Spock smells the sea before he sees it.
He is trailing his father through a crumbling maze of crags when the tang strikes his nostrils—though the salt lies thick on the air, the beach is yet out of sight beyond the rocky shoulder of land. His attention is dragged away from the curious pre-shore trees and undergrowth; he discards the waxy leaf he’d picked up to observe, greener and studier than any growth on Vulcan, and tips his head back to sniff. His olfactory senses are better than his peers—the scent is violently brackish.
He is stricken briefly by nostalgia. The air on Vulcan, too, is acrid, seared by the punishing heat. He spends several seconds savoring the similarity, dragging in a large breath through his nose to feel the zing. Then the ocean comes into view and a sensation like falling pulls the bottom out of his stomach.
He has never seen so much water in one place. The white-gold bar of sand and pebbles between the crags and the waterline peels away and the sea goes on as far as his eyes can see. It is the color of the desert glass Spock sometimes finds in the ravines carved out by wars millennia before his time, but instead of a vesicular chunk it is an entire horizon of placid green. Approaching the vastness reminds him of shuttling through space, except now there is no reinforced metal protecting him from the infinity.
The ocean reaches out to him the closer he gets, throwing itself on the shore. He has never seen water so animate. The waves hiss and spit as they dash apart, frothing at the top like something wild. Spock instinctively grabs the hem of his father’s sheer robe.
Sarek stops walking. Spock can feel the weight of his consideration tugging at the thread of their telepathic bond and does not muffle his apprehension fast enough.
He expects a rebuke, but Sarek merely informs him, “Many of our people have reported experiencing visceral shock upon first seeing an Earth ocean. There are even some Terrans from inland regions who report the same.”
“I see,” Spock replies. His grip on the gauzy fabric loosens.
Sarek does not take him any closer to the water. He turns and begins leading him down the beach, keeping to the blurry boundary between the scrub and sand dunes. With a bulwark of rock jutting up on one side and interrupting the vastitude of the ocean, Spock feels less adrift. They walk until they reach a buffer where the crags tumble right down into the water; Sarek helps him climb the outcrop, and when they reach the top he and Spock unfold the blanket they brought with them and sit down.
Per his mother’s instructions, they proceed to unpack the basket of Earth food she prepared for them. It is a compilation of the Terran cuisine Amanda has introduced into their household and received positive feedback on—zucchini bread crowded with walnuts, a salad of quinoa with apples and almonds, spanakopita in flaky triangles, sopapillas bulging with honey and sprinkled with sugar powder, and more. Amanda was particularly zealous—there is too much for them to finish at once.
Spock chews a few stalks of grilled asparagus while Sarek spoons sweet corn salsa from an avocado half. They eat without conversation according to the Vulcan tradition. Though his mother usually obliges them with her own silence, their meal is peculiarly quiet in her absence. She is far from the beach, currently busy downtown giving a speech to inner city primary school teachers in San Francisco.
“It is disappointing that Mother could not come,” Spock says quietly. The static noise of the surf almost swallows the words.
A long minute passes before Sarek agrees, “It is regrettable.”
That is the only complaint to be made. The few clouds in the sky are wispy, and the late morning sunlight is strong enough to warm the breeze coming off of the water. There is no crowd; Spock is free to sample the beach without the strain of fortifying his developing mental barriers. It is tranquil where the city is not. Spock decides that he is enjoying himself.
He observes the sea from his new perch. At this height, it is less threatening; the advance and retreat no longer looks like an assault on the shore. He follows the line of the tide with his gaze until it is obscured by another outward thrust of rock, then he turns to do the same the other way—and spies something.
He looks closer. It is a child.
He experiences some measure of surprise. The child is alone. Spock has only ever seen other children in the presence of guardians or in groups, never completely unattended. He tries to see if they are in need of assistance, but it appears that the child is merely frolicking near the water and kicking up wet sand.
Spock begins to turn away, disinterested by the trivial play. He is aware that the average rate of intellectual development in Terran children is generally outpaced by that of Vulcan children; he and the child appear to be the same age, but he reminds himself that this child likely has no grasp of the things that stimulate him.
He pauses when he sees the child cease their wild cavorting and kneel down in the damp sand. They use their arms to sweep the sand into a small hill in front of them and then they begin to knead it. Spock cannot see the particulars, but before his eyes the formless sand begins to bear greater and greater resemblance to a formal structure.
He is intrigued. He finishes the rest of his asparagus and drinks his apricot juice, and then he waits until Sarek is done before he calls the child to his father’s attention. “I wish to see clearly what they are doing. May I approach them?”
Sarek watches the child for a long moment before he gives his permission, on one condition. “Humans as a species struggle to reconcile the Vulcan way with their own. Should the child become antagonistic, you will return immediately.”
“Understood,” Spock says, and then Sarek helps him down the outcrop and sends him off.
Spock notices several things as he comes nearer. The child is startlingly blond. They are shirtless, and though it isn’t yet noon the tops of their skinny shoulders are pink and peeling from the heat the way Spock’s never will. They are clad in only shorts, incredibly minimal compared to Spock’s wet suit and thin cloak.
The child does not react to his advance until Spock’s shadow falls across the sand construction—it is only when Spock halts a few feet away that they ask, without looking up, “Who are you?”
“My name is Spock,” he replies.
The child lifts their head to squint up at him—their eyes are very blue. He is thoroughly scrutinized, and then the child says, “Vulcan, right?”
Spock tenses, aware of his father’s warning, but he cannot hide what he is. “Correct.”
The storm clouds of pensiveness on the child’s face break and Spock is given a blinding smile. “Cool,” the child says. “I’m Jim.”
“It is nice to meet you, Jim,” Spock replies automatically, just as his mother taught him. He indicates the mound of sand in front of Jim and says, “What is the nature of this activity?”
“It’s called building a sand castle,” Jim informs him, holding up arms speckled to the elbow with sand. The granules are the color of bone, paler by far than Vulcan’s ruddy sand. “Except it doesn’t have to be a castle. You can build anything you want.”
Spock does not recognize Jim’s half-finished composition. “What are you currently building?”
“A starship,” Jim says with great dignity. Spock notices the dried sand encrusted in his eyebrow.
Upon second glance he can see the resemblance and the designation NCC-0514 on what might be a nacelle. After a moment he offers, “It is ‘coming along nicely’.” It is a phrase his mother uses often in reference to the radio wave emission detector Spock is making back home.
Jim brightens. “Thanks.” He gives Spock another smile, this one crooked. “Wanna help?”
Spock does. “I have never built a sand structure before,” he admits.
Jim tugs at the end of Spock’s mantle until he kneels next to him. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you.”
And he does. He explains the method of soft-packing, repeating his earlier actions—he gathers another, smaller pile of sand, poking holes in the flanks and filling the dimples with water. He pats the pile until the sand is compact, and then makes a quick tower, a rough shape to serve purely as a demonstration. Spock admires the technicality with which he clarifies the process.
Spock imitates him, following his instructions exactly. His initial try is modest—he begins by recreating the simple dome of I-Chaya’s sehlat house. When he is successful, he tries something more ambitious—the embassy building in Shi’Kahr where his father works, a tall spire sticking up from the ground like a needle from a cactus. For a moment the structure holds, but the weight of the sand quickly drags the steeple down.
He is reconsidering his strategy when Jim leans in close and suggests, “Put a stick in it. It’ll help.”
He climbs to his feet and pulls Spock up, and then they scramble up the beach to the line of vegetation. They scan the ground for twigs; Spock eventually holds one aloft and Jim gives it his approval. He helps Spock build an approximation of the embassy again, hedging it with a ring of pebbles and using a few pieces of driftwood as buttresses. When they are done the building ends up somewhere between Terran and Vulcan design, but Jim declares it a masterpiece of sand building and so Spock is content with the product.
They are admiring their work when Jim’s stomach makes the same le-matya growl that his mother’s does right before she requests a meal. “Sorry,” he says, to Spock’s confusion.
“Why do you apologize?” Spock asks. He looks back to where his father is still perched atop the outcrop in a meditative pose. “If you are hungry, I have food.”
He leads Jim back to the picnic, abandoning their sand structure where it will most likely not last the high tide. When they reach the bottom of the rock protrusion, he sends a telepathic pulse to his father, tugging him from his concentration.
“May Jim partake of our meal?” he asks, raising his voice above the murmur of the waves.
Sarek looks at the sand dusting both of their hands. “There is plenty,” he acquiesces, and helps them both up.
Spock introduces Jim to his father before handing him the food basket to look through. Jim is less exuberant under Sarek’s stoic assessment; he is careful to pick very little from the basket and formally communicate his gratitude. Neither Spock nor Sarek speak while Jim eats a sandwich with apple butter and banana, though Spock briefly entertains the idea to accommodate him.
At length, Sarek asks, “Are you here with a chaperone?”
“Kind of,” Jim replies, head bowed. “My mom knows I’m here.” His voice is subdued, meek compared to the assertive way he taught Spock about churning wet sand to keep it from sinking to the bottom of the mound. Spock and Sarek are sitting close enough to feel the faint ripples of discomfort that accompany the words.
Sarek moves seamlessly on to inquiries about their project. “What is it that you have constructed together?”
“It is a ‘sand castle’, though that is a term which may describe many sand structures,” Spock answers. “Jim is very knowledgeable about this matter.” The corners of Jim’s mouth lift up.
Sarek asks Jim, “Does architecture interest you?”
Jim shakes his head, announcing, “I like computers. I’m learning how to program.”
Spock straightens—he did not know this. He too enjoys learning computer languages; he performs excellently in all of his academic subjects, but his computer science grades are his best.
“You share an interest with my son,” Sarek notes. “You appear to be very accomplished for your age.”
Spock is unsure of how to describe the progression of expressions that pass across Jim’s face, but after a moment the brilliant grin breaks forth. “Thank you, sir.” Spock is intrigued by the flush that darkens the pink in Jim’s face.
They collapse back into silence. Spock looks anew at Jim, no longer radiating acute uneasiness, and considers the possibility that he may have been hasty in his estimation of his intelligence. The idea is exhilarating rather than chagrining.
When Jim finishes the lychee juice that Spock passes him, he looks at Sarek and Spock’s water suits and asks if they have already had a swim.
Spock shakes his head. “We have not yet entered the water.” He pauses, and then confesses, “I am unsure that I wish to.”
Jim blinks at him. “You don’t like swimming?”
“I have never tried,” Spock clarifies.
Jim is appalled. “Never?” he echoes, curved eyebrows shooting up. He seems genuinely distressed.
Spock tries to rectify this. “Vulcan does not have seas,” he explains. “This is my first encounter with a large body of water.”
“You gotta try it,” Jim tells him vehemently. “Swimming’s the best.” He proceeds to recite a list of swimming’s most favorable aspects, ticking his arguments off with his fingers the same way Amanda does when she forgets herself. He sputters when he runs out of points, concluding with an enthusiastic, “Let’s go now!”
Spock intends to decline. In the time since he arrived he has only just barely reconciled himself to the dizzying breadth of the water. He had listened to Jim’s case mostly unconvinced; he does not relish the thought of entering the frenetic water.
He surprises himself, however, by turning to his father. “Will you permit this?”
Sarek does not respond immediately—Spock can feel him probing the apprehension drifting to him across their bond, questioning without words whether or not he truly desires to swim. Spock looks again at Jim’s eager face and sends back a pulse of affirmation.
“I will accompany you,” Sarek agrees.
He draws Spock close and divests them both of their robes, folding the sheer cloth and packing it in their basket, leaving them just in their swimwear. Jim barely waits until they are ready before scrambling down the rock face; Sarek, longer of limb, overtakes him and helps them both to the ground.
Jim takes off at a run when his feet hit the sand, and as soon as Sarek places Spock down he follows. He pauses at the boundary where the sand dunes become smooth and damp from the tide but Jim throws himself bodily in the water, sending up a splash.
He resurfaces with a gasp, glistening. “Come on in!”
Without his covering, Spock finds himself chilled by the breeze coming off of the water. The spray of foam that flecks him with the break of the waves on the shore is cold. “I am concerned that the temperature will be far below what may be considered comfortable.”
The heartbeat before Jim responds is telling. “It’ll get better! You just have to stay in for a while.”
Spock has some doubt regarding the truth of Jim’s advice, but Sarek extends his hand at that moment and Spock grabs hold of him and they walk forward.
The sand begins to give under Spock’s weight the closer they get to the water, granules trickling away beneath his soles. The sand dunes on Vulcan also shift treacherously underfoot, but that sand is gritty and warm, and its voice is a whispery rebuke as it slips away. This sand is thick like syrup, and it makes a sucking noise like starving as water fills in his footprints.
The first touch of the water over his feet is a shock—he experiences one moment of interest in the fizzy touch of foam to his toes and then his grip on his father becomes vice-like as the frigid temperature makes his muscles clench. It is only because of the fact that Sarek gives no outward indication of any reaction that Spock does not give voice to his displeasure and turn around.
They wade farther out. Spock becomes increasingly uncomfortable the higher the water gets around him—soon it is lapping at his chest and pressing in cold through his wetsuit. There is the peculiar sensation approaching weightlessness as his movements become more arduous and his weight becomes more and more negligible. He is caught between intrigue at the water’s effect and the desire to go back to shore.
“It’s cool, right?” Jim exclaims, suddenly before him. His blond hair is slicked back and his eyelashes are clumped together.
Spock is starting to shiver and his fingers of his clenched fist ache. “Yes,” he hears himself say.
“Come on,” Jim says, and holds out a hand. The arrhythmic gushes of water against Spock’s shins tell him that Jim is kicking with his feet, bobbing in the water. Spock considers; slowly, he lets go of Sarek and reaches for Jim.
Jim tugs him forward. The sand makes a steep dive in the mere foot between them and without the ground underfoot Spock experiences a burst of anxiety. He clings to Jim.
“You’re heavy,” Jim grunts under the added weight, but he merely wraps an arm around Spock’s waist and starts paddling off. The din of his unfocused thoughts blares across the skin to skin contact—they are loud but not cacophonous, so Spock does not pull away. “I wanna show you something.”
Sarek trails them as Jim leads the way toward various sea phenomena. He takes Spock to a place where the waves are choppy from tripping over one another—Jim cups the spume in his hands and Spock leans in to analyze the tiny iridescent bubbles in the foam while Jim talks about the offshore algae he read about in a book. He squats down a bit and drags his fingers across the sea floor, and when Spock unwinds an arm to do the same he feels the slime of a seaweed bed; he retracts his hand quickly so Jim keeps moving as he regales him with an explanation on how to use seaweed to cover a wound.
They stop in a shallow pool where the sunlight lies on the sandy floor in nebulous filaments that look like galactic super-clusters. There Jim puts Spock down and starts digging around in the sand. He pulls several things up: some live sand dollars that feel alternatively velvety and abrasive to Spock’s sensitive fingertips, and some broken bits of shell in pale colors that Vulcan in her harshness would never tolerate. Sarek also touches everything that Jim holds out and patiently listens to Jim stumble over an explanation about radial symmetry and the pastel skeletons of long dead sea animals.
Jim is very passionate about everything he shows them. Spock is fascinated by everything he is shown.
It is not long, however, before he becomes fatigued. He is not used to treading water, and the saline content is making his eyes sting even with his inner eyelid. Jim’s eyes appear irritated as well, and when Sarek makes the diplomatic suggestion to adjourn their exploration for the moment, they both agree readily to a break. Jim pulls Spock close again and starts toting him back to shore; when they begin to lag behind, Sarek hooks his arms around them and carries them the rest of the way.
They eat again to satisfy their post-swim hunger. Spock feels boated, stomach full of celery and peanut butter and flesh drawn tight from absorbing so much water. The salt from the brine is drying like a crust over his skin.
“I’m sorry for taking all your food,” Jim apologizes suddenly, the meal not yet over. He looks distressed again—Spock does not begrudge him the breach of etiquette.
“You have not eaten ‘all’ of our food,” he says to dispel Jim’s unease. “Your apology is unnecessary.”
“What was given was given freely,” Sarek lends assurances of his own.
“You are welcome to our table,” Spock adds boldly. “The invitation applies outside of this setting as well.” It is not his promise to offer up, but when he stares at his father and sends several telepathic pulses in quick succession, Sarek nods and repeats the sentiment.
“Now is the optimal time for rest,” he announces. It is true—the sun is at its pinnacle and its steady heat combined with their activity is casting a net of drowsiness over their camp.
Sarek inquires of Jim, “Is your chaperone in the vicinity?”
Jim ducks his head. “Not really,” he replies, his voice small again.
Spock thinks critically about the direction in which the conversation is going and is alarmed by the realization that his father intends to send Jim away. He interjects, “Jim should also nap.”
Jim’s head shoots up. Sarek also turns to look at him fully. Spock is rarely so verbally forward, but he does not regret his words. He weathers the scrutiny and waits for his father’s judgment.
Sarek’s face does not betray his thoughts. He is silent and unmoving for several seconds before he says, “A rest will benefit you both.”
They move the blanket from the rocky top of the outcrop and resettle on the soft contours of the sand. Sarek folds into a loshiraq pose on the corner of the cover while Spock pulls Jim down onto the middle, curling them together in the sleeping position assumed by all Vulcan sleep mates. Jim goes willingly and sighs when the cool fabric of Spock’s robe brushes his sunburned skin.
Spock has not shared a nap with another in years; he anticipates difficulty in falling asleep, but the murmur of the waves and the cadence of Jim’s exhales beside him send him off quickly.
When he wakes, Sarek is talking to someone.
It is a solemn blond woman in stone-gray Starfleet uniform. The solid heels of her boots sink into the sand; her hat is tucked into the crook of her elbow. Her eyes are puffy but she wears a familiar grin as she tells his father, “Must have been a rough couple of hours. I sincerely apologize.”
“Your apology is appreciated but gratuitous,” Sarek demurs. “It was no inconvenience.”
Spock sits up. His movement jostles Jim where he lies half-entwined with him and wakes him as well. When his bleary eyes find the woman his face twists in a grimace of sheepishness.
She notices. “So this is where you disappeared to.”
Jim looks at her mulishly and says, like a recitation, “I wasn’t bothering. I was playing by myself and then I met Spock and Mr. Sarek said I wasn’t bothering. I swear I wasn’t.”
“I believe you,” the woman says, pacifying, looking part resigned and part amused. “I know you don’t like the ceremony.” She meets eyes with Spock and says, “Hello—I’m Winona. I already told your father, but thank you for tolerating my son today.”
The physical similarity between Winona and Jim is undeniable, and yet Spock is still faintly surprised to learn that he is being addressed by Jim’s mother. Adults do not usually speak to him directly; he straightens his posture as he replies, “It was not toleration. Jim is an excellent companion.”
He is no longer touching Jim but he can feel the glow of pleasure that the words invoke. “Spock is great too,” he declares, and Winona smiles at them both.
“I hate to break up such a dynamic duo,” she says apologetically, “but we need to head back to the hotel soon. We still have to pack for the shuttle ride home.”
Jim wilts and Spock finds himself stricken at the news. “Home?” he echoes.
“We only came for the memorial service,” Jim explains glumly. “I’m from Iowa.”
The Kelvin, Spock realizes.
Before he can fully digest that, Jim is scrambling to his feet and begging, “Ten more minutes? Just ten more minutes. The shuttle’s not ‘til later.” When Winona does not look immediately moved by the plea, Jim whines, “Please, Mom?”
Spock has known Winona for three minutes; they are nowhere near familiar enough to him to second Jim’s request for an extension of their time together. He does, however, turn to his father and send a large, insistent pulse down their bond.
Very gently, Sarek proposes, “If your travel obligations are not urgent…”
There’s a beat of indecision, and then Winona surrenders graciously. “Ten minutes it is.”
Jim lunges for Spock’s hand and tugs him away, and they tear down the beach with Winona shouting, “But no more!” at their backs.
They stop running when they reach a broken fence of rock jutting up from the sand like fingers—Jim pulls Spock behind one of the pillars and crushes him with a sudden embrace.
“I don’t want to go,” he says. He smells like salt. His skin is damp with sweat. The tip of his nose is flaky but his blue eyes are electric with feeling.
The close contact means Spock is buffeted with Jim’s distress and frustration. He does not bother to shield against because he finds it mirrored in himself. “I do not wish for you to go.”
He detangles them and takes a step back, struck with an idea. “You have taught me a valuable skill,” he says seriously. “I wish to teach you something as well. So that you will not forget me.”
“I won't forget you,” Jim vows, but follows Spock from the sea-damp sand to the dry dunes anyway.
“Your people build castles,” Spock explains as he sheds his robes again. He chooses a spot where the sand lies mostly flat, disturbed only by the sinusoidal grooves left behind by the full moon’s massive tide. “My people do this.”
There is no lyre and no minstrel, and the air is not parched but wet with the breach of the ocean, yet Spock finds that stepping through the prehistoric motions of dances older than memory feels the same here as it does back home. His heels cut through the sand with the same precision—the concentric circles and quadratic lines mapped by his motions look the same on both Earth and Vulcan dunes. He abridges the dance, mindful of the time they have, but Jim still looks in awe at the calligraphy Spock has drawn at his feet.
Jim’s eyes are keen and his mind keener. “What does it say?” he asks with peculiar intuition.
Spock says quietly, “Jim Kirk.”
The grin that splits Jim’s face is the brightest yet. “Show me your name.”
Spock repeats the core of his movements, this time with his palms pressed to Jim’s wrists and his instep putting pressure on Jim’s ankles. He guides Jim through the traditional script as best as he can; the letters are crooked but they survive their joined attempt. When they finish Spock releases Jim and Jim backs up several feet to look at the lettering in its entirety.
“I won't forget,” he repeats.
Winona’s voice carries from afar, an announcement that their time is up. Jim spins around and dashes down to the waterline; Spock washes him fish around in the sand for several moments before dashing back to the lines of their names, side by side.
Jim dumps two handfuls of shells onto Spock’s discarded robe and ties the corners into a sloppy knot; when he stands, he slips the bundle into Spock’s arms and squeezes his hand. “Don’t forget,” he stresses, pressing a sandy kiss to Spock’s cheek.
“I will not forget,” Spock vows too. Then they begin walking back.