Chapter 1: One Hour
The phone rings; it is thirteen minutes before three in the morning.
He answers because he feels that he must; there are no elective conversations at this time of night, and when he blindly gropes for the phone beside his bed he tells himself that the shiver down his spine is from cold, not from fear – he has not had a favorable history with three am phone calls. The phone rests where it always does, meticulously placed between the alarm clock and the framed photo of him and his mother that is a few years old now and growing older. “Hello?”
“Boooooones,” the voice at the other end whines. He doesn’t recognize it, and when he pulls the phone away from his ear he doesn’t recognize the number flashing on the screen either. “Come pick me up.” He clears the sleep out of his voice with a small cough, which the voice takes as a reply. “Bones, I’m sorry, I know it’s like three in the morning. But I’m cold and I’m sleepy and I’m... probably drunker than is healthy and you can totally yell at me tomorrow afternoon just come get me.”
It’s obviously a wrong number, erroneously dialed in a fit of drunken desperation, but he does not immediately hang up. It’s late, both in the day and the year, cold outside and getting colder; he’s already awake, but not enough to be rational. “Where are you?”
“I love you,” the voice drawls – Northern Midland, presence of the cot-caught merger transition and a fronting of the diphthongs . Faint though. Demonstrates a forward palatial /u/ vowel indicative of a mid-pubescent move to California, Sacramento region. He’s not awake but he’s not dead either, and he can’t help the way his brain takes off running – and stumbles over itself in the messy slur of alcohol. “You’re the greatest, you’re just – I love you, man. I’m at Crissy Field.”
Spock slides his feet into his shoes, and the line goes dead.
He assumes that the man lying prone on the picnic table is the mysterious caller; this is confirmed when he sits up at the first flash of headlights, swaying in place, and he’s blonde and only barely old enough to be legally drinking. The front of his leather jacket – not lined, no hood, and it’s too far into winter for this – moves as he cuts the engine. “I found a cat,” the man explains, pulling down the zipper to reveal a too-small scraggly kitten. It – she, calico – blinks matching too-blue eyes into the glare of the car’s lights.
“Are you keeping the cat?”
The blonde pulls up the zipper, curling a lanky frame over it protectively. “It needs me,” is all he says, but it’s the most lucid words from his mouth. The swaying increases until he nearly pitches face-first from the table, instead using the motion to lurch to his feet; he takes one, two steps toward the car. “Who the fuck are you?”
His voice, like his eyes and the way he’s not swaying anymore, sharpen into focus, narrowing at the unfamiliar vehicle. Spock moves slowly, telegraphing the motion, leaning across the console to throw open the passenger side door. “I am Spock.”
“Uh-huh,” and the blonde blinks, either passing out or processing, but he takes another hesitant step toward the car. “Why are you here?”
“Because it is very late,” Spock explains; it’s not his teaching voice, too early for that, but it’s the similar tone he adopts when explaining a particularly simple topic to a particularly simple student. “And very cold, and you said you needed a ride.”
The blonde considers, only proving his point when a sharp shiver wracks his frame; the kitten meows piteously at the upset, before he folds himself into the front seat. “Touch screen,” he offers by way of explanation, struggling with the seatbelt. “Thought I was calling my roommate.” He takes up the front of the car with his presence – legs folded, claiming the seat and the radio when he leans forward to turn the knobs, shifting from soft strings into something harder and louder and he melts backwards at the jarring drumbeat.
Spock ignores him, instead turning over the engine and shifting into reverse. “Do you make a habit of getting into cars with strangers?”
“Only ones who make a habit of offering rides.” When Spock chances a glance to the man in the passenger seat, he meets too-blue eyes and a crooked grin. “I’m Jim, by the way.”
He’s not sure if the noise is of assent or aggravation, but Spock finds himself humming a reply as he leaves the darkness of the shoreline behind them. It’s warm in the car, more so now with the addition of one – two – bodies, but the throbbing percussion echoing softly from the speakers keeps him from feeling sleepy. “Jim,” and the blonde’s head rolls to face him when he hears his name, “where do you live?”
His eyes blink slowly, comically so. “Umm... San Francisco?”
“An apartment... with walls.”
He regrets his decision to assist a stranger, to get out of bed, to answer his phone at all – no good comes from conversations at this time of night. “Well, that narrows it down from all those apartments without walls.”
Jim snorts; his eyes are already closed, hands gently cradling the lump that is a kitten against his chest. “You’re a little bit of a dick,” he says, weakly and drunkenly and Spock almost wants to apologize, but it’s three in the morning and he wouldn’t mean it. “That’s good. I was worried for a minute.”
“You know,” and one hand leaves its position as careful guard over the kitten – presumably sleeping and purring audibly – to move in vague, over-exaggerated gestures. “That you were actually a really good person. Then I would have felt bad for waking you up and throwing up in your car.”
“You haven’t thrown up in my car.”
The gesture continues its lazy path through the air. “Preemptive apology.” It’s lucky that theirs is the only car on Marina right now because Spock jerks suddenly, the car swerving into the opposite lane before correcting. A hoarse laugh, delighted with its drunkenness, bursts from the passenger seat before Jim whispers, like a secret, “I’m a little bit of a dick, too.”
“I guessed that,” Spock says, utilizing the red light to fix the other man with an acerbic glare.
It has the opposite of its intended effect, Jim’s lips instead curling into a languid smile – his voice is heavy now, not just his eyes, halfway asleep already. “But you still came to get me?” He must drift off for a moment, lulled by some combination of heat and motion and what smells like an entire bottle of whiskey, because his next movement is a jerky, startled one. “Why did you come get me?”
Spock doesn’t speak until they’ve turned onto Powell, some minutes later. “Because you sounded very drunk,” he admits, “and it is very cold.” Again to emphasize his point, the kitten – almost forgotten about, as still and silent as she’d gone – sneezes pitifully. Almost unconsciously, Jim’s hand moves to rub her behind the ears and her tiny, pleased purring returns. “And because you would be a danger to yourself or others if you attempted to make your own way across town in your condition.”
“Well, I mean, I really appreciate it, but you’re kind of an idiot.” It’s another red light, and Spock takes the moment to glare; the sudden change in Jim’s mood has him on edge. “What if I were a serial killer?”
He glare softens in understanding. “Somehow I suspect that you would not be difficult to escape from, given your current level of intoxication.” Jim is mouthing the words after he speaks them, face drawn in concentration, and he rolls his eyes when he gets to the end.
“What if you were a serial killer?” He seems to realize the predicament then, glancing from the empty roads to the small interior, surrounded by closed doors, before fixing Spock with an accusing stare. “Are you a serial killer?”
His tone is again that of the exasperated, over-simplified explanation – he’s rarely like this with his students, maybe once or twice a semester given extenuating circumstances, but finds himself drifting here with alarming frequency when addressing Jim. “I’m a teacher,” but Jim’s already not paying attention, head drifting down against his chest as he drifts down into sleep. “At San Francisco State University.”
The parking spot in front of Spock’s building is still vacant; given the lack of other cars on the road, he’s not surprised. When he cuts the engine there’s no reply from Jim, and with another of those exasperated noises Spock moves around the car to open the passenger door. Jim stirs. “Huh?” His brow wrinkles in confusion but he allows himself to be helped from the car, body like a liquid that spreads from the seat to the road to Spock, draping over his shoulders carelessly. “This isn’t where I live.”
“No,” Spock agrees, adjusting the weight that rests heavy against him to free up his hand with the keys. “This is where I live.”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking,” Jim says, his entire frame gone soft and sleepy, “but I’m not that kind of girl.”
Spock can’t help the snort that escapes him, something not quite a laugh but the potential is there, and when he attempts to hide it behind a roll of his eyes he sees Jim in the peripheral, smiling up at him. “I’m thinking that you’re too drunk to remember where you live,” he says, and he means it to sound chastising but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim melts further against him. He manages to get them both through the front door and into the elevator, reaching in blind frustration for the controls until Jim shoves his hand away and asks which floor. “Three. I am also thinking, since I am already awake, that I have a bed where you can sleep it off. I’ll take you home when I leave for work.”
His words are met with an irritated groan. “Oh god,” and Jim sounds physically pathetic, leading Spock to worry if this is the foretold moment of vomiting. “You are a really good person.”
Apparently it is not. “I’m not feeding you and I leave for work in just under four hours.”
Jim groans again, this time in disgust, but he walks out of the elevator on his own strength. “You’re a monster.” Once inside, he does not comment on the condition or contents of Spock’s studio apartment; he does, however, move to the bookshelf with interest.
“Bedroom is through the back,” Spock gestures vaguely, taking advantage of the lack of interest to remove his coat and shoes and retrieve the stacks of file folders balanced on the small table near the kitchenette. “The cat-”
“Bill,” Jim says suddenly. “S’name is Bill.”
“Her name,” and this time it is his teaching voice, warm and infinitely patient; Nyota tells him it’s unsettling, sitting in on his classes, because he comes off as inviting and approachable when he’s actually anything but. He’s never sure if she’s teasing or not. “Cats with calico coat mutations are rarely male.” He gestures toward the bedroom door, slightly more deliberately this time; Jim is swaying on his feet again. “I was only going to say that the cat – that Bill is welcome to join you. I’m not allergic.”
“Good.” Jim nods his head, thrusting the small handful of sleeping animal into Spock’s startled grasp before fumbling out of his jacket; he lets it fall to the floor in a pile. “My roommate is.” Spock barely has time to react beyond cupping his hands around the kitten, who wakes only enough to blink her eyes and tuck her tail – it’s shorter than it should be, maybe only half as long – beneath her, before Jim plucks her back. He ruffles the fur of her neck again and she lets loose a new torrent of purring that follows them down the hall, audible even once the door to the bedroom is closed.
Glancing at the boots and jacket – matching beaten-up black leather – strewn across the floor with a mixture of disbelief and distaste, Spock drops the files of papers waiting to be reviewed onto the table in front of the couch. A quick trip back toward the kitchen and he makes a mug of tea – in the microwave, not the kettle, out of respect for his guest, but he shudders at the very thought of it and wonders exactly where in the week his life went so drastically off course – before following the papers, dropping heavily to the couch.
It is thirteen minutes before four in the morning.
Chapter 2: One Day
He texts Nyota at half past six.
He has been delaying notifying her as long as possible, but it – Vague pronoun, lacking antecedent. His name is Jim – is going to become rather obvious when she arrives. Nyota has not been his student for almost four years now, but he remains her advisor through the completion of her thesis work; his role is mostly a formality, as she is still one of the brightest and most driven humans he’s ever met, and consists mostly of accompanying her before the thesis committee and signing whatever papers she thrusts into his hands. She also remains his friend, perhaps his only, and, though neither of them verbally admit it, his teaching assistant now that he’s picked up the additional course in sociolinguistics on Tuesdays.
Today is a Tuesday.
On Tuesdays she arrives at his apartment at precisely a quarter to seven. She brings coffee for her, tea for him, and scones to share – and a handful of forms that require his signature (and, technically, a few hours of review and follow-up each that they have, by unspoken agreement, chosen to waive) before he drives them to campus at precisely half past seven. The class that they have, by unspoken agreement, chosen to share begins at eight fifteen, followed at eleven by a freshman linguistics course that he teaches alone while she retreats to his office for thesis work. They take lunch at one before an afternoon filled with classes, and for the first time since her studies began she is not taking a single one of his – he tries very hard to not be offended, given her now preexisting knowledge of the material covered, but he’s found that the classroom discussion lags without her driving it.
Please bring a second coffee, he sends, I have a houseguest. That last word feels wrong even to type, feels like something not quite true and he despises untruths, the practice of lying altogether, but as there is, technically, a guest in his house it is not, technically, a lie. The response is almost immediate.
Bullshit. Before he can reply, indignant or otherwise, the icon of a speech bubble with ellipses appears on his screen – she is not finished. You would have told me if your father was in town and you don’t like your brother enough to let him stay with you. Nyota, he thinks, perhaps knows him too well sometimes.
I will explain when you arrive, and though he waits a full sixty seconds no icon appears from her end to indicate a continuance of the conversation – before she can yell at him in person, at least. A sudden thought comes sneaking in from the back of his mind, the part where he stores everything that is not immediately relevant or interesting, arriving with such force that it has him reaching into his pocket for his phone again and tapping a final message. Please bring cat food as well.
Despite the hiccough to her morning routine, Nyota lets herself into his apartment at exactly 7:45, somehow juggling her keys around three travel mugs, two small bags, and her satchel (because Nyota is still one of the most efficient humans he’s ever met as well). “Alright,” she says by way of greeting, handing off one mug, one bag, and a folder of papers requiring his attention, “Tell me.”
The bag contains both wet and dry cat food, and he’s impressed with the effort she went through; he hadn’t even known there was a distinction. “I received a phone call at about three in the morning.”
She touches his shoulder lightly. “Is-”
“My father is fine,” he assures her, squeezing her hand once in thanks; three years and another three in the morning phone call ago, she’d sat by his side on a cross-country flight with his hand tangled in hers and hadn’t let go until the end of a eulogy he’d barely heard. “It was a wrong number. He was – he was drunk and alone in the park and he thought I was his roommate. He asked for a ride.”
Her left eyebrow arches. “You didn’t.” The second follows only a second later, taking in the second coffee and the evasive comments and the way he won’t meet her eyes. “You did. You – what were you thinking?? Spock, he could have – he could have robbed you! Or, god Spock, what if he had a knife??”
“He had a cat,” Spock tells her, “and he was drunk. If someone had not gone to get him, he would have tried to find his own way home.” Her glare softens, only minutely, because she abhors those who drive after drinking nearly as much as he does; she’d been his mother’s student originally, after all. Then her face hardens, sharp as her mind, as she takes in the second coffee with renewed interest.
“So you brought him to your home?” Nyota does not raise her voice, never has, but it goes shrill and severe and infinitely more dangerous; Spock has never been afraid of her, never is, but makes a conscious effort to remain in her good graces.
He reaches for a scone and the hand on his shoulder shifts, nails digging into the muscle with alarming force. “He was too drunk to recall his own address,” and he hates the petulant tone of his own voice. “He seemed more a threat to himself than to anyone else, and I wanted to get him off the streets to keep it as such.”
“You’re an idiot,” she tells him, voice laden with fondness and ferocity in equal measure; he is rarely, if ever, called an idiot, and he glares at her on principle. “You’re such an idiot, but you have a good heart.” No one ever tells him that, either.
“God,” and now there is only anger in her voice, her nails digging in further before releasing as she stalks after him into the kitchen; he is merely looking for a place to set down the bag of cat food, but she follows him as though he is attempting an escape, slamming cupboard doors closed after him. “You are so stupid, Spock! What if he was only pretending to be drunk, what if he was planning to rob you, or kill you, or-” She grabs his arm again, softer this time, and turns him to face her. “You invited a stranger into your home. For all you know, he could be very, very dangerous-”
“‘Let no man under value the price of a virtuous woman’s counsel,’” comes Jim’s sleepy drawl, preceding him into the kitchen by only seconds; Nyota swallows whatever retort she’d had planned as he appears, her cool gaze clearly assessing. Jim does not appear dangerous, not even a little, instead seeming mostly... rumpled, is the only word that Spock can bring forward (rumple, 16th century, from the Middle Dutch rompel). His face is lined from the wrinkles of a pillow where it is not lined from early-morning confusion or late-night carousing, brow furrowed in either hesitation or hangover, but the words roll from his tongue without a trace of the slurring from only hours before. He is barefoot, footsteps soft on a floor that normally squeaks from age, and clad only in jeans that are wrinkled from being slept in, though Spock remembers the additional presence of at least a shirt the night before; one arm is tattooed from wrist to shoulder with a series of black lines and circles radiating out from the elbow, and the other is held against his chest to cradle the kitten.
The cat – Bill – meows when she sees Spock. “There are bowls in the cupboard to the right of the microwave,” Spock says to break the silence that stretches across their locked stares – hers calculating, his casual – and offers the bag of cat food with a small shake. Jim takes the bag from his hand and exchanges it for Bill, who immediately begins rubbing her cheek against his fingers.
“She likes you,” Jim tells him as he brushes past – close enough for their elbows to jostle, though there’s space enough on his opposite side, and this path brings him directly between Spock and Nyota.
“I can assure you that it is entirely one-sided,” he mutters, but curls his fingers to tickle under her chin; she lets loose a round of purring that would better belong to a much larger creature and renews her affections. “There’s coffee.”
Jim retrieves Bill to place her on the floor with a bowl of food – wet, Spock notices, and another of water – which she attacks with vigor before he stands and grins crookedly at Spock. “I thought you weren’t feeding me?”
“I am a really good person,” he reminds Jim expressionlessly. Beside him, Nyota snorts inelegantly into her coffee and passes him a pen as a less-than-subtle prompt to begin signing her papers. “And coffee is not technically ‘food,’ it’s a stimulant.”
His laugh is clearer than it was before, lacking the harsh burn of whiskey but just as uninhibited, and he raises his coffee in a sarcastic toast. “I think if we learned anything at all from the 80s it’s that stimulants are totally a food group.” Jim leans against the counter with brazen familiarity, shirtless and sleep-tousled, and irritation sparks as a response; Spock enjoys his own space, his privacy, Nyota’s early morning entrances and corresponding set of keys a recent gift that came more by his own convenience than open invitation. It is mild though, more akin to exasperation than anything, and not enough to order the man leave – nor enough to have stopped him from inviting him in in the first place.
Nyota’s eyebrow is as arched as her voice. “Were you even alive in the 80s?” Jim’s only reply is to wink, careless as the rest of his demeanor.
“It’s seven o’clock,” Spock says for lack of anything else, trying to break the palpable tension he can already feel forming across his kitchen; he signs the last of the papers without even looking, thrusting them into Nyota’s hand with a small smile. “We should be leaving.”
“Shit, sorry,” Jim says, quickly scooping Bill – done eating and now mostly batting at his toes – up into Spock’s startled grasp again; his attempt to hand her off is met with Jim’s “give me just one minute.” In the same motion of ducking the proffered kitten he retrieves the bowls from the floor, giving the one that contained food a quick rinse in the sink with a scrub of his hand. While Spock and Nyota stand immobile – her from disbelief, him from discomfort (he’s never been around cats much before this) – he disappears into the back of the apartment, returning only moments later and fully clothed.
“Where can we drop you off?” Spock asks for lack of anything else, trying again to hand off the kitten and, once again, ignored in favor of Jim hopping one-footed across the living room as he tugs on his boots. Nyota, when he tries her, shakes her head and attempts to hide a smile; Bill purrs, loud and leisurely, and begins gnawing playfully on his thumb. He busies himself with swatting at her paws – she returns the gesture, tail whipping with excitement – and pretends to not hear Nyota’s muttered ‘the bridge?’
He grabs his jacket off of the chair where Spock hung it earlier, tucking it under his arm and downing the last of his coffee. “Campus, the closest BART station, the street outside your building, I don’t even care.” He moves around the kitchen with ease, rinsing the mug with the same care he’d shown the bowl and juggling Bill away before Spock even registers the motion; Jim sober – or at least, no longer blind drunk – is a whirlwind of movement, constant activity and the same mild irritation sparks into resigned acceptance. “You’ve already done more than enough.”
The tone he uses on particularly simple students reemerges, barely repressing a roll of his eyes along with it. “Where do you live?”
He is surprised when his tone is perfectly matched in stubborn exasperation, but the effect if ruined with the slight upturn at the corner of Jim’s mouth. “Pretty much the exact opposite direction from where you’re going, but we are literally like five blocks from the Powell Street BART and, believe it or not, I do know my way around this city.”
Spock doesn’t bother suppressing the snort that escapes him this time. “Clearly.” He means it to sound derisive but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim’s lips turn further up into a smile.
“Dick.” This time his gesture is something between a salute and a toast, raising the hand the holds Bill toward them and the kitten mews at the activity. “Thanks for the coffee,” he tells Nyota, who narrows her eyes and opens her mouth before deciding against it, nodding instead. “And thanks for... well, everything,” he tells Spock, who can’t figure out how to respond, or even if he is meant to. He murmurs something briefly to Bill, to low for them to hear, but the kitten resumes purring and he rubs at the ruff of fur behind her ears; then he opens the door, the same casual ease with which he moved about the apartment in the way he does not hesitate over the lock that always sticks. “I’ll see you around.”
Spock doubts that entirely.
Chapter 3: One Week
Spock teaches a freshman linguistics course at eleven in the morning every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.
While the students are in their first year in college and their late teens in age – most horrifying to him is the way he looks at them as children, although he’s barely pushing thirty – they are generally interested in the subject, and what they lack in knowledge they make up for in curiosity. After his first semester teaching the course, a disastrous seventeen weeks of proposed discussions that fell flat in the face of a grossly uninformed student body, he’d arranged the class around a short lecture – no more than thirty of the allotted fifty minute class time – followed by a period of questions and student-led conversations to help reinforce the presented ideas. Two years later and it seems to be a successful combination.
“And this concludes our introduction to speech communities,” he announces, turning to erase the marks on the board – half of them are in IPA, which he uses to help his students practice. “Are there any questions?”
“I have a question,” drawls a voice from the back, lazy and familiar; he prides himself on both not explaining to the class the similarity in the low back vowels and on not reacting in any way beyond an affirmative noise that he’s heard. “Well, two questions. What’s the deal with the dative case, and are you over your irrational fear of your cat yet?”
Spock absolutely does not roll his eyes – in view of his students, that is. “The dative case is used to indicat-” and his brain shakes off surprise to catch up to the second question, leaving him spluttering in indignation. “I am not afraid of my-” Jim is seated at the back of the lecture hall, draped sideways across a seat, and when he catches Spock’s gaze he unfurls a brilliant grin. “She’s not my cat,” he finally manages, though not as calmly as he’d hoped if the way the first three rows are leaning forward with interest, craning their necks to see who has so flapped their unflappable professor.
“Bones won’t stop complaining,” he says like it means anything at all to anyone but him.
There’s a headache building behind his eyes. “I can’t imagine why,” he says, and he means it to be under his breath but it apparently is not, not with the way Jim offers his middle finger in reply.
Spock turns back to the class, thinking that to be the end of it – it is, apparently, not. “I’m taking you to lunch,” Jim finally says, and the trio of students who always sit in the front row – two of them are psychology students and one is a sophomore in the Journalism program and he has yet to discover their reasoning for taking his class a second semester in a row – turn completely around in their chairs; they immediately begin whispering.
The headache behind his eyes pulses in time with his heartbeat. “Jim,” and the man in question tugs a knit cap from the pocket of his jacket and over his head in preparation of leaving – at least this time, he is prepared for the weather. “I’m teaching.” The excuse falls flat even before it leaves his mouth.
“Dude,” and this time more of the class reacts, glancing back in surprise and shock; even those who have not taken a class of his before have learned that Doctor Grayson – Professor, informally – is not the sort to be called ‘dude.’ “Too literal. I am taking you to lunch after your class.”
And he’s not preparing to leave, it seems, just settling the cap over his hair and himself further into the seat; Spock’s not sure where they came from or even if they were there before, but today Jim wears thick, black-rimmed glasses. It is Wednesday today – on Wednesdays, Spock generally takes lunch in his office while grading the assignments from the previous days of the week, and he should be feeling that same spark of indignation that Jim assumes his schedule is so malleable. Instead he finds himself nodding, agreeing as he had at three in the morning, because Jim is puzzling. “I would be amenable to that.”
Jim leads them to a small Vietnamese restaurant on Ocean only a handful of blocks from campus, and he’s walked by here with Nyota at least a dozen times but never before stopped. A menu is posted on the exterior wall in overly-large font, and Spock takes a minute to decide before they make their way inside to order. There’s a crowd in the building but Jim waves down one of the wait staff – “I come here a lot,” he explains with a shrug, and rattles off their order with the same easy familiarity with which he’s done everything else thus far – before they elbow their way back outside to a small table on the patio.
“Where did you even learn about the dative case?” he finally asks, because it’s a so-far unsolvable riddle – and riddles he loves, but not ones without answers. He loves language and its fluidity but abhors when it is twisted into falsities or dead ends. “I never brought it up in my lecture. I generally don’t expose the students to Old English until upper division.”
Jim smirks around his straw. “Maybe I speak German.”
It’s a possibility he’d considered, but ultimately discarded – perhaps on prejudice, which he half-admits he does all too often, but considering his near-open front unrounded vowel it had seemed a fair assessment at the time. Jim seems to defy all assessments made, however, regardless of the evidence leading to them. He raises an eyebrow. “Sprichst Du Deutsch?”
“Nein,” he says with a wink, and Spock can’t stop the way his eyes roll in exasperation, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”
Jim’s laugh is as genuine as he remembers, starting as a crinkle in the corner of his eyes before bursting forth into bright, unrestrained delight. “Somehow I feel like I should have expected that,” Spock grouses, and ignores the way it only causes Jim to laugh harder.
“I’m messing with you,” he says when he can breathe again. “I get a lot of old books in at work, which means a lot of old languages, and it just made sense to pick German up along the way. Greek and Latin too.” There’s no boasting in his voice, just a recitation of facts as though he were revealing something as mundane as the color of his shirt – grey – and not his level of multi-linguism. “So I do actually know about cases.”
“Where do you work?” Spock asks, because it seems simple; he’d been so prepared for this man to be simple that the revelation of the contrary has left him off-balance, which he already is in social settings, and a discussion of work is always, in any instance, simple and grounding.
A response is delayed as the waitress arrives with a platter of spring rolls, which Jim accepts with a grin and a wink that has the girl blushing and twirling her hair and turning away thoroughly charmed. “I own a bookstore on Valencia. Mostly used books, but I do a lot of special orders for rare or antique texts.” He nudges the peanut sauce closer to Spock, forgoing any entirely in favor of eating the roll dry, and shrugs. “Hence the languages.”
“I am trying to phrase this as inoffensively as possible,” Spock begins, only to be cut off with a snort and a sharp wave of Jim’s hand.
“Don’t. I already know you’re a little bit of a dick.”
He rolls his eyes, but some of the unease he always feels – it’s so easy, standing in front of a room and talking to people. It’s talking with them he doesn’t get, and sometimes wonders if that small distinction was what led him into the study of language in the first place – loosens. “I did not expect you to own a rare bookstore,” he admits. “But perhaps my opinion of you was colored by the fact that I had to scrape you out of the park before you were arrested for public intoxication.”
A spark of pleasure erupts when Jim chokes on his bite of spring roll, eyes watering and by the time he reaches for his water he’s already coughing out words. “Oh my god,” he manages. “You’re a total dick. This is brand new information.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Spock replies serenely, enjoying his own roll with a liberal amount of the offered peanut sauce – it is creamy and warm, mingling with the cold prawns and lettuce.
“So what,” Jim says again, voice light with laughter, but like that night in the park his eyes are focused intently, careful and calculating. “You don’t know many other leather-wearing tattooed polyglots who spend an equal amount of time with ancient texts and aged whiskey?”
He’s not sure if he’s more taken aback by Jim’s perception, because he may or may not – he had, exactly that, that Jim did not look or seem to be the sort who read at all, let alone rare texts in other languages – have been thinking along a similar process, or the frankness with which he delivers it. “I don’t know many other people in general,” he admits, perhaps to lessen the sting of his thoughts – unspoken but apparently not unknown – with a fault of his own. “But no, you would be the only one.”
“I get that a lot,” he says, fiddling with his straw. His voice is softer now, lacking the boisterousness that Spock has come to be familiar with, but despite the rawness of his words there’s not even a trace of vulnerability – just a quiet, easy acceptance. In a moment of clarity, Spock wonders what else he might be wrong about. “It really freaks people out.”
“You like being under-estimated.” He doesn’t mean for it to come out like that, couched in his father’s psychology, but if the sudden and snorting bark of laughter is any indication, Jim doesn’t mind.
“So do you.” He says like he speaks everything else: forward in his mouth, and Spock had thought that his fronting of the vowels came from his past in – northeastern Illinois, if he had to guess, or the southwest of Iowa – the Midwest but this is something else. 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; his eyes are sharp while his face is unguarded, and there’s something entirely, infuriatingly unassuming about him. Riddles he loves, but not ones without answers.
“I can’t even begin to figure you out.”
He stuffs another of the spring rolls in his mouth, again without peanut sauce, and Spock wonders if he’s allergic or if he just doesn’t like the taste. There’s a lapse in the conversation, Jim chewing and Spock chewing over, but it’s not an uncomfortable silence. “Is that the only reason you’re spending time with me?” Jim asks suddenly, eyes too-knowing and face open. “To try and figure me out?”
Spock despises untruths, the practice of lying altogether, though he is aware that this particular situation calls for it. “Yes.”
“Good. Then the feeling is mutual.” He offers his curry across the table with a shake of the plate, brashness returned, and it feels like a reward of some kind; still off-balance and assuming he will be that way for the duration of their lunch, Spock wonders if this was some sort of test. Additionally, he wonders if he passed. “So Bill-”
And this time there is irritation, released as an interrupting grumble because Spock enjoys his control, his own life, and Jim is flagrantly presumptuous with both of them. “It’s not my fault that your roommate is allergic to your cat-”
“Bill,” Jim winks over his curry in reminder.
“It’s not my fault that your roommate is allergic-”
“Just a few days,” and he hates the way that he can feel his resolve weakening. He never minded the quiet in his apartment, not before, but even before this whole mess of an adventure began he’d been considering something – a fish or a reptile of some kind, something requiring minimal attention and effort – living to fill the space. “Maybe a week or so, just until I figure out something else. Come on. You already have food, and she already likes you.” Spock hmms a noise of agreement, only to the veracity of those points, but a sly smile creeps across Jim’s face mischievously. “You secretly like her, too.”
“I do not,” he says, and he means it sound indignant but it apparently it does not, not with the way Jim grins in response. “But I suppose that I can manage a week. Or two. You can bring her by this evening.” When the waitress passes by their table for the third time since they began their meal – every time the same, slow path that leads her right beside Jim where she lingers with a soft smile – Jim hands over his debit card and asks to borrow a pen.
He scrawls a few lines onto a napkin before he scrawls his signature across the receipt, returning the latter to the waitress along with her pen; the napkin he folds in half and passes to Spock. “Here’s my cell number and the address for the store – you should come by sometime. I’ll pick Bill up in a week, ten days tops.” He’s a whirlwind of motion again, gathering his jacket and scarf and stacking the plates for ease of clearing, but he takes a moment to pause when he smiles. “And Spock... thank you.”
This time he still doesn’t know how to respond, or even if he is meant to, but he does. “Thank you for lunch.”
Bill stays for five weeks.
Chapter 4: One Month
There actually is a used bookstore located at 866 Valencia, but the building is (sadly) not purple and blue. It does have a store cat, though - two, even!
The 'real' Enterprise Books is called Borderlands, vaguely well-known among certain circles of geek lit, and neither this story nor myself are affiliated with them in any way.
The building is electric blue with purple trim.
Spock glances down at the napkin in his grip and the hurriedly scrawled address, bold capital letters uneven from haste but other neatly written and entirely legible; he turns the paper over, just to be sure, but there is no mistake to be found. 866 Valencia, it reads, echoed in the gold numbers affixed by the door – which is painted bright red, a further assault on his eyes – and the hand-painted sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk out front that cheerily proclaims (in equally clashing neon paints) ‘Books! – The Final Frontier.’ Spock is fairly certain that particular moniker is misplaced, and that the so-called ‘final frontier’ is, in fact, Alaska.
When he opens the door a small bell rings out into the otherwise quiet shop, and he can’t help but notice the inscription on the doorframe: Ex libris, scientia. One hand reaches up to briefly touch the carved letters, tracing the path overhead – Latin, ablative case – and he can’t help the way his brain takes off running.
“Welcome to Enterprise,” greets the stack of books that walks past and quickly resolves itself into a man, mid-20s or so, with olive skin and hair the same electric blue as the building; he places the books into a cardboard box and, patting down the front of his jacket, procures a thick black Sharpie from some inside pocket. ‘Free to Good Home’ he writes in the same curving script as the sign outside, and the places the box right against the door to prop it open. “Can I get you anything?”
Evidence of the Northern California vowel shift with lack of presence of the cot-caught merger. San Francisco Bay Area native speaker. He realizes he is staring, not speaking his observations aloud though there had been a question posed, when the man clears his throat pointedly. “Free?” Spock asks with interest. From what he can see the books are a collection of genres, everything from the pulp mysteries of supermarket check-outs to picture books to a textbook on botany. They’re all clearly used but in good condition, and there’s at least fifty books being offered.
The man smiles as he continues to move about the front of the store. “Free.”
“A bookstore that doesn’t sell books?” and he should really just accept the gift being offered, but more than anything Spock wants to understand. “Isn’t that, well, against the concept of a bookstore entirely?”
He laughs and reaches for the black cloth draped across a shelf; an apron, as it turns out, which he quickly knots around his waist. “We make enough from the café and the special orders to get by, but we’re lucky that way. Not everyone is, and reading should never be considered a luxury.” Spock is vaguely dumbfounded – he agrees, entirely so, but once again the steady base of his assumptions has turned to something shaky and insecure. In an attempt to rebalance he turns his attention to the store’s interior; the high ceilings make it appear much larger than it actually is, stuffed with books in shelves that wind in a vaguely serpentine pattern from wall to narrow wall. An equally narrow staircase is to one side, leading up to a loft that, from what he can see, houses a few over-stuffed recliners.
“Could you point me to your linguistics section?” he finally asks because he can think of absolutely nothing else to say.
The man gestures to a shelf in the approximate middle of the store that is emblazoned with a bright orange symbol resembling an inverted capital L. “Linguistics,” he tells him with a grin. “Gamma quadrant.”
The connection forms between the words and the inscription at the door and, with a sudden punch to the gut moment of clarity, the reference on the sign and Spock is not sure if he wants to laugh that he is now in on the joke or feel ashamed that it took him this long. “Space,” he says, finally understanding. “’The final frontier.’”
“Ding,” and, if possible, the man’s grin brightens in response. “Got it in one.” When he turns to make his way to the stairs at the back, Spock follows unconsciously – it’s becoming increasingly clear that this man, obviously an employee, is the only one in the store and that Jim is nowhere to be found – when he finds himself at a lack of anything else to do. The stairs, surprisingly stable despite appearances, lead up to a second half floor that, in addition to holding a sitting area of comfortable chairs and couches, reveals a coffee bar. The man moves behind the counter with practiced familiarity, and Spock is just leaning in to read the menu when there’s a flurry of motion as Bill scrambles onto the high-backed stool beside him.
She meows frantically until he bends down to assist her, rubbing her head against his fingers in gratitude and welcome despite his seeing her only two days before. “I thought cats were supposed to be graceful,” he says to her, and he means it to sound mocking but it apparently does not, not with the way Bill devolves into a torrent of friendly purring. With outward reluctance – although he has, he admits, become secretly fond of her – he scratches the spot beneath her chin that has her squinting her eyes shut in feline bliss.
“You must be Spock,” the man behind the counter interrupts, and it is only the distraction of Bill nibbling on his thumb that keeps him from startling – he’d all but forgotten his presence.
“Yes,” and it’s only when the corner of his mouth sharpens into near-laughter that he realizes that was the appropriate time for an introduction. “Sorry,” and he reaches across the counter to offer his hand, Bill chasing after and batting at his elbow. “Doctor Gra- Spock. Nice to meet you.”
“Hikaru Sulu.” He takes his hand in a firm handshake, the hints of laughter still hanging on the set of his lips and the twinkle in his eyes, but his smile is genuine when he releases him. “Kirk’s in the office.” At his gesture he notices the door, painted the same rich green color as the walls, in the far corner; a small golden sign declares it ‘Employees Only,’ but Hikaru waves him toward it. “You can go on back. Boss!” he raises his voice suddenly, startlingly so, and Spock does not believe he has reacted until Hikaru offers an remorseful smile and mouths a quick apology between words. “Visitor incoming!”
“Is it Spock?” comes the muffled yell from behind the door – even with a wall between them, Jim’s voice is unmistakable. Before either man offer anything by way of affirmation he continues, barreling ahead with the presumption Spock has come to tolerate. “Hey Spock, what took you so long to come and visit? It’s almost like you’re embarrassed to be seen in public with me.”
“I am embarrassed to be seen with you in public,” Spock calls in response, rolling his eyes to Hikaru’s stifled laughter; when he places the steaming cup – of tea, Spock notes, not coffee – on the counter for him it seems, if anything, that he approves. “I’m not here to visit,” he explains, fingers curling into the ruff of fur around Bill’s neck. “I just want my cat back.”
There’s a muted thump followed by the sound of hurried footsteps, and then Jim appears in the now-open doorway. “Your cat?” He is dressed in a red plaid shirt and a grey knit cap, once again sans glasses – Spock wonders if he genuinely needs them or if they, like the rest of it, are a carefully chosen piece in the puzzling identity Jim has constructed – and there’s a sharp frown marring his features. “I’m sorry, did I just hear you say your cat?” Bill gnaws lovingly on Spock’s thumb and flicks her tail in irritation when he drags it away; Jim wiggles his fingers at the end of the counter and the kitten – less a kitten now, all gangly limbs and halfway grown-up – bounds over to transfer her playful affections. “I think you mean my cat.”
He shrugs, nothing more than a single shoulder, and prides himself on restraining the smile he feels tug at the corner of his mouth. “I know what I said.”
“We agreed,” and this time Jim scoops the cat up with one hand under her stomach; her front legs dangle between his fingers, his pointer stretched up against her chest and just barely in reach of the pink, sand-papery tongue that reaches out for it. “Weekdays at the shop, weekends with you.”
“Hmm,” he allows the small shrug of his shoulder to convey what his voice will not – disagreement, amusement, casual indifference. “I don’t remember agreeing to that.”
Jim’s eyes narrow; Spock has the uncomfortable, but not unfamiliar, feeling that he is under examination. “It was two days ago.”
“Hmm,” he says again, the two sets of too-blue eyes narrow further; Bill’s continue into a happy blink, her purring filling the silence that hangs between them. “I remember something about a week? Ten days tops?” he mimics the rise and fall of Jim’s voice perfectly, prompting another stifled laugh from Hikaru, and absolutely does not smile. Jim glares, lines creasing the ridge of his forehead only to be directly contradicted by the softer lines that crease the corner of his mouth. “I remember that being back in January.”
“You’re such a dick,” Jim tells him, but he offers the cat back with a final tickle under the chin, like she’s some sort of prize and Spock is never sure if he is a friend or an experiment; his father once spent an entire Christmas dinner explaining the theory of operant conditioning as reasoning for why their family did not exchange gifts, so he is far too familiar with the notion of rewards and reinforcement. Jim is puzzling, but Spock cannot help feeling that he is the puzzle. “Class hours at the shop, then.”
He nods his head, agreeing as he finds himself doing so often now when his nature has never before been agreeable, because Jim is confusing. “I would be amenable to that.”
Jim grins at that and something shifts, the muscles in his face relax and go loose and he does not look like a puzzle or a psychologist; suddenly Jim is nothing more than a young man with too-blue eyes and a crooked smile. “And you know you’re always welcome here, right?” He waves casually at the counter, a sweeping motion that somehow includes the stools and the shop as a whole. “I mean, if you want to spend more time with Bill or anything.”
His demeanor is soft and open, no trace of his usual brashness, and the glimpse beneath the now-familiar confidence feels like a gift. Spock allows himself to smile in return. “With Bill.”
The cockiness returns with a brilliant grin and a sudden invasion of his personal space as he reaches past Spock – arms brushing, shoulders bumping together – to take a mug from the counter. “Yeah, well,” and he does not break eye contact as he drinks. Belatedly, Spock realizes that it is his tea. “I know where you live. If I want to spend time with my cat-”
“I’m sorry,” and Spock perfectly echoes the rise and fall of Jim’s speech with a raise of his eyebrows. “I think you mean my cat.”
“I know what I said.” Spock cannot help the smile the tugs at the side of his mouth, cannot stop the way is creeps across his face to settle at the corners of his eyes. “Anyway, if I want to spend time with Bill, I know where to find her.” The words are like a question and a challenge merged into one, shy and bold, as contradictory as the man who has spoken them. Riddles he loves, but he loves answers more.
He smiles. “I would be amenable to that as well.”
Chapter 5: Two Months
“May the Good Lord take a liking to you!” the man behind the bar welcomes them, dropping heavy, frosty glasses of green beer down on the counter in front of them; the city’s annual Saint Patrick’s Day Festival is in full swing, especially here in the Financial District.
The group already seated – Jim and Hikaru and a third man, slightly older – raise their glasses in toast. “But not too soon!” they crow, joined by the mass of people around them, and there’s a near-deafening clink of glassware as they salute.
Jim presses a hand against the unknown third, who Spock assumes must be the often-mentioned ‘Bones,’ to move him, turning to greet Spock and Nyota with a crooked smile and a pint glass each. “Happy culturally appropriative excuse for drinking day,” he greets, bumping his shoulder against Spock’s and his drink against Nyota’s.
“Oh, so you need an excuse now?” Spock accepts the beer and the high-five that Hikaru immediately offers at his comment; his hair is an emerald green this time, Spock assumes for the festivities, but it doesn’t suit him quite like the blue had. It could, however, be from the sheer amount of it – both he and Jim, despite his greeting to the contrary, are dressed in various shades from head to toe. They would look ridiculous were it not echoed across the majority of the bar’s patrons, spilling out into the street in waves of green and glitter, and Spock had thought his green t-shirt alone had been a cliché.
Jim glares in proprietary response but doesn’t look offended; if anything, his smile brightens at the corners as he watches their exchange. “It’s my fault for introducing the two of you,” he says mostly to himself, but it’s loud enough for Spock to hear over the din of the bar. He realizes, probably belatedly, that he was meant to. “Okay, Mr. Upstanding Citizen,” and the words are so heavy with sarcasm that Spock is somewhat amazed that they even rise over the ruckus as much as they do. “Where’s Bill?”
This time it is Nyota to respond, winding her way past Spock to take the stool that lies vacant beside him; as she passes, she pats Jim’s shoulder with equal mockery. “Calm down, Helicopter Parent.” Nyota and Jim have been in the same room together exactly five times since that first meeting, two at his apartment and three in his classroom, and it took him exactly four of those times to realize that they did not hate each other. Perhaps it is his own raising, stiff and formal and unerringly polite, that originally lead him to the contrary, but he has come to recognize that this – the snide comments and scornful exchanges – are their own sort of burgeoning friendship. “One of the students offered to take her for the evening.”
“That wunderkind from your Linguistic Analysis course?” Spock’s not sure what he’s feeling, pleased or perturbed, that Jim knows so much about his life; perhaps some combination of both with emphasis given to the former.
He hmms in affirmation, sliding onto a stool of his own. “Bill likes him.”
“Yeah, yeah,” but he smiles another of those careless, casual smiles that have grown in frequency between them like their meetings; Jim spends more time in his classroom than some of his students, and he would feel irritated with that were he not now on a first name basis with the owner of the bakery three doors down from the bookstore. She makes excellent scones. “I trust you.” He covers the tail end of the sentence in a cough and the cough in a swig of beer, but Spock has made a lifetime of studying languages and his trained ear catches the words anyway. The man beside him raises his eyebrows and spins on his stool; he’d been ignoring them out of politeness (or boredom, Spock suspects) until now. “Spock, Bones,” and Jim gestures carelessly between the two of them; Spock strongly suspects it is merely to change the subject when the man – Bones, he corrects in his head. He has heard many stories about the man, but never the story behind the name – seems as unsurprised at the name as he is.
“Leonard McCoy.” Bones pulls a face behind Jim’s back as he corrects the introduction in what Spock can only assume is a frequent motion; he does not admit that it startles him to hear a more normal name for the man. “Nice to finally meet you, Spock,” he says – Coastal Southern regional accent, elements of colonial era dialectal markers. South Carolina, Georgia maybe – and he drags himself out of his thoughts long enough to accept the offered handshake. “Kid hasn’t shut up about this great new friend of his. I was starting to think he made you up.”
He has never seen Jim look embarrassed before. “He paid me to be here,” he says into his beer, willfully ignoring the look Jim shoots over that is only a false irritation, similar to the one he’d sported when Spock and Hikaru had shared a joke earlier. Spock has made a lifetime of studying language but he is not well-versed in the people who speak it; he can tell from a few sentences where a person is from and what sort of schooling they’ve had, can know how many languages they speak and which order they learned them in. He would not, however, be able to tell a happy childhood from a sad, a bad day from a perfect one; Spock talks to people, but not often with them. He does, however, recognize the grateful tap against his ankle as he changes the subject. “It is nice to finally meet you, Leonard.”
Leonard’s face pulls like it might if he suddenly tasted something spoiled. “May as well call me Bones,” he says generously, wearily. “Jim’s already got everyone else doing it.” Spock can sympathize; he often finds himself making similar concessions since meeting Jim.
The prick of nails at his elbow reminds him of Nyota’s presence. When he turns to her, she also does not seem angry. “This is my grad student, Nyota.” She’d met Hikaru the week previous, her first visit to the store, and she greets Bones with the same enthusiasm; for all that she pretends a frosty dislike of Jim, she’s so far gotten along with his friends. Spock is not surprised – Nyota gets along with most everyone.
The nails at his elbow turn painful as her smile turns on Bones. “I’m also his friend,” she corrects smoothly, “even if he sometimes forgets.” Spock smiles at her indulgently; he does not forget. Quite the opposite, in fact – her friendship is a constant, so much so that he feels it goes without saying. Apparently it does not. “Which must be difficult to do since I’m the only one he’s got.”
Bones raises his glass in toast, clinking it against her and Hikaru’s and then, when he doesn’t offer, Jim’s. “I’ll drink to that.”
Two hours later and Jim nudges his forehead into Bones’ shoulder to get his attention; he is, as it turns out, a tactile human at any stage of intoxication and not merely the fall-down drunk of their first meeting. “Hey. Question.”
Bones shoves the other man’s head away, but only enough to turn to face the group again. He’s been alternating his attention between the Heat game on ESPN – ‘you don’t even like basketball,’ Jim had hissed, but had stolen a sip from his glass and more than one glance at the score – and the brunette girl at the end of the bar in equal measure. “Hmm?” The noise is one part inquisitive and three parts irritated; Spock can relate.
“Why is it ‘St. Paddy’s Day?’ Like with a ‘d?’” When there is a lack of clamor to respond, Hikaru even going as far as to return to the game with rapt attention – ‘everyone likes basketball,’ he had responded, and had cheered and waved his arms with the other patrons when something, Spock doesn’t know what, happened – and ignore him entirely, Jim rolls his eyes, hands gesturing blankly. The movements grow stilted with frustration, his brain working so much ahead that the words are an afterthought late to arrive, but a final shake of his hand dislodges meaning and spills it onto the countertop before them. “Why isn’t it ‘St. Patty’s Day’ with a ‘t?’ Like ‘Patrick?’”
Bones coughs into his beer, face incredulous, and meets Jim’s gaze with comically wide eyes. “How in the hell am I supposed to know that?”
Jim groans in return, shoving off the bar with a light kick of his feet to spin the stool in the opposite direction, only stopping when his legs collide with Spock’s at his other side. He blinks too-big, too-blue eyes at both Spock and Nyota. “If only there was a linguist or two at the table.” The stare goes from pleading to pointed, punctuated with an eyebrow that arches up like a question mark, and Nyota snorts inelegantly in response; the question, much like the attentions of the man who posed it, pass to Spock. He’s not drunk, not even close, but he’s beginning to feel a familiar spark of carelessness; tonight he’s not a tight-lipped professor with a tweed coat and a doctorate. He shrugs.
“Really? That’s it?” Jim sounds surprised, almost offended; his voice rises into a higher intonation than it would for a mere question, the vowel sound at the close of ‘really’ stressed into a diphthong. He wants to laugh, but he can’t – Spock has made a career of studying languages only to find himself without the words to answer someone’s, Jim’s, genuine interest. It’s Gaelic, he wants to say, an Insular Celtic language. Not my specialty. Spock does not often admit to a lack of knowledge; riddles he loves, but his true passion is in answers. I’ll find that out for you. – Jim leans close, voice accusing, but there’s nothing but teasing in the set of his smile. “I’ve sat through impassioned speeches on second-person personal pronouns-”
Nyota makes an understanding sound at the back of her throat at that, raising her mostly-empty glass in salute. “He got you, too?”
“-and all you have to say to me is ‘it’s Gaelic?’”
The bar is pleasantly warm, perhaps from the number of bodies – probably not to code, but it’s a celebration – but more likely the still-increasing number of empty glasses surrounding them. Spock and Hikaru have each had three, Jim and Bones four; Nyota lays claim to five, but she’s as clear-witted and sharp-tongued as ever and Spock strongly suspects that she’s stolen them from one table over. He’s not drunk, not even close, but he’s beginning to feel a familiar flush of tipsy; it’s been years since he’s been out to a bar like this, probably since college, and the Spock of ten years ago is ashamed that it takes so little to get him to here. He shrugs, loose-limbed and relaxed, and waves the question off as unimportant. “Gaelic is weird.”
“It’s amazing.” Jim leans to the side, eyes narrowed, and brings their faces only inches from each other as he scans for – Spock cannot even begin to guess. The flush of his cheeks increases with the examination, more when the stool rotates further and their knees knock together. Jim does not notice anything beyond his inquisitive stare. “Seventeen languages at your disposal and you still manage to invent a silent ‘fuck you.’”
Spock bumps his glass and his elbow against Jim’s. “Fuck you.”
Chapter 6: Three Birthdays
He wakes on the morning of the ninth to the nagging feeling that something is wrong; not terribly so, just a slight difference in his morning routine. He tells himself that it is absolutely, one hundred percent not the fact that Bill is not curled into the crook of his knees.
A glance at his clock brings a moment of panic – it is 7:15, and a Tuesday. He should be already awake, already showered and dressed, he should be already out the door because he has a class in barely an hour and the drive across town and – He halts his frantic tossing of sheets and sweaters when he remembers. Nyota is covering his morning sociolinguistics course that is technically their morning sociolinguistics course today; and all his courses after that, because today is April 9th. It is his birthday.
The nagging feeling that something is wrong returns; it is not a logical feeling, nor in any way related to the date or his personal connection to it. If he had to explain it, which he does not think he could, he would call it similar to the feeling of when a frigidly cold wind blows off the bay and catches him head on, the momentary inability to breathe, though it is neither frigidly cold nor windy in his apartment. Then he hears the sound of his electric can opener from the kitchen.
“Did you really break into my apartment on my day off?” When he passes through the hallway – it’s hardly even a hallway in the traditional sense of the word, merely a space between his bedroom and living area that is slightly longer than usual. His apartment had, in a previous lifetime, been two smaller studio lofts that had been refurbished into a winding maze of a one bedroom when the building was retrofitted for earthquakes back in the early 90s – he hears Jim before he sees him; constant motion translates to constant noise.
“No.” The denial is contradicted by his presence in the kitchen, moving around with the same familiarity he’d had the first time he’d been in it and every subsequent visit after that. It was previously an irritating presumption, but has over the weeks, months now, become an irritating practice. “I let myself into your apartment on your day off.” He jingles a set of keys that Spock recognizes as Nyota’s, containing those to his office and apartment and the spare to his Prius, in emphasis. “I would think that you of all people would appreciate the argument of semantics.”
He does, but he absolutely does not let it show. “I appreciate nothing. Is there caffeine?”
“Special birthday tea.” Jim hands him a take-away mug that is hot to the touch even through the cardboard sleeve; he supposes that San Francisco was a poor choice of a move for someone who is always, always too cold, but the city, like so many other aspects of his life, had belonged to his mother first. And even the frigidly cold winds off the bay were better than the too-cold winters of Connecticut.
He hmms a pleased response to the warmth, curling his fingers around it, before removing the lid with a suspicious glance to the liquid inside. “What makes it special?”
Letting out a puff of breath of his own, this one in fond annoyance, Jim all but drops Bill into his arms; he nearly drops the mug in his attempt to catch her. “It’s your birthday. Any tea you have today is special birthday tea.” When he does not move to drink it, still eyeing the amber-orange liquid with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth, Jim turns back to his task of unknown outcome in the kitchen. “Also it’s that jasmine dragonwhatever blend from that tea room in Berkeley.” His favorite.
“So why are you in my apartment?” he asks over a sip of his tea, and he means it to sound annoyed but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim grins at him over a bowl of cat food.
The cat food is, obviously, for Bill, and she scurries across the counter to rub against his ribcage and wrists as he tries to set it down for her; she’s still a gangly cat, too-big paws and too-short tail and too-blue eyes and he doesn’t think she’s going to grow out of it at this point. “Because if I wasn’t here you would spend all day alone in your apartment reading boring old books in boring old languages. Speaking of boring old books, Sulu got you like ten for the party we’re throwing you at the store later. Act surprised.”
“I hate surprises.” Much like Jim’s overfamiliarity with his living space, he’s long since stopped being annoyed with the way his very personality becomes drier and sharper around the other man – Nyota tells him that’s just his personality, and the blandness of his public persona is just that: a persona. He is less doubtful of that than he used to be.
Jim laughs disbelievingly and pulls one of the stools up to the counter to sit; he leans against the granite counter top, bare feet tapping against Spock’s calf. “And that’s why I’m telling you about it.”
He hunches further around the mug and the warmth that leaches into his fingers and wrists, half-heartedly grousing, “I hate parties.”
If anything, Jim only laughs harder. “Welcome to the family, Spock. Nobody’s alone on their birthday.”
“You were,” he says into his tea, and he means it to sound teasing but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim softens and straightens all at once; he’s a walking contradiction in all regards. Spock simply cannot figure him out, can’t even begin to. He hasn’t been trying very hard, he’ll grudgingly admit, he’s just been going along with it and maybe when they first met Jim was a puzzle but he’s bit by bit becoming a person too. “Alone, I mean. And drunk.”
“Oh my god!” It’s an old argument of theirs, or as old as any argument can be between two people – friends? – who have known each other only three months, made younger even still by the month and a half of those it took before Spock even worked up the ambition to ask about their first meeting in greater detail. “I was not drunk and alone to celebrate my birthday. I was drunk and alone to celebrate the anniversary of my dad dying. Not my fault they’re the same day.”
They’re back to semantics; it worries him that he wants to argue against logic. “You were alone before you were drunk, too.”
Jim’s tapping transfers from his feet to his fingers, a staccato rhythm against the counter that lasts all of three uninterrupted beats before Bill is skip-hopping across to pounce. “Well, I mean,” and his body language is loose and relaxed. Spock has made a lifetime of studying languages, words and their meaning, and he has only recently learned that people – that Jim – can lie with more than their words. “It wasn’t like anyone was clamoring to throw me a party when I was a kid. I guess I’m just used to people not wanting to celebrate that day.”
They should, he thinks suddenly, illogically, but he can’t help the way his brain takes off running – he is not himself today. Instead he burns away the moment with another mouthful of tea and says, offhand, “I have never had a birthday party before.” He says it casually, conversationally, and Jim looks grateful at the change in focus. “My father does not believe in the practice of celebrating the anniversary of one’s birth. His reasons are a long-winded mix of psychology and philosophy, but the words ‘irrelevant’ and ‘arbitrary’ feature quite prominently. My mother-” It has been three years – three years, four months, two weeks, one hour, and seventeen minutes, he corrects, because there is small comfort in precision. He measures the loss in units of time, clinical and exacting, because he does not think he could manage to measure it any other way. It has been twelve hundred and thirty morning cups of tea, one hundred and seventy Friday night dinners, and three... four birthdays now – since she died, but speaking of her still brings him pause.
“Yeah,” Jim says quietly, because this is a dialect that they share; there is a language entirely its own for children who have lost their parents too soon, a language of silence and evasion. Theirs is a speech community of untimely loss.
“I would often celebrate with ‘reading boring old books in boring old languages,’” he throws the words back with a quiet smile, easing his way back into the intended statement via the most circuitous path. “Even as a child, and my mother-” he lingers over the word for a moment, the same way he has for now thousands of moments, but does not falter over it like he had previously. “She understood. She would often sit with me, like-” Like this, he does not say – he is not himself today. “She would make a pie.”
He grins, but the gesture does not reach his eyes; Jim was never given time for happy memories. All he knows of his father is the rawness of loss, and despite three years – four months, two weeks, one hour, and nineteen minutes – of grief Spock at least has twenty-five years of fond memories to balance. “What kind of pie? It’s lemon, isn’t it.”
It is. “What makes you think that?”
Jim reads people the way Spock reads books, catalogues the nuances in actions the way Spock does with sounds. “Please,” he taps lightly against Bill’s nose with each point he ticks off, the cat only blinking blissfully in response to the attention. “You hate cold things so nothing that involves ice cream, you don’t eat chocolate, and because you hate everything good in the world you don’t like overly sugary things.” This time his grin is reflected in his entire face, and Spock wonders what in his own expression keyed him in to the correct guess. “It’s totally lemon meringue, right?”
He hides a response in another sip of tea and a grumbled, “You’re not as smart as you think you are.” Jim laughs.
“Please. I am like, five times more smarter than I think I am.” He waves an end to the conversation with a flap of his arms that succeeds, if nothing else, in rousing Bill to a stage of half-alertness. “Now go read one of your boring old books. We have some time to kill before we have to go to that party you don’t know about.”
He is not sure exactly how Jim has managed it, but when they arrive at an otherwise empty store to an upstairs draped with streamers and with friends – Hikaru waves and shouts ‘surprise’ as soon as they arrive, though it obviously is not, and Bones toasts his entrance over a cup of coffee. Nyota throws her arms around him on the one day a year he allows it and promises that his classes are covered; he has not even thought of them yet – the centerpiece of the festivities is an oven fresh lemon meringue pie.
Chapter 7: Four Cheeses
The semester ends in a flood of papers to grade and exams to review and he feels like he hasn’t left his office in over a week. If the alerts on his phone – two missed calls and eight text messages, all from Nyota – are anything to go by, it’s probably only been eighteen, maybe twenty hours at most. Still, his eyes burn with exhaustion and the words on the pages swim in and out of language and he should probably call it day if only because he feels dangerously close to simply passing the remaining students in the name of getting to sleep.
There’s a gentle tapping against the door of his office; Jim enters, smile soft and he jingles his recently acquired set of keys by way of an explanation. “Only me,” he whispers, voice soft like when he talks to Bill. Spock is tired and his eyes hurt and there is a headache building behind his eyes, but he is glad to see him. “And nothing more.”
He snorts at the joke; the first few times he had appeared surprised at Jim’s literary references the other man had shrugged it off with a sarcastic comment about owning a bookstore or that yes, he did know how to read. It was only later, and only after Spock had finally asked, that Jim mentioned a degree in English Literature (from Stanford, no less). He has since accepted that he will always be surprised by Jim – and therefore never surprised. The situation, like the man it regards, is a paradox. “I was just considering leaving,” he whispers back; it’s strange to hear his own voice. He does not think he has spoken aloud in at least twelve hours now.
Jim plants himself on the small table by the door when he finds both his usual seat – the chair in the corner – and any available space on the desk covered with papers, both collated essays and the loose sheets that Spock has been using to scribble notes. “Nyota called me when she failed to get ahold of you for the tenth time.”
He’d turned his phone to silent that morning, hadn’t checked it again until just the few minutes before – come to think of it, now that he is thinking of it, he cannot recall the last time he ate. Or stood from his desk, or made a cup of tea. He feels as though he has temporarily ceased to exist. “I assume you’re here to stage some sort of intervention.”
He shrugs. “Essentially.”
“Believe it or not,” he counters, only for the sake of being contrary; in actuality, he is tired and his eyes hurt and he wants to go home. “I am capable of taking care of myself.” The irony of the complete role reversal from their first meeting is not lost on him.
“Sure you are,” Jim says, still in the voice he reserves for the cat he brought in from the cold – Spock wonders what he looks like, that Jim is treating him as though he were a stranded animal. “No arguments here. Come on, let’s get you fed.” He graciously agrees without arguing, but does gesture to a larger-than-necessary number of papers to be brought with them, just to watch the irritation fight for a place on Jim’s face; he manages to keep his expression soothingly blank until Spock emerges from beneath his desk with an overflowing banker’s box of thick folders. “Seriously?? Come on, you’re fucking with me.”
He precariously balances an additional few papers onto the stack in Jim’s arms; it is already in danger of spilling onto the floor, and the weight of a final three sheets has it swaying alarmingly. Jim adjusts his footing in an attempt to compensate. “I would never,” Spock tells the stack of books and essays that is cursing and swearing a slow path to the door. “Mind your step.”
“You’re such a fucking dick,” but he hears the smile in the words, the way the vowels stretch and lengthen like a grin across his face. Spock has always found it easier talking to people rather than with them, but he finds himself increasingly fluent in the language of Jim Kirk.
“Mmm,” he hums a distracted noise of agreement, locking the office behind them. Jim continues forward bravely, balancing papers and a constant stream of complaints before pausing by the door to the parking lot; he kicks it with his toe and speaks louder, as if the volume will convince Spock to walk faster. It does not. “It’s part of my appeal.”
Jim insists on driving him home, which means two things: he did not bring his bike (It is a motorcycle. Spock does not understand why everyone insists on referring to it as a ‘bike,’ beyond the fact that it has two wheels.) when he stopped by the school, and he will most likely be staying the night. It happens now more often than it does not, despite Jim having a perfectly serviceable – and larger – apartment that he shares with Bones. Back in the winter months, before he had broken his rule regarding phone calls at three in the morning, he’d been considering something – a plant or a fish, perhaps – to fill the empty space in his apartment. Now, when he spends the late nights of grading seated at his couch, there is a purring cat in his lap, a television he cannot remember purchasing playing softly in the background, and a clatter of pots and pans in his kitchen.
“Jim,” he calls warningly, because he had assumed ‘food’ to mean some variety of take-away. “What are you doing?”
“Dinner!” he calls back, irritatingly cheery. It is eleven eighteen at night and Spock has been up for at least forty hours by now, and though he is, for all intents and purposes, a pacifist, he has a momentary vision of stabbing Jim in the leg with a pen. Intrusive thoughts, he hears in his father’s voice. Completely logical.
As if that wasn’t obvious; he rolls his eyes, ignoring the sting behind them that means he needs sleep and needs it soon, and tries again. “You’re cooking,” he says slowly, feeling the words in his mouth; there is a fine line between teasing and taunting, and he does not know what it tastes like (how knows what it sounds like, the sharp, turned down corners of vowels on the playgrounds of his childhood. “Your mother is a gold-digger,” they tell him, and he does not understand. “Your mother is a whore,” they tell him, and he does.) “You cook,” he finishes lamely. The simple statement of fact tastes safe.
“I cook,” Jim repeats, emerging from the small kitchen and brandishing a wooden spoon in the general direction of the couch. “You eat. This happy coincidence feels like it might work in our favor.” If Spock had not already heard the way the words tilt up at the edges like a smile, Jim’s facial expression tells him that he is joking. “You’re gonna love it, I promise.”
When he replies, eyes already crinkling in the way he does not allow his mouth to, he notes the change in his voice and knows that he has found the right side of that divide. “You know me that well, then?”
Jim laughs as he returns with a pair of bowls, steaming gently; pasta, vegetables (in reds and oranges and yellows, like a sunset, and he is not sure when he became open to metaphor), cheeses, plural. “You don’t eat meat aside from seafood, you play the piano, you’re always cold, and you don’t know shit about Slavic languages.” Dropping to the couch beside him, where Bill eagerly climbs across his leg to bump against his chest, he slaps the side of Spock’s knee playfully. “Face it, Spock. I know all your secrets.”
“Hmm,” is all he admits, impassive. Jim reads people the way Spock reads words, reads a lifetime in the set of a jaw or the blink of a gesture the way Spock does with the cadence of a voice. In one sentence he had placed Jim’s region of birth and level of drink, as though he were a statistic, a point on a map; belatedly, he wonders what Jim knew of him before he’d even opened his mouth. Spock has made a career of studying languages, is fluent in seven and proficient in an addition dozen, only to find himself without words – without words, but still speaking volumes, and he wonders if he will ever cease to be surprised by the man on his couch. “I am beginning to think you might,” he says finally.
That night, he does not sleep. Instead he compiles a list of everything he knows about Jim Kirk.
Not a single point references language.
Chapter 8: Five Friends
The store is quiet without Jim’s presence, and despite spending at least three afternoons that frequently bleed into three evenings a week perched at the counter or draped across a chair in the loft, it feels strange for Spock to be there without him. But he had found a seller willing to part with a series of late antiquity texts (but not, it turned out, willing to part with them through the US Postal Service) and had left for Denver two days before; he was due to return before the weekend. Spock, never one to enjoy a disruption to his routine (and he thinks it should bother him, that Jim and his store and his people are part of his routine now), drops by Enterprise as he does every Wednesday and finds the store eerily empty of life beyond the coffee bar upstairs.
“Hey!” Hikaru, who did not so much as look up when the bell over the door dinged with the admittance of a potential customer, greets him with a smile when he sees who it is – his hair is red this month, though no natural shade, closer to crimson (crimson, early 15th century, from the Old Spanish cremesin. Origins in the Arabic ḳirmiz). “Wasn’t sure if we were going to see you today.” Without further exchange, there is a cup of Spock’s favorite chai on the counter before him, almost as though his presence were anticipated.
He has never felt so unquestionably included before and masks his surprise, not unpleasant, into his tea and a shrug. “It is Wednesday,” he says as though it is an explanation; to him, it is. “I am always here on Wednesdays.” He feels as stilted as he is sure that he sounds, back too straight and vowels too precise, clipped and formal and he hates this. He thought he was past this.
Hikaru nods his head, shakes his head, some combination of both gestures; Spock is confused. “No, I know that, I just wasn’t sure, what with Kirk being out of town and all. I’m glad you did.”
“I do not – it is not only because of-” His voice comes in starts and stops, reluctantly. You are my friend, he wants to say, because he is not sure that he has ever said the words aloud before or only expressed them with the unspoken ease between them; he is painfully reminded that in any language he is unsure talking with people, only at them. He does not know how to say the words, does not know how they feel on his tongue (but he knows what they sound like, light and soft at the edges, warm in his ear). “You call him Kirk,” he finally says when he has found his voice again; the words are not the ones that he intends but the meaning is there, curving around the sentence like the way he loosens his spine and drops onto a stool.
Hikaru smiles at him like he understands, leaning against the counter. “Yeah, since college we’ve done the whole last name thing mostly. It started when he told me that ‘Hikaru’ was too hard to cheer at matches,” Hikaru is a fencer, he recalls, and a good one; there were occasional jokes about the 2016 Olympics that he only, and perhaps erroneously, assumed were jokes. “And that it was easier to create roller derby nicknames from last names. So he’s Kirk. I’m Sulu. Bones is – well, Bones is Bones.” His sentence ends with an unspoken ellipses, words cutting off before his thought does and Spock sips his tea again, waiting him out. He is very good at waiting. “And, I mean, you’re Spock.”
He has noticed, the proclivity to address others in the group (Nyota – Uhura – now included and he is not the slightest bit displeased that he is only Spock, mostly because he is just glad that his previously only friend is so readily accepted) by their surnames, and wondered the reason; it is somehow better, he thinks, knowing that there is not one (because Hikaru he understands, but the others are not athletes. Nor, unless there is a league so secret that it is even hidden from the physical laws of the universe, are any of them currently on a roller derby team). Riddles he loves, as well as the mystery of answers. And Hikaru – Sulu, he supposes, since these are as much his people as he is theirs – looks the bland sort of concerned like he is hiding how worried he truly is (and Spock is learning to read the language of facial expressions, learning to treat the mouth like a vowels, see consonants in the set of a jaw). “So, Sulu” he tries the words out on his tongue, the change of address strange after so many months with another but it sounds like acceptance and agreement and the other man all but beams to hear it. “You’re in charge for the week?”
“Sort of.” He gestures to the silence below them, not even Bill’s usual prowl (and she is at home, Spock thinks, asleep on the couch probably, despite Jim’s attempts to bring her with him) across the shelves, no rustle of a book being perused or the cough of a customer. “It’s like they know he’s not here. He’s as much Enterprise as the books are.”
Somehow, impossibly, Spock understands. “So, in theory, if you were to close early?” He does not want to admit it aloud, but the normally welcoming store feels strange without Jim – too large, too quiet. He is not as comfortable here as he generally feels.
He grins. “I’ll grab Scotty. You text Uhura and Bones.”
Scotty – last name Scott, first name Monty – is helping Sulu to run the store in Jim’s absence. Apparently, if the story he tells contains any scrap of truth (and Spock both believes him and doesn’t in equal measure), he came in when they first opened to set up the printers and the wifi, conned Sulu out of lunch and Jim out of drinks, and never quite seemed to leave. He seems to be the sort that they attract though, both brilliant and bored and Spock can see how seamlessly he fits into their group, a wink for Uhura that she is all too eager to shoot down and a gruff greeting from Bones.
“What are you doing wasting your time here with us?” Uhura asks him, interrupting his explanation of the digitized archival program he had originally developed for technical manuals but had, since meeting Jim, recoded to scan documents for linguistic markers indicative of a specific period of work or common phrasing of famous authors.
Sulu groans, a mutter of ‘here we go’ quickly drowned in the second half of a pint while Scotty only laughs. “Well, you see, I was expelled from MIT with a semester left. Never finished, so no academic circle will take me seriously.” And Spock, born and raised in those academic circles and still firmly entrenched, thinks that he should be angry or anything other than completely content with the outcome, like Scotty is.
“What happened?” he feels compelled to ask.
“Let’s just say that there was a few bottles of a very nice scotch, a $500 wager that I could not invent teleportation in under an hour, and the dean of the engineering’s prized pet beagle involved.” At Uhura’s horrified expression, which Spock can only imagine mirrors his own by the way that he feels his jaw go loose and his eyebrows climb in surprise, Scotty waves his hands sharply. “The beagle did not die,” he assures them with a loose smile that crinkles the edges of his accent as much as it does his eyes. Spock cannot help but notice that he carefully chooses his words, tip-toeing the semantics to exclude whatever quality of life the dog was left with. Scotty raises his glasses in a rueful toast. “Nor did it teleport.”
Bones, though it cannot be the first time he has heard the story, returns the toast with appalled, but fond, incredulity. “There is something deeply, deeply wrong with you.”
Friday evening, just after nine in the evening, the door to Spock’s apartment unlocks to admit a sweaty, subdued Jim – who has not yet been home, if the wind-rumpled clothing and the bag slung across his shoulders are any indication. There are dark circles under his eyes that throw both the too-blue gaze and the blonde in his hair into sharp contrast; Spock will never admit to missing him, but will allow himself the moment of gladness to see that he is returned. “The books?” he asks, because he does not trust himself to speak impartially on any other matter.
Jim drops to the couch, cradling the bag to his chest protectively. “I’m almost ashamed to admit how excited I am to read these all the way through,” and he smiles, words and lips loose while Bill all but pours herself into his lap. “How was your week?”
Spock has made a career of studying languages, is fluent in seven and proficient in an addition dozen, but he cannot find the words to explain the past twenty-four hours; he can, however, find the names. “I met Scotty,” and the words are slow, deliberate, though he does not make eye contact as he speaks. “Went out last night with him and Sulu. Bones and Uhura met us for drinks.”
Jim reads people the way that Spock reads words, catching the inflections on the names and he’s smiling by the end of the first sentence. “You just last named them,” and despite the obvious exhaustion there is an unmistakable undercurrent of smugness. “You’re totally one of the gang now.” When his feet find their way to the coffee table, Spock cannot find it in him to voice a reprimand. “You have friends.”
He does. It is not an unpleasant realization.
Chapter 9: Six Homes
“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.
Chapter 10: Seven Opportunities
The Mongolian bistro on 16th has been open since May or June, but they don’t get the chance to try it until the first week of August. They walk past at least three times a week, varying times of the day, and there is always, always a line snaking down the block – which means that the food is either very good, or very trendy, and it doesn’t even matter anymore because it’s the challenge that has them ensnared. It is only by luck (and some creative stalking by Jim) that they manage to claim a table near the kitchen directly before the evening rush. “Oh my god,” and the sounds that Jim makes into his hoisin beef, were Spock currently attempting to classify them, could only be considered obscene. “This is so good. Totally worth the wait.”
Spock reaches for his water to alleviate the sudden, surprising inability to swallow, and glares pointedly. “So you keep telling me.”
“Taunting you,” Jim corrects with another near-pornographic noise that has Spock choking on a reply. “Because you ordered the one item on the menu that takes a few lifetimes to make.” He leans over – and maybe, later, Spock will think to analyze their propensity to sit on the same side of the booth like this, even when it is only the two of them – and brings another bite to his mouth. “I’d share with you,” he says, drawing the words out as slowly as he draws out the third noise of enjoyment, “You know. If it wasn’t red meat.”
They share meals more often than not, and share space more often than that, and there seems to be a question forming beneath his observations, were he currently attempting to examine them – he does not know if he wants to push him away or persuade him closer. Instead, he steals the bowl of green tea rice and takes a deliberate bite, the chopsticks nearly jabbing Jim in the eye. “No, you wouldn’t.”
Jim laughs, and agrees with him.
“Where did you learn to play?” Jim asks through a noise that is delighted and dazed in equal measure; it is higher than his usual sounds, up into his nose rather than down into his chest, but it draws out his vowels like a smile. It is a quiet evening after a day that was anything but, and somewhere in between his office and hot soup and home Spock had walked past a piano and stood transfixed. He cannot recall the last time he played, seriously at least, beyond a few scales to keep limber or a melody when he is bored. He can recall; it was nearly four years ago, when his mother was alive. Music had been their language together, and he found that he did not wish to speak it without her.
He shrugs around a bowl of pho. “My mother,” and it is a sentence of its own, a story and an explanation and a regret; Jim understands, of course he does, because this is a language that they both speak – memories. “She played the cello. My father thought it was all quite pointless, but it was something that I... that we enjoyed.”
“‘Give me some music,’” Jim says seriously, a smile in his voice that is not on his face and there is more to words, Spock has learned, than inflection. He jostles the arm that is carrying their soup and finally allows his mouth to slide up at the corners; illogically, Spock wants to trace the motion with his fingers. “‘Moody food.’”
He purposefully does not complete the quotation. “And give me to drink.”
Jim laughs, and does.
Jim is standing in the center of a four-story pillar of sunlight, head turned to the sky and his hair is burnished gold; a butterfly, too-blue like his eyes, lands on his shoulder and he grins in delight. He is something ineffable, riddles and answers in one and Spock – 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 describe the sudden, aching inability to breathe. He does not know when he first noticed it, but suspects that it has always been this way.
“Alright,” Jim says softly, voice a barely-heard whisper above the sounds of the water and the wind and the butterfly flaps its wings but does not move (and Spock does not subscribe to theories of chaos but there is a hurricane, he thinks). “I admit it. This is better than the earthquake simulation.”
Spock wants to laugh, but cannot; the air is warm and the sun is bright and the trees and the butterflies are alive with color, too much color, and he cannot focus – he searches for the constant stream of thoughts and observations, the never still dialogue in his brain that categorizes the sounds around him, but for the first time in years it is silent. His brain is uncharacteristically blank beyond the scope of blue eyes and butterflies; Spock is concerned. “They feed the anaconda at 3:45,” he says, because it is too quiet in his head, and turns down the ramp for the exit. “My interest in that is completely unscientific.”
Jim laughs, and follows him.
Toes dig uncomfortably into his thigh for the fifth time in as many minutes, accompanied this time by an impossible to ignore, “Four letters. ‘Archaic second person singular present form of wit.’”
He hmms low in the back of his throat, ignoring the now five attempt to elicit his experience, and turns the page of his novel – he has less and less time, it seems, for light reading but somehow Jim’s books have begun migrating into his apartment along with the rest of him. “Having me give you the answers doesn’t count as doing the crossword puzzle.” He has already ‘helped’ with the completion of the first seven clues, and over seventy percent of those for the previous four weeks as well; he complains, but inevitably consents. It’s become a ritual.
“Second letter is ‘o,’” Jim continues as if he hasn’t heard; there’s a smile to his voice that is probably meant to alleviate the sting of steamrolling over his first quiet evening of reading in months, but does not entirely do so. The toes that were previously wedged beneath his leg begin wiggling against it instead, increasing in tempo until he places a slip of paper to mark his page and Jim grins like he knows that he’s won. “Come on, admit it. You’re dying to show off that you actually know that word.”
A little bit. “No,” but he places his book on the coffee table and shoves Jim’s feet to the floor as he turns. “But since you brought up second person verb forms-”
The next thing he knows Jim is lunging forward, hand outstretched to cover his mouth into silence as he realizes the mistake; the crossword puzzle falls forgotten to the floor. “Not the linguistics of the second person lecture again.” It is technically Jim’s fault this time; they are all aware of his personal passions (and the topic of his theses) and, if they do not want to hear about them, know to avoid them. Spock shrugs and resists the urge to childishly lick the center of Jim’s palm. His hand is warm and his fingers curl against the corner of his jaw like it’s not an accident, right beneath his ear, and the breath he was currently attempting to take stutters to a stop at the back of his throat.
“Wost,” he says when Jim pulls his hand away without making a move for the discarded puzzle, hovering, too-blue eyes searching out an answer that Spock is not sure needs to be asked. “It’s wost.”
Jim laughs, and writes it down.
“No, Jim,” he warns, but his voice is lost in the crowd and the colors; the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts is in its first weekend, and it seems as though the majority of the population of the San Francisco Bay Area is there. Spock cannot bring himself to complain; he hears dialects and accents and laughter, and the music is good and there is both art and beer in plenty. The art, though, has him worried. “Jim, Bones hates modern art.” He is admiring a particular sculpture with interest, orange stone surrounded by undulating wood in various colors, walnut and chestnut and they fit together seamlessly.
“You don’t,” and it is the truth, but somehow irrelevant.
He sighs and examines the piece, disappointed to find that he does not hate it. “You cannot keep acquiring things and keeping them at my apartment,” he tries, knowing that this is a battle he will not win; he disagrees solely for the sake of disagreeing.
Jim reads people the way that Spock reads words, hears his victory in every syllable; he grins like a shark, turning away from the artwork to meet his gaze full on. They are startlingly – but not alarmingly, and Spock thinks that perhaps he should protest the invasion of personal space – close together. “I can,” he says with a smile, all white teeth and sharp consonants. “And I will.”
Rather than object – to the presumption, the personal space, he can’t find a complaint in any of them – Spock plucks the sunglasses from Jim’s face; he is tired of squinting against the sun. “If you bring home anything else,” he warns, hoping to distract from the actual purchase of said art and begins walking away, “I’m changing the locks.”
Jim laughs, and ignores him.
Theirs is a group diverse across all meanings of the word; despite this, there is one thing in which they are always in perfect agreement – Ryoko’s. It is, in everyone’s opinion (theirs and the always a crowd waiting for a table, up the stairs and halfway up the block because it’s worth it, it’s worth it to wait two hours at a time for a table), the best sushi in all of San Francisco. Perhaps not in quality, though it is quite good food and quite reasonably priced, but definitely in atmosphere – it’s part dive bar, part speakeasy, part sushi house and they all love the odd mix of colors and art and music. Which is why, when the last Friday night before the new term comes around, there’s no arguing as to where they will be spending it.
“How long has this been going on??” Jim calls, betrayal etched across his face and ground into every syllable; they are closer to the end of dinner than the beginning of it when Jim jokingly asks Bones when he’s going to start bringing that girl he’s been seeing to sushi night and Bones had muttered a gruff ‘god, you’re an idiot’ while Uhura, tucked against his side, had waved her fingers at him.
Bones rolls his eyes, and Uhura shrugs. “A while.”
“Great,” Sulu greets their announcement, though his voice says anything but – dry and turned down at the edges like a frown, and Spock wonders when he stopped reading emphases for emotions. “It was bad enough with Spock and Kirk, but now you two have hooked up?” His attentions juggle between friends and food for a moment before settling on the pitcher nearest his hand; he pours a glass and raises it in a sarcastic toast. “I’m the fifth wheel.” Uhura and Bones raises their glasses in solemn agreement.
Jim turns to him, too-blue eyes bright with the lights and the laughter that pools behind them, ready to brim over. “So we’re dating,” he says. It is not a question; Spock does not think it has ever been.
“How unfortunate for me,” he says, and he means it to be serious but it apparently is not, not with the way Jim curls a hand around his wrist like an invitation; he realizes how close they are, leaning in to the other’s space to share breath like they share everything else now – friends and food and time and a cat, keys to apartments and offices and shops and past hurts and families and he’s not sure when their lives became so entirely wrapped around the other – and it would be all too easy to close the distance he’s not sure ever really existed. He does, closing the space to lean around Jim, draped across his back and shoulders with a hand braced on his thigh and he steals the last of the spicy tuna from his plate.
Jim laughs, and playfully shoves him.
He comes home exhausted – he has not had an evening class since he was early in his undergraduate career, and though he does not sleep much he prefers his evenings to himself. Rather, to activities other than work and often with Jim, and he is not sure when this change occurred or if it has always been this way without his knowing it. The small lamp by the door it lit, but otherwise the only break in the darkness of an empty apartment is the sliver of warm glow from beneath the bedroom door.
“Jim,” he calls out, shedding the outer layers of professionalism until he wears only his pants and the worn-through Star Wars t-shirt that was once Jim’s. “Did you watch Paranormal Witness again?” He moves quietly but speaks loudly, announcing his path to the bedroom through a series of contradictions because for all that Jim is a rational, staggeringly intelligent man, those faux-reality haunting shows always set him on edge (“I work around old texts,” he says, his gaze fixed on the screen as his hands, never still, run through the ruff of fur along Bill’s spine. “It’s only a matter of time before I get something creepy after me. Shut up,” and Spock has said nothing, has nothing to say; his brain, like the rest of him, has been lulled into silence. “I know it’s not logical. But neither is your fear of seagulls.” Spock sulks around a pillow and a smile and a laughing explanation, “they have very evil eyes. It’s unnerving.”). “You know that it’s not-”
He falls silent at the sight of James Kirk in his bed, usual storm of movement and bluster of noise turned soft and slow and silent with sleep; an open book rests against the opposite pillow, beneath Bill’s paws.
Sighing, he gently moves Bill to the hollow space between Jim’s stomach and his knees and places the book to his side table; though the motion is minimal, too-blue eyes greet him as he finishes. His eyes are bright but his voice is low, scratchy with sleepiness and a smile and there is something infinitely warm curling its way through the pit of his stomach. “I tivoed Vikings for you.”
“Then you may stay,” Spock declares magnanimously, removing his pants and sliding beneath the sheets in an unhesitant, easy move; he is not sure when this change occurred either, but suspects it has always been this way; Jim entered his life at around three in the morning and laid claim to it by sunrise. “I don’t have class until ten tomorrow,” and he hides a question in the darkness as he reaches to turn off the light. “I think there should be breakfast before that.”
Jim answers with a nose buried behind his ear and a sleepy, familiar puff of breath against his neck. “We need more milk,” is all he says, layers of nuance buried in between, in the quiet certainty of the unsaid. Spock understands.
Spock has made a career of studying languages, is fluent in seven and proficient in an addition dozen – if there is a language, he thinks, that is entirely James Kirk, he hopes to study it for a lifetime – only to find himself surprisingly, delightedly without words to assign to the feelings in his chest. “Make me breakfast,” he orders, slinging an arm around Jim’s waist and brushing his fingers against the tip of Bill’s tail.
Jim laughs, and kisses him.
Chapter 11: Eight Percent
“I don’t believe it.” Spock frowns into his grade book; it’s only the second month of school but he feels like that’s all he does anymore – grade paperwork, and frown. It helps that the majority of it has been ushered into the digital age, grading and recording and the submission of work, except when – “I don’t want to believe it.”
Jim looks up from his laptop, back hunched to bring his face close, too-close, to the screen; he’s misplaced his glasses again, despite keeping no less than four pairs in various rooms throughout Spock’s apartment. He wears them with such irregularity that it had taken Spock some time – three or so months, though if ever asked he would be hesitant to admit the number – to realize that they were a result of actual farsightedness and not merely fashion like he first supposed. In any other instance he would direct the other man towards a pair (he tracks their location like he tracks the change in Jim’s tone, vowels lengthening to a drawl and at least three of those pairs are on the dresser in the bedroom now), but he is not feeling as charitable as he might normally. “What is it?”
He feels his frown deepen. “You,” he says, and he means it to be threatening but it apparently is not, not with the way Jim shrugs and returns to his previous activity; sometimes, he thinks, Jim knows him too well. “It’s only September and you’ve set the curve in my advanced class by nearly ten percent.”
“Oh,” and he can hear the smugness that curls across Jim’s face without needing to look, familiar as he is with the sound by now. “Is that all?”
Intrusive thoughts, he reminds himself as he eyes the pen that sits discarded beside his computer, contemplates the effort. Perfectly logical. “Is that – Jim, you don’t even take my advanced class.” It is not, he knows, a logical argument; with increasing frequency, he finds that he is illogical in regard and relation to Jim. There is a beat of time, and Spock is very good at waiting but he is the first to break the silence, impatient. “You don’t take any of my classes.”
Lazy, languid self-satisfaction turns up his words like a smile; when he does turn, because he does, Jim is grinning at him like the metaphorical cat with the rhetorical canary – this is a definite change, his tendency toward metaphor. Jim makes him figurative, messy. Imprecise. “Sometimes I take your class.”
“You don’t listen when I go off on any tangent about linguistics,” and he absolutely does not sulk. He does not listen when Jim goes off on any tangents, either.
Jim is mind-blowingly, maddeningly, smug. He owns the conversation like he owns the space he fills, in the room and in Spock’s life, occupies without invitation, and it is a practice that has gone from intrusive to irritating to expected to enjoyed. “Sometimes I listen.”
He does not admit that he is pleased. Proud. Instead, he glares (weakly, he does not admit, only because he does not need to – he knows better than anyone where his weakness lies). “You beat Chekov on the last exam,” he says, and he means it to sound accusing but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim preens at the words in a display of uncharacteristic shyness; it hits him then, low in his gut, how special it is to be gifted with these rare glimpses beneath Jim’s bravado. Spock is not used to feeling special. “How did you beat Chekov on the last exam?”
Self-confidence sharpens the edges of his smile into a smirk, and the softness of the moment is lost along with it; Spock no longer resists the urge to roll his eyes and wonders, not for the first time, exactly where in the year his life went so drastically off course. “Well,” and the sounds move forward in his mouth like he moves forward on the couch, playful, before he leans into Spock’s space – he is inches away, hands splayed across Spock’s knees and Bill has perhaps learned a thing or two because she darts into the kitchen with a small, irritated noise. “Maybe I’m sleeping with the professor for a better grade.”
He cannot help it; he laughs – he is finding that he laughs more around Jim as well. “Please,” and he does not move away, or move to move Jim away, but he does not close the distance between them either; instead he laughs, face and phonemes crinkling at the corners. When he does reach out, it is only to rub a thumb along the bump of Jim’s collarbone, a soft gesture to lessen the sharpness of his tone. “Sleeping with the professor for an A? You’re not half as impressive as you think you are.”
“Liar,” he offers by way of retort, warmth infused into every syllable. “I am like, five times more impressive than I think I am.”
“Hmm,” a noncommittal noise of disagreement and he does move now, leaning in and smirking the words against Jim’s lips. “You’re a B+ at best.”
It should perhaps surprise him that Jim is in his classroom the following day, slouched into a seat near the back like he had been all those months before; should, perhaps, but it does not. He does not think that there is much about Jim left unknown to surprise him.
“Correspondence constraints,” he continues, hand poised at the chalkboard – he has never adapted to the new age of digital classrooms. His mother had, quite readily, and he does not stop to think that there is perhaps more of his father in him than originally considered – and pretends that he has not seen the figure that attempts a silent entrance. “Can be applied to the study of a number of linguistic phenomena.” Jim does not take notes; Spock knows this is because he does not need to. At times, even he forgets the brilliance the hides so believably behind an affected exterior. “Including base-reduplicant identity,” and a few of his students (including the trio who always sit in the front, the ones that he has yet to discover their reasoning for taking his class a third semester in a row now, all the way through to his advanced levels) make sudden noises of understanding as his lecture loops back on itself.
He thinks it should be distracting, having Jim actually in attendance for one of his lectures, but it’s not; if anything it is entirely the opposite, and he is animatedly explaining optimality theory when he notices that class should have ended a full minute before. He excuses his students with a brief apology, the trio in the front lingering over their notes for another sixty seventy eighty seconds until a familiar presence at his elbow draws his attention. “This doesn’t count as you taking my class,” he warns through a grin; Jim laughs.
“I don’t need to take your class,” he reminds him, sparing a smile for the three girls who hurriedly pack their notebooks away and pretend that they are not listening. “I’m already acing it. Hey, kid!” This is for Chekov, curly hair bobbing into vision as he fights against the throng of student leaving the room to make his way deeper into it.
“Jim!” he chirps a greeting, native Russian transforming the vowel into something soft. Chekov – Pavel, until he had been taken under Jim’s wing and brought into the group – is not technically a student of the college, only of Spock’s class. He is seventeen, a senior in high school, and perhaps the most brilliant young mind that Spock has ever encountered. He and Jim, of course, get along famously. “I finished those books you got for me!” When he finally reaches them, there is a smile on his face that threatens to split more than just his word in half; since he had met Jim (who had accidentally and unceremoniously crashed one of their tutoring sessions over the summer), he had developed a bit of hero worship for him.
“Already?” and Jim sounds nothing but impressed; there’s an all-too-understood shyness in the way that Chekov accepts the praise, like he doesn’t quite believe that he is worthy of it, and Spock understands, he does. He’d once been the youngest and the smartest as well, and knew better than anyone that such a status was rarely met among peers with anything less than undue exile at best (and at worst, he thinks in a sharp, protective tone, hard words and hard fists and bruises beneath the skin). “I’ll bring you another set tomorrow, how about that?” For the past three weeks Jim has been supplying Chekov with texts in Old English to challenge him and, for the past three weeks, Chekov has hardly seemed challenged; Spock is unsure which of the two he is meant to feel more proud of. “Greek this time?”
Chekov nods his head violently, curls bouncing, and all but skips his way from the room – Jim reads people the way that Spock reads words, and he should not be as surprised as he is that Jim has forged an easy friendship with the young genius. Spock thinks that he may always be surprised by him; he thinks that he would not mind that in the slightest. “So,” Jim asks slyly once the last of the students has left, “Nearly ten percent, huh?”
Jim continues to outperform Chekov’s scores for the duration of the semester, to both of their delight; Spock only shakes his head and regrets introducing them.
Chapter 12: Nine Blocks
For the first time in nearly four years – three years, eleven months, twenty-nine days, seven hours, eleven twelve thirteen seconds and he measures the time in careful units, perfectly unfeeling, because he does not think he could manage to measure it any other way. It has been only a moment and far too long, a handful of new friends and family and three... four uncelebrated holiday seasons now since he lost her – he does not know what day it is until it is nearly upon him.
He does not notice the change in colors – of the leaves, the buildings, the clothing of the people on the streets and even the sky is changing – or the signs in the windows, somehow misses the specials on the television and the radio, is blind to the numbers that blink on his phone calendar every morning – twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four – until finally it’s one and three days before the two days of the year he hates most of all and he realizes that Jim has been calling his name for some time now. “Sorry,” he says, and blinks himself into the world again. “What were you saying?”
“It’s okay. I know this time of year is hard for you.” The expression on Jim’s face is impossibly soft, so much so that he does not wait for the urge to strike him before acting; he leans across the counter to wrap a hand around Jim’s tattooed forearm, squeezing lightly, thumb tracing the dark lines like letters he cannot string into words.
For the first time in quite a while – in three years, eleven months, twenty-nine days, seven hours, six minutes and forty-seven forty-eight forty-nine seconds – he finds himself unable to speak; not speechless, and he wants to smile over the argument in semantics. Spock can find the words, can feel them stuck in his throat all the way down through his chest, but cannot speak them. These words – Grief. Regret. Anger. There is a language entirely its own for children who have lost their parents too soon, a language both thick and heavy – are leaden on his tongue. “Sometimes,” he says, because he cannot speak the words but he can speak around them, inference and evasion. “I think that it should have been me.”
Jim covers his hand with his own. There is a story of a car that is spoken around with a similar, all-to-great weight.
“Not that I wish it had been,” he clarifies, because if there is one thing he is sure of, it is his mind – he thinks, logically, but does not wish. “I do not wish I had died. Only that, by all logic, it should have been me. Had I been there, it would have been me in her place.” He thinks, of anything, he is most grateful that Jim does not say that he is glad it was not.
“You never,” and Spock does not dance but imagines that this is how it is done: two people, a common end, and a million steps to never quite reach it. Jim lowers his gaze to examine the counter that he must have memorized by now, the frequency with which he sits at it (and there is not enough counter space to ever be mysterious, even remotely), but does not lower his hand; he squeezes. “You don’t talk about her much.”
He doesn’t, too few words to fill a too-large void, and it is not that he does not think of her (he does, every day, all fourteen hundred and fifty seven of them) so much as he cannot speak when he does. “She was struck by a car,” he finally says, because Jim has heard the when and the what but never the how; Spock is not sure if he has ever spoken of the circumstances of his mother’s death, only the certainty of it. “While walking to the bakery. It hadn’t snowed that day. I suppose that the driver merely did not see her – it was early.” It had been sometime in the hour of three in the morning when he had received the call, later in her time zone but still early in the day, especially for a Connecticut winter. “If I had been there it would have been me on the streets at that hour, not her.”
“I-” Am sorry. Understand. Know what you’ve been through. “Can’t imagine.” Spock hopes that he never ceases to be surprised by this man. “Were you-” Jim does not evade the issue the way that Spock does; Spock talks around his emotions and Jim talks over them, a layer of words to cover meaning. “Were you supposed to be there? Instead of her?”
For a moment, he cannot find the words to respond; no one has ever asked the question to which he has always assumed the answer. “No,” he says finally, like a revelation. “I had told her that I did not intend to spend the holidays on the East Coast.”
Jim’s voice is soft, impossibly so. “Spock,” and Spock has made a career of studying language and its construction, a religion of words, but is sure that the sentence could end after his name and contain as much as any conversation. He leans into the sound, into the comfort contained in a syllable, like Bill would into warmth. “You can’t blame yourself for something that was never in your control.”
He blinks; whatever is in his eye, tears or the truth or something else entirely, itches beneath his skin. “It was less than a mile.” He focuses on the mundane facts, perfectly unchanging, because he does not think he could manage to focus on anything else. It was less than a mile from the house, less than a month since he had seen her last, less than a minute but the driver did not stop and – “I miss her.”
“I know,” Jim says, and the hand turns to weave their fingers together; Spock follows the motion, allowing his body to sag against Jim’s, face coming to rest against his collarbone. “Tell me about her?”
Later, when the grief has passed and all that is left is a comfortable silence left raw around the edges, Jim nudges his toes into the back of Spock’s knee; when that gesture does not garner an immediate response he tries again, hooking his foot around Spock’s leg to tug him – and, by location, the stool, which makes an unfortunate squeal as it drags across the time – closer. “You know the rules.” Spock cannot say that he does – there are many rules, most of them arbitrary, and Jim breaks nearly all of them. “Nobody’s alone on the holidays.”
It is a perfect segue into the topic that he has been speaking around for a month now, a mention that had been shoved to the back of his mind as quickly as it had been heard. “You,” he begins, like he is not sure what words should follow.
“And you,” Jim interrupts with one of his smiles, the shy ones that seem only for Spock. “And Bones and Uhura and Scotty and Sulu, even Chekov. At the shop – I don’t think we could all fit anywhere else.” It is probably true; for all that they are a group of seven they take up the space of twice that number, all, in their own way, large presences. Nobody spends the holidays alone.”
“My father,” he continues slowly, like he does not know the words; impossible, surely, but hesitancy lays thick and cottony in his mouth. “Has requested my presence for the holiday.” It’s a half truth, carefully chosen words that convey the meaning he wishes and not the one they intend, and he did not used to speak so carelessly; James Kirk makes him messy, imprecise. He revels in the freedom.
Jim looks confused, eyebrows drawing together as his brain draws conclusions and Jim reads people the way Spock reads words but they are fluent in each other. “I thought your dad didn’t celebrate-” This day. Anything. “Holidays,” he finishes, a multitude of meaning packed into a single word. Spock softens.
“He does not,” and he stares pointedly, raising one eyebrow as if to gesture. “Generally.”
Realization – and of course he understands, of course, because Jim is brilliant and bigheaded and blatant in his affections – paints itself in a smug, self-satisfied smile across his face. “Oh,” he says, words turning up at the edges with a grin. “He’s going to hate me.”
“Hmm,” he agrees without words, feeling an answering smile bend the corners of the sound, messy and imprecise. “I would be concerned if he did not.”
He does not.
Spock is concerned.
Chapter 13: One Year
December arrives amid a flurry of frigid, icy rain and frantic, scrambling papers from his classes, and before he realizes the end of year holidays are upon them. For the first time since his mother’s death Christmas finds its way into his personal space, a small tree in the apartment and music on the radio (constantly, from the day after Thanksgiving onward until he can hear it in his sleep and he thinks that he will do something entirely illogical if Jim hums even one bar of ‘White Christmas’ even one more time and – intrusive thoughts,he reminds himself). It is an unfamiliar, not unpleasant feeling.
“You have a wreath,” Jim greets him, coming through the door with coffee and pastries.
Spock blinks. “You have unparalleled observational skills.”
For a moment Jim stands frozen, usual constant motion and constant noise suspended and it’s as though he cannot decide whether to laugh or to glare; instead, he closes the door like he has not heard. “You’re such a dick,” he says in the way one might recount the weather. “I don’t know why I’m so surprised by that, every time.” Warmth curls itself into a soft smile across his face; Jim is most irreverent about the things he takes most seriously.
He reaches for his cup of coffee; there are two of them, identical paper travel mugs in cardboard sleeves, but the logo of one is angled to face him head on. “Uhura brought it by,” he offers as a truce, because he may be (as Jim says) a dick, but Jim braved the crowds of one of the neighborhood’s most popular coffee stops on the Sunday morning before Christmas. Sometimes, he has learned, words are not necessary.
Uhura – Nyota when they are alone, because they had been family long before finding one – had never mentioned that she was worried about him, only that she was not any longer. He also, though he has not yet explored the correlation, has noticed that she does not text him nearly as often; they still speak every day, share an office and a class twice a week and he has signed off the completion of her thesis work, but it is no longer a scheduled event like it once was. The evening before she had sent him a picture of a card she’d received from her grandmother (she was always sure to send traditional artwork and images, because she knew that Spock liked them) and he had responded with a photo of a stunningly-tolerant Bill wearing a gift bow on her head. Within half an hour she had appeared at his door with a wreath and a hug. “I’m glad you’re finally happy,” she whispered when she left.
“You have holiday decorations,” Jim teases, dropping to the spot on the couch that has, over the past months, become unquestionably his.
“And you,” Spock moves to accommodate a torso across his lap; he does not usually enjoy being Jim’s cushion like this, but has recently been banned from proximity to Jim’s surprisingly ticklish feet. “Have a habit of stating the obvious.”
Jim reaches blindly to help himself to a pastry with an unsettling thoughtfulness. “So does this mean I can get those flashing LED snowmen for the windows?”
He snorts. “Absolutely not.”
Shoulders and elbows dig against his ribs as Jim resettles, probably intentionally, but are soon followed by a softer echo of the gesture and Jim’s elbow traces down the length of his side. “Scrooge,” he grumbles, not unfondly.
Spock rests his chin at the juncture of Jim’s neck. “Bah humbug.”
Christmas comes and goes and then suddenly it’s the thirty-first, eleven fifty-seven and the year – this year, the bizarrest, busiest, best of his life – is drawing to a close.
“I don’t mean to be ‘that guy,’” comes Scotty’s voice from somewhere in the vicinity of the books on travel (Beta Quadrant, Spock corrects in his head, because he can navigate the store with his eyes closed by now, knows the hand-painted signs and what they mean and which were painted by Sulu and which were done by the fifth graders at the local school), and it does not take Jim’s sudden groan and a muttered ‘oh no’ for Spock to realize that whichever guy Scotty is promising to not be, he is about to anyway. “But it’s three minutes to midnight and I can’t help but notice that I’m ringing in the New Year alone.”
Sulu, behind the bar as he usually is (in both meanings of the word, pouring coffees that are equal parts whiskey as they are anything else), gestures to the group of them, face pulled in casual exasperation. “Oh yes,” and the words are laden with sarcasm – Spock understands sarcasm – biting and sharp. “Because the...” he briefly counts on his fingers, “seven of us don’t possibly count.”
Scotty’s glare does not need to be seen; it can be felt from the base of the stairs. “To kiss, numptie!”
Chekov – and the strings they had pulled, to have him there. He’s only seventeen and his parents are still in Novosibirsk, but he’s got a guardian through the school that, for some reason, trusts any of them as a responsible adult – attempts a laugh. He’s still sulking that he’s not been allowed even a coffee, let alone an Irish one, but he’s been complaining for months that he’s never included and he can barely disguise the smile on his face. “You can kiss Bill.” The cat in question, who adores Chekov nearly as much as she does Jim or Spock, rubs her chin against the curve of his arm.
“Hey!” and Jim springs into motion, propelling himself off of the couch – and, by location, nearly taking Spock with him – to intercept. “Don’t touch my cat.” Chekov’s smile dims, only momentarily, before brightening twofold as Jim ruffles the curls of his hair; Spock is halfway convinced that he will one day return home to find Jim’s tendency toward adopting small geniuses is not limited to those of feline form. “Nah, you can go ahead. Scotty!” and Scotty growls up some noise of slightly-intoxicated acknowledgement. “Don’t touch my cat!”
“Two minutes!” Bones yells, his voice clear and the words unmistakable but for some reason all Spock can hear is ‘shut up.’
Uhura takes the place on the small couch that Jim had vacated, leaning tiredly against his side and Spock raises his arm so that she can better curl against him. “We are surrounded by idiots,” she tells him, words loose with alcohol and all the nights without sleep that have gone into her grad work – the ceremony was on the eighteenth of the month but the final draft is not due until the first of February; for all that she is, in his opinion, done, the past week has been understandably stressful for her.
“Omnis amans amens,” he warns, equally as relaxed. Their position is eerily similar – sleepy, warm, crowded on a too-small couch together – as the occasion one year before; the difference, however, is that they are not alone. She at least grew up in a large family. Spock had his mother and a biological father he is only just getting to know, a brother who left for college when he was five and never returned – he is not used to having a family and less used to friends, let alone any number of them. Spock has never had this many people in his life before, and he thinks the feeling in his chest that feels too-large and too-small all at once might, might be love.
She laughs. “Yeah,” and a slender arm snakes around his to squeeze in a one-sided hug; there isn’t enough room for anything else. He tracks her gaze across the room to where Bones and Sulu are discussing something – he does not need to know what, and for once in his life the riddle and the answer are both irrelevant – with large, animated gestures. Spock does not know much about Bones beyond that he is a surgical resident and Jim’s surrogate brother, and that he makes his friend happy. He does not need to know more. “Ain’t that the truth.” She’s even begun to sound like him now.
Then Scotty is clattering up the stairs, a horn in one hand and a mug in the other, waving both arms as he announces with each step ‘Thirty seconds! Thirty seconds!’ before someone – Spock isn’t sure who, distracted as he is with the quick-as-a-blink exchange of Uhura into Jim, pouring himself all but into Spock’s lap – removes both objects before either goes flying. “You know,” and Jim’s voice, were Spock currently attempting to classify it, could only be considered sinful. “You’re supposed to ring in the New Year with a kiss.”
"Hmm,” he agrees without words, smiling with his fingertips as they dance up Jim’s arms to cradle his face. “Well, I suppose if it is tradition,” he says, and he means it to sound immensely put-upon but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim presses himself closer to bite at the smile he has not bothered to hide.
“You know the rules,” and he almost doesn’t notice the shouts of eight seven six five from around them or the laughter of their friends, the way that Bones dips Uhura like an old-fashioned movie or the way that Scotty plants a sloppy kiss on Sulu’s and Chekov’s cheeks, the small weight that is Bill stretching herself across the back of the couch behind his head; the half inch of space between his face and Jim’s contains, for the moment, his entire world. “Nobody spends the year alone.”
Spock laughs, and kisses him.
Chapter 14: To the Day
The phone rings; it is thirty-eight minutes before three in the morning.
He answers because he is already awake, or nearly so, unable to sleep without the presence of a second body pressed hard and warm against him; when he blindly gropes for the phone beside the bed he reminds himself that he does not work tomorrow and can, at least for this, afford the late night. The phone rests where it always does, placed on a stack of paperbacks with edges worn soft from use and surrounded by photos of their friends; the framed photo of him and his mother smiles brightly at him when he turns on the light. “Hello?”
“Spooooooooock,” the voice at the other end whines. He’d known who it was before answering, not needing anything beyond the day and the time and the growing-cold pillow beside him, but still smiles softly to hear Jim’s familiar drawl through the speaker. “Get up. Come get me.” He clears the not-sleeping out of his voice with an exasperated huff of air, which Jim takes for the agreement it was meant to be. “Come on, it’s tradition. Also if you aren’t here in twenty minutes I’m just going to keep calling and calling and call-”
It’s hardly a tradition, once and maybe now twice in a lifetime, but he does not immediately hang up. It’s hardly a tradition yet but the potential is there, and he’s probably not going to sleep otherwise; if it wasn’t Jim’s absence that did it would be his calls, loud and persistent like the man himself. “Where are you?”
“You know where I am,” Jim drawls – his voice is light like when he’s teasing and Spock cannot see him, not from miles away through a phone, but he can hear the other man’s smile. It turns up the corners of his words like it does his lips, crinkles the edges of his vowels like it does his eyes, and Spock has made a career of studying languages only to find himself completely, utterly without words to describe Jim Kirk – and Spock wants to laugh because oh yes, he knows.
Spock slides his feet into his shoes, and the line goes dead.
He assumes that this newfound tradition of theirs begins at the picnic table in the park; this is confirmed when he pulls into the farthest left parking spot to find Jim already waiting for him, perched on the table and grinning crookedly. He’s wearing the sweatpants he’d been wearing that evening – the ones with the Batman pattern that Spock continues to deny were originally his – and the wool coat Uhura had gotten him for Christmas over the tell-tale blue of a Yale University sweatshirt. “We gotta stop doing this in January,” he says, pulling his zipper up to his chin and releasing a breath with a short burst of fog. There’s movement at his chest and a muffled meow before Bill appears, popping her head up through the collar of his coat.
“I can’t believe you brought our cat.”
Bill meows again at the sound of his voice, ears pricking toward him and she blinks her too-blue eyes happily. “It’s not the same without her,” is all he says, but Spock is hardly complaining; if anything, he agrees. Kicking his feet happily he vaults from the table, one arm tucked across his stomach to keep Bill securely under his coat, and the tip of her too-short tail pokes beneath his sweatshirt comically. “I’m getting too damn old for this.”
Spock is tempted, in that moment, to leave him in the park to freeze; he’s dreading the arrival of his thirtieth in only a few short months now and Jim hasn’t stopped making age-related jokes since Christmas. But it is his birthday, after all, so instead he kicks open the passenger side door. “You’re obnoxious, is what you are.”
“Uh-huh,” and he nods his head in accordance, unzipping his coat to allow Bill to leap to the gravel; she steps primly over the console into the backseat. “It’s part of my appeal.”
“You’re not half as charming as you think you are,” Spock retorts. From the backseat, Bill purrs her agreement with him and bats at his hair over the headrest; he reaches an arm back to flick at her paws, rewarded when she skitters to the opposite side of the car.
Jim watches their antics with a soft smile, Spock’s words completely disproven when he reaches over the center console to flick at the strings of his sweatshirt; Jim catches his hand on the retreat and tangles their fingers briefly. “Liar,” he offers by way of retort, clicking his seatbelt together. “I am like, five times more charming than I think I am.” He warms up the car with his presence – legs splayed, knee nudging Spock’s hand on the gear shift and he leans across to fiddle with the radio, shifting from cool silence into something soft and familiar and he beams at Spock over the opening notes Bastille’s ‘Pompeii.’
Spock ignores him, instead turning over the engine and shifting into reverse. “Do you make a habit of getting into cars with strangers?”
“Only ones I plan on spending the rest of my life with.” When Spock glances over in surprise, not unpleasant, he meets too-blue eyes and an affectionate smile. “And only if they’re hot.”
He’s not sure if they’ve ever said the words aloud before or only expressed them with the unspoken moments between them, but Spock knows without question it will be what inevitably comes to pass. It’s warm in the car, first from the heater and more so now with the way the words ignite the air between them, but for all that he wants to live in this moment forever he simply refuses to have this moment in their car. “Hmm,” and Jim’s face crinkles with joy when he hears the hoarseness in his voice, “Have there been many of those?”
Warmth and affection radiate from Jim like a wildfire. “Just the one. He’s a total dick, but I’m ridiculously in love with him.”
“What a very fortunate man,” he says, and he means it to sound sarcastic but it apparently does not, not with the way Jim surges across the space between them to crush their lips together. He has the presence of mind to throw the car into park before threading his fingers through Jim’s hair, slotting his long fingers behind his jaw to draw him in – his lips are slightly chapped, rough and warm like the rest of him. “Jim,” and his lips burn with the scrape of stubble and the toothpaste-hint of cinnamon. “You’re my goddamned geodetic north, but we’re not doing this in the Prius.”
He laughs as he sits back, eyebrows wiggling lewdly. “Where are we doing it then?”
“Well,” and Spock doesn’t bother to hide his wink in response. “If you’re free later, there’s a party for this guy I know. He’s a total asshole.” Jim glares at him playfully, interlocking their fingers loosely enough that Spock can still shift gears into drive, and he wonders exactly where in the year his life went so completely right. “But,” he turns the car towards home, “I’m ridiculously in love with him.”
It is thirteen minutes before three in the morning.