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Pick a Star, Any Star

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It's high summer in San Francisco.

Jim twirls his pen between his fingers, gazing thoughtfully up at the water-damaged ceiling. The neon sign by the window casts a bluish gleam over his table and the remains of his breakfast tray.

Jim sets pen to paper. Captain's log, July, San Francisco. Woke up at four and went for a walk. The sea breeze makes my skin rise in goosebumps. Are mornings always this damp and gray on the coast? It’s past dawn now and still surprisingly cold.

The boardwalk is starting to wake up and the sun is dispersing the mist over the water. Doors are opening, the flooded inventories of the surf shops are spilling out into the street. I can already hear the grinding and creaking of the carnival rides at Pier 39. We were lucky enough to get rooms less than a mile away, close enough to smell the greasepaint and fish oil.

It was still dark when I left our room. I left them sleeping tangled up in each other. I’m glad- I wouldn’t have wanted either of them to wake up alone. Sure, they’re always giving each other grief. But I think that, for them, it means that they care about each other. Even now it sometimes strains my credulity to believe that they care about me.

I stopped to pick up coffee and takeout for the others. Got some breakfast while I was at it. Funny, I did that without even thinking about it. I think Bones is getting to me. Used to think that I couldn’t rely on him, had to ready myself for the inevitable moment when he’d amputate himself from me and go running back to Georgia. Finally getting it through my head that that won’t happen. I think he’s here to stay. Maybe we’re all here to stay. I don’t know.

Pike told me to call again. He’s proud of me. I’m starting to think that his pride might be unconditional. It breaks my heart if I think about it too long, but in a good way. Like the breaking allows the light to shine in.

He said that he was glad I was doing something worthwhile with my summer.

Then he dared me to do better.

“A Number 47 and four coffees,” says the girl from the counter. Jim snaps the journal closed and tucks it under his arm. He picks up his order and steps out into the early morning light, squinting against the sun. The mist is almost fully dispersed now, and the grayish haze of morning is gone. The boardwalk is beginning to populate. People are shopping, talking loudly, or staggering drunk despite the early hour. Jim walks up to the low railing overlooking the water and leans on it, gazing out at the breaking waves. No beaches- not this close to Pier 39. But the ocean crashes and roars, kicking up in high, foamy arcs that make Jim smile. He’s a long way from the library in Kalona and lazy afternoons spent crammed into a beanbag chair in the kids section, poring over their Great Illustrated Classics hardback of Treasure Island for the twentieth time.

The ocean is real. Not a dream, or a vague longing. A tangible thing that roars in his ears and resounds with the calls of gulls and sprays him with seawater when he leans too far over the railing. He’s found her.

If he had come alone, Jim would’ve stood there for hours. Simply staring at the place where the sea meets the sky, wondering if there’s truly any difference between the two. Thinking of his father, perhaps. Thinking of the future.

But he didn’t come here alone, and the future starts with a Number 47 and four coffees.

Jim turns away from the railing and walks back to the hotel.

 

These particular hotel rooms are garishly west coast, right down to the pastel wallpaper and splashy illustrations of palm trees all over the bedspreads. The faded pictures on the walls depict various scenes of San Francisco nightlife, all with the Golden Gate Bridge framing the scene like religious iconography frescoing a church. Chekov and Uhura are sprawled out on their beds when Jim enters, Uhura in her pajamas and Chekov in his underwear, both half-awake and watching the old box television on the dresser.

Jim sits on the edge of Chekov’s bed and starts unloading his cardboard tray of coffees onto the bedside table. “And Sulu is . . ?”

“Out with Scotty,” says Uhura. She’s lying on her back, head hanging over the foot of the bed, her feet up on the headboard. Her hair just brushes the carpet. “He said they’re visiting Sulu’s family? Does he have family here?”

“Oh yeah,” Chekov reaches over Jim’s shoulder, grabs his coffee. “I forgot about zat.”

“Long as he’s back by lunchtime,” Jim says idly, checking his watch. He wonders when he became so attentive to the movements of the group. If it even matters anymore, now that they’ve arrived at their destination. “Which episode is this?”

“The one where they find out Laredo’s dad owns a space station.”

“Uhura wanted to watch it,” says Chekov, with a grim look at the television. He sips his coffee.

Jim unwraps the breakfast sandwich- without Sulu, it’s destined to go uneaten otherwise- and the three of them fall silent as they watch the screen. He didn’t grow up watching Galaxy Quest. He doesn’t have the same love for it that the others enjoy. Dr. Lazarus and Tech Sergeant Chen bickering in the engine room seems, to Jim, like men in costume playing among so much cardboard and fairy lights.

He looks over at Uhura, where she lies watching upside down. Her eyes reflect the lights of the screen. When Captain Taggart runs in complaining that the rat creatures had taken over the whole station she laughs like she hasn’t seen the scene a hundred times before.

Chekov shakes his head. Jim looks over at him. “You hate the show that much, huh?”

“Well, it’s campy, isn’t it,” Chekov says matter-of-factly. He’s sitting cross-legged on the bed and leans his back against Jim’s shoulder while they watch. “It’s cheap, messy sci-fi.”

Jim can’t exactly blame him for that opinion. After a life spent living in his father’s shadow, of course he’s built up a certain resentment. Jim takes another bite of his sandwich. “People love it though,” he admits between bites. “I guess it means something to a lot of people.”

“Don’t you zink it’s ridiculous?” Chekov insists. He gestures at the screen, where Lieutenant Tawny Madison, lit by soft lighting, gazes up at a painted model starship. “And dated? You can’t take it seriously anymore.”

“I do,” says Uhura quietly.

Jim reaches his foot across the divide between their beds and pokes Uhura’s knee. “Why do you love it, then?”

She taps her feet idly against the headboard. “Well,” she says, “why does anyone love it? After all this time?”

On screen, Laredo’s father is showing him the upper decks of the space station. It’s a quiet moment; a man and a boy, talking about responsibility and growing up and the wonders of the universe. Jim smiles faintly, looks down at the wrapper crumpled in his hand. There’s a lot of Pike in Laredo’s father, come to think of it.

“It’s sincere,” says Uhura. She’s smiling. “That’s why. Because it’s sincere.”

The rat creatures are still infesting the space station. Puppets made of rubber and felt. One of them climbs up on Taggart’s shoulder and nips at his ear and even Chekov laughs at that. Jim laughs too, his attention more on Chekov and Uhura than on the screen. Sincerity. It was a precious rare commodity, even back then. Nowadays it was fashionable to mean nothing, be nothing. A wink and a smile at the camera as if to say, don’t worry. It’s all in play.

None of that here. No winks, no smiles. Only sincerity, and where it seemed to pass Chekov by, it spoke to Uhura clear as a bell.

Jim can’t help but love that. He reflects on how withdrawn she’d been, how she’d tried so hard to hide how wounded she’d been by her college rejection letters. Jim holds out her coffee to her and nudges her shoulder with the warm cup; she smiles, takes it and thankfully rolls right-side up again before drinking it. No more rejection, he thinks, with surprising ferocity. You have Scotty, and us. Nothing insincere about that.

 

Spock is asleep when he gets back. The morning light creeps in through the cracked blinds, spilling golden sun across his back, but still he sleeps on. The shower is running. Jim brushes his fingertips lightly against Spock’s shoulder as he passes by.

The bathroom is tight, cramped. Nothing special as far as hotel bathrooms go. The curtain is opaque but not wholly a barrier. Jim can see Bones’ silhouette hesitate, then continue soaping up, slower than before. “Thought you’d be out later,” he says stiffly from behind the curtain.

Jim shuts the door behind him with his foot. “You alright?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t been your usual sunshine self.”

Bones lets out a low exhale that’s probably a laugh. Jim starts working his jeans down off his hips. Again he sees the silhouette take pause. “You don’t . . . have to settle for me,” Bones says shortly. “You know that, right?”

“I’m not settling.”

“You and him deserve each other. I ain’t about to be the third one. The extra one.”

“You’re not the third one,” Jim says sharply. He pulls the curtain back and joins Bones in the shower, keeping his back against the wall to avoid the spray. The low, slow exhale of his breath stirs the steam in the air. His expression softens. “Here. Let me get that for you.”

Bones hasn’t done his hair yet; it hangs dripping in his eyes. He flicks it back, grimacing at the unfamiliar length. Surprising how unruly hair can grow in so short a time. Jim tests the water with his fingertips and hisses, but doesn’t pull back. His skin blushes pink in the heat. “You’re going to scald yourself,” he mutters.

“Maybe,” says Bones. He reaches out to touch, to pull Jim closer by the waist, but Jim catches his wrists and holds him. At once Bones draws back, mortified. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “Didn’t . . . didn’t mean . . .”

“Just let me,” says Jim quietly. He leans forward, still holding Bones’ wrists, and kisses his shoulder. “Let me love on you, hmm? Don’t worry about me for once.”

They only have the shitty hotel shampoo from the basket above the sink but it will have to do. Jim’s fingertips find the scruffy, uneven hair at the back of Bones’ neck, combs through it. He lathers up his hands with shampoo and works his fingers back into Bones’ hair, massaging his scalp, his temples, the place behind his ear. Bones’ eyes fall closed. His lips part and he lets out a shaky sigh. Inaction does not come easily to him; Jim knows this, and with quiet, nonsense murmurings he tells him at ease, at ease, let me do this for you. It’s not quite a command, but Bones obeys it nonetheless.

His eyes open only once his hair has been rinsed clean. He gazes at Jim in wonder but Jim’s arms are already around him, pulling him close and kissing his chest. He’s careful to let his fingertips touch only gently where he knows Bones’ back aches in the morning. Jim rests his cheek against Bones’ wet skin as he holds him and closes his eyes. His heartbeat is there, strong and fast.

Jim tilts his face up against the water, eyes still closed, lets it sluice down his skin like a refreshing rain. Bones reaches blindly behind himself and shuts off the water.

For a moment they simply stand there, shivering in each other’s arms. It’s Jim who moves first, cupping Bones’ head in one hand and drawing him down for a kiss. They’re still wet, and beginning to prickle with goosebumps, but Bones grips Jim’s arms hard and doesn’t let go.

“I’m not settling,” Jim murmurs against Bones’ mouth. “Me and him . . . we’re not settling.”

Bones is still staring at him, eyes wide. “I believe you,” he says, and he sounds surprised.

Jim pulls back the shower curtain and steps dripping onto the mat, already reaching for the nearest towel. He dries Bones’ hair first, brisk and professional with a falsely stern air, and smiles when Bones laughs and waves him off. They’re still dripping, half-dry and flushed red as children caught in something illicit, when they leave the bathroom to find Spock sitting cross-legged at the foot of his bed. His eyes are closed, his posture straight. The sound of the creaking door pulls him from his meditation and he glances over at them with that cool, politely curious look that Jim knows means love.

“Have you convinced him?” he asks.

Bones, if possible, flushes an even deeper red. Jim puts an arm around his waist, kisses his dripping shoulder. “He could use more convincing,” he says sweetly.

Spock nods, as though nothing could be more natural. He inclines his head. “Bring him here,” he says, talking over Bones’ embarrassed spluttering. “We will convince him together.”

 

“Like this,” says Uhura, smiling mischievously. She takes the next few steps two at a time, hops down again, shuffles from stair to stair. They’re painted to look like piano keys- the white paint is scuffed from hundreds of dancing strangers- and the jazzy little tune she sketches with her feet makes Jim want to join in. He grips the railing and hops awkwardly for step to step, playing the low notes of “Heart and Soul,” and Uhura quickly runs farther up the staircase and plays the rest of it, unafraid of falling as she leaps from key to key.

Other tourists pass them by, already bored by the musical stairs at Pier 39, but there’s something relentlessly charming about them that’s kept Jim and Uhura spellbound for a good ten minutes now. Eventually Jim stops to catch his breath, hanging off the railing. “We should probably find the others,” he admits, breathless. “Our ship leaves in an hour.”

“Already?” Uhura’s eyebrows raise. She checks her watch, then taps a high C on the piano and sits primly on the railing, sliding down until she hits the bottom with a resounding A-note. “Where do you think they’ve gone to . . ?”

“Who knows how we’ll find them in this,” says Jim, a little uncomfortably. He hadn’t intended to get separated- in fact, he’d hoped to hold fast to Spock and Bones for the rest of the day. The afterglow of this morning has left him feeling languid and a little urgent for company. Strange to think they could make him so beautifully, blindingly happy, when not even a week or two ago he had believed there was something about him that made him fundamentally unlovable.

“Do you have the tickets?” says Uhura. Jim pats his pockets for them, finds them tucked into the journal that he’s crammed in his jacket pocket. Uhura folds them up carefully and puts them in her shoulder bag; they cost a pretty penny, even on a group discount, and Jim has no doubt that she’ll defend them from potential pickpockets with her life. “Right, I’m checking out the aquarium,” she says, patting her bag confidently. “It’s right down by the docks. Tell Scotty I’m there when you find him, won’t you?”

“Sure thing,” says Jim, smiling as he watches her go. The crowd is dense in this part of the pier. People are craning their necks to see up to the second story, brightly painted signs advertising brands in every direction.

Jim approaches the railing that looks out over the sea and leans on it. It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is still high in the sky, stinging Jim’s eyes with sunshine whenever he looks up to watch the cartwheeling gulls. Alcatraz Island is clearly visible only a short distance away, and the quarter-binoculars are crowded with kids peering in to get a good look at the building. It’s a solemn, chalk-colored brick of a place, at odds with the vaguely futuristic oasis of Pier 39.

It’s mostly shopping here, and tourist attractions. Loud noises and carnival rides. Now and then Jim will catch a glimpse of a lost balloon rising to the sky, or he’ll have to step around someone’s discarded vanilla soft serve ice cream cone. Gulls fly about over head or fight each other for fries around the benches. They all have bright orange bills smudged with black as though they’ve dipped their noses in ink. The whole place smells like birds and sweat and saltwater, and Jim can almost feel his skin tanning as the sun beats down on him.

There are a large number of floating wooden docks down on the water and several of them are heavily laden with wild sea lions. Chekov’s yellow hoodie makes him stand out sharply among the other tourists leaning over the railing to take pictures. Jim walks up and taps him on the shoulder. “They doing anything?”

“No,” says Chekov, smiling. “Just sleeping,” He points at one in particular, lying on the edge of one of the docks. “Zat one rolled over. I’m waiting for it to fall in.”

Jim folds his arms and leans on the railing, admiring the sea lions below. There are only a handful of them. The majority won’t return from their mating season until later in the month, and these here are simply a few early stragglers. They lie cuddled up in heaps, apparently unbothered by the maritime activity of sailboats and ferries drifting past them. Jim has never touched a sea lion, but their skin looks smooth and velvety soft. He would like to pet one.

It’s nice to see Chekov with his hood down. Nobody looks at him or notices he’s there, and he seems content to simply lounge at the railing like a sea lion himself, watching them trail their flippers in the water.

“You haven’t been pestered by any fans yet?” says Jim, giving him a sidelong glance.

Chekov shrugs. “Not yet.”

“I’m glad.”

“It’s more fun zan I expected out here. You zink Pier Zirty-Nine, you zink . . . well, a lot of bright lights and kewpie dolls. But zis is nice.”

“Yeah,” Jim smiles. “It is nice,” He turns to Chekov. “We’re meeting up at the aquarium down by the docks . . . . It’s not far from here. You know how to get there?”

“I’ll figure it out,” says Chekov lazily. He looks down at the sea lions one more time before pushing off from the railing, rejoining the crowd. No one notices him, which is how he likes it. Jim sees him check his pockets for change before he vanishes from sight. He’ll be looking for the cotton candy stall again, if Jim knows Chekov.

The sound of a calliope catches Jim’s ear, but before he can follow it a sea lion bellows at him from below. It’s a strangely human sound. They stare at each other for a moment before the sea lion lets out a deep grunt and lies down again, slapping its flippers against its sides. Jim waves at it awkwardly before turning to follow the calliope music, making his way through the various school groups and family vacationers with mumbles of, “Excuse me, sorry, if I could just-” and, “Lemme just sneak right past you-”

The music is high-pitched and brassy and puts Jim in mind of the carnivals of days gone by. There’s a carousel not far from the sea lions, in the center of the main walkway, and as Jim approaches it he catches sight of Scotty deep in conversation with the teenager manning the levers. The carousel itself is brightly painted in red and blue, trimmed with gold, and two stories of seahorses, water dragons, hippocamps, and armored warhorses cheerfully spin to the sound of the calliope. The whole thing bristles with lights. It would be beautiful at night.

Jim taps Scotty’s shoulder and ducks around to the other side when he turns. “Didn’t think I’d find you here, of all places,” he says bemusedly, watching the horses go by. “You thinking of riding it?”

Scotty shakes his head, a little wistfully. The carousel isn’t crowded at this hour, but those tourists who are willing to drop three dollars a ride have climbed aboard to enjoy a brief respite. Children mostly, and teens, and a surprising number of couples giggling awkwardly at each other across the gaps between their saddles. The theater across the way promises the ultimate 7D interactive experience- cowboys, aliens, lasers! It makes Jim glad to see that tourists are still riding the carousel despite it. The ride hisses to a halt and Jim reaches out to touch the neck of a vacant horse. Something about the flaking paint beneath his hand reminds him of being a kid, working out his energy on crowded playgrounds.

For a moment, the temptation to ride is almost overwhelming. “It’s not that weird,” he says, trying to convince himself.

“It is, a bit.”

“Wish it wasn’t.”

“Aye.”

Jim lets his hand drop. “Our ship leaves in less than an hour. Uhura wanted me to let you know she’s waiting for you at the aquarium down by the docks.”

Scotty’s face brightens at that. He claps his hand on Jim’s shoulder, gives it a squeeze. “Maybe I’ll bring her back here afterwards, go for a ride,” He looks back up at the carousel. The interior is painted with bright, exaggerated scenes of San Francisco, primed for a child’s eye. “She makes me happy, Jim.”

“I know.”

“So bloody happy,” Scotty grins at him. “She wants to help me in the garage, did you know that? She wants to do projects with me. Keep me busy,” His grin falters. “Not that I have a garage to work in.”

Jim frowns. “You’re not worried about that?”

“I’ll get by,” says Scotty, but he sounds doubtful. “We’ll get by, I mean. She and I.”

“You will,” says Jim firmly. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Scotty’s expression softens. “I’m a grown man, lad. She’s a grown woman. Y’don’t have to look after us.”

Jim wants to say something to that- a reassurance maybe, or an excuse- but Scotty sees the look on his face and waves his hand. “No, no,” he says gently. “I’m right. Y’know I’m right,” He drops his hand from Jim’s shoulder and looks down the pier, past the tiered stage where a trio of dancing acrobats are performing aerial tricks for the onlookers. “Down by the docks, she said?”

“Yeah.”

Scotty turns around as he leaves, walking backwards so he can gesture knowingly at Jim. “You’ll catch up with us, right?”

The carousel has started again. “Sure I will!” says Jim, raising his voice to be heard over the calliope.

“Good!” Scotty yells back, already turning back towards the aquarium, and the woman waiting for him there. “Wouldn’t wannae lose you!”

“You won’t,” says Jim, this time to himself.

He doesn’t stay for a ride. He’s not a child anymore. Instead he makes his way to the nearest staircase up to the second level. This one is plain, unpainted boards. No piano to be seen.

Up on the second level Jim has a clear view of the harbor. He can see the Golden Gate from here, a pumpkin-orange monument that screams west coast deco from every gleaming cable. The postcards don’t do it justice.

Jim doesn’t look at it, too busy scouting through the skate shops and boardwalk arcades for the mirror maze. The splashy, 90’s-themed rainbow logo of Magowan’s catches his eye, and Jim checks his phone, making sure he read the text right. He did- Bones is here. Somewhere in the building that has the cramped look of a family-owned taffy shop, but in reality, contains rooms upon rooms upon rooms.

Jim steps inside, and is at once dizzied by a kaleidoscope of light.

He’s been in mirror mazes before, but always of the small, cobbled-together variety. The kind that could be found at any Iowa country fair. This spectacle makes his mouth drop open in starry-eyed excitement. The mirrors around him extend these cavernous halls out into infinity, bathed in neon lights so bright that the color seems to stick to his skin. The unnatural, alien shades that shift and change in the reflections- magenta, cerulean, toxic green- seem at odds with the vaguely classical appearance of the columns placed at intervals throughout the maze. Jim is reminded irresistibly of the brightly details interiors of mosques.

The maze is disorienting, directionless. Jim finds himself exploring at random. In one corridor and out another, behind a pillar, up a ladder. He thoroughly loses himself, and wonders how in the world he’s meant to find Bones in all this. Chekov could find his way out, he thinks, just as he nearly bruises his nose on a pane of glass. Jim rubs his eye, groans, looks around him.

Jim sees himself reflected a hundred times in every direction. The uneven tan lines on his hands and wrists, the cracks in his leather jacket, the damp patch on his shirt where his sweat has soaked through it. Other people move around him. Everyone goes in different directions, laughing and determined to come out on the other side. Jim drags his eyes away from his reflection only to meet his own eyes again, and again, and again. He hardly recognizes himself. Is this the boy from Riverside, who heard Pike’s chair squeak in the bookshop and ducked behind a shelf, not wanting to be seen with a bruised lip and an eye still swollen shut?

A glimpse of blue at the corner of his eye, and he sees Bones reflected around the corner. “There you are!” Jim sighs in relief. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Bones jumps, sees Jim’s reflection too. “Jesus, Jim.”

“Sorry.”

“You scared the hell out of me.”

Jim feels his way along the wall, noting as he does so that the glass is smudged with innumerable confused fingerprints. He rounds the corner, touches Bones’ reflection. Smooth glass. “Where are-”

“Hold on,” Bones ducks behind a pillar. He comes out seemingly rooms away. “Wait-”

“Ah, there-”

“Hold on-”

When they collide it’s a surprise, the warm solidity of Bones’ body catching Jim off-guard when he’d expected the fragility of glass. Bones grins. Wraps his arms around Jim’s waist and kisses his cheek. “Impossible to find anyone in here. Just goes on like this. Rooms on rooms on rooms, all mirrors reflecting into each other.”

“Impossible, yeah,” says Jim, smiling. “But I found you.”

“You did.”

Everyone can see them- the reflection of their embrace encircles them for illusory lightyears. Jim disentangles himself slowly, reluctantly, but not before leaning in and telling Bones where to go, and who to meet there. “If you find your way out,” he adds teasingly. “I think I remember the way, if you’d rather just follow me.”

Bones scoffs and tousles Jim’s hair, giving his head a gentle shove. “C’mon, I’m fine. I can handle myself.”

“I know,” Jim says. “But you don’t have to.”

It’s surprisingly easy to find their way out after that. The reflections don’t have Bones’ warmth. They don’t have the sweaty grip of his hands and the grinding of his teeth as he thinks, or the sardonic dryness of his voice when he tells Jim he’s going the wrong way. Their hands uncouple only once, when they disagree, and when their two diverging tunnels rejoin again, they laugh it off and carry on as one.

When they step blinking into the light outside the exit, it’s almost shocking. Jim takes a step back, reeling at the saneness of the world; he is once again one being, alone and entire, reflected nowhere but in the mirrors of Bones’ sunglasses.

“You’ll catch up with me, won’t you?” Bones says cautiously. His hand is still in Jim’s; he untangles himself, the better to sling his arm around Jim’s shoulders and kiss his hair. “If I go on ahead, meet up with the others?”

“Sure I will,” says Jim, closing his eyes. “But I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

Bones’ arm is gone all too soon. “I’ll find you,” he says, and it’s hard to watch him walk away, weaving crookedly through the crowd without brushing anyone’s elbows. Jim’s heart doesn’t skip when he sees him anymore- there’s too much love there, too much easily familiarity, too much comfort- but his absence is felt, and deeply. It’s fine, he thinks, watching the blue of Bones’ shirt vanish among the crowds of tank tops and boardwalk tees. He’s not going anywhere. Well. Not without you.

Sulu is the easiest to find.

Jim hadn’t worried about that, not for a moment. He knew where Sulu would be. Not far from here, back down towards the mainland, where the crowds grew thicker and hungrier. The air smells of grease and vanilla soft serve, and the boards creak under Jim’s feet as he leans on the railing.

He’s stopped just outside the theater, if it can even be called a theater. An unassuming building with a big, beautiful sign. The Flyer’s sweeping logo promises a bright, utopian San Francisco- the city of tomorrow, today! The last few stragglers from the evening’s show are filing out, looking distinctly green, and the next show’s customers are already eagerly walking in for their turn. It’s theater magic of a particularly American kind. Sit back, relax, and let the world move around you. Fly, and keep your feet on the ground.

Jim’s waiting there long enough to wonder if he’s misjudged before Sulu finally wanders out, blinking against the blinding summer sun. He’s removed his hat. He puts it back on again to shield his eyes and only then does he catch sight of Jim. A broad smile, sparkling white. “Jim!”

“I knew I’d find you here,” Jim says cheerily. “Well? How does it feel to be a genuine tacky American tourist?”

“I could get used to it,” Sulu admit, still smiling. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the open lobby of the Flyer. “It’s incredible, Jim. You should try it. Makes me want to go after that pilot’s license I’ve always dreamed about.”

He’s a far cry from the man Jim met in Colorado. Jim smiles privately to himself as Sulu joins him on the walk to the stairs, keeping pace with him step for step and talking cheerfully about reconnecting with his extended family here on the west coast. This Sulu is a little braver, a little wilder. Someone who takes what he wants instead of daydreaming about it. Confidence, Jim thinks, but dismisses the thought. No, he’d had confidence. Now he’s picked up the swaggering tenacity of an action hero.

Jim catches his arm and points at the bridge across the water. “There is is. For real, this time,” he smiles. “You’ll fly over it one day.”

Sulu’s reply is lost in din from the Hard Rock Cafe downstairs, but his excitement is so plain that Jim doesn’t need to hear it. Down on the first level of the pier the music is louder, but the crowds are somewhat thinner; they lose each other like untied ribbons. Sulu leads the way with such determination and long strides that Jim is soon lost in the wake behind him. Sulu’s eyes are fixed on the sky.

For once, Jim forgets the sky.

He’s thinking about the sea.

 

There’s a tunnel that cuts beneath the water, long and straight with smooth, curved glass upholding the elements. It’s close and narrow like a ship’s hold, or the belly of a crystal-glass eel, and a far cry from the open hangers of the aerospace museum. Strange to think Jim should have gone there chasing the ghost of his father, only to find Spock instead, among the long-dormant vessels of the air.

Here, Jim finds him bathed in blue-tinted light, looking up at the water. The part of the bay it cuts through is shallow enough to allow light to spill in. It refracts through the glass, makes patterns dance across the museum floor and the shoes of children tugging at their chaperones’ arms. Little hands point at shoals of anchovies, or lumpy orange Garibaldi. Look, look, the fish are here. Maybe we’ll see a shark?

“We met in a museum, you know,” says Jim, taking his place just beside Spock’s shoulder. Together they look up at the water, and the smooth, powerful body of a shark swimming past.

“I am well aware of the fact, Jim,” says Spock, not without fondness. “Did you think I’d forgotten?”

It should be cold down here, in an aquarium tunnel beneath the waves. It’s not. It’s warm, and the ambient sound of school groups and tourists gives Jim the comforting sense that he is not alone in his desire to see the wonders of the world.

Spock’s fingertips brush his hand, not quite taking it. “I’m glad you’ve reconciled with Pike.”

“There was nothing to reconcile,” says Jim. His heart feels full at the thought. “There was nothing to forgive. He’s proud of me, Spock.”

“I know.”

“He doesn’t think I’m wasting my life. No matter what I do,” Jim watches the pale belly of a shark glide by overhead. “Sometimes I wonder how this can possibly be real,” he says quietly, as children gasp around him and point up, up at the pointed nose and powerful fins. “I wonder if I’ll wake up back in Riverside, or at the library in Kalona.”

“The probability of that-”

“-is astronomically low, I know.”

“But if you did,” says Spock slowly, “I have no doubt that you would simply set out on your own again, and find all of us just the same.”

Jim rubs the bridge of his nose with his thumb. He lets out a small sigh. “How do you know?”

“Nothing could be more likely,” says Spock. “You are a romantic, like your father,” He hesitates, as though wanting to say something more. Jim looks at him. “If . . .” says Spock slowly, watching Jim’s face closely. “If . . . if I ever speak to my father again, and decide to go back to Boston . . . would you go with me?”

The question is quiet, hesitant. It’s like a needle in Jim’s heart to think that Spock has any cause for hesitation. As though he wouldn’t drive halfway across the galaxy for Spock’s sake.

“Of course I would,” he says quickly, taking Spock’s hand in his and squeezing it. “Of course I would. We’d do it all again, drive all the way back to Boston.”

Spock raises an eyebrow, a faint smile crossing his face. “I do not think Leonard would appreciate that.”

“He loves you,” says Jim, “and I love you.”

They stand and watch the sharks. Above them, the water is shifting, changing, sunlight rippling down. Somewhere on the surface boats are bobbing in the harbor. Their ship leaves soon. The rest of their crew is waiting for them.

“What absurd lives we lead,” says Spock.

“Good ones, though,” says Jim. He leads Spock back along the tunnel, up towards the body of the museum proper, and the exit door that will lead them out onto the docks. “Come on. We don’t want to be late.”

 

This, then, is the end of it, or the beginning. The deck moves beneath Jim’s feet as the ship rolls, rises with the waves and dips again with careless grace. She’s not a tiered ship like a ferry- no hold full of cars, no mess hall, no badly painted steps to the upper decks- but a broad, graceful thing, with a wide deck and good rails lest the tourists lean too zealously over the railing. There’s a cabin with a little theater inside it, where some dusty old tour guide is giving a speech, but few people are inside. Almost everyone is out on deck, feeling the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair. Scanning the horizon, looking for the spectacle they’ve come out here to see.

Whales.

The whale-watching tours leave the dock regularly throughout the day, and stay out for two, three hours. It’s been an hour now, and no whales yet. Jim stands at the railing with his eyes watching the sea, searching for anything- a fin, a spray of foam. He has never seen a humpback before. He has no idea of what to expect.

Tourists mill the deck, but most crowd the railings. Jim can see Scotty, his arm around Uhura’s shoulders to shield her from the wind, pointing out skips of foam that might be the breath of sea lions. Sulu is just visible at the bow, at the very peak of the ship, chin raised as he looks into the wind.

“Do you think we’ll see one?” says Spock quietly, looking down into the water.

Jim nods. He has every confidence. “I think we will.”

Spock is leaning on the railing at Jim’s left, and Bones at his right. He hasn’t said much, and has turned faintly green from the motions of the boat, but after a moment of contemplative silence, he opens his mouth to speak. At that moment someone shouts from the stern and there’s a burst of activity as everyone gets out their cameras and runs the length of the ship. Jim edges his way along the railing, Bones and Spock with him, and gets there too late. There’s a flurry of white foam in the water, quickly receding. He overhears some people talking excitedly. A whale had rolled in the water and they’d seen the pale, blubbery ridges of its belly.

Bones’ left hand warms the cold metal rail beside Jim’s right. The boat dips in the waves, kicking up a fine mist of seawater that cools Jim’s skin, and Bones entwines his hand with Jim’s. “You know . . . I’d throw it into the sea. Right now, if you asked me to,” Bones says quietly.

Jim’s brow furrows, unsure what he means. Bones is leaning on the railing, the breeze tugging at his hair and clothes. There’s another commotion around them and everyone runs for the bow, Chekov, Sulu, and the others among them. Bones doesn’t glance away from his face, and behind him, Jim can feel Spock’s warm and unmoving presence still at the rail.

“The ring in my wallet,” says Bones. His gaze drops awkwardly, his smile becoming more of a grimace. “I know you found it.”

Jim squeezes Bones’ hand. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

“I know there’s no hope for me and her,” Bones says all at once, as though eager to justify the act. “Even if there were, I wouldn’t . . . I wouldn’t give this up. I just . . .”

No one is watching. Their eyes are all on the whales. Jim lets the tilt of the deck tip him forward into Bones’ arms, catching his lips in a kiss, just for a moment, before pulling away. “I know you’d throw it away,” he says, very seriously. “But I won’t ever ask you to.”

The corner of Bones’ mouth twitches in a smile. Then he laughs, the shaky, exultant laugh of a relieved man. Jim’s sea legs are back, and his feet are steady on the deck when he looks back at Spock. Spock inclines his head, a small smile gracing his face, before nodding at the waves curling past the bow. “I saw a shape beneath the water,” he says. “Keep your eyes on the ocean ahead.”

So Jim leans on the railing and looks ahead. A black fin cuts the water- almost like a wave, or a gesture. Chekov comes running back to them, breathless, and his wobbly legs send him pitching against the side of the cabin behind them. He grunts with pain as he clings to the railing, looking slightly green, and soon enough the others follow him. Scotty and Uhura, clinging unsteadily to each other but looking wind-chafed and happy, and Sulu, with his hat slung across his back so it won’t blow away in the wind. All seven of them crowd the railing, surrounded on all sides by strangers, every eye trained on the horizon. A spout of water fountains up from the water and all gasp as one. There- a dark shape, rolling in the waves. Jim laughs despite himself.

Then it lunges out of the water.

It’s huge- bigger than Jim had really understood before now. A huge, sleek, powerful creature, with once-smooth skin pitted with the marks of age, and when it crashes back down into the sea the ripples go out and out and out, perhaps for miles. Uhura gasps and Sulu lets out a whoop of excitement. Jim is too awed to make a sound, still watching the place where the whale had been. He feels small in the face of such a thing, and so honored to have witnessed it.

He leans forward, almost hanging off the railing. “I want to see another,” he says, breathless. “Do you think there’ll be another?”

Almost immediately, Spock catches his arm. “There,” he says, and he sounds excited. He points at the horizon where another whale has begun to breach, lunging and almost skimming across the water before crashing into the waves with a sound like a thunder strike. Seawater foams around its fins like a glittering veil.

Jim’s heart is full with some nameless emotion that makes tears sting his eyes, hot and eager to fall. I might never have seen this, he thinks. I might never, ever have seen this.

He closes his eyes and puts his hand to his forehead, momentarily overwhelmed, and when he opens his eyes, another whale is leaping. His friends are still there- they’re going to get pizza afterwards. The deck pitches and rolls beneath his feet, and his lungs are filled with cold, clear sea air.

“What are you thinking about, Jim?”

It’s Spock’s voice. Forever calm, forever curious.

Jim takes a shaky breath, lets it out. He looks to the horizon, where a whale is leaping in the sunlight.

He smiles.

“Next summer.”