music that Jim hasn't even noticed was playing before now, but the smile he offers is sort of watered down. Jim claps him on the shoulder. "Whatever you're drinking, I'm buying." Making his own smile as convincing as brazen forgery is the first skill he ever perfected. "You did good," he adds.

And Chekov's grin blooms. Jim can't remember ever being that young. "Thank you, captain," he says.

Jim huffs a laugh, signalling the bartender. "I wouldn't get used to calling me that."

When he glances back, Chekov is visibly (wisibly? Shut up, Jim) confused. "But you saved us." He gestures. "I tell them that. Everyone tells them that. You are a good captain."

Living his life like it's that simple may be a habit he has no wish to break, but lying to himself once the dust's settled isn't something Jim really wants to get the hang of. And he knows. He knew before the panel reiterated precisely every single mistake he'd made. He knew before the long, considering looks. He knew before they said, Thank you, you may go.

He's going back to Iowa. He hasn't thought of it as "home" in at least three years.

"Sure," he says, grinning easily, hand still on Chekov's shoulder. "Sure, absolutely."

Chekov goes off, still grinning, with his glass of something clear that nearly takes Jim's eyebrows off just in passing. There's no way that he's old enough to drink, of course, but no one's getting checked tonight if they're wearing an Academy badge. And if they aren't, they aren't getting in the door. The bar's half-full by now, the colour-scheme solid cadet red and off-duty black. Jim's a little surprised to spot Spock still in the same back-corner booth, in serious discussion (did he know any other kind?) with another tutor; less surprised to see Uhura sliding out of the seat beside him, wending her way towards the bar.

She arrives just as Jim's finished rattling off the big table's order, and everybody but the bartender appreciates the symmetrical irony as Uhura adds, "And a shot of Jack," on the end.

"Make that two," Jim adds obligingly. "The shots here, the rest in the corner." He jerks a thumb over his shoulder.

She smirks as she leans on the bar, and he does too, but he doesn't lean back, doesn't look down. Possibly because he can already estimate the distance between the hem of her skirt and the top of her boots and confidently expect to be accurate to within half an inch, but still, it's always better in person, and this is what restraint looks like.

"I just wanted to tell you," she says, "that you did a good job." He turns completely to face her, and she meets his gaze head on, chin up, like this is a challenge, not a fucking amazing compliment. "And I told them that, as well. And so did Spock."

Everyone tells them that, Jim thinks, but he's not sure he can even start thinking he might not be out, not right now. What he says is, "So, you and him, huh?"

Uhura rolls her eyes, but she's smiling like she can't help it, the corners of her mouth tugged upwards by forces beyond her control. "Yes," she says, as sharp as her face isn't. "Me and him."

Jim shrugs. "If you're into that sort of thing, I can see why you and I never got anywhere."

He's grinning already, but the look she shoots him is less a glare and more like he's missing something obvious. "A lot of women," she says snootily, "are into that sort of thing, like it's..." She flutters her fingers once, dismissively, "a dare. Make the Vulcan show emotion." She leans one elbow against the bar. "But I guess that's your privilege, isn't it?"

This is much better. Jim leans in, fills the word, "Jealous?" with as much leer as he can. (And that is quite a lot.)

She leans in too, her hand coming up to cradle his jaw as she croons, "No." And then Jim's yelping, jerking away from her thumb dug into the bruising still looped around his neck like a purpled fairy-ring. She laughs, and he's the one glaring as she tosses her hair back over her shoulder and adds, "Besides, I get to take him home."

She's pleased with herself and perhaps a little tipsy, as full of life and sharp promise as the first time he saw her, and Jim's thinking about that - about her taking Spock home - before he even realises. About Spock's long-fingered hands settled steady on her hips, him kissing her slowly, thoroughly, implacably as she's the one who loses control, pushing him down...

Their shots arrive, and Jim downs his in one. He thought, actually, that Vulcans had their own predictably boring approach to intimate relations between the genders, but Spock, he supposes, is half human, and has always been an apt pupil. He may very well be the star graduate of probably-Nyota Uhura's College of Recreational Sexuality, and there was an institution of learning Jim would eagerly enroll in, or at least peruse the prospectus for with great interest.

Uhura lifts her shot to the shrouded decals behind the bar, and when she sets the empty glass on the bar, her gaze stays fixed up there. The shelf above has starship models on it, cluttered and dusty. There isn't an Enterprise among them yet. She's brand new. Jim orders another beer, but when he touches Uhura's elbow, she just shakes her head.

"I was supposed to be on the Farragut, you know," she says suddenly, as the bartender turns away again.

Jim has no quick response to that. In fact, the moment stretches, and he has no response at all. The USS Farragut went down with all hands. She'd been in the centre of the fleet, ostensibly the safest position, but the best reports Jim had heard said she'd been cramped up when the slaughter started, and even the escape pods launched from her had been destroyed.

"That was my assignment," Uhura says, her voice faint but clear. "But I made Spock change it."

Some other time Jim will appreciate the hidden depths he never suspected Spock had. Now, he says, "If you hadn't been on the Enterprise, she'd have been destroyed as well."

Uhura nods, but she doesn't look at him. "I know. I know that. But was someone who was supposed to be on the Enterprise transferred to the Farragut in my place?"

Her hand's just there on the bar; he covers it with his own, says her name.

She rounds on him, says fiercely, "I know, all right?" as she yanks her fingers out from under his. Scrubs the back of her hand across one cheek, and just like that she's perfectly in control again. Fascinating, right? "You should keep going," she says, stepping back from the bar. "You haven't got to everyone yet."

He hasn't. He takes his beer and nods to a wedged-full booth of second years as he goes past. The cobbled-together transporter crew of the Enterprise are getting their asses kicked at darts by the service engineers. Jim weighs in on the side of those who saved his life twice, but doesn't mind losing to the guys who kept them all alive the whole time. Sprawled out in the couches by the fireplace that's never been lit when Jim was in here, the general core sciences crews are exchanging stories; in the absence of anything to collect, catalogue, analyse or experiment on during the majority of the recent voyage, they'd been seconded to the medical and engineering departments, whichever seemed more appropriate. Jim gets scolded by three of them, apparently independently, for not getting some of the red matter for testing. On his way back across the bar, he's ordered back to the big table in the corner to settle a bet about thermo-dynamics. "Are you kidding?" he interjects, halfway through the question. "I never paid attention in that class." He leaves while someone's still crowing you owe me! He lets Chekov order him a shot of something that he suspects is to vodka as fission is to striking a match. When his vision returns, he sends a round of lurid cocktails with sparklers in them to the hulking table of ship security by the door. He keeps an eye out for their glares so he can grin back.

A knot of logistics engineers have formed around Scotty's table, where the pencils have come out and the contents of a bag of corn chips have been promoted from foodstuffs to symbolic entities within spacetime. Jim can't follow - couldn't follow even if his head weren't starting to buzz from liquor, even if he weren't making sure he said at least a word to everyone who had served beneath him, no matter how briefly. He doesn't lose sight of that, like he doesn't lose sight, not really, of the shrouded decals. It feels like everyone's here. Jim stops himself more than once turning to someone and saying, "Hey, where's...?" because everyone is here. Everyone who can be here.

It feels like everyone's here, but the empty space in the bar is breathing down his neck.

One of the nurses is talking as Jim finally sidles up to the tight knot still snagged on the end of the bar. Bones doesn't even look away from her, just edges aside, arms still half-crossed, making room. Doesn't even twitch when Jim taps the rim of his glass against Bones's. They both drink.

"I'm going home," Jim says when the nurse finishes, two others nodding vigorous agreement to whatever she's said. He realises a moment later that he hasn't second-guessed his own casual sentence, hasn't flinched, hasn't thought Iowa. He realises a moment after that that he really, really wants to stay. Has started to hope he can.

Bones nods, now watching the young guy who's talking. He tilts barely at all to the side to say, from the corner of his mouth, "Try not to get arrested on the way."

It's only three blocks, but Bones isn't kidding.

Two steps away, Jim's dropping his empty glass on the bar when he nearly runs into Spock. In fact, impact is only prevented by Spock catching his shoulder. His hand's really warm, but Jim's body doesn't precisely associate his touch with anything good; he's bouncing off the bar before he even realises he was flinching back.

"You," he says, accusatory to cover it.

"Are not nearly as intoxicated as you appear to be," Spock finishes, as smoothly as though this were an academic exercise; which of these responses best suits the scenario?

Jim thinks he's offended. "Yeah," he drawls. "I'll throw up on your shoes."

Spock glances down, as though calculating the probable trajectory, then says, "I doubt you currently possess the co-ordination to hit a moving target."

It takes Jim a blink to catch up. "That was very nearly a joke." Pardon his surprise; it's not like he was expecting it. "That's..." He pats Spock's upper arm. "Good work."

If anyone else was looking as comparatively long-suffering as Spock, Jim would be preparing to duck, but Spock doesn't give anything away in the moment before he swings, so Jim figures he's safe. Definitely safe when Spock says, "I am reconsidering my intended offer of further alcohol."

Jim's straightforward when he's drunk. OK, more straightforward. "You want to buy me a drink?"

Spock inclines his head. Might mean yes, might mean he's about to giggle and is therefore breaking eye contact to try and avoid it. Probably not the second option, though now Jim's suffering under it. Spock says, "Though I remain unconvinced of your terminology, I believe your central premise regarding drinking together holds merit."

Well, there you go.

"So," Jim says, as the bartender pours another two shots of Jack. "You and Uhura, huh?"

"This is prefaratory to some manner of comment regarding our relationship."

Jim ignores him. It's easier that way. "She's a great girl. Great. Impeccable judge of character." He doesn't even flub the word impeccable. Hah. He's got at least six drinks before he throws up on anyone's anything. By accident, at least.

It's crowded at the bar; they're shoulder to shoulder. It's not a warm, dank darkness, and it's not a second of disorientation before Jim's pulse snaps up and catapults his body into motion. It's not the thunder of his own heart in his ears as he tries to watch every direction, watching over someone else. It's not a staggered, echoed purpose, two arrows and one target. It's not any of that, and it's good for just that reason, but at the same time, it is.

It's not always easy to remember when he's talking bullshit.

There's barely a quarter inch left in their glasses when Spock says, "It would be incorrect to say that I enjoyed it, but I reflect with great satisfaction upon serving with you."

Nice working with you, except Jim agrees, there wasn't much about the past week that qualifies for nice. He doesn't respond, because there are about half a hundred ways he could fuck this up right now, and he doesn't trust himself to navigate around them all. Instead, before he picks up his glass and downs the last bit, he says, "Sorry about your planet."

Their empty glasses hit the bar together.

It's far too nice outside for a night like this, but that's San Francisco for you. The sky's so clear you can see forever, and even if Jim knows half the stars have been fuzzed out by planetside luminance, they look crisp and innumerable and so close you can touch them. It's only three blocks home, but he doesn't make it more than half that before he finds a bench in a tiny corner of garden and falls onto it. It's well after curfew, the campus quiet around him, and he doesn't care. Maybe he's going back to Iowa anyway. Maybe he isn't. He finds that, right this second, he really doesn't give a damn.

He wants to see that datapad again, wishes he had looked at it properly the first time. If he scrolls through it so slowly he can read every name, could he actually commit them all to memory? Could he find the gap in the Ks where he cheated his name off the list? Two and a half thousand names, so many of them from his graduating class. Three-quarters of that class. To be officially buried the day after tomorrow.

Jim thinks maybe he will throw up after all.

Or maybe he'll just lie here for a while, staring up at the stars.