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Pick a Star, Any Star

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George Kirk never made it to space.

Winona didn’t talk about him much. When she did, it was with this dark, sad smolder in her eyes, like the heart of a dying star. She said he looked like Jim, and from the handful of pictures he’d seen, Jim could almost agree- but Jim had a certain pinched, underfed look to him that George Kirk didn’t have. He’d been as solid as the house he’d built for Winona before he married her.

Frank lives there now.

Jim still has a key to the old house, not that it did him any good after Frank changed the locks. It digs painfully into his hand when he searches his pockets for cash, and comes up with a handful of crumpled fives. He smooths them out awkwardly on the leg of his jeans before handing them to the teenager at the front desk. “My dad used to be a janitor here when he was my age,” he says, feeling compelled to explain himself. “He loved this place.”

She says nothing. She gives him a dollar in change and stamps the back of his left hand for entry. McCoy gets a stamp too, and blows on it idly to dry the ink as they make their way towards the main hanger. He’s got a silver ring on his pinky that Jim wants desperately to ask about.

Jim can’t stop looking at him.

As it turns out, McCoy can’t abide long, silent drives. Jim has no idea how he made it all the way to Iowa without someone sitting next to him. During the long drive to Nebraska they had talked about everything from the teddy bear doctor kit McCoy’s daughter begged him for last Christmas to the way Jim walks briskly past every bookshop for fear he’ll empty his wallet. McCoy was a good driver and not easily distracted, nor did he relinquish the driver’s seat; Jim suspects that’s as much to do with an inclination towards carsickness as it is towards a lack of faith in Jim’s driving.

“Something tells me you’re not gonna get much out of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, Len,” says Jim, still inspecting the stamp on the back of his hand. “Call it a hunch.”

“It’s not the lookin’ I mind,” McCoy mutters. He adjusts the strap of his satchel bag with grim determination. “It’s the flyin’ part that bothers me.”

The sound of their footsteps is magnified tenfold in the wide, metallic space of the main display hanger. Old-fashioned military aircraft in various stages of refurbishment are lovingly displayed where the light will best flatter them. Jim approaches an SR-71 Blackbird, hoping to admire its sleek shape up close. “What are you afraid of, exactly?” he asks. “Worried you’re gonna look out a porthole and see something on the wing?”

“Don’t be such an infant,” says McCoy, coming to stand by his elbow. He frowns up at the Blackbird. “Looks like a stainless steel deathtrap to me.”

“My dad would’ve said she looked like a lady.”

“Takes all sorts, I guess,” McCoy glances around briefly, then reaches out to touch the ebony hull.

Jim slaps his hand before he makes contact. “That’s not how you treat a lady.”

“It’s a plane, Jim,” McCoy says dryly, glancing down at his phone. Then he frowns. “I’m at 15%. Can I borrow your smartphone?”

“I don’t have a smartphone,” says Jim, leaning forward to look at the plaque.

“What do you mean, you don’t have a smartphone?”

Jim digs his phone out of his back pocket and snaps it open.

McCoy’s stare could burn a hole through lead. “Jim, that’s a goddamn flip phone.”

“I like the sound it makes,” says Jim a little defensively, snapping it shut again. “Besides, it’s not like I’ve got anyone checking up on me.”

“Well, now you’ve got me checkin’ up on you,” McCoy says distantly, and Jim realizes he’s been momentarily distracted by two little girls, no older than five or six, running at full speed behind the plunging wingspan of one of nearby fighter jets. They’ve broken off from a small group of older children and chaperones, one of whom says, “Naomi! Naomi, go get your sister,” before the squeal of shoes on metal and a loud thwap echoes from behind the plane. This is followed by crying.

“Oh my god,” says Jim. “That was like watching a car accident.”

Two of the parents hurry over to assess the damage, and are quickly joined first by one, then two museum attendants with lanyards and nervous expressions. They’re out of view, but the crying continues. McCoy, almost vibrating with anxiety at this point, startles when Jim nudges his elbow. “Go on,” Jim smiles. “I can entertain myself.”

McCoy’s jogs over to investigate and Jim lets him go. He returns his attention to the dark, aerodynamic body of the Blackbird, and wonders privately if he could get away with reaching out and touching it himself. Respectfully.

The hanger is too cavernous to be crowded, but most of the planes and shuttles have at least two or three people clustered around them. They talk in hushed tones that nonetheless carry. Jim wanders back and forth between shuttles, looking at plaques without reading them. At each exhibit he asks the universe- was this one his favorite? Was this? Or this?

He wonders if George Kirk ever imagined his son following him here, chasing the comet trails of his father’s ghost. Perhaps he had never imagined Jim at all, and had only vague thoughts of another, younger Sam.

There’s a hands-on exhibit at the far end of the hanger and it seems largely abandoned. Jim looks over his shoulder as he heads in that direction, looking for McCoy, and catches a glimpse of him deep in conversation with several women by one of the HU-16B’s. The two little girls are sitting in the shadow of a wing, looking sour, and Jim notes that one of them is picking at a neat-looking bandage on her leg. A skinned knee, then. Jim frowns at McCoy’s satchel and wonders what exactly makes McCoy think he needs to carry a first aid kit just to go to a museum with Jim.

“Dad instincts,” he murmurs to himself. He doesn’t know a thing about McCoy’s dad, but he must’ve been a good one to turn out a son like that. He’ll have to remember to tease McCoy relentlessly for it later.

The hands-on exhibit, as it turns out, is an interactive to-scale mockup of the Space Shuttle Atlantis OV-104 cockpit. The kind of thing they use to train astronauts. Jim glances around before ducking inside. He keeps his head down low so he doesn’t crack it against the plastic.

There are two seats, pilot and copilot. Jim wiggles himself into the pilot’s chair and just sits for a moment, enjoying it, before running his fingertips over the bumpy surface of the flight console. The buttons make very satisfying sounds when pressed, and Jim clicks a few at random, wondering vaguely what they might be for. They have proper flight simulators here too, but something tells him that McCoy may not be too keen on that. McCoy doesn’t seem keen about most things, except Jim Kirk, and Jim would be lying if he said that didn’t feel pretty damn good.

It’s cramped and sweaty inside the cockpit, and it smells like that particular fruit-and-sweat smell that clings to all child-friendly museums. Jim doesn’t want to leave just yet. He wonders if his dad ever hung out in here after hours, daydreaming about space. That was a nice thought; that George Kirk might have been a romantic too.

There’s a big red button on the center console that’s just begging for his attention. “Oh, god,” says Jim, hand shaking as he reaches for it. “Oh, god, it’s no use, there are too many of them, they’re gonna- oh god we’ve been hit! Hold on, Doc! Eject! Eject!”

He flips the clear plastic lid up and hits the button hard. Nothing happens. Jim laughs at himself and is just about to climb out of his chair when he feels a shadow fall across him from behind.

“It is unlikely that this type of space shuttle would experience a combat situation.”

“Aliens.”

The stranger tilts his head, considering. “While I won’t deny the likelihood of other forms of intelligent life in our universe, it seems unlikely that they would take a particular interest in you.”

Jim Kirk glances over his shoulder and grins. “I’ll make them take an interest in me.”

The stranger raises an eyebrow. Then he looks behind him, checking that he’s not being observed, before ducking into the cockpit and squeezing into the copilot’s seat next to Jim. “I do not know what these buttons do,” he says quietly, “but I am reasonably certain that there is no eject button.”

“Look at that,” says Jim, gesturing to the red button. “Look at it. It’s clearly either the eject button, the self-destruct button, or the button that blows up the Earth.”

“Your reasoning seems . . . unsound.”

“Maybe so,” Jim shrugs, eyeing the stranger while his attention is focused on the buttons. He seems young, perhaps no older than Jim, with neat, dark hair and sickly-looking skin. His shirt is buttoned up to the throat, and the blue sweater he’s pulled on over it shows the distinct wear of an expensive piece worn religiously over many years.

He catches Jim staring at him and gives him a look of mingled confusion and interest. “May I ask why you’re visiting this particular museum? You don’t seem as though you have an interest in the intricacies of space travel.”

Jim detects a faint Boston accent in his quiet, even voice, and wonders what he’s doing out here in Nebraska. “Ouch,” he grimaces. “It’s the leather jacket, isn’t it.”

“It was not my intent-”

“I’m kidding,” he offers his hand, twisting awkwardly in the seat to do it. “I’m just passing through. You can call me Jim.”

The stranger hesitates, then takes the proffered hand. “Jim,” he says cautiously. “My name is Spock Grayson.”

Jim blinks. “Huh. Alright.”

“My mother was very opinionated.”

“I can see that.”

Spock folds his hands in his lap. “You never answered my question.”

He seems a bit prim, but not unkind, and Jim finds himself smiling in spite of himself. “I meant it, I really am just passing through. I’m fascinated by space travel, and my dad, he was way into it too.”

Spock nods grimly. “I’m glad that he’s been supportive of your interests. That is a rare thing in a father.”

“Yeah,” Jim says, hurriedly looking back at the button console. All of a sudden, the interior of this thing feels incredibly tight. “And, uh, you? I’m guessing museums are kind of your thing.”

“I too am fascinated by space travel,” says Spock. After a moment of hesitation, he adds, “As odd as it may sound, I am currently visiting points of interest across the country. This is one of those places.”

“Funny, I’m doing the same thing. Me and a . . . a friend. We’re going to San Francisco.”

Spock’s brow furrows, just slightly. “Fascinating.”

“How so?”

“I too am going to San Francisco.”

“Holy shit,” Jim breathes. “That’s ridiculous.”

Spock nods. “I’m hoping to apply for a scientific internship there.”

“Hang on,” says Jim, and he starts untangling himself from his seat as he climbs out of the cockpit. “Hang on, you don’t even know if you’re gonna get it?”

“I admit it’s not the most logical choice,” Spock admits. “My father was . . . opposed to the idea.”

Jim watches Spock unfold himself from the cockpit with surprising delicacy despite his long legs and big, awkward feet. He stretches easily, arms up over his head, and lets out a minute sigh of relief when he lets them drop.

Jim feels something inside him twitch in interest. Then he thinks of McCoy, and his gentle, steady hands, and looks away. He grimaces, ruefully amused at how easy he is. Jim Kirk, he thinks bitterly. Wagging his tail at every sweetheart he meets on the road.

McCoy’s known him for a day and he still hasn’t ditched him. Jim can’t help but wonder how long that’s going to last.

“Sounds like you and your dad don’t get along,” he says, keeping his voice light. I would’ve loved the opportunity to not get along with my dad, he thinks, but doesn’t say.

Spock clasps his hands neatly behind his back. “We don’t see eye-to-eye,” he admits, “but he is neither a bad man nor a bad father.”

That’s good. That’s really good, actually, because if Spock had had a father like Frank, Jim might just burst a vein.

Instead he shows off his most winning grin, and digs his wallet out of his back pocket. “Can I buy you lunch?”

 

“So basically,” says Jim, through a mouthful of chicken sandwich, “you’re running away.”

Spock picks at his salad. “That would be an extreme exaggeration. I am not running away. I have merely chosen to drive to San Francisco, rather than fly.”

“From Boston?

“I am not overly fond of flying.”

“That’s something you and my friend could agree on,” says Jim. The word friend tingles on his tongue like a static shock. “He’s an anxious flyer.”

“And you brought him here?”

Jim shrugs. “He seems to be doing alright. I think he was with a school group last I checked, getting doted on by neglected moms. He’s a quick draw with a band-aid.”

The museum has a tiny café with rickety tables and an excellent view of the parking lot. Jim and Spock are currently the only occupants, but it’s getting close to lunchtime, and Jim is expecting a rush of children and chaperones any minute now.

Spock frowns. “I had hoped to avoid school groups by visiting on a Saturday.”

“What, you don’t want company?”

“Thus far I have enjoyed traveling alone.”

“Come on,” Jim insists, pushing his empty plate aside and putting both elbows on the table. “Tell me the real story. What can your dad possibly have against an internship in California?”

“My father would have preferred that I pursue an education at his alma mater,” says Spock. He looks down at his hands, rubs them together briefly before folding them in his lap again. “While this admittedly would have been the more logical choice, I did not find it . . . desirable.”

“What school?”

“MIT.”

Jim feels his jaw go slack. “No way.”

Spock lifts an eyebrow. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“No,” Jim clicks his mouth shut. “It’s just . . . it sounds like your dad had your future all planned out. And you’re giving that up for an internship in California? An internship you may not even get?”

Spock chews thoughtfully for a moment before he too pushes his meal aside, not quite finished. Jim feels a shiver of concern ripple through him- why isn’t he eating- but he shakes it off, reminding himself that Spock might be full already.

Spock’s face is placid when he answers, but his eyes are warm and amused. “Surely you can understand the desire to chart one’s own course, Jim?”

Jim looks at him for a long moment, and nods.

Lunch drags on for almost an hour, and Jim feels profoundly relieved when Spock finishes his salad. He insists on paying- Spock says the money is no trouble, which only makes Jim more resolute in his decision- and afterwards they explore the rest of the museum, walking side by side and exchanging dry comments in hushed tones.

Spock carries himself with a sort of quiet, omnipresent amusement that should infuriate Jim, should make him want to bloody his knuckles against that stern face, but it doesn’t. Something about him tells Jim that he’s a credit to his parents and a pleasure to have in class, and Jim knows from experience that those are the kids who fall hardest. The ones who get in real, life-ruining trouble in their twenties because they missed a little trouble in their teens.

Jim wants to be that trouble so bad he can almost taste it.

He grabs Spock on their way to the planetarium and walks backwards in front of him, keeping pace. “I’m going to San Francisco,” he says bluntly. “So are you.”

“There’s another show in ten minutes,” says Spock, checking his wristwatch. “Would you be interested in-”

“Come with me.”

“I would not make very good company.”

“I disagree,” says Jim, with surprising intensity. “I think you’d make great company. Amazing company, actually.”

Spock gives him a strange, questioning look. “Jim,” he says haltingly. “I think, in time, you would grow tired of listening to me.”

Jim can’t even compute that. “Spock,” he says emphatically. “I think I could listen to you talk about data analysis and not get tired of it. You’re driving from Massachusetts to California and you don’t even have someone to talk to, and, and . . . you should,” he finishes, somewhat lamely.

Spock blinks at him, apparently stunned. “I see.”

“I mean,” Jim stammers, suddenly remembering that he is not alone in the universe, “that’s assuming that Len doesn’t mind.”

“Assuming that Len doesn’t mind what?” says McCoy from just behind him, and Jim nearly jumps out of his skin. “I see you’ve been makin’ friends.”

“Len,” Jim says gratefully, clapping a hand down on McCoy’s skinny shoulder and squeezing it tight. “This is Spock.”

“Spock?”

“Spock,” Jim gestures between Spock and McCoy, “Len. Len, Spock.”

“Leonard McCoy,” McCoy clarifies. He gives Spock a cursory glance, arms folded. “Charmed to meet you, I’m sure.”

“A pleasure to meet you as well,” says Spock, briefly looking him up and down before returning his attention to Jim. “This is the friend you mentioned? The one who is terrified of flying?”

“Hey now, just one damn minute-”

“Yeah,” Jim pats McCoy’s shoulder. “The man himself. I thought I lost you to the homeschool moms for a second there, Len.”

“They liked my religious-soundin’ accent,” McCoy says drily, which makes Jim sputter into laughter.

“I bet they did,” he groans, wiping the corner of his eye with his thumb, “and I bet a little basic first aid didn’t hurt either. You’re gonna have to teach me sometime.”

“By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be halfway through med school.”

Spock’s eyes are shining as he watches them, and he smiles, ever so slightly. “I can see that you’ve known each other for a very long time.”

Jim takes his hand off McCoy’s shoulder, but neither of them correct him.

 

It’s late in the afternoon by the time they leave. Spock and McCoy linger in the gift shop for nearly half an hour, bickering fiercely over whether or not astronaut ice cream counts as a souvenir if you’re just going to eat it anyway. Jim watches them from the front desk, overwhelmed with helpless affection for them. There had been a brief moment where he’d worried that they would hate each other, but thus far his worries seem unfounded.

The sunset does extraordinary things with the glass-panelled windows of the museum. Spock and McCoy are too wrapped up in a heated debate to notice Jim’s absence, so Jim strolls out to the parking lot and hops up on the hood of his Volkswagen, enjoying the view from a distance.

He can see the faintest outline of the moon in the sky above the building. The same moon he knew in Riverside, but somehow it looks different here. Everything does.

His eyes are still fixed on the moon when he hears Spock’s approaching footsteps.

“I bought some ice cream,” he says mildly, holding up the gift bag.

McCoy bounces a little on the balls of his feet. “He conceded my point,” he beams, positively glowing with satisfaction.

“I conceded nothing, Leonard.”

“You conceded it.”

“Did you get the strawberry kind?” Jim smiles hopefully, already dipping his hand into the bag.

“I was going to save these for the road,” Spock says, bemused, but McCoy raises his hand and mouths let him silently as Jim unwraps one of the ice cream bars.

Jim bites into it with a sharp crunch, and savors the feeling of the ice cream melting on his tongue. “You guys ready to go?” he mumbles through his mouthful.

Spock nods. “I am. Do you have a roadmap on hand?”

“Somewhere in the car, yeah,” says McCoy, his eyes following the movement of Jim’s hands. “You mind gettin’ it for us?”

The invitation to dismiss himself is not lost on Spock, but he doesn’t protest. He loads the shopping bag into the backseat while Jim and McCoy look up at the museum’s facade, now glowing creamsicle orange in the failing light.

“You really ready to leave?” McCoy asks gently. “I know this place meant a lot to you.”

Jim crumples up the ice cream wrapper in one hand. He doesn’t take his eyes off the building. “Yeah. I’m ready to leave.”

“You sure?”

“I think I’ve seen all I need to see.”

McCoy’s arm around his shoulders is so warm and unexpected that Jim almost flinches, but he catches himself in time. “You’re a good kid, you know,” McCoy says, with surprising gentleness. “You’re a good kid, and smart, too. You’re too hard on yourself.”

“No,” Jim smiles sadly. “I’m not. I’m really not.”

“Yeah, I think you are.”

They stand there in silence for a moment, looking up at the building.

“. . . Len?”

“Hmm?”

“You ever wonder if we have a responsibility to chase our parents’ dreams for them?”

“Nope,” says McCoy. “Never.”

His arm feels heavy and comforting around Jim’s shoulders. He hadn’t had to smile or flirt or play innocent to get McCoy to touch him. He did it because he wanted to. It feels good.

Jim gives him a sidelong look. “Really? Never?”

McCoy is watching him with a narrow-eyed look of his own, as though trying to seek out something in Jim’s expression. Evidently he finds it, because after a moment he huffs a laugh and looks back at the building. “He was a doctor. So am I. I did everything he asked and he bit the dust anyway. No point in tryin’ to make him happy now.”

“I’m sorry,” Jim says quietly. Before he can think better of it, he reaches up and puts his hand over McCoy’s.

McCoy stiffens. Then he lets out a nervous little laugh, and squeezes Jim’s shoulder. “Where’re we goin’ next, Jim?”

What’s wrong with you, dumbass, Jim thinks, shoving his hands in his pockets so McCoy won’t see them shake. Double dumbass. You’re going to ruin it. You’re going to ruin everything.

“Wyoming,” he says, with more confidence than he feels. He glances over his shoulder at the car, where Spock’s long, dark silhouette is leaning against the side. Spock has the roadmap unfolded and held up to the light- evidently he’d found it in the glovebox. “Spock, you got somewhere you want to be?”

“Just like that?” McCoy hisses. “You’ve just met the man.”

“I’ve just met you,” says Jim, and an odd look flickers across McCoy’s face before he removes his arm from Jim’s shoulders.

“There are some geological formations out west that I find fascinating,” Spock says idly, turning the map ninety degrees. “Sites of both scientific and cultural significance. The Devil’s Tower, for example. Speculation states that it was once the site of an active volcano.”

Jim claps his hands together. “Yes. Let’s do it.”

“Rocks, Jim,” says McCoy incredulously. “You want to go look at some rocks.”

Jim gestures at Spock with both hands. “He says they’re cool!”

“You don’t know anything about them.”

“Exactly.”

“Next time,” mutters McCoy, following Jim back to the car. “I decide where we go.”

“Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?” says Jim, smiling at he takes the map from Spock’s hands. He spreads it out over the hood of the car, uncaps the marker with his teeth and puts another bright red star over the Devil’s Tower. “Wyoming it is!” he grins, delighted. He tosses his keys to McCoy over the roof of the car. “Who wants to drive?”

McCoy snatches them out of the air and rattles them threateningly at Jim. “Not you. You drive like you’re trying to kill us.”

“I could drive,” says Spock mildly.

“Not you either!” McCoy jabs a finger in his direction. “How old are you? Twenty-one? Two?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen! He’s nineteen, Jim.”

“Don’t take it personally,” Jim says, bumping his shoulder against Spock’s. “He gets carsick if he’s not driving.”

Spock looks down at Jim’s shoulder, and nudges him back. Jim feels a fierce and unreasonable delight at that, as though a cat has just rubbed its face into his palm.

“I do not get carsick,” McCoy mutters, getting in behind the wheel and closing the door behind him. Jim only gets one leg into the shotgun seat before McCoy is shooing him out. “You out of your goddamn mind? Spock’s sitting up front, I trust him to read a map.”

“You can’t demote me to the backseat of my own car!”

“Oh yeah?” says McCoy, entirely too gleeful. “Get in the back or I’m leavin’ you here. I’ve got your keys.”

“Like you’d actually leave me here,” Jim mutters, more to reassure himself than to take a shot at McCoy, but he climbs into the back anyway and puts his feet up against the back of the driver’s seat.

Spock takes the shotgun and unrolls Jim’s map, examining the tangled highway lines between Nebraska and Wyoming. “It will be a substantially long drive,” he says with great interest. “Upwards of ten hours. We may wish to find somewhere to stay the night before beginning the main leg of our journey.”

“Sounds damn logical to me,” McCoy shifts awkwardly in his seat, patting down his pockets in search of his phone. “Shit. Spock, lemme borrow your phone. I wanna look for motels in the area.”

“I’m afraid it won’t do you much good,” says Spock, but he complies anyway.

Jim can’t see McCoy’s face, but he can hear his teeth grinding together. “Spock, this is another goddamn flip phone.”

“I am aware of that, Leonard,” Spock says testily.

“This is a burner. People use these to commit crimes.”

“I do not intend to commit any crimes. I merely wish for my number to be unknown to my father, should he attempt to contact me.”

“Ha!”

Spock and McCoy turn in their seats to stare at Jim, who’s hand is over his mouth, his whole body trembling with stifled laughter.

“Damn, Spock,” he chokes. “You cold sonuvabitch.”

Spock tilts his head as if to say, I won’t dignify that with a response, and that only makes Jim laugh harder. McCoy brow is still furrowed, as usual, but he sounds cheerful enough when he tells them to buckle-up-your-seat-belts-I-swear-to-Christ, so Jim is hopeful.

Hopeful for what, he isn’t sure. But for now, the hoping is enough.