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Ten Years Younger (and Half a Meter Shorter)

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"We will begin our journey together on page seventy-three of your text," says Dr. Mugertye, blinking his eye at them. Rapid eyeblinks in Tuskalites mean that they're trying to convey humor or good cheer, Sybok remembers. "I expect that you have all gotten at least this far -- it is an exciting look at the beginnings of understanding the origins of many languages throughout our galaxy."

Sybok tries not to sigh, he really does, but it's already almost ten o'clock in the morning and this is the first time the professor has even referenced anything in the text. (A long, boring, stupid text that he'd already finished halfway through the first day of summer break two months ago.) It's pretty obvious that this is someone who likes to hear himself talk. Sybok sneaks a look over at the other kids in his class, and they all look just as bored as he is.

Except they're not kids -- he always forgets that he doesn't take classes with kids anymore, until someone shoves him into a locker or calls him short stack or threatens to drop-kick him across the football field. It might not happen this year, though; he's not taking his supplimentary advanced classes at the high school, but at the University of California Berkeley, with people who probably have better things to do than make fun of a ten-year-old Vulcan. He's the only male here who doesn't shave (except for two Andorians) and there's only one other student who's sitting cross-legged, like him, in the uncomfortable desk-chair-things.

It's not that she's too short, though, for her feet to touch the ground; in fact her knees are sticking out at strange angles, nudging the guy next to her (who looks annoyed) and making her look like a cloth-covered pretzel. She's a humanoid, with pale skin and dark hair and eyes, but it's the fact that she looks up and smiles at him that convinces Sybok she's not a Vulcan.

He quickly looks back down at his text. Dr. Mugertye is still talking about compartmentalizing linguistic code and the first xenolinguists. Most of them were Vulcan, and Sybok already knows a lot more about them than even the text covered, so when he looks over at the pretzel-girl again it's just because he's really bored.

She looks bored, too. She's biting at her fingernails, looking not at the professor but out the window behind him, down onto the green lawns. But she somehow senses Sybok's gaze and looks back at him again, and she gives him the same smile. This time, he actually smiles back, and it's her who breaks eye-contact, looking down at her PADD. She starts typing or sketching something on it, and a few minutes later a message pops up on Sybok's PADD.

>you are getting sleeeeeeepy,< the text reads, underneath a crude animated drawing of a hypnotist's pocketwatch.

Sybok almost laughs, then draws a little stick figure falling asleep in the desk-chair. He sends it back to amanda.grayson with the text, >How did you know my datastream address?<

>duh,< she writes back, >there's only one student in the class whose name is listed sybok.son.of.sarek. kind of of a giveaway.<

*

After that, Sybok makes sure to get to class early every day and save a seat for Amanda. She always sits there -- sometimes her legs are crossed, sometimes she scrunches them up in front of her, sometimes she even has them down on the floor like most of the other humans. She asks questions and makes the whole class laugh; even though Dr. Mugertye never gets any more interesting, the class gets better. Afterward he walks her to her next class, and they talk and she gives him half of her peanut-butter-chip nutrition bar. She lets him talk about all his other classes at the University, and she tells him that she's from Connecticut, that she's working on her PhD ("My first PhD," she always calls it) in mathematics, and she's taking History of Language because she has to fulfill requirements in order to get her second bachelor's degree, this time in xenolinguistics.

"So, Sybok," she asks him one day, while they're walking by the fountain. She jumps up to balance on the lip, her rucksack slung over one shoulder and her feet placed with comical care. Sybok watches closely to make sure she doesn't fall. "You speak pretty good Vulcan, I bet."

"You would be correct in your assessment of my fluency," Sybok replies in Vulcan. "May I ask to what purpose you would make this inquiry?"

She laughs, and wobbles a little. Sybok holds out a hand as if he could prevent her fall. "I inquire in order to begin a dialogue regarding my current academic focus," she replies. Sybok can detect no accent, and he wonders where she could have learned Vulcan -- there are only a few dozen of his people living on Earth, and none of them work at the University. "I have a theory regarding translation modules that I wish to explore further. And it occurred to me that you would be a perfect colleague."

Sybok's stomach clenches. "Is that --" he can't think of the right words in Vulcan, so he switches to Standard. "Is that why you're friends with me?"

She looks stricken, and before he knows it she's jumped down from the fountain's edge and wrapped him in a hug. A second later she's let him go, and she says, "God, I'm so sorry, darling, but -- no. No, that's not why I'm friends with you. I'm friends with you because you're the smartest kid in our class and I like the way you draw stick figures of the professor."

"Oh," he says. He doesn't quite believe her, though, until she pulls out her nutrition bar and gives him half, then argues over which half had more of the peanut butter chips.

*

Her theory is -- interesting. Sybok is smart, definitely the smartest kid in their class, but even he has trouble following her. The first time Amanda explains her theory to him, she says, "Now be warned, everyone else thinks I'm crazy, okay?" Sybok nods but thinks she's kidding.

He finds out, a few weeks later, that she's not.

"Even if you're right," says a professor -- Sybok doesn't remember her name, but he doesn't like the slow, sneering way she talks, "There's no way to quantify language. It's a lovely theory but it's completely unworkable in the real--"

"It's not unworkable," Amanda protests. The review board is sitting in a small auditorium, a dozen or so professors and deans from several different departments of the University. Sybok, sitting in a chair behind Amanda on the podium, can see their faces: they look bored and skeptical and they haven't changed those expressions in half an hour.

"Mathematics is universal," Amanda continues, "At least once you get to a certain level of technological and intellectual development." She throws another slide up on the projector, the way she's been doing for the past half-hour, almost too fast for Sybok to grasp; he makes a note to ask her for a copy once she finishes. "Working back from the way each planet talks about numbers, we can develop patterns and codes, bundling the data. It might even work with idioms -- with refinement, we can have reliable translations in hours instead of months or years."

The board continues to look skeptical. Dr. Ashev clears her throat and says, "What language do you intend to try this -- theory on?"

"Vulcan," Amanda says. That gets a slight shift of attention from the board; they all look at Sybok, and he makes sure he doesn't shrink in his seat, even though he wants to. "I am working with a colleague--"

"A child?" That's from Dr. Mugertye, which is sort of doubly insulting, and Sybok can't stop himself from scowling at him. "I agree that he's very bright, but I don't believe--"

"His intellectual qualifications are not in dispute, I hope, Professor?" Amanda asks. "He's the second-best student you have in your class. In fact, Sybok, son of Sarek has a perfect scholarly record."

"And a curfew and an allowance," says another professor, under his breath.

Amanda's back stiffens. "Considering the things your son gets up to, Dr. Kovack, maybe giving some of the students a curfew and an allowance wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. As I was saying, my colleague and I have already begun working on algorithms and example phrases."

But the board isn't really listening; Amanda's time is up, and they all make vague noises of interest before shuffling out the door. Dr. Kovack glares at Amanda as he walks by, but she's already looking down at her PADD, absorbed in her work.

Sybok gets out of his seat; she glances up and smiles at him. "I told you they thought I was crazy," she says.

"You're not crazy," Sybok tells her. "You're brilliant."

"And you're after my nutrition bar," she teases, rummaging in her sack. "Come on, it's late. I'll walk you to the transport and you can tell me all the mean things you were thinking about those horrible professors."

*

"Is there any assistance I might provide with your homework?" Sarek asks him that night.

Sybok starts, and quickly covers his PADD filled with Amanda's notes and equations with a text on anthropology. "No, Father," he says. "How was your conference with my teachers?"

He forgot that tonight was the PTA meeting, but Sarek's question reminds him; Sarek only ever offers to help Sybok with his homework after being stuck in a room with some of Sybok's teachers for hours on end. Sybok tried, earlier in the year, to talk his father out of going -- he's only taking Gym, Geography, and Calculus at the school now -- but Sarek had said, "It is vital that we always foster communication," which is one of those things he always says when he's determined to suffer through another baffling human ritual.

"Your teachers in the school report that you have been performing admirably," Sybok's father tells him. "Your mathematics instructor was particularly impressed, and indicates that you will be ready to attend a University-level class by next semester. I am pleased to see that your more rigorous schedule has not proved too heavy a burden on you."

"Yes, Father," Sybok says.

"I have noticed," Sarek starts, then pauses for a second. "You have been most occupied in your studies at the University," he says.

"I don't think they have parent-teacher conferences there," Sybok says quickly.

Sarek follows the teachings of Surak closely, so he doesn't smile; but Sybok can tell that his father is amused. "Which is perhaps fortunate. But I am sure that you are doing well. I am -- satisfied with your diligence. It speaks well of you."

"Thank you, Father," Sybok says. He almost opens his mouth to tell him about Amanda, but Sarek nods and leaves his room before he can say anything.

It's not that Amanda's a secret, or that he doesn't want to tell his father about her. He's already let a few details drop -- there is a student in his class, a friend, very intelligent, who shares food with him. But he has never talked about how funny she is, how much she smiles and the way she touches his shoulder when she says she needs a "compromise-hug" from him. Or about their project together, the way that she is teaching him math so that he can more easily keep up with her.

Perhaps it is that his father might not like her; intelligent or not, she is hardly the kind of person Sarek would condone. She's not loud or obnoxious, but she is sometimes silly, often impertinent to authority figures, and always determined to go her own way. Sybok has friends (even though it's hard when you're ten years younger and a half a meter shorter than most people around you), but his father has never really approved of any of them. It's never bothered him before.

But he's afraid of what Sarek would make of Amanda, afraid that this time his father's disapproval would mean something worse.

*

"Ugh," Amanda says, groaning. She rubs at her eyes and throws down her PADD. "All right, I'm just about wiped. I feel like a sponge that got wrung out."

Sybok looks up at her from where he is lying on his stomach on the ground. It is a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, and Amanda is wearing a broad, ridiculous hat that shades her from the sun. She's been fiddling with an equation that Sybok's rapidly-improving math skills still can't quite comprehend ("Give yourself a few more months, you'll be better at this than I am," Amanda assures him) while Sybok tries to compute a line of Vulcan into the IntraGalactic Translator. So far, "Live long and prosper" keeps coming out "Tall present additionally produce."

"How's it coming? Don't tell me," Amanda adds when Sybok starts to answer. "I can tell by your face that you've got bad news, and I just cannot handle more of that today."

"How can you tell by my face?" Sybok says.

Amanda grins. "What, you think just because you're a Vulcan I can't read you like a book?"

"Well, I'm not a very good Vulcan, anyway," Sybok says.

"What makes you say that?"

Sybok shrugs. "I was born here and raised here. I've only ever been to Vulcan twice. My dad says once I reach the seven-year after my bonding, we'll go back, and I guess I'll learn to be a Vulcan then."

"Your dad thinks you're not a good Vulcan?" Amanda demands. Sybok knows that tone; it means she's about to march up to someone and tell them they're wrong.

"No," he says quickly. It's true, which is a good thing if Amanda really can read him like a book. "He thinks I am a very good Vulcan. But he's biased."

"I'll bet," Amanda says. "What about your mom?"

"She died," Sybok says. "When I was very young."

Whenever Sybok says that, people either scoff at the idea that he could be younger than he is already, or make a face that seems almost a caricature of sympathy. Amanda just says, "Do you remember her?"

"A little," he says. "She thought I was a good Vulcan, too. She just didn't think I took good care of my clothes."

Amanda laughs at that, and leans back on her hands. "Well, I agree with that, at least."

*

That night, disaster strikes. Or more like the promise of disaster strikes.

"You were studying with Amanda?" Sarek repeats. They're sitting at the dining room table; Sarek at one end, Sybok's mother's empty chair at the other. Sybok is sitting in the middle, facing another empty chair. He keeps his eyes on his soup, hoping that his dad just couldn't hear him and that there isn't anything else coming.

But he isn't that lucky. "You have been spending a great deal of time with this girl," Sarek comments.

"She's my friend," Sybok says.

"Yes, I believe that is an adequate description. I would like to meet her, however, if you are to continue your friendship. And her parents, of course," he adds.

"Why?" Sybok protests. "You never like my friends--"

"'Like' implies an emotional bias, Sybok," Sarek says, wiping his mouth with his napkin. "And I assure you that, even should this child not meet my approval, I will not prohibit you from being friends. However, I would like to know more about your social interactions with your agemates, therefore I request an opportunity to observe you. Perhaps you could invite her and her parents to dinner some time next week."

"She's not my agemate," Sybok blurts.

But Sarek just nods. "Yes, I believe you mentioned that she has helped you somewhat in your math class. However, she is still a young person who is important to you, socially and I believe emotionally."

"She is, Father," Sybok says. "I will ask if she can join us."

"And her parents, do not forget."

*

Sybok doesn't really get the reaction he was hoping for -- although he couldn't really say what it was he was hoping for, exactly. But in any case, he's a little surprised when Amanda laughs for about five minutes straight after he relays his father's invitation.

"Sybok, how old does your father think I am? My parents?" And she starts to laugh again.

He fiddles with the buttons on his jacket. "If you are unable to come--"

"Oh, no," Amanda interjects, "I am not missing this for the whole world. I'll wave my mom and dad and see if they can come visit next week. This is going to be so great." She pulls out her comm and taps out a message.

Sybok has a sick moment of forboding. "Amanda, my father -- he is very -- he may not understand if you joke," he tries to explain.

"Don't fret, darling," she says, as her comm chirps at her. "I'll be the most well-behaved ten-year-old girl you've ever seen." She looks down at the interface. "My parents can come on Thursday, will that work?" She frowns. "I have a meeting with my adviser that afternoon, but I should be free around six or so."

"That would be fine," Sybok sighs.

Amanda touches his shoulder. "I promise," she says seriously, "I won't do a thing to embarrass you. I can't go losing my colleague this late in the semester, can I?"

*

Thursday arrives much, much too soon. Amanda had, jokingly, made up a mathematical model for him showing how time can go more quickly or more slowly, depending on how much you're dreading or looking forward to the future. Sybok keeps staring at the equation all day on Thursday, convinced that it must be accurate.

He doesn't have History of Language on Tuesdays or Thursdays, so he doesn't see Amanda on campus, although she sends him cheerful messages all day, promising that she'll even wear a long skirt and put up her hair in the Vulcan way, instead of wearing jeans and unbound hair the way she usually does. Sybok goes home thinking that the evening might, just might, not be terrible.

At six o'clock, the doorbell rings and two strangers are standing at the door, umbrellas still raised despite the fact that the portico's shielding is protecting them from the rainstorm that began just a few minutes ago. Sybok spies from the top of the stairs: the woman has Amanda's chin and nose.

"I'm so sorry," the woman is saying, "But my daughter told us to meet here. She's meeting with -- oh, I can't remember his name, what is it, Alfred?"

"I'm Alfred Grayson, this is my wife Jenny," the man says firmly, reaching out to shake Sarek's hand.

Sybok all but runs down the stairs, sliding the last few feet to come to a stop at his father's side. Sarek raises an eyebrow at him but shakes Mr. Grayson's hand. "I am Sarek, son of Skon. This is my son Sybok."

"Well, well!" says Mrs. Grayson, leaning down to beam at Sybok. "Amanda's told us so much about you! Why, you're about as big as a minute, aren't you?"

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Sybok says.

Sarek frowns. "You have never met Amanda's parents?" he asks.

Mr. Grayson smiles, sly. "Oh, you know how it is, kids get to be friends and their parents just don't know a thing. Amanda told us about how nice it was for you to invite us over, Mr. Sarek. We always enjoy meeting Amanda's friends."

The next half-hour is torture, and only partially due to the fact that nobody knows where Amanda is. They all go to the living room and Sarek makes very awkward small talk with the Graysons. Mr. Grayson is retired and is originally from Texas, and Mrs. Grayson works at a flower shop. Mr. Grayson stops his wife just before she says what town the shop is in, winking broadly at her when she frowns at him. Sybok's father either doesn't notice or doesn't understand.

Finally, Sybok gets a message from Amanda. >SORRY SORRY SORRY my adviser wouldn't let me go I'm on the transport now should be there ASAP. SORRY.< He would suspect her of doing this on purpose, except for all the "sorry"s; she only ever apologizes for accidents.

"I have just received a message from Amanda," he tells his father, before remembering their guests and switching to Standard. "I'm sorry. Your daughter is on her way, she got held up."

"It is most interesting that you allow your daughter so much freedom within the city," Sarek says to Amanda's parents. "I myself give my son a similarly free rein, but I had understood that many human parents have reservations in such matters."

Mrs. Grayson looks puzzled, but Mr. Grayson grins. "We believe it's best to let young people find their own way. Don't we, darlin'?"

"Oh. Yes," she says agreeably. The minutes seem to drag on until at last, the doorbell rings again. Sybok shoots out of his seat and runs for the door, at this point so nervous that he doesn't really care if Sarek likes Amanda or not -- he just wants the evening to be over.

Amanda stumbles in, drenched from head to toe and gasping for air. "That hill," she wheezes, leaning against the door dramatically as she closes it behind her. "You never said you lived on top of a mountain."

"Sorry," Sybok says.

There are footsteps behind him, and Sybok turns to see his father and Mr. and Mrs. Grayson standing in the living room doorway. Amanda's parents look amused and a little resigned; Sarek looks surprised. "You -- are Amanda Grayson?"

"I deeply regret any offense that may have been issued by my tardy arrival," Amanda says, still out of breath. "My academic guide and I were engaged in a spirited debate and could not reach a satisfactory consensus. When we had concluded our dialogue, I found the time to be later than otherwise expected, and I was unfamiliar with the transport system in this area. I was obliged to make much of the journey on foot."

"You walked?" Sarek asks. It is an abrupt question, something Sybok would never have expected from his father, but Sarek still has that strange, surprised expression on his face.

"In fact," she answers, smiling, "It would be more accurate to say that I ran." She catches sight of her parents and says, in Standard, "Hi Mama, hi Dad. Thanks for coming."

"Oh darlin'," says Mr. Grayson, "We wouldn't have missed this for the world."