“What’s the story,” Uhura asks Jim as her fingers trace the black lines against his July-bronzed skin, “behind your tattoo?”
His answering smile is small, soft, fragile at the edges and it is only Spock’s familiarity with his eyes and their happiness that has him noticing the sudden absence of it; Jim does not move her hand. “I got it when I was a teenager,” he says without answering, half-truths weighing heavy in the backing of the /r/ and the lowering on the consonants. He backs away from the words like he backs away from the subject, deflecting both with a sudden, careless wave of his hand. “You know, the usual. Rebellion. Anarchy. Smelling like Teen Spirit.”
She glares, unimpressed. Uhura still remains one of the most brilliant human beings that Spock has ever met, far more intelligent than many do her the disservice of assuming, and despite her rapidly completing thesis on gender and language constructivism there are some texts that are canonical across multiple disciplines; of course she recognizes it. “Kirk,” and the look she gives him could cut sharper than the crisp edges she builds around his name. “It’s a map of Hell. I’ve read Dante.”
“Well,” and the unconvincing mimicry of a smile seems wrong on him; Jim is constant motion and constant noise that translates to all parts of him, his face shifting from one thought to the next and transcribing emotions for all to see – though few to understand, and Spock does not know when he became one of the few on this earth who could tell the difference. Across the room, Bones has abandoned his conversation with Sulu to watch the exchange with worried, wounded eyes. “People are always telling me to go there. Pays to be prepared.”
She laughs and slaps him on the chest and thankfully does not notice the way his voice cracks.
“Spock,” and he has long since stopped questioning the other man’s presence in his apartment, even before an exchange of keys to make the frequent instances somehow more legitimate; he does, then, find it discomfortingly strange when his cell phone rings at just after nine in the morning and Jim’s is the name on the contact screen. “I have to go to Sacramento today.”
He wracks his brain in an attempt to recall what event, lunch perhaps, they had scheduled for the day that Jim would have felt the need to explain his absence, and comes up empty; there is nothing planned, but there rarely is. Interactions with Jim are an unplanned implication of always, and he does not admit that he is disappointed that he will not see the other man today. “Okay,” he says finally, because while their shared space silences have become something comfortable he is still unsure – inexperienced, and he does not think that Jim has actually called him since that first night – in the etiquette for telephone calls.
A soft huff of laughter from Jim has the tension of the call dissipating; it was not the phone then but the tightness in the voice at the other end, the unspoken urgency, the strain of the letters evident even through the distance of an iPhone’s speakers. He wonders if the amusement is from his answer, bland as it was, or the sudden resurgence of his inability to interact with others. He imagines that it is the latter. “I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes then?”
A moment of wordless consideration does not bring clarification. “I do not understand.”
The previous silence returns, tense and unyielding, and disquiet settles itself into the base of his spine; Spock does not mind the quiet, prefers it generally, but it is something to unfamiliar in relation to Jim that it sits heavy on his chest. Through the speakers of his phone he can hear a rustling noise that hints toward an anxious fidgeting on the other end. “I have to go to Sacramento today,” Jim repeats, words cautious and carefully chosen as though they have been thought on before speaking – Jim speaks from the front of his mouth, his brain working so much ahead that the words are an afterthought formed at the tip of his tongue and what seems like thoughtlessness is anything but. He is not cautious; Spock is concerned. “And I need you to go with me.”
They are deliberate, carefully chosen words that convey the meaning he wishes and not the one they intend, carrying a question and a command and a plea all in one, nuance hiding in the careful spaces between them. He understands.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
Spock insists on driving. Not only does he still refuse to ride the motorcycle (“I’ll get you a sidecar,” Jim laughs the first time he voices his distrust, which earns him a glare and a deathly serious ‘I’ll make it look like an accident.’) but he had taken one glance at Jim and the dark circles beneath his eyes, the uncharacteristic too-stillness and the hyperactivity of his hands as they flew from his pockets to his phone to his hair and back before firmly ordering him into the passenger seat; the fact that Jim went without complaint still worried him.
It is quiet in the car as they leave the city. Unlike the phone conversation of earlier, the silence is companionable; Spock knows, like always, that it is only a matter of time before – “It’s my...” Jim breaks first, words spilling out with the same frenetic energy that seems to be surrounding him today, messy and imprecise. “Well, he’s not my dad. Obviously,” and he falls short of the smile he’s aimed for. “But he’s pretty much my dad, he’s just... Chris. His name is Chris.” Spock nods; he does not understand, but he is trying. “It’s his birthday.”
“And he lives in Sacramento,” Spock finishes. It is not a question; Spock does not need the clarification – even if Jim had not mentioned their destination he would have read it in the shape of the vowels, had known since their first meeting. “You were fourteen when you moved there?” The age is a question, more than a guess but less than a guarantee; he is not usually this unsure with his speech but it serves to draw Jim out from behind the walls he’s been steadily building all week now.
“Fifteen,” he corrects without thinking, before turning too-big, too-blue eyes to search out answers in his face; his face runs from shocked to surprised to a hint of the sarcasm of usual. “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of asking how you knew that,” he says, slouching low into the seat and resting his feet on the glove compartment, knees drawn into his chest like he’s trying to take up the smallest of space in the car; Spock is concerned.
He smiles in response, but knows without looking at Jim’s reaction that he has failed to be convincing. “I’ll take it anyway.”
Jim rubs a hand along the tattoo on his arm before continuing, the words small and simple and Spock knows that the story they tell will be anything but; Jim is a man of continuing contradictions. “It was after the car.” That story had only come to light a few weeks previously and he does not need to ask for context; the hows and the whys are burned into his brain with ugly, twisting words, all sharp consonants and dark tones. “I was removed from Frank and Mom’s custody, put into foster care. Went through four placements in the first three months, but then they found something. A group home, you know?”
He does not know how he knows it, but Spock can feel with completely certainty that this is not where Chris enters Jim’s life. “In Iowa?”
“Nebraska,” he corrects again, fingers tapping out a rhythmless beat against his thigh. “They couldn’t find anywhere in state, but there was a couple right across the border that had space and – and they seemed really great.” For not the first time in his life, Spock is grateful that the flow of traffic on Interstate 80 is matching its name for speed; he does not think this story would be told were they stuck at a standstill, as though Jim is racing the car with his memories. “I was the oldest they took in, and then there were eight kids that were all between six and eleven. At first, it was really good there, but then... I was only there for a year before-”
The wind and the cars that rush past his window match the feeling in his chest, like when a frigidly cold wind blows off the bay and catches him head on – the sudden, painful inability to breathe. Nebraska, 2003. Nine foster children in a group home. Spock is a linguist but his father is a psychologist, and a famous one at that, and he had been eighteen when the story broke both the national news and the academic circuit. They were minors, their names were never released, and he fights to keep his hands steady on the wheel. “You were at Tarsus.” It is not a question.
Surprisingly, Jim laughs; unsurprisingly, it falls flat. “Yep,” and it’s the same as the story of the car, sharp consonants and dark tones, “I was.”
Spock remembers standing in his father’s study, a dark room that he could never recall either the sound or light of a television interrupting before, watching the news cameras outside #4 Tarsus Drive. The couple who lived there hauled away in the back of a police car, the public crying out for justice, for blood, for the poor children they had found in the house. There were locks on every cupboard in the home, access to food controlled by a single key the man did not see fit to use on anyone but himself and his wife – of the nine foster children they had taken in for the pension checks, only three had survived. He remembers, very vividly, his father’s shocked face and firmly hissed ‘deplorable;’ it is the most emotion he ever sees his father display until the funeral.
Spock has made a career of studying languages, is fluent in seven and proficient in an addition dozen, only to find himself completely without words to give voice to the feelings that weigh heavy in his chest. Apologies and platitudes seem both inadequate and unnecessary, too far removed by time and experience, but he cannot merely pretend that he is unmoved by the story. “‘Child of misfortune, come hither,’” he begins softly, sparing a glance at Jim from the corner of his eye; a moment of confusion crosses his face before his gaze brightens, determined to place the quote. “‘I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear.’”
He looks surprised, but pleasantly. “Thanks... just, thanks.” Silence, warmed this time by a shy smile and a soft glance, returns for some miles; they’re passing the turnoff for Highway 4 when Jim clears his throat and continues the story. “After that – like literally two days later – Chris shows up at the hospital with the paperwork to take me in. He knew my folks at college, served with my dad when, well, you know.” Spock does; he also knows that despite the twenty-five years and a lifetime that have passed between now and his father’s death the wound is still fresh. Spock may be counting the missed dinners and the days until he forgets what her smile looks like but the only memories Jim has of his father are those of him being absent when he was needed most. “And he became my legal guardian four days after I turned fifteen. He got me patched up, put me through college – he’s been good to me.”
Jim speaks of Chris the way he speaks of books and of Bones – loosely, with easy gestures and open vowels and though his words are casual his face is soft and his voice is relaxed in a way that Spock is beginning to recognize as attachment. He is most irreverent about the things he takes most seriously, and riddles Spock loves, especially when he has the answers. “I am honored to be meeting him,” he says finally.
“Yeah, well,” and he sprawls across the seat like a much larger presence, voice even and words offhand – irreverent, Spock notes, and he smiles. “He’s heard a lot about you, invited you along. Also,” Jim is contemplative and complacent again, a shy smile on his face and his knee knocks against the center console quietly; more and more Spock has been allowed these moments of open, unpretended honesty. “He’s been great to me and I love him like family but it’s not like either of us can forget how I came to him. I didn’t want to make the drive alone.”
He does not explicitly say thank you, but Spock hears it. “I think you just wanted to take advantage of my car’s air conditioning,” he says, hoping that his unsaid ‘you’re welcome’ is equally as audible; if Jim’s snort of laughter is anything to go by, it is.