at the very beginning
The natural enemy of the Vulcan is the face's zygomaticus major muscle, its preferred choice of prey younglings in their formative years, struggling under the strictest tutelage. The predator disguises itself as a prideful smile, a moody pinch of the brows, quavering looks of uncertainty, often the spark before the tantrum. Mentors of young Vulcans will studiously coach their charges to recognize and respond to these signs of attack until the desired state, that galaxy-wide lauded control, is not simply second nature but the only nature of their being.
This state is neutral, and it is the Vulcan way.
One evening, a youngling at dinner observes his mother's face changing like a kaleidoscope across a span of seconds. She smiles at the House servants entering the chamber, enthuses over the dishes placed around her, aims a quick frown at her husband for his lack of similar delight before gracefully falling into her usual dignified poise, retrieving the nearest serving spoon to ladle food onto her progeny's plate. The child in question, her son Spock, barely more than a half-decade old, tilts his head to his father afterward, his unspoken question clear: Mother has no neutral?
Sarek's calm explanation washes over the child, heavy in its wisdom. Humans do not need to control their emotions. Neutrality is stringent, often unforgiving. For a human, it stifles their nature.
I... believe I understand, Father.
Someday you will fully understand, my son.
In short, humans do not need emotions to exist, but they like to use them. Control is optional.
Having garnered this much through his cadet training, at first Spock chooses the company of humans (when the need for them arises) who have mastered the art of 'giving nothing away'. Logic dictates these individuals should be closest to Vulcans. In truth, after a few interactions with them, the reminder of the home he left is too overbearing.
But of course the opposite end of the spectrum is entirely distasteful even in theory. Spock can no more abide a person being unable or unwilling to control himself than the stifling reserve of a highly introverted companion. Thus his interest settles somewhere close to the middle ground, seeking those who are adept at emoting but also practiced at restraint in the appropriate circumstances. Strangely, the task seems difficult, and so he eventually retreats to solitude, yet still continues this passing study of human nature as his career progresses from junior officer to a hard-won seniority.
There is a saturation point when years of data gathering yields another enlightenment: he, as a half-breed raised Vulcan with Terran idiosyncrasies, maintains this interest in people who balance internalizing and externalizing emotions in order to learn himself. This is almost a shaming realization, that Spock has allowed his own mind to develop a need for a perfect example of such mastery, as if some part of him would choose to live vicariously through that example.
His Vulcan neutrality is an ingrained part of him but it is not enough.
For a period of time, Spock refuses to indulge in any need except those required to maintain the health of his body. Then slowly, when he finally meets a ship full of humans so colorful and varied and infuriatingly intriguing, the search begins again.
Not long after that, it concludes in the most unusual way: a standoff at a bar lounge between two human males who have far more in common than either would likely admit. Each man displays control over himself in a different way, that is glorious to behold, with neither of them willing to yield himself.
But that is an ending, and the observer of these perfect specimens has already turned his mind to replaying the story of how that moment came to be.
"Come," Spock relays in response to the computerized whistle of a guest waiting beyond his cabin door. He greets the man entering his private quarters dutifully with "Good evening, Captain."
"A good evening it is, Spock," Kirk returns.
To the Vulcan's discerning eye, Kirk's congenial tone is a ruse. His captain clearly has not shaken the contemplative mood from earlier that day. The teachings of past experience had kept Spock from querying after Kirk's well-being in full view of the bridge then, so it pleases Spock that the man has sought him out on his own now.
He patiently tracks Kirk's slow approach toward his desk, raising an eyebrow only when Kirk veers off at the last second with a tiny surprised "Oh!" to another section of the cabin. The restrained exclamation is followed by a trace of delight across Kirk's face as the captain arrives at a standalone shelving unit against the wall, wherein a collection of curiosities is housed from years of living on Earth. Spock does not call Kirk back but rather vacates his desk to calmly cross over to Kirk with his hands at his back.
Kirk has rocked back on his heels to peer up at a shelf level with the top of his head. His voice is soft, fond, almost praising. "I haven't seen one of those since I was a child."
Spock follows Kirk's gaze. "Ah. A 3-D puzzle game patterned after the original Rubik's Cube, which was invented by Terran Erno Rubik in the late twentieth century. I have read that it was quite popular among humans as a pastime." When Jim reaches upward but lets his hand hover uncertainly next to the object, Spock reassures him, "You may inspect it if you wish."
Jim retrieves the cube-shaped puzzle with a peculiar kind of reverence. "Not a Rubik's Cube, you said? I admit, I don't recall seeing one this big." Kirk's thumb traces across a row of brightly colored squares, the condition of the toy well-preserved. His voice pitches lower to a thoughtful hum. "The one I remember would have been a size smaller."
Spock can picture it. "That description would match the Rubik's Revenge. What you currently hold is known as the Professor's Cube."
Kirk cuts a sidelong glance at Spock suddenly, mischief dancing in his eyes. "Is this is a puzzle to you, Mr. Spock, or simply a collectible?"
Spock does not quite understand him. "Sir?"
"You haven't solved it."
Spock blinks. "Am I required to?"
"Solving one of these is often a matter of pride," Kirk chides lightly. "Although, to be fair, pride is a trait of humans, not Vulcans." The man smiles, establishing with the return of fondness to his tone, "No explanation necessary, Spock. I understand."
Cradling the Cube, Kirk heads for Spock's neatly arranged work area. There, he props a hip against one side of the desk.
In the moment before following Kirk, Spock reminds himself that the Professor's Cube is in fact not a collectible. He keeps it as an advantage in meditation, having countless times calculated how it might be manipulated with exacting precision. In his mind, it is already solved. But to say that now might seem like bragging.
Spock takes a seat behind his desk before he can think better of his decision to keep the explanation to himself, steepling his fingers as is his custom when anticipating a discussion of some import or intrigue.
"How can I assist you, Captain?" he says.
For the most part facing away, Kirk dips his chin in acknowledgment of the polite opening, his attention seemingly focused on the Professor's Cube in his hands. With gentle tugs and twists, the Cube is set spinning through many transformations, almost too many colors flashing at once to be properly tracked.
Kirk asks, "Do you think we work well together, Spock?"
The Vulcan blinks once again, then shucks aside his momentary surprise for honesty. "I believe we do."
"Even if at times my reactions are... overtly human."
"When would they not be? You are human, Jim." Spock amends after a slight pause, "It is not that I intend to give insult, simply to clarify that you cannot be other than what you are."
"No offense taken." As Jim drops his chin, an unruly lock of hair hangs slightly away from his forehead.
Spock stares at it for a long moment, oddly distracted, until he forces himself to look elsewhere.
Under the effortless, almost elegant ministrations of Kirk's hands, he discovers, the Professor's Cube looks more than halfway solved. Spock again forces his gaze away because he is reminded that Kirk never wastes energy where a direct approach provides a better advantage—which is contrary to this idle questioning they have engaged in.
What is the message his captain cannot quite seem to broach?
Once it appears Kirk has lost all intention of continuing their conversation, Spock questions, "Jim?"
The man sighs through his nose then, as if Spock's timing is impeccable. He straightens his back and allows his hands to fall loose around the Cube, now victoriously arranged in order, a singular color to every side. Jim's voice, like the gaze he turns upon Spock, is wry as he holds up the puzzle for better viewing. "A matter of pride, my dear Vulcan."
Spock's "Congratulations" is warmer than he intends it to be.
Jim doesn't appear to take notice of that, sliding off the desk to change his position to leaning more fully against the structure, his back to Spock. Though Spock can no longer see the Cube in Kirk's hands, he hears again the distinct clicking of the rows in motion.
"Sometimes," Kirk begins as he works, "I wonder..."
For Vulcans, patience is a matter of pride. Spock's breath whistles from his nose with the slightest increase in pressure because patient Vulcans cannot be weary, and only the weary sigh while they wait.
"No, never mind," Kirk summarizes his unspoken thought at last. "You might think me foolish."
"I could not," Spock answers truthfully.
Spock catches the sound of a smile in the man's murmured "Too kind." He is about to speak when Kirk beats him to it with a huff and a decisive "All right. Here it is: I have this notion, Spock, that when two people work together as well as you and I, it has... special meaning."
Kirk twists at the waist to stare at Spock with a meaningful gaze, although Spock finds he has a bit of trouble deciphering the entirety of that meaning when the accompanying heat is so distracting.
A naive being might ask for clarification. Spock is not naive, having known for some time that the way he reacts to and feels about Jim cannot be entirely encompassed by the definitions of a duty-bound subordinate and a good friend. To at last have confirmation the situation could be reciprocated is not so much startling as it is freeing.
"You needn't say anything on the matter so soon," Jim goes on. "I simply came to—" Here he grows awkwardly silent, as one might when experiencing shyness.
A rare reaction from James T. Kirk, indeed.
Spock finishes, "Test the waters?"
Jim nods. "A fine human way of putting it. Thank you."
Spock's captain pushes off the desk, heading across the room again as the Vulcan looks on. After replacing the Professor's Cube on the shelf it came from, Kirk then pivots around to return Spock's frank stare. "Good night, Spock," he says.
Spock responds after a moment, "Good night, Jim."
Jim releases a slow breath, tension visibly leaving his body. A smile flashes briefly toward Spock, and then Kirk is gone from the cabin.
For a full minute, Spock's desire to leave his chair is not in sync with his body's willingness to obey. But once the Vulcan is up and moving, he goes directly to the shelving unit. He doesn't touch the Cube that Kirk left behind, just merely looks it over, assuring himself that his eyes have not been deceived.
Each side, every colored square on every row, is in the original position in which it was purchased—and before Kirk solved it. If Spock had not witnessed the manipulations of the toy puzzle himself, there would be no way to tell it has been used. The logical follow-through is that Spock will not have to adjust any of his calculations to solve the Professor's Cube. A deliberate and thoughtful choice was made by a man who, though taking pleasure for himself, made certain to preserve the chance for pleasure for another.
This is the message.
And now Spock has his answer to Jim's proposition.
Regardless of what the crew may or may not think about their First Officer's sudden predilection for colorful flora, his deep knowledge of love ballads, or his turning a blind eye to a bit of innocent fun during work hours, no one comes forward with inquiries or theories. Mostly this lack of prying is a relief, although Spock isn't naive enough to believe the matter will never be raised in the privacy of crewmen's quarters and the like.
No, the responsibility of investigation belongs purely to the chain of command. Fraternization is not prohibited among officers, but wherein a conflict of interest could arise that affects an officer's ability or willingness to carry out their duty, there is predictably a requirement to assess the risks and accept or deny them by the ship's highest-ranking officer.
In the instance the fraternization includes the captain, the responsibility then falls to the first officer. Spock can find no records of a scenario in which the fraternization takes place between the captain and his second-in-command. Where the regulation is unclear, logic must proceed. Who should monitor the Captain and the First?
The answer, unfortunately, is as disconcerting as it is sound: the second-most objective officer on the ship who can also proceed with the utmost confidentiality—the Enterprise's resident CMO, Dr. Leonard McCoy.
At that point in pondering the complexity of the situation, a full-blooded human might take a moment to wonder if he has in fact employed the superstition known as the jinx. But Spock is too Vulcan to give credence to a concept that cannot be measured by numbers or factual events.
In hindsight, when the Science station's open comm channel draws the Vulcan's attention from a stellar survey the next day and he identifies that Sickbay is on the other end, the human half might have been worth paying attention to.
"Spock here," he answers.
"Mr. Spock," comes McCoy's familiar drawl, "I need a few minutes of your time."
"Would the end of alpha shift be convenient, Doctor?" Spock inquires.
"Sounds good. I'll expect you then." The call from Sickbay cuts out without waiting for acknowledgment.
Having accepted the request means it is Spock's duty to go but only an unwise person would not exercise caution when Dr. McCoy sounds that serious.
Later, at the correct time Spock alerts McCoy he is en route from the bridge. He arrives outside the CMO's office to find the entrance open. As he lingers upon the threshold pondering this odd sight (he has never heard of anyone commanding the ship's computer to keep an office door from automatically closing unless it was an emergency), McCoy greets him with a hand gesture of 'come hither' and "Well, don't stand there gawking!"
Spock decides that a cautious approach is indeed warranted. McCoy is, as always, unpredictable.
McCoy seems preoccupied until Spock's shadow falls neatly over his desk. Then the doctor swivels in his chair to give the Vulcan his undivided attention and a thin smile.
"Doing well, Mr. Spock?"
Spock responds politely, "I am in good health."
The smile warms. "Don't tell me you came down here fretting that you might wind up on one of our exam tables."
"It has been known to happen, Doctor."
McCoy hums with apparent humor, then insists with a flap of his hand, "Have a seat. Computer, close the door."
Behind Spock, the office door slides shut with a whoosh of air.
"I prefer to stand."
McCoy's smile fades with a soft sigh, his expression finally settling into an impassive professionalism. Generally McCoy is not one to hesitate over speaking his mind on important matters, but in that moment the doctor continues looking at Spock in silence.
Spock offers, "Rest assured whatever we discuss today will remain confidential, Doctor."
"I ought to be the one saying that to you," McCoy rejoins slowly. When Spock raises an eyebrow, he adds, "We need to talk about you and... Jim."
"Has the Captain done something to alarm you?"
"That's one way of putting it," mutters the other man, then more gently clarifies, "No, Spock. I meant your relationship with him."
Spock's mind undergoes a strange lapse which can only be termed blankness. The moment is thankfully brief but has the unfortunate side-effect in the form of a realization that despite his personal mulling over the need for disclosure to an authority, Spock is not fully comfortable committing to the act itself—which in turn means he cannot uphold regulation. Earlier in his career the mere notion of this would have seemed implausible.
While Spock deliberates this unexpected conundrum, McCoy goes on, "Personally, it's none of my business. But being the primary physician for you both makes your situation one I cannot willfully ignore. I apologize if asking makes you uncomfortable."
Spock's respect for McCoy and McCoy's sincerity are the deciding factors. "I can confirm your suspicions." Even in doing so, Spock hopes McCoy will not press for more detailed information.
The doctor studies him a moment longer before nodding and saying mildly, "It wasn't a suspicion." His hands slip off his desk as he looks away from Spock, one of them reaching for a stylus, the other a data padd. "Knowing you and Jim like I do, I don't believe there's any cause to treat this case as out of the ordinary compared to whatever else goes on aboard this ship." McCoy pauses to glance back at him. "Unless you have some reason for concern, Commander?"
"Good." A smile reforms at the corner of McCoy's mouth as he pokes his stylus in Spock's direction. "Discussion over. Thank your lucky stars we came out of this so well. Far better than I anticipated."
"Why do you say that, Doctor?"
"I thought you might punch me for bringing it up."
Spock is appalled. "I would never—"
McCoy's unrestrained laughter interrupts him. "That was a joke, you literal-minded Vulcan!"
"In the future, please refrain from such remarks. I find them unpleasant."
The doctor sobers quickly. "I—sorry. You're right. I know you better." His throat works all of a sudden. "Spock, this is off the record: look after yourself. I can put people back together but not broken hearts."
Spock isn't certain how to respond to that.
McCoy sighs again. "You can go now."
Contrary to the dismissal, when Spock reaches the door, the doctor calls his name one final time.
Spock turns back. "Yes, Doctor?"
"I'm here for you if—should—you ever need a listening ear," McCoy tells him quietly. "I'm not just Jim's friend, you know."
"I do know," he replies, so surprised the words are spoken without thinking. Jim would call that a gut reaction.
Spock lingers for a brief second inside the doorway, enjoying the surprise mirrored more openly on McCoy's face. Then he takes his leave.
At first, there are no indicators of a problem. Spock's interactions with McCoy remain more or less the same in intensity and frequency. They also still occasionally share a table at the officer's mess, often trade heated opinions with the kind of repartee Spock readily admits he has with no one else, and work through joint projects on schedule. Thus it takes an idle comment from Jim over a shared meal—"Enjoying your time with Bones?"—to make Spock sit up and take note something might have changed.
In short order, hearing what goes unsaid in Kirk's somewhat vague follow-up remarks, Spock works out that McCoy may see him with regularity but apparently the same cannot be said with respect to Jim. Moreover, Spock reviews the past week, identifying another symptom of a problem: the doctor has not once stood in the presence of Spock and their captain at the same time, not since that fateful visit to McCoy's office. Where Spock has failed to recognize these irregularities, as the odd man out Jim cannot help but be attuned to them.
Spock fixes his gaze on his dinner companion. "Jim, when was the last time you spoke with Dr. McCoy?"
Kirk clears his throat. "Yesterday."
That answer has an unsatisfactory quality to it, decides Spock. For some seconds, he watches Kirk pick at his dessert with uncharacteristic disinterest. "Jim," he asks more pointedly the second time, "when was the last time you spoke with Dr. McCoy outside of ship's business?"
Kirk's silence stretches long enough to make them both uncomfortable.
Yes, indeed, there has been a ripple effect in their day-to-day affairs. An upsetting one. The friendship between Kirk and McCoy is in jeopardy.
Spock's lab companion has packed up his temporary station with the obvious intention of making a quiet exit.
"I would speak with you," Spock tells McCoy, taking particular care to sound firm without causing alarm.
The doctor jests, "I thought we've been talking this whole time," without moving away from his end of the laboratory counter.
Spock has heard that silence speaks volumes, and that conjecture at the very least appears to be effective. McCoy stops fiddling with his lab kit to slowly face Spock. His vibrant eyes glance around the empty lab in the process, allowing Spock to see a truth: McCoy is deeply troubled.
"About Jim?" the man asks, voice lowered.
Spock inclines his head.
With a sigh, McCoy trails over to Spock, stopping at an arm's length and placing his handheld lab kit by his elbow before folding his arms over his chest. "All right. Let's hear it. What has he done?"
"I believe, Doctor, the problem is what you have done—or more precisely, failed to do."
McCoy rocks back. "What?"
"Why are you avoiding Jim?"
"Who told you that?"
McCoy's sharp tone causes Spock to sharpen his own response. "I have eyes, ears, and a brain, all of which function proficiently enough so as to ascertain that you have deliberately distanced yourself. Why?"
"God, if I didn't know you were overprotective before..." gripes McCoy.
"I require an answer, Dr. McCoy, not your usual inane commentary."
"Why you—!" McCoy jumps forward, stabbing a finger in the air at the Vulcan. "I'm not required to tell you a damn thing!"
"You will if you wish to leave," Spock responds evenly, and then proceeds to order the ship's computer to place the lab under lockdown, removed only by his voice command and any Medical override suspended. It's a security protocol he has never needed to make use of before now; he's gratified that it works.
McCoy finally ceases to holler at the computer to let him out, slumping sideways against the worktable in defeat afterward. He stares at Spock for a long time. "You green-blooded hobgoblin."
Spock experiences a moment's regret. "I do not intend to judge you, Leonard, merely to understand why you can no longer abide the Captain's presence." And to mend this situation, he does not add.
The doctor rubs at his eyes tiredly. "It's not you, Spock."
With McCoy, often a lighter conversational tone yields better results. "I have heard that is an infamous line, Doctor. Are we 'breaking up'?"
McCoy snorts in surprise, covering his mouth belatedly, which does nothing to seal away the laugh. A moment later, he croaks, recovered, "You made a joke."
Spock blinks placidly. "I was speaking out of ignorance."
"Ignorance, my sainted aunt. You made a joke!"
"Vulcans do not engage in the employment of jokes," insists Spock.
McCoy grins at him, near to crowing, "Wait until I tell Ji—"
McCoy's grin dies along with Jim's name, then, and Spock barrels onward, his sense of urgency returning, and not in favor of the misery inching into McCoy's expression. "I cannot help but feel I share responsibility for your unease. If you will simply explain—"
"Like I said," McCoy interrupts, "it's not you."
"That answer is insufficient."
"If I gave you a sufficient one, you might hate me."
Spock is taken aback. "Impossible."
The doctor's next words are delivered sheepishly. "Spock... Jim and I, we'll circle back around to where we were. You just have to give us a little time to adjust."
"Illogical. How you can adjust without issue to one of us but not the other?"
McCoy presses his mouth flat. "Has it occurred to you the relationship I have with Jim might be different than the one I have with you?"
Spock blinks again. But before he can ask to have those differences explained, McCoy shakes his head in the negative, plucking up his lab kit.
"I promise I haven't ended things permanently, and I hope—" Here, McCoy pauses long enough to swallow hard. "—Jim feels the same."
"Of course he does."
The other man harrumphs. "You would say that."
"I cannot lie."
"But you can trick yourself into believing one. Face it, Spock. You would take Jim's side in a heartbeat."
"I would choose the side that benefits all of us," Spock maintains.
McCoy gazes at him in momentary silence, then huffs with force, waving a languid hand toward the exit. "Care to unlock that door now, Mr. Spock?"
Spock takes a tiny bit of pleasure in delaying his response by three seconds. "Very well."
McCoy rolls his eyes, and all seems settled between them once again.
"Dr. McCoy is prone to exaggeration."
From Jim, Spock accepts a glass of wine they both prefer before they settle next to one another on the couch in the captain's quarters.
Jim chuckles. "In this instance, I'm inclined to believe Bones."
Spock is happy to hear that, actually. The thought startles him.
At Spock's silence, Kirk casts an odd look in his direction. Then he leans forward to place his untouched wine on the coffee table.
The man stays there, bent over with his forearms braced against his knees, until concern drives Spock to ask, "Jim, what is it?"
"Is it possible," Kirk starts slowly, "because of the frequency of the mind-melds, you and I were... drawn together?"
"I find it curious you would ask that question now."
Kirk shifts to face Spock. "Your opinion, Mr. Spock," he says, as if they are captain and first officer on the bridge instead of lovers in private quarters.
"It is possible," Spock replies. "But I would remind you, Captain, that regardless of how this attraction came into existence, the decision to pursue it was ours alone."
"You sound certain."
"I know my own mind." Spock concentrates on the place where Kirk's knee presses against his outer thigh, hoping to more accurately to gauge the man's mood through his telepathic sense. "Are you implying you do not know yours?"
Guilt. Amusement. A touch of chastisement.
"I do, Spock—I do."
Then Spock can only advise, "Be at ease."
Kirk picks up his wine glass and raises it in the air. "To good decisions."
Spock lifts his glass. "To us."
Kirk grows more unsettling in his behavior, withdrawing to an alarming point. His passion, when it comes, is no less intense, but Spock senses an emotional distance behind his actions. Which is not say Spock doubts the genuineness of Kirk's feelings for him. Spock has quite thoroughly inspected them upon every available occasion: when their minds are joined, or if they happen to touch by accident or on purpose. And beyond this telepathic reassurance, Kirk has always treated Spock's love like a gift, has made a point many times to share personal treasures and memories with Spock, and will often act in thoughtful ways like any well-meaning partner.
Yet the unhappiness is there, lurking, a shadow set on slowly encompassing the joy of their time together. Kirk will not speak of it, and Spock cannot explain it. As is normally his preference, Spock desires to tackle the problem directly. He considers a plan of attack similar to the one employed with McCoy in the laboratory, but Kirk appears to know Spock too well, becoming slippery when Spock attempts to corner him or reacting like Spock is a subordinate questioning a direct order.
So instead, Spock has to seek a more expedient solution: finding someone with whom Kirk can discuss his issues.
The ship's psychologist will file an official report and may even wish to run a full psych eval on the captain. That will clearly worsen the situation and likely conclude with Kirk holing himself up in his office with paperwork he hates for days. Spock will not be allowed to help.
No, the only course of action is to push Kirk to open up to someone who can understand all aspects of the problem, including the extent to which Spock is invested in the recovery of the man he knows as Jim Kirk.
McCoy, then. In the doctor's favor, the success rate of tempering Kirk's irrational moods and misplaced guilt usually triples when McCoy is working in tandem with Spock to meet the objective. Logic suggests scheduling an informal visit between himself, Kirk and McCoy. And knowing Kirk, Jim's acquiescence to allowing it will be in direct proportion to his part in initiating the meeting.
Thus, one day during off-duty hours, Spock lowers a data padd to stare at his too-quiet companion and state matter-of-factly, "At this moment I feel the absence of Dr. McCoy's persistent emotionalism."
Kirk's head jerks in his direction, the man's mouth opened in silence for a few seconds.
"I thought you should know," Spock adds.
Jim closes his mouth. "That... must have been difficult for you to admit, Spock."
Not particularly, but Spock sees no point in confusing Kirk further.
Jim straightens his posture minutely, his shoulders set in a way that often proceeds him taking on some task he feels is his duty. "I'll talk to him. See if something can be arranged for the three of us."
"Thank you, Jim," Spock says and resumes reading.
To facilitate that atmosphere from the past, Spock dons his favored robes, procures an exotic brandy from Mr. Scott with the promise of an owed favor (he shall not contemplate how the Chief Engineer will collect that debt, now or ever) and proceeds to the designated location ahead of schedule.
McCoy is already there, which is contrary to the doctor's habitual lateness to any given social event. McCoy continues to drum his fingers nervously against the table at Spock's approach but when Spock raises an eyebrow, the drumming stops and McCoy smiles crookedly at him. Only when Kirk appears minutes later at the threshold to the private lounge does that smile waver and fade. The doctor tucks his chin toward his chest and his hands out of sight.
Kirk comes toward them with more caution than nerves, and for that reason and McCoy's clear discomfort, Spock orders Jim, "Take a seat."
McCoy folds his arms across his chest, muttering softly, "I reckon Spock's taken charge of you, Jim-boy."
Kirk sits down with a thump. "I don't know what you mean."
"Sure you don't."
Spock intervenes before the exchange devolves into bickering. "Thank you for agreeing to join us, Doctor."
McCoy's gaze seems warmer when he lifts his head to look at Spock. "Well now, how could I say no when I heard you missed me?"
Surely Jim did not... "That is not precisely what I said," argues Spock.
Kirk smirks, but his hand stretches out to land against the back of Spock's shoulder. "Take it easy, Bones," the man says, humor lighting his eyes. "You know any insinuation that Spock has experienced an emotion would result in him remembering all that paperwork waiting in his queue."
There are times when Spock thinks Jim coming to his defense is useless. This is one of those times. "As I expressed the desire for this reunion, it is doubtful I would be the first to leave." Besides, he had purposefully emptied his work queue before leaving his quarters.
Kirk and McCoy laugh together, which breaks the tension. Kirk pours each man a small amount of brandy. McCoy asks Kirk an innocuous question. He answers without hesitation.
After a quick sip, Spock studies the blue liquid in his shot glass. "I believe I prefer the Risan variety."
"Blasphemy!" gasps McCoy, stealing the rest of Spock's drink and adding it to his. "Do they extract your taste buds along with your soul in Vulcan school, Spock?"
Kirk pats Spock's thigh. "Would you like me to order you some coffee?"
"That will not be necessary."
McCoy has emptied his glass. "You could do worse than replicated coffee. Jim could have offered to make it."
That is true, thinks Spock.
Kirk looks between them, frowning. "What's wrong with the coffee I make?"
McCoy snorts. "Bilge water is less harmful to the body than that stuff you brew and call coffee."
Kirk turns to Spock, demanding, "Is that why you always drink tea in the mornings? ...Spock?"
Spock should have remembered that chatting with McCoy can result in wandering into dangerous territory. He attempts to redirect the conversation before it spins entirely out of his control and also to lead them to the reason that made this meeting necessary. "I would appreciate your advice on a personal matter, Doctor."
"Oh, is that so?" McCoy returns mildly, seeming more relaxed. "Advice about what?"
"My relationship with Jim."
The two men freeze in place.
McCoy looks aghast, blurting out, "I'm a doctor, not a marriage counselor!"
Kirk twists around in his chair to stare at Spock, his expression caught between bemused and dismayed. "Spock, that's not an appropriate topic."
"Nonetheless, Doctor," Spock goes on calmly, ignoring his partner, "you extended an invitation to be useful, and I am accepting."
McCoy fidgets in his seat, muttering after a while, "Fine. Go on. I'm listening."
"Well, I'm not!" objects Kirk. "I don't like this."
"As you can see, Jim has an aversion to any mention of his recent decision to insulate himself emotionally."
"Spock," bites out Kirk, "that's enough!"
"You believe that," McCoy says, eyeing the Vulcan. "Then you've confirmed it with your... abilities?"
The doctor rubs at his bottom lip, a habit he has when thinking deeply. "Jim does have a tendency to back off from intimacy when he's feeling vulnerable—"
Kirk closes his eyes, mouth forming a thin line.
"—but usually it amounts to him needing to work through some inner turmoil on his own. Humans are prone to internalizing a whole stew of emotions, Spock, and generally they don't feel comfortable sharing it with others."
Spock is slightly offended and lets indignation bleed into his voice. "If you are suggesting I have raised a concern out of ignorance for human nature, you are quite off the mark, Doctor. I suspect as a Vulcan I understand the value of privacy better than any human, for if I did not continually practice protecting my thoughts, I would have no choice in the matter of sharing them with the universe."
Both Kirk and McCoy wince.
Jim starts, "Bones didn't mean—"
Spock overrides him. "I tell you plainly, I have seen the result of Jim 'working through his issues'. The effects are many and varied: depressive moods, easy to agitate over minor infractions; avoidance of socializing with others; periods of restlessness increasing in frequency and duration; disturbed sleeping patterns; lack of appetite. Shall I continue?"
"Why didn't you lead with that!" blusters McCoy, shooting up from his chair and growling under his breath when his hand closes on air by his hip. "Where's a damn tricorder when I need it?" The man plops back into his seat and holds out an imperious hand to Kirk. "Give me your wrist, Jim."
Kirk locks his arms over his chest. "It's not that bad."
"Vulcans don't lie!" McCoy shoots back.
Kirk huffs. "Just what are you two trying to make a mountain out of?"
"Jim," Spock and McCoy snap at the same time and with the same amount of irritation.
Kirk says nothing for a minute, then, "You weren't wrong, Bones. I am working through... a personal problem. But it's not life or death, believe me. I will come out on the other side."
Spock wonders if that heated assertion is for their benefit or Jim's.
"I can still prescribe something to help," insists McCoy. "Suffering unnecessarily isn't acceptable in any form. You should know better." His gaze finds Spock. "I'm sorry for what I said. And I'm sorry about Jim. I should have been paying better attention."
"It is not your fault, Doctor."
"Probably is," McCoy says with a hint of anger, which seems directed at no one but himself. "To think, this must have been driving you crazy. Well before I let it drive me crazy, I plan to take evasive action. Tomorrow Jim should report to Dr. Noel for an updated psych profile."
Kirk jerks in his chair, a fist coming down on his chair arm. "That is not happening!"
"Don't make me put it in writing, Captain," McCoy growls.
"Jim," Spock says in warning. Then, to McCoy, "Would you consider another alternative?"
McCoy looks at him like he might be sporting a second head. "What alternative is there?"
"The reason I wanted to see you, to have you listen."
The man is silent for some time. Kirk has covered his face with a hand. But neither man makes a move to abandon the table.
"How long?" McCoy asks eventually.
Spock cocks his head. "Please be more specific."
"How long has he been this way?"
"Since I attempted to mediate the discord between you."
Kirk drops his hand to stare blankly at the table in front of him. McCoy's eyes close. Spock has the peculiar sense he is on the verge of a new discovery.
"Damn it." McCoy opens his eyes and states flatly, "I can tell you why."
A muscle jumps in Kirk's jaw. "Bones, leave it alone."
Spock recognizes then he has made a slight miscalculation in coming to McCoy. Staring from Kirk to McCoy and back again, only one conclusion can be drawn: McCoy isn't simply aware of the reason Jim is distant—he's part of that reason.
Briefly, the Vulcan entertains the notion of ending this confrontation then and there. It would save him—most likely, all three of them—from what he suspects will be an upsetting fallout. But he must know, not for his sake but for Jim's. He cannot help Kirk otherwise.
McCoy's voice turns guilty. "Spock, I think you should know, you aren't the only one Jim asked—"
Kirk reaches across the table to shackle the doctor's wrist. It isn't the unexpected physical act which effectively throws McCoy into unintelligible sputtering but Kirk's tightly voiced argument, "You're wrong, McCoy. This has nothing to do with that night."
McCoy flushes red. "What am I supposed to do, huh? Forget it happened?"
"If you were a friend, you would have."
McCoy's flush dies to a chalky white. His chair scrapes backward with a jarring echo as the man pushes to his feet without warning, shaking off Kirk's hand.
But it's to Spock that McCoy says, "I'm sorry. I can't help you with him. Find someone else—someone who would obviously know Jim Kirk's heart better than a bastard like me."
Spock had risen to his feet at the same time as McCoy in alarm. "Doctor?"
"McCoy," Kirk calls to their companion's retreating back, regret already ringing clear in his voice. "Bones!"
McCoy doesn't look back.
Afterward, Kirk braces his elbows on the table and jams his fingers through his hair. Spock doesn't know how to comfort him, or even if Jim should be comforted. To accuse McCoy of failing him as a friend...
Spock does not know what to think.
Both men lied this evening. What transpired between Kirk and McCoy is obviously the reason for Jim's recent instability. And McCoy...
McCoy has seen Jim's heart, mayhap more fully than Spock has. He clearly understands it better.
"I... have to go," Jim murmurs and stands up.
Spock doesn't ask him to come back either.
He falls into old habits, for when his emotions cannot be secured by the sheer force of his will, other avenues must be sought. Decided, Spock pivots on the ball of one foot and strides to his shelving unit of curiosities. Spock has not needed the familiarity of the unsolved Professor's Cube to ease his mind since Jim touched it.
Tonight, he will solve the puzzle for himself.
The Vulcan picks it up, estimating its weight to the thousandth decimal point with one hand. Then, drawing upon every previous analysis of the cube from the past several years and feeling more confident with each nanosecond, he begins.
His hands fly, working quickly to execute the strategy laid out clear and crisp in his mind. By his calculation, the puzzle should take no more than fifty seconds to finish—
—and, there, it is done.
Spock admires the red side of the cube before rotating it to the green side. He turns the Cube over again to see the blue, of a shade not unlike McCoy's—
He freezes, feeling as though he has received the shock of ice-cold water against his skin.
It cannot be, yet it is: the blue side incomplete, marred by one single yellow square at the upper right corner.
Spock flips the Cube to the yellow side where—again, impossible—a blue square in the same position mocks him. Despite all certainty, careful analysis and precise calculations, he failed to solve the Professor's Cube.
Spock returns to studying the blue side again, seeing his mistake anew; then the yellow side. Afterward, in that state, he places the toy puzzle back on the shelf.
Here is a lesson to be learned, Spock thinks. There is a missing factor, a part of an equation he skipped without meaning to. Years of thinking his strategy was perfect cannot alter the fact that it has been wrong all along.
Similarly, he miscalculated the conditions for entering a relationship with Jim, believing them to be favorable when an idiosyncrasy existed of which he was not aware. The blue square in a sea of yellow.
The lounge should be dark but when the last occupant is a doctor who saved the bartender's life from a nearly fatal case of meningitis, said bartender may be inclined to keep the lights on a while past closing time. That would be where McCoy is found.
Kirk and McCoy are so caught up in their argument, they forget Spock is there. He has been since the beginning: stolidly enduring through McCoy's dogged silence, faintly amused while observing Kirk employ every non-invasive tactic in his arsenal to provoke a reaction from the doctor, hardly reacting when the doctor's temper explodes at last in staccato bursts of accusations and mangled name-calling. To an outsider, the two men are being vocal about a difference of opinions, though what that the matter of contention is is not readily apparent. Spock, however, feels he has a better understanding than most. He would describe this moment as, to make use of a human sentiment, long in coming.
It began with a visit from an edgy Kirk to Spock's office at the onset of delta shift, at long last putting in an appearance after two days of absence. Kirk simply started talking at him, or trying to, his attempts to say what was on his mind to Spock becoming more jarred as time progressed. After Jim lapsed into several minutes of expressing his frustration via nonsensical groans and grunts, Spock finally cut into the irritating display with "I have work, Jim. As you have already waited so long to tell me anything of concern to you, surely you can wait until the end of my shift."
"That's... fair," his partner had responded at length, sounding grim. "And also unacceptable. I'm sorry."
Kirk had then neatly latched onto the Vulcan's arm, hauled him out of his chair, from his office, while Spock fought to quell the urge to protest in a manner unbefitting of a senior officer. He had settled on "Where are we going?" instead.
"To find the other half of the problem."
And now here Spock is, listening to Jim Kirk engage that problem in quite an ear-splitting manner. Why do humans love to shout?
"—has to stop, Bones. I'm saying you were right!"
"That's a hell of a terrible apology, Jim! And not the only one you owe!"
"You're one to talk! You shut me out!"
McCoy hangs off the edge of his bar stool, stabbing a finger in Kirk's sternum. "Damn it, that wasn't about you. Maybe I didn't want to have to see what I turned down!"
Spock's eyebrows fly up. Another piece of the puzzle slots into place.
Kirk grabs McCoy's prodding finger. "Then you shouldn't have said no."
"What about Spock, huh?" challenges McCoy, jerking away from Kirk's grasp. "Or does he just get thrown to the wolves!"
"I love Spock," Kirk argues fiercely. "I wouldn't do that."
McCoy pales all of a sudden. But as the doctor spins back to the bar, Kirk shifts to the side and steals the half-full tumbler on the counter before McCoy can catch a good grip on it. The other man knocks back the drink in one go before replacing it empty on the counter. Then, moving with exaggerated care, he retrieves the decanter too, moving that to rest in line with his elbow out of McCoy's reach.
"You can have a drink after you hear me out."
McCoy looks nonplussed. "Why do you get to have one now?"
Kirk offers a thin smile. Spock knows his answer: Jim feels he needs more fortification than McCoy.
"I never started this with the intention of being with one of you and not the other. But you said no. I went to Spock anyway."
Spock watches McCoy closely. That face gives nothing away. It's his fingers which twitch nervously around the empty tumbler he had reclaimed. Occasionally one of his legs will shift against the stool, tensing one second, muscles relaxing the next, likely from a half-formed notion to escape.
"You sprung it on me, Jim, and then you didn't give me to think about it. The next thing I know, you're out the door and with someone else."
In contrast to McCoy, Kirk has perfected the art of keeping his body motionless in high-stress situations, coiled so still one must wonder when the strike will come. His expression, by contrast, rarely shutters the same way, continuously shifting from the edge of impassivity under the influence of strongly felt emotions.
"I was hurt."
"So was I," counters McCoy.
Two men, in balance, perfectly mirrored.
"You desire each other," Spock states, giving the weight of sound to his conclusion.
McCoy and Kirk start, turn toward him as one, everything about them changing: from surprise to guilt to uncertainty and the edge of something without a name.
Spock proposes with more certainty, caught up in an act not unlike a meld, "Your feelings run deep. Love."
The men continue changing. McCoy's body goes perfectly still but his neutrality cracks in the face of the truth. Kirk's body lurches of its own accord with half-completed step. It is his face that has become frighteningly blank, a gut reaction for Kirk to always insulate, insulate, insulate from emotional pain.
No matter how they are challenged, moved, or disturbed, the mirror does not shatter. Spock has seen it before in glimpses but never this fully, such that he cannot deny the beauty of it. He has needed the ebb and flow of this balance for a long time, has been instinctively seeking it for longer. With just one of them, it could be possible...
...if not for the fact Kirk and McCoy are halves of a whole.
Therefore Spock would have only half with one of them. Yes, he understands their circumstances very well now.
"Spock?" McCoy says, drawing the Vulcan back to the present. "What's that look for?"
"I was merely determining our solution."
Kirk echoes, "Our?"
"Would it not be simplest to revert to your original plan, Jim?"
The want in Kirk's eyes is all the answer Spock needs.
But McCoy says, "That's too generous, even for a good-hearted soul like you, Spock."
"Interesting," Spock remarks, "I would have thought it too greedy."
Jim turns to McCoy. "Bones, this may be presumptuous, but for a moment it sounded like you had regrets."
"I do, Jim," the doctor agrees, "but I also think we run the risk of one of us having... less... than the other two. Do you really want that?"
"I know I want to try. I think I have to."
"Why am I the voice of reason here?" McCoy sighs. "Spock, do the Vulcans have any history of a healthy, functional relationship between three people? I know it's not uncommon for us humans but..."
"As you like to remind me, I am half human."
McCoy looks to be on the verge of throwing his hands up out of exasperation. "I thought your people were monogamous!"
"For everything there is a first time, Doctor. I remain convinced we have yet to experience all of ours."
McCoy looks back and forth between Kirk and Spock, before resettling his gaze on the Vulcan. "I forget it's not worth arguing with you when you set your mind to something."
Across the room, a person clears his voice—loudly.
McCoy's head swivels in that direction, and the man laughs. "Oh hell, I forgot all about Sal!"
"Hm," Spock says, studying the bartender's flushed face, "it may be in our best interest to relocate for the remainder of this discussion."
"Yeah, we're leaving," Jim agrees too quickly. With an abrupt about-face, Kirk abandons the bar and McCoy and Spock.
Spock waits for McCoy, who hangs back long enough to settle his tab with the bartender. Then McCoy tells Spock, "Bet you Jim's halfway to his quarters by now."
"He is in the corridor."
McCoy chuckles when they do, in fact, encounter Jim waiting outside the lounge, hypertense and looking pained.
"Spock, please have that man sign an NDA."
McCoy slips around to Kirk's opposite side, teasing, "Why, Jim, what's there to be embarrassed about?"
Spock completely agrees. "He has a point."
"Thank you, Spock."
"You are welcome, Leonard."
"I'm out of my mind," Jim tells them. "You know that what's this is, right? A fever dream or a delusion."
McCoy's sigh follows Kirk's sigh. "Jim, I think you're in good company."
In fact, they are, Spock believes. He would like to share more of his hopes for the future, though the one they might share has scarcely begun. For now, and for Spock, it is enough to say, "May this good company live long and prosper."