Gaila arrives at Starfleet Academy three months early with half an engineering toolset, the clothes on her back, and forty-seven credits. She'd stowed away in the garbage hold of a Risan freighter, and she reeks, but she presents herself to the Academy duty officer without so much as combing her hair. If you're going to beg, you'd better look the part.
"Gaila of Orion Prime, formally requesting asylum," she says, wishing she had some kind of identity card to hand over. The Syndicate didn't let their slaves carry ID, and she hadn't had the funds to buy one on the black market. She longs for her padd, which had held Starfleet's promise of a visa, but she'd lost it on her headlong flight from Orion Prime, along with the rest of her possessions.
The duty officer is a Vulcan, a commander if she's reading his rank stripes correctly. She probably is; she'd studied hard before she came here, and she'd started by learning to identify the people in control.
"Starfleet awaits your presence eagerly," the Vulcan says. "However, your arrival was not anticipated for some time."
He raises his eyebrows in a gesture that Gaila understands as a question. She breathes in slowly, willing herself to choose the right words to make this Vulcan understand the complicated realities of her life on Orion Prime.
"It became evident that the Syndicate did not intend to honor its agreement with me," she says. The formal English words feel strange on her tongue, but she wanted to match the Vulcan's precise diction. It's important to prove herself an equal.
The Vulcan snorts once, harsh and dry. "This is not entirely unanticipated. I do not believe your arrival will pose any undue legal difficulties."
She wonders if she'll need to give a statement now. She could; she'd rehearsed it over an over again in the garbage hold, making herself to speak the words out loud even though opening her mouth forced the stench deep into her lungs. The Syndicate became aware of my plans to attend Starfleet Academy. They would not allow me to earn my freedom. The next part of the story, she'd chanted all the way to the Academy, trying to detach herself from the words. The other girls are not coming. They are dead.
She opens her mouth, but the Vulcan is tapping rapidly at a console she can't see. Her fingers tighten around the engineering toolset.
"There is no cause for alarm," he says, and Gaila curses herself. She hadn't wanted him to know how afraid she was.
"I have notified Starfleet of your early arrival, however, as it is the weekend, no action will be taken until Monday. " He's still tapping into the console, and Gaila can't quash her feeling of unease. His face leaves her no clues to read.
"I have made an extensive search, but regrettably, all Starfleet accommodation is occupied as a result of this week's graduation ceremonies," he says at length. "If it is agreeable to you, you may stay in my quarters until more permanent housing can be arranged."
Gaila clenches her fingers tighter. She wishes she could ask him exactly what staying in his quarters entails; better yet, she wishes she could yell at him, tell him that she'd never been that kind of slave, not even on Orion Prime, and if this is what all Federation men think of Orion women, she'll go back the way she came. But she's tired, and for a bed and a shower, she thinks she could be that kind of woman for one night.
"I don't even know your name," she says. Maybe she sounds flirty; maybe she sounds weak. She's too tired to tell.
"Spock," the Vulcan says simply. "My name is Spock."
"The sanitation cubicle is on the left if you would like to refresh yourself," Spock says, and Gaila is grateful, or she would be if she had anything to change into. She stands there dumbly, not quite able to ask, and Spock looks up from unfolding the sofa bed. "I will provide clothing," he says.
Gaila watches him disappear into the bedroom and thinks that he's a good observer. His life probably hadn't depended on it, but she was glad to know those skills could be acquired another way.
"My mother was here some weeks ago, and she left these behind," Spock says, passing her a gray t-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts. "I believe you are a similar size."
Gaila glances around the small apartment again. The evidence of his mother's visit is suddenly visible: the tiny blue vase on the corner of the desk, the framed holograms in the corner, the red and gold flecked fabric draped over the back of the couch. Only a woman would have put those things there, and probably not a Vulcan one.
She's about to go to the bathroom when she sees the lettering on the t-shirt. Her whole body flushes hot.
"I am not property," she says, her voice sibilant with anger. Property of Starfleet Academy Athletic Department - what did that even mean?
Spock's eyes widen faintly, and he takes the shirt from her hands a touch too quickly.
"I apologize for my insensitivity. I will find another shirt."
The next shirt he brings her is orange with Vulcan lettering across the front.
"It says Vulcan Science Academy Junior Mathletes," he tells her, and Gaila nods, even though the term 'mathlete' doesn't make much sense.
"I know. The best engineering texts come from Vulcan," she says. The written language had come to her easily; the words were phonetic, the rules were never broken, and every idea was expressed in exactly the right number of words.
Everything in Spock's quarters reflects that language, even the bathroom. There is just enough space between the shower and the toilet to stand comfortably in front of the sink, and the bathmat beneath her feet is just soft enough to do its job. It's not the life of luxury she fantasized about in the garbage hold, but the modesty is strangely soothing. Maybe it was the lust for excess that had brought her people so much trouble.
Even so, she stands in the shower longer than she should, unable to make herself inhabit Spock's practical world just yet. She turns the knobs this way and that, delighting in the scalding heat and the prickling cold at her fingertips. Maybe she would have stayed there forever, if not for the scent wafting from the kitchen.
When she is dressed and dried, Spock hands her soup in a plain earthenware bowl. The taste is alien, just like the smell of the clay bowl, but it's warm and healthy, and soon she's eaten the whole pot without even checking to see if she'd left anything for Spock.
"Why?" she asks him when the last bowl of soup is empty and tea is heating on the stove.
"I do not understand the question."
"Why all this?" she asks, gesturing at the soup and the tea and the pull-out couch in the living room, now made up with blankets and pillows. It's more than anyone has ever given her before, and Spock has nothing to gain from an escaped slave like her.
"Hospitality to travelers is the custom of my people."
"Why?" she asks again. "It doesn't benefit you."
Spock raises an eyebrow. "I must disagree. As a principle, hospitality ensures that those who need help will always receive it, which would benefit me a great deal were I in need. Additionally, travelers transmit new ideas, which is essential to the doctrine of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination."
"That's logical," Gaila says slowly. Her journey here would have been so much easier if helping travelers had been ingrained in everyone's culture. Still, it's hard to believe people would actually live up to it. "Does everyone on your planet really do this?"
"Yes. To do otherwise would be contradict our best interest. Can you truly say that you would not help me if I required it?"
Gaila smiles wryly. "As much as I could with forty-seven credits and half an engineering tool kit." It's hard to imagine a Starfleet commander needing the help of a runaway slave, but she likes talking about his planet and its principles; it gives her faith that she really has come to a better world. She leans back as far as she can in the rigid Vulcan dining chair, her fingers curled around a cup of tea.
"Tell me more about your world."
She cooperated because Starfleet asked her too, but the attention makes her uneasy. She hadn't come to the Federation to be famous; she'd come because she wanted a life. The quiet corridors of the Academy had become a refuge where she could be ordinary, and she goes there almost every day, if only so that she can find her way around when the term starts.
That's how she ends up in the Command Discussion Group. The fliers on campus say it's open to anyone from cadet to Admiral, and she goes to get a taste of what the Academy will be like when classes start this fall. Her education credentials are fake; she's never even been in a classroom before.
As soon as she comes inside, she regrets it. Spock is there -- he's the one who'd told her about it -- but he'd neglected to mention that the other attendees are, at the very least, lieutenant commanders, and many of them are captains. She'd back out if she could, but Spock is already pulling out a chair for her, so she smiles uncertainly at the men and women around the table and reminds herself that she doesn't have to talk. She can kill Spock privately after the meeting is over.
"Welcome, Cadet," says a gray-haired man sitting across from her. "Not many young people are brave enough to join us. It's a pleasure to see you."
"Thank you," Gaila murmurs, trying not to sound too obsequious. The man's smile is warm. Maybe she really is welcome here.
"Now, where were we?" asks a dark skinned man whom Gaila recognizes as the chairman of the Academy Disciplinary Committee. Someone in his office had helped her process visa paperwork a few weeks before.
"I believe we were discussing the merits of increasing our recruitment presence on Vulcan," says another woman salt-and-pepper hair.
"No offense to my colleague here," the dark skinned man says, looking at Spock, "but I just can't see that's a good idea. Emotion is a necessary component of command."
"No offense is taken where none is intended," Spock says, "but I believe my accomplishments demonstrate otherwise."
"Point taken," the woman says, "but how does anyone lead a ship without instinct? How do they keep it safe without a healthy fear of losing it?"
"With logic," Gaila snaps, and fuck, now everyone is looking at her.
"Continue, cadet," the gray-haired man says gently, and Gaila recognizes him as Captain Pike, the man who will one day command the Enterprise.
Being stared at by six senior Starfleet officers is not the most frightening thing that's ever happened to her, Gaila tells herself fiercely.
"Well, consider the Klingon scout who was caught at the outpost on Rigel VII last week," she says. She wouldn't even know about this if she hadn't been interviewed at one of those morning news shows, so thank the Goddess she'd gone. "He was disguised as a human, and claimed to own a land survey service. A woman reported him to the police based on an instinct, but when she was questioned, she could identify perfectly logical reasons for her suspicion -- he didn't offer her a business card, there was no decal on his vehicle, and he barely had any survey equipment. A Vulcan wouldn't have felt that instinct, but he or she wouldn't have needed to - they would have seen the logical contradictions right away."
"Very interesting, Cadet," the woman says, nodding slowly. "What is your perspective on fear and command?"
"It's not necessary," Gaila says quickly. "It gets in the way of clear decision making, and what does fear tell you that logic can't?"
"Thank you," Gaila says, but there's something else on her mind. "Did they have discussions like this, about me? Whether people from my planet belong on Starfleet?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Doesn't it make you angry? That they just debated whether Vulcans could be good commanders, right there in front of you?"
Spock raises an eyebrow, and Gaila shakes her head.
"Of course not," she says. Everyone and everything here is alien, but Spock is especially so; she keeps forgetting how different his perspective is from everyone else's.
"Starfleet upholds its values better than many large organizations, however, it is not without contradictions and flaws. I believe that logic will eventually overcome their less reasoned objections. Your help in that regard was appreciated this evening."
They're standing very close together, Gaila realizes. It's not the first time she's noticed, but she'd brushed it off as a Vulcan custom she hadn't understood. Now, though, there's plenty of room on the sidewalk for Spock to move away from her, and he hasn't. She doesn't want him to.
"I like you," Spock says, his voice low and soft. Their fingers brush together, only for a second, but Gaila can't believe the touch is an accident. She brushes her fingers back against Spock's, lets them stay there for a moment.
"That came out of nowhere," Gaila says.
"It did not. I have admired your bravery and intelligence for some time, however, it is possible that the signs I attempted to deliver were excessively subtle."
"Oh." Gaila's heart is beating much, much faster than usual. She knows she's pretty, and useful; she hadn't thought of herself as intelligent or brave, much less in the eyes of a Vulcan Starfleet commander.
"Gaila." Spock's voice is low. "Do not underestimate yourself."
This is why she spends time with Spock, she realizes suddenly. Not because he teachers her things, or because it's prudent to cultivate relationships with superiors, but because he sees her, not simply a tool.
"I like you too," she says quietly, and Spock's body relaxes infinitesimally.
"I confess I am not certain of the next logical step," he says.
"You haven't dated before?" she asks, trying raise a single eyebrow, Spock-style. It seems like a really good flirty move, but it's harder than she thought, and her eyebrows do a weird wriggly thing on her forehead that makes Spock frown.
"I have recently ended a betrothal to an unsuitable mate. Was the movement of your eyebrows intended to communicate something?"
"No." Gaila's lucky that Orions don't blush, and Vulcans can't smell embarrassment pheromones. "The next step is to have dinner."
"Then shall we continue our exploration of international cuisine in San Francisco?" Spock asks
"Your proposal is accepted," Gaila says in Vulcan. The spoken language is as logical as the written one, and hanging out with Spock is helping her learn it quickly. "Your turn to pick."
"I believe sushi is next on our itinerary," Spock says. He has an itemized list and three restaurant apps on his padd. When it's Gaila's turn, they wander aimlessly until something smells good, and when she has extra transporter tokens, she beams them to different countries. She had thought her carefree approach would bother Spock, but he seemed to relish their differences. That was why they had become friends -- or, evidently, a little more than that.
This dinner is no different from the others they've shared over the past few weeks, except that when their knees brush beneath the table, Gaila knows it's not an accident. Spock's brow furrows minutely, and Gaila wonders if he's thinking the same thing she is.
"I have dinner with many people. I am uncertain what distinguishes this dinner as a romantic occasion," he says at length.
"Probably the fact that you want it to be a romantic occasion." Gaila wonders if she should tell Spock that this kind of talk is not romantic, but she doesn't want him to put on a front for her. She had imagined that free people never needed to dissemble, but she'd been wrong. Spock, however, is always himself.
"Yes. But I am unable to adequately quantify the distinction."
"Do you have to? Even Surak admits that instincts can be logical. Isn't it enough just to know that you like me?"
"No," Spock says. "To clarify, one's instincts may serve in the moment, however, they should be inspected to reveal their underlying logic, or lack thereof."
"Is aesthetic appreciation illogical?"
"Well, maybe you just think I'm hot."
Spock doesn't smile, but the corner of his mouth twitches up. Gaila counts it as a victory.
"If we were a Vulcan couple, what would we be doing now?" she asks, half because she wants to know, and half because she doesn't want Spock to notice how clumsy she is with chopsticks. Orions eat with their hands.
If Spock notices her clumsiness, he doesn't say anything. His noodles wrap neatly around the little wooden sticks, and she envies the diplomat's childhood that allows him to function in so many cultures.
"I suppose we would make a list of our strengths, weaknesses, and interests in order to evaluate the advisability of our partnership," he says.
"Obviously," Spock says in a tone so deadpan it has to be deliberate.
"And boring," Gaila says. She seizes a thin strip of beef from her bowl and grins triumphantly. "What would you do for fun?"
"The concept of 'fun' is meaningless to Vulcans. Our culture values purposeful activity." He coughs slightly into his hand and takes a long drink of water.
"Purposeful activities like this one?" Gaila asks.
"Exploring a variety of cultures' cuisines is purposeful. For instance, I have learned that my tolerance for spicy food has not improved since my last attempt."
"Excellent," Gaila says, swooping in to steal his peppers. Spice makes her miss home a little less. "Of course, if you were completely satisfied by Vulcan rules, you wouldn't be here at all. So what do you want to do for fun?"
Spock pauses for a moment, considering. "I would like to eat ice cream."
"Next Saturday, then?"
"As the humans say, it is a date."
"This stuff is weird," she says, which is too judgmental, but she doesn't care. It's slippery and cold and bizarrely colored, and she can't figure out why humans want to eat it.
"The food is somewhat problematic." Spock hands her a spoon. "This is not the customary method of consumption, however, it is effective."
Gaila digs out a little piece, puts it in her mouth, and wills herself to swallow. She can feel the coldness traveling all the way down to her stomachs, and her head is starting to ache.
"Do you have some kind of emotional attachment to this food?" There could be no other reason to eat something this revolting.
"Perhaps. My mother imported it to Vulcan at great expense. She requested that I eat it with her on special occasions in spite of its poor nutritional value." He pauses. "I refused."
"But now you like it?"
"I have been known to indulge." He licks a chocolatey drip from the edge of the cone.
"Does she know that?" Gaila asks. Some of the ice cream drips down the cone onto her fingers, and she barely fights the urge to recoil.
"No," Spock says quietly. "Only you do."
Just for that, Gaila takes the biggest bite of ice cream she can manage and swallows it whole.
The rain outside is gentle, more a drizzle than a shower. Of all the English words she knows, the words for precipitation are her favorite, hoarded and repeated on the cracked earth of Orion Prime. This is her first rainfall, and she stretches her fingertips toward it, praying to the Goddess while the human life around her carries on. The raindrops are so small they don't even roll down her face, but it's no matter; she has a long way to walk before she meets Spock, and she'll be wet by the time she gets there.
"Why are you carrying an umbrella?" she asks when she meets him]. She feels disappointed, but she can't pinpoint the reason why.
"I did not wish to become wet."
Gaila's narrows her eyes at him, a human gesture for annoyance that comes easily to her. "I know that. Why?"
"I find the sensation unpleasant."
Gaila scuffs her bare toes against the pavement. Her feet ache from the long, shoeless walk, and she hates how living here is making her soft.
"I thought you of all people would be grateful for water." He came from the desert; he should understand how lucky he is to stand in the rain, even if the humans don't recognize the privilege.
"I appreciate its importance to the humanoid life cycle, however, I do not engage in emotional rituals to celebrate it," he says, eyeing Gaila's skimpy bikini. "Appreciating the rain makes you cold."
Gaila stands in front of Spock, her face vacant. She can list a range of gestures appropriate to convey her frustration, but twisting her face into new expressions is exhausting. She wishes, just for a minute, that Spock could sense her pheromones and know how she feels. Their silence stretches from seconds to minutes, and then, with a soft click, Spock folds his umbrella.
"If it is very important to you, I will get wet." He slides the umbrella into a small bag, then puts it in his messenger bag. "Once."
Gaila starts to walk, forsaking their usual restaurants for random hills and alleyways. Water droplets slide down her belly and over her thighs; her hair frizzes into a tangled halo around her head. Behind her, Spock is silent, his warmth a counterpoint to the cool rain.
"Why?" he asks when they stop at an intersection, close enough to the curb to be splashed by passing cars. It's the first word he's spoken in almost an hour.
"Because I'm lucky," Gaila says, turning to face him. "I almost died on Orion Prime, you know. It's a dead world; we destroyed it long ago. Now it's just the slaves they need to keep the factories going." She pauses, remembering the baked earth and the sky bleached almost white by the sun. "I had started to turn brown. Everyone who works there dies - our photoreceptors burn. I didn't wait to see how long I would wither."
Two of Spock's fingers brush against two of her own, and he holds them there, warm and steady, all the way back to her apartment. This time, when she opens the door, he follows her inside. She traces her fingers along the edge of his collar, and he catches her wrist in his hand.
"Gaila, what do you want?"
She shivers; the reclaimed air inside the apartment is cool, and water is still dripping slowly down her body.
"I want to take a shower. With you."
He lets her undress him in the bathroom. Beneath his uniform, his skin is even whiter, and she traces the ridges of his muscles with a long green finger. He shivers under her touch, not meeting her eyes, but when her hand dips too low, he pushes her gently toward the shower.
She tries to make room for him under the water, but he stands behind her, just too far for her to lean against him. He starts with her arms, moving the washcloth slowly across her skin and washing the soap away equally gently. When he reaches her shoulders, he puts the washcloth down and kneads muscles she didn't know were sore, and she wonders how he can possibly know exactly the right place to touch, if it's somehow the same for everyone across the galaxy. His hands slide lower then, skimming over her shoulders and down toward her breasts. Now he lets her lean against his chest as he explores her body, his hands roaming lower and deeper and finally inside.
Afterward, she reaches for him, but he's already slipping out of the shower and knotting a towel around his waist. In bed, he lets her rest her head on his chest, but he angles his body away from her. Two of his fingertips rest on hers, but she knows they've found the one thing they cannot give each other.
After the first day of Captain Pike's command seminar, she finds a handwritten card on her pillow. The letters are blocky and precise, and she knows it could only have come from one person.
It is the custom of my people to state what they have learned from one another at the end of a relationship, it begins. The rest of the card is so stilted it makes her laugh, especially the part about 'innovative engineering repairs of dubious legality.' Yet, it becomes the first item in the small box of keepsakes she intends to carry to the stars, and the day she fails her first command test, she takes it out and re-reads her favorite lines: Your strength and bravery are undeniable, though you have often refused to acknowledge them. This is illogical, detrimental to your Starfleet career, and most importantly, a disservice to you. The words give her the strength to demand to take the test again, and when she passes it, she reads the last line again: I have been and ever shall be your friend.
Many people in her life have made promises. Spock is the first to keep one.