The man doesn't even shout. Only the precision with which he frames the word lifts his voice above the din. The boys around Jim stiffen, straighten, and back away.
A Vulcan moves through the parting crowd.
Jim squints eagerly through his messed-up eyes. He's never seen a Vulcan up-close and in-person before. The green skin is less evident than he would have thought, but the eyebrows are far more distinctive.
The cadets don't look like they share his excitement.
“This behavior is unacceptable for representatives of Starfleet,” the Vulcan says. His eyes pick through the crowd like a phaser beam. “Cadet Uhura? You will explain.”
The hot woman – actually, gorgeous, Jim amends, watching her stand that one inch taller before her superior's gaze, hardly sparing a glance at the mess around her – says, “Sir, Jim here engaged in a conversation with me. His words and manner indicated an interest in copulation. This offended a number of my fellow cadets, who attacked him for the perceived offense.” As Uhura makes her recitation, her classmates avoid looking at her. That must be Vulcan speak, Jim thinks. Interest in copulation – I'm blushing.
The Vulcan nods. The sternness of his tone is unaltered as he says, “This period of recreation is over. Dismissed.”
The cadets make an orderly stampede for the door.
Once they have left, the Vulcan surveys the overturned stools and mutters to himself, “Most illogical.” Jim clambers to his feet, which seems to draw his attention. He moves forward. “Mr -”
Jim mumbles, “Kirk,” before he can think. Damn, not the name he wants to be parading in front of Starfleet. The Vulcan doesn't react to his name, though, and Jim feels his shoulders loosen slightly.
"Mr. Kirk, you have my apology on behalf of the behavior of these cadets and on behalf of Starfleet. You are within your rights to press charges of assault against your attackers. Whether you do so or not, however, they will most assuredly receive punishment.”
“Is all fine,” Jim says muzzily. He touches a hand to his face and feels a familiar sticky wetness. “Shit! You see any tissues?”
In the long pause that follows, Jim feels like nothing more than a country bumpkin. “I will obtain some,” the Vulcan says.
He returns a few moments later. Jim stuffs the tissues in his nose and lets out a sigh. The Vulcan is still standing by his side, like a particularly attentive waiter. “So what's your name?” Jim asks.
“Mr. Kirk, you would not be able to pronounce the remainder of my name.”
Spock raises an eyebrow, but speaks. What comes out of his mouth is a elegant garble of consonants that Jim knows he has no hope of repeating.
“Okay. You win.” Jim shoves another tissue up his nostril. “I'm Jim, by the way. None of that Mr. Kirk stuff.” Spock continues to watch him. “So, how does a Vulcan find his way into Starfleet?” Jim says, mostly to stop Spock from staring at the tissues poking out of his nose.
“He submits an application form, in the same manner as an other prospective student.”
Vulcan literalism, ouch. Though in an odd way, Jim finds it sort of refreshing. “Right, right. So why does a Vulcan choose Starfleet?”
“You refer to myself?”
“Got it in one.” Jim mimics firing a bull-eye.
"My interest lies in the sciences. Starfleet is rife with opportunities to pursue the fields I am interested in."
"Huh. Which sciences?"
"Astrophysics, warp theory, computer science, xenolinguistics, among others," Spock says.
Jim sits up. "Computer stuff, huh?” An idea strikes him. Why the Hell not? This Spock seems keen to make up for his cadets and it's not like Jim's going to have a chat with another Starfleet computer scientist anytime soon. “Hey, there's this thing I've been working on – computer thing. I think it's pretty damn good, but no one around can follow – you wanna have a look?” Without waiting for an answer, Jim heaves himself up and finds the pad he keeps hidden behind the bar. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, that's Jim's motto. Well, better not to ask either, really.
Jim loads his program and thrusts it at Spock. “Here.”
Spock takes the pad gingerly and scans the code. After a few minutes, Jim's legs and back and face are really killing him from standing, but he feels a perverse pride keeping him on his feet. Come to think of it, that's probably the explanation for every mishap in his life – perverse pride. It's like he's in a completely one-sided battle of wills. The Vulcan looks oblivious to the world and to Jim's aching everything.
When he speaks, Jim nearly flinches at the sudden sound. “You have an error in your zero loop.”
“Lemme see.” Jim thrusts himself into view of the pad. Too late he realizes he's probably entered Spock's personal space bubble. Spock's eye flick upwards and then his face goes stoic. Oh, okay, so he's being endured here? Yeah, that's just wonderful.
Jim presses closer.
Turns out Spock's right, which already has Jim half forgiving him. He inputs the correction and suggests a number of other alterations. They're elegant, and Jim's reluctantly impressed. For the next hour, they talk out the changes. Jim's only aware that the time's passed when he looks up and sees that the bar has all cleared out.
“A question,” Spock says finally. “I am unclear – what is the purpose of this program?”
“The purpose?” says Jim. Now that he knows Spock is brilliant and shit, Jim suddenly doesn't want to say.
“Yes,” Spock says. “The program is advanced work. The coding shows more skill than is possessed by many of my peers in Starfleet. But while I understand what the program does, I do not understand what purpose it serves.”
“Um.” Gobsmacked, a bit, by the unexpected compliment, the truth slips out. “It goes through people's, um, private photo collections, and picks out the most embarrassing one - that's what all the criteria is for – and then it makes that their default picture in their, um, most official papers.” He trails off. “Once I'm done, it should be able to swap everyone's. Starfleet too.” Jim looks at the pad, not Spock. “Not, of course, that I would in any way, uh, use it because that would be, uh, immature. And inappropriate. And shit.”
“I understand,” Spock says slowly.
Jim shoots him a dubious look. “Do you really?”
“If you mean, do I understand why a sentient being would allocate time to devising such a program, then no, I do not understand. But the code is superb, its purpose notwithstanding.”
“Thanks,” Jim says. “I think.”
“One does not thank logic.”
That makes Jim grin. “Has anyone ever punched you for saying that?” he says, starting to relax. This night hasn't gone so bad, all things told.
Jim's head darts up. “What?” He waits for Spock to go on; Spock remains silent. And Jim thinks, right. Vulcan. “Okay, no details. Someone punched you? What happened?”
Details, details, Jim's eyes beg.
Spock, while resistant, is not apparently immune.
“Perhaps my assailant was unaware that Vulcans are trained from birth in a variety of advanced martial arts and also that Vulcans possess 3.12 times the strength of an average human male in peak physical condition.”
Delighted, Jim says, “You decked him, didn't you? You totally decked him.” He starts laughing, because here is this proper-ass Vulcan, and yet he'd pulled a Jim: give lip, get punched, punch back harder.
“I am unfamiliar with your terminology,” Spock says.
“Layed him out. Showed him what's what. Punched him back.”
“I did not punch him. I – incapacitated him.”
“Nice,” Jim says, enjoying the euphemism.
“Violence amuses you?” Spock says, tone suddenly sharper.
Jim's got his hands up before he can think. “Cool it, Spock. I just like it when people don't take a punch lying down. I like it when they fight back.”
His voice still edged, Spock says, “As you did tonight, to your own consequence.”
“Consequence?” Jim says, mockingly affronted. “But we're having this lovely talk!”
Spock stares at him.
Obviously Jim's snark is too much for the Vulcan. Also, Jim's a little bit afraid that he actually means his words. “Do you know why that person punched you?” he says quickly.
“I did not understand the response,” Spock admits.
Jim seizes the opportunity to change the subject. “That's because you don't get human nature. For example, I bet you have no idea why Starfleet goon and gang attacked me.”
“That would be a logical bet, if we were betting – which we are not.”
“It makes no sense to you, right?”
Spock looks cautious. When he speaks, his words come slowly and with even more deliberate precision. “If cadet Uhura were bondmate to one, and you a more dangerous opponent, I could perhaps understand the urge.”
Dissed, Jim thinks. My manly prowess just got dissed by a Vulcan.
“What you need is an understanding of human nature, Spock,” he says instead, settling into his role as a lecturer in humanity. “When I talked to Uhura in front of those guys like that, I was daring them to do something. It's all about the dare.”
“A dare.” Spock sounds dubious.
“Sure.” Jim leans back, grinning. “If you tell a human to do something stupid he won't do it. But if you say, I bet you can't do that – I dare you to do that, then the game changes. Then that same human will be ready to throw himself off of a cliff.”
“Illogical,” Spock says. Jim thinks the idea is upsetting him, as much as Vulcans get upset. “Cadet Uhura would do no such thing.”
Jim thinks about Uhura's cool gaze and decides Spock's probably right. “Well, no. Okay, so not all humans would react that way. But some of us do that more than others. Like, I could tell those guys wanted a fight.”
“You are implying that you sought out the confrontation,” Spock says. Although it's a statement, his tone is vaguely puzzled.
Jim doesn't want to go there. Yeah, I have weird masochistic tendencies and I'm an adrenaline-junkie to boot. Name's Jim. Nice to meet you.
He's still figuring out what to say next, when Spock surprises him by speaking. His voice is soft. “I – believe that I understand.”
No you don't, Jim almost says. Contradiction is natural to him, and anyway, like Hell would a Vulcan know about anything so irrational. But the tone of Spock's voice stops him. It's hushed and almost secretive, as if he's making a confession.
That's when Jim's mouth decides to go insane. “D'ya want to go for a ride? There's a hillside – it's a sweet spot for seeing the stars.”
Spock says, “That would be acceptable.”
Well, blow me, Jim thinks. He sways to his feet, and notices how Spock makes an aborted gesture, as if to steady him.
When he sees Jim's motorbike, Spock's face does a little twitch that might be a frown. Clasping his hands behind his back, he gravely informs Jim that Vulcans are touch-telepaths, and that Spock has no wish to violate his privacy, but might do so by accident were they to be in such close proximity. That almost has Jim calling the whole thing off – he doesn't want anyone in his head.
That's when his stubbornness decides to kick him into gear. Damned if he's not going to show this Vulcan the stars. "No problem," Jim says. "I'll think about elephants."
Spock looked as if he really wants to ask, and at the same time doesn't want to know. The expression makes Jim laugh, a lonely sound swallowed up by the broad Iowan night. "Come on," Jim says. "Let's ride."
Spock's touch on his back is incredibly faint. A few minutes in, Jim can almost believe he's imagined him. There's something about the warm breeze and faint smell of pollen that keeps him from speaking. There's only the sound of his motor bike's engine, and his own heart beat. He can't hear Spock's. Maybe it's some physiology thing. He wonders how closely a Vulcan heart resembles a human one.
His spot's only a quick ride away from the bar.
Jim halts the engine and swings himself off. Spock follows him, an elegant shadow. Jim plops himself down on the grass, a rich green in the dark. Spock sits besides him.
"So yeah, there's a good view of the stars from here," he says, speaking a bit too quickly. Suddenly the silence is something to be filled up. "Is star gazing a thing? A Vulcan thing?"
"Yes," Spock says. "When I was a child, I often went out into the desert by myself. The stars can be seen clearly there, and during the night it is possible to navigate by the star's light alone."
"It was what it was." Spock hesitates. "But if you mean that the sight was aesthetically pleasing, then I agree."
"I like the stars,” Jim says, resting his back against the tree behind him. “I mean, I see them, and I get to thinking, everyone has stars above them. Even if they're different or they can't see them. And stars are just big burning balls of gas. But that doesn't stop them from being beautiful."
Spock inclines his head. Maybe it's agreement. Jim feels too cozy to ask.
“You must like the stars,” he says, not paying too much attention to his words.
“I must?” Spock's tone takes on a faintly quizzical edge.
“Sure. Joining Starfleet and all that. No point in joining if you don't see something to love in the sky. Like a sailor who can't stand the sea. It wouldn't work.”
“Vulcan has no sea,” Spock interjects.
“Okay. Bad metaphor.” Jim tilts his head back. He's exhausted. The adrenaline that kept him through the fight, kept him standing for Spock, kept him coding, has all but fizzled out. The grass under him and the clear breeze are welcome. He feels himself relaxing further. “The sky's just open, you know? It's all possibility. I mean, if you take any measure of probability to its rational extreme, nothing's impossible out there.” He waves a vague hand at the sky.
“I admit,” Spock says, and Jim's not sure why, but it feels like Spock's giving him something important, “that my preference has always lain in exploration.”
He falls silent.
Jim closes his eyes, enjoying the peace of the night. It's almost just the two of them, and everything else might not even exist. Maybe the whole universe has gone away, and left just the blackness behind Jim's eyelids, and the steady presence by his side.
“What is your professional occupation?” Spock asks, breaking Jim's moment.
He allows himself a rueful grin. “Being a nuisance. Bar fights. Flings. Hangovers.”
Spock takes this in, processes it, and then apparently ignores it. “Have you considered joining Starfleet? You are of an acceptable age and you are more than qualified in your computational skills. Your attitude suggests that you would find Starfleet's lifestyle more than acceptable. Tuition is waived for those who are unable to pay the standard price.”
“Starfleet?” Jim sits up, twisting to look at Spock, all the better to communicate his incredulity. He barks out a laugh. “Not happening. Here's why – it's not happening.”
“That is a tautology, not a reason.”
Jim exhales. “Look, I've got my own reasons to stay away from Starfleet, okay?”
“Perhaps the death of your father in the service of Starfleet is an emotional factor in this decision,” Spock says.
Jim feels like he's just been tossed out an airlock. It's suddenly hard to breath. He sits still, staring out over the darkened fields, as if the night could swallow him up like some convenient black hole. “So you recognized my name.”
“James Kirk, son of Captain George Kirk, who distinguished himself by saving – ”
“I know what he did,” Jim says – well – shouts.
He can feel Spock's gaze burning into him. “If this is an overly emotional subject, I offer apologies.”
“Damn right it's emotional. My dad died for his crew, died for Mom, died for me, died in the service of Starfleet and none of those bastards will ever let me forget it. Here's medal for bravery and sacrifice and a pat on the head – well what the fuck is a medal worth and what the fuck good does sacrifice do?” Jim abruptly switches track “Anyway, I've got a criminal record and I'm fucked in the head. They'd only want me for my name – whatever they think that's worth.”
Spock appears unruffled by Jim's outburst. “Your analysis of yourself is incorrect. You are volatile. But perhaps you are unchallenged?”
Jim scoffs. “Challenge myself? You sound like my lower school math teacher.” He alters his pitch to a mocking squeak. “Have you thought of entering a math tournament, Mr. Kirk? Have you considered skipping a grade? Have you thought of pursuing any one of the variety of extracurricular activities offered by this fine institution?”
“Did you do so?”
Jim snorts. “Those math competitions? No! They were a laugh. Baby stuff, really.”
“You only prove my prior point,” Spock says. “You may correct me if this observation is in error, but you seem frustrated by the lack of challenge and opportunity provided by your daily life. Your fixation with stargazing suggests that you view your life as Earth-bound, and seek an escape which may be intellectual as well as physical.”
“I guess that's fair,” Jim says. Of course he gets fed up sometimes, when everyone's mind moves so slowly, but that's undercut by the fear that maybe he's not better, only different. Maybe he's just dysfunctional and three-fourths to insane.
“You are obviously prodigious in your talents, yet such talent is stymied by your lack of intellectual peers and mentors. At Starfleet, you would find such peers.”
Jim shifts, uncomfortable. “Look, whatever. I already told you the answer was no. Why do you care? Do you have some sort of recruiting quota? Because if that's the case then you are just wasting your time.”
Steady dark eyes bore into him. “I believe that intellect should not be squandered.”
Well, then. It's flattering, sure, but Jim would rather drive a car off a cliff than set foot in Starfleet. He can feel his adrenaline coming back. Maybe he should try a punch on Spock, see just how strong 3.12 Vulcan strength is – only, he doesn't really want to fight. Not here, and not with Spock.
"I'm not going to join Starfleet, and that's final,” he says instead, as mildly as he can, and as firmly.
He can feel Spock still studying him and turns to meet his gaze. Spock's eyes are oddly vivid despite the dark. A bit like the stars, Jim thinks, close and far, and lighting the way towards something.
"I dare you," Spock says.