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THE SUM OF BOTH OF US

Chapter Text

Logically, Spock knew that although he had put significant distance between himself and his current home, he was not running away. He had not set out with ample provisions for an undertaking of that magnitude, lacked proper identification for space travel, and would certainly not be taken aboard any legal transport if he intended to embark while accompanied by such a large pet. He recalled the difficulty in securing proper travel permits for I-Chaya in the past; his father’s political standing and strict adherence to protocol had made it possible to keep the old sehlat with them ‘as a part of the family,’ Mother had called him, to which Spock had replied, ‘I-Chaya is not a part of this family. I-Chaya is a sehlat.’

The look in mother’s eyes at his correction remained a mystery long after the colors of the night sky and the complex patterns of distant nebulae had become translatable by means of distinct and relatively straightforward equations. Spock no longer posed idle questions to I-Chaya when he could more easily keep them to himself and solve them within himself, not even when they were alone.

However, there were some things his equations could not solve.

I-Chaya, is it not curious that so many phenomena can be understood with mathematics, yet Mother cannot be?

I-Chaya was missing half of one long fang; his age was apparent in his diminished speed, as well as the occasional lack of clarity in his eyes. They appeared clouded, especially after rigorous physical demands were put to him—such as crossing the mile-long stretch of desert they were little more than halfway through by nineteen hundred, the dry grit of white sand crunching beneath the soles of Spock’s shoes and sticking between the leathery pads of I-Chaya’s paws.

In that first half-mile, due no doubt to the demands of exercise, Spock’s hands had ceased their initial trembling, but his knuckles were still streaked with green where the skin had been split by blunt force. Lesions on the skin and a small but not insignificant swelling on his bottom lip would have made it readily apparent to anyone capable of observational deduction that he had recently been engaged in a physical scuffle, though it was not as readily apparent if he had won or lost.

So, too, was Spock’s mind divided in the answering of that question. There were many ways to succeed and many ways to be defeated. When there was no clear purpose, no real goal, success was not even a variable.

At least he had not cried.

He had seen Mother engage in this unsightly human pastime but only once, and she had not known he saw her. There was nothing to precipitate it. There had been no fighting at all, which Spock understood was a common cause for human tears. She was not in pain; no one, to Spock’s knowledge, had died; the day was clear, the air thin, and nothing at all had happened. Yet after dinner she had excused herself and, when Spock found her, it was on the balcony overlooking the sunset, sitting on her favorite bench where she often read or wove, and her face was wet. She made no sound. Spock had known that to witness such a moment, though she was his mother and she was forthcoming about her affections for him, was a great breach in privacy. She had thought she was shedding her tears alone.

He had watched anyway.

‘Come, I-Chaya,’ Spock said. They paused in the shade of a rocky outcropping and Spock began, in the proper way, to remove the grit from I-Chaya’s paws, where it was causing him discomfort. He held one paw with its blunted, powerful claws in his lap and soon I-Chaya’s breathing had evened, the rumble in his chest indicative of basic pleasure.

Spock was not running away. Simply put, he was not running at all; the brisk pace he had set at the beginning had slowed as the undercurrent of agitation he felt settled. But he was far from tranquil and—a part of the paradox he had come to recognize was his to solve and his alone—his ability to acknowledge a lack of tranquility served only to frustrate him, rather than guide him toward peace.

‘Yes,’ Spock said. ‘That is better. Shall we continue, I-Chaya?’

I-Chaya gazed at him with eyes more rheumy than unfathomable. He sighed, then stood, and Spock rested his hand against I-Chaya’s heavy coat, acknowledging that it must have been difficult to be so well-insulated in hotter climates.

‘I am grateful you came with me, I-Chaya.’ Spock listened to the sounds their footfalls made upon the sand, regulated his breathing, and continued to apply himself to the task of meditative reflection. This was no petulant rebellion but a quest, a walkabout. Like his forebears had crossed deserts to come of age during their kahs-wan, Spock, too, sought a similar insight.

His desire to understand the anger that he felt meant only that the insight continue to elude him. He knew that he must abandon the search in order to achieve discovery.

Yet, upon crossing the next ridge, Spock saw a human in the gulley below.

From that distance there were not enough facts to have ascertained the hypothesis so quickly—yet there was no more logical conclusion for Spock to draw. The figure’s ears were round and smooth and his hair was blond, a genetic trait shared by no one native to Vulcan. He was lying on his side, knees curled against his stomach. Even in that position it was plain to see that he would be small when standing, shorter than Spock. He might have been truly unconscious before Spock had crossed his path, but now he was only pretending. His eyes were clenched shut, his head pillowed against a balled-up roll of fabric that might have been an Earth-style jacket.

I-Chaya experienced none of Spock’s uncertainty and none of his wariness in the face of the unknown and unexpected element. Where Spock had halted with rational caution, I-Chaya plodded on, over the crest of the ridge and down the dune, leaving wide footprints in his wake.

After that, what course was there but for Spock to follow?

He did not arrive quickly enough to stop I-Chaya from inspecting the human first. The sehlat pressed his large, damp nose to the side of the human’s face, proving at once Spock’s appraisal that he had already regained consciousness when he twitched and jerked upright. Whatever ambush he had anticipated, it hadn’t taken the form of a sehlat. His blue eyes widened and he scooted backward along the sand, abandoning his makeshift pillow.

It was only when I-Chaya did not move after him—the human’s smell was evidently the most interesting thing about him; I-Chaya had neither attacked nor bared his teeth in territorial aggression—that the boy managed to take his gaze off of him, head swinging from left to right until he caught sight of Spock.

His face was scattered with points of concentrated melanin and his eyes were so blue that Spock could neither look directly at them nor pull his gaze away from them. It was a contradiction that prickled beneath his skin. Surely one or the other must have been possible.

Silence was measured between them, punctuated only by I-Chaya’s thoughtful snuffling. It did not last.

‘You’re Vulcan,’ the boy said, in clear, unaccented Standard. ‘Right?’

This much was self-evident.

Spock had never met a human his own age. He found himself unprepared in how to properly address him. It seemed impolite to inquire after his sleeping arrangements or to point out the holes worn in the hem of his simple, gray shirt. It had short sleeves, and it was unclear whether the garment had been gray to begin with, or whether time and misfortune had worn it to that particular shade from another, original one.

A frown creased in the boy’s forehead when Spock did not respond and he looked down at his hands, clutching the sand beneath him as though he believed it could provide stability. Slowly, he raised one, parting his fingers down the center to perform a shaky but otherwise acceptable Vulcan salute.

Grains of sand clung to the damp skin of his open palm, and there were angry red crescents there; some unseen tension had caused him to make a fist and dig his nails in hard enough to leave marks not yet faded.

Spock responded in kind. The boy’s expression cleared and he sat back, kneeling in the sand.

There were no footprints to indicate what direction he had come from. The desert’s night winds had swept the sand bare of any trace of life except for Spock, I-Chaya, and the boy. Spock was not familiar with human tradition and practices, but he could judge from his mother’s affection and care for him that it was nottypical to leave one’s offspring apparently alone and without protection anywhere, much less unprotected from the elements.

‘It is dangerous to be out here alone,’ Spock said, replying in Standard for the boy’s benefit. Father had once explained that humans did not take to the Vulcan language without considerable effort. Mother’s felicity had come to her only with great difficulty and great dedication.

The boy jolted upright once more, as though this had caught him by surprise, even though his eyes had not once left Spock’s face. Spock recognized the signs of fever that he wore, which provided him with no surprise. Even Mother, who was by now accustomed to Vulcan’s temperatures, would pause now and then in the heat to fan her hand before her throat, tugging aside the drape of a scarf to reveal flushed skin. She did not do it often and the rarity of the admission made it all the more noticeable when she did indulge on the hotter days.

I-Chaya turned over his left shoulder and looked to Spock, then resumed exploring the stranger with his nose. Certain animals were able to sniff out, from the properties of their sweat, the presence of illness in humans. Spock knew that I-Chaya’s sensory perception had been dulled with age—but it would be unwise to assume that a chipped tooth no longer had any bite.

‘I know that you are able to understand me,’ Spock said. ‘Why do you not answer?’

The boy swallowed. ‘I’m not trespassing,’ he said at last, defending himself against an accusation that had neither been spoken nor implied. ‘I know there’s nobody here.’

‘I did not say that you were.’ The boy was irrational, as all humans were, especially when they found themselves confronted with the unfamiliar. ‘Still, you should not be here.’

‘Is he yours?’ The boy nodded, barely perceptibly, toward I-Chaya. He was at least intelligent enough to make no sudden movements around a large and unfamiliar animal close to five times his size.

‘I-Chaya is my companion,’ Spock replied. ‘If you do not try to harm either of us, then he will present no danger to you.’

‘I’m not gonna...’ The boy swallowed. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘We’re okay—I-Chaya, right?’

His eyes were still wide with fear despite the facts as he lifted his hand, very slowly, to allow I-Chaya to scent his fingers. His hand trembled. Though I-Chaya could be physically intimidating, the ferocity of his nature was revealed only when provoked. Spock did not understand why the boy’s expression did not change or why, despite the sting of the gritty wind, he refused to blink until his eyes watered.

‘How did you come to be here?’ Spock asked.

He did not belong.

The boy might have answered him then, had a sudden noise not drawn both their attention away. But it was not a worthwhile endeavor to speculate on what might have been—especially when it would not ever be.

Spock turned as shale scattered down upon him from above. Cresting the ridge was the source of the noise, a deep-throated growl, and Spock recognized the pattern of the dull gray scales, the shape of the muzzle, on the creature that had just discovered them. It was a Le-matya, and its claws were poisonous. It must have scented them on the wind—the stranger’s sweat was especially acrid—and it was a creature of instinct and hunger. It lunged when it knew it had been marked, scrambling down the ridge and into the gulley below with lean, muscular speed.

The danger could not be measured by any equation, nor could the timing of impact be equated without full knowledge of the constants. Spock felt the elevation of his pulse and experienced no displacement from his body in the moment of heightened awareness—but, to his dismay, he did not move quickly enough. The Le-matya would have crashed into him, swiping him aside with finely honed talons, had I-Chaya not barreled into him from behind, knocking him aside and out of immediate danger. The Le-matya met with I-Chaya instead, a larger obstacle than expected, and growled again in frustration. The sound echoed through the valley as they engaged in combat.

Spock stumbled, then called out I-Chaya’s name despite himself.

I-Chaya stood on his hind paws, raising himself to his full height. Spock saw that the boy had had every right to maintain his distance and hold on to his fear. The sehlat, when angered, would have been terrifying to anyone seeing it express rage for the first time.

Yet I-Chaya was old, the Le-matya too swift for him. It lunged with snapping teeth toward I-Chaya’s belly and Spock cried out again.

Unnecessary. Sentimental. He bit back on the sound with self-reprimand but that, too, had little time to take effect. The Le-Matya shrieked, a new sound of pain rather than hostility, and Spock recognized its surprise before it dropped to the sand. The boy was standing behind it, a large rock held between both hands, pleased with his triumph—until the Le-matya’s tail lashed after him, knocking him flat on his back.

It was all the time I-Chaya had needed, however, to bring his full weight down on their attacker. The Le-matya did not scream again.

Neither did the boy move.

Now that the danger had passed, Spock could afford to allow his attentions to shift. This time, he was certain that the boy’s unconsciousness was not a ploy. Rather, it seemed the stimulus of sudden activity, compounded by very real and immediate danger, had incapacitated his already-fraught nervous system, requiring a necessary period of rest and recovery.

Spock’s bent to make a closer inspection; his fingers brushed the boy’s forehead, attempting to clear his hair from his eyes. Spock’s own hair had never grown long enough for his vision to be obscured by it, but his mother often performed a similar gesture whenever she was concerned after his health. The boy’s skin was flushed and hot to the touch. It would have been possible to sense more—but not appropriate. Spock retracted his touch from the damp skin.

Such a fever would not pass if it remained untreated. That made Spock’s decision very clear.

*

Chapter Text

Jim didn’t dream. Not anymore.

He figured it was better than the alternative—but it made waking up all the more confusing. He went from nothing to everything each time, without warning.

The same memories always came back to him before he could open his eyes.

There was something heavy over his body and he struggled instinctively under its weight. When he finally fought his eyes open, he saw that it was nothing more dangerous than a blanket, and the thing under him wasn’t soft sand but a mattress. The first one in a long time.

He’d read about this happening to people with fever. It was called delirium. It meant hallucinations; Jim was seeing things.

That was only natural. He couldn’t keep track of how many days he’d been in the desert, wandering lost from the shuttle-port near where his escape pod had crash landed toward the mountains he saw in the distance. He knew that humans fell to dehydration more than anything else in the hot, arid regions like the one he’d been crossing. And before that killed them, they experienced all kinds of side effects—like dizziness, nausea, fever, and delusions.

He’d seen a Vulcan. And some of the native fauna, although Jim couldn’t remember the name for the killer lizard that’d nearly had him for breakfast.

A flicker of shadowy movement caught his attention and Jim struggled to sit up. He managed to brace himself on his elbows, squinting into the dimly lit room.

There was a woman there, with fond, dark eyes and a tall glass of water in one hand. Even wrapped up in scarves and dressed in the Vulcan style, Jim could tell she was human. It was the look on her face—the way she was looking at him.

He’d never seen a Vulcan come close to that level of emotion. Even the one he’d hallucinated he wasn’t able make look human.

‘You’re awake,’ the woman said.

Jim tried to speak and it came out as a croak, not even a word. He hated the way it sounded but he couldn’t take it back.

‘It’s all right—you don’t have to say anything right now, at least not until you’re ready,’ the woman said. She crossed to the side of his bed to hand him the water and she didn’t even flinch as Jim drank it down in wet, noisy gulps. What didn’t get in his mouth ran down his chin and onto the front of his shirt. When the glass was empty, she reached to pour another. He hadn’t even seen the pitcher on the bedside table.

Jim took the second glass slower. He still hadn’t swallowed enough that he was ready to be cautious and sip, but the least he could do was drink without spilling all over himself. While he drank, the woman settled in a chair by his bed, hands folded in her lap. She was keeping them where Jim could see them, and he appreciated that.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘I’m Amanda,’ the woman said. ‘Amanda Grayson. My son found you—though ‘wandering the desert’ sounds so dramatic.’

Her voice was kind.

‘I wasn’t wandering,’ Jim muttered. The words echoed back to him from the inside of the glass. He sounded squeaky but more like himself, something he could recognize.

He looked at Amanda, then down at the bed. The shades in the room were all lowered, which didn’t give him much light to see by. After days of nothing but full Vulcan sunlight, his eyes welcomed the rest, even though he didn’t trust it. All he could be sure of was that he was in somebody’s house, not a waypoint or a rest stop or anything he’d be expected to pay for. Amanda was between him and the door, but Jim’s legs still felt like water, his knees unable to lock into standing. He couldn’t make a break for it, not even if he wanted to.

He wasn’t sure he did.

‘I’m Jim,’ he said. ‘Jim Kirk.’

Amanda smiled like she was trying to hide it—just a twitch at either side of her mouth, the corners tilting up. Jim hadn’t seen anybody smile in a long time.

He looked away, staring down at the spots of water scattered over the blanket, pooling in the dip between his knees like one of the hazy dune valleys in the Vulcan desert. He swallowed, throat slick, although he could still feel the grit in the back where dry air had scrubbed it raw over the past few days.

‘You had a fever,’ Amanda said, very gently. ‘It took you some time to recover. How do you feel, Jim Kirk?’

‘Fine.’ Lies like that were so easy. Jim swallowed again. ‘Where am I?’

‘In my home. Safe,’ Amanda added. ‘Though we do not know each other and you may not believe me yet, that is my promise to you. You are and will be safe here.’

Safe. Jim knotted his fingers in the blanket, heavy and homespun but incredibly soft. He’d never seen anything like it and it was beautiful. Looking at it made his eyes sting.

‘My son told me what you did for him,’ Amanda continued. ‘And for his dear pet, I-Chaya. That was very brave of you, Jim.’

‘Had the chance,’ Jim said. ‘Saw an opening. Took it.’

‘As logical as it may have seemed at the time,’ Amanda’s smile softened, ‘that doesn’t mean it was not also brave.’

Jim felt his cheeks get hot; his eyes kept stinging. As he stared at the patterns on the blanket he saw them blur and swim, unfocus and focus, as he blinked back the obvious.

He hadn’t cried in days, not since he’d beaten his hands black and blue pounding on the porthole of the escape pod. He hadn’t even cried then and he wasn’t going to start now.

Get in, Jim. I need you to get in. Because I know you’re smart enough to take care of yourself in one of these—you learned all the controls, didn’t you?

Jim reached for the glass of water and took another deep gulp. He almost choked on it but by the time he’d finished coughing, his eyes were clear. He swiped under his nose with the back of his arm and winced at one of the cuts there.

‘May I?’ Amanda’s hand was outstretched. Jim stared at it, feeling small, before he held out his arm. ‘Thank you. I did try my best to treat them while you were sleeping, but these things take some time to heal. It’s been a long while since the last time I saw red scrapes and cuts on anyone other than myself.’ With Jim’s hand in one of hers, she showed him a pinprick on her forefinger. ‘I got that while sewing. It was very clumsy of me.’

‘Vulcans,’ Jim said. ‘Green. They bleed green.’

‘Indeed. But blood is blood, I think, no matter what color it runs when it’s spilled.’ Amanda applied a strip of sterile bandage tape to the cut she’d missed, smoothing it out without pinching the irritated skin in the process. ‘Did that hurt?’ Jim shook his head. ‘I was right. You are brave.’

‘S’just a cut,’ Jim said.

‘Mm. I see.’ Amanda patted the back of his hand before she returned hers to her lap. ‘Tell me, Jim—how old are you?’

‘Nine.’

‘Thank you, Jim. And...’ Amanda paused. Jim braced himself for what he knew was coming next. ‘Where are your parents?’

‘Dead,’ Jim said. The word came out too easily but he didn’t cry. He wasn’t going to cry.

Amanda gentled, reaching for his hand again. Jim wanted to pull away but for some reason he didn’t, not even when Amanda covered his knuckles with her palm. Her voice was genuine when she told him, ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘You didn’t do it,’ Jim replied. ‘You don’t have to be sorry.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t help that; I’m sorry anyway.’ Amanda patted him twice with her cool, soft fingers. She was still holding his hand when she stopped and Jim could still see Mom’s hand pressed against the glass of the window before she stepped back and the escape pod’s engine roared to life. She’d been small when he left her behind, when Tarsus IV disappeared below him, riot fires burning in the distance. ‘Because, you see,’ Amanda continued, ‘I owe you a great deal, Jim. What you did for my son—I will never forget it. And, I am certain, neither will he. We are all very much in your debt. Thank you.’

It took Jim a long time before he was able to reply, mumbling a ‘You’re welcome’ somewhere into his chest.

‘Do you think you would be able to tell me how you came to be here, Jim?’ Amanda asked.

Jim shook his head.

‘No? I see.’ Jim waited for her to ask for more but she didn’t and the silence was worse than any questions would’ve been. ‘That’s all right. You don’t have to tell me anything you can’t—or anything you don’t want to. Will you be all right if I left you for a little while, Jim? You wouldn’t be alone. Spock will come to sit by you. And I-Chaya, as well.’

Spock. A Vulcan name. Jim didn’t think he’d mind being alone but he didn’t think he’d mind being guarded by that sehlat, either. He nodded.

‘Thank you, my dear,’ Amanda said, and stood to leave.

‘I’m not—’ Jim started to say, then choked down the impulse.

He wasn’t anyone’s dear. Not anymore. But Amanda Grayson hadn’t done anything worse than taking Jim in and patching him up when he needed it most. There was a raw twist of helplessness in his stomach, traveling through his insides like a desert worm beneath the sand, but there was no reason to take that out on her. It wasn’t her fault.

Jim knew an ally when he saw one. And he knew moms.

Amanda Grayson was nothing like Winona Kirk, but Jim had saved her kid. She wasn’t going to pull anything on him because she was on his side. He might’ve even wanted to trust her.

‘I understand,’ Amanda said.

She didn’t look hurt when she left.

Jim could imagine, or pretend he knew, that it had something to do with Vulcans. They were big on manners but not so nobody’s feelings would get hurt—because they didn’t do feelings. Not ever. They must’ve had their reasons but there wasn’t too much in the library computers on Vulcan culture aside from the basics. They kept to themselves.

In some ways, Jim figured being among them made him an explorer—or a pioneer, bravely forging new paths.

But he didn’t feel brave and he hadn’t forged anything. Thinking about it made him think of Starfleet, which brought him around to his dad. Jim didn’t get how he could miss someone he’d never met, but he knew that if Dad had been alive, they never would’ve gone to Tarsus IV. And even if they had, Dad would’ve found a way to protect them. He would’ve stopped it.

Jim stared at his hands, the pale shapes they made with his fingers outstretched against the dark weave of the blanket. Those hands couldn’t even break the lock on a shuttle door after it’d been thrown.

There was a knock from the doorway and Jim sat straight up, regretting it when the sudden movement made his head spin. He was still dizzy but he didn’t want to lie down again.

The knock persisted this time, loud and sharp against the hollow door.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. He cleared his throat. ‘Come in.’

It felt weird to welcome someone into a room that wasn’t his. From what Jim could see, it didn’t look like a kid’s room. Not even a Vulcan kid.

It was the sehlat—I-Chaya?—who poked his head around the doorway first. Spock followed in I-Chaya’s wake, which gave Jim time to size him up properly. He was definitely older and he had the kind of posture that would’ve made him look taller than Jim even if they’d been the same height.

Frank had always said Jim was scrawny for his age. That he took after his mom—like that was a bad thing.

Thinking about Frank brought with it the same familiar rush of anger, rippling through Jim like wind in a cornfield when it rattled all the husks. It was kind of a relief to know he could still get angry. Even that was better than the numbness that had set in between Tarsus IV and his unexpected crash-landing on Vulcan.

But what he felt didn’t change the facts: Jim was short. He was still waiting for his first growth spurt. There wasn’t anything in the books and reports he’d read that said whether Vulcans got those or not.

Spock didn’t say anything, just stared at Jim from the other side of the room.

‘How old are you?’ Jim asked.

Spock hadn’t even sat down yet. After a couple of seconds, it became obvious that he wasn’t planning on it. I-Chaya paced the room in a u-shape, snuffling around the bed’s perimeter before finally attempting to crawl on top of it. Jim tugged his legs out of the way so they wouldn’t be crushed. He watched Spock expectantly. Now he got why they spoke the same language. Human mother was the tip-off. He wasn’t all Vulcan. Just half.

‘I am twelve years old,’ Spock said finally.

It was an answer that would’ve made Jim shrivel up if it hadn’t been for the look on Spock’s face—unsure of himself, like he wanted it to be the right answer. That put them closer to even footing. It wasn’t like age was the biggest thing separating them anyway. Spock had the sharp ears under his dark hair, the sharp eyebrows that matched.

‘I’m nine,’ Jim said, testing him. He held his hand out for I-Chaya, who whuffed a hot breath right onto his palm. ‘Hey, boy.’

The damp nose and the fuzzy muzzle tickled Jim’s skin, something he hadn’t felt or thought about in what could’ve been forever. It was in the past, running through the backyard, Mom on the porch, George hiding in the tall grass, dry stalks crunching under Jim’s back when George finally took him down.

‘I-Chaya is not a boy,’ Spock said. ‘He is a sehlat and he is very old.’

Jim scratched the front of I-Chaya’s nose, which he seemed to like. ‘He was pretty fierce back there, with that lizard.’

‘It was a Le-matya.’

Jim’s nose wrinkled. He’d never read about those. Another Vulcan secret, maybe. ‘Le-matya,’ he repeated.

‘An adequate pronunciation, though not strictly accurate. The Vulcan language is far too complex for humans to learn without ample study.’

Jim’d thought it was more than just adequate. He could feel Spock’s eyes boring holes into him like he was a welding torch and he tried to stare back, give the contest all he had, but his eyes were tired—and one of I-Chaya’s big shoulders got in the way, blocking Spock from view.

I-Chaya, on the other hand, had kind eyes. Tired and old, like Spock’d said. Jim rubbed the fur above his nose again and I-Chaya’s eyes fell shut, not making a sound, only Jim knew he liked it. Most animals did, whether they were from Vulcan or Earth or anywhere else.

‘Hey, boy,’ Jim repeated. I-Chaya didn’t seem to mind. When he lowered himself onto the floor in a ball, chin on the edge of the bed, one long fang pressing into the mattress, Jim saw over the domed rise of his back that Spock looked offended. ‘He’s cute,’ Jim added.

That only made Spock look even more offended.

‘My mother informs me that protocol in this instance requires me to express my gratitude,’ Spock finally said. ‘Your actions on the ridge—’

‘It’s cool,’ Jim said.

Spock blinked. ‘The temperature is irrelevant to this discussion.’

‘I meant it’s fine. What I did for you guys.’

‘Regardless of whether or not you meant it, that is not what you said.’

Jim looked down at I-Chaya, who huffed again, like a sigh. ‘Is he always like this, I-Chaya?’ Jim asked.

‘I-Chaya cannot answer your questions,’ Spock said, ‘but he proves a formidable and acceptable companion despite his verbal shortcomings.’

‘He’s pretty awesome,’ Jim agreed.

Spock’s eyebrows, pointing upward, wrinkled together in the center of his forehead. Jim liked that; he couldn’t say why. ‘There are rare occasions when he is capable of inspiring awe, though he is now too fat and old to behave as a younger and more virile member of his species.’

‘You’re gonna hurt his feelings, talking like that about him,’ Jim said.

‘That would be impossible,’ Spock replied. ‘He cannot understand what I am saying and I have not employed a tone of reprimand.’

Jim ruffled the fur between I-Chaya’s ears anyway. ‘He stood up to that...’ Jim was determined to pronounce it right this time. ‘...Le-matya without any trouble, didn’t he? Maybe he’s old now, but that doesn’t mean anything. He protected you.’

‘Without your interference, he might well have failed. You are a human boy,’ Spock added, ‘and for a creature of I-Chaya’s size and natural disposition, it must be shameful indeed that he required your assistance in matters of defense.’

‘He provided the distraction,’ Jim said. ‘We made a pretty good team—didn’t we, boy?’

‘What you have said is not logical.’ Spock’s eyebrows returned to their normal position but the wrinkled look remained somewhere in his eyes and on his mouth. He was frowning without having to frown—probably a Vulcan thing, Jim thought. But even if the conversation wasn’t the best, Spock was still somebody to talk to.

Jim looked away. ‘Your mom’s nice.’

‘As a mother, she is satisfactory.’ Spock’s voice sounded sharper. ‘She is, however, human, and therefore often unpredictable.’

He was so weird. It wasn’t bad, but Jim couldn’t imagine living with anyone who had an attitude like that—who didn’t know that when they only told the truth, they were bound to hurt somebody’s feelings.

What was it Frank’d always said about him? Too smart for your own damn good, kid.

Jim looked up at the ceiling.

‘You are experiencing discomfort,’ Spock said. Not a question.

‘Who says?’

‘I am aware of it. Vulcans are telepathically sensitive.’

‘You’re reading my mind?’

Jim realized after he said it that he’d actually managed to piss off a Vulcan, one young enough to show ripples of his annoyance on the surface.

‘Do not be ridiculous.’

‘Well, don’t,’ Jim said. ‘Not ever. Stay out of my head, all right?’

‘The warning is as unnecessary as it is completely misinformed,’ Spock replied.

‘Good,’ Jim said. ‘Stay out. You don’t wanna know what’s in there anyway.’

‘On that matter we are in agreement.’ Spock stiffened, straightening to his full height. He wasn’t that tall, Jim thought. ‘I do not care to know what you are thinking. It is likely of no consequence to me.’

‘You’re weird,’ Jim told him. ‘You know that?’

‘You are not the first to make that conclusion,’ Spock said.

‘Won’t be the last, either,’ Jim predicted.

‘A statement that cannot be verified as its terms have not yet been met.’

Whatever they were teaching Spock in Vulcan school, it was heavy on debate skills. Or maybe this was just the way he was naturally: prickly, blunt, defensive. Long on the details and short on courtesy. It was interesting enough, different enough, that Jim couldn’t work his way up to getting offended.

Spock was like a puzzle just waiting to be picked apart.

Already, Jim recognized he couldn’t see how the pieces fit together—how Amanda with her little kindnesses had raised a kid like Spock, who didn’t seem to have inherited any. Then again, there was the Vulcan thing to consider. And he was approaching what all of George’s teachers had referred to as a difficult age.

Jim’s throat stung like he’d swallowed a bee. He coughed around it. Maybe the tightness was something he could dislodge.

Spock’s eyebrows rose. The way they were angled made him look like he was in a constant state of alarm.

‘Throat’s dry.’ Jim reached for the half-full pitcher on the nightstand. Somehow, he got the feeling that Spock wouldn’t be bringing him meals in bed anytime soon. ‘It’s hot here.’

‘The climate of Vulcan is not comparable to that of Earth.’ Even agreeingmade Spock sound cranky, like he was mad at Jim for saying something he couldn’t correct. ‘The transition from one to the other will no doubt be uncomfortable for you.’

Jim sipped at his water this time. He’d kicked out the tight feeling at the back of his skull, where a headache had been prickling with promised heat. Dehydration would have to wait for another day, and the cool weight of the cup in his hands was something steady to hold onto.

‘I didn’t come here from Earth,’ Jim said.

This time, it was only one of Spock’s eyebrows that rose. ‘Oh?’

‘Yeah.’ Jim pressed his chapped bottom lip to the swell of the cup’s rim. The sacrifice of a piece of information was worth it just to get one up on him. ‘I’ve been all over. Space. Even flew the shuttle myself once. It’s no big deal.’

It sounded better as a point of pride, something he could brag about. Amanda might’ve spotted the lie on him, sniffed it out like a mother Le-matya looking for a next meal, but Jim knew kids. Even Vulcan kids.

Spock wasn’t so tough.

Judging by the look on his face, he wasn’t so impressed, either. Whatever, that was fine. Jim wasn’t there to impress him.

Eventually somebody was gonna ask him what he was there for. The thought sat at the back of his mind, stark and small, like a water-ring on an antique wood table. Frank’s definition of antique was wash it a hundred times and never use the thing, but accidents happened with kids.

Jim must’ve scrubbed the top of that old table ten times with coarse-grained salt and an old rag—but the ring never did come out.

He could still remember how the salt stung in the scrapes and cuts on his hands.

Spock’s silence made Jim pull himself back. He still didn’t trust him, that telepathy thing, whatever it was, however it worked. It’d probably be safer not to get caught up in any memories with him around.

‘You are hardly old enough to have earned your piloting license,’ Spock said. ‘Not to mention your size would make it impossible to properly maneuver the necessary controls.’

‘I made it work,’ Jim replied. He was suddenly tired, leaning back against his pillows, the empty cup braced against his chest. It was too heavy to hold for long. His hands were stiff. He didn’t like to think about why. ‘Don’t need to be the right size if you’ve got imagination.’

‘Imagination is irrelevant,’ Spock began.

‘No way.’

‘You have no proof of its importance in such an application.’

‘I made it all the way here, didn’t I?’ Jim waited for Spock to deny that—but he couldn’t. Jim had made it. The proof was right there; even I-Chaya’s tired, old eyes could see it.

‘That may be true,’ Spock finally said, ‘but as you were not found with a shuttle of any kind, it is highly probable that you may have caused a significant malfunction due to your inexperience, enough even to destroy it upon landing.’

‘I didn’t crash.’ The back of Jim’s head was ringing again, his skull tight around his brain. ‘I ran out of fuel. It was a long ride.’

He’d tried to make it sound cool, unconcerned, like he did that kind of thing all the time—but even he knew it just sounded unlikely. He saw a few shadows move at the doorway, darkness falling over his eyelids, before he heard Amanda’s soft voice, lowered, saying Spock with such love behind the unfamiliar name that Jim’s eyes fluttered open.

‘Come now, Spock,’ Amanda was saying. ‘Let’s leave him be for as long as he needs to recover. He’s tired, the poor thing—and I can’t say I blame him.’

‘As he has spent the past fourteen hours primarily unconscious, it is difficult to believe he is still in need of further rest. Are human bodies truly so weak?’

‘M’not weak,’ Jim said.

Maybe it would’ve been more effective if he hadn’t passed out right after saying it.

*

Chapter Text

It had been twenty-six hours and thirty-seven minutes since the last time any Vulcan children of Spock’s respective age had taunted him in regards to his human heritage and human mother. It had been twenty-three hours and fourteen minutes since Spock had found Jim Kirk in the gulley beneath the ridge and twenty-three hours and three minutes since Jim Kirk had acted very carelessly, attacking the Le-matya with much of the same recklessness as found in the Le-matya’s initial attack on them. For all but thirty-two minutes of the following twenty-three hours and three minutes, Jim Kirk had been very much asleep, and not peacefully so.

Mother, in her way, was overly concerned with the well-being of a stranger whose health was neither her business nor her responsibility to ensure. Spock considered speaking to his father on the matter, but no opportunity had presented itself to do so.

It was not unexpected behavior on Mother’s part, as there were times when her human sentimentality inspired similar bouts of unnecessary interest in caring for little things. A bird recently fallen out of its nest—though it would never be accepted by its own mother once it carried the scent of another living being—nonetheless had become her chief concern two summers ago. It lived three weeks and one day and seventeen hours more, then died during the night.

At least Mother did not cry over it. She placed it in a wooden box and buried it in the garden while Spock watched and suspected, however irrationality, that his capacity for understanding Mother’s insistence on the ceremony had been buried with it.

Jim Kirk was not a baby bird; neither did he resemble one in any way. He was young, small, and slept fitfully in the room Mother had made up for him. She was capable of rational thought and applied, structural caretaking, as her duties of motherhood had prepared her to be. Every two hours she opened the door, looked within, and brought Jim Kirk fresh water he would not—could not—drink while he was asleep. Then she closed the door, thanked I-Chaya for guarding it, and returned to her other duties of motherhood, uninterrupted by the change in their home.

‘He’ll be all right, Spock,’ Mother said, after the fourth repetition of her attentions.

‘If you mean to imply that I was experiencing worry, Mother, then I must correct you. I was not. He is not our responsibility.’

‘No,’ Mother agreed. ‘He isn’t, is he? But if taking care of him isn’t our duty, perhaps we should consider it our privilege.’

Spock reflected on the potential lesson in her words. They were neither uttered with invective nor anger of any kind, nor was there reason for them to carry the weight of disappointment. Still, they were not without some merit.

When Mother rose and went to the door for the fifth time, Spock intercepted her. ‘I will change the water, Mother,’ he said.

‘Why, Spock,’ Mother replied. She softened, began to say more, then smiled and stepped aside. ‘Thank you, dear. What a generous offer.’

Spock filled the pitcher and returned it to the table beside the bed. In his sleep, Jim Kirk was whimpering. Spock stared at him until Jim became even more restless, then left the room.

His studies awaited him, but the concentration necessary to apply his mind to them fully required meditation to achieve. He knew that what he had told his mother was not a lie, that he had not experienced and did not now experience worry for their guest of any kind. The intrusion was a distraction that shifted the chemistry of the house and all of its rooms, however illogical that shift was. It should not have been, could not be measured, yet made itself known nonetheless.

‘Continue to guard the door, I-Chaya,’ Spock instructed on his way past. ‘We do not know him. Even though he is small, he may still prove dangerous.’

Mother was in the sitting room, the balcony doors open. A dry, hot wind blew in, the sky graying with dusk.

‘Have you spoken to Father about Jim Kirk?’ Spock asked.

‘Negotiations with the Tellarites keep him more occupied than ever before, I’m afraid.’ Mother smiled. She did not look afraid and Spock understood this to be one of her human idioms. Such turns of phrase were often not strictly accurate.

‘The Tellarites are argumentative and will hold grudges against even a perceived slight.’ Spock chose not to sit next to her and instead preferred a position near the open doors, where the late, lowering sunlight warmed his back through his clothes. ‘Their temperament does not seem well-suited for smooth diplomatic proceedings.’

Mother put a hand over her mouth. The action was brief, but she need not have bothered with it at all—as Spock could see where the corners of her eyes tightened, betraying the smile she had attempted to hide.

‘You sounded just like him,’ she said.

It was a statement of fact made with neither positive nor negative qualifiers. Spock could not assume she meant it as a compliment. It was true that Father hadremarked, on numerous occasions, how difficult diplomatic work was made by the presence of Tellarites. Spock had merely retained the knowledge should it ever prove useful or, in this instance, merely relevant.

‘In any case, when your father and I do talk, you’ll be the first to know.’ Mother adjusted the scarf around her head. Spock had only ever seen it uncovered on rare occasions; her hair was long and not as dark as his, a dull ochre streaked with bright silver threads. Humans showed their age long before a Vulcan began to—though Mother was not so very old even by human standards. ‘And yes, Spock, I’ll be certain tell him about Jim.’

The hot wind stirred Spock’s hair, whispering against the back of his neck. It would be a restless night, both outside and within their home. Even I-Chaya, Spock’s constant companion, had been consigned to obligatory guard duty—watching a stranger who had not yet risen on his own from a bed that was not his.

But Spock would not be fooled by logical fallacy. Just because he had not yet seen Jim rise did not mean it could not or would not occur.

‘Father will not approve,’ Spock said.

Even now, he found it difficult to resist a certain, atavistic instinct to explain the simplest of concepts to his mother, to warn her against a mistake on which her mind was already set to make. Mother was not a creature swayed by logic but by the unpredictable yearnings of her heart. She was emotional—and Jim had been brought to the house in a state that demanded care.

It was understandable that a bond might already have been formed between them.

But it would not do to bury him in the backyard next to the bird should Jim’s health take a turn for the worse sometime in a future night.

Mother smiled, distant and distracted. Spock assumed she had not heard him, but a second later her gaze was on his face again, as though she had sensed his doubt. She did not always require the faculties of telepathy to know Spock’s thoughts.

It unsettled him.

‘If the Vulcan ambassador can’t show hospitality to a lost soul from another planet, Spock, then what kind of an example are we setting for others?’

That, as Spock understood it, was that. It was overly poetic for his tastes, colored with Mother’s usual passion and presumption. But—alsoas usual—there was a grain of logic and wisdom in what she had said, one he would not have found for himself without her insight. Spock could not argue with her without coming up against it.

Father would come to know of the situation in his own time; then, he would decide what was best. In the interim, it was Spock who had brought the boy home. The consequences were his as well.

‘I will consider your logic in the matter, Mother.’ Spock bowed.

Mother was still smiling. ‘Good-night, Spock.’

She held out her arms for him and Spock came near enough to permit her a kiss on his forehead. Her mouth was warm, the embrace brief but tight. Such practices and displays of physical affection were anathema in true Vulcan households—but certain compromises had been set out between them long ago. In a diplomatic home such as theirs, there was room for another tradition: one of cooperation and concession. It was as Father practiced.

In the same spirit, Spock allowed Mother to satisfy her desire for control over a strict bedtime. She believed, deeply, that all children needed their sleep. Spock spent more of his night in a state she would have considered meditation; however, every night when she came to check on him, pausing with her hand against the door, she did not choose to acknowledge any understanding that he was not actually asleep by her definition of the word, merely occupying a horizontal position in his bed as she required of him. She would wait, according to Spock’s count, for sixty to ninety seconds before shutting the door, her footfalls barely audible as she retreated down the hall.

It was, at least, tranquil. Even on the days when there was much to remember and a dark vein of troubled disquiet lingered beneath the surface, Spock managed to regulate his breathing and mute the memories of insults until they were nothing more than echoes trapped between ravines. They must come to mean nothing to him. He did not feel them. The air drawn into and expelled from his lungs fell into an even and unbroken rhythm.

Or so it should have done.

But not on this night.

The air was not inherently uneasy, but the acrid smell of sweat was readily apparent. Every deep breath Spock drew brought with it another sharp tang of Jim’s feverish discomfort until Spock’s skin, too, was prickling. Vulcans did not sweat; the human proclivity was fascinating and distracting. When Spock closed his eyes the flutter of a distant, unsteady pulse forced them open again.

If he were in better control of his emotions, then it would not have bothered him at all. This was a failing on his part—he admitted his culpability—but it began with the boy.

Spock closed his eyes, took another deep breath, and tasted sweat on his tongue. He refused its distractions. He steadied his heartbeat to its slow, familiar pulse. The drift began, a separation not from thoughts but from the weight of their attachments.

I-Chaya’s pointed whine and the light from the hall pulled him back from the edge. Spock opened his eyes again, far from tranquility.

‘You are not supposed to be here, I-Chaya. You know where you belong tonight.’

I-Chaya did. Though he could not understand the words, they had been with one another long enough that the meaning was conveyed through other means. I-Chaya looked over his shoulder, then back into the room, and huffed in Spock’s direction.

‘You are supposed to guard Jim Kirk, I-Chaya,’ Spock elaborated.

Just as I-Chaya could understand Spock’s displeasure, Spock could understand I-Chaya’s anxiety. It had become apparent that Spock was not the only one disrupted by the effect Jim Kirk had on their home.

‘I will come,’ Spock said.

I-Chaya backed out of the room and shuffled down the hall. Spock followed him.

It was now dark, long past sunset; Mother had already gone to bed. She would be awake again, if precedent was indicative of predictable routine, to check on her patient’s condition throughout the night. Though she could keep his water fresh and his blankets tucked in, Mother would not be able to ascertain anything else that was wrong with Jim. She was, after all, only human.

I-Chaya nosed at the door and it swung inward silently; I-Chaya nosed next at Spock’s back with pointed insistence.

‘I understand, I-Chaya,’ Spock told him. ‘Do not be impatient.’ Already, Spock had stepped into the darkness and toward the faint beams of starlight drifting between the slatted shades drawn shut over the windows. They fell across the floor and Spock stepped past them to the bed, where pale starshine made the water in the pitcher glitter, the glass beside it empty.

In the bed itself, tangled in the covers, Jim twitched. Then, he was still, except for the rise and fall of his chest, with breaths as ragged as I-Chaya’s after experiencing the strain of prolonged exercise beyond the capabilities of his years.

Also, Spock noted, Jim was whimpering. At times it was more obvious; at others, it faded into silence, leaving only the mark of its memory behind. Spock recognized the reaction, for the state of dreaming was not unfamiliar to him. Though he was cautious with his own dreams, inherited from his mother’s human emotionality and not his father’s Vulcan restraint, he knew what they were. He did not always resent them. They were complex and even the unpleasant ones might always prove to serve a purpose.

But Jim did not have the strength of a rigorous and well-trained mind to protect him from his. His cheeks were hot; they appeared flushed. His hair was stuck against his forehead as it had been in the desert. Though he no longer suffered from the effects of a fever, the temperature of Vulcan was, as Spock hypothesized, proving too much for him.

Whatever he was dreaming of, it made him tremble.

I-Chaya whined from the doorway. Spock blinked and moved to push the hair off Jim’s brow as he had done once before, a familiar gesture—and also the appropriate one to make under the circumstances. His fingertips grazed damp skin, the hum of a quickened pulse buzzing with formless, shapeless feeling. Fear; loss; sorrow—the words were little more than vague approximations. Spock felt that concoction pulse upward through his hand and arm all the way to his elbow before he realized he had begun to clench his jaw. He relaxed it. 

Jim was not relaxed. Despite being in a state of rest, his body had curled in on itself like a dead insect’s. The comparison was not entirely sound, although its imagery was vivid: Jim had no carapace of chiton to contract when it dried, drawing all parts of himself inward. Instead he was a ball of tense muscle and hard bone, a faint sheen of sweat over his forehead where Spock touched him. The pads of his fingers came away moist. Jim breathed in sharply, baring his teeth in an unconscious grimace.

Then, all at once, he was awake.

Spock had never witnessed the human transition from sleep cycle to full consciousness. He had glimpsed Mother asleep only a handful of times and had always taken great care never to wake her. But he saw now that it could not be considered comparable to how a Vulcan returned from meditative rest. In fact, it could hardly be called a transition at all: in one moment Jim was asleep; in the next he was not.

His blue eyes were bright in the darkness, twin points of reflected light blinking up at Spock. He looked directly at him, yet he did not seem to comprehend what he was seeing. Spock felt a pulse of confusion followed swiftly by anger, colored by the same fear that had been prevalent in Jim’s dreaming state. They were still connected, as Spock had not yet seen fit to withdraw his hand.

Jim pulled the covers up to his chin.

‘Were you reading my mind?’

His voice was small and rough with sleep. Whatever impression of authority in accusation he may have intended to convey, it would not work on Spock. And, for that matter—

‘As I have already told you: that is impossible.’

The reprimand came out sharper than Spock intended, and although Jim attempted to hide a flinch, it was unambiguous. Human eyes might not have spied it at all, but Vulcan eyesight was sensitive, keenly attuned to the tightening of facial muscles. For a society without open expression of emotion, it was important nonetheless to be able to pick up on the most minor of visual cues.

Spock did not think that his frustration had been unwarranted—however, there was Mother’s hospitality to consider. In that regard, he had done her a disservice. He would have to correct it.

‘You are serviceably intelligent.’ Spock’s index and middle finger moved against the roots of Jim’s hair, stiff with sweat at his scalp, especially along the line where they met with his forehead. ‘I do not understand why such a simple concept continues to elude you.’

Jim bit his lip, chewing where the skin was chapped and raw. It did not look comfortable. Spock did not attempt to dissuade him.

‘You’re in my room.’

‘It is not your room,’ Spock said, ‘although you are currently occupying it. We are sometimes called upon to host diplomatic guests, distant relatives or family acquaintances. The room, despite its inhabitants, belongs to my parents.’

‘Wow.’ Awake again, Jim seemed to be relaxing. His head drooped against the pillow, hands slowly uncurling from the fists they had formed. It was a contradiction that Spock found inexplicably frustrating. ‘Defensive much? I’m still gonna ask you why you’re here. Don’t try and…’ Jim’s mouth stretched wide in a sudden yawn that even he did not appear to have seen coming. ‘Don’t try and distract me.’

‘I-Chaya,’ Spock said. The old sehlat’s head perked up at the sound of his own name. ‘He was watching your door and came to me, no doubt concerned that the amount of noise you were making would disrupt the household more than your presence already has.’

Jim took this in. Then he sat up, dislodging Spock’s fingers so they slid into his hair, eyes casting about in the darkness for a glimpse of I-Chaya.

‘Traitor.’

‘His mental faculties are far too simple to understand complex thoughts such as betrayal,’ Spock said. ‘And even if they were not, I-Chaya’s loyalty is steadfast.’

‘He ratted me out.’

‘He did no such thing.’ Spock would not defend I-Chaya’s honor needlessly, but neither would he allow him to be insulted without provocation.

‘Anyway, I’m fine.’

‘You are lying.’

‘Whatever.’ Jim reached for the blankets, now fallen around his ankles, and made as though to pull them over his head. Yet Spock’s arm was in the way; he had not retracted his touch. His fingertips rested on the side of Jim’s face and Jim’s expression was wary, sharp, implying what he did not choose to repeat: he still did not believe Spock would not sift through his thoughts, because he did not know that a true mind-meld took many years to perfect, and no Vulcan would undertake it without compelling reason beyond idle curiosity. It was not a thoughtless gesture, such as a human’s handshake.

Spock attempted what Mother would have qualified as a sign ‘made in good faith’. Something about the boy’s eyes compelled him. Perhaps that was what was known as sympathy—though in the moment, it seemed only logical. ‘I understand that humans of all ages suffer from the affliction known as nightmares. Though it indicates poor self-control, this is a fault of your nature. Do not let it trouble you. You cannot hope to change it.’

Jim’s eyes narrowed. Something other than fear replaced the emotion that had previously filled them to the brim. ‘You totally just insulted me.’

‘I spoke only the truth.’

Wow.’ Jim did not appear to realize that a distraction was exactly what he needed, exactly what he had found. ‘It sure sounded like an insult.’

‘It was honest,’ Spock replied.

‘And rude,’ Jim said. His hair had fallen over his brow again, messy and obstinate, much like its owner. When Spock brushed it aside Jim didn’t flinch. ‘I said I’m fine. I don’t need your help.’

‘This has already been proven empirically false.’ I-Chaya bumped Spock in the back again with his nose, knocking him closer to the bed. His knees hit the edge of the mattress. ‘I-Chaya, behave.’

‘Maybe he’s just trying to let you know, empirically, that you’re being a jerk,’ Jim said.

‘Am I not comforting you during a period made fraught by your emotional outburst?’ Spock’s fingertips traced one of Jim’s flushed cheeks. It had cooled considerably since Spock had first arrived. What would Mother have said? ‘It was only a dream. There is nothing in this room of which you should be afraid.’

‘I’m not afraid,’ Jim insisted.

‘Why do you feel compelled to lie so often over these unimportant details?’ Spock asked.

Jim had no answer for this and snorted instead, looking away. He had lost the debate, naturally, as he had been unprepared for it. The action dislodged Spock’s touch at last but without it, Jim appeared to shrink into himself, wrapping his arms tightly around his knees and pulling them to his chest. I-Chaya nudged Spock once more, inspired by the irrational and unpredictable behavior of their guest to proceed in a way that, given his advanced years, he should have known better than to indulge.

‘I came here to instruct you not to wake my mother,’ Spock said. ‘She has spent a great deal of her time looking after you out of the kindness of her emotional heart. Yet she is only human as well, and requires her rest.’

Jim didn’t turn back. His voice was muffled against his shoulder, mouth pressed into it as he spoke. ‘You’re just trying to protect her, huh?’

Spock had not thought of it in those terms. ‘It is only logical,’ he said. ‘A certain period of rest is required for the human body to function optimally.’

Weird,’ Jim said, not for the first time. It did not sound like a statement of fact or a condemnation. Truthfully, Spock could not place the sentiment behind it with any certainty. It was unlike any insult he had ever before heard, to the point where he could not ascertain whether it was intended as an insult at all. ‘Okay. I’ll be quiet. I’m not tired, anyway.’

‘As I only just said, a certain period of rest is required for the human body to function optimally,’ Spock repeated. ‘Since you are human, this assessment includes you as well. It is apparent you have undergone recent emotional and physical trauma. The flaws of your biology require you to devote extra time to rest and recuperation. The human body has many limitations.’

Jim turned around to stare, chin on his knees. He had not inferred Spock’s obvious meaning. His eyes were wide.

‘Lie down,’ Spock clarified.

Jim’s eyes narrowed. ‘Don’t wanna.’

‘It is necessary.’ Spock paused to consider the options. ‘As a Vulcan, I do not require nearly the same amount of sleep as you do. Therefore I will remain here and see to it that you will not have any further nightmares.’

‘Uh-uh. No way.’

‘I believe that for your actions against the Le-matya it is commonly understood that I now ‘owe you one’, Jim Kirk.’ Spock sat on the edge of the bed and Jim began to shift away from him before succumbing to gravity and leaning closer. ‘Therefore I will repay that debt now.’

‘That’s not how it works,’ Jim said.

Since it was obvious to them both that he was again lying, Spock saw no need to offer a reply. I-Chaya snorted in order to clear his nasal passages, then made his meandering way back to the open door. When he was in the hall, the door closed behind him. That was not a trick Spock had instructed him in, so he ascertained that Mother must have changed the door to a setting that would sense motion and open or shut accordingly, no doubt to accommodate Jim Kirk’s needs. She had displayed surprisingly little consideration for the family security above the comfort of their young guest.

It was evident, therefore, that she did not see him as a threat. This was because she had judged him by his age and size, and nothing more. Spock had not observed any other human children, but Jim’s age seemed to have little bearing on his attitude, his quick instincts and his acceptable pronunciation of a Vulcan word he had heard only hours after beating a rock against the head of its namesake.

He was too complicated to be considered entirely benign.

And yet he was plainly suffering, something he had taken great pains to conceal. That effort was expended for naught, as Jim was only human, and not a particularly circumspect one at that. Spock held out his hand, telegraphing the motion so that even Jim—who was pretending not to watch him—would see it coming.

‘I’m not tired.’ Jim drew his knees up to his chest more tightly under the covers. He rested his chin against them and did not startle when Spock’s fingers brushed the thin skin over his right temple.

‘How you feel has no bearing on the needs of a sound mind and body,’ Spock said.

It was an approximation of something Mother had told him once, modified for the appropriate audience. Jim’s eyes watched him in a sidelong manner, as if weighing Spock’s counsel.

He did not lie down—but neither did he continue to protest.

There was a fading bruise along his orbital bone, barely visible in the dark; it provided a faint discoloration that was neither freckling nor a scar. Both of thosecould be found upon Jim’s hands, knuckles scabbed over where they had split. It was impossible to determine the origin of such injuries, whether they had occurred in the desert or sometime prior. There was no shuttle landing zone nearby the mountains where Spock had found him. Only time would tell whether Jim’s omissions were outright lies—or if he did not, could not, remember.

Even when the truth was uncovered, Spock could not presume that he would ever learn what it was that made Jim toss and cry out in the night.

Slowly, Spock measured his breathing, drawing it out into a steady-paced rhythm. Emotional transference was a side effect of Vulcan telepathic connection—and while he had not yet attempted to influence another mind, it did not seem unwise to attempt to share some of his calm with Jim, who had none of his own to speak of.

There was no clock in the room and Spock did not count the minutes or the hours. Getting caught up in the details of an external world was the surest way to be shaken from a meditative state of mind, and he had already experienced enough trouble achieving peace with Jim’s clouded emotions crowding in.

Spock was still sitting at the edge of the bed when Jim’s head lolled for the first time, rolling against his outstretched hand. He jerked awake immediately after but offered no protest when Spock chose to move closer, putting his shoulder to Jim’s.

If Jim would not lie down, then an appropriate form of support would have to be provided.

The second time Jim’s head lolled, it fell against Spock’s clavicle, where his shoulder met his throat. Jim’s nose wrinkled against the soft folds of Spock’s cowl-necked shirt. It was a struggle for him to open his eyes.

When he finally managed it, he did not pull away. He merely blinked up at Spock, then exhaled a brief yawn.

‘Nice jammies.’

He was asleep again before Spock could request clarification on what appeared to be a compliment.

*

Chapter Text

Jim woke up alone, but there was fresh water on the bedside table, a clean glass waiting for him. He could tell from the sunlight coming in through the shuttered blinds that it was daytime, maybe late afternoon; he couldn’t be sure, but the angle of the light falling into the room said it was closer to sunset than high noon. Jim’s cheeks felt crusty—streaked with sweat or tears. He scrubbed them with the back of his hand, where his knuckles had been bandaged.

It’d been a weird night.

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed next. His knees were wobbly but they were strong enough to let him stand without falling over. The carpet was thick and tall beneath his bare feet, swallowing them all the way to the ankles. Jim started for the door, then froze when his stomach growled.

He was hungry and he didn’t know what to do next.

The obvious choice was to slip past I-Chaya and run. He could find the escape pod; he could get fuel; he could fix it up so it’d fly again. He was smart enough for that. And there was no way of knowing if he’d be safe here, no way of knowing how far Mom’d wanted him to run. Vulcan was a long way from Tarsus IV but distance, Jim’d learned, wasn’t much of an obstacle for some people. Not when they had enough power to chase down any remaining witnesses.

You have to go, Jim. For me. And don’t tell anyone—don’t ever tell them what you saw.

Jim turned around. The bed was a mess, pillows everywhere, blankets kicked more than half over the bottom into a crumpled heap on the floor. Jim’s fingers were still stiff but after he flexed them a few times he was able to make the bed after himself, even if there were a few lumps left behind.

Outside, I-Chaya was napping by the door. He opened one eye, then the other when he saw Jim, lifting his head. He didn’t look curious. He looked sleepy.

‘Where is everybody, anyway?’ Jim asked. His voice echoed through the hall, bouncing off the pale walls with no family pictures on them, or paintings, or anything. Totally bare. To Jim’s left there was a corner turn into an unknown part of the house and to his right there was an alcove in which a black vase was stored. It was empty, too, no flowers. The solid floor beneath Jim’s feet was warm and dry and the air was thin.

I’Chaya rose on all fours. He was taller than Jim standing up and Jim drew close to his side, a hand resting in his fur, feeling one of many powerful muscles underneath his thick hide. It only took Jim a moment to realize the sehlat wanted him to follow—or at least walk beside him. It felt equal enough and Jim knew it was his only real choice. He tugged at the collar of the shirt he was wearing, clothes he didn’t recognize, and kept up with I-Chaya’s lumbering steps past the empty vase and the bare walls, around a corner into a neat sitting room with a low couch, a lower table, and no fewer than three open balcony doors looking out over the red mountains. The sun was sinking down toward the peaks and Amanda was outside, seated by one of the balcony railings. Jim didn’t know where Spock was. Off telling somebody stuff they should’ve known and didn’t want to hear, knowing him.

Jim cleared his throat and Amanda looked up.

‘Hello, Jim,’ she said. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Okay.’ Jim let go of I-Chaya; he didn’t want to rely on anyone else to hold him up. ‘Better.’

‘That’s good to hear. Goodness, but you must be hungry.’ Jim bit back the quick confirmation that would’ve been too easy to let go of, but Amanda was already standing. ‘It will be time for dinner soon. Would you like to help me with the final preparations?’

Putting in the work in exchange for a meal—that seemed like an even bargain. Jim backed up as Amanda entered the room and bumped into a stool, startling at the impact, wincing at being startled so easy. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘What do you need?’

The kitchen, it turned out, was full of vegetables, with no meat anywhere. Amanda worked mostly in silence, though she was clear with her directions: how she wanted something washed, peeled, cut; in which bowl it was supposed to go; all of that stuff. She showed Jim how to set the table by the open balcony windows and Jim put out the plates, only three of them.

He was used to three plates. One for him, one for Mom, one for George. Three was a good number; four had only ever given him hell.

Amanda rested a hand on his shoulder. ‘That’s very good, Jim. Thank you.’

Jim blinked a few times until his eyes stopped stinging. ‘Where’s Spock?’

‘Learning.’ Amanda returned to the cloth napkins she had been setting out. ‘It seems he knows so much—and yet there is always more to know.’

‘Vulcans,’ Jim said. ‘I mean... They’re supposed to be pretty smart.’

Amanda’s eyes sparkled like he’d said something funny. Or maybe they were just watering in the dry air. Jim didn’t know her well enough to be able to tell—and he’d never liked the idea of guessing wrong.

‘Is that so?’ Amanda pressed a wrinkle from the last napkin under her forefinger. ‘I suppose you’re right.’

Jim balanced the cutlery in his bandaged hands, setting it out Earth-style. He’d never read anything about how to set a Vulcan table; when Amanda didn’t correct him, he figured he’d done okay.

‘Spock’s pretty smart,’ Jim added, turning the blade of a butter knife in toward the plate.

Spock was a safe topic of conversation between them. All moms liked to hear about their kids. And if Jim kept Amanda talking about the things hepicked then there was less of a chance she’d ask him about something he couldn’t answer.

It felt rude not to reply to her questions, especially after everything she’d done for him. None of it had been because she hadto. Jim wasn’t family; she didn’t know him from a hole in the ground. Jim even had family that hadn’t treated him this nice, not once, so maybe that didn’t count for as much as everyone always thought.

When he glanced over his shoulder, Amanda was looking at him like she was waiting for the punch line.

Jim could give her that.

‘He sure seems to think so, anyway.’

Amanda laughed. It made him feel warm, but not the same as he’d felt with the fever in his blood. It was a good, steady feeling, nothing dizzy or loose-kneed about it.

‘I think it’ll do him some good to have you around, Jim.’ Amanda leaned close as if imparting a secret. ‘He’s never really had the chance to socialize with other humans before, his own age or otherwise. There’s only— Well, there’s me. But he’s growing up, and I’m just his mother.’

Amanda touched her scarf where it was knotted at her throat and turned her gaze out the open balcony doors. There was rusty brown sand as far as the eye could see; the hills where Jim must’ve collapsed cut uneven shapes across the horizon. Further than that there were tall, sun-swept cliffs that cast long shadows across the impossible wideness of the desert.

Jim didn’t like to think about what might’ve been lurking in there, hidden in the dark places he couldn’t see.

He had to remind himself: he’d faced monsters before. He knew they didn’t always keep to the shade.

It didn’t feel normal, being in a place that didn’t have any trees. But Jim figured he’d be happy to go the rest of his life without ever having to look at another field of crops, so it was an even trade.

‘How come you live here?’ The question was out before Jim could catch it. He slid his gaze sideways to Amanda, bracing himself for her disappointment or even anger.

Neither of those showed on her face. It wasn’t exactly Vulcan blank but there was a distance to it all the same—like wherever she’d gone, whatever she was thinking about, Jim couldn’t hope to follow.

‘My husband, Sarek, is a Vulcan ambassador,’ Amanda said. ‘We met on Earth during one of his assignments and we travel there as a family when occasion calls for it. But Vulcan is where Spock feels most at home. Most comfortable, I think.’

Putting Spock and comfortable in the same sentence was enough to make Jim’s face screw up like he was about to sneeze. He couldn’t picture it, what it’d look like. But then again, he couldn’t imagine being even a fraction of a human being and picking this as his home base, either.

Not that humans were so great. But at least, on Earth, Jim could breathe.

Amanda exhaled and came all the way back to the room. ‘All right, Jim; I think I can release you for the day. We’ll have dinner in an hour, when Spock’s home from school.’

Jim couldn’t help but be scandalized. ‘He gets home at dinnertime?

Amanda’s smile was small but obvious. ‘What is it that you kids say…? Ah, of course. Tell me about it.’

‘That’s a lotta school.’

‘There is, I am told, so very much to learn.’ Amanda paused. ‘If you are hungry now, there is some bread and fruit on the balcony. There are books as well, if you would like to read.’

Jim waited for more—for her to pry, for her to demand. It was her house and it was her right. Frank would’ve wanted to know where every scrape came from, especially to find out if it corresponded to something Jim’d managed to break, but Amanda wasn’t like Frank. She wasn’t like anybody else and her son wasn’t, either. Weird, Jim remembered calling him, only he knew that wasn’t right. Different was a better way of putting it, even if Jim couldn’t take it back now.

Jim waited, but Amanda didn’t demand a thing. Her gaze was as cool as the air was hot, her smile as calm as the sky without clouds or wind. The mountains outside were big, the flat desert plains even bigger. There was stuff out there Jim would’ve been able to take on if he had to, but Mom’d wanted him safe for a reason. He had to stay safe no matter how guilty safe made him feel.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Thanks. Ma’am.’

‘My, such manners, Jim.’ Amanda’s smile widened, enough to warm her face. ‘But Amanda will do just as well, I think—although I must say, I appreciate the intent. I’ll fetch you a few of Spock’s favorite reads, shall I?’

Jim had breadcrumbs on his chest he didn’t notice—lost in an encyclopedia of Vulcan flora and fauna, having started with the Le-matya because understanding a natural enemy was important in an unfamiliar place like this—when Spock returned home from Vulcan school.

And he was wearing a dress.

Jim looked up from the descriptions and classifications, too many of them still swirling in his head like an electrical sand fire storm in the desert. His mouth fell open before he could think to stop it.

For his part, Spock didn’t look surprised that Jim was still there or embarrassed by what he was wearing. He didn’t look like anything except for himself. Vulcans had it made when it came to keeping a lid on whatever they were thinking or feeling—because they had to be feeling something, even if that something was a secret, and Jim had thought about what that might be like more than once. Not having anyone know what was really going on inside of him; always having the element of surprise, instead of always having it work against him—that’d be incredible.

‘Your mouth is open,’ Spock said. ‘Are you currently afflicted by a temporomandibular joint disorder, Jim?’

Jim shut his mouth again, only to have it break into a smile he couldn’t stop. No control whatsoever, but he couldn’t help himself. It made the cracks in his dry lips split and sting and the muscles of his jaw were sore from how tight he’d been clenching it, tighter than he’d realized.

‘What’re you wearing?’ Jim asked.

Spock blinked. ‘A uniform,’ he replied. ‘It is customary attire.’

‘Spock, it’s a dress.’

Spock’s eyebrows did the thing Jim recognized from late the night before, when Jim’d thrashed out of a nightmare into a waking life that didn’t make much more sense, or seem all that less intimidating, than his worst dreams. He wasn’t scared or anything. It was just... The place was unfamiliar, that was all. But remembering Spock tucking himself in behind Jim’s back, the press of his cool fingers on Jim’s hot skin, made Jim’s cheeks go hot. That was help he’d been too tired, too messed up to turn down. Spock had owed him one at the start but now, Jim figured, he owed Spock at least two.

Jim’d made dinner. That could be part of the payback plan.

‘I do not expect you to understand our Vulcan customs,’ Spock said. ‘You are an outsider, one who fails to understand our logic—’

‘Spock! Welcome home, dear.’ Amanda was there all at once, like a gust of fresh wind from the doorway. She stepped forward and Jim watched as she leaned down to kiss Spock on the forehead. Despite whatever Jim was expecting, Spock actually allowed it. His face remained blank. His eyebrows didn’t do anything. ‘How was your day at school?’

Spock stared at the wall over Jim’s shoulder. ‘I engaged in the appropriate amount of rigorous mental exercise, Mother.’

Amanda didn’t falter, even if what Spock said most of the time sounded ridiculous to normal, human ears. ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ she said. ‘Get changed for dinner, then. Jim helped me make it and I’m sure you’re both hungry.’

‘As much as can be expected at this hour,’ Spock replied, just as Jim said, ‘Yeah.’

His stomach growled. He wanted to hit it to shut it up. Spock’s right eyebrow lifted.

‘Unseemly,’ he said.

Spock,’ Amanda warned.

‘He sounded like I-Chaya,’ Spock said. ‘He should have more control, since even at his young age, he is presumably more intellectually advanced than a sehlat.’

‘Depends on who you’re asking,’ Jim said, and closed the book.

He didn’t have anything to change into for dinner, so he went and washed his hands instead. Mom had always been a stickler for that; if Jim didn’t get smudges all over the crappy silverware, it wouldn’t incite one of Frank’s rants. There was no one here who was gonna yell at him—Amanda wouldn’t, and yelling wasn’t Spock’s style—but that didn’t mean Jim wanted to kick off his first dinner on Vulcan by being a smudgy human. He left the book on the end of the bed in the guest bedroom. No one had come in behind him to smooth the lumps out of the covers.

The sight tugged at his mouth, making him grin. He couldn’t explain why, not even to himself.

When he got back downstairs, Spock had changed into the clothes Jim’d first seen him in—or a similar style, anyway: monochrome and dark, too formal for the weather. Jim started sweating just looking at him. But apparently sweating wasn’t something Vulcans did.

He could remember lying next to Spock, waking up in fits and bursts to rearrange one of Spock’s cool hands against his face. Usually, Jim hated sleeping next to anyone. On the few, rare family camping trips they’d taken before Frank had declared his car a kid-free zone, Jim had spent the whole night kicking George away from him so he wouldn’t suffocate.

Spock didn’t have the same kind of body heat. Sleeping next to him didn’t make Jim feel like he’d been buried in a landslide.

‘My mother has instructed me to compliment you on your adequate handling of the meal preparation,’ Spock said. His hands were folded behind his back. It made him stand up straighter and Jim mimicked the gesture unconsciously. When he got to be twelve, he’d be taller than that. He just knew it. ‘Since I have neither observed nor tasted the final product, I trust that you understand such compliments would only be symbolic.’

Jim blinked. Amanda was somewhere in the kitchen, not visible from the table. He couldn’t look to her for help. But it sounded to him like Spock had his compliment wires crossed. Maybe that was just how being nice sounded in the translation from Vulcan to Standard.

Although he had noticed that Amanda and Spock spoke Standard with each other. Jim didn’t think that was a concession for his sake, to make him more comfortable in their Vulcan household.

‘Sure, Spock.’ Jim reached out to pat his arm. The fabric of his sleeve was softer than it looked. ‘Symbolic. No problem.’

Spock followed the path of Jim’s hand with a cool stare, looking as though he believed Jim was a le-matya who’d just taken a bite out of him. Whatever he had to say about that, he swallowed down whole when Amanda entered the dining room, bearing a giant glass bowl filled with what looked like a fresh salad.

Not exactly Jim’s favorite.

It turned out to be the longest dinner of his entire life.

Jim didn’t mind vegetables as a necessity for the sake of dessert or as a side dish, something to eat while the main course cooled off from the oven. But when Jim’s stomach felt like it was clawing itself open with hunger, it was tough to fill up on nothing but green stuff. He made a point of trying everything, even the sticky things that were totally unfamiliar, because Amanda kept looking at him kindly—and because Spock kept looking at him blankly, probably waiting for Jim to get tripped up.

Vulcan vegetables weren’t identical to the stuff that they’d had in Iowa. No corn; no beans. It wasn’t even the high-protein, high-fiber synthetic crops like they had on Tarsus IV. Instead, there was a thick, starchy root that tasted like a cross between a potato and a flavorless carrot and something pale green that was thick and almost meaty, close to an eggplant. Jim filled his plate with that after the first go-round when he’d eaten some of each dish. It stuck to his insides and at least it didn’t make him want to puke.

The hardest to get down were the little acidic fruits that had been chopped into the salad. Jim’s first bite had sent him choking for his water glass.

Sash-savas, Amanda called it.

It sounded like a sneeze, like the noise Jim’s nose and throat wanted to make after the first burst of bright flavor exploded inside his mouth.

His eyes were watering, not from the burning sunlight or from memories. Not this time. He scrubbed at them with his sleeve and took another, stubborn bite, Spock staring at him from across the table.

‘What?’ Jim asked, bracing himself, with a third forkful of the sash-savas already waiting to attack his taste buds.

‘Your palate is under-developed,’ Spock replied. Calm and clinical, not like he was being insulting—only he was. Under-developed wasn’t praise no matter what dictionary you looked it up in.

‘’M not used to it. That’s all.’ Jim took that third bite even though he knew he’d regret it and chewed until the sash-savas had lost all flavor. After that, he needed a gulp of water to force it down.

‘I believe that is merely what I had already stated.’ Spock took a bite of his own and made it look easy. Next to him, Amanda Grayson was smiling.

Somehow, Jim managed to eat until he was full, without paying too much attention to how normal it was for Spock. How polite. He didn’t make a mess, didn’t get a thing on his fingers, and always used his napkin—Frank would’ve loved that.

When Jim was finished, Amanda setting her napkin down beside her plate, Jim stood. ‘Dishes,’ he said. Spock stared at him with his one eyebrow going high and funny while Amanda lifted both of hers, quizzical. ‘I’ll do ‘em.’

‘Spock,’ Amanda suggested.

Spock rose and lifted his plate. Jim balanced his and Amanda’s, one on each arm, and their glasses at the same time. He made it all the way to the sink in the kitchen without dropping anything.

There were windows above the sink unit and greenery blooming in them in boxes. Jim watched a few fat insects crawl through the dirt between the roots, spiny ones with segmented torsos he didn’t recognize and a couple that looked like worms. One of the plants was flowering; the other one, brown and bony, didn’t seem to know what a flower even was.

‘Those are my mother’s,’ Spock informed him.

‘Didn’t think they were yours.’ Jim rolled up his sleeves, turned the faucet on, and got started, handing the plates off to Spock to dry one by one. Nothing got broken. Frank would never know about that; neither would Mom or George.

That didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. Jim was a part of it, in a kitchen that wasn’t his, with strange plants blossoming on the windowsill and unfamiliar dishes drying on the counter. Jim’s throat hurt. He grabbed one of the glasses and filled it with water and thanked Amanda for dinner.

‘Never had anything like it,’ he said, clutching the glass tightly in both hands.

‘Thank you very much, Jim.’ Amanda paused. Jim waited for the questions to come, the questions that had to come, because Amanda was smart and she knew kids didn’t fall out of the sky for no reason. He bit his lip and Amanda relaxed her shoulders. ‘Perhaps you’d like to read more before bed? You’ll let Spock know if you’ve finished the books I offered you; I’m sure he wouldn’t mind lending you more, since it would be in the worthwhile pursuit of knowledge.’

Jim looked up to see Spock standing with his perfect posture in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen. ‘Okay.’ Jim’s voice was scratchy. ‘Thanks.’

He climbed the stairs. Nobody followed him. I-Chaya was still sprawled out in front of the door, to guard him or guard the rest of the house from him—Jim couldn’t be sure. He set his glass of water on the floor and bent down to rub I-Chaya’s belly anyway. It wasn’t his fault he was on guard duty—and with a full coat of fur like he had, no wonder he was feeling lazy and sluggish in the Vulcan heat. Jim was practically crawling out of his skin as it was.

‘Seeya tomorrow, boy,’ Jim said.

Inside the bedroom, Jim’s hand-me-down books from that afternoon were waiting for him, right where he’d left them. There was plenty in them that he hadn’t been able to learn on the library computers and he could remember most of it: Vulcan stuff, secret stuff. If he read enough, maybe he could crowd the other thoughts he’d been thinking all the way out of his head.

Not forget. Just stop remembering all the time, whenever he closed his eyes, even to blink.

He was on the last page of the encyclopedia when his eyes began to droop. He sagged into sleep gratefully, despite how much time he’d spent sleeping before—not that Spock’d had any trouble pointing all of that out. When the nightmares came, Kodos standing over Mom, Jim frozen in place, George shouting from a window too far away to help, he woke up just long enough to realize Spock was already there, taking the book out of his lap and setting it on the bedside table.

‘Sleep,’ Spock said, touching Jim’s face with his cool hands.

Jim didn’t forget.

But he slept.

*

Chapter Text

It was in the early, graying hours of dawn that Spock came out of his meditative trance. He was not in a position ideally suited to it: neither sitting nor reclining but somewhere in between, head and shoulders braced against the backboard of a bed that was not his, and Jim’s body wedged half beneath him the way a warm-blooded creature sought refuge from the noonday sun under a rock.

Jim was asleep and had been for some time. The quality of his snoring was even and quiet, no sudden loud movements to jolt Spock from his meditation. This, therefore, was the most agreeable state in which Spock had yet to observe him.

There had been no reprise of the disruptive episodes that had stirred both I-Chaya and Spock from their respective places of rest. This state of relative calm was what Spock had hoped to achieve, having noted his effect on the less conscious workings of Jim’s mind from the previous night. Preventative action was always preferable to damage control. He had arrived earlier this time, thus ensuring that everyone would experience the most beneficial period of rest possible, Jim included.

It would have been possible for Spock to return to his trance; however, the geometric slant of light from beneath the window shades compelled him to rise. The earlier he began the day, the more time he would have to prepare for his later studies. He did not require the added practice—Spock’s learning progressed above the acceptable rate. He was not among those whose scores more regularly reflected the peer average. And yet, he was aware of certain biological differences within him.

Humanity was an unknown factor. It could not yet be predicted how it would affect his ability to apply logic and reason as he grew older.

Thus it was far-sighted to apply himself to his studies with perhaps more vigilance than that employed by the full Vulcans in his class. It was only prudent to be well prepared.

Spock rose from the bed, careful not to disturb Jim where he slept. He had long since passed out of his deepest, most restive cycle of dreaming. It was safe to leave him; there would be no repeat of the disorderly behavior that had brought Spock to his side in the first place.

He did not consider that two nights spoke to the beginning of a pattern, whereas only one could still be deemed an aberration. Just as Mother had amended parts of her daily routine in order to accommodate Jim, it was Spock’s place to make amends where she could not. This was the most logical way to ensure that she did not bear the burden of change alone.

Even Spock’s silence could not muffle the gentle hiss of the door as it slid open, but I-Chaya did not rouse himself. Spock’s scent was a familiar one and nothing to be remarked upon. He let Spock pass silently down the hall, along the thick rug that had been placed down the center of the bare stone floor.

What he had not anticipated—what he had no reason to anticipate—was that Mother would be awake already, not keeping to the privacy of her room.

Instead, Spock discovered, she was in Father’s study chambers, speaking in hushed tones. She had left the door open, no doubt inspired by a human desire to keep herself available, as well as within earshot should Spock or Jim develop a sudden need for her care.

It was not a logical impulse, but Spock had long ago ceased to expect the consistency of logic—or the logic of consistency—from Mother.

Father’s voice on the other end of the connection gave Spock pause. He knew that they spoke often when Father was away and that Mother did not need the added incentive of a stranger in their house to make excuse for contacting him. Their conversations took place most often in the night or the early morning, so this was not a deviation from routine.

Yet it was not Father’s voice, but rather what he was saying that caught Spock’s attention.

‘—massacre on a Federation colony; we are still sorting through details as they reach us from the Tarsus system.’

Spock stopped a few steps before the doorway and found himself listening.

‘No,’ Mother replied.

Her voice was often flushed with the colors of emotion beyond the muted range of the Vulcan landscape. Now this fact was at its most obvious. Spock could not untangle one sentiment from the next, for the pattern was so intricate as to weave a tapestry of feeling beyond the scope of words or descriptions.

‘It became clear this was the place to begin the search in question. The coincidence would have been far too great.’ Father, in contrast, revealed no such emotion. His calm tones maintained an evenness of focus and locution that provided a steady rock amidst the sea of Mother’s quick-changing moods. Spock breathed deeply; he still felt the effects of his meditative trance at work. ‘Even now, as you must know, many details are classified. However, I was able to acquire the manifest of all earth-born colonists on Tarsus IV.’

‘And Jim Kirk...?’

‘Three Kirks were listed in the original manifest. James Tiberius Kirk was among them, currently nine years of age. You must understand, Amanda, that the full list of Tarsus IV’s survivors is beyond my jurisdiction to simply peruse. The event is unprecedented within the Federation; it would be highly illogical to inquire after access to that which I am already certain I shall not be granted. Nonetheless, it is presumed from reports that, as per the actions of Governor Kodos, four thousand of Tarsus IV’s colonists were killed before Earth forces arrived with the necessary supplies.’

No,’ Mother said again. The word was as replete with meaning as it was nearly drowned by private turmoil. Spock did not have to see her to acknowledge her position: plagued by the same stoop to her shoulders whenever some small detail overburdened her heart, her white fingers pressed against the edge of Father’s desk as she attempted, without much success, to rally her composure. ‘How terrible. The poor boy.’

‘At this time, I am unable to determine whether or not James Tiberius Kirk’s family on Tarsus IV survived the massacre.’ Father had not paused in his report to console Mother. Spock took note of the choice but passed no personal judgment upon its suitability given the occasion. Father, logically, would know best. ‘There is also the matter of Governor Kodos himself. In the riots that ensued, he was neither found nor identified after the colony had been secured. A troubling matter, Amanda.’

‘Troubling.’ Mother was silent for a long moment after repeating that single word, in which Spock could hear the forced rhythm of her breathing. It would have been obvious to Father, too, how the news had affected her. ‘Yes; I see. Thank you, Sarek. It may not have been the information I wished to hear, but... Far better to learn it this way than to force the boy to speak of it.’

Spock’s brow furrowed in thought.

‘As to that matter, your knowledge of human capabilities surpasses my own,’ Father said. ‘If you believe the boy incapable of recounting events as they transpired around him, I defer to your assessment. Nevertheless, I cannot see how avoidance in this matter would be of aid to anyone.’

‘He’s a boy, Sarek,’ Mother replied. ‘A little, frightened boy.’

‘I trust you are capable of managing the complications this will provide adequately during my absence.’

‘Yes, Sarek. I believe that trust isn’t misplaced.’

‘Then I shall end our conference. ...Until tomorrow, Amanda.’

‘Until tomorrow,’ Mother said softly, ‘Sarek.’

Spock took a step backward, though he was not sure why. The action held no logic. He executed it anyway. Silence filled the room in which Mother sat; Spock, too, was silent, until Mother cleared her throat.

‘Do come in, Spock,’ she said. ‘I could certainly use the company.’

Spock obeyed the request, coming to stand before her, between the chair in which she sat and Father’s neatly organized desk. Mother reached out and touched his cheek with the knuckles of her hand; they were white, as Spock had theorized, but they were still warm.

‘I only think, what would I wish for, if I were his mother. Mrs. Kirk—whoever she may be,’ Mother said.

‘A curious exercise of the imagination, Mother,’ Spock replied, allowing the touch to linger.

‘Is it that? I’d say it has little to do with imagination and far more to do with sympathy.’ Mother dropped her hand to Spock’s shoulder, cupping it with her palm. ‘But I already know the answer to my—hypothetical, isn’t it?’ Spock confirmed her choice of vocabulary with a nod. ‘I’d want someone out there in this galaxy to protect my son, if I could no longer look after him myself.’

‘Mother,’ Spock said, ‘there is very little you can do now to protect me.’

‘No.’ Mother shook her head, tightening her grip. ‘I know I can’t go with you to school or help you with your studies or understand so much about you, Spock. But there are things learning cannot teach you; you cannot understand what it means to be a mother without being one yourself.’

‘Then, given those specific parameters, I shall never be able to understand it.’

Mother smiled. The corners of her eyes were tight. Spock knew that the expression was not a lie but it was more complicated than the truth.

‘May I hug you, Spock?’ Mother asked. ‘Only for a moment.’

These things were important for humans. Spock stepped forward and allowed her to wrap her arms around him, her cheek pressed to his, her hair tickling his skin.

The pressure was not unpleasant, the contact not overly long. Mother had learned how best to compromise her own, more human needs against what a Vulcan required—and what a Vulcan found naturally distasteful. Her physical contact was never overwhelming, even though Spock never sought to experience it of his own volition.

She sighed as she released him. Her eyes were dark and wet. Spock allowed her to adjust a piece of his hair although he was certain it had not been in disarray.

‘We are very fortunate,’ Mother said, after a beat of silence.

‘Fortune is an irrational concept,’ Spock told her.

‘Perhaps.’ Mother glanced toward the open door, then back to Spock. ‘You might find that the world outside of Vulcan is terribly irrational at times, Spock.’

The news that Father had been able to relay was troubling her. That much was evident. Spock had never visited a Federation colony, although it was his understanding that humans were often among the first to pioneer new worlds. It seemed strange to him that so flawed a species, with its numerous frailties, should also have developed such a keen cultural appreciation for adventure. It did not seem logical.

Then again, humanity as a whole was illogical at best.

‘What occurred in the Tarsus system was no doubt a rare exception,’ Spock said.

It would comfort her to think of it as a lone anomaly rather than a danger that awaited around every corner. But this seemed only a fraction of what was troubling Mother—and Spock did not have any wisdom that would balm the pain of events that had already come to pass.

Nevertheless, Mother’s expression cleared, her features becoming animated once more as she found Spock’s eyes and held them.

‘We must not speak a word of this to Jim.’

‘Vulcans do not lie,’ Spock reminded her.

‘Of course.’ Mother continued to hold fast to his shoulder, her grip firm but not too tight. ‘I would never—I’m not asking you to be untruthful, Spock. I just want you to take everything you’ve heard today—Governor Kodos and Tarsus IV and Jim’s family, the Kirks—and keep it to yourself for right now. Is that possible? There’s no sense in bringing it all up until we know what’s happened to his mother and brother. It’ll only upset him, after all.’

If Spock strained, he could ascertain a grain of logic in her argument. Jim was almost certain not to bring up his past of his own volition. That much was obvious from the nights they had spent together, the little pauses and jerks in Jim’s posture when he became lost in a memory he would prefer to have forgotten. He was attempting—and failing—to do away with any trace of Tarsus IV remaining in his thoughts. Spock calculated the odds as close to impossible as possible that he would find himself in a situation where he was forced to lie about his knowledge of the reported massacre.

The request was unconventional. But Mother was not asking too much.

‘If Father’s information is accurate, then it will soon be widely reported.’ Spock thought of Jim in the guest room. He was unable to escape from his memories, even in dreams. ‘You cannot hope to shield him from the facts.’

‘No,’ Mother agreed. ‘But I think it’s important we do what little we can, whenever we can. Don’t you, Spock?’

There was no fault in the words that Spock could ascertain. He processed their information, then nodded.

‘Thank you.’ Mother touched his cheek again, releasing him from her hold at last. She dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her scarf.

Spock excused himself and left her to gather her composure in private. He took some study materials from his own room and tucked them under one arm, returning to the quiet darkness of the guest room where Jim was still sleeping.

The conditions there were not optimal for concentration. In addition to the snoring, Jim had begun to drool onto his pillow, and in the absence of Spock’s weight bracing him, he jerked in his sleep, kicking out with a gawky limb.

Spock could not share his newfound information with Jim but it would have been unwise to ignore the altered context of their cohabitation altogether. Having been through a great trauma, no doubt Jim was still experiencing a considerable amount of personal disorder. It would appease Mother’s concern only if she saw that he was improving, and Spock had observed Jim long enough to know that he flourished with company better than with solitude.

For the remaining hours of early morning, Spock stayed by his side. When he left for his lessons, he instructed I-Chaya to replace him. And, during his self-directed study, he researched Tarsus IV and its governor, Kodos, learning only what the colony had planned to be—rather than what it had become.

*

Chapter Text

On the seventh day—Jim was keeping count because it was the smart thing to do—Spock came back from his Vulcan school with green blood on a split lip.

Jim had spent the past six days with heat overriding the itchy feeling just under his skin. He was usually too busy sweating to think about going back to Tarsus IV for Mom and George—because it was what Dad would’ve done. He knew it was. The more time he spent on Vulcan, far away from the Tarsus system, the harder a rescue attempt was going to be.

Not impossible; never impossible. Just not easy, either.

Except every time Jim sat down in the privacy of the room Amanda still hadn’t asked him to pay her for, with I-Chaya next to him and a spare PADD of his own balanced on his knees, ready to start planning his next move—how he was gonna fix the escape pod; how he was gonna rig it for long-distance space travel; how he was gonna get the provisions he needed to make it back to Tarsus IV on his own—the hot sweat on the back of Jim’s neck turned cold. Every time, he found himself leaning over the sink in one of the washrooms waiting for his head to stop spinning, cool water running out of the tap, not recognizing the face he saw in the mirror.

He didn’t even want to look at his reflection, anyway. He splashed enough water onto his face to make his cheeks sting, pink, and snap him out of it, bangs dripping wet, eyelashes beading up. When I-Chaya looked at him questioningly as he stepped out of the washroom, Jim looked away.

‘Humans must be pretty weird, huh?’ he’d asked, but only once. Not getting an answer was less comforting than getting one of Spock’s answers—straightforward, blunt, downright nasty sometimes, but at least it was the sound of another voice responding to Jim’s questions, and that made all the difference. I-Chaya was great to have around; nobody in their right mind’d pick a fight with a sehlat. He just wasn’t much good for talking to, although sitting against him and reading was better than almost anything else Jim could do in the house.

As for the rest of it, there was helping Amanda with chores, like learning how to hang up the wash so the Vulcan air could have it dry as a bone in no time. He wasn’t good with the folding that came after but Amanda was patient while she taught him how it was done. They worked together, so it never took too long.

Jim kept waiting for her to ask him why he was there, if he’d run away from home or an orphanage—and what he was running from. Everything, Jim thought. But even though Amanda looked at him now and then like she was waiting for him to speak up, she never said a thing about it. Jim didn’t know if it was a relief not to have it out in the open, or if not having it out in the open actually made him feel worse.

Jim washed the windows without being asked, took I-Chaya out for walks when he seemed restless, sweated through two changes of clothes every day, and saw to it that the extra laundry work he made wasn’t on Amanda to take care of. When he wasn’t helping out, he was reading.

Spock had a lot of really good books.

He thought a lot about trying to use the PADD to get into a Federation database and look up what was happening on Tarsus IV—hell, even check the basic news or something to see if the rest of the galaxy even knew what’d happened there—but the cold sweat stopped him every time. He hated it. He got so mad at himself sometimes that I-Chaya felt it; he rose and paced the floor from one corner of the room to the other, too big to stretch his legs properly, and that was when Jim went outside with him and checked out the Vulcan stone-and-sand garden from end to end. After circling the perimeter he managed to get as far as a path sloping down toward a wide, glittering river that looked like silver in the nighttime, then made it all the way to the bank the next day before doubling back.

Amanda might get worried if he was gone for too long without warning. She might’ve needed help, too. Jim wasn’t gonna be any trouble.

And then, that seventh day, there was something else to think about, something that didn’t have anything to do with what Jim was keeping inside. There was Spock’s busted lip, the green Vulcan blood staining the left corner and the bottom curve, the way Amanda stood up when Spock walked in—and a new kind of electricity in the air, like the dusty calm over the fields in Iowa before a twister rolled in.

‘I believe it is apparent what has transpired,’ Spock said. ‘I am aware that my behavior was both inexcusably irrational and lacking in proper restraint. Shall I spend time in my room alone reflecting on my failure to control my emotions?’

Amanda’s expression turned soft, even if it hadn’t been that hard to begin with. Whoever’s rules Spock was adhering to, whatever strict code he’d decided he’d broken, they weren’t hers. Jim hadn’t been in the house that long, but he was quick and intuitive. His teachers back home seemed split on whether that was a flaw or an asset. But he’d spent enough time in the place that he had a sense of how the house ran.  Spock’s dad was a living, breathing presence no matter how far away his work took him. His absence made it all the more noticeable because sometimes, when things weren’t there, you felt them more than if they were.

That was how Jim saw it, anyway. So when Spock talked about failure to control his human emotions, it wasn’t Amanda he was worried about letting down.

‘Why don’t you go and wash up for supper, dear?’

It wasn’t the hesitation in Amanda’s voice but the look she shared with Jim afterward that tuned him in. Without trying too hard—or at all—he’d found a way to become part of their house.

Although what made her think Spock was gonna talk to Jim about stuff over his own mom was beyond his understanding.

That, Jim figured, was the trick with people. They didn’t act like mirrors—you couldn’t see for yourself what they saw in you.

All Jim had to go on was what hesaw in the mirror: chapped lips, sweaty skin flushed but not yet burnt red from the hot Vulcan sun; hair that was gonna need cutting soon; a slow-fading bruise on the side of his face from where the shuttle door had caught him before it locked. It wasn’t a reassuring picture. But maybe it wasn’t as bad as he thought.

Spock turned on his heel without arguing, the only kid in the universe who’d suggest his own punishments, then obey them without fighting it. Jim waited the necessary five seconds, counting by the beat of his pulse in his ears, before he stood up and followed.

He shadowed Spock up the stairs and down the long hall, marking the rooms as he passed. There was Jim’s nearest the landing, then something that looked like a working study or a library. Then there was the bathroom, Spock’s room, and the master suite down at the end of the hall.

Jim steered clear of those last two out of habit. If he didn’t go digging around in anyone’s private business then maybe they’d leave his alone too.

By the time he caught up with Spock, he was already in the bathroom, face down so he could splash cool water against his cheeks. The back of his neck was blushing green. When he lifted his head, he stared into the mirror—it was unclear whether he even saw Jim lurking in the doorway over his shoulder. The sticky smear of dark blood had been washed away but Jim could still see where the curve of Spock’s lip was swollen.

Human blood was red because of iron, but it tasted coppery. Jim wondered if the reverse was true for Vulcans: green because of copper, tasting like iron.

‘If my mother has sent you to ascertain my status and well-being, you can assure her that nothing has changed from when I first arrived home,’ Spock said. So he had seen Jim. It was just like him to let Jim drop his guard only to swoop in for the kill. ‘The gesture is unnecessary.’

‘What happened?’ Jim slipped through the door before he could deny interest. He was no good at that kind of pretending.

‘I believe the answer is self-evident.’ Spock prodded at his lip, then frowned without using his mouth. It must’ve hurt.

‘No way. It’s not.’ Jim hopped up on the low stone counter that held the bathroom sink. His legs were long but they didn’t touch the floor and he swung them back and forth with his back to the mirror, scrutinizing the damage. Maybe there was a shiner under Spock’s eye; maybe that was more of the green Vulcan blush. ‘You don’t get to come home with a fat lip and spare me all the details. And you said you lost control of your—whatever—emotions, so I know you didn’t just trip on your dress coming home.’

The look Spock gave him after that could’ve meant a lot of things. That he was sick of Jim calling it a dress, for one; that he was getting super annoyed; or that he was maybe just the slightest bit interested in why Jim was so curious.

Yeah, he was intrigued. Jim could take that and run with it.

‘You at least had to get ‘em back,’ Jim added, poking at the situation the way he’d spent an entire summer wiggling his last loose front tooth before he finally lost it. For some reason it’d hung on for longer than the rest of them, no matter how much Jim kept pushing it with his tongue. ‘Right?’

‘To succumb to their taunts is by no means a triumph,’ Spock replied. ‘It would be both foolish and reprehensible to interpret it as such.’

Spock wasn’t giving him much, but there was intel in that. Jim leaned forward, palms braced on the edge of the counter. ‘Their, huh?’

Spock almost missed a beat. ‘It is not an uncommon occurrence.’

‘What isn’t?’

‘Therefore, it serves no purpose to elaborate on the matter.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, ‘it does. If it’s bothering you.’

‘Bothering me,’ Spock repeated. He blinked. ‘A fallacious assumption that—’

‘Somebody hit you,’ Jim pointed out. ‘If that doesn’t bother you then you’re not even half human.’

Spock’s expression tightened; it wasn’t in annoyance. Jim didn’t recognize the look and he’d really thought he’d seen the full range of Spock’s ability to emote—or something close to it, anyway, with all the different scales of eyebrow-lifts and pinched disapproval or distance or disdain. He was a vocabulary lesson, Spock. Lucky that one of the books he’d let Jim borrow was a dictionary-slash-thesaurus deal, a tablet-style reference volume that was a good way to kill the hottest hours between noon and sunset. Jim was still hell-bent on teaching I-Chaya a few useful words. What kind of a pet didn’t know fetch?

Still, there was something about Spock’s big, dark eyes that’d turned inward instead of outward for a change. They weren’t accusatory but Jim didn’t think they were blank, either. There was almost too much going on in there to figure it out—but the moment Jim blinked, whatever he’d seen in there was gone.

‘Do human children pride themselves on emotional acts of pugilism?’ Spock asked. He waited and Jim rose to the challenge. He had to.

‘Some of ‘em, I guess. Everybody’s different.’

‘Vulcans,’ Spock replied, ‘are not different.’

Jim shrugged, still looking for a hint or a clue in Spock’s pale face. There was nothing. Not yet. That didn’t mean Jim could stop searching. ‘Well, humans are.’

There’d been a time when George liked fighting—or at least he’d seemed to. He must’ve, Jim’d always thought, because he did it so often. But Jim had gotten a little older and he’d stopped looking to his big brother to do things that made sense, until he finally came to expect that they might not ever make sense again.

Sometimes you did a thing because you didn’t want to do it. Spock’s problem was that he knew plenty about everything else, but he didn’t know that.

‘C’mon,’ Jim said. ‘Unless you’re too embarrassed to talk about it.’

‘I am aware that my behavior was reprehensible and without merit. It is not embarrassment to avoid such outbursts. It is logical.’

‘So why’d you do it?’ Jim asked.

Maybe—it was possible—Jim’s comments had gotten under that cool, green skin of Spock’s. He folded his hands behind his back but Jim saw them first. They were trembling. ‘My schoolmates are Vulcan; my mother is human. That sets me apart. Nevertheless, by acting in the manner they have anticipated and sought to expose, I serve only to confirm their suspicions as to my weakness and inferiority in comparison. Their deductions may follow sound reasoning and utilize clear data, yet their repetition of the facts as they stand as insults does very little to further the pursuits of the mind.’

‘So...they make fun of you?’

Spock missed another beat. ‘A colloquial phrase. I believe it is adequate.’

Jeez,’ Jim said. ‘They sound like jerks.’

‘They are Vulcan,’ Spock replied.

‘Vulcan jerks, then.’ Jim knew some jerks of his own. He knew plenty of bullies. He knew all the different types of kids on the playground who wouldn’t back down, the ones George had always butted heads with, and especially  the ones who’d stolen Jim’s lunch because he was getting good grades all the time. For some reason they thought being smart meant you couldn’t throw a punch, that you had to be one thing or the other, and that there was no meeting at a place in-between. George’d taught Jim how to make a fist eventually, not realizing Jim already knew how it was done; he’d seen Frank do it a few times, and he learned quickly. ‘They tease you? Doesn’t seem all that logical to me.’

Spock’s eyebrows came together in the center, a little wrinkle that reminded Jim of a math problem. ‘I do not follow the line of your reasoning.’

‘Why’re they even bothering, I mean?’ Jim explained. ‘If they’re better than you, they’re better than you. They don’t need to bring it up all the time. They don’t need to say anything about you at all.’

‘It was not what they said about me,’ Spock said.

‘Oh.’ Jim’s fingers tightened around the edge of the counter. ‘Oh.’

‘It is best that my mother does not know the parameters of the dialogue. She will draw incorrect inference despite logical reassurances to the contrary.’

‘You beat ‘em up, right?’ Jim asked.

Spock’s eyebrows were still like an equation Jim didn’t know how to solve.

‘I mean, you made ‘em shut up about her, right?’

It took Spock a few seconds to open his mouth, like he’d thrown the manual brakes on their conversation and now he had to wait to get the mechanism going again. It made Jim feel impatient and too hot under his skin. Or maybe that was still a side effect of the Vulcan atmosphere.

‘If you are inquiring as to whether providing a physical deterrent for their behavior has proved a successful means of breaking the pattern—’

‘Hang on. It’s a pattern?

Jim leaned forward, feeling the sharp stone counter as it dug into his palms. His hands weren’t at their best yet, still stiff and bruised even after the vivid colors had started to fade back into plain skin and freckles. That was how Jim felt most of the time: what showed on the outside was barely even a reflection of how he felt inside. It was good to have a distraction from that even if he’d never expected it to come from this angle.

Spock’s nostrils flared. He looked at Jim face to face instead of using the mirror as a way to watch him.

‘I was instructed to prepare for dinner, not indulge in idle gossip.’

He turned and left the bathroom, crossing at a diagonal into his own room on the other side of the hall. He didn’t bother to close either of the doors behind him, which was an invitation to follow if Jim had ever seen one.

Vulcan might’ve been tricky to master—Jim practiced in the long, quiet hours when Spock was at school, twisting his tongue around the foreign, rudely frustrating words—but he could read Spock all right. Not all the time, but that was what pushed him to keep trying.

He padded across the corridor to watch Spock tug off his Vulcan Academy dress in rough, efficient motions. It was the same way George used to act when he got sent upstairs and Jim couldn’t help but stare at him over the edge of his homework, pacing and furious, but too afraid of Frank to blow up and wreck anything in the room.

That was about where the comparisons between Spock and Jim’s brother ended. Jim was surprised they’d even started.

He leaned in the doorway, inspecting a scab on his right index knuckle. It stung when he pulled at it, not ready to come off yet.

‘How many were there?’

Even out of the corner of his eye, he could see Spock’s shoulders tighten up.

‘Three.’ Spock crossed to a chest of drawers, tugging on what passed for casual on Vulcan. When Jim glanced up next, he had on one of those mottled gray turtlenecks and a pair of plain black pants that Jim could tell were way too heavy for the weather, even from across the room. ‘It is my understanding that a large part of the enjoyment of the activity is derived from experiencing it in the company of peers.’

Enjoyment?’ Jim crossed his arms, leaning into a room that wasn’t his. He’d borrowed books, but they were stuff Amanda’d let him have. This was his first time in the inner sanctum. ‘That doesn’t sound very Vulcan to me.’

‘Vulcans are proud.’ Spock didn’t raise an eyebrow at Jim stepping over the threshold. Maybe he was too busy thinking about other things to care about his privacy. ‘There are some who view the act of my father’s marriage as a betrayal to our heritage.’

Jim sat down in a carved stone chair that hurt his back until he straightened up. ‘That’s bullshit.’

A tingle of adrenaline thrilled through him, followed by the deeper surge of something raw and miserable when he remembered Mom wasn’t around to yell at him for parroting back Frank’s bad language. His eyes stung and he took them off Spock, looking around for a distraction.

Spock’s room wasn’t what he’d pictured. It wasn’t a mess, but it wasn’t bare and simple like the rest of the house either, Amanda’s artistic touches brushing up against an almost military sparseness. There was a PADD on Spock’s pillow and a computer at a small desk by the window. His curtains were thick to block out the Vulcan sun, which was logical, but they were also a dark, rich red that Jim wouldn’t have associated with Spock in a million years. Maybe the best, most surprising thing was the shelf of books and trinkets, stuff Amanda had obviously coaxed Ambassador Dad into picking up on his travels.

Souvenirs didn’t seem like a Vulcan thing. Too sentimental. But Spock must’ve realized that it was important to Amanda, so he kept them out anyway.

Seven days, and Jim was still adding pieces to the puzzle.

He didn’t even know the size or the shape of what he was putting together. He didn’t know if he’d have anything complete at the end or nothing but a collection of random parts that didn’t add up to a whole. Most people wouldn’t have bothered but Jim wasn’t most people.

There was the bed; there was a musical instrument on a shelf behind it, one Jim didn’t recognize but reminded him of a harp; there was another thick rug on the floor and a blanket thrown over the foot of the bed, black with gold embroidery. It looked really soft and really illogical.

‘Bullshit,’ Spock repeated. The word sounded so ridiculous coming from him that Jim forgot why he’d been trying to distract himself in the first place, whipping back around to stare at Spock’s face and the bruise that he was sure about now. It wasn’t a blush but the start of a black eye, the Vulcan version—so more like an eye that was greenish. ‘I do not—’

‘Earth saying,’ Jim explained. ‘It means it’s ridiculous. Full of crap. Being proud doesn’t mean you have to enjoy being a jerk to somebody else. If they’re so smart, they should know better. But they don’t, so maybe they’re not as smart as they think, Spock.’

‘They cannot be expected to adhere to the principles and mores to which you are accustomed, Jim.’

‘A jerk’s a jerk,’ Jim said. ‘Doesn’t matter where they’re from or what color their blood is. If you didn’t teach ‘em a lesson for talking about your mom, maybe I will.’

If Spock could’ve shown amusement, Jim guessed he would’ve done it then or never. ‘Unlikely. Their strength and numbers are superior. You are only one.’

‘You wouldn’t back me up?’ Jim swiped under his nose with his sleeve. ‘Nah. Guess you wouldn’t. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’d do it anyway.’

‘They would easily defeat you. Such an attempt would be—’

‘Illogical?’ Jim suggested.

‘Ill-conceived and, ultimately, futile.’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Jim said again. ‘What’s important is that you do something. You did do something, right?’

This time, Spock was the one to turn away. He made it seem like it was expected of him, like it was perfectly natural, but it wasn’t. He was staring at the wall behind Jim instead of looking Jim in the eye and that had to mean something.

‘It was futile,’ Spock said at last.

Jim felt himself grinning before he knew why he was grinning. ‘You’re not so bad,’ he said.

‘A curious compliment—if it can even claim to be a compliment at all,’ Spock replied.

‘It was. Thought that’d be obvious.’ Jim pushed off the chair, his shoulders already feeling sore, his butt numb. If all Vulcans sat in chairs like that day in and day out, no wonder they tended to look like they were smelling something that didn’t agree with them most of the time. ‘When you left, were you the one bleeding more, or were they?’ Jim added, bumping Spock’s shoulder with his own on his way out of the room. Somebody had to set the table, after all. ‘And don’t tell me you didn’t notice.’

‘Empirically speaking...’ Spock stiffened at the contact—and, knowing him, at the question, too. ‘...the damage my opponent sustained was significantly higher.’

Awesome,’ Jim said, and headed for the stairs, where Amanda and dinner were waiting.

*

Chapter Text

There was insufficient time to contemplate the precise cause or causes of Jim Kirk’s smile—which appeared to follow no distinct pattern or operate within the framework of reliable catalysts—as what Spock had always anticipated from the start had come to pass. That evening at dinner, as Mother found herself unable, due to her sentimentality, to reprimand Spock for his actions in the manner he deserved, the topic of Father was raised: Sarek would return in the evening of the following day.

His return had always been a matter of inevitability. It seemed that Jim had also been aware of this fact, for he accepted the announcement in silence and continued to eat the salad that made his eyes water despite multiple other dishes readily available to him.

He was, in a single word, peculiar. There was a method to his behavior but, like his smile, its particulars remained elusive.

There was much for Spock to consider. Not simply his own troubling behavior, but the troubling behavior of another individual currently seated beside him, half-choking on a bite of sash-savas.

‘Surely my father’s return will precipitate change in the household,’ Spock said.

‘We’ll see, of course,’ Mother replied, most unhelpfully.

After dinner Jim washed the plates and Spock dried them; this was an integral part of their temporary routine. Jim’s hands were red when they were finished. He thanked Mother for the dinner and then lied to her face, saying that it was delicious.

Whether it was delicious to some was irrelevant. Jim had not thought so. Therefore, the pleasantry was an obvious falsehood and served no purpose.

Mother was not so fragile as to have her feelings slighted by something as small as one’s enjoyment of a meal she had prepared herself. Despite her human shortcomings, she had adapted, and presented a passable amount of Vulcan fortitude in her day-to-day life.

Still, Spock had observed a certain pattern of behavior emerging between Mother and Jim. It was an understanding that precluded words, seeming to verge on indulgence. Spock did not know—and refused to speculate—how it would be received by his father, but the fact remained that something had changed. Father’s return would set it to right again, but that did not change its elusive nature or the frustration Spock experienced at being unable to pin it down.

He retired to his room to review the day’s lessons and found that he had gained an additional silhouette in the graying evening light.

Jim was a tangle of contradictions—a strong personality who nonetheless persisted in following others, though perhaps he would have been better suited to lead. Spock had not yet observed him long enough to ascertain whether this nascent behavior was a result of the trauma he had experienced in the Earth colony on Tarsus IV, or whether it was a product of his nature. It, like all logical paradoxes, tugged at Spock’s mind in the long, quiet moments between consciousness and meditation.

Spock understood contradiction very well; after all, he lived as one. But he had never come up against someone or something quite so variable.

Jim was a distraction, even though he attempted—to varying degrees of near success—to be silent as he trailed Spock through the hall and back to his room. He did not sit in the chair that had made him frown and squirm earlier but instead claimed the end of Spock’s bed, fingers settling in the soft plush of his extra blanket.

It was another sentimentality of Mother’s, which she had procured when she first came to understand that Spock’s internal temperatures were comparable to that of a full Vulcan. ‘So you’ll always be warm enough, Spock,’ she’d said as she folded it over the foot of his bed.

Spock raised an eyebrow. Jim kicked his legs up and stretched them out, only his heels touching the floor.

‘I finished all my books,’ he said, as though this statement explained his curious appearance within Spock’s personal space.

‘They are not your books.’ Spock stood at the center of his room, feeling like a stranger to it. ‘They have been leant to you as a means of passing your time in this house. Since your internal temperatures are not accustomed to the atmospheric differences on Vulcan, it is only natural to assume you would spend the majority of your recreational hours indoors, where the atmosphere may be more readily adjusted to suit the needs of the humans currently residing within.’

‘Uh,’ Jim said, ‘thanks. I guess.’

It was the first vocal irregularity Spock had observed from him. Jim was always sure of himself, even when it was evident he was speaking without forethought. This new behavioral choice suggested that his mind was even more absent than usual.

Spock experienced a scientist’s curiosity in having discovered a new form of interaction. He wished to follow it to its point of origin.

‘I trust that you would not find suitable entertainment in a review of my daily assignments,’ Spock said.

Jim’s nose wrinkled, condensing the freckles on his face to a single, clustered constellation. Even without words, he managed to convey his forceful emotions on the subject. He had not followed Spock to study, but neither did he seem to be particularly forthcoming regarding his intentions.

Spock refused to ask; he would not indulge Jim to the point of disrupting his own routine. He had already once today overstepped the bounds set and held in place by his willpower alone. He would not—he could not—cross them again.

The gentle, throbbing echo of his pulse in the sore point of his lower lip was an irritating reminder of what happened when Spock strayed too far from the Vulcan path.

That Jim approved of his actions should have been caution enough against them in the future.

Spock was seated at his desk, aware of Jim on the bed over his shoulder, before the interruption came—as he had known all along it would.

‘What’s your dad like?’

Though Spock was capable of anticipating a disruption, he had neither evidence nor experience to indicate what form the distraction would take. It did not sound similar to what Mother had once called ‘small talk’ as the topic was not about the weather. If it proved to be a subset of the aforementioned small dialogue, Spock would be required to inform Jim that his time as a student was not to be wasted. As it stood, he could not be certain whether or not the question had a true scholarly intention.

‘Sarek is a diplomat.’

That’s no surprise.’

‘Due to the comfortable condition of our household and the period of his absence within it, it would not be an unsubstantiated guess,’ Spock conceded. ‘However, prior to your request for specifics, there were other, equally likely scenarios for you to consider while lacking further clarification.’

‘Yeah, I mean it’s no surprise because you talk like a diplomat,’ Jim said.

Spock considered the diplomats he had heard in the past, his father included. They were well-spoken, articulate, highly educated, and respected by their peers. ‘I believe that was a compliment? As such...’ Mother found the following concession important; as another human, Jim may well have had similar investment in the common social offering. ‘Thank you.’

‘It wasn’t—’ Jim sighed, shoulders hunching. His posture was exceptionally poor. ‘Whatever. Never mind. You’re welcome. But you told me what your dad does, Spock, not what he’s like.’

‘The rest of the information you seek is easily ascertained by that which you already have at your disposal.’ Spock had to shift in his chair to face Jim while they spoke as this, too, was a detail on which Mother often remained exacting. ‘You know the following: that he is a Vulcan; that he is a diplomat; that he is married to a human woman with whom he has a single child. Judging by the relative ease with which you were allowed into this household where you have been fed, clothed, and provided with ample means of entertainment by my mother, it is logical to infer that he is in good standing and a valuable member of the Federation, thereby able to provide for his family without concern for the added strain of an unexpected house-guest.’

Jim shrugged with only one shoulder. It was a personal, physical tic that, much akin to his frequent usage of the meaningless word ‘whatever’, arrived merely as a placeholder in the silence between Jim’s not infrequent conversational detours.

‘I help out,’ Jim said. A detour, indeed, with seemingly little to no relevance whatsoever. Spock awaited clarification of its pertinence and Jim managed to understand the silence well enough to provide some. ‘Around the house, when you’re not here. When your Mom’s washing clothes and hanging it out to dry or wants flowers from the garden. Play with I-Chaya, too.’

‘Have I given you reason to believe that I am interested in the events of your day?’

‘Not even once, Spock. I’m just saying—I pull my own weight, okay?’

Spock filed the turn of phrase away for later identification and definition. Jim’s weight was not, he could plainly see, much to pull. ‘Though I am unfamiliar with that particular locution, I can assure you that my explanation held no judgment. I attempted only to enumerate the steps behind critical deduction in the hope that you would find merit in the lesson.’

‘I knew your dad was a Vulcan,’ Jim said, ‘and now I still know he’s a Vulcan. That’s what I’ve learned.’

‘That,’ Spock replied, ‘is all you need to know.’

‘Easy for you to say.’ Jim’s legs ceased their otherwise constant swinging, heels braced against the side of Spock’s bed. ‘He’s your dad, not mine.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, obviously. I don’t mean it like that.’

‘Your meaning was not apparent. If context is necessary, it must be provided.’

Jim let out a sigh that reminded Spock of I-Chaya in the height of summer, then toppled backward onto the bed, arms spread outward. The bedspread had become wrinkled beneath him. ‘I know I don’t belong here, okay?’ he told the ceiling. Spock was now required to analyze whether or not he was implied as a recipient of that particular comment or if Jim was indulging in the common human practice of ‘talking to oneself’. As Spock understood it, such an undertaking was only done in private. Therefore, he was most likely speaking to Spock by way of the ceiling in Spock’s room.

‘That, too, is obvious,’ Spock supplied.

‘But your Mom’s here. And she likes it. And it’s not bad, anyway. It’s nicer... It’s nice.’

‘It is suitable for many purposes. The location is ideal and there is more than enough room for those present to function optimally without over-crowding or the risk of interference. Current scenario notwithstanding,’ Spock added.

‘Is he gonna kick me out?’ Jim sat up again, so sudden that Spock nearly drew back. He monitored and regulated the element of surprise so that it did not affect him, as he had a great deal of practice in that area, but Jim’s spontaneity was beyond any Spock had experienced even in his lessons. Jim’s eyes were now bright, clear blue, his face red between his freckles. If he had spent any time in the garden at all, given his complexion, he could have been suffering from burns due to being underprepared for the Vulcan sunlight. ‘That’s what I... I get it, if he is. I don’t belong here. Your mom’s been good, really good to me, and she never asked for anything. People aren’t like that. Humans, Vulcans, they don’t just let you stay. Only...’ Spock waited. ‘...I don’t think I have anywhere else to go.’

So that was it. Spock had suspected something close to the truth for some time, but it was pointless to entertain suspicion and Jim had hardly been forthcoming. On occasion it seemed that he had perfected the art of talking too much with words that never conveyed any relevant information. Spock had held his curiosity at bay, but it stirred once more at the signs of Jim approaching a true confession.

Spock’s review work remained momentarily forgotten on the desk. Jim managed to draw focus to himself even when his poor posture gave him the appearance of someone who perhaps wished to disappear. Spock realized it was his turn to speak and discovered that the necessary answer was more complex than he might have initially supposed.

‘When my father returns, his principal concerns will be with setting his affairs in order, communicating with the Vulcan High Council, and reuniting with my mother to share anecdotes of his travels in person.’ Spock’s hands were closed fists over his knees; there was no tension in them. Any that might have lingered from earlier in the afternoon had abated during his evening meal. ‘The matter of your presence here is highly unorthodox. I do not have reason to think he will fail to address it; however, you are unlikely to command priority in his attentions.’

He waited while Jim processed the information. There were no easy visual cues to read—his eyes did not slide back and forth, as they did while he engaged in reading one of Spock’s encyclopedias—but his face stilled where it was normally animated: what Spock recognized as an attempt to isolate the threat, if one presented itself, in Spock’s words.

Spock had taken care to assure Jim that there would be none. Although it was not his place to comfort him, Jim had been taken in as Mother’s guest. He was disruptive, but no more so than he could help. It was logical to desire a return to functionality and the restored balance of Spock’s home—yet the more care he took to examine his feelings on the matter, the more elusive and muddied they became.

‘So…’ Jim squinted. ‘...he might kick me out. Just not right away.’

Spock acknowledged to himself that he felt tired. Jim had a way of commanding energy and attention that even Spock’s studies did not achieve. It was not logical but Spock could not wonder at it while simultaneously engaging in conversation. His distraction would be noticeable as well as subsequently noted.

‘I would not presume to guess what information you have chosen to focus on from your reading, but Vulcan households are not governed solely by the paternal figure.’ Spock watched Jim carefully as a reaction to Jim’s scrutiny. ‘My mother has formed an attachment to you and doubtless would protest at any suggestion of kicking you out, as you say, without due cause.’

‘All right.’ Jim nodded. His knuckles were white where he’d gripped the soft, thick fabric of Spock’s blanket. The color in them returned as his grip eased. ‘OK, that’s… That’s OK. That’s not so bad.’

It had not been Spock’s intent to reassure him—yet he felt the undeniable dissipation of a weight that had not been his as Jim began, however slowly, to relax.

Jim was not comparable to I-Chaya; he was not so old as to have lost most of his discerning instincts, easily placated by a simple scratch behind the ears. Rather, he was small and brash, with seemingly no grasp on reality when it came to his shortcomings and abilities. He viewed a schoolyard brawl with three Vulcans as a battle that could be won by one human of inferior size.

He could not be expected to provide for himself.

What Spock could not say—what he chose not to say—was that Father would likely bring with him what news of the Kirks he had managed to glean from the manifests and early Federation intelligence regarding the incident on Tarsus IV.

It remained to be seen whether Jim had a place of his own to which he might return.

If he did not, the variables for determining a subsequent course of action would change considerably.

‘Thanks, Spock,’ Jim said. There was a stubborn set to his mouth that suggested it would be unwise to do anything but accept.

‘Though the terms of your gratitude have not necessarily been met,’ Spock replied, ‘your apparent belief that they have been require me to inform you that you are welcome, Jim.’

The turn of phrase might also, Spock decided, have possessed a second meaning. To consider oneself welcome had multiple interpretations and Spock had always found it a curious, not altogether accurate means of expressing acknowledgement. It proved the most sensible when applied literally. You are welcome.

Perhaps Jim was.

‘I have studies to return to,’ Spock added. Jim did not know this; only through being informed of Spock’s duties would he be able, in the future, to anticipate them.

‘’Course.’ Jim did not sound surprised; he had been anticipating them, having gathered enough data about Spock’s intellectual pursuits to make an accurate assumption. He was at times more intelligent than he looked. ‘Go ahead. I won’t ask any more questions. I know how to be quiet.’

‘Hm,’ Spock said. If it were so, then that talent would have to be cultivated, so that it would be employed with more frequency. Still, as Spock waited for further conversational attempts, he was met with silence, disturbed only by the rhythm of Jim’s breathing. It was not unpleasant and, as Spock allowed it to continue, provided an acceptable background of even, white noise, which in turn allowed Spock to achieve deeper, meditative thinking.

It was more than an hour later that Spock realized Jim had fallen asleep at the foot of his bed.

Spock allowed that to continue, as well—for after all, it did not interfere with his business in any particular or noticeable way.

*

Chapter Text

Jim’d never been good with dads, probably because he’d never known his own so he didn’t have anything to work by. No blueprints. No how-to-build manual.

Moms were different; they usually made sense. Uncles were probably the worst and brother-types were a mystery, but the fun kind, like a puzzle app that kept you searching for the differences between two pictures or trying to find the guy in the white and red striped shirt for hours during a long shuttle ride between space stations.

Spock was the same kind of mystery, only he was the toughest round you could get before resetting your scores to try again from level one.

Amanda, at least, was hiding some kind of excitement under her scarves, and if she was looking forward to Sarek coming back, then he couldn’t be all that bad. Jim brought her some of her favorite flowers in from the garden without her having to ask and she smiled at him in a way that made him stand out on the balcony for a long time after mumbling an excuse, letting the rough winds of Vulcan scrub his face raw while the sun made his nose turn pink.

Amanda had a salve for that. Jim put it on in the bathroom. He practiced a few of the moves he’d try out on Spock’s Vulcan schoolmates if he ever bumped into them and went to the window to stare out across the sand for any signs of approaching vehicles, before feeling totally stupid. He didn’t know what direction the guy’d be coming in from or what he’d be riding up in, either. He didn’t even know a time more specific than evening. Uncertainty was supposed to be a good thing—only there were different kinds of surprises, the good ones and the bad ones mostly, and there was too much of the second kind going around.

This wasn’t anything close to Christmas. Jim’s palms and his underarms were sweaty and I-Chaya could sense how nervous he was, which meant a Vulcan would definitely be able to pick up on the same.

‘I’m not worried,’ Jim told I-Chaya.

The truth was, he didn’t know what he was. Not happy; not unhappy. He felt like an oasis of cool blue water in the middle of the desert—only nobody was dying of thirst and crawling toward him gratefully. Nobody even noticed. He didn’t fit and he didn’t belong; it was exactly like he’d said to Spock.

At least Spock wasn’t the type of person who’d try to reassure him about stuff there were no reassurances for. It left Jim on uneven ground but it was honest with him about his shaky footing and that was better than the alternative, somebody flashing you the green light when you were about to step off the edge.

Jim just had to hope Spock was back from Vulcan school by the time his old man was back from work. Not that there was anybody on Jim’s side in this, but it always helped if there was somebody in the room standing next to you even a little close to your size. You wouldn’t look as small as you felt.

Maybe.

There were too many maybes about it.

Jim’s luck saw him reading in the room next to the kitchen, waiting for Amanda to start on dinner so he could slide in next to her by the sink, when the front door opened and Jim’s blood turned to ice despite the heat of the late afternoon.

He might’ve been able to buy some extra time if he stayed where he was, tucked up on a couch that was way more comfortable than anything in Spock’s room, face hidden behind a heavy book on Vulcan history. But delaying the inevitable was just gonna twist at his nerves until he dealt with it. Better to learn his fate now than wait until the sun had set, especially since there wasn’t any moon above Vulcan to navigate by if they sent him packing. Jim’s legs were numb when he stretched them out and the soles of his feet tingled when he stood. The pins and needles gave him something else to focus on as he crept to the door, keeping the book under one arm.

It wasn’t that boring a read. There were a couple things Jim wanted to ask Spock about that Surak guy, if he lasted long enough to get the chance.

Jim took a deep breath, steadied himself, and peered around the corner.

Spock’s dad was by the door. He didn’t look anything like Spock—except for the obvious, like having the same haircut and the same ears—but Jim knew it was him by the way Amanda hurried into the hall, drying her hands on her long, dark skirts. She didn’t throw herself into his arms or anything like that. In fact, her rush slowed to a full stop about a foot away from Spock’s dad. They didn’t kiss, but Jim saw her extend her index and middle fingers, touching them to Spock’s dad’s hand where he’d already mimicked the gesture.

Jim didn’t know a lot about how moms and dads were supposed to interact. He’d never been able to watch his own. But it was still the weirdest thing he’d ever seen, even by Vulcan standards.

‘Welcome home, Sarek,’ Amanda said.

It was the sound of her voice that broke the spell and made Jim realize he was intruding on something private. After all the work he’d put in trying to be useful, he was gonna undo it in a second by being nosy at the eleventh hour. When Jim started to pull back, Sarek zeroed in on him almost instantly; his eyes were dark with intelligence and calm in a way that even Spock’s weren’t. When he turned his head, Jim could see his graying hair catch in the light. He was older than Frank and Jim couldn’t sense the same coiled resentment that’d always been a part of his uncle. Frank hated having to share his home with kids he’d never wanted or asked to live with and he didn’t bother to hide it.

Vulcans didn’t do the whole resentment thing. Sarek didn’t even look pissed to find Jim skulking around like a second, stray sehlat, interrupting his reunion with his wife after over a week—Jim suspected a whole lot longer—of being away from home.

Amanda turned to look at Jim over her shoulder. She didn’t look upset either, which meant Jim could breathe easier. Instead, she held out her hand to him and beckoned him forward like this was the introduction they’d planned all along. Jim missed having Spock at his side to measure himself against, but he still had an ally in the house. Somebody on his side, sort of. At least Amanda was willing to let him stand at her side. It felt pretty good just knowing that.

‘And this,’ Amanda said, ‘is Jim.’

Sarek raised an eyebrow and for the first time Jim caught the family resemblance.

‘James Tiberius Kirk, originally of Riverside, Iowa, on Earth.’ Sarek’s voice was deeper than a computer’s, but it carried the same cadence. Maybe that was why Jim wasn’t too freaked out to hear his life read back to him like a file. Sarek’s gaze sharpened and Jim felt it in his gut like a cramp after running too hard for too long. He wondered if he’d walked straight into a trap; even if it hadn’t snapped shut around his ankle, there was no way to escape. ‘Most recently, a resident of the ill-fated Federation colony on Tarsus IV.’

Jim’s legs weren’t tingling anymore. His circulation had fixed itself somewhere between the couch and the hall. But his face felt hot as the blood rushed upward, pulse pounding in his ears. It felt good to finally hear the words out loud, even if he hadn’t been the one to get them out.

He knew what he had to ask next, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even make himself look at Amanda, so he could judge by her face what to say next. His throat was tight around his tongue.

‘Perhaps we should all sit down,’ Amanda began.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. His voice sounded off, distant and thick, like he’d been brought in out of the desert only that morning and hadn’t had a drink of water in days. ‘That’s me.’ He stared at Sarek’s face and knew he wouldn’t be able to read the answers he was looking for in any shift of Vulcan expression, but Jim was human and humans were irrational and he kept staring anyway. There was knowing and there was knowing. As frustrating as it was, not getting sympathy or sorrow or apology or any of that stuff wasn’t the worst that could happen—which was probably why Jim couldn’t bring himself to look at Amanda again. ‘Good to meet you. Sir.’

Sarek’s eyebrows didn’t shift, Spock-like, at Jim’s choked words or the obvious divide between human displays of respect and Vulcan expectations of the same. His face remained blank, like he was waiting for Jim to tear off the bandage.

You couldn’t put it off forever.

‘Jim...’ Amanda’s voice was so gentle that Jim flinched at the sound; he didn’t deserve it. ‘If you want to sit, it’s really all right, dear.’

But Jim didn’t think his legs would carry him back down the hall and into the sitting room. He stayed where he was; his legs might as well have been made out of the same stuff as the stone chairs on the balcony for all it mattered. He couldn’t lift them.

‘Tarsus IV.’ Jim’s voice almost cracked but he didn’t let it. ‘I know it was bad. It was really bad. Do you know what happened there?’

If it came to him like an update from a computer, Sarek reciting the dates and events without any emotion, then maybe, Jim thought, maybe he could take it like a man. He wished his legs felt sturdier instead of just plain heavy, about to crack the floor beneath him any second.

Sarek didn’t even have to clear his throat to supply the data. ‘Federation relief forces arrived at the colony, yet they were not in time to save four thousand of the eight thousand colonists in an act that has since been classified by Federation authorities as genocide. This act was ordered by a single individual in an attempt—however ill-advised—to preserve the way of life for the other four thousand colonists, due to lack of sufficient supplies. It is understandable that some measure of chaos was experienced during this period. Tarsus IV’s acting General Kodos is presumed dead; his remains were believed to be found after a fire prevention team managed to contain and control the damage in a rioting district where the general had carried out his crimes. I have been informed that, of the colony’s survivors, none had the opportunity to see General Kodos in person, thus complicating matters of identification.’

‘Survivors,’ Jim said.

His voice cracked this time.

‘As you do not require the full list, I must therefore assume that your inquiry is far more specific—Winona Kirk, deceased, and George Kirk, deceased.’ Sarek’s words were like distant stars, so far away that recognizing them wasn’t the same as believing in them.

Sarek,’ Amanda said.

There it was, bright as the Vulcan sun: the sympathy Jim didn’t want and couldn’t need and wouldn’t ever deserve. He hadn’t done anything to help and he hadn’t even been there with them. He’d thought about going back, plenty of times, but thinking and doing weren’t the same. And, most of all, he was tired of being the one people always sacrificed themselves for—they never had to know what it was like to be left behind because they were the ones who were already gone. He was tired of having to be angry at them for helping him. There was nobody left to thank and nobody left to blame.

‘Let him be, Amanda,’ Sarek replied. Jim realized Amanda had stepped closer to him because he was in her shadow now and he stared at the shape it made, eclipsing his on the floor. ‘Records show a surviving uncle on the mother’s side—’

‘Frank.’ Jim refused to let himself blink but his eyes were starting to burn. ‘That’s Frank. We lived with him for a while but it didn’t work out. That’s why we signed up for the Tarsus IV colony. Space,’ he added. ‘George pretended he was mad about leaving his friends behind on earth but he was full of it. It was gonna be great. Space.’

‘Jim,’ Amanda said.

If Jim could’ve lifted his arms, he would’ve plugged his ears with his fingers so he wouldn’t have to hear the sound of his own name.

‘Further information, as it is made available to members of the Federation and, subsequently, the general public, will offer greater insight and more detail into this unfortunate matter.’ Sarek was still standing there, tall and imposing and unshakeable in his dark gray robes. ‘Should you wish to learn more, I must inform you that it will not be possible to do so at this time. In the future, as a surviving member of the colony on Tarsus IV, it is highly likely that you will have more access to full records than even I have been able to procure.’

‘Okay,’ Jim said. ‘Thanks. Can I—may I be excused? I want to go to the garden.’

‘Oh, Jim,’ Amanda replied. ‘Yes, of course you may. If that’s what you need—of course.’

‘Thanks,’ Jim repeated. He stepped around Sarek, who was still in front of the door, and let the hot air hit him like a forcefield.

Later, he’d blame the sudden shift in temperature for the churning in his stomach. He felt it before it happened, bile backing up in his throat in a way even the acidic sash-savas never had. He was running before he could stop himself, kicking up sand every time he skidded, trying to reach the borders of the garden in time. Finally, his knees buckled, and he fell onto them behind a boulder to retch, voiding what was left of his lunch onto the hot orange sand. The rock was firm, a steady weight under his palm. Jim tried to remember what he’d read about Vulcan meditation, Surak’s principles for calming a wild mind and a raging heart. But he was a person, not a boulder. He couldn’t harden his thoughts and he couldn’t stop shaking.

He stayed there on his knees until his insides stopped roiling. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t have moved; heading back would’ve just messed up the garden.

Jim went another two rounds before his stomach was empty; the third time he threw up nothing but some ropey, yellow strands of his own digestive juices. His mouth tasted foul. He wiped it with the back of his hand, then used the sand around him to bury the mess.

It was awhile before he could stand. He didn’t have a watch and he wasn’t counting the minutes, but the shadow of the boulder stretched out slowly to encompass him and it hadn’t before. The sun was moving, shifting lower, down between the far-off mountain peaks.

Amanda hadn’t come out to check on him but Jim wasn’t expecting her to. She hadn’t seen her husband in over a week and Jim wanted to be by himself anyway. She got that. It was a rare quality, even among moms.

Jim’s legs fell asleep again from the calves to the knees. The boulder remained sturdy, impassive against his hand, the dust on its surface growing sticky and damp from his sweat.

The bright blue sky was cooling to grays and purples when Jim finally heard the crunch of sand under a pair of shoes behind him. It didn’t feel like he’d been gone that long; he still wasn’t ready to talk. Seeing someone else face-to-face would just drive home the thought that’d sent Jim fleeing the house, and the people inside it, in the first place—that he was alone; that his dad had traded his life for Jim’s and Jim had repaid him by letting Mom and George do the exact same thing nine years later.

Apparently that was all he was good for. He didn’t even get a say in it.

The footsteps stopped just short of him. Jim hunched his shoulders in anticipation. Even the thought of Amanda’s kindness right now made him want to get up and run away. He didn’t have anywhere to go but that didn’t seem to matter now that he knew he never would.

‘There is a bench in the garden.’ It wasn’t Amanda’s voice and it wasn’t Sarek’s, either. It was Spock, home from his too-many hours of Vulcan school. Jim wondered if he’d seen his dad yet. ‘Its location is optimal for sitting outdoors, with none of the inconveniences experienced by your current position.’

‘’S not bad,’ Jim said. But he hauled himself up anyway.

Spock was still wearing that dress.

He didn’t try to help Jim when he stumbled on his numb legs but he stuck close to his side, within reach if Jim needed to reach out for him. He didn’t.

They settled onto the bench side-by-side, Jim bumping Spock’s shoulder as he swayed in place. The heat was winding down, the evening winds drying his sweat to his skin. His tongue felt dry; his mouth tasted awful. Spock hadn’t been lying about the bench—it faced a bare spot on the horizon not blocked off by the nearby mountain range. The sun was setting just over its dark ridges and above that, one by one, the stars were glittering to life.

Jim couldn’t name them all. In this part of the galaxy, he didn’t even know which ones gave daily light to neighboring planets. It didn’t seem to matter much anymore. No matter how many were out there, Jim was still alone.

He leaned his shoulder to Spock’s. This time, Spock moved his arm out of the way and settled it against Jim’s back, palm braced on the hard stone bench.

‘They’re dead,’ Jim said. It didn’t feel good to say it but it felt right, the way vomiting was a relief when you finally stopped holding it in, when you finally let go. It was necessary to get that stuff out of you so it wouldn’t stay there rotting, making you feel worse and worse. ‘My mom and my brother. My dad’s dead, too, but that happened a long time ago. I never got to meet him. His name was George Kirk. That was my brother’s name; he was named after my dad and they’re both dead now.’ Now that he’d started talking, Jim couldn’t figure out how to stop. ‘I’ve got an uncle named Frank and he hates me and I hate him. I don’t think he’d call me family, not really, but I don’t want to call him family either. Mom took us to Tarsus IV because things were getting bad living with him. Because we lived with him for a while, but that was back on Earth, and I didn’t... We didn’t get along. Your dad said nobody’s seen the guy who did it—General Kodos, who killed all these people on Tarsus IV, but that’s not true. Somebody’s seen him.’

Spock was quiet for a long time. Jim closed his eyes and imagined him going over the narrative structure of that story with a critical eye, pointing out all the jumps in logic, the lack of buildup and explanation, all the facts that Jim had presented jumbled and out-of-order. When he opened his eyes again his cheeks were wet and he knew he was crying; of all the people he’d’ve done that in front of willingly, Spock was second to last on the list. Frank was all the way at the bottom, but he didn’t count anymore. Earth was too far away to count.

Jim’s nose was dripping. He let it.

‘Am I meant to conclude that the ‘somebody’ to which you have referred in your final statement is, in fact, yourself?’ Spock said at last.

Jim reached around his back without realizing what he was doing right away but then it came to him. He was trying to find Spock’s hand. Spock’s fingers were always cool and even now that the sun had set, disappearing from view and taking the final, red-orange glow of pre-twilight with it, Jim was still sweaty.

Feelings could be like a fever sometimes. He knew that. Even Surak had known that. Sort of. He’d written about it so many years ago but it was still true.  

Jim found Spock’s hand and grabbed it tightly. Spock’s shoulder stiffened at the touch but he didn’t pull away.

‘Yeah.’ Jim steadied himself and eased up on his grip so he wasn’t squeezing Spock’s fingers too hard. ‘That’s what I was saying. I mean, what you’re meant to conclude. But it doesn’t matter anyway. Not anymore. They’re saying he’s dead, too. Your dad said he killed four thousand people and my family’s just two of ‘em.’

‘It is unfortunate that General Kodos will not be able to stand proper trial for his actions.’

It is unfortunate. At least Spock hadn’t said he was sorry—probably because he wasn’t. Which made sense like vomiting made sense. Spock didn’t have to be sorry; he had nothing to be sorry for.

‘I threw up,’ Jim said.

‘Are you experiencing physical ailments along with your emotional distress?’ Spock asked.

Jim thought about it. ‘Not anymore.’ His stomach was empty, as hollow as the rest of him felt. That seemed to fit the situation. He knew he felt relieved because of what he’d learned for sure, relieved about not having to guess anymore and not having to ask the tough questions.

The Vulcan way of doing things was all right sometimes because everything was on the table.

Still, Jim’d ruined Amanda’s reunion with her husband, not to mention Spock’s chance to spend time with his dad, and Jim’s brain kept tripping back around—through the shifting sands that were swallowing him up—to the fact that mom was dead. Mom was dead. He’d seen her through the glass as he left and that might’ve been the last time she ever smiled.

‘She’s dead,’ Jim said. Out loud. He had to. ‘I never knew my dad. It’s not the same.’

‘The circumstances and parameters are explicitly different,’ Spock agreed.

‘You get cold easier than humans, right?’ Jim asked. He didn’t look at Spock’s face, mostly because he didn’t want Spock to see his runny nose and red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, but also because he suspected he might actually start laughing if Spock’s eyebrow was raised and he didn’t want to laugh. He’d choke on it and then the tears would come out harder, faster than before.

‘That is a generally accurate statement regarding Vulcan physiology.’

‘Are you cold right now?’

Spock’s hand wasn’t cold, but that was because Jim had covered it with his own. ‘My current temperature is lower than optimal,’ he said.

‘Figures,’ Jim replied. ‘You should probably head inside.’

Spock was quiet, the kind of quiet that meant agreement, but he didn’t move. His hand was still under Jim’s, steady but smaller than a boulder. His skin had slowly warmed from Jim’s touch, whereas the rock had only grown cold.

‘The discomfort is not overly severe,’ Spock said, apparently having used the silence to assess his condition the same way a ship’s computer would’ve run a scan.

That was the easy comparison: Vulcans and computers. Jim didn’t like to do anything the simple way but he didn’t feel up to much else at the minute. In some ways, it was better than if Amanda had come out to see how he was doing. Spock didn’t expect anything from Jim. He didn’t want to talk about feelings because he was busy pretending he didn’t have them.

Jim shuffled closer, scooting sideways along the bench until his body ate up the space between them. He didn’t have a jacket to offer. He only had one outfit and it was in the wash again; none of the clothes he was wearing were his own. But Jim still had himself. Now that he’d stopped throwing up, he could claim control over his own body, if nothing else.

‘What star is that?’ He pointed up, at random, to one of a handful of twinkling lights overhead.

Spock’s gaze followed his finger.

‘It has no name in your language,’ he said.

‘What’s it called in Vulcan?’ Jim asked.

There was no reason to put off learning now.

*

Chapter Text

There were a great many things that changed the night of Father’s return home after primary negotiations with the Tellarites but despite those changes, Jim’s fitful sleeping remained a constant.

Spock still did not know the formula for predicting whether or not he would rest at all. The rock garden had not provided it. They had remained together on the bench until long past dark, when Amanda had finally extinguished the light in the sitting room and Jim had sprung to his feet as if responding to a hidden signal. They returned together to the quiet house and Spock accompanied Jim to his own room, rather than the one reserved for guests.

Jim cried late into the night, muffling the sound against a pillow while Spock rested a hand against the side of his face, the pads of his fingers at Jim’s temple. Jim’s emotions ran swifter than the river beyond their property, clouding Spock’s mind and preventing him from achieving true peace in the dark. This was still easier to understand than the fuzzy, blank periods of numbness that settled over his grief. Spock could brace himself against a raging current but there was nothing to be done in the face of more nothing.

He did not rest that night and allowed Jim to stay in his room long past the hour when Spock would have departed the guest suite. Jim, though he passed into unconsciousness in fits and bursts, did not settle at Spock’s touch as he had in the past.

Neither did he ask to be left alone.

I-Chaya guarded the door, although as the hours drifted by and Spock’s mind began to waver under the onslaught of Jim’s emotions and his own neglected meditation, he began to wonder whether I-Chaya was keeping Jim in—or keeping Spock’s parents out. It was a curious thought, one Spock tucked away to review when his mind was once again performing at full capacity.

When Jim woke for good in the morning, he stared at Spock as though attempting to discern the perimeters of his current reality. The gaze was unnerving and very blue. Spock had to remind himself not to waver beneath the unexpected scrutiny.

‘Your dad’s back.’ Jim’s voice came out in a croak.

‘That is true.’

‘You missed dinner.’

‘That is also true,’ Spock replied. He did not understand the leading nature of the discussion. Of all the things for Jim to concern himself with, Spock’s appetite seemed inconsequential.

But Jim sat up, wiping the salt-streaks from his cheeks with a hand that was hardly cleaner than the rest of his face.

‘I’ll get us stuff from the kitchen,’ he said. ‘I know where everything is.’

Spock watched him leave. I-Chaya allowed it—Jim knelt to the floor to rub his belly with both hands—then rose to follow Jim down the hall. With both of them gone, Spock was able to rearrange the commotion of his thoughts into something more orderly; though the period of meditation was brief, it was nevertheless highly restorative. During that time, Spock conceded to himself that Mother would not have allowed herself to remain within the relative comforts of bed while Jim—in an obvious state of distress due to the great personal loss he had suffered—worked alone to prepare a meal for someone else. Spock also conceded that he was not Mother and that Jim was fully capable of making a decision for himself despite the aforementioned distress. It would not harm him and, therefore, Spock could permit him to believe that his actions meant more than their separate parts.

Such grief.

Spock meditated.

Jim returned soon enough, with I-Chaya in tow. The sehlat closed the door with a bump of his nose because Jim’s hands were otherwise occupied: he carried one of Mother’s wooden breakfast trays, with two bowls of a traditional porridge.

‘You’ll have to let me know,’ Jim said, putting the tray down on the bedside table, ‘if my handling of the meal preparation is adequate.’

Spock could not trust that it was a joke, as Jim did not smile upon his completion of the statement. Such moments of unnecessary humor were often accompanied by physical indicators of intent; however, due to the circumstances, it was possible Jim was not currently capable of even attempting the expression.

Spock allowed a spoonful to cool. He ate it, and offered his honest opinion. ‘It is adequate. However, Mother does not make it as sweet.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, blowing on his own first spoonful. ‘I know.’

‘You sweetened the original recipe on purpose?’

‘Should’ve known you don’t like things sweet.’

‘I do not believe I passed qualitative judgment; rather, I simply acknowledged a change from the habitual.’ Spock took a second bite. ‘It is adequate,’ he said again.

Jim winced as his chapped lips pressed against the hot wooden spoon but he soon settled. He ate quietly, then set the bowl on the floor for reasons that became readily apparent when I-Chaya trotted forward to nose at the sticky remains left within.

‘I asked your mom,’ Jim said as Spock observed. ‘She told me he wasn’t allergic to any of the stuff in it. It’s not oatmeal, but it’s okay.’

‘My mother allowed this?’ Spock had forgotten the efficiency of finishing a presented meal without lingering over the task beyond the necessary amount of time to complete it. ‘It is not sanitary.’

‘I’m gonna clean it after. I-Chaya’s not unsanitary, anyway.’ Jim rested his chin on his knees; he was observing I-Chaya as well, but Spock noted that his eyes had unfocused and now possessed a glassy sheen. The meaning behind the discernible shift was not immediately apparent. ‘But I’ll wash it, so don’t worry.’

‘I am not—’

‘You’re not worried. You’re too Vulcan to be worried. Yeah.’ Jim wiped at his nose with his shoulder, a curiously efficient motion that allowed him to remain tucked into a ball. ‘Thanks again. For last night.’

‘Ah,’ Spock said. ‘That is the reason behind the breakfast you have provided for us.’

Jim blinked. The glassy sheen faded as his eyes rested on Spock’s face, sunburns bringing out new freckles on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. ‘Huh?’

‘You believed, due to my accommodating behavior last night during your period of grief, that you ‘owed me one’,’ Spock explained. ‘Therefore you prepared the meal as an offering to return the balance between us once more to even.’

Jim stared for a few moments longer than Spock would have deemed essential. ‘I just thought you’d be hungry,’ he said finally.

Spock took his final bite. ‘Your logic was sound.’

‘Cool.’ Jim held out his hands. Spock realized after a moment’s inspection that he was reaching for Spock’s bowl and he handed it over, only for it to be set on the floor for I-Chaya to enjoy the spoils.

‘No, I-Chaya,’ Spock said. ‘I was efficient with my morning meal. You will find little remaining with which to satisfy yourself.’

‘He’s just helping out however he can.’ Jim unfolded himself from the tight ball his body had formed and leaned out of the bed to rub the fur on I-Chaya’s head in multiple incorrect directions. Despite the obvious, I-Chaya appeared to enjoy the attention, his eyes falling shut. ‘Hey, Spock?’

‘I am paying attention.’

‘Okay.’ Jim puffed out a sigh that made I-Chaya crack one eye open to determine the source of the unexpected breeze on his face. ‘’Course. You think I’m gonna get shipped out? ‘Cause I-Chaya... He might even miss me if I had to go.’

‘If it is true that your only living relative is your uncle, Frank,’ Spock replied, choosing to address the sensible elements of Jim’s question while circumspectly overlooking the other, more ludicrous appendices, ‘and he is not, by your own description, someone who considers himself family, then you cannot be sent to him. That would be illogical.’

Jim nodded, so quickly that it made Spock’s trapezius muscle tighten in sympathetic shock. Despite the restorative nature of the meditation he had managed to achieve while Jim was elsewhere, Spock’s mind was not yet operating at its fullest capacity. As such, irrationalities were able to creep in. Perhaps he should have anticipated it earlier.

Spock had observed Jim’s effect on Mother’s human sensibilities, yet he had never before been given cause to wonder how Jim’s presence would appeal to Spock’s own innate humanity.

After all, he was not unaccustomed to living in the company of humans. To allow himself to be disrupted in this way after so long was not sound reasoning.

‘And your dad—’ Jim released I-Chaya, letting his attention return to their conversation, ‘—he probably wouldn’t ever do anything illogical. Right?’

‘My father is a Vulcan,’ Spock said.

One followed the other, naturally.

‘Right,’ Jim replied. ‘That’s what I said. Kind of.’

Kind of,’ Spock repeated. The words were unfamiliar in his mouth. ‘I do not understand. Either one has said a thing or one has not said it. There are no half measures.’

‘Well…’ Jim’s knee jiggled in place. ‘That’s what I meant, anyway. He seems like a logical guy.’

‘Indeed,’ Spock said. ‘It is more than a mere semblance.’

Jim’s mouth was tight, lips pale and cracked. He wore an unfamiliar expression. He had not smiled often before but Spock had not realized how he had come to expect a certain liveliness from Jim’s presence and company. This persistent, unexpressive stillness left him at odds with himself, uncertain of the best way to continue. Jim’s body remained as it ever had, taking up more space than his size warranted, but it was as if he had exhausted his facial muscles through the previous night’s requisite period of grieving, thereby depleting the stores of energy he required to move them.

Spock could not use his own experience as a reference for how to relate to Jim. Both of his parents were alive and well, just down the hall. He had uncles, none of whom would claim that they did not share a common ancestry. There were times when Spock felt that he did not belong—neither on Vulcan nor on Earth—but he could not say, as Jim had, that he had nowhere to go.

The lack of a proper approach to the situation made Spock’s mouth dry, tongue sticking to his palate. Dedicated study should not have left him lacking in aggregate data—yet even though Spock had ignored his school review materials in favor of Jim, he could not pretend to understand him.

I-Chaya resettled on the floor, clinking the two empty bowls together as he spread out. He was already fat and did not require additional nourishment, but Spock had not raised protest when it would have been relevant. Now it was too late.

‘He married your mom, anyway,’ Jim added, after a few beats of silence. ‘So I guess he’s probably okay.’

It was Spock’s turn to search for any hidden slight in the words. He processed what Jim had said and how he had said it, analyzing the intent and tone. Though he had pointed out the action was unusual, Jim had not implied that Father’s choice of a human wife had anything to do with an aberration in Vulcan logic, as so many of Spock’s peers had done. Rather, Jim’s factual statement appeared to err on the side of complimentary—as though Jim viewed his parents’ decision as something to be admired.

‘My father was Vulcan ambassador to Earth,’ Spock said, choosing his words carefully. He did not have to speculate as to Father’s reasons for marrying since he had already received an answer for himself some years before Jim had entered their lives. ‘It was logical to marry a human.’

Jim took this in. A faint echo of humor flickered in his eyes.

‘Bet he wouldn’t have married a Tellarite, though. If he’d gone there first.’

‘No,’ Spock conceded. ‘Anatomically speaking, I do not believe the match would be satisfactory.’

At last, Jim made a face. It was not a happy one, but it did not express sadness. Instead, Spock translated the muscular contortions as potentially comparable to disgust.

‘Ugh. You’re talking about your parents, Spock.’

‘Indeed,’ Spock said. ‘We both are, as they have become the main topic of conversation due to your introduction of it into the dialogue. Was that not apparent enough, thereby requiring further clarification?’

‘Your parents’ anatomy,’ Jim said, then shook his head. A moment’s sadness did pass across his face, as plain as the sunburn and the freckles. His hair fell into his eyes and he leaned back in Spock’s bed. ‘Never mind. You’re so weird.’

Though the word was often wielded with negative connotations—an accusation rather than a simple description—this, too, was not accompanied by any ill favor. It was another word that to Jim meant something exceptional whereas for Spock, who lacked its proper context, the meaning was unclear.

‘As you prepared the meal, I believe it falls to me to conclude the service by cleaning the dishes. Is that not the commonly understood practice?’ Spock turned to Jim for confirmation only to discover that Jim—small and weary; he had not slept more than a few, unsatisfactory half-hours at most during the night—had fallen asleep in another tight ball with his head somewhere far below Spock’s pillow. Lack of confirmation was, in this instance, all the confirmation Spock required. If Jim was asleep, it fell to Spock to clean the bowls properly, despite I-Chaya’s attempts to assist. ‘You will look after Jim, I-Chaya,’ he instructed. He carried the bowls and spoons the kitchen on the tray, washed them with extra attention to be certain of their cleanliness, then arrived at Father’s private study, where the door was open.

Both Mother and Father were within.

‘Good morning, Spock,’ Mother said, leaning forward by a bare increment.

This was Spock’s invitation to join them.

‘The weather is average and demands no specified commentary. I was also certain to maintain a reasonable quiet despite our guest’s discomfort during the night. Therefore, I can agree that the morning is a pleasant one,’ Spock replied.

Father nodded but only slightly, as it was all the occasion called for.

‘Jim—how is he?’ Mother asked.

‘Currently, he is asleep. I-Chaya is watching him. This is the standard,’ Spock added, for Sarek’s sake. ‘We have observed proper protocol in this matter but it has been determined from established patterns of behavior that Jim Kirk poses no physical threat to Mother, and certainly none to myself. Nevertheless, I-Chaya has remained loyal to the task. I believe he harbors sentimentality toward Jim that cannot be discounted as we discuss what will be done next.’

At that, Mother appeared momentarily surprised. Even though she was human and therefore emoted far more often than any of the Vulcans with whom Spock interacted daily, she was capable of controlling herself to some degree. Such brief outbursts were limited to, on average, one or two times every three days—more, depending on the altered variables of extenuating factors. When Father had been away for some time; when a piece of news had affected her particularly; and, now, with Jim asleep in Spock’s bed, having been with them for nearly a full nine days.

‘Also, it is my conclusion that Jim Kirk will soon be in need of a haircut,’ Spock finished. He clasped his hands behind his back. ‘These have been my findings during close examination. I trust you will find them sufficient.’

‘I’ll have to speak to him about that, of course,’ Mother replied. ‘The haircut, if he wants one.’

Sarek, on the other hand, was deep in meditative thought. The Tellarites were always difficult in a way that defied the precepts of logic and they could not be reasoned with diplomatically or sensibly. Father had returned from an extended assignment working closely with these illogical and demanding ‘diplomats’—if such a term could be accurately used to describe anyone who allowed their personality and emotions to overrule rational discussion—to a house that had changed during his absence. There were new, irrational factors in place, and Father’s deep, rhythmic breathing implied that he was assessing and analyzing the information as the situation demanded.

‘I do think,’ Mother added, ‘that I-Chaya would miss him.’

‘An attempt to play upon sentimentality, based on a remark centered around a childhood pet, will not work on my sensibilities, Amanda,’ Father said.

‘No; of course not.’ Mother’s voice was colored with what may have been a smile, though it had not appeared at the corners of her mouth or in her eyes. ‘I know you far too well for that, Sarek. I was merely stating a possible fact. I-Chaya won’t be able to speak for himself in this matter, but he has taken to the boy.’

‘The uncle in question,’ Father began.

‘Father,’ Spock said, ‘he does not consider himself to be family.’

Mother was watching him again. Spock was aware of her gaze although it was Father who addressed him.

‘Consideration has no bearing on the reality of the matter,’ Father said. ‘Relative connections are not willed in or out of existence. They simple exist.’

‘Oh, Sarek,’ Mother said. ‘That isn’t— I really do wish you’d learn to read between the lines, at least a little.’

Father raised an eyebrow. Mother continued, adjusting the fall of her scarf around her neck.

‘They wouldn’t have left Earth to live in that colony if everything had been all right with him at home. If they... If Winona Kirk saw something in an experimental colonization effort on Tarsus IV, then it must have been because she didn’t see anything left of home on earth.’

‘This is an opinion based on facts gathered from the child in question?’ Father asked.

‘Jim,’ Mother insisted. It was not a proper answer to Father’s query, but she seemed to find this an important enough point to emphasize it above the rest. ‘His name is Jim.’

‘And?’ Father would not be dissuaded.

‘And no, I haven’t asked him,’ Mother said. ‘But I know—there are certain things you know as a mother, Sarek. And as a human. Uprooting your children to live on another world isn’t a decision undertaken lightly. There had to have been something very wrong.’

Father did not reply at once. Spock found himself caught between two opposing forces. In school he was trained to observe several screens simultaneously, absorbing the information from each and reciting his answers before he could move on. It was therefore not difficult for him to follow the thread of his parents’ discussion as their positions diverged and their perspectives shifted. This was not the first he had witnessed, although it was something of a novelty to find himself an active participant.

Without foreknowledge, Spock discovered he was invested in the outcome of the debate.

‘You are aware, of course, that your sentimentality must inevitably cloud your good judgment in this matter, Amanda,’ Father said. It was not a slight, but Spock noted that he took care to soften his tone, recognizing the tension of the situation.

Mother could not be considered as irrational as a Tellarite, but there were certain diplomatic skills appropriate in every conversation. It was worthwhile to have an understanding of when to apply them.

‘Oh, yes, inevitably,’ Mother agreed. ‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about, either. Perhaps, in this instance, sentimentality does not cloud good judgment—but rather provides one with the best judgment there is.’

Logically, they had come to an impasse. Father could not presume to know more about being a mother or a human than Mother. Likewise, Mother could not approximate Vulcan logic to accurately gauge the potential flaws in her argument. Spock locked his hands behind his back, the knuckles of his index fingers digging into the curve at the base of his spine.

‘It seems logical to assume that a person who would reject association with Jim would not provide the optimal environment for his growth,’ Spock said.

Father looked at him as though he had forgotten Spock was in the room. This could not be true, as there was nothing negatively affecting his peripheral vision. It then followed that it was Spock’s words, not Spock’s presence, which he found surprising.

There was no contradiction in them. Spock had taken care to be sure of his facts before he spoke.

‘I will contact the uncle,’ Father said at length. He held up his hand before Mother could interject, as she seemed poised to. ‘He will find out in his own time what transpired on Tarsus IV, Amanda. It is his right to know that a member of his family survives.’

Mother pressed her lips together. Her arms were crossed in a defensive position.

‘I will be there when you tell him,’ she said.

There was an implication in the request, though Spock could only guess as to whether it had been intended, that she would be sensitive to details Father might miss. Her attachment to Jim had far outstripped that she had shown for the baby bird she had taken in years ago.

‘That requirement shall be met.’ The creases in Father’s forehead eased at the presented compromise. ‘Spock,’ he continued. Spock straightened. ‘You are already late for your lessons.’

‘Extenuating circumstances, Sarek.’ Mother rose, her robes making gentle sounds as she smoothed them out. ‘Besides, this was an important family matter, after all—and it wouldn’t have done to speak about something that affects all of us quite equally without Spock here, now would it?’

‘Your logic is acceptable,’ Father said.

Mother reached out to him. They touched, fore- and index-fingers brushing knuckle to underside, before Mother drew away. Spock averted his gaze.

‘Thank you for helping us, Spock,’ she said. ‘For participating in the discussion with us, that is.’

‘There is no need to express gratitude, Mother,’ Spock replied. ‘I offered data available to me that you would not have been able to gather on your own when it became relevant. It was a sensible act and, therefore, does not demand any such acknowledgement.’

‘Would you like breakfast before you go, then?’ Mother asked.

‘That will not be necessary,’ Spock informed her. To clarify, before his departure, and perhaps to express the possibility that Jim was not without usefulness, he added, ‘Jim supplied a sufficient morning meal earlier. It was porridge. Though it was not adherent to your customary preparation, Mother, it nonetheless served its purpose. I can think of nothing to say to its detriment.’

‘That is good to hear,’ Mother said.

As Spock left, she was—for her own reasons—most certainly smiling.

*

Chapter Text

When Jim opened his eyes, he was stiff and achy and too hot. He knew it was different from how he’d felt when he’d been feverish but a few of the details were the same: his arms and legs were heavy and his brain slow.

Eventually, he’d have to stop waking up without remembering where he was. Those first few seconds were the worst, especially the last one, when memory clicked over from dreams—bad or good, it didn’t matter anymore—and he realized where he was and also that he was alone.

Who wasn’t there informed the way he recognized the room around him more than any of the furniture, although this room was Spock’s, and all the obvious differences were in color choices, not to mention the collection of personal items that looked like toys but, knowing Vulcans, probably weren’t. The only constant was I-Chaya and if I-Chaya was feeling sorry for Jim, it wasn’t like Jim could be sure about it one way or the other.

I-Chaya had sorry eyes in general. Jim didn’t have to assume the expression was just for him. It might’ve been more because he was a great big hairy bear on a desert planet where, even when the sun set, the air was still hot.

Spock must’ve been at school—and would be for hours and hours. Jim didn’t want to step outside and bump into Sarek in the hallway but he didn’t want to hide away from that possibility in Spock’s room like a coward, either. When he pulled back one of the heavy, red curtains over Spock’s window, he saw that it was closer to dinnertime than he’d thought. Amanda’d need help with the preparations and that was Jim’s job, the only way he knew how to repay her for everything.

The only way he knew how to show her it wouldn’t be so bad if she let him stay. He could help out all over the house—he just had to prove it.

Jim stood in front of the door and the motion sensor caught him when he bounced on his heels. There was nobody in the hall. The door to the study was shut; Jim figured Sarek must’ve been inside.

Jim backed down the hall, trying not to keep twitching over one shoulder to check that the door hadn’t opened each time he blinked. It didn’t. And, just like he’d thought, Amanda was in the kitchen, reading as she leaned against the counter. A few fresh vegetables were out on the simple wooden table but they weren’t washed. She looked up when Jim stopped short before letting himself in.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I mean, hi. Good afternoon.’

‘There’s no need to be so formal,’ Amanda replied. Jim searched her face for signs of sympathy but all he saw were shadows from her scarves. Maybe that was how she did it, how she kept her emotions—literally—under wraps. Jim didn’t think it’d be worth all the sweat. ‘Not now, surely. Not after getting to know each other so well. And you must have come to help with dinner—I can’t tell you how much help it’s been, this past week. Between you and me, during the day, I thought I’d enjoy all the time to myself when I first came here, but the truth is, an empty house is often lonely.’

‘There’s I-Chaya,’ Jim pointed out.

Amanda’s mouth almost smiled. ‘Of course. Why else do you think I spoil him so much? Because he’s a great comfort—not just to me, I suspect, but to other people, as well.’

‘I like him fine,’ Jim said.

Amanda gestured for Jim to take a seat at the table and he shuffled toward it. ‘So does Spock, though he might not know it.’

‘Nobody knows everything.’

‘Not even Vulcans,’ Amanda agreed. ‘They just get closer to it sometimes than the rest of us.’ She paused for a moment to take a seat across the table, so they could see eye to eye. ‘Jim,’ she said.

Jim took a deep breath. It was coming. She was gonna tell him he had to leave. Somehow, Jim found his voice. He’d keep it together. He wasn’t going to be the only gross, emotional human in a Vulcan house causing a scene. He just wouldn’t do it; he could manage that much. She’d been better to him than he deserved, than anyone else would’ve been, and this was how Jim could thank her. By accepting it was coming to an end. ‘Yeah?’

‘Would you like a haircut?’ Amanda asked.

It took a second for the words to make sense. They were all in Standard and they’d all come out in order, but they weren’t what Jim had been bracing himself for. It took him a half second to realign, to reconfigure his expectations, and he knew he was making that blank face he was starting to think of as the Spock look: for Spock, by Spock, inspired most often at times when Spock was in the room and talking, saying something that was and wasn’t ridiculous at the same time.

It was weird—and kinda nice—to catch a glimpse of the family resemblance in the other direction. There was some Spock in Amanda, or some Amanda in Spock. They could inspire the same reactions, at least.

‘My uncle,’ Jim began.

If anyone in the house of Sarek would understand where he was coming from, it was Amanda.

‘We spoke to him.’ Amanda’s face maintained that near-Vulcan tranquility, which allowed Jim to keep breathing. ‘We managed to contact him, that is—there are multiple benefits to marrying an ambassador, although the long hours are a factor. But I don’t think it’s the best option for you to return to him, do you?’

Jim shook his head.

‘If you do want to go back to Iowa, of course, we wouldn’t keep you. Sarek can be convincing—very convincing. It’s just that I didn’t think anyone should have to be convinced that you’re family. Do you understand that, Jim?’

Jim nodded.

Amanda touched the fall of his hair where it kept slipping down his forehead and into his eyes. She pushed it back for him and her touch wasn’t too warm or too cool. It was just right. ‘You’ll need a few new inoculations for life here on Vulcan,’ she said. If a computer had a kind voice, this’d be it. ‘And we’ll have to be careful to make sure you get all the vitamins you need. Adjusting to the diet can be difficult. Also, you’ll have to trust me about that haircut.’

‘Uh,’ Jim began. In hesitating, the first thing that came to mind had a chance to get out. ‘Just as long as it doesn’t look like Spock’s.’

Amanda covered her mouth but her hands got there too late. Maybe it was a trick that would’ve worked with Vulcans—they had sharp eyes, sure, but Jim knew what to look for. She was definitely laughing.

‘I can’t claim responsibility for the style, I’m afraid. That’s just how it grows. And, well—there’s tradition to be observed.’

‘Yeah.’ Jim’d noticed that much in his reading. It wasn’t just Sarek and Spock who shared the look, although he hadn’t yet managed to turn up any literature on what that was about. Just pictures, evidence without explanations. ‘I don’t think it’d look very traditional on me. No offense.’

‘The blond hair is a bit of a departure,’ Amanda agreed.

Her eyes on his face were patient. As far as Jim could see, there was nothing waiting to spring at him from the shadows like a le-matya hiding among the rocks. A haircut wasn’t the kind of thing you offered to someone before you kicked them out of the house. Maybe it was an obscure Vulcan tradition, but Jim felt the flicker of hope sparking stubbornly in him anyway. It lit up slowly, like the stars coming out one by one in the sky.

They’d talked to Frank. Amanda didn’t like him. She was saying things like inoculations and vitamins. She actually wanted him to stay.

Jim brushed his hair out of his eyes. It was too long on all sides. Mom hadn’t had a chance to get to it before Tarsus IV and after they’d landed, there was always something more important—unpacking, meeting the neighbors, the famine, the governor. Kodos. Jim felt his throat swell and his eyes sting and he wondered when, if ever, that was gonna stop happening.

‘OK,’ he said.

Amanda didn’t even have to ask what he meant, that he was talking about all of it—not just the hair part. She rose from the table and returned with a sheet that looked way too nice for the job it was about to do, but Jim didn’t speak up when she tied it around his neck. He pushed his chair away from the table to the center of the bare kitchen floor and tried not to scrunch his face up when she ran her fingers through his hair, checking the length.

Not like Spock’s, Jim recited under his breath. Please, please, not like Spock’s. It wasn’t a bad look on a Vulcan but it would’ve been all wrong on Jim, framing the round shape of his ears and his sunburned face.

Thinking about Spock made Jim sit up taller, straightening his spine against the back of the chair.

It was tough to stay still, but gradually he let himself be lulled by the soft snip snip snip of the scissors over his head, little hairs falling in a tickling shower over the shells of his ears and down the back of his neck, under the collar of his shirt.

‘After we’re through, I thought we might visit the market together,’ Amanda said. ‘Sarek reminded me—I don’t know how I didn’t bring it up sooner—that there’s a selection of synthesized meat products there, and I thought perhaps we could try one of them for dinner tonight.’

‘Vulcans don’t eat meat,’ Jim said. His eyes were shut while she went over his bangs. Hair fell down past his eyelashes and onto his cheeks and he wrinkled his nose when Amanda blew them off.  

‘True,’ she replied. ‘But technically, it isn’t the flesh of an animal. And you’ll discover while living here, Jim, that there’s really nothing a Vulcan enjoys so much as technicalities.’

*

Chapter Text

The biggest change from living as a guest in Sarek’s house to becoming the fifth official family member—after I-Chaya—was Jim’s schooling.

Amanda was the one who worked it all out. As much as Jim’d been looking forward to the challenge of being the only human kid in a Vulcan school, he’d known deep down that it’d kick his ass way before he figured out how to kick back. He could’ve, would’ve done it, but Amanda had the courses all planned out one morning when Jim headed into the kitchen for breakfast, and after that, there were no more questions about Jim’s education.

It might’ve been harder to keep to self-appointed study periods during the day, especially when every day felt like it should’ve been summer vacation, but despite the sweat under the collar of his shirt and staining his sleeves under his armpits, Jim worked around and through the distractions of the Vulcan climate. He even tried Spock’s breathing techniques on the real scorchers; sometimes that helped and sometimes it lulled him into an unplanned nap in the middle of the afternoon.

The best part was scoring the highest in his classes and the way Amanda smiled at the results so Jim knew he was doing something right. ‘Now,’ she’d said, ‘Spock doesn’t prefer to be praised for a job done to the best of his abilities, and I suppose he’s right about that. Still, it’s very admirable, Jim.’

‘Thanks,’ Jim had replied.

He redoubled his efforts after that and worked even harder. A point or two above the next best wasn’t good enough. After all, it wouldn’t have been good enough for Spock, and Jim wasn’t gonna be the only one in the house who didn’t do the best he could with everything he had.

Amanda was like that too, in a quiet sort of way. She didn’t complain; she didn’t get weak-kneed from the heat in the garden. She let Spock do his weird Spock things without being bothered by them—and even Jim couldn’t do that all the time. Some days, you just wanted somebody to do more than acknowledge your feelings. Some days, all you wanted was sympathy; it didn’t have to be for a reason. But the idea of waking up on the wrong side of the bed was illogical and Spock would probably never get it and Amanda’d found a way to be okay with that.

She was peaceful; being with her was peaceful. She spoke to Sarek at night long-distance whenever he was gone on an assignment and allowed him to talk about the most boring stuff first instead of the exciting parts whenever he came back, and she looked at him like there was something about the guy Jim couldn’t see.

Not that Jim kept the closest watch.

It wasn’t easy to stare at a full Vulcan for too long. First of all, they always knew when you were studying them, and somehow they made anything more than the bare minimum of observation time feel like a failure to assess a subject properly. No—efficiently. Jim had to learn to study Sarek sideways, in glimpses and blinks, putting the pieces together from a safe distance. There was a lot to learn about Spock’s dad and he wasn’t exactly forthcoming.

As far as Jim was concerned, as long as they kept to their separate parts of the house, he’d be about as much of an imposition as an old sehlat. There, present, obviously, doing his own thing, not getting in the way despite being anything other than unnoticeable.

They worked around each other. In a way, it was the most logical choice, after all.

As for I-Chaya, the old bear was starting to go gray around the muzzle, moving slower than he once had. Jim researched the average sehlat life-span and asked Spock how old I-Chaya was and got an exact answer, of course, which reassured him that I-Chaya still had plenty of years left as long as he took it easy.

He still slept outside Jim’s door—every other night, except for when Jim passed out in Spock’s bed, or in his own bed while Spock was in Jim’s room.

Spock never left unnoticed while Jim was sleeping and Jim had to hope he wasn’t embarrassing himself with bad dreams, still acting like a baby about them. Even nine was pushing the age for nightmares to bother you.

Now that Jim was officially hitting thirteen, it was long past the time when he could let baby things affect him.

Especially not in a house where the idea of a nightmare was a secret shared by the lone two humans. It wasn’t something you talked about.

And Spock never asked.

He’d gotten even taller—slowly, instead of in illogical growth spurts—but Jim noticed all the same. He couldn’t not notice. He was still waiting for his time to shoot up a couple of inches, while Spock was lean and tall and, somehow, farther away than ever. Even when he was right there, in the chair next to Jim at dinner, or stone straight in the chair in front of his desk, flashing through PADD screens faster than most people could blink.

Sometimes watching him left Jim’s own schoolwork forgotten in his lap or in a messy pile at the end of Spock’s bed—which wound up being more motivation for Jim to get it out of the way early, before Spock got home. Jim’s lessons didn’t run as long as whatever they were holding Spock for, but the extra time in between gave Jim a chance to help Amanda with whatever she needed around the house or outside of it.

In the four years since he’d first crash-landed smack in the middle of a Vulcan desert, Jim had forced himself into acclimatizing. Amanda had done it first so at least he had an example to follow, even if he wasn’t about to match her detail for detail and start wearing headscarves. He could walk all the way to the market and back without collapsing, although there was nothing he could do about the sweat.

Vulcan clothes were heavy and they trapped the heat. Amanda had sent away for some lighter stuff for Jim but he was growing out of it every day and he still tugged at the high, soft collars, the cloth damp practically the moment he stepped outside.

Lots of water and plenty of stops in the shade. That was how Jim got through his walks from Sarek and Amanda’s house all the way to market and back again, with groceries. Heavy bags, too. It put a cramp in his exploring, but he knew Amanda worried when he was out too long on his own. It wasn’t like Jim to have lived somewhere for years and not seen everything the city had to offer, from the highest rooftops to the coolest basements, but he wasn’t in Iowa anymore. There was a lot to see and Jim had plenty of time to take it all in.

Still, it was later than he’d planned when he finally began to wend his way back home. He’d picked up some last-minute groceries for Amanda, who was as sharp as a Vulcan when she needed to be but might’ve made it too obvious that she was just coming up with any excuse she could to get Jim out of the house on his birthday.

The first time she’d made him a cake—when he’d turned ten—he’d cried and Spock had eaten only two bites before leaving the table. Not exactly a great way to ring in double digits. Thirteenwas a big deal on Earth, but Jim didn’t see the need for another surprise, not after everything else she’d given him. He let Amanda rush him out of the house anyway; he didn’t even groan when he caught sash-savas on the shopping list.

Down the road, the graceful, geometric shape of Spock’s school was peppered with the dark shapes of vacating students, milling around in groups of two and three as they made their way out. Jim hadn’t planned on picking Spock up or anything but he wasn’t about to complain that the timing had worked out that way. He hefted Amanda’s woven shopping bag over his shoulder and crossed the street to wait by the entrance.

It was easier to wait for Spock to spot him than vice-versa.

By far the strangest thing in his time on Vulcan was how Spock acted when they were around other people. By themselves, they had their own rhythm. Jim could lean on him like furniture and Spock wouldn’t wriggle away—and sometimes at night he’d let Jim talk about the geological histories of certain planets in the Alpha Quadrant until Jim’s voice gave out, only interrupting to offer an updated fact Jim hadn’t brushed up on. He never got impatient when they studied together and sometimes he grudgingly admitted that Jim didn’t do half bad with his at-home simultaneous screen set-up going all at once.

Naturally, Jim had assumed that’d end beyond the boundaries of their property. The Vulcan societal information he’d picked up was pretty clear on how they felt about outsiders, and Jim was used to being the invisible little brother.

Even back in Iowa, George hadn’t wanted anything to do with him at school because little brothers were embarrassing. That was universal as far as Jim could see.

But when they were out of the house together, Spock shadowed Jim like a bird of prey, his shoulders stiff, like he was just waiting for someone to point out the obvious. And he always waved back if Jim saw him first in the sea of dark dress uniforms.

Of course, that was only after Jim had explained what waving was all about.

‘Human thing,’ Jim’d said. ‘Think of it like a long-distance handshake. Not a salute exactly, but it’s better than shouting for no reason.’

‘More logical,’ Spock’d agreed. He’d waved to Amanda once or twice after that when she caught sight of him coming home from the balcony, and Jim was glad he’d gone the extra step to spell it out instead of shrugging and saying never mind.

Cultural exchange worked like that. It wasn’t in any of the lessons Jim had on Federation diplomacy, not in as many words, but when he put the different example scenarios together, he was able to read between the lines. There were things about each other they wouldn’t get right away or even ever, but if they stopped communicating, stopped trying, they’d get nowhere fast.

Jim lifted his face to the sun, squinting as he calculated the angle. It was just low enough that Jim knew it was late—but then, some days, Spock didn’t get back from his lessons until long after it was dark. There were different reasons for that; only a couple of times did they involve swollen bottom lips and green bruises on Spock’s cheekbones. But it’d been two years since that’d stopped, since the last time Jim and Spock had sat together after a brawl and Jim rubbed Spock’s back between his shoulders until Spock’s hands stopped shaking on his thighs.

Spock’s hands—that was how Jim could tell what he was feeling. Because he did feel and Jim would’ve been an idiot to ignore that, and when something was bothering him, something deep below the surface, Spock’s fingers would tremble. He could keep it off his face but it centered in his hands.

They didn’t shake much anymore. They didn’t have a reason to. Maybe the Vulcans Spock knew had finally seen the logic of the situation and stopped goading Spock into beating them up whenever they got the chance.

Sometimes, Jim let himself look for them in the crowd. He knew he wouldn’t be able to pick them out because Spock had never given up their names and so many of them looked so similar: serious, tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, never gossiping or laughing or flirting or teasing each other. The schoolyards of Jim’s past—he’d been to a few different places, on account of moving around so often—couldn’t have been more different from the Vulcan Science Academy grounds. Nobody joked or wasted time or got into scuffles or tossed balls around. A Vulcan school, as far as Jim could tell, was a hell of a lot closer to a museum than it was to a place where kids went to goof off and socialize and, occasionally, actually learn a few somethings.

There was a line of sweat at the nape of Jim’s neck. He wiped it off and readjusted his grip on the groceries, realizing how many of his muscles were tense in anticipation of Spock’s voice saying his name.

He spent a lot of time waiting for, waiting on, even waiting with Spock. Somehow, the time passed quicker when they were together than all the hours they weren’t. Jim’d read about that in his lessons, too, ancient theories of relativity on which all modern space travel were based, even if they were mostly outdated now.

What Jim didn’t anticipate was the gossip he did pick up on—the Vulcan equivalent, which wasn’t juicy, but it was pitched just loud enough that Jim would be able to hear it if the dry wind blew the right way. They were Vulcan; they’d know how the wind was blowing. Jim knew that they’d intended it because Vulcans didn’t do unintentional.

‘The human child from the house of Sarek.’ It was a tall Vulcan boy who reminded Jim of just about every other tall Vulcan boy he’d seen in the past fifteen minutes. Snootier, maybe, but that could’ve had to do with anything from the hairstyle to the deep grays of his robes to his posture. What Jim read as stuck-up in a Vulcan was, he’d taught himself, usually just the intellectual being given extra consideration over the personable. ‘He is favored by the Lady Amanda.’

‘Most fascinating.’ One of the boy’s friends, a shorter version of him, leveled Jim with a cursory, appraising look he didn’t bother to hide. ‘She houses him at her own expense without reason. The tenacity of human emotional relationships does indeed defy all common logic.’

‘Yet I have read they often require personal incentive to care for one of their own. They are not disposed to acts of unselfish generosity toward complete strangers.’

‘You posit that they must be, therefore, related?’

‘The theory is sound.’ The first boy turned away from Jim, no longer acknowledging his presence even though he was still talking about him. ‘A sensible conclusion to draw: that he is her illegitimate child. Among human women, whose emotions run wild and fickle, this unfortunate occurrence is not uncommon.’

It wasn’t a big deal, Jim told himself. He didn’t care what anyone said about him. That part of him had been burned off in the hot Vulcan sun the day Amanda had told him about Mom and George. People talked—a lot—and whether or not they had all the facts never seemed to matter. It didn’t stop them from sharing personal theories. There’d been all sorts of reports on the massacre at Tarsus I, but no one had got it all exactly right, even when they interviewed some of the survivors. Eventually, Jim had to let that stop bothering him too. He couldn’t hate people for getting it wrong just because they hadn’t been there.

He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to be there.

So it didn’t matter to him what a bunch of Vulcans said about who he was or where he’d come from. But they weren’t talking about Jim alone, not anymore. Some of the warmth from the fading daylight flushed through Jim’s skin like it’d been trapped there under his shirt.

‘Uncommon that the ambassador would have employed such poor logic in his choice of a partner.’

‘He betrayed his people and his logic in bringing the Lady Amanda here, and now compounds his shame by adding a human boy to the household.’

‘Spock was quick to defend her against such claims on the last occasion they were raised.’ The second boy’s eyes flicked toward Jim. The blankness in that dark gaze was worse somehow than if he’d looked mean, accusatory, even smug. ‘But it would seem your breath was not wasted and neither was your hypothesis unsound: a human whore after all.’

The heat that’d been prickling over Jim’s skin centralized and shot down his spine like a paralyzing phaser blast.

‘Big talk from a bunch of guys in dresses,’ Jim said. Loud enough so they could hear; a little louder than was necessary.

That was how humans did things.

The Vulcans looked at him as thought they’d forgotten he was even standing there. That suited Jim fine; it was their first mistake. Their second was believing they couldn’t make mistakes because they were above ‘em, and their third was saying anything against Amanda Grayson, since they obviously didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as she did.

The fourth was not knowing how fast humans could be when they were provoked. Before they could recognize the threat, Jim lunged. There were three of them, all taller and older, presumably gifted with typical Vulcan strength. Jim had never had the chance to experience it firsthand but he knew the basics, like what advantages they had beyond being born for the heat and thin air.

None of that mattered. Jim wasn’t Vulcan and he didn’t calculate the odds before he threw himself into a fight on principle.

He had the element of surprise on his side—that and forward momentum, which was what allowed him to knock down Vulcan number one, sending him into the second like a wayward bowling pin. The bag of veggies and fruit swung off his shoulder and into one boy’s stomach. The groceries for dinner were gonna bruise.

Jim’d feel bad about it later. Maybe. But he knew he’d’ve felt worse not doing anything at all.

Like cheap fuel in a cheaper shuttle, Jim started off strong—but the realities of physics and numbers quickly overwhelmed him. He drew first blood, knuckles against a Vulcan boy’s mouth, cutting his lip against a sharp incisor, but he got socked in the nose almost right after. His own, red blood dripped from it, warm and salty, down into the corner of his mouth.

In a regular schoolyard, there would’ve been a crowd gathered around to shout and boo and cheer, but the Vulcans who weren’t involved kept right on walking. Jim was aware of them in his peripheral vision, blurry shadows that didn’t pause to acknowledge, much less join, the fray. He was still keeping an eye out for Spock, hoping he’d be through with this before they met up. He didn’t want to set a bad example—even though he was technically following Spock’s lead.

One of the Vulcans got behind him and Jim stepped down hard on his foot, feeling the upper hand slip away from him, the sash-savas tumbling out of the shopping bag. He’d done all right for himself through sheer adrenaline and not caring if he got hurt, but three older Vulcans were still three older Vulcans.

There was a logic in it that would’ve been almost peaceful, if it hadn’t been accompanied by a fist to the gut.

Jim didn’t give them the satisfaction of making a noise beyond the necessary, air leaving his mouth in a sudden whoosh, internal anatomy rearranged by a row of solid knuckles. That was gonna bruise. His nose was gonna be swollen for days. Jim’s mouth was full of blood and Vulcans were, just like Spock’d said and Jim’d read and they’d both known, really strong.

Jim got one of them in the gut with an elbow—too bad hadn’t been able to jab it lower—but the stomach seemed to be a weak spot, maybe because of where Vulcan hearts were compared to human ones. Jim went for the sweet spot for a second time but the guy behind him’d already stumbled back and anyway, Jim’s arms weren’t free for long. Two pairs of hands closed around them, one on each wrist.

Jim wasn’t just fighting kids who were bigger and stronger than he was. They were tactical. They didn’t fight blind, clouded by pride, flushed with anger. Their defense was gonna turn to offense pretty soon—if it hadn’t already.

It was inevitable that Jim’d go down. They got him in the backs of his knees to make it happen and he hit the sand with a thud and a rising cloud of dust. He could taste the Vulcan desert as the dry, thin air that’d been left in his lungs left them in a single gasp. The grit stuck to his teeth and speckled his sweaty, bloody upper lip with more sand.

There was never an end to it.

Jim grinned, spitting out a lob of something really gross and sticky and pink. His vision blurred, even more sand in his eyes and beading his eyelashes. In the moment it took to catch his breath, a booted foot connected with his side and, blood coursing with pure inspiration born of desperate instinct, he managed to grab it, yanking the Vulcan it belonged to off balance and bringing him down, too.

Small victories. They didn’t last. Pyrrhic, Jim remembered from his studies. There were certain sacrifices you had to make in order to win—but when the sacrifices were more than what you gained, could you really say you’d won at all?

The Vulcan regained equilibrium quicker than Jim could. Granted, he hadn’t been kicked in the ribcage, so it wasn’t like there was no reason for the disparity between reaction times. History wouldn’t remember that part, though; the Vulcan grasped Jim by the front of his shirt, spotted with blood, sand rubbed into the weave, and lifted his arm, one hand balled into a precise, but no less threatening, fist.

Jim braced himself for impact. Just like crash-landing. He’d done it before, and it’d hit him worse. There was nothing this guy could do to him that hadn’t been done before.

Only the impact didn’t come.

‘It is illogical,’ Spock’s voice said, somewhere high above Jim’s head, ‘to use superior strength and numbers to overpower a single enemy whose skills you have on multiple occasions deprecated as inferior. You are wasting your resources. I believe the proper term for such unnecessary action is ‘overkill’.’

That’s something I taught him, Jim thought, brains scrambled like eggs at breakfast. It was way too hot for this kind of fighting to add thinking into the mix.

The weight of the Vulcan pinning Jim down was lifted. He had to assume it was because Spock’d pulled him off.

Now it was finally a close-to-fair fight.

Jim didn’t like the idea of the odds being too much in his favor, anyway. That was bullying—and despite what these Vulcans thought, he knew he was better than that. He scrambled to his feet by way of his knees, one of them throbbing, and swayed when he straightened. ‘Behind you,’ he said, voice rasping so raggedly he barely recognized it, then quit wasting time with small-talk and barreled past Spock to catch the jerkwad sneaking up on him from behind. He rammed the crown of his head straight into the liver area.

Or what would’ve been the liver area, on a human. On a Vulcan, Jim remembered, it was the heart. If that wasn’t a bull’s-eye shot, Jim didn’t know what was.

It left his ears ringing but he had to hope the damage was worse for the other guy. From how long it was taking him to get back up, Jim figured he hadn’t missed his shot. It might’ve been overkill too, if the Vulcan hadn’t tried to take Spock down while his back was turned.

Jim wasn’t about to let that happen.

The rest passed in a blur of fists, memory and recognition and any kind of accurate cognizance fading with just how many times balled knuckles connected with Jim’s face. He was almost certain he got a few good, solid punches in there in return, but by the end it was Spock hauling the last of the troublesome threesome off of him and sending him scrambling, in a show of strength that would’ve made Jim dizzy even if he hadn’t been already.

‘Hey,’ Jim said, staring into Spock’s face. Two of Spock’s faces, actually, except that was Jim’s vision unfocusing as he blinked, attempting to clear it.

‘Jim,’ Spock acknowledged. They hadn’t quite worked their way around hey yet. Four years in and they hadn’t mastered it. Still, Spock’s version of a reply was preferable to what one of Jim’s teachers in Iowa had always come back with—hay is for horses, James.

Like that was so clever.  Homophones: hilarious only to third graders and the people who taught them.

Spock soothed his cool fingers along Jim’s temple and under the sweaty mess of his bangs over his forehead. Just like that, there was one of him again. Jim was still knocked on his ass and bleeding but the drip of his nose had turned sluggish, drying up in the hot air. His stomach hurt when he sat up; he tried not to wince. Even if Spock was the only Vulcan watching, his eyes counted. One of Jim’s was starting to swell, noticeable only because it kept getting harder and harder to blink on that side.

‘That was awesome,’ Jim said. If he closed his good eye, he could still see it—Spock kicking some serious ass. It had always been tough to picture Vulcan superior strength when it came to fighting. Jim had never doubted Spock had it in him, but he’d never expected to see him bust out anything quite like that, either.

‘I have done nothing to inspire awe.’ When Spock became satisfied that Jim’s brains weren’t scrambled in his head, he let his hand drop from Jim’s forehead. ‘Neither have you, for that matter.’

‘I was doing all right.’ Jim sniffed, then made a face at the salty tang of blood in his mouth on the inside of his bottom lip and backing up down his throat. He tried pinching the bridge of his nose but the sudden pressure made pain explode like a circuit breaker overloading in his face, synapses firing like electric sparks.

The cartilage was probably broken. He wasn’t gonna pinch it again.

Spock didn’t help him to his feet but he’d picked up Amanda’s grocery bag, holding it over one shoulder, and he stuck close to Jim’s side in case he suddenly had an attack of acute humanity and stumbled.

All right was an overly generous estimation of your progress,’ Spock said.

When they were standing, Jim had to crane his head just to look him in the eye. He shrugged, one-shouldered.

‘We still won.’

It wasn’t as comforting to Spock as it was to Jim. Obviously. ‘Had I not intervened—’

‘But you did,’ Jim interrupted. It was best to get in there before Spock could start on all the logical possibilities. ‘Happy birthday to me, am I right?’

Spock looked at him with a burning sidelong glance. It was tough to look back, since he’d put himself on the same side as Jim’s bad eye.

‘Mother will find your present condition upsetting,’ Spock said. ‘The injuries are far worse than any I may have sustained in previous altercations—and as today marks the anniversary of your birth, it is unlikely that you will be able to escape her attention by hiding in your room until the visual indicators of your physical altercation have faded beyond notice.’

Jim couldn’t pinpoint when they’d started calling it his room. Maybe that was a birthday thing too.

‘I’m fine.’ Jim snuffled, making a gross noise in the back of his throat when his hot breath got stuck under nasal blockage. Some days you never knew if sucking something down was better or worse than coughing it up.

OK, so he wanted to put his whole head in a sink full of ice and not move for a couple hours. Big deal. That wasn’t an option, so he was just gonna have to suck it up. Dilemma solved.

‘Another poor evaluation,’ Spock said.

‘I didn’t say I was doing great.’ Having Spock picking at him was still a better distraction than anything for the bruises blooming on his stomach and face. He could feel them getting worse. It was gonna be too late for ice by the time they made it home. ‘I’m just being optimistic.’

‘A fallacious outlook, as changing your attitude about the situation does not change the perimeters of the situation itself.’

‘Yeah, but you sure changed the perimeters of my situation,’ Jim said.

Spock sniffed and readjusted his grip on the groceries. Jim saw a ruined fruit in one of his hands—as bruised as the side of Jim’s face and the swollen flesh over his ribcage.

‘That,’ Spock said, ‘is bullshit.’

Jim’d never been able to figure out the best way to tell him that particular turn of phrase also happened to be a swear word as far as humanity was concerned—and a colorful one at that. It didn’t sound exactly like a curse when Spock said it, anyway, and Jim had come to crave the way it sounded. It didn’t fit on Spock’s tongue, in Spock’s voice, but at the same time, it did. It was one of the ridiculous and delightful contradictions that made all the scattered pieces of Jim’s life click into place, showing off a bigger, brighter, better picture—if only for a second or two before they scattered again.

He had those moments usually when he least expected them. Hell, he lived for those moments. And Spock saying the most un-Spock-like thing in the galaxy was chief among them.

‘Do not smile,’ Spock cautioned. ‘It will merely exacerbate the injury already done to your face.’

Jim couldn’t even imagine pronouncing the word exacerbate with his bottom lip as half-numb, half-throbbing as it was. It felt three times its normal size; Jim could only hope it didn’t look as bad as it felt. Given the way Spock was treating him to a lingering and unimpressed once-over, Jim had to assume all that hoping was like all that fighting, according to Spock. Futile.

The only real problem Jim saw was the collateral damage of that futility.

Under Spock’s eye, high on his cheekbone, there was the barest hint of green: a slim line of blood that reminded Jim even the baddest of asses could still get hurt. Especially when they were looking after somebody else who couldn’t look after them in the same way.

Jim reached out for the scrape before he second-guessed the action—because somebody had to be the impulsive one. Otherwise, nothing would ever get done.

Spock didn’t flinch or cross his eyes to follow the path of Jim’s fingers to his face. He allowed the touch but that was all he ever did: allowed it. There was a difference between encouraging something and merely accepting it. And wanting was in a whole other ballpark.

‘Comparatively, it is clear the injury I have sustained should be classified as minimal,’ Spock said. ‘The same cannot be said for yours.’

‘I got in a few good punches at least.’

‘Nevertheless, any victory you may claim would at best be—’

Pyrrhic,’ Jim said. P’s hurt the most because he had to purse his lips for them. ‘Yeah. I know. C’mon. She’s gonna get worried if we’re not back soon.’

‘There will be no avoiding her concern at this juncture, Jim.’ Spock paused before he mirrored the gesture Jim’d offered him earlier, touching one of the bruises on Jim’s cheeks with his fingertips. They were still cool; Spock wasn’t even blushing. Jim wished he could read disappointment in Spock’s dark eyes but there was nothing to see there other than the vaguest, early-evening outline of Jim’s reflection. ‘That much is without question.’

‘Better not make it worse, then.’ Jim took the bruised fruit from Spock’s free hand, tested the worst of the damage where the tough skin was split, then tossed it over his shoulder into the sand. Might feed a stray le-matya, if it was hungry enough. He stayed on his feet without swaying, placing one step in front of the other, the sand in his eyes making them sting. He had to keep his breaths deep and even so he’d have just enough oxygen in his system to keep him from passing out—but Spock didn’t offer any further commentary and Jim figured that was his biggest birthday present of all.

If Spock’d finally picked up on that kind of instinctive generosity, then the present was even more important than it seemed at first glance.

But Spock was like that—more important than he seemed at first glance. Jim didn’t have the heart to look at him and kept his hands stuffed in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. The best thing about having bad posture all the time was nobody commented on it when you were curling in on yourself to minimize excess stress placed on already-besieged muscles.

‘Vulcans cannot lie, Jim,’ Spock said after a long silence and way too much walking for Jim’s current condition. Not that he was complaining. He’d manage. Almost easy as sash-savas pie. They weren’t far from home now; it’d been enough time for Jim’s split knuckles to make themselves known. They hurt, too. There were few parts of Jim’s body that didn’t, only he knew he wouldn’t have taken those jerks on any differently if he had the chance to do it over again. ‘When Mother inquires after the cause of your injuries—’

‘It wasn’t your fight,’ Jim replied. ‘I’ve got this. You don’t have to say anything.’

There wasn’t much Spock could say, nothing that’d soften the blow or change the outcome. Amanda was sharp, there was no way she was gonna buy that Jim’s injuries had come from anything less than a full-out brawl.  It was pretty obvious he hadn’t just tripped and gone face-first down a flight of stairs. Jim wasn’t that clumsy—and stairs didn’t hit with that kind of precision.

Once it was obvious he’d been in a fight, there was nowhere to go from there. Amanda wouldn’t care about the reasons—because in this case it wasn’t the cause that mattered, it was the effect.

Anyway, Spock had helped Jim when it counted. It was a reversal of all Jim’s stubborn daydreams, the ones where he made the Vulcan bullies of Spock’s youth shut up about him and about Amanda for good. Still, it was a relief to finally get some of that out of his system.

Not great, but deep-down satisfying, like finally pulling off an old scab, or scratching an itch after you’d been ignoring it all day. Or like ripping off a shirt and flopping, face down and bare-chested, onto the bed, window open, night breeze tickling your sweaty back.

Jim wouldn’t have thought there’d be much room in him for anything but the lingering pain in his muscles, magnified with each step they took toward home, but as the slanted shape of their roof fell into view, Jim felt an accompanying twist of guilt. Amanda was in there, probably baking or decorating or doing something else she didn’t need to for him—and he’d gone and bruised up all the fruit she’d sent him out for.

He had to hope that his instincts were right and that it’d only been busy work to get him out of the house. That he hadn’t just wrecked some much-needed ingredients for her special party or whatever it was she had planned.

Spock paused where he’d pulled out ahead, not because he had longer legs than Jim for once, but because Jim had drawn to a halt. There were lights on in the windows and one lamp illuminated in the outside doorway. Even if it wasn’t that dark out yet, Amanda was clearly looking forward to getting her boys home.

At least they were both still in one piece. Jim tried to calm his breathing. Spock lifted an eyebrow.

‘If you are planning to stand out here until the evidence of the fight has vanished from your face, it is my obligation to inform you that you would first collapse from the adverse effects of dehydration.’

‘I bet it’s real easy not to get dehydrated when you don’t sweat,’ Jim fired back.

Just like that, he felt a little better.

It wasn’t something he could thank Spock for because Jim could never tell whether or not he’d done it on purpose. It was just another facet to his personality, something more complicated than he would’ve been if he was all human—or all Vulcan. Spock was both and that made him twice as confusing as anyone Jim had ever met.

Twice as interesting, too. Twice as cool sometimes, even in that stupid dress.

Spock took the lead when they finally stepped inside, opening the door and holding I-Chaya off. Someone had encouraged him to greet the day’s guests by waiting in the entry hall until he heard the door open, then barreling straight for their chest. Jim liked the attention most days, but I-Chaya was big and Jim wasn’t keen on the idea of all that weight on his brand new bruises.

‘Stay down, I-Chaya,’ Spock said.

Jim was gonna have to make it up to him later. Both of them; everyone. Over the years, he’d started to lose track of how much he owed and who he owed it to. That was close to feeling like family—closer than he’d come with some legitimate blood relatives.

‘Spock, is that you?’ Amanda called out from the kitchen. ‘You didn’t pass Jim on your way home, did you? I sent him out so I could get a few things ready, but it’s so hot, and he’s not usually this late…’

Jim knew she was getting close by the sound of her voice. That still didn’t mean he was ready to see the look on her face when she stepped into the hall and caught sight of him.

Jim straightened. Spock’d told him not to smile before but that’d been for the sake of preserving what remained of the skin on his lips, not because he looked worse when he smiled. At least he had to hope he didn’t. He had to hope a lot of things—but when it came to Amanda and his time on Vulcan, hope’d taken Jim farther than he’d thought. Farther than he deserved, maybe. Anyway, he wasn’t gonna be a screw-up twice over and harbor that kind of dark cloud sentiment on his birthday on top of everything else.

The worst part was, Amanda always saw straight through him. He couldn’t give her the excuse that it was a special human custom to get the shit kicked out of you on your thirteenth birthday—not that those excuses ever held up, since Spock did his research, and it wasn’t long before Jim stopped bullshitting altogether.

Although the word bullshit remained. Kind of like an old friend, or a familiar vase set out in the hallway, one of the touchstones of memory that stood out above the rest.

‘But I should have known you’d come back toge—’ Amanda said, stepping out into the hallway as Jim thought and projected You think this is bad? You should see the other guy! as hard as he could. ‘Oh, no. Oh, Jim.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim replied, ‘I know this shirt just got washed, and now it’s all dirty again, and it’s against the laws of the universe to do laundry on your birthday, but I guess I’ll have to break that rule this one time, ‘cause the shirt’s not gonna wash itself.’

He didn’t sound winded or out of breath or like he was suffering—the first two were accurate for the most part, while the third was almost nearly close to being barely a little bit true—and Jim had to squint past his swollen eye to determine whether Amanda was angry or disappointed or, worst of all, sad.

He wouldn’t know what to do with sad, much less sad that he’d been the cause of.

‘Something on my face?’ Jim asked. He was pissed at himself for trying to play this casual but it wasn’t like he could rely on Spock to lighten the mood.

Amanda’s mouth remained in an o of shock. They’d botched the tradition; Jim wasn’t getting the surprise on his birthday because he was giving the surprise. He would’ve preferred one of the other surprises he’d given Amanda over the years: his first perfect grade, for example; one of the round, wind-polished stones he found during his walks or one of the sparkle-veined ones he’d snatched out from the river, sleeves dark and soaking wet; when he showed her the first trick he’d taught I-Chaya; when he’d wrapped his arms around her the first time she’d finally got his haircut just right and they held each other for a while in front of the balcony, Jim smelling the clean, warm scent of her hair and her scarves in the sunlight.

‘It is clear that Jim and I have behaved inexcusably by engaging in a physical altercation together,’ Spock said. Whatever happened to I’ve got this, Jim wondered—but he knew the answer already was Spock. Spock’d happened. And Jim wasn’t sure how to stop Spock from happening; he never had been. ‘I have not yet ascertained how necessary the altercation was; needless to say, no matter the catalyst, the act of indulging in violence is reprehensible. However, considering the terms of appropriate birthday ritual as observed in the human tradition, it would be advisable to postpone punishment until tomorrow and continue with the birthday celebrations as planned. Do you agree, Mother?’

Amanda blinked. Her mouth closed and tightened. ‘You fought together?’ she asked.

‘Just a couple of punks,’ Jim added. ‘Vulcan punks. I’m serious.’

‘They intended to exploit their superior force and numbers in contest against Jim,’ Spock said.

‘I totally had it under control, though. Spock just pitched in to...help out.’

‘Difficult as it may be to imagine, had I not interfered, the damage would most certainly be significantly worse.’

‘Not that much worse.’

‘Jim’s hypothesis is at best overly optimistic and, at worst, willfully false.’

‘I had it under control,’ Jim insisted. ‘Not that I’m not grateful that you had my back or anything, but I would’ve been OK.’

Spock turned to face Amanda, a clear sign that he was done arguing with someone beyond the proper schematics of Sophistry he enjoyed so damn much. Or whatever it was. He loved using those big words and Jim found it rubbing off on him on more than one occasion. ‘It is possible,’ Spock said, ‘that Jim has sustained some damage to his mental faculties due to multiple blows to the head.’

‘Ice,’ Amanda said. ‘I’ll go get some ice.’

‘If swelling continues, the edema may cause damage more permanent in nature,’ Spock agreed.

Jim rolled his eyes. One of ‘em more than the other.

Still, no one had yelled. And he’d somehow managed to dodge the worst-case reaction, Amanda’s surefire disappointment. Jim couldn’t be certain—his right eye had all but swelled shut—but he was almostpositive he’d seen a glimmer of something close to pride in her eyes once she’d realized they’d been working together. Fighting with each other, instead of fighting against each other.

Jim had still managed to get his ass kicked, but it was the outcome that mattered. And despite their separate styles, he and Spock made a pretty good team where it counted.

There wasn’t an old Earth proverb about the family that beat down Vulcan bullies together stays together or anything like that, but every saying had to find a start somewhere. Jim thought he could see this one catching on.

*

Chapter Text

Spock’s spare hours were limited. They had always been so, but with the added presence of a human peer in his household, their number had dwindled to the bare minimum. This was not overly troubling, but it did present a handful of small difficulties.

There was very little Spock did of which Jim remained unaware.

This, Spock had learned through observation, was due to a number of factors. Chief among those was the fact that whenever Spock was home, Jim chose to be with him. This was a pattern they had fallen into, through Jim’s insistence and Spock’s lack of outright protest. Although the habit had been established largely through inertia, Spock found himself seeking out Jim’s company after dinner as a matter of course rather than because he had anything of value to import.

When they were not together, Spock still found himself accountable to Jim’s shrewd observational skills whenever they next had cause to reunite.

It was therefore extremely difficult to obtain a birthday gift for Jim in complete secrecy without arousing suspicion.

For the first two of Jim’s birthday ‘celebrations’ on Vulcan, Spock had not bothered with the pretense of surprise. Obtaining a gift was Mother’s idea and he had been more than content to allow her to procure what in her view was a suitable offering for a human child of Jim’s age and sensibilities. It was none of Spock’s concern and Father often managed to be off-world for such occasions. The frivolous periods of revelry that for humans demanded zealous adherence—for example, the inevitable passage of time—were not something for which Spock could afford to disrupt his work.

However, Spock’s research had given him reason to believe that the thirteenth year, by human measure, was of some importance in Earth culture. It denoted a figurative passage from childhood into adolescence. Spock did not require a specific date to note the change, as this much was evident before his eyes in Jim’s appearance.

Jim was taller and leaner than he had been when Spock and I-Chaya had first encountered him in the desert, though he was not yet tall enough to make the sudden sprouting of his arms and legs proportional to the rest of his body. His complexion had cleared of all but the most superficial scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. This, Spock understood, was due to the Vulcan sun more than Jim’s biological characteristics.

Nature versus nurture played out on this minor stage—and it was, Spock admitted, fascinating.  

Jim refused to shroud himself in scarves as Mother had taken to and likewise he chose not to employ the use of any handheld accessory which would provide him with portable shade. When he did not burn, he tanned. But primarily he burned.

Spock had experienced a certain amount of difficulty not only in apportioning the time to seek out a gift for Jim’s birthday but also in deciding on a suitable contribution to the gift offerings. The vast majority of Jim’s needs had been met by Mother’s attentive nature and what recreational time remained had already taken him through Spock’s library and then Sarek’s, one volume at a time. It did not seem particularly extraordinary to add another book to the growing pile of Jim’s conquests.

He spoke often of starships, but this was not a practical interest. Spock could not procure him one; the cost and application procedures to acquire one aside, there would be nowhere to put something of that size inside the house or on its accompanying grounds. Also, Jim would insist on sitting in the captain’s chair long before he was prepared for the duties such a position would require, and a present was by its definition an item, not already possessed, that would prove pleasurable, beneficial, and useful, rather than dangerous and extravagant.

Spock had not previously devoted any excess thought to Jim’s ‘hobbies’—a particularly human concept; though Vulcans had interests, Spock understood there were notable differences between a focus of study and a purposeless pastime. Human as he was, Jim was certain to have at least one hobby, and Spock had set about outlining—while Jim slept—a full  list of activities and pursuits for which Jim showed preference, to the extent of Spock’s knowledge. Upon its final addition, it read:

1. Swimming.
2. Climbing (rocky outcroppings; small hills; trees; etc).
3. I-Chaya; perhaps other animals comparable in size/weight/demeanor by extension.
4. Books; for the express purpose of recreational and study-related reading.
5. Synthesized meat products.
6. Helping Mother with the daily chores.
7. The garden and time spent within.
8. Sweet baked goods; sugar in general.
9. Lying in curious positions not best suited to the shape of the bed available to him.
10. Star-gazing.
11. Starfleet.
12. Father’s travels, though he will not ask Father about them directly.
13. Transportation vehicles that are capable of achieving high velocities.

With the list completed and before him for reference, the task proved no easier than it had been prior to its existence. Spock considered the options, weighed them by comparative relevance to Jim’s interests, then contacted Father with an appropriate request, an item to be sent within the specific frame of time or not at all. Yet without receiving confirmation—and understanding that Father’s duties were far too important to set aside time for attention to personal matters—Spock wisely chose to proceed with an alternate option.

He worked for days on the program until it was finished; it would have been executed far more efficiently and efficaciously if he had not been confined to those hours of the day during which Jim was asleep in order to devote himself to the task. It was little more than a simple algorithm within a modified PADD module designed to display a to-scale star chart of the celestial bodies visible from Vulcan, both with their Vulcan names and a Standard translation.

When the task was completed, Spock wrapped the resulting item in colorful paper as tradition dictated, along with a ribbon. He then requested an extra sample of both materials when mail from Sarek arrived two days before the date in question: a model of the latest Starfleet ship, a proper size no larger than a standard communicator, to be kept upon a desk, shelf, or bedside table.

Spock wrapped this as well.

‘As I have acquired two presents rather than one,’ Spock asked Mother, on an early morning while Jim was still in bed, ‘would it be more accurate in keeping with the tradition to retain one for the following year and offer one tomorrow, or give both at once in acknowledgement of the specific year’s importance in Earth culture?’

‘It is a big day,’ Mother had replied. ‘Why not both? I’m sure he’ll be delighted.’

Spock was not, necessarily, as certain as Mother as to Jim’s predicted delight—although he had done his research and knew that it was sound. Yet Jim could be peculiar and unpredictable and, given that criterion, it would be foolish to assume certainty in this instance.

Still, Spock reserved both gifts for the single celebration. Mother had baked a cake, which Jim ate around his split lip, holding an ice-pack in one hand and his fork in the other. He blew out the candles while Mother and Spock acted as witnesses; Jim was, Spock had learned, too old now for Mother to clap for him upon the completion of that step in the ritual. Spock ate his small piece of cake while Jim requested a second, even larger slice and during the dessert portion of the meal Jim balanced on the edge of his seat at the table gingerly, avoiding the placement of pressure on an injury he had sustained to the back of his thigh.

Mother’s offerings were the same as every year: a new pair of boots that would fit him better than the last; a new electronic dictionary for his attempts to better familiarize himself with the Vulcan language; two pairs of socks, as Jim’s fell prey to holes far more quickly than was average or even acceptable.

When Jim had finished with his cake, Mother did not allow him to clear the plates from the table. This was the only night of the year in which Jim ceded the right to her in favor of, per Mother’s suggestion, retiring with Spock to his room to continue the celebration.

Mother kissed Jim on the cheek that was not swollen and Jim hugged her, hard enough that one would not have believed he had been dealt any blows at all, much less at the strong hands of no fewer than three Vulcans.

‘You are certain that you do not require additional assistance with the clean-up procedures?’ Spock asked.

Mother had implied as much, but it was not Spock’s birthday, and therefore he could not assume the special treatment would likewise extend to him.

‘I’m sure, Spock.’ Mother’s gaze passed over to Jim. ‘And besides, I’m also sure Jim doesn’t want to wait for you to dry the dishes before he can open his presents.’

‘It’s fine,’ Jim said, already bobbing up out of his chair, as if it was uncomfortable for him to remain seated for too long. ‘I mean, I’m fine. With waiting.’

But Mother was adamant and, while she did not share Father’s unwavering will, there were certain points on which she would brook no argument. Even Jim—who could coax a fervent dispute out of nothing more than thin air—was helpless in the face of her insistence.

He gathered his presents from her in his arms and managed to navigate gracefully around I-Chaya beneath the table, who could not observe and understand Jim’s condition for himself, and thus did not comprehend why he had not yet been presented with his usual amount of attention and affection.

These were the obvious dangers in spoiling a pet beyond the limits and necessities of what his disposition required. But that was an argument that had long since proven itself to be had in vain—and Spock had abandoned it when it became apparent that Jim’s behavior would not change, no matter how sound his opponent’s logic.

‘Stay down, I-Chaya,’ Spock reiterated.

He followed Jim up the stairs, then continued to his own room when Jim ducked through the nearest open door to deposit his material gains. It was necessary for Spock to retrieve the wrapped presents where he had concealed them, and it was his understanding that some measure of delay would increase Jim’s enjoyment upon the eventual fulfillment of his expectations.

Anticipation was another of many irrational human traits which did not make sense to him, but Spock had also learned that understanding a thing was not always relevant to its practical application for those to whom it was first, rather than second, nature.

It was enough to know that it was important to Jim and Mother that the terms and conditions were met. The reasoning behind that importance could even be considered of lesser value.

Jim was on his stomach, lying on the majority his gifts with the personal dictionary open in front of him, but he looked up when Spock crossed the threshold of his bedroom. The ice had not done much to ameliorate the swelling on his face; however, the impact of his gaze was not halved by only possessing one eye in proper working condition.

Spock had long since ceased trying to apply logic to Jim Kirk, but this did not mean that the inherent contradictions he presented had ceased to be troubling.

‘Hey.’ Jim’s eyes flicked to the wrapped gifts in Spock’s arms, then returned unexpectedly to his face. He held up the electronic dictionary. ‘I’m looking up what those assholes called me. I don’t think this thing has swear words in it, though.’

‘You will not find colloquial expressions in a databank of Vulcan vocabulary,’ Spock agreed.

The shift in topic was enough to unnerve him. His presence in the room was not without purpose but he was no longer certain of how to bridge the gap from one topic to the next without drawing undue attention to his contributions, which would have been unseemly.

‘Too bad.’ Jim sat up, wincing as his weight landed on his bruised thigh. ‘Guess I’ll just have to learn the old-fashioned way.’

He cleared a space at the end of his bed, then looked up again toward Spock.

‘Are you gonna stand there all night?’

‘No,’ Spock replied.

It was not an invitation, yet it fulfilled its necessary function. He came to sit in the unoccupied space; Jim tucked one knee up onto the bed, leaning toward Spock as the dip in the mattress brought their separate weights together.

Spock had taken care to conceal the shape of the model starship when he had wrapped it. This deception was a part of the tradition as well, and rested comfortably in the gray area between the truth and a lie. The star chart of relevant constellations in the Alpha Quadrant was of a generic shape and size—it did not require concealment in anything beyond the colorful paper material.

Jim was not focused on the presents as Spock had anticipated. It was within Jim’s nature to enjoy surprises—the element of surprise in any situation, not simply birthdays, as spontaneity to him implied entertainment by means of amplified adrenal production—while at the same time attempting to divine the truth behind them prior to the appointed hour of revelation. He was, in other words, the sort of individual prone to peeking, whether or not the action would benefit him. Yet on this particular occasion he had chosen to study Spock’s face for the secrets of the unknown gifts—which he would unwrap for himself soon enough—as though he believed Spock’s expression would betray the nature of the items he was to present.

This was faulty reasoning. Spock was well-versed in the ways of Vulcan tranquility and would not reveal so much as a minor clue via any expression whatsoever. He returned Jim’s gaze until Jim at last signaled it was time to move on as scheduled. Spock could infer that an ample anticipation period had been granted and anything longer in duration would have been counterproductive. Jim fidgeted when he was impatient and such behavior could not be allowed, given his current physical state.

Spock set the gifts on the mattress, one next to the other. ‘It is irrelevant which order you choose to open them, as they are unrelated to one another. I believe they will be satisfactory, though I do not require gratitude or praise if they prove otherwise. I should not appreciate a disingenuous response in this matter as it will serve only to give incorrect data for future purchases.’

‘Two presents, huh?’ Jim asked.

It was as though Spock had not spoken at all. ‘That much is immediately obvious.’

‘Cool,’ Jim replied. His eyes moved between both options and at last he settled on the larger present first. Though he began by tearing the paper apart eagerly, he paused after the first rip snagged diagonally, and subsequently tried—with minimal success—to unwrap the item more sensibly and with greater care. Unaccustomed as Spock was to Jim approaching any matter with painstaking slowness, he found that a more human impatience attempted to assert itself. He refused to allow it to gain momentum and soon enough Jim had opened his Vulcan celestial database, rendering the predicament moot.

‘The lights must be dimmed in order for its usefulness to be observed at full effect,’ Spock informed him, for Jim had already hit the power button with one thumb. The faint, vague illuminations of a rotating star-scape turned above the display pad neither too quickly nor too slowly. Spock stood to lower the overhead light strip; the stars appeared more brightly, clusters freckled together as they circled in and out of view. Jim’s face behind the display was motionless, the reflection of the stars casting shadows on his skin where the true freckles had been hidden by the darkness. ‘Their names are listed in both Vulcan and Standard. The pronunciation will prove difficult, especially given the current state of your enlarged and therefore more clumsy bottom lip. Should you require assistance there is a spoken option to provide examples; if I am not otherwise occupied I, too, would be able to offer you any further aid.’

Jim shifted forward, raising one bruised, scraped hand close to the glittering band of constellations. He did not put his hand through the projection but traced the arc from one side to the other.

‘All the visible stars, no matter how distant or how minor, are included,’ Spock added. ‘You will not find the collection lacking in accuracy. I programmed it myself; therefore, I may give you my assurance that it is complete.’

Jim cleared his throat. Spock could not determine if the length of the pause was due to pleasure or displeasure or some third, unforeseen emotional option that had no precedent. He clasped his hands behind his back and awaited clarification.

‘Whoa,’ Jim said at last.

‘In this instance,’ Spock replied, ‘I cannot be certain if your use of that particular expostulation exhibits positive or negative connotations.’

Jim looked up, yellow starlight in his blue eyes. ‘What the... Are you kidding, Spock?’

‘Vulcans do not ‘kid’,’ Spock reminded him.

‘Right—of course. I know that. I know that. It’s whoa with positive connotations, Spock, okay? It’s awesome.’

‘A more appropriate application of that word than to the physical confrontation in which we engaged earlier,’ Spock said.  

‘Nah,’ Jim told him, ‘I’m pretty sure both of them are totally appropriate applications of the word. This is cool, Spock. This is really, really cool.’

‘I am gratified to have my theoretical assumption of your potential enjoyment of the item confirmed,’ Spock replied.

Around the split in his lip, Jim was grinning. There was light in his eyes that did not come from the reflection of the night sky module.

Spock cleared his throat. Jim looked at him again, the question unspoken but no less apparent.

‘There is a second unwrapped item,’ Spock elaborated.

Jim raised his eyebrows, casting his eyes over the bed until he spotted the object in question through the band of artificial starlight. It seemed that in his satisfaction over the first gift, his compulsion to gratify his curiosity had been so sated that he had entirely forgotten the existence of a second. This caused Spock to experience momentary uncertainty over his choice to present both gifts at once. Perhaps Mother’s counsel had been overly colored by her affection for Jim as, judging by his reaction, one gift had almost certainly been enough.

Overkill, Spock recalled. A word that had been predominantly useful of late.

But Jim reached for the second with keen fingers before Spock could reclaim it without incurring a gaffe in birthday etiquette.

‘Do not expect this number in the future,’ Spock said. ‘Empirical evidence would suggest that one present is still suitable for an occasion of this nature.’

Jim’s grin turned crooked, favoring the side where his lip was swelling around the split. ‘Just couldn’t decide what to get me this year, huh?’

‘Many of your interests are impractical or functionally hazardous,’ Spock replied. ‘As you clearly have no difficulty acquiring injury on your own terms without any external assistance, I was forced to base my decision on less obvious preferences.’

Jim sniffed and wrinkled his nose instead of wiping it. ‘You could just say you’re welcome, you know.’

‘You have not opened it yet.’ Spock inclined his head toward the gift in question. ‘It would not be appropriate to allude to or accept gratitude which has not yet been expressed.’

‘I’m gonna like it,’ Jim said.

He did not possess the telepathic influence necessary to have discerned from Spock what the nature of the present was and so this statement could be classified as willful stubbornness, rather than any accurate intuition about the facts.

Jim took his time unwrapping the second gift, finding the creases where the paper had been sealed and sliding his thumbnail beneath them one by one to break the bonds of the clear adhesive strips. It was a slow, methodical process. Spock did not experience frustration at his pace, although a certain weight settled at the center of his back, between his scapulae. It did not ease until Jim had completely slipped the wrapping from the present.

Four separate balls of folded wrapping material fell from where they had been padded around the shape of the model ship to obscure its recognizable form. Someone as sharp as Jim, who had spent even a cursory amount of time researching Starfleet starship design and function, would have immediately recognized the ship for what it was under the wrapping paper, thereby forfeiting the element of surprise.

Spock had taken care to assure that this eventuality would not come to pass.

With the debris no longer in the way, the now unmistakable figure of the model ship was the only thing left in Jim’s hand. He held it aloft by the stern, the programmed constellations of his star chart flickering over its pale hull.

The effect was of a starship floating through a familiar corner of the galaxy. Spock had not aligned his offerings with this particular sight in mind, but there was an undeniable symmetry about them. He could conclude that his research had led him to a satisfactory decision.

‘Spock…’ Jim’s eyes found him in the dim light.

‘You have made your interest in Starfleet abundantly clear,’ Spock said, declining to wait for Jim’s unhurried elaboration. Expressions of gratitude did not sit well with him despite the years of practice he had dedicated toward receiving them. ‘However, it remains to be seen whether or not your temperament is suitable for a captain’s candidacy; as such, the gesture is largely symbolic.’

‘So, you got me a little one until I can handle the real thing,’ Jim said.

That had not been what Spock said.

‘Thanks, Spock,’ Jim said. He swung his legs off the edge of the bed and hid a wince almost perfectly as he approached his work desk. There, he set the model ship beside his latest reading materials, where it could be seen optimally both from the desk chair and the bed. He returned to remove the display hologram from the mattress as well, though he placed that on the smaller bedside table beneath a darkened lamp.

Although it was late and the appropriate amount of time had been dedicated to the post-cake consummation ritual of present reception had already passed, Jim did not switch off the display. It continued to rotate at a speed somewhere between an average Vulcan’s ability to process information and an average human’s ability to do the same. Spock had calculated this speed to be apposite as far as Jim’s mental faculties were concerned. It would be enough of a challenge without presenting too much of one, and would therefore allow Jim to learn readily while at the same time offering rigorous mental exercise.

Both practical and personal, the present had satisfied multiple criteria. Spock was satisfied with the choice, even more so now that he recognized Jim’s satisfaction.

‘Though it has already been expressed, repetition is not without merit in this instance.’ Spock remained standing as Jim sank down onto the bed, still avoiding placing too much pressure on the areas of his anatomy more bruised than others. ‘Happy birthday, Jim.’

‘I said thanks before, but since repetition isn’t without merit in this instance...’ Jim looked up again, his face candid; the darkness did little to obscure the wealth of abundant emotion he had allowed himself to express. The holographic light show illuminated that which would have been otherwise hidden by true shadows. Jim grinned again. ‘Thanks. This way I can watch the stars even when there’s a roof over my head.’

‘A curious point to make exceptional note of,’ Spock replied, ‘but nonetheless accurate.’

‘You wanna watch the stars with me, Spock?’

Spock considered the request. As it was Jim’s birthday for the next two point two five hours, additional concessions to his desires had to be made. Spock sat on the edge of the bed, acknowledging the unusual sensation of employing a bed as a couch rather than its intended function. They were sitting on it with their backs against the wall at a perpendicular angle to the length of the mattress, rather than lying on it in parallel. This offered them the clearest view of the light show in miniature against the backdrop of a dark curtain, though it was not the most advantageous usage of their furniture.

After five minutes of a shared, mutual silence, Jim’s cheek—the one that was not bruised—sank lower to rest on Spock’s shoulder. He was as heavy as if he had already drifted into dreamless sleep, but Spock could see from that angle his eyelashes still fluttering for a long while afterward.

Jim continued to blink them open stubbornly in order to watch the Vulcan stars pass through their nightly cycle no fewer than seventeen times.

*

Chapter Text

Jim’d assumed for most of the week that Spock was in a mood—he had ‘em, whether he knew about ‘em or not; never angry or fussy, just withdrawn and looking inward, quieter than usual, less responsive, more meditative and difficult to approach—because Jim had been making all kinds of noise in his temporary shop space between the garden and the shaded side of the house.

He’d done his best the past few afternoons to get his work out of the way before Spock came back from the Academy. Vulcans had sensitive ears—‘You can’t whisper around them, I’m afraid,’ Amanda had pointed out once, sharing a few imported Earth chocolates with Jim after a simple sandwich lunch a few years back—and the kinds of commotions Jim was used to causing would be too loud even if there were walls between him and the Vulcan ears in question. Plus, Sarek was around, currently in between off-Vulcan assignments, and when Sarek was around, the rooms held the air inside of them differently. They didn’t change shape; that would’ve been too illogical for a house built on Vulcan sand. But they were aware of their shapes in new ways and Jim always suspected the walls might’ve been tighter despite what logic said.

Logic wasn’t right all of the time.

Sarek changed Spock’s demeanor, too—one of the small details Jim noticed because he was always watching. Amanda’d never brought it up with him and he’d never brought it up with her but he knew she could see it; she was smart and Jim wasn’t the only one always watching.

Spock and Sarek had a lot in common, more than the pointy ears and the Vulcan haircut. Jim noticed it especially when they were standing together, Sarek’s hands clasped before his chest, Spock’s hands clasped behind his back, the way they held their shoulders, and all the angles drawn between them. Geometric or something. Jim didn’t fit into that and he didn’t try, but seeing Spock with his dad made Jim feel like retreating, which usually made him get louder to keep his own escape at bay.

So the hoverbike he’d been repairing as part of a do-it-yourself extra-curricular lesson hadn’t been progressing as quickly as it should’ve. He spent more time than ever with dirty, sweaty streaks on his hands and face, knees crusted with sand; even the shade he’d set up in could only do as much to combat the burning heat of a Vulcan afternoon and eventually Jim’s shirt always came off, his hair sticking to his sweaty forehead as he modified the engine for double its standard speed.

Because what was the point of having a hoverbike if it couldn’t go really fast?

It was practical in a lot of small ways Jim had already worked out for himself. First of all, their house was removed from the nearest city proper. They were surrounded on all four sides by long desert flats that stretched out into the dunes and mountains beyond, flanked by a narrow, copper-veined river in the valley below. The dunes themselves provided the perfect terrain for testing out a bike, since there’d be no traffic in any direction and even the le-matya would hear the rumbling engines and ideally stay away. Second of all, Jim could get from place to place faster if he didn’t have to exert the same amount of energy it took to walk there and back.

Jim was getting older and bigger but he hadn’t acclimatized to the temperature as quickly as he wanted to. Some days it felt like he just had more weight to carry around while his lung capacity hadn’t improved any. The thin air was tougher on him than the heat. He couldn’t tell if that was because he was trying too hard or if he still hadn’t nailed Amanda’s knack for graceful human movements on a planet that was doing everything it could to remind him he didn’t belong.

Amanda said he just needed to slow down. But slow wasn’t Jim’s style. It was tougher to adapt to thatkind of thinking than the ferocious sun.

Most of the time, Jim shrugged it off. Vulcan might not have been that welcoming but he had a family there and that was more than a lot of kids his age could say. Probably more than anyone who’d lived through the genocide on Tarsus IV could say, too.

One of the engine wires slipped and sparked, burning the end of Jim’s callused fingertip. He yelped and stuck it in his mouth and scowled when he discovered it tasted of copper and scorched rubber casing.

Yeah, he was just about due for a break.

Jim hauled himself to his feet, gathering the empty canteen he’d had his water in and the dishes and tray Amanda had brought him his lunch on. Thatwas something Jim still hadn’t been able to talk her out of doing. Most days he tried to get into the kitchen early and beat her to the punch, but ever since he’d started work on the bike, time tended to slip away from him.

Sometimes he worked on it all day and didn’t realize he hadn’t eaten until he stood up and his knees were like overcooked flour noodles, barely able to support his weight.

He didn’t like to push things that far. After he’d extended himself past the natural point of fatigue he started to make dumb mistakes. He’d practically blown out one of the three fuel cells after getting stubborn and going back to the bike after dinner a couple of nights back.

Jim wasn’t about to repeat his mistakes. They happened for a reason: so he could learn from them.

He tucked his shirt around his neck, using it as a cloth to wipe the sweat from his face, and wiped his boots on the mat before ducking back into the house. At this hour, Spock would still be at school and Amanda somewhere upstairs. He could he slip through the first floor sitting room into the kitchen and run his head under the sink, then drink some water before heading upstairs to shower.

Sarek was—as usual—an unknown element in the equation, but by day he could reliably be found meeting with the Vulcan High Council. Vulcans didn’t exactly lounge around the house or see the point in relaxing.

Jim didn’t have a clue what any of those meetings were about, but he could tell Spock’s dad was pretty important to a lot of pretty important Vulcans. It didn’t affect him much beyond knowing when to keep out of the way.

Except the first floor sitting room wasn’t empty like it would’ve been any other day—because there was a Vulcan girl sitting on the small couch by the balcony doors. She had her legs tucked up under her and her chin propped up on one hand, gazing out into the rock garden. Jim hadn’t bothered with being quiet coming in and he drew her attention too quickly to scuttle back out of view unseen. She turned to look at him. One of her slim eyebrows lifted and disappeared beneath the arranged fall of her bangs.

She was pretty in the way that most Vulcans were good to look at: austere and pale—features neutral enough for a human to project all his aesthetic ideals—with ramrod posture that suggested she’d break Jim in half as soon as give him the traditional salute. Her big, dark eyes went straight to his chest before he could cover up.

Jim was suddenly aware of all the dirty fuel streaks on his wrists and hands, the one on his chest, the spots where his trousers were wrinkled and speckled with sticky sand, and especially where his hair was probably sticking up in the back. There was nothing he could do about it now and Vulcans with her kind of bearing could make him feel like a piece of scrap metal even when he had cleaned and dressed for the occasion.

Jim gripped both sides of his shirt, pulling it taut around his neck, then released one to hold up his hand the way he’d practiced.

He’d done it countless times just out of Spock’s sight: eyes shut, starting with his palm against the wall, spreading his fingers until it felt like second nature to him. He had the traditional salute down as well as Amanda could do it, and ‘like Amanda could’ was good enough by Jim’s standards any day.

The Vulcan girl stared at him—through him, it felt like, with those dark, merciless eyes—in all the ways that reminded Jim of Spock along with all the ways that reminded Jim that Spock was, and always would be, different. It was a conscious concession, like Jim thinking of I-Chaya’s comfort to indulge a less intelligent family pet, when the Vulcan girl mirrored the greeting.

‘You are the human boy who lives here under the protection and favor of the Lady Amanda,’ she said.

‘Jim,’ Jim said. ‘Jim Kirk.’

‘I have heard the name as you have spoken it. And mine is T’Pring.’

Jim repeated it in his head without letting his forehead wrinkle in thought, which would’ve made it obvious he was committing to memory not just the name but how to pronounce it. ‘I didn’t know we had guests.’

‘I am not your guest, Jim Kirk. You do not have me.’

Talking to Vulcans, Jim reminded himself. It required clarity of mind and a certain amount of finesse that was impossible for humans to achieve in the Vulcan atmosphere. Conversations reminded Jim of messing around with a tricky fuel cell that didn’t want to cooperate and kept shocking him when he lost focus and slipped up.

No matter how many times he backed himself into a corner like this one, he never quite applied the same lesson to help him out of the skids the next time. It could be fun to watch Spock learn from the complexities of their crossed wires—and fun for Jim when he considered what he’d learned from the same close inspection of his own preconceptions—but that was usually late at night when Spock was narrowing in on the perfect meditative state and Jim was too sleepy to let pride get in the way of finding out more about himself.

Anyway, T’Pring was a girl and a stranger and her eyebrows were even more imperious than Spock’s had ever been, at least from the angle Jim was seeing them from.

Jim wasn’t scared. But she was scary all the same. 

‘Are you one of Spock’s friends?’ he asked. Even as he said it, he knew it couldn’t be the answer to why T’Pring was there. Spock had never brought a single Vulcan home with him from school in the five years Jim had been living just down the hall from him.

Despite the late afternoon heat, the sweat that’d been prickling the back of Jim’s neck had turned cool.

‘We have not met. I have come here to the house of Sarek at the behest of the Lady Amanda so that I and Spock, son of Sarek, may have this occasion to do so.’ T’Pring’s gaze swept over Jim like one of the night winds in the desert. He’d spent a few ill-advised hours sneaking out just to feel them on his skin and to study the stars in the clear sky. With his arms folded behind his head, lying flat on his back, one leg crossed over the other, socks filling with sand, he’d seen enough to make his eyes burn. He stayed out until the sand crusted around his nose and the corners of his mouth and inside his ears and I-Chaya insisted, in his own way, that they head back in for the night or he’d start fussing.

If Amanda knew about those times Jim snuck out, she never said anything. She did catch Jim’s eye over the table at breakfast—but the secrets they shared, the best ones, were the things they never had to talk about.

The secrets you shared with a Vulcan were the things you never could talk about. That was the difference. T’Pring’s expression alone was a secret, an algorithm, a logic puzzle, and a theorem without a proof.

Jim swallowed. ‘I’m gonna put on a clean shirt,’ he said. He could feel T’Pring’s eyes on his back as he made his escape.

Amanda was on her way down the hall when Jim crested the stairs. He blinked at her and knew she’d get it, the whole why’s there a weird Vulcan girl down there and why’s she here to see Spock and what’s going on question—questions—implied. If Jim hadn’t known better, he would’ve thought Amanda’s smile was calm, but it wasn’t.

It was nervous.

‘It was all rather last-minute, I’m afraid,’ she explained. ‘I would have warned you, but I wasn’t entirely certain it would happen at all.’

‘What’s it?’ Jim asked. Then, he remembered his manners and tried again. ‘What’s happening?’

‘It might be nothing,’ Amanda said.

Jim didn’t wanna get Vulcan on her, but that wasn’t technically an answer to his question. It was obvious she was distracted—there was something weighing heavily on her mind and for once it wasn’t something about Jim. He could push later or get the answers he wanted in his own time, after he’d showered and put on a clean shirt. But all of that required patience, the one lesson Jim had been working on with Spock instead of Amanda.

Jim filed past her and down the hall, ducking into the bathroom he shared with Spock on the second floor. It was officially a family room but Sarek and Amanda had their own adjoining suite, and despite what Spock had told Jim when he’d first arrived in the guest room, they didn’t have people over so often that Jim could think of it as anything other than theirs.

He showered, standing under the hot spray until it stopped stinging his skin, and lathered up until the water that ran off his body was clear instead of blackened and gritty. He realized about halfway through that he hadn’t locked the door but Vulcans of all people knew about knocking.

Jim didn’t like the itchy restlessness that settled under his skin like a rash long after he’d finished in the shower and toweled off, scrubbing his arms and legs until they were pink, not just mostly-dry. He wasn’t a creature of routine—so it didn’t make sense for him to be this shaken up by one, simple change to the daily grind.

T’Pring was just a girl. Jim had seen plenty, on Vulcan and on Earth and a bunch of other places in between. He’d gone to school with them and traded Starfleet Federation cards with them at recess and, once, he’d seen George kissing one in the stooped shadow of the old apple tree at the corner of their property.

Vulcan girls weren’t that different.

But Jim couldn’t work out a reason for her being in their house—a reason for her to be meeting Spock, of all people, and that missing piece of the puzzle was what was bugging him, flying around just out of reach, like a wayward meteorite streaking through the sky at the corner of his vision.

Jim didn’t do well when the answers eluded him. It’d been awhile since his schoolwork had managed to stump him and even though he’d gotten used to being the second-smartest person in the room most days, that didn’t mean he enjoyed not being able to work out what the heck was going on.

Instead of its usual, calming effect, the hot shower seemed to have exacerbated Jim’s agitation, making him feel like he was just wasting precious time. He dressed in his room, tugging on a clean, Earth-style t-shirt that Amanda had bought in special from a Federation shipment.

There was quiet conversation taking place downstairs when Jim made his way to the end of the hall.

His choices were pretty clear. He could eavesdrop or he could crash the party.

Jim had learned a certain amount of discretion since being brought up semi-Vulcan style but it hadn’t done much to change what was in his nature. He was down the stairs and into the sitting room before he could work out who T’Pring was talking to.

She sat in the same seat where he’d first met her—and Spock was on the bigger, family couch. T’Pring had untucked her legs to hold her hands in her lap and they were both looking at each other like they were a patch of cloud covering in the middle of a typical Vulcan summer day. A naturally-occurring phenomenon that inspired neither interest nor outright dislike.

The weather simply was. That was another little gem Jim had picked up from Spock during their time spent observing the skies over Vulcan.

‘Hey.’ Jim wedged himself onto the opposite end of Spock’s couch. There weren’t any snacks he could busy his hands with or water he could hide behind. That left talking. He crossed his legs, then uncrossed them. ‘Nice seeing you again.’

‘As you have already determined from that statement, Jim Kirk and I met prior to our introductions, Spock, son of Sarek,’ T’Pring added. It was so formal Jim felt like he was wearing a shirt one size too small. ‘This occurred prior to your return to the house of your father, when Jim Kirk came upon me in waiting after obviously enduring a lengthy period of physical labor. He was in a state of half-dress. The weather did not agree with him, though I could see from the lack of burns on his skin that he is, despite appearances, resourceful enough to conduct his outdoor activities within the shade.’

Jim rubbed the back of his neck. None of the grit or fuel oil remained on his skin and there was a burn there, actually, but it was an old one, from a trip to the river after lunch a week ago, already mostly peeled because Jim never left them alone the way he was supposed to. T’Pring wouldn’t’ve been able to see that from where she was sitting anyway—despite the way she looked at Jim, her eyes like tractor beams, she couldn’t actually see straight through him.

Spock glanced between them.

‘Bike,’ Jim explained, dropping his hand back into his lap, rubbing his palm over his thigh. He’d been right before—because even now that he was showered and dressed, he still felt like he’d just crawled in from a roll in the mud with a bunch of farm pigs. ‘Hoverbike. S’a little project I’m working on, building one out back. Good for dune riding.’

T’Pring’s lips parted a moment before she began to speak. It couldn’t be in surprise; the closest Spock ever came to that illogical human emotion was a basic acknowledgement of intrigue. He was always saying things that were new or unexpected were fascinating, not surprising. Jim had taken note of the difference. ‘’Good for dune riding’? Do elaborate on this vague assertion, Jim Kirk.’

Jim swallowed. He could feel Spock watching him now and he’d never been more trapped in his life than he was between their twin, piercing Vulcan gazes. He shifted in place, ass sliding lower on the couch; the better their posture got, the worse his became.

Conservation of mass and energy—that was a scientific principle. Conservation of posture ratios—that was a James T. Kirk principle. He scuffed his heels against the floor, toe bumping the leg of the sitting room table.

‘It’s, uh, part of a practical, self-guided lesson,’ Jim explained. ‘I chose putting a hoverbike together for mechanics. Have to use scrap parts, salvage, whatever I can get my hands on. Wouldn’t be good for all terrains, but the dunes out there before you get to the river are wide and flat and the only thing getting in the way’ll be the le-matya, so... Figure if you modify the fuel cells, you could get a bike like that to go pretty, pretty fast.’

‘Have you calculated the exact speed of ‘pretty, pretty fast’, Jim Kirk?’

Jim felt the corner of his mouth twitch, not exactly all in good humor. T’Pring was a whole lot like Spock—but not enough like Spock that her hanging out with him made any kind of complete sense. Jim rubbed the heel of his palm into his eye where some soap from the shower had dripped over his forehead from his wet hair. It was still stinging, enough to be noticeable. ‘Yeah, actually, I have calculated it. Just wanna take it for a spin to test it out first before I get into specifics.’

Take it out for a spin.’ T’Pring’s eyebrows had the Vulcan you-smell-funny look down pat, twin braids wound back from her face, revealing the sharp points of her ears. Her dress was silver; it didn’t look a thing like the Vulcan Science Academy getup Spock wore. It was almost like she’d dressed up for the occasion, but Vulcans didn’t do that. Did they? Ceremonially, Jim figured, but that was the long and short of it. ‘This eccentric locution cannot be literal.’

‘Humans are often anything but.’ Spock’s voice was mild; Jim had no way of telling if he was annoyed or curious or fascinated or just Spock and nothing else but Spock about the situation. If Jim was crashing the party of two; if Spock wanted the extra company—or if he was the sehlat in the room. Jim dug his heels in deeper, one of them squeaking on the floor.

‘You would know this better than I, Spock, son of Sarek,’ T’Pring replied.

‘They are also not without merit,’ Spock added.

‘Merit.’ Jim rolled the word over his tongue. ‘Yeah, I’ve got some of that.’

‘Despite their conversational peculiarities,’ Spock said. ‘Which are, admittedly, numerous.’

‘Your experience in the matter of humanity far outweighs my own.’ Jim searched for some kind of insult in the words but they didn’t hold any sting. T’Pring was still watching him when she spoke in a way that made the hairs on the back of Jim’s once-sunburned neck stand on end. Spock, on the other hand, had stopped looking at him completely, staring at the opposite wall instead.

As for Jim, he couldn’t stop stealing looks at both T’Pring and Spock, even though he knew the answers he was looking for wouldn’t be there. Not on their Vulcan faces.

Even if he outright asked, he wouldn’t get a straight answer. For a logical people, Vulcans sure liked talking themselves and everyone else in circles—which left it up to Jim to get the conversation moving again.

No wonder no one had kicked him out yet. He was the catalyst, the impetus. The third fuel cell, not the third wheel.

‘You could get some experience,’ Jim said. ‘If that’s what you’re looking for.’

This earned him a fresh round of looks, though at least there was an obvious, common sentiment shared between them: confusion followed by disbelief. Jim leaned forward, straightening out the stoop of his back with a muted pop.

‘I mean,’ he continued, over the sound of Spock clearing his throat, quiet enough so that only Jim would catch it, ‘we aren’t that different, aside from the obvious stuff. Spock lives with two humans and it hasn’t done that much damage.’

‘Indeed?’ T’pring raised her eyebrow.

‘The claim, while made facetiously, is at its essence sound.’ Spock’s voice came out even more stiff than usual, like his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth.

It wasn’t like Amanda not to put out refreshments. Jim was gonna wonder about that for a while. As long as he’d lived on Vulcan, he’d never met anyone too logical to have a sip of water in the middle of the hot day. It was possible that the distraction Jim had noted earlier had only worsened since he’d popped in the shower. Maybe Amanda’d forgotten because something else had pulled her attention away. Maybe she’d just wanted to give them their privacy—and thinking like that made Jim feel guilty for hanging around.

But Spock would know if something was wrong. He wouldn’t have spared Jim’s feelings by not bringing it up.

‘When I get my bike fixed,’ Jim soldiered on, braving the detours and segues that threatened to mire them in uncomfortable silence forever, ‘you can come over again. I’ll show you the river and stuff.’

And stuff,’ T’pring repeated. ‘Is this the metaphorical ‘spin’ to which you referred earlier, Jim Kirk?’

Spock shifted his weight on the couch. It wasn’t anything—barely movement at all—but Jim had seen Spock hold perfect posture for hours without faltering once. This was the closest he’d come to squirming in place. It should have felt like solidarity, since Jim wasn’t the only one getting peeled down to his soft vegetable innards under T’pring’s watchful gaze. But somehow he got the sense they weren’t suffering in the same way.

Good intuition was more of a pain than an asset when it came to dealing with Vulcans. Jim could sense that something was off but he’d rarely get further than that. Most of the time he was shut down at launch.

‘Yeah.’ It was Jim’s turn to clear his throat. ‘I mean, there wouldn’t be any actual spinning involved. And Spock could come. Either, both.’ He picked at a dry piece of dead callus on the palm of his hand, pulling it off and rolling it between his fingers. ‘It’d be fun.’

‘I see.’ T’pring nodded like she’d come close to solving Jim after all. ‘A social engagement.’

‘Humans are overwhelmingly social creatures,’ Spock said, using what seemed to Jim like an unnecessary emphasis on the whole overwhelming scale. ‘They flourish best in the company of others.’

‘As it would appear,’ T’pring said.

Jim’s throat was starting to feel downright scratchy.

‘Be right back,’ he mumbled, standing and straightening before he beat the quickest route to the kitchen.

He didn’t want to miss anything, but he wasn’t going to get anywhere if he couldn’t talk, either. And maybe everything would go down easier—be a lot less stilted—if everyone involved had a nice glass of water in their hands.

Amanda wasn’t in the kitchen. As Jim fetched three glasses from the topmost cupboard, the one next to the window, he spotted an unfamiliar silhouette lurking around the front garden wall. It wasn’t dark enough yet that he could mistake it for anyone but a total stranger.

It was another Vulcan and Spock’s age, by the looks of him. His face was more severe; Spock’s expressions were graceful but this guy’s looked as hard as hammers. Jim’d never seen a Vulcan lurking; they were too straightforward not to knock on the door.

As weird days went in the house of Sarek, this was up there with the weirdest.

Jim downed an entire glass of water before refilling it, then balanced all three to carry them back to the sitting room. He offered T’Pring hers first; she was a guest and it was only the polite thing to do. She inclined her head his way in acknowledgment, her fingertips avoiding his on the sides of the glass as it exchanged hands.

Jim put Spock’s down on the low table and set his next to it.

‘Uh,’ he said. He had to stop doing that—although it gave T’Pring and Spock another kind of awkwardness to pay attention to, one beyond the long stretches of uneasy silence they were the direct cause of. It would’ve been uncomfortable with or without Jim there; at least, this way, Jim could keep an eye on it. ‘Cheers.’

‘This has been a fascinating insight into human social practices.’ T’Pring lifted the rim of the glass to her lips and maintained an unbroken gaze as she drank, her eyes fixed on Jim’s face. Sweat gathered at the side of Jim’s throat over the pulse by the time she’d finished the longest sip of Jim’s entire life.

Spock hadn’t reached for his glass to join them, Jim noticed. Knowing him—if Jim could ever claim to know him—he’d probably never felt what it was like to be thirsty.

*

Chapter Text

Upon T’Pring’s departure, Mother requested the opportunity to meet with Spock alone in the garden, without Spock’s father accompanying them. Jim remained within the house as well, although he stood for some time at the kitchen window, a shadow cast across the faint glow of the lamplight forming a square frame for his silhouette. Eventually this shadow, too, receded beyond view and the light was switched off to conserve energy.

Mother had not spoken for some time—yet, as she had been the one to suggest they spend the time together, Spock remained patient while he waited for her to begin. In the meantime, he ordered his thoughts beyond the prickle of interpretation that threatened to overwhelm the facts, also the cause of a faint heat beneath his collar that would soon be cooled by the night winds.

For some time, Spock had known that there had been an arrangement made between his father and T’Pring’s family regarding their futures. She was without visible flaws; her intelligence had not been exaggerated. It was at Mother’s insistence that they met at this time in order to familiarize themselves with one another; the act was not found elsewhere in Vulcan tradition. And it was true that the conversation had not been altogether unpleasant. However, Jim’s presence at the time of T’Pring’s introduction had complicated matters; it was not possible to ascertain what the dynamic between the two of them would have been without the effect an extra, third variable such as Jim presented.

It was not logical to experience a combination of relief and frustration simultaneously at the appearance of any individual or the conflicting divergences he caused by his appearance alone in a single, late afternoon. Yet Spock had long since accepted that Jim would not always be explicable with logic single-handedly; therefore, the contradiction was not without precedent.

‘Did you like her, Spock?’ Mother asked at last.

An unexpected beginning to a conversation that was without precedent.

‘I do not understand the motivation behind your query,’ Spock replied.

Mother glanced down at her hands in her lap, face briefly hidden by a fall of her headscarves from the side. ‘Don’t you?’

‘I did not lie. That was a request for clarification.’

‘Oh, Spock.’ Mother sighed. She did not seem pained or distressed, however, simply contemplative, if not completely distant in her demeanor. ‘It isn’t very logical at all, I’m afraid. It’s just a question. Did you...appreciate her company?’

‘That question is preferable.’ Spock paused to consider it and returned to his previous assessment. ‘She was not unpleasant.’

‘That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.’

‘I found it curious that the additional conversational material provided by Jim during our socialization simultaneously detracted from and assisted our communications.’

‘Should I have kept him away?’ Mother asked, her eyes deep with the particular shadows of maternal concern.

‘That is not what I said.’

‘You know, you still haven’t really answered my question, Spock.’

Spock paused again. This was not a question with any correct—or incorrect—answer. Yet that did not exempt Spock from responding with accuracy; neither did it recuse the importance of accuracy in this matter. Mother believed the question important enough to insist upon examining it further.

‘As I said, the experience was not unpleasant,’ Spock said at last.

‘And as I said,’ Mother replied, ‘that’s no ringing endorsement.’

‘Am I intended to endorse T’Pring?’

‘If you are intended to be her intended...’ Mother’s gaze was uncommonly thorough. ‘’Not unpleasant’ is not good enough.’

‘I do not understand.’ Spock did not often experience such difficulty in communicating with his mother. It was as if Jim’s claim that humans were not so different had been made earlier only so that Spock could appreciate its irony now. Either Spock or Mother or both were being uncommonly stubborn—or perhaps this was an area in which they were both so unacquainted as to experience considerable difficult navigating its unfamiliar territory. ‘Do you plan to arrange the perimeters of the agreement based on our appraisal of one another?’

‘That was the idea,’ Mother replied.

Though Spock searched her face, he could find no glimpse of the characteristic hesitance that often crept over her features when she knowingly deviated from Vulcan tradition. In this matter, they had already broke with conventional practice, as betrothal arrangements could be made as early as when an appropriate pair reached no greater than seven years of age. But Mother had intervened then, as it seemed she was again intervening now. She could not take comfort in Vulcan logic as Spock and Father did, and this was evidently a matter of enough importance in her mind that she felt it worth engaging in debate.

It was not sensible. Spock could not speculate that T’Pring was having a similar conversation with her own mother and father. She had returned home before the sunset—and if T’Pring chose to speak to them of Jim at all, Spock had little doubt that they would reconsider a match with the house of Sarek.

Jim’s company had not been overtly offensive, and yet his presence was proof of yet another break with tradition. Taking into account Spock’s background and his status as neither human nor Vulcan, it would not be out of the question to assume that there was a point at which his candidacy as a mate based on his father’s standing alone would lose some of its appeal.

‘It would not be rational,’ Spock said at last. ‘As I have not come to know T’Pring thoroughly, any impressions I have of her must necessarily be incomplete. Therefore, to lend undue importance to my opinion cannot be the wisest course of action in this case.’

‘That’s how we do it on Earth.’ Mother’s tone was gentle, as if they were not engaged in a disagreement of perspective at all. ‘You get to know each other, much better than from just one afternoon.’

‘That is not the Vulcan way,’ Spock pointed out.

Whenever he engaged in a difference of opinion with her, he had found that Mother responded best to a calm reminder of the facts. Such arrangements may have been less than traditional on Earth—but they were not on Earth. An arranged betrothal for Jim would be unthinkable; however, Spock had been raised with a self-maintained adherence to Vulcan practices. To pretend otherwise now when it became inconvenient was not sound practice.

‘No,’ Mother agreed. She was not so far gone down the path of her own convictions that she could not be coaxed toward logic. She tugged at the scarf around her face where it fluttered too freely against her cheek in the wind. Then, she turned to look at Spock once more. ‘But you do have a choice, Spock. I don’t want you to forget that.’

‘If you are referring to my humanity, I can assure you it will not go unconsidered,’ Spock replied.

It was not an exaggeration or a careless comment put forth in an effort to speed the conversation toward its natural conclusion. Spock could no more forget his nature than he could do away with it completely. As such, it was impossible to weigh any decision without factoring in both halves of the whole, however difficult it might prove to satisfy both concurrently.

Spock considered that this had not been entirely what his mother implied. But the emotional subtleties of such entreaties were lost on him. Despite his ability to field both human and Vulcan traditions with a certain intuitive understanding of each, there were times when Spock became certain that his duality hindered him in both areas at once.

‘All right, Spock.’ Mother leaned back against the bench. She did not endeavor to put her hand on his shoulder, since they had reached the decision that he was now too old for such casual displays of affection. ‘Thank you for coming out here with me. Thank you for listening. And for trying; I know you are. I do know that.’

‘Goodnight, Mother,’ Spock said.

If he experienced any guilt at leaving her alone with only her thoughts for company, it was quickly replaced by the sight of Jim waiting for him in the light of the balcony doors.

Spock reasoned that Jim might have arrived in order to ascertain whether or not his apologies were in order; he had entered into the scene of a meeting that had perhaps been intended to remain private, a state not achieved due to his interruption . Yet if Jim requested clarification on the matter, Spock did not yet know how he would reply.

He was neither grateful nor ungrateful for Jim’s unplanned appearance. He had simply been unsettled by it, as well as the glances shared between Jim and T’Pring. Jim’s attentions toward her had been specific and foreign and there had been aspects to his demeanor that Spock had not recognized. As they had lived together for close to six years—which, despite the irregularities presented by a growing adolescent human, was nevertheless ample time for successful study—there should not have been any remaining anomaly of Jim’s behavioral patterns with which to offer Spock fresh surprise.

That there had been, and that it had been drawn to the forefront by T’Pring, who was a stranger, was even more irrational.

The irrationality of the situation, Spock decided, must have been influenced by the extenuating factors: that Mother had insisted upon a prior meeting; that this broke with tradition significantly; that his discomfort at the experience had to do with his recognition of that severance. T’Pring would have been aware of it as well—and Jim, who was sensitive, like Mother, to these external forces without being able to name or process them, had also acted upon these formless perceptions.

It had not, on the whole, been a success.

‘You’re pretty quiet,’ Jim pointed out, leaning over the balcony railing.

‘As were you,’ Spock replied. ‘It was a state to which both of us contributed equally. You never tire of beginning a conversation by means of pointing out the obvious, Jim.’

‘It’s the only way to get the ball rolling without you correcting me about something first.’ Jim’s posture eased; he was not displeased with the situation, merely acknowledging it for what it was. His eyes were less candid than usual but Spock could not blame him for that; their home had been graced with the addition of a foreign visitor for over two hours before their evening meal and they were all implicated in that visit. Jim more so even than Mother and Father; after all, he had been there for most of it, whereas they had maintained an appropriate distance. ‘It breaks the ice.’

‘There is no ice here on Vulcan.’

‘That was another metaphor kinda thing. Anyway, it’s not important. How’s she doing? You were out there for a while.’

‘You refer to my Mother.’ Spock resisted what he recognized may have been an urge to glance over his shoulder. He would not have been able to see Mother at such a distance and in such darkness; therefore it was unnecessary to act on a vestigial impulse that served no real function. ‘She has been unusually difficult this evening. I must conclude that it is the matter with T’Pring which troubles her.’

‘Yeah?’ Jim inspected an old blister on the thumb of his right hand. It had turned to callused skin the morning of the day before and, given past precedent, he was likely to pick at it until a new blister formed in its place. ‘What’s that about, anyway?’

‘I cannot presume to understand my mother’s sentimentalities.’

‘I mean the thing with T’Pring. The matter with T’Pring,’ Jim clarified. ‘Doesn’t seem like there’s anything the matter with her to me.’

‘Do you find her not unpleasant?’ Spock asked, perhaps too quickly. He had not asked Mother this—but then, she had spent little time with T’Pring, one concession she had made to the boundaries of tradition.

‘That’s one way of putting it, I guess.’

‘And how would you have it put, Jim?’

Jim was quiet, leaning his full weight on his elbows before he pushed off the railing. ‘She’s all right, I guess. She’s fine; I liked her fine.’

‘That is a vague assessment.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Jim’s mouth twitched at the corner. Spock recognized the expression. ‘So’s not unpleasant, Spock.’

‘Perhaps our inability to speak more precisely has something to do with our physical distance from one another,’ Spock suggested.

‘Hang on, then,’ Jim said. ‘I’m coming down.’

Spock did not expect that Jim would execute this shift in location by normal means. He employed windows as doors and walls as ladders whenever occasion allowed and, at times, whenever occasion did not allow—and tonight was no exception. He took a few steps back from the railing, braced himself for a physically challenging maneuver, and utilized the balcony railing as a vault in order to propel himself over the edge, landing on the ground below in a low crouch. Dust rose around the soles of his shoes. He straightened, unharmed, looking pleased with himself.

‘That was unnecessary,’ Spock told him.

‘Okay,’ Jim agreed. ‘But it was fun.’

‘As the parameters for such a definition are highly subjective, I can neither agree nor disagree.’

‘Gotcha,’ Jim said.

Spock could not tell whether this was meant to imply a deliberate trap or whether Jim had merely expressed assent. He experienced momentary frustration with himself, as he had undergone comparable difficulty with Mother that same night. It seemed possible—though not likely—that the afternoon’s visit with T’Pring had brought on mental exhaustion earlier than Spock was prepared to account for it.

But he was unwilling to make excuses for himself in this manner.

‘So…’ Jim toed at the dirt, scuffing the side of his left boot against the sand. They were the same pair he had received for his fourteenth birthday and yet their overall quality was deteriorating at such a rapid rate that it would soon be incorrect to refer to their condition asnew. ‘This better?’

It should not have been. Spock understood social customs enough to know that the distance between two people did not often affect the terms of their conversation. Mother was capable of conducting personal dialogue with Father using only a communicator. However, there were specific instances in which the topic of discussion could more easily become intimate. Humans did not engage in private matters when they were aware they could be easily overheard.

Perhaps it was this instinct which Spock had understood and appealed to. Mother’s feelings might have been hurt if she came to realize that Spock was talking the matter over with someone other than herself.

Then again, Mother did not often seem to disapprove of Spock’s contact or conference with Jim, whatever the circumstances.

‘It is satisfactory,’ Spock said.

Jim raised his eyebrows. He did not possess the fine muscle control necessary to lift one at a time and so both went up at once, giving him an artificial expression of surprise. His mouth quirked to one side, not quite a smile.

‘Are you gonna tell me what’s going on now?’

Further curiosity surrounding T’Pring was not what Spock had hoped to inspire. It was unfair to assume that Jim would understand this innately; however, Spock felt the unmistakable flush of dissatisfaction as his capillaries increased the blood-flow to his face. He was hot beneath his clothes, a rare occurrence after the sun had already passed below the horizon.

‘It is none of your concern,’ Spock said at last.

This was not untrue and therefore could not be considered unnecessarily strict. Mother had often tried to teach Spock the distinction between honesty and what human etiquette dictated, but Spock had observed Jim to be more than average when it came to accepting the truth at face value. He would not attempt to coddle Jim’s feelings at the expense of their mutual respect.

‘Okay.’ Jim’s eyes passed from Spock’s face to his hands, which he had not yet arranged behind his back. He could not locate a sensible reason to hide them now. He did not have anything tohide. ‘That’s fine, whatever. Look— Come with me for a second.’

‘That measure of time would not be appropriate for you to cover much spoken ground,’ Spock said.

This time, Jim’s grin was not a question but a fact.

‘Funny,’ he said.

Spock had not intended the caution as a joke.

Unhindered by intentions, Jim moved to make his way around the house and Spock followed. He did not have a reason to do so beyond Jim’s simple request, but there was also the temptation to engage in further inspection in order to better understand Jim’s responses and reactions on the matter of T’Pring.

It was unlike Jim to give up so easily. The implication that a matter was a private one had not always proved a deterrent in the past. Jim was not yet past the age where his behavior could be considered unstable, but there were also factors in play that continued to elude Spock’s comprehension.

He was caught up in his thoughts and so did not put together the information of their surroundings and the uneasy look of pride on Jim’s face until Jim was already hauling the tarpaulin off a lumpy shape in the corner of their garage space.

They stood in front of a hover-bike, although its condition was unlike any Spock had witnessed in working order. He allowed his gaze to pass to Jim rather than the vehicle on display, searching for some clue that would lead him to make the appropriate observation.

‘I finished it,’ Jim said. ‘And I thought we could take it for a test drive.’

‘A test drive with live passengers does not seem prudent,’ Spock replied.

‘That’s not no,’ Jim countered.

‘You wish to engage in the colloquial ‘spin’ with me as your passenger and accomplice despite having first offered the experience to T’Pring?’

Jim wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his wrist, pushing his bangs out of his eyes in the process. The shadow that fell from his arm across his brow caused his eyes to appear deeper and darker in color when it was merely a trick of the light. ‘Yeah.’

‘This vehicle is clearly optimal for a single rider.’

‘I want you to take a ride with me, Spock. It’s better to do something like this with somebody else so you can share the fun.’

‘Your desire does not alter the facts, nor is your assertion of superiority a factual one.’ Spock noted that the seat would at least prove large enough for two, if the two in question were of appropriate size. It would be a tight fit, but it would not be impossible. Had they been much larger, there would have been no possibility of the same.

The phrase Mother would have offered at such a time was ‘now or never’.

‘It doesn’t shock you when you step on the gas anymore,’ Jim added. ‘I tested it myself. It’s good to go. A little fussy maybe, but I can handle fussy.’

‘You will not accept that the matter is concluded until I acquiesce to indulge in this pastime?’

‘I’ll keep at you all night long,’ Jim promised. ‘I’ll be such a pain in the ass.’

‘It is unwise to allow positive reinforcement for a negative trait such as obstinacy, especially when it presents itself so illogically. If I concede now, you will be tempted to pursue similar avenues of behavior due to achieving the results you wished for. It will not be a favor but rather a disservice. ’

Jim held out his hand. ‘C’mon, Spock,’ he said.

Spock approached Jim’s warm hand with the same care he always employed, given the sensitivities of touch all Vulcans experienced. Jim, being human, did not experience it, and did not know—beyond a surface understanding—the depths to which touch telepathy ran. He knew that Spock’s hand was cold; Spock knew that Jim’s hand was warm, that he was restless, that his moods shifted as quickly as wind furrowed the dune sands, that he would have been more comfortable shirtless beneath the starlight, and that he was unsettled by the memory of T’Pring in the sitting room, her unwavering gaze over the rim of her glass of water and the bob of her throat as she swallowed, the shape of her cheekbones and the style of her hair.

Spock did not allow the understanding to go beyond the peripheral. He was careful to maintain the boundaries Jim could not for both of their sakes: privacy, respect, and appropriate behavior.

Jim tugged Spock closer to the bike. ‘It’s totally safe,’ he added, throwing one leg over the seat and waving for Spock to mount the vehicle behind him. Spock did so, bracing the soles of his shoes in the proper grooves on the hoverbike’s sides. Jim kicked up the stand and revved the engine with the handlebar clutch; the fuel cells ignited, the bike rising in an unsteady bobble off the ground.

Spock slid forward on the seat and further secured his position by resting his hands on Jim’s shoulders.

‘We are not currently possessed of the necessary headgear,’ Spock said over the grumble of the engine.

Jim shrugged against Spock’s palms. Spock lifted his hands and heard Jim sigh. ‘You might wanna hold on tighter,’ Jim explained. ‘I know it can go fast. I just don’t know how fast.’

‘You informed T’Pring earlier that you had calculated—’

‘That was bullshit, okay, Spock? I was just trying to save face. It’s hard enough having a conversation with one Vulcan, but two... Two’s like piloting a Federation ship straight through Klingon space.’

‘We would not have opened fire on you,’ Spock said.

‘No, huh? Well it sure as hell felt like it at the time.’ Jim glanced over his shoulder and Spock was able to see his grin in profile. ‘Just hold on, okay? We can’t wear the necessary headgear ‘cause the whole point of riding fast in the first place is feeling the wind in your hair.’

‘That is not strictly accurate. Though it may well be a factor for some, the main reason for achieving high speeds is to maximize the efficiency of travel.’

‘Oh my God, Spock,’ Jim groaned. He squeezed the clutch without added warning and Spock barely had time to grip Jim’s sides—a better point of leverage for maintaining an upright position—before the bike jerked forward, gaining speed rapidly.

The wind was, as anyone could have predicted, in Spock’s hair. It was in Jim’s as well, whipping it around the crown of his head, and it had grown long enough of late that it tickled Spock’s nose and mouth in the frenzy.

The external stimuli presented were too varied and distinct. Each demanded Spock’s attention, so much so that it was impossible for Spock to dwell on the matter of T’Pring’s visit or Mother’s and Jim’s subsequent reactions. He could not easily dismiss Jim’s appraisal of the situation—Jim did not have the inside knowledge to which Mother was privy and therefore did not benefit from understanding the true purpose of T’Pring’s visit. Therefore, his opinion could be considered thoroughly unbiased, while everyone else Spock might consult bore awareness of the circumstances that would unavoidably distort their judgment.

‘I can feel you thinking back there,’ Jim said.

This seemed to be another trick of intuition more than a true statement. But when Spock began to say so, Jim took a sharp turn, flying northwest into a shallow canyon, two craggy rock walls swiftly rising on either side of them. Spock did not close his eyes—but neither did he relish the view. If he lifted his head he was able to glimpse a thick ribbon of the sky wending its way above them like a river hewing a pathway through solid rock.

‘I was not aware that this was an activity which prohibits thought.’ Spock had to lean forward to be heard, Jim’s hair tickling his nose as his mouth approached Jim’s ear.

‘It’s fun,’ Jim replied, restating the same fact ad nauseum. ‘Of course you gotta shut off your brain. At least for a little.’

These were not the factors as they had first been presented to Spock in the suggested form of a late night ride through the desert. It was evident that Jim could not do as he had counseled, as he was in charge of the bike and their current location, to say nothing of navigating the Vulcan sands. This demanded a considerable amount of mental clarity. Perhaps the suggested mental quietude was a function solely of the passenger role, but Jim had not clarified.

His body was a steady, solid warmth set against the rumbling of the bike and the wind in Spock’s hair.

Spock could not pinpoint which element of the latter it was that Jim found exceptionally praiseworthy. In Spock’s estimation, it was the anticipation of an endto the swooping turns and excessive forward momentum that was most attractive about this enterprise. It was not uncommon for them to experience a difference in opinion, but this did not stop Spock from seeking to understand—just as it had not stopped Jim from seeking to include Spock in his pursuits.

The system was not without flaws, but as it incorporated participation from both parties, Spock could not assume it was without merit.

Just as Jim himself was not without merit.

It was not a surprise when they finally came to crest the ridge at the end of the long canyon. Jim had an obvious preference for high places; he relished reaching them just as he relished divining imaginative means of descending from them afterward. Spock held tightly to his own wrist around Jim’s waist—at some point, his grip had secured itself beyond what must have been a comfortable point for Jim, although he had not complained of the excess pressure.

In spite of the obvious vulnerabilities presented by Jim’s status as a human on Vulcan, he nonetheless weathered his difficulties without objection. Spock had never questioned him too carefully regarding his condition; as such, all hypotheses regarding his fortitude had to remain speculative.

Still, it was a point of note.

The bike’s engine shuddered to a halt beneath them, noise fading to the distant rush of wind in the valley below. The sky was clear—there was rarely enough moisture in the Vulcan atmosphere to sustain proper cloud coverage—and it glittered with the familiar patterns of constellations and stars, given the hour. Spock had come to know them better than he had anticipated. The star chart he had crafted for Jim’s birthday was never off once the light grew dim enough to see it by, and he spent enough time in Jim’s room that he was as familiar with it as he had been on the evening of its completion.

‘Your chin’s digging into my shoulder,’ Jim said.

Spock lifted his head, only to experience the sensation of Jim shrugging after him, chasing the weight Spock had believed unpleasant to him.

‘I wasn’t complaining or anything,’ Jim added.

‘It is true that you often do not complain,’ Spock agreed. ‘I have been given reason to believe this is a rare quality among humans.’

They were close to the edge of the ridge, the bike lowering to rest on solid, if uneven, ground, so as to avoid wasting excess fuel. Somewhere far below them the rock and shale shifted, signaling the presence of a le-matya in the distance. It would not be able to outpace them once Jim’s hoverbike was at full throttle. The dangers of the night that presented themselves were limited to the quality of Jim’s mechanical construction and skills as a driver.

Both had thus far been up to standard.

‘Do you have a license for operating this vehicle?’ Spock asked.

‘Depends on who’s asking,’ Jim replied.

Spock knew this was a colloquial, self-referential response. Still, there was only one possible answer. ‘It is clear that I was the one asking.’

‘That was a... Spock, c’mon, don’t you trust me?’

Spock did. ‘The matter is simply that I do not trust you have the appropriate documentation required for driving a hoverbike. Whether or not I trust you to drive it is irrelevant. Formalities must be observed.’

‘Sometimes.’

‘That is unequivocally false.’

Jim ducked his head forward, shifting the muscles in his shoulders, which bumped Spock’s chin. Spock had not relinquished his grip on his own wrist, his arms looped like a seatbelt around Jim’s waist; though they were currently immobile, Jim frequently operated in a sudden fashion without ample warning, and there was no way to be certain of when he might shift gears into high-speed once more.

‘You know all the stars, Spock,’ Jim said finally, somewhere into the area of his chest, ‘and you can name every last one of ‘em, but when it comes to enjoying them out here, you’re not exactly the best, are you?’

Spock had reason to believe the statement was an insult, as it suggested a lack of skill and merit.

Jim elbowed him, gently, in the ribs before he could speak. ‘Just stating facts. Not passing judgment either way.’

‘I fail to see how a statement of fact with implicit reference to a failure or set of failures does not inherently pass judgment.’

‘It just doesn’t, okay?’ Jim elbowed him again, causing them both to rock in place on the narrow hoverbike seat they shared. ‘Some people look at the stars and don’t know what they’re made of or why they’re up there or how far away they are from each other, or all the different names all the different races in the galaxy have for them, but they can still enjoy staring at them. You’re not somebody like that, and that’s okay, too.’

‘And where does your appreciation of the view fall within this proposed schematic?’ Spock asked.

‘I liked ‘em before I knew what they were called and I liked ‘em even better after,’ Jim replied after a long pause. ‘Appreciated ‘em in a different way.’

‘Naturally, the expanded knowledge would enrich your comprehension.’

‘Yeah.’ Jim reached for the clutch and Spock braced himself for another long, wild ride. ‘It’s just... The sky’s clear here. I can see a hell of a lot more of ‘em than I used to anywhere else.’

‘Understandably,’ Spock said, ‘due to the particulars of Vulcan’s atmosphere, of which we are both well-informed.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim repeated. ‘So what’s going on with you and T’Pring, anyway?’

The hoverbike’s engine flared once, sputtering with a few unsteady surges before Jim stabilized it.

‘Further clarification would not go unappreciated. ‘What is going on’ invokes multiple potential responses.’

‘With you—between you.’ Spock felt Jim’s lungs expand with the deep breath he took following the attempted explanation. ‘Why did she come over, anyway? You’ve never had anybody over, Spock. In almost six years, nobody’s ever showed up just to hang out.’

‘Hang out,’ Spock repeated.

‘I didn’t mean it like you’re thinking,’ Jim said. ‘Not literally hanging out of anything.’

‘Indeed,’ Spock replied. ‘As you have often ‘hung out’ in the past in the house—out of windows, primarily.’

‘You really don’t wanna answer my question, do you?’

‘It is a personal matter,’ Spock said. ‘However, my desires as such are irrelevant. It is a simple, Vulcan obligation to maintain privacy.’

‘So the two of you are planning on...’ Jim cleared his throat, causing his body to shiver. It would not have been heard over the engine had Spock not been so close to him, knuckles pressed against his abdomen, directly affected by every motion Jim made. And Jim made many. He was never idle for long; even in sleep, he was restless. ‘...planning on getting private?’

‘The match is a logical one.’

‘Yeah. Of course.’ Jim’s grip on the clutch tightened and the bike jerked forward, nearly pitching over the edge of the ravine, before Jim steered it sharply around. ‘The two of you couldn’t even have a conversation, but it’s a logical match.’

‘Our ability to generate pleasant dialogue has no bearing on whether or not the pairing would be appropriate for its purposes,’ Spock said.

This should have been evident, but he recalled Mother’s claim that human relationships and marriages were arranged under alternate terms. Jim had not yet been living on Vulcan long enough to understand the Vulcan traditions—due in part to the privacy Spock had already articulated. Yet it was also true that, in a more traditional household, he would have long since been betrothed. In this instance, Spock had not provided Jim the best or most typical view of Vulcan lifestyle.

‘Are you even listening to yourself?’ The rattling motion of the bike became more unsettling, as though its unsteadiness was exacerbated by Jim’s feelings. ‘Why would you wanna spend private time with someone you can’t even talk to?’

‘I do not base all my potential interactive partners on their ability to converse.’ Spock was aware, on some level, of the conversation—one of many they were capable of having—slipping into an area beyond his control. It felt like the bike beneath him, threatening to accelerate into the desert so suddenly that it would leave him behind.

His grip on Jim had not faltered, so at least Spock could be sure that eventuality would not come to pass.

Jim made a scoffing sound of disbelief in the back of his throat.

Without warning, the bike did accelerate, but Jim had rounded its steering to propel them back down the shallower side of the cliff. This time, they did not travel all the way down the slope but took a higher path, one that allowed Spock to view the horizon as they zipped along the sand. Jim was holding back some private tension, his muscles hard under Spock’s hold. Naturally, their positions required that Jim could not relax entirely, but Spock had spent enough time in close proximity with Jim to understand the minute shifts in his musculature and posture, which denoted changes in his emotional state.

Spock did not know how to seek it out; he could not coax it to the surface with the same tenacity Mother put toward growing the wildflowers in their front garden. Vulcan soil was tough and dry, packed densely, and it was too full of sand to nurture the flora to which Mother was accustomed. And yet, every year, Mother managed to convince at least a few of her preferred seeds to germinate, green sprouts breaking through the hostile earth.

If she was able to work with such heavy odds stacked against her, it stood to reason that Spock should have been able to work with Jim—who more often than not seemed stacked in Spock's favor rather than against him.

However, this bias only served to make the times when he was not in Spock’s favor to stand out all the more sharply. Spock did not cherish the distinct sense of helplessness they engendered within him.

He had witnessed similar disagreements between his mother and father but never their resolution. If he and Jim were in a disagreement, Spock came to the conclusion that he had not observed firsthand a method with which to deal with it.

That responsibility would have to be left to Jim. And there was always the chance, however small, that Jim would not want to do away with it.

Spock found these odds to be unacceptable.

The bike passed beyond the bounds of the rocky cliff, taking them back into open air on the dunes. With the absence of anything to bounce off of, the sound of the engines dimmed. This seemed to indicate an optimal environment to continue their dialogue.

It was unlike Jim to allow any dialogue to lapse.

‘Am I to understand that you ‘liking her fine’ does not indicate tacit approval of the match?’ Spock inquired.

Jim’s shoulders twitched and his hand slipped against the throttle.

‘Shouldn’t matter what I think,’ he replied, in an unconscious echo of Mother’s statement.

Humans were very keen to express their opinions, only to retract them when someone else threatened to take them into consideration.

‘I believe that the match will be suitable in the traditional sense,’ Spock said. ‘I had not intended to give it further attention.’

‘No further attention? It’s the rest of your life, Spock. S’not logical not to think about it.’

‘Hardly the rest of my life.’ The stars Jim was putting behind them with his continued insistence on acceleration appeared to disappear with the same speed as their holographic miniatures when at the maximum rotational velocity setting. Those settings were not optimal for any closer study of individual stars—rather, it was intended as a general overview, to allow an approximate conceptualization of the landscape created by a full night of stargazing. ‘It is merely one, single aspect of my future—and not one to which I plan to devote any more time than is strictly required. I do not find the necessity of my Vulcan nature, in this instance, to be at all admirable.’

‘So you didn’t think about it because you didn’t want to think about it?’

‘I did not say that as such,’ Spock said. However, repeating the words he had spoken in silence to himself did make it clear that Jim’s interpretation was not altogether invalid. ‘There is still some question as to whether or not, given the peculiar nature of my biology as merely half Vulcan, I will find myself beholden to the pon farr as my father’s ancestors. The match with T’Pring is, therefore, a precaution. It would be unwise not to take it. Likewise, it is vital to life as a Vulcan to observe these traditions as any full-blooded Vulcan would do.’

‘Is that what you wanna be?’ Jim asked, the wind whipping his words out of his mouth and tangling them in his messy hair. ‘A full-blooded Vulcan?’

‘I have considered a multitude of paths,’ Spock replied. ‘Though there is not one single outcome in anyone’s future, certain factors will remain true no matter what choices I have made, no matter which of these paths I have decided to follow.’

Jim slammed on the brakes without warning and the hoverbike sputtered into silence after an electric snap. Spock nearly crashed into Jim’s back and it was only through the reserves of his self-restraint that he managed to avoid the collision. Dust rose on either side of them. Jim planted the soles of his boots on the sand, breathing heavily, as though he had been running and not riding.

‘Just don’t do anything ‘cause you think you have to do it,’ Jim said. ‘Your mom married your dad cause she loved him. She’s with him cause she loves him.’ Jim swallowed. The sound it made echoed against Spock’s clasped fingers. He could sense the overwhelming emotion that fluttered below the surface of Jim’s tensed muscles but they, too, were painted in broad strokes—a landscape, rather than a cross-section. None of the agitations, the sureties, the passions, an entire collection lacking in definitions, had names. Jim could not be read. He could only be felt. ‘And I don’t know your dad too well, anyway, but I don’t think he’d’ve picked the kind of marriage he has if he didn’t want it.’

‘It was logical.’ Spock sensed that the words were hollow; they were an echo of those Father had imparted to him many years before. ‘As a diplomat and an ambassador of Vulcan, the match—’

Still wasn’t suitable in the traditional sense.’ Jim’s silence suggested he was satisfied with the sophistic point he had made. ‘Which is pretty cool of him, anyway.’

‘’Pretty cool’,’ Spock echoed.

Jim’s shoulders shook. It took Spock a moment to determine the source of the vibration. Against all factors that pointed to an opposite emotional state, Jim was laughing. ‘It was a compliment, OK? I think it’s cool, what your dad did. Your mom, too.’

‘I do not believe either embarked upon the mutual arrangement with this goal in mind. To appear ‘cool’,’ Spock clarified.

‘That’s what makes it so cool,’ Jim replied. ‘Anyway, it’s not like I was trying to take you out here to force you to talk about all of this stuff. It’s just weird, Spock.’

‘It had not presented itself as such to me.’

‘Thinking about getting married, I mean.’ When Jim restarted the engine, the action was smoother, more practiced, and less impetuous. ‘I know; I know. You said it’s late by Vulcan standards but by human standards it’s really early. I was just thinking how weird it’d be if you were spending all your time with a wife and not...’ Jim’s foot must have slipped as he accelerated once more without any warning. ‘Not the way things are, anyway.’

‘I had not considered it as such,’ Spock admitted. ‘However you may rest assured, Jim, that I will factor this perspective into my future considerations.’

‘Cool,’ Jim said, and drove the rest of the way back home in necessary silence.

*

Chapter Text

It wasn’t easy digging up intel on pon farr. But Jim needed to be prepared for the Spock stuff—and not because Spock wouldn’t be prepared; Spock was always prepared. He just needed somebody on his side to be prepared with him and Jim wouldn’t, couldn’t let that somebody be T’Pring.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. Liking her didn’t factor into it. That was the exact reverse truth of what he’d told Spock, but since Jim was a teenager now, he figured he could afford to be a little irrational. Besides, Jim wasn’t the one who was gonna marry her, so his feelings on the subject didn’t matter. If they had, he’d’ve said that he thought she was pretty OK, both by Vulcan standards and girl standards.

But that didn’t mean she knew Spock like he did. And sometimes Jim figured Spock had more than enough Vulcan influences hanging around him all day; he didn’t need somebody else to pile on even more encouragement to favor the logical approach to every problem. He was already too much like that himself.

The obvious thing—the thing Jim couldn’t believe Spock didn’t see—was that he needed someone who wasn’t like him to balance that stuff out.

Anyway, Jim studied.

There wasn’t a lot to go on, not at first. The information that was made available to the Federation at large didn’t turn up anythingwhen Jim searched pon farr in the databases, even after he switched language criterion from Standard to Vulcan. There was some mention of Vulcan biological nature that seemed deliberatelyworded to be super-vague, enough to pique Jim’s interest but not enough to give him anything solid to go on.

Starfleet’s private records weren’t much better, since as far as Jim could tell there were few, if any, Vulcans listed on active rotation.

It took Jim thirteen days to break into the Vulcan High Council archives. They were heavily encrypted but he used the base of what he’d been learning in advanced computer science to cobble together a standard, harmless algorithm for wiggling through the gaps in security. Since it was Vulcan security, Jim needed all the help he could get. It took him three full days to write up the program, which he created and tested in the hours when Spock was at school and Amanda downstairs. If she missed Jim’s usual, more frequent company, she didn’t say anything.

Raising Spock through his teenage years had probably given her some idea of what to expect.

Still, when Jim’s head wasn’t crowded with numbers and elegant Vulcan script, he felt guilty over it. Nothing he could do about that but keep going and spend extra time with Amanda later, working on his corner of the garden.

The ten days after he implemented the code were spent checking on its progress. It could work when Jim didn’t, using all the hours he used up by sleeping and eating to bypass the archive’s precautionary measures. Maybe he should’ve spared some guilt for what he was doing—he didn’t fool himself that there was anyone who’d think it was risk-free self-education—but it wasn’t like Jim was after planetary secrets or weapons launch codes or even blackmail info.

He just wanted to help Spock. It wasn’t his fault Vulcans had to make everything so complicated.

On the thirteenth day—after Jim walked Spock to school, the Vulcan sun barely risen in the sky, working on his breathing exercises on the way back—there was a flashing green light on his computer that hadn’t been there when he’d rolled over in bed and opened his eyes.

He was in.

Jim realized the mistake in what he’d done the minute he started pulling up files. There was no handy translation immediately available for what wasn’t exactly public information. Either Jim was gonna have to brush up on his Vulcan or he was gonna have to figure out a way to run the information through something that’d at least turn it into real letters.

In the end, he managed a combination of both. Reading Vulcan was tougher than parroting it back, echoing what Spock said to him in late night during informal lessons, but he managed to build on the translation programming Spock had installed in his star chart, modifying the specifications to include a broader vocabulary. It was tough to work out enough time to do it in, but now that Jim’d finished the hoverbike, it was reasonable to assume he’d have another project to occupy his attentions.

Amanda never asked him outright and Jim didn’t have to lie. That was a relief, because Jim didn’t want to lie.

The end result was a bit like reading a transcript from someone who’d suffered a traumatic concussion, but it was better than nothing.

It was something Jim needed to know. Whatever was private enough, personal enough that Spock couldn’t find a way to talk about it, it had to be serious. And if Amanda was willing to agree to an arranged marriage for her son with a girl who was basically a stranger—nothing wrong with her in particular, but Spock didn’t know her and, even worse, she didn’t know Spock—then it had to be important.

Jim wasn’t about to stay the only person in the house who was in the dark about what was going on.

The way he’d figured it, it was obviously something to do with the Vulcan birds and bees, although Vulcans would never call it that. Jim could picture the expression on Spock’s face if he ever attempted to use that phrase while Spock was listening and if he hadn’t been so set on his current task, Jim would’ve found the time to laugh at the image that gave him.

Eventually, Spock was going to raise one of his eyebrows so high he wouldn’t be able to bring it back down again. It’d have to stay that way forever, a permanent expression of mild disapproval mixed with ruthless scrutiny that’d curdle even the hottest of red, human blood.

Jim shivered at the thought.

It was that kind of thinking that kept him going; it reminded him of why he was going to such lengths in the first place. He couldn’t ask Amanda because there were some things even they couldn’t talk about. Sarek was out of the question; he was busy and he let Jim be and he’d even nodded, once in a while, when Amanda brought up Jim’s progress in his home-schooling. Like he’d told Spock—Sarek wasn’t too bad. He’d figured into more than one of Jim’s nightmares, sure, but never the ones that left him in a cold sweat upon waking, so Jim tried not to pay it too much mind.

Pon farr. Jim’d translated from Vulcan to piecemeal Standard to something that finally made sense, and while he was reading about it, his cheeks and his ears got so hot they were flaming pink by the time he’d finished.

No wonder Spock hadn’t wanted to talk about it.

A couple of months back, when Jim was fifteen and a half, Amanda had sat Jim down by the balcony window, the curtain drawn, with a few informative articles and the promise that if there was anything Jim wanted to discuss, anything at all, she’d do her best to answer his questions. ‘I know this might feel awkward right now,’ she’d added at the end, never once taking her eyes off Jim’s face, ‘but the truth is, it’s a different sort of awkward than what we’re used to, isn’t it? And in a way, that can be a relief, for the two of us. It isn’t at all like being the only human in a room full of Vulcans—it’s more like being human with another human, and as difficult as that can be sometimes, it isn’t so terrible, when you think about it.’

There’d be a couple of points in the discussion when Jim’d wanted to crawl under I-Chaya and never crawl back out, just suffocate there in the hot darkness of his heavy sehlat body. But they’d gotten through it all right and they’d done it together, and after a few weeks passed, it only made Jim’s face flush when he let himself think about it, which he was getting better at avoiding.

At least he could blame the sun for his pink cheeks.

Vulcans couldn’t lie but humans were experts at making excuses. Just because Jim lived with Vulcans didn’t mean he had to be the only human who came up short.

Vulcans, though—they kept their private business secret, hidden, so that you had to spend thirteen days developing a code to hack their systems to learn about what happened to them when they hit puberty. Jim couldn’t picture Amanda sitting Spock down and telling him whatever he was going to go through was perfectly natural; Spock hadn’t acted like any of it was natural or even like he wanted to experience it at all.

Only he was still half human. He was always gonna be half human. There was a part of him that couldn’t write the whole thing off as distastefully illogical and try not to think about it—save for once every seven years. As uncomfortable as it was to get used to the idea, it had to be even more uncomfortable to refuse to get used to it.

Jim’s plan was successful—only he had a headache and his face was still too hot even after he’d stopped reading. He took a long, cold shower that left him energized but directionless: all this knowledge, all these secrets, trapped inside of him with no way out. He headed out on his bike for a long drive, around the foot of the nearest mountains and alongside the coppery riverbank, until he got light-headed from too much direct sunlight. He got back late and sweaty and splotchy, way after Spock’d already returned, and ate dinner without talking much, and headed to bed early, and lay awake for a long time on his back, watching the holographic stars cast patterns across the ceiling as they traveled through their quadruple-speed cycle.

Spock didn’t come to his room that night. It was almost like he knew—but Jim wasn’t that illogical. He got Vulcan telepathy now, in a way that made him embarrassed he’d ever made such a big deal over it in the first place. Also, the sleepover thing wasn’t an every night deal anymore. It wasn’t like Jim needed Spock just to fall asleep the way he used to and they were both getting so big that it was tough to fit comfortably in a bed built for one. Spock had always been taller but Jim was finally catching up to him.

That left a lot less room for them to work with.

Of course, some nights Spock didn’t even lie down. It wasn’t as if he needed a lot of space for that meditation thing he did but Jim liked to think of himself as a bad influence, finally coaxing him horizontal before they both drifted off.

Spock could stand to give the half-human part of himself a break every now and then. If he wanted to blame Jim, Jim was there to blame.

Jim thought about it when Spock wasn’t around. There was a lot of time they spent apart instead of together and it hadn’t started with this whole pon farr revelation, either. It wasn’t a big deal. Jim wouldn’t have been able to lie next to Spock with all his fresh knowledge bubbling in his chest anyway. He could keep a secret, sure—but now that he knew what Spock was facing, what he was gonna have to face, it was tough not to ask if he was experiencing any of the telltale symptoms.

The great thing about thatwas, as far as Jim could tell, a lot of the lead-up to pon farr was indistinguishable from typical teenage bullshit, stuff Jim went through, stuff Amanda’d told him was normal for somebody his age. Mood swings, irritability, restlessness, aches and pains you couldn’t explain, needs you’d never had before—basically everything it was tough to picture on somebody like Spock.

There was always the chance he wouldn’t get hit with the full force of the reaction. Maybe that was what had let Amanda and Sarek hold off on the whole arranged marriage plan. Jim still couldn’t think too closely on that without feeling itchy under his skin, hot cramps in his stomach like he’d eaten too much sash-savas, or like he was the one about to have a biological disruption of all his regularly ordered parts and processes, not Spock.

That was just stupid. For all the faults of human biology, they didn’t make a habit of holding themselves back so often that their bodies finally rebelled against them—once every seven years—to keep them from having to explode.

So Jim waited. It wasn’t that big of a change from his usual routine; he hadn’t given much thought to how much attention he paid Spock on any given day but it turned out he watched him pretty closely all the time. That was good, since it meant he wasn’t gonna give Spock an unnecessary heads up by tipping his hand too early.

If Jim couldn’t imagine talking this stuff out with Amanda or Sarek, then Spock was ten times worse than either of them.

That was a rough estimate. Jim hadn’t done the calculations or anything.

Still, his strong avoid at all costs instincts didn’t keep him from noticing the first morning Spock left late for school for no apparent reason, or the fine tremble in his fingers that made him grip his utensils harder at dinner. Jim stopped by his room in the night only to find the door locked for the first time, I-Chaya pacing outside like he’d already tried to pick the lock with no success.

Spock could say whatever he pleased about I-Chaya, but the old bear had good instincts when it came to his owners. He’d been with Spock since Spock was a baby. He knew him better than Spock realized.

By morning, Jim had worked out how to hack his way past the security mechanism Spock had in place. It was nothing flashy, nothing that’d short out the system or make trouble for anyone who wanted to reset it. Spock liked his privacy and that was fine but he was working under a false impression, which was that Jim didn’t know what was going on—or worse, that Jim couldn’t handle it.

What Jim couldn’t handle was knowing how much Spock was gonna hate having a reaction he couldn’t control, down to a cellular level. If Jim was around, then at least he could know there was someone in the room more irrational than he was.

That’d help make him feel better just by comparison, even if it wasn’t logical, more of a trick of perspective than anything else.

Still, Jim didn’t act right away. If he’d learned one thing from Spock in the six years they’d lived together—one thing that wasn’t how not to talk to people when they were upset—then it was that a little bit of patience went a long way. There was no reason to jump into something too rashly because that could blow the whole operation. Jim had to have just enough spontaneity that it’d counteract what Spock lacked and together they’d figure out answers they’d never have found if they were working on their own. But it took a lot of work on Jim’s part—the things that didn’t come completely naturally.

If Spock was more restless than usual, then Jim overcompensated by being even more fidgety, himself: talking too much at dinner, watching Spock over the edge of a PADD when he was supposed to be finishing up extra-curricular projects, gauging all the differences in Spock’s demeanor to see if things were getting better or worse. Spock took part in after-dinner conversation with his dad, discussing ancient diplomatic summits that usually bored Jim to tears—since the outcome was only ever more of the same, but with a different name slapped on it.

That was diplomacy for you. Maintaining the status quo, primarily. Not letting anything blow up. Now and then there were radical changes but those usually came about when there was no alternative—and Jim didn’t like the idea of that kind of desperation forcing somebody’s hand.

Anyway, his data gathering wasn’t about diplomacy, even if he had to sit on his findings and his knowledge like a diplomat at a private conference.

Spock excused himself from the discussion early. He stayed in the bathroom for twice as long as usual. Jim attempted no fewer than six failed accidental meetings in the hall before, on his seventh trip for a glass of water before bed, he came out of his room just as Spock was disappearing into his, the lock mechanisms sliding into place behind him.

All Jim had the chance to see was the back of Spock’s head and neck, where his dark hair was faintly damp from the shower unit’s spray and where his skin in the shadows was flushed the palest, faintest green.

It wasn’t a trick of the light. It was one of the symptoms. Temper flaring, body temperature rising. Forgetfulness, because the mind was elsewhere, someplace that had nothing to do with the mind to begin with. Spock didn’t forget to dry himself off so the damp hair was a part of that too, and the flushed skin was even more obvious.

In all the nights Jim’d slept in Spock’s bed and all the nights Spock’d stayed in Jim’s, Spock had always been cool. Never too hot. Barely even warm. Jim told himself sometimes that it was the purpose he served, what he gave back to Spock in return for the calm Spock brought with him. Vulcan’s were cold-blooded not by choice but by nature, and Jim got so warm in the night he had to kick off the blankets.

Spock could use that kind of warmth. Maybe it might’ve even felt nice, as far as Spock acknowledged or allowed it to.

The idea of Spock getting warmer on his own made Jim’s fingertips prickle. He got himself that glass of water and drank the whole thing down without pausing to breathe. He washed out the glass and wiped the back of his neck with his hands before he dried them, thinking about Spock’s damp hair resting on his pillow.

If it got worse tomorrow, Jim promised himself—if the signs were more obvious—then he was going to act.

Somebody had to.

Spock wouldn’t.

It wasn’t something Jim’d dealt with before but the parts of it that made sense were familiar. He knew what he had to do.

That didn’t help him sleep any. He tossed and turned and wound up pushing all his blankets onto the floor, where he left them in the morning instead of making his bed.

Spock was late for school. Again. Amanda watched him leave from the window and Jim watched him over her shoulder, drying out the bowl he’d eaten his porridge in with a clattering spoon. When Spock came back, hours later, there was a thud from his room once the door closed and locked after him. He didn’t come out for dinner. Amanda left a tray with food on the floor outside his room and it was still there when Jim headed into the bathroom for his shower and still there when Jim came out again.

He went back to his own room, waiting for Amanda and Sarek to retire. The hallway was dark and I-Chaya was sleeping on the balcony that night because it was so hot. A scorcher, they’d used to say in Iowa. A real scorcher.

Of course, no one in Iowa had a clue about the kind of heat there was on Vulcan. Jim had lived in both for long enough to make a valid comparison—and there was no comparison.

Slowly, the house wound down. Jim was lucky that Sarek and Amanda didn’t have an active night life or anything. They were upstairs and out before midnight at the latest—earlier if Sarek had a trip the next day. All Jim had to do was wait it out.

Getting up early was starting to get tough on him, but he didn’t care. He could push himself for what was important.

There was nothing that fit that definition better than family.

The thought made Jim’s nose prickle and he scratched it while padding silently from his room into the empty, quiet hall. For the first time, he was glad to have I-Chaya out of the way. He could be a great help, no questions there, but he was an unknown variable; Jim didn’t need the added stress when he was already doing something out of bounds.

He’d been with Spock long enough to figure he wouldn’t get mad enough to suggest throwing him out for a breach of privacy, but still—Jim didn’t like the idea of getting on his bad side.

Especially when it felt like he’d only just worked out how to get along with him consistently.

Jim paused in front of Spock’s door, kneeling to bypass the lock the same way he had the night before. Now he was glad he’d practiced it, since his palms were sweaty and his fingers slipped on the tiny wires he had to unplug and realign. The door slid open with a soft hissand Jim’s stomach clenched. He forced himself to breathe easier, programming the door to lock up again once he was through.

It was an inexplicable instinct but Jim had learned to listen to his gut. It hadn’t steered him wrong yet.

The air in Spock’s room was heavy, even worse than it was outside, like he’d been fiddling with the atmospheric controls to keep the temperature as hot as possible. Either that, or Jim’s imagination was playing tricks on him, emotions clouding his perception of events or whatever. Living on Vulcan this long had left him unsure how many human traits were nature and how many were nurture. He had only Amanda to go by as a template—and two didn’t make for a comprehensive testing group.

It was dark enough that Jim chose to stay where he was, barely a full step from the doorway, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Spock wasn’t the type to leave his things lying around but the last thing Jim wanted to do was slam into a corner of the bed and jolt him out of his meditative trance. If he squinted to force his eyes to compensate, he could almost make out Spock’s rigid silhouette, posture perfect even this late into the night.

‘The door was locked,’ Spock said, nearly startling Jim out of his skin. ‘I assumed you would be capable of correctly surmising that this change in routine was for a reason.’

‘Yeah. The lock. I hacked it,’ Jim replied.

Not quite the answer Spock was looking for, but come on. Like Jim’s response to a locked door would ever be to turn away. Not a chance. Not with Spock behind it and Jim on the opposite side.

‘I see.’ Spock was quiet enough to fool Jim into getting closer. ‘The mistake was mine for overestimating your deductive capabilities.’

Hey.’ That seemed uncalled for, but Jim was prepared for that. Uncharacteristic hostility had been right there in the text on pon farr and Jim was all but certain now that this was it. At least Spock hadn’t taken a swing at him yet. It was possible. Vulcan’s packed a punch but Jim was so focused on other stuff he couldn’t feel preemptively sore. ‘Don’t blame yourself. I’m unpredictable, remember?’

‘Hm.’ Spock made a sound in the back of his throat that suggested he did remember.

Jim crawled onto the end of his bed, waiting for the mattress to squeak and give him away. It didn’t. Spock remained where he was like he’d been carved out of stone but Jim’s eyes had finally adjusted and he could see the bare outline of Spock’s fists resting on his thighs. Spock had ‘em clenched so tight they’d gone past not trembling and right back to trembling again.

‘Hey,’ Jim repeated, but he had to swallow around it, his throat threatening to close up on the single, simple word.

He’d figured he’d had this one covered, that he could wing it, that he’d bust in and take care of things because he knew the stuff about being human that Spock didn’t. Only the truth was, there was no way of explaining instinct. Not that Jim knew about, at least. What he felt, what he acted on, impulse and imagination, couldn’t be programmed into a holographic display with translations in Standard and Vulcan. If it could’ve been, Jim’s life and Spock’s life and Amanda’s life and maybe even Sarek’s would’ve been so much easier.

‘You are repeating yourself.’ Spock’s voice had an edge to it that was like trembling; Jim couldn’t tell if it was the force of holding everything back or the force of everything he was holding back pushing through that made him sound so different. It was the smallest of tonal shifts but it changed everything about him into somebody Jim wanted to recognize—somebody he didn’t. And he’d thought he’d known every inch of Spock there was to see, all the things that made Jim roll his eyes, all the things that implied Spock would’ve rolled his if he’d thought it was the Vulcan thing to do. Except there was still more to learn. There was always gonna be more to learn because people, even Vulcans, got older and grew and discovered new things and couldn’t always stay the same. ‘Is there some purpose behind the inanity of this unnecessary conversation, or have you come here expressly to be difficult because you lack the ability to manufacture sensible entertainment for yourself?’

‘Nah,’ Jim said, ‘I didn’t come here to be difficult. Expressly or otherwise.’

Spock made a sound that reminded Jim of one of I-Chaya’s sighs—only instead of being weary it was impatient. He was huffing, which meant he was huffy. It was so not Spock—but at the same time, it was all Spock.

Jim’s head hurt. The heat on the back of his neck had returned, prickling along the hairline. His hands were trembling too but he didn’t have an excuse, other than directionless adrenaline.

‘You okay, Spock?’ Jim asked finally, weakly. It wasn’t what he’d planned on saying.

Although, technically, he hadn’t planned on saying anything.

That was the problem with winging it. Some days it worked and you soared; some days you crash-landed before you ever got off the ground.

‘The question is highly—’

‘Okay, okay. Okay.’ Jim couldn’t let Spock get started at the expense of letting himself get started. Which meant he had to start; he had to do something. Even if it was the wrong thing, Spock needed something—somebody—to hold onto.

Or else his hands would never stop trembling.

All his tension, all the things he couldn’t say, were in his hands, not on his face. Jim couldn’t remember when he’d realized that but now it was as obvious to him as breathing, although breathing had become more complicated in Vulcan’s atmosphere.

The comparison, Spock would’ve said, was adequate.

Jim leaned forward—this time, the bed did squeak—because impulse and action were what he’d brought with him when he’d busted through the lock and covered Spock’s hand with his own. Spock’s hand stiffened. Jim could feel the jolt and strain that rocked through his entire body from his fingertips, a detonation that hit Jim harder than if Spock’d outright punched him for invading his personal space. He took it—his privacy, the locks on his doors and the locks on his emotions—as seriously as he took everything else. More seriously. And Jim had busted through; he’d been half expecting Spock to hit him ‘cause he’d read about that option, too. The kunat kal-if-fee. Ritual fighting. That could help the plak tow, the blood fever.

But it wasn’t the only option.

Spock’s earlier sigh retreated, returning the way it came. To Jim’s ears, even if they weren’t as sensitive and pointy as a Vulcan’s, it sounded like a gasp. Jim’s lungs tightened in response. He had to ask himself if the emotional transference ran both ways—if, after all this time, he was picking up on what Spock was sending out.

That was good. Terrifying, but necessary. Because in order for this to work, for Jim to help, they had to be connected like that. They had to be important to each other. The empathic bond was crucial and Jim tried to explain without words, tried to believe as hard as he could, that it was more logical to work with what was already there than to try and bring somebody else into the equation.  

It wasn’t that tough. It was a simple concept and Jim knew that Spock was way beyond those. Jim was, too, even if he had a human intellect with its natural drawbacks and hasty connections.

They could do this. They were a good team.

‘Jim.’ Spock’s voice was rooted in a deep, rough place that sounded like him, even if it was also foreign.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, ‘I’m here. It’s just me.’

There were implications that went with that, things Jim had never been able to get out. That was another way the telepathic connection worked in his favor—he could put something across without ever having put it into words. Even Vulcan honesty didn’t leave room for talking about your feelings. That was one thing Vulcan had in common with Earth. But Jim being around meant Spock could relax, because Jim was gonna do everything he could to help. Spock was gonna be fine because any other outcome just wasn’t acceptable in Jim’s books—and he could be stubborn as hell when he wanted to be.

Right now he wanted to be.

He settled his fingers in the grooves between Spock’s knuckles, moving forward until his knees bumped Spock’s shins. They were close enough that even in the dark Jim could see Spock’s expression twitch; Spock squeezed his eyes shut before opening them again. His gaze bore into Jim with an intensity that would’ve been prying if Jim hadn’t made the first move to tear down those walls. He couldn’t start complaining now that he’d built a two way street.

‘You do not know,’ Spock began, then halted. His hand under Jim’s was still but Jim could feel how hard he was fighting to keep it from shaking or moving or, maybe, touching back. ‘You cannot understand—’

‘Shh.’ Jim leaned forward, tipping them both backward against Spock’s pillows, the hard wall behind them. ‘Shut up, Spock.’

All right, so it wasn’t the brightest idea in the world to go telling an already on-edge Vulcan to zip his lips while crowding his personal space. But when Spock shifted his grip, unclenching his fist to turn over his hand and let Jim press their fingers together, he figured he’d pulled something off.

Sometimes the right thing wasn’t the smart thing—and it took a special kind of intellect to work out the difference. Either that, or Jim got lucky more often than not.

He didn’t have the experience to bet on which was the closest to the truth.

Jim shifted his position, leaning his forehead against the wall over Spock’s shoulder, chin tucked against the side of Spock’s neck. He had to wiggle not to knee him in the stomach; later, he’d wonder how he’d managed to almost crawl his way into Spock’s lap when all they needed was to touch hands, but Jim was fuzzy on the pon farr details.

Spock had said it himself; Jim didn’t understand. There’d been no explicit mention of what you had to do if the subject in question was half-human, either, but Jim was determined not to ignore that part of Spock. Especially since everyone elseseemed inclined to forget it existed.

Except Amanda—and Jim wasn’t gonna bring her into this right now.

Spock’s breathing slowed, chest expanding and falling against Jim’s. His heartbeat caught Jim somewhere around the gut, like he had butterflies in his stomach—another human colloquialism Spock wouldn’t have any time for. His grip was tight around Jim’s sweaty fingers; for a second Jim swore he could hear his bones creak.

‘Hey,’ Jim said again. The repetition had to be soothing. It’d worked all right so far. ‘Ease up for a second, all right? Trust me. I’m gonna try something.’

It was so, so weird to be the one calling the shots. Even weirder was when Spock listened, the rigid lock of his muscles easing to allow Jim enough space to slip his hand free. He didn’t pull away, just drew his fingers slowly back and forth over Spock’s like he was drawing patterns in the sand garden out back.

Sand never shivered, not even when the wind picked up to blow new and shifting furrows into the dunes. Jim had a little rake he used for his corner of Amanda’s garden, only he didn’t prefer keeping the area square and neat and tidy.

If he was gonna grow things, he wanted them to be big and wild; he wanted them to sprout freely, soaking up the water and the sunlight, planting the kinds of things you could eat and get messy eating. He wasn’t about to balance a few stones on top of each other and call that a garden. A garden was about letting the plants take root and watching them struggle to live, to grow, green shoots warming under the open sky.

Spock shivered. If he was cold, Jim was gonna warm him; if he was trembling, Jim was gonna steady him; if he had this fever, this piece of himself that Jim would never understand burning away inside, then the least Jim could do was have his back.

‘I’ve got your back,’ Jim told him. It was a promise. It was one Spock had never made first, not out loud, but he’d given it so many times over with his actions that Jim believed in it without having to hear it spoken.

Hearing it spoken would’ve been nice, though. Sometimes you wanted to know that the other person was thinking about exactly what they were giving you, that they’d given it the same name you had, and that there was more in common between you than it looked like on the surface.  

Spock’s fingers twitched, flexing after Jim’s when they pulled away. Jim rubbed them again but the angle was all wrong; he couldn’t turn Spock’s hand over and get to his palm, his fingertips, which were the most sensitive parts. Every time one of Jim’s knuckles rubbed at the underside of Spock’s fingers from an sideways angle, Spock gasped again and it was that sound that inspired Jim to find another way. As many other ways as it took.

‘C’mere,’ Jim said. He’d only half recognized Spock’s voice before and now the same was true of his own voice. He sounded like himself; he sounded like a stranger. Two opposites at the same time—what Spock must’ve felt like all the time.

Jim moved his hand to Spock’s elbow and gripped it for a moment before he found something new, something more comfortable for both of them, easing them down to the bed on their sides. Spock turned his face away and toward the near wall, the damp hair on the back of his head and the green flush on the back of his neck so close to Jim’s lips he could almost touch them with his mouth without needing to try.

He stopped himself, even if he didn’t know why. Spock was in his arms and that was what was important: Jim’s arms looped under Spock’s and cinched on either side of his waist like Spock was the one driving the hoverbike and Jim was the one coming along for the ride.

But Jim was still the one guiding the steering, pulling the clutch, taking sudden turns, refusing to ease up on the accelerator.

He slotted his hands under Spock’s palms, threading their fingers together. Spock rubbed after him, traveling up and down his fore- and index fingers in shaky parallels. The rest of his body was rigid and still except for the quick rise and fall of his chest with every breath he gulped into his lungs.

All Jim had to do was twist his fingers against Spock’s, knuckles under knuckles, and just like that, Spock sucked in a new breath before losing it again, a gasp followed by something else softer than a sigh and quieter than a groan.

Jim didn’t close his eyes. He didn’t have to see Spock’s face to know that Spock hadn’t closed his. Neither of them could see much more than the darkness. Jim tucked his knees against the backs of Spock’s, both of them bent so they’d fit on the same narrow bed. Jim curled his thumbs around Spock’s thumbs until the pads were touching. He had no idea what he was doing.

Spock hadn’t demanded an explanation. He wasn’t questioning it. It was the longest non-meditative period Spock had gone without questioning what Jim was doing, interrogating his choices, dialoguing until Jim was blue in the face. Jim bit his bottom lip until he tasted the tang of iron-rich, red, human blood.

It would’ve been nice, Jim thought, holding Spock through the night—until at last his fingers clenched and he gripped Jim’s hands vise-tight; he gasped a few, final times, Jim’s hands trembling because Spock’s were trembling, then trembling after Spock’s weren’t trembling anymore—if he had known what he was doing.

Anyway, it was nice without knowing.

Jim was still awake when he realized, for the first time he could remember, that Spock’d been the first one to fall asleep.

*

Chapter Text

It was not the first time Jim had behaved in an illogical manner. It was, therefore, more palatable than if this had been his first senseless act in a history of perfectly rational behavior.

When Spock awoke, it was within the hold of Jim’s right arm encircling him. His hand over Spock’s had gone slack, fingers twitching with minute neuron impulses as he slept, but it was the only instance—in Spock’s observational history—in which he had not moved during the night. There were no blankets removed from the bed and Spock did not recall having been kicked in their place.

Jim had slept soundly. They both had.

It was not the outcome Spock had prepared himself for when he felt the first, irrepressible flush of the pon farr symptoms in his physiology. He had hoped, as a child of a Vulcan and a human, that his experience would notbe as severe as that of his other, full-blooded Vulcan counterparts. It was a logical assumption, not one influenced by foolish hope. There were few Vulcans with human mothers; such an experience had not, to Spock’s knowledge, been recorded for posterity.

It was possible, then, that Spock’s reaction might be his own to define without precedents set down by any of his ancestors.

When it became apparent that this was not the case—that Spock could no more define his experience than he could control them—he had sought to mitigate the severity of pon farr’s effect on him on his own terms. This was not a solution that would have worked indefinitely but it was important for Spock to understand the particulars of his biology, especially the limits it was able to withstand. Eventually, some action would have to be taken, but Spock had been mindful of the timeline. He had not reached the precipice of desperation. Not yet.

His attentions had been turned so fully inward that he had not anticipated Jim would act first.

Spock prodded his own memories and found that he could rightly term this an oversight on his part. He had been unforgivably distracted while in the throes of pon farr. In attempting to cope with and manage the worst of the physical symptoms, his mind had not been operating at optimal levels. He was thoroughly distracted with the mediation of his biological responses. This was one of the chief advantages of his Vulcan physiology—and yet Spock could also see that there were times when it had its disadvantages.

Had he not been preoccupied with his own body mounting quiet rebellion against him, he would undoubtedly have seen Jim’s plan and been able to circumvent it with another, more logical course of action.

Jim stirred, rubbing his nose against Spock’s shirt where he was tucked up against Spock’s back. It was not possible that he had realized Spock’s train of thought or even that Spock had already regained full consciousness. While they had experienced a not unremarkable telepathic connection last night, the empathic bond would not be strong enough now to wake him.

The motion was a simple coincidence, Jim’s sleep cycle overlapping at a convenient point with Spock’s analysis of the situation.

He had not yet come to any firm conclusion. Jim’s palm—warm with sleep—curled across Spock’s knuckles. Even this close, Spock could not feel the gust of his breath against the thick fabric of his shirt; he simply knew that it was there.

Examination of the facts would not present an unambiguous conclusion no matter how many times Spock went over them. There were too many points of contradictory evidence. His muscles had begun to stiffen from being held in place for hours without the benefit of a trance state but Spock had not moved. There were known ways of preventing and treating the effects of pon farr and Jim had prescribed neither. Their minds had not been ritually bound and they had not fought, as in the kunat kal-if-fee.

Jim had done what he always did: endeavored to make a place for himself where none existed. And Spock, in not putting a stop to the act, had tacitly encouraged him.

Nonetheless, Jim’s choices were not unequivocally reprehensible. As Mother would have said in such an instance: he meant well. Intentions, while not as ultimately important as their lasting effects, could not be discounted. They factored in.

There was a great deal to factor in.

In his own way, Jim had acted logically—though his actions, to a logical being, appeared illogical. As far as Jim was concerned, he had assisted Spock through a difficult time by invading yet also maintaining his privacy. They were already intimate in many ways Spock could not envision himself becoming with anyone else, T’Pring included, and as such they were attuned to one another at a level that was necessary for the bonding implicit in the pon farr cycle. In a manner of speaking, Jim had offered what was needed on the basis of a technicality, and it had worked.

That being concluded, there were still implications of the incident that had not yet made themselves clear. Spock would have to meditate on them and he would have to do so alone, even though the focus of that meditation involved, implied, and inculpated Jim as well as himself.

It had been a long and curious night, passing as if in a dreaming state—somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. Spock would be required to examine it more closely despite the vagaries that surrounded it. There were mists to part, shadows to illuminate. So much of it had been action and reaction, without logic or thought, merely the catalysts of physical responses, needs that matched what was given.

And Jim, who was not Vulcan—who was as human as Mother, with above-average intelligence, yet nonetheless limited by the very simplicity of his own birthright—could not have possibly understood what it was he had offered or what it was Spock had taken, or what Spock’s parameters had not permitted him to offer to a human in return.

Spock was not satisfied but he was confident in his conclusion. Jim had acted to lend him aid without realizing what that aid would have implied between two Vulcans; as such, gratitude was in order, but no more was to be expected beyond the exchange due to Jim’s giving nature.

He had seen that Spock was under duress and had behaved accordingly—a hand proffered to one in need and nothing more.

Indeed, there was no other conclusion that could logically be drawn.

At Spock’s back, Jim shifted again. He yawned into the fabric of Spock’s shirt, a hot puff of air from his open mouth warming a round circle around Spock’s spine. He nuzzled Spock’s back as though he had learned the action from I-Chaya; he was in the midst of waking yet stubbornly clinging to sleep for as long as possible, despite the obvious and the inevitable. He must have known—so why, then, did he linger?

‘Mmfh,’ he said at last. ‘Ungh.’

Spock waited the appropriate amount of time for Jim to gather his wits and collect his conscious thoughts. On nights when he expended more energy than he allowed himself to rest and restock his stores of the same, Jim was always slow to rise in this fashion. Spock had considered suggesting meditation to him in the past to calm his restless spirit, but the idea of Jim maintaining the requisite tranquility and quietude, not to mention physical stillness, was unimaginable. Therefore, despite its usefulness, Spock had not suggested it after all.

Jim’s muscles tensed. He stretched, flexing, groaning a yawn, his knees bumping the backs of Spock’s, his arms tightening on impulse. His fingers curled instinctively around Spock’s fists and he hiccupped on a sigh.

‘Spock...?’

‘Indeed,’ Spock replied. ‘Jim.’

There followed a lengthy silence. Spock counted eighty-three seconds before Jim chuckled; it did not sound like a laugh that followed a satisfactory joke.

‘Hey,’ Jim said.

It was a word he had offered multiple times the night before for no purpose other than the repetition of the familiar. Spock was capable of remembering that as a touchstone, something solid amidst the rest, which slipped through his fingers like a colored gas. He closed his eyes, counted slowly to ten, then opened them again.

‘Good morning,’ Spock replied. ‘Your assistance last night was valuable. In recognition of that assistance, I am grateful—and, as an expression of that gratitude, I believe it would be in good form to offer something of equal value?’

‘Uh...’ Jim said.

‘I will begin with breakfast,’ Spock continued. ‘Just one may not be adequate. I shall also do the dishes tonight on my own, as well as produce breakfast for you again tomorrow.’

‘Spock,’ Jim said again, and though Spock did not offer the same variations in intonation and inflection as a human, that did not mean he was incapable of detecting these variations when they were presented. Jim leaned his full weight on one elbow, the tension in his body readily apparent. ‘What’re you... I mean, yeah, sure, breakfast wouldn’t be so bad. I’m pretty hungry. But you don’t...’

‘If you are, as you say, ‘pretty hungry’, then I should commence appropriate mealtime preparations at once.’

‘Spock.’ Jim’s hand tightened around Spock’s wrist; Spock followed the motion with his eyes, resting them on Jim’s fingers until he retracted them.

The effect was not immediate but it was simple and efficient. They did not always require the use of words to communicate and there were times when Spock found this worked to his advantage. Jim’s intuition was a boon that could be beneficial in either direction.

‘I will bring it to the room so that you need not trouble yourself with relocating,’ Spock added. This was naturally understood to be the greater favor, as he had observed how difficult it was for Jim to rouse himself from bed. Spock did not have this difficulty. He rose, straightened his collar, and stepped away from the bed.

It was that easy to leave the room, and Jim within it, behind.

Given the appropriate amount of time and solitude to reflect, Jim would no doubt come to understand the wisdom of Spock’s gesture. He had rallied against it at first, but his mind did not reach its optimal function until well past the hour of his waking. A degree of patience would have to be exercised in order to allow Jim to believe he had reached this natural conclusion on his own.

Spock would not attempt to explain—as opening a dialogue with Jim could often be mistaken for inviting the opportunity for debate.

In this matter, there would be no such thing. Spock knew better in these matters and he was also older. Therefore, it was his duty as well as his privilege to dictate the terms of how they would proceed from this aberration in routine.

Spock did not wish to seem ungrateful. But neither could he express gratitude for something that had been given without Jim’s knowledge or express consent. In this way, he managed the best of both proverbial worlds. Jim would not be troubled by a misapprehension of Vulcan culture and Spock would not have to be the bearer of uncomfortable news.

It was not lying to omit the occasional truth.

I-Chaya was slumbering on the balcony, doors left open for him to return inside when he saw fit. Spock was quiet in the kitchen, careful not to rattle any pans that would disrupt the sleeping members of the household, the sehlat included.

No doubt Father or Mother would have questions about his physical state. Spock did not entertain optimism—he would not allow himself to assume that one or both of them had failed to divine his condition. But Father would be leaving to work alongside an Andorian delegation for the better part of the week and with Mother there was always the chance she would not question him too closely.

Just as it was with Jim, there were matters which even Mother could not ever understand.

It was in this way, with a strict adherence to his own course of logical action, that Spock managed to get around Jim’s habitual curiosity. There was nothing between them that could be illuminated by a discussion of events. Spock did not know what information had brought Jim to his conclusion and therefore could not expect to add to the knowledge he already possessed.

Action had already been taken—there was no sense to be found in talking it out after the fact.

They ate breakfast together in silence. Spock felt Jim’s eyes on him, but then, Spock often felt Jim’s eyes on him. At times he would consider the gaze searching. Whether or not it found what it sought was irrelevant to the pattern of observation followed by distraction.

Jim thanked him for the meal. It was an appropriate exchange.

Subsequently, Spock was relieved to discover that Jim—given time to think it over—had evidently come to a state of agreement on how they should proceed. There were still times when he felt Jim’s eyes on him, blue and watchful, but this act never translated beyond interest into words. It was obvious then that Jim’s intellect had led him to the same conclusion which Spock had drawn.

It would be enough.

If Mother noticed in the days after Father’s departure that there was an excess of tension between Jim and Spock, she chose not to raise her concern. I-Chaya appeared to be the most affected by the subtle shift in the air pressure, as animals were even more sensitive to these matters than humans, but Jim—who was sensitive to matters involving I-Chaya—appeased his concerns by spending extra time with him out of doors. Jim’s sunburn turned to what could be best considered a tan and, according to Mother, he spent the time after he had completed his daily studies taking long walks with I-Chaya along the bank of the river. Spock overheard one conversation Jim and Mother had on the matter, which gave Spock insight into the reason for Jim’s pursuit of the physical.

‘It’s harder than it should be,’ Jim had explained, cracking a sore muscle in his neck. ‘That’s why I’m doing it.’

He was, as always, a curious individual; Spock no longer thought to base his comprehension of human behavioral averages on Jim’s choices and interactions, as it was clear, even according to Sarek, that Jim was unlike other humans his age.

‘He has an advanced intelligence,’ Sarek had told Spock. ‘For a human, in any case.’

Spock had noticed this. He was not proud necessarily that his father had noticed it too, though for some reason he could not formulate, Sarek’s voice and those particular words lingered, as a summer day carried its heat throughout the night. Perhaps it was that he and his father were in rare, complete agreement on a matter of something less straightforward than logic. Perhaps it was that Jim had managed, by his pursuits and achievements, to display the simple fact that he was commendable, within reason, to a man whose standards were exacting. Spock himself could not claim the honor of hearing Sarek say the same of him, though it was true that his father was appropriately satisfied with the advancements he had made in his studies. His rate of learning was suitable for one who wished in the future to apply to the Vulcan Science Academy with the intention of being accepted on his own merits.

Sarek would have understood that Spock could see the facts just as well as anyone, and did not require reinforcement of their veracity. The obvious truth at his disposal needed no further discussion, just as private matters that had been concluded were also a matter in which silence was preferential.

What was not said had as much bearing as what was said. And deciding what fell to which category was one of the finest tests of wisdom, as well as one that could not be simulated on Vulcan computers.

The time Sarek spent working with the Andorian delegation was briefer than it would have been had it been a matter of Tellarites. He returned to note that Spock no longer presented the symptoms of pon farr and no discussion was broached. Sarek had seen the same wisdom as Spock—and as Jim—and Spock reminded himself that the matter was now concluded satisfactorily.

Whether or not he should have needed to remind himself was a matter of less clarity than he might have expected.

Yet with time and distance between them and their past actions, it was important to acknowledge that the consequences had been minimal and handily negotiated. All in all, it had been logically managed, allowing them to continue with their lives as they had prior to the unseemly incident.

Four weeks and five days after it was fully behind them, Spock exited his final lesson of the day to discover that Jim had come to meet him and travel home with him—which was not in itself an unusual occurrence, depending on where Jim’s afternoon errands took him. He had brought with him his hoverbike—Spock’s memories of his time on which were not entirely poor yet not wholly enthusiastic—perhaps with the intention that they would return to the house more quickly if they rode back rather than journeyed by foot.

However, Jim was not alone. Neither was he in need of rescuing, as Spock recalled, surrounded by Vulcans twice his size and far surpassing him in physical strength. He had been joined by T’Pring and another of Spock’s peers whom he recognized as Stonn; Jim was wasting his breath by what Spock could only surmise was ‘showing off’ the bike to T’Pring as a continuation of his promise to take her ‘for a spin’ on the vehicle in question.

Remaining true to one’s words was a commendable quality. Yet Spock could not help but think that, in this instance, he would not have commended it.

Spock approached the gathering of unlikely individuals without allowing trepidation to accompany him.

‘...one of the modifications I made, yeah,’ Jim was saying, running a hand over the back engine. ‘I made the calculations, but it turns out, she can go even faster than I planned on.’

‘How fascinating,’ T’Pring replied, ‘is the human habitual inclination to refer to their vehicles as females.’

‘Fascinating, yet also illogical,’ Stonn added.

‘Nah, it’s not that weird.’ Jim looked up, flicking the hair from his eyes. He was in need of another haircut, although his insistence that it not come to resemble Spock’s too closely made him look unkempt whether or not he had recently received a trim. Spock had long since ceased to be surprised by the irregularities of Jim’s appearance, although this familiarity did not prevent him from remarking on them as occasion called for it. ‘It started with ships, I think. That’s more conventional. But since I don’t have a ship…’

‘You have transferred the tradition to fit your current means of transportation,’ T’pring said. ‘The hoverbike.’

Spock had observed in the past that she was of a quick mind, though she had never before chosen to finish one of Spock’s sentences. It was illogical to assume anyone, Vulcan or human, could predict where a human’s thoughts would lead them—especially one as impulsive as Jim.

Jim grinned. ‘Exactly.’

‘However, one cannot consider himself captain of a hoverbike as one would of a starship,’ Stonn said. ‘The analogy is hardly sound.’

‘Well, you don’t have to be captain of a thing to love it,’ Jim said.

‘This implies a depth of feeling is necessary for the affectation to hold.’ T’pring bent her knees, lowering into a steady crouch to observe the bike at eye level. ‘This is not a Vulcan trait.’

‘You could learn, I guess.’ Jim scratched the back of his neck where his hair was shorter and spiky. ‘Everybody likes something.’

His expression shifted as he caught sight of Spock, shielding his eyes from the setting sun. His mouth went slack, betraying the tension that had been hidden there up until the very moment of its release. Spock observed these alterations and did not comment on them. Jim still could not approximate Vulcan control over his features and thus it was to be reasoned that certain revelations of his disposition had not been intended. They were private and would remain so.

‘Hey, Spock,’ Jim said.

He had not, as Spock had predicted, retired that statement after its employment in Spock’s bedroom, late into the night. Rather, the reverse had occurred—as if that night had cemented it in Jim’s vocabulary as a greeting between them and only them. He did not use it with Mother and Father and, up until this point, Spock had not known he had any occasion to speak with anyone else.

Both Stonn and T’pring were older but Jim was clever for his age. It was logical that he would gravitate somewhere above his peer level. He was also ambitious, at times overly so. His choice of companionship was understandable.

T’pring turned to observe Spock over her shoulder. After a pause, Stonn did the same. There was a measuring consideration in his gaze that Spock soon found himself reflecting. While he did not understand how the three of them had come together, he could at least trace past precedent to form a reason for Jim and T’pring to speak with one another.

Stonn was the rogue element in the equation. Spock did not know him and therefore could not properly factor him in.

‘Jim,’ Spock acknowledged. He offered a salute to the others, who returned the gesture, Stonn a beat slower than T’pring.

‘Jim Kirk presented me with inquiries about electromagnetic radiation as it applies to the Vulcan atmosphere,’ T’pring said, speaking to a question Spock had not yet voiced. ‘I had then offered my assistance with the calculations.’

‘I’m building a radio,’ Jim added. ‘I thought it might be cool; I could listen to the news and stuff. Wouldn’t have to bug your dad—I mean, Sarek—for the latest off-world broadcasts.’

It was not an unreasonable plan. Despite Jim’s years on Vulcan, it made sense that he would still retain some attachment to his birthplace and an interest in the events that took place there. His scope of concern was not limited to Earth, as Spock had observed Jim had a keen awareness of Vulcan’s place in world events and their position in the Federation at large. It made sense that he would wish to educate himself in current affairs and that he would not wish to burden Spock’s father by making him the sole means of obtaining the information he desired.

Since his completion of the hoverbike, Spock had known Jim would eventually turn his attentions toward another project. Since the first had been conducted largely in solitude, he had naturally assumed that the second would be a similar undertaking.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. He was agreeing with no one and for no one’s sake. It would be noted as remarkable and ill-considered behavior by both Stonn and T’Pring; they would not be able to draw a favorable conclusion. Jim should have known this—yet if he did, his behavior did not indicate it. He cleared his throat—it was likely that there was sand and grit bothering it due to the conditions of his ride; though he had a helmet, the chin strap was looped around one handlebar in a way that suggested he had not worn it on the way over, and he tended to drive above a sensible speed. It was little wonder if he found his throat troubled by irritants. ‘Also, I promised I’d take T’Pring for a ride on the bike sometime. If the opportunity knocks...’

‘I had assumed you had come this way in order that we might return home together, as has been customary in the past.’ Spock folded his hands behind his back. ‘I will not make the same incorrect assumption again.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim repeated. ‘Well, and plans change. I didn’t figure I’d run into T’Pring, but like I said—if the opportunity knocks, why not take it?’

‘This colloquialism is possessed of a distinct human poetry,’ T’Pring said. Spock did not believe he appreciated her tone, which at once gave excess praise to that which was undeserving of comment while simultaneously condescending to Jim far below the respect he usually deserved.

‘The helmet’s for you, if you want it.’ Jim tugged it off the handlebar and offered it to her.

T’Pring took it in both hands and held it away from her body as though it were a ceremonial water bowl. ‘You do not have a second helmet and this reveals you do not feel it necessary to wear one of your own. Therefore I shall ask this question of you: will I have need of the helmet, Jim Kirk?’

‘As Jim is inclined to push the vehicle he rides beyond its capacity for acceleration in an attempt to ‘seek thrills’,’ Spock informed her, ‘it would be a logical precaution to take.’

‘Then I shall ride with you and wear the helmet you have given to me, Jim Kirk.’ T’Pring donned and adjusted the helmet before she mounted the bike behind him, as was the traditional fashion. Spock observed her, as did Stonn. There was room only for two; thus, of the four of them, half must have remained standing. ‘This,’ T’Pring added, ‘is a form of research, is it not? An admirable form of research. A direct method.’

She arched an eyebrow at Stonn as she said it. Jim hunched his shoulders forward, leaning over the handlebars and revving the engine one time more than necessity called for. He did not look back in Spock’s direction as T’Pring had looked to Stonn. However, T’Pring and Jim were not alike. It stood to reason that they would not display gestures in common.

‘Race you back, Spock?’ Jim said instead.

‘That is an absurd challenge, Jim,’ Spock replied, ‘as you are possessed of a transportation device that will far outstrip any pace I may achieve on foot.’

‘Oh my God, Spock.’ This was not an unfamiliar statement of late. Jim tossed his hair out of his eyes and bore down on the acceleration without further explanation of his outburst.

Stonn stepped forward after the bike but Spock could have told him it was without reason—as Jim and T’Pring had already sped away, leaving them behind in a cloud of fuel exhaust mixed with dust.

‘The vehicle is clumsily assembled,’ Stonn noted.

‘Despite that,’ Spock replied, ‘it achieves high speeds and has proven itself admirably durable.’

Stonn stared at him from beneath a dark, severe brow.

Spock could not presume to understand why.

*

Chapter Text

Jim and T’Pring had the radio in almost perfect working order by the time Stonn and Spock showed up. They weren’t getting a particularly strong signal, only a few stations, and Jim had managed to make T’Pring’s eyebrows rise when he chose to home in on a music station instead of any of the news networks he could’ve picked from. A song was blasting when Spock appeared, not even sweating or flushed or anything, still wearing his dumb dress.

Anybody else might’ve been jealous. Jim had to count himself lucky that Spock wasn’t the type—because Jim’d never be able to know where the jealousy was coming from, anyway.

If there’d been any.

And there wasn’t.

He adjusted the volume dial so it wouldn’t be too loud for the three pairs of sensitive Vulcan ears around him. T’Pring had taken a seat in a chair with Jim’s helmet in her lap. On her, it’d ended up looking like a crown. Jim was considering telling her she should keep it because nobody’d ever be able to wear it right after she was through with it.

Not to mention, Jim didn’t wear a helmet if he could help it.

‘It is my conclusion that Jim Kirk is possessed of an above average intelligence,’ T’Pring said, instead of a hello or something like that.

As far as greetings went, it wasn’t the worst Jim’d ever heard from a Vulcan. He could feel the back of his neck getting sunburn hot.

Spock, on the other hand, was looking at him like he’d run I-Chaya down in the street on his hoverbike or some equally unforgiveable betrayal. The best part about thatwas that Spock didn’t even seem to know he was doing it. He probably thought his expression was perfectly neutral, which was true most of the time, but Jim wasn’t an idiot. He was possessed of an above average intelligence, according to most Vulcans who met him, and he could tell when a Vulcan was feeling snippy in his direction.

Especially a Vulcan he’d been living with for the last six and a half years.

Whatever Spock’s problem was, it’d started way before Jim brought T’pring over. In fact, this was practically normal for them these days. Spock ignored Jim; Jim got on with his life; there was stuff they didn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about—and the longer it continued, the less likely it was to change.

It was whatever by Jim’s standards. He’d read enough by now that he got the difference between feeling nothing and training yourself into believing there was nothing going on under the surface. It wasn’t as if Vulcans had some secret ability to walk through their lives like meditative trance zombies. It took conscious, constant effort to keep their feelings from getting one up on them, which meant that they were feeling things allthe time, just like anybody else. The difference was that they refused to act on those feelings, or bring them to light.

Not very logical.

But now wasn’t the time to talk about that.

‘Indeed.’ Spock didn’t sit—he never did unless he had to—but stood with his back to the wall like this was a combat simulation and he didn’t want anyone sneaking up behind him. ‘He gave you little opportunity to observe it upon your first meeting; nevertheless, your findings are sound.’

‘An unexpected conclusion,’ Stonn said.

Like hewas one to talk about judging somebody based on their looks. From the moment T’Pring had introduced him, Jim had recognized Stonn as the Vulcan hanging around in the garden when T’pring and Spock had been bonding or not bonding or whatever it was they were doing without Jim to keep the conversation from sinking like a stone.

Stonn was the only Vulcan Jim’d met who could be considered awkward. He wasn’t clumsy—he didn’t walk around banging into things like Jim could, and frequently did—but there was no grace in his features. It was a trait that carried into how he held himself, how he made conversation. Even by stilted Vulcan standards he entered a dialogue the way Jim cannon-balled into the river behind their house.

He’d never seen any fish around, but they probably cleared out whenever they saw him coming.

‘You can just call me Jim.’ With all three of them in there, the air in the room had turned oppressive, hot in a way even the Vulcan sun couldn’t manage alone. And Jim could no longer be sure he had a single ally in the room. Whatever was going on with Spock, it was bad enough that they hadn’t been able to talk about it, no matter how many late-night encounters Jim had tried to orchestrate. Spock wouldn’t work with him. ‘Jim Kirk makes me feel like I’m late for school or standing trial or something.’ He paused and waited for it. One, two, three Vulcan brows went up.

Jim wondered if there was a special preschool class for that kind of muscle control.

‘Like I’m in trouble,’ he clarified.

‘A prescient remark, considering the logic you drew upon in your reasoning for not wearing a helmet,’ Stonn commented.

‘Jim is a proficient driver,’ Spock said.

Jim’s hand closed around nothing. He’d put his tools down when the boys showed up. He’d been acting on muscle memory; he cleared his throat and looked up at the ceiling.

Mom had taught him how to take a compliment a long time ago but she’d probably never guessed he’d land in a house full of Vulcans who acted like it was rude to draw attention to the fact that they’d said something nice about you.

Again.

‘One would hope that his skills in that arena far outweigh his aptitude for selecting a radio station,’ Stonn said.

‘Now, don’t tell me you don’t like my music,’ Jim replied.

Stonn glanced at T’Pring, then settled for a middle, neutral distance: the air above the radio. A radio had always been the most sensible—even logical—thing for Jim to try his hand at next, since so many of the spare parts he hadn’t used for the hoverbike were on the list for a build-your-own radio kit. He’d never predicted he’d end up showing it off like this. Mostly, he’d planned on listening to angry music alone in his room the way George used to whenever he came back from school and refused to tell anyone about the day he’d had.

‘Though I did not say so in as many words, the inference you have drawn from my commentary is not unsound,’ Stonn said.

For anybody else, those might’ve been fighting words. But it was too late for Jim to work up the energy to want to fight anyone, much less a Vulcan.

Stonn was just being Stonn. He was another Vulcan like Spock but at the same time, seeing the two of them together, Jim could tell that he also wasn’t like Spock at all.

It wasn’t clear why, but the realization made Jim feel more comfortable than he had in weeks. He wiped his sweaty palms on the fronts of his trousers, wishing there was somebody else around who’d sweat like a human. Of all the things Vulcans did that drove Jim crazy, not sweating was the worst.

‘Huh. What about you, T’Pring?’ Jim looked up at her where she sat, maintaining perfect posture—as well as ownership over the helmet. Something told him he wouldn’t be getting it back at the end of the day. ‘Is it your style or not?’

‘The choice of this word ‘style’,’ T’Pring said. ‘What is its precise significance?’

‘It means, do you like the music or not?’

‘It bears little resemblance to the music of Vulcan, to which I am accustomed.’ T’Pring blinked for a long moment. ‘It is louder and less soothing.’

Quiet and soothing aren’t really something you look for in music you want for dancing,’ Jim pointed out.

‘Nor would this melody—a generous term for the notes as they are broadcasted—provide suitable rhythmic backdrop for any Vulcan style of dance with which I am familiar.’

Vulcans dancing. Now there was a thought. There were certain things even Jim’s imagination, which he’d been told on more than one occasion ran a little too wild for his own good, couldn’t fathom, and what Vulcans would look like dancing was one of them. Jim could only assume they’d stand as far away from one another as possible, refuse to touch except for their fingertips, and nod to one another when the songs changed at predictably timed intervals, offering the traditional complimentary terms—only if compliments were deserved, of course—about the logical groove they’d found in each other’s company.

‘Why do you smile, Jim?’ T’Pring asked. ‘Your sense of humor remains most unpredictable.’

‘It’s, uh...’ Jim rubbed the sweat off his forehead, pushing his hair out of his eyes. ‘Nothing; it’s nothing. I was just thinking about dancing.’

‘And this topic presented itself in a humorous fashion?’

‘I’m not laughing at the idea of you dancing,’ Jim said. ‘Don’t get me wrong. It was more like laughing at the idea of Spock and Stonn dancing.’

‘Ah.’ T’Pring was unexpectedly satisfied with the reply. Jim had to assume that meant she agreed.

It took every ounce of self-control that he’d learned just by watching Spock and Amanda not to look over his shoulder to see what Stonn and Spock thought of that conclusion. He wouldn’t be satisfied by any affronted expressions; the best he could hope for was twin eyebrow treatments leveled his way.

‘Was that intended as a deprecatory remark?’ Stonn asked.

‘What quality is it that you believe T’Pring possesses that you likewise believe we are lacking?’ Spock asked.

Jim was positive that was Vulcan for say that again to my face, even if they’d never get the reference. He hid a grin by tucking it against his shoulder and clearing his throat.

‘If I’m wrong, you could always prove it,’ Jim said.

‘Above average intelligence, indeed,’ T’Pring concluded.

That was about the long and the short of how Amanda found them when dinner was ready, Jim teaching T’Pring a few of the outdated moves he’d seen George trying alone with the music blasting, always before Frank came home and almost banged down the door shouting about the racket.

Dancing, though, was one of the ways not to think about things—except, now and then, how bad most of them were at it. T’Pring included.

It wasn’t every day a human could excel in something every other Vulcan in the room couldn’t.

‘You don’t have the hips for it,’ Jim told T’Pring, when she demanded honesty from him, and gave him the most threatening look this side of a le-matya guarding its young.

‘My hips are here, as you can plainly see,’ T’Pring replied.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, putting his hands on them. ‘I meant you’re not moving ‘em right.’

‘Your instruction is heavily reliant on vague statements and is therefore functionally unclear,’ T’pring said. ‘I cannot feelthe music. It is heard and has no bearing otherwise on my physical state.’

‘Well, that’s where you’re wrong,’ Jim said.

It was partly his fault, dropping them into the deep end of human activities without a few prep courses first. But T’Pring didn’t complain when he led her around, so he figured he had to be doing something right.

Some things, Jim quickly discovered, you couldn’t undo in only one afternoon. A lifetime of Vulcan posture was one of them. Even Spock didn’t sleep the way Jim did. It was like his body just didn’t know how to let go; he couldn’t relax on a biological level. And T’pring, who was clearly trying, couldn’t approximate the necessary looseness despite her intense Vulcan commitment to the task—or because of her intense Vulcan commitment—not even with Jim’s hands showing her the way.

There were a couple moments when he felt Stonn’s eyes on him like he was trying to laser twin holes through Jim’s skull to his brain, but too bad. Interesting, but too bad.

For a group who prided themselves on honesty, Jim was getting the impression that a bunch of them had their fare share of trouble speaking up when they wanted to, or needed to, or could.

So if—for example—Jim had accidentally waltzed his way into the center of a Vulcan love triangle or whateverwas going on with Stonn and T’Pring, they were either gonna have to say something or deal with the consequences of not saying something.

Under normal circumstances, Jim would’ve asked Spock—but things between him and Spock hadn’t been normal ever since the thing that’d happened. Pon farr, and how they’d sort of gone through it, which Jim had told himself he was ready for, but it turned out he wasn’t.

Maybe it was more that the change Jim’d been expecting wasn’t the one he’d got. That was fair, in its own way. Jim was lucky most of the time and it made sense he’d have to lose some just to even it all out.

Spock would’ve called that illogical thinking. But Spock was better at talking to other people about Jim than he was at talking to Jim directly these days. So yeah, Jim wasn’t about to bring up T’Pring and the eyes Stonn was giving her whenever Jim approached the topic of her hips. At least it was a distraction, something to do, noise instead of the dusty wind blowing through empty stretches of desert silence.

Like a human who hadn’t ever met Vulcans once said: time flew when you were having fun. Before you knew it, it was time for dinner, and nobody knew anything more about dancing or appreciated anything more about popular human music than when they’d started.

‘I hope I’m not interrupting,’ Amanda said. Jim watched out of the corner of his eye, frozen in place, as she took in the scene: him and T’Pring, still dancing badly; Stonn giving it his resolute best in the corner; Spock against his favorite wall, where he’d given up a half hour before; I-Chaya observing it all going down with about the look on his face you’d expect from an old pet watching some new tricks. ‘You know, I haven’t heard this song in ages.’

‘Jim has constructed a radio from spare parts,’ Spock replied.

It was starting to drive Jim nuts, all this talking without being spoken to. Even worse was the niggling idea at the back of his head that if it was just the two of them right now—if Jim could’ve somehow talked his way into getting his hands on Spock’ships—the problem would’ve been solved already.

The thought made his throat feel tight like he’d swallowed a honeybee.

‘That’s marvelous.’ Amanda’s inflection made Jim’s cheeks red with pride. ‘And you’re picking up Earth stations already?’

T’Pring shook her head, something she’d learned from Jim after demanding to know what the gesture meant. ‘It is merely relaying through satellite connection to the nearest Federation space station. Many of these have a stronger signal and receivers than what little Jim Kirk was able to build. In this way, we are able to utilize their reception without needing to reach as far as Earth itself.’

‘How clever,’ Amanda said.

‘It was T’Pring’s idea,’ Jim said. He’d found his momentum again, spun her, then stopped.

‘Not entirely true,’ T’Pring corrected. ‘It was merely a suggestion I had made—one which was predicated upon an earlier remark made by Jim Kirk himself.’

Amanda was smiling, though for a second Jim had this crazy feeling that he was the only one who could see it.

‘Will your friends be staying for dinner, Spock?’ she asked. ‘They’re welcome to.’

‘It is unlikely you would have prepared enough for the meal to be sufficient for all of us. Jim eats more than he once did, another factor that must be considered when making such an offer. It cannot be given hastily and without consideration of the human metabolism.’

Jim didn’t have to wonder why Spock didn’t have friends over all the time.

‘We must depart,’ Stonn added. Jim couldn’t tell if he was relieved to be on Spock’s side in things or if he resented having to agree with him or if his stomach hurt or if that was just his face, what it did on the regular. Jim pushed his hair back from his eyes and didn’t have the chance to stare.

‘Must we?’ T’Pring drew herself to her full height; Jim wouldn’t have been the least surprised to learn she was a princess. The way she carried herself made him feel about three inches tall but he didn’t mind it so much, especially since she hadn’t given Spock a spare look all day. She’d done that for Stonn, though—why, Jim’d never know for sure, but that was another thing. You didn’t like people because it was logical to like them. You didn’t need to be around them because it made sense. How much Jim enjoyed Spock’s company was proof enough that there was no rhyme or reason with that kind of thing. It happened and you fit and you had fun and if somebody asked you why, chances were no answer was the exact right one—like those problems on exams at the end of a course that didn’t have a solution; they just meant somebody was looking to see the way your mind liked to think.

Jim hated answering those questions. They were the only ones he got marked down for because he’d offer fifteen solutions instead of one, bringing, apparently, too much to the table. More than what was required of him. Like that was a bad thing.

Stonn still hadn’t answered T’Pring’s question and Jim could’ve cut the tension with one of Amanda’s paring knives. He cleared his throat—not the same as wielding a paring knife, but it’d have to do—and switched off the radio because the song was over and his stomach was rumbling. He knew how Spock felt about that sound; he had to do something about it before it got loud enough that Spock’d feel the need to comment.

‘Indeed; we shall not impose,’ T’Pring decided, after letting enough time pass that it was obvious the decision was hers and no one else’s. She held up her hand in the proper salute and Jim and Amanda echoed the motion. Spock did it, too, but he waited longer than Jim would’ve expected him to. There was something in that pause, but Spock was a mystery wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in pointy ears and merciless eyebrows. Jim had spent so much time lately focusing on him that it wasn’t just his chest that hurt but his head, as well. ‘Lady Amanda. Jim Kirk. Spock. It was an afternoon of much interest in the house of Sarek.’

‘I find that it often is,’ Amanda replied.

Jim dropped the salute and turned it into a wave. T’Pring inclined her head. Stonn didn’t invite him to live long and prosper—but Jim hadn’t been expecting him to. He picked up the radio and hauled it back to his room, where he’d be able to listen to it if he wanted to at night. With the volume down low until he acquired a pair of headphones; it wasn’t like he wanted to bother Spock the next time.

He waited for Spock to come in, to say something. Anything. To ask him why he’d spent so much time dancing with T’Pring or mention that he’d noticed the same thing Jim had caught passing between her and Stonn whenever they looked at each other. If Jim’s focus had been a little more on inspiring some kind of jealousy, then he had a hunch it went both ways.

T’Pring was doing the same thing, in a manner of speaking, whether she knew it or not.

But Spock didn’t appear in the doorway. Instead, he went directly from the washroom to the dinner table and dedicated himself, as always, to eating without wasting time during the task with small talk. He poured Jim another glass of water before Jim had to ask for it, but when Jim looked at him to say thanks, Spock was already folding his napkin and lifting his plate.

‘I have concluded my meal,’ he said, rising. ‘It was satisfactory, Mother. I shall return to my studies.’

‘Yes; of course,’ Amanda replied.

He left. Jim sighed.

‘An afternoon of much interest in the house of Sarek,’ Jim said into his salad.

‘Oh, indeed,’ Amanda agreed.

*

Chapter Text

Two weeks into the Earth summer season, Father called for Mother, Jim and Spock to stay with him in the American city of San Francisco. Spock spent the bulk of the space journey researching their destination and learned that it was a coastal town, built upon uneven terrain, with weather that would be humid and far cooler than anything for which Vulcan’s climate had prepared him. Mother had packed accordingly, after Father had offered suggestions on how to maintain optimal body temperatures in spite of the predicted fog and damp. She had also included in their luggage, though Spock informed her it would not be necessary, extra items of clothing for Sarek as well, due to the forecasted weather of the area. Nonetheless, Mother insisted, and as it did not demand too much space, Spock acquiesced to allow her this indulgence in the human desire to make sure, above all else, that loved ones were warm.

Jim did not partake in the advance reading—but then, Spock suspected he had already found occasion to read up on San Francisco. It was the site of Starfleet Headquarters as well as other notable Federation activity. The latter explained Father’s position in the city, while the former would have most likely been the source of Jim’s interest. No doubt whether due to idle intrigue or a desire to plan his currently nebulous future, Jim had already learned all he believed he must about San Francisco.

Spock did not ask and Jim did not share whether he had prepared adequately or not. If he spoke with Mother prior to their departure, then it was not during a time when Spock was there to overhear it.

If Jim was experiencing the normal amount of anxiety about returning to Earth and his people for the first time since leaving for Tarsus IV, then Spock was equally unaware.

They had not had cause to come into close contact since Spock had resolved to take control of his gratitude in the wake of Jim’s assistance—five months prior to their San Francisco trip. Spock could not say whether Jim’s nightmares had returned at any point during that time; as a condition of their advanced ages, they no longer shared a common sleeping space.

When they at last arrived in San Francisco, the temperature on Earth was far colder than Spock had been led to expect. He could not blame Father for this, as Sarek had quoted the temperature in several conversions for Spock’s benefit. It was rather a failing of Spock’s imagination that the cold found him unprepared—he had not recalled with clarity how the change in Earth’s atmosphere would affect him and therefore could not have projected what, precisely, he would need.

Fortunately, the temperature was all that affected him.

The same could not be said of Jim.

If he had been energetic before—and indeed, on the journey, he did not manage to sit still even for a mere few minutes—it was nothing compared to his behavior in San Francisco. He woke as the sun rose in order to jog along the beach, returning sweaty and pink in the cheeks while Spock was still brushing his teeth. It became immediately obvious that Jim’s stamina had benefited exponentially from the years he had spent on Vulcan. Tasks which might otherwise have proved beyond the limits of his physicality were now performed with relative ease, due to the shift in the composition of the air and atmosphere.

There was a pool on the roof of the hotel that housed Father’s diplomatic suites and Jim showed a preference for it; he often swam laps there before dinner or sometimes after, enjoying the water late into the evening. More than once, Spock had been put in the position of summoning him down at uncommon hours.

Mother appreciated Jim’s newfound zeal, but it was clear that in an unfamiliar city she was not comfortable extending them the same freedoms they had grown accustomed to at home.

Spock often had occasion to wonder, during silent trips to the rooftop in the turbolift,  whether Jim thought of Vulcan as Mother did. In other words, if this trip to San Francisco was for him a vacation or a homecoming.

He did not ask, merely choosing to present the towel Jim so often forgot in his enthusiasm bolting upstairs and leaping head-first into the water.

It was chilly on the rooftop, cool night winds shifting colder, biting, as soon as the sun had set. As such, the pool was often unoccupied. It was not difficult to spot Jim’s narrow body streaking beneath the water, a shadowed image leaving ripples in its wake. There were electronic lights set around the gated edges of the rooftop and their dappled reflections bounced off the surface of the water.

There was noticeably more harsh, artificial light on Earth than on Vulcan. Spock did not prefer to go out at night when the period of artificial illumination was at its peak. His eyes had adjusted, as Sarek’s often did the same on these assignments, but the bright lights coupled with the incessant noise of an over-populated and busy city at once proved, at times, too much of an assault on the senses.

It was not that Spock did not appreciate the benefits of a place like San Francisco: its history; the information its libraries and other resources readily presented; the myriad opportunities to learn new and valuable lessons. Yet his introduction to the entirety of all it had to offer recalled to mind the manner in which Jim chose to dive into the pool.

There was more than one way to accomplish the same task of acclimatization. Some preferred to take the plunge at once while others preferred to wade in step by step from the shallow end, careful to experience each sensation separately, rather than allow the clamor of them together and all at once to overwhelm and, indeed, submerge.

Spock stood at an appropriate and not at all precarious distance from the edge of the pool, specifically the deepest end, where Jim had wriggled down to touch the very bottom before executing a loose somersault and looping back upward to the surface. He broke through with a wild spray while shaking his head free of excess water, the lights from within the body of the pool refracted through the chlorine sterilizing its contents—but even that piercing blue color did not approximate the intensity of Jim’s eyes, which had taken on new potency in San Francisco despite the unlikelihood of such a transformation being possible.

No; it was not possible. Spock knew this. Yet the facts were present and Jim, draping his arms over the edge of the pool and onto the pale marble-and-concrete ledge between them, fixed the eyes in question on Spock’s face while resting his chin against his wrists.

They could not be denied. Somehow, they were bluer than ever.

‘I’m not even pruning yet,’ Jim said. ‘Do I have to get out already?’

‘The question as you have stated it is more befitting of a child of nine, as you were when we first met, and not a human teenager swiftly approaching the age of sixteen, as you are now,’ Spock informed him.

Jim rolled his eyes. There were beads of water on the lashes, his hair plastered to his forehead. His cheeks were dark from the flush of his exertions. ‘Come on, Spock. Don’t you wanna swim a little, too? The water’s amazing. It’s heated, even. It’s not that cold.’

‘Yet I can assure you it does not reach the optimal temperature for a Vulcan.’

‘The bath in our apartment, though—that gets pretty hot.’ Jim flicked wet hair from his eyes and shrugged, pushing off the edge of the pool with the soles of his feet and settling on his back, his chest facing the night sky, where the stars were familiar only because Spock had studied them, too. He had done so dutifully during their space journey in order to be satisfactorily prepared for the two weeks they were to spend in San Francisco. After all, Spock would not have chosen any course of action—or inaction—that would reflect poorly on Sarek. It was appropriate that he should know all he could about the location, its districts, its sights, and its constellations, should the topics arise at any point during socialization with Sarek’s associates, fellow ambassadors, officers of Starfleet, and so on.

Jim, on the other hand, knew all there was to know about the pool. Water had gathered in the center of his chest where his ribs formed an upside-down v, which became a concave dip whenever he released a deep breath and sank, fractionally, deeper below the surface.

‘It’d be a lot more fun with two, that’s all I’m saying,’ Jim added, calling to Spock from the other end of the pool. He had floated in that direction casually, but as he was no doubt aware, the request to dry off and return to the apartment did not come from Spock alone, but from Mother as well. Jim braced himself on the edge of the pool at the shallow end and lifted himself out on the strength of his arms alone, water pouring off him in rivulets, the artificial light causing his skin to appear a cold shade of blue rather than its customary warmth: a healthy combination of pink tempered by golden yellow.

Spock traversed the length of the pool and extended the offering of the towel Jim required—also the towel Jim had not thought to bring for himself. Jim’s cold, wet fingers came close to Spock’s fingertips, so close that Spock could feel them, before Jim’s hand retracted and he dried himself off, beginning with his hair.

He was still damp in certain places—the small of his back; the space between his scapulae—as they rode the turbolift down to their apartment floor. Mother was still awake, wearing a nightdress and studying an interactive map of the city with a small box of chocolates on the table beside it. This, Spock had come to discover, was her Earth luxury: something that was not to Vulcan tastes, yet easily procured in a city like San Francisco. Jim, too, seemed to appreciate them with the same zeal, accepting one when it was offered and licking the melted remains off his fingers once he had eaten it.

It could not be sanitary—and yet, like so many of Jim’s human quirks, Mother did not see fit to comment on it. Spock, therefore, could not intervene. It was hardly his concern what Jim did with his fingers.

They separated after Jim and Mother had perused the map in order to prepare for bed. Spock and Jim shared a suite with an adjoining door between them; this was kept locked out of habit, the gesture largely formulaic but nonetheless effective. Spock knew from experience how easily Jim could bypass measures of security if he set his mind to the task. That he had not chosen to do so spoke toward his interest in maintaining the peace.

It was an uncharacteristically sensible decision for someone who had displayed such irrational moods in the past. Spock was grateful for the improvement.

He repeated this truth at times when it seemed liable to slip from his mind.

The air was cool and damp in San Francisco; this effect only worsened at night. Spock ran the portable heating unit in his room as soon as the sun had set but its effects were largely negligible. It made the air stuffy, thicker than he was comfortable with—the warmth it produced proved a secondary effect to the humidity. Spock had compensated for this by sleeping in layers, although this was not an ideal solution. As their accommodations were otherwise exemplary, he had not seen fit to complain. Their time in San Francisco would not last forever. Until their departure, he would adapt to the best of his abilities.

Spock brushed his teeth and washed his face in the small bathroom set off from his room. In bed, he drew the covers up to his neck, then prepared his breathing for ritual meditation. It was too cold to remain in a seated position. He had attempted this with little success on the first three nights, only to determine that his stubborn nature was acting in detriment to his progress. It was important to retain this self-awareness so that he might correct the faults in his nature that would, if unchecked, limit his potential.

This was what Spock reflected on as his ears began to register the soft, mechanical click of an electronic lock readjusting its pins. He remained motionless in place, choosing not to open his eyes until he heard evidence of the door sliding open. It was not the door to his room but the adjoining one, which connected his sleeping quarters to Jim’s.

Spock did not have to open his eyes in order to properly ascertain who was creeping into his room.

He had long since extinguished the lights and adjusted the shades. Still, when Spock drew himself up on his elbows, eyes narrowed in the dark, he ought to have been able to make out Jim’s silhouette. What he saw instead was something he did not understand: a large, malleable shape, squat and distorted and unfamiliar.

‘I brought you an extra blanket,’ Jim said from within the mound, thereby explaining it. He hefted it in his arms, revealing the reason for his mysterious bulk.

‘That is not necessary,’ Spock replied.

‘I dunno about that.’ Jim was already moving, unfolding the blanket in his arms to drape it over Spock’s bed. It was clear that he had made his mind up somewhere in the interim between preparing for bed and arriving in Spock’s rather than his own. Anything Spock sought to say now would not sway him. ‘You looked pretty cold up on the roof.’

‘We are not on the roof,’ Spock reminded him.

He could not shake the impulse to draw Jim’s attention to the simple, basic rules of their surroundings. It was not entirely logical, but if Jim had not persisted in behaving so irrationally well into his teenage years, then Spock would not have needed to continue the trend.

‘Yeah, Spock.’ Jim grinned, fleeting, in the dark. ‘I’m aware.’

He found himself a space on the bed and renegotiated it until he was under the covers on Spock’s unoccupied side, close enough to him that the scent of chlorine on his skin was sharp on the air.

‘Did you not shower prior to retiring?’ Spock asked.

Jim shifted; his back remained facing Spock’s side, his expression completely hidden because of how he had chosen to settle. ‘What kind of question is that?’

‘It is not difficult to ascertain your previous location in the pool due to the chlorine residue on your skin.’

‘Takes more than just one shower for chlorine to wash off.’ Jim wriggled—needlessly, as he ended up in the exact same position as he had begun—then tucked half of Spock’s pillow under his head, plumping it up until he accepted its shape as satisfactory. ‘But that’s what summer smells like. Some summers, at least. Some places.’

‘Not those on Vulcan.’

‘Yeah, but we’re not on Vulcan—just like we’re not on the roof,’ Jim said.

Spock regulated his breathing. ‘You have paid an uncharacteristic attention to obvious detail. To what do I owe this behavioral modification?’

‘The extra blanket’s mine,’ Jim continued, blatantly ignoring Spock’s question in order to answer one that had not been asked. ‘And even when I’m warm, I can’t sleep without one. Weird, right?’

‘Illogical at best,’ Spock agreed.

‘Uh-huh. Point is, where the blanket goes, I go. If you can get past the chlorine smell, having the extra body heat might just help you sleep better than you have been the past couple of nights.’

‘Your assumption—’

Jim nudged Spock’s calf with the sole of his foot, as though he were engaged in rappelling off of Spock’s body the same way he switched directions in the water when pushing against the side of the pool. ‘Not an assumption. An observation. You can’t tell me I’m wrong, can you? You’re not on point, Spock. And it’s not just the space-lag, either. Weather like this isn’t any good for somebody like you, so snuggle up.’

‘’Snuggle up’,’ Spock repeated. ‘Another turn of phrase with which I am not familiar, due to my upbringing?’

‘This one’s exactly what it sounds like,’ Jim said. ‘Hey—it’s the only logical thing to do.’

‘A logical action in the midst of illogical circumstances can hardly be defined as commendable or even worthwhile.’

‘Mmf,’ Jim replied. He rolled his face against his edge of the pillow, eased up until his back was flush against Spock’s side, and settled a corner of the blanket over his ear. ‘Night, Spock.’

He was warm—insistently so, which came as no surprise. Insistent was an operative word in the description of James T. Kirk; its less complimentary addendums were stubborn, brazen, and reckless. Yet in this instance, the body heat emanating from his place in Spock’s bed was effective, enough so that Spock was no longer distracted from meditation by the cold.

That did not, however, mean that he was without distraction of another sort. The form and shape had changed, as had its temperature, but it had not disappeared altogether.

In any case, Spock’s rest was qualitatively better—though it still had not attained its maximum potential in San Francisco.

*

Chapter Text

Jim was a heavy sleeper. He had to be, in order to get any sleep at all. It was one of the things he couldn’t quite conquer, no matter how many times he tried. When Spock got out of bed, nine times out of ten, Jim slept clean through it.

That morning, considering how damn hot it was in Spock’s room, Jim was restless enough that he never slipped under too deep. When Spock rose, Jim cracked one eye open to watch him move around the room, and—God, was he wearing layers? Had he really been wearing a turtleneck to bed?

He was ridiculous, Jim thought. And he probably knew Jim was awake, or mostly awake, already. What he might not know was why, or that Jim was watching him; and how could he know the reason for that if Jim didn’t know it himself?

‘Your mom was thinking we could do some sight-seeing today,’ Jim said finally, covering a yawn with the inside of his elbow.

‘And you promised to respect her wishes, despite the implied separation from the rooftop pool?’ Spock replied.

Sometimes it was easy to think Spock wasn’t a morning person.

But the truth was, Vulcans didn’t abide by those concepts, those principles. Early bird or night owl—nothing about that was logical. Functioning optimally throughout the day without a distinct preference for any set of hours: that was the Vulcan way.

Spock arranged the collar on his turtleneck, sliding his fingers beneath the fabric to smooth out a stiff wrinkle. Jim couldn’t stop himself; he had to ask.

‘Sleep well?’

Spock’s fingers paused. ‘Do you require praise for your imposition on my sleeping arrangements?’

Jim dug his knuckles into one eye to rub the sleep out of it. It pinched, making his eye water. ‘Never mind. Good morning to you, too, Spock.’

‘I cannot agree with your assessment. The sky is gray and overcast and, according to the latest weather report, precipitation throughout the day is likely. There is a seventy-five percent chance currently that it will rain.’ 

Jim stared at him, not bothering to hide it this time. It wasn’t that kind of stare. ‘How do you do that?’

Spock gave him a look back. If he could’ve, he probably would’ve shrugged. But Jim didn’t think his shoulders rolled like that.

‘I have maintained awareness of the weather patterns since, as you said, Mother had expressed the desire to visit some of the more popular tourist destinations.’

If Jim really wanted to pick, he could’ve pulled a Spock and pointed out that it wasn’twhat he said, at least not exactly. But since he understood how conversations worked and they already had enough trouble communicating without Jim’s helpful interventions, he chose to let it slide.

Instead he reached out, temporarily disabling his better judgment to give Spock a friendly slap on the shoulder.

‘Guess we’d better bring our umbrellas, then.’

He left the room to shower, going over himself more carefully with the soap this time. If he still smelled of chlorine when he got out, Spock didn’t mention it, which Jim took to mean he’d succeeded at something.

They hit Coit Tower first, one of the old landmarks. At one time it’d been the highest vantage point in the city, the best place to look out and see it all sprawling down the hills and into the messy coastline. Now there were plenty of modern buildings that overshadowed its height but there was still a clean line of sight between the tower and Starfleet Headquarters.

It was the best view the city had to offer, as far as Jim was concerned.

If Jim shaded his eyes and squinted, he could almost see the ant-specks of students in their cadet reds milling on the grass between buildings. Sarek pointed out areas of historic interest while Amanda made involved sounds and Spock stared out into the sea like he didn’t know how dramatic he was being. Jim would’ve given him his coat, but the sleeves were too short and there was no way Spock would accept two illogical offers back to back like that.

Despite the fact that Jim had been the one to bring up umbrellas, he was somehow the only one without one when the skies opened up over Old Chinatown. He tucked close under Spock’s and only managed to get half his shoulder soaked down through his sleeve.

‘A seventy-five percent chance of showers,’ Spock repeated, over the noise of traffic hovering below.

‘What’s that?’ Jim put his arm through Spock’s in an attempt to make more room for himself.

‘I believe I made you aware of the circumstances under which we would be traveling today,’ Spock replied. He looked at Jim sideways without moving his head. ‘And yet not only are you unprepared, you are wearing a coat that does not repel water.’

‘Yeah, but it’s real warm.’ Jim nudged their shoulders together like that could prove it.

Spock seemed to accept the tradeoff. His fingers holding the umbrella were stiff, but he didn’t shake Jim off his arm.

They walked eight blocks in the rain before hopping on an old-fashioned trolley car instead of traveling by foot. Amanda was determined to get the most authentic experience they could, which meant avoiding the generic kind of transport they could get in any city. They hopped off at Fisherman’s Wharf and ate clam chowder out of giant rounds of sourdough that’d been hollowed to serve as bowls. Jim sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Spock, close enough that he could scoop out his clams for him, leaving behind the savory broth.

It wasn’t strict vegetarian, not to mention no one had asked him to do it. It was probably unhygienic and Spock’s nose wrinkled every time Jim jostled his elbow leaning too close. But that didn’t stop Jim from doing it; besides, Spock ate his lunch, which had been the goal in the first place.

Success, where Spock was concerned, never quite felt successful, even when it fit the textbook definition.

The windows in their little restaurant fogged up from all the wet bodies inside. Jim glanced around, the first one finished with his meal, and caught sight of a few Starfleet cadets laughing and talking, some of them studying next to their soup. They didn’t look all that much older than he was and he was willing to bet none of them had been doing physical training on Vulcan for the past seven years.

When he turned his attention back to the table, Sarek was looking at him. Jim’s stomach dropped down to his boots—never a pleasant sensation and even worse with a double-order of clams sitting in there.

If getting the once-over from Spock made Jim’s blood go Vulcan-cold, then being the subject of Sarek’s gaze was like that only to the highest power. Jim got along with Spock’s father in the sense that two separate parts of hoverbike machinery that operated on opposite sides of the fuel cells got along, but there was nothing in the books to say that if you put the two of them next to each other and powered them up, sparks might not start flying.

Jim glanced at Amanda but she was pointing something out to Spock, who was—of course—doing his best impression of the worst person to go on vacation with ever in the history of the galaxy. Jim did what he could to ease back in his chair without slouching; nature abhorred a vacuum and Vulcans abhorred a slouch. He cleared his throat and put his spoon down and hid a wince when it clattered against the plate, fingers number than he would’ve liked.

Nothing he could do about that slip-up now.

‘The trip,’ he said, swallowing back the extra clams he’d snagged from Spock’s soup. ‘I’m really...thankful. Sarek. ...Sir. And it’s been amazing, better than... Yeah. What I mean is, thanks—for having us all out here. I mean, even though I know I can only speak for myself, anyway. Which sometimes, maybe, I do too much, right?’

Sarek didn’t crack a smile. Oh, and Spock had his eyes fixed on Jim again, which meant Jim was pinned between the two of them with Amanda across the way. Knowing her as well as Jim did, he could’ve sworn she was looking at Sarek with some kind of excitement hidden in the shadows of her eyes.

But if this wasn’t an ambush, then what was it?

Jim felt like a clam that’d fallen out of the bowl or worse, sunk to the bottom. He could smell the chlorine on himself all of a sudden; maybe it was because, with the humidity, he’d started to sweat.

Sarek had that effect on people, specifically non-Vulcans. No wonder they’d sent him off as an ambassador; all he had to do was stare at heads of state for long enough and, just like that, the treaties he was supporting and the plans he was arguing for would be signed, sealed, and delivered, no more questions asked.

It worked for everybody but the Tellarites.

Some days, Jim wished he was a Tellarite. 

‘As you have been aware the past three days,’ Sarek said, in a tone of voice Jim had, after years of practice, been able to distinguish from when he was speaking officially rather than—not a joke—casually, ‘San Francisco is the headquarters of Starfleet. I have been informed by my wife that during your time with us, you have shown a distinct interest in the workings of this institution. As you are likewise aware, my knowledge of your studies has allowed me to be familiar with your inclinations and progress in the academic field.’

Anybody else would’ve said You think Starfleet’s pretty cool, Jim?

But Sarek wasn’t anybody else. Sarek was Sarek—and aside from a few agreeable nods every now and then after Jim completed a course above the rest of his class, this was the first actual conversation he’d initiated with Jim for any reason.

Not that Jim knew the reason yet.

He fought the urge to tug at his collar.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. ‘Yes. I’ve been looking into Starfleet, that is. For a long time, actually. It’s a, uh, real interest of mine.’

‘Indeed.’ Sarek managed, without even blinking—or maybe because he wasn’t blinking—to sweep away their surroundings from Jim’s notice: the cadets in red, the foggy windowpanes, the clamor of the kitchen, the rain pattering on the pavement outside, and every time the door blew open and clattered shut again, patrons steadily streaming out only to have more pour in behind them.

‘Indeed,’ Jim echoed.

He needed more of a hint about the conversation to go on. That didn’t mean he couldn’t think idiot, idiot to himself about his level of participation in it at the same time.

Indeed. It only sounded cool when Vulcans said it.

‘Having conferred with an acquaintance of mine who has a not inconsequential standing in the Academy, and after discussing with him both your academic records and family history in Starfleet on your father’s side, he expressed an interest in you, one of his own volition. His suggestion followed as such: that a young man of your intellect and accomplishments would benefit from participation in a summer preparatory program here, in San Francisco, where Starfleet Headquarters is located. The duration of the program lasts three months and is highly competitive; your enrollment would be predicated on your ability to pass the entrance examination, which, as I understand its terms, is—so the phrase goes—easier said than done.’

Jim’s mouth opened. No sound came out.

‘Jim,’ Amanda said, coming to his rescue and, because she was human, knowing she was doing it, ‘when Sarek told me about it, I thought it would be a wonderful idea—an incredible opportunity—but it’s entirely up to you whether or not you want to do it. Three months can be long or short, depending on one’s outlook.’

‘Three months is three months regardless of one’s outlook,’ Spock said.

‘That’s not true, actually,’ Jim replied, a little too quickly, like he was trying to deflect one too many reactions all at once. ‘Outlook totally matters. I mean, it all depends on—on what planet you’re on, how they measure time… A month on Vulcan’s close, but it’s not empirically the same as one on Earth.’

Amanda cleared her throat, fighting down a laugh. Jim didn’t know what he’d said but he knew the sound when he heard it. Spock was looking at him like he’d discovered one last, gray, slimy mollusk at the bottom of his bowl and that mollusk was Jim.

‘Indeed,’ Spock said after a painfully long moment.

Jim didn’t feel victorious. He didn’t feel much of anything.

Indeed.

The truth was, he didn’t know what he wanted. The prospect of spending three months in Starfleet prep was better than anything he could hope for on Vulcan. His lessons were quickly coming to an end there—he’d already started skipping ahead to next year’s review and after he finished those, he’d be done. There weren’t that many career paths for a human on Vulcan; Jim’s best hope had always been to hook up with the Federation, maybe work in a space dock servicing shuttlecrafts so he could contribute something to the household funds. He’d never made off-world plans.

Off-world hadn’t worked too well for Jim in the past.

Plus, someone had been asking about him. The thought made all the clams in Jim’s stomach stir and start dancing around like they were navigating the shallows, still in their shells.

It could be a good thing and a bad thing. Jim told himself, not for the first time, that he didn’t like to draw attention.

Buzz about Tarsus IV had died down a long time ago, but that didn’t mean anyone who was there had forgotten about it.  This guy could have questions—about Jim’s survival or anything that’d come before.

He’d managed to dodge a debriefing about the incident until now. Not exactly standard procedure. Not exactly something he wanted to rectify. Not exactly something he’d ever thanked Amanda for, except in the small ways, lingering in doorways, waiting for her to need help so he could provide it.

There was always the possibility someone had finally noticed Jim poking around in Starfleet’s database, too. It seemed impossible to imagine this guy only wanted him for his test scores, unless kids on Earth were doing even worse in school than Jim remembered.

‘Do I have to decide right now?’ he asked, when he realized everyone was still staring at him.

Well, Sarek and Amanda were staring at him. Spock was looking down into the soggy remains of his bread bowl. He’d refused to eat it, stating that tableware could not also be lunch. Jim didn’t have it in him to argue.

‘No, not right away,’ Amanda said. ‘We wanted to leave you time to consider it, of course. However, I should warn you, there probably wouldn’t be time to return to Vulcan and then come back, Jim.’

‘So I’d be staying here when you and Spock head back.’ Jim thought about it—trying to work out whether or not that made a difference.

It shouldn’t have. Not really. Like Spock said, three months was three months and outlook wasn’t a factor, at least not a major one. It shouldn’t have mattered where on the calendar the days fell. And it wasn’t like Sarek and Amanda had planned this on purpose. They weren’t shoving him out the door with his suitcase, leaving him like a lost puppy on Starfleet’s doorstep.

Even as a puppy, there were worse places to leave him.

It was, the more Jim looked at it, a major gift. A huge deal. Too good to be true, a voice in the back of his head said, the one that cautioned him but didn’t sound like Spock. Not all the time, anyway.

‘Now, that’s only if staying is what you decide to do,’ Amanda said.

It was obvious now that Jim was paying attention that she and Sarek had gone over the best way to broach the subject with him. He was grateful, even if it made him feel itchy to know they’d been talking about him behind his back. That was presumably what parents did, although Jim had never had two looking after him at the same time until now. He couldn’t be sure how they actually dealt with each other, much less how they were supposed to.

‘It has stopped raining,’ Spock interjected. Jim glanced up despite himself. Outside, there were pale slivers of sunlight cutting through the heavy gray cloud cover. ‘As many of our intended points of interest are outdoors, it would be prudent to take advantage of this brief reprieve and continue according to our itinerary.’

‘Walk off the clams, you mean,’ Jim said.

Spock arched a brow. ‘That is not what I meant.’

‘Fine, but it’s what I meant.’ Jim scooted back, his chair scraping the floor. Only the sounds he made, small and unimportant, weren’t noticeable anymore. All the noise of the restaurant had returned—especially the laughter from a table of young cadets, each one wearing their own formal red jacket with its stiff collar, which gave Jim trouble swallowing when he looked at them for too long. The things he did, as loud as they would’ve seemed on Vulcan, were swallowed up by how much louder everything else was here on Earth, in this particular city, where Starfleet had a campus and specialty programs and somebody, one of Sarek’s connections, who was interested in Jim.

Sarek was smart. Nobody would ever be able to trick him. If this guy was serious about Jim’s candidacy for the program, Sarek would know; he’d also know if he wasn’t serious, if he had any ulterior motives.

Of all the things that made Jim nervous around Spock’s dad, not being able to trust him wasn’t one of them.

‘Who’s, uh...’ Jim had to clear his throat. He was never gonna eat clam chowder again. ‘The guy, the acquaintance of yours, who was interested in, uh, me. Who is he?’

If Sarek was pleased or even approving of Jim’s further investigation of the offer before accepting it—or declining it; that was still in the cards—it didn’t show. It never would. Jim had stopped looking for it but he didn’t think he’d ever stop thinking about how it might’ve been there if he’d been dealing with anybody else.

‘Commander Pike is an esteemed member of Starfleet,’ Sarek replied. ‘There have been many occasions in which he has behaved commendably by human standards, as well as by Vulcan ones.’

Commander Pike, Jim repeated to himself. Commander. Pike. The first thing he’d do when they got back to the apartment was dive into research instead of into the pool for a change.

Jim’s feet were sore by the time they made it to the bridge that was next on Amanda’s list—the famous one that was on all the pamphlets and websites and holo-maps and in all the movies. The sun was still shining, despite the chance of rain. And Jim had decided, somewhere between the clam bowl and the water, that he was gonna do it.

That he wanted to do it, anyway.

Spock had his stuff going on, the future he was working for, the years he’d spent studying enough to break a normal brain, and Jim wasn’t gonna get left behind. He could go for it like it was as easy as riding a hoverbike; all you had to do was gain momentum and take your weight off the brakes and let gravity do the rest of the work for you.

Although gravity probably wasn’t going to take that entrance exam for him. Jim had to pull that one off alone. 

‘I think I’m gonna,’ he told Spock in the shadow cast by the bridge, after Spock had recited the information about its reconstruction that he’d memorized the night before and Sarek and Amanda had stepped away in silence. ‘I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna go. Stay. Whatever.’

‘That is upon the condition that you pass the examination,’ Spock replied. ‘That is an important qualification of the terms, one which must be met.’

‘Yeah, well...’

‘However, given your record and the fact that Sarek would not suggest the undertaking lightly, the odds are in your favor,’ Spock added.

‘Thanks, Spock,’ Jim said.

Spock’s eyebrow hadn’t gone down, not exactly, but it managed to go higher all the same. ‘There is no need for gratitude. I am expressing the facts as they are apparent.’

‘Sometimes,’ Jim replied, turning his face toward the wind, ‘it’s nice to hear somebody else say ‘em, that’s all.’

*

Chapter Text

When Spock and Mother returned to Vulcan without Jim accompanying them—as, upon completing a rigorous examination period that lasted, by Spock’s count, a full nine hours total, Jim had been accepted into the program as Spock’s odds indicated was the most likely outcome—it was I-Chaya who felt the greatest impact.

After all, there was no precise way to convey to a sehlat that Jim would be returning in a matter of only three months.

The concept about which Jim had been adamant, that time was relative, could certainly have applied to sehlats, if nothing else.

‘Yes, I-Chaya,’ Spock said, after I-Chaya’s seventeenth sigh on the evening of the first night without Jim back, ‘you are, in your sentimental way, disturbed that someone whose attentions you could not help but appreciate is not currently here to pay you those attentions as you have come to anticipate them. And, as you are old now, the difference in familiar routine has unsettled you to a greater degree than if you were a younger creature, more ready to adapt. That being said, if you continue to sigh in that manner over a mere three months of distance from Jim, I will have no choice other than to ensure that you sleep outside my room tonight, where it will by definition be even lonelier.’

Though I-Chaya could not understand Spock’s words, he rested his chin on his paws and made no additional noises of distress. Spock was not compelled to lead him from the room into the hall that night and beyond that, it was relatively easy to allow I-Chaya’s moping to continue when it no longer interfered directly with Spock’s business.

He had neither the time nor the inclination to indulge an animal who was not possessed of the necessary memory function to retain from day to day that Jim was no longer with them. Though it had only been a matter of years since Jim had joined their household—they were still significantly short a decade—and while I-Chaya had been alive and with Father’s family for exponentially longer than he had known Jim, he awoke every morning and made his lonely way around Jim’s room, snuffling at the made bed with suspicion, as though he sensed that such neatness was not in keeping with Jim’s personality and therefore mistrusted it.

‘That was the guest room once, I-Chaya,’ Spock scolded him. ‘You are behaving like an untrained cub.’

Still, the behavior persisted. And Spock, who had imagined the newfound peace and quiet would at least be beneficial to his studies, found a host of infinitesimal distractions that crept into Jim’s place in his absence.

Mother did not sulk like an old sehlat—nor, Spock suspected, would she have appreciated the comparison—but she did regularly summon Spock into Father’s study to watch the videos Jim sent home.

There was no correspondence from him any of the first three nights, an oversight Spock resolved to chastise Jim for when the opportunity presented itself. It was not that Spock required an update of his circumstances with ready timeliness but rather the impression of carelessness that he objected to.

Also, it worried Mother, and Jim would certainly have known this. Three days was a long time on Earth or on Vulcan and Jim had in the past displayed an attentiveness that would have led her to expect regular communications. Spock explained this all in brief from PADD to PADD the night after observing Jim’s initial video, in which he swung a camera wildly through his empty dormitory, claiming the top bunk before sharing the view of the lawn outside, which was small and bright.

tell ur mom sorry had to rig up the computer the way i like it TOP BUNK SPOCK!!! had been Jim’s reply.

Spock stared at the message, squinting at the bright surface of his PADD in the dark. He did not understand Jim’s emphasis on the choice of sleeping arrangements. Perhaps this had something to do with his preference for high places.

However, there were other, more troubling things about the message that drew Spock’s attention first.

Is the Earth’s atmosphere affecting your mental processes?

what??

The sentence you sent to me in reply gave the appearance of one composed by a sehlat batting its paws against the screen. As I-Chaya is here and not in San Francisco, I surmised that you are experiencing a belated lapse in brain function due to having adapted to conditions on Vulcan.

oh my god spock

this is just how i type ok im tired

It was not, strictly, ‘OK’, but Spock could not successfully summon a satisfactory reason as to why. He relayed Jim’s apology to Mother, who waved it off as though confronting Jim about the lapse in communications had been unnecessary.

‘Of course, he’s just been settling in, making new friends. I didn’t expect him to call every day.’

This did not seem to be entirely true—yet it was clear that Mother wanted to believe it just as she expected Spock to do the same.

He could not in all good conscience find fault in her logic.

Jim did excel in making friends. This had been evident from the afternoon he had spent in the company of Stonn and T’Pring, although Spock was uncertain whether Jim had been aware of the complexities of the situation. Vulcans did not engage in aimless pursuits with one another. It was a marked interest in Jim’s abnormal character that had brought T’Pring along and a mark of interest in T’Pring’s interest that had brought Stonn with her.

Spock expected that Stonn would be relieved to hear that Jim was off-world for some time, if he had cause to let the news affect him at all.

Jim’s videos as they were sent gave I-Chaya cause to paw at the door to the study whenever they were played within. Mother, who was more than capable of certain forms of consistent disciplinary action, allowed I-Chaya to join them on the second night, thus establishing a precedent that would have to be followed on each subsequent occasion.

‘It’s only fair. After all, he misses Jim, too,’ Mother said above I-Chaya’s head as she scratched a spot between his ears. She lowered her voice when she said it, as well, for what reason Spock could not fathom. It was not as though I-Chaya would recognize the words she spoke—and even if he could, he would not be embarrassed by them.

A sehlat did not plan or strive to maintain a constant, unemotional state; therefore it was no insult to the creature to imply a failure to do so.

In any case, Mother raised the volume as Jim’s face loomed into view, so close that there was no chance for proper focus. I-Chaya searched the air for Jim’s scent upon hearing his laughter and seeing his eyes but could find no trace of it.

Taunting him with the visual and the audio when the source of those familiar senses was not truly there was not as kind as Mother might have believed.

‘Hey—oof—hey,’ Jim began. There followed an ambiguous commotion in the background. Perhaps there was shouting. Something might have been broken. The angle Jim had established did not allow for proper speculation. The video recording blinked and though it seemed brief, not even a full second, to those watching it, Spock knew that it signaled a lengthier pause in filming. When the image returned, Jim was in a different position and the direction of the sunlight from the dormitory room’s window had changed, and obviously at least an hour had passed between the commencement of the recording and its eventual continuation. Also, Jim was out of breath, his cheeks flushed pink for reasons other than the Vulcan sunlight. ‘Wow, so, it took me forever—’ Spock sighed quietly at the exaggeration, ‘—not literally, Spock, figuratively—to get him to agree to this, because—’

‘Because I’m studying, Lord love a—hell, pardon my French, not that you’ve ever heard of it—’

I-Chaya’s ears lifted and angled forward, straining against Mother’s touch in an attempt to reach Jim through the screen. There was no doubt that he was reacting to the implicit threat carried by the second, unfamiliar, and unfriendly voice.

‘—you know, he says that’s his excuse, but I’m really starting to think he’s just camera shy.’ Jim disappeared beyond the frame. I-Chaya wheezed. When Jim returned after a second—albeit briefer—commotion, he brought the source of the other voice with him, having looped one arm around the tense shoulders of a frustrated stranger, who was clutching no fewer than three PADDs to his chest. ‘Amanda, Spock—I-Chaya? Spock, let I-Chaya in, if you haven’t already, I really miss him—yeah, boy, I’m talking about you—anyway, this is my roommate at the program—’

‘—Damn it, Jim!’ The roommate in question appeared on the verge of a potentially violent breakdown. Jim, on the other hand, appeared blithely unaware. ‘There are an average of two-hundred and six bones in the human body, to say nothing of all the other bones in all the non-human bodies out there in this miserable galaxy, and I’ve got to have them all memorized by eighteen hundred tonight! ...Ma’am,’ the roommate added, blinking at the screen. ‘Now get your hands off me, because if I fail this practical tomorrow, so help me, I’ll know who to blame, and it’s not just that these hands of mine can heal, you know—’

‘—my roommate, Bones,’ Jim finished. His expression indicated he was not conscious of the close physical danger his roommate presented to his person. It was true that Jim relished physical danger more than was sensible in anyone, human or otherwise, but without Spock there to remind him of that confounding quality, there was little in their shared experience to indicate Jim would not suffer the very real consequences of his carelessness. ‘It’s cause he’s studying the bones. Get it, Bones? Bones. Suits him, don’t you think? Anyway, I’ve gotta help Bones over here learn about the two hundred and seven—’

Two hundred and six!’

‘—the way too many bones in the human body now,’ Jim finished. ‘So he doesn’t fail his practical tomorrow, which starts at oh six hundred, yikes, and I don’t have to worry about him trying to kill me. It’s great here. It’s amazing. I wish I could show you guys all the—’

The video cut off. Spock blinked twice.

‘Mother,’ he said.

‘He does seem like he’s having a wonderful time, doesn’t he?’

‘Regardless of his current level of enjoyment, I am compelled to mention the alarming demeanor of Jim’s roommate whose full name we do not know, merely that he allows himself to be referred to as ‘Bones’. The individual is obviously unhinged and may pose a very real threat.’

‘He seems very colorful,’ Mother agreed, which was not what Spock had said.

‘You are not concerned for Jim’s well-being? Have you not considered the roommate’s repeated menacing remarks?’

For reasons which Spock could not begin to understand, Mother was smiling.

‘There’s an old Earth saying about people like that. All bark and no bite. I think Jim can handle himself just fine, dear.’

Whether Mother had observed something in the video that Spock had not noticed remained unclear—not to mention unlikely. He did not know how she could be so confident in her assertion that the individual known as ‘Bones’ would not make good on his promised threats, but if Mother was unconcerned, then it was up to Spock to achieve the same peace of mind for himself.

This would not be accomplished through platitudes, assumptions, or old Earth proverbs.

Simple research would suffice.

The computer in Jim’s room was still outfitted with the connection he had set up to route through the Starfleet servers whenever he wished to procure research information. It was not information strictly available to the public but neither was it technically classified in nature, and if Starfleet’s general databanks could be so easily accessed by a teenager, then doubtless the information in them could not be considered sensitive.

It was through these means that Spock managed to locate and peruse the personnel files for the Starfleet summer program. There were seventy six students enrolled in the medical division, forty male and thirty six female. As each candidate’s file included proper identification, it was not difficult for Spock to locate the student Jim had referred to as Bones: one Leonard McCoy, born and raised on Earth in the southern United States.

The picture from his identification was that of a sour-faced young man. He appeared tense even when still and there was something notably deranged about his eyes. There was no record of any past violent behavior in his file, yet this was not indicative of any actions he might see fit to take in the future. Spock knew better than anyone the catalyst Jim could be when it came to unprecedented conduct. Despite the difference in their ages—Leonard McCoy was six years older than Jim—there was no marked distinction in patterns of maturity as far as Spock had ascertained.

Neither Mother nor Father seemed to share Spock’s concerns about Leonard McCoy; thus, Spock could surmise that it was up to him to establish and maintain awareness of Jim’s well-being at all times. This translated to setting an alarm for Earth 0600 before waiting the appropriate amount of time for a human of Leonard McCoy’s size and weight to rise and prepare for the day.

Then, Spock sent Jim a message through the PADD.

Today marks the beginning of your fourth week on Earth.

fdjjgfdhgdljksdfn;;

This was not the reply Spock had hoped to receive, as it could not be considered an accurate assessment of Jim’s well-being.

The deterioration of your verbal skills is remarkable.

jesushchrist spock its so early im sleepingstop

The second message was an exceptional improvement, since from this it could be surmised that McCoy had risen in time to take his examination, having left Jim alive and well enough to be frustrated by nothing more than a lapsed rest cycle. Spock settled the PADD on his bedside table and shut his eyes. He was not prepared for it to light up anew, faint notification trilling in the dark of his room.

what TIME is it there???

Spock chose not to respond to the question, due to the overabundance of question marks.

As the days passed, he could admit that perhaps his concern over the threat posed by Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy had not been warranted. For the unlikeliest of reasons—no doubt becauseit was unlikely—it seemed that Jim spent his recreational time in his company without ever returning damaged, physically or otherwise. He sent Mother a picture of himself and McCoy, alongside two other cadet females, one human and one Orion. Jim identified them as Gaila and Uhura, although whether these were titles of his own creation—the practice of ‘nicknaming’ was not one with which Spock had alternative familiarity—or their given names remained unclear.

In the photo Jim’s arm was around the Orion girl’s waist and McCoy looked as if he’d swallowed a le-matya, spiked tail and all.

Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy continues to present the countenance of someone on the verge of committing a grievous criminal offense. Can it be inferred from the expression on his face in the latest picture that he did not pass his practical examination as he had desired?

are you kidding me spock he was top of his class. aced that bad boy!! that picture i sent you guys was from the party oh my gOD SPOCK orion girls ORION GIRLS

Indeed, I was capable of determining for myself the nationality of the Orion with whom I now understand you were attending a party in your roommate’s honor. Nonetheless, it cannot be assumed that Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy will adhere to his promises despite the parameters of his good behavior having been met. Has he made any further threats on your person, Jim?

all the time spock but thats just how he is

I fail to see what these particular qualities present that have recommended him to you as a candidate for companionship. Surely there are other individuals within the program who present more admirable traits, and with whom you would prefer to, as you say, ‘hang out’?

this morning he told me he was gonna bake me into his grandpa’s old campfire beans recipe spock hes totally nuts its brilliant im gonna be baked beans

Your time without frame of reference for human behavior seems to have fostered in you a warped perspective on what constitutes a notable or even mildly intelligent quality in the fellow members of your race.

night spock

Good night, Jim. We shall continue this conversation at your next convenience.

It was for I-Chaya’s sake as well as for Jim’s that Spock monitored Jim’s progress as closely as he did. The weeks did not pass more quickly with or without precise knowledge of Jim’s whereabouts and exploits but Spock could not in good conscience reassure the sehlat that Jim was well and flourishing in his special program if he did not first verify the facts.

Jim was—despite the odds and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy’s furious shouting in the background whenever Jim updated them with a video message—flourishing. That much was certain. And, as Spock had taken time to inform Mother, this was by no means a surprise. Jim’s intellect and capacity for spontaneous learning made him a prime applicant for the cadets Starfleet proposed in their recruitment literature to be seeking.

‘I’m sure he’d be happy to hear you tell him that, Spock,’ Mother had replied.

Today marks the beginning of your seventh week on Earth. Respond promptly to confirm you are still alive and unharmed by Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy.

spock youre OBSESSED

His appearance in your latest video message proved he is even more unhinged than my assessments had suggested. Is he aware that he has not combed his hair in three days and is wearing the same clothing from your previous message, sent to us four days prior?

if you dont quit it im gonna tell him you’re obsessed with him

I am not sure I comprehend what it is you desire that I quit. Would you prefer complete cessation of private communications?

no come onnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

that’s not what i want

but you COULD tell me how you’re doing though or talk about ANYTHING OTHER THAN BONES

My situation has not changed. Yours is the one that is inherently different. Therefore it is more sensible to discuss your circumstances rather than mine.

soooooo you’re the same as always is what youre saying

Naturally. Was that not made explicit in my previous message?

explicit and you don’t really go together spock

The complications of communicating primarily via text-based messaging had not occurred to Spock until he experienced their full effects. There was a great deal of hidden meaning implied by Jim’s cryptic and brief correspondence—yet despite the medium, these implications had not been spelled out.

Still, Spock had not anticipated the complication of communicating face-to-face via a video-and-conversation program, either, which entailed its own sub-categories of interpersonal difficulty.

To begin with, the time difference was troublesome to navigate even with a complete understanding of the conversions necessary—and the only mutual hours in which they were able to set aside for conference was, by the very nature of compromise, less than ideal for them both.

Jim appeared at the first barely awake, frequently yawning, and blurry in a darkened, shadowy square on Spock’s PADD, his voice lowered to a whisper. ‘Bones is sleeping,’ he explained, face so close to the screen that all Spock could see was a corner of his mouth and chin.

‘You have not shown such consideration for him in the past.’

‘It’s good for him. Prepares him for difficult patients. I’m just helping out.’

‘Is he aware of your intentions, or has he been given reason to assume you are antagonizing him in order to incur physical hurt on your person?’

‘Ughhhh, Spock.’

‘Meaning?’  

‘A little of both?’ Jim raised his chin, indicating that he’d shrugged.

‘Jim.’

This was not a satisfactory reply. Perhaps it should not have been surprising to discover that Jim had placed such low priority on his own safety in favor of encouraging the maximum variation within his sampled experiences—but nevertheless Spock felt the first prickling bloom of annoyance swell in the base of his skull, where the vast majority of his Jim-related headaches began.

Since Jim could not be trusted to look out for himself, and since he was in another planetary system, Spock reasoned that this reaction could not be considered excessive.

Rather, it surprised and troubled him that he seemed to be alone in his convictions. Mother at least ought to have known better.

‘You can see me for yourself, right? Do I look physically harmed?’

‘There is insufficient visibility to ascertain the accuracy of your statement.’

Jim sighed, the corner of his mouth and chin disappearing from view. The camera jerked a second later, and it became apparent he was leaning back in his chair, holding it at arm’s length to afford a better view of himself. The lighting was poor, not strong enough to distinguish subtleties such as whether Jim’s tan had faded and whether he had incurred any errant bruising. He looked tired, but this had been evident. His hair was shorter than it had been two months prior; his shirt was plain and sleeveless, bare arms less skinny than Spock remembered from the pool. He was of an age when his musculature had begun to catch up with his height, ameliorating the discrepancy in his proportions that had been introduced in his incipient adolescence.

The light from the PADD reflected in his eyes, changing the quality of their color but not their luminescence.

Spock had not joined his mother in speculation of how Jim would have changed upon his return. Seeing the growing evidence for himself was enough to satisfy the whims of his own, modest curiosity.

‘There you go.’ Jim returned the camera to its position, leaning forward again as though he assumed physical proximity to it would approximate physical proximity to Spock and therefore Vulcan. ‘Can we stop talking about my roommate now? I’m gonna start thinking you’ll wanna take him home at the end of three months instead.’

‘An illogical statement, as my concerns regarding Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy are chiefly voiced in relation your livelihood in his company and they will cease to be of any importance after the third and final month has passed.’

Jim was silent, the pause uncharacteristic enough that Spock had cause to wonder whether their connection had been interrupted. But he could see the twitch of Jim’s mouth, a working gesture that implied he was chewing the inside of his cheek. It was one of many small habits Jim had picked up despite the lack of any such examples on Vulcan for him to follow.

‘So you’re worried about me, huh?’

This had been self-evident and Jim clever enough to have reached the conclusion on his own. He had a stubborn tendency to encourage the repetition of obvious conclusions—something to do with liking to hear the thing out loud, or so he had stated during their time near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Spock understood neither the impulse nor its root, but he could endeavor to understand its importance to Jim.

‘You have a habit in engaging in conflict beyond your ability to safely manage,’ Spock said.

‘Come on, Spock, that was years ago.’ Jim’s mouth disappeared behind his hand, hiding a yawn. ‘Besides… You didn’t hear it from me, but I could totally take him.’

‘Like hell you could, kid,’ came a voice from over Jim’s shoulder.

‘Oops.’ Despite the appearance of having made a mistake, Jim did not display facial shifts characteristic of apologetic inclinations. ‘I woke the sleeping giant. Listen, Spock—next time we’re gonna talk about something other than me for a change, all right?’

‘At another hour,’ Spock agreed.

This time, when the frame froze on a single image, it was indeed due to the severance of their connection. The odds were not in Jim’s favor that he would achieve the rest he so clearly required that night, especially as Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy had been roused.

‘Jim has not yet been harmed physically by his unpleasant roommate,’ Spock told I-Chaya in the morning. ‘He is not maintaining a regular sleep schedule; neither does he appear to be acquiring the optimal amount of rest for an individual of his age and constitution. Mother remains convinced of his happiness.’

I-Chaya stared at him. The sehlat had no comprehension of the words. There was little reason to continue with the debriefing ritual as it stood—yet Spock had not put an end to it and I-Chaya remained quiet and obedient, listening to an explanation that to him was as senseless as it was, perhaps, comforting.

‘Should Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy behave in a manner that results in Jim’s injury,’ Spock concluded, ‘then we shall meet with him ourselves. He will not know that you are old and out of shape, I-Chaya, and if you turn the side of your face with the broken incisor away from him, you will present an intimidating spectacle indeed to one unaccustomed to the sight of a protective sehlat.’

I-Chaya huffed and nuzzled Spock’s hand with his nose, then went so far as to lick his palm.

All told, it was a most illogical moment.

*

Chapter Text

If you’d asked Jim what he was looking forward to most about three months on Earth, surrounded by like-minded human and alien overachievers alike—maybe not-so-well socialized, but talkative and excited and competitive and loud—he wouldn’t have paused before answering simply: no Vulcans.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like Vulcans. He had a soft spot for more than one of them, even though ‘soft spot’ wasn’t in their vocabulary—unless they were describing beds or pillows. It was just that he’d been living for seven years on a planet full of Vulcans and nobody but Vulcans, except for Amanda Grayson, Jim’s one oasis in the Vulcan desert. Spock didn’t count; he was a cool touch under the hot sun but he wasn’t the type to offer mercy or shade. In fact, Jim hadn’t spoken to another full human other than Amanda for so long that sometimes, privately, he admitted to I-Chaya that he was starting to believe they were actually as irrational as Vulcans thought.

Then, realizing the weather was getting to him, he watched some pirated films he’d downloaded onto his PADD to remind himself that stupid jokes still had their time and their place and humanity wasn’t as bizarre as it seemed through the Vulcan microscope.

But arriving at the campus for the prep program with all his stuff in a bag slung over one shoulder, Jim realized practically within seconds that the thing he’d been wanting, waiting for, even craving the past seven years wasn’t exactly what he’d imagined it would be.

Overachievers, not-so-well socialized, talkative and excited and competitive and loud. Jim didn’t have sensitive Vulcan ears but he wasn’t used to all the noise anymore, and even with the intense meet-and-greet exercises and the sink-or-swim mentality of the program keeping Jim on his feet the entire first day, that first night, he couldn’t manage to fall asleep.

There was so much light, so much noise. I-Chaya wasn’t right outside and there weren’t any stars reflected on the ceiling, a familiar golden glow that told Jim the universe was too big to explore while he was sleepy so it was time to rest up while he could, just so he could face the coming day.

That, and his roommate—Leonard McCoy, who didn’t appreciate the real McCoy? introduction Jim’d subjected him to when they got their rooming assignments—snored.

That was one thing Vulcans had going for them: Jim’d never met one who snored. Spock certainly didn’t. I-Chaya huffed and grunted and puffed and yawned but that was the kind of low-level, unobtrusive backdrop noise Jim was used to.

Leonard McCoy, twenty-two years old and so serious Jim got a headache just looking at him, snored in the bunk below Jim’s for a grand total of three hours from twenty-three hundred to oh two hundred—which, as it turned out, was as long as he slept. As long as he intended to sleep. Ever again.

‘Bones,’ McCoy said.

Jim rolled over onto his side and peered down from the top bunk, watching McCoy move through the dark with a glowing PADD to light his way. ‘Huh?’

‘Gotta study ‘em,’ McCoy replied. ‘The bones.’

As it turned out, being awake for that particular moment was more helpful than Jim could’ve imagined. McCoy was too formal to call a guy like Jim’s roommate—while Leonard didn’t suit him at all. And the Bones thing seemed to fit on Jim’s tongue better than any of his other options.

Of all the things Bones complained about, the nickname wasn’t one of them.

Jim’s health habits. The time he took in the bathroom. The conversations he tried to start in the middle of timed exams. The allergic reaction he had to his first Earth hamburger since Vulcan—a meal he’d been dreaming of ever since his feet touched down on San Francisco soil, only it turned out the patties were cooked in an oil he couldn’t digest anymore.

It was a good thing there was a doctor-in-training with him at the time, Bones didn’t shy away from telling Jim as often as possible, ‘considering your God-damn tongue looked like a full-grown Ceti eel!’

Jim couldn’t even say the phrase Ceti eel for the next twenty-four hours, to say nothing of how much trouble he had pronouncing Uhura when she introduced herself.  

‘I’b god dum dung,’ Jim tried to explain to her, as casually as he could manage.

‘My God,’ Bones had supplied.

‘Nod elpig, Bodes.’

There was no way he was making a video for Amanda that night or even the next morning while his tongue was still recuperating. Bones gave Jim a sedative to get him to sleep, all the while grumbling about how he wasn’t licensed yet so it wasn’t like he could lose his license for taking an action, any action, that’d stop those horrible groaning sounds.

Jim’s tongue situation kept him from saying the groaning was no worse than the snoring, empirically.

He’d learned that one from Spock.

It was two full days until Jim felt his tongue shrink back to its usual, dexterous size. By then, Uhura was making regular stops by his room, practicing her linguistics by translating whatever he said in Dum Dung and writing it down as Standard. It was a little insane, but Jim was starting to think that all humans shared that trait—definitely all the ones who had interest enlisting in Starfleet. On the last visit, Uhura brought her roommate along, an Orion girl with curly red hair who smiled big enough that it canceled out at least two of Jim’s smile-less years on Vulcan, just like that—poof.

When they saw that Jim was healed, she suggested they study in the library instead.

Something about the way she said study made Jim waggle his newly-healed tongue. Just because he could, naturally.

‘He’s an idiot,’ Bones said, for the benefit of the others. ‘Can’t cure it. Most advanced case I’ve ever seen.’

‘Sounds terminal,’ Uhura agreed, which won Jim over instantly.

Even more instantly winning was Gaila, who spent their first study date flirting with Bones until Jim was sureBones was gonna come right out of his skin. There he’d be, reciting the bones of the hand under his breath, until all of a sudden he’d bolt upright like Gaila had taken it into her head to teach him the parts of herhand up close and personal. On his thigh.

As spectator sports went, Jim found it enriching.

I thought everyone was gonna start calling you Bones there for a second, was how he put it later, slinging his arm around Bones’ neck and getting him into a headlock.

What Spock didn’t get about guys like Bones was that they were basically puppy dogs. Jim had learned early on how it sounded when someone yelled for real, how to duck when they lunged. He knew the warning signs. He also knew that Bones was never gonna lunge because Jim was pretty sure they liked each other. They’d bonded over his Ceti eel tongue. A doctor-in-training wasn’t about to turn on someone he’d stolen sedatives for in the middle of the night. It went against the code, the Hippocratic Oath.

‘First thing tomorrow—first thing, mind—I’m calling housing. See if I can get a transfer to a single room. Or one with a sane roommate!’ Bones had replied.

But in the morning he was still there, going over diseases that affected the Andorian nervous system. Jim hadn’t worked out how much he needed to know just to get on a starship but it was understood there’d be at least some crossover between the humanoid Federation species as far as infections and illness went. It made sense he’d need to know the basics.

‘You want anything for breakfast?’ Jim asked, pulling on a fresh shirt. ‘I’m on my way down.’

‘Bourbon,’ Bones muttered under his breath.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. ‘I’ll bring you back a banana or something.’

Boy, he’d missed fruit the way it tasted on Earth. Terran levels of citric acid tasted sweet as sugar to his taste buds after almost seven years on Vulcan. Except for that earlier mishap with the hamburger, everything was like a gentle summer breeze on his no-longer-eel-ish tongue. And, for that matter, gentle summer breezes turned out to be a thing again. They sure as hell beat the rough, desert winds on Vulcan.

Jim’s tan faded as his stomach acclimated itself to real Earth food. He set new records for almost every physical exam and wouldn’t tell anyone what his secret was. Oh, he always came up with something, but the story changed from day to day. Everything from my mom set up a secret training facility under Riverside to I’ve got a little Klingon blood in me.

Panting like a winded, old sehlat after giving Jim the closest run for his money he’d had since day one of the program, fellow candidate Hikaru Sulu held up his fencing foil in defeat. He’d lasted twice as long as anyone else, which was no easy achievement. Jim downed a full bottle of water without breaking to breathe; he had to admit, he was impressed.

‘Tell me—how’d you do it?’ Sulu asked, wiping the sweat off the back of his neck with a towel. ‘I mean, you’re still on your feet. No one’s ever been left standing after a bout with me before. And before you get the wrong idea, those are just the facts—it’s not bragging when it’s the truth, candidate.’

‘When you’re raised by the sehlats of Vulcan, you learn a thing or two about stamina,’ Jim replied.

‘Fine; I see how it is. Don’t tell me,’ Sulu said. ‘You’ve got your secrets, is that it?’

He ate lunch with Jim, so he couldn’t have been that mad at Jim’s obvious bullshit. That meant he was there when the bee sting Jim got halfway through his sandwich saw his hands swelling to twice their size when anyone else would’ve winced and gone about their business as usual, no problem.

‘Why’s this lunatic laughing about a serious medical condition?’ Bones demanded, after Sulu’d brought Jim back to their room for the treatment he obviously needed. ‘I swear, it takes a special kind of crazy to want to sign up for this life, and both of you fit the bill to the letter. Don’t go getting any ideas about what I just said. That wasn’t a compliment.’

Jim was laughing too—at least until Bones whipped out a hypo.

After that, laughter didn’t come as easily.

‘Now that,’ Sulu said, ‘was an afternoon.’

Jim’s hands were still swollen. His fingers reminded him of sausages—which also reminded him of another breakfast item he had to enjoy to the fullest while he was on Earth and had the chance. ‘You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re not the one who suffered the full force of Bones on the hypodermic warpath. First do no harm, Bones!’

‘Maybe; maybe,’ Sulu admitted. ‘Never imagined this was how the day would turn out, though. You’re the type that’s a surprise every time, aren’t you, candidate?’

‘I can’t stop you from spreading the word about me, if that’s what you want,’ Jim replied.

‘You’re the worst—you know that?’ Uhura added, on her way past Sulu to show off her latest Klingon translation skills and make Jim feel like a real dum dung, which he almost, kind of, really enjoyed, because it meant he was learning again. Still learning. It meant there was so much more he had to learn. ‘Spread that one around, Sulu. Jim Kirk: the absolute worst. Warn everyone you can before it’s too late.’

‘I’ll keep it in mind,’ Sulu said.

When Uhura suggested a thing, people tended to remember. Jim worked on his Klingon while Bones offered helpful suggestions—‘Can’t tell if you’re speaking the damn language or having another allergic reaction.’ ‘Would you keep it down over there? Go to the bathroom if you’ve got a hairball!’ ‘Now that’s one language of love, isn’t it? Just imagine whispering sweet nothing’s into your special someone’s ear on a Klingon date...’—and Uhura only laughed at Jim’s pronunciation five times, which meant Jim was probably improving.

He hid his hands when he sent the video home to Amanda and Spock that night. By morning his fingers were normal again and he could hold the door open for Bones on their way out to the cafeteria for breakfast as a thanks-I-owe-you-one.

What Spock didn’t know about Jim’s allergies wouldn’t hurt him. The only person Jim’s allergies could hurt was Jim—and Bones made sure of that, hypo always at the ready.

‘When you think about it,’ Jim told him one night, sprawled out on his back in the dark while Bones studied on the bottom bunk, ‘I’m actually doing you a favor.’

‘Really, now? You, doing me the favor? How do you figure that one, Jim? This I’ve gotta hear.’

‘All the practice you could ever want. Field practicals, you might call ‘em. If an exam you’ve got ever asks about allergies you’re gonna ace it.’

‘I’d ace it with or without you almost dying on me all the time,’ Bones replied. ‘And I wouldn’t have this goddamn roommate ulcer, either.’

Jim grinned into his pillow as he rolled over onto his stomach and passed out.

Messages from Spock woke him early and he lay in bed for a while staring at the PADD he slept with, the glow making his eyes hurt until they managed to adjust. At least Spock was keeping in touch. Jim hadn’t expected that. Even if the conversation wasn’t exactly I miss you, Jim, it was contact on the most basic level, and it was more than Jim imagined he’d get.

miss you too spock Jim wrote back one morning, after Spock’d gone off about Bones for the umpteenth time. Unlike Spock, Jim couldn’t keep exact count.

Then he felt like an idiot for the rest of the day, and not because Uhura was kicking his ass in linguistics, which was the usual reason.

It wasn’t like he expected Spock to admit the same in return. Missing someone was illogical, especially when they’d never really belonged in the first place. What you missed wasn’t even a feeling but more the absence of the regular stuff—stuff Spock wouldn’t even admit to having or recognizing in the first place. So there was no way he was gonna know and acknowledge how it’d affected him not to have Jim around, getting in his face and stealing his homework review materials once he’d finished with them.

Put like that, Spock was probably having the time of his life, and Jim felt even stupider than ever for being the first to break the code they’d been keeping up.

It was okay to feel things if you didn’t talk about them. That was Vulcan etiquette down to the bone, and Jim knew that. All it’d taken was a couple months on Earth for him to ignore what he’d learned over the course of years and act on human impulse.

Spock was gonna think he’d forgotten all his manners out in San Francisco with all the other, sweaty humans. Judging by the way Spock’s interests had been manifesting, he’d probably try and find a way to blame it all on Bones.

Just like Jim had told himself to expect, there was no new message on his PADD that night. Spock was probably processing reprimands or, best case scenario, running simultaneous search functions for the phrase i miss you and the suitable Earth response.

Okay, that wasn’t totally fair. But Jim was the one who’d stuck his neck out and got no reply. If there was ever a time to be stingy, this was it.

They went out on the weekend to celebrate Bones acing another one of his horrible medical exams. Sulu sang a karaoke duet with another med student Bones knew, Christine Chapel, while Bones did his level best to drink the bar dry with Gaila’s hand on his knee. He wasn’t shy about being the only one of legal age in the group; he sure never let it hold him back. Uhura brought along some total weirdo who looked like he’d been living in a broom closet for the last three weeks and introduced him as Montgomery Scott, the smartest guy you’ll ever meet. Yes, even you, Jim. Present company so included.

Which honestly seemed like an open invitation for Jim to spend the next two hours grilling Scotty—he tried Monty first, and boy did that not go over—on everything from warp core processes to interplanetary beaming to starship hull design.

‘We’re about due for a rehaul, I’d say within the next decade or so.’ Scotty belched into a closed fist, excused himself, and continued. Uhura was looking at them both like she’d had serious plans for the evening and mechanics hadn’t factored into them at any point. ‘You’ll be seein’ a whole new starship, pride of the fleet. That’s what I’m gonna be working on.’

‘Sounds like you’ve got it all mapped out,’ Jim said.

‘I do,’ Scotty said. ‘And may I say, sir, it is entirely refreshing to have a discussion with someone who can appreciate the beauty of a good ship. This one over here, well, as I’m sure you’ve learned for yourself—she’s all about languages. And no appreciation for the fact that if it weren’t for a starship with warp capability, she’d never know about any a’these languages, now would she?’

‘Great,’ Uhura said. ‘You encouraged him.’

‘What was I supposed to do? Fall asleep on the table?’ Jim asked. ‘The guy’s interesting. Probably certifiable, but the crazy ones make for the best conversation, am I right?’

He found out later from Gaila—who was taking a break from running up against the brick wall that was Bones—that he’d been supposedto tell Scotty he was working too hard and get him to loosen up. Not that Uhura had said as much; not that Uhura could know about Jim’s time on Vulcan priming him to miss a few of the more subtle human social cues.

‘I don’t know what made her think you were the guy to go to for that,’ Gaila said. She was always frank, but she could mess up Jim’s hair to make it look ‘sexy’ in less than five seconds and she liked Bones, so her good instincts way outweighed the bad. ‘You’re sweet, but you’re too serious most of the time yourself, Jim. I mean, like, Vulcan serious.’

She pulled her best imitation of a Vulcan face, which made Jim laugh so hard he choked on a cashew, and the resulting coughing fit stirred Bones out of his nap on the bar counter to give him the Heimlich. A fight almost resulted from the cashew being dislodged with enough force to act as a projectile, pinging off the rounded, large head of another of the candidates in training who Jim’d beat in hand-to-hand combat just that morning, despite being half his size.

‘Oh my God,’ Jim said, once they’d negotiated through the dangerous zone just the way Captain Pike had taught them in one of their diplomacy lectures. ‘Oh my God. The Vulcan thing—I mean, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. You’re way too good at that. Maybe it’s the green connection? I’m gonna—I think I can’t—am I breathing? Don’t let Bones give me another hypo. I’m starting to think he thinks I’m his personal pincushion.’

‘You’re no good at being a roommate so you might as well be good for something,’ Bones replied.

‘I like to think,’ Gaila leaned closer to Jim to whisper conspiratorially, ‘that the grumpier he gets, the more it means he likes you.’

‘Uh-uh. No. Don’t do it. I’m a medical student, not a linguistics lesson,’ Bones said.

‘But you’re not like that, Jim.’ Gaila hadn’t pulled away yet. ‘Are you? It’s nice to see a face that knows how to smile once in a while.’

Jim should’ve known that one of the best things you could do for somebody was laugh, too hard and too honestly, at one of their jokes. Gaila’s smile turned sly and she patted Jim’s hand with hers, her fingers lingering between his on the tabletop.

There was something about that, an association strong enough to make Jim’s chest feel Vulcan-hot. Jim didn’t have a cashew in his mouth to choke on and his tongue was, thankfully, the normal size, but his throat felt tight like he was on the verge of another unexpected allergic reaction all the same.

Hand-holding meant something different on Vulcan. Something intimate. Whatever Gaila was implying—and she liked to imply, and Jim liked for people to like things, Bones excluded, since Bones didn’t like anything—she couldn’t have known what it’d cause Jim to remember. A mistake—or something like it—that’d been made not so long ago: Spock’s fingers resting against Jim’s, fingertip to fingertip; the soft skin on the underside of his fore and index fingers, rubbing back and forth; the relative temperature of Spock’s skin just a degree too cool for what the moment and its insistence implied.

Even with Spock on Vulcan and Jim on Earth, there was no escaping him or the way he made Jim feel. Being apart—as illogical as it was—had Jim thinking even more about when they were together. The worst part was knowing, even in a room full of people who knew his name and actually got the best of his jokes, he was completely alone when it came to the one thing that made him feel lonely.

Gaila brushed Jim’s knuckles with her thumb, then gave his hand a squeeze. ‘You and I suffer the most. But there’s no cure for that, is there?’

‘Don’t wanna see the needle for that immunization,’ Jim agreed.

He excused himself after a few minutes, enough time that it wouldn’t be obvious, but Uhura had sharp eyes and Montgomery Scott was explaining to a potentially napping Bones the complicated mechanics of some transwarp equation he’d been obsessed with since kindergarten—not that Jim had been eavesdropping—and suddenly Jim found himself cornered outside, the cool, damp night air making him shiver for the first time since he’d been back on Earth.

‘So,’ Uhura said. ‘You feel like taking a walk?’

‘I get this feeling like I’ll never be able to say no to you, Uhura.’

‘Then maybe you’re not as dum dung as you look.’ Uhura looped her arm through Jim’s and tugged him along. Jim felt a momentary pang of guilt for leaving Bones alone with Gaila on one side and Montgomery Scott on the other—then remembered the hypo to the neck he’d been subjected to that weekend and let the guilt disappear like dew on the campus grass once the sun came up at dawn.

‘Don’t get the wrong idea, Uhura. I’m definitely as dum dung as I look. It’s what makes me so special.’

‘Yeah, right. You might think you’re playing the mysterious past card with the best of them, but how long do you think that’ll last?’

Jim blinked. They were headed back toward the program dormitories but they were taking the long way there and this might’ve been one of the traps Captain Pike was always warning them not to blunder blindly into. You never saw them coming, Pike had said—practicing his uncanny ability to stare Jim straight in the eyes like he was the only one in the hall when he said it—until you were in the eye of the storm. And that was what decided the kind of officer you were going to be. How you dealt with the mess you were a part of once you were already knee-deep in it.

At the time, Jim remembered thinking what a joke it was, and what kind of an idiot wouldn’t see danger coming?

But everybody had their blind spots.

‘Okay,’ Jim said. ‘You got me. I’m adopted.’

He was expecting Uhura to laugh or maybe shrug it off the way she shrugged off all his attempts to flirt with her. She was a bit like T’Pring that way—she never nibbled at the bait, like she knew Jim wouldn’t be able to handle reeling her in.

That was fine by Jim. He was more of a catch and release guy anyway. And it wasn’t like he went on fishing trips with Sarek and Spock back on Vulcan; he’d read about how it was done and that was the extent of his knowledge.

Only Uhura just watched him carefully—not as sharp as a Vulcan but with her own kind of piercing curiosity.

Jim hadn’t realized how his time off-world was gonna prepare him to withstand interrogation. If he hadn’t been set on Starfleet, he probably could’ve gone for some kind of special ops training.

‘I know,’ Uhura said. ‘You aren’t that good with languages.’

Whatever he’d beenwaiting to field, that didn’t fit into any of the categories.

‘Come again?’ Jim stuck his hands into his pockets. ‘If you dragged me out here to insult me, I gotta say—Bones is gonna be disappointed you didn’t do it with him around. You know how he loves a good show.’

‘No, that’s not what I meant.’ Uhura looked frustrated with herself. Maybe what Jim had taken as a personal shine was just the way she dealt with everyone. He was starting to get the impression that Starfleet attracted the prickly and difficult as cadets; him and Gaila were the only obvious exceptions. ‘What I’m trying to say is that you’re not a natural, but you pick things up quicker than most anyway, which indicates you’ve had training. So wherever you were, you probably had to work at another language. Am I right?’

‘Wow,’ Jim said, ‘you are a huge nerd, you know that? You put together my history based on my linguistics aptitude? I mean, I know the whole mysterious stranger thing is supposed to work for some people, but damn, Uhura. I don’t think you’ll get extra credit for that.’

‘I’m not trying to get extra credit.’ Uhura tightened her grip on his arm like he’d done to get under Spock’s umbrella in the rain. Somehow, Jim didn’t get the impression she was angling to get close. It was more like she was making sure he couldn’t bolt down the street and into the night if he wanted to. ‘I’m trying to get to know you. That’s what friends do, in case you hadn’t noticed.’

‘Yeah, the whole friend thing kinda gets lost in translation on Vulcan,’ Jim said.

There it was, the whole enchilada. Judging by how quickly the dum dung story had spread amongst the trainees, Jim had a feeling everyone was gonna know within the next three days that he’d grown up on Vulcan, sprouting like the only weed that ever dared bloom in the center of a carefully-raked sand garden. Maybe then Sulu would feel satisfied—without realizing it, he’d come closer to the real story than anyone else before Uhura.

Vulcan.’ She rolled the word around in her mouth, thinking that one over. ‘That makes as much sense as anything, I suppose.’

‘Yeah. I’m a genetic mutation.’ Jim sucked in the cold, damp night air and blew it out in a hazy puff of invisible breath. ‘Came out all wrong: blond hair, these ears. You wouldn’t think it, but there are Vulcans with blue eyes. Only a few, and they’re rare, but they’re around. Anyway, I made a huge scandal on the homeworld. Like a soap opera. I’m famous back there.’

Uhura rolled her eyes. Then she rolled her neck, like spending too much time in close proximity with Jim was making her muscles tense. ‘Blew through your honesty quotient pretty fast there, farmboy.’

‘I was really hoping that wasn’t gonna catch on,’ Jim said. ‘Although I guess it’s better than Vulcan Boy.’

‘So that’s why you’re…’ Uhura trailed off, slowing her pace as they drew into sight of the Starfleet campus. The main building was dark, lit softly from the outside by the streetlamps that lined the walkways. Spock would’ve hated all the artificial light. And Jim would’ve done something stupid, like offering to guide him while he kept his eyes closed, knowing before he said it that Spock wouldn’t say yes. ‘You know. The way you are.’

‘What if I don’t know?’

‘Well, you spent almost three hours talking to Scotty about the logical impossibilities inherent in a transwarp beaming equation,’ Uhura said. ‘Most guys your age are more interested in getting their legal age friends to buy them drinks.’

‘Oh,’ Jim said. ‘Huh.’

‘So all I’m saying is, it makes sense.’ Uhura loosened her grip but Jim knew her well enough by now to know that it didn’t mean he was home free. ‘That there’s always been something about you I just...couldn’t translate.’

‘You sure you want to admit to that?’ Jim asked. ‘My ears might not be Vulcan pointy, but I can still hear you admitting to not being perfect. You could’ve fooled me this whole time.’

Uhura turned her face toward him and grinned, her nose wrinkling right between the eyes. ‘Still, I did crack the code, didn’t I?’

‘More like you got me to crack.’

Uhura shrugged, their shoulders bumping. It was friendly in a way that Vulcans weren’t friendly—which made Jim realize for the first time that he was on edge, even though it was perfectly natural for him, or should have been. Vulcan had him all mixed up, put together backwards, still trying to live up to the standards of the house of Sarek no matter how many lightyears away he’d traveled from it. And, to be fair, it wasn’t such a bad thing, either, although there were complications.

There was a reason Jim was doing so well; that reason was Vulcan standards.

Spock would’ve been king of the campus if he’d been around for it.

Jim’s chest twinged.

‘That’s a part of it, though,’ Uhura said. ‘Finding the key—and the lock. Of course, you didn’t exactly put up too much of a fight.’

‘Yeah—it only took you nine whole weeks.’

Uhura arched an eyebrow. It wasn’t like they did it on Vulcan; Jim hadn’t thought it would be. ‘Excuse me?’

‘Just saying.’

‘You’ve been studying with me all this time,’ Uhura said. ‘If you’ve learned anything, you should know by now there’s no such thing as just saying anything.’

‘On Vulcan...’ Jim paused, realizing how much what he’d been about to say was going to come out sounding more like Spock talking than like himself. ‘That’s not how they do it there, anyway.’

‘I can’t even imagine. Hey.’ Uhura elbowed Jim in the side before she let go of him, at the point on the lamp-lit pathway where the campus split into the girls’ dormitory on one side, the boys’ on the other. ‘You should tell me how they do it there sometime, though.’

‘You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you half of the stuff I’ve seen. You ever fight a le-matya single-handed before, or go to sleep with a sehlat by your side?’

Uhura didn’t have to say anything to that. The Oh yeah? You think I can’t handle it? was implied in the look she was giving Jim from under the beam of lamplight.

Jim held up his hands in defeat. ‘Okay, okay. You’ll believe me. But I’m gonna hold you to that. No rolling your eyes—and no calling me farmboy.’

‘Deal. Farmboy.’ Uhura grinned and flipped the collar of her candidate jacket up to her chin. ‘You know I had to enjoy it one last time. I thought you liked nicknames, anyway.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim admitted, ‘but I never gave you one.’

‘And here I thought for the longest time that meant you didn’t like me.’ Uhura took a few steps backward, then paused. ‘That wasn’t so hard, now was it, Jim?’

Jim shrugged. ‘You always make it seem easy, Uhura.’

‘Catch you tomorrow,’ Uhura said. Jim watched her leave until the door slid shut behind her and she passed by the glass windows into one of the halls beyond the lobby—after, of course, stopping to chat with the desk clerk. Like Jim’d said: she made it look easy, leaning over the front desk and laughing while she tucked her hair behind her ear.

It took Jim three flights of stairs to realize what’d just happened. He’d had a normal, human conversation with a friend who didn’t mind pointing out the emotional side effects, that talking about something could be difficult, that hiding the difficult things was something people did.

That wasn’t a Vulcan lesson.

Inside the room, Jim shrugged out of his jacket and checked on his grades for the latest projects and evaluations and grinned when he saw his ranking, then cleared his throat even though Bones wasn’t there to give him a lecture on how dangerous gloating was to your health. Then, Jim noticed that the PADD on his bed was flashing and he moved to grab it so quickly and so gracelessly that he managed to slam his knee into Bones’ desk chair and crash into the bunk-bed ladder, nearly bringing the whole top bunk down.

His top message was from Amanda. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Thinking of you, it said, with an attached image file of her and Spock and I-Chaya sitting together, the mountains in the background just outside the balcony window, a breeze stirring one of the curtains. Jim rested his cheek against the metal frame of the bunk-bed until it warmed against his skin. Had I-Chaya always looked that tired? Had Spock always looked that much older?

Jim was about to put the PADD away when he saw there was a second message, one that’d only just arrived.

If you are currently not unconscious, I have been informed that a real-time conference between two individuals can be undertaken in order to mitigate the sense of long distance emphasized by the circumstances of missing one another. 

Jim didn’t bother getting changed for bed. He pulled the covers up without thinking about how wrinkled his uniform trousers were going to be in the morning and sent the transmission request.

Spock didn’t even make him wait.

‘Hey, Spock,’ Jim said, hoping the shadows hid everything. No wonder Amanda spent so much time in the privacy of her scarves. It all made sense—and Jim only needed the time and the distance to see it. ‘Bones hasn’t killed me yet, though I’m pretty sure he’s trying.’

‘Explain,’ Spock replied, and Jim did, long into the night.

*

Chapter Text

On the fourth day after the third month, the Federation transport vessel bearing Jim and other passengers traveling from Earth to Vulcan arrived in the public docking bay. It had been closer to three months and one week, in order to compensate for the necessary travel time. Spock had quickly dismissed Mother’s outlandish suggestion that the three of them, herself, Spock and Father, all travel to San Francisco to surprise Jim and help him to pack.

‘His belongings should not prove too burdensome for one individual,’ Spock had said. ‘Furthermore, it is my conclusion that he has made the acquaintance of several fellow cadets, all of whom would be better prepared and situated to assist him with the endeavor.’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ Mother had said. Although she did not seem convinced, Spock appreciated her willingness to accept logic in the face of her uncertainty.

There was no sense in uprooting the family to meet Jim at his location when Jim could more easily meet them at theirs. While Spock might privately have relished the opportunity to stand face-to-face with Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, the better to ascertain potential weaknesses and strategies should he make a future move against Jim, Spock understood that this situation had already resolved itself. By returning home to Vulcan, Jim would be removing himself from the volatile element that had caused Spock an erratic amount of frustration over the past three months.

The situation had ceased to be; therefore, it would no longer require Spock’s constant monitoring.

While Jim traveled, they were regularly out of contact. Spock had expected this, although he found his routine disrupted nonetheless. It had not occurred to him how often they had been speaking until the pattern had occasion to break.

Spock reasoned with himself that there was nothing to be done for this. Jim was unlikely to have private terminal access on a transport vessel and, even if he managed to secure as much, there would be little for him to report between departing Earth and his arrival on Vulcan. It was therefore sensible of Jim to wait rather than to waste time with communications without purpose or consequence.

Jim sent a message to Mother on the last day, with the ship’s manifesto and docking engagement, imparting where they would be arriving and when. Mother spent all morning and well into the afternoon cleaning a house that did not need cleaning, preparing all of Jim’s favorite synthesized foods as well as a few Spock knew Jim had only pretended to like. It was only when she eyed I-Chaya sleeping on the balcony and cocked her head, inquiring whether Spock thought the sehlat needed a bath, that Spock was at last forced to intervene.

‘You are excited over Jim’s return,’ he said, ‘and channeling the chaos of your feelings into busywork. I-Chaya does not need a bath, nor would he thank you for the effort.’

‘No,’ Amanda agreed. ‘I suppose you’re right. He wouldn’t. Sehlats can’t thank anyone, after all.’

She continued to smile in such a way that indicated she had not taken the majority of Spock’s words to heart. But since the topic of bathing I-Chaya was no longer foremost in her thoughts, Spock could allow her to proceed without further intervention.

On the morning of Jim’s arrival, they rose early and drove to the nearest ship bay. Father had been up meeting with the Vulcan High Council but he would join them for dinner that night, a point on which Mother had been quite firm. Despite her earlier suggestion that it be the three of them to travel and meet Jim on Earth, it did not seem to trouble her to be absent Father for their greeting.

She adjusted the fall of her headscarves no fewer than eight times while they sat in the private waiting area, separate from the crowds downstairs.

Father’s influence, even without Father’s presence, came with certain advantages. From their vantage point, they would be able to witness the disembarkation process most effortlessly.

Jim, however, was never difficult to locate. He was the lone blond head bobbing and weaving amidst the passengers as though, in his impatience, he could not allow a single one of them to pass ahead of him.

‘There he is,’ Mother said, and started off down the stairs ahead of Spock, who followed her at a more measured pace—but not so measured, as he had some sense of Jim’s speed and the rate at which their paths would cross once they had reached the main level.

The moment at which Jim caught sight of them brought with it a certain, undeniable thrill of reunion, his own participation in which Spock would meditate on in the days that followed. Mother’s delight was not unexpected; Spock had likewise anticipated a modest measure of his own pleasure at having the company to which he was accustomed returned to him.

In any case, that heat of gladness faded in light of Mother and Jim behaving as befitted their human nature—which, in turn, did not befit their location within the context of consistently sedate Vulcan reunions. Mother and Jim, on the other hand, embraced each other publicly and, though the action was brief, its emphatic nature was out of place on Vulcan so that it stood out like, as the saying went, a sore thumb.

Spock saw Jim’s fingers tighten in the back of Mother’s dress and he was aware of the Vulcan gazes on this unseemly display before Jim and Mother broke apart, Mother still holding him, this time at arm’s length.

‘Let me look at you,’ she said. ‘Jim—I can barely believe how much you’ve grown.’

Her voice was soft but it was not by any means calm. Spock was not the only one who would be able to sense her emotions. Yet despite her dedicated adherence to the Vulcan way and how few times she had embarrassed herself, her husband, or her son in public, she did not appear troubled by what she was certain to know was a show of passion far beyond the bounds of Vulcan propriety.

In short: she was aware but was not bothered in the slightest by the transgression. Her attention was fully on Jim and no one else in the docking bay mattered, eclipsed by what she had decided did.

‘Not really. You think?’ Jim asked. He rubbed the back of his head, a familiar personal tic that bespoke a younger age and did not fit the size of his changed body.

Spock took a more qualitative survey of those changes: Jim’s shoulders were broader, his chest wider, his height noticeably greater. Spock determined that this was due to the point in human development known colloquially as the growth spurt, in which the adolescent male exhibited a condensed burst of maturation over an unusually brief period of time. The atmosphere and nutrients available on Earth had spurred this growth, no doubt, and though his eyes were the same, the shape of his face was markedly different. There were also no freckles on his nose or cheeks; these had been replaced by a simple, uniform tan.

‘OK, maybe,’ Jim added. He shifted his bag from one shoulder to the other as Mother at last released him from her grip. ‘Hey, Spock.’

‘Welcome back, Jim,’ Spock replied. ‘I-Chaya will at last cease to trouble us for the affections he has come to expect from you on a regular basis.’

‘You think I got bigger, Spock?’

‘I do not think. Rather, I am certain of it as fact. I would suggest you are somewhere between three and four inches taller than when we departed San Francisco and you remained. Other significant physical alterations that do not fall under the category of size are also clearly visible.’

Jim’s grin was not the same grin Spock remembered. It was skewed to the left side over the right crookedly, at an angle of fifteen point seven degrees. ‘Right. Sure. We’d better get back,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t wanna keep I-Chaya waiting.’

‘As he has managed an approximation of patience during the past four months and five days, it is unlikely that an extra few minutes will affect him one way or the other. Do you require assistance in the transportation of your belongings?’

‘Nah, Spock, I’ve got it. Could stand to stretch my legs after that long trip, anyway. I even started missing the Vulcan sunlight, if you’ll believe it.’

‘I see no reason to assume you would lie about this.’

The angle of Jim’s grin shifted to nearly twenty degrees. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Let’s go home.’

On the ride back, Mother held one of Jim’s hands in both her own and showed no signs of relinquishing it; neither did Jim appear to desire that she relent the constant physical contact with which she sought reassure herself that he was indeed there with them. She asked probing but calmly-paced questions that displayed her restraint, a quality Spock had always admired in her, and Jim answered them: speaking without restraint of the acquaintances he had made.

Spock catalogued the names: Uhura, female, linguist; Gaila, female, Orion; Hikaru Sulu, male, physically active; Montgomery Scott, male, mechanical theorist; and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, male, medical student, unpredictable and likely unhinged. Jim also spoke at length of Captain Pike, who had spearheaded the summer program for promising Starfleet cadet candidates, in a manner that suggested unequivocal respect.

At last they arrived at the house of Sarek. I-Chaya, in a display of uncharacteristic prescience, awaited them outside. He and Jim also embraced and the impact was significant; though Jim stumbled, he did not fall until he chose to, engaging in a dusty tumble with I-Chaya in the sand.

He had greeted each member of the family as befitted them. He had hugged Mother, for she required the physical confirmation; he had showered I-Chaya with affection, for I-Chaya had been spoiled by his affections in the past; and he had acknowledged Spock with a courteous distance that indicated internal, not just external, maturation. All was as it should be.

‘I’ll drop my bags in my room and unpack after dinner,’ Jim said. Mother nodded. Her eyes were bright. Spock remained with her as it was apparent she required companionship over Jim, or so Spock had every reason to believe.

‘Perhaps you ought to help Jim, Spock,’ Mother suggested.

‘Is that wise? After a long and crowded journey, it stands to reason that Jim would prefer solitude.’

‘It stands to your reason, maybe,’ Mother said. ‘But long and crowded journeys like that have a way of being lonely despite themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some time with him, just the two of you?’

‘Though the standards you have applied to this conclusion are better suited to your own sensibilities than mine, your logic is not unsound.’ Spock nodded and Mother touched the fall of her scarves; she watched him as he left, ascending the stairs, traversing the hall and stopping in the doorway of Jim’s room.

Jim was in the middle of taking his old model starship out of his bag and putting it back in its proper place on his desk and by his computer. His shoulders stiffened upon Spock’s arrival. Spock considered the possible causes; Mother’s assessment being incorrect was chief among them. If Jim did not desire company, then the source of his tension would have been due to Spock’s intrusion on his privacy.

‘Though it stands to reason that you were able to load your luggage on your own and thus would not require any aid in doing the reverse, I have been instructed to offer you my assistance in…’

Spock trailed off. This was because Jim had turned to approach him at a pace that suggested an incipient display of violence. Indeed, he threw himself at Spock with such force that he seemed determined to knock them both to the floor. It was only Spock’s fortitude that kept them upright and on their feet, Jim’s arms locked around Spock’s shoulders, then his neck, as if engaging in an unfamiliar Earth wrestling maneuver.

Perhaps it was one that had been taught to him by Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy.

Jim’s breathing was loud in Spock’s ear, labored and uneven. Spock held still, waiting for the pressure to ease from Jim’s muscles, the force of his pulse to steady itself where it was hammering high against Spock’s chest. His fingers twitched toward his palms, forming loose fists before he coaxed himself to relax.

Slowly, he felt Jim adhere to the same principles of relaxation. One of his hands unfurled behind Spock’s head, his hot palm pressed to the nape of Spock’s neck. He could feel it when Jim inhaled, the rise of his chest pressed to Spock’s. His breath too was warm, damp against Spock’s ear in a reminder of the humidity they had experienced in San Francisco.

‘Spock, come on.’ Jim’s voice was steady, belying the earlier indications given by his body that he was anything but. ‘You gotta hug me back. Otherwise it’s just pathetic.’

‘I am unaccustomed to the social parameters which accompany this act,’ Spock admitted.

Given the circumstances, he judged it appropriate to put his arms around Jim in return. The hold was not as tight as Jim had seen fit to apply to him, but it was nonetheless sound. His hands settled along the ridges of Jim’s spine, one between his scapulae and the other in the curved dip of his back. Spock did not allow his chin to dig into Jim’s shoulder as he had complained of in the past, although this took more effort than usual due to Jim’s new height.

It was necessary to reevaluate how their bodies fit against one another. Perhaps this had been Jim’s reason for the hug in question, although he had not stated his intentions as such beforehand. Nonetheless, Spock’s reciprocation seemed to disperse some of the lingering tension in Jim’s muscles. He relaxed into and against Spock’s chest, leaning his considerable weight against him, as though he trusted Spock to go on managing the burden as he had from the beginning.

Although the expectation was sentimental and not without its flaws, Spock found himself capable of meeting the challenge; he would not be the one to disabuse Jim of such notions.

He felt the working of Jim’s mouth against his neck, the hesitance before he spoke again. But no words came out. In turn Spock acknowledged a certain curiosity of his own. It was unlike Jim to remain in a single, stationary position for so long.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said finally, although there had been nothing stated for him to agree to. His head drooped against Spock’s shoulder. There was warmth radiating from his skin. Three months was not so long as to have forgotten the more pertinent details of the effects of Jim’s proximity, yet Spock found himself making note of those details as if discovering them anew.

It was not logical. But here they were, nonetheless.

‘You have adequately judged your efforts to be something other than pathetic?’ Spock inquired.

Jim laughed. Spock could feel it rumbling in his chest before it broke past his lips, a stuttering hiccup against the soft fall of Spock’s cowl-necked shirt. Then, he snorted—a sound Spock had not had occasion to hear since his departure—and rubbed his nose against Spock’s shoulder.

‘I missed you too, asshole.’

Spock’s eyebrow rose. ‘A common Earth insult,’ he began, ‘its employment in this situation contradictory to the preceding sentiment.’

‘I learned plenty more where that one came from the past few months, too. An entire dictionary from Bones alone. Don’t,’ Jim added, suddenly urgent. He still had not seen fit to raise his head or put a more timely end to their intimate embrace. Mother would not have insisted upon such prolonged physical contact but she had more experience with the restraint necessary on Vulcan; it seemed unlikely that Jim would forget all he had learned over the course of years during the span of three months, yet it was not entirely unpleasant as Spock would have predicted to be held in this fashion. It was possible that the percentage of humanity that could not be denied as a part of him was reacting to the human expression of affection despite Spock’s better, Vulcan judgment.

‘I had not—’ Spock said.

‘All you ever talked about while I was gone was Bones, okay?’

‘A likelier seventy-three percent of the conversation was granted the topic, due to its immediate relevance.’

‘And I was the one who was living with the guy.’

‘A fact for which you did not once exhibit appropriate gratitude.’

Jim blinked. Spock felt the tickle of his lashes on the skin of his throat. ‘Huh? Gratitude for Bones? You’re the last person I’d expect to hear that from, Spock.’

‘Gratitude that you continued to live despite this ‘Bones’,’ Spock clarified.

Jim laughed again, his breath trapped in the wrinkles of Spock’s turtleneck, which Jim’s grip on the fabric had created in the first place. They formed deep furrows optimal for the storage of lingering heat. ‘He wasn’t so bad. Innocent as a baby, once you got past the gruff exterior. Never once used his age to get any of us drinks we didn’t have the ID for, either. How’s that for being a stand-up guy?’

‘It is hardly commendable to act within the confines of commonly understood decency,’ Spock said.

‘Maybe for normal people it isn’t. But for Bones...’

‘From all accounts, he is an unsavory character.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim agreed. ‘He was pretty great.’

‘Again, the contradiction—’

‘—doesn’t have to make sense. Plenty of things don’t. Starfleet does, but only sort of. You would’ve been amazing there. Top of the class. Although it wasn’t so bad being the number one genius around for a change.’ Jim grinned. Spock felt that, as well. ‘I’m probably driving you crazy with this, huh?’

‘That would be beyond an overstatement,’ Spock replied.

‘Vulcans go crazy,’ Jim said. ‘At least, they do sometimes.’

Spock did not allow a pause to develop as silence encouraged idle speculation. ‘Seeing as how you have been gone for a significant number of days, and human nature abhors these distances, it stands to reason you would currently be in need of physical reassurances, the sort provided by, in one example, the practice of a hug.’

‘The distance didn’t bother you?’ Jim chuckled. It would have been better classified as a sigh. ‘Of course not. At least I know I-Chaya was wandering the halls wishing I’d come back and rub his tummy.’

‘However,’ Spock continued, ‘if you continue to maintain this position for much longer, I will be compelled to complain. Without proper space in which to maneuver, I will be unable to thoroughly ascertain your physical state.’

‘Huh?’ Jim repeated.

‘You say that you are unharmed, yet from past experience, I am well aware of your tendency to exaggerate your own achievements while simultaneously minimizing the damage you have incurred.’ Spock waited. Jim said nothing. His fingers did not so much as twitch, fisted in handfuls of woven material. ‘As such, I can only be certain of your condition if I conduct an examination myself.’

Jim released a shaky breath. His heart rate, for unknown reasons, quickened. At last, he pulled back enough that he was able to look Spock in the eye—and did not have to lift his head as much as once was necessary in order to do so.

‘You’re not a doctor, Spock,’ Jim said.

‘Nonetheless, I am knowledgeable when it comes to human anatomical anomalies,’ Spock replied.

Jim’s fists relaxed and he smoothed the bunched fabric beneath them in an attempt to repair the wrinkling he had caused. He was still too close for Vulcan comfort—and perhaps for human comfort, as well—though Spock could not be as certain of the latter as he was of the former.

‘Most of the bruises from the physical stuff faded on the way over,’ Jim said. There was a hint of reticence in his voice that was shared by his expression: a knot in his brow, the sidelong angle of his gaze, something he was forced to clear from the back of his throat. ‘Bones went above and beyond. Couldn’t have asked for better care. He’s gonna make one hell of a doctor.’

‘Be that as it may,’ Spock said.

He did not imagine he would be required to make his intentions any clearer. Jim had it within him to create unnecessary difficulty out of a simple command but he did not seem inclined to balk at the prospect of any difficulty. Rather, the expression he was currently favoring was one of patient disbelief, as though he believed Spock would relent at any given moment.

When Spock did not, Jim sighed and shrugged out of his jacket, red and black and a hair too small for him with his added height and weight. He was wearing a t-shirt with the insignia of Starfleet on it beneath, no doubt a memento he had procured to commemorate his time at the program. This he tugged off over his head, throwing both garments into a heap on the bed.

Spock had not asked him to undress—yet he could not fault the instincts which had driven Jim to undertake the task. Performing a cursory examination of his physical state would be simpler without the obscuring element of clothing to bolster Jim’s already-secretive nature when it came to his personal well-being.

It was true that Spock had never made such a request of him in the past but Jim’s absence had never been quite so prolonged. They were well-acquainted enough for Spock to know that Jim would attempt to conceal any injury that may have taken place. Thus, it was necessary for Mother’s peace of mind as well as his own to intervene before any hurt could be exacerbated due to neglect.

‘Well?’ Jim held his arms out from his sides, palm up. There was color in his cheeks, no doubt from the rapid shift in pressurized starship air to the hot Vulcan climate. ‘I’m not gonna lie, Spock, you’re making me pretty uncomfortable. This is worse than the time I woke up and Bones had a scanner on my cheek.’

‘Why would he need to monitor your rest cycles?’ Spock asked instantly.

‘No reason.’ Jim waved him off, then ran a hand through his hair, suddenly possessed of excess energy. ‘So—see? No cuts or embarrassing scars. That—that one over my hip’s from an appendectomy thing when I was a kid. Not supposed to leave scars but it was kind of a rush job.’ He yawned into the crook of his elbow, blinking rapidly. ‘Sorry. Galactic time differences, huh? What a bitch.’

It was evident that Jim’s stay on Earth had been long enough to lace his vocabulary with colloquial profanity. Spock had only a passing familiarity with the words but he trusted Jim would have the good sense not to issue them in the presence of Mother and Father downstairs over dinner.

Spock stepped closer, the better to make an accurate assessment. The muscles in Jim’s abdomen jolted, stuttering through a second yawn. There was a chance, however slight, that he would not make it through dinner fully conscious.

Spock turned his attention from Jim’s mental state to his physical one.

There were, as Jim stated, few bruises to be found, although Spock’s eyes were sharp, and it was simple to spot the receding shape of a faded hematoma where it had dappled Jim’s right side, over his ribs, where the cushion of fat was at its thinnest. Nothing remained but the faintest hint of discoloration, its edges like a water-stain in wood.

Spock had had the chance to observe this phenomenon for himself once, when I-Chaya had taken ill and forgotten his training, leaping up onto the kitchen table to seek out sustenance and knocking aside the family water pitcher. His actions had not been held against him as he was not of sound mind at the time of his indiscretion.

There were no other notable marks on Jim’s body, although the body itself was largely altered from the last time Spock had been given occasion to observe it: in its bathing suit on the rooftop pool in San Francisco. The continuation of Jim’s tan past the lines of his clothing suggested he had found more luck with the sun than had presented itself at the time of their vacation.

‘Uh...’ Jim cleared his throat again. ‘Should I turn around? Do a full one-eighty? Drop and give you fifty?’

‘The former suggestion would be cooperative behavior,’ Spock replied. ‘The latter would be an excessive display, not to mention highly irregular and ultimately gratuitous.’

Jim turned. His trapezius and deltoid muscles were more sharply defined than before; they were not lean, as Vulcan musculature tended to be, but complied with the samples provided by better developed human models Spock had memorized in the past. Jim’s latissimus dorsi and his external obliques were equally better defined and, other than another faint discoloration on the side of Jim’s throat toward the dorsal side of his neck, he was likewise unharmed from this angle as inspection of the frontal view had shown.

Nonetheless, the minor discoloration appeared to be consistent with bruising from repetitive injections made at the same site. Spock touched the spot with only the tip of his forefinger so as to avoid incurring undue sensory telepathy or transference.

Beneath that touch, Jim’s skin jumped before Jim himself did the same.

‘You gotta— You gotta warn a guy, Spock,’ he said, rubbing the specific spot on the back of his neck with the palm of his hand.

‘Your eagerness to cover the spot in question betrays the likelihood of its significance,’ Spock replied. ‘Were the inoculations you received upon my mother and father’s behest at the time of your decision to remain on Vulcan deemed inadequate by the health administration of the training program?’

Jim blinked. Spock could still recall the way that particular motion had felt when committed against his skin. ‘No, it’s not that. It just... Turns out I’ve got some allergies. Nothing too serious. I was born in space, so that was the start of it. And then, living here for so long... Different stuff to get used to than on Earth. Different air-borne allergens. That kind of thing. Bees. Peanuts. Whatever.’

‘Has this development negatively impacted on your health?’ Spock asked.

Jim’s crooked grin returned. He leaned over the bed to retrieve his t-shirt, disappearing momentarily beneath it before his messy, too-long hair crested the neck-hole and he pushed his head through, shaking his hair out into even more disarray than before. This, however, provided Spock with ample time to review the state of Jim’s lateral muscles; no further anomalies presented themselves.

‘I was rooming with a med student, Spock.’ Jim clapped him on the shoulder. His touch lingered, the heat from his palm remarkable. ‘Best thing that could’ve happened to me—although if Bones ever hears that, he’ll turn into a monster. Even more than he already is, I mean. You think dinner’s ready? I’m starving.’

‘That is factually untrue,’ Spock said. ‘You may be feeling the acute pangs of hunger, yet to exaggerate in that manner—’

‘It’s good to be back,’ Jim said, swinging out the door and into the hall. ‘I-Chaya, you out there? Somebody needs a hug!’

His voice echoed between the walls and over the ceiling. The casual chaos he brought in his wake had returned to the house of Sarek—and though this was not logical, it was not unwelcome.

*

Chapter Text

The one thing Jim hadn’t missed—unlike the drowsy, drooling sehlat and the silence encouraged while eating with two rule-obsessed Vulcans and Amanda’s corner-of-the-eye smiles and the way Spock smelled, clean like the desert but more alive, more human than he even knew—was the Vulcan food.

After the hamburgers Jim’d had, even the ones that’d tried—unsuccessfully—to kill him, and the french fries, and the mac and cheese, and all the other sandwiches with real meat in them, real meat that tasted really meaty, going back to sash-savas was an assault on the taste buds.

Only that was like home to Jim, too. He relished the sour taste as it made his eyes cross and water, Amanda catching the expression across the table and hiding the quietest laugh in the galaxy behind a dab of her napkin.

‘I have been informed by Captain Pike that your performance in the preparatory program was, according to standards, exemplary.’ Sarek didn’t have to say Jim’s name to make it obvious who he was talking to. Nothing he ever did was anything but pointed. ‘Given that assessment, he has reason to believe you would make a fine addition to Starfleet’s cadet program, should you be amenable.’

‘There was never any doubt,’ Amanda added.

Jim, who’d been so good about everything, so laid back, so cool—aside from the hug thing—couldn’t help it then. He had to look at Spock. Not that it’d mean any more or any less than it ever did: two parts excitement matched with equal parts disappointment.

Spock had finished his salad. Spock was neither proud nor impressed. Spock was just being Spock and the sight of him was better than a hamburger and, in a way, kind of like the one that’d tried to kill Jim.

Spock cleared his throat, eyebrow lifting like he’d read Jim’s mind. That, more than anything—more than Amanda at the table or I-Chaya prowling around underfoot or the red Vulcan sands outside—was the familiar sight of home that caught Jim right in the gut.

There was simply nothing else like it on Earth.

Bones was expressive as hell, but his eyebrows couldn’t match Spock’s eloquence.

‘It would seem that Jim neglected to mention one or two medical incidents during his time away.’ Spock wiped the corner of his mouth with a cloth napkin. It was important, even during these obvious betrayals, to maintain etiquette at all times.

Jim half wanted to smack him but he couldn’t reach without diving across the table and besides, that seemed like a lousy way of getting his hands on Spock. If he was gonna go there, he was gonna make it count.

‘Nothing serious,’ Jim piped up. ‘Just had to build a new tolerance for some stuff. It wasn’t so bad.’

‘Oh, dear.’ Amanda looked regretful more than mad at him. Jim wasn’t sure how he’d managed to swing that one, but he’d take it. ‘We should have anticipated that.’

‘It is evident that these incidents did not interfere with your studies or your performance,’ Sarek said. Jim couldn’t be sure, but it almost sounded like he was giving Jim a compliment. ‘Despite your difficulties, the results are admirable.’

Okay, yeah. That was definitely a compliment.

Jim was just gonna leave off the part where he’d been rooming with a med student for now. He didn’t wanna get Spock going on one of his Bones-related tangents.

It was what he’d always wanted, in a way: getting the kind of recognition he’d dreamed of on a planet that wasn’t his. Jim had never once thought I’ll show them about any of his Vulcan family, the way he sometimes used to about the people he’d known in Riverside, Iowa, but it was still nice to get results. He didwanna show them, just in a different way—closer to proving himself than shoving anyone’s face in it.

Sarek and Amanda never had to take Jim in and make him one of their own. So he kinda wanted to make it worth their while if he could. Make them proud, if that was possible.

Starfleet cadet was a more appealing prospect than starship mechanic—even if the distance was going to be a downside.

After dinner, Jim rose over Amanda’s protests to do the dishes. It might’ve been his homecoming meal but as far as he was concerned, he’d been given a free pass from dishwashing duty for the past four months. He was well overdue. Jim didn’t know whether to be surprised or just thankful when Spock arrived to stand next to him at the sink, drying dishes at Jim’s shoulder like he’d never gone away.

There weredifferences, though. For one thing, Jim remembered Spock as being taller.

He nudged Spock’s shoulder with his own: once, twice, three times before he felt Spock stiffen, vertebrae clicking into place one-by-one to create that impossibly perfect posture of his. It was like watching him sprout two inches in the corner of Jim’s eye.

So much for catching up.

‘Hey,’ Jim said.

‘It would not reflect poorly on you should you wish to retire early,’ Spock replied.

‘...OK, you lost me.’

‘You are obviously in a state of fatigue,’ Spock said. ‘You passed through dinner without drawing attention to your condition; however, it is now evident that your sense of equilibrium is failing you. You are unbalanced. I would suggest, therefore, that you take the necessary measures in order to ensure you do not lose consciousness while you are still on your feet.’

‘Oh my God, Spock,’ Jim groaned. He wanted to rub his face, dig his thumbs into his eyes, but there were soap bubbles all over his hands and that was the last thing he needed.  Another allergic reaction without Bones there to nip it in the bud. ‘I’m not falling asleep on my feet. I was just saying hey.’

Spock seemed to consider this.

‘You had already greeted me in a more appropriate fashion earlier in the day. Also, you did not say anything at all.’

Jim shrugged—making sure not to bump into Spock this go around. If the third time was the charm then the fourth time was bound to be overkill, and Jim already knew how Spock felt about that.

‘If you are accustomed now to the status quo of interaction with your human peers,’ Spock continued, ‘it would be unwise to presume the same behavior will be understood or even welcome here.’

‘Yeah, Spock. I got it.’

‘That does not imply a lack of welcome for your return—it is merely the caution you obviously require regarding the customs here versus those in San Francisco.’

‘Reading you loud and clear, Spock. Thanks.’ Jim handed off the last of the dishes before Spock could tell him gratitude was far from appropriate in this dialogic exchange.

All his conversations with Spock over the years had prepared Jim for the Starfleet mini-lectures he’d attended more than they’d prepared him for the Starfleet cadet candidates and their social expectations. That’d been one of the lessons Captain Pike kept coming back to—that gain always came hand in hand with sacrifice. That even a superior tactic would incur loss. That there was no such thing as the perfect play.

Not exactly the same principle as a Pyrrhic victory, but it implied Pyrrhic victories rested on the farthest end of the same scale.

Jim still didn’t buy into that outlook. Captain Pike was smarter than any non-Vulcan Jim knew and the way he talked about space made Jim’s heart race—only the galaxy got bigger and bigger the more you learned about it, so why say never when nobody’d seen all it had to offer yet?

But the point was, being with Spock, Pike’s theory of give and take made more and more sense.

Spock was a genius—and he’d given up plenty to be one, too. What he offered in intellect he paid for in making other people feel warm and fuzzy inside, or even letting them know they mattered always, all the time. What Jim knew and what he felt were two different things, but he couldn’t have said whether or not that divide existed for Spock and, if it did, if it was one Spock recognized. Maybe it was there and all the things Spock knew got in the way of a few of the things inside himself he was supposed to see.

It figured Jim’d have to leave Vulcan behind and put some distance between them before he could get a better view of the guy he’d been living with every day of his life since he was nine years old.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, clearing his throat. Something was stuck in there and Jim just had to hope it wasn’t another allergic reaction, a bug he’d picked up on the transport or his body reacclimatizing to Vulcan’s air composition. Bones wasn’t around to take care of any problems like that the moment they arose and, while Jim trusted Spock with his life, he wasn’t sure he trusted Spock with a hypo or with bedside manner. ‘You’re right—not that that’s a surprise. I guess I’d better turn in for the night, catch some z’s.’

‘The pursuit of these ‘z’s’ does not sound like a restful endeavor,’ Spock replied.

Jim grinned and left him to work that colloquial puzzle out on his own, heading back to his room to see if it still felt like it belonged to him.

It did—that was a relief. He couldn’t say why he’d been worried it wouldn’t. The model starship that’d gone with him all the way to San Francisco and back was there on his desk and his unpacked bag was in the corner by his bed and he could hear I-Chaya outside the door, waiting, patient but impatient at the same time. That was a state of being that Spock probably wouldn’t understand, although—true to form—he’d meditate on the riddle and approach it from countless intellectual angles until he determined the root of the paradox and disproved it. QED. Solved for x despite the plethora of illogical variables.

Jim sat on the edge of his bed, something he hadn’t been able to do on a top bunk. His feet were planted firmly on the ground and his elbows rested on his knees.

‘What’re you waiting for out there, I-Chaya?’ Jim asked, loud enough that he knew I-Chaya would be able to hear him. ‘Get in here.’

The door swung open. I-Chaya plodded in with all the enthusiasm of a good, old bear.

He wasn’t alone.

Spock was there behind him, a shadow backlit by the light at the end of the hall. His hands were behind his back. Jim rubbed his sweaty palms on the fronts of his pants and buried his fingers in I-Chaya’s fur so that his hands would have something to do other than curl around empty air thinking about Spock filling that emptiness.

There were only variables in that equation. There was nothing to solve for.

‘I-Chaya is joyful to have you home, Jim,’ Spock said.

‘Uh huh.’ Jim didn’t want to discount I-Chaya’s contributions. He’d been Jim’s first friend on Vulcan, an ally when he really needed one. He had no doubt that the sehlat had missed him—just like Jim had missed the old bear. But I-Chaya hadn’t been the onlyone waiting on the other side of Jim’s door, and Jim couldn’t resist his own curiosity any more than Spock—they both wanted to solve for x at the end of the day. Where they differed was in their methods. ‘You can come in too, if you want. ...Spock.’

It was an offer, not a command. Jim trusted Spock to decide for himself, even if maybehe thumped the empty spot on the bed next to him like he was calling over a pet. But he didn’t act that way with I-Chaya and Spock didn’t have to know the association.

Jim was as surprised as anyone when Spock stepped over the threshold into the dim light of Jim’s room. Before that, he’d half assumed he was seeing things. Things that talked to him—sure, that made sense. He wasn’t exactly thinking clearly due to multiple variables, one of which was the space-lag Spock had noted. The other stuff was all on Jim: an unstable heart rate and a brain that worked too quickly sometimes for even him to keep up.

Spock getting close had the same effect on him as the doors closing for a timed exam: sweaty palms, tight throat, the works.

Reminding himself that he usually aced those exams wasn’t much help. Spock was way tougher than anything they’d had on Earth. And suddenly he’d zigged where Jim had expected him to zag, which left Jim off-kilter.

However he’d placed in his proficiency exams, Jim didn’t have it in him to compensate for Spock operating off the grid.

The floor didn’t creak as Spock stepped past him, standing next to Jim’s dresser like that was what he’d come in to inspect all along. Jim clenched his fingers in I-Chaya’s fur and I-Chaya didn’t even complain. Good boy.

‘It’s good to be home,’ Jim added.

Technically, it wasn’t his turn to talk, and he was the one who’d already said he missed Spock. If they were keeping score, Jim was willing to bet the number of overtures he’d made over the last three months faroutweighed anything Spock had done in return. So it didn’t make sense to still feel like he had to go the extra mile just to set Spock at ease.

Except that you didn’t keep track with family, and this was as close to family as Jim was ever gonna get.

Spock raised his eyebrows, then turned toward Jim’s bedside table, fiddling with something near the floor.

Low lights flickered on, patterned against Jim’s ceiling and the far wall. It was the star chart he hadn’t brought with him, back when he’d just thought they were going on a family trip to San Francisco and he’d be gone only a week. The vista of Vulcan stars lit up in the darkness of Jim’s room like a real night sky.

Of all the things he’d missed on Earth, having a clear view of the stars was at the top of the list. Even when he got high enough, far enough from the bright lights to catch a proper glimpse, they weren’t the samestars, the ones he was used to seeing.

‘There are sandstorms over the desert tonight which preclude the possibility of observing the constellations in their native state.’ Spock straightened up, hands folded behind his back. ‘However, I am aware that the observation of certain traditions can aid in the transition from one world to the next.’

Jim thought that one through. ‘Trying to help me reacclimatize, Spock?’

Spock’s mouth twitched, like he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

‘If the assistance is not required…’

‘I didn’t say that.’ Jim always caved first. Maybe it wasn’t so bad if it was part of a pattern. He was just being consistent, living up to expectations. He shifted sideways and this time Spock sat down beside him. The end of the bed barely dipped under his weight.

Of all the things he’d expected to do with Spock once he got back to Vulcan, stargazing wasn’t high on the list.

Jim stretched back, thinking about a few of the tips he’d learned while he was on Earth—human strategies for human experiences, human dates, human relationships. The occasional Orion-related strategy, too, which according to Gaila were universal to everyone but Vulcans. Anyway, the part of Spock that was human wasn’t the part that responded ninety-nine point nine percent of the time so Jim couldn’t rely on those tactics.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t consider using them. Updated and improved versions, at least.

Sulu’d explained the yawn-and-stretch tactic Scotty had acted it out on Bones, who’d been sleeping at the start of the demonstration but was wide awake by the end of it.

Jim could still hear their laughter, Uhura’s brighter and clearer than the rest, while Bones snorted and shook Scotty off, then shocked them all by showing Jim how it was done if you were an actual professional.

That was one option. And there were the other ways Jim’d learned because he was—he’d hacked into his files to be sure—‘intuitive’, which meant he picked things up naturally. No wonder he hadn’t exploded from trying to fit in on Vulcan. He’d only felt like exploding, and he’d come to understand and appreciate the very real difference between the two classifications.

There was how easily Uhura stepped close to somebody and made it feel natural, inevitable, and—most importantly—comfortable. Spock wasn’t the kind of guy who did comfortable on a regular basis but it couldn’t have been good for him. Relaxing wasn’t a Vulcan thing but it was a human thing and there were parts of Spock that Jim never let himself forget were as human as he was, as human as Amanda.

It was important to remember that, something Jim had to remember about Spock and for Spock.

Amanda’d never said it out loud but Jim knew—human instinct couldn’t be quantified but it couldn’t be discounted, either—that she was always thinking the same thing. Respect the Vulcan half; cherish the human half. And maybe someday, if you were patient enough and loved him enough, Spock would figure out how to be both.

Natural, inevitable, comfortable. Stuff that should’ve been straightforward but wasn’t.

Jim’d learned plenty on Earth that didn’t take place in exam rooms or lecture halls or on the field during physicals. Jim’s shoulders hit the wall and he put into play his own version of the yawn and stretch—which wasn’t even an act, considering how tired he was—shifting just enough that his hand slid sideways on the mattress. He made wrinkles wherever he went, whether it was in the sheets or in the fabric of Spock’s turtleneck. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, his pinky bumped Spock’s thumb; as tired as he was, Jim could feel every electron in every atom in his body buzzing with raw energy, just waiting for Spock to move politely out of the way of Jim’s touch.

Only Spock’s hand didn’t move.

Jim blinked, long enough that his eyes adjusted to the darkness on the backs of his eyelids. When he opened them again, the holographic starlight was a golden glow, a shifting constant. Another contradiction. Jim let out a breath he’d held without realizing it, lungs aching from straining against the thin Vulcan air, and hooked his pinky over Spock’s thumb before his palm slid all the way over to cover the back of Spock’s hand.

With Spock, letting something happen was basically the same as making it happen. The distinctions might drive Jim off the roof one day but at the same time, at least it allowed him hope like a projected star: a brief period of observation, too brief, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been there.

It was the brightest star Jim had to navigate by.

He held Spock’s hand.

‘I-Chaya’s gonna be jealous,’ Jim said, voice rasping, almost cracking. ‘All this attention I’m showing you all of a sudden.’

‘I cannot agree that I-Chaya’s emotions are as complex as you seem to believe.’

Spock.’

‘Jim.’

Jim swallowed. He’d heard his name shouted by Bones or sighed by Uhura or called out by Sulu or rolled with Scotty’s brogue or coupled with a grin on Gaila’s lips but it’d never been the same with them as when Spock said it, disapproving or quizzical or dry.

There was emotion in that voice. Clinical and straightforward it might’ve been, but it wasn’t without color or inflection, without choice. Personality. Jim swallowed around the need for more and the knowledge that he already had plenty and beneath his hand, Spock’s fingers stirred.

‘Our connection has always been sound,’ Spock said. ‘Due, I have little doubt, to the protracted period of time during our formative years which we spent in close proximity to one another. It is due to this empathic construct that I know you are troubled, Jim.’

‘Nah,’ Jim replied. ‘Just tired.’

‘Do you intend to apply yourself, upon the recommendation of Captain Pike, to Starfleet Academy?’

Jim hadn’t expected that question. With anyone else, it would’ve been a non-sequitur. Except Spock didn’t do non-sequiturs as a general principle.

‘I’ve been thinking about it,’ Jim admitted.

‘It would be a suitable application of your skills as well as your future potential,’ Spock said. That was the Vulcan way of saying he approved. Probably. Jim’s Vulcan-to-normal translator was rusty but he’d got some solid practice in. Years of building new ways to find hidden meanings wasn’t training that’d dissolve after just three months. ‘No doubt you would find support both from my parents and the aforementioned Captain Pike should you choose to pursue a career in Starfleet.’

‘Yeah…’ Jim’s little finger twitched over the back of Spock’s hand, dragging lightly over his cool skin. It wasn’t as cold as Jim remembered. Maybe he was getting warmer. ‘It’s something to think about, I guess.’

He tried to look at it from Spock’s perspective, working out what could’ve brought him to talking about Starfleet when from Jim’s angle he really would’ve liked to hear more about their ‘sound connection’. True, he’d just been away. It was obvious that Spock was gonna deal with that on his own terms, however he saw fit. It was up to Jim to suss out the hows and whys of it, working through a response that’d make him seem brilliant and clever and not like any other human in the galaxy. The one and only Jim Kirk.

Maybe the reason he didn’t have any clue where Spock was coming from was because he hadn’t had the chance to talk with Spock about anythingthat’d happened to him while Jim had been away at Starfleet kid-genius camp. He’d tried to steer the conversation in that direction once or twice but he’d always run up against the wall of Spock’s stubbornness, his adherence to the strictest principles of Vulcan privacy.

Sometimes Jim figured he never should’ve introduced Bones to the family, except that would’ve been one too many things to hide.

He could be secretive but not Vulcansecretive. That was an advanced level of difficulty and Jim wasn’t quite sure he’d gained the necessary experience to handle it yet.

‘Why’re you asking?’ Jim took his chances, leaning on Spock’s hand to push their shoulders together while he settled in closer. ‘You trying to plan my future for me? Because I haven’t even heard a whisper of what you’re gonna do. Like I said, I think you’d run rings around most of the scientific candidates there. Literally, I mean. Some of those guys don’t look like they get out much.’

Spock swallowed. Jim could barely see the motion in the dark, the brief rise and fall of his Adam’s apple, dappled starlight rippling over his pale throat. Artificial Vulcan constellations were a lot more interesting when they reflected off of something other than the wall.

That was one advantage they had over the real thing.

‘It is my intent to follow the Vulcan traditions observed by my father and his father before him,’ Spock said.

He wasn’t looking at Jim or the stars either. His focus was so distant that Jim had to guess he’d turned it inward, examining some vital, personal piece of information that’d apparently led him to this conclusion as being the right one.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise. Not really. Spock had always referred to himself as a Vulcan despite Jim’s repeated attempts to appeal to his other half. Amanda didn’t interfere one way or the other, but he figured it was appreciated.

 Someonehad to help Spock work out a little balance. It couldn’t be healthy going all one way or all the other. Then again, Jim couldn’t help but come at it from a naturally biased place. He was human and no matter where he’d grown up, he was never gonna get all that Vulcan stuff.

But he didget Spock. Sort of. More than Spock thought. Which was probably why he was acting like this was some kind of insult instead of the answer to a question he’d asked.

‘So you’re gonna do the whole Vulcan Science Academy thing then, huh?’ Jim gestured toward nothing with his free hand, tracing the delicate veinwork between Spock’s knuckles with the other. He didn’t mean for it to come out snippy but that didn’t change how it sounded in his ears. And Spock’s ears were way better than his. There was no way he was gonna miss Jim’s tone.

True to form, Jim saw a flicker of tension in Spock’s jaw, clenching it briefly before he spoke. That gave Jim a weird boost of confidence. He’d been gone a while but that didn’t mean he’d lost his ability to get under Spock’s skin in ten words or less.

It was a dubious skill at best, but it was all Jim’s.

‘Among other things,’ Spock said.

Other things,’ Jim echoed. ‘That’s vague, Spock. Even for you. Especially for you.’

‘You contradict yourself,’ Spock replied. ‘Which is not inherently unusual.’

Jim’s thumb rested in the ridge between the knuckles of Spock’s fore- and index-fingers. It fit—pretty much perfectly, if Jim had to categorize it. ‘That how they teach you to answer a question in Vulcan school?’

‘You did not ask a question. Therefore, an answer was not strictly required.’

‘I implied a question.’

‘Implications aside, no question was asked.’

Jim couldn’t help the grin that came hand in hand with frustration at the same talking-in-circles routine that was just as much a part of home as I-Chaya curled up in a giant ball on the floor or Amanda setting flowers in vases in the sitting room or sandstorms clouding the skies over the mountaintops. Kind of the same way Jim and Spock were hand in hand right now, in fact. ‘What’re the other things, Spock?’ Jim asked.

‘During your absence, I discussed with my mother a prospective decision to train at the Vulcan Science Academy with the intention to undergo the ritual of kolinahr, in order to ascertain that she would not take this choice as a personal slight against the human side of myself, to which she is the primary contributing factor. I was thorough in my reassurances that it in no way reflected judgment on or displeasure with that which she brought to my upbringing. As is and always has been her way, she was supportive as she believed necessary of her maternal role, while simultaneously revealing specific reactions that indicate she trusts I am capable of deciding these matters for myself—despite her lapses in understanding why I make the choices that I do.’

Jim sucked in a breath and puffed it out again. Even when Spock was saying exactly what he was thinking, understanding him was still like playing one of the wooden Vulcan puzzle boxes he kept on his shelves, which Jim’d hated and loved for the same reason when he was younger—they were so damn hard, as close to impossible as a thing could get while still being possible at all, and they’d had Jim crawling out of his sunburned skin trying to solve them for days on end. One of them had taken weeks.

He didn’t have the same kind of time with Spock.

Kolinahr,’ Jim repeated. It was something he knew about without knowing about it; he’d heard it, read it, but the specifics were supposed to be elusive, which was why they eluded him.

‘The ritual can last for between two to six years. During this time, all vestigial emotions are purged in order to attain pure logic.’

‘Oh,’ Jim said.

After that, he didn’t feel like saying anything at all.

The same Spock who’d thought of giving him a tiny starship for his thirteenth birthday—and the tiny stars to sail through that tiny sky—and the same Spock who was holding Jim’s hand now, or letting Jim hold his hand, could just as easily have been like the great Vulcan ascetics Jim’d read about. No emotions. Vestigial, like a tailbone they’d evolved out of needing hundreds of years ago.

Jesus,’ Jim said, without thinking about stopping himself.

‘Am I to understand by your tone that you do not ascribe to my mother’s methods of encouragement despite full comprehension of my motivation?’ Spock asked.

‘Am I to understand that you wanna eventually get rid of every emotion you’ve got?’ Jim replied. It came out hot, but so were his cheeks and the back of his neck, his chest, the spaces between his ribs. Vulcan made him hot; Spock made him hot. And he’d never thought he’d think Spock and idiot in the same sentence before, but there it was. ‘That you’d just decide to do this without even talking to me about it first, or—’

‘It was a prospective decision. I did not confirm that I had chosen to make it.’

The wind left Jim’s sails, dilithium chambers shorting out like in one of the last-resort crash course scenarios Sulu’d run them through for fun on their off hours. Jim’s fingers tightened. He didn’t mean to squeeze Spock’s hand—he knew how much Spock wouldn’t, couldn’t like it—and he forced himself not to hurt him or ask for too much or even ask for anything. ‘It’s fine,’ Jim said. ‘You can— It’s your life. You can do whatever you want, decide whatever you want. It’s not up to me. I don’t get a say in it.’

‘You speak the truth,’ Spock said, ‘yet have the countenance and shiftless energy of someone who believes he is lying.’

‘Because I hate the idea of it, that’s why,’ Jim said. It didn’t get more honest than that. ‘And I hate that I hate it; I hate that you don’t.’

‘Hate is a strong emotion.’ The shadows on Spock’s face flickered, almost like an expression. ‘I have felt it, Jim. I have felt a great many things.’

‘So you think it’d be easier not to feel anything at all?’

‘Quantitatively... Perhaps.’ Spock paused. ‘I cannot be certain.’

‘Well that’s just great, Spock.’ Jim threw his hands up, well aware that he was being dramatic. It was a Bones gesture, through and through. Maybe Spock was right and he’d picked up some new Earth habits after all. ‘Doesn’t that seem like the kind of thing you’d want to be sure of? Logically?’

‘Which is why I continue to remind you that the decision is, as of yet, prospective,’ Spock said.

Jim listened as closely as he could; there was no hint of annoyance in Spock’s tone. On the contrary, he sounded patient, like he’d already rehearsed this conversation in his head with Jim multiple times and the practice had gone about as well as the real deal. They’d done field tests in Starfleet: hand-to-hand; how to defend yourself in a hostile situation and how to survive in hostile terrain; how to use a phaser set to stun to maximum efficiency. But none of the courses ever used live ammo and Jim felt like Spock’s words had been a round to the chest.

He hadn’t meant to come back and screw everything up with his loud, emotional, human opinions. But that was the problem—he’d settled enough on Vulcan to think of it as his home. Sarek, Amanda and Spock: they were family now. And sometimes family meant being able to tell someone you thought they were an idiot instead of doing the polite thing and locking your feelings away.

Jim couldn’t be sure everybody’d agree with that definition of family. Spock didn’t look all that thrilled at Jim’s newfound ability to speak his mind. But it wasn’t like Jim had been shy before. Why start now when the stakes were higher than ever?

If his aim was to try and show Spock how tolerable it could be having emotions, well—Jim wasn’t doing such a great job of that.

He passed his thumb in a restless, bumpy line up and down over the ridges of Spock’s knuckles, having found his hand again; he felt the minute twitches of tendon and thin muscle whenever he slid their fingers together. Was it wrong to try and make someone feel better when feelings were the problem in the first place?

That was one Jim was gonna pose to the elders if he ever got a chance to meet them. They could riddle that one out for him, weathering the hot Vulcan days in the katric ark.

‘Sorry I lost it,’ Jim said eventually.

Spock could let a silence go on for hours and not get uncomfortable, but Jim wasn’t like that. Awkward pauses meant they were fighting and he couldn’t handle that no matter how much Starfleet training he’d seen. Not on his first night back.

He saw Spock’s head tilt in his favor, caught the flare of Spock’s nostrils out of the corner of his eye. They were still kind of—sort of—holding hands, although Spock hadn’t done anything about it one way or the other. Letting something happen was still better than fighting it actively, although Jim wasn’t much for passive gestures. At least Spock had a pretty strong idea of who he was and what he found acceptable.

Jim had worked hard to get himself into the latter category. Maybe that was why he cherished the position so damn much.

‘It is understandable that your emotions and mental state would be particularly irrational, due to your natural exhaustion at the end of a long voyage.’ Spock’s voice was quiet—not the same unbearable, neutral calm he used just to piss Jim off, but something gentler, more personal. ‘It was not my intent to turn the topic of conversation to something beyond what you were prepared for. I merely sought to give you the information you complained of lacking while on Earth.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Jim leaned his head on Spock’s shoulder, the touch brief but necessary. It’d been a while since he’d done that and he found it harder to get away with now that he was taller. He pulled away too soon after, compensating for getting too close by flopping over onto his back. The bed creaked under him. He didn’t let go of Spock’s hand. ‘Not your fault I’m so irrational.’

‘In this instance, at least—though I do not wish to provide you with excuses that may in the future become a crutch against self-improvement—I do not believe that the irrationality displayed is a flaw in your nature but rather a product of extenuating circumstances.’

‘Long voyage. Natural exhaustion. Yeah,’ Jim said.

The bed shifted, a minor change in its gravitational center. Spock didn’t do comfort, not his own comfort, and when he’d comforted Jim in the past it hadn’t been like any Jim’d ever known. But he could still offer cool hands and a solid presence—and the idea that Jim wasn’t alone because somebody else was, literally and logically, right there with him.

The same was true now. Spock’d treated the problem like one of his wooden puzzle boxes but that didn’t mean care and thought and insight hadn’t gone into his actions as he settled into the most spatially efficient position at Jim’s side.

Jim tried to imagine what Spock was thinking—Now we are both horizontal, a parallel that is most logical in this instance; Jim is in need of another shower; Why did I ever miss this idiot; I never actually missed him at all—but the truth was, Jim didn’t know what Spock was thinking. He couldn’t tell, hand to hand, knuckles brushing knuckles, because the connection on his end was made up of nothing more trustworthy than instinct, impulse, and imagination. It started with something concrete, a touch, but the rest of it was a free-fall.

Jim sighed.

‘You are frustrated,’ Spock said.

For Spock, who could pick up on these things, Jim could make it all too easy.

‘You, too,’ Jim guessed.

Spock was quiet for a long moment. ‘As I implied earlier... Such emotions are not unknown to me. That they are not is equally troubling.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. He was still trying to crack that honest, straightforward code. ‘But that’s how it is with Vulcans, isn’t it?’

Spock was quiet again. Jim’s heart had slowed; Spock’s breath was pooling steadily against the thin fabric of the t-shirt covering Jim’s shoulder. ‘Clarify.’

‘Maybe... I dunno. I read those books on Surak a long time ago and I was too young to get it, so I’ve read ‘em a few times since.’ That was the truth—just not as obvious that Jim did it on purpose, once a year and every year, so he’d be able to understand, or at least know he was making all the effort he could, sifting through a small handful of sand in the desert of what Spock was going through. ‘Anyway, what I meant by that was, that’s the Vulcan...thing, or whatever. You feel. You feel a lot more than anybody else, maybe, humans or Orions or even Tellarites.’

‘Fortunately, we are unlike Tellarites in every way imaginable.’

‘OK, forget the Tellarites.’

‘If only that were possible.’

Jim’s grin felt crooked, relieved—weary. And good. As far as Spock jokes went, it was a particularly funny one. ‘It’s not as unnatural as you think it is, that’s all. The emotions. Vulcans run pretty deep, right? So you’ve gotta work extra hard at figuring it all out. But it’s not about one half of you feeling things and the other not feeling ‘em. You’re supposed to feel things, no matter how deep it gets. Hell, there’s stuff I wish I didn’t feel sometimes.’

‘I would not have surmised this from the data presented.’

Jim’s grin widened. He turned his face to press it against Spock’s shoulder but it brought them eye to eye instead. ‘There’s a lot inside of you,’ Jim said. He swallowed. ‘And all I’m saying is, I’d miss any of it, if it was gone. That’s all. But you’re the smartest person I know and I’m not gonna second guess you. You’ll always be somebody to me, even if you don’t... Even if I’m not...’ Jim felt the grin falter and tried to keep it in place. His jaw hurt. ‘Even if you do this thing that means we can’t...’

There was nothing more he could put into words. He swiped his thumb over Spock’s, in the softest place between Spock’s thumb and forefinger like a dune valley in the desert, and gave his hand a brief, gentle squeeze. Wordless communication.

‘You are special to me as well, Jim,’ Spock said.

Jim had to close his eyes; it was the human way of hiding emotions. They all had a mechanism for coping with the stuff that was bigger than they were, threatening to burst them open from the center. Some of them were better at it than others, that was all.

Jim shivered.

‘I find it difficult to believe you would be cold here, given the elevated temperatures on Vulcan as compared with the disagreeable average climate of San Francisco,’ Spock continued, as though he hadn’t just told Jim the greatest thing Jim’d ever heard. ‘Nevertheless, if you find the current air regulation settings uncomfortable—’

‘Nah,’ Jim said. ‘I’m good.’

And he was, at least until morning.

*

Chapter Text

Spock observed Jim’s sleep patterns for any irregularity counterintuitive to the nocturnal cycles of Vulcan. It would no doubt take Jim’s circadian rhythms time to adjust from the phases of one planet’s sun to another. While Spock had lived off-world on several of Father’s diplomatic trips while he had still been young, Jim’s arrival into their lives had necessitated a stability that could only be provided by centralizing their home.

Even Spock’s experience in adjusting his own body to the cycles of a new planet was not currently as exceptional as it might once have been. There were also the differences in Vulcan physiology to consider; Jim needed a specific amount of rest in order to function.

Spock, while recognizing that there was an optimal period of time during which the cessation of all but the most vital functions was beneficial for any sentient being, did not require sleep in the same amount that Jim did. Even to miss his habitual meditation would not throw Spock out of sorts as quickly as missed sleep would prove significantly detrimental to a human’s waking performance.

Given the information at hand, it was only logical for Spock to remain conscious in order to better observe Jim’s condition and make any necessary corrections to facilitate the continuation of his unconscious state. Jim had not seen fit to lower the blinds; neither had he removed his boots. He had fallen asleep on his back above the covers, fingers twitching with restless synaptic activity against Spock’s hand.

In the morning he was fully clothed but his boots had been removed at an earlier point during the night, and Spock had managed to wrap the corner of his blanket around his body, remembering the illogical claim Jim had made about not being able to achieve a full and proper rest without the covers no matter the temperature of the room. The shades were drawn and Spock had powered down the star chart, the better to keep any mobile light from wresting Jim out of a shallower point in his sleeping cycle.

When all this had been accomplished, it was early enough—and also late enough—that Spock felt comfortable rising to begin a new day. He had not meditated, but Jim’s presence in the house had offered a similarly bolstering effect.

This, as Spock had come to understand from Mother, was a displacement reaction born of caring for someone else’s needs over your own. The distraction could not be sustained in perpetuity, but it would serve in small doses as a satisfactory substitute for attending to one’s own concerns.

Spock had spent the past few months with nothing but his own concerns to occupy his thoughts. It was a solitary state that he had often attempted to achieve—with minimal success—while in Jim’s company. With Jim away, it had been impossible to escape solitude, thereby rendering it less desirable.

The contradiction did not escape his attention; neither did he appreciate it. Spock did not cherish the distinct possibility that he did not have a choice one way or the other.

However, Jim had given him a great deal to consider on the matter of choices. He seemed to feel that there was one clear option—and his conviction was born of equal parts emotion and logic.

Spock continued to be unsettled by these opposing facts as he took his morning shower, water as hot as he could bear; it felt like the needles of a desert succulent against his skin, stimulating without being painful. Though he knew that he was not cleansing his skin of any preoccupations, there was nonetheless a quality of the ritual that served a similar purpose. He achieved a clarity of mind in the steam that had not been present before the hot water ran over his bare skin. There were choices he had not considered.

Jim’s logic, though affected by emotion, was sound.

Once his shower was concluded, Spock proceeded to his room to dress for the day. It was still too early to offer Mother any assistance with breakfast and yet, as Spock proceeded down the second-floor corridor, he noticed that the door to Father’s study was open.

Father was within. He was alone. This observation stirred in Spock the proactive aspiration to take initiative, which admittedly felt more like Jim’s influence than any other emotional anomaly Spock had experienced in his life of contradictions thus far.

He had discussed his prospects with both Mother and now Jim. It served a logical purpose to consult also with Father, who would not attempt to sway Spock with any errant emotionalism and might therefore assist him in consulting the issue of his future logically.

‘You will interrupt nothing by your entrance to this study,’ Father said, upon noting Spock’s presence outside his door.

Spock acknowledged Sarek’s acknowledgment and entered the study.

In contrast to the small but unmistakable touches placed throughout the house indicating Mother’s human individualism—the flowers she favored; the color of the curtains on the balcony windows; the occasional forgotten book on the table in the sitting room, not yet returned to its alphabetized place in the shelving system—Father’s study was serene. It was not, Spock documented on this occasion, very much like the choices he had made or simply allowed in his room, which acted both as sleeping area and study simultaneously. Spock had grown accustomed to the red walls and the heavy curtains, even the brocade on the blanket at the foot of his bed, and the Vulcan harp on which, when time permitted it, he practiced traditional Vulcan music.

In contrast, the walls of Father’s study were a simple tan color, neither too starkly clean nor too richly colorful as to provide distractions. His desk was bare beyond the instruments of communication required to complete his regular duties. There was a computer, a PADD, a low-light strip fixture; beyond that, there were no signs of personal touches or clutter that would interfere with Sarek’s daily tasks.

Yet there, beside the computer, placed between its command console and the PADD, stood a plain, metalloid frame and in it, a single picture. This Spock recognized and had always recognized, for it was an image of Mother when she was twenty years younger, wearing her hair down, with the greenery of what was almost certainly an Earth setting behind her. 

The study’s bare walls, interrupted only by the presence of bookshelves and a scroll of Surak’s precepts, spoke of a single inhabitant, information corroborated by the rest of the room save for one lone detail. That was the photograph of Mother, a human woman; it was the ‘sore thumb’ in the microcosmic landscape Sarek had arranged based on necessity rather than a nod to ‘personal taste’.

Though it was information that had always been readily available to him, Spock was aware that his perception of it and perspective on it must have changed, as he was seeing it differently now. Since the image itself was no different and its placement on Sarek’s desk unaltered, the only variable within the equation was Spock himself.

‘I did not take the picture you are currently observing,’ Father said. ‘That was a gift from your Mother to me, one granted before our marriage and your birth. I am told that this tradition holds some sentimental meaning in human customs.’

‘Indeed. I have been likewise informed that the emphasis on visual evidence of past appearances are a common means of nostalgic commemoration.’

Father nodded. ‘A curious distinction: to possess a single image of an individual whose features have since changed—even more curious when they have not changed significantly. Either way, the act is metaphorical, and serves no distinctive or functional purpose.’

Spock considered the merit in this observation. ‘I would ask a question,’ he said.

Father nodded again.

‘When you travel for your duties as Vulcan Ambassador, do you include with your personal effects this single image of my mother?’

Father glanced at the picture. ‘It holds sentimental meaning in human customs,’ he repeated. ‘Your mother has expressed this fact to me in the past on irregular occasion. The picture serves little purpose now, as you can see, but even less when it cannot be viewed by the one for whom it was intended.’

‘Then despite its lack of purpose or function, you nonetheless travel with this picture of my mother,’ Spock said.

‘Spock.’ Father drew his hands together simply, neatly, on the desk. ‘To repeat what has already been stated also serves no purpose or function.’

‘Yes. Yet it is nonetheless one of the main principles upon which human conversation is founded.’ Spock clasped his hands behind his back. ‘Mother would be pleased to know that you accept and include her gift in your routine in the spirit with which it was given, though it is not your inclination to indulge in irrelevancies.’

‘It is small,’ Father conceded, ‘and demands little space. It is a minor concession.’

‘Father,’ Spock said, ‘I have dedicated myself to the lifestyle of this planet and to the precepts of its people. I would not act recklessly or allow any emotion to control my intellect. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been afforded and the knowledge I have gained in study as you have done, and your father, and his. I have devoted myself to the application and improvement of the mind, as it would be illogical to waste a natural aptitude through neglect. However, I have come to understand that someone with my skills and training would better serve the interests of this galaxy and the Federation elsewhere. If I were to apply what I have learned here on Vulcan in a setting that would otherwise lack the essentials of my contributions, it would be the most logical course of action for my future.’

‘Spock,’ Father replied.

It was not the reception Spock had imagined—now that he was willing to admit to himself that he hadimagined one at all. Spock was not in the habit of speculating, but there were practical grounds for running multiple simulated outcomes in one’s mind before a conversation occurred. After all, it was simpler and more efficient to attempt to discern all possible arguments in order to devise proper responses for them in advance.

In this way, the dialogue would be best served by arriving at its ultimate conclusion in a timely fashion.

But Spock had not known what the conclusion of this conversation would be before he came. He had not known until recently that the conversation would take place at all. He could not fully blame Jim’s influence, as Jim’s words of caution had not been the deciding factor.

Yet Spock was forced to consider that Jim’s presence in the household hadtaken a distinct, nearly palpable effect. It was the product of having the house back to normal, a return to the routine to which Spock had become accustomed, which influenced him most.

It was under these circumstances—without duress or unusual parameters—that it seemed prudent to apply his mind to a singular course of action.

‘It is my intent to enlist in Starfleet,’ Spock said. ‘If Jim’s assessment of their resources is correct, then they will have need of someone with my abilities. You have expressed on multiple occasions the vital work accomplished by the Federation and contribute to it by means of your own diplomatic efforts. Jim’s enthusiasm for the program and your choice to assist the Federation have provided me with positive examples of the impact officers and allies of Starfleet have on the galaxy at large. Given the evidence, I can only conclude the logic in pursuing my own means of contribution, whatever they may yet prove to be.’

Father had not spoken against the idea—although, for some unknown reason, Spock felt the irrational need to back his assertion with strong facts. The methods may have been Vulcan, but the impulse was all too human.

Spock had not yet discovered the appropriate balance between the two; however, it seemed a valid conclusion to adhere entirely to the principles of neither race as a whole, as he was neither one nor the other in its entirety, himself.

Father raised his right eyebrow. His hands were folded on the desk one over the other.

‘I would offer counsel,’ he said, ‘but as you have arrived at your decision prior to this discussion I must infer that this counsel would be a waste of breath.’

Spock’s lips parted, inhaling as if to speak. It was unwise to assume anything before weighing the content of his father’s words, but neither did he wish his silence to communicate an intent that was not present.

‘Your opinion is always valid,’ Spock said, ‘as it is valued. If you are possessed of some insight which I might have overlooked…’

Father sighed; the act looked uncomfortably human on him.

‘It is my understanding that your records would have been more than enough to merit admission to the Vulcan Science Academy.’ Father did not need to speak carefully, as his words were always under his control. ‘If your objective is to avoid the possibility of rejection by applying elsewhere, I can assure you candidly that this would be unnecessary.’

‘Thank you.’ Spock meant it. He knew Father was trying to understand, in his own way, that which was illogical—that which was not his way. By eliminating the likelier possibilities, those human influences which would always remain to Sarek a small mystery, he would eventually come to the conclusion that Spock had already reached. ‘I can assure you that I did not make the decision lightly, nor was it one made in an attempt to circumvent any anticipated disappointment. It is merely that a position in Starfleet is optimal for my current abilities. It is there that I might be most beneficial to both the Federation’s interests as well as Vulcan’s.’

Father waited to nod. It was unclear whether this was done in agreement or merely in acknowledgement of Spock’s assertion.

‘This matter has weighed on your mind for some time,’ Father said.

It had, but not in the way Sarek meant.

Before Jim’s return, Spock’s contemplations had coalesced around a different purpose. It was unlike him to make such a strong case for the opposite position so late in its period of consideration. Despite that, Spock felt quite certain. Not only was his reasoning sound, but it led to a preferable result.

He would have to trust that Jim would not take offense at his decision or view it as an attempt to usurp his position as the member of the household with Starfleet aspirations. Their specialties within the academy would no doubt reflect their separate skills; there would be little overlap and equally little reason to compete with one another.

‘Your methodology is understood,’ Father said at last. ‘If you have sufficiently applied yourself to meditation and reflection on the matter and this is your ultimate decision, then so be it.’

Disappointment was a human indulgence and sought human means of reflection. A Vulcan parent would not apply the distribution of guilt as a means for implying a child should do other than what they themselves suggested. As such, Sarek had approved of Spock’s prospective plans inasmuch as he was meant to; Spock had proven his theory and no further breath would need to be wasted between them.

‘Your counsel was appreciated, Father,’ Spock said.

‘Your consideration equally appreciated, Spock,’ Sarek replied.

They did not expend excess time and energy on the conversational niceties that would have followed a human discussion of similar content. Spock withdrew from the study and was greeted by the powerful smells of breakfast. It was the customary hour for taking their morning meal, the first one with Jim at the table since his return from San Francisco, and he was there waiting in the dining area, one palm resting against the back of the chair, his hair uncombed after his lengthy sleep. He had not seated himself, as though he was waiting for something.

‘Morning,’ he said, squinting against the sunlight beaming in through the open window.

‘From the distressing state of your hair, I take it you slept soundly?’

‘Like a baby,’ Jim said.

‘Most human babies exhibit restless tendencies during the night that would imply a phrase of that nature suggests poor and fitful sleep was had.’

‘Like a baby that slept really well, then,’ Jim amended, grinning.

Mother had made Jim’s favorite, which involved eggs, and Spock’s, which was the simple porridge he had eaten every morning since childhood. Jim ate in between regaling Mother with stories of Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy’s antics. Colorful metaphors were employed.

‘He sounds fascinating,’ Mother said.

‘Yes,’ Spock agreed. ‘Fascinating.’

Though they spoke the same word, it had separate and divided meanings. There was a lesson in that; Spock meditated on it for much of the earlier part of the day, while Jim—he could hear the noises made by his pursuits outside the house, just under Spock’s window—assessed the state of his hoverbike to be certain it was still in top order. This involved copious engine revs that must have fallen beyond the bounds of necessity.

I-Chaya covered his head with his paws and Spock allowed the distraction because he had come to anticipate distraction—and because achieving meditative clarity despite distraction was a more difficult and more rewarding task than doing so when it would have been easier to clear his mind.

After meditating for three and three quarters of an hour, Spock met with Mother in the garden. No topical preamble was necessary, as her intelligence allowed for an accelerated dialogue not always possible even with other Vulcans. 

‘I have determined that my skills and background will make me best suited to continue my studies in the Academy of Starfleet, rather than remaining here at the Vulcan Science Academy,’ Spock told her as she straightened with a nearly empty watering pot. Spock laced his fingers together and rested them at the small of his back, recalling Jim’s twitching hands in the night: the way they tightened unexpectedly in a handful of blanket or in Spock’s grip. ‘I will bring my experience to them, whereupon they may utilize it as they see fit; as there are few Vulcan officers of Starfleet, they will certainly have need of it.’

‘Oh,’ Mother said.

Spock waited.

A dry afternoon wind passed between them. The sandstorms had moved on but they had left behind a polluted quality of air that caused Mother’s breathing to become labored. Jim, too, would later be suffering from its effects, despite his protests to the contrary.

‘That’s wonderful, Spock,’ Mother said. This was her way. Father recognized the logical purpose in Spock’s actions; Mother, however, could not always withhold judgment for that which she perceived commendable. ‘You’re right,’ she added, requiring both hands to hold the pot despite its relatively minimal weight. ‘After all, there are so few Vulcan officers, as you say, in Starfleet—and with all that you know, all that you’re capable of, it’s a shame that more don’t bring their knowledge to that noble goal.’

‘You have understood my logic,’ Spock replied.

‘Spock,’ Mother said, ‘would it be all right—I know it’s been years, and I hope you know I won’t be hurt either way—but might I hug you now, the way I used to when you were younger?’

‘To commemorate the importance of this occasion in a purely symbolic fashion?’

‘That, I suppose,’ Mother said, ‘but also to commemorate the importance of being your mother; of having a son. One I’ve always been—and always shall be—very proud of.’

‘I have understood your logic.’ Spock stepped closer and removed the watering pot from Mother’s hands. ‘Therefore, I accept.’

When Mother put her arms around him, Spock was able to conclude that humans used the term ‘hug’ to cover a great many acts of a similar variety—however, upon experiencing them, it was evident to Spock as the recipient that no two hugs were alike. Mother’s was nothing like Jim’s upon returning from Earth, the force of which had seemed bound and determined to knock Spock off his feet. That had veered curiously close to an attack, while there was no mistaking Mother’s embrace as possessing any characteristics other than those which had been previously stated.

She was proud of him, proud of the work she had done as a mother in raising him, and proud of the choices he had made as well as his reasons for making them.

Spock recalled what Jim had said about the feelings of inadequacy enkindled, symbolic or otherwise, when Spock did not return a hug. He did not wish for his mother to experience any similar failings, though he knew, unlike Jim, she would not speak of them. Therefore, Spock felt it appropriate to lift his arms in turn, putting them around his Mother’s shoulders.

They were nearly of a height now, although there were times when Mother straightened and Spock recalled that she was now shorter than he. This was one such occasion.

Mother’s surprise stiffened her posture; she laughed shortly after that.

‘Have I done something humorous?’ Spock asked.

‘Oh, no, not at all, dear.’ Mother pulled away after the requisite amount of time. Her eyes were glittering and damp and she squinted before wiping them, no doubt concerned the added moisture would attract the dust that lay heavy in the air. She touched Spock’s hair as he had seen her do with Jim, correcting the part where it had fallen into disarray. This, Spock felt sure, could not be the case with him. ‘You’ve just made me very happy.’

‘I am satisfied to do so,’ Spock said, and found that this was entirely accurate.

Having informed two of the more formative influences in his life, Spock discovered within him a peace similar to that of a trance state. It was as though there had been a weight on his mind without his recognition of it; he had not noted its presence but its absence gave him a mental tranquility he had not enjoyed in some time.

His daily lessons passed in a vivid blur of activity. Spock excelled as he always had and he was old enough now that the disturbances of his youth at the Academy seemed nothing more than a distant history.

It was a surprise to him, therefore, when he found himself cornered by four of his peers in an echo of past circumstances. Their intent did not seem to be violence—they were older now, as Spock was, and such displays could no longer be written off as the folly of youth—but their gazes were shrewd and canny.

Whatever their missive, it could not be considered amiable, even if it was not outright hostile.

‘Your application for the Vulcan Science Academy has not been received,’ the first Vulcan said.

‘My father has a role in admissions,’ the second clarified. ‘He has no Spock, son of Sarek, on record.’

‘Perhaps you realized your position in Vulcan society has always been a tenuous one and therefore decided to embrace another path,’ the third continued.

‘Or perhaps your recorded examination results were not high enough for even a son of Sarek to be accepted into the Vulcan Science Academy,’ the fourth added.

Spock waited, but the anger that had once come to him so swiftly did not surface. Rather, his calm held—better, perhaps, than those who stood before him.

‘Gentlemen,’ Spock said. He felt his expression shift to what Jim described as your face doing the eyebrow thing. ‘Your concern regarding my well-being is as appreciated as it ever has been. In return, might I invite you to live long and prosper?’

For this, they had no ready reply.

Spock departed in the late evening; he returned home by foot. The latent pollution of the air had, for the most part, cleared, with only the barest grit remaining. As the wind speed increased overnight, the sooner it would be blown away completely. The lanterns in the garden were lit against the approaching dark and Jim, working by means of a flashlight at the side of the house, was shirtless and dirty, a state which suggested he had been applying himself to a specific, hoverbike-related task for much of the day. I-Chaya had joined him while maintaining a sensible distance.

A single spark sizzled as Jim leaned forward, but no more serious reaction was ignited. Jim shook out his hand—stung by the electric snap—and settled back on his heels.

‘I checked after the condition of the vehicle as you requested during your absence,’ Spock said. ‘It remained covered by a tarpaulin in order to protect it from the ravages of the climate. I do not believe any excess repair was necessary.’

Jim turned to look over his sweaty shoulder. ‘It was just like I left it,’ he replied. ‘That was the problem. I learned a few new tricks in San Francisco I wanted to put into play.’

‘Are these ‘tricks’ of which you speak intended to increase the potential speed of the hoverbike?’

Jim’s grin was answer enough. ‘Bingo. Let me guess—you don’t approve, Spock?’

‘The speed when last we rode the hoverbike together was more than sufficient for its purposes. I fail to see how the exercise improves the condition of the vehicle; on the contrary, Jim, it would indicate it is now detrimentally dangerous.’

‘There’s only one way to find out,’ Jim said.

Spock eliminated the ways that were not possible to determine which one way remained. ‘If you intend to ‘take it for a spin’,’ Spock concluded, ‘then I will accompany you.’

‘I thought you weren’t a fan of my driving skills.’

‘I am not, as you say, ‘a fan’,’ Spock said, ‘but as there is a matter I believe is best discussed in private, this ride would prove an optimal opportunity to do so.’

Jim straightened, wiping his brow with his forearm and reaching for his shirt, slung over the handlebars of the bike. ‘Sounds serious.’

‘As the topic includes my future, it may accurately be considered as such.’

Jim looked away, disappearing into the fabric of his shirt. His hands left dirty fingerprints on the cotton but Spock did not have cause to reprimand him, as Jim was in charge of doing his own laundry and was not creating extra work for anyone other than himself. ‘OK,’ Jim said. ‘Sure. Sounds more ominous than serious now. So... One condition.’ Spock nodded to hear it. ‘No complaining about how fast I’m driving.’

‘I do not complain. I merely offer advice as caution.’

‘Yeah, and none of that, either.’ Jim’s smile had returned, though it did so with caution. If only he could find some way to apply that same caution to his prowess on the hoverbike.

Jim mounted. Spock settled behind him. Soon they would be too large physically for the shared position—however, as it was likely they would not remain on Vulcan for much longer, continued modifications of the vehicle would not be required.

Spock placed his arms around Jim’s waist in the sensible position. ‘I have not applied to the Vulcan Science Academy,’ he said, between Jim’s revs of the engine. ‘Given your counsel, my father’s choices, and my own talents, I have come to the conclusion that I will be an asset to Starfleet, and will apply to the Academy in San Francisco.’

Jim did not say anything in reply. For a moment, Spock could not tell—even as close to him as he was, the strength of their connection lacking a translation device—whether this indicated a positive or a negative reaction. Perhaps it indicated a true absence of judgment either way, that Jim had at last discovered a method for reaching impersonal opinions.

Then, with a whoop that caused I-Chaya to stand on his hind legs and roar like a young sehlat displaying its dominance during the pubescent stage, Jim accelerated beyond the hoverbike’s previous capacity. This, Spock learned when the harrowing ride had finally finished, was due to the fourth fuel cell with which Jim had been modifying it.

*

Chapter Text

The voyage from Vulcan to San Francisco was longer than Jim remembered.

Not technically; Spock was the first to remind him of that. And the second, and the third—practically every day of the journey until they docked. The only way to get him to stop reminding Jim was to suggest a transmission to Amanda was in order.

It was a promise to keep Spock in touch that Jim never technically made but intended to stick to anyway.

Spock could be a real pain sometimes—or most of the time, a ninety-nine point seven-nine-three percent, if you wanted to get Vulcan-style accurate—but he was Amanda’s son and Jim knew she’d miss him.

Maybe less than if he’d been at the Vulcan Science Academy, though. You could miss somebody who was still around if they stopped being somebody you recognized.

Anticipation was what made the voyage feel longer than it really was. Anticipation, but also uncertainty. Excitement, nervous energy, and the realization one late night when Jim couldn’t quite fall asleep that he was gonna be introducing Spock to his friends. His friends to Spock.

Jim made Spock a cheat sheet the morning after that, gathering the separate data files on all the people he’d got close to in the summer program and sending them to Spock’s PADD with no note. He was just settling back to sleep when his own PADD pinged with a new message.

Duplicates are appreciated but unneeded.

Jim wrinkled his nose, thinking the message over until he realized what it meant—that Spock had beat him to the punch and he’d already been reading up on all of Jim’s friends behind his back.

Jim should’ve expected that much. It wasn’t like Spock to enter a new situation without being briefed on the particulars, the details, the logistics. Hell, it wasn’t like Spock to let Jim go off somewhere without informing him of that place’s traditions and customs; it even extended to restaurants, because they’d eaten at this one place in San Francisco that still used chopsticks and nothing else, and Spock had gone out of his way to make sure that Jim knew how to hold them and what ends to use and that it was culturally acceptable to slurp his noodles.

‘I think I got it, Spock,’ Jim had said. It was difficult enough eating ramen without slopping it all down his chin, even more so with a stern Vulcan face looming in his periphery.

‘That remains to be seen,’ had been Spock’s reply.

Not exactly the rousing endorsement Jim had been looking for from him. If Jim’d ever believed he was going back to Starfleet with a ready-made ally, he was probably fooling himself.

Still, he stuck close to Spock on the way over. They shared a room, if not a bed. Sometimes Jim fell asleep on the end of Spock’s mattress and woke up on the floor. Not exactly Starfleet regulation, but it seemed like a good idea to get all of that out of his system before they landed. There was no reason to assume they’d be rooming together. Spock was older; he had a different focus. Someone from the science department was probably gonna be waiting at the dock to whisk him away so they could shake his hand and cry over his algorithms.

Man, Spock was gonna hate that.

But he’d made his choice. It was Spock, so Jim could assume he’d done it knowing full well what he was getting into. He didn’t need anyone to pave the way for him or hold his hand or dim the artificial lights in their shared cabin.

Jim had tried that already, only to be informed that it was unnecessary.

‘In order to adapt to the harsh environment of Vulcan,’ Spock told him, ‘its inhabitants evolutionarily developed a second eyelid.’

The information was bad enough on its own. Jim was just trying to read one of Pike’s dissertations that he’d published while Jim had been on Vulcan—and then all of a sudden there was Spock and his creepy white second eyelid looming in the corner of his vision.

‘Oh my god.’ Jim couldn’t look away. Really, looking at all had been his first mistake. But he was about as fascinated as he was revolted. How much time had he spent looking Spock in the eye and he’d still never noticed that? Maybe some of the stuff they said on Vulcan about humans wasn’t so far off. ‘That’s—I believed you, you know. You didn’t have to show me.’  

‘Visual proof is usually preferable to an oral account,’ Spock said.

Then, he returned to his independent equations, shoulder-to-shoulder with Jim like whatever had just happened was totally normal instead of totally weird.

Jim just hoped he wasn’t going to pull that as an introductory ‘breaker of ice’ with other people.

did u know vulcans have a second set of eyelids thank me later when you get extra credit on your next exam Jim sent to Bones later.

and green blood Bones sent back. don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs kid

youre a doctor not my grandmother Jim replied, then hid his PADD under his pillow so he could go out on a high note.

He was pretty sure Bones and Spock were gonna kill each other when they met. So Jim had to enjoy the last few moments he had with them both while he still could, before they were lost to him forever.

Worse, though, was the idea that one or both of them might like the other one better than they liked Jim. Uhura was into the science-y types—hence the Montgomery Scott business, although at least Scotty knew, in an abstract sort of sense, that he was lucky Uhura was just a little bit smarter than he was in all the right ways—and Sulu would dig the Vulcan meditative serenity. He’d think it was cool. He’d never balk at a second eyelid. Bones was human, through and through, and Spock’d already taken an instant dislike to him that was—not that Jim planned on bringing it up—pretty illogical, but Jim still didn’t know what he wanted less: outright antagonism or Bones and Spock teaming up on him.

They’d been his friends first. Sort of. They’d put up with him; Uhura’d even been helpful enough to point out the ways in which Jim wasn’t as cool as he’d thought he was. It stung, but it’d helped. It was something Jim could work on.

Practice and study came in different forms; some of them were dissertations on a PADD and others were expressions practiced in the mirror while Spock waited for his turn in the restroom facilities.

‘You are experiencing agitation,’ Spock said the night before they were scheduled to dock. ‘Did you neglect to inform me of the more rigorous difficulties of your time in the program, or are you concerned that, despite the early training you received, your age will be a detriment when your performance is compared to that of the other cadets?’

‘Have a little faith, Spock,’ Jim replied.

‘Faith is not a logical concept.’

‘I’m excited,’ Jim said, correcting his course. ‘Maybe that’s coming off as agitation, but I’m looking forward to tomorrow. And I’m really looking forward to the food.’

Spock’s eyebrow lifted. He was thinking about clam chowder in a bowl made of bread; Jim didn’t have to be any kind of telepath to know that.

He kicked back in his bunk, crossing his legs at the ankle, bending one knee, with his arms folded behind his head and under the scentless standard-issue pillow. ‘Hamburgers,’ he continued, staring at the pristine ceiling above him. ‘Not something there’s any kind of synthesized version of back on Vulcan.’

There was a long silence. Jim realized after Spock replied, right as Jim was drifting off into a shallow sleep, with an ‘Ah. The hamburger,’ that he’d been looking it up on his PADD to file away with the memorized information about the facilities in Starfleet Academy as well as the personnel files on Jim’s fellow candidates from the advanced placement program.

When it came to docking, Jim’s energies were finally channeled into something specific: being an edge too worried about Spock given the noise, the crowd, the jostling and the light, although the last part didn’t bother him as much now that he knew about the creepy second Vulcan eyelid. Worrying about Spock was better than worrying about other, occasionally Spock-related things. First of all, Jim didn’t want a roommate any less interesting than Bones, who’d set a high standard as far as ‘interesting’ went.

Second of all, he didn’t know what else he wanted.

Too much. Everything.

Earth air smelled good, not clean but fresh; it was drizzling when they stepped out of the docking bay and into the pale gray sunlight, Jim taking a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand, revitalized by the atmosphere. They were a few days early for the start of the semester, which was for the best. It’d give them time to get acclimatized, or re-acclimatized in Jim’s case. Have some fun. Go to a few of the parties Gaila’d mentioned the last time Jim had spoken to her. Figure out class schedules and everything else in the file they’d been sent after officially being accepted for enrollment, three days after Jim’s seventeenth birthday.

‘Best birthday present ever,’ he’d said, in order to keep himself from running through the halls whooping. Sarek wouldn’t be too pleased with that—neither would Spock; it’d definitely make I-Chaya roar again, which reflected poorly on his training—and Jim was keen on showing Spock’s father this wasn’t a mistake. That he could take care of himself; that he’d be able to reflect well on his training, if it could be called that.

And Spock too, of course.

Spock especially.

Jim got the message from Bones halfway across the parking lot.

damn. guess you weren’t lying. those might be the pointiest damn ears i’ve ever seen

Jim turned, scanning the milling crowd for the grumpiest expression he could find. Once he’d zeroed in on that, it was easy to spot Bones standing by at one of the designated meeting zones, hands in his coat pockets.

‘Didn’t think you cared, Bones,’ Jim said, wheeling up next to him with his belongings. ‘I’m touched.’

‘You’re touched all right. In that noggin of yours, that’s where,’ Bones replied. ‘So, this is him, huh? The infamous Vulcan?’

‘I am half-Vulcan,’ Spock said. Jim noted—with a hidden wince—that Spock’s eyebrow showed no signs of lowering. ‘It would be wise to maintain accuracy at all times, as you are a student of medicine.’

My God,’ Bones replied.

‘Yeah. This is Spock,’ Jim said, interjecting where he could. It wasn’t the most elegant move, but he favored timeliness over manners in a situation like this one. If he waited any longer, he got the sense they’d be scraping someone up off the pavement. Odds were it might’ve been Jim himself, throwing himself in the way of danger. ‘And this is Bones. McCoy. Bones McCoy.’

‘Nothing I can say now’s gonna get you to stop introducing me to people like that, is it?’ Bones asked.

He held out his hand. Spock didn’t take it.

‘What am I supposed to call you?’ Jim asked. ‘Leonard?

He made a face like he’d bitten into another hamburger that disagreed with him while nudging Spock, only Spock still didn’t take Bones’ hand. He was gonna make Jim do everything the hard way—and if that wasn’t one of the things Jim liked so much about him, it would’ve seriously thrown a wrench into his grand return to Earth.

‘That is his given name,’ Spock said. ‘Is it not?’

‘Sounds all wrong when Jim says it,’ Bones replied. ‘Like there’s an insult in there somewhere.’

Like Jim needed to insult him when Bones’ parents had clearly done the bulk of the job for him already.

Fortunately, Bones was the kind of guy who took a hint, and he returned his hand to his side without Jim having to embarrass them both by talking about Vulcan touch telepathy and how sensitive they were to physical contact, especially in their fingers.

Sometimes Jim wondered how and why Spock’d ever let him get away with half the stuff he’d done when they were kids. Then he shook it off, figuring it was because Spock recognized he’d been a stupid human who didn’t know any better.

That made the most sense, in a mixed-up sort of way.

They piled onto the shuttle to the Academy together, Jim in the middle acting as buffer. It quickly became apparent that him worrying about Bones and Spock hitting it off had been a major waste of time. They weren’t at each other’s throats like he’d imagined, either, but they sure weren’t trying to find any common ground. Even the obvious one—Jim—didn’t seem worth the effort it’d take for them to actually knuckle under and share a conversation.

Which meant that the whole ride there, Jim was caught between two people who wanted to talk to him, at least occasionally,but who wouldn’t necessarily ever want to talk to each other.

Under any other circumstances, it would’ve been a dream. Jim liked being the center of attention better than he liked anything else, aside from hamburgers when they weren’t actively trying to kill him, and Spock when he wasn’t actively trying to make Jim want to kill himself. It wasn’t an impulse he found much satisfaction for on Vulcan, but Earth was different. He could indulge a little. There was only one kind of Vulcan attention but as many kinds of human attention as there were stars in the galaxy.

Exceptthat it was tough to strike a balance between talking to Bones, who Jim hadn’t seen in a long while, and talking to Spock, enough so that he’d feel settled in a new environment.

It wasn’t like Spock needed to be coddled. He’d traveled before and he was smart, not to mention observant. Jim knew he’d be fine wherever he went. But he also knew Spock would never speak up to voice his own discomfort or even acknowledge it to himself, which meant it was up to Jim to be vigilant about it, anticipating any need almost before it struck. That took a certain amount of paying attention, which meant he could only offer half-hearted insight into Bones’ story about birthing two calves on his way from Georgia to San Franscisco.

‘I kept tellin’ em I wasn’t that kinda doctor, but all people hear is the word and they just assume you can do anything.’

‘Hardly a logical assumption.’ Spock leaned around Jim with perfect timing, like he’d been listening all along. Knowing him, he had been. ‘I would not think upon looking at you that your knowledge was particularly diverse.’

‘So that’s what a Vulcan insult sounds like.’ Bones sucked in a whistle. Jim tensed. ‘Well, he’s gonna do just fine here on Earth, isn’t he?’

‘’Just fine’ is not a particularly high standard,’ Spock replied. ‘Is the intention to excel not encouraged within the field of medical studies?’

Bones blinked. He looked at Jim. Jim smiled as wide as he could without unhinging his jaw—although at least there was a doctor on the shuttle if he did.

‘Cow birth, huh?’ Jim cast around for a good, safe topic that was also relevant and offered the first thing he landed on. Time was of the essence. ‘What’s...that...like?’

‘A violation of every cow product you’ve ever eaten, that’s what it’s like,’ Bones said. ‘It’s unclean, uncommon, unusual and unsavory—a hell of a lot like this conversation, now that I think about it.’

‘I fail to understand how the bovine birthing process would be similar to the exchange of words between humans.’ Suddenly, Spock was all about contribution. Jim wiped the cool sweat off the back of his neck. This was new territory. And he liked new territory. His evaluations all came back saying he excelled in new territory. ‘Unless human dialogic creativity is even less advanced than I have been led to believe.’

‘Do you see a god-damn cow placenta coming out of my mouth, man?’ Bones asked.

Jim could practically feel Spock blinking, raising an eyebrow, and filing away more demerits for his internal Bones personnel file, the private one he’d be keeping of everybody he met at the Academy. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to see a second of it; he just knew Spock, and he knew what Spock had to be doing. When he saw both of Bones’ eyebrows going up—a failed attempt to mirror the expression in front of him—Jim knew he was right.

‘Naturally, I do not,’ Spock replied. ‘If you believe such a thing is occurring at present, then you are most certainly hallucinating.’

Miraculously—miracles being something they had on Earth but not on Vulcan—the shuttle came to a full stop in front of the campus and the following flurry of activity, personal items being hauled off storage racks and prospective cadets eagerly disembarking all at once, provided the best distraction there was. Jim wrestled his suitcase down off an overhead storage compartment, where his fingers brushed Spock’s so briefly it was almost like a hallucination itself. But Jim caught Spock’s eye and knew that it’d happened.

‘Crowded,’ he said, clearing his throat.

‘Indeed,’ Spock confirmed.

They were the last ones off the shuttle; Jim would have been the first if he hadn’t been hanging back for Spock’s sake. And Bones’, too, since he was the type of guy who always had somebody stepping on his foot, or at least the kind of guy who was always complaining about it.

It’d stopped raining sometime during the ride and Jim let himself enjoy the familiar sights, the buildings, the bridge in the distance, the skyline at dusk. He didn’t think of it as home but there was something comfortable about it, something he felt like, maybe, he was a part of.

‘Well, don’t you look like the cat that just got the canary,’ Bones said. True to form, he had his arms crossed over his chest, scowling at the local population. Jim’d learned early on the reason for that was because he was thinking over every potential disease they were currently suffering from and whatever they might’ve been carrying. Part of Bones’ study plan was a way of life that, from where Jim was standing, looked an awful lot like displaced hypochondria. ‘Vaccinations. Better come early this year. You have any idea how fast bacterial meningitis can spread in a communal living situation?’

‘Setting your colorful choice of metaphors aside,’ Spock replied, ‘it is fortunate that the bacteria in question is not as easily transmitted as others. It requires prolonged contact or the exchange of respiratory or throat secretions. Also fortunate is the vaccination regimen that we will undergo in the appropriate amount of time to prevent such a careless outbreak.’

Careless outbreak?’ Bones’ voice was loud enough to attract the attention of a few nearby and a few not-so-nearby strangers. ‘You think it’s that damn simple, do you?’

‘There is no reason why it should not be ‘that damn simple’.’

‘Except there’s always special cases like our good friend Jim over here.’ Bones gestured, nearly clocking Jim in the jaw before pounding him on the shoulder. ‘Give him a shot for one thing, find out he’s allergic to another, and before you know it, you end up having to treat seven separate allergic reactions when all you were doing in the first place was trying to boost his damn immune system!’

There was a pause.

‘Anyway, why don’t we get started on a tour of the area,’ Jim said, but he’d let that silence last too long; he hadn’t been quick enough. When it came to Spock, ‘quick enough’ didn’t even exist.

‘To what seven allergic reactions are you referring?’ Spock asked.

‘To what allergic reactions am I not referring—that’s an easier question to answer. Seven was a generous underestimate. I tell you, I’ve never seen an individual with as many crazy allergies to simple medicines as our friend Jim Kirk!’

Well, there it was. There was no putting the cat back in the bag, no unbirthing that calf. Bones might as well have unhinged his jaw and spat out a cow placenta for all the good it would’ve done Jim. Actually, thinking about it, Jim would’ve preferredthe placenta. Spock probably would’ve wanted to study it and Bones’d be screaming bloody murder about being possessed and Jim’s allergies could’ve slipped right through the cracks.

He was starting to re-think that whole center of attention position. It was more like hanging out a window with his swollen hands and sausage fingers—nearly too much of a dangerous thing.

With the right pair of eyes looking at him, there wasn’t much Jim could hide.

He tried laughing. One of Jim’s tricks—one of his besttricks, in his own, humble opinion—was being able to summon up a great big belly laugh on cue. It was frankly a miracle he’d retained the ability surrounded by Vulcans on a daily basis, but he was talented, tenacious. He’d hung onto the skill for Amanda’s sake and, as it turned out, even Vulcans couldn’t keep him down. So Jim laughed, slinging an arm around Bones’ shoulders, and reached up to dig his knuckles into his scalp, messing up his hair.

‘Good one, Bones. You almost had me!’

‘For the love of—’ Bones didn’t disappoint in his reaction, dragging Jim off him with long, lean arms. He was suspiciously strong for someone who claimed to be a doctor even in his spare time. It was stuff like that that made people think he was the perfect man for the job when the job was birthing cows. ‘I think he’s having one right now. You wanna hold him down while I administer a sedative?’

Jim waited for Spock to say no—to tell Bones he wouldn’t trust him with the nervous system of an old sehlat, let alone Jim’s. Then they’d fight and Spock could wipe that look off his face, like he was processing the same information over and over and waiting to come up with different results.

‘You suffered from an illness during your previous time on Earth?’ Spock split the difference, ignoring both Jim and Bones in equal measure. That was just like him—fair to the last. It didn’t matter that Jim was practically begging him to play favorites.

‘I told you, I had allergies.’ Jim gestured to his neck, where the ghosts of a million hypo injections had faded into his skin. He knew Spock was sharp enough to remember that conversation, which was why he also knew Spock was sharp enough to catch that Jim had seriously misrepresented the facts.

Illness isn’t the word for it,’ Bones interrupted. ‘It’s more like his body’s rejecting the whole damn planet.’

‘OK,’ Jim interrupted back, ‘now you’re just exaggerating. Which is so unlike you, Bones. Honestly, I’m shocked.’

‘We will revisit this topic with sufficient data and records at a later date,’ Spock said. His eyebrow climbed higher than Jim had ever seen it go. He didn’t know whether to be flattered or freaked out. ‘I trust that there were accurate and thorough records kept of the seven incidents in question?’

‘And I told you seven was an extremely generous underestimation.’ Bones rubbed the back of his neck, put out by the topic but clearly enjoying the discussion now that it concerned his medical pursuits. ‘Come to think of it, I might have some documented occurrences—you know, the more atypical and never before seen swellings and discolorations...’

‘Oh, thanks, Bones,’ Jim said.

‘…but then, I doubt they’ll be up to your Vulcan standards,’ Bones concluded.

‘On that matter, you will find we are in complete agreement,’ Spock said.

Jim could feel a headache coming on, clustered in the spot between his eyebrows where Bones had a permanent frown line. But, he had to admit, getting that conversation out of the way early made it wayeasier to explain when, during their exploration of the grounds, Uhura rounded a corner, caught sight of them, pointed square at Jim and shouted dum dung.

‘The complexities of human slang elude me,’ Spock admitted.

‘They are so complex,’ Jim agreed. ‘Too complex to explain, honestly. Better to just let ‘em...roll off you like water off a duck’s back. Now there’s a good phrase—I could explain that, but dum dung? It’s just too illogical.’

‘I recognize the female in question from your visual references,’ Spock continued, unhindered. There wasn’t much that could hinder him. ‘She is Uhura, a talented linguist and one of your fellow program candidates. I too am well-versed in that particular field of study, yet I have never come across the phrase ‘dum dung’ in any dialect or dictionary. I can assure you, my knowledge is expansive. What is its meaning, and why would she assign this particular colloquialism to you?’

Uhura drew even with them just in time to prevent Jim from having to answer and squeezed Jim’s forearm with one hand. ‘Dum dung,’ she said again, eyes sparkling wickedly, while Jim attempted with his own, less wickedly sparkling eyes to impart a less on the dum dung, please message which went—ironically—untranslated by his favorite translator. ‘So good to see you again. Good to see you haven’t choked on your own tongue while you were back on Vulcan, too. You know, now and then, I might even’ve been worried about you.’

‘Is this another phrase of generalized pleasure utilized upon the occasion of a reunion—‘Good to see you haven’t choked on your own tongue’?’ Spock asked. ‘I have come across no records of a human susceptibility to this curiously precise and evolutionarily unsound danger.’

Jim swallowed. He could’ve choked on his own tongue. He wished he would. ‘Uh...’ he began, palms sweating.

Uhura turned, her shoulder bumping his, shifting her weight and her attentions to the Vulcan on the green. ‘So, Jim, I see you brought backup?’

‘I am Spock,’ Spock replied. ‘I am not ‘backup’. I am a Vulcan, son of Sarek. I have applied to Starfleet Academy to pursue its scientific track, which I have determined from my research will provide a few challenges.’

A few challenges.’ Uhura huffed, with an is this guy serious expression if Jim was reading her correctly, but also an I hope this guy is serious expression at the same time. ‘This makes so much sense.’

‘As you claim an innate understanding,’ Spock said, ‘would you care to elucidate what, exactly, makes sense? Clarity of definition would be appreciated.’

‘Oh, dum dung.’ Uhura squeezed Jim’s forearm again. ‘Poor, poor dum dung. Come on, Spock of Vulcan, son of Sarek—let’s have lunch and I’ll elucidate the mystery of dum dung for you all you need.’

It wasn’t the worst lunch of Jim’s life. That’d been the hamburger incident, although at certain points, especially when Uhura was in the throes of a dramatic re-enactment of Jim trying to say her name with his tongue three times the size it should’ve been, Jim thought about the hamburger incident fondly. He put a few unknown condiments on his hamburger and hoped for a repeat, but all that happened was the slightest flush of an itchy rash under the collar of his shirt, solved as easily by scratching as it was by one of Bones’ hypos.

‘But anyway,’ Uhura concluded, settling down and knocking back a long swallow of vitamin water to replenish her nutrients after burning ‘em up on her little show, ‘at least you can say one thing about Jim Kirk.’

‘I can think of multiple things to be said about Jim Kirk,’ Spock replied.

Uhura didn’t skip a beat. ‘Well, the one I happened to be thinking of was: at least he makes an impression. Hard to forget him.’

Spock appraised her comment, then returned to appraising the vegetarian grain salad Jim had selected specifically for him. ‘That is factually correct.’

‘Something tells me that was a compliment,’ Uhura said.

‘It was an assessment of merit, one which proved to be positive. If you choose to interpret it as complimentary in nature, then that is your choice. It is, however, not strictly true.’

Jim met Uhura’s eyes. She had the one-eyebrow lift down better than any non-Vulcan Jim knew.

‘Damn it, Jim, quit that scratching, would you? You’re making me itchy,’ Bones said, swiping after Jim’s hand. ‘Hang on—is that a rash? What kind of record are you trying to set here, anyway?’

The distraction was sweet. Jim welcomed the hypo. The side-effects—which Bones didn’t warn him about until after he started experiencing them—were the good kind: a loopy, cheerful sort of disconnect that made him lean close to Spock and whisper, ‘The grass feels like clouds, Spock.’

He’d pay for that later. In his mildly-sedated state, he knew that—it was just that he didn’t care. Yet.

‘The grass is not clouds, Jim,’ Spock replied. ‘Neither can it possibly feel like clouds. They are made of condensation and are not in a purely solid state. As your feet are not going through the grass beneath them, it is plain that your comparison is highly nonsensical.’

‘Oh, I like him,’ Uhura said, to no one in particular. ‘I’m gonna call Gaila, see if she’s in yet. I bet she’d have some thoughts on your cloud theories, Jim.’

‘Don’t encourage him,’ Bones said. Jim couldn’t tell if he was agitated on account of Jim or the mention of Gaila. Knowing how Bones could multitask—he called it ‘triage’—it was probably both.

Anyway, that didn’t matter. Spock had insulted Jim’s honor; he’d called him nonsensical. Jim had to back up his statement. There were facts involved.

‘Mm,’ Jim said, which wasn’t an agreement ora disagreement. He wasn’t feeling particularly one way or the other. Perfectly neutral, just what you’d expect from a kid who’d been raised by a Vulcan diplomat. ‘But the grass is all…tickly. Like a cloud. You feel that, Spock, I know you do.’ There was no way Spock’s Vulcan hands weren’t picking up on whatever Jim could get with only his callused human ones. He patted the ground, illustrating his point. ‘It’s soft. But also whispery.’

Spock sighed. It wasn’t the way anyone else Jim knew sighed—there was nothing concrete to factually distinguish it from a regular, random exhale, but Jim knew. He could tell. It was a sigh and it was on the verge of being an exasperated one, at that, one of the many signifiers that said Spock has emotions, he feels, deeper than anybody, so damn deep, and if you could just be a part of that, Jim, even for a second, then...

‘The clouds are not soft,’ Spock said. ‘That is an optical illusion born of what your eyes observe and what your brain infers from the visual information. When passing through the clouds, you would discover that they would feel like nothing at all. Similar to the fog that is so common in San Francisco. Also, ‘whispery’ as an adjective in this situation is completely irregular.’

Ughhh.’

Not Jim’s best comeback. His judgment must’vebeen impaired if he’d thought at any point he could possibly win one of these against Spock.

It was Jim’s turn to sigh, only he did it with his whole body. The effort left him overbalanced, slumping sideways into Spock’s steady shoulder before he could straighten up. It wasn’t a big deal; Jim knew Spock could handle it. They’d spent enough time together that Jim could think of himself as the personal inoculation to Spock’s aversion to casual contact.

It didn’t mean Spock would go around touching everyone—or that Jim would let anyone else touch him for no reason—but Jim had managed to get Spock to the point where Starfleet wasn’t gonna be total sensory overload for the guy.

Even though he’d lost their little battle of wits, Jim was grinning when he rolled away. He caught Uhura watching him, like she was waiting for a repeat of the dum dung performance.

Fortunately, Jim’s tongue remained its usual size all through lunch and he didn’t pick up a second kind of rash from rolling around the grass. All in all, it wasn’t a half bad experience, although every now and then he could feel the telltale prickle at the back of his neck that meant Spock was looking at him. Either that, or Bones’ hypo was wearing off. Jim couldn’t be sure, since whenever he tried to catch Spock’s eye, Spock’s attention was elsewhere.

It wasn’t a big deal—just weird. Then again, he was probably thinking about how distressing it was that Jim didn’t know the difference between grass and clouds anymore, that the allergic reaction had spread to his brain. Knowing Spock, he could easily have been calculating the algorithm for a perfect social group based on the people he’d already met and what balancing forces the collection was currently missing.

Jim could assume he was a rogue element, hardly beneficial to Spock’s growth on Earth. But that was too bad, because they’d known each other first and as far as Jim was concerned, that meant they were stuck together. Forever. They had a profound connection that transcended even the green thing between Spock and Gaila.

Which Jim wasn’t too worried about, even if Gaila obviously liked ‘em tall, dark and crabby.

But whatever Spock was thinking—the answer usually being a lot—it didn’t manifest itself until later that night, after they’d single-filed for their rooming assignments and Jim gave Spock a quick tour of the places he’d been, casually leaving out all the places he hadn’t. Of course, Spock wasn’t too big on the way Jim described a hall as ‘the place where Sulu taught me about fencing but he used a baguette’ or a lecture room as ‘awesome to sneak into at night’ and he always pulled up the actual information on his PADD, but he let Jim go on anyway, with the expected interruptions.

Maybe he was just glad Jim hadn’t described anything as ‘whispery’ or ‘like clouds’ again, not since Bones’ cure’d finally worn off. Jim’s head was clear; there were strangers around every corner; he was rooming with somebody he didn’t know; he had no idea how Spock was going to manage a roommate at all; but Spock was on Earth and Jim was with him and they had years, years at Starfleet ahead of them.

It was a good feeling, better than flying too fast on a hoverbike—Jim had left his back on Vulcan, but it wasn’t like he couldn’t build another one, even if it wouldn’t be the same. He had direction, purpose, a point on the horizon that might not’ve been clear just yet but that was half the fun.

The other half involved the people he’d meet along the way and all the different almost-exactly-the-same faces Spock was going to make over having to deal with them.

If Spock didn’t decide he was better suited to an all Vulcan, all the time approach.

Jim’s mouth twisted. They were coming up on Spock’s dormitory and it was late and that sensory overload thing was definitely a concern; Jim wondered if he’d been packing too much into too short a time period. Even if Spock was the smartest person in the room no matter what room it was, you couldn’t do a week’s worth of acclimatizing in the span of a late afternoon and evening walk around the academy’s campus.

The stars were out. Earth stars. They were surrounded by Earth-types with the promise of a mad scramble for course selections at what Bones’d called the ‘satan’s ass-crack of dawn’ and Jim’s fingers were tingling.

Not an allergic reaction. Not this time.

‘There is no preferable location or adequate privacy to conduct my own investigation of your health,’ Spock said, just as the silence was slipping from comfortable into uncomfortable again, ‘but as I have been made aware of your propensity to obscure the truth about it, I will require weekly meetings to ascertain your condition myself.’

‘Uh,’ Jim said. ‘OK, what?’

‘I believe I made myself explicitly clear. Are you currently suffering further adverse side-effects from Leonard McCoy’s barbaric practices?’

Barbaric prac— No, God, Spock,’ Jim said. ‘He’s not so bad. I’m pretty sure he saved my life a couple times. Don’t look at me like that.’

Spock looked away but maintained the same expression. Jim wouldn’t have wanted to be the fluorescent light post that was currently on the receiving end of that full-frontal eyebrow situation.

‘That was an exaggeration, OK?’ Jim added quickly. ‘That happens on Earth. It happens a lot. All I’m saying is, Bones knows what he’s doing, and he’s got the practical exam scores to prove it.’

‘You did not inform us of your allergies. Was this an intentional obfuscation of the truth? If you had intended to protect our sensibilities, then despite your time on Vulcan and your exceptional intelligence, you have failed to grasp one of the central principles upon which Vulcans operate. We value the truth. That is our prime concern. By ignoring that concern, you violated it.’

‘...You think I’m exceptionally intelligent, huh, Spock?’ Jim stuffed his hands into his pockets, suddenly interested in the gravel pathway and the shadows their two bodies made across it, beneath the beam of lamplight.

‘That detail was not the focus of my statement.’

Jim shrugged by rolling the shoulder closest to Spock. ‘I didn’t want to worry your mom, OK? And it worked out fine—I mean, I’m fine, so it’s no big deal. I was born in space and I lived on Vulcan for years and there’s maybe some Earth stuff I’m not compatible with. But I was rooming with a medical student, right? How lucky is that?’

‘As a Vulcan,’ Spock replied, ‘I take no comfort and place no stake in the concept of ‘luck’.’

‘Right; right.’ Jim shuffled closer until their shoulders almost bumped. ‘You don’t have to worry about me. All that training in the Vulcan atmosphere—I kicked so much ass when I was here. Nothing could stop me.’

‘Except for, according to Leonard McCoy and Uhura, an afternoon sandwich of ground meat,’ Spock said.

‘Yeah, but it didn’t. I’ve got this.’ Jim swiped his bottom lip with his tongue. ‘We’ve got this.’

‘I am uncertain as to what it is ‘we’ have.’

That was an understatement. ‘Hey, Spock,’ Jim said. ‘Good luck tomorrow. Getting all the classes you want.’

‘I intend to take them all,’ Spock replied.

That caught Jim square in the ribs like a right hook he hadn’t seen coming in basic training. Unlike that, Spock’s statement wasn’t much of a surprise. It wasn’t like Jim didn’t knowwhat the guy was capable of. It was just the idea that now everyone was gonna know what Jim already did.

Vulcan was big and important and full of brilliant minds—but they’d never appreciated what Spock could do. Jim didn’t hold it against them. Appreciation wasn’t their thing, especially not appreciation of something different. Not the Vulcan way.

But Starfleet was gonna go nuts over Spock—and Jim would be there right from the beginning to see it all happen.

There was an stiff ache in his chest that he was about seventypercent sure wasn’t residual heartburn from lunch. Or, if it was, then heartburn felt a lot like pride.

‘Of course you do,’ Jim said.

Because, of course he did. Never mind that there weren’t enough hours in the day and some of them probably had counterintuitive focus and Jim wasn’t even sure you could enroll in every class. There had to be some kinda limit.

Spock was gonna do it all anyway.

And Jim was gonna be there to keep an eye on him while he did it.

*

Chapter Text

Despite Jim’s advance experience with the program, his natural aptitude for Starfleet’s environment, and his ease in making acquaintances who would provide invaluable assistance to his progress through the term, it was apparent to Spock that Jim’s success was nothing more than a string of coincidences and heavy reliance on personal skill and charisma, which were neither foolproof nor trustworthy variables.

Jim woke early with the other cadets for course selection but fell back into a state of unconsciousness somewhere in the middle of the line for his first selection of Tactical Strategy for Neutral Zone travel. His snoring was impressive but hardly confidence-inspiring.

Had Spock not been there to bolster his position, Jim would doubtless have succumbed to gravity and lost his spot in a highly competitive field.

This marked the first of several such incidents, during which time Spock was forced to concede the possibility that Jim’s praise of McCoy’s effect on his continued accomplishments was not hyperbolic but rather disturbingly accurate.

It had become apparent that while Jim was possessed of certain exceptional skills, he was not a person who thrived best in a solitary environment.

In short, he operated at the highest level when granted a network, a group of individuals still informal enough that Spock would hesitate to term a team, at his disposal.

Spock knew several of Jim’s comrades would protest at the notion of being at Jim’s disposal, and yet their words were not as forceful as the evidence of their actions.

For example: there was a young man in one of Spock’s scientific computing courses who spoke of nothing but Jim Kirk past the first threeweeks of their training, after Jim had managed to procure some attention for himself among the first year cadets by sneaking into the Vulcan-developed Kobayashi Maru simulation to observe the test being given to an older group.

‘I’m telling you, Spock, I could totallywaste that thing,’ Jim said later. He was remorseless, unaffected by the potential for reprimand. ‘I’ve already worked out a few strategies—hey, you know what, maybe we can run ‘em together when you’re done...whatever the hell that is.’

‘I am cataloguing the flora and fauna native to the Beta Quadrant,’ Spock replied. It was a process that required most, if not all, of his attention. He could reasonably conduct simultaneous conversation with Jim, although this behavior had been found to be most disruptive to the roommate assigned to him by Starfleet.

The roommate did not often spend time in their shared quarters. This was beneficial to Spock as Jim regularly occupied the space a roommate would have demanded and they were already accustomed to one another’s study habits and silent cues. Spock’s studies did not include learning the practices of a new cohabitant, especially as that cohabitant would change after a period of time that was comparatively brief to the duration of Spock’s cadetship.

It was true, Spock soon discovered, that Jim was a student whose reputation preceded him; this was both a positive and a negative statement, though Spock’s period of observation was still too limited to decide whether the scales were weighted more toward the former or the latter category. As Jim himself had described it, on a good day, he was ‘on top of the world’, though he never seemed to take to heart Spock’s suggestion that a great height was the precursor to a steep fall when adhering to the laws of gravity.

‘Who says I have to adhere to the law of gravity, Spock?’ Jim had asked.

‘The laws of gravity say that you must,’ Spock had replied.

Laws; rules; regulations—life as a cadet had many of these, but Jim had chosen, despite the formality of his training and his obedience while in the house of Sarek and under Mother’s watchful eye, to pick and choose amongst these as he saw fit. Whichever suited his current purposes he could quote without hesitation; whichever did not suit his purposes he conveniently did not consult before embarking on an ill-advised course of action.

People talked about him. Jim Kirk was a name more cadets knew than did not know, and more professors, senior officers, and guest lecturers, as well.

This was no way to earn a place of notice. Hard work, diligence, and strict adherence to studies may not have had as immediate an effect but they would prove more lasting with time. Spock had learned this on Vulcan and it was that piece of Vulcan which he carried with him—one that found no contradictory evidence on Earth, as distant as Vulcan seemed from the planet at most, and frequently all, other times.

Spock’s marks were high. Jim’s marks were also high. They did not keep track of whose was higher. However, of equal height was Jim’s temperature; as the months grew even colder in San Francisco and Spock carefully layered his sweaters so as to maintain a preferable body temperature, Jim fell ill with far greater frequency than any of his regular companions.

According to his friend the medical student, Jim was ‘determined to set a record for catching every single cold known to mankind and some known only to Gorns.’ Spock had attempted to inform him that it was highly unlikely a human male of Jim’s age would be susceptible to a disease that primarily affected Gorns, as their anatomical makeup was irrevocably dissimilar, but his lesson had not been appreciated.

Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy was a man of singular focus; he also considered himself in charge of Jim whenever he was in such a state. But Spock could not be certain that he would not eventually succumb to Jim’s demands—‘Gimme whatever you got, Bones, I haveta take this test in—holy crap, five minutes?’—rather than apply a measured and rational approach to Jim’s health care.

Spock did not mention these instances to Mother outright when he wrote to her—once a week, which was no more than necessary, but no less so as to avoid causing her undue worry. Not mentioning something was not, technically, equivalent to lying about it.

Spock’s own accusation returned to him during that period of time in late October through early December: obfuscation of details.

In this instance, it was not information Mother specifically required, nor would having it prove beneficial to her. There was nothing she could do for Jim; Spock understood that soup was customary along with the administration of medicine as practice among maternal figures, and Mother would have no way of partaking in either. Instead, Spock spoke of his own progress and his own course material without, as Jim had suggested after reading his first message home, going into ‘so much detail that she’ll use your updates to help her fall asleep every night—and don’t forget to ask how I-Chaya’s doing, either. Spock. Spock. Are you asking about I-Chaya?’

Though Jim could have written to Mother himself with this very question, Spock included it as a postscript that time and that time only. He informed Jim when he received a reply that I-Chaya was well and that Mother had implied he was lonely, though this was highly unlikely, and in time he would readjust to the new routine just as he had done when Jim first arrived.

As Mother was not involved in matters of Jim’s health, Spock took it upon himself to monitor Leonard McCoy’s progress in treating Jim’s various colds in her place.

‘That’s lucky number thirteen by my count,’ McCoy said on December third. ‘Thirteen—I might as well use him for my final dissertation!’

‘It would not be appreciated if you were to ‘use’ Jim for anything,’ Spock replied. He then gathered instructions as to the proper dosage and intervals of the latest symptom-suppressing and immunity-boosting cocktail McCoy had prepared in order to prevent the matter from slipping Jim’s mind in favor of other, ‘more important’ business, such as fencing with Hikaru Sulu.

It was Spock’s intelligent assumption that such physical pastimes could not be as enriching as Jim expected, since he was engaging in them with his capabilities hindered. Fencing required a certain stamina and skill that could not reasonably be achieved with one member of the duo snorting and snuffling in an ill-fated attempt to clear his congested nasal passages.

‘This impulse comes from a misunderstanding of what is occurring in your body,’ Spock informed Jim, once he had bested Sulu two bouts out of three despite his handicap. It would not be satisfactory for Jim, who demanded nothing less than total and complete victory, unmarred by such ‘inconsequential’ mandates as his very real physical limits, but the results were admittedly better than Spock had anticipated. ‘You are attempting to dislodge a foreign body from within your sinuses; however, evidence and research suggests that it is a swelling of the tissue within the cavity itself that causes the pressure to which you refer so eloquently as stuffy.

‘Huh.’ Jim’s eyes were bleary, cheeks red with exertion. He was breathing through his open mouth, though this did not do away entirely with the wheezing of his labored intake. He seemed on the verge of collapse, although he was already sitting amidst his fencing equipment and Spock was not McCoy, prone to an attack of nerves over every minor aberrance that manifested in Jim’s countenance.

Jim had a troubling tendency to appear worse than his physical condition truly was. This made casual diagnosis inaccurate, a habit out of which Spock had already begun to train himself.

‘Hey, here’s a question for you, Spock,’ Jim continued. He had ceased blowing his nose, a fact for which his nostrils and the affected, irritated dermal area would soon be grateful. The skin there was raw and turning callused to protect itself; Spock had witnessed Jim peeling it as it healed, announcing that he was growing scales and ‘going full Gorn’. That, however, had been the worst of the delirium. ‘Why is it parts of me are always swelling up, huh?’

‘You are human,’ Spock replied. ‘I am informed that your biological makeup includes a rather remarkable elasticity.’

‘Was that a biology joke?’ Jim’s usual keen gaze was hampered by his watery eyes. ‘Come on, I’m not up for that kind of repartee.’

‘You are now exaggerating the means of a condition which you earlier reported as ‘not that bad’ in order to engage in combat training.’

‘Hey, come on, let’s not get carried away. Fencing is hardly combat.’

‘If you find yourself in need of additional recuperation to McCoy’s prognosis of recovery, you have only yourself to blame.’ Spock folded his hands behind his back, looking down his nose at Jim. It was a combination of techniques both Vulcan and human. He had observed Starfleet commanders favoring cadets who had disappointed them with similar body language. It seemed prudent to learn such tactics early, the better to apply them accurately in the future. ‘It is my understanding that the mess hall is serving three varieties of soup in commemoration of the cold weather. One of these is the traditional chicken noodle selection, which has a dubious association with healthfulness. While the connection has not been proven scientifically, it is my understanding that humans benefit from the comfort of traditions, while not necessarily requiring their strict functionality.’

Jim’s breathing wheezed through his nose. He stared at Spock, blinking back the excessive moisture in his eyes.

‘Did you seriously just knock chicken noodle soup?’

‘Even the name is inaccurate,’ Spock said, ‘as the chicken noodle does not exist in human cuisine, nor anywhere that I have researched.’

‘It’s not,’ Jim began, stopped, then started again of his own volition. ‘They’re not chicken noodles. It’s noodles and chicken.’

‘Then it is a highly misleading dish,’ Spock concluded.

Jim procured a take-away bowl, informing one of the cafeteria employees that the dish was misleading and embarking on a conversation in which he posited the importance—for the more literal members of the Academy’s student body—of changing the name from ‘chicken noodle’ to ‘chicken and noodle’. For this, though it surely wasted time that would have been better spent on actual pursuits, the cafeteria employee in question gave Jim a portion far greater in size than the individual who had been served before him.

He took the soup to Spock’s room instead of to his own. ‘Kicked out,’ he explained, kicking back on Spock’s bed. ‘Kicking back’ was an activity not related to being ‘kicked out’, one which Jim enjoyed nearly as much as over-exerting himself while his respiratory system had been compromised. There was an equilibrium found between an excess of physical recreation and the period of rest that followed. Spock had created a balanced equation in order to predict the duration of time devoted to each. ‘Somebody thinks I’m infectious.’

‘If this ‘somebody’ refers to your roommate, his proposal is correct. Your ailment is obviously contagious. As there is no risk of passing this particular disease to me through the contamination of the air with your laborious breathing, you may stay here in order to prevent an outbreak.’

Laborious breathing, Jim mouthed around a spoonful of chicken and noodles, as well as the clear broth that accompanied them. ‘In order to prevent an outbreak?’ Jim repeated. ‘Spock, you’re starting to sound like Bones And that, that scares me.’

‘At last we have discovered something that inspires the reaction,’ Spock replied.

He returned to his latest equations. The slurping of Jim’s soup, which signified enjoyment of and satisfaction with the meal, provided a brief backdrop of simple, unobtrusive noise that soon faded into light snores after Jim had finished his meal and drifted off to sleep.

Spock timed the length of his recuperative rest while completing a not insignificant amount of coursework. It was reminiscent in certain ways of moments in their shared past, when Jim would provide company Spock did not require but did not refuse, while he studied for his lessons and Jim maintained a single position long enough on Spock’s bed to sleep. There had been nightmares then—more frequent when Jim had been younger; fewer and fewer as the years had passed—and there were none lately that Spock knew of and certainly none now, merely the rhythmic breathing that occasionally hiccupped or snorted before settling again into a comfortable, even pattern.

Jim slept for approximately eight hours. Spock studied for five of those eight hours, meditated for one, and entered into a seated restorative state for two before he woke to check on Jim.

Perhaps, due to their latent connection, Spock had sensed in that restorative state that Jim had regained consciousness. When Spock opened his eyes and shifted his attention he discovered that Jim was on his side, balanced on one bent elbow, his cheek in his hand, with a tissue wadded under his nose. He was watching Spock very closely and very thoughtfully, an expression not dissimilar to the one he wore when he was talking about or researching the Kobayashi Maru, with his hair pushed back from his flushed brow.

Spock stood. Jim did not look away, though why Spock had anticipated that Jim might, he could not be certain. This was another reason why it was important not to trust instinct, as in all matters, it had a high risk of being misleading.

Spock reseated himself on the edge of the bed and felt Jim’s temperature—a shock of heat from Jim’s skin—the the backs of his knuckles, which were less sensitive to the intensities of touch than his palm or fingertips. This was a sensible, if variably inaccurate, practice he had learned from McCoy in order to ascertain whether or not an individual’s fever was high enough that it required medical attention and intervention.

‘Hotter at night,’ Jim said.

When he continued a conversation that had not yet begun, Spock always paused and awaited clarification.

Jim cleared his throat, a cough hiding in the sound. ‘Humans. Our temperatures rise at night. That’s why fevers get worse. Learned that one from Bones. ...He was yelling about it at me, sure—but he says nothing gets through this thick skull of mine and he is so wrong.’

‘Are you delirious?’ Spock asked.

‘No, and thanks for asking,’ Jim replied. ‘Bones never asks, just tells me I am and that’s the end of it.’

‘Granted, if you were delirious, you would not be capable of judging the state for yourself.’

‘Are you taking Bones’ side in this, Spock?’

‘I was not aware that there were ‘sides’ in matters of fact,’ Spock said.

Jim chuckled—and coughed—ducking his head neither away from nor closer to Spock’s hand. ‘Sounds like ganging up to me.’

‘Potentially delirious,’ Spock decided.

‘That’s what you’re gonna tell on me with to Bones, isn’t it?’ Jim loosened the tension in his muscles all at once and without warning, dropping his head to Spock’s pillow. ‘I’m hurt.’

‘Where is it that you are experiencing your discomfort?’

Jim reached out, grabbed Spock by the wrist—with the same, occasionally irritating gentleness he always employed when initiating such contact, for the obviousness of his forethought might have been considered coddling—and pulled Spock’s hand over to his chest.

‘Right here,’ he said. ‘Real bad.’

The textured fabric of Jim’s cadet uniform was too thick for Spock to ascertain anything from the touch. Jim’s chest rose and fell beneath his hand. There was nothing misshapen, no apparent swelling. Jim’s mind was a cluster of muddled heat, his thoughts fleeting and directionless. Spock could feel the beating of his heart and noted no irregularities in his pulse.

‘If you are experiencing cardiac pains, it will be necessary to summon a physician,’ Spock said.

Jim groaned, a sound that did nothing to reassure Spock of his physical well-being. ‘No. Uh-uh. Don’t get Bones.’

‘Leonard McCoy may be possessed of the necessary knowledge to keep your varied illnesses at bay, but he is not a physician,’ Spock replied. It was sensible to remember this, lest Jim become too reliant on the services of someone who could not yet be termed a medical doctor.

‘It’s not that bad.’ Jim’s eyes were bright, though whether this heightened luminosity pertained to his fever or some unspoken flight of imaginative recreation, Spock could not tell. It was admittedly frustrating to find himself absent the proper knowledge to make a conclusive diagnosis.

‘I am incapable of determining the truth of that statement for myself,’ Spock informed him. ‘The information you have given is insufficient.’

‘Oh.’ Despite Jim’s claims of discomfort, he seemed unperturbed by both his condition and Spock’s inability to diagnose him. He rolled half onto his back with the unfocused gaze of someone who did not have the mental acuity to maintain complete control over their muscle movements. ‘Lemme see what I can do about that. Hang on.’

Jim reached up with clumsy fingers, brushing Spock’s wrist as he undid the collar of his shirt, finding the hidden fastenings along the seam that would open the neck of the uniform to reveal the simple, white t-shirt beneath it. He flexed his hands, then took Spock’s wrist once more, sliding it into the opening provided.

The difference was immediately apparent. The thin cotton was not a suitable barrier to protect Spock’s palm from the heat emanating from Jim’s skin. When Jim breathed in, Spock could feel a twitch of tension in his well-defined left pectoral. Still, there was nothing that would indicate pain on the surface.

‘Better?’ Jim asked.

Spock still could not determine an answer one way or another.

‘Am I to understand that this pain is not physical in nature?’ he asked instead. It was a solution that required imagination and no small leap of logic—the kind that was favored in many Earth riddles from early periods of history. Jim was prone to making equally cryptic statements, though he never expressed disappointment when Spock managed to divine their meaning or, more generally, pointed out their flaws.

As Spock had predicted, an easy smile spread across Jim’s features. His mouth was red, lips shining where he had licked them. The spots of color high on Jim’s cheeks were diluting and diffusing, spreading over his features to create a more uniform pink flush to his complexion.

He resembled, Spock decided, the cooked variety of an Eastern seaboard marine delicacy known as the lobster.

Jim was not being boiled in his shell, but there were certain similarities that made the metaphor stick in spite of Spock’s better judgment. He moved his thumb over the weave of Jim’s shirt, catching a wrinkle in the fabric and tugging it straight between two fingers.

Jim sighed.

‘You are being irresponsible,’ Spock said. ‘If you are experiencing a deterioration of your earlier condition—’

‘Feels nice.’ Jim seemed unaware of the fact that he had interrupted Spock’s sentence before Spock could complete the offering of his advice. His gaze on Spock’s face bore a certain glazed distance, as though he was conscious of his surroundings but did not grasp their proximity. ‘Your hand like that.’ He blinked and squinted, as though this would sharpen his focus. ‘Your bedside manner’s not so bad, Spock.’

‘I was not aware that you were evaluating my merits in the field,’ Spock replied.

‘I’m evaluating everybody’s merits in the field. Gotta learn to do that if you wanna be a Starfleet officer. If you wanna be a good one, a captain someday.’

‘Are we embarking on a mutual discussion of plans for the future?’ Spock asked. ‘If so, I think it highly unlikely you are currently speaking rationally; such a conversation is better conducted with a more definite clarity of mind.’

Jim blinked again, but this time it was long and slow. His lips parted. His chest shuddered with a sigh that was not necessarily directly related to his condition and he patted Spock’s hand against it. His touch was restless; the rest of him was still, even lazy.

‘Not embarking on anything,’ Jim said. ‘Hell—what time is it?’

Spock did not need to look at any nearby timepiece. ‘Judging by the current visibility and angle of sunlight through the window, it is not long past zero seven hundred.’

‘I’ve gotta get to class.’

‘Is that advisable?’

‘You tell me. Would you skip it?’

Spock frowned, if only slightly. ‘I cannot infer or ‘put myself in your shoes’ as I would not have cause to suffer from a disease of the same nature as the one with which you are currently plagued. Vulcan physiology—’

Vulcan physiology.’ Spock awaited an indication of why Jim had interrupted, repeated the phrase, and done so with a rasp in his voice unrelated to the soreness of his throat. ‘Anyway,’ Jim said, the three factors of his earlier statement remaining a mystery, ‘I’m going.’

‘In this instance, I cannot be certain if your dedication is admirable, Jim.’

‘Dedication, yeah.’ Jim pushed two fingers beneath the hem of Spock’s sleeve and rubbed his skin. The effect was not unpleasant but it was also uncalled for. Likewise, it was unexpected.

It had been some time since Jim had been that careless with the contact he made—at least as far as contact with Spock was concerned. With Uhura, he had a constant hand on her arm, or she on his; with Sulu, fencing matches regularly devolved into more barbaric wrestling practices; with Gaila, Spock had even observed Jim pushing her red hair behind her green ear, though she had not at those times mentioned that her hair required the adjustment; and with McCoy, Jim grabbed, slapped, shook and clapped various parts of his anatomy with alarming frequency.

The human need Jim must have always felt for these physical reassurances—one which was not shared by any Vulcan—had been satisfied by a plethora of other humans willing and able to provide, as well as aliens for whom the practice was equally common. Therefore, Spock had concluded that Jim no longer had to look to him for something Spock was not naturally inclined to supply.

There was no reason for Jim to touch him other than the illogical ones, the meanings and motivations of which could not be approached through meditative thought or quantitative algorithms.

‘Thanks for letting me crash, anyway.’ Jim sat up—too quickly, by the looks of it, and steadied himself with his free hand on Spock’s shoulder, clasping it tight. ‘I know how you are about your privacy. Your space.’

‘On the contrary,’ Spock replied. ‘I required your presence here so that you would not, as you put it, ‘crash’.’

‘That’s not what I—’ Jim paused, laughed, and shook his bowed head. ‘The point is, Hamhands Hendorff said he was gonna put a pillow over my face in the night if I didn’t stop coughing, so I appreciate it. Whether it was logical or not, I’m thanking you for one hell of a good night, Spock.’

Spock’s hand was still on Jim’s chest. He drew it away—and then, sensing that Jim was distracted, he re-buttoned the cadet jacket so that he would be somewhat more presentable upon his departure.

Jim’s cheeks remained lobster pink when he left. Spock’s hand remained warm for a long time after that.

*

Chapter Text

Jim groaned. It was the longest groan of his life, but Uhura had the decency not to interrupt him from start to finish until he got it all out of his system. Easier to do that than to get rid of all the lingering mucus—‘Secretions,’ Bones kept calling ‘em, and Jim really wished he’d stop doing that.

Mucus was bad enough. Secretions didn’t help.

When Jim’s last breath had been expended, the groan ended, and Uhura told him she’d pat him on the back if he wasn’t a walking medlab culture.

‘A disaster waiting to happen,’ she added. ‘More so than usual. What is it this time? Kobayashi Maru still getting you down?’

Jim’s personal Kobayashi Maru, maybe. But Uhura would know if he was lying. He shrugged and dropped his face onto his folded arms, contaminating the countertop in the process. It was hard to care.

He was pretty sure—in a cold-induced fit of brave insanity—that he’d put one of Spock’s hands on his body, right over his heart, and if Spock hadn’t been able to tell what it was feeling, then he’d at least be able to tell a lot of the things Jim should’ve kept buttoned up.

‘Wow,’ Uhura said. ‘Informative.’

‘It’s nothing,’ Jim said, even though it was obviouslysomething and maybe that was the whole problem—he wanted nothing to be something. Or he wanted something to be something else. He hadn’t worked that one out in his head yet; he was pretty sure it was still too clogged with snot to be of any use to him. ‘I’m having personal problems.’

‘Uh huh.’ Uhura tapped her index finger to the side of her head, flat against her temple. ‘Like—up here? In your brain? Because I hate to break it to you, dum dung, but everybody already knows about those. We’re aware.’

‘Try a little south of the border,’ Jim said.

Uhura looked him up and down, then scowled. ‘Ew. No. Maybe you’ve got this wrong, but we aren’t talking about that.’

Technically, Jim had been talking about somewhere betweenwhere Uhura was thinking and his head, but if Uhura wanted to go there then he wasn’t about to correct her. It got him out of the conversation, anyway, which had been his aim ever since he’d realized he was gonna have to put up or shut up.

Uhura didn’t do half-measures.

Well, he’d nailed the target, hit right what he’d been aiming for. Uhura was way too disgusted with him to pry after that, and Jim could lapse into a state of meditative thought that was close to but not factuallybeing asleep.

It wasn’t like him to wiggle his way out of talking about himself. Jim Kirk was Jim’s favorite topic of conversation, and it wasn’t until he’d found himself in San Francisco that he’d had a chance to expand on it. But groaning the last, plaintive breath of a dying animal wasn’t his best opener even if it was, for a change, exactly how he felt, no holds barred.

The comparison might’ve been dramatic, but so what; Jim had earned himself a little drama.

He was probably dying, anyway. Spock was gonna be the death of him.

The worst part was that Spock didn’t seem to know, let alone care. If Jim had the sense that they were both suffering together, even if it wasn’t equal amounts of suffering, it would’ve soothed the irrational part of him that still expected everything in life to be fair and just despite all his personal evidence to the contrary.

Spock caredabout him. Jim knew that. Spock could sense when Jim had a fever and knew when his throat was scratchy and he’d let Jim butcher his way through a Vulcan-to-English translation of a short collection of essays on his personal time because hell if he was gonna let Uhura, of all people, go on making fun of his accent.

Spock obviously gave a damn about him.

It was just that it wasn’t in the way Jim maybe, sort of, still, always, wantedhim to give a damn. And the worst part about that whole thing was that there was no way of telling whether or not Spock had already figured it out. If he knew and he was giving Jim the privacy he wanted in return. If he’d finally understood what tact was all about and Jim was his first applied test scenario.

Except Jim knew Spock couldn’t read his mind. There were times when it felt like that was what he was doing, if only because they knew each other better than anyone and Jim was like an open book most days, but when it came to knowing exactly what was going on under his dome, Spock was as clueless as the next person—maybe even more so. He’d as good as admitted it before. Only that stuck Jim in the kind of limbo that meant he had to assume Spock knew everything and nothing about him at the same time.

It was pretty much gonna drive him totally insane. Sometimes he thought it’d be easier if Spock would just go back to the early days of outright ignoring him. Sure, Jim would be lonely, but he wouldn’t have to wrestle with the separate halves of the contradiction anymore, like touching his hands to two oppositely-charged wires and getting shocked for his efforts. Jim didn’t mind being a conduit, but that implied someelectricity pulsing outward from the source.

He’d practically put Spock’s hand down his shirt and all he got back was a lecture about missing class.

Unless that had been Spock’s way of telling him he should stick around.

It could just as easily have been Spock’s polite flirt-deflection tactical maneuvers.

Yeah, Jim was definitely losing it.

He was distracted, but not enough to miss points on their end-of-term examination reviews or let Sulu get one up on him during basic combat practice. Jim pinned him three times before Sulu got a look on his face like revenge was in his future and Jim suggested they take a break, have some water, sorry about that, Sulu, but not everybody trained in Vulcan atmosphere.

‘It was hell,’ Jim added, after downing two-thirds of the contents of a vitamin-enriched water bottle, somehow before he realized it tasted like mangoes. Was the mango flavoring the one he was allergic to, or was that the peach? Maybe Sulu’d knocked his head a little harder against the mat than he’d thought. ‘I don’t mean that metaphorically as much as I mean—well it was as hot as hell, literally, but, I mean—’

‘Vulcans everywhere,’ Sulu supplied. ‘If you don’t mind me asking—how did that even work?’

Jim shrugged. ‘Some days, I ask myself the same question. But the air’s made up of stuff that’s actively hostile to the human body, so I guess you could say it’s the source of all my powers.’

Sulu shook his head, rolled his eyes, and looked a little like he was holding back a laugh on principle alone. It was a normal reaction, a human reaction, two guys joking around after they’d held each other in headlocks and did their best not to hit below the belt. Those moments were what Jim needed to remind himself that he wasn’t crazy; the kind of crazy that Spock drove him was, in the words of Amanda Grayson, perfectly natural.

She’d never added Even if you’re feeling them for someone you never expected to.

Jim didn’t miss her all the time; he didn’t let himself think about her so he wouldn’t have to. But when he did remember—lunches together while she listened patiently to Jim practically shouting about the latest lesson he’d completed and everything he’d just learned, making too much noise for a quiet Vulcan household—it hit him hard, square between the ribs, in a softer, squishier place than even Spock managed to reach, at least most of the time.

Jim only realized he was rubbing his chest when Spock brought it up.

‘If the symptom persists, it would be highly advisable for you to seek medical attention,’ Spock said. Jim blinked down at his chest and saw his hand there, fingers splayed over the fabric, remembering the way Spock’d touched him. Kind of. It counted. It had to count. ‘Allowing the symptoms to proceed unchecked may well prove a fatal error.’

‘I’m not gonna die of heartburn, Spock,’ Jim replied.

He sent Amanda a video message later that night and everything, until Hendorff shouldered his way in and Jim had to cut the connection off. He remembered saying a couple of things that probably made no sense, trying not to brag while trying to brag at the same time about being in the top of more than a few of his classes, and how Bones was looking after him, and how Spock got him chicken noodle soup for a cold, and how everybody, but mostly Uhura, was still calling him dum dung. ‘Someday,’ he’d been in the middle of saying, ‘they’re gonna have to call me Captain Dum Dung or risk being thrown in the—’

But Hendorff’s arrival cut that sentiment short. Jim realized as he was drifting off to sleep that he hadn’t said he loved her. It was important. Considering who Amanda loved, she probably didn’t hear it often enough.

Love you. Jim, he wrote her. It was easier that way. Next time, though, he’d say it looking straight into the camera.

Once they weren’t driving themselves up the walls studying for term-end exams.

Uhura’d become a beast; Jim was more frightened of her than he’d been of the le-matya I-Chaya’d rescued him from when he was a kid. His first mistake was not steering clear of her during that time; his second was bringing up the le-matya comparison.

‘Oh, no,’ Uhura’d said. ‘That’s hardly accurate. Take one step closer and you’ll see I’m way worse than a Vulcan desert lizard when you interrupt my course review.’

Jim held up his hands and backed away. Slowly.

‘I think Uhura needs a hypo, Bones,’ he’d said.

As it turned out, Bones needed one, too.

‘Not everybody in this place can breeze through a cumulative examination with one hand tied behind their back sneaking lunch out of the damn desk,’ he said. Le-matyas everywhere. ‘You might be having a grand old time, Jim, but I’ve got real studying to get to.’

What Bones didn’t know wouldn’t kill him, not in this case. Jim had been studying, all night and every night; when he got tired, he told himself to be more Vulcan, be more Spock, then let that light a different kind of fire than the thought of Spock usually did.

The best thing about the exams—or the worst, depending on who you were talking to—was that once they were done, they were done. No one was willing to grade results over the holidays so there was no chance of knowing how you’d fared until after the break. That put everyone in the position of either sticking to their miserable state of hypertension over their entire winter vacation—not likely—or forcing themselves to forget it for as long as they could to have as much fun as possible until the routine started back up all over again.

Jim picked the latter. Spock, after his confusion and derision over an academic system which would allow any instructor to take a leave of absence with even the most minor of tasks left unaccomplished, seemed to settle into it with him.

It wasn’t Vulcan to worry about exam results. They were what they were and no amount of mental energy afforded—wasted—in their direction could change what answers had already been put down.

He’d explained as much to Uhura, who looked like she wantedto believe him, but mostly she was just annoyed by how right he was and how calm he could be. Scotty provided a better target for her anxieties, since he vacillated wildly from complete confidence to, memorably, tearing his hair out and sprinkling it on the frosty lawn the morning of their first big snow.

‘What is the significance of this act?’ Spock asked. They were watching from the pathway, Spock wearing Jim’s thin gloves over his own.

‘Nothing,’ Jim said. He blew on his hands, chafing them together before he stuck them into his pockets. ‘He remembered something about the warp signature on an Andorian ship being the direct inverse of a human one and then he just went bananas.’

‘Ah’m makin’ a sacrifice to the gods of engineering, aren’t I?’ Even in his state, Scotty had a rare ear for eavesdropping. ‘I think I put it down right. I think. They should have practical exams for engineering students, anyway—what’s the point in knowing whatever we can fill in on a wee screen? They’ve got no feeling for how we can handle the actual ships. Whether or not we’ve got the touch. If the big girls like us.’

‘Montgomery Scott believes there are gods specifically devoted to engineering?’ Spock asked. ‘And that Starfleet ships are both female and sentient? Is it not for the best that he should fail, so as not to be allowed any measure of control over delicate mechanical operations in the future?’

Bones came up behind Jim before Jim had to figure out how to answer that one. He didn’t have a hypo at the ready but he was wearing the kind of coat that made him look like something out of the deep-space survival guides: down-filled, stretching to his knees, complete with a hood that was lined with some kind of synthetic fleece. At least, Jim was guessing it was synthetic—either that or someone had tried to pay Bones for his farmyard delivery by shearing off every last one of their sheep, and that just didn’t seem sanitary enough for Bones to go along with it. Jim had started to sweat from so much as looking at the thing.

‘I heard yelling,’ Bones said.

‘I’m surprised you can hear anything in that coat,’ Jim replied. Not his best comeback, but he was still taking the coat in. It was a lot to process.

‘Montgomery Scott is in the process of ‘going bananas’,’ Spock informed him.

‘Oh, is that all?’ Bones huffed, his breath coming out in a cloud of white condensation. ‘If I’d known, I wouldn’t have dragged myself out of the room—just got it the way I like it, too.’

‘Yeah, you’re, uh…’ Jim gestured up and down. ‘You look comfy, Bones. Not a fan of the cold?’

‘Not hardly.’ Bones gave Jim a look like he was daring him to come up with more. ‘It’s gonna snow again tomorrow. I can feel it in my—don’t you dare say it.’

‘Well, it’s no fun if you get there first,’ Jim said.

And he meant it.

As it turned out, Bones was right. He never explained how he did it—I’m going to be a doctor, not a goddamn meteorologist—so Jim chalked it up to spooky intuition and left it at that. Anyway, he had bigger problems to put his immediate attention toward, and that involved the matter of keeping Spock from curling up like a lizard and going into shock, or whatever it was colder-blooded species did when they couldn’t get enough warmth.

Spock was a little more complicated than a lizard. For one, Jim couldn’t just turn a heat lamp on him and call it a day.

His roommate had already headed home for the break—home wasn’t off-world and he’d seemed relieved beyond words to be escaping the cone of logic that was Spock’s personal space. Spock was neither relieved nor regretful, but Jim sensed that he wasn’t, as Spock would’ve said, displeased about the chance to have an area of privacy, save for when Jim busted in without warning. He could also turn the temperature in the room up as high as it’d go; there was nobody to complain about the heat or sweat or melt or cry except for Jim, and Jim was used to it.

‘Just like home,’ he said, stripping off the jacket he’d worn on the way over the second he stepped into Spock’s dry, stuffy room.

‘That is hardly accurate,’ Spock said. ‘First of all, the temperature is currently twenty degrees Fahrenheit and approximately six point seven degrees Celsius cooler than a Vulcan summer. Second of all, there is nothing else reminiscent of Vulcan in the surrounding environment, save for a basic attempt at proper heating conditions.’

‘You’re forgetting one thing, Spock.’

Spock’s eyebrow lifted.

‘The Vulcan in the room,’ Jim said, tossing Spock his jacket. After a moment of unimpressed contemplation, Spock put it on, though it was too short for him in the sleeves.

Jim made himself comfortable—as comfortable as a human could be when they were spending too much time in a room twenty degrees Fahrenheit cooler than a Vulcan summer, but Jim’d had training and he was used to sweat. He even chuckled when, as snow drifted outside the window, he had to pinch his t-shirt between his thumb and forefinger, pulling it taut and releasing it in a fanning rhythm to cool off the skin on his stomach and chest.

He’d been right. It was just like home.

They checked in with Amanda later, Spock sitting on his desk chair beside the bed, Jim leaning forward over his shoulder and bracing his hands on the back of Spock’s chair so he could see the small square of her face on the screen, even the wrinkles in the fabric of her scarves. They barely hid the smile she kept in her eyes when they blinked into view.

‘Don’t worry,’ Jim promised her. ‘I’m keeping Spock warm. Me and the overworked temperature regulation system in this part of the dorms, anyway; we make an awesome team.’

‘Jim and I are regretful that we cannot return for the important Earth holiday of Christmas, Mother. A significant amount of time and energy has been wasted here in San Francisco on the task of decorating the location with specific, if occasionally incomprehensible, indicators of the season.’

‘It must be beautiful,’ Amanda said.

‘That is a matter of personal taste,’ Spock replied. ‘All that can be said for certain is that it is cold.’

‘Sulu and I’ve got plans to turn Scotty into a snowman tonight after dinner,’ Jim added. ‘Pretty sure Uhura and Gaila are going to help, since he’s been nuts lately. It’ll take his mind off panicking about Andorian warp signatures, so basically, we’re doing it for his own good.’

‘It may also cause his body to go into a state of shock,’ Spock said.

Amanda adjusted her scarves. Jim smiled extra hard for her; he had no way of knowing when the last time she’d even seen a smile was. ‘It sounds like exactly what poor Scott needs, Jim. Just be careful—I know you will.’

‘Spock’s not keen on building snowmen, though,’ Jim continued. He left off the part about how the last time he’d played in the snow he’d had a brother; even his mom’d joined in for the snowball fight and they’d built three lumpy but matching snow people in the backyard, George making fun of how much Jim’s contributions sucked. Jim’d been seven. He was seventeen now. A decade had passed.

‘Jim?’ Amanda asked.

Jim found his grin again. ‘Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna build as many as I can while the snow lasts,’ he said. Real smooth recovery. ‘Hey, since we can’t make it back for the break, Bones offered to put us up at his place down south for a while. Traditional Earth Christmas.’

‘I was not informed of this offer,’ Spock said.

‘Just wondering if you think it’s a good idea or not, Amanda.’ Jim’s knees bumped the back of Spock’s chair. ‘His family’s got a farm. Plus, it’s bound to be warmer there than it is here, and I didn’t want to get Spock’s hopes up until after I’d got permission.’

‘I am a Vulcan,’ Spock informed him. ‘My hopes do not travel in any direction. You are well aware of this fact.’

‘I think it sounds like a splendid idea,’ Amanda said. ‘Spock, what do you think?’ 

‘If Jim has already decided upon this course of action, then it will be difficult to dissuade him; likewise, I will be obligated to follow suit, to be certain of his health and safety.’

Jim ducked his head behind Spock’s chair so Amanda wouldn’t see the fresh, Spock-related heat on his cheeks. Sometimes Spock said things and Jim knew they weren’t anything more than logic but they made Jim want to bury his face in Spock’s neck anyway, warm mouth on Spock’s cool skin.

‘Well then,’ Amanda said, ‘I do hope you’ll be safe. And polite to your hosts. See if you can’t get Leonard McCoy something nice to thank him for his generosity of spirit.’

‘Such a phrase,’ Spock replied, ‘cannot be applied to the individual in question.’

Jim disagreed when he called shotgun in Bones’ rented pickup and Bones allowed it without threatening a hypo if Jim picked a radio station he didn’t like.

Bones was growing as a person. Jim was a good influence on him.

He was also, in his opinion, an excellent road trip buddy. Atlanta was about a day and a half away by the express superhighway, which meant they could make it without having to stop off in any motels as long as they were smart about their driving shifts.

He could tell Bones was tired when, crossing out of Arizona and into New Mexico, he jolted awake where he’d been leaning against the passenger seat window.

‘What d’you mean, you can technically drive?’

Jim spoke in an undertone so he wouldn’t snap Spock out of meditation in the back. ‘Exactly what it sounds like, Bones.’

Spock’d spent the first couple hours complaining about how the rattling of the truck wasn’t conducive to achieving a peaceful state of mind. Bones had come back with something about how he couldn’t afford anything that hovered on a med student’s salary—and if the Vulcan diplomat’s kid wanted to kick in for the cost of something comfier next time, that’d be all in the Christmas spirit.

That last bit seemed to remind Spock of what Amanda had said about appreciating Bones’ generosity, because he hadn’t pushed the issue any further. It was kinda sweet, really, as far as Spock went. But by the time Jim could sneak a look back to offer him a secret smile of solidarity, Spock was already off in his mental sanctuary, using the distractions in order to improve his concentration skills, knowing him.

Which left Jim alone to Bones’ tender mercies, which were a lot less tender after five hours of Jingle Bells rendered by the Aenar Federation Choir.

‘Humor me,’ Bones said. ‘What, exactly, does it sound like?’

‘Relax, Bones,’ Jim replied, while the truck made a very unrelaxingsound under them. The clutch was sticky. Jim was dying to have a look under the hood once they made it to Atlanta. ‘I’ve been driving all kinds of stuff since I was like, seven, OK? I think I can handle a San Francisco rental.’

Technically,’ Bones reminded him.

‘Well…’ Jim let him dangle while he searched for their exit, one eye on Spock in the rearview. ‘I never technically got my Earth license.’

Bones’ subsequent screaming fit lasted all the way from Albuquerque to the Oklahoma border. Jim managed to keep the truck from swerving off the road but he couldn’t do anything about Spock, whose eyes snapped open in the fading light of the sunset, narrowing like a cat’s, double-eyelid and all. Fortunately, by then Bones wasn’t shouting anything too incriminating about how Jim was gonna get them all arrested or land them all upside down in a ditch somewhere. He seemed to figure that the latter was pretty unlikely and Jim was almost guaranteed to sweet-talk his way out of the former.

‘Come on, Bones, where’s your holiday spirit?’ Jim asked. They’d put the snow in the rearview a while back, but it was raining in Oklahoma.

‘Must’ve left it in the same place I left my brain when I agreed to this carnival of errors,’ Bones grumbled.

‘I was lead to believe that this journey was the product of your own suggestion,’ Spock said from the back seat. ‘Is this not the case?’

‘Leave it to the Vulcan to catch me in a technicality,’ Bones said.

Like he hadn’t done the same thing to Jim with his driving skills. They were more alike than they knew, but Jim didn’t mind being the only one to have that figured out.

‘We’re having one hell of a technical ride,’ he agreed.

He drove a couple extra hours as penance, switching off when Bones woke up for a second time and demanded the greasiest fast food they could find in a quarter mile. It took a bit of extra circling around to find a place with something Spock could eat—the saddest, greenest melon Jim’d ever seen and some cottage cheese, the etymology of which Spock would not shut up about—and Jim crawled into the back when Bones took the wheel, just to make sure they didn’t mess up Spock’s order. He adjusted all the heating vents so they’d be trained on Spock and leaned too close to add his body heat into the mix.

Spock didn’t say thanks or anything, but he didn’t pull away, either, so Jim had to assume he appreciated it.

And, Jim noticed, the ride was bumpier in the back. Jim liked it, the extra bounce, but Spock wasn’t the extra bounce type.

‘Is the cheese produced in a cottage or primarily made for the residents of the same?’ Spock asked.

‘Is this gonna be what Christmas is like this year? ‘Cause I’m telling you, if he ruins the punch by talking too damn much about it...’ Bones added. He turned up Aenar Federation Choir and Jim leaned forward to turn it back down again.

‘Vulcan ears, Bones,’ he said to the side of Bones’ face. ‘They’re sensitive. Whip that one out next time; you’ll be teacher’s pet faster than you can say tarnation.’

‘I’ve never said tarnation in my life,’ Bones replied.

It was a blatant lie. He’d said it at least three times in the last twenty-four hours. Spock would’ve known, if that was the sort of detail he cared to keep track of.

The truck hit a bump in the road just as Jim was leaning back into his seat and he slipped, landing half on Spock’s lap in the process. It was the kind of momentary interpersonal contact that Spock mostly hated and Jim couldn’t have planned because he knew that Spock mostly hated it; he couldn’t think of it as a stroke of good luck for that reason, either, just a stroke of Bones’ driving skills.

Those weren’t much better than Jim’s, technicalities aside.

Jim slipped off Spock’s lap and onto the seat as quickly as he could; he cleared his throat and pretended to yawn while Spock sat, rigid and unaffected—which was better than being actively displeased, but only by a fraction.

‘I am concerned about Leonard McCoy’s driving prowess,’ Spock said, staring straight ahead.

‘I’ll have you know,’ Bones replied, ‘that I’ve got legendary hands. Legendary. Whether it’s a scalpel or a stick shift, I’m a master.’

‘A bold claim,’ Spock said.

His hands, meanwhile, were tightly folded on his lap. Jim wanted to reach over and warm them but it’d already been too much; holding himself back was one of those important skills Captain Pike was always emphasizing that seemed counter-intuitive as far as Jim was concerned.

After all, if you held yourself back too much, you’d never know what was real instinct and what wasn’t. The more you second-guessed a plan, the less time you had to act. Only conjecture could tell you what hesitation lost.

‘Yet you are unable,’ Spock said, ‘to explain the origins of cottage cheese.’

Jim found him a PADD to look it up. ‘Originally made in a cottage—how about that.’

‘Can’t trust two god-damn Vulcan-raised fools to talk about something sensible during Christmastime,’ Bones muttered up front.

It stopped raining at last, and then there was nothing but the grunting and spitting of the engine and the creaking of the truck frame and the tender lullaby of Carol of the Bells as hummed under Bones’ breath for miles. Jim put his legs up in the space between the driver’s seat and where he’d been sitting shotgun and something about the rhythm of the truck ride must’ve lulled him to sleep, because the next thing he knew he was blinking his eyes open to the faint light of dawn.

His cheek was smashed against Spock’s clavicle. One of Spock’s arms was around his shoulders, holding him still. It didn’t feel like an embrace so much as it felt like an extension of the seatbelt mechanism. Perfectly logical, since Jim hadn’t been wearing his. Somebody had to provide it and Spock had been there, hadn’t he?

Jim wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and straightened; there was no point in pretending to still be asleep because Spock already knew he was awake and there was something about imposing on Spock’s silence that made him feel hot despite the faint chill lingering in the air.

Maybe he’d given something in return; maybe he’d been like a personal heating pad. Maybe he only took as much as he offered but the idea of asking Spock to measure it made Jim’s gut drop to his boots.

Jim coughed.

‘Well, it’s about damn time, Sleeping Beauty,’ Bones said. ‘Any longer and you would’ve missed the view.’

Jim stretched out the kinks in his back with his arms over his head, knuckles brushing the roof of the truck, yawning so hard he could feel his jaw pop. Then, the pickup crested a low hill and the sun rose in the distance over a sprawling acre of farmland and, beyond that, a cluster of bare trees. It wasn’t summer and there were no cornfields in sight but there was something about the scene that reminded Jim of where he’d started: looking out a window in Iowa past the nearby farms all the way to the horizon, waiting for the sun to set so he could watch the stars.

‘Now there’s a sight for sore eyes,’ Bones continued, as Jim took the opportunity to pretend he was rubbing the sleep from his.

‘If your eyes are experiencing soreness, it would be best to surrender control of the vehicle to someone whose vision is uncompromised,’ Spock said.

‘If you think I’m getting arrested in my own hometown for handing the wheel to an unlicensed driver, Spock, you’re even crazier than I thought,’ Bones said.

‘Despite your implication of subjectivity, your statement on my mental well-being is factually untrue,’ Spock replied.

Just like that, Jim was back in the present, lifted comfortably out of a memory and set down in the life he was actually living. It was a little like killing the moment, but in this case Jim wasn’t looking to linger.

Better to move on and focus on what he had in front of him instead of what he’d left behind.

Bones parked the truck in front of the big old house, not the only one for miles, but it was gonna be an obvious hike to get into the town down the road. The sight made Jim feel itchy, but it wasn’t all bad. He knew Spock would appreciate the peace and quiet—if Bones let them have any—and Bones was bound to have computer set-ups and all kinds of things that’d make the long, lonely distance feel insignificant once they were indoors.

There was a man waiting for them on the wide, enclosed porch by the time they stumbled out of the truck one by one, Jim heading around to pop the trunk and grab their bags while ignoring how wobbly his legs felt underneath him.

Bones Senior looked like a sideways glimpse of Bones: a version of him with big, stooped shoulders and lidded eyes that never opened fully. It made him look placid, steady and calm, when Bones was practically rippling in and out of reality with the nervous energy he carried. Jim’d been pretty curious about seeing the roots of that, maybe finding out what made Bones tick—the ticking time bomb kind of tick—but apparently he wasn’t gonna get the answers here.

That was fine. Jim liked a good mystery anyway.

Bones waved his dad off from helping them, barking something about blood pressure and heavy lifting. That, at least, was a familiar trait. Jim found it comforting, even when he tried to take Spock’s bags in along with his own and got busted halfway to the door.

‘Do you imagine my skills of observation to be lacking?’ Spock asked, holding Jim by the shoulder so he could reclaim his luggage. ‘Or is this the behavior you spoke of when you ensured my mother you would ‘look after’ me?’

‘Uh,’ Jim said. ‘Probably the second one.’

‘Will it be necessary to inform you that my physical strength far outpaces that of even an above-average human?’ Spock’s hand wasn’t on Jim’s shoulder anymore, but the touch lasted. Lingered. Always did. Jim kinda missed the cold, if only because there, he could work himself up to being comfortably numb. ‘Your assistance is not required in this area.’

‘Yeah.’ Jim knew when he was beat, although that didn’t have much bearing on whether or not he’d continue to try. ‘You’re probably right.’

‘Statistically, this seems likely,’ Spock agreed.

Jim’s mouth twitched, trying to read off of Spock’s expression—of all things—to figure out if that’d been a joke. An insidejoke, like there were things only Jim’d get and Spock enjoyed them just as much as Jim did.

He didn’t have time to translate the look before Bones came jogging down the porch steps, expostulating about how he was gonna have to make a trip to the local hospital and rattling on about some kind of medication with approximately five too many syllables for Jim to bother with remembering, other than registering it was probably for Bones’ dad, if it was for anybody.

‘You’re sure it’s all right if we stay here, Bones?’ Jim asked, before Bones could dive into the truck or throw himself under it, depending on his mood.

‘You leave and I’ll stuff more than your stocking fulla coal, you understand me, Jim? Now get inside before something stings you and I’ve got two patients on my hands instead of one.’ Bones was already halfway into the driver’s seat again—no introductions, none of the southern hospitality he was always going on about. Jim still had a bag in his arms, holding it against his chest, as the pickup engine revved. ‘Settle down in there and don’t break a thing. Make yourselves comfortable—but not too comfortable, Jim, I know how you are—and I’ll be back before you know it. Wouldn’t hurt to have something warm to drink waiting for me, either, as a matter of fact.’

Jim saluted. It was up to him to smooth this business over. He watched as the pickup backed along the dirt driveway, then swerved and pulled away down the road.

‘Though he has complained of my bedside manner in the past,’ Spock said, ‘I believe this would be what is known as an instance of a black pot calling a kettle the same. If such dishware were to speak—which, logically, it cannot. According to Uhura, however, the comparison is despite its unlikely connotations frequently in favor.’

‘Good one, Spock.’ Jim grinned at him, then had to look away. There was a Mr. McCoy waiting for them inside and no Bones to make the introductions easy on them, but Jim didn’t want to leave Bones’ old man hanging.

The inside of the house was rustic, an old-style deal that might as well have been on another planet from the Starfleet standard in San Francisco. The ceilings were low; there was a fireplace in the sitting room and a collection of what must’ve been school awards for exceptional performance in the medical field on the mantelpiece.

‘He’s a bit fast-paced,’ McCoy senior said from the other side of the room; he’d taken up in a seat close to the fire with a blanket over his lap. ‘Always thought a big city might help him with that, mellow him some, teach him to take things slow, but it seems to me it’s just encouraged even more of the same.’

Jim slung his bag over one shoulder by the strap and crossed the room to shake McCoy’s weathered hand. There were bruises on the inside of his arm over the thin white skin that suggested a frequent connection to IV needles—which wasn’t too much of a shock, considering Bones’ inclinations, but Jim took note of it anyway without letting himself stare outright. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Bo— Your son’s saved my skin more times than I can count. He’s going to make one amazing doctor someday.’

If his brain didn’t blow up first. 

‘You and I both know it,’ McCoy replied. ‘Now we just have to wait for him to catch up.’

‘He is not without confidence in the study of medicine,’ Spock said.

Jim hadn’t forgotten about him; Jim never forgot about him. But he didn’t know how he was gonna explain a Vulcan to Bones’ dad, either. All he could do was start with the basics. ‘And this is Spock...son of Sarek. From Vulcan.’

‘Takes all kinds,’ McCoy agreed. ‘Good to meet you too, son.’

Spock didn’t go in for the handshake. Fortunately, McCoy didn’t seem too bothered by it. And Jim was relieved when Spock didn’t correct him—‘I am not your son, as Jim has already informed you’—which was a Christmas miracle right there.

‘You boys can make yourselves comfortable. Don’t mind me. Once my boy gets back, he’ll be fussing enough for the three of you and then some.’ McCoy closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. ‘It’d be a kindness if you kept him busy enough to give me a breather now and then. It’s no good for him—worried as he is about blood pressure, might as well look after his own.’

‘Understood,’ Jim said. ‘I promise, sir—I’ll do the best I can.’

‘Obliged,’ McCoy told him, and the faint ghost of a smile he wore reminded Jim of Bones for some reason, even if he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Bones smile, or even if he ever had.

Upstairs, Jim took the opportunity to head into what had to be Bones’ old room first, if the pictures were anything to go by, not to mention a mini operation kit stashed under the bed.

‘Are you inspecting the residence for vermin, Jim?’ Spock asked, observing Jim on his hands and knees to survey the floor level before lifting the bed’s mattress to dig around for anything incriminating. He grabbed a couple of magazines and a letter and stuffed them into the inside pocket of his jacket.

Bones might kill him if he found out, but the risk was worth it.

‘Just taking it all in,’ Jim replied, dusting his hands off on the fronts of his jeans. ‘There’s gotta be a reason why Bones is so...Bones about everything.’

‘In order to determine the source of his personality defects, you would be better served conducting studies of his neurological functions.’ Spock stepped aside to let Jim out the door. ‘Though the answers may not be ideal, they will nevertheless be illuminating. Were you aware that McCoy senior is currently suffering from a potentially fatal disease?’

‘Jesus.’ Jim’s skin prickled, goosebumps rising and disappearing over his skin in a wave where the words broke against him. It was a conclusion he might’ve come to himself given the time to put the separate clues together, but having the finished thing dumped into his lap like something I-Chaya had found out in the desert bluffs was different. It wasn’t a surprise; it was that hearing it from Spock, in his blunt tones, made it real. ‘Don’t say that to Bones, all right? Or even in front of him.’

‘Given his devotion to the field of medicine and his acceptable knowledge of human ailments, one must surmise that this is a condition he was aware of long before we arrived in Atlanta,’ Spock said.

Yeah; Jim had been aware of that too. But he’d been keeping it, along with the other stuff he was juggling, in a state of reasonable disbelief until he knew how to process it.

Spock had a way of stripping that effort down to the bone—or in this case, to the Bones—making Jim face up to stuff whether he was ready for it or not.

Usually, Jim liked it. He couldn’t also say that it didn’t make him uncomfortable, but that was Spock all over and especially these days. It wasn’t exactlya bad feeling. It was like the papers smashed between his chest and his jacket, rough edges rubbing his skin through his shirt.

Temporarily inconvenient, but Jim was gonna get something worthwhile out of it for his pains.

The guest room was cozy, everything in it sun-faded from another season, like no one had come inside in a long time and when they did, they didn’t think to close the drapes. Whoever had decorated it liked flowers a hell of a lot more than Jim suspected Bones did, or even Bones Sr. They were patterned on the bedspread and the curtains, with a little framed picture of some lily-looking thing over by the window. Jim had been neglecting his botany studies, figuring he could slack a bit on what Earth plants were poisonous; it wasn’t like he was joining Starfleet to wind up stuck on one planet, after all.

At the center of the room there was a double bed and a pull-out couch-bed with an ancient mattress. The metal framework screeched when Jim rolled it out and groaned when he sat down on it. Spock looked at it like it was a le-matya coiled and ready to spring—which was still a long way off from how alarmed anyone elsewould’ve been, given the circumstances.

‘Perhaps I should revisit my earlier conviction that Leonard McCoy means you harm,’ Spock said, folding his hands behind his back. ‘That apparatus is unsound.’

‘It’ll be fine, Spock.’ Jim bounced to demonstrate the bed’s durability and it buckled, trying to fold back into the couch. He jumped free just in time and it only made it halfway there before creaking to an ominous halt.

Spock raised an eyebrow. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.

Jim found the spare linens by going through all the closets on the second floor and made the beds anyway, Spock’s first and his deathtrap second. It gave him something to do. Whenever he felt the familiar prickling of guilt that reminded him he was avoiding going back downstairs, he made himself remember what McCoy senior had said about getting Bones to lay off him. He probably didn’t want a bunch of rowdy company around. Jim was being considerate by keeping out of his hair.

And he was hoping Spock would get all his comments out while it was just the two of them so temptation wouldn’t strike during dinner or somewhere even worse.

‘So...’ Jim was sweating after his wrestling match with the fitted sheets; Spock’s assistance involved smoothing out the wrinkled mess he’d made once he’d finished with the hardest part. ‘It’s warmer, right? I bet that’s...better.’

Not a sentence that was gonna win him any grammar points, but Spock knew him well enough not to expect that from him. He’d relocated to stand by the window when it’d gotten boring watching Jim make the beds for ages.

‘Though it is not ideal, it is comparatively more pleasant than San Francisco.’

‘You’re gonna revise that statement when Bones or his dad asks you so it sounds less like a complaint and more like a compliment—right, Spock?’

‘It was a measured yet accurate statement,’ Spock said.

Jim flopped onto his back on the deathtrap, listening to it squeak angrily at the assault of his weight. He spread his arms and legs out from the center of his body like he was making a snow angel only there wasn’t any snow on the ground on the McCoy farm. Still, in this case, it was a nod to the season. ‘Sure it was,’ Jim replied. ‘But it’s Christmas, Spock.’

‘I fail to see how the advent of a human holiday should affect honest presentations of the truth.’

Jim closed his eyes.

It was gonna be one hell of a long winter break.

*

Chapter Text

When Leonard McCoy returned an hour and twenty three minutes after he had departed in his questionable ‘pickup’ vehicle, Jim had done the following: raided McCoy’s personal room; raided the linen closets; made a bed; mounted an assault on a fold-away mattress that obviously had not been cleared for use in at least a decade; and managed despite himself to make a drink he described as ‘hot chocolate’, with which Spock had little personal experience—though he would in the future broach the topic with Mother to ascertain whether or not it was universally enjoyed by all humans, regardless of their personalities and backgrounds. Although there were few individuals more unalike than McCoy and Jim in attitude and approach, they both drank two sizable mugs of the steaming beverage while Spock held his own between both hands, employing the hot cup as a heating device rather than a refreshment.

‘You’re not gonna drink that?’ Jim had asked, as though the answer was not already apparent.

‘You think a Vulcan’d know what to do with cocoa, Jim? He’d have a better time analyzing the synthetic compounds of a marshmallow!’

Spock waited for McCoy to bring his father, McCoy senior, a mug of his own to inquire after the unfamiliar ‘marshmallow’ term. Jim explained them as edible, fluffy, white, and sweet, commonly utilized in the making of hot chocolate, then added, ‘Bones is probably right. You might not like ‘em.’

‘Do you consider this a failure of taste?’

Jim shrugged. ‘Just a difference of taste. More marshmallows for me, right?’

‘That stands to reason,’ Spock replied.

In the McCoy household, McCoy senior commanded most of McCoy junior’s attention—attention that would have been directed Jim’s way, monitoring him for any signs of allergic reaction to the wood and wood-fire, the hot chocolate, the food offerings at mealtime, and so on. Spock found himself stepping up to fill in as McCoy currently lacked the capacity to split his focus; in new and unknown environments, it was important to maintain close observation of Jim to prevent anything more severe befalling him.

Jim cleared the dishes and Spock assisted in drying them after they had their lunch. It was not an unusual element of their routine, though it had been months since they had shared the duties of that task.

Afterward, Jim embarked on what Spock concluded was the fulfillment of the favor requested by McCoy senior. His attempts to distract McCoy junior were varied in their success; at last, he offered his services for the chopping of wood ‘out back’ as an expression of gratitude for McCoy’s hospitality. Though McCoy was reluctant—a sentiment Spock shared—he eventually capitulated, on the condition that he would be in attendance.

‘In case you cut a god-damn hand off, which—well, I wouldn’t put it past you,’ McCoy said, and added, ‘pardon my French,’ with a nod in his father’s direction.

‘That was not French,’ Spock informed him.

McCoy’s grumbling continued through the hall and out of doors. Spock did not leave the warmth of the interior but rather found a space by the window to preside over the proceedings.

Jim was wielding an axe, after all, and though he was dexterous and skilled when it came to physical activities, as well as finely muscled and particularly strong for a human male of his age, the chance of incident was as McCoy had intimated: uncomfortably high. To Spock’s knowledge Jim had never chopped wood before; he had never seen the need. While he was quick to learn a new set of skills regardless of their requirements for mastery, the blade was sharp and the pastime crude.

Spock watched closely as the blade of the tool swung through the air, Jim’s shoulders working, tightening, to control its arc and maintain the speed necessary for impact to split the logs. McCoy stood a considered distance away and there were more than a few periods of instructional shouting involved. By the end, McCoy’s face was the same reddish hue as Jim’s, the latter from exertion, the former from anxiety.

Jim returned inside equal parts sweaty and pleased with himself.

‘Maybe tomorrow I’ll get us a tree—can’t have Christmas without a tree, Bones.’

‘Sure, why not?’ McCoy had taken to muttering to himself, as if his ongoing health required he pretend Jim was not even in the room. ‘Add amateur lumberjack to your resume of personal tortures. Why not go sledding into a ravine while you’re at it?’

‘Don’t be silly, Bones.’ Jim rubbed his neck where it glistened, palm slick against the skin. ‘There’s no snow for sledding here.’

There was no remorse in his voice, as Jim seldom if ever cared to take into consideration the toll and mental strain his entertainment had on McCoy. This effect, perhaps, was counterbalanced by the period of rest he had attained for McCoy senior; if so, then that was likely why Jim found it easy to ignore the obvious side effects of his actions.

It was also true that Jim was someone for whom consequences were afforded relatively little consideration. He preferred to act, then accept whatever came next as a matter of course, rather than anticipate how he might have avoided repercussions altogether with a modicum of forethought. His natural abilities kept this from being too unfavorable, although Spock could predict that luck and skill would not carry Jim unscathed through everything.

This was why it was necessary to maintain a close eye on his activities.

When Jim collapsed into a kitchen chair, it was Spock who brought him a towel for his damp skin, while McCoy steadied his nerves by having a brusque conversation with his father on the appropriate means of stacking wood for a fire.

Their relationship was a curious one. It did not, as both Mother and Jim had suggested, illuminate anything about McCoy’s volatile temper or violent language. The senior McCoy spoke in a slow, unhurried measure. He seemed to find his son’s behavior neither troubling nor unusual—he never sought to admonish him within Spock’s hearing, saving his corrections for the accomplishment of several mundane tasks, such as the proper amount of alcohol to add to a recipe of baked beans and the best means of keeping a hypothetical draft from entering the upstairs rooms.

Spock hadnoted the chilled air that seemed to vent in from a leaky seal around the window in the guest room. He had been in the progress of investigating it while Jim made the beds.

Indeed, however illogical the perception, it was beginning to seem as if Jim did not feel the cold at all. He had gone outside without a jacket and had returned with his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, fanning himself before Spock brought him the towel, which he promptly shoved against his chest and down his shirt as though acting upon a wayward marsupial instinct.

‘That should keep us stocked for awhile,’ Jim said, displaying his newfound tendency for answering a question Spock had not posed. He examined a growing blister on his thumb with interest, then winced when he poked it.

‘I find it highly unlikely that neither of the McCoys would have prepared the ample amount of firewood for the season’s low temperatures,’ Spock said. ‘In addition, it seems improbable that the sole source of heating for a house of this size would be so primitive.’

Spock.’ Jim’s face loomed red from behind a corner of the towel.

‘An observation which is neither specious nor factually incorrect,’ Spock pointed out.

‘Yeah, I know,’ Jim said. His hair was darker at the roots where it was damp with his sweat. ‘And you’re probably right. I’m betting there’s a heating system that’s less primitive, but the old guy likes his fires. I’m just saying—you can’t go around calling someone’s house primordial, Spock. It’ll hurt their feelings.’ 

‘Is it customary to associate strongly with one’s living arrangements?’ Spock asked.

‘Man, you get cranky when you’re cold,’ Jim said.

This did not seem an observation made in strict accuracy. It was true that Spock’s internal temperature had dipped below optimal, due to his time spent observing Jim out of doors. However, it had not affected his mood adversely. It had not affected his mood at all.

Jim spent the day embarking on various, less life-threatening out-of-doors pursuits while Spock experienced a three-hour long period of study. McCoy muttered again at Spock’s statement of purpose, but Spock remained firm in his practices, so as to retain prime mental faculties in spite of the atrophy caused by the traditional human period of ‘winter break’-related rest.

Humans seemed to believe that it was at times necessary to cease learning altogether; however, Spock was certain this was detrimental to the process, and refused to adhere to it.

In the evening, the extra wood that Jim had chopped was placed in the stove and burned. It let off a sweet but earthy smell with its smoke that clung to their clothes, skin, and hair. The fire itself blazed for much of the night, with Jim frequently adding split logs whenever it began to weaken.

Spock found the temperature distinctly comfortable. McCoy did not complain, as his father appeared to agree with Spock on the matter. Jim was sweating once more, the light from the flames cast over his face whenever he leaned close to the stove; so, too, was he swathed in its sudden shadows.

McCoy brought them glasses of a hot cider to enjoy as an after-dinner treat. Spock preferred the beverage to the hot chocolate and had likewise decided to avoid future marshmallows altogether.

‘Your thoughtfulness regarding the additional heating system was appreciated by both McCoy and his father. My mother will be pleased to learn that you have followed her instructions involving repayment of McCoy’s perceived generosity,’ Spock noted. Though he had not fallen prey to the human endeavor known as ‘small talk’ during his time on Earth at Starfleet Academy, he had nonetheless acknowledged its usefulness on occasion.

In this instance, as Jim stripped and readied for bed—while simultaneously searching the room over for a thermostat control device, at last discovering one in a corner of the room behind a rough-hewn wardrobe—it proved functional.

‘I’m turning the heat up,’ Jim said over his shoulder. He bent to do so, then hissed, shaking out his hand. ‘The damn thing shocked me, Spock. I think Bones’ house has something against me.’

‘That is highly improbable. The house is not sentient and can have no feelings toward you on either end of the spectrum.’

Jim turned, sucking on his fore- and index-fingers. ‘Easy for you to say,’ he said, voice slurred around his fingertips. ‘You’re not the one under attack.’

‘I can assure you that an attack on your person is something I would take as seriously as any on my own. As it stands, your current enemy is your lack of care regarding the outdated circuitry of this old building.’

‘Better not bring that up with Bones, either,’ Jim said, grinning for reasons unknown, and started in the direction of his unsteady fold-out mattress and bed frame.

This would not do. There was no less than a seventy-nine percent chance that, at some point during his fitful sleeping period, he would toss in an improper direction and cause the entire structure to snap shut on him. Though it would not prove fatal, there might have been injury, not to mention a disturbance of everyone’s rest in the night.

With this in mind, Spock could return the generosity McCoy had shown by avoiding a situation in which he and his father would be troubled, while simultaneously looking after Jim’s best interests.

‘Due to the lack of structural integrity in the pull-out bed, it would be unwise to sleep on it, Jim.’

Jim paused, only halfway there. ‘I’m not sleeping on the floor, Spock.’

‘Indeed, I had not considered it. The true bed with its proper wood frame is large enough for two. As we have shared sleeping accommodations many times in the past, to do so now would not be without precedent.’

‘Huh.’ Jim shrugged against his jaw, a tic that Spock could not translate. It was highly probable that the motion had no meaning beyond the vague restlessness from which Jim frequently suffered. ‘Haven’t exactly done that for a while, though.’

‘The circumstances did not necessitate that we should. However, in this instance, the most sensible course of action is quite clear.’

‘You’re just using me for my body heat, is that it?’ Jim’s expression was also unfamiliar; all Spock could make note of regarding it was that it was trained fully on Spock without any distraction or interference. It was keenly sharp and bore more than standard focus.

‘I have already told you my reasons for suggesting the adjustment in sleeping arrangements. That your body temperature is higher than my own did not factor in to this decision.’

Despite the obviousness of his question, Jim did not appear pleased with Spock’s equally obvious answer. He shrugged again and shifted course, yielding to Spock’s logic as his intelligence dictated he must.

‘You have a side in mind?’ Jim asked, this time without looking Spock’s way.

‘I do not see how such a thing would matter.’

‘Well, I like the right,’ Jim said, and took his place there after testing the mattress with both palms.

Spock accepted the left as a matter of course. He had not observed whether Jim had displayed a noted preference for one side or another before. On the previous occasions when they had found cause to share sleeping arrangements, Spock had never given it much thought. Had it been drawn to his attention that a preference was expected, he would doubtless have reasoned that an active sleeper such as Jim—who tossed and rolled and often wound up by morning in an entirely different place from where he had started—would not be affected by which side of the bed he began the night on.

But, try as he might, Spock could not come up with a reasonable excuse for Jim to have falsified the information, either.

When they had settled, Spock reached across the distance between them and took Jim’s hand, thumb at the center of his palm. He heard rather than saw Jim’s intake of breath, felt a stillness settle into his limbs as Spock drew the appendage in question close. Jim had spent enough time on Vulcan to understand that Spock would not engage in needless contact. This knowledge benefited them both, as it precluded the need for superfluous questions.

Jim’s index and middle fingers were red where they had been shocked, the skin faintly damp from being stuck into Jim’s mouth out of some vestigial instinct Spock could not fathom. Spock touched his fingers to Jim’s, which twitched under the contact. Perhaps there was still some minuscule measure of excess electrical energy influencing his impulses.

Spock did not like to speculate. The thermostat was doing its job with considerable efficiency, as the air in the room was approaching an arid quality that was not natural to the region. Jim swallowed, as if he too had sensed the dryness.

His fingers twitched against Spock’s once more; this time, the motion was deliberate. Spock understood that perhaps his intent had been vague or misunderstood. It was therefore his responsibility to clarify, though when he opened his mouth to do so Jim drew the tips of his fingers down the underside of Spock’s fingers. This gesture caused Spock’s vocal cords to constrict, preventing him from achieving the necessary grounding to issue correction.

The error was not a troubling one.

‘Huh.’ Jim breathed out, though there was no accompanying puff of condensation. The room was too hot for that. ‘Thought you might shock me too.’

‘My biological makeup is suitable as a conduit for electrical discharge but not as the source of one itself,’ Spock said. ‘Evidently you have been neglecting certain areas in your studies.’

‘Probably.’ Jim mouthed the word before he said it, lips moving silently as he felt his way over the round vowels. It was unlikely that the shock had done any real damage, but he was behaving with uncharacteristic pliancy.

Jim was especially defensive about his studies, a fact of which Spock had been given numerous opportunities to make note.

‘You will not require medical attention,’ Spock said, in an attempt to draw attention to his initial purpose in taking Jim’s hand. He could feel the tentative scrape of Jim’s blunt nails over his palm, tracing the lines in his skin. There was no reason to have allowed the contact to spread and become unfocused. Spock’s conclusion had been simple enough to draw and lingering merely obscured his intentions.

Jim could be very persuasive—yet the care he took to make his presence unobtrusive had an appeal all its own. There was something to be said for the familiarity of sharing company with someone who understood Spock’s needs well enough to cater to them.

It would not have been accurate to say that Spock missed Vulcan. He was as much human as he was Vulcan, after all, and Earth was just as much his home. But it was also undeniable that certain traits had been nurtured in him from a certain age and that these were on a basic level incompatible with many Earth traditions. The Starfleet campus was noisy and bright, its cadets careless of who they pushed past in the halls. Spock would not pinpoint any one irritant as worthy of outright complaint—they were all small enough to escape comment—but absent them, he could not deny a certain peace had settled over him.

Jim’s company was more than acceptable.

Also, the temperature was currently more pleasant than it had been in some time and the sacrifice Jim had made to achieve it relatively minor. Spock turned Jim’s hand over in his; the inspection of the irritated area had already been concluded but Jim had sustained the injury in an attempt to secure Spock’s comfort.

Though Spock had not asked for this concession or complained at any point about the weather, Jim had known what he was accustomed to. He had sought to provide it. Mother would have found this sensible act commendable—and perhaps it was.

After all, this marked Spock’s first Earth winter and, even in the south where snowstorms were generally less common, it was a far cry from Vulcan’s climate.

‘I was not cranky,’ Spock clarified, assuming Jim’s powers of inference would allow him to understand the reference. ‘However, the added heat is not unwelcome.’

‘Yeah, well, s’been pretty cold.’ Jim did not retract his hand; Spock did not notice his other, unharmed fingers until they rested at his side, encouraging Spock to move closer rather than tugging him insistently into place. ‘Like I said—body heat. It’d be OK if you wanted to use me for it; that’s all I’m saying.’

That was not all Jim had said and likely not all he would say. Nonetheless, after brief consideration, Spock found this equally acceptable. Under the blankets, with Jim’s warmth and the thermostat significantly raised, the heat was swaddling. Jim yawned and pressed closer. He maintained his palm’s contact with Jim’s, rubbing up and down until at last he slid his fingers forward to interlace them with Spock’s.

The rhythm of his heartbeat and the warm patterns of his breath were close. He would soon be too hot; Spock’s free hand, which was comparatively cool, found a stretch of bare skin along his left side under his ribs, which caused Jim’s chest to shift and shudder.

‘S’fine,’ he said, before Spock had a chance to inquire after the reaction. ‘Just...wasn’t expecting it, but it’s, it’s just right. Thanks, Spock.’

‘It was logical,’ Spock replied.

Jim released a breath against the curve of Spock’s throat where it met with his shoulder and shook his head. Spock avoided the tickle of his hair, but barely. ‘OK.’ Jim’s voice was low and subtle, an unusual quality, and deeply murmured. ‘OK, Spock.’

Spock recalled a time when he had repeated a word in close proximity. It had been hey then; it was OK now. If the repetition set him at ease then Spock could not correct it, though he wondered at its usefulness.

‘Can’t get cozy like this back at the dorms,’ Jim added. ‘It’s cool that we came, right?’

‘It is indeed cool—though I suspect you were not referring to the temperature.’

Jim’s laugh caught in his throat. He shook his head again and this time, his hair tickled Spock’s chin. ‘I meant if it’s all right—you weren’t planning on studying the entire break or anything, were you?’

‘The location is of no consequence to that endeavor. I studied earlier, while you gave McCoy difficulty in the barnyard area.’

‘They’ve got horses, Spock. They’re incredible—beautiful animals.’

‘Your appreciation, no doubt, stems from your natural inclination toward anything you can ride.’ Spock waited and felt the corners of Jim’s mouth lift in a smile. It had not been a joke per se, but it had not been made as an accusation, either. With Jim’s hand tightly pressed to Spock’s, he could feel the flush of amusement—and the affection that both accompanied and inspired that amusement.

‘Bones said he’d teach me. ‘Course, then he said something about wrapping me up in foam and cotton padding so that when I fell off, I’d bounce more than I broke. That guy. Always expects the worst.’

‘It is not unwise, as a student of medicine, to seek primarily to prevent injury whenever possible as another form of treatment.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim said, ‘whatever, but I can’t ride a horse with foam pads taped all over me.’

‘That remains to be seen. As I have little expertise in that particular area, I would have to defer to McCoy’s...judgment.’

‘You’re gonna let him treat me like fine china, huh, Spock?’

‘He has more experience with the animals in question than either you or I do,’ Spock replied. ‘He would know the dangers far better despite his tendency to exaggerate.’

Tendency to exaggerate.’ There was still fondness, tenderness, even pleasure in Jim’s touch, a heat that ran parallel to the simpler, physical manifestation on Jim’s skin. ‘Hey, with your tendency for understatement, it’s like I oughta keep the two of you around. Balance each other out. Get some perspective from both sides of the fence.’

‘The time you have spent in McCoy’s company has colored your vocabulary with extraneous metaphor,’ Spock said.

‘And you say you’re not cranky,’ Jim replied.

Spock blinked.

‘Never mind,’ Jim continued. ‘Just let me enjoy the moment, OK?’

‘Were you not enjoying it before? If an adjustment is required—’

‘No, Spock.’ Jim’s voice had a new, restless, rough quality to it. It was deep and warm, hotter than his body, pressed to Spock’s chest. ‘Just—’ He bit off the word and truncated the sentence with a sigh that resembled a grunt of exertion. Spock felt the anxiety of his unexpected frustration and discovered the pinch in his own brow meant that he was frowning in response.

‘Are you unwell?’ Spock asked.

‘Yeah,’ Jim said. ‘Possibly dying.’

‘Your use of hyperbole in this case is not necessary,’ Spock said, ‘nor is it appreciated.’

‘Mm.’ This, too, Jim managed to make sound like an expression of pained exasperation, as though suffering could be worn at whim, or undertaken lightly. ‘That’s ‘cause you worry about me, huh?’

‘The question is redundant,’ Spock replied. It was difficult to observe the whole of Jim’s expression in the dark and therefore Spock could not make a thorough appraisal of his intent. ‘...As you have already ascertained the truth of that statement for yourself.’

‘Yeah.’ In this case, the repetition appeared to have a calming effect on Jim. ‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘You do not need to guess.’

Among Vulcans, this would have been extraneous emphasis. But one of the ways in which Jim was and continued to be most human was his persistent desire to seek out the comfort of vocalized facts. He preferred to hear a thing said aloud rather than to trust the simplicity of unspoken bonds.

It did not trouble Spock to indulge Jim in this way. He understood that the effort went in both directions—that there were Vulcan traditions to which Jim had adhered in order to better serve Spock’s interests and comfort despite how unnatural they were to him. They were an effective pair because of this. In his time on Vulcan, Spock had not found the opportunity to nurture many strong telepathic bonds with his peers, but it was obvious to him now that the time doing so with Jim had not been spent in vain.

Jim’s humanity provided a bond of a very different nature; Spock’s understanding of his own human half was all the stronger because of it.

Their proximity meant that Spock could feel the tension begin to seep from Jim’s body as his words settled, muscles and tendons relaxing, the weight of him increasing as he no long sought to brace himself above—or away from—Spock’s form. Jim did not find the practice of guessing to be distasteful—indeed, there were multiple instances in which he appeared to enjoy it—but it was apparent from his reaction in this area that he preferred the reassurance of certainty.

Spock experienced the irrational idea that Jim indulged in so many dangerous undertakings simply because he enjoyed the reaction it stimulated in others: one of chastisement, coupled with expressions of affection and concern.

This, Spock understood, was common in a specimen who had grown up with a deprivation of the usual attention and affection that an average human child would expect during his or her formative years. Jim’s time on Vulcan had been extensive and he had been well-cared for, but Spock understood that he had experienced over nine years of his prior life elsewhere, resulting in a markedly tumultuous personality and a desire to tailor all his vehicles toward speed over safety.

Spock traced his fingers along the hollows between Jim’s ribs, reminding him of their proximity, that they were close. It was a contradiction to his own sensory perception—Spock could not ignore a touch any more than Jim could ignore the threat of a no-win scenario simulation—but on occasion Spock had noted that movement would reassure Jim when a still touch did not.

If additional security was required in this situation, Spock found himself willing to provide it. In Mother’s absence, he could do no less.

‘I will research the nature of these horses,’ Spock informed Jim, ‘in an attempt to understand their true danger.’

‘They can’t be as bad as a hoverbike,’ Jim insisted. His breath on Spock’s neck was faint but present.

‘This statement does not assure me of anything, other than to bring into question the relative safety of your hoverbike,’ Spock replied.

He felt Jim’s grin before Jim’s answer. ‘And you thought the couch was a deathtrap.’

‘Perhaps McCoy should have sought to wrap you in protective covering before retiring to bed. It is an oversight that he should presume you cannot find equally vigorous activity within as you do without.’

‘Like all the squeaking wouldn’t drive you crazy.’ Rather than freeing a hand, Jim turned his face to smother an incipient yawn against Spock’s clavicle. Spock felt him linger there, a central warmth pulsing through the fabric of his shirt.

‘As, to this point, living with you has not yet ‘driven me crazy’, it stands to reason that such a state of being will not ever come to pass.’

‘Uh-uh.’ Jim punctuated the overly juvenile grunt of insistence with a shake of his head. ‘I’ve got plenty more tricks up my sleeve.’

Spock slid his fingers over the back of Jim’s hand, pushing the tips past the hem in question. There was only skin there, a pulse, and a shiver of fair, soft hair scattered across the flesh. Spock could feel Jim’s abdominal muscles contracting as he gripped a handful of Spock’s own sleeve, fabric bunching in his hold.

‘Didn’t find anything, huh?’

‘Nothing of note.’

‘Maybe it’s not something you can feel. Not even with those Vulcan fingers of yours.’ Never to be outdone, Jim mirrored Spock’s explorative motion, managing to wiggle his fingers underneath the hem of Spock’s sleeve to the last knuckle before encircling his wrist. The search lasted longer than Spock estimated was required and Jim, directionless, covered the same ground multiple times without obvious purpose. It reminded Spock of the way in which Jim had learned to pet I-Chaya: not methodically but still thoughtfully, returning to familiar spots impulsively while somehow deriving lasting, accurate results. ‘’Cause I know you’ve got more up your sleeves, yourself.’

‘You have found nothing in the aforementioned location,’ Spock replied. ‘There is no way to make a claim of that nature sincerely.’

‘Sure there is.’ Jim had pushed the fabric of Spock’s sleeve up to his elbow; beneath the covers and with the length of Jim’s arm pressed skin upon skin, Spock did not regret the loss of insulation, as it had been replaced with a superior heat. ‘I can feel it with my fingers, even if they can’t do half the things yours can.’

It was a riddle, the sort that required meditative contemplation, answers that were theoretical rather than practical.

‘Am I to understand that your meaning implies there is more to me than ‘meets the eye’?’ Spock asked.

Despite his warmth, Jim shivered. ‘Yeah,’ he said.

Spock sensed a great deal from him—but as he was human, the data was scattered and disorganized. Spock memorized every inch without composing a ‘bigger picture’, Jim’s palm cupping his elbow throughout the night.

*

Chapter Text

There was plenty Jim wasn’t bringing up about the trip to Georgia just like there were plenty of people he wasn’t bringing it up with. As far as Bones was concerned, Jim hadn’t said a thing about his dad because Bones hadn’t said a thing about him first—and if Bones hadn’t been so dead set on looking cranky his whole life, he might’ve managed to look grateful.

Years on Vulcan had taught Jim, however unwilling he was to learn it, that what you didn’t say could be just as important as what you did. More frustrating, less obvious, never commended or praised—but important all the same.

As far as Spock was concerned, Jim just had to trust without promises, have faith despite being constantly reminded that faith was illogical, and stop thinking about the feeling of cool fingers brushing over his skin, along an inoculation scar between his ribs or a fading bruise on his wrist bone.

Carpals. Jim knew that one from quizzing Bones on the long ride back home—long because it took hours to convince Spock that answering before Bones could wasn’t helping him study but making him murderous, and no, the two weren’t one and the same no matter how little Bones’ expression seemed to change from one state to the next.

Then there was Uhura, who wanted to know how it went and wouldn’t take Southern as cherry pie for an answer; there was Scotty, who laughed as Jim described to Sulu his feats of strength involving Christmas tree cutting, dragging, and erecting; there was Sulu himself, who managed to make Spock look as alarmed as he ever did at the realization that no gifts had been exchanged, contrary to the demands of tradition, and also that the common practice during the season was to leave a plate of cookies and a glass of dairy under the tree for a ‘jolly old elf’ in a red suit traveling at warp by means of mythological Rangifer tarandus.

‘Such a thing is not possible,’ Spock’d replied, after pausing briefly to make the calculations.

‘And now you see who stole Christmas this year,’ Bones’d added. ‘Turns out it was this green-blooded Grinch.’

Bones was still sore about Spock knowing all the answers to Jim’s questions from a study PADD, Jim had to explain. It wasn’t anything personal. Uhura’d laughed and said she could see it and everything settled, as far away from Bones’ farm and his horses and the wind carding through Jim’s hair, and four incredible, infuriating nights he’d spent curled up with Spock’s hands on his skin.

Eventually, he told himself, he was gonna have to accept what was and what wasn’t. But in favor of that no-win scenario, he went back to the Kobayashi-Maru as his preferred form of extracurricular torture.

It was while he was studying up on the history of the exam that he met Lenore, drawn to the same corner of the research library, already on the computer Jim’d been using when he got there between classes. She was majoring in history of Federation planets with a specialty in the arts. Nothing special, she claimed, but Starfleet needed experts in every field and she’d traveled as a kid.

That was all Jim could get out of her before she went back to her terminal—no last name, no favorite foods, nothing.

It wasn’t a big deal or anything. They were supposedto be studying.

Jim just didn’t do well with being ignored.

She was there the next day, then the day after that. On the fourth day Jim brought Sulu along just to prove he wasn’t seeing things and then she opened up, suddenly all interested in his fencing form, and would he ever consider playing Tybalt in a theatrical production of Romeo and Juliet for the Cardassian embassy?

‘I’m pretty sure the words ‘tarry, rash wanton’ were used,’ Jim said later, recounting the whole thing to Spock.

‘That is A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ was Spock’s entire contribution to the conversation at large.

It was like the break had made him miss school as opposed to him enjoying the time off like anyone with a sane mind in their head would’ve. He was studying twice as hard as ever, which had been fine on the farm when Jim could still look forward to their nights together, but they were back to antithetical sleeping patterns with assigned roommates.

Hendorff wasn’t a bad guy, but he sure wasn’t about to let Jim kick him out of the bottom bunk so he and his Vulcan best friend could sleep there.

Even in Jim’s head, it didn’t sound great.

So Jim was left with the Lenore puzzle to throw himself against instead of the Spock puzzle for a change. Under other circumstances he might not’ve bothered, except that when they studied—together but not together, Jim at one end of the table and her on the computer on the other—he could feel her eyes on him over the edge of the terminal. And if Jim was a sucker for anything, it was being paid attention to andignored simultaneously.

That was probably a Vulcan thing.

He started slow, with simple, direct questions. On the fifth day he got in early and snagged the computer so that when Lenore showed up he could turn around and act all surprised. The look she gave him was like she was thinking about incinerating him where he stood.

Fortunately the history majors didn’t get phaser training.

‘All right, here’s the deal.’ Jim braced his hands on his thighs in an open, reasonable posture. ‘I’ll give you the terminal if you answer me one thing: what’s Sulu got that I don’t?’

Lenore drew herself up, looking down her short nose at Jim. She was taller than he’d thought.

Elegant form,’ she replied.

‘Sure, but I can beat him at fencing.’ Jim got out of the chair because he’d said he was gonna. Vulcans didn’t lie but Jim didn’t go back on his word. ‘Not every time, but pretty much every time. Just ask anyone.’

‘It is not merely the victory that counts, James Kirk, but the form that your victory takes.’

‘Whoa now,’ Jim said, before she could put on her headphones. ‘I don’t mind the full name treatment, but it’s Jim.’

‘Jim.’ Lenore’s mouth puckered, like they’d been messing with the lemonade recipe in mess again. ‘Hardly a regal title.’

‘Well, I’m hardly a regal guy,’ Jim said, even though it felt like she’d talked him into insulting himself somehow. It was still true.

‘A likely appraisal.’ That was definitely an insult, but Lenore didn’t look as sour as she had before. Her hands lingered at the headphones around her neck, nails painted Engineering red.  ‘If you require use of this specific terminal, you could have said so without resorting to trickery.’

‘What about getting you to talk to me?’ Jim asked.

Lenore thought it over.

‘Manipulative, but an efficient means to an end.’

‘Anybody ever tell you you know how to talk like a Vulcan?’ Jim asked.

‘Not lately,’ Lenore replied. Then she put the headphones on and turned her face to the computer screen, and Jim worked harder than ever to catch her looking at him. He almost succeeded, more than a few times, but she was a step too quick for him.

It figured. After all, she was treating their conversations the way Sulu treated fencing.

Jim managed to get her to join him for lunch on the twelfth day after a few conversations in which he proved, if nothing else, he could at least keep up with what she was laying down.

‘Get thee to the cafeteria,’ he recalled saying, and saw her nearly smile for the first time. At least she hadn’t raised an eyebrow at him.

‘The general trouble with people who quote Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare,’ she’d replied, ‘is that they sacrifice form for function. If they think it sounds good, or clever, or—God forbid—humorous, then they’re almost universally willing to sacrifice the meaning behind the half-familiar line completely, just so they can sound charming.’

Jim hadn’t missed a beat. Lenore might’ve been smart, but he’d been raised around Vulcans. ‘So... I guess you could say I’ve just been hoist with my own petard?’ he’d asked.

That was when he saw what her smile really looked like. She joined him for lunch the next day—and even though she paid Sulu three times the amount of attention she paid Jim, she was sitting next to him, and it was more progress than Jim’d made lately with Spock or the Kobayashi Maru.

His petards, as it were. Or his hoisting. Maybe he didn’t understand the phrase as well as he’d bluffed understanding it.  

‘Anybody ever tell you, Kirk,’ Captain Pike asked, catching him on his way back from the library somewhere long past local midnight that evening, ‘that the things that just so happen to recommend you the most are also the things that’ll come back around to bite you where it hurts the most?’

‘Hoist with my own petard,’ Jim replied, then straightened. ‘Sir.’

‘You’ve got to learn when to let a thing go, Kirk,’ Captain Pike added, though Jim detected a real twinkle in his eye. No matter who a person was, they couldn’t help at least wanting to laugh a little at the word petard. ‘About as important as learning when to hold on—just the other side of the coin. You know, you study almost as much as the Vulcan you came in with. Sarek’s son. And I’m not sure if you should take that as a compliment.’

‘Maybe not.’ Jim grinned. ‘But I’ll take it all the same.’

Pike let him go without further insight and Jim wondered if he shouldn’t use the excess charge of energy and refreshed ambition the run-in had given him to study up for a few more hours—when he caught sight of lamplight falling on blonde hair down the path, a familiar snub nose turning in his direction.

‘Now I know you’re following me,’ Jim said. ‘No—I missed my cue. Should’ve been a but soft, what light, right?’

Lenore stepped out of the lamplight and into the shadows to approach him. ‘Hardly. I’m a little too old now to be playing Juliet, I’m afraid. And, as roles go, I’ve always considered it thankless at best. Too much innocence.’

Jim blinked. ‘...Okay. Sure. Why not try Romeo on for size?’

‘Because it’s never been my favorite of the tragedies.’ Lenore stepped closer. ‘Walk me back to my dormitory, James Kirk? Tonight, my stars shine darkly over me.’

Jim looked up at them, always a familiar sight; he was grinning when he looked down. ‘Even though I don’t have elegant form like Sulu?’

Lenore laughed. ‘If you’re going to hold that against me, Jim,’ she said, ‘then I’m going to have to be so much more careful about what I say to you in the future.’

‘After you,’ Jim said, with a pre-match flourish he’d learned from Sulu himself.  

Lenore led the way across campus and Jim followed; she didn’t have to say much before Jim was explaining the Kobayashi Maru situation to her, since it was the reason why they’d run into each other in the research room in the first place. ‘Oh, but the answer’s there,’ he added. ‘The more everybody says it isn’t, the more I know they’re—what was it? Protesting too much. No, no; it’s just waiting for somebody to crack the code. There’s a solution and it looks like I’m gonna have to be the one to find it.’

‘Pride goeth,’ Lenore said. ‘Well, that’s what some say, anyway.’

‘And you?’ Jim caught her in profile; she was biting her bottom lip. ‘What do you say?’

‘Be not afraid of greatness,’ Lenore replied.

‘Yeah, I’ll thrust greatness upon that damn simulation,’ Jim said. ‘And that’s a promise.’

‘It was illuminating, Jim.’ Lenore paused. ‘Ah—here comes your Vulcan friend.’

That wasn’t a quote from any Shakespeare passages Jim knew. Sure enough, there was a third person approaching them along the illuminated pathway, a familiar silhouette in cadet reds. There was no one else Jim knew with that posture—not Sulu when he was fencing or Lenore with her training and poise. Nothing compared to good old-fashioned Vulcan rigidity.

Jim’s pulse swooped; the resulting adrenaline hit him in the gut, like maybe double portions of the cafeteria’s infamous meatloaf hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

‘Jim.’

‘Hey,’ Jim said. He lifted a hand to wave, pleased it wasn’t shaking.

He wasn’t thatfar gone yet. Had to stay grateful for the little things.

Still, it wasn’t like Spock to be out wandering the campus at night—or even during class hours if he didn’t have a lecture hall to attend. Heat flushed Jim’s cheeks, diffusing down his neck and across his skin as it occurred to him that Spock could’ve been out here because Jim was, because he’d been looking for him. It wasn’t exactly the most rational conclusion but Jim didn’t have to worry about that on Earth. They were on his home turf, which meant he could be as irrational as he wanted—since it was mostly Jim who’d suffer the consequences of that irrationality, anyway.

‘You did not return for study at the designated hour,’ Spock said, by way of explanation.

‘Oh,’ Jim replied, which was no kind of explanation at all.

‘Well-met by moonlight,’ Lenore added, casting a blue glance Jim’s way just to show him how the experts riffed on a classic. ‘Jim is walking me to my door.’

‘I was not aware that this was a task which required two,’ Spock said.

‘One to walk and one to be walked,’ Lenore replied. ‘Naturally.’

Jim was gonna get a headache listening to them, the same headache he’d picked up while reading Shakespeare. There was a part of him that wanted to let them keep going and see where it led, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to indulge that. It wasn’t like Spock’s behavior was so surprising, either; Jim had just never seen it cast in this light, under the walkway lamps with their steady fluorescent glow after dark. He seemed almost agitated, which was a mental leap even Jim wouldn’t take.

Still, it was fascinating—to borrow one of Spock’s favorite words.

‘Figured I’d take a break from studying,’ Jim said, when it became obvious he was gonna have to defuse the situation. It was his fault, in a roundabout way—if Spock had come looking for him. Jim hadn’t missed their usual thing deliberately—he’d just lost track of time without giving much thought to how Spock might’ve adjusted himself around the routine. ‘Guess I forgot to mention.’

‘That much,’ Spock said, ‘is evident.’

The temperature dropped about twelve degrees. Lenore must’ve felt it too, since she slipped her arm through Jim’s like she needed him to shield her from the rough winds shaking her darling buds of May.

‘I’ll come by later, Spock,’ Jim said. ‘Or tomorrow. All right?’

‘It is not my approval which should dictate the parameters of your schedule,’ Spock replied.

Somehow, it was always worse when he dodged an answer than when he gave Jim a straightforward retort, however blunt it might’ve been. Even if he’d just admitted that he was pissed he had to come looking for Jim in the middle of the night, it would’ve been better—less foreboding—than pretending nothing was wrong at all.

Either way, it wasn’t a conversation Jim wanted to hash out in front of Lenore.

‘OK then,’ Jim said. ‘I’ll...just, later, Spock—I’ll see you later.’

It was vague enough that he didn’t have to pick a time; vague enough that Spock wouldn’t be able to latch onto anything specific to complain about. Jim should’ve felt like a debate champ. Mostly, he just felt tired.

But that had as much to do with staying out late poring over Kobayashi Maru records as it did with striving to maintain the status quo, the balance Jim and Spock both knew too well, its infrastructure crumbling under the weight of a Federation institution, their futures, and their separate but connected lives.

‘I promise I’ll take good care of him, Spock,’ Lenore added.

Spock had already turned to leave. Jim forced himself not to stare after him.

‘He’s not big on assurances,’ he explained.

‘And yet you said you reminded me of a Vulcan, the first time we spoke,’ Lenore said. ‘How long ago it all seems now. I suppose I should be flattered?’

‘Yeah.’ Jim swallowed, tongue numb for new reasons. ‘Some days it’s a compliment, anyway.’

*

Chapter Text

For some reason—Spock would not implicate instinct as a factor in his determination, as he had never acted on something as precarious and untrustworthy before—the presence of Jim’s new acquaintance Lenore was troublesome. Spock could not place the reason why; there was no logical explanation for his reaction.

Yet the more he attempted to put the matter from his mind, the more he found himself besieged by the facts:

That he could not ignore the effect, however irrational; that Jim was spending much of his time discussing his interests, specifically the Kobayashi Maru, with the young woman in question, when he would have otherwise discussed them with Spock; that it had been five days since the last time he and Spock had been alone together with no other company to provide distraction; that Lenore’s measured, probing gazes all too often chose Jim as their central point of focus; that it appeared she was looking to find something; that it appeared Jim did not mind if she were to find it, without first knowing what it was she sought.

It did not sidetrack Spock from his studies. He was accustomed to expending mental energies on more than one problem at once. His Vulcan training was useful to him, as was the meditation he had learned during the time of his early education as an integral part of that education.

It was the Vulcan side of him that sought to order and to regulate the interruptions that threatened the chaos of uncertainty.

And, he at last acknowledged, it was the human side of him that could not be ignored. The chaos was a true factor as well as being a rogue element. It would have to be faced and understood.

It concerned Jim. Therefore, it was important.

Despite being more than capable of segmenting his intellectual pursuits, McCoy—in a rare moment of diagnostic insight—managed to note, over an afternoon meal while Sulu and Jim were conducting a fake fencing bout with invisible swords for Lenore and Uhura’s enjoyment, that, to coin local parlance, ‘something was up’.

‘You’re looking even more like you just lost your ball in the high weeds than usual, Spock,’ McCoy said, initiating conversation despite the fact that Spock had not paid him any attention beyond the customary greeting at the beginning of their meal. And even that much had been, as always, a concession—something Spock had learned was important to Jim primarily, to others secondarily, and would allow for a smoother, less complicated period of required socialization.

Spock still did not intend ever to succumb to the practice of small talk—but proper adherence to the exchange of anticipated greeting phrases was not an unwise venture.

Had Spock not greeted Leonard McCoy, there would have been a great deal of commentary made upon the matter, and the possibility of enjoying a quiet meal would have been a mere point seven percent.

‘Your comparison eludes me,’ Spock replied.

‘I mean, you’ve been staring at Jim for days like a fox locked out of the hen house,’ McCoy explained without, technically, explaining a thing. If his purpose was to be confounding, then he had succeeded admirably.

Spock weighed the benefits of responding further versus maintaining silence in the hopes that McCoy would tire of reciting colloquial poetry in front of an unmoved, non-responsive audience.

Either option had few merits and even fewer desirable outcomes.

‘You two aren’t—hell, you’re not fighting or anything, are you?’ McCoy continued. Perhaps an audience of any kind was not something he required in order to converse to his personality’s content. ‘Not that I want to know what fighting with a Vulcan’s like. Shivers up and down my spine when I so much as think about it. What’d he do—insult logic in front of you?’

‘I am not displeased with Jim,’ Spock replied.

McCoy snorted. ‘Coulda fooled me.’

‘Though it was not my intent to ‘fool’ you,’ Spock said, ‘due to your distracted nature, I do not believe the task would be difficult.’

‘Anybody ever tell you you’re meaner’n two cats fighting in a gunny sack?’

‘It should be obvious that this is the first time I have been acquainted with the expression.’

‘Yeah, well—it suits you to a V,’ McCoy said. For a moment, he appeared self-satisfied, if not outright smug. Something about his turn-of-phrase had pleased him, although the pleasure did not remain present for long. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were sulking like Scotty the time he forgot Uhura’s birthday while he was working on that bedeviled warp equation of his.’

‘Montgomery Scott and Uhura are, I have been informed, in a relationship of distinct parameters, defined amongst humans as romantic,’ Spock replied. ‘These are not the parameters of the relationship I share with Jim.’

‘Damn right they’re not,’ Bones said. ‘Couldn’t picture what that’d be like, either—and, as God is my witness, I hope to high hell I never have to picture it.’

‘Vulcans are private when it comes to matters both personal and biological.’ Spock maintained a clinical tone of voice in the face of the multitude of expressions currently at war on McCoy’s features. It would not due to agitate him beyond his ability to control himself. ‘It is unlikely you will ever be possessed of the details necessary to imagine how they conduct themselves sexually.’

‘Spock,’ McCoy said, ‘do me a favor, would you?’

‘I cannot promise one until I have been informed of its requirements.’

‘Don’t ever use that word with me regarding Vulcans again.’

‘I cannot foresee an eventuality that would deem it necessary, although I cannot rule out the possibility altogether,’ Spock said. ‘However, as you are intending a career as a medical doctor, I do not imagine you would be in a position to rule out any biological topic as distasteful.’

‘This is what I get for being a good Samaritan,’ McCoy muttered. It was evident the comment was not meant for Spock—but as they were yet engaged in conversation, Spock found it sensible to listen anyway. ‘My punishment for trying to reason with a Vulcan.’

‘Have I acted in an unreasonable fashion?’

‘No, I’m sure this was all very logical,’ McCoy replied. ‘But do me a favor and work things out with Jim, would you? It’s downright unnatural seeing the two of you like this. Gives me the heebie jeebies.’

Later, after an extensive period of thorough research, Spock was able to ascertain that there was no disease on Earth or any recorded planet known as the heebie jeebies. He therefore chalked it up to one of McCoy’s colorful colloquial expressions; there was no chance of anyone, Jim especially, contracting a severe case of the heebie jeebies anytime soon.

This left Spock with McCoy’s other proclamation to consider. He was not in any quarrel with Jim of which he was aware; neither had Jim displayed any markers of the aggressive behavior that would indicate he harbored anger toward Spock. Their infrequent conversations were pleasant, if on occasion stilted. There was no value to the claim that they had experienced a disagreement that would cause this unnatural divide, for Spock and Jim had weathered several arguments in the past, all of which had been resolved through mature communication.

This was not the source of Spock’s discomfort. However, if he was exhibiting signs visible enough for McCoy to have not only noted but also commented upon, it would not be fitting to continue as though nothing had changed.

Since the source of the conflict did not lie within Jim himself but rather Spock’s own perceptions surrounding him, he did not consider it obligatory to open a dialogue with Jim regarding the conversation he had shared with McCoy or the behavior that had precipitated it.

Eventually, Spock acknowledged, the need might arise to bring Jim into the fold to present corroborating evidence, but that would be at a later stage than he had currently reached in his preparatory phase of observation and research. It was stimulating to have something to turn his attentions toward—something other than his rudimentary end-of-week coursework and the increasing time Jim devoted to discussing his Kobayashi Maru strategies with Lenore.

Over the following weekend, Spock was given the opportunity to monitor the levels of attention and affection displayed between Uhura and Montgomery Scott. It was, he discovered, surprisingly difficult to discern the distinction of their relationship beyond that of simple yet intimate friendship, such as the one shared by Spock and Jim. There was unnecessary contact—Uhura allowed Scott’s hand to remain on her knee; she put her arm around his shoulders in a loose approximation of the disarming headlock—but Jim had not shied away from similar actions with Spock, despite the necessary exceptions made for his comfort.

An obvious point of difference would have been that Spock and Jim did not indulge in the human pastime of kissing: Uhura once on the cheek when she left the table; Scott on her lips when he arrived.

But, Spock was compelled to amend, they had been significantly more intimate in Vulcan terms—though whether it was Jim’s intent to be so demonstrative or whether luck and instinct had lead him there was less clear.

The acquisition of further data was vital. Spock found a prime opportunity to do so when Scott excused himself from the group; Spock followed him until he had judged the distance sufficient to prevent them from being overhead. The limitations of the human ability to hear were beneficial, though at times Spock’s Vulcan superiority in this sense was likewise detrimental.

‘Ah,’ Scott said, when he noticed Spock’s presence. ‘Did ye want the bathroom first, then?’

‘What is the nature of your relationship with Uhura?’ Spock replied. ‘I will also require your interpretation of the events which lead up to your conclusion and mutual arrangement.’

Scott’s eyes widened. ‘Did she put you up to this? Am I—is this some sort a’test?’

‘Are tests a common practice among humans where relationships are concerned?’

‘Oh, aye.’ Scott still displayed indicators of alarm and uncertainty but simultaneously expressed what Spock had come to realize was a form of understanding and commiseration. ‘And ye’d think we’d be past all that by now and in this day and age, what with bein’ able to scramble all our particles from one place and re-scramble them in another, but no. It’s still just as rightly complicated figuring out what’s goin’ on in somebody else’s mysterious, wonderful, frustratin’ brain as it ever has been—and ever will be, I’d wager. ...Though, if ye don’t mind me sayin’ so, ye don’t seem like much of the bettin’ type, Spock.’

‘Naturally,’ Spock said, ‘it would be impossible for someone like you to sense another individual’s thoughts. You are human; humans have never been telepathically inclined.’

Scott shook his head. ‘As with most things, tha’s a blessing and a curse, and no mistake.’

‘Nonetheless, you have failed to answer my query. Shall I repeat it, or do you still recall the specifics?’

At that, Scott drew himself to his full height—which wasn’t considerable. Spock ignored the element of human physical posturing while awaiting the evidence he sought to collect. ‘I’ll have you know I’ve a scientific mind, and I’m capable of remembering even the smallest of details when it comes to— You were askin’ me about the nature of my relationship with Uhura?’ Scott’s eyes narrowed. ‘Now, if she didn’t ask you to ask me, then why would tha’ be?’

‘I understand that sequential preference is shown in these matters of interpersonal inquiry, Mr. Scott,’ Spock said. ‘As I have posed my question first, you are expected to answer it before I am compelled to reply to yours.’

‘Mary, mother of—’ Scott steadied himself. He was nervous, for reasons Spock could not fathom; after all, he had reassured Scott that this was not a test and, even if it had been, there would be no official record of his scores, thereby allowing for a relaxed test-taking environment. ‘Well, it’s a curious question comin’ from you, tha’s for certain. But if ye’re lookin’ for a simple answer, I can tell ye now, Spock: there isn’t one.’

‘Explain.’

‘Well, tha’s just it, isn’t it? There’s an equation for almost everything out there under plenty o’ suns, but when it comes to mutual attraction— The thing is, Spock, calling it chemistry is awfully misleading. Chemistry! If only it was. I’d be a damn sight better at it from th’ start.’

Spock waited. He would not repeat himself.

‘Ah—preserve me—I cannae explain to a Vulcan the birds and the bees,’ Scott said, wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘Tha’s just—well, it’s too much. Can’t ye ask me to come up with a portable warp device or somethin’ sensible?’

‘Am I to conclude that you have no idea as to how you and Uhura came to be involved in a deeper, non-platonic relationship?’ Spock asked.

Scott scoffed. ‘Aye, tha’s exactly what you’re to conclude. I mean—have you seen her? Have ye looked at Uhura lately?’

‘I saw her moments ago,’ Spock replied. ‘We were both at the same table. I greeted the two of you equally so as to acknowledge my recognition of your presence and avoid giving slight by showing preferential treatment to one of you over the other.’

‘Now ye’re startin’ to give me the willies,’ Scott said.

‘Are they related to the heebie jeebies?’ Spock asked. ‘If so, I must inform you now, they are not a true disease.’

Scott pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and his forefinger. ‘Ah—I’m nae gonna be proud of sayin’ this later, but it’s gettin’ to be critical. Spock, if ye’re nae gonna use the facilities, d’you mind if I take a piss?’

‘Feel free,’ Spock replied. ‘I will wait for you here.’

Scott excused himself, glancing no fewer than four times over his shoulder at Spock as he departed. Spock folded his hands behind his back and did as he had indicated; he was there when Scott reappeared after his use of the facilities.

‘Ye weren’t lyin’. Ye really did wait for me here.’

‘Vulcans do not lie,’ Spock informed him.

‘I thought about it in there,’ Scott continued. ‘Your question, tha’ is. Well, about that, and plenty of other things, too, such as how I’m still not sure this little conversation is actually happening, but all I can say is: it was perfectly natural. I had my fair share of muck-ups—still do, I’d say—but when is it ever easy to see eye to eye with someone? In fact, it’s th’way we don’t see eye to eye that makes things interesting. Fillin’ in for what the other cannae see... As for how it started, well—Uhura asked me to have lunch with her, an’ how could I say no to an invitation like that? I enjoyed her company; she tolerated mine... She even listened when I went on about things that’d put anyone else t’sleep! And when I realized she wanted to be close to me even after all tha’... Well, I couldn’t let her go, now could I? I’d never been tha’ comfortable with anyone else, not in my life.’

‘Despite the occasional unnecessary detour, your information has proved unexpectedly useful,’ Spock said. ‘I believe a display of gratitude is in order.’

‘If ye wanna show me gratitude, ye’ll let me out o’ this conversation.’

Spock stepped aside. Scott left hurriedly. He had, however, given Spock something with which he could work: a list of guidelines for the human relationship, sub-category romantic.

It was, on the surface, not remarkably different from the parameters of his relationship with Jim. Before the advent of Lenore’s conversation and company, Jim had invited Spock to share many meals, several of which had been lunch. In turn, Spock had listened to Jim speak at length on a variety of topics which might have put another, less capable mind into a state of unconsciousness; likewise, Spock knew that Jim was proficient enough to follow a thread of Vulcan logic long past the point when any other individual of his age and bearing would have given up. Time had proven that they were complementary to one another, having natural talents and abilities which counterbalanced each other’s respective characters and concentrations.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, Spock desired Jim’s close proximity. When Scott had spoken in his own way of wishing to keep Uhura close, Spock had understood the sentiment with a flash of uncharacteristic intuition. It was unlikely that he had developed a close enough bond with Montgomery Scott as to have sensed his feelings telepathically. Therefore, Spock was forced to conclude that his understanding was born of a pre-existing knowledge of these same feelings.

It was true that the absence of Jim’s company was what had caused Spock to behave in the way that prompted McCoy’s interference in the first place, thereby spurring this period of research. Jim was an individual of singular character. It was not possible to replicate the effects of his presence with another cadet, no matter how adept they may have been in their fields. Spock understood from his conversation with Scott that this specificity was of great importance to defining one’s feelings in a relationship.

In Spock’s estimation, Jim was irreplaceable. Though he could not fathom a situation in which replacement would be required, Spock knew that even in such an unlikely eventuality, a substitution would not, or could not, be found. Jim’s personality was more unique than even the most delicate of interstellar starship computing programs and his effect on Spock was similarly unique.

It was possible to retain these feelings for a friend. Spock had read and understood a great deal of historical literature and firsthand accounts on the subject of friendship. However, adding the bulk of the additional information he had gathered, it became increasingly clear that Spock’s views on their friendship could not be considered platonic, at least not in the strictest of terms.

It was not common to engage acts of physical intimacy between friends; this was not a behavior perpetuated by either Vulcans or humans, a rare area in which their customs were identical. Furthermore, the act of sharing a bed between two parties well into adolescence without romantic intent was extremely rare.

Jim’s fingers had found Spock’s when they lay in bed together. This behavior was not reliable or constant, but it had occurred on more than one occasion.

Certain cases of codependency may have absolved this intent, but Spock had managed well enough for the three months absent Jim’s presence on Vulcan to understand that he did not requireJim’s presence to function.

He merely desired it.

This, coupled with Spock’s feelings of dissatisfaction over Jim’s interest in spending time with Lenore rather than devoting that time to Spock’s company, indicated at least some degree of personal jealousy.

Any one of these traits on their own might have been applied to a close friendship, but in confluence, they tipped the balance of that definition.

Thus, without forewarning or foreknowledge, it appeared that Spock and Jim had entered into a romantic relationship with one another.

Since Spock had not been aware of this development—though the evidence as it stood now was plain as day—it was only reasonable to assume that Jim, too, was operating under an equivalent confusion. He had not mentioned it to Spock, after all, nor had he mentioned it to anyone else, as Montgomery Scott did regularly in regards to his relationship status with Uhura.

It therefore fell to Spock, as the older of the two, to help Jim come to the realization on his own, that he might make an informed decision about the sort of association he wished to maintain. By Spock’s understanding of Scott’s experience, the simplest approach was to invite Jim for a meal—preferably lunch.

This proved more difficult than it should have for such a mundane social occurrence, not to mention one with which Spock and Jim had ample familiarity and past precedent.

The first time Spock made a suggestion of the joint experience, Jim exhibited remorse at being unable to accept the offer. ‘Because, seriously, I’m this close to cracking it, Spock,’ he said, briefly touching Spock on the shoulder. The warmth of his hand and its presence, its weight, its inconsistent constancy in Spock’s life, had taken on new meaning—as Spock had acquired a deeper understanding of its context since the last time Jim’s fingers had rested upon any part of his body. Whether or not there was cloth standing between their skin was somehow inconsequential. ‘The Kobyashi Maru—Lenore’s got this lead and I’ve gotta—tomorrow, maybe? Yeah, Spock, I’ll see you tomorrow.’

Spock watched him race off; he kept his hands folded behind his back. In fact, the only person for whom he did not maintain this position was JIm and this, too, he was forced to reevaluate within the restructured framework of meaning and implication. A shift in context had transformed all that he had taken for granted, as a shift in context so often could.

It was possible that the only person whom Spock trusted deeply enough—with whom he felt most comfortably intimate—to reveal the essence, the very site of all his expression, was Jim and Jim alone.

This suggested a depth of confidence that was, for any Vulcan, the finest intimacy of all.

Spock approached Jim a second time on the following day, as they had agreed upon, only to discover Jim reacting not with enthusiasm or even reluctant acquiescence, but with outright chagrin.

Damn it,’ he said, and tugged at the collar of his red cadet uniform coat. ‘I promised you I’d—except I’ve got to check up with Captain Pike on this thing I learned with Lenore yesterday because I’m onto something now, I can feel it in my bones, Spock. In my blood.’

‘Are you experiencing another of your allergic reactions?’ Spock asked.

Here was another indicator of his involvement: he was concerned for Jim’s well-being to an extent that had at times gone past the point of friendship. His hand on Jim’s chest and over his heart when Jim indicated that was the locus of his suffering was verification of that fact. It was not something Leonard McCoy, as a medical assistant, had offered.

It was not, in point of fact, logical—nor was it logical to think of it during a simple conversation regarding the terms and conditions of a lunchtime ‘date’.

‘No excuse this time,’ Jim replied. ‘Tomorrow, definitely, okay? You can hold me to it.’

Spock considered, for the rest of that afternoon, the prospect of holding Jim to it—or, more specifically, the tangentially related prospect of holding Jim at all.

That consideration was not unpleasant.

It had precedent, as well. It was now of the essence that Jim recognized the night they had spent together during Spock’s first encounter with pon farr not simply as what it implied, but also what it had been, as well as what it had begun.

They had committed themselves to the relationship in an illogical and backwards fashion—it was clear from Spock’s research that arrangements made to share lunch, dinner, picnics, evenings at the cinema, and so on, were meant to come before nights spent side by side in bed—but they had committed themselves to the relationship nonetheless.

Spock was not agitated. To be so would be illogical. He had already acted against logic more than he was accustomed and what little control left required more rigorous maintenance. Spock applied himself to that, as well as to the promise of holding Jim ‘to it’, as it were.

The third day, they ate lunch together, though Jim was distracted, would not meet Spock’s eyes, nearly choked on the sandwich he was eating, and insistently kept Spock at arm’s length despite Spock’s intent to assist him so that he would not continue choking.

‘I’m good; I’m good.’ Jim wiped his watering eyes with his knuckles, face redder than usual. ‘Just went down the wrong way, that’s all.’

‘Human anatomy remains a matter of much curiosity,’ Spock replied, attempting to find a common topic, also known as ‘common ground’. They had never had much difficulty with achieving one before, despite their disparate backgrounds and personal creeds. ‘Also a matter of curiosity is the nature of a romantic relationship, such as the one enjoyed by Montgomery Scott and Uhura—though I use the word ‘enjoyed’ with some reservation, as enjoyment does not appear to be the only emotion experienced due to this heightened bond.’

Jim choked again, then muttered something about a message on his PADD, and said he would ‘see’ Spock ‘later’, despite knowing how important it was to Spock to be given specifics when it came to the solidifying of future plans.

It could not be stated categorically that Jim was avoiding him. Spock would not jump to proverbial conclusion based on a small number of random events alone. They had gone far longer with far less contact—and Jim’s regret at not being able to spend more time with Spock was evident in its sincerity.

When they were together, he was noticeably agitated. He would not crowd close to Spock to observe something over his shoulder at the computer, nor would he sit side by side with him on Spock’s bed in order to study their shared materials for a class where their separate majors overlapped. He kept a distance which would have been appreciated in earlier years—but Spock now found the alteration to their routine to be unsettling.

The period of adolescence was often one of great upheaval for humans, so a change in habit was not to be unexpected.

However, Spock did not wish for this new change to become the new standard.

It was difficult to express this with so little of their usual, uninterrupted time left in which to do so. What existed was eaten up with both Spock and Jim’s mutual desire to study in earnest, although it was now Spock’s understanding that many cadets in such relationships, Uhura and Scott included, used the term ‘study date’ to describe an act that had very little to do with academic pursuits.

It had been true in the past that Jim and Spock would spend at least a third of their shared time discussing recreational pursuits and other things not pertaining to any exams or review work. Yet now that Jim’s attention had been split so as to minimize the time they spent together to begin with, it was necessary to utilize the time that remained for actual studying, instead.

Therefore, Spock reasoned, it would be prudent to invite Jim on another joint excursion pronounced by Scott as one that fell within the parameters of the romantic relationship. The expectation for schoolwork would be absent, and it would afford them the opportunity to examine the context of their bond for better clarity and understanding.

There were seven separate cinematic exhibitions being shown at the theater local to Starfleet Academy and popular with its cadets and professors alike. Several had a showing scheduled at a time when it would be reasonable to walk from the campus and back, and after a few days of careful deliberation, Spock made a selection based around Jim’s interest in heroics and galactic adventure, with a dedicated sidebar to controlled explosions.

He waited the optimal amount of time—three days before the showing, so that Jim would have the advance warning needed to arrange his schedule while simultaneously keeping it in the forefront of his mind—to extend an invitation.

‘Jim,’ Spock began, solving a number of complex equations for practice on the PADD braced in his lap, ‘would you accompany me to view a feature film this Friday evening?’

Jim straightened where he had been sitting on the floor, back braced against Spock’s mattress frame. He inhaled and then coughed, though he had not been eating when Spock broached the subject, which meant it was highly unlikely that he was again choking.

It was difficult to discern an answer from the dry, aimless sounds Jim continued to make in the back of his throat. Spock waited what he had deemed was the appropriate amount of time, then took the matter into his own hands.

‘If this request is not within your ability to meet, then you may disregard it as you see fit.’

‘What?’ Jim turned his head, nearly striking it against one of the bed’s support posts in his hurry. ‘No—I didn’t say that. I just—I didn’t know we were doing a, a thing. A group thing. With Uhura and Scotty and everybody, right? Bones didn’t mention it. Must’ve been distracted. Bones is always distracted. He could use the break, worry about stuff happening to people who aren’t real for a change.’

‘It would not be ‘a group thing’,’ Spock said. ‘I am inviting you.’

‘Oh,’ Jim said.

This was neither a clear acceptance nor an outright refusal; neither was it recognition of Spock’s utilization of the precise code employed by two individuals wishing to embark on a traditionally defined ‘date’. As Jim had not expressed awareness of the fact, it was possible—even probable—that the time he had spent on Vulcan, adhering to and observing Vulcan society rather than human socialization patterns, had caused him to be under-informed about the specifics of what should have been natural to him, as a member of the human race.

Further research may have been required in order to clarify and define the distinctions of intent. Spock was not an expert when it came to the topic—but given the fact that individuals such as Leonard McCoy had achieved mastery of the same, it could not have proved too difficult for someone with Spock’s intellect.

‘In case you are hesitating because you do not know whether or not the subject of the feature film will interest you,’ Spock continued, ‘the title is The Oracle of Andoria, and the short trailer involves a number of ‘high-octane action sequences’ that I trust will be satisfactory enough that they will not inspire you to recreate the events of the story yourself.’

Jim chuckled. The sound was hoarse and breathless. Spock reached out to take his pulse and Jim bolted to his feet, once again red in the cheeks. ‘When— Uh, when did you say it was?’ he asked.

‘It is unlike you to forget a detail so easily, Jim,’ Spock replied. ‘My suggested date was this Friday evening. Has Leonard McCoy inoculated you recently with an experimental drug possessing potential adverse side-effects, such as a loss of short-term memory?’

‘Friday evening. Suggested date.’ Jim let out a long and somewhat wheezy breath. It was nearing spring; Spock had examined records at the start of their first term on which Earth seasons exacerbated those inclined to suffer allergies, and this would have explained a great deal about Jim’s recent behavior.

‘Yes. That is the date,’ Spock confirmed.

Jim blinked rapidly. He did not acknowledge the word they had now repeated four times in one-fourth as many minutes.

‘OK,’ he said. ‘OK. Sure. I’ve gotta go—help Bones. Speaking of Bones. We were speaking about Bones before, right? Anyway, I promised him I’d, uh, work on his bedside manner with him while he’s keeping watch on this cadet named Riley. In a bad way, Riley. Driving Bones crazy by not getting any better, so I’ve gotta go. ...I said that already.’

‘It is true that you have been repeating yourself excessively during this conversation,’ Spock replied.

Jim banged into the door on his way out. It slammed loudly behind him, enough to echo in Spock’s ears. In the past, Jim had always displayed common sense and sensitivity when it came to violating Spock’s heightened sense of hearing and Spock decided that it had been a mistake not to check his pulse.

He conferred with McCoy on this fact the following day.

‘Jim? Sick? Right now? For once—and praise the Lord for this miracle—not likely,’ McCoy said. ‘Not unless you count sick in the brain, which there’s no official diagnosis for other than reckless, rascally and downright rude, all of which our friend Jim suffers from on the daily.’

‘Those are not official terminologies—much like the ‘heebie jeebies’ to which you once referred.’

‘Yeah, but unlike the heebie jeebies, the Jim Kirk’s Disease has always been potentially fatal. And that’s on a good day.’

Spock allowed himself the most minimal of frowns. ‘Hyperbole and exaggeration in this matter are not appreciated.’

‘Gotta find some way not to go outta my mind,’ McCoy replied.

‘Have you considered meditation?’ Spock suggested.

McCoy lifted his hands in the air in what Spock had come to qualify as a sign of defeat. ‘Jim’s not the cadet I’m worried about lately. He’s just fine. Compared to that damn Riley medical’s got all its students working on, trying to figure out what in the blazes they can do for him...’

‘You are distracted,’ Spock said. ‘This is not an uncommon state for races unable to approach multiple issues concurrently. As this is the case, I will investigate Jim’s present health myself.’

‘Uh-huh,’ McCoy replied, waving Spock away from a beaker of blue solvent that had consumed his attentions. It was a less-than reassuring to think this was the future of the Federation’s medical sciences.

Yet when Spock reconvened with Jim, Lenore was also present, and Spock’s inquiries after Jim’s well-being were truncated by her distractions before they had a chance to begin.

‘When I first met you, Jim,’ Lenore confessed, ‘I didn’t think you’d be so clever.’

‘Why would that be?’ Spock asked.

‘Well...’ Lenore waved her hand, so much more delicately than McCoy had done that it was difficult to consider the two of them members of the same species. ‘Because he was always staring. I try not to trust anyone who spends too much time staring at other people.’

‘Hey, c’mon,’ Jim said, not reacting appropriately to the insult he had been dealt, ‘I already told you: I was waiting for you to get off that computer, OK? I had important research to do.’

‘Has it occurred to you that your beloved Kobayashi Maru may be a test of another kind altogether, and that by letting it consume your mind in this manner, you have already failed its true purpose?’ Lenore asked.

‘Well now it has,’ Jim replied. This did not seem to trouble him as it should; the implication that his time had been wasted, or that he had failed to discern a valuable facet of the lesson, both slipped past as though they were inconsequential in the face of continued conversation with Lenore. ‘You wanna explain that gem, or are you just gonna let me stew in my own juices here?’

Lenore wore an expression that indicated she was inclined toward letting Jim stew—after a fashion.

‘The implication is obvious,’ Spock said.

It was a common human trait, he had noted, to withhold valuable information in the interest of appearing intriguing to an attractive party. This social behavior was unheard of on Vulcan and while Spock had observed Jim adapt and adhere with ease to many Earth customs, he understood that he did notflourish without all the facts at his disposal. Lenore could not have known this because she did not possess Spock’s breadth of familiarity with the individual in question.

‘Oh?’ Lenore’s eyes were blue but not comparable to Jim’s. The two colors were so distinct that it seemed highly inaccurate to describe them both with the same classification. ‘I’ll admit, I’ve been given a fair number of titles in my life, but never obvious. Do elaborate.’

‘You suggest that Jim’s trouble with the Kobayashi Maru lies within a fundamental misunderstanding of its intentions as an examination,’ Spock said. ‘That in his obsession with the puzzle and its solution, he has become short-sighted and missed the truth of its nature.’

‘Hey now,’ Jim interjected.

Spock continued. ‘The idea is not without merit, but as it has been presented without evidence or the reasoning that lead you to your conclusion, you must have understood that the claim would be met with further examination. I would remind you of your own statement: Jim is more clever than you have anticipated.’

For an instant, Lenore’s gaze on Spock was one of unbridled frustration. It was in this moment—no more than three seconds, by Spock’s count—that he understood that it was not the color that differentiated her eyes as much as it was the quality. There was a brittleness to her expression, a hardness in her face that Spock had never witnessed in Jim’s. Even in the early days, when they had been strangers and Jim’s history warped with personal tragedy—it was so unfamiliar as to be completely alien.

The look passed and everything was as it had been an instant before. Jim drank his entire bottle of water until the plastic creaked and groaned, then muttered something about Vulcan compliments. Lenore tucked her hair behind one ear and leaned her shoulder into Jim’s, promising to keep watch for further displays of this fatal cleverness. She then took to referring to Spock as Jim’s Vulcan protector, as though they had all shared in a joke and were now considered friends.

Also as though Spock had not glimpsed the expression of true dislike as it passed over her face, like a transition from night to day.

Spock would remember it, though. He would retain the information until such a time as it became relevant.

Yet Friday immediately followed Thursday, as it naturally did. Jim, having taken a break from throwing himself at the Kobayashi Maru test with renewed resolve, was consumed instead with tales of Bones’ attempts to be the first to discover what had gone wrong in Cadet Riley’s immune system.

‘Not ‘cause he wants all the glory, mind you, but because I think it drives him crazy to see anybody suffering when he’s around. Don’t tell him I told you that, Spock.’

Spock saw no way to turn the conversation around from others to themselves. Perhaps there was exasperation inherent in this realization and some already in the situation itself; he preserved his calm despite a lifted eyebrow that caused Jim to break out in a grin.

‘Let me guess,’ he said. ‘You’re about to ask me why you’d ever have to discuss that with Bones, of all people. Am I right?’

‘It was not a guess,’ Spock replied. ‘Rather, it was a well-informed conclusion based on your knowledge of that which I have previously expressed on similar occasions.’

‘Do I know you, Spock, or do I know you?’

Spock paused, but only briefly. ‘Indeed,’ he replied, as befitted the question.

Jim looked somewhere—elsewhere, unnamed and inexplicable—and rubbed the back of his neck where he often perspired during periods of intense exertion or in simulations with raised temperatures. It was also the spot where McCoy most preferred to administer foreign substances to Jim’s system via hypodermic injections. ‘Anyway,’ Jim said, mumbling in an uncharacteristic fashion, ‘what time’s that showing again?’

They rode one of the Academy shuttles to the multiplex stop and arrived with a suitable thirty minutes before the beginning of the feature film. In the lobby, after the purchase of their tickets, Jim procured a large biodegradable paper cup, more accurately described as a bucket, colored brightly in reds and yellows and filled nearly to overflowing with popped corn.

‘Just popcorn,’ Jim said. ‘That’s really all it is.’

‘Popped corn is also accurate,’ Spock replied.

He had looked it up prior to their date.

Jim shrugged and decided on two seats at the center of the screening room. ‘Yeah, but popcorn’s just easier to say.’

He had eaten three handfuls of the popped corn—or popcorn—when he offered the contents of the bucket to Spock to taste and offer his opinion.

‘The experience will be new,’ Spock said, but as the experience was intended to be new, at least in a manner of speaking, he removed a kernel from the top and inspected it. ‘The ingredients are popcorn, salt, butter, and oil. Is this a flavored variation or the original recipe?’

‘Original recipe. All one hundred percent vegetarian for Vulcans, too. Go ahead, Spock. You might even like it.’

‘It was not foremost in my mind to predict my reaction,’ Spock replied. He ate the kernel by placing it between his lips as Jim tossed another kernel high in the air and caught it on his tongue.

Though the display was without purpose, it was not without merit, and highlighted a definite measure of physical skill as well as precision of timing. It could not have been an easy feat to accomplish, even more so because Jim had made it appear to be simple. Spock also took note of the breadth of Jim’s shoulders, the length of his throat, and the shape of his jaw—all of which had come to be more pronounced, more mature, than the boy Spock had known.

To act as though that boy was gone would have been sentimental and absurd. There were many familiar elements that yet remained, not the least of which being the color and intensity of Jim’s eyes. There was much which Spock recognized—and there was also much which Spock had occasion now to observe in a new light, or lack thereof, once the lights in the screening room began to dim.

‘So?’ Jim’s whisper was not much quieter than if he had not bothered with whispering at all. ‘What do you think?’

The question was too broad. If Spock had been tasked with divulging what he was thinking, he would have expressed these subtle differences and keen familiarities in Jim’s appearance—but Jim had already begun to clarify.

‘About the popcorn. I don’t know if we can still be friends if you don’t like popcorn, Spock.’

‘It is not unpleasant,’ Spock replied.

Jim tipped his head back against the seat and put his feet up on the headrest in front of him. Spock straightened. There was salt and oil on his fingertips and no napkin with which to clean them.

‘Some people say yum, Spock,’ Jim said. ‘Or at least that’s tasty.’

‘Yum,’ Spock replied.

Jim’s look of shock—and pleasure in the surprise—gave the ludicrous repetition a real purpose. It had not been meaningless to echo the popular sentiment despite how foolish it sounded.

‘Oh my God,’ Jim said. ‘I wish I’d recorded that.’

‘As it stands,’ Spock replied, ‘it seems you will simply have to remember it.’

‘I’ll try.’ Jim crossed his ankles one over the other and held out the bucket of popcorn again. ‘But I can’t make any promises. Bones says he’s never seen anybody get hit in the head as often as I do. Sometimes by inanimate objects. I told him it’s just part of my natural magnetism but I don’t think he was willing to make that his official diagnosis.’

‘Perhaps we should cease conversing, so as to avoid disturbing the other members of the audience, as well as to enjoy the film and its explosions,’ Spock suggested.

Jim sank deeper into his chair, momentarily deflated. ‘Yeah. Sure. Of course.’

It was important, as Spock understood it, to adhere to the nature of the traditions stringently at first, so as not to encounter confusion as to one party’s intentions. It was not like Spock and Jim to stumble over such simple obstacles, but the subtleties of human relationships were admittedly complicated. There were nuances of meaning that eluded Spock completely and he could not rely on Jim to have all the facts, either, since this was an area they had both misunderstood for years.

Spock could assume this fact as truth, since Jim was too straightforward to have stumbled across the information himself without bringing it to Spock’s attention.

The angle at which Jim was sitting could not have been optimal for the comfort of his spine. He had sunk lower than the back of the seat, shoulders hunched over his popped corn, legs still propped atop the seat in front of him. Spock discovered that before the featured film began there were previews of future featured films, which presented a prime opportunity to observe Jim without breaking the main tenet of joint movie viewing. The film had not started; therefore, Spock did not have to watch the screen. He instead bore witness to Jim’s subdued eating habits, the passage of popcorn from hand to mouth. The size of the handful taken had little to no bearing on what ultimately arrived in Jim’s mouth; often more than a third of the popped corn kernels would slip from between his fingers and land back in the bucket, though this event did not appear to cause Jim any dismay.

When the lights dimmed fully, Jim wriggled up in his seat, perhaps acknowledging that he would require a better vantage point from which to view the promised explosions. He tilted his bucket in Spock’s direction, extending a silent offer.

Spock had eaten a reasonably sized meal before the movie and did not require any further sustenance. However, he was conscious of the human desire to share and be shared with—it was important to be mindful of such fine distinctions when attempting to assert the intimate nature of one’s relationship. With that in mind, Spock accepted the popcorn, gathering a few salty kernels into his palm and eating them one by one, hand to mouth. He lost none in the process. They presented no difficulties, other than a faint but negligible stickiness.

‘Thank you.’ Spock inclined his head toward Jim’s, to impart his gratitude without disrupting the audience.

Projected light flickered across Jim’s face from the screen. His mouth quirked to one side in crooked acknowledgement of Spock’s words.

After that, Spock settled in for his examination and analysis of the film in question. The Oracle of Andoria had been praised and publicized for its off-world scenery, the depth of its cinematography, and the humorous dialogue of the main character, whose chief attribute seemed to be the ability to survive impossible falls that ought to have shattered his shins and contracted his vertebrae. Indeed, after the third such incident, Spock began a running tally of events that should have killed the hero immediately, or least dealt him a mortal wound.

There were eleven in total, twelve if he counted the final explosion, the impact of which would have almost certainly pulverized any other human’s internal organs had they been within the specified radius.

Out of respect for observing the traditions of the date, Spock did not share his findings with Jim. He was content rather to share his popcorn, taking small helpings at random intervals, since Jim had arranged the bucket between them. During a fraught shuttle chase scene, Spock reached over only to find Jim’s hand already within the confines of the bucket. Their fingers brushed together, grainy with excess salt and slick with the oily butter flavoring. One of the shuttles overheated its energy cells causing an explosion and Jim’s hand twitched, fingers slipping through Spock’s and tightening there.

Perhaps he was thinking of the preventative measures necessary in order to achieve that speed with a shuttle and not incur similar engine failure.

‘OK—I’ve gotta admit, that was pretty awesome,’ Jim said as the instrumental theme swelled and the credits began.

‘Its repeated contradictions of basic physics and obvious ignorance of practical science inspired a sense of awe rather than a sense of amusement?’ Spock asked. ‘Fascinating.’

Jim reached for a final handful of popcorn before leaning forward, feet braced on the ground, to stretch out a not unpredictable ache in the small of his back—due to his poor posture, a matter which Spock would have to present to McCoy at the next opportunity—and pop a regular knot of tension in his neck, also affected by his tendency, in relaxed situations, to slouch. It could not have been more comfortable than sitting or standing with proper posture and Jim was, as Spock often noted, far more intelligent than many, if not all, of his peers. There was no reason why he should not have ascertained this truth for himself and applied it in order to alleviate the specific physical ailment, rather than ignore the truth and prolong it.

‘Suspension of disbelief, Spock. Speaking of which—why’d you pick this movie to see in the first place?’

‘I concluded from a careful assessment of the descriptions available that it was the most likely to appeal to your sensibilities. The reviews offered within the official promotional materials suggested that fans of action and jaw-dropping stunt-work would appreciate the film’s excellence in this area while remaining unaffected by its failings in other areas.’

‘So...you picked this movie because you thought I’d like to see it?’ Jim asked.

Spock had presumed—not without reason—that this logic had already been made apparent.

‘Huh,’ Jim said.

‘You are tense,’ Spock replied.

This was not without a segue, even if it was not an obvious one. Jim was still rubbing the back of his neck; the tension he carried in those muscles was exacerbated by the hours he frequently spent hunched over research materials or a computer terminal, either to pore over journal contributions written by Captain Pike or records of every failure ever occurring during the Kobayashi Maru.

It had been designed, Spock had once pointed out, by a Vulcan, to which Jim had replied, cryptically, ‘It figures.’ He had no answer for what it figured—simply that it did.

These were the ways in which they did not, instinctively, understand one another. But it was possible that complete understanding would not have been preferable to brief moments of overlapping sensibilities, an understanding that could be adapted to trust that which was unfamiliar—only to discover, from the strangest of angles, it was familiar, after all.

‘The cervical vertebrae are where you primarily carry your tension,’ Spock continued. ‘Though I am not a doctor or a student of medical sciences I can still infer that, in time, the discomfort will begin to travel up through these vertebrae and on to the base of the skull; from there, it will become what is known as a tension headache. A more efficient means of treating the condition would be to confront it at its source before it has the chance to spread. Here,’ Spock said, and touched the warm back of Jim’s neck, causing the fine, golden hairs there to stand on end as the skin prickled.

Jim was not the type to be startled by the physical. He was, in times past, the initiator of every touch they had ever shared. He had reached for Spock’s hand; he had held it; he had brought Spock to touch him, if only on a single occasion—but these were the prior incidents upon which Spock could draw for reference. When Spock had offered his touch in return, they had been younger, Jim still a child, and there had been a purpose to Spock’s fingers against the side of Jim’s face, fingertips resting on his skin.

There was a purpose to this touch, as well; it was intimate, as dates were intimate, and not unfounded within the context of their Friday evening together. Jim, for whom physical connection was commonplace to the point of being mundane, something he shared with even the barest of acquaintances to the closest of friends, should not have been taken by surprise at this.

Yet the bare flesh above the collar of his jacket warmed and his hair stood on end and the tension increased at Spock’s touch, rather than decreased.

McCoy would have taken this as proof of superiority in all such matters of remedies and cures.

‘Huh,’ Jim said again. ‘It’s fine—it’s cool, Spock. Bones can always give me something for it if I ask him real nice.’

‘You are not cool, Jim,’ Spock replied. ‘You are warm. Is this, coupled with your present anxiety, a definitive symptom of suffering health?’

‘I said I was fine. Just—it’s hot in here, that’s all. OK, Spock? I’m OK.’

‘Your reaction to external temperatures vacillates unpredictably, as always.’ Spock accepted the explanation nonetheless, as it was predictably unpredictable, at least. ‘Shall we depart? Fresh air—though in this area, that terminology is questionably accurate at best—is often considered curative.’

‘Sure,’ Jim said. ‘Yeah, let’s head back or something.’

Or something did not prove a definitive alternative suggestion and thus Spock could consider it to be largely figurative in nature. He had observed more than once the human tendency to soften their decisive speech patterns by offering an imaginary second option, which was in truth no option at all. This was a peculiarity specific to the species, one which even Mother had demonstrated uncharacteristic difficulty in explaining. Spock could not comprehend it but he accepted its presence in the same spirit of tolerance with which he allowed other inevitabilities inherent in human contact. It was only a minor imitation of the tolerance that his father had cultivated as diplomat for Vulcan.

That Spock should strive to share some of these qualities was only natural.

Jim’s unusual tension lingered long after they had departed the artificially controlled environment of the theater and progressed into the cool night air. He could not outpace Spock due to the fundamental truths of their biology as it pertained to the disparate lengths of their legs, but nevertheless it was quite clear he did not intend to linger as he so often had in the past, sliding his arm through Spock’s to tug him in one direction or the other to draw attention to various, mundane points of interest: such as a streetlamp with something vulgar written on it, or a dead insect of dubious origin.

Tonight, Jim’s appreciation for local vulgarities and insects had fallen by the wayside. It fell to Spock to maintain the bulk of their conversation, a position to which he was neither suited nor inclined. He managed to glean that Jim had appreciated the explosions as well as the humor of the feature film, although he had found the romantic aspects of the script to be somewhat lacking.

‘I mean, a girl like that doesn’t just fall for any old human just—just because he can drive fast and punch things.’ Jim ran his fingers through his hair at the back of his head, distributing the butter and salt that had been on his fingers. ‘You’ve gotta have some common ground or something. Be really impressive.’

Once again, the vagaries of his statement made it impossible for Spock to discern a proper juncture for contribution. He had little experience in impressive Andorian females and even less interest in cultivating any such experience.

‘There are also the physical incompatibilities,’ Spock agreed.

Jim’s head jerked to one side, as though Spock had taken him by surprise. ‘Oh yeah?’

This was in better keeping with the rituals of the post-date activity, which involved conversation and, Spock had noted was mentioned more than once, the act of holding hands. He felt certain that he could exempt himself and Jim from this practice, as the specific difference between the implications and impact of holding hands for Vulcans and humans required integration of that additional context. It was fair to adjust the guidelines based on the parties involved, as Spock had ruled that neither he nor Jim could be considered with broad strokes or in general terms.

‘While there are several humanoid species among the Federation that share similar traits, it must be assumed that their definition of beauty and, by association, romantic and sexual attraction would differ from world to world.’

‘Uh,’ Jim said.

‘Therefore, it is possible that an Andorian female would not consider a human male to be a suitable romantic partner, despite any displays of impressive prowess he would be able to muster,’ Spock concluded.

It was an agreement, albeit with certain stipulations. Jim had broached the topic and Spock had provided corroborating evidence. However, the additional data did not seem to give Jim additional satisfaction. Rather, he appeared unsettled, an extension of the condition that had first begun to manifest in the theater.

‘Guess I never thought of that,’ he muttered, and wiped his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve.

They came at last on foot to the campus ground and Spock found himself taking the natural course of walking Jim to his door. They were housed within separate buildings, Spock nearer the outskirts and Jim closer to the central complex, so that under normal circumstances—if their walk had been calculated for maximum efficiency rather than for maximum date satisfaction—it would not have made sense for Spock to continue with Jim, but rather part ways from him at the gate.

However, there was yet one more aspect of the date to be observed, and Spock did not intend to allow any detail to remain unattended.

Jim turned when they arrived at his door, one hand on the frame, and Spock, having calculated the timing based on the examples with which he had provided himself, leaned in, with the intent to close the distance he would otherwise have worked deliberately to maintain.

Jim’s eyes widened. There was little on this world or any other to which he had been introduced that seemed capable of taking him by any meaningful surprise. Despite the time they had spent in one another’s company, the knowledge that Spock was still able to do so—to catch someone with the exemplary reactive skills such as Jim displayed off guard—did not inspire pride, but it did inspire something.

Upon closer examination, the something revealed itself to be an unnamed, fleeting admiration, alongside a private, not disregarded, very personal joy.

Spock had told Jim once that he—and other Vulcans by association—felt, as they did feel, more deeply than any human could have known. But that description had not acknowledged or presented the multitude of exceptions under which Spock operated in his daily life. His Vulcan emotions ran deep below the surface and to say so had not been a lie; yet he had not given credence to his human emotions as, despite their comparatively low intensity, they proved often far more confounding and complex than he had reason to expect they should or even might.

Regardless, the facts were: that Jim’s eyes had widened; that his lips had parted; that to Spock’s knowledge neither of them had engaged in this singularly human expression of affection with anyone, much less with one another—a kiss shared between mouths rather than the many they had shared already between fingers. Idle strokes; gentle caresses; thoughtless, but not needless, brushes of knuckle to knuckle; fingertips resting atop fingertips with print whorls crossing print whorls. Those moments had been satisfactory for Spock’s needs as it was that part of his anatomy which proved most sensitive.

Jim’s mouth—he frequently bit his lower lip when in deep thought, or allowed the muscles to twitch and stretch when he was grinning or groaning, and licked both upper and lower when he was recalling a recent beverage or meal—was, Spock understood, not equal in sensitivity to a Vulcan’s hands, but sensitive nonetheless. It was only fair, well-balanced, and vital to the steps of the date procedure as they had been specified in multiple, corroborating sources, that a kiss as defined by humans must come at this particular moment—in order to complete the final qualification of an authentic date.

Perhaps the only surprise was that it had not been shared sooner. After all, they had already shared almost everything else.

‘Spock,’ Jim said, in a tone of voice Spock had not heard before, with a depth that spoke of age and maturity, and a maturity that spoke of uncertainty. Though human emotions were not as deep or as treacherous as those ever experienced by Vulcans, in Jim, they were powerful and multifaceted.

The way he spoke Spock’s name, having spoken it countless times in the past, offered new insight not simply into what the name inspired in him but also what the name inspired in Spock himself.

Jim sensed the importance of this last step. He was in the process of reaching out to touch—always to touch, and yet now, it was far from unwelcome—when Spock heard the sound of approaching footsteps and, less than a second later, Jim likewise realized that they were not alone.

Spock turned at the same moment Jim did; Jim stepped back and the interloper revealed himself to them not as another student, or one of Jim’s friends, or anyone whose presence would not have been out of the ordinary.

It was Captain Pike, and his expression, even in the darkness, was careful yet obviously grave.

‘James Kirk,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I found you. I’m afraid I’m going to need you to come with me.’

*

Chapter Text

Where Captain Pike led, Jim followed—and Spock came along, too. Jim couldn’t be sure if that was a relief—because of the company—or an extra worry—also because of the company. And he definitely couldn’t be sure what the hell had just happened, what had almost happened, and what was about to happen.

Usually, he’d grin and wink and call that his kind of fun, mention how his favorite odds were the ones stacked against him. Going in blind and improvising was always where things got interesting.

But the audience wasn’t the right one for that particular bluff and Pike was taking them to his private office instead of the one he used for general office hours and open consultations—held to satisfy the nervous types who needed reassurance and direction, or the over-eager types who, Jim had finally accepted, were his kind of people.

At the very least, he was one of them.

Jim ran through what he did know instead of focusing on what he didn’t in the dark hallways and the turbolift taking them from the lobby to the fourteenth floor, in the kind of silence that could only be achieved with a Vulcan and a superior, seasoned officer flanking you. Jim almost stopped breathing because of how loud it sounded in his own ears—but if he stopped breathing then everybody’d be able to hear his heart pounding, at least until it stopped, too.

So—details. Spock had taken him to the movies, not out to the movies, only maybe out to the movies; he’d been himself for most of the night, telling Jim to stop talking, dissecting the flaws in presentation, allowing the conversation to dwindle into nothing, refusing to clarify while asking for clarifications of his own; there’d been a moment at the end Jim couldn’t think about because it hurt in his skull and in his ribs; and now, there was Captain Pike, wearing the same face he had when he was talking about the worst kinds of screw-ups in Federation history, and why none of the bright-faced young cadets in the hall with him could ever allow themselves to make those same mistakes.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Jim said, door sliding shut behind him.

‘Sit down, Kirk,’ Pike replied. ‘You too, Spock.’

For one wild moment, Jim thought Spock might pull his usual act and decline, preferring to stand like he almost always did. But Spock was pretty good with authority figures and he was even better when it came to blending in, adapting his ideal customs in order to fit in better with the expectations of Starfleet. He sat first and Jim second, the latter only because his legs were gonna go out from under him real soon anyway and he might as well make it look like he was in control while he still could.

Pike was looking at him like he knew that, too. Not exactly reassuring. But then, Pike spent a lot of time looking at Jim like he knew exactly what he had going on in his head at any given minute of any given day. He was no Vulcan, but Pike was pretty sharp.

Case in point: he hadn’t wasted time with trying to get rid of Spock when Spock obviously wasn’t going anywhere.

‘Now.’ Pike settled himself behind the desk, turning to Spock like he’d read Jim’s thoughts all over again. ‘I’d planned on having Kirk in here by himself, but considering the way you two are joined at the hip, I’m guessing you’d just stand at the door and listen in anyway—am I right, Spock?’

‘Eavesdropping on a private conversation between a superior officer and a cadet would be frowned upon, if not directly against Starfleet regulations,’ Spock replied.

Not a no, then.

For Jim, who’d become fluent in technicalities after his time on Vulcan, it wasn’t even a maybe.

Pike seemed to get it without so much as a blink. He clasped his hands in front of his face but didn’t lean on them, keeping his keen gaze on Spock for a change. It was a welcome relief, although somehow it didn’t make Jim’s insides feel any less jumbled up.

‘Might as well get right down to it,’ Pike said, after he’d weighed Spock’s answer for its worth. ‘We’ve managed to stabilize Cadet Riley for the time being, but it’s not looking good, Jim. Stable’s one thing, but mounting a full recovery from nothing, well…’

He trailed off, the lines in his face deepening, mouth drawn straight across but still implying a frown. Jim wasn’t a fan of that look. Usually it meant he’d screwed up somehow—but, also usually, he’d done it on purpose, with a motive. A reason.

This time around, he couldn’t think of a thing he’d screwed up on purpose lately.

‘You might be wondering,’ Pike went on, ‘what Cadet Riley has to do with you, beyond your marked interest in other people’s business. Yeah; don’t get cocky that I’ve memorized your file. That’s not always a good thing, and neither is marked interest. Anyway, it may surprise you—or it may not—to learn that I set up a few flags in the Starfleet system after you informed me just how easy it was for any old someone with a passing knowledge of computer hacking to access our public records.’

‘I dunno if informed is the word I’d use,’ Jim said.

‘Well, that’s what’s on the official record,’ Pike replied, with a look that suggested that was the end of the matter. ‘Anyway, they’re mostly random—set to notify me if there’s any unusual activity in the servers. For months, nothing pinged. Then, a couple of days ago, I got a hit on the Tarsus IV incident.’

The fluffy popcorn in Jim’s stomach turned to sludge. It was one reaction he couldn’t do anything about, although he kept his face still, his hands on his knees the way he’d learned on Vulcan. It was one of a hundred useful tricks he’d never thought would serve him as well as they did on Earth.

On Vulcan, they wouldn’t pass muster; with other humans who hadn’t had the same training, they were priceless. He could feel Spock not looking in his direction, but figured he might’ve wanted to.

For once, they were both in the same boat: neither one of them proactive enough to ask the question that’d get the ball rolling again.

‘Oh,’ Jim said instead. ‘That’s—oh.’

Hardly even a sentence, but it was something. It let Pike know he was listening, at least; Pike nodded and went on, although not without fixing Jim with a sharp look, checking in on him the old-fashioned way.

‘That’s not why I called you in,’ Pike clarified. ‘On its own, it’s nothing—might be a research project, or idle interest, or some enterprising young cadet like you just thirsting for knowledge. But it is what got me started on the search. You see—I’m not sure if you remember this—but Cadet Riley was a survivor of the Tarsus IV incident, just like you. And he was in the same boat as you were when Earth forces picked him up—the sole survivor in the Riley family. There were others, of course, but there were only a handful of colonists actually in the plaza when Kodos made his announcement. Eyewitnesses, you understand. Not too many of them happened to make it out alive.’

‘Captain,’ Spock began. Jim sensed him leaning forward—no shadows to mark his progress, no sound to indicate the movement, just the knowledge, even if it’d faded when up against the ringing in Jim’s ears, of where Spock was at all times.

Jim would’ve held onto that knowledge like an anchor if he could’ve, but Pike’d been right. There were some things, no matter how many classes he aced, no matter how many tests he triumphed over, that he wouldn’t be ready for. That he might never be ready for.

And that, if anything—that should sober you up, when the time comes.

The time had come. This was one of those moments. Tarsus, like a streak on a mirror or a hallucination in the desert; Kodos in the plaza and Jim reaching out on instinct to hold his mom’s hand.

It’d been years since he’d pictured it that clearly, everything from the angle of the sun to the expression on Mom’s face. Even George’d been quiet; he hadn’t even offered a swear word that’d make Mom angry on any normal day. Nothing. Silence after the announcement. Like everybody who was there was holding, hanging on, the same breath. The oxygen everyone was supposed to share had been commanded by a single person who wouldn’t let it go, who wasn’t planning on it.

Even if Jim’d been too young back then to know exactly what it meant—he couldn’t have expected to predict the future, any of what came next, hours passing in the drifting shuttle, nightmares lurking beneath dreams of Mom’s face and the last time George snuck out his bedroom window past curfew—he’d known right away that it wasn’t good. For the longest time, he’d done everything he could to picture Mom’s smile whenever his thoughts slipped and he thought about her—not the smile she gave him on the other side of the shuttle window, but her real smile.

But now, he was seeing her fear, the first time he’d realized that she didn’t know what to do. That it was possible, all too possible, for the people in charge not to know what to do. And he was reminded of the fear that crept over him at the realization, the impact of understanding just how much he needed her to know everything so he could feel safe.

Mom had never been a Vulcan. Kodos had killed her. Jim had escaped. He wondered if he’d ever played with Riley in one of the half-finished rec zones, hide and seek under the slides in a recently completed park. He wondered if Riley hid somewhere on his parents’ orders or if he’d been jettisoned too—only to find himself falling prey to something else he’d never anticipated, something else that happened while he was too busy trusting the system he was a part of to realize there were threats, very real ones, working against him.

And they were the lucky ones. Gratitude, relief, even living—it was hard not to let them turn to ash in your mouth when you realized all the people who’d been left behind, who didn’t have the same luck, who were only names on a memorial glittering below the distant stars, never revisited by the survivors.

‘You ever hear the phrase ‘rip it off quick, like a bandage’, Spock?’ Pike asked.

It’d been a second or two, nothing more, since Spock had spoken. Time was relative, Jim remembered.

‘Indeed,’ Spock replied. ‘I believe it was Leonard McCoy who first introduced me to the concept. I also believe that should provide more concern than it currently does for the future of Starfleet’s medical professionals.’

Jim grounded himself in the clinical, the emotionless, Spock’s voice calm and graced with only those slight inflections that reassured Jim—on the good days—of his humanity. Even if they had to search for it sometimes, it was there. It was always there. It gave Jim hope even when he was feeling hopeless: like when he’d come out of the shower after pinning Sulu in a wrestling match, thinking about Spock while he’d cleaned off and wincing around bruised ribs, and Spock just nodded at him.

Then, Spock touched Jim’s shoulder.

It was the weirdest thing. Jim reached after Spock’s hand and held it there, squeezed it, maybe too hard, and thought thank you.

Even though that wasn’t how the touch telepathy technically worked, it was how Jim worked.  

‘So.’ Jim had to clear his throat. His voice hadn’t cracked in a long time; there was really no excuse for it now. ‘Somebody’s running searches on public records of the Tarsus IV incident and Riley’s not doing so hot. Doesn’t have to mean anything.’

‘And I wouldn’t think it did,’ Pike replied, ‘if it weren’t for following a hunch of my own. I’m not so old that I don’t have hunches anymore, Jim. So I checked a few leads. Followed a few info trails. And I found out, in the past six months, four of the known survivors of Tarsus IV rumored to have been in that plaza have died. One of old age—but she wasn’t as old as all that. The other three don’t have a damn thing connecting them—place of death, cause of death—other than their background.’

‘Not exactly a coincidence,’ Jim said.

Pike stood, coming around to the front of his desk, crossing his arms to lean against it. ‘Doesn’t exactly seem like it could be.’

‘Huh.’ Jim’s palms were sweating. He rubbed the free one dry against his knee, thinking about how nice it would’ve been to be a Vulcan because when you were a Vulcan, no one had to know what you were thinking until you let ‘em in on it.

And if you were real good, sometimes maybe not even then.

Spock had to feel it where their hands were still crushed close but Jim couldn’t bring himself to pull away. Pike had let Spock stick around for a reason, so Jim had to assume he wasn’t embarrassing the hell out of himself by holding on. In some of his performance reviews, Jim’s instructors had questioned whether or not he could display the necessary aptitude for teamwork in order to be part of a starship crew. This felt like proving he could, in a manner of speaking. He knew when to reach out and ask for help.

Sort of.

Technically, though, it wasn’t Spock’s problem. There was an argument to be presented that Jim had madeit Spock’s problem back when he’d crash-landed in the Vulcan desert with nothing more than a limited supply of water and the clothes on his back. But Spock was the one who’d found him—Spock was the one who’d brought him home.

It was a partnership in the truest sense, in that Jim couldn’t rightly work out who was to blame for how it started.

There he went again, thinking about Spock when he wasn’t the topic in question. The trouble was, Jim could always find a connecting thread, something to lead him right back on the rare occasions when his mind wandered to begin with.

‘I’m sorry to lay all this on you, son,’ Pike said. ‘Without sugar-coating the damn thing because there’s no pleasant way to say it—and besides, we’re old enough here that we’re past all that. And I mean it—so anytime you wanna stop looking at me like I just drove a shuttle into your sitting room, Spock, I’d appreciate it.’

Spock stiffened; Jim felt it in his hand, the movement extending from there to his arm, into his shoulders and back. He wasn’t used to getting caught out. Or maybe he hadn’t known he was doing it.

‘I am forced to wonder whether it is wise to agitate a cadet’s mental state based on a simple hunch,’ he said.

There was no one around to provide the appropriate oh, snap that should’ve followed. Scotty would’ve done it.

Good old Scotty.

A significant part of Jim had the distance to appreciate that there was a chance he’d hit a wall, finally achieving information overload. He’d already been on shaky ground from the Movie Incident, which was topped only by what hadn’t happened in front of his dorm door, what Pike could’ve interrupted, whether there’d even been anything to interrupt. Now he was supposed to switch gears and think about whether his life was in danger, whether a string of coincidences meant something more than that, and whether a body burnt beyond all recognition had been the end of Kodos after all.

It didn’t look good. It looked even worse for Riley, the poor bastard.

Jim inhaled too deeply and felt the resulting twist of nausea in his gut.

‘You’ve been looking out for me, sir.’ It was an asshole thing to say, but Jim was starting to suspect certain things about his character, one of which being he was capable of saying asshole things. ‘I thought commanding officers weren’t supposed to play favorites.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Pike said.

‘Too late,’ Jim replied, so quick he couldn’t stop himself.

Pike didn’t look amused, but the wrinkles around the corners of his eyes twitched, just once.

‘Let’s just say I’m invested in your progress here at Starfleet,’ he said. ‘I’m not anxious to see it cut short. You’ve got potential. You’ve got nerve. You’re a pain in the ass, but if I cast back far enough, I remember they used to say the same things about me. And the reason I’m making you aware of this information, to answer Spock’s accusation—no; don’t pretend like it was a question, either, because I’m old enough to know better—is that I’m hoping I can convince you to be a little more cautious than usual, Jim. Keep an eye out for yourself. Don’t take candy from strangers. You know the drill.’

Jim knew the drill. Spock’s fingers were digging into his clavicle hard enough that there were gonna be little dotted bruises all across his shoulder the next day.

The thought didn’t have its usual effect.

‘Do you really think it’s him, sir?’ Jim asked. He had to know—had to hear someone say it.

Pike cocked his head, like he was trying to work out whether or not Jim could handle it.

‘I think I’d rather hew to being overly vigilant when it comes to the life of my—what was it?—favorite cadet.’

‘Once again, I feel compelled to remind you, Captain Pike, that commanding officers are indeed discouraged from the expression of favoritism, no matter the circumstances,’ Spock said.

Jealous, Spock? Jim thought. It would’ve been a moment, a good one, a chance to break the tension. That Jim couldn’t bring himself to say it beyond a dry, tight throat told him just how shaken he was at a time when he needed, more than anything, not to be.

‘And I feel compelled to let you both know that as of now, you’re dismissed,’ Pike replied. ‘How about this: get Jim some water, if you’re looking to feel compelled some more, Spock, and keep an eye on him while you’re at it.’ He turned his back to them, hands folded—not Vulcan style, not even close—behind his back, to stare at a collection of medals hanging on the far wall. ‘You know how he has a tendency to...shall we say improvise? But the thing is, spontaneity can only take you so far, and youth doesn’t last forever.’

Jim managed—for Pike’s sake and maybe Spock’s more than his own—an approximation of the pained sigh he would’ve given at the platitudes on a normal day when the rug and the floor hadn’t disappeared out from under his feet. The nod at the way things could be, the way they used to be, gave Jim enough impetus to rise out of the chair on legs that were still there, even if he couldn’t feel them from the knee down.

Spock let go of his shoulder. Jim wished he hadn’t but he was grateful that he had in the same breath.

This was something Jim needed to face on his own. He couldn’t rely on a touch that wasn’t always gonna be there and he needed to figure out a way to keep his breathing even without the help.

No matter how much the help meant to him.

Aptitude for teamwork: uncertain.

‘Be careful, cadet,’ Pike said. ‘Look after yourself.’

‘Aye aye, sir,’ Jim replied. The words that meant so much tasted like nothing, echoing hollowly inside his mouth.

Jim stepped past the door after Spock and listened to the soft hiss of air as it slid shut behind him. He wiped the back of his neck and touched the sore spot next to it where Spock had been holding him in place.

‘I’m fine,’ Jim said.

‘I had not inquired after your present state,’ Spock replied. ‘However, considering my knowledge of your person, that I have been with you ever since your departure from Tarsus IV, that I have seen for myself how it affected you at the time, as well as my understanding of the tragedy of the incident in question, I must inform you that you are not, as you say, ‘fine’ at all.’

‘I said I was fine, Spock.’ Jim fought to keep the senseless, directionless, helpless anger at bay—but he’d been up for longer than he should’ve been and the day was starting to feel like a full week packed into twenty-four hours’ time. Not exactly his preferred form of keeping busy.

Spock could see right through him and, in a sense, that was a good thing; it kept Jim honest, forced him to be. Maybe that was the problem—wanting to lie to himself and not being able to because Vulcans always told the truth. They were direct, blunt, to the point, and still there were things Spock couldn’t have told Jim, things neither of them knew. It wasn’t Spock’s fault; Jim knew who to blame. Himself—except that wasn’t easy.

‘No matter how many times you insist upon its veracity, it will not make the statement any more accurate.’

‘Can’t you just accept what I’m telling you, Spock? Can’t you just let it go for once, instead of hanging on a damn technicality?’ Jim paused to breathe and the force, the nastiness of his own voice echoed back at him, hard enough that it took the wind out of his sails, the air out of his lungs. ‘Spock, I didn’t...’

‘I cannot allow you to state what is false in this instance as it will be detrimental.’ Spock was keeping his hands behind his back—where Jim couldn’t see them, so Jim couldn’t make an educated guess at what he was feeling, rather than what he was thinking. ‘It is a matter of grave importance, Jim. If your well-being is threatened—’

‘C’mon, Spock.’ Jim’s voice cracked again, though for some reason, he almost felt like laughing. ‘Just... Just let me be fine, just for a second.’

Spock fell silent. Jim regretted that silence, but he’d asked for it.

After a few unbearable moments, Spock cleared his throat. ‘In such a time,’ he began, ‘though it is not an instinct I find natural or logical, I believe there is a particular, human gesture that would be appropriate.’

Jim shook his head. ‘It’s fine, Spock.’ I’m fine, Spock. ‘It’s fine.’

‘Clearly,’ Spock replied, ‘it is not.’

Spock moved forward but for some reason, it didn’t cause Jim’s breath to tighten like he’d sucked in a mouthful of cold San Francisco air too quickly, making his lungs contract all at once. He just stood there like a practice dummy, like a damn Vulcan, only he shivered when Spock’s arms went around him—and Vulcans didn’t shiver.

It wasn’t a good hug, not even close to one. Spock’s arms went around Jim’s neck and settled on his shoulders, but he didn’t pull Jim in. That distance was left for Jim himself to close and he did it after a second’s reluctance, letting his arms wind around Spock’s waist and tugging him forward like he was about eight years younger than he was and still too stupid to know anything about Vulcan contact and what it meant.

He kinda missed those days for a variety of reasons—the least of which being that back then, when he curled up against Spock, he could bury his face against Spock’s chest and hide in the darkness there. But they were too close to the same height now for Jim to be able to take similar advantage. When Jim turned his face in toward Spock, his nose bumped the curve of Spock’s jaw.

To Jim’s knowledge, Spock’s skin had always been smooth, but there was a slight, telltale roughness causing friction along the bridge of Jim’s nose that he’d never noticed before.

The idea of Spock shaving was too weird for Jim to deal with on a good day. And this was definitely not the end of a good day.

Jim sagged into Spock’s arms, letting go of his better judgment, holding tight to his own wrist around Spock’s back where his hands had settled. He might not’ve wanted in on this hug in the first place but that didn’t mean he was about to let go all too soon, either.

Anyway, he knew Spock could hold him up. He’d do it without even letting on that was what he was doing, which was what made it all right.

‘The warning is fortuitous,’ Spock said. Even when he was being sensible, there was something soothing about his voice. Jim could hang onto that. He could trust it. ‘Although at present the advance information must seem troubling, it is preferable to be informed and prepared in order to better secure your safety.’

‘I’m not scared,’ Jim said.

‘I did not claim that you were.’ There was a tension in Spock’s hold that wouldn’t dissipate, like he thought he’d reached the optimal pressure and contact for the hug experiment and wouldn’t budge an inch from that ratio. It wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was dependable. Dependable was everything, everything good. ‘Indeed, I believe it is your lack of concern for your own well-being that drove Captain Pike to submit this evidence for your consideration, rather than keeping it to himself.’

It was a blessing to have people looking out for him. That’s what Jim should’vethought, how he should’ve been reacting. Not many people had the kind of support network he’d somehow lucked into. That much was obvious from the other—honestly, he didn’t know what to call them. Dead survivors?

It seemed too harsh, not to mention bitterly ironic.

There hadn’t been anyone to give them the head’s up in time, to warn them of the danger still out there.

If they were anything like Jim, they’d wanted to forget anything and everything that’d happened on Tarsus IV. And maybe that was why none of them had seen it coming.

But if anyone put themselves in harm’s way for Jim’s sake again, he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with it. If sacrifices had to be made then this time, Jim was gonna be the one making them.

‘I’m tired.’ Jim heard himself say it before he’d even planned what he wanted to come out with next. ‘I think—you wanna take me back to my room?’

It seemed fitting to end the night where they’d started. Jim couldn’t even begin to process how he was gonna handle any of this, but a good night’s sleep seemed like the place to start. In the morning maybe he could begin to do his own research into what’d happened to the other survivors. And maybe he’d ask Bones whether there was a chance Riley had been poisoned.

Not that Bones would take kindly to the idea or let it slide why Jim was asking. But then, Bones never made things easy, and Jim reminded himself—he liked things hard.

Jim felt the shift in Spock’s jaw as he worked his mouth, starting to speak, then stopping. Reassessing. Carrying on.

‘I would consider it a favor if you would allow me the opportunity to conduct my own personal research into this matter, in addition to Captain Pike’s current investigatory measures,’ Spock said. He hadn’t released Jim. Maybe he hadn’t been listening—but no, Spock heard everything. Even the stuff he didn’t want to. It was obvious he was looking to get this out first. ‘I understand that it is of highly personal concern; however, I feel obligated to inform you that my interest in the matter is of similar, if not superior, concern.’

‘Spock, you don’t have to worry about me.’

‘This has proven to be empirically untrue.’

‘I can take care of myself,’ Jim added.

‘Likewise false.’

‘Look,’ Jim began. His chest tightened. So did his fingers. He had two handfuls of Spock’s red cadet jacket and it was what he’d wanted—for a long time. Not just his arms around Spock, but how it’d happened specifically. Spock offering something not because he understood it but not because he didn’t understand it. Just acknowledging what it meant that Spock had experienced that kind of inspiration was enough to keep Jim settled, both feet on the ground. Not overburdened by gravity; not operating outside its rules and certainty. Like everything was normal. Like ‘fine’ was something either of them would ever be. Jim knew what he wasn’t but at the moment, he was less certain of what he was. ‘I know that whatever I say, chances are, it probably won’t stop you.’

‘There is a remarkably low possibility of that eventuality,’ Spock confirmed.

‘Because you can be as stubborn as I am, when you want to be,’ Jim continued. ‘Or need to be. Or... That’s not important. Look, Spock, it’s—the last time somebody tried to keep me safe because of what was happening—what happened on Tarsus—’ It was a miracle Jim’s throat didn’t shatter on the word, ‘—they died, Spock. My mom put me in that shuttle because there were only supplies for one. She chose me to save. Not herself, not my brother, just... Just me. Maybe you don’t know what that’s like. Maybe you can’t know. Most of the time I don’t even...’ Jim had to remind himself to breathe. His lungs hurt; the spaces between his ribs; the hollows in his bones. Everything was an old, raw ache. And if that connection he’d always had with Spock was as strong as it ever had been in the past, then Spock had to be feeling it now, too. Some of it. Ambient, drifting, white noise. Emotional static. Jim had to stay in control for Spock’s sake, if not his own. He hated the way it felt, wild and reckless and out of control, which meant that for somebody like Spock, it’d be unbearable. ‘I’m not letting that happen again.’

‘As I already made clear, I intend to monitor the situation. Track any related developments. Captain Pike has age and experience but not, I would remind you, a Vulcan’s attention to finer details.’

‘I’m gonna do you a favor,’ Jim said, ‘and not let him know you said that.’

Spock stiffened. Jim loved that, curiously, completely, and for whatever reason—because nobody else would have that reaction; because it was something only Spock would ever offer, something Jim couldn’t find anywhere else. There was nobody like him. He was so weird. ‘It was not an insult—merely a statement of facts. To imply that Captain Pike is Vulcan, I have reason to believe, would be taken as more of an insult, if not merely an outright lie.’

Spock,’ Jim said.

‘Jim,’ Spock replied.

The old way of doing things. The call and answer. Sometimes it was enough to realize there was somebody who’d answer you, somebody who was more than the echo of your own voice but who got that timing right, like they were a part of you. As much as he’d thought about it and as often as he felt things about it, Jim still didn’t have a name for what that was.

‘It could be nothing,’ Jim said finally.

‘Though I am not in favor of assuming the start of a pattern is merely a string of coincidences, it is difficult to answer the most essential question: Why now?’

Jim turned, as slightly as he could manage. That rough patch of skin on Spock’s jaw dragged in the opposite direction over his nose and he let that be enough; it had to be enough. Right now, if Jim allowed anybody else to get too close to the center of the problem, they could become collateral damage.

That wasn’t gonna happen.

‘Yeah.’ Jim patted Spock’s chest, using the slight impact to half-push, half-pull away from him. ‘Yeah, well, Spock—if anyone can figure that out, it’s probably you.’

‘I will also, as Captain Pike suggested, be keeping a close watch over you,’ Spock added. Then, remembering something, he asked, ‘Would you find a drink of water useful or comforting at this time?’

‘Honestly? The only thing I want is to lie down and wake up tomorrow to find out today was one hell of a weird dream.’

Spock returned his hands to the place behind his back, the spot at the base of his spine where Jim’d been holding him, just not for long. Never long enough. His face was like he’d always been—something solid, reliable, still and unmoving enough that Jim knew he had someone to lean on. But there was something else in it that he couldn’t place.

‘That is not something I am able to provide,’ Spock said.

‘I know, Spock. It’s just...wishful thinking.’

‘I can, however, accompany you on your return to your dormitory room. This would be advisable, given the potential danger.’

Jim accepted it, at least for now. Give in a little, and maybe Spock wouldn’t have to be as vigilant.

For the time being, it was the best way of keeping him safe.

*

Chapter Text

In matters of Jim’s safety, there were no measures that could be considered overly precautious.

It was true that Captain Pike had done them a considerable favor by informing them in advance of the potential danger. To Spock’s knowledge, he had been breaking at least two Starfleet regulations: first by becoming involved in the personal lives of the cadets; second by also allowing that same cadet to investigate the circumstances surrounding the existing mystery himself.

Campus security had been posted outside Cadet Riley’s door, but no such private detail had been granted to Jim. This was no doubt because Captain Pike and anyone else aware of the possible threat did not wish to cause undue alarm among the student body.

There was always the likelihood that, in addition, they did not wish to alert any culprit to the fact that a distinct pattern of certain survivors of Tarsus IV being targeted had already been discovered. It would be easier to catch a perpetrator if they believed themselves, their motives, and their crimes undetected, thereby encouraging them to relax into a state of carelessness, in which they might more easily commit ruinous error.

Spock saw the logic in each choice that was made. He also determined that logic, in this matter, was not the only factor upon which they could base their decisions moving forward.

As a result of the private meeting with Captain Pike, Jim spent more time in his room than he had ever cared to before. He was not, as Spock had surmised, hiding, but rather doing the extent of his research on the private terminal he shared with his roommate, Cadet Hendorff, instead of on the public terminals in any of the campus libraries.

The advantage of being able to work in secrecy far outweighed the benefits Jim found in his usual social exploits. The marked shift in behavioral patterns troubled Spock but he could not in all good logic call the choice into question.

Jim had done what Captain Pike had intimated he ought to; he had taken the matter into his own hands. He was clever enough—and had a personal eye for the material which none of them could hope to replicate—that he might have been able to draw a conclusion where Captain Pike had failed to do so.

Spock could not regret the sudden shift in their focus. He knew better than anyone still living how the events on Tarsus IV had shaped Jim’s childhood and this was one instance where a shared past could outweigh the matter of present relationships. Therefore, Spock could not draw or analyze any final data from their date until such a time as when their minds were not preoccupied by other, more serious subjects.

On occasion, it seemed to cross Jim’s mind: while lifting his head from the terminal to accept the apple from Spock’s lunch tray, or late in the evening when he answered the door to find Spock on the other side, garnering a lecture as to how he should inquire after his visitor’s identity before simply opening the door to anyone who might be waiting.

‘I know your knock,’ had been Jim’s reply, and he’d stared dutifully at the doorframe after with a concentrated effort to avoid meeting Spock’s eye.

What no one would discuss was the possibility that it was the former Governor Kodos himself who might have been conducting these murders. Elimination of any eyewitnesses would be of paramount importance if he had survived the reclamation of the colony by the Federation and now desired to live his life anew, without facing repercussions for the decisions he had made regarding the fates of the colonists he had been charged to protect.

Spock did not indulge in speculation or idle daydreams but he could conclude that, were he ever to encounter the man himself, he could not be held responsible for behaving in a manner unbefitting of a Vulcan.

Their new routine held for several days: Jim conducting his private research and Spock reviewing the medical reports of Kodos’ death. His body had been damaged too badly by extensive burns for an autopsy to yield conclusive results and there had been nothing left to identify his remains. Given the nature of the evidence—hardly irrefutable, primarily circumstantial—and given that Jim seemed determined to remain in self-imposed solitary confinement until he had come up with something of worth, Spock resolved that they alone could no longer be the only ones informed of Jim’s situation. Another ally had become necessary.

There was in the very least a third party who—while highly unpleasant—had demonstrated in the past a reasonable enthusiasm for keeping Jim alive and well to the best of his abilities. It would not be a stretch to assume those skills could be put to use in this situation, although Spock could not yet divine the need for a medical student when Jim’s injury was, as of yet, merely theoretical.

Spock’s personal feelings regarding Leonard McCoy were immaterial. What mattered most was Jim’s safety, and although Spock did not require the additional support, he deemed it rational to corroborate with a third, comparatively impartial party.

‘Well, look what the cat dragged in,’ McCoy said, glancing up from a current slide sample only briefly.

‘As pets of most kinds, especially mammals, are prohibited on the Academy campus,’ Spock replied, ‘am I to assume that this phrase is one of the insignificant breakers of ice you favor at the commencement of any conversation?’

‘My God,’ McCoy said. ‘Anybody ever teach you how to say a good, old-fashioned hello?’

‘I could ask the same of you. Regardless, the feline did not drag me in.’

McCoy sighed, slid his microscope away, and started on a series of hurried notes. ‘Now if only she’d drag you out... All right, Spock, I’ll bite: to what do I owe the distinct pleasure?’

McCoy did not appear pleased by any definition of the word. Jim had informed Spock, on an early morning prior to their current concerns, that no matter how long he spent studying on Earth it was possible the only thing Spock would never learn was the specifics of sarcasm. When Spock had replied that he did not see its practical uses, Jim had implied that one had only to observe its employment by ‘Bones’ in order to grasp its many functionalities.

Spock remained unconvinced. This exchange had done nothing to revolutionize his conclusion.

‘You know, you keep making that face, it’s liable to freeze that way,’ McCoy added. ‘Hey—there’s my thesis right there. Popular superstition turns out to be the reason why Vulcans can’t make any more faces than the only one you ever get to see. Well, the title needs work to punch it up a bit, but I think I’m onto something here. Might even make a journal or two, save plenty of folks some heartache.’

‘I fail to see why it is that Jim is so eager to seek out your conversational offerings, considering they are without focus or function,’ Spock said. ‘Nevertheless, I have not come to you to discuss this disturbing tendency. Do you know of somewhere we may speak privately?’

McCoy tugged at his collar. ‘Uh-uh. There’s no way I’m carrying on with you somewhere there aren’t any witnesses.’

‘It is a matter of Jim’s safety that I seek to discuss.’

McCoy’s frown recalled to mind, in distinct and unexpected ways, of the lines on Father’s face when he returned after a brief foray into Tellarite negotiations.

McCoy pushed away from the research desk on his rolling chair and stood. ‘All right. Like I said already: I’ll bite.’

‘I would prefer it if you refrained from that specific action—’

‘I mean, you’ve got me interested. Come on. I know a good place. And here’s to hoping I’m not signing my own death warrant.’

McCoy’s ‘good place’ revealed itself to be a storage closet where samples of various viruses were being stored in test-tubes in alphabetized wall units. McCoy crossed his arms over his chest and instructed Spock to ‘shoot’, which Spock had come to understand earlier in his dealings with the man was not a literal order but rather an encouragement to speak—as though one was required. As Spock had been the one to seek out McCoy, rather than the other way around, it should have been patently obvious that no coaxing was necessary.

‘Tell me,’ Spock began, ‘what has Jim told you of his past?’

McCoy huffed. ‘You mean aside from the crazy childhood on Vulcan surrounded by a bunch of cold-blooded types and one poor, sweet woman who might as well be a saint for putting up with it all?’ he asked.

Spock raised a brow. ‘My mother is not ‘poor’ by any means. Sweet, as I understand it, is a relative term. I will accept the latter description but the former is wholly incorrect.’

‘Every time you say something like that, Spock, I stand by that choice of adjectives even more.’ McCoy resettled his arms in an opposite pattern over his chest. ‘Jim’s told me some. Not everything. Not how he wound up with you in the first place. Told me some cock-and-bull story about a giant teddy bear and a killer desert lizard, but if you and I can agree on one thing, it’s Jim’s tendency to exaggerate when it comes to the personal.’

‘If you are referring to the sehlat, I-Chaya,’ Spock replied, ‘then, in this instance, Jim was not exaggerating in the slightest.’

‘So he fought off a le-whatever single handed and rescued you from certain death when he was only nine years old, huh?’

Spock reconsidered his assessment. ‘Elements of the story were truthful. However, it seems that he has embellished certain aspects in order to emphasize his capabilities. Unnecessary, as they are already commendable enough without exaggeration.’

‘Yeah; that’s Jim all over. Can’t live with him...’ McCoy cleared his throat. ‘And before you ask—no, that wasn’t a threat. Another common Earth saying about the people we like the most just so happening to drive us the craziest.’

Spock nodded. This, at least, was a sentiment he could comprehend. ‘If Jim has not spoken to you already of his history prior to his arrival on Vulcan and his time in the house of my father, then I believe he has his reasons, however illogical they may be. Nonetheless, in light of recent information, logic must outweigh illogic—for his own benefit.’

‘Would you spit it out, Spock? You’re starting to make me nervous.’

‘I was under the impression that I regularly made you nervous.’

‘That too.’ McCoy’s eyebrows bunched together. ‘But now you’re making me extra nervous.’

‘I have reason to believe that Jim’s life may be in danger,’ Spock said.

McCoy snorted. ‘Well, if that’s all—what makes today different from any other day? If it’s not the atmosphere trying to kill Jim, it’s Jim trying to kill Jim. If I worried about every time that cock-eyed dingbat put himself in harm’s way for no reason other than ‘cause it was there, Bones, I wouldn’t have time to breathe, much less operate!’

There were too many colloquial anomalies in that pronouncement for Spock to sift through all of them without wasting valuable time on the task. It sufficed to say that McCoy’s opinion of Jim’s ability to keep himself safe was predominantly negative. This demonstrated a lack of sufficient appreciation for Jim’s cleverness and skill, in Spock’s opinion, but he had not intended to engage in a debate of technicalities. Still, he experienced momentary uncertainty, sparked no doubt by irrational guilt.

It was a human instinct to allow Jim to retain his privacy in the face of a greater threat. No Vulcan would prioritize the secrets of their upbringing over the preservation of their own life. It was not logical.

At least, if any had, they had not lived to then record their decisions for the reference of future researchers.

‘Jim was a colonist on Tarsus IV,’ Spock said. It was best in matters of sensitivity to stick with clear and simple facts. ‘He was present for the famine, as well as what is now commonly referred to as the massacre that occurred on that same planet. Though human historical record is prone, like Jim, to hyperbole and exaggeration, in this instance the term is factually quite accurate.’

‘Jesus.’ McCoy sucked in a breath, leaning his weight against the back wall of the storage closet, his arms crossed more tightly than ever, as if the posture could ward off further bad news. ‘Though I can’t say I’m surprised he never told me. That’s not the kind of thing you work into any old conversation.’

‘The age of the conversation in question would be irrelevant,’ Spock said. It was of equal importance to keep McCoy on topic in order to accomplish the distribution of information with maximum efficiency. The conversation was not one on which Spock wished to linger and McCoy was liable to wander. ‘You must also understand that Jim was one of the rare few survivors of the massacre with the dubious advantage of having seen Governor Kodos in person before the executions began. Though he was young, it is nonetheless possible to assume that his retention of the memory would remain intact to this day.’

‘I wouldn’t think him liable to forget a trauma like that anytime soon, Spock,’ McCoy replied.

The absence of his usual barbs or colorful exclamations seemed to indicate a respect for the gravity of the information being imparted as well a shared concern that Spock accomplish his purpose with a lack of interruptions for optimal speed.

It was not a pleasant business. The atmosphere of the storage closet did nothing to dissuade Spock from the stubborn reminder that what they were doing was secretive, not to mention operating outside common societal bounds. It was not his preferred method of accomplishing any task, but Jim’s situation demanded creative thinking.

Spock would not place his preferences ahead of Jim’s safety.

‘Jim’s position is significant because there are a growing number of involved parties who believe that what was presumed to be the body of Governor Kodos discovered on Tarsus IV may have been a decoy,’ Spock continued, ‘perhaps designed and conveniently set in place that he might escape the consequences of his actions and deter the authorities from mounting a thorough and exhaustive pursuit. I will forward the medical examiner’s findings to your terminal so that you may review them and judge their qualities for yourself. However, if this hypothesis is true, then it must also follow that Governor Kodos may be alive and well in the galaxy.’

‘Son of a bitch,’ McCoy muttered.

Spock decided to allow the profanity to slide in this instance. ‘Furthermore, it has been brought to Jim’s attention by Captain Pike, who has been monitoring the situation, that several other existing eyewitnesses have been eliminated under mysterious circumstances, all relatively recently.’  

‘Hang on a second.’ McCoy was no longer utilizing the wall for balance. Rather, he became animated all at once, surging forward as if he intended to pace, although the space they occupied was narrow and cluttered with various sensitive medical vials, any one of which could be broken by a sudden movement. ‘Just hold on there, Spock. Are you trying to tell me Jim’s life is in danger for some reason other than his usual ham-handed maneuvers?’

‘I have been told that, on more than one occasion, you voiced suspicions of poison as the root cause of Cadet Riley’s illness.’ It would be simpler to answer McCoy’s question by posing one of his own. ‘Would it clarify matters if I informed you in strictest confidence that he too was among the listed witnesses and survivors of the Tarsus IV massacre?’

Clarify matters?’ McCoy’s complexion was mottled, an unhealthy tomato red with spots high on his cheeks, bleakly pale in others. It was possible he required one of his own hypodermic injections. Emotions, at times, behaved in a similar fashion to an allergic reaction. They could be equally detrimental to one’s well-being, as well. ‘I’d say it confounds them more than clarifies a damn thing. Spock, do you mean to tell me that you think—’

‘I have formulated no theories of my own at the present time. To do so would be to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of a hasty conclusion—a course that is as unwise as it is dangerous. It would serve no purpose. Captain Pike himself did not say that he believed without his share of reasonable doubts that such a situation has truly come to pass. He merely offered the information as a cautionary measure. His concern for Jim was prudent. I believe he acted in an exemplary, if highly unconventional, fashion.’

McCoy pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and shook his head against the pressure. ‘Tell me, Spock—why is it that when Jim’s involved with a damn thing, I’m the one who gets the headache?’

‘If this is so, then it may reassure you to learn that Jim suffers from headaches of his own. You are not alone in this regard. Is it true that, for humans, the old adage is accurate, and misery enjoys company?’

No, damn it, it couldn’t be farther from the truth!’ In a fit of passion—Spock understood its inspiration, if not its chosen expression—McCoy jabbed a finger in Spock’s direction, nearly connecting with Spock’s chest during multiple repetitions of the gesture. Spock held his ground and did not flinch, awaiting such a time as McCoy tired of the motion and shook his hand loose from cramping. ‘What the hell kind of a doctor would I plan on making if I enjoyed the misery of others?’

‘Your chosen career path is inconsequential at this time. I sought to inform you of the details as I know them because I believed your area of study would allow for another perspective on the matter of General Kodos’ remains. Your assistance would be appreciated. Likewise,’ Spock continued, ‘Jim is accustomed to your erratic behavior, as well as your penchant for drawing blood from him at unexpected intervals. If you were to conduct these familiar experiments in order to monitor his health and prevent what has befallen Cadet Riley from happening to Jim—’

‘I’ll go get my hypos,’ McCoy said.

Spock was satisfied with this outcome. McCoy was not satisfied with anything, but at least he was capable of maintaining focus and determination in the face of his dissatisfaction.

‘Now, I don’t expect you to have a poker face that isn’t just your regular face,’ McCoy added, gathering his needed materials while sacrificing precision for speed, ‘but Jim’s smart.’

‘A fact I have sought to remind you of on numerous occasions.’

‘Yeah, yeah; I know my patients. What I’m trying to say is, Jim’s going to know if we’re in cahoots.’

Spock paused. ‘I do not believe I am familiar the meaning of the word ‘cahoots’.’

‘It means if we’re working together. Ganging up on him. Two against one. You know as well as I do that it won’t matter what we’re doing it for—if he smells something fishy, thinks we’re talking about him behind his back, then he’s going to put his guard up. Try to show us he can take care of himself without a little help from his friends. Damn fool likes to think he’s invincible—but nobody’s seen Cadet Riley hanging on by a thread like I have. Gets worse in the nighttime. All the miracles of modern science and some people, you just can’t figure out a way to help.’

Spock watched as McCoy turned away, briefly resting in the midst of his whirlwind of activity, one hand braced on his research desk, the other perched on his hip. He had bowed his head and Spock could not extract from any previous experience what this posture on him could have meant.

‘Jim is not helpless,’ Spock said at last, having given McCoy perhaps too much time to recover.

‘You say that now—but you never saw him get taken two falls out of three by a God-damn hamburger.’

‘And if you believe that I would allow anything to happen to him, then you are mistaken. A doctor’s primary skill lies in observation and diagnosis.’

‘You might be one hell of a Vulcan, Spock,’ McCoy said, ‘but Jim’s one hell of a pain in the ass.’

‘I have not experienced pain in that area in regards to Jim.’ But, Spock wondered, had Jim caused him to experience pain? Did the idea of Jim’s pain elicit a similar, pre-emptive response, however illogical?

Despite the gravity of their conversation, McCoy emitted a short, disbelieving  laugh. ‘The two of you are a real pair, aren’t you?’

That, Spock thought, remained to be seen.

He gave additional consideration to McCoy’s words, as it would have been folly to seek out his counsel and aid only to dismiss the former entirely. It was not without merit to assume that Jim’s skills of perception would lead him to the realization that McCoy was in possession of new information that had given him reason to be even more solicitous than ever toward Jim’s person.

Bearing that in mind, it was therefore McCoy who ought to have been alerted to exercise maximum caution, not Spock.

Spock’s behavior became, naturally, more circumspect. He was already well-versed in the practice of spending large quantities of time with Jim without betraying his most personal thoughts. Indeed, there had been a time when it seemed that Spock could not properly convey his intent even when conveying his intent was what he desired.

The matter of their relationship, while now undoubtedly of secondary importance, continued to weigh on his mind. They were not yet, as McCoy had suggested, ‘a real pair’.

The sensation was not consistent, but rather chose to surface with unpredictable frequency, most often in the rare moments when Spock and Jim convened in Jim’s room to share the findings of their day.

Cadet Hendorff was studying for a position in security and protection and therefore his schedule had many classes at late hours when Jim and Spock had already been released from their academic commitments. This allowed for a convenient amount of privacy, although Spock had also long suspected that his presence in the room was something of a deterrent for Cadet Hendorff, who seemed to find Vulcans unnerving.

Whatever his reasons were for being absent, that absence gave Spock the opportunity to study while observing the taut tension of Jim’s shoulders in silence. More often than not, the results of their research came to nothing of note or merit. There was no additional information to be drawn from the case files that Captain Pike had pointed them to and no common element between the separate deaths to link them by method or even motive. The coincidence of their shared past on Tarsus IV was undeniable—but beyond that, it seemed to be impossible to locate any corroborating proof.

The lack of progress did not dissuade Jim; however, his usual zeal for a challenge had taken on a new and brittle edge. He seemed at odds with himself, the light of enthusiasm in his eyes sometimes too bright with fervor.

It was not concern for his own life that drove him, Spock understood, but rather an extremely personal desire to see Governor Kodos put to justice for his crimes. This was not a motivation with which Spock could find fault, although he would have preferred if Jim would demonstrate slightly more primary concern for his own predicament.

It was two hours past their designated mealtime when Jim finally turned away from the terminal to examine what Spock had brought up. The bulk of the tray bore cold food, dishes that would not have their integrity compromised by the wait Spock had anticipated they would experience before they were consumed. Jim picked through his salad for the small chunks of cheese it contained, eating them one by one with his fingers as he crowded his way onto the bottom bunk with Spock, ducking down and knocking their knees together.

‘You have a fork,’ Spock felt obligated to point out.

Jim licked his fingers deliberately. ‘Tastes better this way.’

There were faint shadows under his eyes, notable because of the pallor of his skin. Even the smile he attempted to put on for Spock was a pale imitation of the usual expression. It would have been preferable to do away with the charade entirely, but as the effort at maintaining normalcy seemed more for Jim’s benefit than Spock’s, he allowed it to remain unchallenged.

Had they been truly alone, in a room that either party could claim ownership of, Spock might have seen fit to reinstate their old sleeping arrangements, with none of the attached stipulations of a deeper relationship. As this was impossible, he initiated some smaller measure of contact, touching the side of his index finger to Jim’s temple.

Jim twitched away, then immediately leaned into the gesture, indicating that his initial response had been one of surprise rather than an outright rejection of contact. Jim required two hands to hold his sandwich, an act which naturally delayed any attempt he might have made to return and prolong the touch.

‘M fine, Spock,’ he insisted around a mouthful of processed meat and lettuce. ‘Just busy, you know? Bones says they’re not letting Riley have visitors, but I thought maybe I could talk to him, see what he thinks. Or what he knows, if he saw anything fishy. That is, if he’s talking. Bones says he’s doing better. But Bones also says it’s not like he could still be alive and doing worse, so...’

‘Your continued insistence on being ‘fine’ does you no credit, Jim. No one has implied that being ‘fine’ is required or commendable at present.’

‘Some things you don’t have to imply,’ Jim said. ‘They imply themselves.’

That this was an illogical statement mattered little in the face of its conviction. Spock recalled those days when the Kobayashi Maru paradox was Jim’s prime obsession. He had not believed such persistence would prove preferable to any other, but it was not his belief that mattered most.

The vein, the skin, and the pulse beneath Spock’s fingertips all betrayed the telltale signs of stress and fatigue, along with a deeper set of emotional reactions that were erratic and hot. These were the undercurrents that would have threatened to drown a Vulcan, or burn him, whereas humans were accustomed to at least a base level of turmoil at all times when it came to their sentimentality. Surely this should have served, ideally, as a form of inoculation.

Yet Jim had not been trained in the Vulcan way, even though he had seen for himself how it could be beneficial. He had never chosen to adhere to those strict principles of self-governance. He was tired and, because he was tired, he had even less control over his emotions than he would have at his command otherwise—which had always been, in the grander scheme of things, a negligible amount.

There was sadness—this, Spock found with relative ease, a discordant note struck against a rhythm that he had always found to be positive, eager, and hopeful. The sadness was not all Jim sought to ignore rather than to silence; it was fed by anger and frustration, grief and loss, and very old pain, all of which had been born from the shadow of pure uncertainty.

If Spock had ever considered his position as a son of two worlds a difficult one, then he could not imagine how Jim must have felt being torn between myriad positions and impulses, none of which provided solid ground for him to steady himself, maintain equilibrium, and gain perspective.

The shifting was ceaseless. Jim’s pulse was not the regular, familiar, steady beat to which Spock was accustomed, something he had considered himself too wise to take for granted—when in truth he could not have been more wrong.

Above the pulse at Jim’s temple was the damp prickle of faint sweat and the line of Jim’s soft hair, which now stood on end due to the presence of Spock’s hand, the natural physical reaction displayed by hair follicles regarding any unexpected touch. Spock recognized that JIm was attempting to regulate his breathing—as though at last he had seen the wisdom of Spock’s counsel and sought, at a time of great internal upheaval, to apply himself toward meditative theory in order to calm the agitation in his mind and heart.

The two were connected. There was no line of severance to separate them. What he thought was also what he felt and Spock tilted his head, though that brought him no new insight, no new angle, to broaden his limited perspective.

Jim left him without equilibrium. He was a test—a paradox—and, perhaps, even an obsession. He was human, which implied frailty; he was strong, which contradicted that implication. It should have been a fault in logic to trust someone while simultaneously worrying for them and because of them.

Spock brushed Jim’s hair back from the shell of Jim’s ear and Jim shivered, finally lifting his eyes to meet Spock’s gaze. He questioned with a gaze of his own; he wondered and felt and denied all at the same time. But he was also, however fleetingly, torn from the stormy center of his own emotions as they turned inward and something rare and bright passed across his face—the eternal curiosity that marked his personality, for better or for worse and often for both.

The suddenness of a shrill alarm split their attention; had such focus been a solid rather than an intangible, it would have shattered at the sound. Jim twisted free and Spock turned toward the direction of the noise even as his ears rang with its echoes.

‘What the hell was that?’ Jim asked.

‘As of this time, I cannot answer with any certainty,’ Spock replied. ‘It will require further analysis before I am able to offer a theory as to—’

However, whatever it was, it was not a singular occurrence.

Spock had marked a twenty-nine second interval when it sounded again, too brief to be pinpointed, although Spock could be certain they were not sitting directly above it. Jim, for whom action was an immediate instinct, had already moved to stand, but Spock caught him by his arm at the elbow.

‘I believe I do recognize that sound,’ he said. ‘I have heard that frequency before.’

‘Yeah,’ Jim replied. ‘Me too. We just had a practical on disarming phasers set to overload.’

‘As did we,’ Spock said. ‘Yet what would a phaser set to overload be doing here?’

‘Don’t ask.’ Jim’s face was grim. ‘It’s not another practical, that’s for sure. Get out of here, Spock. My time was the best in the class—I’ll take care of this.’

‘The search would be swifter with two parties,’ Spock replied.

There were many places in a typical two-person dormitory room that could hide a handheld phaser. The weapon was not overly large and neither Cadet Hendorff nor Jim displayed exemplary tidiness. Jim dragged his desk away from the wall to check the space behind it, opening all the drawers one by one. Spock examined the area beneath the bed and in the closet beside it, training his ears on the sound as it intensified. It had a strange echoing quality which made it difficult to locate the source.

Rather, it seemed specifically designed to instill a hopelessness in anyone who sought to expose it. Fortunately, Spock was beyond such emotions and Jim could hold them off longer than any other human he had observed, so long as he had a task to turn his attention on.

‘Look, Spock—seriously, get out of here.’ Jim threw aside a pile of coats, venting his frustration on inanimate objects as he was prone to do. ‘There’s at least fifteen other people on this floor and if it does overload, it’ll hit more than just this room.’

‘You suggest that I spearhead an evacuation initiative that would be made irrelevant should we locate the phaser in time.’ Spock spoke in an undertone in order to focus his auditory abilities toward the sound of the phaser and not Jim’s voice.

It was a successful tactic.

Despite the confusion of echoes and the whirlwind of distractions Jim’s actions provided, Spock noticed there was a ventilation grate mounted to the wall near the ceiling. The presence of a phaser inside the shaft would account for the specific reverberating quality that Spock had noted earlier.

He retrieved one of Jim’s tools from the desk where it had been thrown and dragged a nearby chair to the wall. Spock stood on the latter for leverage, undoing the screws that fastened the metal grating to the wall one by one with the former, dropping them into his hand for later safekeeping.

As he had suspected, the phaser was there within the ventilation shaft, beginning to pulse with faint, brightening light as its circuits overheated.

‘Jim,’ Spock said.

‘Give it to me.’ Jim held his hands up.

There was no time for reason, only compliance. Spock’s hands were full and Jim had demonstrated an aptitude for this precise skill. He threw the phaser into Jim’s waiting hands, where Jim dropped immediately into a cross-legged position and set about dismantling it one piece at a time.

Spock had always known of Jim’s talent with machinery. The hoverbike had been his first indication, but the radio and his insistence on being granted access to computer terminal servers that did not belong to him were only a handful of subsequent examples.

Spock had known this, but he had never observed firsthand how Jim’s fingers moved when granted with a puzzle. It was as though he had retained in his mind a set of exact blueprints to deal with this particular conundrum; there were no hints or traces of hesitation in his movements, only quick, decisive action. He detached the barrel and disengaged the weapon system, not only resetting the circuitry but removing it, which was the ultimate precaution.

The loud, warning whine of the phaser ceased at once—and it was only then that Jim’s shoulders sagged, body bowed over the disassembled remains of the weapon in his lap. Spock stepped down off the chair and sat in it, more heavily than he had intended to.

‘You’re not very good at following orders, Spock.’ Jim’s voice was distant, clinically appraising the situation. ‘I hope that’s in your file.’

‘Had I left, you might not have located the phaser with enough time to disable it,’ Spock replied.

He could understand the impulse—that it would have given Jim peace of mind to be in danger alone without having to split his concern to encompass anyone else’s actions or safety. But Spock could not encourage it. It was too often that Jim sought to deal with his problems in his own way and without seeking the counsel or assistance of others. In a child, such behavior could be excused, but as an adult, Spock judged he would have to see the necessity of taking on aid.

‘If it had gone off...’ Jim said—although it was not like him to indulge in speculation when it came to a negative outcome—then swallowed. ‘Look, you should’ve gone for floor evacuation, all right? It was the most logical thing to do.’

There was bitterness in his voice when he spoke that word, as though logic had betrayed him in the past. Yet logic was not capable of betrayal. It had not been logic at all that turned against him when he was a child on Tarsus IV but General Kodos—though Spock could not presume such a reminder would be appreciated or even beneficial at the present moment.

Jim sat, shoulders still tense, with the pieces of the dismantled phaser split between his open hands and his lap. He was in this state when the door to his shared dormitory room slid open to reveal Hendorff and a few others, names Spock had memorized but saw no reason to repeat. Their mixed expressions exhibited concern, but concern was not their primary objective in peering over Hendorff’s high, broad shoulder into the room.

Gossip had already begun to spread in barely hushed whispers. It was equal parts apprehensive and delighted. There was no obvious danger and therefore the excitement they experienced went unchecked by anything resembling sobriety.

If someone were to demand what had happened, Spock could not have lied about the event even if he had wished to. As it stood, he was not certain what he wished.

The threat to Jim’s life had heretofore been a potentiality, not a matter of when but a matter of if. Now that it had come to pass, Captain Pike’s theory was no longer without specific evidence.

The threat was very real.

Jim was the next target—and whoever was targeting him had been able to breach security measures within Starfleet’s dormitories. They had been inside of Jim’s room; there was nothing to suggest they would not enter again, perhaps while Jim was sleeping, perhaps even while Spock was not there to lend him aid.

But Spock’s thoughts were not logical; neither was the swell of a burgeoning emotion that threatened to crash against and past his thoughts, overpowering reason altogether.

‘What the hell are you doing in our room, Kirk?’ Hendorff demanded, too loudly. ‘I swear, if you’ve screwed with any of my stuff, this time I’m gonna—’

Spock stood.

Jim was already on his feet. His grin might have fooled those less familiar with him or less attuned to the subtleties of his expressions, but it did not fool Spock. It was a lie; it was only the beginning of future lies.

‘A little extra-curricular studying,’ Jim said, tossing the shell of the dismantled phaser high with one hand and snatching it out of the air with the other. ‘Trying to beat the record I already set for how fast it can be done. I’d suggest you try it out sometime yourself, Hendorff—it’s invaluable practice—but honestly, I don’t want my half of the room blown up. It’d be a pain in the ass having to move during midterms ‘cause my roommate exploded the entire hall.’

It was more unkind than it should have been. Jim shouldered past the crowd, head down.

‘Jim,’ Spock said.

Jim turned but did not stop. ‘Yeah?’

‘Do you intend to speak with Captain Pike about these developments?’

Jim shrugged. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Of course I do.’

Spock could not have been certain that it was a lie. But he believed it was, and was troubled not only by Jim’s demeanor but also his own indulgence of that peculiarly human impulse known as the ‘hunch’.

*

Chapter Text

Jim didn’t speak with Captain Pike about the developments. Hell, he didn’t even intend to. In this case, what Spock didn’t know—what Spock wasn’t around for—wouldn’t hurt him.

Literally.

That was logic, after all. Pure and simple. Jim hadn’t grown up on Vulcan to ignore such obvious rationale when it was right there in front of him.

If somebody was gunning for him, then Jim couldn’t risk Spock’s stubbornness while putting him in harm’s way, not again. He trusted his own luck but he didn’t have the same leeway to trust anybody else’s.

This wasn’t about Spock. This wasn’t something they could share. It’d come out of the part of Jim’s life that happened before Spock became his life and these weren’t Spock’s consequences to suffer.

Especially since he hadn’t acted logically, himself. He’d stayed and Jim slept in brief bursts, naps that didn’t give him time to have nightmares about anything.

Avoiding Spock wasn’t easy, but it could be done. Jim just had to shake up his schedule, be in places he wasn’t usually—and, truth be told, that was also one way to thwart any other plans currently in the works for finishing the job the overloaded phaser hadn’t been able to get done.

Bones was trying to shadow him, too, but if Jim could give Spock the slip then he could give it to anyone.

‘You’re always welcome to join me for the Kobayashi Maru,’ he told Bones, and that was all he needed to get Bones off his back.

The truth was, if Jim was gonna throw himself up against a no-win scenario, then he preferred it to be simulated. All the prep and reading and strategizing he’d done for the Kobayashi Maru didn’t give him the first clue on how to track down a ghost who was maybe, possibly, trying to kill him.

There were facts—and then there was a whole lot more speculation. Captain Pike’s warnings had been just that, right up until they weren’t anymore, and a ghost from Jim’s past had almost taken out the entire fifth floor of his dormitory.

Phasers didn’t set themselves to overload and then plant themselves in a vent. Hendorff and Jim had knocked heads more than once over a bunch of little things, but the guy wasn’t murderous.

So someone was out there looking for Jim, trying to knock him off. It was tough to imagine Kodos blending in with campus security, even tougher to imagine he’d risk coming back to Earth after what’d happened on Tarsus IV. It was far enough back that Jim’s memories were getting hazy, but it hadn’t even been a full decade.

If a guy was gonna go to all the trouble of faking his own death, then it followed that he’d want to be patient with the cleanup.

Unless the guy all of a sudden had a reason for wanting to live above board, somewhere a little more civilized than the ass-end of space.

It made Jim break out in a cold sweat, skin hot beneath the chilly damp, to picture Kodos getting any kind of life at all. Not after he’d ended so many others on Tarsus IV. It didn’t seem fair and it definitely wasn’t right.

He’d talked himself into believing that the best revenge he could have was living and doing right by the Kirk name, since he was the only person left who could, but now it seemed like someone else was trying to put a stop to that too. There had only been a handful of eyewitnesses before. Now, that number was dwindling, down to Riley and Jim on Earth; if there were any more, they’d never come forward, and maybe they were the smart ones for keeping their mouths shut.

Jim couldn’t do that. If there were ever trials, then he wanted to be front and center—he wanted to give the testimony that locked Kodos away for good. Except that kind of personal justice came with sacrifices. He’d put himself out there, for better or worse.

Knowing that made it difficult for Jim to hang with his usual crowd. He hadn’t seen Lenore in days, not since Spock’d taken him to the movies, although she’d written him a few personal messages, sending suggestions about a couple maneuvers he’d wanted to try in the Kobayashi Maru. Uhura grilled him on the pronunciation of a few Vulcan verbs in between her language prep courses and he saw Scotty in passing, on his way to a disciplinary hearing over something to do with a dog,of all things.

‘A beagle, technically. Ah, anyway, I’m sure he’ll turn up—eventually,’ Scotty kept saying, although the way he was wringing his hands told a different story.

Everyone was dealing with their own stuff. That was nice, in a way, because it gave Jim something to focus on besides his own problems: seeing life go on around him like he hadn’t found a phaser stashed in his vent.

One of Lenore’s follow-up emails had included a schedule of when the Kobayashi Maru test was being administered and—more importantly—when it wasn’t. Along with the attachment, her message read: Couldn’t hurt to get in a little unsupervised practice ;)

Coming from anyone else, Jim would’ve expected to bypass the doors and sneak in only to find some kind of romantic set-up, like a date ambush. But Lenore wasn’t like anyone else and, when Jim snuck into the test chamber on a quiet Thursday evening while everybody else studying for their practicals, it was completely empty, lights dimmed for the night and the artificial bridge nothing more than a clinical assortment of shadowy silhouettes.

It wasn’t easy to get the test up and running by himself, but Jim didn’t need easy, not right now. The test was normally given to a group, but it only counted for one—the guy in the captain’s chair.

Jim could let the rest slide as he settled into his seat in the dark, the flickering light of the simulation screen in front of him providing the necessary illumination. For a little while, he could worry about the imaginary lives of the crew of the Kobayashi Maru instead of his own, which only felt imaginary when he thought about it for too long.

No one else was calling the shots. There were no supervisors behind the one-way observation glass above the simulation bridge and he didn’t have to pay attention to a bored group of cadets who would’ve preferred to be anywhere else but play-acting the same scenario for the umpteenth time.

Jim rubbed his palm over the arm of the captain’s chair, tightening his grip until his knuckles creaked. The Kobayashi Maru was another problem that he hadn’t been able to solve—not yet, anyway—but the stakes were different. This was a test. You could pass a test, ace it, even sneak your way into turning a question you didn’t understand into an answer that you did. In fact, Jim was glad that he was the only one on the fake bridge, because that meant it was him and the status screens flashing and nothing, nobody else.

His choices. His mistakes. His successes and also his failures.

Although he wanted to steer as clear as he could from that last one, if at all possible.

The chair was comfortable but it also made you sit up straighter whenever you were in it. It was a welcome change not to have Uhura sighing at him from her seat across the way, Bones grumbling behind him and breaking his concentration. Jim heard the distress call after he powered the test up, punctuated by the flashing red lights of enemy vessels—and, hey, at least it wasn’t as shrill and despairing as a phaser set to overload. When the lights went down, that brief flicker as enemy fire hit, Jim breathed in deeply, thinking about the ship—the Kobayashi Maru—that one ship that was always gonna be out there, everyone on board desperate and hoping against hope for some kind of aid to come through for them in time.

The past was one thing; not everybody could be saved. You couldn’t go back. What was done was done; what hadn’t been was left undone.

But having a future meant that the same mistakes didn’t have to get made over and over again.

It was possible. Jim could make it. He just had to figure out why nobody’d ever beaten the damn thing, and also how anybody could be expected to go out there into the field, not just simulations anymore, with a loss like that on their personal file.

Jim waited; he knew the timing of the test like he knew the back of Spock’s hand. All too well. Almost too intimately. He had it down to the millisecond—so when the lights didn’t come back up and the simulation bridge remained swathed in darkness, Jim didn’t need red warning lights to signal that something was wrong.

From somewhere overhead, Jim heard a quiet hiss. It sounded like a vent opening, some kind of steam or gas being released from an open valve. He was on his feet in an instant, heading for the exit; he knew exactly where the release pad was for the door from countless times slamming it with a sweaty palm after failing the test again, frustration replacing adrenaline in his veins, his cheeks red and the back of his neck flushed with sweat. He was always on his way out thinking Not this time, but definitely the next.

Jim hit the pad. Nothing happened. He reached for the settings next to it but they were cool and dark; not even a swipe across the surface made them light back up.

It wasn’t time to break out into a cold sweat, Jim thought. Not yet. If Spock’d been there, he would’ve said it served Jim right for breaking into a private area full of complicated—and expensive, and painstakingly programmed—equipment after hours. Not that ‘serves you right’ was a logical statement, but the idea that every crime came with an equal and opposite punishment was logic in its purest form.

Jim did something stupid; he got caught for it.

This time, literally caught.

The screen in front of the captain’s chair flickered—it was stuck too, just like him, phasing on and off with the red damage report, how much energy was left in their shields. It wasn’t stable. It was like the simulation room was frozen in time, stuttering, the air turning cold and stale.

Jim hadn’t brought his PADD in with him; he’d left it outside. It wasn’t like he’d send out a distress signal except as a last resort—the I told you so from Spock, Bones, Uhura, even Sulu, wasn’t exactly how he wanted his night to end—but it would’ve been an option. And sometimes having options could mean the difference between finding a solution and freezing up.

Jim reminded himself: he didn’t freeze. Even if his fingertips were numb. He shook it off and headed back toward the control panel, pulling it open to spark the wires.

They sparked without his help, sending a faint electric shock through his hand. Jim’s vision swam and it wasn’t because of the pain, since he’d suffered shocks ten, fifteen times worse than that one without so much as batting an eye. He couldn’t smell anything out of the ordinary, but the air itself was sluggish and thick.

Jim realized then that he was choking.

That was the only explanation for his symptoms, why everything suddenly seemed foggy and slow where there had once been lightning-fast connections. Spock would’ve recognized it sooner—just like Spock did everything a hair quicker than Jim.

The thought occurred, fleeting before it was smothered in the cottony lack of bloodflow to his brain, that he was gonna die thinking about how much better Spock was than him.

It seemed fitting, if a little depressing.

Spock, Jim reminded himself.

Spock.

He kept going, working with the wires in his hands, but his fingers were numb and clumsy. He couldn’t rearrange them the way he needed to—for a brief moment he forgot what he was even doing. The door. Jim needed to rewire the door, get it working again, get out of there so he could suck in a lungful of fresh air through his mouth the way Uhura was always complaining about.

Dark spots swelled in his vision, clustering around the periphery and gradually crowding inward. Jim wiped his face on his shoulder, rubbing to clear his eyes. He knew it wouldn’t work but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try. There was no way he was gonna go down without a fight.

His fingers slipped and the wires sparked, sending another swift, short shock up his arm. Maybe it wasn’t so swift—for a second all the sensation in his right arm from fingertips to elbow went dead.

He was losing. Jim wouldn’t admit it, but that didn’t make it any less true. He was still breathing, but it was shallow and labored, sweat trickling down the back of his neck and under the high collar of his cadet reds.

Hell of a way to go out. That was Jim’s last conscious thought. It sounded like something Pike would say, which fit, considering he’d probably be the one who got to say something about him. Hell of a thing. Here lies James T. Kirk.

And he’d still never managed to beat the Kobayashi Maru. Or kiss Spock, for that matter. Tell him all the things he hadn’t said, that were never gonna count.

Jim slipped into unconsciousness while fighting it every step of the way. He was even awake, if barely, when his body collapsed, eyes drifting shut on the sideways view of the captain’s chair, motionless and empty above him.

As far as last views went, it could’ve been worse.

Only it wasn’t the end.

He woke in the dark with a pounding headache, something wet and warm trickling from his nose over his upper lip. It tasty salty when Jim licked it clean, tongue coming away tacky with dried blood. He tried to wipe himself off on his sleeve and found his arms had been secured behind his back, cuffed at the wrists with Federation standard restraints. Not that Jim was an expert at being manacled, but he’d done his research and he knew the tech. He’d asked Spock to tie him up once so he could be prepared. It felt good to know something for certain.

In his current position, the things he didn’t know amounted to a whole heck of a lot more than the few things he did.

He was still on the floor, shoulder aching and sore from the pressure of his body’s dead weight pressing down on it. The floor under him was basic concrete. He was tied together by the wrists and—as he discovered when he tried to change positions—roped around the knees and ankles too.

That explained the stiffness in his muscles, the prickling pins and needles that surged through his body as he tried to work the circulation back into his limbs one by one.

‘Hey.’ Jim’s voice came out ragged. He filled his lungs and tried again. ‘Hey—bad news. I’m still alive. Guess you lost your touch.’

Not his brightest move, but when had taunting everbeen the smart maneuver? It satisfied something in him, dark and deeply personal.

Spock wouldn’t have approved, but maybe he just didn’t get it. Maybe now he never would.

Jim figured he must’ve still been suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation. The sharp pain in his head hadn’t receded and his actions felt distanced from his body somehow, as though the decisions he was making were affecting someone else, another person tied up on the floor. Hands that weren’t his hands. Legs that weren’t his legs. Pain that wasn’t even his pain.

It was too dark to make out where he was. Something stirred in the blackness behind him and Jim wriggled, fighting to sit up and failing.

‘Bet this is weird for you—you never seemed to have much trouble offing people before. The best laid plans, right?’

Someone covered his nose and mouth with a cloth. It stank of chemicals and the surprise made Jim gasp, breathing them in all at once. It was hardly the first time someone hadn’t appreciated his candor, although this critique of his performance in particular seemed harsh. That was what he would’ve said—if the hand on him hadn’t been so strong.

Instead, he was out again before he could wrestle away. There was nothing, not even the ghost of a devil in the dark.

*

Chapter Text

Spock had been meditating when his eyes opened, not due to choice or personal volition, but because he knew with certainty—though how he knew was less certain—that something was wrong. He had reacted to that certainty as Jim would have reacted to being shaken from a particularly disturbing dream: sudden, careless, and momentarily stunned by an abrupt shift in context.

It had been years since any personal matter had affected Spock’s ability to achieve tranquility through the meditative process. He had not fought with anyone his own age or slightly older since a much younger age; Starfleet in particular offered no Vulcan peers to question his abilities due to his birthright and his mother’s choices due to hers. Humanity was not seen as detrimental to one’s mastery of the Academy’s chosen curriculum, though there were certain tests of character that encouraged every cadet to overcome their basic weaknesses by means of improving upon their strengths.

This struck a balance within each and every one of them, not just those who operated from a disadvantage, split between two separate halves that did not cohere to form a single whole. Yet Spock could also observe that most individuals had their own, private turmoils with which they grappled, their disparate elements of nature that required cohabitation and cooperation.

Spock’s position was unique, yet it was not without other, potentially parallel examples available all around him.

It was on that subject he often meditated; Jim, too, filtered into the background of the quiet landscape formed by his deserted thoughts. His breath was steady and strong, like the hot breezes that barely shifted the sands on Vulcan. This place, this inner world, had been scorched by the sun to form a purity and a clarity that could not be found in San Francisco’s humid atmosphere.

But thoughts of Jim were not always discordant.

On this occasion, they were—so much so that they had thrown Spock from the depths of a meditative trance into abrupt, disoriented thought.

If it could even be termed ‘thought’ at all.

Spock blinked to discover he was staring blindly at the far wall rather than occupying that empty, peaceful space where the rhythm of breathing was the only constant—and the only factor. He had felt something reach him there; it had not begun within him. It had been something of a revelation and, in keeping with most revelations Spock had come to in his admittedly short lifetime, it was colored with Jim, influenced by Jim; it had Jim present in all its multifaceted senses.

A spike of fear; a pulse of adrenaline. Those had been the primary, recognizable elements. It was almost as though Spock could hear—as he often did—Jim from the next room over, though Jim’s room was not the next room over or even in the same dormitory building. Spock’s keen sense of hearing allowed him to listen to activities well beyond his desire to be aware of them—hence the frequent need for meditation to silence those external factors—such as the two young women who spent time in each other’s arms in the standard issue dormitory bunk on the other side of the dividing wall.

They were unaware of how limited their privacy truly was.

The implication of distance and the rapid deterioration of anything more specific indicated to Spock that this was not something he had sensed from a nearby location. Rather, it was something that had come to him from an unknown place that was anything but nearby, and it reminded him of the nightmares he had felt as he pressed flush against Jim’s smaller body when Jim had been a little boy—when Jim had been lost inside himself to the terror of memory that darkened dreaming.

Spock stood at once, but he could not chase after the call that had come to him so suddenly and left with equal suddenness. There was only silence and the void silence left in its wake, with no thread to follow.

There was a distinct and irrefutable connection between himself and Jim that had been present now for quite some time, but it had not been encouraged or tested; it had not been developed. It had simply been. Spock now saw the error of that choice—that lack of action—all too plainly.

Jim was in danger. Spock knew this. He had been bonded to Jim as certain Vulcans of old had bonded with each other: in an intimate union that was as exquisite as it was rare.

However, if Jim was in true danger and Spock alone had been made aware of it due to this bond, then the most vital way to go to his aid was to take logical action—rather than to behave recklessly and irrationally, which would help no one.

For some reason, it was more difficult for Spock to assure himself of this fact than it should have been. 

Captain Pike would have to know. Likewise, Leonard McCoy would be a well-chosen ally, in the eventuality that Jim would require medical attention.

Jim, Spock thought.

There was—naturally—no answer.

It was as if he had allowed himself to forget that self-same information he had relayed to Jim all those years ago. The bond was telepathic in nature but it was not an open line of clear communication; it did not imitate the radio waves Jim had utilized for his attempts to tap into Earth news from Vulcan. One could not speak into it as though it was a communication device. Feelings could prove useful, but they could not convey information such as a precise location—what had happened to Jim and where it had happened—or whether or not he was currently all right.

There were no strong sensations that followed the initial alarm but Spock made himself aware of their potential, allocating his focus so that it was split between the assistance he would need to procure and his own higher senses.

Should Jim alert him again, either intentionally or otherwise, he would find Spock in a ready state to receive and translate such missives if—or as—they came.

That being accomplished, Spock began to act.

Captain Pike had a full day’s schedule, as it was a weekday, but he was clever enough to have arranged his commitments with short intervals of free time in between them, during which he could no doubt recuperate and regain his mental energies to be applied anew. Spock found this to be a keen strategy. He admired it, and would have said so had the time or place been appropriate.

The surprise on Captain Pike’s face was evident when he looked up to see Spock crossing his office’s doorstep, but it passed almost at once. Spock had judged him to be a man of adaptable character and it was clear he would not waste time wondering how a cadet had gotten in to see him beyond general office hours once the goal had already been accomplished.

Captain Pike shared this quality with Jim—a willingness to accept things as they were rather than demanding they adhere to the proper channels. It was not something Spock could replicate, but he found value in its practicality nonetheless.

‘Boy, I sure hope you’re here about that carnivorous plant someone snuck into the botany lab last night,’ Captain Pike said. He was in the middle of pouring himself a drink. Judging by the color, it did not appear to be water.

‘I have reason to believe Jim Kirk may be in danger,’ Spock replied.

He would not do as human etiquette suggested and ‘soften the blow’ for Captain Pike, a man with considerable experience in the field.

The facts were what they were. As far as Spock knew, there was nothing tosoften as of yet.

‘I see.’ Captain Pike set down his glass. His gaze transferred once toward the door, then returned to Spock. ‘I don’t suppose you could give me anything more to go on than that?’

‘Not at present,’ Spock said. ‘The facts I canrelay are as follows: that one attempt on Jim’s life has already been made; that he has endeavored to rearrange his habits so as not to be found in any of his usual locations at the usual times; that I am, therefore, currently unaware of his precise whereabouts.’ Spock did not know whether Jim had followed through on his promise to inform Captain Pike of the phaser set to overload in his room, but they had come past the point of its relevancy now. ‘It may be difficult to ascertain his position because of this newfound behavioral pattern, but I believe that a cursory search of the grounds would be the first step in recovering him. I understand that this may be a sensitive matter, one necessarily kept beyond the knowledge of the general public so as not to raise alarm. As such, I am volunteering my services  to locate Jim. Since I have already been made aware of his situation with regards to the ex-Governor of Tarsus IV and have proven myself capable of acting unaffected by panic, it would be the logical choice to accept my aid.’

Had the circumstances not been what they were, Spock thought that Captain Pike mighthave entertained a smile. The expression flickered but would not hold.

‘Well, I’d have to be crazy to argue with Vulcan logic, now wouldn’t I?’

‘While ‘crazy’ might not be the exact terminology I would have employed, especially considering its implicit insubordination, I did not come here to discuss technicalities, Captain,’ Spock said.

‘Huh.’ Captain Pike had already forgotten about the glass with his liquid refreshment and circled to the front of his desk with tight, spry movements, drawing up a number on the flat screen of a computer station one-handed. There was a sense of urgency to his energy that was charged with composure and competence: the marks of a well-trained officer of Starfleet. ‘So you’re looking to me to coordinate a larger-scale alert for security to be on the lookout for Jim Kirk while you do footwork of your own, cadet? Do I read that correctly?’

His jaw was tight. Spock realized that his was also clenched, much like his hands behind his back. ‘Indeed,’ he replied.

‘Alert raised, cadet,’ Captain Pike continued. ‘And campus is on minor lockdown. You can bet your ears nobody’s coming in or out without being checked—IDs, any suspicious activity, the works. Nothing major; nothing to raise concerns or, God forbid, have a maelstrom of worried parents calling for meetings about the institution’s safety. Now, tell me, cadet—is there any particular reason why I didn’t know about this previous attempt on Jim’s life until just this moment?’

‘He had assured me he intended to bring it to your attention as soon as he was able.’ Spock could admit even as he said it that it had been unlikely. Given Jim’s determined focus on self-sufficiency to the exclusion of all assistance in this matter, the failure to follow up with Captain Pike rested squarely on Spock’s shoulders. He would not make a similar mistake, not ever again.

‘Naturally. It’s that damn teamwork issue biting him in the—’ Captain Pike shook his head, the muscles in his jaw clenching before he sighed. ‘No use chewing it over now, though you can bet it’ll be the topic of conversation later. Are you going to start on that footwork now, Spock, or are you waiting for an official dismissal?’

‘Captain,’ Spock replied. He nodded and turned.

‘Be careful,’ Captain Pike added, once Spock was already halfway through the door. ‘You’re both promising future members of Starfleet—and I don’t like thinking my trust was placed in the wrong individuals. Ruins my whole damn day when I learn I’ve made a sour judgment call.’

‘I will not let Jim down,’ Spock said.

‘Now that’s what I like to hear,’ Captain Pike replied.

Spock took his leave. Outside, it had begun to rain, a chill, misty drizzle that could not commit itself to becoming an honest downpour, and would therefore relieve none of the evening’s humidity.

Though it was growing late, Spock knew where he would be able to find Leonard McCoy based on precedent. Indeed, he was correct, as he found McCoy in the medical laboratory observing a collection of viral slides.

Spock approached the table and cleared his throat.

‘Sweet jumping—’ McCoy nearly knocked over a vial with his elbow before he caught it and righted it a half-centimeter from crashing against the table. ‘You know, Spock, just once I’d like to look up from my flesh eating bacteria and see the Archangel Gabriel, not Lucifer himself.’

‘I have no time to engage with or encourage your proclivity for conversational detours,’ Spock replied. ‘I believe that Jim is in danger.’

‘Not the usual danger Jim’s always in, then.’ McCoy’s demeanor shifted, though it was not so dramatic a transformation as his initial surprise. It was, however, something Spock noted for posterity. ‘Well then why didn’t you say so earlier?’

‘You did not allow me the opportunity, as you were otherwise occupied by idle expostulation.’

‘You know, I preferred the company of the flesh eating bacteria to this.’ Despite his frustration, which he made no attempts to conceal, McCoy had already crossed the room to Spock’s side. Along the way he grabbed and then wielded a hypodermic as though he thought it was a phaser—and as though he could always assume it would be of immediate use whenever Jim was involved. In many instances, that was the correct assumption. Yet neither of them could be certain what Jim required of them just now. ‘So what are you standing there for, man? Where is he?’

Spock paused. ‘I do not know.’

‘You don’t know?’ McCoy held up the hand empty of the hypodermic before Spock could confirm, for the second time, a statement he would not have needed to make twice had he been dealing with Jim, whose understanding surpassed those of his fellow humans. ‘A doctor can’t treat an invisible, missing patient.’

‘I have an educated theory, though I cannot be certain of its accuracy. Jim’s behavior has been erratic of late, due to the circumstances of which I have already made you aware. As Jim was not in any of his customary locations at this hour, I have instead determined the most likely place he might have instead gone.’

McCoy waited, refusing during that time to blink. ‘Spit it out, Spock, or so help me, I’ll use this needle on you. I’ve got spares, and I’m not squeamish when it comes to ice-cold, devil-green blood, either.’

‘The probability that he was conducting research on the Kobayashi Maru is ten to one—odds that are higher than the results of any of the other calculations I made on my way to this medical laboratory.’ 

‘Oh, good,’ McCoy said, while exhibiting the appearance of someone who did not find this information ‘good’ in the slightest. ‘You do realize that’s clean across campus, Spock.’

‘All the more reason to ensure that our departure is swift,’ Spock replied.

He understood enough of McCoy’s habits and social patterns now to be certain that becoming entangled in an argument of logic with him was the quickest way to accomplish nothing. Taking decisive action was the best means to encourage and ensure proceedings. McCoy would almost certainly follow, as his natural medical concern and affection for Jim had created a bond of its own. This was not comparable in its parameters to the bond that Spock and Jim shared—there was no telepathic union of minds, for one thing—but by human standards, they could be considered close friends.

In short, Spock could rely on his assistance and would not have to concern himself with the quality of that aid.

McCoy was not a companion he would have chosen willingly, but he was possessed of a few valuable skills that made him the most appropriate company for the job. Jim had other friends, of course, but Spock could not risk the time it would take to locate and explain to every one of them the details of the situation and its resulting stakes.

Spock had already betrayed Jim’s confidence once by relinquishing to McCoy the relevant details. It had not yet become necessary to repeat this transgression.

At a run, McCoy and Spock could easily have crossed the campus grounds in seven minutes. At a brisk walk, it should have taken twelve.

With the strengthened security measures Captain Pike had set into motion, it took fifteen, as Spock and McCoy were caught in two separate lines that had formed for students to present their identification before they were allowed in and out of the detached campus wings.  

Spock did not consent to experience frustration. If the measures had slowed his progress, there was a chance that they had also impeded the progress made by the unknown threat moving against Jim.

Spock could not consider himself to be an optimist in strictest accuracy, but the odds as he had calculated them were far from damning.

He would know it should any permanent harm befall Jim. The absence of their connection would be a distinct change from the silence he now felt, as there was a difference between a quiet link and one that had been severed. It was unlike Spock to require so many reminders of the facts, but it was a thought that nevertheless occurred to him more than once as McCoy and he made their delayed way to the campus building that housed the Kobayashi Maru simulation chamber.

It was dark, the hours for testing long since over. There was security posted outside, but a quick communication with Captain Pike offered Spock and McCoy the clearance to pass through the locked doors. Uncharacteristic silence burdened Spock’s mind as they made their way down the corridor to the spot where the Kobayashi Maru was administered.

There was nothing from Jim—and, perhaps even more troubling than that, McCoy also had not spoken since they had passed the last security checkpoint.

The doors to the simulation bridge at the end of the hall were locked. When Spock entered the requisite code, they shuddered and hissed, but they did not open.

‘Jammed.’ McCoy slid his medical bag from his shoulder, inspecting the seam where the doors came together. ‘From the inside, maybe?’

Spock input the code again, this time observing the doors more closely. There was a narrow space that appeared unevenly between them as they strained against whatever was holding them in place. An error in the mechanical release, perhaps.

‘We will have to enter manually,’ Spock said.

‘Oh, sure.’ McCoy stepped out of the way. ‘Why didn’t I think of that? State of the art automatic doors, built out of god-only-knows what—I’m no engineer. Sure. Let’s just pry ‘em open on a wish and a prayer.’

‘On three,’ Spock agreed. ‘You will enter the code and I will make the necessary calculations to gain a proper handhold.’

McCoy did not seem convinced that this plan would work. Nevertheless, he followed directions with greater accuracy than Spock would have suspected, given his distractible nature.

The training in the medical field at Starfleet Academy was top of the line. McCoy entered the code as instructed and Spock, who had discovered the precise point of leverage required to gain the upper hand against the system malfunction, utilized that which he had not yet been called upon to deploy during his time at Starfleet.

His Vulcan strength.

It was no easy task The release mechanism fought Spock every inch of the way. Yet for every inch that he gained, the door did not attempt to slide back into place, so that what ground Spock gained remained his, without the threat of receding.

Soon—Spock counted fourteen seconds—there was room enough that both he and McCoy would be able to enter the chamber one at a time, though it would prove a tight fit. An additional inch or two would have been preferable, but there was no time to take that extra precaution. They needed to get inside as quickly as possible in the increasingly likely scenario that the malfunction was no coincidence and was indeed related to Jim’s previous state of distress.

McCoy was looking at Spock with an eyebrow raised when he stepped back from the open doors. ‘Didn’t think to mention you were like Hercules in the lion’s den at any point, did you, Spock?’

‘At last,’ Spock replied, ‘a reference with which I am familiar. It must by now be clear that the most efficient means of distributing my time was to inform you of my capabilities by demonstrating them.’

‘Remind me never to make you mad,’ McCoy said.

Spock did not deem that statement worthy of any verbal response.

He entered the simulation bridge first with McCoy squeezing in behind him directly after. At once, Spock was able to determine that the air was thicker within the chamber than it should have been; McCoy corroborated this assessment by covering his mouth and nose with the palm of his hand, shouting against it in order to be heard despite the muffling effect this had on his voice.

‘You and I both know that’s not right. What are you thinking?’

‘An oneirogenic natural anesthetic. Odorless and highly effective. Methane, I believe.’

‘And this.’ McCoy stood beside the replication captain’s chair, which had been overturned. ‘Signs of a struggle of some kind, wouldn’t you say?’

Spock checked the internal commands for the door and lock mechanisms and discovered a dent in the pad, as though someone from within had been pounding against it in an attempt to escape. There was a streak of red blood below that—and another splatter of the same on the floor. Spock touched the wall, but it offered no echoes from past actions or memories from the impact it had received. He could not sense what had transpired by connecting with the inanimate.

‘That’s blood,’ McCoy said, crouching beside him. ‘The red, normal kind, in case you can’t recognize it. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’

‘The possibility of such convergent thought patterns shared between us is highly unlikely.’ Spock scanned the floor. ‘However, I believe that if the door was still malfunctioning and jammed in the locked position upon our arrival, we may now consider that anyone trapped within and attempting escape must have been removed from the area by way of an alternative exit.’

Spock scanned the area. His time spent with Jim—whose time was often spent on the Kobayashi Maru—had offered him a greater breadth of experience with the test than he might have otherwise possessed. It was a matter of interest to Spock as well as to Jim, though he had already determined what Jim continued to refuse to accept: that the point of the scenario was a recognition of hopelessness. It was a no-win situation, designed to test cadets on their bravery and strategies in the face of certain failure.

How many could be saved? In what ways would they accept defeat?

The lesson was a practical one. Yet Jim refused its parameters and now Spock’s second-hand intimacy with those parameters was an asset. He, too, understood why Jim would rally every faculty and every skill against these odds—and despite them—for a cause in which he believed.

Spock considered three ventilation shafts before he noticed there was one on the floor below the replica hailing station that was set at an uneven angle.

‘Uh-uh. No way. You’re not actually thinking—my God, you are. So let me guess: Vulcans are too logical to be claustrophobic?’

Yet even as he complained, McCoy was quick to follow Spock’s lead; he was there at Spock’s back when Spock tested the ventilation grate, then managed with little difficulty to remove it, revealing a shaft just wide enough for tight passage.

‘And this was why I didn’t put in to become a God-damn miner,’ McCoy said.

‘If you believe yourself unfit for this service—’

‘Like hell I am. Somebody’s bleeding and if even if they’re not who we’re thinking they are, they’re gonna need a doctor. Don’t take this the wrong way, Spock, but I doubt you’ve got the right bedside manner.’

Spock nodded. McCoy sucked in a breath.

Darkness enveloped them.

Spock did not engage in idle conversation. He could acknowledge that it was a tactic Jim might have used in an effort to distract McCoy from acknowledging his admitted state of claustrophobia. The impulse and strategy were both valid, but Spock could not employ them on his own terms.

Unnecessary dialogue would only serve to consume what little excess air was present in the narrow passageway. While they were in a ventilation shaft, there was presumably no shortage of breathable oxygen—yet the illusion of shortness of breath might prove enough to agitate McCoy into a further state of instability.

This was not a difficult task to achieve even under normal circumstances; however, it was one Spock wished to avoid if he could manage it. He had not yet observed McCoy operating in his element, so to speak, but if the patient was Jim, then it would prove beneficial to have McCoy focused and prepared ahead of time in order to be at his best.

McCoy seemed aware of this, as there were no echoing grumbles or promises of future violence from behind Spock in the shaft. The sound of McCoy’s breathing, slightly more labored than usual, indicated a heightened heart rate and likely heightened blood pressure as well.

Spock could offer him no reassurances for his condition. He would not tell him that Jim would be fine when the odds were in constant flux, an assortment of random numbers in Spock’s mind that slipped and shifted at the slightest adjustment of the facts. The presence of blood affected those odds; the lack of further contact from Jim in the mental connection he and Spock shared must also be factored into the equation. Spock once again had to remind himself that the connection had not vanished. It had merely gone quiet.

Jim was not dead. For whatever reason, under means yet undiscovered, he had survived. He continued to survive. Perhaps, like Cadet Riley, the method of attack had been interrupted in some small yet vital way, interfering with the efficiency of the process and giving him a fighting chance to escape his fate.

If there was anyone Spock had observed with a talent for slipping free of dire situations, it was Jim Kirk.

This being true, Spock could not discount the fact that Jim occasionally required assistance in these escapes. In the past, Spock had been a key assisting element. Where there had been an old sehlat then, there was now Leonard McCoy.

They came to a branch in the ventilation system and it was only then that McCoy swore, betraying his feelings in an undertone of hushed profanity. One of the split shafts led upward, toward a higher level, and the other downward, toward the unknown. Spock observed both, then made his decision with little need for arbitration. He started downward, pausing as he felt McCoy’s hand latch onto his boot, threatening to drag him backward.

‘Now, hang on just a goddamn minute,’ Bones hissed.  He at least had the foresight to mediate the volume of his voice, understanding how it could easily carry ahead and eliminate any probability of retaining the element of surprise. ‘Spock, you can’t possibly have calculated where Jim is that fast. Now—and believe me, I don’t relish suggesting this—maybe we should split up.’

‘Were I attempting to remain undetected by Starfleet campus security as well as the officers now on high alert for any suspicious activity, I would not retreat to a higher level.’ Spock did not necessarily resent McCoy’s inability to come to this reasonable conclusion himself. He had his own talents; they could be considered complementary to Spock’s, although the balance was not always evident, as it had ever been clear with Jim. ‘If I were to be discovered, a higher elevation would cut off my escape route. Our adversary has proven themselves to be shrewd and clever. They have avoided detection for long enough that I believe we can assume avoidance is something with which they are familiar and at which they are highly skilled. Also, Jim has been exercising regularly and consuming the calories required to maintain consistent physical activity. If he is being transported while unconscious, down is far more convenient than up. All this being true, it would naturally follow that we would find them through the lower passage, if a ‘they’ is to be found.’

‘So that’s what it’s like inside your head all the time, huh?’ McCoy released his hold on Spock, acquiescing to his logic. ‘No wonder you’re so sour.’

Spock had not blamed McCoy for his desire to have proof of Spock’s logic in order to be absolutely certain their choice was the wisest. Yet he would blame McCoy for allowing idle commentary to impede their progress.

Later, if there were proper time and opportunity, Spock would suggest that the ‘pot’ was calling the ‘kettle black’, a neat turn of human phrase that best summed up McCoy’s choice of observation.

But that was later.  

Without further encouragement, Spock instead continued forward and downward, silent and methodical, one hand before the other, crouching as the metal plates above his head lowered and the size of the shaft gradually tightened. McCoy followed him, hands scrabbling at the backs of Spock’s boots, occasionally punctuating their relative silence by sighing in frustration.

It was not comfortable. The angle was at times disconcertingly steep and the shaft made many sharp, dark turns. There was a rusty, abandoned smell to the ventilation system so deep below the campus that had turned the air stale—but that staleness was preferable to an odorless gas that would render them both unconscious.

So far, the air was breathable. It would have to be, in order for any perpetrator to maintain their own consciousness as they traveled.

This was not luck. It was logic, and it could be trusted.

Spock had not lost count of the number of seconds they had been within the shaft; it was three hundred and sixty seven. He had kept track while his mind was filled with other thoughts, just as his Vulcan academic training had given him the necessary skills to do so. The strict rigor of the numbers provided structure for those other, less logical thoughts.

Worry that could not be allowed to wrest his focus from good judgment. Rage that could not be permitted to supplant a clear mind and a steady hand.

Then, just as McCoy had managed to choke back an aborted sneeze, Spock heard a sound, coupled with a rush of adrenaline that spiked toward fear. It was Jim; he was grunting. He was close by, practically right below them, and his return to consciousness was coupled with pain.

McCoy crashed into Spock’s back. The metal plates around them groaned. Spock gripped McCoy’s arm at the elbow and held him still. Ahead, illuminating another sharp turn in the ventilation shaft, he saw pale light in strips, which could only indicate one thing: there was a grate. From the angle of those strips, he knew that grate was also loose.

To act immediately would be reckless, imprudent, and ill-advised.

That did not mean Spock did not consider it.

This time, it was McCoy who held Spock back. Crouched together, McCoy breathing heavily enough to provide a prickling, unceasing distraction, they waited—as Spock began to formulate a plan.

*

Chapter Text

Jim opened his eyes—or tried to, anyway. He succeeded, but only halfway. One of them was swollen shut and sticky at the corner and his jaw was sore, like he’d rammed headfirst into the door to get it to open. Because it’d been stuck; he’d been messing with the control pad; there was something wrong, but that was the last thing he remembered, and he’d only managed to remember it by working his way backward.

Spock would’ve disapproved. Would’ve called that illogical. Jim mouthed the word, an old trick he’d taught himself for waking up when his body and the gray matter inside his skull wanted anything but.

Even if Jim’s brain had been inclined toward logic in the first place, he still had to fight through a misty kind of haze in order to find any clear, complete thought in there at all. There was a buzzing between his ears and his entire mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton.

Which he’d know all about, because Bones’d tried that on him once. Keep you from biting that swollen tongue of yours, kid.

Jim’s lips twitched. Damn, his jaw hurt like hell.

So it definitely wasn’t being dead. Jim squinted the eye he’d been able to crack open, forming unrecognizable shapes that loomed out of the darkness. In the corner of his vision, just out of sight, he saw a shadow shift and change.

‘Head’s too hard to crack,’ he said. His voice slurred. They didn’t call him dum dung for nothing and honestly, at this point, he was never gonna live that nickname down. ‘Sorry to disappoint you.’

‘It’s not a disappointment,’ a familiar voice replied from somewhere behind him, just over his shoulder. Jim started to turn and the world turned into sash savas pudding, swimming like the mid-summer haze over the desert back on Vulcan. ‘Due to a few minor miscalculations in the past, this became something I had to see through to the very end myself.’

Jim blinked, still one-eyed. He definitely knew that voice, even if it was different in the dark—another illogical observation, but hell if it wasn’t true. ‘...Lenore?’

‘Nought’s had, all’s spent,’ Lenore replied, ‘where our desire is got without content.’

‘Jesus.’ Jim licked his lips, working his mouth to see if he could keep his words from slurring too much to be understood. There was nothing broken as far as he could tell. Just sore, stiff and bruised. He’d been gagged at some point and the big joint in his jaw wasn’t thanking him for it now. ‘If you wanted to get me alone, all you had to do was ask.’

It was a bullshit line, but talking got him going and helped him think. So it wasn’t Kodos. Maybe it never had been; maybe Jim had let his imagination run away with him after all. He’d let himself get worked up over a ghost.

But even as he told himself that, the spreading ache through his numb body was telling a different story. Pike had no reason to look into the incident with Cadet Riley, but he was the one who’d spotted the pattern first. He had no personal involvement, no stake in Tarsus IV.

Jim had to believe he’d seen something there because there was something.

Jim was a passionate guy and he jumped to conclusions because of it—it said so on all his files, and he’d checked them all—but he’d been surrounded by logical types ever since he’d crashed on Vulcan. That hadn’t changed when he’d moved on to sign up for Starfleet.

He could trust them, then.

The danger was real.

But Lenore didn’t fit into any part of the puzzle as Jim understood it. The sudden introduction of a rogue element set his heart pounding; the added circulation made his limbs wake up to how sore they really were. It wasn’t great. Adrenaline wasn’t helpful if Jim had nowhere to run, his hands tied behind his back so he couldn’t fight.

Even in the dim light that filtered through the gray, shuttered windows, Jim could see there was something off about Lenore. Her gaze on him was keen but distracted, like a predator that couldn’t quite focus on its prey. She crouched in front of him at an arm’s length, although getting closer wouldn’t have done her any harm. After all, Jim was still bound up and bleeding, like the seafood being prepped down at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Jim couldn’t think about that right now—because the last time he’d been there was on family vacation, and family vacations lead back to Amanda, and he couldn’t let himself lose focus. Amanda. Hell. She was gonna be worried about him, sure, but the best way to minimize the damage was to keep his head in the game. He couldn’t get distracted. That was Starfleet summer camp one-oh-one.

‘For someone so bright, your imagination’s sorely limited,’ Lenore said. She reached out to touch his forehead and her fingers brushed something sticky on his skin. Blood, probably. Jim couldn’t be sure in the dark. ‘There are more reasons to get you alone, James Kirk, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

There it was again: his own name foreign in his ears. They’d come full circle, although that implied some kind of necessary, cyclical course to a very real end.

‘The common mind will always draw the most obvious conclusions,’ Lenore added. Like that explained anything. ‘I thought you might be different. Do you know, I even thought—for a while—that you might be the very first to figure it out. But as it transpired, yourimagination couldn’t shake its conventional expectations of the villain, either. You thought you knew what to look for—and it blinded you to reality. Everyone fears Macbeth and knows his name—never that of his lady. They think the tragedy’s about Hamlet, but shouldn’t it be called Ophelia?’

Jim sucked in a breath, the sudden action making his chest ache. It wasn’t easy sifting through the crazy double-talk and the Shakespearean references, but he knew a confession when he heard one. At least, he knew what it was supposed to sound like.

Not that it was gonna do him much good in an abandoned room somewhere in the bowels of the campus. He could tell they were still at Starfleet Headquarters from the architecture, but the floors were grimy and there were thick dust-covers over the tables and skeletal stools. Wherever they were, it was off the beaten path. He’d been all over, even in areas that were technically off-limits—except for down. And if Lenore was spilling the beans to him, it was probably because she figured she was safe to do it.

Because there was no way Jim was gonna get out of here under his own steam. And there was no one coming to look for him. He’d made sure of that.

‘So, what,’ Jim said, ‘you kept me alive just so you could brag about it?’

‘It’s dramatic principle,’ Lenore replied. ‘Dramatic theory. The final act can’t happen off stage.’

‘So...it’s a monologue, then?’ Jim had to keep talking, buying himself more time. There had to be something close by that he could use as a weapon—one of the stools, for example, or one of the dusty old tarps thrown over the tables. If he could’ve reached ‘em, maybe. But with his arms and legs tied fast to the chair Lenore had propped him up in, Jim didn’t need Spock to tell him that the odds weren’t in his favor—or even close. ‘Not too impressive. Not when you have a captive audience. It’s not like I can even—can even give you a good review. Not everybody’s a critic.’

‘This isn’t a comedy,’ Lenore said.

Jim swallowed. At least he could feel his tongue again. ‘Yeah. I already got that.’

‘Of course, I read your files, Jim.’ Lenore straightened. She was beautiful, even without proper lighting, but it wasn’t T’Pring beautiful, like knowing you were looking at a princess in the making, or Uhura beautiful, like a song that always made you smile, or Gaila beautiful, like friendly laughter in a crowded room full of strangers. The sight of her with her hair loose and her eyes too-bright sent a chill down Jim’s spine, along with a bead of sweat that followed the same path, damp skin under his torn red jacket. ‘I know you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to listen to a father’s nightmares in the night, but if you did know—if you ever heard such a sound—wouldn’t you do anything, anything you could to stop it? Wouldn’t you go so far as to rewrite history for him, so he could sleep wherever he pleased, and sleep peacefully?’

The sweat on Jim’s forehead—mixed with half-dried blood—was dripping into his bad eye and he couldn’t even blink it out. The sleepy fog that’d blanketed his thoughts, just as dusty and abandoned as the room they were in, had finally almost cleared. And that meant he was better equipped to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

He’d read his Shakespeare. It’d started because Lenore had gotten him interested, sure, but there was plenty to like about those stories. Jim didn’t mind most of them; they were a palate cleanser for the usual, technical reading he did for assignments, not to mention a good tool for looking at how other people screwed things up in order to avoid the same kind of fatal flaw situation.

‘For one who begot me, bred me, loved me,’ Lenore said, ‘I return those duties back as are right fit.’

Jim’s sweat stung the corner of his eye. ‘Your father,’ he said. His stomach clenched. It could’ve been another allergic reaction, this time to whatever Lenore’d drugged him with to make him black out, but that wasn’t all. Whenever he thought the name, remembered it by accident, he had the same reaction: shame and guilt on top of anger.

He’d read before that Vulcans felt too much—that it was why they had to stop feeling altogether. The only time he’d ever agreed with that path was with Kodos on the tip of his tongue, Kodos in his veins, Kodos tightened like a vise around his heart.

‘My father,’ Lenore confirmed. ‘Kodos. A great man.’

‘A great man?’ Jim made the mistake of struggling against his bonds. They were already too tight; added pressure cut off the blood flow to his hands. ‘A great man who murdered four thousand innocent people—’

He didn’t get the chance to finish, words that felt like shattered glass in his throat, that didn’t make him feel any damn better for saying them—because Lenore caught him across the cheek with her knuckles, and she was wearing her academy ring.

Pain burst along Jim’s cheekbone, sparking white-hot through his good eye.

‘He was a king among peasants, protecting them despite their lack of gratitude,’ Lenore said. ‘No one understood the truth—my father made a necessary sacrifice to save some, rather than to surrender all. He acted with honor; he made a choice only the strongest can. And for his service, for his courage, the Federation would have destroyed him, if only he hadn’t managed to escape...with his little girl.’ Lenore bowed her head, hair covering her face. Jim’s sight was only just returning; her distraction didn’t give him the time or the opportunity to take advantage of it. ‘Stripped of everything he’d earned, and so badly injured... I saved him. I pulled him from the fire. I held him as he would have done for me, and nursed him back to health, and I heard everything they said about him in the months that followed. Whenever tragedy strikes, most fools compound the roles of victim and villain. The Federation was no different.’

‘You’re quoting King Lear.’ Jim weighed the pros and cons of tipping himself over—hoping he could take her off guard and throw her off balance in the process. Maybe it was worth a shot. ‘You know that’s a tragedy, right? Crazy old sonofabitch who doesn’t trust the one person he loves most in the world because all he knows is being told what he wants to hear, not what he needs to—’

Lenore hit him again. It hurt like hell.

Those rings were a killer. Jim was gonna have to tell Pike about the dangers of class rings—if he made it out of this alive, anyway. He’d suggest something smaller, more compact. Less like a weapon. That’d be in keeping with the spirit of the Federation.

‘You’ve got a mean right hook, you know that?’ Jim asked before Lenore could get started whaling on him again.

Above all else, he really wasn’t looking to debate what’d happened on Tarsus IV, not even with another survivor. He didn’t want to talk about what famine drove a person to do or destroy, or whether there’d been any other way. And if Kodos was alive, it was clear he knew what he’d done was wrong—or else he would’ve been out there defending himself instead of lying low in the shadows, letting his daughter do all the dirty work for him.

Which brought Jim around to his next point, watching Lenore watch him like a le-matya from the meanest desert cliffs, blue eyes hard and bright.

‘This is one hell of a Father’s Day present.’ Jim snorted, spitting a salty wad of blood and saliva onto the floor, aiming clear of his own lap. The movement made him dizzy, but it gave him a chance to look around, too. There wasn’t anything close enough for him to use to his advantage—but that didn’t mean the opportunity wouldn’t present itself at some point. Lenore was a wild card, that much was clear, but she liked to put on a show. If Jim kept her talking long enough for his head to stop swimming, maybe he could turn the situation around. ‘Did he talk you into this? Because you don’t have to—we’re not actually in King Lear. The whole filial piety thing’s pretty outdone. I had a messed-up stepdad for a while. Well, he was more of an uncle. But you can bet I didn’t listen to him about everything.’

‘Are you pitying me?’ Lenore drew herself up sharply. The way she moved, it was like she’d already imagined the spotlights on her, the roar of an audience. ‘Do you imagine I’m so simple-minded as to be manipulated by my father’s charisma? Oh, it’s kind of you to remember him as he was, James, but I’m afraid my father doesn’t have the heart for his old, rousing speeches these days. The soliloquies are left to me.’

The longer she went on, the more Jim began to suspect she was off her rocker. Bones would give him hell later for not having seen it—and Uhura too, probably.

What they didn’t realize was that this was their fault, at least partially. Jim hung around with so many bizarre characters that it was tough to pick the dangerous lunatic out of the bunch. That was gonna be his excuse once he got out of here.

His arms were aching where they were cuffed behind him, hands numb from the wrists down. He rubbed them together, trying to get the blood flow going.

‘You mean he didn’t ask you to do this?’

It felt like giving something up, just asking. Jim didn’t want a reply.

However stupid it was, he’d liked Lenore. She was smart and weird and she’d let him go on and on about the Kobayashi Maru long past the point when anyone else would’ve tapped out. It settled, queasy, in his stomach—alongside the blood he’d already swallowed—to know that she’d been playing him the whole time.

‘No, dear boy,’ Lenore said. He almost liked that better than being called James. ‘He believes, quite selflessly, that I am securing my future for myself separate from his past through proper education. Imagine his surprise when he learns I have secured a future for us both—a galaxy in which he no longer has to hide. Somewhere he can be free to live once more amongst the very people he sought to improve and protect.’

She was gonna go on like that—Jim could tell—but when she paused for breath there was a clatter from the shadowy depths of the room. From the way she’d been talking, he could guess it wasn’t an accomplice. She was the star of the show. She wasn’t planning on having any extras break up the scene.

Jim tried to turn after the source of the interruption but his mobility was limited and besides, there were other things to worry about—like, for example, the phaser Lenore’d pulled from behind her back and the ensuing phaser fire.

The first blast had Jim braced for impact, assuming this was it—but, as it turned out, Lenore wasn’t aiming at him. She was firing somewhere over Jim’s shoulder.

Jim didn’t hear any cries of pain. He had to hope that meant she hadn’t hit anything living.

He also had to hope that his head was hard enough—it always had been in the past, according to everyone who’d ever met him—for what he was about to do next. Already dizzy and pain-stupid, Jim knew that the one thing he could count on was his big, thick skull. All it took was the phaser fire to inspire him; he knew he had to do something, that he couldn’t let Lenore hold onto a weapon that dangerous.

Inspiration brought the spike of adrenaline Jim needed to make the almost-impossible possible after all. He drove the balls of his feet against the ground and lurched forward, rocking on the legs of his chair suddenly enough to take Lenore by surprise—not to mention throw himself off balance. She was closer to him than she’d realized, which meant Jim was able to connect his cheekbone to her hand this time, instead of the other way around.

He knocked the phaser from her fingers with his face. He heard it skittering across the floor and a crunch that suggested it’d cracked against the far wall. She would’ve lunged after it, except Jim had crashed into her face-first, sending them both to the floor.

Lenore rolled out of the way just in time for the bridge of Jim’s nose to connect with the solid ground. Pain spiked up through his eye sockets and deep into his forehead and everything went black.

Too bad he wasn’t unconscious for it. The darkness was his body’s reaction to pain—extreme, bone-shattering pain that was too much to disconnect himself from. He wasn’t proud of it, but he definitely whimpered. He felt, if only distantly, what might’ve been Lenore’s foot against his shoulder as she kicked herself free from him.

Jim panted against the floor, the inside of his mouth full of blood and dust and more blood, and waited for the next move.

Nothing came.

‘No,’ Lenore said, somewhere else. She was still close but also far away. Jim couldn’t translate the emotion in her voice; he couldn’t explain the silence that followed it, abrupt and unexpected, the dull thump of falling weight after that, and a hiss of breath that was familiar without making sense in this particular context.

‘One of these days, you’re gonna have to teach me that pinch trick,’ Bones’ voice said. He was breathless. He was angry. He was scared. Or Jim was projecting. Or Jim was hallucinating. Or Jim was dreaming. ‘Might be useful when I have to deal with the difficult patients who won’t—hell.’

Shadows began to move. Jim felt one of them fall over him. His bad eye was down against the floor; his good eye couldn’t, in all good conscience, be called good anymore. He couldn’t see what was happening; he couldn’t know what any of it meant yet. All he knew was that he wasn’t alone; then, that there were fingers at his wrist, checking his pulse while they tugged his bonds loose, returning blood flow to his swollen, tingling hands.

But there were also fingers at his temple and jaw, cool and precise and steady. Pain started to leak out of him the way blood oozed from a split lip. Somebody was taking it away—only it couldn’t go nowhere. Somebody was sharing it like it was theirs to share.

Maybe it was.

Jim wanted to say Spock? except he couldn’t have been hurt too badly, since he could still realize what a mistake that’d be—how much it’d reveal, how unequipped he was to deal with that at the moment. Or ever, but especially not now.

‘By dose,’ he said instead, then, ‘don’t do that, Spock—’

His voice cracked. Maybe it’d broken completely.

Strangely enough, it was Bones’ ill-tempered nature that saved his ass.

‘If you don’t keep your mouth shut until I’m certain your jaw’s not broken, Jim, then I’ll wire the damn thing closed myself,’ Bones said. ‘And whatever it is you’re doing, Spock—you just keep doing it. Voodoo, witchcraft, pacts with the devil himself—seems to me it’s working, and for now, I’ll even look the other way.’

Spock didn’t reply. Of course he didn’t. Jim’s elbow creaked and his arm flopped like it was made from that Jell-O stuff in the cafeteria he was totally allergic to, but he reached after Spock’s hand out his face, covering it with his palm.

Jim, Spock said.<