The humidity hits Spock like a physical thing the moment he steps out onto the porch. It was already unbearably muggy when he arrived in Georgia with Jim and Nyota the previous evening, but it seems to have only gotten worse since then, the moisture so thick now Spock struggles to pull air into his lungs. Inside in the air conditioning he was uncomfortably cold. Out here the temperature is pleasant, but its pleasantness is negated entirely by the ambient damp.
“It’s going to storm tomorrow,” Leonard says.
If not for this proclamation, Spock would think his presence had gone unnoticed. Leonard is unnaturally still, his shoulders tense as he braces himself against the railing looking out into the growing dusk. Next to his hand, an empty glass sweats in the heat.
Inside the house, Jim and Nyota are cleaning up the remnants of dinner, and the sounds of water running and the clink of plates drift out through the half-open windows. Spock shuts the sliding door behind him and joins Leonard at the railing, though he stands stiffly rather than leaning against it as Leonard does. If he were anyone else, he might squeeze Leonard’s shoulder or let their arms brush—a silent comfort he has seen Jim give to him many times throughout the past twenty-seven hours—but he is not anyone else. He leaves a half a foot of distance between them and looks out over the dark yard.
“How do you know?” he asks.
“I can sense these things.” Leonard reaches for the glass and starts to bring it to his mouth, then notices it is empty and sets it back down with a sigh. “Did Jim send you out here to check on me?”
Spock opens his eyes again and studies Leonard’s profile. He should not be surprised that Leonard would come to such a conclusion, that Spock would not have come to keep him company unless Jim suggested it. Apparently it is not enough that Spock is here in Georgia at all. It is not enough that he sat stiff-backed but attentive earlier that evening while the four of them had their own impromptu memorial service to make up for the one Leonard had missed, all of them—even Spock—sipping whiskey and listening to Leonard’s stories of his childhood, his years of following his father on his rounds. No, of course Leonard would be searching, as he ever is, for ulterior motives.
“No,” Spock says. “Jim did not send me.”
Leonard snorts in disbelief. “I just wanted some fresh air.”
That does not mean he would refuse company as well, so Spock shifts closer, just a couple inches, and turns his eyes down to the worn porch railing with its chipped white paint. Fireflies blink in his peripheral vision. Somewhere out there in the dark, a horse whickers, and another one answers it.
Georgia is a strange place. Spock has been all over the galaxy and seen all manner of life, but all of this, here, is particularly extraordinary to him. Perhaps it is the heavy, wet air. More likely it is that Leonard seems to so thoroughly belong here when Spock has only ever known him to be out of place and uncomfortable.
“I was surprised you came,” Leonard says, his voice low and rough.
Spock lets out a measure breath, not quite a sigh. “Leonard—”
“You just…you didn’t have to be here.”
“Neither did Jim and Nyota.”
Leonard glances over his shoulder at the kitchen window, and the yellow light catches on his face, his unshaven jaw, the dark circles under his eyes. “Jim kinda did.” His mouth curls ruefully at the corner. “I guess they thought it would be easier on me this way.”
“Was that assumption inaccurate?”
Leonard sighs, and again he does not answer. Over the years, Spock has become adept at interpreting Leonard’s silences, which often say more than his words ever do. An illogical idea to be sure, but he has long since stopped trying to apply logic where Leonard is concerned.
“It is customary for humans to surround themselves with loved ones when they are grieving,” Spock says.
“I did my grieving already,” Leonard snaps, too quickly for the statement to be taken as fact. And Spock knows better. He was there when Leonard got the news of his father’s illness just three months before their mission would come to an end. He was there two weeks later, when word reached them that David McCoy had died. Leonard had not taken even a single shift off of work, though the captain begged him to do so, and he also refused to seek passage on a ship that might take him home to Earth quicker, instead opting to serve out the remaining days of their mission. By all appearances, he had been completely unaffected. He continued to exhibit admirable performance in all of his duties and with far fewer complaints than usual. An outside observer might have assumed he was not close to his father and therefore did not need to mourn him. But Spock knows better. He also knows the impulse to bottle up one’s emotions after losing something so fundamental. Had he been able to find the words, he might have spoken to Leonard about it then—but he cannot find the words even now.
“Even if that were true,” he says, “returning to one’s childhood home after such a significant loss is likely to bring a resurgence of emotions.”
Leonard rounds on him, eyes flashing. “What would you know—”
Wisely, he cuts himself off, but not before Spock deduces what the end of the sentence would have been. “I suppose I would not know,” he says, impassive despite the sudden tightness in this chest, in his throat, “as I cannot return to my childhood home.”
“That’s…” Leonard deflates, his shoulders settling and his arms going limp at his sides. “That’s not what I meant.”
It is exactly what he meant, but nevertheless Spock takes it as the apology it was meant to be. The loss of his mother and of his planet is a wound that refuses to heal, no matter how time passes, but Leonard’s wound is fresher, and it is only logical to make allowances. Spock looks away, tracking the paths of moths as they crash into the windows, seeking the light inside. “If you wish I were not here—”
Leonard makes a frustrated sound. “That’s not what I meant either.”
What does he mean then? Does he mean that Spock’s presence is welcomed, or merely tolerated? Does he wish none of them had come? Does he wish to be alone? Sometimes Spock thinks he will be overcome by the urge to grab Leonard and shake a real answer out of him. All humans seem to have trouble speaking plainly—and even Spock knows the value of circumspection—but no one leaves him as perplexed as Leonard does. No one makes him feel quite so far from human.
He wonders if he will ever reach a point where conversations like this one come easier to him. It was concern for Leonard that brought him outside, but now that he is here, he fears that concern was illogical. As is often the case, especially when the doctor is involved, his positive intentions have not lead to positive results. “If you would like to talk about it, I am here,” he says, and turns to go, to return Leonard’s privacy to him.
He is reaching for the handle of the door when Leonard calls after him.
“Spock,” he says.
Spock freezes in place, waiting for him to go on.
“If I had been here,” Leonard says.
Spock whirls around at once. “No,” he says sharply, surprising himself with his vehemence.
“But if I had been here—”
“You cannot think—”
“Damnit, Spock,” Leonard says, as if Spock is the one being unreasonable. “If I had been here, maybe I could have done something. Maybe I could have prolonged his life until…”
Spock walks the few steps across the porch to Leonard’s side again. This time, he does put his hand on his shoulder, and Leonard stiffens under his touch and gives him a wary look. The fabric under Spock’s fingertips is slightly damp with sweat, and this close he can see it beading on the back of Leonard’s neck and at his hairline. Apparently even growing up here does not make one immune to the humidity.
“There is nothing you could have done.” Even as he says it, Spock knows it will not help. To this day, he thinks about what might have happened if he had beamed down to the surface of Vulcan just a few seconds sooner, or if he had taken his mother’s hand in time, or if he had listened to Jim from the beginning. More than that, he thinks of what might have happened if he had not joined Starfleet at all. He would not have been there to stand in Jim’s way. He would have been with his mother. He would have had that extra time with her.
The past cannot be changed, and yet he dwells on it nonetheless. Though he and Leonard are different in many ways, he is confident they are the same in this. Still—despite the emptiness of the words, the futility of them, he feels the he has no choice but to say: “You could not have saved him.”
Leonard’s jaw works and he turns his face away. He gives no indication as to whether he finds Spock’s assurances helpful, but Spock did not expect him to. It is at least promising that he raises no more arguments. Perhaps this means he will give the words further consideration and come to the conclusion that they are true. Or perhaps it means he doesn’t want to fight it anymore tonight. Either option is acceptable for now.
Spock drops his hand back to his side, suddenly all too aware of how long it was resting on Leonard’s shoulder, and takes a step back. His palm is hot and clammy now; the damp air feels more burdensome than ever. He means to turn and go inside, certain that Leonard would rather be alone with his thoughts, but to his surprise, Leonard’s hand shoots out and catches his bicep, his fingers gripping too tight at first before they slowly release him. “You don’t have to…” Leonard clears his throat and starts again. “You can stay, if you want.”
Inside, it sounds like Jim and Nyota have finished the dishes, and they will likely be cuddling up on the couch, settling in to watch an old Earth film or talking over the temporary jobs that await them back in San Francisco. Spock knows Jim is already looking toward another mission, even though he has been offered various promotions. Most of the Enterprise crew—Spock included—will likely follow him if they are allowed. But Spock wonders—and truthfully has been wondering for some time—if Leonard will opt to do the same, or if he has a different future in mind for himself.
“Spock,” Leonard says, his voice a quiet nudge.
Spock steps back up to the railing and curls his fingers around it. Leonard settles next to him, their shoulders almost but not quite brushing. The fireflies seem to have multiplied in number now, some of them flying close enough that Spock could catch one between his palms if he so desired, and somewhere out in the black, beyond where Spock can see, the horses are restless. Perhaps they too sense the coming storm, he thinks. Perhaps he is the only one who cannot feel it coming.
After they go inside and Leonard heads up to bed, citing exhaustion, Jim pulls Spock aside and asks, “How is he?”
Spock is not sure he will ever get used to this, to Jim asking him about Leonard as if he is a child whose custody they share. Leonard asks after Jim the same way, and Spock supposes the two of them have similar conversations about him when he is absent. Somewhere during the five years in deep space—probably after what transpired on Altamid, on the Yorktown base—things changed. It was no longer Doctor McCoy and the captain and then the captain and himself in separate but intersecting orbits. Instead, they have become three points on the same triangle. On the bridge, still Doctor and Captain, but in his mind, Leonard and Jim.
“I do not know,” Spock says. He could make an educated guess, but no matter how Jim might wish it of him, he will never be comfortable guessing at human emotions, least of all Leonard’s. “He asked me if I thought there was a chance he could have done something to save his father’s life.”
Jim nods, his mouth turned down at the corners. “What’d you tell him?”
“I told him the truth, that there was nothing he could have done.”
“Good,” Jim says. “That’s what I said too, but he’s…you know how he is.”
“I know.” Stubborn. So certain he should be able to save everyone. An admirable quality, Spock must admit, but an unfortunate one for a doctor who must necessarily witness many senseless deaths. Even more unfortunate when the person is question is his own father, someone Leonard would almost certainly have had to bury sooner or later.
Spock wonders whether it even makes sense for the two of them to be having this conversation. He knows Jim and Leonard had a long talk the previous night, after Spock and Nyota went up to bed. He could hear their grave voices drifting up through the floor. Jim probably knows far more about the state of Leonard’s psyche than Spock ever could, so why even ask how Leonard is doing now, as if Spock could have gleaned some new information? It makes Spock feel helpless, frustrated that he has failed to provide meaningful assistance on two fronts—first with Leonard, and now with Jim.
“These things take time,” Spock says. The words ring hollow in his own ears, but it feels better than saying nothing.
Smiling sadly, Jim reaches out and gives his shoulder a squeeze. “Yeah. I just wish I could do more, you know?”
Spock knows. That is one desire he knows very well.
Together, they wander back into the living room where Nyota sits on the couch with her feet tucked under her and a padd in her hands. She looks up and reaches for Jim, who sinks down next to her and slings an arm around her shoulders while Spock tries, as he always does, not to watch them too closely. They have such an ease with each other, such constant and quiet affection, and though it doesn’t make Spock uncomfortable—not precisely—it does feel as though it’s not meant for him to witness. Not when he is rarely at ease with anyone. Not when he seems to be unable to admit affection unless someone is dying or dead.
“Do you think he’ll sell this place?” Nyota asks them both as she sets her padd down on the coffee table, her voice low as if Leonard might hear her from the bedroom above.
“Unlikely,” Spock says, at the same time that Jim says, “I doubt it.”
Spock inclines his head in Jim’s direction, and Jim goes on: “It’s been in the family for generations. I’d be surprised if he parts with it.”
“Good,” Nyota says. “It’s such a lovely old place. It’d be a shame if he had to give it up.”
“He could stay here and live in it himself, could he not?” Spock asks, but the stricken look that crosses Jim’s face makes him wish he could take the words back. Usually Jim reaches such conclusions before Spock does, but perhaps in this case it is not that Jim could not imagine the possibility—but that he would not. And here is Spock, inelegantly shattering his way through his friend’s capacity for denial, as is his custom.
“What, and stay here in Georgia?” Jim asks. “Without us?”
“He wouldn’t,” Nyota says.
Spock wishes he could believe as much, but if he were in Leonard’s position, staying in Georgia would be the only logical choice. There are few reasons for him to sign up for another mission and many reasons not to. Leonard never enjoyed living on a starship or exploring the vastness of space. The body count clearly took a toll on him, as did time spent away from home. Even before the death of Leonard’s father, Spock thought it likely they would be searching for a new CMO if they went on another mission, and now it seems almost a certainty.
The thought of embarking on another mission without the doctor fills Spock with emotions he is loathe to put names to, but he cannot deny what is right in front of his face.
“I believe he might,” Spock says. “He has not taken an interim position with Starfleet as the rest of us have.”
“That’s just because he didn’t know how long it would take to get everything in order here,” Jim says, “right?”
Jim and Nyota look at Spock and then at each other, but none of them seem to have an answer.
Fear of storms is illogical.
That is what his father told him when he was a boy, when he grew nervous in advance of the great sandstorms that blew in from across the desert, bringing high winds and ceaseless lightning. His parents would go from room to room, making sure the windows were shut up tight, but the wind moaned outside like a living thing, and Spock would steal away to his room where Sarek could not see the way his hands shook or his shoulders twitched at each bright flash of light that sneaked in around the edges of the curtains.
Fear is illogical, Spock tells himself now. Not just of storms, but of all manner of things. A vestigial emotion that served an evolutionary purpose long ago but now has become an inconvenience. It clouds judgment. It dulls decision-making capabilities. More than once during the mission, it got in the way of Spock’s ability to do his job. It is, at best, inconvenient.
Leonard would surely disagree, Spock thinks before he even opens his eyes. He hears the thunder outside and wind howling past the eaves, and he reminds his pounding heart that there is no need for fear, but the doctor’s voice is inside his head—low and uncharacteristically gentle—telling him it is pointless to fight it.
And then the same voice is at his door, more urgent this time and accompanied by a knock. “Spock?”
Spock climbs out of bed and navigates his way across the dim room to grab a pair of pants off the top of his open suitcase. When he glances toward the window, he is almost glad to see dark clouds rather than red ones obscuring the early morning sunlight, sheets of rain rather than billowing dust. The lightning though—that is the same here as anywhere else, brilliant flashes that cut through the thunderheads. A strike comes just as he opens the bedroom door, and it is only through some effort that he manages not to flinch.
“Oh good, you’re up,” Leonard says roughly, looking Spock up and down. He is damp, like he has already been outside this morning. His hair is sticking up in wet spikes, and underneath his red flannel, his white t-shirt sticks to his skin. Spock does not let himself stare.
“I am now,” he says. “It seems you were right about the storm.”
“Of course I was.” Leonard grins ruefully and takes a step back. “Come on. I need your help.”
At that, Spock balks. He glances past Leonard down the hall, at the door behind which Jim is certainly still sleeping. “Wouldn’t—”
“I’m not about to barge in on those two lovebirds,” Leonard says before Spock can finish his thought. “Uhura would never forgive me for it. Now let’s go.”
With that, Spock cannot argue. He has seen Nyota awakened before she would like, and she can inspire as much fear as a thunderstorm all on her own. “I am not sure I can be of much help to you,” he says anyway, but it is no use. Leonard has already turned and started down the hall, and Spock has little choice but to follow after him, for the sake of his curiosity if nothing else.
They head downstairs and out the back door. Even under the cover of the porch, the wind blows a fine mist into Spock’s face, and the humid air sticks his shirt to his skin. The storm is not on top of them yet judging by the gaps between thunder and lightning, and yet the rain is already coming down hard, the roar of it loud enough that when Leonard turns to speak to him, he has to raise his voice.
“I forgot to bring the horses in last night,” he says.
Spock fears his alarm will show on his face. “I am…I do not…”
But again, Leonard is not waiting for his answer. He steps down off the porch and strides unflinchingly into the rain, shoulders hunched and chin tucked to his chest. He seems sure Spock will follow him. Sure enough that he doesn’t glance back even once. Incorrigible, Spock thinks. Impossible. And yet he is on the bottom step already, following after him.
The rain is not cold, but it is also not warm enough to be pleasant. Within moments, it is running into Spock’s eyes and down the back of his neck, seeping into his shoes. He shivers and resists the urge to look up at the dark clouds boiling overhead, knowing it will only add to his growing sense of unease. Instead, he focuses on the back of Leonard’s neck and hurries along in his footsteps, trusting him to pick a safe path through the mud and sodden grass and ever-growing puddles that pock-mark the yard.
They pause at the weathered white barn, where Leonard slips inside and comes back out again with a jumble of halters in his hands. He hands one of them to Spock, who busies himself with trying to figure out how it should be oriented as they continue their trek through the rain toward the pasture. His hands are slick, the nylon halter soon sodden. Fidgeting with it is a welcome distraction for the way the lightning is striking closer now, close enough that Spock thinks he smells ozone in the air. He twists the rope into a loop in the center of his palm, and his shoulders hunch ever higher around his ears, and he almost doesn’t notice Leonard has stopped until he almost runs into the back of him and has to step backward to avoid being trod on when Leonard swings open the gate.
The horses are huddled together in the pasture where two sides of the fence form a corner, as if the rickety rails will somehow protect them from the deluge. Leonard approaches them, cooing and clucking like they are scared children rather than beasts, and lays his hand on the neck of the closest one, a copper-colored female. He slides his hand up to pat the side of her face and murmurs something, probably words of comfort, but the rain covers the sound. She turns her nose into his chest and pushes restlessly at him, and he takes the opportunity to slip the halter into place, fastening it quickly enough that Spock has no chance to see how he did it.
“C’mere,” Leonard calls to him, shouting to be heard over the now-constant rumble of thunder. He gestures toward the other horse, another female, white speckled with gray. “You take Sugar. She won’t give you any trouble.”
As Leonard leads his horse away from the fence, the other one—Sugar—moves to follow, making it easier for Spock to step up beside her. He touches her carefully on the neck, as Leonard did, and her flesh quivers under his fingertips, her eyes rolling warily in her skull.
“Just put her nose through that hole there.” Leonard is surprisingly patient, given that the rain seems to be coming down harder by the second. “Throw that strap over her neck, behind her ears, and buckle it.”
Spock does as he’s told, he and Sugar watching each other cautiously all the while. He feels clumsy, his fingers cold and slippery and inflexible, but eventually he gets it and breathes a sigh of relief.
“Hold onto the lead right under her chin with your right hand, and gather the rest of it into your left.” Leonard nods when he gets it right. “Now follow me and Rose here,” he says, giving the copper horse’s withers a gentle stroke as if to encourage her too. “She’ll walk.”
And walk Sugar does, but her step is light and skittering, so Spock worries that any moment might be the one where she decides to bolt. She probably would bolt if her companion’s tail wasn’t acting as her guide. Each bolt of lightning makes her toss her head and whinny, but she does not seem to want to move an inch outside Rose’s wake. Spock is not sure she needs him there to lead her at all.
Ahead of him, Leonard throws the barn doors open wide, and both horses quicken their step in anticipation. Spock is happy to speed up himself, happy to have a roof over his head again, even one that creaks in the wind and lets some of the rain through in slow leaks, leaving wet spots on the dusty floor. The smell is entirely new and entirely unpleasant to Spock, a mixture of hay and sweet oats and leather and manure, but he would rather stay in here and breathe it in all day than venture back out into the storm, which still seems to be intensifying by the second. Rain pounds on the roof and wind buffets the walls, and the thunder has grown so loud that when Leonard speaks again, he has to raise his voice to be heard.
“Sugar’s stall is that one there,” he says, gesturing at the one to Spock’s left. “If you open the door and take off her halter, she’ll walk right in.”
In fact, she runs in, barely waiting for Spock to slip the halter down off her nose before she does so. He rushes to shut the door behind her, but he doubts she could be coaxed out for anything now. Leonard puts Rose in the next stall over, and the two horses move to their adjoining wall and whicker at each other, seeking reassurance. Spock makes the mistake of turning toward Leonard, seeking the same.
Leonard’s civilian clothes are a strange enough sight to Spock, who is used to seeing him in uniform, but they are stranger still when sodden and clinging to him, his t-shirt transparent in places from the rain. His hair lies slick against his forehead, but as Spock watches, he reaches up and pushes his fingers through it, making it stick up at odd—and yet not unappealing—angles. Water drips from his fingertips and his earlobes and glistens on his upper lip and the hollow of his neck. Spock finds it difficult to know where to look. He finds it more difficult still to look away.
“Should have brought them in last night,” Leonard grumbles, clearly speaking mostly to himself. Louder, he adds, “Thanks. For your help.”
Spock laces his fingers behind his back and forces himself to look Leonard in the eye. “Of course.”
“My dad had a young couple helping him out around the place, with the animals and the garden, but I told them they could take the week off. Guess I made a mistake there.”
“It is no matter,” Spock insists, “although Jim probably would have been more help to you.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Leonard says, his eyes lighting up, “I’ll put Jim to work later. He can muck out these stalls.”
Spock inclines his head in agreement. “That sounds like a fair price for sleeping in.”
Leonard chuckles at that, wiping water off of his face with one hand, but he sobers again quickly and turns away from Spock, back toward the horses. Now that they’re inside, the animals have settled a little, even though the thunder is only getting louder and the lightning brighter. Spock estimates that they have weathered dozens of storms in this barn, so perhaps it is only logical that they feel secure here, even though to him the boards look old and brittle and each creak of the building sounds more ominous.
“Will you give them away now?” Spock asks to cover his own unease. “The horses?”
Leonard shakes his head. “I couldn’t.” He glances sideways at Spock, then looks quickly away again. “Couldn’t give up any part of this place. Not a single blade of grass. It’s…home.”
Spock understands. He too fled his home to join Starfleet under adverse circumstances, and yet he would give anything to have it back now, even for a moment or two, to hold even a handful of red dirt in his fist. So yes, he understands, but he also admits to himself that it is not the answer he wanted to hear. “Will you stay here then?”
That earns him a sharp look, a brief widening of Leonard’s eyes and a clench of his jaw, a clear signal that he has read some unintended meaning into Spock’s words. “Is that what you think I should do?”
It is so strange how, after spending so much time in close proximity, so much time working together, Leonard still never seems to be able to guess what Spock is thinking. In fact, he has an uncanny ability to guess the exact opposite. Spock long ago deduced that Leonard’s lack of trust in him is not personal, but he finds it difficult to reconcile this knowledge with the negative emotions he continues to feel every time Leonard assumes the worst.
“It is not,” Spock says curtly.
Leonard frowns, scrutinizing him. “Why not? Afraid Starfleet can’t spare one halfway decent doctor?”
If Spock were prone to outward displays of irritation, he would roll his eyes. He almost wishes Jim were here to do it for him. “You know very well that you are more than ‘halfway decent’, Doctor. I believe you are fishing for compliments.”
A load crack of thunder cuts Leonard off before he can answer, and Spock looks toward the rafters, half expecting the roof to come crashing in on their heads. Illogical. It is a sturdily built structure, he is sure. This is only a rainstorm. And yet, he cannot help but wonder what would happen if lightning struck this old wood. Would it catch fire? Possible, but unlikely, given its level of dampness. Somehow that thought does not make Spock feel calmer.
After a beat, he turns his gaze back to Leonard to find Leonard is watching him with an expression of both curiosity and mild amusement on his face. “You’re scared of the storm,” he says, leaning casually against the stall door and crossing his arms over his chest.
“I am not.”
Spock knows his insistence is too hasty and too forceful to be believed, so he is not surprised to see Leonard’s eyebrows go up in challenge. “You know, I don’t know how anyone could ever believe that Vulcan’s don’t lie. You’re the worst liars in the galaxy.”
“That is hardly accurate,” Spock says. “There are several species that are incapable—”
“I know, I know.” Leonard wags one of his hands, his grin only growing. “So you don’t get many storms on Vulcan, huh?”
“On the contrary. The sandstorms are quite formidable.” He pauses, clears his throat. “Were quite formidable.”
The smile falls off Leonard’s face as quickly as it came, a furrow forming in his brow. Behind him, and a little to the left, a small puddle is gathering in the dust where the roof is leaking in a steady drip, and Spock shifts his attention there so he doesn’t have to see the discomfort, the pity on Leonard’s face. If anyone should be on the receiving end of pity right now, it is not Spock.
Another clap of thunder rattles the walls. Spock closes his eyes and draws a deep breath, wishing he was back in that upstairs bedroom where he could retreat into meditation. They could go back to the house, he supposes. They could run through the rain; it isn’t that far. But Leonard has made no move toward the door, and so Spock feels trapped here too, either because he doesn’t want to admit defeat or because of some other force, one he is sure he would be unable to name.
When he opens his eyes again, he sees Leonard has moved closer to him, close enough that Spock could count the individual water droplets on his face if he were so inclined. Leonard sags against the stalls again, but there is something artificial in his posture now, a studied casualness that Spock doesn’t trust. He nearly rocks back on his heels to put more distance between them. It takes a significant amount of willpower to stay still instead.
“Do you still miss her?” Leonard asks suddenly, his voice low enough that Spock almost doesn’t hear him over the sound of the rain and the wind. It takes a moment for him to parse the meaning behind the question, and when he does, he feels his jaw tighten, his hands curling into fists in the small of his back.
“It is illogical—”
“No.” Leonard’s voice is sharp, his eyes flashing. “Don’t bullshit me now, Spock.”
Spock swallows hard and looks away, aware he is being a coward but unable to stop himself. “Of course I still miss her,” he says, keeping his voice even only through great effort, “but it has been several years, and I would not presume that I know how you are—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Leonard throws up his hands, and Spock cannot guess—can never seem to guess—what he has done to set him off this time. “I lost a parent, Spock. You lost a parent. I’m just trying to find some common ground here. It’s not a test.”
“I apologize,” Spock says automatically, then realizes his mistake when Leonard groans and scrubs both hands over his face.
“You know, I think I like you better when you’re acting like a robot. At least then you’re predictable.”
He feels irritation rising in him, prickling through his chest and tightening his shoulders. It is the same irritation he feels each time Leonard jabs at his vulnerable places, the inflection points between what makes him human and what makes him Vulcan. It seems as though Leonard is happy with neither side of him. Spock never knows how to please him.
And somehow, at some point over the years, he developed such a strong desire to please him. Perhaps that is the root of his frustration now.
He cannot bring himself to examine it.
With the last bit of his patience, he digs into himself and finds the only thing he knows to do now, the only thing his human and Vulcan halves can agree on. He stiffens his posture, stares at the dust around Leonard’s feet, and says, “I grieve with thee.”
Silence. For two seconds, then three, then four. Spock does not want to look up to check the expression on Leonard’s face, but neither can he spend much more time staring at the toes of his boots and hoping for rescue from this moment, a break in the storm, anything but this crushing uncertainty. He feels a droplet of water rolling down the side of his face, inching toward his chin, and he wants to wipe it away, but he resists. It might seem like fidgeting—like vulnerability—and he feels vulnerable enough as it is.
“Spock.” It is more of a sigh than a word, so subtle that Spock can almost convince himself he didn’t hear it at all—except that Leonard is moving now, first just a sway forward that Spock feels in air displacement, and then an actual step that puts him well inside Spock’s personal space. This time, he says it louder. More firmly. “Spock.”
Leonard waits for Spock to look up at him before he puts a cool hand to the side of his face. Spock barely has time to draw a breath before Leonard tugs him in and kisses him.
It is not a tentative kiss. Leonard’s hand moves to the back of Spock’s neck, fingers digging into the muscle there and pulling him in hard like this is an argument and he is determined to win it. Spock is not surprised that this would be Leonard’s approach, but he is surprised at his own reaction to it, the sharp and involuntary breath he draws, the way his hand moves to Leonard’s waist as if he has always touched him just this way.
Before he has a chance to analyze the situation further, Leonard breaks away and buries his face in the juncture of Spock’s neck and shoulder like he means to hide there, panting hotly against Spock’s skin.
“Leonard.” Spock lays his hands against Leonard’s shoulder blades, unsure whether he means to provide comfort or only steady himself. He can hear his own heart beat in his ears, even over the sound of the storm. “Perhaps this is not—”
“No.” Leonard shakes his head, his forehead rolling against Spock’s shoulder in a grind of bone on bone. “Stop thinking, Spock, for once in your goddamn life.”
A hypocritical order, because Spock can almost feel Leonard deliberating, deciding what he wants to do next. Leonard’s hands slide down the front of Spock’s shirt, then reverse course, and clench in the fabric hard enough that Spock fears it will rip. He turns his head, and his mouth moves restlessly against Spock’s neck like he isn’t sure which spot he likes best or whether he wants to keep tasting this particular stretch of Spock’s skin at all. When his lips touch just under Spock’s jaw, Spock can feel uncertainty coming off him in waves—no, not uncertainty, insecurity, like he expects this to end soon. Like he’s waiting for Spock to push him away.
Spock finds—somewhat to his own surprise—that he does not want to push him away. He should. It might be better if he did. But he does not want to.
Instead, he cups a hand under Leonard’s jaw and brings their mouths together again.
This is certainly not an ideal time or place for this. The rain is still roaring outside, and a few minutes of conversation in the drafty barn has done nothing to make either of them dryer. When Leonard presses against Spock from chest to thigh, it causes wet fabric to chafe uncomfortably against his skin. Water is pooling in his boots, sliding over the small of his back and making him itch. He wishes they were inside, or anywhere drier than this. But it is unsurprising that Leonard’s timing would be less than ideal. He never seems to do things the easy way, the sensible way.
“I can still hear you thinking,” Leonard growls against his mouth.
“I find that unlikely.” Spock is relieved his voice comes out evenly and more relieved still that he manages to get all the words out before Leonard’s fingers dip under the hem of his shirt. His hand is so warm, and if Spock’s hips move of their own volition, surely it is because of that warmth alone, not the way Leonard’s callused fingers feel on his skin—or the knowledge that it is Leonard touching him in the first place.
“This okay?” The question is quiet, barely a whisper, as if Leonard is reluctant to ask it. Whatever brashness he has displayed thus far, it is softened for the moment, his hands temporarily stilling as he waits for Spock’s answer.
“Yes,” Spock says, impatiently and before he can give it much thought.
Leonard’s hesitation dissolves at once, his hands tearing at Spock’s fly with something akin to desperation, like he has been waiting for permission for far longer than the few seconds it took for Spock to answer his question. Spock clenches his jaw to keep himself silent and curls both hands into Leonard’s flannel and tries to remember how this works, how he should act. It is tempting to merely stare—at the focused expression on Leonard’s face, at the way the muscles in his arm shift under his shirt, at the pale underside of his wrist where it disappears into Spock’s pants. All these details seem incongruous when taken together with his own growing arousal; it is hard to believe that they are all somehow connected.
He should reciprocate. That is the protocol, he remembers—not just to take, but to give as well. And yet he can’t seem to make his hands uncurl from Leonard’s shirt, nor can he make his mouth work to ask Leonard what he wants. His past experiences with lovers had always been careful and measured, with plenty of time for planning out each action before executing it. He was never given an opportunity to plan this. Never would he have imagined that something like this could happen—not between himself and Leonard, not now or ever—so how could he possibly have prepared?
“Spock,” Leonard hisses as he wraps Spock in his fist—and that, his name and the touch that comes with it, is what snaps Spock out of his stupor. He has heard his name spoken like this—no, almost like this—many a time before. By Jim, by Nyota, by Leonard himself. It means you are missing something that is right in front of you. It means catch up. In this instance, it seems to mean he was reading Leonard wrong all along; the connection he has been so desperately seeking has been right here, waiting for him to notice it. Waiting for him to stop assuming he will do something wrong so that he can do something right.
It is suddenly the simplest thing in the world to yank Leonard in by the open flaps of his shirt and kiss him again, every bit as hard as Leonard kissed him a moment ago. He savors it this time, the press of teeth against his lower lip, the taste of clean water on Leonard’s skin, the scratch of stubble that means Leonard has not shaved yet this morning. That is a good thing, Spock decides—the lack of shaving. The roughness is familiar to him, as if they have done this before. He does not associate Leonard with anything smooth.
Leonard’s hand stops moving where it is crushed between them, and Spock reaches down to extricate it to so he can get at Leonard’s jeans. “Fuck,” Leonard grunts at the first touch of Spock’s hand, just a gentle drag of fingertips over the length of him. Spock has never cared much for human profanity, but in this moment, from Leonard’s mouth, he thinks he could learn to enjoy it.
He flips their positions, puts Leonard up against the stall door, and begins to stroke him in earnest, wondering what else he might get him to say before this is all over. But he is caught unaware when Leonard reaches for him again, wraps him in his fist, and matches his rhythm. Spock is not sure how he could have felt cold earlier. The space between their bodies is sweltering and muggy, and the sound of the rain is more distant than it was a moment ago, when the storm seemed to to raging all around them. Now, Leonard’s breathing is the loudest sound, the slick drag of skin against skin a close second.
“God, you’re—” Leonard’s eyes drift down Spock’s body, down to the place where their knuckles brush against one another. Spock is certain he will never hear the end of the sentence, no matter how patiently he waits.
He doesn’t look down himself. Instead, he shuts his eyes and focuses on the way Leonard feels in his hand. It feels almost as good to touch him as to be touched by him, and that feedback loop has Spock certain this will not last as long as it should. Nor as long as he wants it to. So strange, to allow himself to want this. He has gritted his teeth and fumbled through his unpredictable relationship with Leonard for years, and now he finds a kernel of certainty at the center of it all. His hand on Leonard, Leonard’s hand on him. He wants this like he has wanted few other things in his life.
“Yeah, like that,” Leonard says when Spock tightens his grip. “I’m almost—”
This time, Spock doesn’t need the end of the sentence, because the way Leonard pushes up into his fist tells him more than enough. This is too fast, too frantic, but he does not know how to slow it down. He feels an itch in his free hand, the one that is currently gripping Leonard’s waist under his shirt. His fingers do not feel right there, against that soft, damp skin. They would feel better pressed to his face, aligning at his cheekbone, his jaw. If he joined their minds, he does not think he would find any surprises there. A similar grief. A similar unmoored feeling. A shock that this should be happening between them, here in this barn.
The urge to know for sure is a startling one, almost enough to pull Spock out of the moment, but it is too late and the sensations are too overwhelming. He digs his fingers harder into Leonard’s hipbone and focuses his attention further south, and in the end, he is not sure which of them finds their release first. He doesn’t think to push his or Leonard’s clothes out of the way to avoid the mess and doesn’t even flinch at the extra slick that coats his knuckles, mingling with sweat and rainwater. His attention is caught by the noise that comes out of Leonard’s mouth—and the one that comes out of his own, one he has not heard himself make before. And then Leonard is pulling him in to kiss him again, deeper and with less finesse than before, and he can do nothing but sink into it.
Too soon, Leonard is sliding out from between Spock and the stall, and Spock grits his teeth against the urge to ask questions he is sure will hasten the inevitable awkwardness. When Leonard returns, it is with a cloth—a dirty towel—which he uses to clean them both up as much as he can, and Spock merely stands there and lets him, trying to read the expression on his face. He won’t meet Spock’s eyes, which is no surprise, but his hands are gentle and if he is annoyed with himself or with what just transpired, it does not show.
“I—” Spock starts, but before he can say anything more, Leonard looks up and kisses him again, silencing him. It is soft this time, like a gentle version of the admonishments Leonard seems to relish doling out whenever possible. For once, Spock takes it without complaint, his fingers coming up to rest against Leonard’s jaw.
“We should get back,” Leonard says when they break apart again. “Get you in some dry clothes. I don’t want to be responsible for you coming down with some kind of Vulcan pneumonia.”
Spock notices then that the rain has quieted quite a bit, down to a dull drizzle on the roof of the barn. Summer storms in Georgia evidently have a significantly shorter lifespan than sandstorms on Vulcan. Leonard steps backward and throws the towel over his shoulder, turning away. Spock watches, his fingers flexing against thin air and then falling to his side. What now? What should he say? There is a right thing, he is sure of it, but nothing comes to him.
“I do not believe there is such a thing as ‘Vulcan pneumonia’,” is all he can manage. Evidently that is good enough. The corner of Leonard’s mouth twitches, and Spock finds that, despite all his unanswered questions, that hint of a smile is all he needs for now.
By the time Spock has showered and dressed and come back downstairs, Jim and Nyota are up and bustling about the kitchen, working on breakfast. Bacon sizzles in one pan, eggs are frying in another, and, mercifully, Nyota is chopping fresh fruit for a fruit salad. Both she and Jim look up at him when he steps into the room. He does not think he likes the matching expressions on their faces.
“We heard you and Bones early this morning,” Jim says, his tone far too casual. “He put you to work?”
Spock brushes past Jim to get a mug out of the cabinet next to him. Busying himself will not exempt him from Jim’s scrutiny, but he feels compelled to try anyway. There must be tea in this house somewhere. “He assures me you will be drafted next, if you are worried. I believe he said something about mucking stalls.”
Jim groans. Behind them, Nyota lets out a laugh, and Jim rounds on her with a faux-scowl. “Hey, if I’m stuck shoveling shit, you’re coming with me.”
She gives him a look that makes it clear he is mistaken, but Spock suspects she will keep him company anyway, even if that means watching from a distance and providing commentary while she winds her fingers through the horses’ soft, damp manes. He only hopes they will not both be able to tell what happened in that barn the moment they set foot in it. Surely he and Leonard left no evidence behind.
“Looking for the tea?” says a gruff voice at his back, and then Leonard is taking the mug from him with one hand and giving his elbow a brief squeeze with the other. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
He is freshly showered too, his red flannel exchanged for blue and his worn jeans replaced by a nicer, cleaner pair. A drop of water is creeping its way down the back of his neck. If only he would stay dry for any length of time, Spock thinks. Maybe then it would be easier to stop staring. Then again, maybe not.
“Spock was just telling us you have a day full of torture planned for Jim,” Nyota says. When Spock tears his gaze away from Leonard and looks at her, she is looking back at him, her gaze too knowing despite the easy smile on her lips.
Leonard chuckles and claps Jim on the shoulder as he passes. “Torture may be too mild a word for it.”
Jim groans again, more theatrically this time, and Nyota and Leonard laugh in unison. Even Spock fights the urge to smile. The rain has passed on and sun is shining in through the windows. The dour mood from the previous night seems all but gone, though Spock does not expect it to be permanent. He knows that grief ebbs and flows, and that it can be easy to forget it altogether for a while when one is surrounded by people who care. This very group of people taught him that lesson not so long ago.
They move around each other with ease. Spock takes over chopping fruit so Nyota can help Jim with the eggs. Leonard brews tea and coffee and sets the table. They lob questions and instructions at one another, and soon enough, breakfast is at the table and they are all seated around it, Jim and Nyota on one side, Spock and Leonard on another.
Jim at least has the grace to wait until their plates are full before he asks Leonard, “So, do you have a, you know…” He waves his hand vaguely through the air. “Plan?”
Spock grips his own thigh under the table.
“Plan?” Leonard is being deliberately obtuse, that much is obvious. He picks up a piece of bacon and takes a bite out of it without looking away from Jim.
“Your plan for this place,” Jim clarifies. “Are you going to stay here and take care of it, or—”
Nyota elbows him, giving a subtle shake of her head. Too soon, she must be thinking. Don’t rush him. The silence that follows seems interminable, even though it is only the space needed for Leonard to finish chewing and swallow. Then, because he is stubborn, to take a sip of coffee.
“I’m not giving up this house,” he says at last.
Spock is sure he is bruising himself, but he cannot seem to relax his grip. Perhaps this is just what Leonard does to him now. Makes him lose control of himself.
But Leonard has not finished speaking yet. “I can’t give it up,” he repeats. “It’s home.” He sets his mug down and glances sideways at Spock, then quickly away again, as if he is afraid of getting caught doing something he should not do. One of his shoulders lifts in a too-casual shrug. “But…I guess it’s not my only home.”
Jim brightens at that, which makes something loosen in Spock’s chest as well. After all, if anyone can read Leonard well, it is Jim. He must have picked up on something in those words, something for which Spock cannot yet hope.
When Leonard’s hand slides over his knee, he nearly startles. He looks over, but Leonard will not meet his eyes, nor will he meet Jim’s or Nyota’s. Instead, he is staring out the window. Outside, the sun has already begun the work of drying the puddles left by the early morning storm. Spock supposes by the afternoon, it will be as if it had never rained at all. The thought strikes him oddly, but he does not have time to examine it before Leonard’s hand is curling around his and he is prying Spock’s fingers—gently but firmly—away from the flesh of his thigh, coaxing him into loosening his hold on himself. He hooks his fingers around the edge of Spock’s palm and lets them rest there with a determined casualness. As if this is normal, the clasp of their hands at the breakfast table.
“Someone has to keep an eye on you two,” Leonard says, and at first it seems apropos of nothing to Spock. But Jim is smiling now. “Poor Nyota can’t do it all on her own. Not to impugn your capability.” He tips his head in her direction.
“Of course not. They really are too much for one person alone, I agree.” Nyota waves her hand at him, but she is clearly eyeing the bend in his elbow, no doubt calculating the path of his arm and where it must terminate.
“Hey,” Jim protests. Emptily, given that his smile is only widening now. “So you’re saying I don’t have to find a new CMO?”
“I guess that’s what I’m saying.”
He spears himself a bite of egg with one hand and squeezes Spock’s fingers with the other. Spock clears his throat, meaning to say something as he feels his silence must be conspicuous at this point, but no words come to him. Nothing relevant, anyway. Nothing that would sound right when Leonard’s pulse is beating against the back of his wrist.
“You have time,” he says at last. “Possibly an entire year before the refit is done and we are given the opportunity for a new mission.”
“Plenty of time to get this old farm in order and find someone to rent it out then.” Spock must look stunned, because Leonard shakes his head at him, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling. “Come on, now. What else am I going to do? I don’t have a life here anymore.”
“You have made your distaste for space travel clear, and with the death of your father…”
“Spock,” Leonard says, his voice strangely quiet. He squeezes Spock’s hand, and for a moment Spock forgets that Jim and Nyota are sitting opposite them, no doubt watching this exchange with interest. “What else am I going to do,” he repeats, “but stick close to the family I have left?”
Spock is at a loss until Jim speaks up, his voice a boisterous crow. “Awww, he means us.” Spock tears his eyes away from Leonard in time to see Jim elbow Nyota gently in the side. “You hear that? He means us!”
Leonard kicks Jim under the table, making him yelp. “Don’t press your luck. I’ll put you on manure duty for the rest of your stay.”
It is staggering, the number of things Spock has been wrong about in the past twenty-four hours. He guessed Leonard’s mental state incorrectly, guessed his intentions incorrectly. He did not foresee that he could be sitting here with Leonard’s thumb stroking the back of his hand, their friends grinning from across the table. It has always frustrated him that he could be so consistently incorrect when it comes to this man, and yet now it is not frustration that he feels at all. It is relief. Simply relief.
Slowly, he slips his hand out from under Leonard’s so he can turn it over, lace their fingers together properly. Leonard takes a bite out of a piece of bacon but it does little to hide his grin. There will be time later to talk, and to deal with the way Jim and Nyota are looking at them. There will be time to decide how the next year should go. For now, Spock picks up his fork. Breakfast first, and then they will watch Jim wield a pitchfork. Perhaps Spock will even help him—he is always open to new experiences, after all. Something tells him he will find the humidity more bearable today.