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What Part of Forever

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The house on the corner of 4th Street and A Street didn't look any different from any other house in that part of Venice Beach. It had a tiny shed in the backyard that held a number of beach cruisers, abandoned by the house's previous occupants; it had a front yard overwhelmed almost completely by a single magnolia tree; and it was painted exactly the same color as every other house on its block, an uninspiring shell-pink with white trim. But at 2 am, it was the only house on the block—practically the entire neighborhood—that still had a light blazing in one of the windows.

Inside, one of the house's two inhabitants was sacked out on the couch, having fallen dead asleep two hours ago despite the three lamps he'd left on and the medical periodical he'd been studying, now lying open across his broad chest, slowly rising and falling with the steady rhythm of his breathing. Dr. Leonard McCoy was a good three months behind on his CME, and he'd promised himself he'd play a little catch-up tonight after work, but his head nurse had asked him to come try out a new Tellarian fusion restaurant downtown and he'd had such a good day he'd decided to oblige her. Trying to read about the latest antiviral medications after a heavy dinner and two glasses of wine had been exactly as useful as pushing a boulder up-hill would have been, but McCoy had thought maybe he'd wait up for Jim and get some reading done in the process.

The screen door slammed, and McCoy jerked awake as though he'd been slapped, his CME sliding from his sleep-clumsy fingers to the floor. Fuck, what time was it? McCoy squinted hazily at the clock on the opposite side of the room, just making out the blurry "2:04 a.m." before the sounds of his housemate entering the kitchen and opening the 'fridge reached his ears. Jesus christ, he'd fallen asleep on the couch again.

"Jim?" McCoy sat up, wincing slightly at the way all the vertebrae in his back snapped and popped.

"I wondered if you were still awake." Jim's voice floated back to him from the kitchen, nauseatingly cheerful for such a dead hour of the morning. "Didn't you pull another double today?"

"Nngh. I was supposed to, but Dr. Vajasthaya relieved me early." McCoy stood up, taking a moment to stretch his cramped muscles—why he kept falling asleep in the living room when he had a perfectly comfortable bed, he'd never know. He retrieved his CME from the floor, depositing it on the table as he shuffled towards the kitchen. He knew from experience that Jim coming home this late meant he'd been out with a client, and tired as he was, McCoy wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep until he'd at least checked on Jim first. "How're you—Jesus fucking Christ!"

Jim looked up at McCoy from the sandwich he was fixing, his complacent expression a jarring contrast to his split lip and smeared eye makeup. The stiffness in his posture made McCoy's stomach tighten. "It's worse than it looks," Jim said, flashing an easy smile that McCoy didn't buy for a second. McCoy glared, his exhaustion and good humor vanishing instantly, stalking across the room and grabbing Jim's wrist in one hand, the other going to cup Jim's jaw, tilting his face up. "Bones, fucking christ, would you just—ow, fuck—"

"Ow?" McCoy glanced down at the arm he was holding and froze at the sight of the faint discolored marks ringing Jim's wrist—four even, darkening marks, offset by a fifth one on the opposite side. The irritation flared hotter in his chest, and for a moment McCoy was actually speechless. That didn't last long, however. "What the fuck, Jim!"

Jim took this brief distraction as an opportunity to wrench his arm out of McCoy's hand, turning sideways away from his friend, trying to end the conversation physically. "It's not a big deal, Bones, you just need to chill, okay—"

"The hell I do!" McCoy was already storming out of the room, returning within moments with a small oblong snap-case, which he slammed down on the counter and pulled open, muttering under his breath as he rummaged through it for his tricorder. The case was an emergency medical kit he'd taken from the hospital, about a month after he'd started rooming with Jim. He wasn't really supposed to have it at home, but Jim had sort of made it a necessity. "Get up on the counter."

"Bones, I really just want to eat a sandwich and—"

"Counter. Now." McCoy leveled a glare at Jim, and Jim sighed, recognizing an unwinnable battle when he saw it. McCoy waited till Jim had hoisted himself up on the counter next to his half-made sandwich before sweeping the tricorder over him, checking for internal bleeding. "Did you use protection?"

"Of course I did. I'm not a fucking moron." Jim leaned back, crossing his arms impatiently.

"Yeah, I'm gonna have to disagree with that assessment. Because I can't think of any other reason why you let some twisted sicko beat up on you, Jesus Christ, Jim." Satisfied that Jim was not going to bleed out from internal hemorrhaging, McCoy switched off the tricorder and set it aside, turning his attention once more to the busted lip. The smeared eyeliner was common enough, though it sickened McCoy if he thought too hard about the implications, but the physical injuries were another matter altogether.

"It's not a big deal! It was an accident, okay—" Jim's good humor was completely gone at this point. Now he sounded almost as irritated as McCoy did, scowling up at his friend as McCoy probed his face, checking for broken bones and testing the extent of the injury.

"Oh yeah?" McCoy retorted, reaching for his dermoplaser. "What, you just 'accidentally' took a fist to the face? Smashed your mouth into the headboard? And what about those marks on your wrist, here? Was that an accident too?" Jim held still exactly long enough for McCoy to run the dermoplaser over his lip, wincing slightly at the sting of skin knitting itself back together, and then he was shoving McCoy away from him, sliding off the counter.

"It's none of your fucking business, is what it is." Jim turned away, the stiff carry of his shoulders screaming drop it already, but McCoy had already had twice his quota of bullshit for one day and wasn't about to put up with more.

"Then whose business is it?" McCoy snatched a hypo from his kit and grabbed Jim's arm again, jabbing him in the bicep before Jim could pull away.

"FUCK! STOP THAT!" Jim whirled, glaring at McCoy, hands bunching into fists, but McCoy was up in his space again already, crowding him against the counter, so angry he wasn't thinking clearly anymore.

"No, Jim, you stop it. This is the third time in the past two weeks you've come home all roughed up, I'm getting sick and tired of patching you up just so you can find another pervert to do it all over again—"

"Then why the fuck are you bothering? Fuck off, already! I didn't ask you to kiss my boo-boos and make it better, so get off my case already! I'm not one of your patients, okay?"

"No I will not get off your case!" McCoy knew he was pushing it, could recognize that tight clench of Jim's jaw from a mile away, but he couldn't stop himself. "You're right, you're not one of my patients, which is why I want to know why, after I spend all day putting idiots back together, I have to come home and do it with you, too!"

"I already told you that you don't have to!" Jim's whole body was tense now, vibrating with the same tight, unruly energy that McCoy recognized from the times he'd seen right before Jim threw the first punch in the dive bar du jour. He wondered distantly if he really was about to get into a brawl with his best friend, and it brought him up short just as Jim raised his arms as if to shove McCoy away from him, his hands bunched into tight fists.

"You know what, we're done here," McCoy said, and raised his hands, palms-out, stepping back and away from Jim. "I can't stop you from throwin' yourself in the briar patch if you're that determined to do it." Bad enough that Jim had come home, dragging his drama with him yet again; McCoy wasn't going to tarnish his day further by rising to this situation. He walked out of the room without looking back, thus missing the disgruntled, abortive glower Jim threw after him, and bent to pick up the couch-pillows and his CME from the floor. Maybe he'd just go to bed, though no doubt he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep for awhile. He heard a noise behind him but didn't look up, not until Jim cleared his throat. McCoy stood up and turned around, arms crossed over his chest. "Yes?"

Jim stood in the doorway, shoulders slightly hunched, watching McCoy with a mixture of resentment and what McCoy wouldn't scare back into hiding by calling embarrassment. "Sorry," Jim said at length, when McCoy made no attempt to help him out. McCoy rolled his eyes, and Jim sighed. "Look, tonight was stupid, okay? I told the guy I'm not seeing him again."

"Thank God for small mercies," McCoy said, and shook his head. There was still a huge, hot mess there, but he was done poking at it for tonight. "Let's drop it for now, Jim, it's too late and I'm too tired for us to have this conversation again tonight."

"Yeah, okay." Jim stuck his hands in his pockets, completing the image of a surly and repentant schoolboy. He hesitated, opening his mouth again. "You know—"

"Watch it, kid, you're gonna embarrass yourself worse," McCoy growled, but the anger burning the back of his throat had gone.

"As if," Jim said easily, and McCoy could hear the smile Jim was trying not to show, knew it was probably just this side of shit-eating. "You have tomorrow off, right?"

McCoy scowled. "No, I switched with Dr. Pierce so I could get a few days off in a row. Don't have off till day after tomorrow."

"Okay, then. Day after tomorrow, you're mine. Let's hit the boardwalk and catch a movie." Jim leaned forward, fixing those baby-blues on McCoy, and damn but those eyes could probably stop—or start—a war. Jim knew it, too.

McCoy heaved another sigh, this one loud and much put-upon. "Alright, fine. Now put the eyes away, already, I'm not buyin' what you're selling. Thank Christ."

"Only 'cause you're too old-fashioned to try the goods," Jim said cheerfully, and laughed as McCoy reached over and punched him in the shoulder. "Ow!"

"Don't push your luck, Jim," McCoy said, and Jim smiled.

* * * * *

Spock watched the transport pull away from the curb, re-entering the flow of morning traffic. Pedestrians parted around him like salmon in a stream, disregarding his presence entirely. Most were human, with a few representatives of other species appearing now and then—a Rigellian in a crimson uniform here, an Andorian in a light traveling robe there, antennae waving absently. It was a testament to how unusual Los Angeles was as a city, even on Earth, that not even the appearance of a Vulcan was enough to provoke so much as a second glance.

Or a half-Vulcan, Spock corrected himself silently.

Spock moved out of the direct line of foot-traffic on the sidewalk and turned on the spot, making a slow survey of the scene in which he found himself. It was not yet 9 am, and already the temperature had reached a comfortable level for Spock. But "comfortable" on Vulcan translated to "oppressively hot" by Earth standards, even in a city used to sun and warmth. This Spock knew from his research, not from experience; he had been to Earth exactly once before in his life, and that was when he was very young, years before the death of his mother. And he had never been to Los Angeles, a city he found metastatic and overwhelming in both size and pace of living.

But now that he was here, standing at the corner of Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevard, instead of the deep inner calm all Vulcans strive for, logic's refuge, Spock found himself experiencing a sensation unpleasantly similar to the helplessness of zero G. He had no frame of reference, nothing to hold onto, no convenient starting point. It was a sensation he was quickly growing tired of—a sentiment that was wholly illogical, considering he was at the very beginning of his private exploration of his Human heritage.

Spock had decided before leaving Vulcan that he would attempt to explore his mother's heritage while Earth-side, particularly in light of the fact that he might soon lose the opportunity permanently. He had known in advance that it would be a difficult undertaking, made more so by his decision to keep his study as private as possible. But it was not until this moment—staring out at the massive expanse of a city, an entire planet indifferent to his existence—it was not until now that Spock realized exactly how inadequately he was prepared for this undertaking. Where did he even begin?

A Vulcan would approach the situation logically: formulate a list of objectives, from which he would generate a set of goals and the means by which to achieve them. A Vulcan would differentiate the tasks according to their type, taking into account the history, genealogy, interests, and so on of the subject, one Dr. Amanda Grayson. And if Spock was on Vulcan, that would be what he would do. But he was not on Vulcan; he was on Earth. And very little on Earth seemed to follow any sort of logical plan or procedure, least of all Earth's inhabitants. Spock could not escape the nagging idea that he would be unable to truly understand any part of his human heritage unless he made at least an attempt to experience humanity the way a Human might.

Perhaps, Spock decided, he should begin by simply observing. It would be instructional, if nothing else.

Spock slipped back into the flow of pedestrian traffic, heading down the sidewalk towards a plaza further along the street. It looked to be a town square or public space of some sort, dotted here and there with tables and benches and crowded around with what Spock realized was art, propped up on display on easels and tables. Spock surmised that some sort of artistic exhibit was being held here today. A number of beings milled about, mostly human but with the same scattering of xeno-biodiversity Spock had observed before, conversing amongst themselves and admiring the art on display. Spock found an empty bench and settled onto it, devoting his attention to the clusters of humanity passing by him.

A family unit drifted by, a young couple shepherding a pair of blond children ahead of them, trailed by a grey-haired woman Spock guessed to be the mother of one of the parents. Spock watched closely at how the parents interacted with their children, intrigued at the seeming lack of direction the family's path had. The mother and father seemed content to follow in the wake of their children, the mother occasionally calling to her offspring to warn them away from other pedestrians or one of the displays.

Spock watched as the boy child tripped and fell, tumbling in a heap of chubby limbs to the ground and immediately bursting into tears. His mother rushed over and plucked her squalling child from the pavement, cradling him against her chest, shushing him with an expression on her face that Spock could not quite interpret. She did not seem unhappy, which Spock found peculiar, considering how loudly her son was currently bawling into her ear. Spock tried to recall a similar such event from his youth on Vulcan, and found he could not. His eyes lingered on the young mother, and the way she rocked her son against her chest, singing into his ear to calm him.

Her mother temporary distracted, the older of the two children took the opportunity to toddle over to where Spock sat observing the tableau. A girl of about four with her hair in messy twin braids down her back, she looked up at Spock somberly, sucking at the two fingers lodged firmly in her mouth. Spock returned her gaze, nodding once at the girl in acknowledgment. The girl's eyes widened, and she whirled on the spot, ripping her drool-covered fingers from her mouth to point at Spock as she cried out, "Daddy daddy daddy he has pointy ears!"

"Rivkah!" The father turned, coming over to his daughter and grabbing for the hand that was not flung out at Spock. "That was very rude, you know better than that! I want you to apologize, right now."

"But daddy—"

"Apologize, Rivkah."

The girl leaned against her father's leg, clutching at his hand now with both of hers as she fixed blue eyes once more on Spock. "M'sorry," she mumbled, suddenly and inexplicably shy. Spock watched as she buried her face in her father's leg, and noted the way the father's features softened as he looked down at her, bending down after a moment to lift her into his arms as his wife had with Rivkah's brother thirty-two point five seconds ago. Rivkah's arms went around her father's neck, laying her head on his shoulder as she pressed herself against his chest. Only then did the father's gaze flicker up to Spock, and Spock could tell from the way the man's eyes widened slightly that Spock's ears had just been noticed for the second time. Spock inclined his head at Rivkah's father, unsure of the proper Earth greeting in this context, and the man smiled back. Spock thought the smile seemed rather hesitant.

"Sorry," the man said. "Kids, you know."

"It is of no consequence," Spock said. "Your apology is accepted, but unnecessary. No offense was given." Again the man smiled, fainter this time, and marred by the way his eyebrows drew together, and then he turned away from Spock, trailing after the rest of his family, who had wandered deeper into the art show.

Spock watched them go. Human interaction was proving to be most inexplicable.

An hour later, his assessment had not changed much. From his bench, Spock observed four family units of various configurations (the most interesting one being an interracial couple in which both parents wore clothing and adornments typical of female Humans, but of which only one had the physical attributes to match); three interracial, childless couples; nineteen groups composed of individuals who were all clearly friends; thirteen solo individuals accompanied only by their pet—and not one of them had given Spock the faintest idea where to proceed next in his investigation.

Spock sighed, reaching into his robe to retrieve his PADD and send a message to request a transport back to the Beverly Wilshire, where he was staying with Sarek and a few other Vulcans who'd already arrived. As Sarek was here in his official function as Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, he would be splitting his time between San Francisco, where Starfleet Academy made its headquarters, and Los Angeles, which would be playing host to myriad beings who would be arriving to attend or testify at the secession hearing next month.

As he hit "send," a large red double-decker transport of an old-fashioned design pulled up to the curb not far from where Spock sat waiting, with Los Angeles Tourism Company emblazoned on the side in bright yellow letters. Spock watched as the bus opened to disgorge a large number of humans and not a few aliens, all of them chattering to each other and clutching PADDs to their chests. A number of them scattered, staring wide-eyed at their surroundings, and started taking photos. A few moments later, a young, sandy-haired Human male in a yellow t-shirt exited the bus, wearing dark glasses over his eyes to protect them from the sun. Immediately he turned, raising his voice to address the crowd. "Alright, everyone line up! We're going to start the tour in a moment here, so make sure you have your confirmation codes and everything you need, we won't be coming back to the bus for a few hours..." A guide, Spock realized. The young man was a tour guide.

The realization jolted something loose in Spock's mind, and he wondered at his own shortsightedness. Taking on a mentor had been his very first impulse, back before he'd even landed on Earth—but he had only considered taking a Vulcan guide, and had summarily rejected the idea, due to wanting to avoid drawing additional unwanted attention to his mixed heritage. And though Spock did not believe that Sarek would actively disapprove of Spock's project, it was likely that once Sarek learned of its existence, he would wish to engage in conversations that Spock was not yet prepared to have.

But who better to ask for help investigating his Human heritage than a Human? On Earth, no less. Spock knew that all or most of his peers would reject the idea of investigating his Human side as having no merit; certainly they would treat the idea of asking a Human to be their guide with the same disdain. This came not from an inherent dislike of Humans so much as Vulcan condescension towards all other beings contained in the wide galaxy. It was a testament to the limited Vulcan way of thinking that this idea had not even occurred to Spock until now, which in turn clearly showed how necessary a guide was if Spock truly wished to achieve any measure of success.

The tour group, having collected itself into something resembling an orderly unit, now moved away down the street, following the young man in the yellow shirt, whose voice Spock could still hear raised above the general hubbub of the busy crosswalk. Spock watched them go, already assessing the best way to go about finding a guide. He could not ask any of his fellows for aid; completely aside from his desire for privacy, it would be an exercise in pointlessness, for as they were all Vulcan, none of them would have any better idea of who to ask than Spock did.

Spock glanced up as the black transport he'd been waiting for slid smoothly up to stop parallel to the curb, and a chauffeur climbed out of the passenger seat, opening the back door for Spock. Spock remembered how quietly impressive the staff of the Wilshire was, as professional and efficient as any hospitality staff he had ever encountered elsewhere in the galaxy. It was true that Starfleet was footing the bill for Sarek and Spock to stay at such an exclusive hotel, ostensibly as a courtesy for the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, but that had not stopped Spock from experiencing profound satisfaction at the grace and care that the staff had taken with their guests. This transport had been dispatched by the hotel manager himself. Harcourt Mudd had greeted the Vulcan entourage personally upon their arrival, and had taken pains to tell Spock and Sarek that they were to not hesitate to contact Mudd should they need anything.

As Spock slid across the smooth nuleather of the back seat, that reflection clicked over into the germ of an idea. Mudd seemed an ideal person to speak to regarding Spock's dilemma. As the manager of a hotel that catered to a wide range of intergalactic guests, Mudd would almost certainly know someone within his list of contacts who would be suited to aiding Spock. Spock was not quite as certain of the manager's discretion, but he would simply have to make sure he emphasized his desire for privacy when making his request.

Spock looked out the window, contemplating the Los Angeles skyline as the buildings and scenery slid by outside. Here, where there were no other Vulcans to observe his impolitic behavior, he could admit to himself that he felt a small measure of relief. Perhaps his research would be fruitful, after all. It was a comforting thought.

* * * * *

"Why did I agree to let you drag me out here? Especially when our house has perfectly functional air-conditioning? Sweet Mary and Joseph, it is entirely too hot today for this."

Jim wiped the back of his arm across his forehead, glancing at McCoy, unable to repress a grin at his friend's incessant complaining. "Quit your whinin', Georgia. Isn't it at least this hot back where you're from? With humidity, to boot?"

"Yeah, but we're not stupid enough to go outside in the middle of the goddamn day. We stay inside. In the air conditioning."

"Except when you sit on the back porch and drink your mint juleps or your sweet iced tea and talk about the glory days of the Civil War, right?" Jim laughed as McCoy flipped him the bird, and took another drink of his horchata.

McCoy wasn't wrong—it was probably close to a hundred today, without a cloud in the sky to moderate the heat of the August sun. Only the breeze from the Pacific a few blocks away saved it from being too wretched to function, with the trade-off being the sun's blinding reflection off the surface of the ocean, too bright to look at without shades. Jim didn't mind. Eating ceviche from the taco stand and drinking beer didn't exactly qualify as strenuous activity.

Jim leaned back against the picnic table they'd staked out, taking another bite of his tostada. "What do you wanna do after this?" he asked. He let his gaze linger on a couple of girls walking by on the other side of the street, their skin glistening bronze under the sun, clad in nothing but bathing suits and floral wrap-arounds. McCoy snorted softly, but Jim knew his friend was watching just as Jim was. He was only human, after all, divorce or not.

"Thought you wanted to head down to the boardwalk?" McCoy took a pull of his beer, raising an eyebrow at Jim.

"Sure do. Just wanted to make sure you were still up for it. I mean, seein' as it's hotter than a witch's left tit or whatever—"

"Jim, I realize you aspire to grow up a bitter old asshole like me someday, but you'd just better leave the hard stuff to the professionals 'til you get the hang of it. The phrase you're thinking of is, 'colder than a witch's left titty.' What you actually probably wanted to say was 'hotter than Satan's asscrack.'"

Jim sputtered, face creasing with laughter as McCoy took another regal swallow of his beer. His eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, but Jim could recognize "smug bastard" at fifty yards on his friend. "Are you real? Like, are you sure you're not just a particularly ridiculous folk caricature from a bad sitcom, because I don't think people actually talk like that anymore. In case you were, you know, confused."

"Whatever, kid. Not my fault the sun has fried your brains." Now it was Jim's turn to flick off McCoy, and the doctor just smiled serenely, finishing off the rest of his beer in one long drink, muscles of his throat working.

They finished their lunch, paid for two more beers, and then headed off towards the beach, setting an easy pace that was little more than a stroll. Technically, Los Angeles still had an no-open-container law, but this part of town was quiet and as long as you weren't rowdy, it was rare for law enforcement to harass you about it. Jim had tried to talk McCoy into taking out the beach cruisers, but McCoy had insisted that they were relaxing, not exercising, and Jim wasn't inclined to argue. Not when it was this hot.

Two days had passed since their late-night quarrel, days that McCoy had spent working and Jim had spent cleaning and studying for the classes he was taking at UCLA. Neither of them had brought up the argument since, which was perfectly fine as far as Jim was concerned. Jim knew McCoy didn't like what Jim did for a living, but he'd been so preoccupied with the divorce and the associated custody negotiation that he rarely had the energy to actually say anything to Jim about it. But with the divorce over with, or at least settled, McCoy would be looking for something to take his mind off his troubles, and Jim had the sneaking suspicion he knew exactly what that subject would be.

Jim dragged McCoy down to the water's edge, and after a minimum of harassment McCoy finally followed Jim into the waves breaking against the sand, his grumpiness belying his genuine enjoyment. They wandered up the beach in this manner, weaving in and out of the other beach-goers. Jim always got a lot of attention when he went around shirtless, and McCoy was no slouch in that department either, with his broad chest and dark hair, though he met the inevitable admiring looks with a roll of his eyes instead of Jim's cheerful smirk. The water was pleasantly cool on their feet, moderating the scorching mid-afternoon heat, and for awhile Jim allowed his mind to simply drift.

They came to a relatively deserted part of the beach, and Jim was actually floating, flat on his back in the water, eyes closed at the brightness beating against his skull, when McCoy's voice close by interrupted the pleasant aimlessness of Jim's thoughts. "So, I got an invitation in the mail the other day."

"Invitation?" Jim drew his legs up to his chest, letting his body weight sink him so that he could right himself, turning to look at McCoy. McCoy had a strange expression on his face, squinting past Jim and out to sea.

"Yeah. From Starfleet. They want me to come to a recruitment fair next week." McCoy shaded his eyes with his hand, as though trying to spot something far out on the ocean.

"You gonna go?" Jim kept his voice carefully neutral.

"Yeah, think so. At least check it out."

"Mmm. Cool. Didn't realize you were thinking about leaving your job."

"I'm not, exactly, it's just..." McCoy took a deep breath, shifting his gaze to Jim's face now, something complicated and uncertain trying to work itself out across his features. "I think I need a change. Something. Not sure what. Something with better pay, if nothing else." He hesitated, and Jim knew what was coming next before it even came out. "Thought maybe you might wanna come with me."

"How much have you had to drink, dude? You know how I feel about Starfleet." Before McCoy could answer, Jim took a breath and dove under the water, shutting his eyes against the salt sting. For a moment, he contemplated turning and swimming further out—out to where the waves rolled deeper and the riptide waited to drag you under, out where the best waves for surfing were. The ocean would be dark and green and soothing out there, oblivious to the throbbing heat of the August sun. Then he surfaced, breaking water with a soft gasp, and as the ocean gave him up again he heard McCoy's irritated huff, only a few feet from him now.

"Jesus Christ, Jim, it's a job fair, not damn boot camp. I don't see how it would hurt to know what else is out there for you—"

"Stop, Bones, just—stop, okay?" An unusually large wave came rolling in then, crashing over both of them, cutting off the conversation for a moment as both men sputtered and tried to right themselves. Jim caught his breath, moving towards shore, and McCoy automatically turned to pace him, their swim trunks clinging wetly to their bodies. "I'm not fucking interested. I don't need anyone up in my business or asking me a bunch of fucking questions, and there is no way I could show up there without someone recognizing me."

"Oh, please." Jim could hear the way McCoy was rolling his eyes, and it spurred him to move faster, but McCoy kept pace, following Jim up the sand to where they'd left their bag. "Now you're just being fucking ridiculous. How the hell would anyone recognize you? Why are you so determined to—"

"To what? Live my own life?" Jim whirled, still ankle-deep in the water, glaring at McCoy. "Look, if you're getting ready to join the chorus of people ready to tell me that I'm wasting my potential, just save it, because I've heard it all before. Believe me, I am intimately acquainted with everyone else's expectations for the son of George and Winona Kirk. That's why I'm here. Not at Riverside Shipyards, or at Starfleet Academy. I like my life how it is—got it?"

McCoy stopped, staring at Jim, hands clenching and unclenching in fists at his side. Jim waited, chest tight, a sour taste in the back of his throat that had nothing to do with the seawater he'd swallowed. But the inevitable didn't come. McCoy took a deep breath and then just let it out, shaking his head. "You know I don't give a shit about either of your parents, Jim," McCoy said softly.

"Yeah, well." Jim let out a breath too, not even realizing he'd been holding it till that moment. "You're pretty much the only one." He turned around before McCoy could make his inevitable point about how he was practically the only one in Los Angeles who actually knew about Jim's famous father and equally famous mother. They'd had this conversation and variations on it easily a dozen times, and Jim was sick of it. It was a testament to their friendship that he hadn't told McCoy to go fuck himself after the first time they'd had this talk.

Jim went to their bag, digging in it for his comm unit, pausing when he saw he had a new message. He flopped down on the towel, reading quickly through it as McCoy came up to join him, rummaging in the bag for the bottle of water they'd stashed earlier. "Who is it?" McCoy asked, plunking down on the towel next to Jim.

"Harry Mudd," Jim said absently, already opening a window to send a return message. Bones's face McCoy, and he glowered out at the ocean for a moment.

"That scumbag again? Jesus, Jim, why do you still talk to that creep?"

"Chill, would you? Harry's okay. Maybe got a client for me." Instead of disappearing, McCoy's scowl only deepened. "Something about a visiting dignitary. A Vulcan. Said the guy was looking for someone good and discrete, a professional."

"Oh great," McCoy said sarcastically. "Just what you need. A whole new set of bruises and alien STIs. I'm so excited."

"Give it a rest, Bones." Jim tapped out a few more characters and hit "send," and was unsurprised when he got a ping back from Mudd in under sixty seconds; clearly Harry had been waiting around on Jim's reply. "Shit, the guy is staying at the Wilshire, the one by Rodeo Drive. He must be loaded."

"Like it's the money you care about," McCoy muttered, and Jim just laughed. "You gonna do it?"

"Yeah. Mudd said the guy wants to see me tonight, if possible." Beside him, McCoy pulled another face and then took a long drink of water. Jim sent back one more quick reply to Mudd and then shut his comm, stuffing it back into the bag and turning to look at McCoy. "Hey, we still have plenty of time for dinner and a movie, man. I'm not going over there till like nine or ten. Way past your bedtime."

"Shut your fool mouth, Kirk," McCoy grumbled, and Jim just grinned and slung his arm around his friend's shoulder.

* * * * *

Spock once heard a Human describe the passage of time as a function with inverse variation; that is, time progressed at a speed inversely proportional to the degree of desire one had for a particular point in time to arrive. The idea was preposterous, of course. But right now, sitting in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire, staring at the sluggish flow of pedestrian traffic in and out of the high, elegant glass front doors, Spock could not help but wonder vaguely if he had slipped into some kind of miniature localized space-time anomaly. He could think of no other reason why each standard minute seemed to take three times longer than normal to elapse, or how it could possibly take so long to get to 9:30 pm PST.

He could not shake the faint sense of unease he'd had since his conversation with Harcourt Mudd. The hotel manager had seemed unsure of how to aid Spock initially—indeed, Spock had not been entirely sure that Mudd had understood what Spock was asking of him. To be fair, Spock's request for a "knowledgeable human guide" was uncomfortably vague, but the whole reason Spock wanted a guide in the first place was due to his ignorance of how to proceed from his starting point. Once Spock had indicated that his request was neither for a tour guide for Los Angeles, nor for any other part of California, Mudd had seemed at a loss, but once Spock mentioned he wanted a "discreet individual knowledgeable in Human affairs," Mudd's face had lit up with comprehension, and he'd immediately assured Spock that he knew the "perfect man."

For some reason, Spock had his doubts.

Yet here he was, waiting with increasing impatience for this unknown Human guide, who was already seven point four minutes late for their agreed meeting time. Spock stared across the room at the far wall, wondering how long it was acceptable to wait before he should conclude that his guide would not show and retire to his quarters. He had heard it was common for Humans to allow a fifteen-minute grace period for casual appointments, but the tardiness had already lowered Spock's estimation of this unknown person.

The door swung open again, and Spock looked over at the person who had just entered. A lone Human male stood there, stopping just inside the entrance and glancing around as if looking for someone. He was dressed casually, in tight-fitting denim pants and a white short-sleeve shirt with an open v-neck, half-hidden by the black leather jacket he wore, of a style Spock had noticed was fairly popular in this city, if not planet-wide. Spock rose, and the man's eyes turned towards him, an arrogant smile lighting his features. Spock calculated the chances that this was the man he was supposed to meet was 98.7%, a conclusion confirmed moments later when the man came towards him, smiling widely. "I take it you're the Vulcan Harry told me about," the man said cheerfully. Spock inclined his head, studying the stranger, noting in passing the unusually light blue of his eyes.

"Affirmative. I surmise that you are Jim Kirk." The man smiled wider. Spock noticed that he made no attempt to shake Spock's hand, as several other Humans had mistakenly attempted to since Spock's arrival on Earth. Spock did not know whether to ascribe the absence of the gesture to a lack of manners, or an unusual knowledge about Vulcan physiology. If Harcourt Mudd (whom Jim had just referred to by the more familiar "Harry," Spock noted—perhaps they were friends) thought this man was a good choice for a guide, the latter was more likely. Spock found he did not know what to think.

"That's me. Do I get to know your name, too, or is that part of your mystique tonight?"

Spock stared, cocking his head as he tried to determine what this question was supposed to mean. He was not overly familiar with Human social interactions, but nothing he could think of made sense with that query. "My name is Spock," he said carefully. "...I must apologize; I am not familiar with common Human social interactions. However, I believe that the rest of this conversation is best suited to a more private location."

The smile twisted into a smirk, as though Kirk found something amusing. "Sure thing," he said blandly, gesturing expansively with one hand. "Lead the way, Mr. Spock."

For a fraction of a second, Spock hesitated. Despite Mudd's recommendations, Jim Kirk did not seem to fit any of Spock's expectations of a guide who would be able to help him. But then, he reminded himself, Spock had no way of knowing that any of his expectations of Human behavior were remotely accurate. Spock turned and lead the way towards the vestibule that housed the elevators, keenly aware of Kirk walking beside him, and of the fact that if any other Vulcans were to see Spock in the company of a Human, Spock would have a number of unpleasant conversations later.

An elderly Human couple was already waiting at the elevators when they arrived. Kirk opened his mouth to say something, but broke off at the way the woman frowned, casting a glance at Kirk in which Spock could read clear disapproval, before averting her eyes and staring straight ahead at the door to the elevator shaft. Spock wondered what he just missed; so much of Human interaction was based upon body language, instead of stating clearly what one party was thinking. Kirk was dressed casually, but Spock could discern no other reason for the woman's reaction.

Kirk stretched, flexing his arms over his head, back arching like a predator waking from a nap. His white t-shirt stretched taut over the muscles beneath, and Spock stared in mute fascination at the twin points of hardened nipples beneath the thin cotton. "Damn, talk about a long night," Kirk announced, leaning against the door next to the elevator and smirking at the couple, who had frozen in spot. Spock's gaze was drawn down to the flex and drag of the tight jeans Kirk wore, which he now saw hung dangerously low on Kirk's hips, accentuating rather than hiding the iliac crest of his right side. Spock was suddenly and forcefully reminded of home: Kirk had the look of a wild sehlat that had just cornered its unsuspecting prey.

Spock found himself immobilized, his hands folded underneath his robes. Surely he should say something, stop this display somehow, and yet his mind was utterly blank. "I sure could use a nice... hot... bath." Kirk let out a sigh at this statement, letting his hand trail across his abdomen, fingertips playing lightly over his stomach.

Before Kirk's fingers could pass the point of public indecency, a bell chimed, heralding the arrival of one of the elevators. The doors slid open to reveal a suited attendant who hadn't quite bothered to mask his boredom, and for several seconds did not seem to even notice the display just feet from him. Kirk straightened as the elevator opened, turning and throwing his arms wide with a shit-eating grin that Spock did not believe for a moment. "Well ho-lee fuck, a couch built for two! Ain't these fancy hotels great?" So saying, he swept into the elevator, bypassing the attendant, whose posture abruptly and mysteriously improved. Spock could think of exactly nothing to do except nod at the scandalized couple and follow Kirk into the elevator. The elderly couple did not follow.

The attendant managed to keep a perfectly straight face, not even looking over his shoulder as he entered their intended destination. Spock turned his gaze on Kirk, who was now slouched on the couch, staring up at him with wide, innocent eyes. Spock was quickly learning that as expressive as Humans were, their outward appearances often did not necessarily match their inward state of being.

"That was unnecessary and highly inappropriate," Spock observed.

"Pretty sure that's not my problem," Kirk said easily.

Spock found he had nothing to say to that. So instead he stared straight ahead, arms folded inside his robes, and wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

* * * * *

By the time the hotel elevator had reached the top floor (penthouse, Jim noticed)—barely five minutes from walking in the front door—Jim had already come to three conclusions.

One, he'd made the right choice in clothing tonight. Any more provocative and he would likely have gotten thrown out of the hotel, or at least attracted more attention than he really wanted to deal with, but he hadn't missed the way Spock's eyes had moved over his body outside the elevator, either. Two, the Vulcan clearly had no idea what to expect from Jim, so Harry obviously hadn't given Spock much information to go on. And three, once they got behind closed doors, Jim was either going to be thrown out on his ass, or he would be in for a genuine reaming tonight, judging from how fucking repressed this guy was. The uptight ones were always the most intense once you finally got them to unwind, with only a very few exceptions (none of which had been Human or terribly humanoid). Jim just hoped he had the chance to get under Spock's skin.

The elevator coasted to a stop, the doors sliding open, and Jim bounced out into the hallway ahead of Spock, giving his host a chance to get a good look at Jim's ass in those jeans. (Jim was justifiably proud of his ass; McCoy called him "bubble butt," but it was only jealousy talking. His ass could stop wars, or at least traffic.) "Which room?" Jim asked innocently, taking his time turning around. No point in being subtle about it.

Spock greeted him with one of those impressively stern eyebrows raised towards the severe line of his bangs, but said merely, "My quarters are the last door on the right, down the hallway to the left." Jim couldn't be sure, because Spock's poker face would be the envy of any card table in Vegas, but he thought Spock seemed apprehensive. Well, it was his own fault for wanting Jim to meet him in the lobby instead of just coming straight to Spock's room.

Jim waited as Spock unlocked the door and held it open for Jim, ushering Jim in first and then following in after. Jim walked slowly into the center of the room, staring around at the tastefully appointed suite, done in dark shades of orange and brown and gold. Spock went immediately to the desk, powering on his computer, much to Jim's indignation. Who the fuck checked their messages before anything else when they had a hotass rent boy in the room? Must be a Vulcan thing. Jim left Spock to his own devices for a moment, unable to resist wandering outside to admire the sweep of the Los Angeles skyline.

Which turned out to be even more spectacular than he'd thought. For a moment, Jim could only stare, caught and held by the expanse racing away before his eyes. Los Angeles was laid out before him, glittering and mysterious, as frustrating as it was alluring in its whispered promises of potential. The city lights obscured any chance of seeing the stars, but the night was clear enough for the immensity of the LA basin to make itself known, and for a moment Jim let himself be swallowed up in the illusion that all of space was pressing down upon them, a vast, glorious emptiness where anything was possible—tantalizing in its closeness and ultimate unavailability.

He was still leaning against the rail and staring out at the night when he felt a presence at his arm: Spock. "This view is amazing," Jim murmured, not taking his eyes from the vista before him.

"Indeed." Spock's voice was quiet. Jim could tell without having to look that his host was still standing perfectly stick-straight, as though he had a metal rod in place of a spine. "Though I must confess that this is the first time I have come out onto the balcony."

It was Jim's turn to raise an eyebrow, turning to Spock in mild surprise. "Yeah? Why'd you bother with the penthouse, then?"

Spock cocked his head at Jim. "It is the most secluded and private of the suites available in this hotel, which was conducive to pursuing my research in peace."

"Ah. Well, okay, makes sense." Research, huh? Vulcan was renowned for its scientific contributions to the Federation and for her people's dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, so the discovery wasn't much of a surprise. Jim smiled at Spock, who was still regarding him with those dark, serious eyes. He was very attractive, in an uptight librarian sort of way. It was rare for Jim to accept a client without either having met the client or having a damn good recommendation—it wasn't like he couldn't afford to be picky—but he was glad he'd gone with his gut here and accepted. He'd never fucked a Vulcan before, after all. And though probably no one would believe him, Jim liked getting the chance to be up close and personal with species he didn't know anything about, completely aside from the gratuitous satisfaction of sex.

Jim turned and headed back inside, shrugging out of his leather jacket in one smooth motion and casting it aside. It didn't take a mind-reader to guess that Spock was the anal-retentively neat type, so he made a point to throw his jacket over the back of the couch. He raised his hands over his head, arching back and shoulders deliberately, and groaned low in his throat at the dull burn of stretching muscle tissue, newly-bared skin prickling in the breeze coming through the balcony door. "So! Here we are. You're a mysterious Vulcan dignitary, a visitor to our fair city. Harry Mudd tells me you were looking for a professional." Jim turned to find Spock staring at him, stopped a few feet inside the door to the balcony, as if arrested by some invisible force. Jim restrained a smile. Getting kicked out was looking less and less likely.

"Well, it's your lucky day. Because Harry got ahold of me, and baby, I'm the best." Jim pitched his voice low and husky, slowly crossing the distance to Spock, who stood still as stone. Spock said nothing, but Jim saw Spock's hands were now clasped behind his back, as though he didn't trust them if he left them to their own devices. Jim came to a halt just a few feet away. "The question is, now that you have me here, Spock... what are you going to do with me?"

Jim let the question hang in the air. Spock's dark eyes were fathomless, his face void of expression, but Jim could have reached out and torn a strip out of the tension hanging between them, its weight a palpable thing. And was he imagining things, or was there a tinge of green along the pale perfection of Spock's cheekbone? Jesus christ.

Out of nowhere, the suite's doorbell chimed, breaking the silence. Jim jumped a little, throwing a glare over his shoulder at the door. "Who's that?" Had someone called hotel security? Jesus Christ, Spock hadn't so much as touched him yet.

Jim turned back in time to see something in Spock's eyes flicker, and he seemed to regain control of himself somewhat. "I took the liberty of ordering room service, while you were out on the balcony," he said, each word careful and measured. Spock moved to answer the door, leaving Jim standing in the middle of the room, feeling like a bit of a fool. Room service? Really?

Apparently, yes. Spock opened the door, directing the attendant to set up the old-fashioned wheeled table in the center of the room before politely thanking the man and sending him on his way. Jim came over, his irritation at being derailed in the middle of his seduction offset by his curiosity to see what Spock had ordered. Which turned out to be a number of things.

"Chocolate and red wine?" Jim stared. Spock had also ordered several kinds of cheese, fresh strawberries, sparkling water, and what looked suspiciously like baklava. Jim looked from the array of finger-food to his host, thrown suddenly off-kilter.

Spock clasped his hands together, and now there was no mistaking the green flush tinging his cheekbones. Belatedly, Jim remembered that Vulcan blood was copper-based, instead of iron. "It was my understanding that Humans show hospitality towards their guests by offering pleasing food and drink." He stopped, staring uncertainly at Jim, who couldn't help but smile.

"Guest. That's one word for it. I—wow, look, Spock, that's... actually really sweet of you. Thank you." Jim hesitated, torn. Despite his initial behavior, he found now that he really didn't want to embarrass Spock, and so after a moment he picked up a glass to pour himself some wine, watching the tension in Spock's bearing ease slightly as he helped himself to the food. Jim took some of everything, arranging it all on a little plate and carrying it over to the mahogany end-table next to the couches. Spock followed him, settling at the other end of the couch. Except— "Wait, aren't you having any?"

Spock shook his head. "Negative. Vulcans do not require sustenance as often as Humans do, and I had a full meal at lunch time. I will not require more food until tomorrow morning, barring unforeseen exertion this evening."

Unforeseen exertion? "Wait, okay, so, wow." Jim opened his mouth and then shut it, setting down the chocolate and the glass of red wine (which was actually really good) back down on the table, staring at Spock with fresh incredulity. Spock regarded him with renewed anxiety, or at least one eyebrow that was raised a fraction of an inch above the other. "Spock... As considerate as it is of you to go for this whole romantic seduction thing—which, I didn't know Vulcans even did that, so color me surprised, but anyway, I have to tell you: you really didn't have to bother. Because I'm a sure thing."

Spock was still staring at him. "I do not understand," he said, both eyebrows drawing down now, and idiotically it made Jim want to push him down onto the couch and start kissing that confusion right out of existence. His attraction to this alien was nothing short of ridiculous. "Surprise is not a color, nor would I wish to change your current coloration, even if such a thing were possible. But I apologize if my attempt at a hospitality ritual did not meet with your approval."

"Spock—you—oh, my god." This was impossible. Jim scooted closer to Spock, grabbing for his hand. The reaction was immediate: Spock jerked back as if burned, shoving both of his hands into his lap, staring at Jim with an expression that was either panic or a really bad cramp. Jim paused, cocking his head at Spock for a moment before leaning forward, smirking at the way Spock's eyes widened minutely as he advanced into Spock's personal space. He knew Vulcans were touch-telepaths, and therefore did not enjoy casual physical touching in the same way Humans did. And that would explain Spock's aversion to having his hands touched... if it weren't for the teeny fact that, in theory, Jim had been invited here to do a whole hell of a lot of naked touching.

Talk about mixed messages, Jim thought, reluctant pleasure contaminating the purity of his irritation. Well, maybe he just needed some more encouragement.

"You're a tough nut to crack," Jim told him, and before Spock could respond he found himself with a lapful of Human male, as Jim straddled Spock's legs and looked down at him through his lashes. Spock was still staring at him as though something had broken in his brain, his impassive facade crumbling at the edges: eyes too wide, mouth slightly open, pupils dilating, color creeping up his neck. Vulcans might not be Human, but they were close enough for government work, at least in this situation. "No wonder Harry said you wanted a professional," Jim murmured, raising his hand to grip Spock's shoulder.

It was the wrong thing to say. Spock stood up, dislodging Jim abruptly from his lap, dumping him in an unceremonious heap onto the couch. "I should have known better than to enlist the aid of a Human," he said icily, but if anything the smear of green along the Vulcan's cheeks was worse than before, burning up his cheekbones like a rash. "Mr. Kirk, I must insist that you leave immediately. Your behavior is most inappropriate."

"Whoa, whoa, back the fuck up," Jim snapped, embarrassment turning quickly to anger. "Inappropriate? Are you insane, or is this a Vulcan form of foreplay that I'm just unfamiliar with?"

Spock glared at him. "At no point did I state that I was seeking sexual congress with a complete stranger, Mr. Kirk. I do not know what would have given you such an impression."

Jim sat up, returning that glare with interest. He'd never had an evening sour so quickly. And he'd never had anyone turn him down like that—not a fucking client, anyway. It stung, a little. "Harry said, and I quote, that you wanted a 'discreet, professional Human' who was 'very knowledgeable.' Which I am." He stood up himself, knowing better by now than to try to touch Spock again, but someone had fucked up tonight and it sure as hell wasn't him.

"I specifically requested a guide," Spock said, smoothing his robes into place. "A Human guide."

"...Oh," said Jim. He hesitated. "...Not a sex worker."

"Negative," said Spock. He folded his hands behind his back, staring at Jim from behind a renewed wall of impassivity that made polar icecaps look warm and inviting by comparison.

"Oh," said Jim again, and found he could not think of anything else to say. That was... just great. Welcome to Earth, Jim thought sourly. Sexual assault: it's just one of the many services we offer here. Harry Mudd was going to die. Painfully.

Jim just kept looking at Spock, at an utter loss for anything to say. Spock was looking back at him, his expression a study in complication. "It appears that we were both operating under false assumptions, Mr. Kirk," Spock said finally, and maybe it was wishful thinking, but he thought Spock sounded less like he was on the edge of throttling the life out of one Jim Kirk. "I apologize if you were given the wrong impression at any point."

"Yeah. Uh, me too." Jim sank onto the couch, rubbing distractedly at his face, already privately planning to punch Harry Mudd hard for this. "So, um. Why don't you tell me what you were actually looking for? Maybe I can help, or know someone who can."

"That is unnecessary, I assure you."

"No shit. But seriously, it's the least I can do. Since I more or less assaulted you just now."

Spock inclined his head slightly. "While your concern is appreciated, I can assure you that there was no risk of forcing me to do anything against my will, Mr. Kirk. Vulcans are significantly stronger than humans, especially while in Earth's lowered gravity."

That... was kinda hot. It shouldn't have been, considering the circumstances, but Jim had always been good at finding a way to persevere well beyond the point to which any rational Human would have taken things. Jim leaned back against the couch, giving all of his attention to Spock now, some of his embarrassment finally starting to recede. Thank God. "Okay, so if Vulcans are so strong, mind telling me why you didn't chuck me out on my ass sooner than this? Instead of letting me make a giant fool of myself like I did."

"Mr. Kirk—"

"Dude, I just offered to suck your dick. Formality is pretty unnecessary. Just Jim will do."

Spock paused to digest this. "Jim," he said, with obvious effort. "This discussion is entirely superfluous. When I requested the aid of a Human guide, I was acting on an impulse that was both ill-advised and illogical. Clearly—"

"Look, I can't decide which is more insulting, the way you just implied that I'm not even remotely a threat to you, or the way you just dissed pretty much the entire Human race." Jim watched in some satisfaction as Spock froze, fumbling to find a response. Jim continued before Spock could say anything. "If you think it was so stupid to ask a Human for help, why are you on Earth? And why did you ask for help in the first place?"

Spock gave Jim a look that said, quite clearly, that if Jim interrupted him again, Jim might yet discover exactly how strong Vulcans were compared to Humans. Wisely, Jim kept his mouth shut. After another moment, Spock responded. "I am on Earth to accompany my father while he fulfills his diplomatic duties as Vulcan Ambassador to Earth. As for why I am seeking aid—" Spock hesitated, his face flat and expressionless, his tightly-folded hands the only outward indication of his mental state. Jim waited. Spock dropped his gaze to his lap, studying his hands as if they were the most fascinating thing in the world. "I am not wholly Vulcan," Spock said, with obvious reluctance. "My mother was Human."

"Was?"

Spock's eyes flickered up to rest on Jim again, and he nodded, confirming Jim's suspicion. "Indeed. My mother passed away many years ago."

"I'm sorry," Jim said. He shifted on the couch, watching Spock with a speculative look on his face. "Would that have anything to do with why you're looking for a Human guide?" he asked gently.

For several seconds, Spock did not react. Then he gave an almost imperceptible nod, the faintest incline of his head. "That is an accurate assessment."

Jim waited, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming. Spock was not exactly a talky kind of guy. "I would ask if you wanted someone to help you find your mom's family, but that seems unlikely, somehow."

"Your assumptions are correct. I had thought to contact my mother's family, but... not yet."

That struck Jim as odd. Wouldn't family be the first place you'd want to turn in a situation like this? Then Jim thought about Frank, about the first time he'd met his mother's sister Faye, how awkward it had felt for this woman he'd never had a relationship with to have all these expectations of him (and Sam, for chrissake), for who he ought to be. Jim thought about how much worse that would be, coming from literally another planet, another race's way of thinking.

Yeah, okay. In Spock's shoes, Jim wouldn't necessarily do anything differently.

"So what do you want?" Jim slouched back into the couch, draping his arm along the back and crossing his leg at the knee, eyes fixed on Spock. He had a vague inkling of what Spock was seeking, but he'd already stuck his foot in it once tonight. He'd just as soon Spock spell it out for him. Never mind the fact that Spock no longer seemed overly inclined to ask Jim for his help anyway.

This time, Spock was silent for so long that Jim had just about concluded that the conversation really was over after all, and he had actually opened his mouth to make some excuse to leave when Spock said, quietly, "I wish to better understand the Human experience, so that I might come to fully appreciate my heritage." Spock's eyes were fixed at a point somewhere over Jim's shoulder, and he was holding so still that he might have been carved from ivory. Jim felt a pang, something stirring he hadn't known he possessed.

It was no wonder Spock had been so reluctant to speak of his desire; Jim was faintly astonished at the fact that Spock had managed to get this far with it at all. Completely aside from any cultural issues that might exist (and Jim suspected there were quite a few, just from what he did know of Vulcans, and if Spock's behavior was any barometer), the idea of anyone trying to understand, essentially, what it meant to be Human was absolutely ridiculous—much less a repressed-as-fuck Vulcan like Spock, who was coming from a background that clearly gave him next to nothing on which to build. Spock might as well want to sail the vastness of space with only a toothpick and a towel to get by with, or defeat the Klingon Empire with a lawnmower. It was impossible. Completely and absurdly impossible.

Jim smiled.

His night—hell, the next week or two—had just gotten a lot more interesting. Good thing Jim had never met a mountain he hadn't wanted to climb, just to piss down the side.

"Boy, you don't know how lucky you are that you found me," he said, voice warm with satisfaction. Spock's head jerked up, eyes fastening on Jim, and Jim wasn't 100% on his Vulcan-to-Human expression translations, but he thought Spock looked kinda annoyed. "I'm exactly what you need."

"If you are referring to the fact that in our short acquaintance, you have more than adequately demonstrated the Human capacity for both illogic and intentional frustration, then you are quite correct, Jim. Though I admit I fail to see how even a Human would describe our meeting as 'lucky.'"

"Is that sarcasm, Spock? Aww, and here I thought you were starting out from square one." Jim felt his smile widen, and he knew his grin was probably verging on "shit-eating," but he couldn't help himself.

"This conversation is quite done with, Mr. Kirk, and I will call—"

"No, wait, hear me out." Jim jumped to his feet, holding both hands palms-out in a conciliatory gesture. "Seriously, just—you really want this. Don't you? This is something you genuinely care about pursuing."

Spock leveled a glare at Jim chilly enough to send everyone in Los Angeles running for a sweater. "...Affirmative."

"And I know you don't want to have to explain what you're looking for all over again to someone new." Spock did not answer this time, but his silence told Jim all he needed to know.

"Okay. Now. I know what you're thinking—"

"I find that difficult to believe," Spock muttered.

"—which is that I'm the last person on this planet that you'd want to ask for help, and that is exactly why I am perfect for the job."

Spock paused. "...I must conclude that not all Humans are as utterly contradictory as you are, Mr. Kirk, or else your species would never have achieved warp drive."

"It's Jim, and it's your species too, so I'd quit with the insults if I were you." Jim couldn't help the stab of irritation at that last comment, though he managed to hide it well enough, he thought. Christ, why exactly was he volunteering for this crazy job?

"I believe we have conclusively just proven that you are not me, Jim, nor are we anything alike—"

"—except for the 99.5% of DNA that all Human parents share with their offspring, so either you're not actually alive and in front of me right now, or you have only a .5% of essential DNA coding different from me." Jim watched with no small degree of satisfaction as Spock's mouth snapped shut, noting the way the tips of Spock's ears turned slightly green when he was annoyed.

"I would be interested to hear how someone of your profession comes to be informed about recombinant DNA in Human reproduction," Spock said after a moment, sounding distinctly stiffer.

"Later," Jim said. "You gonna let me finish now?" Spock re-folded his hands in his lap, staring at Jim, the tips of his ears still a faint green. "Okay. You're a Vulcan; I'm sure you've deconstructed and plotted this out every possible way you can imagine, and the fact that you're looking for a Human guide at all means you know you can't do this the Vulcan way; you need to try to approach this like a Human would, or you're missing half the point. Right so far?" Jim got only a curt nod in response, Spock's eyes fixed on him like two miniature black holes, with about as much warmth. "And I'm assuming you're only on Earth for a limited amount of time, some of which you've already committed to other activities. You don't have a lot of time to waste looking for a guide if you want to make the most of your time here. So the sooner you can start, the better." Again the nod.

Jim licked his lips, keenly aware of the Vulcan's unwavering gaze fixed on his face. "Alright. So: I'm here, I know what you want, I'm willing and more than capable of helping you. I want to help you."

"You have made that quite clear. I must confess I do not understand your motivation. Is this task not outside the scope of your occupation?"

Jim smirked. "Oh, here we go. Was wondering when you'd ask that question." He sat up straighter, raising one hand and ticking things off on his fingers as he said them. "Not only am I the best lay in Los Angeles, but I also bartend, fix hovercrafts, speak four Human languages plus Andorian and Tellarian, can get you into half the VIP joints in this town and know someone who can get us into the other half, and I'm revising my Master's thesis on Humanoid cultural psychology for publication with UCLA at the end of this term." He paused, then added, "As for motivation, let's just say I think you're interesting and I want to help you."

Spock's favorite eyebrow had been climbing steadily towards his hairline, and at this last comment it threatened to disappear altogether. "That statement would seem to indicate that you are not being forthright with your motivations."

Jim shrugged expansively. "Maybe I'm not. I do promise that it's nothing you need to worry about."

"I cannot think of why that is not completely reassuring," Spock remarked. Jim rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything else, Spock continued, "I must make clear, Mr. Ki—Jim, that my schedule is quite varied, and I must fulfill my prior commitments while on Earth. And there is the issue of payment for your services."

The grin was back now, reaching all the way to Jim's eyes for the first time since Spock had seen him. "We can talk about that. I'm flexible. Long as you don't mind me takin' on some other work on the side while you're busy."

Spock inclined his head. "It would be illogical of me to 'mind' you conducting your business affairs as you see fit, Jim."

"Sounds like we have a deal, then."

Spock rose slowly, and Jim could have sworn the Vulcan looked as bemused as Jim inwardly felt. "Affirmative, Mr. Kirk. It would seem that we do."

* * * * *

"You got the list?"

Spock looked across the table at Jim. His Human guide lounged easily in his chair, clad today in a tight-fitting sleeveless white tank and loose tan shorts. His eyes were obscured by the oversized black glasses that he wore, designed to protect the wearer from exposure to the sun. The plate containing the remainder of Jim's omelette sat ignored in the center of the table, and Jim was currently sipping an odd-looking concoction that seemed to be made of tomato juice and some other liquid, with a stick of celery poking out of the top of the glass; Jim referred to it as a "Bloody Mary," and had laughed when Spock had asked why the drink was named such when it clearly did not contain actual blood.

It was the morning after their initial meeting, and Spock had spent the intervening hours going back and forth between debating the dubious wisdom of his decision, wondering whether Jim could actually be trusted, and contemplating what Sarek's response would be if he discovered Spock's private exploration. Spock knew objectively that there was nothing shameful or strange about his desire to fully explore his heritage, but all the same, he did not want to expose himself to the scrutiny of his father or fellow Vulcans, at least not yet. He permitted himself a measure of illogical relief that the requirement of Sarek's presence at Federation headquarters in San Francisco had resulted in Spock and Sarek coming to Earth a full fourteen Standard days before the rest of the representatives from Vulcan. It meant that Spock had time to himself before he would be required to attend any events, enough to decide if this was truly a reasonable course of action.

"Spock?" Spock stiffened imperceptibly, realizing that Jim was still waiting for his answer.

"My apologies," Spock said. "I was ...distracted. I have compiled a list as you asked." Spock removed his PADD from his robes, bringing up the list of Human traits he most wished to explore. He slid it across the table to Jim, who picked it up and studied it intently. Spock wished briefly that Jim was not wearing the dark glasses; Spock judged him to be expressive, even for a Human, but obscuring his eyes made it more difficult for Spock to guess what Jim was thinking. The fact that Jim's eyes were a most aesthetically pleasing shade of blue was a factor as well, though not one Spock would admit to.

"Let's see here," Jim said, leaning back in his chair, PADD in one hand and Bloody Mary in the other. "Humor. Be a little more general, why don't you... Entertainment. Wait, Vulcans don't believe in being entertained? Don't answer that. Human music. Pleasurable Human activities." Jim's lips twisted, and he seemed to be struggling for a moment with something that Spock could not immediately identify. He composed himself after a moment though, looking back over at Spock, and now he did take off the sunglasses, fixing his eyes on Spock's face. Spock thought he looked distinctly amused, which was not precisely a reassuring reaction. "You do realize that if you don't get more specific, we won't have anything to actually do? I mean, I can think of a few, but..." Again his mouth quirked.

Spock felt the familiar sensation of the past few days bubbling up in his chest, tension wrapping around his lungs and creeping into the line of his shoulders. "I believe I illustrated my difficulties in this process to you yesterday evening," he said stiffly, but Jim was already shaking his head, waving his hand impatiently.

"No, don't worry about it, I'm just giving you a hard time. I should've been more specific in what I wanted from you, anyway. My fault." Jim paused for a moment, taking a drink, eyes drifting to something on the wall behind Spock's shoulder as he thought. "Okay, how about this. What's the main difference between Human culture and Vulcan culture? First thing that comes to mind. Don't think too hard."

Spock cocked his head, biting down a comment about the utter illogic of that last statement, and then said, "Humans are an emotional species that allow their feelings to influence a great deal of their decisions, whereas Vulcans make decisions based on logic and reasoning, and endeavor to prevent their emotions from ruling them."

Jim's eyebrows went up, but he was still grinning, which hopefully meant he wasn't offended, though Spock had already learned that amongst Humans, a smile was not necessarily indicative of a positive mental state. "....Okay, fair enough. Now. What about your mom? Does that description fit your memories of her?"

It was Spock's turn to be taken aback, and it took him significantly longer to answer this question. "...I am forced to admit that I do not think I can answer that question in an unbiased fashion," he said hesitantly, stopping as Jim shook his head again.

"That's fine, Spock. You don't have to be unbiased, but you want to explore your heritage, right?" Spock nodded. "So focus on your mother. The way she approached things, why she did what she did. It's not like there's gonna be a test at the end of this that you can fail—this is only for your benefit." Again Spock nodded, leaning back in his chair as he contemplated the question. Jim took another drink of his Bloody Mary while he waited for Spock to respond.

"My mother was an exceptional woman," Spock said finally. "But I confess that I remember her demonstrating enjoyment in a number of activities that had no clear benefit or product, save for her own pleasure." Spock stopped, reluctant to continue, very aware of Jim's eyes on him, but Jim seemed to either not notice Spock's reticence, or simply chose not to comment on it, because he just nodded.

"Sure, okay. I can think of about.... god, probably fifty things that fit that description just off the top of my head, so we still gotta be more specific than that."

"Elaborate, please. I would be most interested in hearing your thoughts."

"Yeah? Hnh. Kay." Jim paused for a moment as their server appeared to clear the table of their meal's debris. He leaned back in his seat and stared across the table at Spock, studying him as though he were a particularly interesting new species. "Going to see a new vid on the big screen. Dancing. Seeing a play in the theatre. Going to a show—uh, sorry, a live concert performance. If you were a girl I'd say we should take you shopping, my ex-girlfriends always loved that. Art museum, art show. Amusement park—"

Spock cocked his head at this last. "An amusing park? How does such a thing function?"

"Uh..." Jim laughed, gesturing vaguely with his hand as he stared at Spock. "It's—it's not like a garden sort of park, not usually. It's a place with lots of... mechanical rides intended to, uh, simulate a dangerous experience without the associated risk to life or limb. Like rollercoasters and shit. Thrill rides."

"Rollercoaster?" Spock was fascinated. "I believe I would wish to experience this for myself. I can think of no correlative experience on Vulcan."

"Oh, god." Another smile creased Jim's face, this one larger and somehow more automatic than any Spock had yet seen. Spock was no judge of Human facial expressions, but having elicited such a reaction from Jim was... not unpleasant. "You on a rollercoaster, won't that be something. Okay, done. Any of the rest of it sound interesting?"

"A number of those activities are things that Vulcans engage in also. I believe them common amongst spacefaring species of a certain level of sophistication. But I would not be averse to observing how a Human interpretation of pleasurable art and music differs from that of Vulcan." It was a slight understatement, though Jim did not need to know that. Spock was most eager to investigate these experiences. Perhaps the absence of censure allowed aspects of Spock's self that he normally kept tightly reigned in to express themselves freely.

And expressing himself seemed to be something at which Jim Kirk excelled. Unbidden, the mental image of Jim straddling Spock's lap sprang to mind, the smirk on his face as he leaned into Spock's personal space, the jarring clamor of his thoughts, his desire—

Jim shook his head, that smile still firmly in place, the movement jarring Spock back to the present moment. "You got it. Plenty of all that in Los Angeles. How long did you say you were gonna be on Earth again?"

Spock hesitated for just a fraction of a second, barely long enough to be noticeable. "That depends upon how long my other business takes to conclude, but I do not foresee leaving for at least eight weeks."

"So like two months then, at least. I know you said you were gonna be busy doing other things, too, but that should give us some wiggle room."

"Of what wiggling do you speak?"

"Never mind, Spock."

Spock wanted to press for more information, but Jim was drinking down the last of his Bloody Mary and rising, reaching into his pocket for his wallet. Before Spock realized what he was doing, Jim had taken out his card and passed it to the waiter. "It is unnecessary to pay for my meal," Spock said, staring at Jim uncertainly. "I came adequately prepared."

"It's fine. Seriously, don't worry about it. My treat."

"But you are here in my employ—"

"So you can buy me dinner later, if it bothers you that much. It's not a big deal, Spock." Even as he spoke, Spock watched as Jim threw down several credit chips onto the table, simultaneously accepting his card back and tucking everything back into his pocket.

"What are you doing?" Spock asked, perplexed.

Jim grinned, sliding his sunglasses back into place on his face. "Leaving a tip."

"A tip?" Spock rose, following Jim towards the front exit. Jim glanced over his shoulder at Spock, his expression difficult to read at this angle and through his dark glasses.

"Yup. Obscure Human Customs 101, first class session begins now. There's this thing called gratuity..."

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Vulcans, even half-Human ones, have a difficult time appreciating the "amusement" part of "amusement" parks. Or maybe that was just Spock, and Jim was extrapolating unfairly upon the entire species, but regardless it was all pretty entertaining.

Well, Jim thought it was entertaining. Spock thought it was fucking stupid. At least, that was what Jim gathered when Spock swept past him on the way to the exit, his face a distinct shade of green, snapping something about "a pointless waste of time and energy, yielding nothing more productive than a temporary rush of endorphins."

"Awww, come on, don't be like that," Jim called, walking after him with another apologetic wave to the startled park attendant at the gate. Jim couldn't exactly blame her; it's not every day you had to deal with a super-strong Vulcan lurching off the roller-coaster you run and puking into the nearest trash can. Now, in addition to knowing beyond the furthest shadow of a doubt that Vulcans (or at least Spock) didn't care for roller-coasters, Jim also knew the particular shade of chalky green Spock turned when he got motion-sick. Apparently, Vulcans and Humans shared a physiological reaction to disorientation and over-sensitivity of the inner ear. Not exactly a viable avenue of scientific inquiry, but then Spock was the one on the journey of enlightenment here, not Jim.

"I am not 'like' anything," Spock said, in a tone of voice that he would almost certainly protest at being described as "fussy." "I am stating a scientific fact."

"You gonna publish that theorem in one of your scientific digests?" Jim asked, not really expecting an answer. He had to hurry to keep up with Spock, who seemed intent on breaking land-speed records back to their transport. "Vulcan Scientist Proves Conclusively That Humans Are Stupid, Have Ridiculous Pastimes. News at eleven." Spock said nothing, but the glance he threw over his shoulder at Jim could have said anything from 'why did I let myself get talked into this' to 'how can I kill this Human and hide his body without being arrested for the crime,' and just kept walking.

Jim knew one thing for certain, though. Seeing Spock dent the handle bars of the Kingda-Ka when they were plummeting from the top of the first metal hill was totally worth getting asked to leave Six Flags.

 

* * * * *

"I have already stated my reasons for not wishing to engage in the activities you speak of, Mr. Kirk."

"It's Jim, god, how many times do I have to tell you? Mr. Kirk is my brother, I'll give you his number if you wanna talk to him so bad. And I'm just saying that if you want to get a feel for the full range of Human behavior, you need to at least do a cursory investigation into Human sexuality."

Across the top of his glass of orange juice, Spock gave Jim a look that could have curdled pure spring water. "Jim," he said, choosing his words like an assassin choosing a murder weapon, "may I inquire why, when I requested a guide to pursue my mother's Human history, you persist in thinking of sexual activities?"

Jim opened his mouth, shut it again, and then leaned back in his chair, capable of recognizing a temporary defeat when he'd been bludgeoned in the head with it. "Yeah, okay," he said at length, stirring his straw around the few remaining melting ice-cubes. "I don't want to think about my mom and dad having sex, either."

"Indeed," Spock said, and drained the rest of his juice.

 

* * * * *

Spock gazed around the half-full auditorium with interest, eyes flickering from one theatre-goer to the next. "Tell me again how you came to be aware of this evening's activities," he said. "This place is not even discernible as a performance space from the street, and I saw no information advertising either the show or the performance group."

"That's because they only do word-of-mouth advertising, and they like to move from space to space and adapt the show to wherever they happen to be," Jim said, not bothering to keep from sounding smug. One of the performers was out, mingling with the audience before the start of the show, and when he caught sight of Jim up in the seats he brightened, waving. Jim smiled and waved back, and Spock's attention swiveled around to focus on the young man Jim was waving at.

"You are acquainted with that individual?" he asked, cocking his head slightly. Jim found the gesture oddly endearing, as though Spock were a particularly large and opinionated bird. Spock would stone-cold murder him if Jim ever voiced that observation, but it didn't stop Jim from entertaining the idea.

"Jerry? Oh yeah. He's an old regular of mine. That's how I found out about the show in the first place."

"A regular client?" Spock clarified. Jim nodded. "Intriguing. Are you on friendly terms with all of your regular clients?" From anyone else, Jim might have suspected an ulterior motivation to that line of questioning, but Spock had asked with equal interest about why Humans were so amused by what amounted to bathroom humor, so Jim couldn't really read anything into it.

"What? Oh, no, not really. I mean, one or two, but Jerry is about the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, so I really couldn't turn him down when he invited me to come see his show. And he turned out to be really fucking good at this improv shit, which is why I brought you here tonight."

"'Improv shit'? Please clarify." Jim laughed at the faint note of consternation in Spock's voice.

"Yeah. They have a bunch of skits, all bare-bones outlines that they can change as they need to, depending on how the audience reacts and what order they choose to perform the skits in. That way it's always fresh and no two shows are the same."

"Fascinating." Spock looked again at the single-sheet flier they'd been passed as they entered the auditorium, which bore nothing more than the title of the performance (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind) and a few simple instructions for audience participation in the show. "It looks to be a most instructive experience."

"Yeah, and fun too. Beats the pants off that lecture you wanted to go tonight, I'll bet."

"The discussion on warp theory would have been most instructive—" The lights dimming abruptly cut off Spock's protest, aided by the way Jim elbowed his guest in the ribs as he hurried to sit down.

"Shh, show's starting! Lecture me on being a stupid Human later!" Spock pursed his lips, but took his seat without further complaint. Which was good, Jim reflected, as Jerry had a habit of calling out people who talked during their performances by shaming them into coming onstage and participating in the skit of the moment. And somehow, he didn't think that would go over real well with Spock. Though it would be entertaining.

 

* * * * *

"Jim, while I appreciate your efforts to gain us access to the members-only section of the museum's collection, I must express my doubts as to the wisdom of your proposed plan."

"You are like the Scully to my Mulder, Spock," Jim observed, seemingly apropos of nothing. "Why don't you believe in me? Why can't you just believe that the truth is there, and I'll be able to find it for us?"

"I do not doubt that the truth is 'out there,' or at least, that the rest of the exhibit is there," Spock said patiently. "But I have noticed you have a fondness for using your sexual attractiveness as a means to an end, and that the proceedings do not always go as you intend."

Jim shrugged, a gesture that Spock was coming to learn could mean a great many things. "It's not my fault that women find me so irresistible. Besides, it's just a little harmless flirting, Spock."

"Harmless flirting with a woman whom we have already seen talking to her husband, who, might I note, is twice your size."

"Just trust me, Spock."

"It is the fact that I have seemingly chosen to do that exact thing that troubles me," Spock said to himself, watching as Jim turned and walked purposefully towards the museum's curator, who was standing at the far end of the hallway talking to a security guard. Whether or not Jim intended it, Spock was already learning far more about Humans than he would have by himself.

 

* * * * *

"No."

"Spock! Come on! Where's your spirit of adventure?"

"Mr. Kirk—Jim—my 'spirit of adventure,' as you call it, does not extend to taking psychotropic drugs that are not even likely to have the intended effect upon my person. I have no desire to make myself ill—"

"Look, just because you can't get drunk you have your panties in a knot—"

"—I am certainly not wearing panties, Jim, as I am sure you are aware—"

"—no, I'm not, actually, you offering?" Jim had to stop himself from actually ducking, the glare Spock leveled at him was so nasty. It was lucky for him that the cafe they were in was noisy, so no one really noticed Jim doing the inter-species equivalent of poking an angry bear with a stick. "Spock, it's just marijuana! It's like, the most harmless drug in the history of drugs! It's not even illegal!"

"No. I too would have preferred to attend the UCLA lecture on humanoid psychosomatic afflictions tonight, but we could not have foreseen instructor illness. Pick a different activity."

Jim sighed and slumped back into his chair, resigned. He hadn't really expected Spock to go for the pot brownies, but it had still been worth a shot. "Okay," he said after a moment. "I know you don't want to participate in Human sexual activities, but how would you feel about going somewhere that watching others is acceptable?"

Spock said nothing for a moment, merely raising one eyebrow at this statement. Jim kept quiet, and had to bite back the smile. Three days and he was already getting good at telling when Spock was interested in something.

"I hesitate to encourage your apparent determination to include me in activities of questionable moral and educational value," Spock said finally, "but go on."

 

* * * * *

Jim put the hover-car in park, slumping into the driver's seat with a low groan. Next to him in the passenger seat, Spock gazed out the window, then turned to look back at Jim.

"Is now a more appropriate time to inquire why that woman had such a negative reaction to your presence?"

Jim glanced over at him, surprised more by the seeming lack of annoyance Spock was showing than the question itself. "Donna? Uh. She, uh. Yeah, she's kind of... a former client."

Spock raised one eyebrow, an expression that was becoming quite familiar at this point and could mean anything from 'you are an intriguing new form of life' to 'I am incapable of even parsing how anyone as stupid as you could possibly be alive.' "She was carrying a whip. She seemed intent on using it on you. She also seemed to think that you would enjoy such an activity, despite your protestations to the contrary."

Jim winced. "Yeah, about that... look, you're probably better off not knowing." Spock's second eyebrow raised to join the first. "Really. But it was awesome of you to drop that bouncer like you did. What did you do to him, anyway? That guy was built like a brick shit-house."

Spock looked as if he wanted to ask what the hell that description was supposed to mean, but chose to answer Jim's question instead. "I administered the Vulcan nerve-pinch. It is an effective neutralizing method on unruly individuals, particularly those who are unaware of the maneuver."

"No shit. Can you teach me how to do that?" Jim leaned back in his seat, grinning over at Spock now. They'd have to get going again soon—Jim was pretty sure parking at the beach was frowned on by the police at 2 in the morning—but they still had a few minutes.

Spock seemed to consider this question for several moments before he answered. "I think, Jim," he said gravely, "that that would be unwise."

"Why?" Jim was indignant.

"You are the sort of individual to inspire a woman in four-inch heels to run after you wielding a bull-whip and shouting threats to your general well-being," Spock pointed out. "I feel that teaching you such a formidable technique would be... ill-advised. So, as unexpectedly illuminating as this evening turned out to be, I must decline to teach you the nerve-pinch."

Jim made a face. "Spoil-sport," he muttered, and reached to put the car back in gear. Spock said nothing, but as he turned his gaze out the window again, Jim could have sworn he saw the faintest twitch at the corner of Spock's lips.

Bastard.

 

* * * * *

"Okay," Jim said, sitting up on the bed and propping his PADD on his half-folded legs. "We've done Six Flags, we've done the Metropolitan Art Museum, we have listened to more discussion about semiotic theories of the image than I ever wanted to hear. We've seen three comedies and three dramas."

Jim and Spock were back at Spock's hotel suite. Spock was sitting very stoically at his computer desk, presumably looking through his messages or some other such activity; Jim really wasn't sure. Jim, for his part, was paging through their revised list of activities. In addition to "Amusement park," they'd also attended several museums, visited a sex club (boy, hadn't that been a clusterfuck), gone to three plays, one symphony performance, and three free humanities lectures held by UCLA. Jim wasn't entirely sure that they were accomplishing anything Spock had set himself to find out, but Jim would have to lie long and hard before he could convince anyone, even himself, that he wasn't enjoying himself regardless, even if his more regular work was flagging in the meantime.

"I still find the Human concept of 'humor' to be quite puzzling," Spock remarked. "It will certainly merit further investigation if I am to arrive at any sort of understanding of the concept."

Jim raised his eyes from his PADD and looked over at Spock, a small smile playing around his mouth. "Well, no worries, we can definitely do that."

"Worry is a Human emotion, an illogical stress reaction to situations beyond the control of the individual in question, and not something that Vulcans are prone to experiencing—"

"—and you're half-Human, so you just won the lottery, didn't you?" Jim's smile only widened when Spock tore his gaze away from the computer screen to aim an arched eyebrow in Jim's direction. "It was just an idiom anyway, Spock. I didn't actually mean to imply that I thought you were literally worried."

"An idiom." Spock paused, apparently contemplating the term. "I believe I have heard this term before. An expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made."

Jim blinked slowly. Spock's tendency to barf up definitions seemingly straight from the Oxford English Dictionary was taking some getting used to. "....Yeah, that."

"Fascinating. I find it puzzling that so much of Human interaction is based upon saying something other than what is actually intended. Would it not be more beneficial to simply state what one means, rather than to veil one's intended meaning with obscure or indistinct statements?"

"It might be, but that's not how Humans function," Jim pointed out. "I mean, sometimes we do. But—uhh, well— Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate is a hell of a lot more romantic than saying 'Hey, I think you're hot, wanna fuck?'"

Spock cocked his head at Jim. "Romance is another Human concept which I find very intriguing, though it is several degrees more discernible than humor. From my understanding, it is a segment of Human interaction that is particularly prone to idioms, euphemisms, and other peculiarities of Human language."

Jim laughed. "Yeah, it is. But if you're hoping to figure out love, Spock, you're probably shit outta luck." Spock opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment his computer pinged, and his face smoothed back to that expressionless mask. Jim wondered what it would be like to live in a culture that taught such a complete repression of emotion, and found it difficult to imagine. "Somethin' the matter?" Jim asked, when Spock's eyebrows drew closer together by several whole millimeters. For Spock, it was practically a full-on scowl. Jim was privately rather pleased at how quickly he was learning to read between the lines of Spock's statements and expressions, as it were. Spock was wholly unlike anyone Jim had ever met. It sure kept things interesting.

"Your query is indistinct," Spock said distractedly. "I have received a communication from one of my Human contacts, requesting my presence at a dinner tomorrow evening. It is not my preferred use of my time, but it would be... impolitic to decline his invitation."

"Not your preferred use of time, huh?" Jim couldn't help his smile at that. Spock's mode of speaking was weirdly charming, even if he sounded more like an Earl transported straight out of Regency-era England than anything else. If English Earls had computers for brains, that is.

"Affirmative." Spock straightened, and Jim would have sworn the Vulcan was pursing his lips. "I find most social events to be tiresome and ultimately pointless. My time would be better spent in pursuit of some other activity."

"For once, I agree with you. The kind of, uh, social obligation you're talking about, anyway." Jim sat up and stretched, letting the PADD slide to the bed for the time being. "When is this dinner that you don't want to go to?"

"Tomorrow evening, at 1930 hours, at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles 1.75 miles from here." Suddenly Jim found himself being regarded by a very intense pair of dark eyes, as though Jim were a heretofore unknown specimen that Spock wanted badly to study more closely. "The invitation mentions that it is permissible for me to bring a companion, should I choose to do so. I would like you to accompany me."

"Buh—" Jim snapped his mouth shut before any more idiotic noises could fall out. The request wasn't that surprising, was it? "Uh... sure, why not."

"I can of course provide additional payment, as it does not fall on a day we have previously agreed upon to meet. I am aware that evening hours are typically when you conduct a great deal of your business." Spock's voice was all calmness and precision, betraying none of the innuendo someone else's might have carried if any Human had said the exact same thing to Jim. Jim squelched the desire to squirm, wondering why such a simple statement of fact could be so disconcerting.

"Nah, it's cool. It's just dinner, right? Unless you're expecting me to provide you with a blow-by-blow commentary on the finer points of Human dinner etiquette..."

"Negative; that was not my intention."

Right. Okay. Had he just been congratulating himself on being able to read Spock? Because right now Jim had no fucking idea what Spock was thinking. Good job, Kirk. Jim glanced over at Spock again, unable to help himself. "So what is your intention, then?"

Spock considered a moment before answering. "The invitation stated I could bring a companion, and I would find it useful to hear your input on the conversation, as a Human." He paused, then added, "Also, the prospect of a sympathetic companion makes the idea of the dinner less unpleasant."

Jim let out a little laugh at that despite himself. "Right, then. No payment necessary." A little voice in the back of Jim's head was trying to demand why exactly he wasn't asking Spock to pay him for this. No payment meant it was purely voluntary, pleasure and not business, and Jim made it a point to never mix the two. Not in his line of work. But then, Spock wasn't his more typical client—there wasn't even any sex involved in the services he'd hired Jim for. What did it matter if he joined Spock for dinner at some stuffed-shirt convention?

Jim shoved that thought aside. Over-thinking it again. Not that it mattered in the long run.

"As you wish." Spock inclined his head. "I am gratified at your acceptance. I will notify Captain Pike that I will indeed be bringing a guest."

Jim couldn't completely hide his reaction to the words Captain Pike, stiffening involuntarily as an unpleasant taste flooded his mouth. Spock wasn't even looking at him, so for a moment Jim thought he'd escaped unnoticed, but he must have made some noise because Spock glanced up at him from the message he was typing out. "Have I said something of concern?"

"No, no, s'fine, I just—didn't realize it was going to be a Starfleet thing, is all." Jim strove to keep his voice carefully casual, letting the usual easy smile slip into place, hoping it didn't look as forced as it felt. Spock gazed at him, his expression unreadable. So much for being able to judge Vulcans.

"Is attending a Starfleet-sponsored event undesirable in some way? If there is a negative association with Starfleet or the Federation for Humans I must admit my ignorance of it."

"No, seriously, it's nothing like that. Just kind of surprised." Jim shrugged. "I mean, I'm curious why you'd want to bring a guy like me to a formal event with a Starfleet Captain."

Spock cocked his head, as if Jim had just announced that he thought the moon was made of Swiss cheese. "Again I must admit to not understanding your concern. I would not have invited you had I thought you unsuitable for the event in any way. And while I have not met Admiral Komack, I have many associates who have confirmed my general impression that Captain Pike is, as I have heard Humans say, 'easy to get along with.'"

"Easy to get along with." Jim grinned, relaxing slightly. Spock's assessment of Jim's nervousness was off-base, but Jim had no desire to relieve him of his mistaken conclusion.

"Indeed. He is one of the few Humans with whom I have regular contact whom I do not also find to be distasteful. He was an acquaintance of my mother's, and has visited as a representative to Vulcan on more than one occasion."

"Gotcha." Jim paused, digesting that. "...Distasteful, huh. If you're half-Human and you're this unimpressed with Humans, I hate to see what everyone else on your planet thinks of us."

Spock had returned his attention to his computer screen, presumably to pen the message Captain Pike, but now he paused, glancing back over at Jim with an expression that would pass for mild indigestion on any other Humanoid, confirming Jim's private guess that Spock hadn't actually realized what he'd said until Jim pointed it out to him. When he spoke, it was after several moments of silence that (in Jim's opinion, at least) did not bode well for what was coming next. "While it is true that Vulcans prefer largely to keep to ourselves in most matters, the fact that Vulcan was a key founder of the Federation should make Vulcan's stance regarding other species self-evident."

"And you want me to believe that Vulcans don't engage in politically expedient double-talk? Sure, Spock. Whatever you say." Spock frowned minutely, but Jim was outright grinning, bouncing one leg crossed over the other as he regarded Spock from across the distance between bed and desk.

"I do not understand your reaction. I did not mean to give offense in my stated reaction to most Humans whose acquaintance I have made, but you seem amused rather than insulted."

"Plenty of people tell me that all the time." Jim stood up, stretching as he rose off the bed, arching until several vertebrae in his back popped at once, and he grunted. Spock's eyes narrowed, and Jim sighed, coming over to stand next to Spock and the desk. "Spock, seriously, it's fine. I just... you clearly don't care for Humans much, and neither do most of your people, from what I can tell, but your father married one and you're here trying to find out more about your mother's people. I think it's pretty admirable, actually." Jim shrugged.

Spock stared up at him, faint smears of color riding high on his face. "I see," he said finally. Jim found himself vaguely disappointed when Spock averted his gaze again, staring at the computer screen in front of him, leaving Jim to contemplate the suddenly-awkward silence.

"Right, so. How formal is this dinner that we're talking about? Do I need to wear a tux?"

"I am not familiar with what a tux is, but yes, the dinner will be a formal affair, at an establishment that has received a five-star designation, according to the invitation sent me by Captain Pike."

"Five-star, huh? Shit, okay." Jim ran a hand through his hair, staring out the window. He didn't own anything fancier than a pair of jeans with no holes in it (and usually he was putting some care into things if he made sure there were no visible stains before he wore them out). His idea of a fancy dinner was usually just his favorite Korean joint in Culver City. "Right. Where do you want me to meet you? At the restaurant itself?"

Spock paused. "It is my understanding that it would be more appropriate for us to arrive together; therefore, if you do not object, I would prefer to collect you and have us arrive at the same time. I will procure a transport. Is 1830 hours an acceptable time to collect you?"

"6:30? Yeah, okay." Jim couldn't help the grin creasing his face. "That's fine. You can 'collect' me if you want."

"Have I said something humorous?" Spock popped that elegantly-arched eyebrow at Jim again, and Jim had to laugh.

"No, Spock. You're fine." Somehow, Spock didn't look convinced.

 

* * * * *

It took Jim exactly forty-five minutes after getting home to determine beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt that he did not own even one article of clothing suitable for a really fancy dinner at goddamn Chez Panisse. It took fifteen minutes beyond that to confirm that none of McCoy's suits would work, either; Jim sometimes borrowed his housemate's clothing, but McCoy was significantly broader in the chest and shoulders than Jim. The last damn thing Jim needed was to show up to dinner looking like a little boy who'd raided Daddy's closet. Jim shook his head, swiping his hand across his face distractedly as he mentally reviewed his options.

He could comm Spock and tell him he'd forgotten he had other obligations; he doubted Spock would be offended, and even if he was, who cared? It wasn't like Spock was some important family friend of Jim's. This was probably the smartest option, but Jim found himself very reluctant to cancel now that he'd already said yes, so he left it alone for the moment and kept going. If he attended, he didn't want to show up in plain old jeans and a t-shirt. That meant finding suitable clothing in the next... twenty-four hours. Great.

"Shitfuck," Jim muttered. He rubbed both hands across his face, a quick up-down gesture akin to a man working out a roll of bread dough, as though the answer lay just below the upper level of dermis, waiting only for Jim to coax it to life. McCoy would be at work for the next fifty years to make up for the three days off he'd taken, so no help there. Jim stood in the hallway for another thirty seconds before turning and heading back to his room, grabbing up his comm unit from the bed, paging through his contacts till he found the name he wanted. He threw himself backwards onto the bed, shoving his foot into the pile of covers at the edge of the mattress and listening to the ringing in his ear. "Come on, come on, come on..."

Finally a woman's voice picked up at the other end. "Jim Kirk. This had better be good."

Jim beamed, pumping his fist as he rolled onto his side. "Jenny! Boy am I ever glad you answered."

"I just bet," said Janice Rand drily, and Jim could practically hear her rolling his eyes. "Alright, spit it out. I guess I should be pleasantly surprised you aren't drunk-dialing me, but that only makes it more suspicious."

"Hey, c'mon, give me some credit, that was just the one time—"

"Three times, Jim."

"Two were the same night, you can't count them separately, and one of them was New Year's and you were drunk too."

"And this changes things how?"

"I'm just saying that if I hadn't been drunk on New Years, something would have been very wrong. Anyway! Hey, ah, what are you doin' tonight?"

"I was hoping to avoid making any bad decisions related to ex-boyfriends of mine, actually. Something tells me you're going to try to persuade me otherwise."

Jim sighed. Bit his lip, stared at his own reflection in the mirror on the back of his closet door (made sex real awkward sometimes, for damn sure). "I need a favor," he said, wincing a little even as he said it.

"Oh boy, here it comes," sighed Janice. "Jim, the last 'favor' you needed from me involved breaking and entering, plus a long conversation with my Starfleet advisor. Forgive me if I'm not exactly jumping up and down to hear any more requests from you—"

"It's not like that!" Jim sat up, irritation and frustration crowding for space in his chest. "I just need some advice."

There was a pause on the other end. Jim folded his legs underneath him, fiddling absently with a loose thread in the comforter on top of his bed. "What kind of advice?" Janice asked doubtfully, and Jim knew he'd already won.

"I'm going to this—dinner thing. Tomorrow night. It's, uh, it's this formal dinner, and I don't really have anything to wear and, uh." Oh god, he sounded like he was in 10th goddamn grade right now, why was this so hard to say? "And, I, uh, was hoping you could give me some... pointers," Jim finished lamely.

Again there was a silence, and Jim made a face, hunching his shoulders in the privacy of his bedroom like a petulant five-year-old. Then Janice spoke again. "I don't fucking believe it," she said, delight warming and coloring her voice, which was almost but not quite enough to disguise the vindictive glee. "Jim Kirk, finally sweet on someone. I never thought I'd see the day."

"What? Oh for the love of Christ, Jenny, it's not like that at all—"

"Get your ass over here, Jim," Janice cut in, now sounding entirely too chipper for Jim's liking. "I have to hear this in person."

Jim rubbed his hand across his face again, sliding off the bed in one smooth motion. "Right. Be there in twenty minutes." He hung up the comm and threw it onto the bed, turning to stare at himself in the mirror.

This... might not be his smartest idea ever.

 

* * * * *

Thirty minutes later, twenty miles across town, the bell finally rang. Jim must've gotten caught up in rush-hour, Janice thought. She answered in the door in blue jeans and a sleeveless white blouse, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Jim was standing there on her doorstep like he always did, hands shoved in his pockets, impossibly good-looking for a man who wasn't doing anything with himself except screwing around—literally.

"What's the password, Kirk?" Janice leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed under her breasts, unable to stop the grin that spread across her face at the sight of him. Fuck, two years of dating the guy should've bought her some immunity against those puppy-dog eyes, shouldn't it?

"Goonies never say die," he said immediately.

"Get in here, you punk," she said, or started to, because he was scooping her up in a bone-crushing hug and swinging her around, laughing as she swore at him and pounded on his back with her fists until he put her down. "Goddammit, Jim!"

"You sound like Bones." Jim was unrepentant. He knew as well as Janice did that she could break his arm or dislocate his shoulder if she'd really wanted to—Jim had been the one to get her to go to self-defense classes, and had been delighted when she'd taken to them like a duck to water and demonstrated her new ability to him by throwing him ten feet across the room. He shoved his hands into his pockets again and followed her as she led him into the bright, airy kitchen, lit up by the blocks of yellow sunshine let in by the overhead windows and skylights.

"Probably because he takes the brunt of your trouble-making. I don't know how he puts up with you, frankly." Janice gestured to one of high wooden chairs surrounding the central oasis as she went to the fridge to get them something to drink.

"It's the oral sex," Jim said, deadpan. "He can't give me up. Said something about chrome and a trailer-hitch one time. Not really sure what he meant." Jim's grin was now so wide that the top of his head was threatening to topple off.

"You are revolting. Do you know that? I cannot believe I ever let you kiss me with that mouth." Janice put up a hand to stop the inevitable lewd remark that would greet this statement, coming back over and plunking down a glass of iced tea in front of Jim, complete with sprig of mint sticking out of it.

"Yeah, yeah, you love me. Don't lie." Jim pushed himself back from the counter, balancing precariously on two chair legs, and reached for the tea, watching Janice the whole time. "So, still living with your parents?"

"Uh-huh. Just for the summer, anyway. It seemed like a good idea until Mom decided to bring up marriage." Janice rolled her eyes at the memory. "She keeps making these mournful comments about how I haven't 'found a man' yet." As if a man were a stray dog you might find wandering down the street one day, if you were lucky or smelled like raw beef. "But I didn't let you come over to talk about my parents, or all the ways in which we are totally unsuited as a couple, Kirk. You said something about a formal dinner? What'd you do, black-mail some senator's wife?"

The wounded expression Jim immediately adopted didn't quite mask the flicker of apprehension that flew across his face, there and then gone like a brief cloud-shadow on a sunny day. "Hey, now. I can't believe you'd ever accuse me of something like that."

Janice snorted. "Oh, wait, my bad. You wouldn't have to blackmail the senator's wife to get into a formal dinner, it's the senator's son that you'd be fucking."

Jim happened to be taking a drink of his iced tea as Janice said this, and promptly choked on it, setting the glass down hard and sloshing some of his drink on the marble counter-top. "God," he choked, "don't do that!"

Janice stared at him, eyes wide. "Please don't tell me you're actually fucking Thomas Newsom's son," she said.

"No," Jim blurted. "Uh." He hesitated, then sighed. Janice recognized her cue for what it was, and pulled out one of the chairs herself to sit down on. It wasn't that long a story, really, but by the end of it Jim was staring very determinedly at the top of the counter and Janice was the one grinning from ear to ear, barely able to believe what she was hearing.

"So let me get this straight." Janice got up, going to the fridge to refill her glass. "Not only are you playing Human tour-guide for this visiting alien—which, by the way, is fucking hilarious, I can't even count the number of ways that that's ridiculous—but you agreed to go with him to a meeting with Pike and Komack?" Janice was one of a handful of people who not only knew who Captain Christopher Pike was, she also happened to know why Jim wanted more than anything to avoid Pike. She didn't bother to ask how Jim had managed to convince some visiting dignitary to take Jim on as his tour guide; the poor guy (whoever he was) probably hadn't even known what he was getting into when he met Jim.

That was the problem with Jim Kirk. Being friends with the damn kid was like being friends with an ultra-dense, ultra-bright star. He exerted an irresistible gravity on you, drawing you out of your normal path through life, but if you let yourself get too close you could go blind from his luminescence.

Jim grimaced. He slouched against the squat back of the chair, fidgeting with an invisible spot on his jeans. "What, it's—yeah, alright? I am. I told him I'd go and I don't wanna blow him off, what's so wrong with that?"

"Have you started carving your initials inside little hearts on tree trunks yet? Or are you still in the phase where you think every love song you hear played is just for you?"

"Oh come on, Jenny, it's not like that at all, okay? Jesus fuckin' Christ."

Janice came back over to the counter, leaning against it and fixing Jim with a smirk. "Sure thing, hon. Whatever you say."

"Look, will you help me or not? I know you know this shit, you're as Southern and old-fashioned as Bones is, and then your dad and all, but if you're busy or something I'll just—" Jim was already rising out of the chair, irritation clouding his face, and Janice shook her head, cutting him off.

"Breathe, Jim. We'll do this. And tomorrow we'll go out and find you a suit—you don't own one, right, that's what you said?" Jim shook his head in confirmation. "Good lord. Well, it's too late to go out and get you a suit tonight. All the shops'll be closed in like an hour." Janice's mind was already racing ahead of her at sixty miles an hour, mentally cataloguing all the things she'd want to cover with Jim tonight if he was really going to be going to a five-star dining establishment. "Okay. We need to talk about wine pairings, we need to talk about interspecies dining etiquette... but first things first." Janice went to one of the drawers in the cupboard, pulling it open and selecting several pieces of silverware. She held up a small fork, grinning at Jim. "I bet you didn't even know this is a salad fork, did you."

Jim's eyebrows, which had already been angled down, now drew together like two caterpillars engaged in a heated conversation. "Salad fork?" he said, voice tinged with incredulity. "What the fuck, I need a separate fork to eat my salad with? What century are we living in again?"

"Well, I'm living in 2255, but I've always secretly thought you were from the Stone Age..." In response, Jim grunted, leaned back in his chair, spread his legs, and scratched his balls with an expression of extreme concentration. Janice groaned, unable to stop the helpless laughter that bubbled up in her throat, and even as she swatted at him to stop, she knew he never would.

* * * * *

Jim glanced at his watch for what had to be the 17th time in the past five minutes. Six thirty-six. Spock had said he would pick Jim up at six-thirty, and for anyone else in LA traffic, Jim would have permitted a window of fifteen minutes for lateness, but Spock, he'd discovered, was pathologically early. So even though he'd only known Spock for maybe two weeks, Jim already knew that even a five-minute delay was unusual. And even though he knew just as well that it would be unlike Spock to simply ditch Jim, he'd had kind of a high-strung day, and couldn't completely keep his nerves from getting the best of him. More than likely, Spock was just held up in some especially bad traffic; LA was like that, even now that vehicles didn't have to stick strictly to the roads that criss-crossed her expanse like so many stone arteries.

He rocked forward onto the soles of his feet, bouncing up and down as he glanced along the empty street his house was on. It had been another scorcher of a day, and the sun was still perched above the horizon-line, a fat, shimmering orb that turned the ocean to white-hot glass, impossible to look at without going blind. Janice had helped Jim find a nice summer-weight suit, but he'd still already taken the jacket off, draped over his arm like a boy waiting for his prom date. Jim wrinkled his nose as he glanced at the crisp lines in his blue shirtsleeves, and the neat creases down the front of his slacks. He knew he didn't look bad (Janice had given a low whistle of approval when Jim had emerged from the bathroom in his get-up forty-five minutes ago), but he didn't feel like himself in this ensemble. At least now he looked like he belonged at a fancy dining restaurant, or at least wouldn't be so fucking obviously out of place.

Even if he felt like it. Standing here on his porch in the sweltering heat (he should really go inside, but he'd just be pacing back and forth in the kitchen anyway), Jim found his restless mind returning to the same question over and over again, gnawing at it like a dog with a bone. Why in the name of God was he subjecting himself to all of this nonsense? He didn't care about fancy dining, and he certainly didn't care about impressing Christopher Pike or Admiral "Jackhole" Komack, the latter of whom he'd never had the dubious pleasure of meeting but whom he'd heard all about from his mom. And if anyone else had asked him to come along for an evening of crime and punishment, Jim would have just laughed.

So why did Spock asking make a difference?

Jim was saved from having to answer his own question by the sound of an engine being gunned up the street. He turned his head, eyebrows popping comically up towards his hairline at the sight of the car coming down the street. Or not the sight of it exactly, but the sound; whoever was driving the sleek red Jaguar was either out to deliberately ruin the transmission (which had to be an old-fashioned one, Jim noted distractedly—jesus, it was impossible to come by a manual unless you were filthy rich) or had no fucking idea what they were doing. Jim was betting on the latter. No one would spend that much money on an antique just for the sake of ruining it.

A suspicion, ridiculous but somehow unshakeable, grew in Jim's mind as to the identity of the driver, confirmed as the Jaguar slowed to a stuttering halt at the end of the driveway, the engine growling irritably under the hood. Jim came down the steps of the porch, his grin growing so wide it threatened to split his face open. "You need a hand, there?" he asked as the window rolled down, leaning down to rest both hands on the window-frame of the car as he peered inside at Spock. Spock's expression would have been simply tense on a human, but was downright thunderous for a Vulcan, glaring at the steering-wheel as if it had personally insulted the size of his dick.

"I have no need of an additional hand," Spock said. Jim thought he sounded put-out. Like a two-year-old who needs a nap, he thought, and had to choke back the laugh. Spock, he noticed now, was wearing a strange but expensive-looking outfit of some dark material that looked for all the world like a tuxedo crossed with a Mexican serape. "This vehicle is unfamiliar to me and completely counter-intuitive. I do not pretend to understand the Terran obsession with vehicles of past eras that were both wasteful of resources and difficult to drive." This time, Jim couldn't stop his laugh, and he had to stand up, leaning against the car to save himself from doing something embarrassing like losing his balance and falling on his ass.

"I am pleased that you find my situation amusing," came Spock's voice, floating out of the open window, "however, I must request that you desist from—"

"Oh, save it." Jim shook himself, yanking open the passenger door and dropping into the seat. He grinned across at Spock, sparing a moment to hope the Vulcan wasn't actually offended. "One, that was sarcasm just now, I heard it, and two, what are you even doing driving a stick-shift if you don't enjoy it? I know you can get a transport if you want one."

Spock's fingers tightened on the steering wheel, then sagged to his lap, Spock still staring straight ahead. He was silent for several seconds, and Jim realized abruptly that Spock was... No. It couldn't—was Spock embarrassed? "The proprietor of the hotel—had neglected to reserve a transport for me," he said at length. "When I came downstairs to request one, they were all otherwise committed. And waiting for another one would have delayed me by approximately sixty minutes, or even longer. So Mr. Mudd offered the use of his own vehicle to me."

Jim's eyebrows went up. "Do you even know how to drive a stick? It kinda sounded like you were doin' your best to ruin the transmission, there."

Spock glanced at Jim, his eyes dark and unreadable, before flickering away again to the wind-shield as if he were afraid to meet Jim's gaze. "I have no previous experience driving manual transmissions, no. But I believed it would not be an overly difficult operation, and decided that it even had the potential to be... enlightening. Also..." Here Spock hesitated, and Jim couldn't help but wonder what had gotten into Spock, who was normally so composed. "I had thought you might find this vehicle appealing," he said finally.

Jim stared. Warmth pooled in his stomach, and for a moment Jim felt light-headed, like getting tipsy on sweet wine. "Oh, well," he heard himself say, sounding impressively nonchalant. "That was thoughtful of you. It is a pretty sweet car."

Spock regarded him quizzically (or what passed for it for a Vulcan, anyway). "I do not understand the descriptor 'sweet.'"

"It's slang. Just means it's a.... it's a really great car. Vehicle. But I'm pretty sure Harry will pitch a fit if you bring his car back and the transmission is all screwed up. Manual transmissions are really, really hard to come by, and it'd be expensive as fuck to fix."

"Ah." Spock pursed his lips. "I see. I had not anticipated having this much difficulty with the transmission, I must confess. Perhaps... are you familiar with—"

"Spock, I could drive a stick shift drunk and blind."

"I find the veracity of that statement highly doubtful, and not particularly encouraging," Spock commented, the corners of his lips quirking very faintly. "Although it would, perhaps, be a remarkable event to witness."

"Bite me," Jim said cheerfully. He was already climbing out of the car and coming around to the driver's side. Spock climbed out, and stood there just outside the open door, regarding Jim with his mouth slightly open, as if something was sitting heavy on his tongue, waiting for him to spit it out. Jim paused, eyebrows up, and after a moment Spock stepped aside, merely handing Jim the keys before walking around to the passenger side again.

Jim got in, wondering what that was all about. As he pulled the belt across his torso and buckled it into the lock, Spock got in beside him and shut the door. Then—

"I presume you do not actually wish me to bite you, as you would doubtless find it unpleasant, so I must wonder why—"

"Oh my God, Spock!" Jim laughed. "You are such a dick when you want to be." Spock's protest was drowned out by the engine roaring to life under Jim's hands, and Jim threw the car into gear, still laughing as they tore off down the street.

* * * * *

By the time they arrived at Chez Panisse, much of Spock's tension had left him, to his relief. His inability to completely hide his satisfaction at Jim's pleasure in the car did nothing to alleviate said satisfaction, but at least there was no one to witness his excesses save for Jim.

Jim chattered the entire drive, his words flowing over Spock in pleasant waves. He was taking a class in Cross-Cultural Mythology and Psychology, a discipline that Spock found intriguing, if unsatisfyingly vague. Jim had told Spock before that he was enrolled in classes, but very little aside from that. Spock was at a loss to account for why Jim had now chosen to share, but he contented himself with listening, interrupting now and then to ask Jim for further clarification on various points. He chose not to question why Jim was talking more than Spock had previously seen him do so. After all, his acquaintance with Jim was still a short one, and Spock did not yet feel he was the best judge of what standard deviation was for Jim Kirk.

Though the restaurant they were meeting Pike and Komack should have taken approximately 45.6 Standard minutes to arrive at by car, and their drive had taken 48.75 minutes, Spock still found himself surprised to find the car slowing to a halt in front of the curb. A valet stepped down from the sidewalk to open Spock's door, and a brief but powerful flood of emotion tightened Spock's chest. He wished, illogically, that the ride might have taken longer. Jim had been in the midst of telling him about the old Earth superstition against having one's photo taken, and though it was not a subject Spock was overly familiar with, he found their discussion fascinating.

Spock climbed out of the car, stepping up onto the curb, gathering his robes around himself as a chill breeze blew, channeled by the high walls of the buildings on either side of the street. He looked to his right, where Jim was hurrying around the car. He had a peculiar expression on his face that Spock could not interpret.

"Spock," Jim said, and stopped, coming to a halt just feet away from Spock.

"Yes, Jim?" Spock watched as Jim opened his mouth, then closed it again, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his pressed linen pants. Spock's ability to read Human facial expressions approached that of any Earth native's, but that did not mean Spock could always be certain what Jim was thinking.

"Can you do me a favor?"

"That depends upon the nature of the favor," Spock responded carefully. The side of Jim's mouth quirked up, and Spock realized abruptly that this was another of Jim's many smiles.

"Of course it does. No, I just—would you mind just introducing me as Jim? If they ask for a last name, I'll give one, but don't... volunteer it for me, okay?"

Spock raised an eyebrow. "...I can think of no reason not to honor your request, despite its illogic. I will not volunteer your personal information, as you said. But may I inquire as to the reason?"

Jim's lop-sided smile had evened out now. Spock thought Jim looked rather relieved. "My parents were in Starfleet. I don't really want to spend dinner discussing family history. I can tell you more afterwards, if you want."

"That would be acceptable. Very well." Spock inclined his head, and they went inside, Spock pausing only long enough to watch Jim hand the keys to the valet.

Spock had never eaten at this particular restaurant before, but he had taken some time to investigate the location between now and his conversation with Jim the previous day. The brief history he had been able to find described Chez Panisse as a "bastion of tradition in an ever-changing world," and had vaunted the restaurant's somewhat peculiar stance of only serving traditional Earth cuisine, using ingredients native to Terra. The interior of the restaurant supposedly reflected this dedication to Earth history and culture, but Spock found himself thinking vaguely of Shi'Kahr.

The ceiling of the foyer arched high overhead, supposedly evocative of the Roman Coliseum or an ancient Grecian senate house, with carved sandstone pillars encircling the central floor, on which was painted a colorful mural depicting a scene from ancient Rome. The entire room was capped with a dome with skylight windows, through which shone bright daylight. All of the decor was done in desert colors, rusty reds and sandy oranges and deep burnt browns. Spock glanced sideways to see Jim craning his neck to look up at the ceiling, taking in the height of the pseudo-rotunda.

"Kinda over-the-top for a restaurant," Jim observed, a faint smile curving his lips again. His eyes were not on Spock; instead, they tracked the graceful lines of the room's architecture, following an arching pillar back down to its base.

"Such architectural design, when used in political buildings, is often meant to instill a sense of intimidation and sobriety in visitors," Spock noted. "But I must concur; it seems an... unusual choice in design for a dining establishment, at least from what I understand of Earth customs."

"You're not wrong," Jim said. Now he turned his full attention to Spock, grinning widely. "Which means it was probably Komack that picked the location." Spock wanted to ask what Jim meant by this statement, but he did not have the chance, for at that moment the man in question came into view across the room, and Jim went abruptly stiff, though he did not take his eyes from Spock's face.

"Spock. Right on time." Admiral Komack had spotted them both, raising his voice in greeting as he strode across the foyer to meet them. Komack was tall for a human, clad in his red-and-black dress uniform, greying hair cut conservatively short. Captain Pike trailed in Komack's wake, an expression on his face that Spock could not quite interpret; he wore a look of polite disinterest, but his sharp grey eyes swept across Spock and then came to Jim, lingering on him. Pike looked older than Spock remembered, but then Spock had not spoken to Pike face-to-face in a number of years, so that was to be expected. When Spock was young, Pike had been the one member of Starfleet that he and his mother had had regular contact with.

"Greetings, Admiral Komack, Captain Pike." Spock folded his hands inside his robes and bowed from the waist, inclining his head respectfully at their hosts. "Allow me to introduce my companion, Jim." The truncated introduction sounded strange on Spock's lips, and he saw Captain Pike arch an eyebrow at the omission, but Jim was already stepping forward, sticking out a hand.

"James Carmichael. Just Jim, please. It's a pleasure to meet you." The stiffness of a few moments ago was completely gone. Now Jim practically oozed confidence, radiating charm like an expensive cologne, shaking first Komack's and then Pike's hand with a firmness Spock would not have guessed he felt. The smile he now wore was one Spock had seen him bring out for several service-people previously, notably the attendant at Six Flags who was so reluctant to let Spock onto one of the more "dangerous" rides. As it had turned out, the attendant had been right to not want to let Spock onto the Kingda-Ka (it was the first time Spock had vomited since childhood, and it was not an experience he had missed), but when Jim had smiled at her like he was smiling now—that warm, disarming, I'm-perfectly-harmless smile—it was as though her brain went out the window, taking her ability to think with it.

Spock was not sure he liked this smile of Jim's, though other Humans seemed to. Komack, at least, relaxed, turning his attention once more to Spock, but Spock noticed that Pike's gaze lingered on Jim for a few moments longer before he too looked back at Spock. "Well, Jim, it's nice to meet you," Komack said, "but frankly I think you're in for a pretty boring night. We're mostly going to be talking politics, I'm afraid." A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he said this. Spock wondered what he found amusing.

"He won't be the only one who's bored, then," Pike noted drily, and at that Komack's mouth turned up in a full-fledged ....smirk. That was the word, Spock thought. A smile, but not a pleasant one. Spock realized abruptly that Pike found Komack as distasteful as Spock did.

They followed the hostess to a well-appointed table towards the back of the restaurant, discreetly cut off from the rest of the dining room and enfolded on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows that offered an expansive view out to the Pacific, the ocean filling the vista from edge to edge, with just a sliver of beach licking along the bottom. The four of them sat, Jim and Spock on one side of the table, Pike and Komack on the other. The waiter set out menus for them, took their food and drink orders (Spock was the only one who refrained from alcohol, though no one commented on it), and then vanished.

Pike glanced across the table at Jim, his gaze lingering for several moments, before looking over at Spock. "How is that research project going that you and T'Sol were heading?" he asked. "The one about splicing modified DNA into duotritocale?" Beside him, Jim paused, turning to look at Spock as well, and Spock felt the sudden weight of all the eyes at the table.

"It is proceeding slightly ahead of plan, Captain," Spock said after a moment. "The first batch of test subjects is responding quite well to the recombinant genes that we introduced, though it remains to be seen how their seedlings will fare during their test run."

Jim looked as if he wanted to ask more, but he was interrupted by the return of their waiter, who speedily took their order and vanished again. Spock thought that the subject would drop then, as Komack made a comment about some recent civil unrest troubling Andor, but then Jim turned again to Spock and asked, "So what is this duotritocale experiment about, exactly?"

And Spock found himself telling Jim about how he was heading a team in charge of investigating the genetic engineering possibilities of duotritocale, and how the strain of wild wheat (indigenous to a number of Class M planets, spread by pirates and traders in a number of careless accidents) was a prime candidate for such experiments due to its hardiness and resilience. To his further surprise, Jim kept asking questions, wanting to know how far along their research was and whether they had factored a resistance to Fusarium graminearum into their procedure, and Spock was faintly aware of Pike interjecting here and there, but mostly Pike was just watching the two of them with a very strange, self-satisfied look on his face that Spock was too distracted to think much on. Not even the arrival of their dinner managed to interrupt the flow of their conversation.

Spock didn't even realize how engrossed he was in the subject until Komack's dry, utterly unimpressed baritone cut in from across the table. "As fascinating as this is, I'm afraid I must remind our guests that ...plant research is not the actual reason I invited you to this dinner."

"Sorry this 'plant research' was boring you," Jim said, voice deceptively sweet as he straightened up at Spock's side. "But hey, I'm a simple guy. I like hearing about research that might save people's lives." Spock felt heat bloom in his throat and chest at the tone of Jim's voice. Komack stared at Jim, seemingly caught between irritation and surprise. At his side, Pike was coughing suspiciously into his napkin.

"Young man, do you have any idea—" began Komack, but at that Pike sat up straight, shaking his head.

"I'm sure Jim meant no disrespect, but the Admiral is right, gentlemen; we did ask you here to talk about some fairly serious business." Spock was not so sure of Pike's assertion, but he was grateful for the deflection of Komack's indignation. The sound of his own name brought his attention sharply back to focus. "Spock, T'Pau sent us a high-security message yesterday afternoon that the leaders of eight more star-systems have told the Council of Elders that they will leave the Federation if Vulcan secedes. Were you aware of this?"

All thoughts of his duotritocale research fled. Now it was Pike Komack was staring at, and his expression was much the same as Spock himself might have been wearing, were he not a Vulcan. As it was, though he knew his own expression had not changed, it felt as if his skin were crawling with invisible insects. "No, Captain, I was not aware."

"Secession?" Jim's voice was carefully restrained. Spock glanced right and saw those blue eyes fixed on him. For no reason, the skin-crawling sensation grew worse.

"There is a movement on Vulcan that wants our people to withdraw our membership from the Federation." Spock's voice was perfectly calm, despite the knot of tension that was his stomach folding in on itself. "The movement is not unanimous, however. The reasons both sides cite are quite compelling."

"'Both sides are compelling'? This from one of the most vocal of the secessionists?" Komack snorted, leaning back in his chair. Spock was all too aware of the fact that Jim was still staring at him.

Pike was watching Spock steadily now, too. Spock found he did not like the weight of those eyes on him. Not at all. "Spock, I must say, you have been very vocal in the past about your disapproval of the Federation's—"

"—of Starfleet's bolstering of its military power in recent years, in lieu of diplomacy and other methods of peace-keeping." Spock said sharply. "Coupled with its unwillingness to come to Vulcan's aid on the occasion of multiple acts of terrorism against her people, even when presented with irrefutable evidence that said acts of terrorism were committed by other members of the Federation. Yes. I disapprove. As do a great many others." He stared from Pike to Komack, and finally let his gaze move back to Jim. "But you are wrong, Captain. Admiral. I am not a secessionist." The words spilled forth before he even knew he was going to say them, and Spock clenched his hands in his laps, hidden under the table.

He did not know what had motivated him to make such a declaration. But in the instants of silence after his statement, he found he had no desire to take it back. Again he dared a glance sideways at Jim, whose expression was unreassuringly unreadable. The seconds drew out, the silence settling uncomfortably down on them. Pike and Komack exchanged a glance that Spock could not read, and as illogical as it was, he suddenly wished he might be anywhere but here.

"So, Starfleet's all talk and no action, huh?" Spock turned automatically as Jim of all people finally broke the silence. "Sounds pretty par for the course. But surely Vulcan must realize how vulnerable she'd be to attack if she weren't even nominally under the Federation's protection."

"An astute observation," Spock said quietly. He looked over at Pike again. "If T'Pau saw fit to send you warning, I would take the missive very seriously, Captain. Lady T'Pau is—"

"I find it ironic how a boy such as yourself can so easily dismiss the efforts of the very agency that keeps him safe and content," Komack cut in. Spock glanced over to see that Komack was staring at Jim with narrowed eyes, and realized that Jim's previous comment had sparked the Admiral's ire.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Jim said sarcastically. "I forgot that it's our job to unconditionally kiss Starfleet's ass and never criticize anything they do. I'll send a memo to Vulcan, since it seems like they forgot that too."

Spock froze, once again temporarily stunned into silence by Jim's outburst even as a rush of gratitude and dismay flooded him. Komack, however, was not so afflicted. His face flushed a dull brick-red with anger, and he straightened in his chair as if getting ready to lunge across the table with both hands.

"Spock, if your guest can't behave himself, I'm afraid he might need to leave. Or at least learn to keep his peace during a discussion that's beyond him."

"Beyond me?" Jim's voice was louder now, tinged with incredulity as he glared right back at Komack. Spock observed, as if from a distance, that Jim's eyes were a very vivid blue, the color of a cold, clear morning. And still he could not find his voice, couldn't think of what to say or do. "Oh, my bad, the invitation didn't mention a need to wear my best bullshitting boots, but don't worry, it looks like you've got our part covered."

"Young man, I don't think you know who you're speaking to." Komack's voice was low and tight, forced out between clenched teeth. A vein in his head throbbed angrily, as though it was thinking about bursting.

"Thank God for small mercies," Jim shot back, "because it's bad enough dealing with you during dinner, I'd hate to have to see you on a regular basis—"

"Keep talking, Mr. Carmichael, and we'll see much bravado you have while you're cooling your heels in a prison cell," growled Komack. At this, Spock stood up abruptly. The knots in his stomach vanished; he felt as if he had been plunged into a pool of ice-cold water. All eyes turned to look at him.

"I was unaware that the Federation had become a military state, Admiral." Spock stared from Admiral Komack's ruddy face to Captain Pike's more carefully restrained one, hardly even aware of what he was doing. "Or that disagreement with a man to whom you are not beholden is now a crime punishable by imprisonment. Either way, I believe it is time for my companion and I to leave."

Now Jim rose to his feet as well, followed by Pike and Komack. Pike, Spock noted, now looked distinctly unhappy, while Jim, though flushed, looked somehow exhilarated. Pike opened his mouth to speak, and Spock was sure the captain would protest Spock's departure, entreat him not to leave. But all Pike said was, "Give my best to Sarek, Spock. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up with you again soon."

Spock inclined his head. Komack was still staring at Jim, his eyes narrowed to slits. At Pike's comment, he stirred, turning his gaze back to Spock. "And here's hoping our Vulcan friend will have had time to re-evaluate his choice in companions," Komack said.

"Indeed," Spock said coldly. "I will take your opinion under advisement, Admiral." Spock turned to Jim, who was unexpectedly silent; Jim met Spock's eyes and nodded, and with a final indecipherable glance at Pike, Jim turned and lead the way towards the front of the restaurant, Spock trailing in his wake.

Neither of them spoke until they were once more outside on the pavement. Jim stood for several moments, fidgeting with invisible lint on the clean lines of his trousers. Spock stood beside him, hands clasped inside his robes. For a moment, they simply stood there, unsure of what to say. Then, just when the silence was becoming unbearable, they both spoke at once.

"I shouldn't have lost my temper like that—" Jim blurted, turning to Spock with a fierce look on his face.

"—should not have invited you to what I should have known would be a tiresome evening—" The words tumbled pell-mell out of Spock's mouth, one after the other, all jumbled together in his awful embarrassment at how the evening had turned out.

"—was totally stupid of me to keep baiting Komack like that—"

"—did not wish to subject you to such boring conversation—"

Jim stopped, color high in his cheeks, staring at Spock. "I wasn't bored," he said.

"You are not stupid," said Spock at the exact same moment.

They looked at each other cautiously. Slowly, tentatively, a smile spread across Jim's face again. At the sight of it, Spock found he could no longer think of anything remotely intelligent to say. So instead, he simply stood there, and after a moment he realized that he too was smiling, the muscles at the corners of his lips twisting upwards ever-so-slightly. He should have been appalled at himself (to say nothing of how appallingly he and Jim had behaved at dinner), but strangely, he wasn't.

"The food was good, at least," Jim commented, somewhat inanely. He shoved his hands in his pockets, still smiling at Spock. "Want me to drive you home?" As he said this, his smile grew even wider, though Spock could not have said why.

"That would be agreeable," Spock informed him. "You are significantly more skilled at maneuvering the manual transmission than I am."

"What, driving your stick?" Jim's smile widened so much that for a moment it looked as though it would split his head open. "Sure, Spock. I'd love to drive your stick." Then, for absolutely no reason that Spock could discern, he started to laugh, a helpless, simple sort of laughter that seemed to well up from inside him and spill out like bubbling water, making him lean forward and clutch his knees, his shoulders shaking from the force of it. Spock could only stand there on the sidewalk, bewildered, tingling strangely all over, his own mouth twisted in a small, unconscious smile, staring at the laughing, red-faced man on the sidewalk next to him.

"You are completely illogical," he informed Jim. Jim only laughed harder. For some reason, Spock found he did not mind.

* * * * *

Christopher Pike leaned back, toying with his empty wine glass as he quietly passed the waiter his tip and waved him away, eyes fixed on his remaining dinner companion. He wanted nothing better than to get going, but he figured a few more minutes would do the trick. Meanwhile, he just had to keep letting the Admiral vent, even as his mind followed in the wake of the two young men who'd just exited the restaurant.

Pike had recognized Jim the minute he'd laid eyes on the boy, of course; what the hell game Jim was playing, Pike didn't know ("Carmichael"? Really?), but there was no mistaking that face. In point of fact, Pike had thought he was seeing a ghost for a handful of heart-stopping seconds, Jim looked that much like George had back at the Academy, but his good sense had come quickly to his rescue and he'd figured out who Jim actually was. Thankfully, Komack was either too drunk or too unobservant to come to the same conclusion, and Pike had been content to let Jim keep the illusion of his anonymity, at least until Pike figured out what the hell was going on.

Or at least, until Jim had taken a page out of his parents' book and decided to start baiting Admiral Komack. Jesus. Pike cast another look across the table at Komack's ruddy face, mildly impressed by Jim's ability to piss off Komack so effortlessly.

Pike knew an opportunity when he saw one. Here was Spock, possessed of a mind so brilliant that he'd become one of the youngest head researchers in the history of the VSA despite the prejudice against his Human heritage; and here was Jim Kirk, who seemed to have inherited both George's sheer bravado and Winona's genius, if tonight was anything to go by. All Pike had had to do was ask Spock about his work, and Jim and Spock had taken the conversation and run with it, and that wasn't even taking into account how rare it was for Spock to respect anyone enough to talk to them so freely, or so animatedly. Pike had almost kicked Komack under the table when the Admiral had derailed Jim and Spock's discussion, but it had turned out to be worth it when Jim got his blood up and Spock, restrained Vulcan researcher Spock, had shut down Komack more effectively than an emergency brake. Pike would gladly have blackmailed his own mother if it meant getting either one of those two into Starfleet, but having them both not only fall into his lap but inexplicably know each other—like each other, even? He couldn't pass it up. Pike would get them into Starfleet even if he had to break every regulation in the Federation charter in order to manage it. Now he just had to figure out how.

Pike and Komack finally left almost twenty minutes later, Pike guessing correctly that Spock and Kirk would linger for a few minutes to regroup; the last thing he wanted was to interrupt them again outside on the pavement. And though he vastly preferred the liberty of being on his ship in space, Pike knew the necessity of being planetside for the time being, while Enterprise was built and this shitstorm with Vulcan was handled, and he'd had plenty of practice "handling" men like Komack. So by the time Pike and Komack exited the restaurant, Jim and Spock were long gone, and Komack had even managed to forget most of the offense he'd taken inside at the table. That was good, Pike thought. Jim could thank Pike later for the favor.

Pike wasn't going to say any of this to anyone, of course. Not to Spock about it, not yet, and certainly not to Sarek, or (God forbid) Komack. Number One was off-planet, unfortunately, or she'd be the first one Pike would turn to. But there was one person he wanted to check on.

He waited until he got back to the little flat he was renting for the duration of his time in Los Angeles. He changed out of his uniform, showered, fixed himself a whiskey on the rocks, and then curled up on the bed in a pair of old, soft jeans and a button-down shirt. He checked the time; almost 10 pm, which meant it would be nearing midnight in Riverside. She might have already gone to bed.

Pike leaned back against the mountain of pillows, and thumbed the comm-link to the "on" position. He waited. Thousands of miles away, a comm unit buzzed and squeaked. The view-screen sprang to sudden vivid color and a woman's face appeared, a familiar lop-sided smile on her full lips.

"Chris, you dick. Do you know what time it is?"

"You're wearing coveralls, Nona," Pike pointed out, not bothering to hide his answering smile. "Either you've finally gone crazy enough that you sleep in your dirty uniform, or you were working late."

"Go fuck yourself," said Winona cheerfully. "You love my crazy. But I got this busted power converter and I wanted to get it fixed before I turned in for the night. So, spill. Why you callin' me so late?"

Pike shook his head. You could get whiplash from talking to Winona Kirk, if you weren't used to trying to keep up with her. "Have I mentioned that I miss you? From a safe distance." Pike laughed as Winona flipped him her middle finger, noting the smears of engine oil across the backs of her knuckles, the same color as the smudgy dark stain on one cheekbone. "Right, okay. Listen, I was just wondering..." Pike leaned forward. "When was the last time you talked to Jim?"

* * * * *

Spock stared at the small, slowly rotating scale model of a starship that floated in mid-air before him. The Persephone was a standard Federation science vessel, equipped with minimal defensive technology and dual nacelle chambers extending aftward, but this ship in particular contained a vast bio-dome in its midsection, giving it the appearance of a fat, trundling crustacean carrying its shell on its back. The detailed scale model informed Spock that this vessel could support up to five hundred forty-two life forms, as well as sixteen fully functional research labs and an exhaustive scientific database—all this in addition to the massive bio-dome, able to host an exhaustive array of flora and fauna, depending upon what biological haven the ship's crew wished to simulate.

Projected completion date: 2265, concluded the data. It was an optimistic projection, Spock knew, dependent upon a large number of uncertain factors. Chief among these was the hard fact that the research project central to the ship's construction—the science behind the bio-dome, which required careful harnessing of a huge expenditure of energy—was being conducted by a Federation team comprised of twelve Human, four Andorian, and eighteen Vulcan researchers. And if Vulcan chose to return once more to her isolationist ways, all her children would be called home, crippling this project as it would so many others.

"They take our efforts for granted," came a voice from Spock's right. Spock turned his head, glancing at the tall, greying Vulcan at his side. Malik's dark eyes were focused on the model in front of them, no trace of what thoughts might lie beneath showing on his weathered face. "They do not truly believe that we would withdraw from the Federation, or they might show more respect for our contributions."

Spock raised an eyebrow. "Malik, I believe you are finding disregard for our people where you have no cause," he said carefully. "This is a Starfleet-sponsored exhibition, not a symposium dedicated to the work of the VSA. It is only logical that the displays would focus on current and future projects of Starfleet."

Malik turned his eyes from the still-rotating starship model to Spock, raising a dark eyebrow of his own. "Fascinating," he said, using the exact same tone his daughter had been known to use on Spock whenever she thought he was making a particularly foolish decision. But T'Pring had never wielded either the desire or the ability of her father to make Spock feel like a boy half his age. "Not yet a full lunar month on Earth, and already you are beginning to suffer corruption of your logical faculties."

"Again you seek to find agency and hidden motives where none exist," Spock said, sharper than he meant to. "Kaadith, Honored Elder. I mean no disrespect. But it is counter to the well-being of our people and the clarity of our logic to view the situation other than as it truly is."

"And how would you describe this current situation?" Malik turned his full attention on Spock now, making Spock wish that either T'Pring or her brother Sasak were here to help divert their father. Malik seemed intent on prying answers out of Spock that Spock was not yet sure he knew how to give. "The Federation hearing to decide whether Vulcan will secede is to be held in less than a month, and at Starfleet's request we have arrived early, though I have yet to see any worthwhile reason for having sacrificed time and energy better spent on other pursuits. Starfleet invited us to attend this scientific symposium, and yet scant mention of Vulcan's contributions to Starfleet's advances are made, to say nothing of the effect her leaving would have."

"This symposium was planned and arranged long before the secession hearing was called for, much less the date decided, so to read any intention into its execution is illogical," Spock pointed out. "It is an annual event held in a different star-system each year, and I have it on the authority of Captain Pike that we were invited here early in order to attend the symposium, in deference to the scientific interests of many of those attending." Privately, Spock could not deny his shock at the fact that he was arguing with Malik—particularly when, on so many occasions previous to this one, he and Malik had been in perfect accord.

Malik was apparently having similar thoughts, because he stared at Spock for several long moments before answering. "Is Sarek aware that you have suffered a change of opinion?" he asked.

Spock opened his mouth to say I have not changed my opinion and found he couldn't, not without lying. He swallowed, flushing first hot, then cold. "I have not spoken with him on this subject since before our arrival on Earth," he said at last.

Malik nodded, his eyes as unreadable as ever. He was silent for so long that Spock began to wonder if the conversation was now over, but then Malik said, "I had hoped that your time away from T'Pring might illuminate to both of you the illogic of your choice to dissolve your bond. I see now that such a wish is unlikely to come to pass."

"There was nothing illogical about our decision, Elder, which was a mutual one, as we have both informed you on separate occasions." Spock kept his voice carefully neutral despite the tightness in his throat. "The compatibility hoped for by our families has never come to pass, and T'Pring and I have both concluded that we should seek others to better complement us."

"So you have said before." Malik gazed for another few moments at Spock before shaking his head. "It would have been a great honor to call you my son, Spock. May you find a bond-mate worthy of you." Saying this, Malik raised his hand briefly in the ta'al before turning and walking away.

Spock stared after Malik, his hand still raised in the Vulcan greeting and farewell, feeling inexplicably weary. He turned away from the display of the Persephone, not wishing to dwell on the situation. Instead he made his way towards one of the exits into the courtyard, and let his attention wander to the event he would be attending that evening—or rather, the person he would be attending it with. More than once today, Spock had found himself wishing that Jim had come with him, that Jim might offer some of running commentary on the exhibits, and on Starfleet in general.

He'd been startled to hear about Jim's parents, in the car on the way home the night before—not because he had not heard of George and Winona Kirk, but because he hadn't made the connection on his own. But now that he knew, he could not help but note the number of times he saw Jim's mother's name attached to various engineering projects, and he found himself wondering how Jim had arrived in his current situation. He wondered, too, what Jim was doing right now, who he was with. Spock found it all too easy to picture Jim curled up on the overstuffed sofa in his living room, perhaps wearing the reading glasses he'd admitted to Spock he had to wear sometimes for small print, poring over a PADD or an old-fashioned text book. Or perhaps he was down by the ocean... The mental image changed to Jim, shirtless and barefoot, wearing only a long pair of swim trunks, lounging idly at the beach. Spock remembered the way Jim smiled, that unselfconscious, easy grin of his—

"Spock?"

Jim's face dissolved as a voice interrupted Spock's train of thought, and Spock stopped too fast, dismayed at his own distraction. "Forgive me, Sasak," Spock said, folding his hands in his robes as he addressed one of his fellow researchers and childhood companions. "I was distracted."

Sasak was staring at him, as if trying to gauge whether Spock were telling the truth. He looked like a younger version of Malik, a fact that was not helping Spock's peace of mind at the moment. "I had hoped I might find you here today," he said.

"You speak as though I have been unavailable in some capacity, Sasak," Spock said. He clasped his hands inside his robes, straightening infinitesimally under the new scrutiny.

"You have been unavailable, Spock," said Sasak. "When our shuttle arrived yesterday, the first action T'Pring and I took was attempting to reach you. But we were informed by the hotel manager that you were out at a meeting with Starfleet representatives." Spock stopped breathing altogether for a moment. "Additionally, you have been quite remiss in responding to the messages I have sent you prior to my arrival. I can only assume that your business with Starfleet has been distracting you from your research and our correspondence."

Spock let out the breath he'd been holding, Sasak's face coming into sharp focus as a hot, all-too-familiar emotion loosened the knot in Spock's chest. "Your information is correct," Spock said, wondering if his voice sounded as loud to Sasak as it seemed to him. "I accepted a personal invitation from Captain Christopher Pike to join him for dinner. As for my tardiness in responding to your messages, your assessment is not quite as accurate, though I must apologize for neglecting our correspondence. I have been pursuing a personal research project of my own while here on Earth, to better understand my Human heritage."

Sasak's expressions did not change, but his silence told Spock all he needed to know. "I see," Sasak said after a moment, and then hesitated. "Spock—I must urge you to reconsider such an illogical use of your time—"

"Illogical?" Spock repeated, his voice as cool now as Komack's had been to Jim the night before. "Might I remind you—as if you could have forgotten—that my mother was Human? Is it not logical to wish to fully understand one's history?"

"Spock, control yourself," Sasak said. "I mean no offense to you or your family—no one could say that you have not overcome your disadvantage beyond all expectations, but that is no reason to allow yourself to be distracted when your people have need of you."

Spock stared. His blood rushed in his ears, the void left by his lack of response growing increasingly louder. All his life, his Human half had been a source of contention between him and his fellows, but this blatant disapproval was unbearable. It was the last straw. "As I am the one with the disadvantage," Spock said coldly, "I believe I shall be the one to decide how best to deal with it. But I thank you for your concern."

And without waiting for a response, Spock turned on his heel and headed for the exit. He'd had about all he wanted from the symposium today.

* * * * *

Across town, Jim was just hopping on his bike to head home from class. The discussion they'd had in lecture today on inter-species gender relations was still rolling around inside his skull. He got all the way to his bike and was actually pulling on his helmet before he abruptly remembered something. "Crap," Jim said aloud, and dug in his bag for his comm-unit. He flipped open the sleek grey cover, blinking at the sight of five new messages. "Damn, when did I get so popular?" he muttered.

Jim deleted the first message, from Harry Mudd, without even reading it. Harry had been asking for a cut of the payment from Spock, and Jim found himself close to outrage at the idea of anyone profiting off the time he spent with Spock. It wasn't even the money; it was the idea that itself incensed Jim. It felt like an invasion of privacy, demeaning Jim and Spock both, and Jim wanted increasingly to punch Mudd in the face for his inability to take a hint.

On some level, Jim realized his reaction to this request was over-the-top, but he didn't care to examine his feelings on it too much. So what if Jim didn't want to pay Mudd anything? Worst-case scenario, Mudd stopped referring clients Jim's way. Big fucking whoop; it would be no loss, as far as Jim was concerned.

Jim's indignation over Harry Mudd was forgotten as soon as he saw the next message. It was from his mother. Jim frowned, suffering a twinge of misgiving, and hesitated over it for several seconds before finally sending the message along to be archived at his personal computer back home, as-yet unread. How had she even gotten the number for his comm-unit? Jim certainly hadn't given it to her. Fuck. Jim shook his head. A mystery for later. He needed to head home soon; he had a busy afternoon before this evening arrived.

The last three messages were all much less interesting; one was from one of Jim's classmates about their homework, and the other two were both messages from Jim's regulars, no doubt asking when they would get a chance to see Jim again. Jim skimmed the former and sent the latter two on to his home computer, to be dealt with later like the message from his mother. He was getting a little behind answering his business correspondences, as it were, and he knew he needed to play catch-up, but he'd just been so busy with Spock the past week or so that he hadn't really found the time.

He would get to it tonight, he decided, when he and Spock were done. Spock had secured tickets to the late-night members-only Los Angeles Academy of Sciences exhibition (no doubt using a technique other than the one Jim usually favored—Spock flirting! now there was a mental image), and he had asked Jim to accompany him. Thinking of Spock, Jim smiled to himself as he tucked his comm-unit back into his bag. Spock would no doubt have something interesting to say about the subjects discussed in Jim's lecture today. And Jim was looking forward to hearing more about the duotritocale research project Spock was apparently heading—really, Jim had yet to find a subject Spock didn't have an interesting opinion on, even if he didn't know much about it. It was one of the more satisfying things about spending time with him.

Among many. Jim pulled his helmet back on and turned the key in the ignition, putting his messages out of his mind for now. He had better things to think about.

* * * * *

"Spock!"

Spock jerked, his stride faltering for a moment as he headed for the exit, having taken a shortcut through the courtyard. He turned, reluctantly, to see T'Pring hurrying towards him along one of the paths. Behind her, Spock could see a Human in a Federation uniform heading away from them, his path perpendicular to the route T'Pring was coming down towards Spock. Spock stood where he was and waited, and as he watched T'Pring approach, he realized that the direction T'Pring and the Human seemed to be coming from was not one of the routes through the courtyard, as he had at first assumed, but instead originated in one of the corners, a dead-end from which there was no egress.

Before he could wrap his head around the reason for this seeming piece of illogic, T'Pring had reached him. "Spock," she said again, pausing to bow at the waist to him, a gesture Spock returned. "I had hoped to speak to you today. My brother and I have had difficulty reaching you—"

"Your father has already made clear what he thinks of my distraction," Spock snapped. "If you wish to remind me of how egregiously I injure Vulcan by the simple act of having a Human mother, consider the message relayed."

T'Pring paused a moment before answering, folding her hands inside her robes and raising an elegantly-arched eyebrow at Spock. "Despite the events that bring us to Earth," she said finally, "what I wanted to speak with you about, cousin, pertains to the research project you last wrote to me about, not the secession hearing. You know I have never had anything but respect for Amanda Grayson, and you have disgraced her by treating your heritage as something distasteful. As I have told you before now." Her voice was mild, as was her expression, but Spock knew T'Pring too well to mistake the reproach in her words.

Spock said nothing to this. Inwardly, though, he cursed himself at his over-reaction. This was one of the things Spock admired most about T'Pring: she did not allow her belief that secession would best serve the needs of Vulcan to taint her with xenophobia, as many of her fellow secessionists did.

Finally, Spock sighed. "I apologize, T'Pring," he said. "It has been a trying day." They fell into step together, and Spock allowed himself to be steered toward the exit and to be drawn into a conversation about the research project he'd left behind at the VSA. He'd written to T'Pring because the project related specifically to the efficacy of Vulcan healing trances on other species, both via mind-melds and via training for those with the aptitude to learn. T'Pring had spent the past few years in training as a healer at Golgotharen, as well as being Spock's oldest friend, and was thus a logical candidate for Spock to correspond with on the project.

As they reached the exit, Spock thought again of the Human he'd seen a few minutes ago, exiting out this same door. "T'Pring," he said, "who was that Human you were speaking with just prior to coming to me? The one in the Federation uniform."

"What?" T'Pring's serenity faltered for a moment to an expression of what Spock would have called consternation before smoothing out again. "You refer to Timur? He's one of the Federation aides I've been corresponding with in preparation for the secession hearing." She glanced at him sidelong, the corner of her mouth quirking. "Why do you ask? Could it be that S'Chn T'Gai Spock is jealous of the woman he chose to relinquish?"

"I am no such thing," Spock protested. He knew she was teasing but could not bring himself to mind—and as un-Vulcan of him as it might be, he allowed himself a quiet moment of relief that she seemed uninterested in probing what Spock had been up to while here on Earth, even if she was the only Vulcan in the embassy who did not care.

* * * * *

Jim hadn't even meant to come inside the house; he was going to head to the gym and work out for a bit before meeting up with Spock later in the evening. But he'd had to come home to grab his work-out clothes, or else he might never have caught McCoy at all.

He spotted McCoy's car in the driveway as he jogged up from the curb. "Bones," Jim yelled cheerfully as he threw open the screen door with a bang, "headin' to the gym! I'll be out late, don't wait up for me." He made it almost all the way down the hallway to the bedroom before some low, gut instinct made him slow in his tracks, then stop.

The house was dead quiet. Jim cocked his head, listening for the sound of the TV, the radio, even the sound of snoring—anything. Nothing reached his ears, and he'd heard no response from McCoy. Torn between the desire to keep moving and the sinking feeling in his stomach, he crept around the corner and peered at the figure slumped at the kitchen table, McCoy slid so far down in his chair that his ass was still barely in the seat. Jim glanced at the clock. It wasn't even 5 pm.

"Fuck," Jim said softly, and leaned down to set his gym bag on the floor.

He padded quietly across the hardwood floor, his eyes sweeping over the detritus that covered the table: the day's mail, medical journals, McCoy's keys, a shockingly empty bottle of bourbon that Jim distinctly remembered buying for McCoy at the store not three days ago, a tumbler with a few cubes of ice melting at the bottom of it... "Bones," Jim said, voice low. McCoy was staring straight ahead at the far wall, and thus far hadn't so much as grunted by way of acknowledging Jim's presence. It was fucking unnerving. "Bones, are you... what's wrong?"

Finally, McCoy stirred. He glanced at Jim, lip curling as if he smelled something foul, then reached for the near-empty tumbler and raised it to his mouth to drain the dregs. "Nothin's wrong," he grated out. "Don't you have somewhere to be? Someone to fuck, maybe?"

"Bones, what the—" Jim's eyes fell on a piece of paper, half-hidden under McCoy's elbow and pinned against the table. It was a hand-written letter, from the looks of it—rare enough in this day and age—but that wasn't what had caught Jim's eye. He thought he recognized the elegant, slanted handwriting. He reached down and carefully tugged the letter out from under McCoy's arm, his consternation growing when his friend didn't even make a token effort to stop him. Then again, judging from the stink coming off McCoy at the moment, he might not even realize what Jim was doing. Jim stared at McCoy for a moment longer, then turned his attention to the sheet of paper in his hand.

The sinking feeling in Jim's stomach turned instantly to lead. Sometimes, he hated being right. The letter was from Jocelyn. And it wasn't even really a letter; it was a poem, written carefully out in the middle of the page.

"When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars."

 

--Miss you. J.

Fuck.

Jim let out a slow breath, feeling as if he'd been punched in the gut. Too late, he remembered what the date was. "Seven years," Bones remarked, as if in direct response to Jim's thoughts. He had gone back to staring at the wall again, and Jim had to work to understand what McCoy was saying through how heavily he was slurring his words. "Picked up a double today, but they sent me home 'cause I already hit 10 hours of overtime, and I got 2 shifts left this week, so I figured I'd come home and celebrate." McCoy snorted on this last word, and Jim winced.

No wonder he was busy trying to drown himself in Jim Beam, if he'd come home to this. McCoy's anniversary was going to be for him what Jim's birthday was for the Kirk family, it seemed. Jim finally tore his eyes away from the letter, scanning the table almost automatically. Now that he knew what he was looking at, he could identify the different sheets of paper as documents from Jocelyn, interspersed with a few old-fashioned photos, glossy and bright with color. That was a picture of Joanna, sticking out from underneath what looked like a hand-made card from McCoy's daughter to her father. Way to twist that knife, Jocelyn, he thought sourly. There was no telling what had been going through Joss's mind when she'd sent this missive to her newly ex-husband, but Jim wished like hell that she'd thought better of it.

He folded the letter up and set it down on the table, temporarily on autopilot as he ran through a few options for what he should do next, mentally kicking himself for not realizing sooner, for not guessing at the reason behind why McCoy was working so many shifts at work. And Jim had known the divorce was just finalized, not even two weeks ago. Fuck, he was a piece of shit. Too preoccupied with his own drama: too little, too late. Now he'd just have to try to fix it as best he could. First order of business: get the booze away from McCoy. He sure as fuck didn't need anymore to drink, probably not for the next week, unless Jim missed his guess. Second order of business: call Spock.

"Time to get up, old man," Jim said out loud, nudging McCoy until he got an expletive-laced response, Jim ducking a clumsy shove McCoy aimed at him. Apparently McCoy wasn't as drunk as Jim had thought. "C'mon, you stink of the ER and whiskey, and I'm not takin' you out till you've had a shower."

"Not goin' out," McCoy grunted, getting unwillingly to his feet as Jim urged him out of the chair. "Gonna stay here and get good and shit-faced." Jim finally got a good look at McCoy's haggard face as his friend stood up, and had to stop himself from physically recoiling from the stink. Instead, he rallied, coming closer and trying to get his arm around McCoy's shoulders when his friend took a step away from the table and staggered. "Get off kid, I'm not interested in having company at this pity party, Jesus!"

"Yeah, well, you're outta luck then, aren't you? You just told me you have to work the next two days. Last thing you need is the hangover from Hell." McCoy threw his hands in the air, seemingly disgusted, but he wouldn't meet Jim's eyes, and he didn't give any more resistance as Jim ushered him down the hallway in the direction of the bathroom. Jim escorted him all the way to the door, and was turning to head back to the kitchen when a hand fell heavily on his upper arm.

"Jim," McCoy said gruffly. He hesitated, as if unsure of what to say, and then shut his mouth, squeezing Jim's arm hard.

"I got you, Bones." Jim covered McCoy's hand with his own, returning the squeeze, then gave McCoy a playful shove. "Go on, stank-ass. Eau de Bourbon might be an acceptable cologne back where you're from, but here on the West Coast, we civilized."

"Asshole." It came out as a growl, but Jim thought he saw the faintest hint of a smile. With that, McCoy turned away, shuffling into the bathroom and shutting the door behind him. Jim let out a breath, staring at the closed bathroom door for a few long moments, wishing with all his might that he could think of something useful to say to McCoy in the face of the monumentally shitty day he was having. Nothing came. Jim shook his head. He still had to call Spock, who was expecting to pick Jim up in less than an hour.

Jim found his comm-link and pulled it up, staring out the window at the horizon-line as he listened to it ring. He would make it up to Spock, somehow. Jim would be sorry to miss the science exhibition, but some things were just more important than fancy cocktail parties.

Chapter Text

As a researcher at the Vulcan Science Academy, Spock was accustomed to difficult problems and the solving thereof. It was his job, after all, and one at which he excelled. Spock had not yet reached his thirtieth year, and already he was the head of a team of researchers which included several Vulcans twice his age. He possessed a quick and clever mind, and the dedication to statistical and scientific rigor that any worthwhile endeavor called for. Spock had headed research projects that ranged from improving the energy yield of dilithium to finding a vaccine against Moxana Pestis to combat the plague on Rigel VI. His current success rate exceeded 98.75%, which was unparalleled amongst his peers.

And yet here he was, standing uselessly in the middle of his room like an obsolete piece of equipment. Spock checked his chronometer for the thirteenth time in the last eight-point-three minutes. Jim Kirk would be arriving to collect him in under twenty-nine Standard minutes. Spock had known this for approximately six-point-five hours, and yet he was no closer now to knowing how to plan for the evening ahead of him than he was six hours ago.

He did not even know what to wear.

That he should be so utterly incapable of planning for tonight was preposterous, and yet undeniable. His helplessness was largely a function of the fact that had no exact itinerary of the night's expected events. When he had asked Jim what they would be doing this evening, Jim had made the frustratingly vague statement "Just hanging out," and Spock, who had not wanted to betray exactly how unenlightened this left him, had not asked for further clarification. In retrospect, he should not have been so afraid, but to call Jim now and ask for details—

It would be logical. Part of him recognized this. But Spock did not wish to do it. In fact, Spock did not want to do anything that might make Jim Kirk regret his casual invitation for Spock to come spend the evening with Jim and several of Jim's acquaintances.

When Jim had called the previous evening to inform Spock he would not be able to attend the event at the Science Academy with Spock, in favor of staying home with his doctor friend, Spock had assured Jim that he took no offense. Jim had promised to get in contact with Spock the next day, and then ended the conversation. Spock had put away the comm-unit and returned to his desk, and had sat staring at the computer monitor for a full five minutes, seeing nothing of the text on the screen.

Jim's situation was logical and understandable. He'd known "Bones" for years, while he had been acquainted with Spock for less than twenty-one days, and at that a strictly business relationship. Spock understood that Humans were an emotional species who reacted strongly to stressful situations, and while Jim had not given many details, Spock was aware that Dr. McCoy was going through just such a stressful time. Spock also understood that at such times, Humans depended heavily upon their family members and closest acquaintances—their friends. Jim was being a good friend to Bones, or so Spock concluded.

In the end, Spock had decided to go to the Academy's Night Out by himself. He had made polite, uninteresting small talk with the many aliens who were also in attendance, and dutifully examined the new exhibit that would be premiering the next day, an installation on differing types of unique marine life indigenous to a variety of Class M planets. Spock had stared at the gently-glowing jellyfish in the tanks, floating gracefully through the clear water, the rooms lit only by the jellyfishes' internal luminescence, and felt his own solitariness more keenly than he had in years.

It was a beautiful, fascinating exhibit, particularly to a desert-born species such as a Vulcan, whose planet lacked the vast, deep oceans of Earth and Andor. Spock had left after 90 minutes, and gone home to meditate.

Spock had not known whether or not he would hear from Jim today at all. He had tried to not even think about it, displeased at his increasing inability to concentrate as of late, to say nothing of the dissatisfying conversations with Malik and Sasak. As enlightening and interesting as his pursuits with Jim had been, he did not wish for this quest after his humanity to have such a drastic effect on him. He had gone so far as resolving to not seek out Jim's service or company for a period of three full days, in order to regain his focus, and was absorbed in one of the PADDs for his duotritocale project when his comm-link had gone off.

He had meant to decline Jim's invitation, no matter its nature. But in the instant before the words left his mouth, Spock had suffered a brief but powerful vision of Jim out at some dimly-lit Human bar, surrounded by his other companions, chatting and drinking and engaged in various pursuits (the details of which Spock was perhaps a bit hazy on), and not thinking of Spock at all. Some nameless, unfamiliar emotion had swamped him, cramping his stomach viciously, and though Jim could not have heard it, Spock's hand had clamped down on his comm-unit so hard that the metal frame had cracked under his fingers.

Spock had told Jim he would be honored to accept his invitation, and that he looked forward to learning about Human friendship rituals. Then they had ended the communication. Spock had spent the consequent six hours wondering whether over-exposure to Humans and their illogical behavior was infectious, despite the illogic of that idea.

Someone knocked three times at the door, interrupting Spock's ruminations. Spock frowned. Had he perhaps forgotten an obligation? Unlikely. "Enter," he called, composing himself as he turned to face the door.

The door slid open, revealing Sarek. "Greetings, Father," Spock said softly. He must have been distracted indeed to forget that his father was returning from San Francisco today. Spock's arms hung loosely at his sides, hands laying awkwardly along the lines of his trousers. He had chosen clothes that were slightly more in line with what Humans might wear, and knew his father was looking at them.

Sarek inclined his head in response. "Greetings, my son," he said, stepping inside and letting the door slide shut behind him. "I trust I find you in good health."

"Yes, Father. I am well."

Sarek nodded. "You have been preoccupied, as of late," he said. His gaze settled on Spock like a layer of volcanic ash—subtle but hot, missing nothing. "Is it due to the secession proceedings? Or is there some other cause of which I am unaware?"

Spock suffered a childish twinge of irritation—why did everyone insist on asking him so many questions? Was it really so disturbing to Vulcans when one of their number strayed even slightly outside of standard deviation? He stifled that thought almost immediately. Such ideas were not worthy of himself, or his father. And it would be best not to inform his father of his situation, Spock thought... but even as he opened his mouth to simply opt for the easy way out, he found the words sticking in the back of his throat. He found he did not wish to mislead Sarek, even though it would likely be easier on both of them for Sarek to remain ignorant.

"It is partly due to the secession movement, yes," Spock said at last. Sarek's eyes did not change, but Spock knew he had his father's full attention. "But I have been pursuing a project of my own while here on Earth." Spock hesitated, the stomach-cramps twisting through his guts again, as though with persistent indigestion. Spock suffered the sudden, bizarre mental image of the cramps being caused by trying to digest unpalatable ideas, and shoved it aside, bewildered. "I wished to better understand my Human heritage, while in a position to do so. To that end, I have been employing the aide of a local guide. It has been a most provocative experience thus far, and I find myself conflicted about what I will say when called to stand before the tribunal."

Silence. Spock braced himself. but he still wasn't expecting the next words out of his father's mouth. "As usual, my son, you possess the unique ability to confound your own interests. Had you spoken to me of this endeavor before we departed from Vulcan, I would have retrieved your mother's journals for you. Now it will have to wait until our return home."

Spock stared at Sarek, feeling as bereft as if ejected from airlock without warning. "Journals?" he said blankly. "You have never spoken of mother's journals before—" But now a memory surfaced, tugged loose by Sarek's announcement; himself as a young child, sitting at his mother's feet, intent on one of his educational puzzle-solving games while his mother bent over her desk and wrote slowly by hand in an old-fashioned paper book. A journal.

"I would very much like to look at those journals," Spock said slowly. His skin prickled hot all over, like he was coming down with fever, and he had to fight to keep the sudden sensation of vertigo from sending him tipping over.

Sarek merely nodded, hands still folded in front of him. He opened his mouth as if to say something further, but at that moment Spock's comm-unit flared to gaudy life, blinking and beeping loudly for attention. Spock blinked, reaching for the unit, silencing the alert but not taking the call yet. "My guide and his companions have arrived to collect me," he said, feeling the strange burn of embarrassment and confusion singing through his chest.

"I will not keep you from your obligations, then." Sarek straightened, visibly withdrawing. Spock suffered a pang, wondering what else his father might have said if they could have continued this conversation."We will speak of this more later."

"Yes, Father." Spock opened the comm-unit, raising it automatically to his face. "Hello, Jim."

"We're downstairs," came Jim's cheerful voice, larger-than-life even through the comm-unit. "Get your butt out here, the valet is givin' me the stink-eye!"

"I am sure he is not," Spock informed him, "but I will be down shortly." He rung off, tucking his comm back into his trousers and casting another uncertain glance at his father. But if Sarek disapproved of Spock's plans for the evenings, he gave no sign. Spock wasn't reassured; his father might have married a Human, but that did not mean he approved of his son fraternizing with them.

* * * * *

The problem with being Jim Kirk's friend, McCoy mused, was that when he wanted you to do something, you had as much luck not doing it as a goldfish might have trying to escape a whirlpool. So McCoy's chances of getting to lay at home wallowing in his own misery were slim to none, once Jim had managed to see past the cloud that his head had been stuck in for the past two weeks.

McCoy had tried to insist that he didn't want to go out, didn't want to see a goddamn person, or have to deal with other human beings at all, thanks so much. He'd been partially successful at staying in the night before, when Jim had found him attempting to drown himself via a good bottle of Jim Beam, but while Bones had been hoping for a reprieve the following night, Jim had marched into the living room at 11 am and announced that Chris Chapel and Janice Rand would be joining Jim and McCoy for a visit to Trader Sam's that night, and oh, by the way, Bones, don't forget we're going to the gym this afternoon. Ridiculous. But that was Jim for you. Might as well argue with the Santa Ana winds.

He was still grumpy about being dragged out, but intrigued now that Jim's mysterious Vulcan friend Spock would be joining them. None of them had met Spock yet, though McCoy had been privately glad at the distraction the Vulcan was providing Jim—Jim had only taken one other client in the past few weeks, he'd been so busy with shepherding Spock around. McCoy had thought about buying Spock a bottle of wine, but figured that would be odd, both because he didn't even know if Vulcans drank, much less know Spock as a person at all.

McCoy slouched in the front seat, listening to Christine and Janice in the back, Christine relating a story that McCoy had already heard once today about a more-than-slightly-insane woman who'd come into the ER insisting that she had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and who refused to leave until she'd been given "antibiotics"—never had a sea-salt hypospray come in so handy before, McCoy thought privately. But his attention was on Jim, who seemed at ease, but whose eyes kept trailing to the front door of the hotel and back again.

When Jim had tentatively suggested that they invite Spock, McCoy had agreed, but now he was wondering why Jim thought it was a good idea to bring along this mysterious alien friend of his. Not that McCoy was a xenophobe (or not much of one), but why bother when Spock didn't know anyone but Jim? It was just a group night out, not any sort of formal event. But McCoy hadn't asked before now, and Jim hadn't volunteered the answer, and now McCoy had to decide if he cared enough to inquire or if he would just try to figure it out on his own.

A tall figure came out the front of the hotel, all crisp clean lines, blue button-down shirt and black slacks, matching his shiny black hair corralled into the most severe haircut McCoy had ever seen outside of a fashion runway. McCoy suddenly found himself with a lapful of Jim Kirk when Jim leaned across the vehicle, yelling out the passenger-side window, "SPOCK! Over here!"

The conversation in the backseat suddenly dropped off, and McCoy rolled his eyes, shoving Jim off him and back to his side of the car. "Goddamn, kid, keep it in your pants."

"You're just jealous 'cause I get all the hot aliens," Jim said cheerfully. "Chris, scoot over, Spock gets motion sick pretty easy, we shouldn't make him ride in the back." McCoy looked to his right, watching Spock approach the car. The Vulcan's face was predictably impossible to read, as stoic and expressionless as every Vulcan McCoy had ever met in his entire life. He climbed in carefully, settling himself down onto the seat and pulling the seat-belt across his chest and waist. "Guys, this is Spock. Spock, these jerks are my friends. That's Janice Rand—Christine Chapel—and this is Bones."

"Leonard McCoy," McCoy interrupted, twisting around in his seat to add to the chorus of "Hellos" that had just been leveled at Spock. Spock nodded to each of them in turn, as serious as the guest speaker at commencement.

"I am pleased to make your acquaintances," Spock said. "I am sure I will find the evening most informative. I wished to express my gratitude at being invited to come along."

"Informative?" Christine laughed, leaning forward from the back seat as Jim put the transport in gear and guided the vehicle back out towards the highway. It was nice to see her outside of her scrubs, McCoy thought reflectively. She'd just cut her hair boy-short, and McCoy was no chauvinist, but he would never admit how flattering he thought the pixie cut was on her handsome face and tall frame. "Sure, if you're doing a paper on how much alcohol Jim Kirk and his friends can drink before someone starts throwing up or gets in a fight."

Spock glanced from Christine to Janice to Jim, his brow furrowing. McCoy thought he looked unsure, though it was tough to tell when your eyebrows looked like they were preparing for a wrestling match with a gorilla's. "It was my understanding that getting into fights was not considered a desirable way for Humans to spend their time with acquain—with friends."

"You're not wrong, Spock." Jim took his eyes from the road just long enough for a glance over his shoulder at Spock. "We're just goin' to our favorite dive bar out by the beach in one of the quieter parts of town. Just hanging out and having fun. No one's planning to do any vomiting or fighting."

McCoy raised an eyebrow at that, and he would bet an entire night's worth of drinks that Janice and Christine were exchanging looks behind him. Jim Kirk, stating outright his plan to be good and not cause trouble? As if he could read McCoy's mind, Jim shot McCoy a sideways glare that had McCoy grinning despite himself and despite his shitty last couple of days. "Awe, and here I thought you were gonna be providin' distraction for me tonight," he drawled. "Nothin' like spending an evening puttin' you back together."

"We're gonna be near Christine's place so we can all go crash if we need to," Janice added cheerfully.

"Crash?" Spock now sounded as if he very much questioned his own sanity at having gotten into this transport at all.

"Pass out," Christine said helpfully. "Black out. Have too much to drink. Are physically inebriated and unable to stand."

"Fascinating," said Spock, and to McCoy's mild amusement, he sounded like he actually meant it.

Spock himself turned out to be fascinating, too, more than McCoy was expecting. Initially, he seemed reluctant to share much about himself, but after some insistent prodding by Janice and Christine, he finally admitted that he had hired Jim as his guide to help him explore his Human heritage—turned out Spock was a half-Vulcan, the son of one Dr. Amanda Grayson, one of the pioneers of the Universal Translation Protocol. By the time they got to Trader Sam's, McCoy was slightly amazed to find that everyone in the transport was engaged in a heated conversation about Human and Vulcan psychology and the merits of each.

They trooped inside, found an empty booth towards the back of the lounge, and got their first round of drinks from the waitress without ever breaking their conversation. However McCoy had seen himself spending the evening, it hadn't been like this.

"So let me get this straight," Christine said, leaning forward over her Long Island Iced Tea with a slightly manic gleam in her eye. McCoy recognized that look from long nights in the ER with Christine, who was one of the best nurses he'd ever met in his life and was a truly force of nature when you got on her bad side. Like a tornado, or a hurricane. "Vulcans think emotions are illogical, right?"

"That is not actually strictly true," Spock said calmly. He was drinking a simple glass of orange juice, at Janice's suggestion; if anyone asked, he could just say it was a screw-driver. Spock had been mystified as to why he would want to appear to be drinking when he was in fact doing no such thing, but had agreed to go along with Janice's suggestion anyway. "In Vulcans, as in Humans, emotions were an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation, providing the stimulus for goals and rewards so that the host would perform activities beneficial to the continued existence of itself and its species. So in this sense, emotions are quite logical."

McCoy raised an eyebrow at that. He'd taken a few seminars in neuropsychology back at med school, but his specialty was emergency care, not psychoanalyzing or reverse-engineering the brain. "Wait, I think I remember what you're talking about," he said. "Pinker's Postulate, isn't it?"

Spock nodded. "That is correct," he said. "Emotions, and the facial expression and body language that accompany them in most Humanoid species, are biologically adaptive. Any species that depends as much as Humans do upon social interaction, and the give and take of information, needed to have developed a complex method for advertising one's own intents and desires, and for protecting their investments."

"Sure," Jim said. He had been following the conversation attentively, but had been doing more listening than speaking, apparently content to sit and drink his Cardassian Sunrise and ride the flow of conversation. "Who are you gonna take more seriously, a dude who looks like he's about to completely lose his shit and start a fist-fight, or a soft-spoken little wall-flower who asks you very nicely to 'please stop doing that'? The guy who looks like he's gonna rip your arm off and beat you with it."

"Affirmative," Spock said, glancing at Jim with what McCoy would have sworn was approval. "In order to predict whether a stranger means you ill or aid, it is imperative that you be able to interpret the visual cues they are presenting you with, and vice versa."

"That still doesn't explain why I fell in love with Jeremy Komives my senior year of college," Janice said serenely. She was on her second mojito, and already spots of red were appearing high up on her cheekbones. "He was a jerk and an idiot—a good-looking idiot, but still as dumb as a bag of gravel. But we dated for almost a year before he dumped me for one of the girls on the cheerleading squad. I was heartbroken for months. How the hell is that beneficial?"

Spock inclined his head slightly. "I admit to being somewhat confused on the subject myself," he said, slowly. Spock had a deep voice, McCoy noted distantly, and he spoke each word carefully, as though he was thinking about how he'd never be able to take it back once it left his mouth. "Or rather, I understand the concept of love, from an evolutionary standpoint, but not its application, or what inspires it."

"Do tell," McCoy said. He took another drink of his whiskey, and shifted in his seat, slouching against the cushioned back of the booth. Jim glanced at him, concern furrowing his brows, but McCoy just shook his head. Spock must have noticed, because he hesitated for a moment, looking at the other faces around the table. McCoy twirled his hand, the universal "come on, then" gesture, and after a moment Spock resumed where he left off.

"The benefit to love being as ...unpredictable and unplannable as it is, from what I understand, is that if one chooses a mate logically, purely upon factors of compatibility, as though measuring a chemical compound, one would have no guarantee of not being abandoned in the future when a new partner with more desirable characteristics happens along. Thus the two partners have a greater chance of remaining together, each improving the other's survival odds and overall satisfaction, and thus also successfully raising offspring and ensuring their own continued access to desired resources."

"Sounds like a great theory," McCoy said before he could stop himself. "But like so much else about Human physiology, it doesn't always work that way in practice." An uncomfortable silence fell then, and McCoy rolled his eyes, sipping at his drink. "Oh, god, please stop acting like I'm going to break if we mention anything inappropriate around me. I'm divorced, not a terminal cancer patient."

"Oh, don't worry, Bones." Jim sat up, a genuine Jim Kirk shit-eating grin firmly in place on his face. "If you had the big C, we'd be helping you pick out toupees and different-colored tubes for your catheter." McCoy swore and elbowed Jim in the shoulder, and Jim laughed, and whatever awkwardness had been threatening to stifle their table seemed to dissipate, floating away into the air of the room like so much dust.

"That is another Human foible that I confess to not understanding very well," Spock said, as Christine got up to fetch them another round of drinks. It was difficult to tell, but McCoy thought he seemed relieved that the subject had been changed.

"Don't plenty of other species have a sense of humor?" asked Jim of no one in particular. "I mean, surely Humans aren't the only ones in the galaxy who get the giggles when someone rips a really good fart."

"No, Jim, that's just you," Janice said drily. "Being a paradigm of taste and good manners for the entire world, that's the Jim Kirk way." On cue, Jim turned his head, opened his mouth, and erupted with a loud, particularly meaty belch, holding it for a good five seconds. Everyone except Spock fell apart, groaning and laughing, and as Christine came back, two drinks in each capable hand, Christine leaned over and punched Jim in the bicep.

"Ow!" Jim whined, sliding down in his seat and clutching his shoulder theatrically, writhing around as though bleeding from a gut wound, an activity that was soundly ignored by everyone at the table save Spock, who was peering at Jim in what passed for mild concern for a Vulcan. "No, anyway," Jim continued, popping back up as though someone had pulled a string in his spine to re-ignite his participation in the conversation. "Isn't a sense of humor supposed to be one of those things that indicates self-awareness? Wasn't there some old science fiction story, from like the 20th century or something—Heinlein, I think maybe?"

"You would be a fan of Heinlein," Christine remarked, sipping at her Long Island. Jesus fuck, how many of those had she had, McCoy wondered distantly. The woman could drink like a fish. "He was such a sexist piece of shit."

"So was Milton," Jim pointed out, "but you can't argue that Paradise Lost isn't one of the most brilliant creations in Human history—"

"Since when do you read Milton?" McCoy demanded.

"Anyway," Jim said loudly, waving his hand as if to physically dispel the interruption, "in the book there was this supercomputer, that they had on the moon—there was a colony on the moon—I think they named it Mike. Mycroft."

"Mycroft," Spock said slowly. "After Sherlock Holmes's older, more intelligent brother."

Jim shot a startled glance at Spock, a bright, quicksilver smile flickering across his face. "Yeah, actually, I think that's right. Anyway, in the book, the... I think it's the janitor who winds up feeding all these jokes to the computer. I can't even remember why. But he feeds Mike probably thousands of jokes, all the jokes he can find, out of boredom or curiosity or whatever, and eventually the computer supposedly acquires a sense of humor. It figures out how to tell a joke itself. And that's the point when it supposedly became self-aware."

"Fascinating," Spock murmured. He was now staring at Jim as if Jim were the only one at the table. McCoy glanced sideways at Christine, who proceeded to roll her eyes hard enough to strain something. At least McCoy wasn't the only one who was seeing this. He was going to have to have a talk with the kid, he could already tell.

Talk broke off for a moment as the lights dimmed, the bartender turning the music subtly up as the evening wore on. The conversation took a more general turn then, working through recent politics and to a few of the movies Jim had dragged Spock to see, and McCoy soon found he was pleasantly buzzed, warmed both by the alcohol and the amiable conversation of friends around him. The music was good tonight, too, older rock and roll, not that newer xeno-fusion crap that was so popular right now. Broadening your horizons was all well and good, but sometimes a man just wanted to hear some honest-to-God guitar and drums.

Janice broke off in the middle of a colorful story about some of the drunken shenanigans some cadets in her dorm had gotten up to during finals when the music changed, a rough-sounding piece of dialogue that sounded like it was a very old recording. "Oh my God!" she squealed, shoving Jim harder than strictly necessary in the shoulder. "Jim. JIM. Come on you have to dance with me, come ON—"

"Jesus!" But Jim was laughing, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet and stumbling out into the open space that passed for a dance floor in the middle of the bar, backing up so that he was facing Janice, separated by a few feet. Now young lady, what is your name? asked the voice, sounding like an old-timey announcer.

Janice dropped into a mock half-bow, giggling as she mouthed, "Mrs. Mia Wallace." Jim grinned from ear to ear, mimicking her gesture as he bent from the waist. And how 'bout your fella here? "Vincent Vega," Jim mouthed. McCoy watched, for once as mystified as Spock, as old, badly-recorded boogie music started to play, and Jim and Janice started to dance.

They were doing the twist, McCoy realized abruptly. Christine started laughing as both Jim and Janice started to gyrate, mugging horribly at each other as they twirled and wiggled and spun across the dance floor. Other people were getting up and moving onto the floor now too, following Jim's and Janice's lead, and soon most of the empty space was taken up by people in various stages of inebriation doing a bad but enthusiastic session of the Twist.

But it wasn't Jim and Janice that McCoy found himself watching. It was Spock. Spock was staring at Jim and Janice, his back perfectly straight, an expression of utmost concentration on his face. Beyond that, McCoy couldn't have said what Spock was thinking to save his own life. But whatever it was that was on his mind, he looked as though he was trying to sear this scene into his memory banks permanently.

The song ended, and McCoy thought for a moment that Jim and Janice would come sit down again, but instead it was Christine who got up, bouncing out to the dance floor to join the others, and McCoy found himself alone at the table with Spock. Christine's exit seemed to bring Spock back to himself, and he shifted in his seat, tearing his eyes away from Jim and looking over at McCoy. "Do you not wish to join your friends?" Spock asked after a few moments, sounding unsure.

McCoy shook his head. "Nah," he said. "Not really much for dancing. M'glad they're having fun, though." Spock inclined his head, eyes tracking back to the figures on the dance floor seemingly despite himself, and then as if realizing that he was staring, he forced his eyes down to his hands.

"I must apologize," he said after another minute or so of silence. "I believe I unintentionally offended you earlier. Jim informed me of your current circumstances..." Spock trailed off, looking as uncomfortable as McCoy thought he'd ever seen a Vulcan be. It was strangely endearing.

"You didn't offend me, Spock." McCoy smiled, picking up his whiskey and draining the last of it in one go. "I meant what I said. I'm divorced. It sucks, but I've survived this far, and I don't really see myself keelin' over any time soon." Spock inclined his head, his eyes still on his hands, and for a few moments they lapsed into silence again, McCoy watching Spock try and fail to not fidget with his empty glass.

"If that is true..." Spock hesitated. McCoy waited. He had an idea of what Spock was about to ask, but he wasn't about to volunteer anything until Spock got around to it, either. "Forgive me," Spock said finally. "It is not my place to inquire into your personal affairs." But McCoy just shook his head, finding himself impatient now with all the dancing around the topic.

"If you want to ask about my divorce, Spock, you go right on ahead. You got more manners than most of the jerks I hang around with, anyway." McCoy paused, signaling at the waitress to bring him yet another whiskey, then added, "If it makes you feel any better, I promise I won't go answering anything that I don't want to."

Spock seemed to consider this for several seconds, then nodded his head again. "Very well. I am... unfamiliar with the intricacies of Human relationships. I was given to understand that for Humans, a marriage is not entered into lightly, and is intended to be permanent." McCoy nodded, gesturing for Spock to keep going. "Furthermore, I understand that this does not always work out for a couple, and that legal and emotional separations do occur. But..."

Again Spock hesitated, picking his words with care. "I was surprised to hear of your distress the other night. If a marriage ends, logically it is because the arrangement has not worked out, and I would assume that both parties would be relieved upon the dissolution of their relationship, as it frees them to pursue more satisfying arrangements. But when I asked Jim about this, he said that you and your former spouse still... still love each other. And I do not understand why, then, you decided to end your marriage."

McCoy let out a long breath, leaning back in his chair. "Ain't that the million-dollar question," he murmured, more to himself than to anything. But Spock blinked, and as he opened his mouth again, no doubt to ask for clarification, McCoy shook his head in negation. He was silent for several long moments, staring out at the dance floor over Spock's left shoulder, thinking.

The question hurt, sure. But McCoy found, just at that moment, that he was glad of the hurt.

"Jim's not wrong," McCoy said at length. "I do still love Joss. Jocelyn, that's... that's my ex-wife's name. But I guess.... for Humans, a successful marriage isn't always only about being in love. It's also about compatibility." At this, Spock nodded, but Bones kept going, letting the words spill out with probably less consideration than he normally would give to a conversation with a stranger, but then, he'd had a lot to drink tonight. "We maybe got married sooner'n we should have, but I was just... I was so in love with her. I think I knew I wanted to marry her within a week of tracking her down."

Spock raised an eyebrow. "Tracking her down?"

Bones grinned. The expression felt unfamiliar, and somehow good. He hadn't smiled about Jocelyn in a long time. "Oh, god, yeah. She and I met in medical school. And... my second year, whenever I would come to certain classes, there would be these poems up on the board, that someone had snuck into the classroom while it was empty and written up there. Poetry or song lyrics or sometimes just a quote, from a book or something. It drove me crazy, trying to figure out who was doing it, and I finally resorted to hiding in one classroom for an entire damn day, for a week straight, to see if I could catch who was doing it. And it turned out to be this gorgeous redhead, and I was just completely smitten as soon as I laid eyes on her."

McCoy trailed off, finding it suddenly hard to speak around the lump in his throat. He hadn't told anyone that story in a long time, and he wasn't entirely sure why he just shared it with Spock, who was still watching him, a deep consideration in those dark eyes. "Anyway," McCoy said, his own words sounding hoarser than he'd like, "that's that. Joss is a good woman, and we had Joanna together—that's my little girl, Jo. She lives with her mother back in Georgia. But it didn't work out, and I wish I could tell you why, Spock, but I don't think I'll ever really know."

"I see," Spock said softly, although McCoy was willing to bet good money he did not. At some point when McCoy wasn't paying attention, he'd folded his hands into his lap. "Thank you for answering my question, Dr. McCoy."

At that, McCoy laughed. "Christ, don't do that," he said. "Just call me Leonard. Or Bones, if you like."

"Very well, Leonard." Spock paused, cocking his head to one side. "Why does Jim call you Bones?"

McCoy snorted into his drink, slouching into his chair. "That's a question you'll have to ask him, Spock."

As if summoned by the mention of his name, Jim appeared abruptly at the edge of the table like a force of nature, skidding to a halt, red-faced and practically glowing. "You two gonna sit there and talk about the meaning of life for the rest of the night?" he demanded.

"I'm crying into my beer," McCoy informed him loftily.

"You are not drinking beer, Leonard," Spock pointed out, and Jim laughed as McCoy flipped an uncomprehending Spock the bird.

"Exactly. Spock, this is your opportunity to participate in bona fide Human-style bonding. Your assignment is to help me drag Bones out on the dance floor." On cue, both McCoy and Spock started to protest. Spock leaned back against the booth as though Jim had just presented him with a radioactive Tribble, while McCoy started to inch himself backwards along the booth, out of Jim's reach.

"Oh hell no, Kirk, don't you even—"

"I am not entirely certain that is an appropriate—"

"GET UP!" bawled Christine, who'd appeared at Jim's side like some sort of demonic familiar, lunging for McCoy from the other end of the table. "Come on, I went and hacked the fucking computer for you, Len, so you damn well better get up and dance, because this next one here is your song—"

"What?" Out McCoy went onto the floor, unwilling and mistrustful, followed by an equally reluctant Spock, with Jim bouncing on the balls of his feet at Spock's side. "Song? What's my song, wh—" And then the opening strains of an all-too-familiar guitar sang out over the loudspeakers. Christine slung one long arm around McCoy's shoulders, mimicked moments later by Jim on McCoy's opposite side, Janice and Spock hovering in front of them. All of them save Spock wore identical shit-eating grins.

"I hate you so much," McCoy announced, barely audible over the sultry sounds of Garth Brooks, drawling about showing up in boots and ruining a black-tie affair. But, he reflected (as Janice started to pantomime the lyrics for dramatic effect and Spock just stood there, looking at once mystified and vaguely uncomfortable), being humiliated in a bar by his best friends was a much better way to spend the evening than poisoning himself with rotgut whiskey back at the house.

* * * * *

Oscar night, and celebrity after celebrity was strolling up the red carpet, paparazzi shouting and flashing cameras every other second. Thousands of beings, all pressing and straining to catch a glimpse of the famous faces in attendance tonight, and tonight Jim was one of them, here to be adored and fawned over. But wait—where were his pants? Pure horror washed through him as Jim realized everyone was staring—not because he was famous, but because he was wearing nothing but a gold g-string covering his privates. He turned in slow-motion, panic deadening his limbs as he took in the sea of faces, all eyes focused on him, but one pair of dark eyes in particular jumped out at him, eyebrows drawn down in disappointment—

The alarm blared, cutting through Jim's fuzzy dreams, and he flung a hand out, slapping at the noise until his hand collided with the clock and found the off-button. Blessed silence fell over the room again, and Jim rolled onto his back with a low grunt, rubbing at his eyes as he tried to remember why he was asleep in his bed at 5 pm and not out doing something useful with himself. Images of the night before filtered through his sleep-addled mind: Christine Chapel wearing a lei draped over her head as she serenaded a rigid Spock, a thoroughly inebriated McCoy engaging in some shockingly raunchy dancing...

Shit. And then he'd had to get up this morning to go turn in his final paper in his Humanoid Sociology class and do a few errands, still marinating in his own alcoholic soup, and hadn't made it back to the house till almost two. After a night like that, no wonder he'd crashed for a few hours more of sleep. At least he wasn't traumatizing everyone with his junk, though. Damn, but the "pantsless in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre" dream was getting old. The addition of Spock at the edge of the crowd, though, witnessing Jim's nonsensical shame... that was new. But further analysis of his dream-scape was stalled by a mouth that felt like desiccated cotton and the remnants of a nasty headache. He should probably take some painkillers, go see if McCoy had any of his magical hangover-killing hypos still lying around.

Not just yet, though. First things first: he needed a shower. Jim thumbed his boxers down over his hips and let them fall to the ground, padding barefoot to the bathroom, grabbing a discarded towel from the rack on the wall. It might be hot and gritty like Satan's asshole outside, but a long hot shower was still gonna feel fantastic.

Thirty minutes later, Jim was eyeing himself critically in the mirror, mouth quirked up at the corner in exasperation. The face looking back at him was still identifiably his, if you knew what to look for, but no one among Jim's more casual acquaintances would recognize him—which was the idea, at least in part. Smudged kohl lined his arresting blue eyes, the dusty pink of his nipples just barely visible underneath the tight black mesh shirt he wore, and the black leather pants looked as though they had been poured on. But the thing that had Jim making faces at himself in the mirror was the platinum-blonde wig he now sported, hiding his own shorter, sandier hair. It looked like a reject from Miss Piggy's arsenal of personal tragedies, but by itself it did lightyears more to hide Jim's normal appearance than all the rest of his ensemble put together, and as fugly as he privately thought it was, he'd found a certain number of well-paying clients went for that kind of shit.

Including the one he had an appointment to meet with tonight.

Naveen Kamdar was one of the most devastatingly attractive men Jim had ever met in his entire life, looking like an Indian prince who wandered out of some ancient Hindu myth, if princes wore tailored silk suits and played politics with a vindictiveness that made Klingons look sweet and thoughtful. He was unfailingly polite to Jim, always had an expensive, delicious meal waiting for him at the hotel suite when Jim arrived, and paid Jim exorbitantly for the pleasure of his company. (Jim could read the massive over-payment as the bribe for silence it was, and always kept quiet when Naveen's wife occasionally called, wanting to check in with her husband. Of course, half the time he was tied to the bed and gagged anyway, so it wasn't as if he had much choice.)

As if on cue, Jim's comm-unit went off, jangling distantly from the bedroom. Jim swore under his breath and bolted down the hallway, grabbing it up off the cover just in time to answer before it went to his mailbox. "Hi, Naveen," he said, fighting to keep the breathlessness out of his voice and face.

"Hello there, James," purred the voice at the other end. Naveen's handsome face stared out at Jim, as smooth and polite as a carved ebony statue. "I was worried for a little there that you were going to disappear on me tonight."

"Oh, hey now," Jim said. "I wouldn't do that to you."

"Really? You've certainly been hard enough to get ahold of for the past few weeks. One would almost think you'd been avoiding me." Jim felt heat flood his face and neck and hoped devoutly that he wasn't visibly flushed—or at least that Naveen wouldn't be able to see it through their link, if he was.

"Now why in the world would I do that? I told you, I've just been busy."

"Of course, I have no idea why you'd want to end our acquaintance," Naveen said, and now there was definitely no mistaking the amusement in his voice now. Jim felt a bit like a particularly beautiful cat was laughing at him. "I'm sure I was just imagining things. But I am very much looking forward to seeing you tonight, James."

"So am I," Jim lied sweetly, flashing his most dazzling smile at the little view-screen. "I'm almost ready to go now. See you soon, Naveen." Naveen nodded once, and then the screen went black. Jim switched his own comm-unit off and tossed it down to the bed, letting out a long breath that he hadn't even known he was holding.

Jim glanced at his clock. Almost six. He was due at Naveen's hotel in a little over an hour. If he'd wanted to, Jim could have called back Naveen and asked for a transport to come pick him up, but one of Jim's ironclad rules was that clients didn't know where he lived and never came to his house. Which was probably the only reason Naveen hadn't turned up at Jim's front door at some unwanted, highly-inopportune moment. Like when I'm trying to tell Bones how my job is so fun and fulfilling, Jim thought sourly.

Well, he could have worry about that problem later. Right now, he needed to get going, or he'd never make it to Naveen's part of Marina Del Ray in time. Jim grabbed up his helmet off the desk, shrugged into his leather jacket, and pocketed his keys. He could do this. He was good at his job, fuck, he was amazing at his job, and he loved it. Naveen might be a lot to handle, but he paid Jim well and gave him the red-carpet treatment. This was just a job like any other, and there was no reason to be stressing out over it. But being professional about it sometimes meant functioning on a need-to-know basis, which was where Jim's head was retreating to right now.

McCoy didn't need to know that Jim was meeting with Naveen Kamdar tonight, or Naveen's preferred brand of "service" he liked from Jim . Naveen didn't need to know that Jim had been deleting his messages for the past three weeks, or that the only reason Jim agreed to meet with him tonight was because Spock was up in San Francisco for two days with the Vulcan Embassy. And Spock—

Jim felt a hard knot form in his throat. No, Spock definitely did not need to know what Jim was going to be doing tonight.

Jim pulled his helmet carefully over his wig and strode briskly out the front door, letting the screen door bang shut behind him. With any luck, McCoy would be in bed long before Jim got back.

* * * * *

As it happened, not only was McCoy not in bed when Jim got back to the house, he wasn't even home—Jim beat him by almost thirty minutes. Of course, his night hadn't gone exactly how he'd expected it to, either.

Dr. McCoy (whose week had improved considerably since Jim came home to find him well on his way to ruining his liver at their kitchen table) left his shift at St. Mary's, stopped at the grocery store on the way home for coffee, bagels, and bread, and got back to their neighborhood a full fifteen minutes earlier than he'd expected. He impulsively stopped at the taco truck up the street, simply because it happened to still be open, and sat on the curb to eat his dinner as twilight drew slowly down around him, enjoying his cold beer and the balmy summer evening. McCoy had never really gotten used to the dry heat of Los Angeles, but tonight he could admit he was enjoying the lack of humidity.

He came in the front door with the bag of groceries in one hand and the remains of his taco wrappers in the other, still mulling over the last patient he saw that day before leaving work. He walked into the kitchen, put the bag of groceries on the table, and went into the laundry room to pitch the remnants of his dinner into the trash bin—

And paused, staring in bemusement at the platinum-blond wig sitting on top of the pile of trash. It had bits of—McCoy squinted in disbelief—were those wads of tissue on top?

Right. Wads of tissue with spots of blood on them. Okay. McCoy straightened, tossing his wrappings into the bin almost as an after-thought, and went back into the kitchen. "Jim," he called, wondering belatedly if Jim was even still home, "where you at, kid?"

"In here." McCoy followed Jim's voice to the living room, where he found his roommate sacked out on the couch in a t-shirt and sweatpants, "watching" some program with the volume turned all the way down. Jim looked up at him as he entered, flashing a big, cheerful, fake smile that wouldn't have fooled a blind man. He sat up, and a bag full of something sloshed against his chest as he did so, a bag of what McCoy now realized was ice, settled on top of Jim's right hand. His knuckles, to be precise. "Hey," Jim said, his smile fading a little around the edges at the way McCoy was looking at him. "What's up?"

"Pretty sure I'm the one who should be asking that question, Jim." McCoy raised his eyebrows, unable to keep from smiling at the way Jim now looked like he was trying not to fidget, like a boy who's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Though, if McCoy's guess about where that blood on the tissues came from, no cookie jar had ever done quite a number on a boy's hand like Jim had done to himself tonight. "You wanna tell me what the occasion is that you finally put that travesty of a wig in the trash?"

Jim hesitated, shifting on the couch to make more room for McCoy, then swore loudly as his bag of melting ice chose this moment to go oozing off his lap in a tumble to the floor, bursting and spilling ice-water all over the carpet. "Goddammit, Jim," McCoy laughed, and jumped up again to run to the kitchen for towels, Jim close on his heels.

"Sorry, I'm sorry! Jeez, it's just water, it's not like I haven't spilled worse out here—"

"Don't remind me. You and red wine are a dangerous combination." McCoy crouched, scooping up the last few melty ice-cubes, and as they were mopping up the mess, Jim said, almost as an afterthought, "So, in answer to your question, I deleted all my messages today. From my clients." He kept his eyes on the ground as he said this, hands pressed against the towels on the carpet, his expression a study in nonchalance.

McCoy glanced up, one hand braced against his knee, looking at Jim's face and trying to gauge that comment. "This mean you're takin' a break from this business?" he asked carefully, not entirely sure what to do with that statement. Jim was easy-going about most things, but McCoy really wasn't interested in inadvertently picking another fight with his roommate.

"Yeah, a permanent one." Now Jim did look over at McCoy, a touch of defiance in his voice and eyes. Trust Jim to get defensive about the one thing McCoy had been hoping he'd do for two years now.

"Jesus fucking Christ, kid, it's about time." McCoy reached over, batted the wadded towels out of Jim's hands, and hauled Jim to his feet, embracing him like a brother. Jim endured it for several moments before he squirmed his way out of McCoy's arms, rolling his eyes to hide his smile. "So what's the occasion? You finally realized what I've been telling you for two years, that you're too smart for that crap?"

Jim bent down to scoop up the towels, following McCoy to the laundry room to dispose of the dirty rag as they continued their conversation. "Smart's got nothing to do with it. I just got tired of it. It's not fun anymore." Now it was McCoy's turn to roll his eyes at this typical Jim take on the situation. You could probably convince Jim Kirk to sign up for hazardous duty in a war zone, as long as you could find a way to convince him it was 'fun.'

"I still have no idea how you ever found it fun, you little twerp, but we're going out for a drink tonight to celebrate. In fact—" McCoy broke off, squinting at Jim's hand as he caught a better look at it in the light of the kitchen. "Lemme see that hand, Jim. What'd you do to yourself? This have something to do with the new lack of fun in your job?"

"Uh, actually..." Jim obediently let McCoy examine what turned out to be the lacerated knuckles of Jim's right hand, mostly because McCoy already had his wrist in a death grip and getting out of it looked to be more trouble than it was worth. "Nnnno. I just had a really... unsatisfying night and decided I'd had enough. The hand I got from punching Harry Mudd."

McCoy looked up, new disbelief creasing his brows. "You what? Jim. Jim. Are you sure you're my roommate? Not that I'm surprised to hear you getting in a fist-fight, but where did this sudden increase in common sense come from?"

"He had it coming, okay?" Jim said loudly, yanking his hand away from McCoy's grip, but McCoy was already going for the med-kit from its berth in one of the cupboards.

"You don't have to tell me that, Jim, I've thought you should ditch that sleazeball since I first laid eyes on him, but last I checked you still thought he had your best interests at heart." McCoy plunked the box down on the counter and rummaged through it for a few seconds 'til he came up with the dermoplaser, turning and grabbing Jim's hand again and running it over the abused skin of his knuckles.

"He was threatening to tell all my clients where I lived." It was a credit to McCoy's diligence as a doctor first and a friend second that he managed to finish knitting up Jim's hand before leveling a new, outraged stare in Jim's direction.

"He what? Jim—"

"Yeah. Yeah. I left Naveen's hotel—"

"—who?"

"Client! Doesn't matter, he actually took the news really well—anyway. I left Naveen's hotel, got halfway home, decided I was done, so the first thing I did was call Harry and tell him to not refer anyone else to me, because I'm done taking clients. He wanted me to give him some kind of pay-off for all the people he's sent my way, especially Spock."

"And you told him to go fuck himself, I hope." McCoy put the dermoplaser aside, shutting the lid of the med-kit with more force than strictly necessary.

"Yeah, basically. And then he threatened to tell all my clients where I live." Jim caught McCoy's look, and smirked. "Bones, he doesn't know where I live. I checked."

"By punching his face in?"

"Uh, no? Christ, I'm not a bully, Bones! Anyway. So I told him I'd come over so we could talk, and after confirming that, yeah, he has no fuckin' idea where I live, I told him that he could go to hell and to leave me the fuck alone." Jim smiled, a tight, unhappy expression that said volumes about how that conversation had actually gone. McCoy leaned back against the counter, bracing his hands against the edge as he studied Jim.

"So you're done, then. Really done. And Mudd's not going to bother you anymore."

"Well, I mean, short of shipping off-planet, I can't be sure, but yeah, I'm pretty certain."

"Good," McCoy said forcefully. "You're well rid of that sleaze." He paused as something occurred to him, watching Jim go to the fridge to get the orange juice. McCoy thought again of the way Jim and Spock had been looking at each other, the other night at the bar; thought of how the number of clients Jim had taken since he met Spock had dwindled to almost nothing, and of how constantly Jim was out with Spock. A clear picture was forming in his head, and McCoy wasn't entirely certain he liked what he saw. "So, Jim," he said after a moment, as Jim poured himself a glass of juice and glanced over at him. "What about Spock?"

Jim arched an eyebrow at him that the aforementioned Vulcan would've been proud of. "What about Spock?" he asked.

"You're ditching all your clients. Have you told him yet?"

Jim shrugged. "It's not really any of his business, is it?"

"Uh, I'd say so, if you're letting him off the hook the way you are everyone else."

Jim didn't answer, putting the juice away and then coming back to hop up on the counter, legs dangling over the side.. "Spock's different," he said, leveling his gaze at McCoy. "Besides, he leaves in less than six weeks. I see no reason to cut things short." The carriage of his shoulders and the tone of his voice were a clear warning, but McCoy had no intention of turning back from this particular subject. Suddenly Jim's decision to abandon the sex trade didn't look so fabulously clean-cut.

"Right. Sure. Look, Jim..." McCoy drew a deep breath, and then took the plunge. "You haven't slept with him, have you?"

"What does it matter if I have?" Jim's voice had gone cool and slightly hard, losing even the pretense of nonchalance. McCoy, however, was having none of it.

"Please, Jim," he said. "Hello? You do realize that I live with you, right? You really think I haven't noticed how completely over the moon you are about this guy?"

"I am not—what are you smoking, Bones?" Jim sat up, planting his hands on the counter. "Spock's just a friend."

"A friend?" McCoy repeated skeptically. "Not a client, Jim? Not someone who's paying you for your services?" Jim flushed, floundering on whatever he'd been going to say next, and McCoy sighed, rubbing at his temple. "Kirk, you are going to be the death of me," he muttered. Louder, addressing Jim again, he said, "Please tell me you haven't slept with him, Jim."

"I haven't slept with him." Jim sounded surly now, shoulders hunching ever-so-slightly as he glared across the kitchen at his housemate. "Happy?"

"Not exactly," McCoy said. "But I—for chrissake, Jim, this isn't about making me happy. So you haven't slept with him. But you want to, don't you?" He raised his eyebrows, and after a moment of hesitation, Jim nodded. Just once, barely there, but it was enough. McCoy groaned softly. "Oh, boy. You really like him, don't you."

"It's not a big deal, Bones, it's just—it's just a crush." McCoy shook his head, pushing off from where he leaned against the counter, coming over to where Jim still sat, legs dangling over the side like an oversized ten-year-old. McCoy had known Jim for almost two years now, having found that the loud-mouth, hot-tempered kid he'd first taken in as a temporary house-mate had turned out to be one of the most loyal and true friends a man could ask for. In all that time, he had never once seen Jim lose his cool over a man, woman, or alien.

"Jim." McCoy's voice was gentle. "Look. I don't have anything against Spock. If you've quit turning tricks because of him, then I owe him dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, 'cause he's managed what I've been tryin' to convince you of for two years. But I just can't see this ending well for you. You just told me he's going back to his home planet next month, didn't you?" Again Jim nodded. McCoy pursed his lips (something he would deny strenuously were Jim to ever accuse him of, due to his association of that facial expression with his mother), leaning against the counter. "Does Spock know you feel like this?"

Jim shook his head. "I only realized tonight," he admitted. "When I was—well. I kept wishing Naveen was Spock, and I had to end the night early 'cause I just... couldn't go through with it." McCoy made a face, both because of a devout wish to not picture Jim naked and because of how very much he disliked hearing that uncertain note in his friend's voice. "Look, it's really not a big deal," Jim added more firmly. "I'm not gonna fuckin' do anything about it. I don't think Spock thinks of me like that at all."

"Right. Okay. Just..." McCoy shook his head. "Just be careful, okay?"

Jim nodded, a wry smile making an appearance. "Got it, Dad."

"Shut up, brat. Now. About that drink..."

* * * * *

"Jim?"

Spock watched as Jim paused in his examination of the box of strawberries in his hand. The fruit was almost obscenely ripe and lush, nestled neatly in small, translucent containers atop one of the makeshift tables assembled up and down this street. "Yeah, Spock?" Jim smiled, his eyes sliding back to the basket of fruit in his hand. Seemingly satisfied, he handed over his card to the vendor and tucked the strawberries into the canvas bag he'd brought along with him.

Spock waited until Jim had finished paying and they had moved away from the strawberry stand before voicing his question. The momentary pause gave him time to summon his fortitude, finding the question on his mind unexpectedly difficult to voice. "I have noticed, of late, that you are spending a great deal of time with me outside of any of the activities we had previously discussed that pertain to my stated goal."

Now Jim looked at him, slowing their already-leisurely stroll down the crowded sidewalk. "What? Yeah, I guess so. But it's been educational, hasn't it?" There was something in Jim's demeanor that Spock could not quite read, a new tightness to his smile that had not been there before Spock asked his question.

Spock inclined his head in a brief nod. "Indeed. My statement was not meant as a complaint. I only meant..." Spock hesitated for a moment, then continued, carefully, "I do not wish to take advantage of your time. We will have to re-assess how much I owe you in light of all the time and energy you have put towards this endeavor."

Jim's reaction was both immediate and gratifying. "Absolutely not. We'll stick to what we originally agreed, and you can count the extra time as complimentary." Spock felt warmth spread through his chest and stomach at this statement, and though he gave no sign, he suffered a brief urge to take Jim's hand. It would be an unforgivably intimate act for a Vulcan, which he would of course not force upon Jim no matter how casually Humans seemed to hand-hold amongst themselves. But that knowledge did not stop him from the unreasoning itch of his fingers to feel Jim's twined in his own, or from desiring to see Jim's smile spread across his face again, warming his eyes and lighting his features. More and more, Spock found himself unreasonably jealous of Jim giving that smile to anyone else, no matter who the recipient was.

In the short time of Spock's acquaintance with Jim, Spock had found himself suffering illogical urges and thoughts with increasing frequency. Deep down, Spock knew that his desire for Jim's presence had ceased to be related even tangentially to his choice to explore his Human heritage. It was not his mother he thought of when he anticipated the moment he would see Jim's face again.

But all Spock said was, "I am gratified, Jim. Thank you."

"Hey. It's been my pleasure. Now come on, we've still got to find bread and garlic." Jim flashed Spock another one of his blinding smiles and then turned and made his way through the crowd ahead of Spock, the canvas bag with their strawberries and eggs swinging from its straps in his right hand.

Spock and Jim were at the Farmer's Market in northern Venice Beach in order to shop for ingredients for dinner, or so Jim had told Spock when he'd called at 0900 hours this morning. More than a little puzzled, Spock had tentatively asked about the purpose behind such an activity, and what its significance might be, but Jim had only laughed and promised Spock they'd talk about it later. Spock might have protested more, but in reality he did not mind spending the day with Jim. Completely aside from his own irrational behavior and urges, all his time spent with Jim was a welcome distraction from the building tension in the air at Spock's hotel as the date of the secession hearing drew closer.

"I am curious to participate in this variation of a Human dining ritual," Spock commented as he followed in Jim's wake. Spock did not completely enjoy the teeming press of humanity and alien at the market, though the array of food and goods available was astonishing. He found himself as exhausted as he was stimulated by the experience.

Jim made a soft noise in his throat that Spock had come to identify as a stifled laugh. This, too, was another strange habit of Humans, this tendency to laugh for reasons other than finding something humorous. Spock had found that Jim laughed for a vast number of reasons, ranging from plain amusement to an expression of pleasure, or even when he was taken by surprise. It was baffling, but not, Spock found, unpleasant.

"It's... I don't honestly know if it'll give you any more of an appreciation of being Human, but I've always hated replicated food. Tastes like cardboard. And it's just way more satisfying to eat a dinner that you made yourself."

"Fascinating," Spock said. "It is inefficient to spend quantities of time preparing food when equally nutritious sustenance can be acquired from a replicator. Yet you are not the first Human I have heard express such a sentiment. I believe the experience will be most enlightening."

"That's assuming I don't sent the kitchen on fire." Jim grinned, slipping between a few meandering Andorians and scooting up to a table from which came the fragrant aroma of fresh bread. Spock followed more sedately, allowing his eyes to travel over the loaves of bread in their paper sleeves. The number of choices was daunting, but Jim seemed to know exactly what he was looking for, because he reached for a round, crusty-looking loaf of bread and said, "I'll take this sourdough, please."

"I was under the impression that you preferred more strongly-flavored foods," Spock observed, once Jim had made his purchase and they were heading back into the crowd. Jim glanced over his shoulder at Spock, mildly surprised.

"Well, I mean. I do, sometimes, especially spicy food, but you don't. And I'm making dinner for both of us."

"Your thoughtfulness is most gratifying," Spock said gravely, and did not know whether he was grateful for his own ability to hide his reactions, or whether he wished he might be better able to express himself to Jim.

"Yeah, that and a few credits will buy you a cup of coffee," Jim remarked.

"Why would I want a cup—"

"—never mind, Spock."

Another hour in the Farmer's Market let them find the garlic Jim was looking for, as well as a Human book of poems that Spock discreetly acquired for himself and tucked into his robes. Spock faintly recalled his mother loving that collection, though he had not seen it in years; he suspected it lay with the rest of Amanda's things in storage, perhaps with her journals. By then it was drawing close to noon, the full warmth of the sun was beating down on them, and out of deference to Jim's Human constitution, Spock suggested they retreat to the safety of indoors.

That afternoon, instead of experiencing the usual, the expected impatience of being too long in company of another, Spock found himself astonished at how quickly and easily time seemed to pass. As soon as they got home, Jim ran into his bedroom to retrieve a book he'd wanted to show to Spock—the Heinlein novel he'd mentioned the other night, curiously titled "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." Spock settled himself on the couch and listened attentively as Jim found the passage he'd had in mind and read it aloud to Spock, and they proceeded to spend the next two hours discussing the merits and drawbacks of the social structure Heinlein had invented, the likelihood that the fictional revolution would actually succeed in its aim, and the theoretical physics contained within.

The conversation rambled from there, returning yet again to the duotritocale project Spock was spearheading, and from there to the socio-political psychology thesis Jim had just submitted for a class at UCLA, skipping among a great many topics in between. Spock was used to engaging with formidably intelligent associates—the VSA was one of the most renowned research institutions in the galaxy—but almost all of Spock's fellow researchers approached their projects in the same very regimented manner, so in lock-step about their theorems and methods of investigation that Spock almost did not even have to ask a question of his associates; he could already predict what they would say.

Jim, on the other hand, possessed a mind of shocking intellectual breadth and elasticity. His interests ranged from social psychology to bioengineering, from the mechanics of fixing transports and comm-units to the best combination of herbs and grasses to cure nausea (or more specifically, hangovers). He leapt from subject to subject with a rapidity that Spock might have found frustrating, had the insights that accompanied such jumps not been so fascinating. Or maybe it was just that Jim himself was fascinating. Spock was no longer sure. But he found he could not guess what might come out of Jim's mouth next, and the realization that he very much wanted to find out thrilled him to his core.

Eventually Jim excused himself to "answer nature's call," as he put it, and Spock found himself sitting alone on the couch in the middle of the living room. For the first time that day, he wondered where Dr. McCoy was. Spock knew that Bones (he would really have to inquire the reason behind that nickname, he decided) was an ER doctor, and that his shifts varied greatly from one week to the next; perhaps he was working a "double." Spock found himself hoping that Dr. McCoy would not arrive home anytime soon. As engaging and interesting as the doctor also was, Spock found he wished to have all of Jim's attention to himself that night.

Spock looked up as Jim re-entered the room, practically glowing with energy. "Are all Humans as energetic as you?" he asked, suffering an illicit thrill of pleasure as Jim smiled at the question.

"Nah, not everyone. Bones is always accusing me of drinkin' too much caffeine, but really I'm just like this." Jim came to a halt in front of Spock's feet, grinning down at him for no reason Spock could discern. "Are you hungry? You didn't eat much for lunch."

"Indeed. When you informed me that you would be making our evening meal, I chose to not over-indulge too soon in the day. I wished to be able to experience the meal to its fullest extent."

This statement seemed to please Jim, for he rolled forward and then back on his heels again, all but bouncing in place. "Awesome. Well, in that case, I'm gonna start making dinner, 'cause I'm starving."

"That seems advisable. Might there be something I can do to help in the preparation?" Spock felt it was impolite not to offer, but secretly he was not sure he would be much help in the kitchen. He was perfectly capable of preparing simple meals for himself, but he was not familiar with anything Jim was making for them that night, and after all the care Jim had shown in selecting their ingredients, Spock had no desire to ruin the meal.

Luckily, Jim seemed intent on being a good host. "Don't even sweat it. You're my guest, I'll do the work. But I do have one request." Jim turned and headed back towards the open kitchen as he said this, leaving a bemused Spock to rise and follow in his wake.

"A request?" What would Jim request of him, Spock wondered, slightly anxious. He stood in the doorway, watching Jim move around the kitchen, unconsciously admiring the way Jim's muscles moved under his white t-shirt and the way his blond hair gleamed in the sunlight coming in through the kitchen window.

"Yes, kimosabe, a request." Jim threw Spock another grin over his shoulder. "I've spent almost a month with you, doing Stupid Human Tricks for your entertainment and education, and you've barely talked about the one Human in your life at all. So I wanna hear about your mom."

Spock stiffened, shock robbing him of his speech momentarily. Jim was not wrong; Spock himself had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the way his focus had drifted from the person who was supposedly the whole reason for this research in the first place. Jim seemed to notice Spock's sudden discomfort—he was surprisingly astute at reading Vulcan body language, since as a species Vulcans were not nearly given so much to visual cues of their mental states—and stopped what he was doing, clutching the handle of a saucepan in one hand. "Hey, you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, Spock, I was just curious."

"I... do not mind," Spock said slowly. "That is—do not think I am offended by your request. It is entirely reasonable that you would wish to know something about Amanda—my mother. I find I am simply unused to talking about her." Spock let out a long breath, feeling something inside him start, ever so slightly, to unclench. He wondered suddenly how long it had been since he had even said his own mother's name.

Jim was still watching him, quietly attentive, but Spock could tell that Jim was no longer entirely at ease. Spock supposed he could not blame him. "My mother died when I was eleven years old," he said finally. He moved distractedly to one of the kitchen chairs, pulling it out and settling into it without really noticing. He had not told this story to anyone for a very long time, for longer than he could remember. "My father was in the capital, attending a diplomatic function. My mother and I were alone in our family's home."

Spock laced the fingers of his hands together, staring past Jim at the painting of a sea mammal on the wall above the stove. The words came out with a mechanical slowness, as Spock dug deep down inside himself to find them. "My mother was a scholar of language and culture; she held doctorates in three subjects, two from one of your Earth institutions, and one that she obtained on Andor. As you are no doubt aware, she was one of the founders of the Universal Translator Protocol. At the time of her death, she was in the middle of a project related to the Universal Translator. She had been hard at work on it for more than six months, and was very close to completion. I arrived home from school to find her asleep at her desk in her study. I remember..." Spock paused, a painful knot forming in his chest, above his lungs. "I remember thinking that she looked so tired. And she was covered in blankets. Vulcan is a desert planet, and our house was on the edge of Shi'Kahr, bordering the desert, and she was cold enough to wrap herself in blankets and turn the heat up in her room."

The knot in his chest grew tighter, heavier, as though his bones were turning to iron. Jim's sunlit Los Angeles kitchen was gone. Instead, Spock saw his mother's face as though he'd seen her only yesterday. Even then—even as sick as she was those last few days—he had thought she was so beautiful, with her easily-summoned smile for her curious son and her long brown hair.

"The next day she was back at work on her research. My mother was a stubborn woman; she was so close to being done with her paper, and she wanted to be ready to present it at the conference the following week. I believe even my father would have had difficulty persuading her to seek medical aid. But Sarek was not at home. There was only me."

"And you were only eleven," Jim said in a low voice. He had not moved from his spot, leaning against the kitchen counter, arms folded loosely across his chest as he listened to Spock. "It's tough to argue with your parents at that age."

Spock inclined his head, but it was a disinterested gesture, one he hardly registered. "I tried, once, to convince her to at least call for a healer. But she would have none of it. She insisted she was fine, that it was not serious. Within two days she was coughing so hard that she could not stand." Spock stared at the black-and-white marine mammal in the painting and saw only the heavy red brick of his father's house, the house that neither of them could stand to be in after that weekend. "By the time I got home from school that day and called for an emergency medical team, she was unconscious. She was already in major organ failure by the time she reached the hospital."

"What did she have?" Spock looked over at Jim, at the strange, complicated expression on his face. Spock thought he saw sympathy there, and sadness, but something else too—something that was not pity.

"A particularly virulent strain of pneumonia. Completely treatable, had she been admitted to the hospital 48 hours earlier."

Jim exhaled, swiping his hand across his face. He pushed both his hands against the counter, still just watching Spock's face. Spock straightened, taking a deep breath and letting it out, willing the hard knot in his chest to dissipate. It did not. "I'm sorry, Spock, I shouldn't have asked," Jim said finally.

"Do not apologize. I am the one who came to you, seeking to better understand my heritage." Spock folded his hands carefully in his lap. "It is no fault of yours that my mother died a pointless death."

"Yeah, well... I know a thing or two about having dead parents, so." At that, Spock felt himself come out of his revery a little, turning his eyes to focus on Jim again. Jim managed to smile in a way that was completely devoid of humor. "My dad died on an exploding spaceship the day I was born."

"I have not forgotten," Spock said. He hesitated, then added, "Your father's heroism while captain was admirable. He saved over eight hundred lives, Jim."

Jim's smile went strained around the edges. "Tell that to a ten-year-old on his birthday," he said. He shook his head and turned back around, leaving Spock to watch him and wonder what to say.

* * * * *

They moved on to lighter topics, which Spock found was not as much of a relief as he would have expected, but Jim's company was more than sufficient distraction. Soon a fragrant aroma filled the kitchen, a mixture of what Jim told him was cream and garlic and butter. Spock was not certain that fettucine alfredo was going to be a good idea for a Vulcan digestive system, but he could not deny that it smelled very pleasing. He found himself fascinated by the way Jim moved around the kitchen, suffering a renewal of his earlier impulses to take Jim's hand in his own, or to feel Jim's hand on Spock's own skin. Indeed, Spock could not be certain he wasn't imagining it, but he thought that Jim was brushing against Spock more than strictly necessary as he moved around the kitchen, his blue eyes lingering on Spock's.

By the time Spock had laid out the silverware and bowls on the table, and Jim brought the pasta over to spoon into its dishes, Spock was dizzy with over-sensitivity to everything Jim said or did. He felt like high-powered superconductor, as though the air were crackling with unseen electricity, ready to jump from Spock to Jim or from Jim to Spock and set fire to the entire building and everything in it. As he sat down, Spock took a deep breath, forcing himself to let it out slow, to regain a measure of his own self-control. It was a mark of how seriously Jim was affecting him that a great part of Spock did not want to reign himself in—was, in fact, luxuriating in the recklessness that Jim brought out in him, however subtle it was.

Jim dropped down into the chair across from Spock with a satisfied sigh, grinning across the table at Spock. "Well, here we—oh!"

"Is something the matter?" Spock raised an eyebrow.

"No, it's just—" Jim hopped up again, and Spock watched, perplexed, as Jim darted over to the messy counter by the stove, casting about in the debris for something. He spoke over his shoulder to Spock, his words slightly muffled. "Where the hell did I put the basil?"

Spock rose from his own seat as well, not wishing to start the meal without Jim, and his eyes fell on a small green bundle on the counter that Jim had set aside much earlier in the process of making dinner. He picked it up and walked over to Jim, who had by now yanked open the spice cupboard and was scowling at its clutter of jars and cannisters. "I believe this is what you are looking for," Spock said.

Jim turned, looking from the bundle of basil in Spock's hand to Spock's face, looking startled. "I—oh, yeah. It is."

"You left it on the counter earlier," Spock said. Jim smiled. This close, it was blinding. Spock and Jim stared at each other for several long moments, separated by less than a foot, Jim leaning back against the counter behind him. Spock felt his heart speed up in his side, at the same time as he seemed to stop breathing, unable to tear his gaze away from the startling blue of Jim's eyes. He found himself caught by the warm swell of Jim's full lips, by the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, by the brassy gold of his hair and the strong curve of his jaw. Spock did not think he had ever paid so much attention to another being's facial structure before.

A dog barked somewhere in the distance. Jim blinked, glancing out the window at the noise, and when he turned to look back at Spock, that wide-eyed uncertainty was gone. "Silly of me to get it out and then forget about it," was all Jim said, taking the basil from Spock. Spock tensed momentarily, the feather-brush of Jim's fingers against the skin of Spock's wrist sending shockwaves up Spock's arm, all the way down his spine. Carefully, so as not to betray himself, Spock backed away from Jim, allowing his friend (his friend. shouted a voice in the back of Spock's mind) to move back towards the table.

"I was distracting you," Spock pointed out, as he followed Jim to the table. Jim's face creased with a smile as he unbound the basil and ripped up a few of the fragrant, green leaves over each bowl of still-steaming fettucine.

"That's for damn sure," Jim remarked. He seemed to be looking anywhere but at Spock, but he couldn't seem to stop smiling, either. Spock did not know what to make of it. "Well, let's eat. I'm starving."

They did not in fact pick up their forks immediately—Jim hopped up yet again, this time to fetch two glasses of water, the loaf of sourdough bread, and some olive oil—but when they did, and Spock bit in to the cream-coated pasta, he almost dropped his silverware to his lap again.

"Is it okay?" Jim was looking across the table at him now, eyebrows raised, his own fork halfway to his mouth.

Spock straightened, chewing the mouthful of pasta, tasting its weight and warmth and texture against his tongue. Swallowed. Opened his mouth, fixing his eyes on Jim, and informed him, "It is delicious."

Jim grinned. "Good. Coz I mean, if you didn't like it, I'd totally eat your bowl too, but then I'd have food coma and I'd be the most uninteresting host ever."

"I assure you that I have no wish to cause you to sink into a coma, Jim," Spock said, the corner of his mouth quirking ever-so-slightly. Jim laughed.

"Well, if you did, you wouldn't be the first one." Spock raised his eyebrow, pausing again in his meal. Jim gestured with his fork for Spock to continue eating. And as he did, it was Jim who now spoke, rambling on between mouthfuls of pasta about his father, and about his mother, whom Spock was more than eager to hear more of. Winona Kirk's pioneers in engineering were studied even on Vulcan, and Spock vaguely recalled at one point that Pike referred to one of their best teachers at Riverside Shipyards by her first name, Winona.

Spock was content to let Jim talk—was, in fact, reveling in the widened glimpse into Jim's past. Though Jim had never been anything but easy to talk to, he'd shared so little of his past with Spock until now. Casting back to the dinner with Komack and Pike, remembering how unwilling Jim had been to go by his own last name, Spock thought again of his previous assumption that Jim did not want Komack to know who he was, or who his parents were. But he still did not understand why.

At the end of the meal, Spock was surprised to realize that he'd eaten his entire bowl of pasta. Jim refused to let Spock help clean up, sweeping up the dishes and taking them to the sink, dumping there to be dealt with "later," whenever that was. "Later" also appeared to be "after Jim makes dessert as well as dinner," to Spock's surprise, but Jim ejected him from the kitchen before Spock got a good look at what he was doing.

Spock settled in the living room to wait, not-very-patiently folding his hands in his lap and wondering what Jim was doing in the kitchen. Eventually, Jim wandered out, looking entirely too smug. He stretched out on the couch adjacent to Spock's easy chair, his shirt stretching distractingly over his stomach and chest, and in pure self-defense Spock asked Jim the question he'd been debating over since he received the invitation the night before.

"Jim, would you be willing to accompany me on a trip to visit my maternal grandparents?"

Jim stared at Spock, shutting his mouth and blinking a few times. "Uh," he said, and laughed. "I mean—sure, Spock. If you're really sure you want me to come along on something like that, I'd be honored. When?"

Spock hesitated. "I would prefer to leave by the end of the week, so as to be back with sufficient time to finish preparations for the secession hearing."

"Sure," Jim said, breaking into another smile. "Sounds good to me." Spock inclined his head in acknowledgment and then abruptly found himself with nothing to say that was not an embarrassment. He cast about for a moment as he and Jim just stared at each other, before he finally thought to ask Jim to tell him the origin of Dr. McCoy's nickname. Jim's eyes brightened, and he launched into the story with the customary relish with which he approached almost everything, at least as far as Spock saw. The story itself centered, unsurprisingly, on a chance meeting in a bar, but more than once Spock found himself paying as much attention to Jim's wildly gesticulating hands, and to the shape of Jim's mouth, as to the words he was actually saying. Which is why it took him so long to notice the faint charred smell. He sat up abruptly, turning to look down the hallway towards the kitchen.

"So anyway, I was...." Jim broke off mid-sentence, frowning. "Something the matter?"

"Jim, I believe I smell burning." Jim's eyes widened, and he jumped to his feet, bolting into the kitchen without even answering Spock's statement. Spock sprang to his feet as well, following after Jim in alarm. "Jim, what—"

"Fuck fuck fucking FUCK!" Jim yanked the oven door open with a loud clang, swearing as the smell of burning sugar and flour suddenly became much more pronounced. Spock stopped in the doorway, staring as Jim cast around for something. "Where the fuck did I put the fucking pot-holders, oh sweet Christ—" Before Spock could find anything suitable, Jim had snatched up a towel and bent back over the open oven, reaching hastily inside. Spock saw the moment when he bent too close, jerking minutely as he came back out of the oven and straightened up with the metal tray in one hand. He dropped it onto the counter with a loud clatter.

Jim stared at the hard, yellow-and-brown lumps of would-be shortcake on the sheet, disgust warring with irritation across his handsome face. "Well that's brilliant," he said, leaning back against the counter. He growled in the back of his throat and wiped his arm across his eyes. But Spock's attention was held by the stiff way Jim was standing, and the memory of that jump while bent over a hot oven door.

"You burned yourself," he noted, coming across the room. Jim's eyes flicked to Spock's face and away again too fast.

"I did not," Jim said automatically. He looked up again as Spock stopped in front of him, and Spock heard him inhale a breath and hold it as he reached for the hem of Jim's shirt. Jim held very still under his hands as Spock pulled the shirt halfway up Jim's abdomen, exposing smooth flesh marred by the expected welt, already red and slightly raised, about three inches long and half an inch wide. But to one side of Jim's stomach were a number of other marks, dark purple smudges, four of them, just above Jim's hip-bone. Spock leaned down to peer closer, confused; above him, he was aware of Jim tensing. The marks were slightly uneven, and small, almost the size of—

Fingertips. Marks left by a hand, pressing with bruising force against Jim's hip.

Spock stayed as he was, staring at the marks as if frozen in place, unable to process. Inwardly, though, his mind was exploding. Rushing silence filled his ears, as though all the air had been sucked out of the room, leaving only a great and terrible pressure. Unbidden, images sprang to mind: Jim on all fours, pressed roughly to the bed while a shadowy figure reared behind him, greedy hands running over the flanks of Jim's trembling body—a hand tangling in Jim's hair, Jim's mouth falling open in an O of pleasure and pain—

Jim twitched back under his hands, jerking the shirt back down over the marks. "You weren't supposed to see that," Jim said, and Spock knew he was not referring to his new burn. Spock straightened slowly, struggling to force his rampaging emotions back down, his face a stony mask. He did not know what was wrong with him. Jim was free to do as he wished with his time, with his business. But saying this to himself did nothing to quiet the rushing inside his skull or the urge to smash that shadowy figure into bloody fragments.

A tight, bit-back noise made Spock raise his eyes, and he looked into Jim's now-familiar face, twisted with anxiety and uncertainty. Jim opened his mouth as if to say something else, but Spock beat him to it. "I apologize for invading your privacy," Spock said stiffly. He wondered what else he could say. The previously cheerful, intimate kitchen now felt stuffy and too quiet. He knew he should move away, but he could not stop staring at Jim's eyes, eyes that were threatening to drown him.

Jim swallowed audibly, gripping the edge of the counter with both hands tight enough that his knuckles were turning white. Then he blew out a breath and reached a hand up to Spock's face, cupping his cheek and pulling him down to kiss him, hard.

White shock went up Spock's spine, turning him stiff as a board. Jim's mental sense washed over him, drowning him in urgent anxiety, grey and smothering worry and a flurry of clearer thoughts, didn't want that/think I'm awful/don't go don't go. But underneath that, a curl of hot need want ache like forged steel, cramping Spock's guts and making him break out in a sweat. Jim broke back within moments, dropping his hands and pressing himself back against the counter as though Spock were scalding. Spock took a deep breath, staring at the man in front of him, too stunned to think for several seconds.

"I'm sorry," Jim blurted. A dull flush was creeping up his neck and face, giving him the look of a man consumed with fever. "I'm—"

"Stop talking," Spock said, and Jim's mouth snapped shut with an audible clack. Spock looked down at Jim's hand, and after a moment, reached out to take it, prying it gently away from the counter. Again he found himself swamped by flashes of Jim's mind, and Spock shuddered but did not let go. Jim watched him warily, relaxing infinitesimally as Spock's fingers flexed around Jim's. Spock raised Jim's hand until it was between their chests. He raised his other hand, pointing with the first and second fingers, the other fingers curled against his palm, and rubbed the tips of his fingers slowly along the back of Jim's fingers and hand. A shiver went through Jim, but he did not take his eyes from their joined hands.

"This," Spock told him, "is how Vulcans kiss." Slowly, he released Jim's hand from his own, continuing to run the tips of his fingers of his opposite hand up and down Jim's fingers. Jim stared, entranced, and then tentatively mirrored Spock's motions, stroking his own two fingers along Spock's hand. Spock took a shaky breath as bursts of arousal swamped him, and a smile broke out on Jim's face.

"Sweet," whispered Jim. "Far-fucking-out." Jim's smile got wider, the delighted unaffected smile of a child, and Spock suffered an illogical urge to return Jim's Human kiss. But instead of stepping back and ending this here and now, as he most assuredly should, Spock chose instead to give in. He pressed forward, crowding Jim against the counter, and this time when Jim surged up to meet him, Spock kissed back with equal force, lips working against Jim's eager mouth.

Jim's fingers twined around Spock's own, lacing all five digits together and clasping his hand tightly, and Spock slid his other hand around Jim's waist, clutching at the fabric of his t-shirt. Jim tasted of garlic and wine, and his mouth was wet and warm and inviting, opening easily against Spock's lips. Spock felt drugged, at once hyper-charged and confused, wanting badly to—to—he did not know, but he wanted, he craved, hot and nebulous urges like the ancient fires of Vulcan. Spock moved his head slightly and bumped his nose against Jim's, making his eyes water. He broke off with a soft noise, blinking rapidly, and Jim laughed, eyes crinkling close-up, obscuring Spock's vision. "Human kissing is troublesome," Spock murmured.

"Illogical," Jim whispered back, and Spock felt Jim's hand twist in the fabric of Spock's robes, wriggling their way under the heavy material. Spock tightened his arm around Jim's waist, pulling Jim flush against Spock's chest, and Jim groaned, lust blooming in Spock's chest like a banked fire. Jim squeezed Spock's hand, twisting his fingers around against Spock's. Bolts of heat and want burst inside Spock's skull, and he leaned heavily against Jim for support.

"Jim," whispered Spock, desperately. He did not think he could continue this without breaking, or— Jim seemed to know what Spock needed, though, or at least made an educated guess, because he straightened them both gently, twisting around until Spock no longer pinned him against the counter. He kept their hands twined firmly together, for which Spock was grateful. Spock did not want to relinquish his hold on Jim even for a moment.

"Bedroom," Jim said, and again that bolt of warmth cramped Spock's stomach. They half-stumbled, half-ran down the hallway, stopping twice on the way: once for Spock to pin Jim against the wall with a growl, burying his nose in the sweet curve of Jim's neck, the other time for Jim to do the same to Spock, pressing him up against the door to the bathroom for another frantic, grasping kiss, flexing his long lean body against Spock's with a low groan.

Then Spock was standing at the foot of the bed, staring as Jim peeled off his shirt and flung it to one side. Spock had seen Jim shirtless before, but now the sight transfixed him. Jim shirtless was a vision, all smooth planes and tanned skin and defined muscles, marred only by the faint red burn on his abdomen and the cluster of bruises at his hip. Spock thought of the attention Jim must attract down at the beach, when he chose to go swimming, and felt another surge of aggression, too vague to properly identify. But it propelled him forward, meeting Jim in the middle of the bed and bearing him carefully down to the mattress.

"Hey, now," Jim said, wriggling underneath Spock's hands (and as before that same flow of emotions jolted Spock's brain, want/need/exultation/this is happening how is this happening). "No fair. You're still wearing your poncho, there."

"It is a tunic," Spock informed him, sitting back and allowing Jim's clever hands to find the fastenings, "as you well know."

"Whatever," Jim said, tugging the material up and over Spock's head, disappearing briefly from view as he helped remove the garment. "Needs to be off, now."

"Are all Humans this demanding?" Spock asked.

"When they've been blue-balling for weeks, hell yeah they are." Before Spock had a chance to ask what "blue-balling" meant, Jim's hands were on him again, kissing greedily over the newly-exposed bones of Spock's clavicle. The sudden renewed assault of sensation and emotion was overwhelming. Spock felt abruptly light-headed, as though enduring a sudden shift in gravity, and he grabbed Jim's shoulders blindly, momentarily in danger of actually falling over.

"Whoa, whoa." Jim pulled back, keeping his hands on Spock's hips, thumbing the severe arch of his left hip-bone, just barely exposed above his black trousers. "You okay? What's wrong?" Their mental connection was a shallow one—Spock would have had to concentrate to initiate anything deeper—but Spock could feel concern greying the fringes of his sizzling white lust.

Spock took a deep breath, attempting to rally his controls. Had he allowed himself to contemplate this scenario, he might have predicted that he would find skin-to-skin contact with Jim overwhelming—not that this was helping him now. "Nothing is wrong, Jim," he said, fixing his eyes on the Jim's face in front of him. "You are simply more intoxicating than I had anticipated."

Jim stared. Then a smile edged across his face, tinged with something that Spock thought might be disbelief. "God, you are unreal," Jim murmured, inching forward again until his chest bumped against Spock's, one hand sliding up Spock's spine. "Wait, 'than you anticipated?' You're telling me you thought about this?"

"Indeed," Spock said seriously. It was hard to talk straight, since once again being pressed against Jim's bared skin was melting what felt like every neuron Spock possessed. Instead of a collection of carefully-ordered thoughts and observations, his perception of reality was blurring into a haze of impulses and emotions, tinged with color and heat. "I had hoped, illogically, that you had also contemplated such an outcome between us." Another one of those blinding smiles appeared on Jim's face. Without thinking, Spock leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Jim's, lips working clumsily. Jim made a startled noise against his mouth, arching against Spock, and Spock groaned, tightening his fingers on Jim's shoulders. Whatever he was going to say next slipped away, replaced by a growing need to feel Jim naked underneath him.

"Yeah, okay, I might've thought about it once or twice," Jim said, or tried to, since Spock was still busy kissing him senseless. The next few seconds were a confusing jumble of shoving and squirming around on the bed as both Jim and Spock tried to shed their pants without actually stopping kissing, meeting with only mixed success, as Spock was still wearing pants when he found himself on all fours over newly-naked Jim, Jim's wrists pinned underneath Spock's hands. Spock drew back, releasing Jim's hands, staring dumbly at the golden body spread out beneath him.

Spock's gaze swept from Jim's throat down his well-defined chest, staring at the fine blond hair that dusted his abdomen, thickening and darkening as it led down to the wiry thatch surrounding his penis. Here Spock's gaze lingered, riveted by the erect and swollen shaft, so dark now with blood that it appeared almost purple. The flared head looked much as Spock's own genitalia did when fully extended, the foreskin now drawn back in arousal to reveal the glans, a few droplets of pre-ejaculate beading at the slit. It seemed to twitch under Spock's regard, a slight tremor running through Jim's naked body.

The movement drew Spock's admiring gaze up to the way Jim's pelvic bones arched at the connection to his thighs, perfect save for the smear of bruises above his iliac crest of his right side. Just the sight of them sent another hot flare of emotion through Spock's chest, and he reached out one hand automatically to cover those bruises with his own hand, obliterating them from sight if not from mind. Jim propped himself up on his elbows, arching slightly into Spock's touch, flashing an anxious grin. "Like what you see?"

"Seeing as I am not blind, the answer is an emphatic 'yes,'" Spock murmured.

Jim's astonished laughter slid quickly into a moan as Spock bent, flicking his tongue at the nub of one dusty pink nipple, watching in pleasure and fascination as it hardened instantly. "Fuck!" Spock licked at the nipple again, then wrapped his lips around it experimentally and sucked. The shocked, wet noise Jim made in the back of his throat was all the encouragement Spock could have wanted. Spock sucked harder, scraping his teeth against the delicate bud, hot lust blooming in his stomach at the way Jim's chest vibrated against his mouth from Jim's moan. "Oh, God, Spock," Jim groaned, digging the fingers of one hand roughly into Spock's shoulder, letting his head fall back. Spock got a flash of need/more/want before Jim was pulling at him with both hands, yanking Spock up on top of him and crushing their mouths together again.

Jim's lust crashed over him like one of the huge Pacific waves Spock had witnessed down at the beach, and suddenly Spock found himself rolling Jim under him on the bed, raw desire drowning all other thoughts in a red rush. Jim squirmed and gasped under him, the vitality of his body and mind an intoxicating hum against Spock's mental receptors, and every touch of his body against Spock's seemed to crackle with bioelectricity, as though too much friction would ignite them. Spock groped blindly for Jim's hand, finding it and twisting their fingers against each other, and vicious static burst inside Spock's mind, blotting out his ability to think. Spock jerked back with a wrecked cry, falling to the bed and curling on his side against the sudden myoclonic twitches of his stomach and arms and the firestorm exploding behind his eyes.

"Spock!" Jim's voice cut through the static, sounding very far away. Spock groaned and ducked his head, curling in tighter on himself, fighting the tremors that were cramping his intestines and rattling his jaw. "Oh my God, Spock, Spock what's wrong?" Hands slid against his side; irrationally, the twitching eased, and Spock groaned as he sagged to the bed, blinking rapidly to try to dispel the flashes of color that were still bursting behind his irises. Control. He must regain control. Jim's anxiety jerked Spock out of his disorientation, and he peered up at the face hovering over him, Jim's eyes wide and very blue in his distress.

"I am uninjured, Jim," Spock said, managing to not sound too hoarse. He sat up with an effort, gritting his teeth at the way his vision swam at the change in position. "Please do not be alarmed. I believe... I believe that I was simply inadequately prepared for the strength of our connection."

"Connection," Jim echoed, staring for a moment as if his train of thought had been abruptly derailed. "Shit." To Spock's confusion, Jim laughed, settling in at Spock's side and leaning gingerly over to press another kiss to the corner of Spock's mouth. "Shit, I didn't even think about that. Worst Human guide ever."

"I must disagree with this assessment," Spock said. "I have found you more than satisfactory, Jim." For a moment, he and Jim just sat there, staring at each other, Jim's fingers stroking gently over Spock's upturned hand, sending rivulets of pleasure coursing up Spock's arm from his palm. Then Jim smiled, sliding their fingers together again and squeezing.

"Yeah," Jim said. "I find you pretty damn satisfactory too, Spock." Spock found the only logical response to this was to engage Jim in another Human kiss.

* * * * *

"Do you require assistance?" Spock's voice was faint, his voice raised from the next room.

"Nah, I'm good! Gimme a second, I'll be right out." Jim wiped at his stomach, grimacing as dried semen yanked at the hair dusting his abdomen. He swept the wet washcloth across his belly one last time, then tossed it in the dirty laundry bin against one wall and peered at himself in the mirror. A flushed, bright-eyed young man looked back at him, a few red marks dotting his throat and neckline here and there from where Spock had demonstrated his fondness for biting. For a telepathically-sensitive species, Jim thought, Spock had rallied pretty goddamn fast in the "touching" arena. Jim, on the other hand, had succeeded only in embarrassing himself.

Jim wrinkled his nose at his reflection. James "Tomcat" Kirk, possibly the most sought-after sex worker in the greater Los Angeles metro area, and he'd come like a teenage boy just from having Spock's hand on his dick. Spock, on the other hand, had taken a hell of a lot of coaxing to find his orgasm.

He'd finally managed to get Spock's pants off and taken his first look at Spock's own privates. Spock had been nervous there for a few minutes, nervous enough that Jim couldn't possibly miss it, but Jim supposed he couldn't blame Spock much. The seeming lack of a penis was initially startling—for a few dizzying seconds there Jim had actually thought Spock had a vagina, mistaking the soft greenish folds of flesh for labia. But Spock's explanation about how Vulcan males kept their genitalia retracted until "the act of coitus" had been cut off when Jim leaned down and pressed his face to the crease, lapping flat-tongued over the flesh and prompting a shout from Spock. If Spock needed physical affirmation that Jim found him attractive, then Jim was more than happy to oblige.

There was something shockingly obscene (and hot) about watching the head of Spock's prick emerge from the folds of flesh, glistening with Spock's natural lubrication and flushed a dusky brown with arousal. And even if the physical aspects of their bodies differed somewhat, Jim had proven beyond all shadow of a doubt that Vulcans liked having their cocks sucked just as much as Humans did. Spock had come with his dick buried in Jim's throat, Jim's jaw aching from how hard Spock was bucking against him, eyes watering from the hand twisted in his hair. There were few things Jim enjoyed more than having his throat fucked raw, and he'd loved every second of that heavy, wet weight in his mouth, delighted at the taste of Spock's pre-come against his tongue (there was probably a different word for it but Jim really didn't give a shit about the semantics). Spock's come had a salty, almost citrusy taste to it and was almost the same consistency as Human semen.

Regardless, Jim had been thoroughly turned on when Spock hauled him back up into his lap, looking deliciously fucked-out and dizzy. Jim had been content to ignore his own aching erection, curled against Spock's chest, kissing and biting at Spock's mouth, his own chapped and raw from sex and making out. Spock's hand on his dick had taken him by surprise, Spock's other hand cradling Jim's face, and either Jim had just been ready to blow from near-constant arousal or Spock was a fucking magician, because thirty seconds of stroking was all it took before Jim was surging against Spock's chest with a cry, spilling himself over Spock's hand and his own stomach. And instead of getting up to clean himself up, he'd just layed there and made out with Spock for another fifteen minutes before finally finding the energy to drag himself out of bed.

Fucking Vulcans.

"Bones is gonna be so cranky when he comes home and finds you here," Jim murmured, a smile touching his lips as he turned away from the mirror. He walked back out into the bedroom, where Spock was reclining in the bed, covers drawn up to his waist. Jim had turned off the AC and thrown open the windows to make Spock more comfortable, but bereft of his insulating layer of clothes, Spock had quickly gotten cold again when he and Jim had taken a break. Spock looked up at him as Jim re-entered the room, dark eyes sweeping over Jim's naked body with obvious interest. Jim grinned and crawled onto the bed next to Spock, shoving the covers back again and happily letting Spock pull him over to straddle Spock's lap, Spock's hands on his hips. "I still can't believe you made me come so fast," Jim said, trying and failing to sound put out about it.

Spock smiled faintly, sliding his hands possessively up Jim's sides, stroking a thumb against Jim's bottom right rib. "I am pleased that I am so capable of bringing you pleasure," he murmured. Nothing about his words or expression was that overt, yet Jim thought he'd never seen anyone so smug in his life.

"You're pleased? I thought Vulcans didn't experience emotions." Jim smirked, the expression spoiled by Jim yelping indignantly as Spock responded to that comment by reaching up and tweaking one of Jim's nipples. Jim rolled his hips down against Spock in answer, slinging his own arms around Spock and pulling him in close again for an open-mouthed kiss that left him breathless and Spock making a noise in his throat that Jim could only describe as growling. "Fuck, Spock..." Jim took a deep breath, stabilizing breath, pressing himself against Spock's chest as Spock's arm slid around his waist and tightened, fingers of one hand threading through Jim's hair.

But then Spock pulled back, just enough to look Jim in the eye again. Jim raised his eyebrows in unspoken question. "Jim." Spock hesitated, his dark eyes full of some emotion Jim couldn't read. He reached down, thumbing over the cluster of fingerprint-shaped bruises on Jim's hip, and Jim had to swallow against the sudden tightness in his throat. "Did one of your clients leave these marks on you?"

Jim licked his lips. "Yeah," he said. "Few nights ago."

Spock's eyes darkened, but maddeningly, he said nothing for several seconds, simply staring at Jim and stroking his fingers over those marks, as though by simple dint of his own touch he could eradicate them from Jim's person. Jim waited, knowing that couldn't be the end of it, and sure enough a few moments Spock finally said, "I do not understand why you put yourself in such dangerous situations. You could—" Spock broke off, frowning minutely as he slid his palm up Jim's spine and pulled him closer. "You clearly have so many talents for other endeavors and yet you choose prostitution. Why?"

Jim had gone stiff and unresponsive in Spock's arms, his easy expression sliding into something closed and unfriendly. He'd been wondering when this conversation was going to happen, hoping irrationally that it somehow never would, but nope, here it was. "Since I don't think you really want an answer to that question, why don't we skip it?" He leaned backwards away from Spock, whose grip tightened on his hips, gaze holding steady on Jim's face. "In fact, why don't you tell me what you think I should be doing with my life? I can add it to my list." Even as he said it, Jim wished he could take it back—what was wrong with him? Hadn't he just told McCoy just the other night that he was done? But Jim couldn't help himself. He didn't have good answers, for anything, but neither was he ready to admit to being wrong.

He'd neglected to take into account the amount of his naked skin Spock was still touching, however. Spock pulled him in again, slowly enough to allow Jim escape if he wanted, stopping when Jim planted his hands on Spock's shoulders to keep a foot of space between them. "Your defensiveness is irrational, Jim." Jim bristled, but Spock kept talking. "I have no desire to tell you what to do with your life, but neither do I wish to share you with others." Jim went still at the heat in Spock's words, and for a few long moments neither of them spoke. Spock stroked his hand up Jim's back again, stopping at the nape of his neck, cradling his skull and working his fingers into Jim's scalp. "I know I do not have the right to ask this of you," Spock said softly. "But I ask it regardless."

Jim shut his eyes, arching his back into Spock's touch, moaning when Spock leaned forward and bit at the soft, precious hollow of Jim's throat. "Fuck—fuck, Spock stoppit," Jim gasped, squirming and pushing at Spock's shoulders until Spock went still, his face still pressed to Jim's throat. "I did it already," Jim said finally. He wrapped his arms tight around Spock's shoulders and pressed his face to Spock's hair. "I quit. Two days ago."

Spock exhaled, his breath gusting hot against Jim's skin, making his cock twitch and gooseflesh break out along the nape of his neck. "Good. However, I find I must retract my earlier statement about your abilities as a guide to understanding Human behavior," Spock murmured. His mouth worked against Jim's skin, and Jim's laugh died in his throat, turning into a moan. "As a Human, you are exemplary. But I find myself even more confused by Human behavior now than I did when I first arrived on Earth."

"You know, I can change my mind anytime I want to," Jim informed him. He slid his hands down Spock's sides, glorying in finally being able to touch that hot, pale skin and in the noises Spock made when Jim touched him. "Since I'm such an unsatisfactory guide. Maybe I should go back to turning tricks after all, huh?" Immediately, Spock growled in the back of his throat again, and Jim found himself upended onto the bed, Spock looming over him with a predatory gleam in his eyes.

"Negative," he said, palming Jim's rapidly-returning erection, making Jim's breath hitch. "That course of action is inadvisable."

Jim reached up, wrapping his arms around Spock again and pulling him down on top of Jim, groaning at the feel of Spock's own renewed, dripping erection nudging him in the thigh. "Yeah? You got a better idea, then?" Jim grinned, just self-aware enough to recognize that he probably looked and sounded like an idiot but not giving a rat's ass. And then even that thought was gone, replaced by urgency as Spock kissed him with hands and lips, and soon Jim was so distracted that he did not register the distant sound of the front door slamming, or notice at all when someone in the hallway pulled the bedroom door shut, muffling the footsteps headed back towards the living room.

Chapter Text

Spock stood at the edge of the curb outside the Beverly Wilshire hotel, staring down the street. He wore his traveling robes, and he had one small carrying case filled with everything he might need for the expected week-long trip to visit Amanda's parents. Somewhere in the haze of the night before, they'd decided to leave immediately for Washington, instead of waiting until the end of the week. Now the only thing missing was his traveling companion.

They had agreed on 1:00 pm. Spock glanced once more at his chronometer. It was now 1:14 pm.

Spock directed his eyes to the city streets in front of them again, noting how slowly the hovercrafts were moving. It was possible that Jim was simply held up in traffic... but that did not explain why he had not sent a message. Three times now, a taxi had pulled over to the curb, the driver peering expectantly at Spock, and three times Spock had had to wave the disappointed driver on. It was growing tiresome.

And Spock did not want to admit it, but he was starting to wonder if Jim had decided that the previous night was a mistake, and was simply going to disappear. He had done something of the sort before, or so Spock understood from their conversations, but the idea that he might have done so now was... was... Spock did not have words for it. But the thought twisted and turned inside him as though he had swallowed poison, black and toxic.

The sound of a mechanical engine backfiring up the street jerked him from his reflection, and when Spock looked for the source of the sound, he saw an old-fashioned Terran automobile that had been heavily modified, judging from the body. The vehicle was all sleek lines and smooth curves, a milky green-blue reminiscent of shallow ocean water, and appeared to be missing its top half. As it drew closer, Spock realized two things: the vehicle was not missing its top at all, but was instead a variation on the traditional car that allowed a flexible roof to simply fold back; and Jim was the one driving the vehicle. Jim, wearing a huge, ridiculous pair of sunglasses and a t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up around his biceps.

Spock could only watch in amazement as the strange vehicle pulled to the side of the road, hovering a foot or two off the ground, and Jim turned in the driver's seat, flashing a wide grin at Spock. "Sorry to keep you waiting!" he yelled. "Get in, already."

"Jim," Spock said, feeling yet again like a character in a play whose lines he did not know. "I have arranged a transport to take us to Washington—"

"Nah, fuck that," said Jim, still unshakably cheerful. "Taking a transport is what you do on business trips. We're gonna take the long way and drive there ourselves."

The things wrong with this idea were so numerous that for a few moments Spock was at a complete loss for words. He could only stare at Jim, who was looking steadily back at him over the top of those sunglasses, which looked as though they were designed for a species whose eyes were at least five times larger than a Human's. "Jim," he tried again, "it is approximately 1,170 miles from here to Port Townsend—"

"That's if we take the 5," Jim cut in. "It'll be closer to 1,500 miles, since we're gonna take Highway 1 for part of the drive. Get in, Spock, we wanna get well north of LA before rush hour."

"Where did you even get this vehicle? It does not belong to you, does it?" Spock stared at the unusual vehicle, not certain he trusted himself to a three-century-old car that looked as though it were held together with little more than spit, paint, and love.

"Called in a favor," Jim said dismissively. "I fix up vehicles sometimes, not like a real job or anything, but I like old cars like this one. I helped a guy convert it from an internal-combustion engine to a functioning hovercraft, and he's owed me for awhile. Now are you—"

"Why do you wish to expend so much time and energy on this journey when it would be vastly more efficient to take the transport I have arranged?" Spock demanded.

At this, Jim reached down and put the car into park, though he did not stop the vehicle. "Because," Jim said evenly, "Part of being Human is understanding that the journey is as important as the goal, Spock. Besides." Jim smirked, an expression Spock found entirely too distracting. "I can't make the transport pull over by the side of the road so I can suck you off whenever I feel like it."

Heat flooded Spock's face, and he clasped his hands tighter for a moment, the knuckles cracking almost audibly under the skin. Jim was still watching him, waiting for him. This idea was preposterous. It would take them days to reach Port Townsend this way. It was illogical—

Spock swallowed. Illogical, his mind whispered. Spock bent down, reaching for his bag, and took the three steps to reach Jim's car. He leaned over and carefully deposited his traveling case in the back seat, tucking it into one of the footwells, and then opened the passenger-side door and climbed in.

"Fuck yeah," Jim said. The Los Angeles sun flashed off his bright, almost manic grin. Jim reached for the gearshift and put the car into first, and Spock's hand flew to the door-handle as they peeled out into traffic, someone honking furiously behind them as Jim cut off whoever it was.

"If you insist on driving, Jim," Spock said, "I must also insist that you take care that we reach our eventual destination."

"No worries," Jim said cheerfully. "We'll get there. You just trust me, Spock."

"Allow me to clarify. I wish to reach the house of my grandparents in one whole, uninjured piece."

"Picky, picky," Jim said, and leaned down to flick a switch on the dashboard. The console sprang to life, and music swelled up out of the speakers, a loud, obnoxious song with a chorus of guitars played with far more enthusiasm than talent. "But since it's you, I can make an exception."

"What is this?" Spock asked. A man with an extremely nasal manner of singing had joined the cacophony of guitars and drums. Spock was uncertain what he was being subjected to, but felt it might well qualify as auditory assault.

"It's the Ramones. Life isn't worth living without some Ramones in it, Spock. Rule number Thirty-Six of being Human."

"Are all the other rules in this list as arbitrary as the one you just quoted?" Spock raised an eyebrow at Jim.

"Yep," Jim said, deadpan. "Rule Seventeen, don't switch among beer, liquor, and wine unless you wanna spend the night puking. Rule Forty-Three, don't lick metal poles in the middle of winter. Rule Eight, anyone who doesn't like at least one Beatles song is not worth knowing."

"Beetles? I was unaware that there were Terran species of beetles that were capable of music."

"....yeah, good thing I brought the White Album with me," Jim said, more to himself than to Spock. "Don't worry, Spock. I'll get you straightened out."

Spock nodded, storing this information away for future reference, even though he was 98.76% certain that there were no such Rules of Being Human and Jim was simply being Jim. He looked out the window, watching the other hovercars maneuver around them, watching the buildings of Los Angeles fall away. But even the impressive skyline couldn't stop his thoughts from straying to the intoxicating feel of Jim's body from the night before, the shocking sweetness of his smile, the press of his lips against Spock's own. The memory sent a flush of warmth through Spock, as though he'd stepped into a patch of sunlight.

No, he did not think he would regret allowing Jim to persuade him to take this road trip in such a fashion, no matter how illogical.

* * * * *

They reached Monterey before sundown, which was Jim's goal. Highway One was considerably slower than the Five, since it went through various towns and cities as it snaked along the coast, at times little more than a two-lane country road, but it was an infinitely more interesting drive. Despite his initial protests, Spock seemed fascinated by everything, and once he'd sent messages to the appropriate parties about their change of plans, he seemed to relax into the trip, his anxiety easing inch by inch.

Jim played tour-guide, pointing out things of interest as they went. Spock asked question after question, wanting to know more about old buildings, the origin of the Spanish place-names, locations of historical battles, but nothing truly piqued his interest until Jim, remembering the Academy event he'd had to cancel on, mentioned that they should stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the morning. Jim just sat back and listened as Spock went off on a ramble about the historical importance of this particular aquarium, the rare species it was home to, and the myriad research projects being conducted there. And all the while the blinding blue ocean fell away to their left, golden scrub-grass and California poppies bobbing their heads along the side of the road.

They stopped just after sundown, seeking out a nicer hotel at the edge of town with a view of the ocean that Spock insisted on paying for despite all of Jim's objections about sharing costs now that he wasn't technically Spock's employee anymore. Jim retaliated by pinning Spock against the wall when they got upstairs, kissing him in both the Human and Vulcan fashion until Spock was flushed green in the face, only to vanish into the bathroom for a shower, leaving a flustered Spock alone in the bedroom. It wasn't much of a punishment, though, as Spock only followed him and caught Jim naked in the instant before he could climb into the shower.

Jim found himself shoved up against the wall with a very determined Vulcan kneeling between his thighs, Spock's impossibly hot mouth swallowing him down, Jim's ability to think slowly leaking out his ears. What Spock lacked in experience, he seemed more than determined to make up for with diligence and enthusiasm, and it was good that Spock's hand pinned Jim's hip against the wall, or else Jim might have simply fallen over.

"Fuck," Jim gasped, twisting his fingers harder in Spock's hair as Spock did something amazing with his tongue. "Are you sure you haven't done this before?"

"Affirmative," Spock said. The hoarseness in his voice sent another thrill of lust up Jim's spine, and the hand on Jim's hip squeezed once before sliding back down along Jim's ass, long fingers teasing at Jim's entrance. Jim came a few minutes later, Spock's nose buried in the coarse thatch at the base of his cock as Jim emptied himself down Spock's throat, two of Spock's fingers twisting greedily inside Jim.

Jim dragged Spock with him into the shower, unable to resist that eagerness, and it was good that they weren't at Jim's apartment, because by the time they emerged from the spray, Jim had assured himself that every inch of Spock's body was clean, and he himself was having some difficulty walking. Apparently Vulcans were really, really into finger-banging. As Spock went to dress himself (however hilariously temporary that might turn out), Jim reflected on the futility of having taken a shower at all, considering he now looked more fucked-out and used than before he'd gone into the bathroom.

He'd planned to go out walking with Spock along the beach that night, but they never even made it out of the room. Dinner came in the form of call-in pizza, Jim shocking the hell out of the delivery boy when he answered the door in nothing but criminally low-slung sweatpants and a whole new set of bruises along his throat and collarbone. (Spock had a set of his own, one at each wrist, and the tight, aching noises that Jim had wrung out of Spock in the process of working those up had been almost more satisfying than the marks themselves.)

They managed to calm down enough after dinner to get a few hours of work done, though "work" consisted of sprawling on the bed next to each other with their various books, papers, and PADDs strewn across the covers next to them. Jim would have felt more self-conscious about his inability to stop touching Spock if Spock hadn't been just as bad. Jim would be reading through an article on the similarities of courtship rituals in Humanoid species and feel a hand creeping up his thigh, stopping to curl possessively around his hip, or Jim would look over for no reason and find himself mesmerized by the elegant line of Spock's jaw, which was quickly followed by checking to see if Spock still remembered how fun Human-style kissing was. They might not have been getting a hell of a lot of work done, but then, Jim thought, that wasn't really what this trip was about.

But that night, as he lay in bed with one of Spock's arms slung around his waist and Spock's warmth pressing against his back, Jim could not escape the nagging feeling that this was all too wonderful to last. Jim lay quietly, listening to Spock's steady, even breathing, and wondered what the hell he thought he was doing.

McCoy had asked him that this morning, as a matter of fact—once he'd managed to recover enough from the shock of watching both Spock and Jim emerge from Jim's bedroom, looking suspiciously tousled and grinning idiotically to boot. He'd waited until Spock had left before he'd made them both a cup of strong coffee and had what he referred to as a "come-to-Jesus prayer meetin'" with Jim.

"Are you out of your damn mind?" McCoy demanded.

Jim rolled his eyes, mixing enough milk and sugar into his coffee to qualify it as dessert. "I thought you liked Spock," he pointed out. "Why does it bother you so much that I slept with him?"

"If it was just sex, that'd be one thing," McCoy retorted. "But you brought him over here. Jim, you made him dinner and had him spend the night and now you're, what, taking some kind of goddamn trip with him to meet his family? Do you even hear yourself right now?"

"So fucking what?" Now Jim was getting angry, looking anywhere but at McCoy. He didn't have time for this right now; he ad too much to do. He had to pack, and he had to talk to Ericcson about the car—

But instead of yelling at him more, McCoy just shook his head and sighed. "I know you don't wanna listen to me, Jim," he said finally, "but this is not going to end well for you. Spock is a good ...person, and he means well, and I even think he likes you, a lot, but when this is all over and done with he's going to go back to Vulcan and you'll still be here."

"Just stay out of it, Bones," Jim said finally. "I know what I'm doing."

Spock didn't know how close Jim had come to listening to McCoy and backing out of the trip, to vanishing altogether from the situation. But in the end, Jim just couldn't say no. He'd tried, he really had; he'd gone into his room and sat on the bed and written himself a list of why going with Spock was a bad idea. And he'd sat there and stared at the list and tried to convince himself not to go, to be fucking rational. It went against all his self-preservation instincts, to participate in something so obviously fucking romantic and stupid and—and—

And he'd never wanted anything so badly in his entire life.

Behind him, Spock stirred, and the arm around Jim's waist tightened, pulling him closer. "Sleep, Jim," Spock murmured in his ear. "You must rest." Jim smiled, covering the hand lying on his stomach with his own and squeezing lightly.

"Yeah," he whispered, "sorry. Just having trouble shutting my brain down. You kinda wound me up." He'd intended it as a tease, and was dismayed to hear how much it came out sounding like he really meant it. At this, Jim felt Spock sit up behind him, propped on one elbow. Jim started to roll backwards, wanting to see the look on Spock's face, but instead Spock coaxed Jim the other direction, rolling him forward until he was lying flat on his stomach. Jim squirmed as Spock shifted behind him, wondering what was going on... and then strong hands smoothed across Jim's bare shoulders, before pressing down and digging into the muscle beneath skin. "Oof," Jim grunted. "Oh my God, Spock—"

"As I am the source of your discomfort, it is only just that I should be the one to aid you in falling asleep." Spock's soft voice washed over him like the moonlight coming in through the window, and Jim groaned as strong, clever hands worked him over, starting at his shoulders and moving down his back, grinding down against the knots of tension in his muscles. By the time Spock was done, Jim was only dimly conscious, and within five minutes of Spock settling down against him in bed again and gathering Jim up to his chest, Jim was fast asleep.

* * * * *

Over the next few days, Jim found his concerns grow dim in the back of his mind; he felt drunk, stupid with the effect of Spock's presence, more alive than he'd felt in years. They proceeded north at a leisurely pace, hardly noticing the scenery. It was shocking how much Spock enjoyed talking (and often arguing) with Jim, as though he'd found something he'd never known he needed. His bond with T'Pring, while entirely adequate, had never affected him half this much, and he found himself at a loss to describe what the missing component was.

The trip to the aquarium was a smashing success: even if Jim himself hadn't already been interested in seeing the various sea-creatures and exhibits, it would still have been worth every second for the sake of how much Spock enjoyed himself. They reached San Francisco the next day, stopping long enough for lunch but not wanting to linger; the city was filled with too much political tension to make either of them comfortable, and they still had a lot of driving left to do. More than once Jim pulled the car over by the side of the road and climbed into the back with Spock, the two of them fucking like teenagers in the cramped quarters.

That night they stopped at a tiny tourist town lost somewhere on the northern California coast, so sleepy and rural that they their comm-units wouldn't work properly and their PADDs would barely load. In typical fashion, Spock was dismayed, while Jim was delighted. Jim soon managed to distract Spock, locked inside their motel room. He retrieved one of the battered real-paper books from the canvas traveling bag he'd brought along and half-sprawled across Spock on the bed as he read aloud from it, whispering the words into Spock's naked skin. I sing the body electric, he murmured, fingers tracing the curvature of muscles and bone underneath Spock's skin, the armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them... The poetry flowed over Spock's mind, senseless and wild, as tangible as the brush of Jim's finger and mouth. Spock trembled hot and cold, shutting his eyes against the strength of the sensations, of the emotions that ran rampant inside him all because of Jim.

That was the night that Spock first dared to ask Jim for the thing he craved most of all: an opportunity to touch Jim's mind. ("Uh," Jim laughed, eyes wide, a half-smile on his face that Spock had come to learn meant I have no fucking idea how to answer your question, "sure, why not." Spock had spent another twenty minutes explaining the mechanics and reasons behind a meld before Jim was fully relaxed.) It went as well as their first physical encounter did—which is to say, an unqualified failure that was nevertheless more thrilling than anything Spock might have hoped for.

Jim laid himself out on the bed, Spock alongside him, their legs tangled loosely, covered in a light blanket to keep the evening cool off. Spock reached out his hand, fingers extended, and then sank into a light connection that was still deeper than the ones that linked them every time they lay skin-against-skin. Jim's mind pulsed like a nuclear reaction, a riot of color and images. Spock felt his control slipping from him even as he tried to go deeper, and then an avalanche crashed over him, fear/fight/anxiety and joy/need/desire and a white, hot heat that scalded even as it drank him in. The meld ended abruptly as Jim jerked back from Spock, Spock's fingers flexing convulsively against suddenly-empty space. Jim vaulted up off the mattress, stumbled into the bathroom, and lurched to his knees in front of the toilet just in time to bring up what remained of his dinner.

Spock lay on the bed in a daze, listening to the noise of Jim retching into the toilet bowl for several seconds before finally managing to wrench himself off the bed and totter towards the bathroom after him. He ended up not being able to do much except sit by and rub Jim's back as Jim heaved, but Jim seemed to appreciate it. They returned to the bed a few minutes later, Jim considerably paler than he'd been before, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. Spock sat down as Jim lowered himself gingerly to the edge of the mattress. "Well," Jim said, and managed a weak smile, "that was interesting."

"Indeed," said Spock. "I must admit, triggering your vomiting reflex was not what I had hoped for."

"Hey, at least I haven't managed to break either of my arms during sex yet," Jim said, sounding more cheerful than a man had any right to after heaving as hard as Spock heard just now.

Spock raised an eyebrow. "You are in the habit of breaking bones during coitus?" he inquired delicately.

"Well." Now Jim grinned outright, a smaller, wry smile that was directed as much at himself as anything else. "Not a habit. But I might've accidentally broken my arms while I was dating Jenny."

Spock paused. He did not know which to ask after first, the disturbing plural, or the news that one of Jim's current friends also happened to be a one-time romantic partner. "Arms?" he asked finally, the other eyebrow rising to join its fellow.

Jim wrinkled his nose, looking at once embarrassed and somehow proud. "We got in a pillow fight." He paused, then clarified, "We were drunk."

"You broke your arm during a pillow fight," Spock repeated. "With Janice Rand."

"No, I broke both my arms during that pillow fight." Jim flopped backwards on the bed, flinging an arm over his face. Spock took a moment to consider this statement, trying to picture how, exactly, one would manage to break both arms during something as innocuous as a pillow fight (something he had not even known of until eight days ago). "I fell off the damn bed, okay?" Jim sighed, muffled slightly by his arm, though as far as Spock could tell Jim not even see Spock's face and possessed no touch-telepathy of his own.

"You are a singular individual, Jim," Spock said gravely.

"God, shut up. I mean—look, all I wanted to say is that by that yardstick, the mind-meld-thing is—we're good, is what I'm saying."

"I shudder to think what an actual success would look like," Spock observed, and Jim's hand flew up to swat Spock across the arm even as he started to laugh. "I will be sure to let Doctor McCoy know that you are not to be trusted with anything more complicated than brushing your teeth."

"Spock! Shut up!"

* * * * *

Spock and Jim finally reached Port Townsend shortly after noon on the fourth day after leaving Los Angeles. The town could not have held more than 7,000 souls, and consisted equally of antisocial old sailors, antisocial hippies, and antisocial eccentrics, all of whom had migrated as far north as they could without actually crossing the Sound into Canada. "The fruit and nut brigade," as Jim declared them while driving down the main street, peering out at the people milling around on the town's sidewalks. Spock asked for a clarification, but Jim just shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Spock," he said.

"Vulcans do not experience the emotion of worry," Spock said mildly.

"Sure they don't. You're totally calm and serene about meeting your grandparents, right?" Despite the weight of Jim's eyes on his neck, Spock did not answer.

In truth, Spock was experiencing far more trepidation at the idea of meeting Dr. and Mr. Grayson than he had any right to be, considering the seeming sincerity of their invitation to have him come visit. Spock was still not certain how they had come to know Spock was on Earth at all, though he suspected Christopher Pike had something to do with it—Pike was a family friend of the Graysons, after all. But Spock had had very little contact with his grandparents since the time of Amanda's death, a fact that he now found himself illogically anxious about.

The Graysons' house was nestled on the side of one of the central hills of Port Townsend, overlooking the marina and "downtown" as well as offering a clear view across the sound to the Canadian shoreline on the far side. Jim guided the car carefully up the narrow drive, and even as he slowed and put the car in park, two grey-haired figures had already appeared in the doorway to the house, one of whom was hurrying down the stairs to the driveway.

"You made it!" exclaimed Dr. Charlotte Grayson as Spock climbed out of the passenger seat. Spock was swept into a tight hug almost before he'd exited the car, despite the fact that his grandmother was 11 inches shorter than him. Joy and affection washed over him as soft hands cupped his cheeks and two uncannily familiar brown eyes gazed up at him from his grandmother's beaming face. Charlotte was a small woman, silver hair piled in an intricate bun at the back of her head, but age had not diminished any of her considerable energy. "Oh, I'm so glad you came to see us, Spock!"

Charlotte turned her attention to Jim as he got out of the car, much to Spock's relief. Spock watched in bemusement as his grandmother greeted Jim with the same enthusiasm she'd just given her own grandson. "We've been waiting for you all morning," said the second figure, who by now had reached the driveway as well. Spock turned to find his grandfather's warm regard focused on him. Alan Grayson was roughly Spock's height, bearded and still retaining most of his hair, gone silver now with age. And though Spock knew him to be approaching ninety, he was impressed at the man's vigor—like his wife, he might have passed for twenty-five years younger.

"I apologize for the length of time it took us to reach you," Spock began, but Alan shook his head.

"You needed to see some of the countryside," Charlotte said easily. "It's okay, we totally understand. Gave us some time to get ready for you." Get ready? Spock wondered, with some trepidation. What exactly had they done to prepare for his visit? It was embarrassing how much he'd let himself be distracted by Jim on the drive up here, and how very little he'd thought about what might be waiting for him. His mother's family deserved better.

But Alan and Charlotte left him with no time for contemplation. Jim insisted dragging their luggage upstairs himself, but that was about the only concession that the Graysons made. As soon as they got into the front door, Alan vanished with their bags, and Jim and Spock were ushered into the kitchen and seated at the impeccably clean-and-polished wood table, where Charlotte promptly served them lunch. Lunch, turned out to be tomato-basil soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, in cheerful observation of Spock's vegetarianism. Spock sat in increasing bewilderment as they talked of inconsequentials for nearly two hours, surrounded by the friendly decor of a long lived-in home, the scent of pine needles and cedars filtering in through the open windows.

Because his grandparents wanted to hear about everything. They seemed delighted to hear about all the details of their miniature road-trip from Los Angeles (though of course Jim and Spock made a point to censor the bulk of their activities), the projects Spock was currently working on at the VSA, even some of Jim's bar-tending stories. Spock found himself quite glad that Jim had come, more than content to let Jim take the brunt of the conversation for awhile, talking animatedly to their attentive audience.

Finally, Charlotte rose, sweeping up the dirty dishes and depositing them in the sink to be cleaned later. Spock noted the old-fashioned dishwasher and the distinct lack of a number of other modern amenities. "You do not have a replicator," he noted, hands cupped around a mug of tea that Alan had brought out.

Alan laughed. "Don't need it," he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled. "It's just the two of us here, and we like to cook. Replicators can't do anything very fancy, anyway, and food tastes better when you make it yourself."

"See?" Jim said, turning to Spock with a wide grin. Spock cocked his head, glancing from Jim to his ....grandfather. The realization that he was related to both of these people, these virtual strangers, was starting to sink in, and it made Spock's already-overwhelmed head hurt. But before Spock could formulate an answer, Jim was rising to his feet, summoning one of his most charming smiles for Alan and Charlotte. "God, that was amazing. Do you mind showing me around? This house looks like it was practically hand-made."

Spock rose quickly, tea still held in one hand. "I believe I will take the tour later this afternoon," he said apologetically. "I... find I am rather tired, and wish to meditate for a short while."

Alan and Charlotte exchanged a glance, and Spock braced himself for the protest, but all Charlotte said was, "Of course, dear. Let me show you to your room." Spock stole one last look at Jim, who shrugged and gave him a smile that could've meant anything, and then Spock followed his grandmother out of the sunny kitchen and down the wood-paneled hallway. "Here you are, Spock," Charlotte said, and opened the door, gesturing Spock inside. Spock went in ahead, took three steps into the room, and froze.

It was Amanda's old room.

* * * * *

"Where the he—the heck did Spock get to?"

Charlotte snorted as she heard Jim censor himself. "He's just slipped off to the bedroom for a few minutes," she said smoothly. "I think he might need to lie down for a little while."

They'd just finished giving Jim the "grand" tour of the house, Charlotte having re-joined Alan and Jim in the bottom level in the playroom, where they kept the piano. Jim did not seem particularly uncomfortable without Spock around as a buffer, which Charlotte approved of, considering even a blind man could tell how smitten they were with each other. She was glad Spock's young man was so likable.

Jim glanced at Alan, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Jim glanced back at Charlotte. "Maybe I should go check on Spock," Jim began, trailing off at the way Charlotte was shaking her head.

"No, I think he was laying down for a nap, and I need someone to go downtown to Gus's and pick up some things for dinner tonight." If Spock was anything like Sarek, he would want to deal with Amanda on his own terms.

Alan sighed theatrically. "You heard the woman," he said to Jim. "Let's get going before she thinks of more errands for us to run while we're gone." Jim opened his mouth, probably to lodge a protest, but Alan had already grabbed him by the bicep and was steering him towards the door.

"You don't even know what I want you to pick up!" Charlotte yelled after him, laughing as she followed her husband to the front door. Alan was already down by the transport, having grabbed Jim's jacket and his own on the way out the door; he waved cheerfully up at her before climbing into the car. Charlotte shook her head, walking back into the kitchen and picking up her PADD to send the list on to Alan, as he'd known she would.

She hadn't been lying—she really did need some groceries for dinner that night—but there was no reason that Jim had to go with him, save for Charlotte's hunch about Spock's needs. Charlotte glanced at the clock above the fridge. Already 2:30; she probably had an hour, maybe hour and a half before Alan and Jim got back with the groceries.

Charlotte did the dishes and put them away, chopped tomatoes for dinner, and then went downstairs to start a load of laundry. By 3:00, Charlotte figured it was just about time to go check on Spock. Padding quietly down the hallway, she pushed the door open and poked her head inside.

The room was just as Charlotte always kept it: neat as a pin and chock-full of Amanda's things. High, double-frame windows at one end of the room looked northeast, facing the marina and gazing across to Canada. Shades of honey, gold, and brown warmed everything, and two walls were devoted to the bookshelves Alan installed into the walls when Amanda was six, full of books of all shapes and sizes: dusty leather tomes that looked even older than the house itself, glossy hardcover binders that might have been photo albums, and Amanda's leather-bound journals.

A queen-size bed was set against the wall not filled with books or windows, next to the desk, and while the bed had previously held Spock and Jim's bags, deposited there by Alan when Spock and Jim first arrived, it now held Spock—a Spock who was surrounded by what looked like every picture and knick-knack from the hope chest against the wall and half the books off one of the shelves.

Spock straightened as Charlotte entered, his eyes flickering up to Charlotte's before sliding away again, and Charlotte felt an immediate pang, unable to miss the raw look to his eyes. She came inside and shut the door carefully behind her, then crossed the room to sit next to Spock on the bed. "Hey, there, hope I'm not interrupting," she said, wishing she knew what to say or do. Spock was her grandson, her flesh and blood, but he was also a virtual stranger and raised in an alien culture, and she knew enough about Vulcans to not want to push him in a way he wasn't comfortable with.

Spock beat her to it, however. "Please explain this photograph," he said, voice suspiciously hoarse, and handed her a framed picture. Charlotte took it, examining it more closely for a few moments before she burst out laughing. Spock merely watched her, hands folded in his lap.

"Oh, boy," she said finally, handing the frame back to Spock. The picture it contained was old, a good ten years older than Spock, and it showed a young, stony-faced Sarek in a ridiculously ugly green sweater standing in the midst of the extended Grayson family. "That was taken at the first Christmas I met your father at. He and Amanda had just started seeing each other, and I was sort of surprised he even came up at all. But one of my nieces spilled wine all over Sarek's shirt, while we were out on the boat, and that was the only sweater we could find that would fit Sarek and keep him warm. And he just looked so awful in it, Amanda insisted we take a picture."

Spock stared down at the photo, not saying anything for several seconds, stroking his thumb idly along the gold frame. He set the photo back down on the bed and started to fold his hands in his lap, only to pick the photo back up again moments later. "I have not seen this before," he said, and then reached for a faded golden plaque that was sitting next to his hip. "Or this—what was this prize for? And what about this—" His hand fluttered from the plaque to another book, as if unable to pick which one to grab, or by picking the wrong one they'd all disappear.

"Here, now," Charlotte said, eyebrows going up at the near-frantic edge to Spock. "Calm down, honey. It's okay, you can ask me anything you want."

Spock froze at Charlotte's words, eyes fixed to the bed. He swallowed, sitting back and folding his hands in his lap, staring straight ahead at the wall. Charlotte just watched, nearly having to sit on her hands as she let Spock struggle to find his words. He took a deep breath and let it out, and then said finally, "I did not... I did not realize how much about her I did not know."

Charlotte sighed, a familiar lump forming in the back of her throat which she quickly pushed away. "Okay, Spock." He looked over at her, dark eyes glassy, and she offered him a small smile. "I know where you were raised, a lot of touching is strictly not okay, but in this family, we like to hug. So I am going to hug you now." Spock's brow furrowed, and he nodded, and Charlotte reached over and did what she'd been wanting to do since she came in the room and pulled her grandson against her chest in a fierce hug. Spock was very stiff for several seconds, about as yielding as a piece of driftwood, but just as Charlotte was going to let him go, Spock turned his face and buried it in her shoulder. Charlotte found it suddenly difficult to swallow.

They broke apart after a few more moments, Spock looking anywhere but at Charlotte, Charlotte folding her hands in her lap for lack of anything better to do. "Alright," she said brusquely, when the silence was edging towards "uncomfortable," "that's enough of that." She picked up another photo at random from the bedspread, and then smiled at Spock, who was still suspiciously bright-eyed but seemed more composed. "Would you like to hear about your mother, Spock?"

"I would like that very much," Spock said. He lifted his eyes to Charlotte's, straightening and clasping his hands in his lap. Charlotte smiled.

* * * * *

They got a whole week before the news reached them, isolated as they were up at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, deliberately out of easy contact. But they had been at the Grayson's house for four days when they found the bike.

Despite some awkwardness on that first day, Jim had found Spock's grandparents immediately and completely likable. They didn't ask much of either Jim or Spock, seeming completely happy at just having them to visit for a few days. Jim had worried it would be strange, since even Spock didn't really even know these people, and he'd been prepared to run interference or produce an excuse to leave early if need be, but to be honest Jim didn't think he'd ever met such an amiable, sweet couple.

They were undoubtably related to Spock—he had Alan's eyes (Amanda's eyes, Spock told him softly), and Charlotte's mouth, Alan's height but Charlotte's long, clever fingers. And though Spock's essential Vulcan-ness subdued a great deal of the Human traits he might otherwise exhibit, Jim thought he detected other hints of Spock's relatives in his demeanor. Spock shared Alan's skepticism for easy answers, his insistence at seeking out the most complete and thorough explanation of any situation, but it was Charlotte who had the knack for numbers and random facts.

Or at least, Jim liked to think he saw those things. If he was being completely honest with himself, he would have to admit those traits were more likely just Spock being Vulcan. Then again, most Vulcans would never have dragged Jim up to Port Townsend in the first place, or pushed Jim up against the outside wall of the house to kiss him till he was red in the face and breathless.

But the Graysons were delightful in and of themselves. Charlotte had a wicked sense of humor, shocking her grandson with some of her bawdier jokes and sending Jim into gales of laughter when she'd trotted out a particularly off-color story featuring an Andorian and a Tellarite. It was she who'd filled Amanda's bedroom with books and journals and photo albums, and she was the one who dragged Jim and Spock out to dinner at their favorite fusion restaurant down on the little main street that ran through town.

Alan was a woodworker, apparently, or had become one in his retirement; he'd built all the furniture in the house, something Jim was thoroughly impressed by. It was Alan who got Jim talking about all the mechanical work he did back home with his own mother (though Jim took pains to keep his mother's entirely-too-famous-name out of the discussion), Alan's eyes glinting with pleasure when Spock had jumped into the discussion, arguing with Jim over the limits of what a terrestrial hovercar could be customized to do. And it was Alan who took Jim and Spock out to the shed behind their house and showed them an old russet-colored bike with two honest-to-God tires and a converted internal combustion engine.

Jim lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as he laid eyes on the bike, crouching to examine the nest of pipes and gears that made up the back end of the bike. The bike leaned against the wall, glinting silver and red and black, remarkably pristine considering it was nearly 300 years old. "How the hell did you get a 20th-century bike like this?" he demanded, looking up at Alan as Spock looked on in bemusement. "A 1950 Indian Scout? And a two-seater, even. I didn't think they ever made two-seaters."

"They didn't. I had the second seat added after-market." Alan folded his arms across his chest, his plaid flannel rolled up to the elbows, not bothering to hide his pleasure at finding someone who could appreciate what he was showing off. "Amanda tracked it down for me, actually," he said. "I think one of her associates used to collect bikes, and she bought it off him for me as an anniversary gift."

"And it still runs?" Jim looked up at Alan from where he crouched on the floor, looking as if he was barely restraining himself from taking the bike apart to see how it worked.

"Sort of. Well, I was good about keeping up on its maintenance, but the tires are probably ruined and the engine needs some attention. The care got away from me a little, since I took a spill off it a few years ago."

It was Spock's turn to be impressed, raising an eyebrow at his grandfather's resilience. "At your age, the fact that you do not seem to have suffered any lasting injuries from such an accident is impressive."

"No, what's impressive is Doctor Ginsberg's talent at surgery, but thank you, Spock." Alan grinned at Spock, both of them watching a thoroughly distracted Jim, who by now was examining the back tire, tugging at the loose chain. "You look like you know your way around motorcycles," Alan said casually. "If you can get the bike running, you're welcome to take her out for a spin." He paused, and perhaps he caught something in Jim's eye too, because he added, "Just be careful."

Jim looked over at Spock, and if Spock were given to such flights of fancy, he would have sworn he could already see himself and Jim on the bike's back in Jim's eyes. "Awesome. Show me where the tool kit is?"

It was the work of a few hours to get the bike in working order. Jim took off both tires, since it turned out the front was as rotten as the back, and Spock helped him replace the chain, since the tire was already off. Spock watched Jim as he siphoned out the remaining old diesel-gasoline and checked the oil, listening in mute admiration as Jim told him all about the history of this bike model and the company that made it, as well as the customizations that had been made over the years to keep the antique engine usable. In light of everything else that Jim was knowledgable about, Spock should not have been surprised at his ability with this old vehicle, and yet he could not quite stifle his own astonishment at how Jim's skill.

"Query," Spock said, handing Jim a wrench as Jim methodically tightened all the bolts and checked the tension of the new chain. "From whence does the bike acquire its name? I understand that Humans are fond of naming most of their vehicles and vessels, and that such names are often derived from mythology or commonly-held Human ideals. But I do not understand the reference of this bike's title."

Jim paused, wiping his dirty hands on the coveralls Alan had lent him. "'Indian' is an old, uh... an old Terran name for the indigenous people who lived on this continent. Old like the usage of it fell out of favor two, three hundred years ago. It was still in popular use when this bike was a current model, but after the second world war, the term started to become unacceptable." Jim grinned, and Spock got the sense it was not a completely humorous smile, a concept he was still struggling to understand amongst Humans. "They weren't too careful about being politically correct back then."

"I see," Spock said, although he didn't, particularly. But most of his attention was taken by watching the care with which Jim serviced the bike. If Spock had not wanted to avoid getting engine oil and grease all over his robes, he might have interrupted Jim's maintenance then and there with something much more physical, but he managed to keep his hands to himself.

Barely.

Jim took the bike out for a ride the evening of that same day, and even managed to persuade Spock to come out with him the following morning. The streets around Port Townsend were as winding and lovely at this time of year as Jim could possibly have asked for, and he thought that if he lived to be a hundred, he would never forget the feeling of Spock pressed against his back, Spock's face in his hair, the wind rushing past him as the scents of pine and cedar and Western bleeding hearts filling his nose.

They drove all the way up to the tip of the peninsula, stopping briefly at the lighthouse still flung up against the barest outcropping of rock before retreating back into the protected woodlands. Jim pulled off the road at the edge of a grove of madrone trees, dragging Spock up under the cover of their red branches and settling in among the wild roses blooming at the base of their trunks. They didn't dare to take off their clothes, but Jim was sprawled across Spock's lap when another couple went by on bicycles, Spock's hands shoved up the back of Jim's shirt. Jim jerked back, laughing as he turned to watch the passers-by, but Spock's eyes were stuck on Jim's kiss-swollen lips.

"Perhaps we should seek somewhere more secluded," Spock murmured. He withdrew one hand from Jim's shirt, raising it briefly to touch his face instead. After nearly a week of semi-constant skin contact, he was becoming steadily more adept at controlling himself in spite of the influx of Jim's thoughts and impulses. But Jim just shook his head, leaning forward till his forehead bumped against Spock's.

"Nah," he mumbled, brushing his mouth over Spock's in a faint, teasing kiss. "This is fine. Just like this." And Spock found he had no wish to argue.

* * * * *

Jim woke from a dead sleep, coming slowly awake to a pitch-dark room. He wondered for a moment what had woken him—nothing could be heard except for the faint sounds of crickets—and then realized that Spock was not in bed beside him, nor anywhere else in the room.

He sat up and stretched, glancing over at the clock to check the time. It was almost 2:30 in the morning, Jesus, the absolute dead of night. What the hell was Spock doing not in bed? Jim knew full well that Spock, being half-Vulcan, did not need as much sleep as Jim or any other Human, but especially with the week they'd been having, Spock was still needing a good four to five hours of sleep a night. Jim shook his head. He got up out of bed and padded across the room to the window, which they'd left cracked earlier, the blinds pulled back to look out at the town and the marina, the half-full moon shining bright down on the sleepy little houses.

The windows were open enough for the nightly noises to creep inside. Sounds drifted in over the water and up the hill; somewhere out on the sound, one boat passed another, blowing its warning horn into the fog that had settled low on the water. Jim could hear the swell of waves, and far-off, so faint he might have thought it was a dream, the sounds of transports moving along the highway. Jim shut his eyes, focusing on just listening to those peaceful noises, willing himself to absorb them into himself, as though he might take on their serenity via osmosis. He sure as shit could use it.

Because, now that he was more awake, Jim was pretty sure he knew why Spock wasn't in bed with him.

Spock had received a message to his PADD after dinner, when he and Jim and Alan and Charlotte had all been gathered in the living room, discussing the vid they'd gone to see that afternoon over a few drinks. Spock had withdrawn into the bedroom to read over it, and the look on his face when he'd emerged had been such that the conversation had immediately stuttered and died.

"What's wrong?" Charlotte asked. Instead of replying, Spock simply went to the viewscreen on one side of the room, and punched a few buttons on his PADD before the missive popped up on the wall for them all to read.

Spock. Return to Los Angeles immediately. The Federation is attempting to sabotage the secession hearing. Vulcan has been betrayed. Sasak.

Immediately below the message was a copy of what Jim recognized as a Federation document, lines and lines of text, too many to read all at once. But his eyes caught a glimpse of "filibuster" and "denial of petition," and it didn't take a bureaucrat to recognize that the security clearance at the top of the page was meant for high-level access only.

"Spock, what is this?" Alan demanded, real consternation coloring his voice for the first time Jim had thus far heard. Everyone was on their feet, though Jim didn't actively remember getting up. "What is going on, who—"

"According to the document, an attempt has been made by Federation representatives to block Vulcan's secession hearing from occurring on the basis of fallacious and contrived grounds," Spock said. The relative relaxation of demeanor he'd found in the past week spent in Jim and his family's presence had vanished; this was impassive as Jim had seen Spock since their very first meeting.

No one spoke. Finally, Jim could bear it no longer. He got up, went over to Spock, took Spock's PADD from him, and turned it off. "I think we need another drink," Jim said, and no one argued with him.

 

Jim shook his head, shaking off the memory. They were going to have to cut their visit short, leaving first thing in the morning on a transport for Los Angeles. Jim would be more than a little sorry to leave the Graysons behind, especially considering what was waiting for them back in Los Angeles. Which—

Abruptly, Jim realized he could hear more than just night-time noises. Somewhere off in the house, Jim could hear music. Spock—it had to be. But at this time of night?

Jim straightened, eyes opening again, head cocked, listening hard. No, he wasn't imagining things; he could definitely hear music, what sounded like piano. Aside from their obligatory discussions of the topic (during which Jim had inflicted a great deal of rock n' roll on Spock, who took it with long-suffering grace), Jim could not recall a single instance in which he had witnessed Spock's own taste in music.

He left the window, walking around the bed to the far side of the room, where his suitcase lay open on the floor. Back at his own house in LA was one thing, but Jim didn't really care for the idea of wandering around the Grayson's house with his junk hanging out. Jim rummaged around until he found a robe, pulling it over one arm and then the other, still listening to the faint music drifting in from some unidentifiable location.

Jim went to the door, and as soon as he'd cracked it and slipped into the hallway, the music became audible. Jim followed the sound, and as he padded silently through the house, he could now make out that it was piano he was hearing. He put out a hand as he walked, sliding it absently along the smooth wooden walls, padding through the dark house and giving his attention to the arcing, flowing music that grew steadily louder.

The bedroom that Jim and Spock had been sleeping in was located at the very back top corner of the house. The Grayson's house was a tri-story; the master bedroom and Amanda's old bedroom were located on the top floor, with the kitchen, living room, and dining room on the middle floor, and a study and playroom on the bottom floor. Jim made his way carefully down the stairs now, and slowed as he came around the corner and crept down the second flight of stairs, emerging at the back end of the playroom, which had a southern-facing window that looked down on the other side of the hill overlooking town.

Because Spock wasn't listening to piano music. Spock was playing piano music.

And Spock, super-sensitive Vulcan Spock with hearing and smell five times more acute than that of a Human, did not seem to even have noticed Jim's presence. Jim hovered at the back of the room, mesmerized by the sight of Spock bent over the piano, his long, clever fingers practically flying over the keys, his eyes trained on something on the far wall, so intent on the sounds he was coaxing out of the instrument under his hands that he seemed oblivious to the rest of the world.

Jim edged slowly into the room, sticking close to the wall and padding sideways until his questing fingers encountered the arm of a chair. He maneuvered himself in front of it and sank slowly down, not wanting to disturb Spock for any reason, never taking his eyes from the scene in front of him. All other thoughts fled Jim's mind, and he sat there for the next eight minutes, hands folded loosely in his lap, listening to the brooding, wistful melody that sang out under Spock's fingers. The music ached inside him, twisting parts of him he usually tried to ignore, and as the sonata neared its end, Jim closed his eyes once more, just listening to the tumultuous, exhausted climax.

As the final notes dimmed, Jim sighed, forgetting himself for a moment, letting the sound sink in and fade away. When he next opened his eyes and look up, it was to see Spock staring across the room at him. Spock sat straight-backed at the piano now, hands that were dancing across piano keys now dormant in his lap.

"I don't think I would ever have pinned you for a fan of Chopin," Jim said, before he could second-guess himself. Spock blinked as Jim stood up, watching the Human's slow approach across the room.

"An accurate assessment," Spock said after a moment, turning slightly on the bench so that he was facing Jim as Jim came to a halt in front of him, Spock looking up into Jim's face. "I confess that I learned the Ballade because it was a favorite of my mother's." Jim moved forward, stepping between Spock's spread thighs, and something in Spock's eyes darkened as Jim came in close, Spock's hands sliding up the sides of Jim's arms, sending tingles of electricity running through Jim's skin. "I did not mean to wake you," Spock said, voice soft, letting his fingers roam further, one hand sliding around to Jim's hip, hot even through the soft terrycloth of the robe.

"I don't mind that you did," Jim murmured. "It wasn't the music that woke me, either. It was just you not being in bed." Now he reached out as well, his hands going to Spock's face, a thumb caressing one angled cheekbone, fingers creeping backwards towards Spock's ear Spock sucked in a breath, and turned his head just slightly, enough to press a kiss to the base of Jim's palm. Jim shivered, a visible tremor than ran the length of his body, and as if the shudder was the permission Spock had been waiting for, Spock reached up with both hands and pushed the robe off Jim's shoulders, revealing bare skin.

Jim stared down at Spock's face as Spock removed first Jim's robe and then Jim's briefs, wondering how he could ever have thought Spock's face expressionless. He didn't know if it was Spock's hands against his skin, or increased familiarity with this maddening, beautiful man, but Jim thought that if he let himself, he could stare at Spock for hours and never get bored. Jim came forward at the touch of Spock's hands, straddling Spock's lap, his breath catching in his throat as Spock's hand cupped his ass, squeezing possessively, fingers curling along the curve of one cheek. Spock's other hand pressed at the base of Jim's spine, sliding up slowly, as if to feel and memorize the shape of each vertebrae. Jim bent his head, pressing open-mouthed, soft kisses along Spock's temple, lips whispering along each eyebrow, his hands seeking and finding the hem of Spock's heavy shirt, needing to feel the warmth of the skin underneath.

Spock stood abruptly, and only the strength of the arm around his waist saved Jim from toppling to the floor, half-sprawled as he was across Spock's lap and in no position to cling. That came a few seconds later, Jim's arm still wound tight around Spock's neck even as Spock reached behind Jim and shut the lid of the piano with one hand before easing Jim's weight against the instrument. "Goddammit, Spock," Jim breathed, the words coming out breathy and uneven.

"I cannot achieve sufficient balance sitting down," Spock murmured in his ear, and the unspoken implication sent a dark thrill down Jim's spine, making him shudder. Spock hummed approval into the skin under Jim's ear, slow, hot pressure that made Jim's cock twitch where it lay against his belly. Jim inched back until his spine hit the upper edge of the piano, Spock pressing closer, Jim's legs wrapping around Spock's waist as Spock bent over Jim, hands sliding along Jim's flanks. The contrast in temperature of Spock's super-heated skin against cool night air sent a shiver down Jim's spine. Immediately, Spock went still.

"Don't stop," Jim said, voice barely above a whisper. Distantly, he knew that they should do just that: stop before they woke up Charlotte or Alan. But Spock pulled back just enough to look into Jim's eyes, his own dark and full of the same heat that burned through his skin. He didn't say anything, just held Jim against the piano, still pinned by Spock's weight, staring into Jim's eyes until Jim started to squirm. "Dammit, Spock, what?"

"I am finding it... difficult to think clearly," Spock said, and Jim was shocked at how rough Spock's voice was, as though he spoke through a throatful of gravel. "Your proximity is most distracting."

Jim leaned forward, spine bowed in a C, sliding his fingers through Spock's hair, a slight tremble in his hands as he nuzzled Spock cheek-to-cheek. "I better be distracting," he murmured, eyes half-lidded. He reached for one of Spock's hands, tugging it gently away from where Spock was braced against the edge of the piano, and bringing it to his own lips, he sucked the tip of one finger into his mouth, swirling his tongue around the tip. Spock seemed to freeze, but because Jim was pressed against him he could feel the electric shock that went through Spock like the ripples caused by a rock dropped into water.

"Jim," Spock said tightly. He took a deep breath; Jim stopped his teasing momentarily, letting Spock's fingertip slip from his mouth. Spock raised that hand, brushing Jim's cheek with the barest caress of fingertips, and then said, "I should not be here with you right now."

If Spock hadn't had him pinned against the piano, Jim might've been able to hide his reaction, but their skin-to-skin contact betrayed him. Jim went still, and Spock's arm tightened around him almost immediately, Spock's dark eyes never leaving his face. "You are angry," Spock said, faint surprise coloring his voice, the Vulcan equivalent of "utterly gobsmacked." "I do not understand why."

"Gee, I dunno," Jim said sarcastically, raising his hands to push Spock off him. It was like pushing a brick wall. "Maybe because it's bullshit to spring that on me when I'm, I don't know, naked in your arms?" When I can't hide anything from you, he added silently, suddenly not knowing or caring if Spock could hear him. Spock's brow furrowed, but instead of releasing Jim he leaned in close, pressing a hard kiss to Jim's mouth. It was so utterly the last thing that Jim could have expected that he did not even fight it, melting despite himself under the electric heat of Spock's lips, the fingers digging into the back of his skull. He recovered within moments, shoving at Spock's shoulders, but still Spock held him fast, pulling back again only slightly.

"Stop that," Jim snapped, angry now. He didn't like being cornered, didn't like having his options taken from him, but getting Spock off him was like trying to wrestle a stone statue.

"If I release you, you will leave," Spock said, unevenly. "And I have no right to ask you to stay, but I—I request—that you wait until I have explained myself." He swallowed, and Jim could hear the click in his throat.

Jim stared at him for a few moments, knowing he should go, that he should walk away and not look back, hating himself and hating Spock for how much he wanted to stay. Spock said nothing. Jim knew that if he asked again, Spock would release him. "Talk," he said instead.

Spock ducked his face for a moment, pressing it to Jim's neck. Jim's arms went instinctively around Spock's shoulders, despite himself—fuck, he couldn't not want to touch Spock, anymore than a plant could choose to not crave sunlight—and listened as Spock spoke against his throat, feeling as much as hearing the words against his skin. "I have not been as forthright as I should have been about my position, or the true situation surrounding Vulcan's secession. I have been remiss in spending as much time with you as I have, with so much at stake."

"So why are you here with me, then?" Jim hadn't meant to interrupt, but hearing Spock talk about how his time with Jim was mis-spent was like having ants crawl under his skin. He was intimately familiar with his own self-esteem issues; no need to have other people's opinion of his worthlessness contribute to the situation.

"You are not worthless," Spock growled, and Jim sucked in a breath, remembering too late how much of his skin Spock was touching. "Jim. I—" Spock broke off with a low moan, and Jim gasped at the sudden heat of Spock's breath as he exhaled against Jim's neck. "You undo me," Spock whispered. "I should be preparing my position for the secession hearing. I should be focused on the needs of my people. But I have been spending all my time and all my energy on you because I can think of nothing else." Spock shuddered, and Jim twitched as something underneath him creaked—only to realize abruptly that it was Spock's fingers against the wooden keyboard lid, the wood creaking ominously under the pressure of his grip. "I left you alone in the bedroom," Spock continued, "because I did not trust myself to be able to think straight while in the same room as you. But all my meditation has proven fruitless."

"Spock," Jim breathed. Spock flexed against him, one long press of heat and muscle, and now he raised his mouth to press against Jim's in another Human kiss, even as Spock's hand slid along Jim's arm to find Jim's, lacing their fingers together. Jim's erection, which had been flagging, filled again almost instantly, and Jim moaned into Spock's mouth as Spock pressed him down into the piano. Spock's free hand slid down to Jim's buttocks again, palming over the curve of his ass, teasing at his pucker and making Jim shudder. All thoughts of vanishing into the night had slipped away, replaced by the addictive heat of Spock's kisses and the press of his body against Jim's. Jim didn't think he'd ever wanted anything so badly in his life.

"I wish to penetrate you," Spock murmured. He squeezed Jim's ass for emphasis. In response, Jim's hands (sliding against bare skin, underneath the maddening weight of Spock's heavy tunic) dug hard into Spock's skin, Jim's hips twitching against Spock's stomach.

"So romantic," Jim mumbled, and laughed against Spock's temple, a dizzy, breathless sound. Hadn't Spock just been talking about what a bad idea this was for them both? Where did Jim's brain go, again? But it didn't seem to matter. Slowly, Spock straightened, hand at the small of Jim's back, bracing him. He eased Jim up until most of his upper body was laying back against the piano, Spock bent over him, looking down at him with those dark, dark eyes. The weight of them made Jim squirm, even as Spock pressed his other hand to Jim's sternum, splaying all five fingers open in a strangely possessive gesture, as though to reassure himself that Jim wasn't going to bolt the minute Spock gave him the space.

For a few moments, Jim thought he would feel the press of one of Spock's fingers against his hole again, but then the blunt head of Spock's dick, slick with his own secretions, was nudging his pucker and Jim could only catch his breath and bear down. It burned, Jim's breath hitching painfully as his muscles stretched around the flared ridge of Spock's penis, and then Spock was pressing into him, slow but relentless, not stopping till he was buried in Jim's ass, his hips flush against Jim's cheeks. Jim spared a moment to be glad of Vulcan physiology, then, as bizarre as he'd found Spock's retractable sex before now. Jim could feel the scrape of fabric against his skin, and the realization that Spock had not even taken off his pants to fuck Jim sent a wave of heat rolling through him, twisting his guts with desire.

Spock rocked shallowly against him, still keeping Jim pinned against the slanted surface of the piano with one hand, the other now on Jim's hip. Jim was effectively bent in half, impaled on Spock's erection, legs wrapped around Spock's waist as Spock fucked him slow against the closed piano. Jim threw his head back as Spock rolled his hips, the piano creaking quietly underneath their weight. Spock loomed up over him, his face in shadows, his hands sliding greedily over Jim's chest, and then he bent down towards Jim's face, straining until he could press his lips against Jim's mouth.

Outside, at the edges of Jim's hearing, a steady rhythm began to patter against the windowpanes, and Jim realized distantly that the moonlight filtering in from outside was now gone. Rain, Jim thought, gasping as Spock pulled him down closer, a shallow thrust into Jim again making Jim's hips jerk and stutter. Both of them froze as lightning flashed just outside the living room window, and Jim felt Spock jump as thunder crashed almost immediately. "Jumpy," Jim whispered, smiling, and Spock's fingertips tightened against Jim's hips. The rainfall grew heavier then, and Jim let his head fall back again as Spock folded him in two, his thrusts coming faster and more steadily, face pressed against Jim's neck. Jim shut his eyes, letting the sound of the rain fill his ears as he wrapped his arms around Spock's shoulders.

It was only later, curled against Spock in bed and listening to the rain still falling outside, that Jim realized that he still had no idea what was going to happen when they went back to Los Angeles in the morning.

Chapter Text

"This was really probably not one of my brightest ideas," Jim said to himself. The man in the bathroom mirror stared back, completely unhelpful.

They'd come back to Los Angeles to find the entire Vulcan embassy in an uproar (which to Jim had felt more like a funeral). The leaked memorandum was even worse than Jim had expected: sent by one of Admiral Barnett's aides, it mentioned a secret (and therefore suspect) clause in the Federation's charter that allowed an Admiral to declare a state of emergency overriding certain political actions by planetary governing bodies, including a secession trial. In other words, if the memorandum was real, it implicated Federation leaders in some extremely sketchy activity. Vulcan and her many close allies were enraged.

Jim wasn't at all convinced that the document was real—the timing was too convenient, for one thing. But the damage was being done, and now Jim got to watch the shitshow as Spock, Sarek, and the Starfleet emissaries tried to smooth things over in time for the secession hearing.

Jim made a skeptical grimace in the bathroom mirror at the thought, and his reflection scowled back. The man in the mirror looked great, at least: skin just tanned enough to glow, bright blue eyes, artfully ruffled blond hair, a trim, well-fitting suit-and-pants combo. Jim couldn't have dressed nicer to meet someone's father.

Not that meeting Sarek was what Jim thought Spock had had in mind. Trouble was, Jim didn't have any fucking idea what Spock did have in mind for Jim's role here, seeing that Spock was more uncommunicative and closed-off than the first night Jim had laid eyes on his prickly Vulcan self. Could be that Spock felt nervous around his Vulcan colleagues -- and all the other aliens discussing whether Vulcan would withdraw her membership from the Federation — but it was still jarring after the trip they'd just taken.

Jim tilted his head slightly to one side and used his fingers to tug down his collar, exposing the faint bruises at the very base of his throat. Spock had left those. Just the sight of them brought the memory of Spock bent over him rushing to mind, the strangely herbal, exotic smell of Spock's skin, the extreme warmth of his alien body heat.... Jim swallowed and dropped his eyes to his head, shaking it slightly to clear his mind. Returning to LA had also been a return to reality of the most painful sort.

He was James "Tomcat" Kirk. Half of his conquests would brain him if given the chance, another half would be begging for one more roll in the hay, and—those halves might overlap, actually. But he was good to his partners, paid or otherwise, and he made it a point to never let feelings get in the way of good old sex.

Which brought him back to the same question: What the fuck did he think he was doing here? This whole situation was fucked. But every time he asked that, all he could think of was Spock: Spock naked, Spock's rare (and therefore precious) smile; the way Spock looked at him with approval when Jim managed to say something halfway intelligent; the measured, precise way Spock spoke, as if each idea that left his lips was too precious to waste by being misspoken—every intimate detail shone in his mind, impossible to forget or ignore for long. The week and a half of their road-trip and visit to Spock's family was like some kind of drug-induced dream, and every day that passed since their return made it seem more distant and unreal.

The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when Jim woke up this morning, though—that was real. So were the pointed questions McCoy kept messaging him, left unanswered. And the way Spock wouldn't look at Jim today was real, too, real enough to send Jim running to the bathroom to hide like a goddamn 16-year-old girl.

The door to the restroom swung open, and Jim tore himself away from his ruminations to glance at the Andorian who stumbled in, looking distinctly greener in the face than the blue-skinned race was prone to. He made a beeline for one of the stalls, the door banging shut behind him. "Classic," Jim said under his breath, a smile twitching across his face despite himself.

He cast one last glance at himself in the mirror, straightened the hem of his shirt, and then headed back out into the fold.

Normally, finding Spock in a crowd would be an easy task; Spock was even taller than Jim, and he was typically the only humanoid with a bowl-cut shiny enough to blind the unwary and a spine so straight it would put a flagpole to shame. But the president of the Federation would be making a statement this afternoon, and in addition to the many Vulcans (all of whom sported a hair-cut exactly like Spock's, which was a crime, Jim wanted to point out), there were a number of Andorians, Tellerites, Betazoids, and even Cardassians here at the hotel. Jim supposed this was inevitable as it drew closer to the date of the hearing on Vulcan's decision to secede. There must be even more aliens up in San Francisco, Jim thought. Especially with the news of the leaked memorandum.

But for now, it just meant that it would be stupidly hard to find Spock again. Jim drifted out of the bathroom, glancing around the room without much hope, and was immediately accosted by Harry Mudd.

"Jim, my boy," purred Harry. Jim leaned back in dismay; Mudd reeked of whiskey, his eyes bloodshot and his smile manic. "So marvelous to see you, really you look excellent. Where's your friend?" Harry winked theatrically and elbowed Jim in what he must have assumed was a very subtle manner. It was a wonder that half the room didn't instantly turn to stare at them. Almost as much of a wonder as Harry's ability to spew bullshit like that after how his last interaction with Jim had gone.

"Jesus, Harry, what'd you do, take a bath in Wild Turkey?" Jim glanced at the open door, then back at Harry in resignation. For an assistant hotel manager, the man could be remarkably inept. "And I dunno where Spock is, probably off doing his rounds." Jim chose not to respond to the poorly-disguised bid for information, keeping a bland smile firmly in place and a good foot of distance between himself and Harry.

"Indeed, indeed. Such a serious situation, this secession business." Harry chuckled to himself, splotches of red burning high on his cheeks and his temples. Jim fought the urge to squirm away in mortification. "Good for our business, though!" Harry added, elbowing Jim again with more force than was strictly necessary.

"I'm sure," Jim said. Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he turned his head with relief as he spotted Spock perhaps twenty yards away to his left. "Well, Harry, I think I see Spock, so I'll catch you later, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, he slipped away through the crowd, doing his very best to ignore the man behind him.

Which is why Jim did not see the burly humanoid who came up to Harry Mudd and bent his head to converse in low tones. Nor did Jim see the suddenly not-so-drunk Mudd straighten, and surreptitiously exchange a small plasticine card for a handful of credits. And he certainly did not see the cruel, self-satisfied smile that came over Mudd's face as he watched his client melt smoothly back into the crowd, headed in the same direction Jim had taken.

* * * * *

Elsewhere in the building, Spock was busy trying to keep himself from having one of what Leonard McCoy would one day refer to as "Spock's rage black-outs."

Spock stood in the corner of the main meeting hall, watching the crowd of beings mill to and fro in front of him and bracing for the next unwanted conversation that would no doubt shortly be forced upon him. Spock was not extroverted by anyone's standards at the best of times, but right now it was a question of which was the lesser evil: attracting yet more negative attention for disappearing when his presence was expected, or staying at the conference and worsening his already-inappropriate stress reaction. Thus far he'd chosen to stay. Escaping to his room would mean he had nothing to distract him from his own lack of control.

Being a studious sort, Spock had done extensive research on how his Human DNA could complicate his chosen existence as a Vulcan. He discovered that his genetic make-up allowed him to become inebriated on Human alcohol when a normal Vulcan would never feel a thing, along with providing a surprising resistance to diseases that affected modern Vulcans.

Of particular interest was how the body's hormonal chemistry changed during sexual intercourse. Fascinated by the Human ability to have sex at will and with no ill effects, Spock had spent endless hours poring over PADDs that described the hormonal flows and changes in Humans brought on by sex, puberty, and full adulthood. He had not experienced the onset of Pon Farr, though it was too early to say whether he would be spared that horror, but Spock found that he experienced the common after-effects of sexual climax as a fully Human male might. He had known this prior to his acquaintance with Jim Kirk, but he had not had such an abundance of data to buttress his conclusions.

But Spock had failed to take into account the erratic behavior of Humans in the early phase of courtship, "infatuation", during which dopamine flooded the cortical pathways of the brain, producing sensations of elation, giddiness, obsessive behavior, and an inability to think clearly. It was to this that Spock attributed his temporary insanity of the past few days—no, the past few weeks. His behavior on their road-trip, at his grandparents' house... all of it was bizarre and inexcusable, particularly when his energy could be better spent focused on preparing his arguments for the hearing. And why in the name of Surak he'd thought it was a good idea to bring Jim to a formal gathering of Federation representatives, he could not now say, save for that exaggerated presence of dopamine and seratonin in his brain had caused him to take leave of his senses. Not that Jim had embarrassed Spock; far from it.

Spock shifted at the thought of Jim, glancing across the room, half-expecting to see the familiar blond head caught in conversation with some stranger. Jim was polite and charming, interesting and talkative to all and sundry, and Spock had caught more than one being casting an admiring eye on the handsome young man at Spock's side. Their covetous glances had raised such a red rage behind Spock's eyes that he'd had to compensate by shutting down almost completely.

His behavior was unforgivable. To say nothing of the fact that Spock should not even have coupled with Jim in the first place, his own reactions to the situation were out of control. He had brought Jim here, and Spock was not oblivious to the curious eyes of Captain Pike and Admiral Komack, and of his own father, all of whom would be watching for cues as to the nature of Spock's relationship with this strange Human. Spock had watched more than one being come over to flirt overtly with Jim, and though Jim had politely turned down all inquiries, each one cranked the invisible metal band around Spock's temples tighter.

He didn't even know where Jim was right now. Spock didn't know which was worse; wondering if some new sentient was flirting with Jim right now, or his own inability to focus on anything but the overwhelming urge to break something. Spock's jaw clenched. He turned and threaded his way through the crowd, slipping down a side hallway and then into a blessedly empty room that looked like a walk-in closet, judging from all the studs to hang coats on the walls.

"S'chen T'Gai Spock, have you taken leave of your ability to think?" The use of his full name brought Spock's attention up sharp.

"Explain yourself, T'Pring," Spock said shortly. Must he be pursued even in this brief moment of sanctuary?

"Your emotionalism today has been disgraceful." T'Pring stared at him unblinking. She was as serene and put-together as Spock had ever seen her, swathed in the heavy crimson robes of her family's house, masses of dark hair piled intricately on her head. "And from what my brother tells me, today is only the latest occurrence of this behavior from you."

"If you are referring to my visit to the house of my Human grandparents," Spock retorted, voice sharper than he intended, "may I remind you that—"

"You have not been yourself. You are distracted and unobservant, your attention to our people's need has been sorely lacking, and anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see the reason—your attachment to the Human, Jim Kirk, that you have been spending so much time with."

"You will not speak to me of James Kirk," Spock snapped. "You were one who proposed we dissolve our bond—you have renounced your claim on me. What business is it of yours whom I spend my time with?" The tension around his skull ratcheted up a few more notches, but T'Pring seemed to not even notice.

"Listen to yourself, Spock! Do you hear how you're talking to me? What this Human is doing to you?" T'Pring raised her hand, fingers spread loosely, palm facing Spock, and after a moment Spock mirrored the gesture, pressing his palm to hers. Instantly a sense of calm and focus flooded Spock's harried mind. Spock took a deep breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it.

I am not your enemy, Spock, T'Pring sent. Be at peace, cousin. And indeed, Spock's tension drained out of him like air from a punctured balloon.

"You will be a skilled healer indeed when you have finished your training," Spock said at last. He let his hand drop, and after a moment T'Pring did as well. Spock drew another deep breath and let it out slowly before he found the strength to say, "You are correct. I have been behaving... erratically."

"No permanent damage has been done," T'Pring said. She folded her hands at her side again, gazing at Spock with an expression that was particularly difficult to decipher. Or no—he was projecting Human behaviors onto Vulcans. He really had been spending too much time with Humans. "But you must give all your attention to the matter at hand. The secession hearing begins in two days."

"Indeed." Spock folded his hands into his robes, inclining his head at T'Pring. "Let us return to the gathering, then." T'Pring nodded, turning and leading the way back into the corridor, Spock following in her way. Immediately, they were accosted by some of Spock's fellow VSA researchers, and Spock found himself yet again drawn into a tedious, speculative conversation about the legitimacy of the leaked memorandum.

Fifteen minutes later, Spock found himself dutifully engaged by one of the newly-arrived Vulcan representatives. S'vaal was old, grey of hair, and extremely knowledgable of Vulcan's history. Spock found him extremely boring. When S'vaal stepped up to give his evidence on Vulcan's history of peace and justice, Spock thought he'd prove a far more effective sedative than anything else.

"Forgive my intrusion, S'vaal," said a familiar voice at his side. "I must speak with my son for a moment." Sarek stood at Spock's side, though when he'd gotten there Spock was not sure. He must have allowed himself to be distracted. Spock's eyes flickered sideways to check to see if T'Pring had noticed Spock's lapse, only to realize that she'd slipped away at some point after their conversation.

"Of course, Sarek." S'vaal bowed to both of them, then ambled off to continue his lecture into more appreciative ears. Spock watched him go, reminding himself that a Vulcan had no place experiencing either relief or trepidation.

"Father." Spock turned and bent his head, nodding once to his father in deference. Sarek's eyes were as dark and unreadable as always, and he walked with Spock until they were no longer in the midst of the throng of aliens. The fact that whatever Sarek had to say was clearly not meant for other's ears did nothing to ease the tight lump at the bottom of Spock's stomach. Two conversations about Spock's inappropriate behavior in one day: it was like being back in adolescence again.

"Where is your companion, Spock? This Kirk?" Sarek stopped, turning to face Spock, keeping his voice low, his eyes focused on his son's face, which did nothing to relieve Spock of the sensation that he'd been reduced to a small child.

"I am certain he is here in the hotel somewhere," Spock responded, voice carefully even. "Beyond that, I cannot give his precise location. He excused himself twenty point six minutes ago and has not yet returned." Sarek nodded, maddeningly inscrutable. Spock steeled himself. "Is there something about James Kirk that you wish to discuss?"

"Correct. I must inquire as to the nature of your relationship with this Human." Sarek's gaze never wavered, his voice low and even.

Spock cocked his head, forcing himself to remain calm. He was in control. To over-react to something so simple... "Our relationship, Father?"

If Sarek knew the effect this line of questions was having, he gave no sign. "For a Human, he is agreeable, but your continued association with him is raising the curiosity of your fellows. I must remind you that you are being closely watched at this time, as both a representative of the VSA and as my son."

"I am aware, Father." As if he could possibly forget. Spock clenched his hands out of sight inside his robes. "I must also remind you, however, that whom I choose to associate with is my own business." Sarek's eyebrows went up at this, but Spock chose to ignore it. "But I can assure you that as far as the secession hearing goes, my relationship with James Kirk is not one that in any way complicates me."

And what would Spock do if the secession hearing came and went, and Vulcan elected the unthinkable? Spock shoved the thought away. He would not contemplate a future that did not yet exist.

Out of the corner of his eye, Spock thought he saw movement. Moments later, the profile of a familiar head became visible in the crowd, only to disappear within seconds. Spock watched the back of Jim's head as he slipped through the crowd, headed in the direction of the hall of elevators. Spock felt his stomach plummet into his shoes as the realization of being overheard sank in. Jim—

Sarek turned his head to follow Spock's gaze, but thankfully Jim had already vanished into the crowd. "Forgive me," Spock said smoothly. "I thought I saw Malik, but I was in error."

His father's head swiveled around again, gaze coming to rest squarely on Spock. For a long moment, he said nothing at all, watching Spock in silence, as though weighing his words. Spock waited, forcing his unwanted anxiety back down where it belonged, willing himself to feel nothing, nothing at all. He was Vulcan; Vulcans did not suffer anxiety. Finally, Sarek nodded. "Very well. Take care, my son. We walk on unsteady ground, and we must be careful of our footing if we wish to avoid losing our way."

Spock stared at his father, startled. Somehow, he had not expected the platitude. "I will remember your words, Father." And he would. And later, when he was alone, when he could find time to think, he would dwell on it, would meditate to find his center.

But first, he had to go find Jim.

* * * * *

Jim shoved his way through the crowd with more force than strictly necessary, jostling a slim Andorian woman, hearing her indignant exclamation behind him as he headed for the elevators. The press of beings in the suite of rooms was suddenly too much. He needed air. He needed to get away. If he moved fast enough, he would be long gone by the time this particular clusterfuck finally caught up with his brain.

My relationship with James Kirk is not one that in any way complicates me, he heard again in his ears, Spock's voice cool and even.

Of course it didn't, Jim thought savagely. Stupid of him, so fucking stupid, he really took the prize of Number One Dumbass this time around, no fucking shit, Sherlock. It was fucking stupid of Jim to let it get as far as it had, to let the edges blur between work and play. He had one rule, one personal rule that he never broke for anyone, and he'd bent it for Spock, big-time. Now it was going to bite him in the ass, and he had no one to blame but himself.

He ducked around a cluster of Vulcans and finally broke free of the crowd, making a beeline for the alcove at the end of the hallway. He'd left the keys to his bike in Spock's room, along with his motorcycle jacket, not wanting to mess with them during the party. Now his hands were itching to feel their weight against his palm.

Jim bounced on his balls of his feet as he waited for the elevator to arrive, his thoughts fluttering inside his skull like a trapped bird. He clenched and unclenched his hands at his sides, shoving them violently into his pockets to hide his agitation.

He had a friend up in Santa Barbara he could crash with for a few days. Gary should be home over the summer, Jim thought, and he was the kind of guy who wouldn't ask too many questions. Jim could stay at Gary's for a day or two, get his shit in order, and then he'd just keep going: up the coast, all the way, past San Francisco, through Oregon and into Washington—the reminder of the week and a half he'd just spent with Spock crashed on his consciousness like broken glass, and Jim scowled. Fuck that.

Maybe this time he'd find a cargo ship to take him off-planet. Right now, nowhere sounded far enough away. And Spock could just continue his little examination of Humanity on his own, where he didn't have to worry about being "complicated" by anyone. Jim shoved that thought away.

Jim was practically prying the elevator doors opened himself when the damn thing finally chimed for his floor and started to slide apart, wedging himself inside and jamming his fingers against the "door close" button, not wanting to so much as share air with another being right now. The urge to break for the front doors of the building was strong, but Jim needed his bike.

He'd have to wire McCoy some money for rent, maybe a note telling him that he'd be out of town for a little while. Jim didn't know yet if he'd be coming back to Los Angeles, but McCoy was one of the few true friends Jim had made over the years, and he deserved better than a vanished roommate with no explanation. Jim mashed the button for the nineteenth floor and cursed as the door began its leisurely climb. Couldn't these things move any faster?

Jim shoved his way out of the elevator before the doors had completely opened, oblivious to anyone or anything that might already be in the hallway. Five steps and he burst into Spock's room, letting the door swing shut behind him with a satisfying slam. Jim took a few steps into the room, stopping in the middle of the floor, staring from his black jacket draped over the back of the couch to the neat stack of PADDs on Spock's desk.

"Fuck," he muttered, smearing a hand across his face, as though that would clear his head of its painful buzzing. He shut his eyes, and Spock's face appeared, cocking one eyebrow and glancing sideways at him across a dinner table. Or a coffee table. Head tilted quizzically to one side as he asked Jim to explain yet another nuance of Human interaction. "Fuck," Jim said again, eyes snapping open. He clenched his fists, took a few more steps forward, and was appalled to find himself trembling. "FUCK!" he yelled, his voice breaking as the curse died away, and in a sudden fury he grabbed up one of the PADDS on Spock's desk and hurled it across the room, watching it shatter against the far wall and taking no satisfaction in it.

Jim started at the sound of the door behind him opening. Spock must have seen him leaving, he realized, and he was already moving, grabbing up his jacket and his keys. He was opening his mouth to speak, something stupid and untrue that Spock would not believe for a moment (and Jim did not care if he did), when a voice from behind him came that was definitely not Spock.

"Hello there, Jim."

White shock burst up Jim's spine, his tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth. He whirled to see the owner of the voice, and saw Rijaal standing just inside the door, arms crossed over his broad chest. All thick muscles and dark, braided hair, complete with tribal tattoos on arms, face, and neck, Rijaal was a client of Jim's—former client, he corrected himself grimly. Jim only kept himself from backing away by virtue of not wanting to show weakness to Rijaal. If the humanoid shark scented blood in the water, he'd be on Jim in an instant.

Get the fuck away from me! was what Jim wanted to shout. "Mind tellin' me what you're doin' in a private room?" was what Jim said instead, giving an easy smile that in no way matched the fear-flesh creeping up the back of his neck, making his nipples hard and his skin tighten all across his body. Jim put his hands on his hips, as much to keep them from bunching into fists as to keep them free.

"Oh, I followed you," Rijaal said. He strolled around the edge of the room, circling the couch that stood between him and Jim. Jim hesitated for half a second, torn between wanting to keep up the appearance of being unintimidated and the real need to keep something physical between him and Rijaal, and decided that safety was more important.

"Yeah? You still mad that I changed my number?" He could feel adrenaline flooding him, fought the growing urge to bolt. If he could just keep Rijaal moving, get close enough to the door... He fell into a slow walk, matching Rijaal, keeping the couch between them, and bit back another blossom of fear at the smirk that came onto Rijaal's face.

Rijaal stopped where he was, still firmly between Jim and the door, a cruel glint in his dark eyes. "Jimmy, baby," he crooned, completely out of sync with the violence Jim could read in his face and stance. Shit, Jim thought. How the fuck was Rijaal even here? "Did you really think you'd ever be able to find anyone else who could give you what you want? I know how you like it, Jimmy."

"Sure you do," Jim said, or started to, because that was when Rijaal moved, lunging for Jim over the couch. Jim threw himself backwards, out of reach, and promptly tripped over the coffee table he'd forgotten all about, going crashing to the floor in a sprawl of limbs and PADDS and books. Rijaal was on him in an instant, smashing him across the temple with the back of his hand hard enough to make lights burst behind Jim's eyes. Jim sagged, head spinning, still managing to struggle as Rijaal hauled him to his feet, rough hands pawing at him already through his clothes.

"Always knew you'd dress up all nice and pretty," Rijaal hissed into Jim's ear, shaking him once like a man with a dog. Jim gasped, shoving at the hand that was already working into his slacks, making him cry out in pain as Rijaal groped him roughly. "Makes it that much hotter when I rip all those expensive clothes off you." Jim shoved hard at Rijaal, bringing his knee up between his attacker's legs, and strained with all his might as Rijaal hunched over, grunting in pain... but the distraction wasn't quite enough, or else Jim's muscles weren't working quite right yet, because Rijaal's grip on his shoulder tightened alarmingly and the brutish face inches from his snarled with fury—

And then his eyes rolled up in his head, face clearing of all expression, and three hundred pounds of muscle and malice dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. Jim would have gone down with Rijaal, but a hand shot out and grabbed him, saving him from collapse. Spock's face came into dizzy focus as Jim peered up at him, struggling to clear his ringing head.

"Jim," Spock said urgently, "say something. Are you injured?" The warm arm slid around Jim's shoulders as Spock helped walk Jim over to sit down on one of the overstuffed couches, settling onto the seat next to him. Jim leaned into him instinctively, his head still ringing, pulse pounding with fear and adrenaline and the all-too-real knowledge of what had just almost happened to him.

Then reality caught back up, and he shoved Spock away so violently that he almost fell off the couch again. "Nice timing," he slurred, climbing unsteadily to his feet again (fuck, Rijaal had hit him hard). "I was just gettin' ready to leave. If you hurry back downstairs, no one will even realize you were gone."

Spock stared at him from the couch, and once the throbbing of Jim's skull settled down he might be able to read that expression, but of course Jim wasn't planning on sticking around that long. "You were being assaulted by this intruder," Spock said, and though his voice was careful, Jim wasn't out of it enough to miss the way his fingers tightened in his lap. "You are clearly injured, you should sit down—"

"Yeah, no fucking shit. So sorry you had to see that." Jim bit his lip, swaying very slightly. Shit, he really shouldn't be driving home like this. Maybe he'd call a cab.... no, fuck it, he hadn't even been drinking, he'd be fine. Spock rose from the couch now, approaching Jim slowly, like you would a wounded animal. "Stop," Jim snapped, straightening as Spock reached out a hand again. Spock stared at him, slowly withdrawing his hand. "Just stop. I'm leaving."

"Jim, you should not—"

"Fuck you, Spock," Jim spat. "I shouldn't have come, is what I shouldn't. Wouldn't want to complicate you." The words had the intended effect: Spock stiffened, his expression darkening for a moment with some unreadable emotion—guilt? anger?—before going completely flat, shutting down exactly like Jim knew he would. "You got better things to be worrying about, so I'm just gonna go. Peace out." With that, Jim snatched up his jacket and keys once more, turned on his heel, and headed for the door.

Only to be cut off by Spock yet again before he could reach it. "You are referring to the words you overheard me speak to my father in the hallway downstairs," Spock said flatly. "You are over-reacting and mis-interpreting a part of a conversation you have taken out of context—"

It was the wrong thing to say. This time Jim lunged at Spock, shoving with both hands at Spock's shoulders, sending him reeling backwards off-balance. "I'm overreacting?" Jim demanded. Spots of color appeared high on his face, one on each cheekbone and another in the center of his forehead, giving him the appearance of a man stricken with fever. And he felt feverish, sick and dizzy with rage. "Well thank fuckin' Christ I've got my very own Vulcan to tell me what a stupid Human I'm being. Or maybe you haven't even noticed, have you?" Jim surged forward, getting up in Spock's face, backing him towards the wall. "You've been too busy kissing the ass of every Vulcan who comes up to you, trying to reassure them that you're not 'complicated' by me. So sorry us Humans are so embarrassing—"

"It is your emotionalism right now that is embarrassing, Jim," Spock said. His face was a mask, his arms flat at his sides, his eyes black chips of coal. He held himself perfectly still, only the flare of his nostrils betraying any hint of reaction. "I brought you here because I am not ashamed of you, because I do not wish to hide you from my people, but I do not have the time to dance attention on you as you so apparently require—"

"Attention? Oh, please. You've barely looked at me since we came back! You've barely touched me, you were gone this morning before I even got up—"

"Because I have responsibilities, Jim!" Now Spock's voice was rising as Jim's was, his tension a physical thing. "A concept I realize someone like you has trouble understanding, but I will not simply turn my face away from my people in their time of need!"

The words hit Jim like a slap in the face. For a few moments, all he could do was stand there and stare at Spock. The sudden absence of shouting was deafening, and Spock recoiled slightly. "Yeah," Jim said into the silence. "Okay, then." He took a deep breath and stepped back. He couldn't seem to think. It was as though his head had been plunged into ice. "I'm gonna go, Spock. Good luck with the secession hearing."

"Jim, why are you—"

"Don't, Spock," Jim cut in. He turned away, suddenly not even able to look Spock in the face anymore. "Just don't."

He went out into the hallway, pressed the button for the elevator, and stared straight ahead until the elevator doors opened. Jim turned his gaze just enough to glance back into the room he'd just came from, but the door was closed.

* * * * *

If a violent, socially deviant humanoid had not been passed out cold on Spock's floor, it was very likely Spock would simply have locked himself in his suite and not emerged for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, not only did Rijaal stink unpleasantly of body odor and alcohol, he had also somehow obtained access to Spock's private quarters. So, doing his level best to put Jim's abrupt departure from his mind, Spock sent for the Federation officials to come collect the unconscious would-be attacker from his rooms.

Which turned the next hour and a half into what Spock overheard one of the officials he'd summoned describe as "a shit-show." All manner of beings were milling around Spock's rooms, giving him no peace whatsoever, and though Spock had initially hoped to avoid mentioning Jim at all, he quickly had to abort that decision when several Vulcans started making noises about how the intruder was yet another display of hostility from the Federation. It seemed nothing was exempt from political machinations, Spock observed with more than a touch of cynicism, watching from his seat on the couch in what had been the main living area of his suite.

He might have been slightly curt with the Federation investigator—a mustachioed, stocky man in his mid-fifties who seemed to have a dozen new questions for every one that Spock answered for him—but the detective seemed entirely too curious about the nature of Spock's relationship with Jim for Spock's comfort. Who had access to Spock's rooms? Only Jim Kirk and Spock, though when asked Spock had to concede that the hotel manager Harcourt Mudd might logically also have had access. Where was Jim Kirk now? Presumably at his dwelling in Venice Beach, but of course Spock did not know, as he was only a touch-telepath and not an actual psychic. Perhaps the detective might try contacting Mr. Kirk himself. Why wasn't Jim Kirk answering his comm-unit? Spock could not have said. Why had Spock permitted Mr. Kirk to leave before an investigation could be conducted? Spock was not in the habit of nerve-pinching others to force them to do as he wished, save in self-defense.

Correction; Spock had been more than slightly curt with the detective. But under the circumstances, Spock found it difficult to care about his own increasingly illogical reactions.

Spock might also have been somewhat put out that Jim had left (how typical, he thought, and tried not to), leaving all of this obnoxiousness for Spock to deal with, as if he didn't have enough to worry about already. But that made him think too much about the words he and Jim had exchanged before Jim's abrupt departure, and Spock found that the more he considered the things he and Jim had said to one another, the less comfortable he was with the whole situation.

But then Detective Larsen, he of the indefatigable questions, returned to Spock's quarters two-point-three hours later (knocking loudly on Spock's bedroom door until finally Spock was forced to either answer the door or put his fist through the wall) and informed him that Rijaal had confessed to being contacted by Harcourt Mudd in order to "teach Jim Kirk a lesson," that Rijaal had in turn been given his illicit key-card to Spock's quarters by Mudd himself, and that Federation officials had arrested Harcourt Mudd at his private residence in the act of packing his vehicle for a hasty departure from Los Angeles.

Spock raised an eyebrow at the detective, who was now sitting in the chair across from Spock's desk. "I presume that you came to deliver this message in person for some purpose relating to this investigation and not for the pleasure of my company," he said finally. He moved to the teapot that was sitting out on the counter, and removed two cups from the small cabinet set into the wall.

The detective smiled thinly. "I like you exactly as much as my mother-in-law likes me, Mr. Spock," he said, raising his eyes from flicking through pages on his PADD. "But Harcourt Mudd claims to have information regarding the leaked Federation memorandum. Specifically, that he overheard one of Admiral Barnett's aides and a Vulcan woman discussing a falsified document they intended to make public at a Federation gathering two weeks ago. And since Rijaal's attack was directed at one of your companions, I wondered if you might have any information confirming or denying Mudd's claim."

Spock kept his eyes on the teapot in his hands, pouring out two mugs of steaming herbal tea and setting the teapot aside. He kept his face perfectly straight as he brought one mug over to Detective Larsen, settling into the remaining chair at the desk. "I have no information that might be of use to you, Detective," he said evenly, cradling his own mug in both hands. "However, should I be made aware of anything I believe to be pertinent to the case, I will of course contact you immediately."

Larsen nodded minutely, ignoring the mug Spock set in front of him. "I appreciate your cooperation, Mr. Spock," he said placidly. "I know you want this situation resolved as much as we do. But if you're sure you have nothing more to tell me...." He trailed off, still watching Spock, but Spock merely sat where he was, sipping at his tea. Finally, the detective rose to his feet, giving Spock one more short nod. "We'll be in contact, Mr. Spock," he said. "We'll let you know if we learn anything new."

"Many thanks, Detective." Spock rose as well, escorting the detective to the door. Only once it was shut behind Larsen and Spock had returned to his desk did he let go of the breath he'd been holding, a heavy knot settling into the pit of his stomach. Spock shut his eyes, a memory replaying itself behind the lids: the symposium gathering on the same date Detective Larsen spoke of, the day after the dinner with Pike and Komack, when Spock had seen T'Pring speaking to a Human off in a corner of the courtyard. Spock had been so distracted by his conversation with Sasak and his thoughts of Jim that he had paid it no mind at the time, but now the event acquired an ominous significance in his mind.

He was being ridiculous. Mudd had doubtless made the claim in order to try to save his own skin; surely he would be proven a liar, his bid for lenience a mere ruse. And T'Pring having a discussion with a Human did not mean anything in and of itself. Spock opened his eyes, staring at the computer monitor, seeing nothing of the words on the screen. He picked up his mug, took a sip, and set it down again without even registering the taste. Surak himself might have come into his quarters right then and Spock would not even have noticed.

Mudd had been the one to introduce Spock to Jim, and had since then found cause to deliberately send a violent attacker after Jim, for reasons Spock could guess at but not entirely understand. And now either the Federation was moving to deliberately sabotage Vulcan's autonomy, when Vulcan had been one of its founding members, or else someone wished for the world to think it so. But surely T'Pring could not have anything to do with the Federation memorandum. Surely...

Spock stood up abruptly, almost knocking his mug of tea across his desk and not even noticing. He had to talk to T'Pring. Then he could think about what to do about Jim.

* * * * *

Later, Spock would realize it had been idiotic of him to go straight to T'Pring's quarters after being questioned by Detective Larsen—had he thought about it at all, he would have messaged T'Pring on her comm unit before doing anything else. And if while he was at it, he would have deduced (correctly, as it turned out) that he might be followed, that Federation security would be monitoring the activities of all the Vulcan delegates in the wake of such a tumultuous couple of days. But at the time all he could think was that he had to speak with T'Pring.

She answered her door after the first knock, staring at him with one eyebrow raised. The expression was so familiar and unthreatening on her that Spock found himself at a sudden loss for words, wondering again if all his concerns were a figment of his imagination—a product of spending too much time in the company of Humans, and the stress that he'd been subjected to the past couple of days. "I presume there is a reason you came to speak with me," she said at length, when Spock still had not said anything, "and that you are not having an episode of sleep-walking?"

Spock shook himself. "I wish to speak with you in private," he said. "Now, if you are not otherwise indisposed."

T'Pring hesitated, and Spock's stomach tightened. But "Come in," was all she said, and Spock slipped into her quarters, taking a deep breath as she shut the door behind them. He waited until she'd led him into the sitting chambers, settling himself onto the couch while she sank into the armchair opposite him, her crimson robes swirling around her.

"What is it you wished to speak to me about?" she asked, clasping her hands in her lap.

"Harcourt Mudd claims to have heard a Vulcan woman and a Human male discussing a falsified Federation document on the afternoon of the science exposition," Spock said, striving to keep his voice calm despite the way the words stuck in his throat. "I saw you speaking to a young Human that day out in the courtyard, as though you did not wish to be overheard."

T'Pring was silent, her face betraying no hint of reaction. Spock clasped his own hands in his lap and kept his gaze level. Finally, T'Pring straightened, as if summoning her resolve. "If you wish me to state that I am responsible for falsifying and distributing the leaked Federation document, I will do no such thing," T'Pring said, her voice as cool as Spock had ever heard it.

"Is that because you did not do it, or because you do not wish to incriminate yourself?" Spock stared at T'Pring, hardly able to believe such blatant misdirection, but T'Pring only raised her eyebrow again, as untouchable as a wall of ice. Spock felt a horrible certainty settle into his bones.

"Has your time amongst the Humans skewed your perceptions so badly that you are now incapable of believing what you previously knew to be true?" T'Pring leaned forward, her eyes dark and intent, full of a dreadful urgency. "The Federation takes our people for granted, and they would do anything to prevent us from taking our resources and refocusing them on our own needs, instead of allowing ourselves to be bent to their desires—"

"Save your rhetoric for someone who will believe it," Spock cut in, already rising from his seat, a welcome detachment settling over him like an invisible sheet. "Your unwillingness to answer my question directly is proof enough of your guilt."

"Spock!" T'Pring rose at almost the same instant Spock did, reaching for him as though physically prevent him from leaving. She stopped herself at the last moment, bringing her hands in front of her instead, palms pressed together. "You have no proof of anything," she said.

"I have enough to turn their investigations your way, which is all that is needed," Spock said. The new realization of T'Pring's betrayal seemed to have left him temporarily numb, though he knew better than to believe he would be able to remain stoic for long. But at the moment all that mattered was telling his suspicions to Detective Larsen, putting the proceedings in his capable hands and retreating to his rooms.

T'Pring did reach out then, grabbing hold of Spock's arms to physically arrest his movement. "Spock, you must not do this thing," she said. Her face was still calm, still even, but Spock could hear the strain in her voice now, the same strain that was pressing heavy on him.

"Give me even one reason why I should not go to Federation authorities right now and tell them of your deceit." The ice in his own voice surprised him. Spock looked down at the hands on his arms, and after a moment T'Pring let them fall away.

T'Pring drew herself up, some of her usual confidence returning. "I have done what is right for our people," she bit out. "I have moved to protect Vulcan and her children."

"What is right? Muddling the truth to enrage Vulcan into a decision, robbing them of their ability to decide their destiny for themselves? Has the right choice become so unrecognizable?"

"They are blind!" T'Pring shouted, hands clenching into fists at her sides, her beautiful face lit up with the force of her rage. "As you have become blind! How can you be so free with the Federation who so takes us for granted, who ask for everything from us and gives us nothing back? Spock!"

Spock closed his eyes. "It is you who have allowed your fear and pain to blind you, my friend," he said heavily. He turned away before he could see her face again, pressure building steadily behind his eyes, and the hiss of the door opening ahead of him took him by surprise. Spock stopped in his tracks as the door opened and Humans in Federation uniforms marched in, armed with grim expressions and phasers. Detective Larsen came behind them, nodding curtly to Spock before sweeping past him to where T'Pring stood as though turned to stone.

"Lady T'Pring, you are under arrest," Spock heard him say. "You are being formally charged with treason and conspiracy, with falsifying a Federation document..."

Spock had heard enough. Spock sped up, slipping away out the door before he could betray himself by looking back and catching a glimpse of T'Pring's face.

* * * * *

Of the many historic events that would happen that day (among them the assault of the future Captain of the famous starship Enterprise, and the arrest of Lady T'Pring of the house of T'Pau), the one that would be lost to the history books was the small chain of miracles involving James Kirk in one two-hour span. Jim flew out the door of the Beverly Wilshire hotel like his tail was on fire, vaulting onto his motorbike and tearing down the street, heedless of the pounding of his recently-injured skull and the painful lump in his throat.

By the time he arrived at home, he had narrowly avoided three collisions, of which the first two would have injured him and a number of pedestrians badly, and the last would have killed him instantly. Jim was saved, respectively, by his own astonishing luck, by the careful attention of Sarah Kellermen's boyfriend (who yanked her out of the way of the oncoming bike in the nick of time), and by the fact that Al-Jazarid Fakim had insisted on relieving his brother from his last overtime shift earlier that morning. If Al-Jazarid's brother Omar had been driving the heavy transport Jim swerved in front of, Omar's overtired reflexes would not have been up to the task of coming to the shrieking halt that allowed Jim Kirk to drive away in one whole, un-flattened piece.

The next minor miracle did not involve Jim specifically, but instead was owed to Leonard McCoy's insomnia. If Dr. McCoy had been able to sleep the night before, he wouldn't have come home for a mid-afternoon nap. And if he had not come home for his nap, he would not have been able to mis-set his alarm and oversleep, and he would not have been shuffling around the kitchen of the home he shared with Jim Kirk when Jim came bursting through the back door that afternoon. And with no one to waylay him, there is no telling how far Jim might have run before finally falling back to earth.

But McCoy was there, in all his bed-headed, crabby glory, and one look at Jim's wild eyes was all it took for him to set down his coffee mug before it ended up all down the front of his favorite sweatshirt. Jim yanked off his motorcycle helmet, throwing it onto the counter, and then he had to stop moving or else physically plow through his friend, who had taken the moment of distraction to get up in Jim's business. "Whoa, kid," McCoy said, hands going to Jim's shoulders, trying to exert some calmness on the man in front of him. At the moment, Jim resembled nothing so much as a startled colt, all wild eyes and heavy breathing, ready to bolt back out the door if McCoy wasn't careful.

"Dammit Bones I don't have time for this, I have to get going—" Jim batted ineffectually at McCoy's hands, but all that did was encourage McCoy to sling an arm around Jim's back and steer him to the kitchen table, plunking him unceremoniously down in the chair he himself had just vacated.

"You're going nowhere till you calm the fuck down," McCoy said bluntly. "Whaddya want, whiskey or beer?"

Jim glared down at the table and tried to get up; McCoy, who had anticipated this, just shoved him back down into the chair again. "Beer it is," McCoy announced. "I ain't wastin' my good whiskey on you right now."

"Gee, thanks," Jim growled, but this time when McCoy went to the fridge to grab a couple of beers, Jim stayed where he was—which is why he didn't see McCoy go to the comm-unit on the counter by the fridge and send off a silent message. McCoy pulled two beers out of the fridge, popped the tops off each bottle, and came back to the table, dropping into the chair opposite Jim's as he passed Jim his bottle. He watched Jim take the angriest four swallows of beer he thought he'd ever seen in his life, and then leaned back into his chair, staring at the bottle in his hand as though he expected it to try to attack him. McCoy stayed silent as Jim took a few deep breaths, and then another pull on his beer, all the while slowly nursing his own drink as he waited.

Finally, Jim sagged in his seat, losing some of the manic energy that had possessed him so completely a few minutes ago. "I hate you," Jim groaned, rubbing at his face. "Fuck, Bones."

"I hate you too, kid, especially when you come bargin' in here like some kinda loose cannon," McCoy responded, not unkindly. "Now, do we have to play twenty questions, or are you gonna tell me what the hell has your panties in such a knot? I thought you were spending this afternoon with Spock."

At the mention of Spock, Jim scowled and took another pull on his beer. "Fuck Spock," he said darkly.

McCoy stared. "Oh, really," he said after a moment. "I think you'd better keep talking, Jim."

So Jim did. His story went through the rest of the beers McCoy had already gotten out and most of a second round, and by the time Jim was done McCoy was thinking wistfully about his bottle of Jim Beam back in his room. But two beers was more than he'd planned to drink at all today, and Jim did not exactly need help in the fuzzy thinking department right now. McCoy was already wishing he hadn't given Jim anything alcoholic to drink at all, but short of forcing Jim to wear a shirt that lit up every time someone committed injuries upon his person, McCoy could not really be expected to keep track of Jim's continuing adventures in head trauma.

"So, let me get this straight," McCoy said, after Jim had finally wound to a halt and was staring resentfully at the half-empty bottle in his hand as if wheat ale was the source of all pain and sadness in the world. "Not only did you get emotionally involved with a Vulcan, of all the people to fall for—a Vulcan that you knew had better than good chances of going back to Vulcan when this secession business was done—but you got in a fight with said Vulcan, after getting fucking assaulted, and then drove home. With a concussion. And then let me give you alcohol. That about cover it?"

"You know you really suck at this whole 'best friend' thing," Jim complained loudly. "You know, that part where you're supposed to be giving me sympathy?"

"You want sympathy, call your mama—"

"—have you met my mother?"

"You are a god-damned idiot, Jim."

"Well thanks for that, Bones, it's just what I fucking wanted to hear right now. I'm so glad that all my problems come from the fact that I'm apparently a blithering idiot with no sense of responsibility." Jim shot a glance at McCoy that said, quite clearly, that he was contemplating getting up and possibly breaking his beer bottle over something ("something" being "Bones's skull"), but McCoy wasn't planning on waiting around for Jim to get another bad idea stuck in his head.

"Quit whining, kid, you knew damn well I wasn't gonna sit around and give you tea and sympathy. You're not friends with me because I'm a kiss-ass." Jim glowered at him over the top of his beer bottle. McCoy opened his mouth to really get going, but then Jim dropped his gaze to the table, and something about the sight of Jim Kirk slumped defeated into one of McCoy's kitchen chairs broke him a little. McCoy sighed and rubbed at his temple, wondering if it were possible for a man to go prematurely grey from having the universe's most batshit-crazy friend. "Look. You already know what I think of you dating Spock in the first place—not to say anything nasty about the guy, I think I like him better than pretty much everyone you've ever laid eyes on except for Janice, but inter-species dating is tricky at best, and that's with species that aren't in danger of seceding."

"Yeah, whatever. You're right, it was stupid anyways." Jim picked at the label on his beer bottle for a few seconds before lifting it to his mouth and finishing the rest of it off. "I think I'm just gonna go out of town for a few days, though, clear my head. I'll give you a check for next month's rent before I go."

McCoy paused thoughtfully, staring at Jim, who no longer seemed willing to meet McCoy's eyes. Neither of them said anything for a few moments; Jim started to fidget in the increasingly uncomfortable silence. When McCoy spoke next, his voice was hard enough to make Jim jump, head snapping up to stare at his friend. "I can't believe you really think I'm stupid enough to buy that bullshit, or that you'd feed me such a line of crap in the first place. You cowardly little asshole."

"What the fuck?" Jim demanded, or tried to, because McCoy was on his feet now, planting both hands on the table as he loomed over his wayward friend.

"You don't have any intention of coming back 'in a few days,' and don't think for one second I can't tell, because I know you. Shut the fuck up, Kirk, I'm not done talking." Some of Jim's own anger was coming back now, too, bunching his shoulders into a hard line as he stared at McCoy, but he didn't stand a chance of getting a word in edgewise. "Alright, you fell for Spock, and he's being a dick and so are you, and maybe you guys can work it out and maybe you can't, but you're not even waiting to stick around to find out because you're too goddamn scared. You're scared of everything. I've never seen such a capable, intelligent man so unwilling to try anything hard in my life, and I've seen some real prize-winners, Jim, but right now you are taking the goddamn cake. I've been so glad to see what you've been like the past few weeks with Spock around—you quit whorin' your fool self out, you've been busting your ass in those classes, you've been happy, and now at the first snag you're, what, going to just run the fuck out of town away from everything? Away from me and all of your friends, away from all the hard work you've done."

"I wasn't gonna run off," Jim interjected. "Like hell you weren't," McCoy snapped, and Jim threw up his hands.

"What?" he demanded. "What do you want from me? I suppose you think I should just jump in line to be a good little boy? Join Starfleet, maybe? Would you approve of me then? Because I hate to tell you this, but you aren't gonna be winning any 'Father of the Year' awards any time soon—"

"You shut the fuck up about my family, Jim," McCoy growled. "I didn't go through Hell and back just to listen to you run your damn mouth. As for what you do, I honestly don't give two shits, so long as it's not a waste of your goddamn time. Starfleet would be great—you'd be amazing and you know it. But my point, Jim, is that it's cowardly of you to drop everything and run the minute shit gets rough. And if you run off like that, don't expect to come back and find any of us still want you as a friend."

Jim said nothing at all to that, only glared at McCoy, his face livid with anger, and for several moments McCoy thought he'd gone too far, that he was wrong and Jim really was just going to run for it. Then Jim sagged, all the tension running out of him like sand, and he slumped back in his chair again, rubbing at his face with both hands. "Fuck," he mumbled, and McCoy felt his heart go out to the idiot despite himself. "I... fuck. I'm sorry, Bones."

McCoy shook his head. Today was one of those days where he wondered how and why he'd let himself get tangled up with James T. Kirk. Hopefully tomorrow would be one where he would have no trouble remembering. "You're an idiot, Jim," he sighed, and went to grab another drink for Jim from the fridge—this one non-alcoholic.

* * * * *

Across town, 4.75 hours after leaving T'Pring's quarters, Spock had succeeded in gaining the safety of his room, only to discover that as oppressive as the presence of others felt right now, being alone was worse.

He could not recall the last time he had felt so exhausted -- not just the familiar mental fatigue of a grueling research project, but a weariness invading all his thoughts. And now that he'd found the relative quiet of his quarters (newly secured by inspectors from the Federation and the Vulcan embassy), Spock was dismayed to discover that there was nothing to drown out the chaos inside his mind.

Again and again, Spock found himself replaying all the conversations he'd had today: with Inspector Larsen, with T'Pring, with Sasak, but it was the scene with Jim that stuck in the front of Spock's mind. He had missed the public reaction to T'Pring's arrest completely, outside of conversations with a handful of shocked colleagues asking him what he knew; he did not know if the Federation or Vulcan at large was outraged, relieved, or anything else. He had checked his messages but found no interest in even opening any of them. He retired to his bedroom to attempt to sink into a meditative state, and fifty-six minutes later gave up in despair.

Spock had so much that needed attending to, and yet he could not concentrate. The opening arguments of the secession hearing would begin in two days, and Spock had been asked to speak to the council at the culmination of the talks. What notes Spock did have for his speech would need to be heavily edited in the face of what T'Pring had done.

He could not understand how his closest childhood companion had come to adopt such a radical way of thinking. When Spock had been unable to control his burgeoning emotions during adolescence, T'Pring quietly helped him calm himself. When Amanda died, it was T'Pring who flouted tradition and invited Spock out of the house again and again, despite Spock's reluctance. T'Pring had been the one to recognize the lack of mental compatibility between them, and proposed the dissolution of their pre-bond link to the council of Elders.

It was only once he'd been accepted to the VSA and she had gone instead to the healing halls of Golgotharan that they had grown apart somewhat. But that was to be expected, and it did not explain how this turn of events had come to pass. Spock clasped his hands more tightly in his lap and shut his eyes, fighting the helplessness that wanted to fill him from the inside. It was ironic—that was the word, he thought—ironic that the one Vulcan he would have felt comfortable talking to about Jim, and Spock's Human family, was the one who was so avidly against Vulcan remaining with the Human-centric Federation that she would purposely sabotage Vulcan's sentiments towards it.

At the thought of Jim, Spock felt another wave of black pain and confusion roll through him. Time and again he had gone over the past few days, and the fight he'd had with Jim today that set off all the rest of the afternoon, and he still could not understand why they had fought, or even what they had fought about. The memory now of his loss of control—the way he had shouted at Jim, had just let Jim go—now filled him with shame and revulsion. The thick taste of bile filled his mouth, and an awful weight seemed to press down on his chest as the helplessness that had haunted him since he was a child of eleven threatened to spill forth all over again, filling his lungs and veins with lead.

It was pointless to wish to take back words that had already been uttered, to undo what he had done. And what if Jim chose to leave? What if he decided that he wanted nothing to more to do with Spock, son of Sarek? What if the people of Vulcan decided to withdraw from the Federation, to lock themselves away? Spock thought of going back to a cloistered planet, to live among a people who considered half his heritage to be unworthy of their attention, and found the idea abhorrent. After all that he'd come to appreciate about his Human half while here on Earth, he could hardly go back to acting as though it did not exist.

A knock came at the door. Spock shook himself, glancing up at the noise. "Enter," he said, exerting himself. The door slid open, and Sarek came in, the door hissing quietly as it slid closed again behind him. "Father," Spock said, rising to his feet, and stopped, at a loss for words.

Sarek said nothing for a few moments. He simply stood in the center of the room, studying Spock, his hands clasped behind his back. Spock found he could bear the silence between two people even less than the silence of one, and finally said, "You have heard the news of T'Pring's betrayal."

Sarek inclined his head. "I could not have avoided it." He took a step or two closer and paused; Spock stood motionless, his limbs heavy and useless. "Speak your mind, Spock."

Spock took a deep breath. The weight in his chest had become almost unbearable. "That... would be unwise."

"What is necessary is never unwise." It was so unlike anything Spock expected from his father that he found himself at a loss for words. He looked down at his hands, as if he might find some answer there.

"I am—I feel conflicted, Father. To the point where I cannot think, or find peace." He heard the rustle of his father drawing closer.

"Conflict is a natural result of your unique heritage, my son. But I have always been grateful for that." Spock finally lifted his gaze. "And not only because you are all I have left of her."

Spock felt his throat tighten painfully, and he clenched his fists against the fresh well of emotion pulsing in the back of his throat. Sarek watched him, his severe features now veiling some unnameable emotion. Spock took another deep breath. "I feel... anger, that T'Pring would mislead everyone so shamefully. And I feel drawn to the Human I have befriended since coming to Earth, despite knowing that I must logically return to Vulcan." Spock's voice grew unsteady, but he forced himself to say what came next. "I cannot control myself when I am around him, Father."

Again, Sarek inclined his head. "In this instance, do not try to." Sarek hesitated; then, choosing his words, he continued, "I did not marry your mother because it was logical, Spock. I married her because I loved her."

Whatever Spock might have said in response stuck in his throat. For several seconds, he could scarcely even breathe. Finally, he looked over at Sarek, managing to nod mutely. This seemed to satisfy Sarek, because he drew back, re-folding his hands inside his robes. "Be sure that you are here by 1500 hours tomorrow afternoon. The delegation will leave for the Mojave desert at 1700 hours." Again Spock nodded, watching as Sarek nod in return before slipping quietly out Spock's door.

It took a few more minutes before Spock was ready to leave. But for the first time since he returned to Los Angeles from Washington, he knew exactly what he wanted to do next.

* * * * *

He'd finally found the picture at the very back of the bottom drawer of his desk. Jim sat curled up on his bed, the sounds of Los Angeles traffic drifting to his ears but doing nothing to distract him from the old photo frame he held in his hand.

In the picture, Winona Kirk stood with her arms around two boys, one grinning and gap-toothed, the other taller boy pretending to be bored but mostly failing at it. Both boys had the same electric blue eyes and nearly-identical dimples. This photo had been taken a week before Winona shipped off for what turned out to be her last off-planet tour of duty, accompanied by a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Jim stared at the mother he hadn't seen in person in two years, at a brother who'd been lost to him since long before he ran away to Deneva. You could see Sam and Winona's smiles hiding just behind their eyes in this photo; Sam and Winona never smiled unless they really meant it. Jim had loved trying to make them laugh when they didn't want to, a job that became almost impossibly difficult a few months after this photo. Not that it had stopped Jim from trying—for a while, anyway.

He leaned back and let out a long breath, the sound of it loud in the quiet of his room. Jim wasn't given to thinking much about his past, but McCoy had dragged a promise out of him to wait a whole day before making any big decisions. He'd gone out for a drive, just to think, and wound up back at the house anyway, now hiding in his room.

Jim wasn't even sure why the hell he'd wanted to dig out this picture. He swallowed against a sudden lump in the back of his throat. The silence he'd craved so badly turned oppressive; he groped for the remote control on the floor next to the bed, and flipped on the music-player on his desk, mashing the button for "random."

An old, vaguely familiar jazz tune came on, and Jim rolled onto his back on the bed again, staring at the ceiling, wishing he could just sink through it, sink through the floor, and vanish into the earth. But that approach hadn't made Jim any happier when he'd tried it with Winona and Sam than it had with Spock today.

Once he'd gotten home from his bike-ride and cooled down a bit, Jim could admit what McCoy and Spock had both said; he'd over-reacted. Badly. He still wanted a fucking explanation for that comment about not "complicating" Spock, but shit, he hadn't even given Spock a chance when Spock had tried to do exactly that—he'd just flown off the handle at him, and then run off. And Jim might've wondered if he was just sabotaging himself, if it weren't for the fact that he didn't remember the last time he wanted something as badly as he wanted to be with Spock.

It wasn't just that Spock was brilliant, or funny (strangely), or fucking sexy, or charming, or—or any of those things, because he was, but it wasn't just that. Spock made Jim care again, made him want to be better than he was again. Jim felt capable of being worth something, when he was with Spock. It had been so long since Jim had felt like that, and he didn't think he wanted to go back to not having it.

Jim jumped as the song ended, abruptly changing to a loud, grinding piece of rock n' roll that sounded like two cement mixers dueling to the death. He rolled off the bed, devoting two pointless seconds to trying to find the remote before darting across the room and mashing the "off" switch, breathing a sigh as the screeching guitars went silent.

Well, shit. He couldn't go back to whoring around, that was for sure. Just the thought nearly made him break out in hives. Jim trudged back to the bed, letting himself flop face-first down onto it, his stomach rumbling in protest to remind him that he hadn't eaten in almost twelve hours. He supposed he'd have to go into the kitchen and shove something down his throat, if only to keep from making himself more ill, but nothing sounded remotely appetizing at the moment.

Maybe he could... fix cars? No, fuck that. Doing it part-time was fun; doing it as a job would eat up way too much of his time and bore him to tears. Jim rolled onto his side, curling in towards his knees like a comma, drifting off again as his thoughts wandered. He supposed he could actually go to school full-time, go after a degree, do something in social work, maybe... Jim shook his head, scowling at the wall. Every time he tried to picture himself doing something, inevitably Spock appeared at the edge of the vision—picking him up from work, from class, waiting for him at home in the apartment they shared. A Spock who didn't realize that dating Jim Kirk was one of the most illogical things he could possibly choose to do, a Spock that didn't go back to Vulcan—and oh god, what if Vulcan really did secede? What then?

Jim groaned and pressed his hands to his face. He'd deliberately left his PADD in the kitchen so that he couldn't page Spock and beg him to come over. But Spock was probably dealing with a thousand bureaucrats and Federation representatives right now, and his wayward Human lover was probably the very last thing on his mind. Just that thought sent Jim's stomach twisting into fresh knots, and Jim squeezed his eyes resolutely shut, refusing to acknowledge the stinging at their corners.

A knock at the door made him jump for the second time in five minutes. Jim rolled upright at the edge of the bed, staring at the door. "Yo," he said warily.

"It's me, Jim." McCoy's voice filtered through the wood, slightly muffled. "Someone here to see you."

Jim's heart leapt immediately and obnoxiously into his throat, and he had to work at swallowing a few times in order to clear it enough to answer, "Sure, come in."

But the figure who appeared in the doorway to Jim's bedroom was not a slim, immaculately-dressed Vulcan with dark eyes. It was Captain Christopher Pike. Jim stared, dumbfounded, and wondered briefly if his mom had called Pike when Jim had never gotten around to responding to her message.

Pike nodded at Jim, stepping gingerly into the bedroom. "Hi there, Jim," he said. "I came as quick as I got the message. You're pretty hard to get ahold of, you know."

"Message?" Jim's gaze flickered past Pike to the sight of a rather guilty-looking McCoy, who was standing in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.

"Captain Pike's been askin' to talk to you since right after you left for Washington, Jim," McCoy said, sounding awkward. "But you haven't really been home."

Jim stared. Reasonably speaking, he felt like he should be angry, especially since it wasn't like McCoy didn't know damn well how much Jim loathed Starfleet, but right now all Jim could muster was a sort of passing irritation. "You owe me at least two bottles of Saurian brandy," he said to McCoy. Then he shifted his attention back to Pike. "So, here I am. Wanna tell me what's goin' on?"

"I was hoping to talk to you for a little while, Jim." Pike's voice was calm, but something about the careful way he was holding himself pinged something in the back of Jim's mind. Pike was watching Jim like he was a particularly skittish animal, like— He's expecting me to bolt, Jim realized abruptly. They're both expecting me to just cut and run.

It was not a pleasant realization.

Jim took a deep breath and let it out. "Okay," he said. "I'm listening."

Chapter Text

Either the traffic in Los Angeles had become that much more congested since the last time Spock had crossed it—perhaps in sympathy to the knots currently twisting Spock's stomach—or else stress really was getting the better of him. Regardless, the drive along "Historic U.S. Route 66" was such slow going that Spock briefly but seriously considered turning around and demanding a cross-city transport via one of the Federation ships he knew was waiting in orbit above Earth. But he did finally manage to make it to Venice Beach in one piece, and pulled up outside Jim's house in his rented hovercraft forty-four minutes after departing the Beverly Wilshire, at 9:56 pm. It was late, Spock reflected. He wondered if he should wait until morning.

Spock stared at the front door for a few moments before letting his gaze drop to his hands, fingers still wrapped around the steering wheel. He amended his previous train of thought: he should almost certainly wait until morning, for Dr. McCoy's sake if for no other reason. Jim might be prone to late evening hours, but Dr. McCoy did frequent early shifts at St. Mary's and no doubt needed all the sleep he could get.

Thirty more seconds passed before Spock climbed out of the car, thirty seconds of trying unsuccessfully to convince himself to at least page Jim on his PADD before knocking at the front door. It would have been more logical to message Jim before leaving for his house, to make sure Jim was actually here, but Spock hadn't been able to stomach the idea that Jim might decide to cut and run before Spock could get here to talk to him. The thought that Jim would run rather than give Spock a chance to explain himself hurt, but wasn't that what Jim had already done once today? He could not afford to discount it entirely and make the same mistake twice. So he'd come to Jim's house with no forewarning, calculating a 76.85% chance that Jim would still be here based upon the influence of Dr. McCoy and Spock's estimation of his¬---of Jim's character.

This thought hit Spock as he was walking up the drive, and he paused for a moment, suffering another pang of doubt. He did not even know how to quantify Jim within the safety of his own mind. Small wonder that Jim had grown so anxious since their return from Washington. Spock thought again of Charlotte and Alan, realized that he hadn't so much as messaged them since their return save for a cursory missive sent to inform them of his safe arrival. It seemed that despite all his best intentions, his pursuit of his Human heritage had become even more complicated than simply sticking to his Vulcan half.

Later. He would have to deal with all of that later. Right now, Jim was the only thing that mattered. Resolving thus, Spock took the last three steps to Jim's front door, raised his hand, and knocked three sharp, quick raps.

For a few seconds, nothing happened; the house was lit from within, but quiet. Spock couldn't tell if anyone was actually up. Then he heard footsteps from inside, and seven seconds later, the door opened, revealing a rather disgruntled-looking Leonard McCoy. "Why am I not surprised," he said, eyeing Spock with the air of a man who has grudgingly accepted that the world has gone insane but adamantly refuses to like it.

"Dr. McCoy," Spock began, but McCoy just rolled his eyes, stepping back and gesturing Spock inside. Spock entered hesitantly, glancing into the living room, but Jim was nowhere in sight.

"I'll get Jim," McCoy said. "Go have a seat, Spock."

Spock did. He smoothed his hands over the arrow-straight lines of his trousers, and this was the position he was in when Jim entered his peripheral vision. Spock looked up, and in that instant he suddenly knew the sensation behind the Human euphemism of having one's heart stop: his chest seized up, his lungs clenching tight, the silence in the room abruptly unbearable.

Neither man spoke for several seconds. Spock could only stare. Then Jim let out a breath and came forward, and Spock broke his own paralysis, rising to his feet. "Jim—" he began, but Jim shook his head, smiling slightly.

"Let's go for a walk," Jim said. "Let me get my jacket." Spock nodded, clasping his hands behind his back as he tried to stand in the living room and not think of the conversation he was about to have, or how it might turn out. Jim came back in under a minute, and Spock followed him out the front door, pulling it carefully closed behind him.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, heading down the street and out of Jim's neighborhood, turning west towards the ocean, the water rendered molten silver under the full moon. Spock found he had never been so aware of his own body, or of another person's. Never had letting his hands swing at his side felt so awkward.

Jim slowed as they approached another intersection, glancing at Spock. "I thought we could go down to the boardwalk," he said, his gaze intent.

The uncertain note in his voice went straight to Spock's gut, his stomach twisting painfully. But all he said was, "That would be satisfactory." Jim nodded, smiling that faint smile, and they continued on in renewed silence.

Eighteen minutes and thirty-five seconds after leaving the front door, they finally came in sight of the water, stopping at the edge of the wooden boardwalk. Clouds had moved in from the sea, obscuring the moon and stars. The Pacific, normally so impressive, was now nothing more than a smothering grey presence looming up as far as even Spock's eyes could see. It was difficult to tell where sand, ocean, or sky left off, the horizon almost invisible. Spock stared out at the blue-grey expanse, dismayed that he had no better idea what to say now than he had back in the hover-craft.

Beside him, Jim leaned against the wooden fence, arms and elbows resting on the topmost rail. He stared at the ocean, his expression unreadable, and for several long moments the only noise was the low hiss and rush of the water slipping invisibly back and forth across the sand. Spock's throat constricted, a dozen impulses all fighting for dominance. He tightened his hands on the wooden rail.

"Jim," Spock began, and stopped. Jim turned to stare at him, his expression a study in complication. Spock took a deep breath. "I was afraid you would be gone," he said finally. "That you would have left."

Jim smiled, but this was one of those Human expressions that held very little pleasure or humor. "I was gonna," he admitted. "But Bones talked some sense into me."

"Then I owe him a debt of gratitude." Spock moved to close the distance between them, making as if to reach out and touch Jim's face. But Jim leaned away, and Spock faltered mid-gesture, his hand falling awkwardly back to his side.

"I don't know if you want to be thanking Bones just yet," Jim said, trying for 'casual' and not quite achieving it, eyes pointedly on Spock's face and not that abortive touch. "Since you haven't gotten around to telling me why you came all the way here tonight. We can't just ...keep doing what we were doing, Spock. At least, I can't do that." Jim's voice shook on this last, but he regained his composure almost immediately, regarding Spock steadily.

"I came to apologize for my harsh words earlier today," Spock said, never taking his eyes from Jim's face. "You were in distress, and I allowed myself to react inappropriately."

"Yeah, well, I was a pretty big dick to you, too, so you weren't the only one," Jim said. He crossed his arms across his chest, then uncrossed them, shoving his hands into his pockets. He took a deep breath, still regarding Spock with that half-wary, half-hopeful expression that was wreaking havoc on Spock's ability to think straight. "The way I reacted was about nine kinds of ridiculous. But do I really—"

"My criticism of you was unwarranted," Spock interrupted. He didn't think he could bear to hear his own words repeated back to him out of Jim's mouth.

"Uh," Jim said, and laughed. "No. Not entirely unwarranted, anyway. But what I was gonna ask, Spock, is if you meant what I heard you say to your dad." He hesitated, and Spock's badly-lagging brain finally realized what Jim wanted to ask but seemed to have difficulty saying aloud.

"Do you complicate me, you mean?" Jim nodded. He seemed to be holding his breath. Spock smiled, ever so slightly, the barest quirk of his lips. "Irredeemably. I came here to ask if you would continue to complicate me, as I do not wish to live without it. Or without you."

Jim stared at him. For several seconds, Spock could once more hear nothing but the murmur of the ocean not thirty yards off, the salty, dark smell of the water filling his nostrils. The moment seemed to stretch, a product of his own illogical wish that if what next came out of Jim's mouth was "no," that time might stop right now so that Spock would never have to hear it. "Spock," Jim managed finally, and took a deep breath. "God. Um." Jim shut his eyes for a few seconds. "That depends, Spock. What will you do if Vulcan actually does secede? Because I can't---do this again. We have to decide this here, tonight."

It was Spock's turn to hesitate. "I do not know, Jim," Spock said finally, and Jim's face fell. "I cannot conceive of returning to a planet that has just shown how little it thinks of me, and of other species, but neither do I know where else I might go."

Jim's jaw tightened, and he turned away, planting both hands on the railing, gripping hard as he stared out to sea again. Spock stood rigid, his arms locked at his sides, hands clenched into fists with the effort of not grabbing Jim and turning him back to face Spock. "You know," Jim said suddenly, "Pike came to see me tonight too. A few hours ago."

"Indeed?" Spock strove to keep his voice neutral. As easy tasks went, this one proved nearly impossible.

"Uh-huh. He's sponsoring Bones into the Academy. Said I basically had a place guaranteed for me if I wanted it."

"That seems of questionable legality," Spock observed, and Jim gave a short little laugh that made Spock dig crescent-shaped welts into his palms. Spock stared at the side of Jim's face, his gaze lingering at the corner of Jim's full mouth. "Do you plan to accept?"

Jim shrugged, leaning forward against the rail and clasping his hands. "I dunno. I should. God knows it's better than hangin' around LA doing nothing."

"You would be excellent at Starfleet," Spock said softly. "It would provide ample opportunity for one as gifted as you."

"Yeah? You know who else would be excellent at Starfleet?" Jim turned back towards Spock, his face and body tight with barely-contained energy. "You."

Spock shook his head. "Negative. I am a scientist, not a soldier."

"Oh, whatever. Is that what you meant by 'gifted,' that I'd be a great soldier? Gee, thanks." Jim rolled his eyes, a smile playing about his lips despite the sarcasm.

"Negative; you have the capacity to excell at anything you wished to pursue at the Academy, however--" Spock never got the opportunity to finish, because Jim had stepped forward and grabbed two fistfuls of Spock's shirt, pulling him down into a kiss that rattled Spock's skull and made sparks burst behind his eyes. There was a moment of white shock, and then Spock crushed Jim to his chest, returning the press of lips. After a few moments of needy fumbling on both their parts, Spock's hand found Jim's and twined their fingers tightly together..

Finally, Jim broke away just enough to breathe, his face flushed and his lips swollen from kissing. The sight made Spock itch, but he pushed all his other urges aside for the moment. "Please clarify your answer, Jim," he murmured, stroking the pad of his thumb against Jim's cheekbone. "Your response is indistinct."

"Shut the fuck up, Spock." Jim's grin was blinding, barely visible out of the corner of Spock's eyes. "I want to keep complicating you," he said, the slightest shake in his words. "Now will you stop asking stupid questions?"

Spock felt his chest tighten, his heart thundering in his side. He leaned forward, pressing his forehead to Jim's. "I cannot make any such promises, as my Human half is prone to fits of illogic," he said, "but I find your answer most satisfactory." Jim made a wet noise in the back of his throat, and Spock felt the ache in his chest expand until he thought he might pass out. Jim drew a harsh breath and drew back, lessening the strength of the connection, and he and Spock stared at each other for several seconds, not speaking.

"You're such a dick, Spock," Jim said, smiling. He pulled Spock down for another kiss, and Spock found no need to say anything else.

 

* * * * *

"Would someone please tell me why the hell we're going out into fucking Death Valley for this?" McCoy glared across the cabin at Jim and Spock, already stripped down to just his short-sleeved undershirt. The transport had air-conditioning, but between the altered temperature settings for Vulcan physiologies and the late-August heat, it wasn't currently doing much good, and McCoy was about four cramps away from vomiting his lunch over the expensive nuleather upholstery.

"It is actually the Mojave desert we are going to, doctor," Spock said placidly. Jim was strapped into the seat next to Spock, similarly wearing just a white t-shirt and jeans for the journey, but looking considerably less put-out about it than McCoy did. "And the secession hearing being held in the desert is out of deference to the number of Vulcans in attendance and our preference for hot, arid climates. It is a most courteous gesture on the part of Federation officials, in recognition of the inconvenience of having to travel from Vulcan for the hearing in the first place."

"You didn't have to come, you know," Jim pointed out. "You could have stayed home. It's not like you even have to testify."

McCoy rolled his eyes hard enough to be heard back in Los Angeles, bracing against the seat-back and taking a few deep, not-nearly-steadying-enough breaths. "Sure, Jim," he grumbled. "Captain Pike offers to put us up at his fucking ranch out in the desert, and arranges seats for us at the secession hearing, and also, the man's agreed to be my advisor at the Academy. I'm totally going to tell him no. Fuck, Jim."

"I'm just saying—!"

"Yeah, well, shut up." McCoy groaned, trying to sink lower into his seat, the lap-strap digging into his stomach. He groped for the bottle of water in his bag on the seat next to him, taking a few desperate quaffs before slumping back into his seat with a groan.

Spock watched him in growing consternation, glancing at Jim as McCoy made a noise resembling a man being mauled by a grizzly. "Doctor, perhaps you should give yourself an anti-nausea injection to help with your kinetosis," he began, but McCoy just shook his head, beads of sweat now standing out on his cheeks and forehead.

"Can't," he grated out. "Allergic reaction. S'the one thing I'm allergic to and Jim's not."

"Hey, I'm not allergic to that much," Jim protested. "Besides, he's not motion-sick, Spock, he just has a horrible fear of flying."

As if on cue, McCoy ripped the seatbelt off and went staggering into the head, slamming the door shut behind him as best as he was able. Seconds later, Jim and Spock could hear the unmistakeable sounds of retching. Spock looked at Jim, silently raising an eyebrow. Jim sighed. "Okay," he amended, "maybe he does get motion-sick, too."

* * * * *

"You invited who?"

"Jim, calm down, would you? Jesus." Pike leveled a glare at Jim that any Vulcan would be proud of, weakened only somewhat by the casual clothes he was wearing. It was still early, and the white-washed kitchen of the adobe-style ranch was still relatively cool and filled with cheerful morning light. "I didn't invite your mother, I submitted her name to the Admiralty as a suggestion of which Federation representatives might be chosen to speak at the hearing. She was chosen and accepted our request to come speak. And she's not staying here, she's staying at the same hotel the rest of the Federation reps are staying in, her and her boyfriend."

Jim choked, nearly dropping the cup of coffee he'd just raised to his lips. "Boyfriend?" he sputtered, setting the mug down on the counter and grabbing for a rag to wipe the spill up with. "Excuse me? Boyfriend? The fuck?"

Pike stayed where he was at the table, watching in amusement as Jim wiped up the coffee he'd spilled on himself and the floor, though the huge brown patch on his shirt was too big to salvage. "I knew you two didn't talk much, but you really didn't know she's been seeing someone?" Jim scowled by way of response, peeling off the shirt and chucking it onto the counter, peering at the splotch of red on his chest where the hot coffee had scalded him right through his shirt. "Yes, she's seeing someone. Some student or former student of hers, apparently, a real engineering whiz. Name of Montgomery Scott."

"Yeah? What's he like?" Jim went to the sink, wetting a rag with cold water and dabbing at his chest. "God, please say he's not, like, my age. That'd be awful."

"A few years older than you, late twenties," Pike said amiably, and chuckled to himself as Jim made a noise like a cat being stepped on. "Brilliant, eccentric. Got sort of a problem with authority, though not the way you do."

"Gee, thanks." Jim flung the rag into the sink and leaned against the counter. "So, why exactly are you putting me and Bones and Spock up here instead of at one of the hotels with everyone else?"

"All the hotels have been booked full for at least a month now, Jim. I wanted you here and I live here, so it seemed the most reasonable thing to do. Spock had a room with the rest of the embassy, but he chose to stay with you here and give up his room for someone who couldn't find lodging elsewhere." Pike tapped a few buttons on his PADD, saving and closing a file before standing up, device in hand. "And because frankly, I'm not above a little positive reinforcement if it gets me three good recruits instead of just one."

"Yeah, Spock told me you've been trying to con him into leaving the VSA for Starfleet for years now. Persistent son of a bitch, aren't you?" Jim flinched as Pike threw a sweatshirt at him, the one that had been hanging on the back of his own chair.

"Watch your mouth, kid. You might not be one of my cadets just yet, but I don't need to hear your sass or see all the hickeys your boyfriend's been giving you."

Jim grinned good-naturedly, pulling the sweatshirt over his head and glancing down at the Starfleet Academy logo printed on the front. When he looked back up again, Pike was smirking. "What?"

"Just glad I'm not going to be the one to have to deal with you in class, that's all," Pike said mysteriously. "Number One is going to have her work cut out for her."

"Who?" But Pike just shook his head. "You know, you are really over-confident that I'm going to do what you want—"

"Save it," Pike cut in. "Also, go wake up Dr. McCoy and see where Spock got to. If any of you want breakfast, now's the time, 'cause we're leaving in an hour. Don't be late." With that, Pike turned and left the kitchen, headed towards the master bedroom. Jim rolled his eyes at Pike's retreating back, but it had no weight behind it. Considering how little sleep he got last night (Vulcan body heat plus the heat of the Mojave desert equalled Jim Kirk sweating a lot), Jim wasn't anywhere near as crabby as he might have been. Then again, considering the way he'd woken up this morning, maybe it wasn't such a surprise.

As if on cue, Spock entered the room from the opposite doorway. He went immediately to Jim, indulging in a spine-tingling kiss against the counter before he pulled back. "Why are you wearing that sweatshirt?" he asked. "And where is Captain Pike?"

"Dunno. Went off to be Captainly, I guess. And I spilled coffee on my shirt, that's why." Jim leaned up and stole another kiss, before a loud cough from the other side of the room interrupted him. Jim broke off and pressed his face to Spock's throat, grinning to himself.

"Goddammit, Jim," came McCoy's voice, thick with sleep and superficial irritation. "Can't you two keep it in your pants for ten damn minutes? Already woke me up once this morning."

"My apologies, doctor," Spock said smoothly, though he hadn't yet taken his hands away from Jim's hips. If Jim thought Spock had been a touch possessive before, it was nothing to how Spock was behaving after formally declaring his intentions towards Jim. "We had no intention of disrupting your sleep."

"Sure you didn't," McCoy grumbled, making a beeline for the coffee-pot, an old-fashioned affair that consisted of nothing more than a glass canister, a plunger, and a mesh filter. "If I hear you again tonight, I am going to poison you both in your sleep."

"What makes you think we're gonna wait 'til tonight?" Jim said innocently.

"Jim!"

* * * * *

"Spock?" Jim had to keep his voice quiet, not wanting to draw anyone's attention, though considering how huge the audience chamber was, it was doubtful anyone but their nearest neighbors would hear a word. The chamber stretched around them, up and up, more like a canyon or a cathedral than a senate chamber, all white walls and high, narrow windows. The amount of light the place got was the only thing that gave Jim a fighting chance at not falling instantly asleep during the speech of every single Vulcan who got up on the podium.

"Yes, Jim?"

"How long did you say this hearing was going to go on for?"

"Three weeks," Spock said. He turned his head ever-so-slightly in Jim's direction, raising that enigmatic eyebrow at him. Jim groaned. "Were you unaware of its length?"

"No, but I was kinda hoping I was wrong. Because Vulcans believe in efficiency! Not in everything taking eight thousand years to cover every single detail of the relationship between Vulcan and the Federation since the beginning of recorded time."

"You are exaggerating again," Spock said serenely, but he reached over and took Jim's hand for a moment, stroking the tips of his fingers over the backs of Jim's before returning his hands to his own lap.

As if on cue, McCoy leaned over on Jim's other side and nudged him in the ribs, while somehow managing to keep his eyes on the figures down below. "Ow! Dammit, Bones..."

"Can it, kid, your mom is speaking next." Jim went white, going very still in his seat. Spock glanced once at Jim, but when Jim gave no word or sign, he turned his attention back to the front.

Down below, a slim, grey-suited figure was walking up to the stand, her blonde hair pulled back in an elegant twist. Jim felt his heart wedge itself into his throat despite his best efforts, and he leaned forward, trying to get a better look.

"Next speaker," announced the tiny, grey-haired chairwoman, peering over her spectacles at Winona. Winona nodded at her and started up the steps. "Lieutenant Commander Winona Kirk."

Winona mounted the podium, and the chamber went quiet. Behind her, the big screen projected an image of her from the waist up, magnified a thousand times. Jim could feel Spock and McCoy next to him, staring in fascination at the face of Jim's mother, and wondered what they were thinking of right now. Winona gazed around the room, hands resting lightly on the podium in front of her, and when she bent down to speak, Jim felt his breath catch in his throat.

"When I first received the message requesting my presence at this hearing, I thought someone was playing a joke on me," Winona said. Her voice was clear and strong, and, Jim thought, would have carried throughout the room even without the aid of the amplifying speakers. "I'm not active duty any longer, and I only teach from the comfort of my own home. Furthermore, I've never been known for my public speaking. Too rude, and too concerned with more technical problems. But after I gave it some thought, I knew I had to come. Not only because it's an honor that the Vulcan Embassy thought my opinion was worth listening to, but because I owe a personal debt to a number of Vulcan officers and healers."

Jim's chest tightened, and he clenched his hands on his knees as he suffered a premonition of what was coming next. Below him, down on the floor, Winona kept talking. "One of the many reasons I'm now semi-retired is because I know all too well how often the Federation—and Starfleet—likes to sweep unflattering events under the rug and pretend they never happened. Lucky for me, I can't be court-martialed for talking about a clusterfuck that's already on public record, so I can be candid with this audience here today, and with the many of you who are watching the broadcast."

"Now I see where you got your elegant language, Jim," McCoy muttered, and it was Jim's turn to elbow his friend in the ribs.

Winona paused, and stared directly into the camera aimed at her face. "I'm talking about the events that happened on Tarsus IV, thirteen years ago." The room, which had resumed a low-level murmur of background noise, went suddenly and completely still. Invisible up in his seat, Jim shrank deeper into his chair. "I don't care to go into the details, the hows and whys of how the crop failure and the genocide came about. What I'm here to talk about today are the people who came off that first ship to help the survivors—not just the soldiers, but the healers and counselors that Vulcan sent before any other Federation vessels could arrive. The first responders."

Jim's mouth was bone-dry; beside him, Spock managed to rip his gaze away from Winona long enough to look at his partner in some concern, but Jim just shook his head, eyes never leaving his mother's face. After a moment, Spock looked back as well. "If it wasn't for the team of healers that landed on Tarsus IV that day, the body count from execution and famine would doubtless have been so much higher. And if it wasn't for the counselors, even those that survived might not have stayed with us to help prevent such things from happening again. One of the survivors whose life was saved by a Vulcan healer was my son."

In tandem, Spock and McCoy both turned to look at Jim, and for once they were wearing nearly identical expressions of horror. "No," Jim hissed, still unable to tear his eyes away. Down below, Winona kept talking, but for the moment Jim couldn't even really hear her. "It wasn't me, okay? She's not talking about me."

"Then who—" Spock demanded, bewildered, even as understanding dawned on McCoy's face.

"My brother," Jim said softly. He looked away from Winona, raising his eyes to meet Spock's. "She's talking about my brother."

* * * * *

The Tarsus disaster wasn't all Winona talked about—thank God, Jim thought—but the end result was that the Vulcans present all seemed impressed with the honesty and bluntness she'd shown, even if Starfleet was now having mixed feelings about asking her to come speak. Jim didn't care; he had too much else to think about.

"That was a hell of a speech, Mrs. Kirk."

"Winona, please. Thanks... Dr. McCoy, isn't it?"

"Leonard McCoy, yes, pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Oh god, am I a ma'am?" Winona laughed, tossing her head back, and the gesture made something in Jim's chest clutch and ache. He followed behind Spock and Captain Pike, dragging his feet a little as he waited for the crowd of people around his mother to disperse. This was so far from anything he'd pictured whenever he'd given a spare thought to seeing his mother again, but it didn't look as if he'd be able to slip away unnoticed. Not that he really wanted to—Winona was his mother, after all—but he wished this was going to be a little less awkward.

Off to one side, another man that Jim didn't recognize was doing his own version of the lurk. He had reddish hair and a pale complexion that was currently splotchy and red—probably from the heat, Jim thought—and the way he was watching Winona, a sort of puppyish, wistful expression, made Jim wonder if this was the boyfriend Pike had been talking about. It was better than standing around with Spock and McCoy and pretending to not notice the sideways looks they were giving him after the bomb Winona had dropped during her speech, anyway. Jim knew there was no way he'd be getting out of that conversation later, but it didn't mean he had to think about it now.

Jim sidled over to the red-headed stranger, endeavoring to make it look casual and not like he was trying to scope out the guy who was banging his mom (oh god oh god why did he let his brain go there, why?), and said, "You look about as comfortable in this heat as I feel."

The man glanced at Jim, summoning a rueful smile. "Oh, aye, it's pretty wretched, I'll not argue with you there," he said amiably. "But at least the hotel rooms have proper air in them, so it's not a complete loss."

"The joy of interspecies relations," Jim agreed, and stuck out his hand. "Nice to meet you, I'm Jim."

"Pleasure, Jim, I'm Scotty." They shook, and Jim, who had been prepared to punk the stranger at a moment's notice, decided to keep the hammer from dropping, at least for now.

"So, are you here to testify?" he asked casually. Scotty shook his head, and gestured vaguely in the direction of Winona, who was still chatting amiably with McCoy, as well as Spock and Captain Pike, now.

"Nah, I'm just tagging along with this lovely lady, here. Say, did you hear her speech? Quite a bombshell! 'No gift for public speaking,' my arse. In fact—"

"Monty!" Jim and Scotty both jerked their heads up like guilty schoolboys to find Winona watching them in clear amusement. "I see you've met my son, Monty."

Scotty looked at Jim in shock. "You're Jim Kirk?" he said indignantly. "You rat bastard, you weren't going to say a word, were you?"

"Probably not," Jim said, "at least not until I'd gotten something really incriminating out of you." He grinned, cheerfully ignoring the glower Scotty was leveling at him in favor of taking three quick steps to cross the distance to his mother. He and Winona spent about five seconds just looking at each other, while everyone stood around them in a loose semi-circle and pretended to not be staring, until Winona snorted and pulled Jim into a short, fierce hug. He was five inches taller than her, but it didn't seem to make much difference. "Augh—hi, mom."

"Jim, you jerk." Winona released him, stepping back a bit and looking over him critically. "But you look good for a jerk. At least you've been taking care of yourself." Winona glanced sideways at Spock, then looked back at Jim expectantly. "Well? You already beat me to introducing you to Monty, aren't you going to introduce me to your boyfriend?"

"What? Mom! Jesus, now is when we're having this conversation? Right now?" Jim sneaked a glance sideways at his friends, hoping vaguely for support, but if anything Spock looked fucking amused (well, for a Vulcan). Meanwhile, McCoy outright looked like he was having the best day of his life, the son of a bitch. Jim didn't dare to even look at Pike.

"Please, Jimmy. I'm your mother, it means I have a natural immunity to your bullshit."

"Right, okay, but—later, please? I promise I will tell you everything," he added, when Winona opened her mouth with a particularly meaningful look in her eyes. His mother raised her eyebrows at him, then finally smiled.

"Allright, fine. I have to go talk to Barnett in a few minutes, anyway, and pretend to care about the whining he's going to throw at me. But I'm going to take all of you gentlemen out to dinner tonight, so don't make any other plans." With this, Winona extended her arm to Scotty, who took it, making a heroic show of not acknowledging the furious red in his cheeks, and the two of them sauntered towards one of the exits.

"Why did you not wish to introduce me to your mother just yet?" Spock asked, as he and Jim fell into step, following Captain Pike and McCoy towards one of the other exits. Spock's tone was mild, but that was part for the course; Spock would have sounded just as blasé about a tornado that was headed directly for them.

"Because she'd want to know how I met you," Jim sighed. "And I was hoping to save the shouting match following the 'So I've been having sex for money' conversation for a private moment."

"Ah." Something in Spock's tone made Jim glance up at him, and at the smile he saw hiding at the corners of Spock's mouth made him want to either smack Spock or kiss him stupid, he wasn't sure which.

"Shut up, Spock."

"I am sure I have no idea what you are talking about," Spock said smoothly.

* * * * *

As had become the "usual" for them where Jim's suggestions were concerned, while Jim was enthusiastic, Spock was doubtful.

"It is an illogical waste of a precious resource, Jim," was his first response when Jim suggested it. Jim had rolled his eyes, fingers already sliding up Spock's ribs underneath his clothes.

"It's not a waste, Spock," he said impatiently. "All the bathwater and greywater gets recycled and re-used. Are you secretly a cat or something? Is that why you hate water so much?" Spock huffed, an action he would staunchly deny if accused of, but his response was cut off as Jim divested him of first his tunic and his undershirt. "What was that?" Jim asked innocently.

"I said, it is illogical even by your standards to accuse me of a feline nature," Spock said. Jim grinned and just shucked his own shirt, flinging it to one side without a second glance. Spock, meanwhile, merely raised an eyebrow at Jim before sliding out of his pants and socks.

Thirty minutes later, the tub was finally full, and Spock was leaning against Jim's chest with his eyes half-closed, most of Jim's submerged skin a cheerful pink from the heat of the water, hot even by Jim's standards, which favored "scalding" as a preferred temperature. Spock's skin did not seem to have changed color at all, to Jim's mild indignation, but he supposed it was only to be expected; the temperature was probably still sub-dermal for a Vulcan. Conversation had lapsed a few minutes ago, and now Jim's mind was contentedly unfocused, cheek pressed to Spock's, hands sliding idly up and down Spock's side.

His thoughts wandered to the dinner earlier, him and Spock and Winona and McCoy and Pike and Scotty, all sitting around a table, using chopsticks on their Chinese food with varying degrees of success. Spock, in typical Spock fashion, had been able to pick up the chopsticks and eat with them almost effortlessly despite never having touched a pair before in his life, while McCoy and Scotty had been forced to admit defeat and ask for forks. Jim had spent a good thirty minutes in Winona's hotel room beforehand, bringing his mom up to speed on the past two years of his life (especially the past month and a half), while Spock and Scotty discretely amused themselves discussing warp theory in the next room. The conversation had gone about as well as Jim could have expected—which is to say, he felt certain Spock and Scotty would be able to see the scorch marks on his back when he and Winona finally emerged—but the dinner itself had gone swimmingly, and Jim spent the short ride back to Pike's ranch feeling as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders that he hadn't even known was there.

"Your mother is a singular individual," Spock murmured. He raised one hand, fingers splayed, moving it slowly through the water. Jim had been fascinated to discover that Spock—or all Vulcans, actually—were slightly too heavy to float in water, which probably at least partly accounted for their dislike of swimming.

Jim straightened, wondering briefly if Spock was doing his touch-telepathy thing again or was just eerily prescient, and decided it didn't matter. "That's one way to describe her, yeah," he said by way of response. He reached for the bottle of liquid soap sitting on the side lip of the tub, grabbing it and the folded washcloth beside it, and set about washing the nearest of Spock's limbs. Spock grunted as Jim lifted his hand, casting a sideways glance at his partner before settling in to allow to do as he wished. "So, no one has to convince me of your innate awesomeness," Jim said conversationally, gently lifting Spock's right arm and swiping along his tricept, "but I got the impression that most Vulcans were kind of down on the whole mom-being-Human thing. Hence you being so careful about investigating your Human side."

"Affirmative," Spock said.

"So why are you giving a speech?"

Spock did not answer immediately, tilting his head to one side in order to allow Jim better access to his neck. In the mirror on the far wall, Jim could see Spock's eyes were slitted, his features relaxed. "I was asked to speak due to a combination of being the son of the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, my status as one of the head researchers at the VSA, and my unique genetic inheritance."

Jim made a noise of affirmation into Spock's neck, then leaned to one side, going for the other arm now. "Makes sense. And your day to speak is coming up, isn't it?"

"Three days. The last day of the hearing." Spock sat up, hunching forward slightly as Jim swept the washcloth down his spine, rumbling low in his throat as Jim worked his fingers into the small of Spock's back, the sensitive organs just beneath making gooseflesh march up Spock's spine in front of Jim's eyes. Jim spent a moment privately marveling at how someone with anatomy seemingly so similar to his own could have so many intriguing differences.

"I assume you have your speech all planned out?" Jim shoved at Spock until his lover knelt up in the tub, giving Jim access to parts further south. He re-wet and re-soaped the washcloth, gripping Spock's hip in one hand as he worked along his upper thighs.

"My speech is approximately 92.87% prepared, but I am largely dissatisfied with the final product," Spock said. He glanced over his shoulder at Jim, who took this moment to kneel up as well, sliding a hand around Spock's waist from behind. It wasn't the most graceful way to wash Spock's chest, but it worked. "I must admit a certain apprehension as my day to contribute draws closer," Spock continued after a moment, a slight catch in his voice as Jim's hand drifted teasingly lower, Jim nuzzling just below Spock's left ear. "I do not have the gift for public speaking that your mother possesses."

Jim stopped at that comment, snorting softly. "Sure, okay. The Kirk family gift for speaking in public. Throw in some curse words and references to horrible situations no one likes to talk about, and you're golden." Spock made a noise at this, looking over his shoulder at Jim and raising an eyebrow. "What?"

"You are yet again exhibiting one of the most illogical Human habits I have yet to encounter," Spock noted. "Like many Humans, you tend to mock or make light of serious, painful situations so as to deflect others' attention away from said subjects."

Jim made a face. "Okay, that? The psycho-analyzing thing? Stop that."

"I rest my case," Spock said, and Jim rolled his eyes.

"Is this about the Tarsus thing? Is it because I haven't told you about it before now? Because that's not the kind of thing I could've slipped into casual conversation," Jim said, a little irritated. "'By the way, Spock, my brother happened to survive the most infamous genocide of the past twenty years! What do you feel like for dinner?'"

"Negative, Jim," Spock said. Now he turned around in the tub, pulling an irritable Jim into his arms with only minimal resistance. "It is your prerogative to decide what personal matters you wish to disclose to me. My complaint is with your insistence upon treating yourself, and this time, by extension, your family, as worth only your derision."

Jim let out a breath, his counter-argument dying unspoken on his tongue. Spock was so insufferably hard to argue with, sometimes (at least, when Jim wasn't busy provoking him into a shouting match, which wasn't exactly high on Jim's list of priorities today). He was silent for a few moments, trying to think of something to say, and suffered an involuntary shiver as water evaporated off his exposed skin, taking his body heat with it. He sank into the water again, tugging Spock down with him, and after a few moments of re-arranging, Jim found himself settled in Spock's lap this time, Spock's arms wrapped loosely around his waist.

"There's not really anything to talk about, Spock," Jim said finally, leaning back in defeat. He stared ahead, watching his own reflection in the mirror on the far wall. "I was eleven; Sam was fourteen. I was supposed to go to Tarsus with him, as part of an intra-galactic study program, but I was just getting over a really nasty case of the flu and Frank didn't want me to go—"

"Frank?" Spock interjected. Jim exhaled noisily.

"My stepdad. He was kind of a bastard sometimes, but he meant well. I hated him, though. Anyway, Frank didn't want me to go, and he finally convinced my mom to keep me on Earth. So Sam went by himself..." Jim trailed off, remembering his mother's panic when she couldn't get ahold of her oldest son, the shouting fights in the kitchen between Winona and Frank over who had actually decided to let Sam go in the first place. He felt a pang as he flashed on the memory of how gaunt Sam had been when he'd finally come home, the dark bags under his flat eyes, like a door had slammed shut inside. The scarecrow-boy who'd come back from Tarsus only vaguely resembled the playful, easy-going older brother Jim remembered leaving three months before. Jim shook his head. "He just—he was never the same when he came back. And he wouldn't talk to us about it at all—couldn't, I guess, though at the time I was so angry at him." Jim sank lower into the water until his head was leaning against Spock's breastbone, his face out of sight in the mirrored reflection, water lapping at his chin.

Spock said nothing, but Jim felt his hands creep up Jim's arms to rest on his shoulders. "It was just a big mess," Jim said finally. He stared at the pale flecks of mica in the stone of the tub, his eyes distant as his voice. "Sam started fighting with Frank all the time, and that was when I started fighting with Frank and my mom. I didn't know what the hell had happened, but everything was wrong, after that. It wasn't perfect, before Sam went off-planet, but we were still pretty happy. But nothing I tried made anyone happy after he came back."

Spock stirred at this, but by now the words were coming faster, pouring out of Jim like something vile finally being drained after long years of festering inside. "Sam ran away when he turned seventeen, got on a transport ship off-planet somehow, and mom blamed Frank and kicked him out, and then it was just me and her, in that big house, and we fought all the time. I got my diploma early and got the hell out, too, as soon as I could." Jim sighed, and at the break in words, Spock tugged Jim upright again, pulling him securely against Spock's chest.

"You blame yourself for a situation that was far beyond your control," Spock murmured. Jim sighed.

"I know," he said softly. "I mean. I guess I know. Now, anyway. But I just—" Jim hesitated, flexing his hands against the tops of his thighs, staring down at the water, now gone slightly murky with soap and settled dust. "It all felt so pointless," he said finally. "I tried and tried and tried and it just, none of it mattered, none of it made any difference. So I stopped caring, and I stopped trying." Jim went silent, shutting his eyes.

Spock spoke again after a few moments. "Where is your brother now?"

"On Deneva. He got a job there, met a girl. I think they're married." Jim shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "Saw him once, two years ago. We both went back to Mom's for Christmas. It was the most awkward holiday in the history of time."

"I highly doubt that," Spock said dryly. "As I doubt your claims to have stopped caring. But I am honored that you shared this with me, Jim." Jim squirmed a few times; hearing Spock thank him for talking about Tarsus felt strange. Wrong, even.

"Don't thank me, Spock. It's not a situation where I really covered myself in glory." Jim sighed. Behind him, he could practically hear Spock arching that eyebrow, an expression that should have looked funnier on him than it did, considering the wet, messy hair.

"Jim," Spock said in his best 'Humans are so illogical' voice. "You were eleven years old—"

"That's the same age you were when your mom died, and you blamed yourself six ways from here to eternity," Jim shot back. Spock went silent for a moment, even as his arms tightened around Jim's waist.

"The situations are not precisely parallel," he began, but Jim was already shaking his head.

"That's not even what I'm talking about, Spock," he said, a touch impatiently. "I wasn't even on Tarsus, obviously I couldn't have stopped it. But after Sam left, when I just decided it would be a better idea to not deal with anything, that, hey, this sucks, so I'm going to just fuck off and avoid it—that's what I mean. That behavior—I mean, isn't that kind of what half of Vulcan wants to do right now? Decided that because sometimes being a part of the Federation sucks more than it's fun, that they're not going to deal with it at all anymore?"

"That is not—" Spock said, and then shut his mouth abruptly.

It was such an un-Spock thing to do that Jim sat up, twisting around in Spock's arms to get a good look at his partner's face. "Spock?"

"Yes, Jim, I am still here," Spock said mildly. He was staring at Jim, his face as inscrutable as Jim had ever seen it. "I am merely thinking."

"Yeah, okay." Jim smiled. "What are you thinking?" He knelt up again, looming over Spock, putting his partner roughly at nipple-level, a position Spock took advantage of, leaning forward to kiss over Jim's conveniently-located chest.

"I am thinking," Spock murmured, "that I would like your help preparing my speech." At that, Jim laughed, lacing his fingers through Spock's wet hair and sweeping it up into unruly spikes. Spock pulled back, glancing up at Jim. "You find this humorous?"

"Nah." Jim grinned, dragging his fingers through Spock's hair again, dissolving the hair-sculpture. "But can we talk about this more out of the bath? I'm turning into a prune. And I kind of want to fuck you right now."

"How good to see that your priorities have not been adversely affected by your recent experiences," Spock said, and then he was sputtering and splashing indignantly as Jim dunked him. Jim knew Pike was going to have words for him about splashing so much water all over the floor, but sometimes you just had to pick your battles.

* * * * *

Two months, thirteen days, and twelve hours after Spock first stepped onto Terran soil, he finally mounted the podium in front of the collected assembly of Federation and Vulcan representatives. Spock knew that the assembly hall held exactly 1,784 beings today, out of the 1,800 it was designed to hold at maximum capacity; he also knew that millions of others were watching the live news broadcast. Never in his entire life had he spoken in front of such a huge group. To say that he was nervous would have been one hell of an understatement; "scared shitless" might have been a better description, were Spock given to profanity like Jim Kirk was.

It was Jim Kirk that Spock looked over at, resting his hands lightly on the wooden surface of the podium. Jim sat in the front row this time, seated with Captain Pike, Lt. Commander Kirk, and several other Federation officials, including Admiral Komack, who didn't look exactly pleased to have Spock's one-time dinner date seated with him. Jim flashed him a smile when Spock's eyes fell on him, but otherwise he kept his hands folded in his lap.

Spock glanced away from Jim, looking out across the room at the sea of faces, every pair of eyes looking right back at him. He cleared his throat.

"Chancellor T'Pau," he said, raising his voice. "Speaker of the Assembly, Chief Justices of the United Federation of Planets, Mr. President, Excellencies, fellow citizens of the Federation: Today is the last day of debates, and I have been given the dubious honor of the last argument that you will hear before recession is taken and voting is held. I ask for only a little more patience from all of you; I will be short." A small murmur rose in response to this statement, but Spock didn't let himself pay attention to it. "Not only because the others who spoke before me have already said much, and in greater detail than I could provide, and not because I have little of worth to tell you, but because I have come to believe that this issue is, at heart, a very simple decision. And like all too many simple decisions, while there is a right choice to be made, it is both painful and difficult."

"We are on the threshold of a new era, one in which the decision Vulcan makes will decide the fate of hundreds of millions of lives. If Vulcan leaves this Federation, so too will Elyria, will J'Turval, will a dozen other planets and their satellite peoples. What will the legacy of this decision be? I say to you now, to this assembly and to all that are listening from the comfort of their homes, that if Vulcan secedes, her children will be judged and judged harshly in the annals of history. To turn our backs on the Federation and on all the peoples of the universe, and on the violence, the war, the poverty, the famine and disease that still bring suffering to intelligent life-forms everywhere—for this, for her indifference, Vulcan will be condemned, and rightly so."

Spock straightened, staring dead ahead. He looked around again, but he no longer saw individual faces, no longer saw actual pairs of eyes staring back at him. His words rang in his own ears; his skin felt too hot, tingling all over as though from fever. "What is indifference? All species have a word that means this. Etymologically, the word means 'no difference.' A closely-related concept that all intelligent life-forms also share is a rough synonym for the word 'apathy,' which similarly means 'no feeling.' No difference, no feeling—this is the path that we are dangerously close to choosing, as a race, and to letting other species to follow us down.

"Despite our reputation as being unfeeling, Vulcans experience the full spectrum of recorded emotions very deeply—so deeply, in fact, that at one point in our history, our inability to control our impulses and emotions nearly destroyed us. Through the teachings of Surak, we conquered our emotional nature and have chosen the path of logic. We pride ourselves, and rightly so, on our ability to make just, intelligent decisions based on facts and reason. But logic is a weapon that can cut both ways, and our same ability to reason in the face of great emotional turmoil is threatening to blind us to the suffering and pain that still exists, that we have the ability to help stop.

"It is easier by far to look away from a victim—indeed, it can be troublesome, awkward, to get involved with another being's pain and despair. It is so much easier to focus on our own problems, and not sully ourselves or disturb our comfortable occupations with the troubles of others. But if we give in to the easy path, that willingness to ignore another's pain and deny another's need, then we do not deserve to say we follow the teachings of the great peace-maker, Surak, for we will have forgotten one of his most important dictums: that the suffering of one is the suffering of all.

"The speakers here today presented, in their debates, a great number of issues to this council—issues of trade negotiations, petty acts of terrorism and theft against Vulcan and her constituents; grievances great and small, on both sides. I tell you not that these speakers were wrong, or misinformed—they were not—but these issues are, to a great degree, inconsequential. How many of the beings listening to this broadcast have ever endured the pain of famine, or the ravages of plague? How many of us have suffered from poverty, an inability to clothe ourselves or our families, not knowing if today is the day we will die from hunger, from a hidden bomb, from impure drinking water, from a weapon in the hands of those who hate us? I would wager the number would be very few."

Spock drew a breath and let it out, finally allowing himself to notice the shaking of his hands. But he was nearly done; soon he could step down. Spock glanced sideways at Jim, who nodded almost imperceptibly, and Spock pressed a button hidden under the top lip of the podium. Behind him, projected on the great white walls of the assembly room, appeared a chunk of scrolling text:

We the life forms of the United Federation of Planets determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and to reaffirm faith in the fundamental rights of sentient beings, in the dignity and worth of all life forms, in the equal rights of members of planetary systems large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of interstellar law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of living on all worlds...

"You all know these words, in part if not in whole," Spock said. "They were ratified by representatives from Vulcan, Terra, Andor, and Tellar at the start of the Federation, and all new inductees to the Federation must read and acknowledge our charter. Do we believe less in these words today than we did when our representative pledged Vulcan's allegiance? Do any of you here truly believe that there is no pain and no fear left in the galaxy? That there are no beings whose daily existence is under attack because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the accident of their birth, their possession of a precious resource, or the sound of their voice?

"Or let me turn the question on its head: Do we truly believe that we have discovered all there is to know or see in the wide universe?" Here Spock paused, his gaze drifting of its own accord to Jim, who was sitting very straight in his chair and watching Spock with bright, hard eyes. It was Jim Spock stared at as he continued to speak, his hands gripping the wooden desk under him hard. "Do we wish to close ourselves off from the joy and wonder of discovery that is the birthright of all starfaring species—and cut ourselves off from new opportunities, new potentials for growth? Have we grown so vain in our accomplishments?

"Our indifference, then, would be not just a crime, but a punishment. By leaving this Federation, we would in one stroke shame ourselves and everything our ancestors have contributed to the betterment of this universe, as well as doom ourselves to stagnation and inertia." Spock took a deep breath, and dropped his hands entirely from the podium, clasping them behind his back as he stared unseeing out at countless watching faces.

"Like all unions, the Federation is imperfect. The grievances of our people with this Federation are real, and should not be ignored—but they should be measured against the damage, to ourselves and to others, that would be done by removing ourselves from the whole. We were never promised that our path would be an easy one, and we must not allow our short-sightedness and vanity to blind us to the right decision.

"Let us make the right choice. Let us choose the difficult path, the rewarding path, the path of scant thanks and struggle, the path down which an honored place in history awaits, instead of disgrace and decline. Let us reaffirm our commitment. Let us stay."

Spock stopped, abruptly realizing that he had nothing else to say, and turned towards the stairs, dismounting the podium with great care so as not to capture a graceless tumble in front of billions of beings for posterity. A susurrus filled the assembly hall, increasing to a noise like the surf of the Pacific, but the sight of Jim standing on his feet at the edge of the floor was all Spock had eyes for. Jim watched him approach, clapping hard—along with a great many other people, Spock realized distantly—a fierce smile on his face that threatened to blind Spock completely.

"It is done," he heard himself say, still staring at Jim as though dazed. "I can do no more."

"You did great, Spock," Jim said, and though he kept his hands to himself, as did Spock, suddenly it seemed to Spock as though the assembly hall had emptied of everyone save the two of them. "Now let's get the hell out of here."

* * * * *

"You broke up with Monty," Captain Pike repeated. "Over a sandwich?"

He raised an eyebrow as he looked over his beer and across the table at the Lieutenant Commander, who just shrugged. "I don't cook," Winona said reasonably, and sipped at her margarita.

"That's--a sandwich. How does that even work? I mean, he must have been pretty broken up about it."

"Chris. Really. He'll be fine." Winona sat up, gesturing vaguely. "He's headed back to the Academy in a month anyway. You know I don't do long-distance." At this, Pike just shook his head, glancing up the length of the long, narrow bar. People of all ages and species were crowded into the room; standing at the edge of the table could be seen a blond, laughing young man and a taller, dark-haired man immediately beside him, hands clasped behind his back with almost military posture.

When Pike glanced back over at Winona, she was rolling her eyes. "Something you wanna say, Chris?"

Pike smiled slightly, turning his beer in place on the table with both hands. "More just wondering when you're going to give me an earful."

Winona raised her eyebrows. "What, because you finally conned my son into joining Starfleet?"

Pike grinned. "Am I right?"

It was Winona's turn to snort. "What do you think, Chris?"

It wasn't meant as an open-ended question, but Pike went silent for a moment anyway, staring over Winona's shoulder at people and places who weren't there, gaze sliding to the table where Jim seemed to be telling some story, gesturing wildly with his hands, and McCoy groaned and threw his arm across his face, causing everyone else at the table to crack up. Out of the corner of his eye, Pike could see Winona's head turn to follow his line of sight.

"I think," Pike said slowly, "Jim and Spock and their friends--they're going to go places that no man ever has before. There's nothing they won't be able to handle."

As they watched, Spock said something and Jim turned to look directly at him, and for a moment both men went silent, staring at each other, Jim's face warmed by a faint smile. Then McCoy lurched to his feet, slinging an arm around Jim and laughing into his ear, and the moment slipped away.

Pike felt Winona turn to look at him again. "You fucking sap," she said, and then he was cursing because Winona had shoved his elbow and his lap was suddenly full of imported wheat ale.

"God dammit Winona!" Winona drained the last of her margarita before Pike could retaliate, setting the glass down on the table with a soft clink and grinning at him as he tried to mop up the mess his trousers had just become. "Last time I ever give a Kirk a compliment," he muttered, giving it up as a bad job.

Winona smirked, her handsome face turning mischievious. "All I can say is I'm glad he's not going to be in any classes of mine." At this, Pike groaned, then laughed, unable to help himself.

At this moment Jim bounded over to the table, reminding Pike of nothing so much as an overgrown Labrador. "Thought I'd come over and check on you folks," Jim said cheerfully, hands shoved in his pockets.

"What? Worried we'd forget where we were and wander off?" Sarcasm notwithstanding, Winona had a smile on her face. Pike watched carefully at the way Jim and his mom looked at each other--not unfriendly, exactly, but more as if they didn't quite know what to do with each other.

Jim grinned back at his mother. "Janice wanted me to ask Captain Pike if there was any way he could finagle getting Christine Chapel as her roommate at the start of term."

Pike raised an eyebrow. "You shameless hustler," he said. "Not thirty minutes ago you were over here asking me to get you a room with Dr. McCoy--"

"What, you're not rooming with Spock?" Winona looked from Pike to Jim and back again, narrowing her eyes as Jim's expression shifted from "cheerful" to "bullshittingly innocent."

"Nope. He's entering as an officer because of his years at the VSA, and he's going to use the second bedroom of his quarters as a study. Besides, I'm sure Captain Pike would agree that it's to the benefit of all of the new recruits to be paired with individuals who will encourage them in proper study habits--"

"--which just means that Spock refused to room with you because he was afraid all the fucking would interfere with his studying, and rightly so," Winona interrupted. Jim's wounded "Mom!" came at the same time as Pike's groan, and then Pike was leaning back in his chair and laughing, unable to resist the aggravation on Jim's face. Spock appeared beside Jim moments later, no doubt attracted by the sound of his name said by Jim's voice. He glanced from Jim to his mother, taking in the indignant expression of the former and the smirk of the latter, and then looked expectantly at Captain Pike.

"You're going to have your hands full this year, Spock," Pike said, unable to completely repress his grin. Spock inclined his head, and Pike couldn't be sure but he thought he saw a faint smile at the corner of Spock's mouth in return. After a moment, Pike straightened, flattening both hands on the table-top and sending up a devout hope that the stain in his lap wasn't visible. "Any more news from Sarek about the recount?"

Spock shook his head, hands still clasped behind his back. "Negative. When we spoke this morning, the status of the recount was the same as the prior evening. However, I have received information from Sasak that points to likely tampering with the original counting of votes, and if my calculations are correct, more than 65.7% of Vulcan and her precincts will have voted to remain with the Federation."

Pike exhaled noisily, pressing his hands against the table as relief swamped him, huge and almost painful in its weight. "Well," he said. "That's definitely good news."

"Affirmative, Captain," said Spock. "I expect the final count will be announced while I am in Shi'Kahr arranging the transitions of my projects. I have already spoken with your First Officer about continuing the duotritocale research at the Academy; she expressed considerable interest in the data I forwarded to her."

Pike nodded. "Good. Have you had time to--" He broke off as Janice Rand appeared next to Spock, ceremoniously draping a lei of flowers around first Spock's neck and then Jim's, who looked like he was having to bite his own tongue to keep from making some kind of comment.

"Sorry, Captain, but I'm stealing your cadets for a few minutes," Janice announced. "Scotty bought a round for all the new first-years. You, too, Spock, we got you a mudslide."

Spock glanced down at the gaudy string of flowers dangling from his neck, then over at Pike, one eyebrow sliding up towards his brow-line. Winona suffered a sudden coughing fit, hiding her face in her arm, punctuated by an "ow!" as Pike kicked her shin under the table, his expression bland. "What is the meaning of the flowers?" Spock asked.

"There was a flower-seller outside--" Janice began hurriedly, but it was too late.

"Janice just wanted to lei us, Spock," Jim said. "It's Human tradition to drape flowers over sexually attractive people--" He dodged the napkin his mother threw at him, only to get punched in the arm by Janice. Spock looked at Pike and Winona.

"You're the one dating him," Pike said, doing a stand-up job of poker face. "Go on, already, we'll be right here."

"I suddenly find myself unable to recall why I chose to leave an institute of learning and knowledge for your company," Spock remarked.

"Don't act like you're so put-upon," Jim told him, as they drifted back to their waiting friends, Christine standing next to the table with the drinks lined up at the edge. "You knew exactly what you were getting into."

Spock did not smile, but his face still softened, glancing again at Jim. "Indeed," he said.

~fin~