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Pick a Star, Any Star

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It’s high summer in Riverside, Iowa.

Jim Kirk drives out to a sweet-smelling field with dry grass that crunches under his shoes, and tilts his face to the sun. Deep breaths, in and out. There’s not much to do on a hot summer morning so he sits, sprawls out on his back and closes his eyes.

Blissful silence. Only the sound of the wind rustling the grass, and his own pulse in his ears.

Jim lets the moment linger, savoring it like the last drop of honey on the spoon, before he opens his eyes and brings himself back to reality. He’s supposed to be here to think, to come to terms with something that’s been gnawing at his heart for a while.

Jim is going to waste his life in Riverside.

He can see his future stretched out before him like a marked-up roadmap. It starts with getting into fights, and settling for less, and flinching every time he drives past his stepdad’s house, and it ends with him thirty-five years into a dead end job and backhanding his kids when they try to speak up.

Looking down the barrel of a life like that is paralyzing. He’s not reading the way he used to, voraciously, and late into the night. This is the first crisp, clear morning that he’s savored so far this summer. Most night he goes out to drink and dance and pick fights in bars. Anything to make him feel like he’s living, and not stagnating in the only town he’s ever known.

Mr. Pike would be ashamed of you.

Jim thumps his fist angrily into the soft earth and pushes himself to his feet. What the hell, he’s got a car, hasn’t he? No one’s about to stop him from torturing himself.

So he gets in and turns the key in the ignition- every time the engine starts he gets a thrill, just waiting for the day when it won’t start, and this treacherous bit of freedom will be taken from him- and drives a couple miles to the local high school. He leaves the engine running and just sits, looks at that tired old building. It’s empty for summer vacation, and Jim’s is the only car in the parking lot. Someone’s scrawled GO FEDS on the asphalt in off-white chalk.

It’s funny how Pike had thought the best of him. How he’d remarked on Jim’s exceptional test scores, and even praised his performance in their terrible high school production of Romeo and Juliet. He’d thought- he really, really thought- that Jim was the best of all of them. That he was going to make something of himself.

Shows what he knew.

Jim realizes how tightly he’s been gripping the wheel and eases up on it. Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly self-flagellating, he’ll drive right past this aging, summer-dead school. Just to remind himself that Pike had thought he was worth something, praised him, pushed him as hard as he could in every class.

Jim’s only seen Pike once since graduation, and that was only a fleeting glimpse at a local convenience store before Jim ducked out the back, terrified that Pike would see his black eye, his busted lip. Jim can deal with being a delinquent. He can deal with having no job, no opportunities, no close friends and no hope for the future. He can handle that.

What he can’t handle is the thought of Pike’s disappointment. Jim can almost hear him now, picking his words as carefully and deliberately as a soldier selecting bullets. You’re wasting yourself, James, he would say, and Jim would nod and promise to do better and then he’d go out and get so blind drunk that he’d never wake up. Sometimes a gentle scolding hurts far worse than a slap and a shout.

Something has to change. If only Jim could get off his ass and change it.

Jim guns the engine and peels away from the school, tires shrieking on the asphalt. It occurs to him, not for the first time, how easy it would be to just drive. To pick a direction and go, with only his shitty red Volkswagen and half a tank of gas. Longing desperately for something undefinable, yet terrified of defining it.

Yeah, thinks Jim, as he hits the brakes and waits for the stoplight to turn green. I could do that.

He doesn’t do it.

At least, not for a couple days.

 

“This is a bad idea,” Jim says to himself, but his hands are shaking with excitement as he spreads an interstate map across the hood of his car. Spontaneity is the thing- spontaneity is what makes road trips memorable- but there’s an undeniable appeal to the thought of a fold-out map and a slightly dry red marker. Pike used to say Jim was a romantic. Well, so what if he is? If he’s going to channel his restlessness into a mission to explore the American frontier, he may as well do it right.

He uncaps the marker with his teeth and leaves a bright red star right over Riverside, Iowa. He draws a second star over San Francisco. That leaves two thousand miles of open road between them, waiting to be traversed.

Not that Jim expects to make it to San Francisco. Not that anyone would notice, or care, if he didn’t.

Jim’s marker hovers over the map, considering. Then he maps his first route, a very nearly straight line west, and drops a third star along Interstate 80, near Ashland, Nebraska. The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. According to Winona Kirk- God rest her soul- George Kirk’s first job had been scrubbing toilets in that fine establishment, just to get near the planes. It’s not a bad place to start a road trip, and it’s only a five hour drive away.

Jim folds up the map and hesitates, about to cram it into his back pocket. He ducks back into the car instead and unzips his duffle bag. It’s packed full of as much food as he could cram in there- everything kosher, nothing likely to aggravate his allergies- and a couple of essentials. Books, clothes, a toothbrush, and so on. Jim digs up a black journal and a leaky pen from one of the interior pockets.

It’s a good notebook. It’s got a very particular Fancy Journal shine to it, making it nearly impossible to write in. It had been a gift from Pike shortly after graduation, and Jim had shoved it to the back of his bookshelf, too frustrated by the prospect of filling it with the adventures he wasn’t having.

Well, he’s damn well going to write in it now. Something about this trip seems unerringly final, and Jim wants there to be a record of it. If this Great American Road Trip is going to be his last hurrah before all his youthful potential gets swept out to sea, then he at least wants something to remember it by. Besides, if he’s lucky, maybe something will happen to him between Iowa and California and he’ll finally figure out what his life is supposed to be.

Jim tucks his map into the back of the journal. Then he clicks the pen idly for a moment, trying to come up with something that’s not too Dear Diary.

He flips the journal over, looks at the cover. A stylized white boat, sailing on a black sea. The sky is dotted with white stars of varying sizes. Jim smiles grimly, imagining Pike picking it out at the corner bookstore. Maybe it’s the romantic in him, but it gives Jim an idea. There’s no one around to judge him, so he indulges.

Jim opens it up to the first page, and sets pen to paper.

Captain’s Log.

 

Jim stops at a gas station just outside Riverside.

He fills up the tank, one hand on the nozzle and the other shoved deep into the pocket of his leather jacket. There’s an oddly silent, dreamlike atmosphere this afternoon. Jim can hear the rustling of the corn, but very little else. It’s as though his is the only car in the world, and this road, the only road.

The nozzle shudders in his hand. He takes it out, hangs it back up, and rips the receipt from the pump. Then he slides into the driver’s seat and shuts the door, and it all slams down on him at once, the realization that he’s going, he’s doing this, he’s leaving all of this behind with the promise of nothing in return.

His journal is sitting on the seat next to him, as though daring him to do better.

Jim folds up the gas receipt and tucks it awkwardly between the cover and first page. Then he turns the key in the ignition.

The engine roars to life.

He can feel the floor vibrating beneath his feet.

There are a trio of bizarre brown puffballs dangling from the rearview- Winona’s keychain, repurposed. She had so loved old cars.

Jim pulls out of the parking lot and turns onto the road, windows down, the radio turned on max. It’s high summer in Riverside, Iowa. Friday, June 28th.

This is how it starts.

 

For the first few hours, the drive is easy and uneventful. The sky is a sweet cornflower blue, and with the windows rolled down Jim can smell the dry, dusty breeze at it tugs at his hair. There’s a comforting ease to the rituals of driving. He knows where to put his feet, how to move his hands. It’s not long before he can shut his mind off completely as he drives, just enjoying the summer air and the cornfields flying past as he winds his way west across Iowa. If he misses a couple of turns along the way, well, that’s Jim’s business, and there’s no one around to chastise him.

It’s not until the sun is low in the sky, painting the cornfields salmon pink across the horizon, that Jim starts feeling the itch to get some food.

He’s not hungry, is the thing, and he’s packed enough food to feed himself for a week if he plays his cards right. But the itch is still there, distracting him, a constant irritant. He shouldn’t break into that packed food until it’s absolutely necessary. He should save it, just in case.

Get something now, Jim thinks nervously, tapping the wheel with one finger. What if you get on the interstate and there are no rest stops for miles. What then.

And he had tried so very hard not to think about food. This was his Great American Road Trip after all, and he hadn’t wanted to waste it getting too caught up in his own head about something that came so easily to other people. But by now it’s all he can think about, so Jim grits his teeth and changes lanes at the first rest stop sign he sees.

When he gets there, it looks like every other rest stop in America. Wide parking lot, scattered benches, dry grass trampled flat by a procession of dogs. The building itself is somehow both too big and too cramped, cold and off-white and bordered by fingerprint-smeared windows. When Jim goes in he finds the building has the unearthly quietness of an early-morning airport. His shoes squeak too loudly on the gritty floor.

There are a number of kiosks standing between him and the foot court, and Jim stops at them one at a time, thumbing idly through the pamphlets. He tries to look busy as he scopes the place out. It’s not as empty as it seems. There are people manning the help desks, and working in the shabby KFC by the far wall, and there’s a single solitary broom-pusher making his way slowly up the thoroughfare.

The food court itself is a little knot of red tables and wobbly plastic chairs, seemingly scattered haphazardly throughout the empty space between Starbucks and KFC. There’s a handful of other people, most of them with kids, all seated far apart and eating with the slow exhaustion of drivers unwilling to return to their cars.

Jim orders a cherry danish and an iced caramel macchiato. He stands by the pickup counter and surveys the tables, lips pursed, deciding where to sit. He’d rather not eat alone if he can help it. Unfortunately, no one here seems particularly open to conversation.

In fact, only one other person seems to be here alone. He’s sitting with his back to the trash cans, working his way through a bucket of crispy chicken like it’s personally wronged him. He’s wearing a cord necklace and a grubby blue flannel open two buttons too deep. He looks tired.

Jim picks up his drink and approaches the stranger from behind. “Y’know,” he says, “if you don’t slow down, you’re gonna choke on a bone.”

The stranger chokes.

Jim plunks himself down opposite him holds out his hand, ignoring the man’s sudden fit of coughing and spluttering. “Kirk, James T.”

The stranger muffles his mouth with one arm until the coughing fit subsides. He gives Jim a quick once-over with bright, suspicious eyes, before letting his arm drop. “I don’t have any cash, kid, so don’t ask.”

“Just thought you looked like someone who could use a friend, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” the man scoffs, returning his attention to his chicken.

“Yeah,” says Jim. “That’s all.”

He unwraps the little brown paper around his cherry danish and eats it in small, measured bites. The stranger watches him for a moment, then shakes his head incredulously. “You shouldn’t talk to strangers, kid. What are you, seventeen?”

“Nineteen.”

“See that’s the kind of shit I’m talkin’ about, don’t just go tellin’ strange men that you’re nineteen.”

Jim smirks. “Maybe I’ve got a good feeling about you. You seem pretty safe.”

“Ain’t nothin’ safe about this, kid,” the man mutters, gesturing vaguely with a drumstick. “You’re in the middle of nowhere. Lemme guess, runaway? Wind in your hair, Nirvana on the radio? You got big dreams and an uncle in LA?”

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” says Jim, which startles a laugh out of the handsome stranger. And he is handsome, oddly, in a roughed up, I’m-here-to-fix-your-plumbing-ma’am kind of way, but it’s his eyes that catch Jim’s attention. He’s got a closer look at the necklace now; a slender chip of jade on a black cord.

The stranger grimaces, wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “You don’t wanna hear any life’s story of mine, kid.”

“C’mon, I told you my name, didn’t I?”

“That you did. The name’s Leonard McCoy. MD, not that it matters.”

Jim’s grin widens. “You always this friendly, Leonard McCoy, MD?”

“Yeah, I’m a real lick of sunshine. Cure a rainy day, that’s me.”

“The wind in my hair, Nirvana on the radio thing- that’s about right. No uncle in LA though.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I’ve got nothing but a car and a roadmap.”

“See, when you’re nineteen, that sounds pretty damn appealing,” McCoy shakes his head, chases another bite of chicken with a swallow of lukewarm Coca-Cola. “But when you’re washed up at thirty-goddamn-three suddenly I’ve got nothing but a car and a roadmap gets a lot less sexy and a lot more pathetic.”

Jim feels a twinge of sympathy grip his heart, but he also senses an impending sob story, and, against all odds, he finds he desperately wants to hear it.

“Oh yeah?” he says, taking another long sip of his iced caramel macchiato. “What happened?”

And for the next forty-five minutes, Leonard McCoy tells him.

 

The cheating isn’t the worst part. McCoy breezes past that pretty quick, and Jim can’t blame him. After all, what is there to say? The sex was good, and then it wasn’t good, and then it was apparently very good as long as McCoy wasn’t around to hear about it. Some well-endowed asshole named Clay Treadway- a high school hookup name if ever Jim heard one.

(“He was,” McCoy admits, when Jim voices this controversial opinion. “They were real sweethearts back in the day.”

“Shoulda punched him out,” Jim mutters.

“I did,” grins McCoy, and something passes between them then, a quiet agreement, a mutual understanding.)

Giving up his medical practice- not even that is the worst part. Jim pushes him a little on that point, tries to get him to open up, but all he gets is a grimace and a “Don’t push your luck, kid,” so Jim reluctantly lets the subject drop.

No. The worst part is when it ends, and after a moment’s hesitation, like he’s not sure how much more Jim wants to hear, McCoy tells him about losing the custody battle.

Jim nods slowly. Rolls his plastic cup, now empty, back and forth between his hands. “God,” he says, after a while. “I’m sorry.”

McCoy huffs a little exhale that might be a laugh, might be the farthest thing from it. “Not much of life worth livin’ anymore. Not there, not anywhere. So I packed my bags and started drivin’, haven’t really stopped. Figured if I’m gonna be a sorry sack of shit, may as well be a sorry sack of shit on a beach somewhere.”

“You’re from Georgia, aren’t you?” says Jim, gesturing vaguely at his own throat. “Can’t place the accent.”

“Georgia, sure enough.”

“You’ve been driving a while, then.”

“A while,” McCoy says, with a small smile. “Yeah.”

Jim, testing the waters, reaches across the table and steals what’s left of McCoy’s Coca-Cola. He sips up the last of it, the ice rattling around the straw. His new friend doesn’t seem to mind, just shrugs idly, and Jim feels a rush of affection for him.

He sets down McCoy’s cup. “I said I’d tell you mine, if you told me yours.”

“You sure did,” says McCoy with interest, leaning one elbow on the table. “Jim. Can I call you Jim?”

Jim squints at him. “Only if I can call you . . . hmm . . .”

“Don’t,” McCoy grins. “My name is Leonard.”

“Len, then. Till I think of something better.”

“Leonard.”

“Well, Len,” says Jim with a grin, and McCoy laughs, hand on his forehead, eyes shut tight. It feels good to make McCoy laugh. Too good. “Do you want to know my story or not?”

“I do,” McCoy sighs pleasantly, hand over his mouth now. “I do.”

“Well . . . the truth of the matter is, there’s not much to tell with me,” Jim admits, when the levity of the moment has worn off. Now that it’s him being put on the spot, he finds himself feeling unaccountably shy. “Mom passed away last year, and Frank . . . my stepdad . . . he kicked me out pretty quick. I’ve been sleeping on couches, sleeping in cars. Picking up odd jobs around Riverside.”

McCoy gives him an odd look. “Did you graduate?”

“Top of my class,” Jim mutters. It should be a proud admission, but instead it comes heavy with the weight of all the great things Pike had seen in his future.

“Funny,” says McCoy. “You look like the kinda guy who’d go out for sports.”

Jim smiles ruefully. “Nah, no way. Sure I thought about trying out, but . . . I felt more comfortable in the library anyway. The librarians in Kalona practically raised me. My car,” he adds, jerking his thumb vaguely over his shoulder. “My car back there, one of them actually sold it to me on the cheap.”

“They sound like good people.”

“Yeah, they were,” says Jim. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans and tilts his chair back with a sigh. “Anyway, I figure causing trouble on the road to San Francisco is better than causing trouble in Riverside.”

“Folks have gone road trippin’ for less,” says McCoy with a pleased hum. “What’s your route?”

“There’s a museum in Nebraska I want to go see. My dad loved that place.”

“And after that?”

Jim shrugs lazily and smiles. “I’ll just see where the stars take me, I guess.”

“I like that,” says McCoy. He taps his empty cup against Jim’s. “Here’s hoping you have better luck on your drive than I did.”

Jim frowns. “How so?”

“My car gave out.”

“Are you serious?”

“Serious as the grave. The engine finally died half a mile back. I walked here.”

Jim stares at him, stymied. “What . . . what are you gonna do now?”

“Been tryin’ not to think about it,” McCoy admits. “I had a vague idea that I’d be more clear-headed after I’d eaten.”

“And are you?”

McCoy gives him a subtle, cynical look through half-closed eyes. “No,” he says. “Not really.”

“Come with me.”

It slips out before Jim can bite it back. Come with me. He sounds pathetic, like a child clinging to a stranger’s skirt in a crowd.

McCoy’s lips part; he looks surprised, but not shocked. “You serious?”

Jim tilts his chin higher and doubles down on the offer. “Come to California with me. I’ve got the space, and you’re easy to talk to. I’d like . . . I want you to come with me.”

McCoy stares at him, bewildered, for several more seconds.

Then he smiles like the moon on a summer night, and Jim is gone.

“Well I’ll be,” McCoy says wryly, putting his elbows on the table. “Why not?”

Jim smiles shakily, licks his lips. It’s only then that he realizes the sun, already low in the sky when he’d arrived, has long since set. The too-bright fluorescent lights indoors make a stark contrast to the blackness of the windows.

Jim hums thoughtfully, lets the front legs of his chair hit the floor with a thunk. “It got late.”

“So it has,” says McCoy, frowning. He arches an eyebrow at Jim. “Were you thinkin’ you were gonna drive through the night?”

Jim shakes his head, realizing as he does so that he’d neglected to plan for sleep. Looking at the man sitting across from him, he realizes he’d neglected to plan for a lot of things. “I was gonna sleep in the parking lot, actually. In the backseat.”

“No way in hell are you doin’ that.”

“Hey,” Jim mutters. “I’ve slept in a lot of backseats. I know how it goes.”

“That shit will ruin your back,” says McCoy matter-of-factly. He gets up- his legs are long enough that he can step over the back of his chair- and flings his jacket on over his shoulders. Jim gets up too, gathering up the trash and depositing it in one of the bins before joining McCoy at a nearby kiosk.

McCoy wordlessly offers him a pamphlet. Jim frowns at it. “Motels in the area?”

“Road trips run on a good night’s sleep,” says McCoy. He leans his elbow on the kiosk and it wobbles dangerously; he hurriedly corrects himself.

“I don’t have the money to splurge on a motel every night.”

“I’ll pay.”

Jim looks up sharply. “I don’t want to be a hard luck case.”

“Jim, if anyone’s the hard luck case here, it’s me,” says McCoy, his expression softening. “Fact is, if I’m coming with you on your lil’ coming-of-age journey, I damn well better pull my weight. Besides. I want the company.”

Jim swallows. He imagines, just for an instant, that he can see McCoy’s eyes follow the movement of his throat.

Then he grins, teasing, deflecting, and bumps his shoulder against McCoy’s as he walks past. “Company, eh?” he says playfully. Behind his smile, Jim waits poised and trembling for the reply.

McCoy scoffs audibly and turns to follow Jim out. “Not that kind of company, dumbass,” he says, but his voice sounds genial enough, and when they step out into the parking lot the cool evening air tastes as sweet as peach pie in Jim’s mouth.

 

They drive for ten, twenty minutes in companionable silence, stopping only once to get McCoy’s suitcase out of the trunk of his broken-down car. Jim’s own bag has been moved to the backseat, with the hope that McCoy would replace it in the shotgun, but after scarcely a minute of Jim’s driving McCoy shoos him out from behind the wheel with a hasty, “Let me, let me,” and now Jim has been relegated to the shotgun of his own car.

I met this man today, Jim thinks, and he’s driving my car. The thought should unnerve him, yet somehow fails to do so.

They pull up to the nearest motel and pay for a room with two beds. McCoy scrubs his clothes in the sink and Jim doesn’t say anything about it. Jim puts in his worn-out retainer and McCoy doesn’t say anything about it.

They sleep as easy as if they’d known each other all their lives.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Jim startles awake, disoriented, as the car lurches to a halt. He hadn’t realized how tired he was. The rumble of the road beneath him and the repetitive vibrations of the engine had put him out like a light. He can feel the indentations in his cheek from where he slept with his face against the door.

McCoy catches his eye in the rearview mirror. “Damn,” he whistles. “Today took a lot out of you, huh.”

Jim groans, rubs his eyes and mouth. “Must’ve dozed off.”

“Try to hold off on it ’til we’re checked in. Might feel a bit more comfortable in bed.”

Jim snorts. McCoy arches his eyebrow at him and kicks open the driver’s side door, pocketing Jim’s keys as he clambers out. He’s parked them outside a roadside motel with a crowded parking lot and a badly flickering VACANCY sign. Jim rubs the back of his neck and hopes the showers are clean.

Spock looks over his shoulder. “If it’s all the same to you. I would like to pay for our room.”

“Sure, Spock,” Jim yawns, already halfway out of the backseat. “Thanks.”

“Good,” says Spock. He follows Jim out and comes to stand just behind his left shoulder. “I had thought it would be difficult to convince you.”

“Honestly, I’m tired enough to be talked into just about anything right now.”

“You seemed very insistent about paying for lunch.”

“Yeah, well, that’s different,” Jim says defensively.

“I fail to see how.”

“It just is, alright?”

Spock says nothing, but he tilts his head curiously as Jim brushes past him. He doesn’t say anything while they check in either, but he gives McCoy a shrewd look when he makes some off-hand comment about the size of the room.

“It’ll be fine,” Jim says sleepily, taking the keys and leading them back around to Room 3. The NO flickers to life in front of VACANCY as they leave the check-in office.

Jim unlocks the door and pushes it open with his shoulder, squinting in the darkness. Spock flips on the light switch and all three of them breathe a collective sigh of relief. The room is decently clean and there’s a bathroom. As far as Jim is concerned, five-star accommodations. Not even the tacky green carpet can ruin it.

Jim drops his bag just inside the door and makes a beeline for the bathroom, already pulling his shirt off over his head. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m gonna shower and then pass out for twelve hours.”

“Sounds like a damn fine idea,” says McCoy as he sheds his coat. He sounds pleasantly exhausted. “So, Spock, where’s all this money coming from anyway? Your parents, right?”

“I did not steal it,” Spock says quickly, kicking off his shoes by the door. “It began as my parents’ money, yes, but it is mine. Much like my car.”

“Before you abandoned it.”

“I have . . . poor associations with that car.”

“Rich asshole.”

“You do not know my hardships.”

“Oh, you wanna talk about hardships? I’ll give you some new ones.”

Jim doesn’t hear anything more after he turns the tap, filling the bathroom with the hissing rattle of water against porcelain. The bathroom door is still open a crack, and he can tell Spock and McCoy are having a lively back-and-forth just outside, but the shower is too loud, and their words are too muffled.

The warm water is unbearably pleasant after the long drive. It eases the ache in his muscles, the stiffness in his limbs. Jim lingers in the shower for longer than is strictly fair, scrubbing himself down with motel soap until he feels a bit more human, and when he steps dripping onto the bathmat his skin is flushed red and hot to the touch. He feels great.

Spock showers next, eyes resolutely front and center as he passes Jim, who is still toweling off while contemplating the boxy old TV in the corner of the room. Jim pulls on a pair of boxers and a worn-out undershirt and sits crosslegged on one of the beds. He picks up the remote and starts seeking a watchable channel.

It’s not long before Spock emerges from the bathroom, half dressed in sweats and a fitted black t-shirt. McCoy takes his place almost at once, and Jim hears the shower turn on again in the other room.

“You’re dripping all over the bed,” Spock says direly, raising an eyebrow. He sets the towel aside and starts digging through his bag, looking for his toothbrush. “I suppose this means you have claimed it. I will sleep in the other one.”

“Oh,” says Jim, because it hadn’t occurred to him that they’d have to work out sleeping arrangements. “Huh.”

“I’m sure Leonard won’t mind sharing yours.”

“He is not sharing mine,” says Jim, poking the TV remote at Spock’s chest. “He’s an old man, he needs his beauty sleep.”

“He is hardly old.”

“He’s an ancient, decrepit old cowboy and he’s just getting used to sleeping alone. Let the man have his own bed. I’ll bunk with you.”

Spock blanches, and his gaze drops. “I would prefer to sleep alone.”

Jim laughs weakly, and goes to seek out his own toothbrush rather than try to formulate a response. He’s certainly not going to press the issue- if a private bed is what Spock wants, then that’s damn well what Spock gets- but it doesn’t change the fact that if neither Spock nor McCoy want to bunk with him, then Jim will have to slum it out in the car. That means a long, cramped night in the backseat, trying not to wonder why neither of them wanted him.

Not an appealing option.

“Alright,” he mutters. “I’ll bunk with him, if he’ll have me.”

“Thank you.”

“Still think it’s a bit weird. He’s the senior and all. In fact,” and here he raises his voice loud enough to be heard beyond the bathroom door, “he’s the only one old enough to buy us beers!”

“Christ, Jim!” McCoy snaps, but beyond his usual irritability Jim swears he can detect a note of embarrassment.

Jim frowns, glances back and Spock and gives a little shrug. Spock inclines his head. “Don’t let it concern you. I believe Leonard is troubled by the significant difference in our ages.”

Jim hears the water shut off with a squeak, and a moment later, McCoy leans out of the bathroom with his hair still dripping and his eyes narrowed. “You talkin’ about me out here?” he says suspiciously.

Jim ducks past him into the bathroom and tries not to look at the gleam the water lends to McCoy’s skin. He starts wetting his toothbrush in the sink. “We’re trying to work out sleeping arrangements.”

McCoy frowns, and stands back so Spock can sidle into the bathroom and join Jim at the sink. “I thought you’d be bunking with Spock, being the same age and all.”

“Does it make a difference?”

“I suppose . . . it’s only logical that we divide the beds based on age,” Spock says haltingly, looking positively green about the gills. “Though I would have preferred to sleep alone.”

“You will, you will. It’s fine,” Jim says easily, squeezing Spock’s shoulder. He can feel the curve of his bones under the thin black material. “Don’t worry about it, really.”

“Good grief, Spock,” McCoy mutters, wetting his brush in the sink. “I’m a doctor, not a geriatric. You don’t have to share a bed on my account.”

The tension in Spock’s posture eases slightly- he looks visibly relieved. “Thank you,” he admits, lifting his arm so Jim can duck under and grab the rinsing cup. “I am not used to sleeping with others.”

McCoy snorts. “Quit picking on him,” Jim laughs through a mouthful of toothpaste. “I’m bunking with you tonight and that means I’m in the ideal position to take revenge on Spock’s behalf.”

“Whoa, hold on there,” McCoy says sharply, halting mid-brush. “What do you mean, I’m bunking with you?

“I seem to recall some asshole saying something about sleeping in cars being bad for my back?”

McCoy resumes brushing, muttering something obscene under his breath, and Jim grins, leans forward and spits in the sink. He winks at McCoy in the bathroom mirror. “Bit of a downgrade from the ex-Mrs. McCoy, eh?”

“Depends on how many men you’re thinkin’ of foolin’ with in the near future,” McCoy says drily, leaning over Jim’s shoulder to spit down the drain.

“I wasn’t aware that your wife was unfaithful, Leonard,” Spock frowns around the stem of his toothbrush.

“D’y’know, Spock, neither was I?”

“I didn’t mean any offense. I only meant that I find it very surprising that any partner of yours, male or female, would find you dissatisfying.”

“God I’m tired!” Jim says desperately, popping his retainer out of its little plastic case. “Who’s ready to hit the sack? I know I am!”

McCoy, white-faced, slaps his brush down on the edge of the sink. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d rather leave this subject be, hmm?”

He leaves the bathroom without another word. It’s all Jim can do to keep himself from smacking Spock on the back of the head.

“I had meant to be complimentary,” says Spock, watching McCoy retreat with a kind of muted horror.

“It’s not about what you said or didn’t say,” Jim sighs. He works his retainer into place- it’s ill-fitting from too many years without a new one- and follows McCoy out. “There are some things a man doesn’t like to think about, you know?”

“Yes,” says Spock quietly. “I do know.”

“Just . . . try not to rile him up, would you? He’s got a temper.”

“So do I.”

Jim pauses in the doorway. It hadn’t occurred to him that Spock might have a temper. He carried himself with the kind of easy, well-bred grace that mothers pointed out to their children in public, and told them to emulate.

“Well, you’ve got a better handle on it than he does,” he says slowly. “Try to keep it that way, yeah?”

“. . . Yeah.”

“Alright then,” says Jim. He shuts the door.

 

Jim spends a fitful night in McCoy’s bed- thinking of it as their bed is too much for him to consider- and doesn’t sleep for hours. Spock is out like a light, lying on his back with his hands folded neatly on his chest. Jim envies him for that. Lying in bed, untroubled by the dark prickliness of guilt that threaten to overwhelm Jim every time he hears McCoy creak the mattress behind him.

And it is guilt, that’s what it is, because McCoy is asleep and Jim’s cock is aching for attention just from being in the same bed as him, and if that’s not the most pathetic thing Jim’s ever heard, he doesn’t know what is. It feels like taking advantage. It feels like using McCoy’s body for something without his knowledge, even though there’s no way in hell Jim is touching his cock.

He feels Len- God, Len- shift in his sleep, and the warm, solid press of his chest against Jim’s back. His chest hair prickles pleasantly against the ridge of Jim’s spine; Jim can feel slow, damp puffs of breath against his shoulder blades.

It’s a tremulously new feeling, a warm body at his back like this. Last time he’d slept with someone it had been he who held her, and that had been comforting beyond measure but nothing as painfully satisfying as this.

Jim doesn’t move though. His eyes fall closed and his breath comes slow and steady, even as his heart beats dim and fast in his breast. He’s too tired and too desperately grateful for McCoy’s touch to do anything beyond lie there and enjoy it until the morning.

He only wakes once, in late hours of the night, and when he opens his eyes he sees Spock sleeping quietly in the next bed, half shrouded in darkness, unmoving. McCoy’s arm is heavy across Jim’s torso, tucking firmly against McCoy’s chest. His nose is pressed against the back of his neck. Jim can feel his scruff prickling the sunburnt skin there.

He feels safe, and wanted.

It’s been a long time.

 

McCoy is a dangerously early riser. Blame medical school.

His weight shifts on the bed, dipping the mattress, and the movement stirs Jim awake. There’s no hope of getting back to sleep, not with the morning light staining his eyelids red through the window, so Jim grunts and presses his face further into his pillow. He can hear the rasp of McCoy’s bare feet on the floor, and his belt buckle jangling as he pulls his pants up. The sound alone makes his breath catch.

Jim listens to McCoy shuffle into the bathroom, and waits for the door to close before he opens his eyes. He watches the bathroom door, and the neatly-made bed where Spock had slept the night before, until he’s satisfied that he’s alone. Then, for a brief moment, Jim lets his eyes fall closed again, and curls himself deeper into the bed. The waxy scent of old mattress isn’t quite enough to drive away the memory of McCoy’s skin- he had smelled like clean sweat, and Jim’s car, and too much motel soap. He still scrubbed his hands up to the elbow. His were the safest hands Jim had ever touched.

I want him, Jim thinks.

The thought is frightening in its simplicity. Jim listens to the sink running on the other side of the bathroom door, and thinks, I want him, and feels like a child.

He watches a single fly buzz in lazy parabolas around the smoke alarm and wonders what will happen when McCoy rejects him. If McCoy will leave, taking his bag and his first-aid kit and his furious compassion with him, and go hitchhike the rest of the way to California.

No, Jim admits begrudgingly to himself. He’d leave the first-aid kit. He’s carrying my EpiPens.

Jim is nineteen, but he knows himself well enough to know he breaks everything he touches. This car, this highway, the three of them, together . . . he can’t ruin that. He can’t. Without McCoy, he’d be alone.

Not alone. You would have Spock.

Jim’s heart aches at the thought. Spock.

Spock, who is not currently in bed, or in the now-occupied bathroom.

Jim sits up in bed and rubs his eyes, staring bleakly at the bedspread. “Len?” he says, and that name never did suit him, Len, but Jim has yet to find an endearment that feels worthy of him.

“Mornin’ sunshine!” McCoy says loudly, his voice nonetheless muffled by the bathroom door. He sounds garbled, like he’s talking through a mouthful of toothpaste. “We got a hell of a drive ahead of us so you better get your ass in gear!”

“Where’s Spock?”

“You didn’t hear him? He woke up about an hour ago, meditated for a bit, and went out to get us coffee and a couple of donuts. Said he wouldn’t be more’n a few minutes and he’d let us sleep in.”

Of course Spock meditates. The revelation is hardly surprising. Jim pulls back the covers and winces as his bare feet make contact with the cold floor. “You don’t mind having him around, do you?”

“Mind? The kid’s a treat. I’ve never seen anyone more determined to avoid rilin’ himself up.”

Jim listens to McCoy rinse, then spit in the sink. “You almost done in there?” he asks, getting up and opening the bathroom door. “I need to take a piss.”

McCoy, caught halfway through a hurried dry shave in front of the mirror, shoots Jim an exasperated look. “If you don’t mind, Jim, I haven’t had a decent shave for a few days.”

Jim leans heavily against the threshold, briefly overwhelmed by the realization that McCoy’s hands and forearms are tanned golden-brown, in sharp contrast with his pale, narrow torso. A shock of helpless affection shivers through him and Jim chuckles, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb.

I’m gone, he thinks. I’m gone, gone, gone.

McCoy looks almost embarrassed. He holds Jim’s gaze for a moment too long before looking back at the mirror, grimacing. “Don’t look at me like that,” he mumbles. “It’s all skin and bones down there. Divorce ain’t a good look on me.”

“I think you look pretty great, actually.”

McCoy snorts. “You’re gonna need glasses when you’re older.”

Jim’s hands are itching to reach out, to smooth his palms around that slender waist, but he doesn’t. He looks hungry. The thought digs its ugly teeth into Jim’s heart and bites down.

“When’s Spock gonna get back,” Jim mutters, glancing at the door. “You need breakfast.”

“We need breakfast,” McCoy corrects gently. He taps the razor out on the edge of the sink and bends down to rinse his face. “He’ll get here when he gets here, and when he does, we’re gonna eat on the road.”

Jim’s eyes follow the movement of the water dripping down McCoy’s neck. “Yeah.”

“You’re gonna eat, then I’m gonna eat. You good with that?”

“. . . Yeah.”

McCoy nods in approval and slicks his wet hair back off his face. He passes Jim on the way out of the bathroom, and Jim, dazed, lets the door fall closed behind him.

He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the bags under his eyes almost as dark as McCoy’s, and wonders what the hell he’s gotten himself into.

 

Wyoming is hot and bright, full of jewel-tone colors that vary in intensity from opal black to the sweet, full-bodied green of a cut emerald. Wheat fields shimmer like spun gold in the summer breeze. It feels like the last day of June.

McCoy drives with the window down and one arm out the window, enjoying the clear country air. Spock has long since foregone the shotgun seat to sit in the back with Jim, attempting to play chess on a travel-sized magnetic chess set without upending the pieces all over the car. It’s endearing. Jim wins three out of five games.

They’ve long since finished the doughnuts- blueberry frosted for Spock and McCoy, and lemon for Jim, smothered in star-shaped sprinkles- and discarded their empty coffee cups. Now and then Jim will glimpse a ranch through the open window behind Spock’s head, and he’ll see horses grazing peacefully in the hot sun. “Mr. Pike loved horses,” says Jim, nodding over Spock’s shoulder. He smirks as he watches Spock agonize over his next move. “We’re passing some. We’ve passed them.”

Spock doesn’t move, unfazed. “You should have asked him to teach you to ride. Why didn’t you?”

“He didn’t have any horses. He used to, back on the family ranch. Tango. He hasn’t been back to see her in years.”

“He must have loved you very much, to share so much about his life with you. Your move.”

Jim balances the tiny chessboard on his knee and puts one hand under it to keep it from collapsing. He commits the board to memory- the organized chaos of pawns and bishops- to avoid thinking about the wistful note in Spock’s voice whenever Jim mentions Pike. Jim doesn’t tell him that for a little while, when he’d been very young and prone to deep, unsustainable crushes, he’d made it his mission in life to learn everything there was to know about Pike.

Still young, he thinks, as he skips his knight over Spock’s pawn. Still prone to unsustainable crushes.

“Your move,” Jim says, completing the cautious transfer of the board across the backseat. “And yeah, I guess he did. In his own way.”

Spock holds the board carefully in his lap and takes his time mulling over his next move. he adjusts the board slightly every time the car turns, keeping the board level. “Did you ever feel the need to impress him?” he asks. His bishop takes a pawn. “Your move.”

Spock’s fingertips are cool against Jim’s palm when he passes the board back. “Yeah,” Jim says quietly. “All the time.”

“And did you succeed?”

Jim fingers hover silently over the board. His pawn has a clear path to Spock’s side of the board- one more move, and it will become a queen poised to put the king in check- but Spock’s rook will cut the new queen down before Jim can do any damage. Still, it’s almost worth it. The mad dash to the enemy’s side of the board, the moment’s exultation, the quickly stifled victory.

“He told me that I was going to make something of myself,” says Jim. “He said that he was proud of me.”

The pawn slides home.

“Your move.”

Spock clears his throat, and the comforting placidness of his face seems to slip, just for a moment. It’s gone almost as soon as it arrives. “An inexplicable gesture, Jim. My rook is poised to take your new queen.”

“Maybe,” says Jim, smiling slow. “Or maybe universe will intervene in my favor for once.”

“There is no possible scenario in which my rook will fail to-”

“Len, you’re gonna miss the turn!”

“Shit!” McCoy yelps, jerking sharply to the right. The tires screech on the pavement as they fly down the next exit, and Spock, startled, scatters the flimsy chess set all over the backseat.

Jim laughs and puts his arms behind his head. “Looks like that’s gonna be a draw, Mister Spock.”

“You cheated,” Spock narrows his eyes.

“I didn’t cheat. I merely changed the rules of the game.”

“You knew we were approaching our exit.”

“I used my knowledge and experience to my advantage, that’s all. You should’ve kept a tighter hold on the board.”

“If you don’t quit fighting I will turn this car around!” McCoy snaps over his shoulder, but he’s smiling, and after a moment, a faint smile crosses Spock’s face too.

 

They stop for lunch at a diner in a vintage roadside train car. It’s all peeling vinyl seats and flies tapping against the ceiling lamps.

There’s a jukebox in the corner and that’s nothing if not an invitation. Jim spends a solid minute and a half deliberating over which song to choose, rolling a quarter between his fingers with all the solemnity of a child ten minutes before the video arcade closes. Not many patrons today- this place doesn’t look like it sees many patrons in general- and the jukebox selection isn’t exactly the most rock n’ roll thing Jim has ever seen.

Eventually he picks a song. The quarter goes in with a satisfying clink.

“I’ll take you home again Kathleen . . .” croons through the staticky speakers. “Across the ocean wild and wide . . .”

Satisfied with his choice, Jim returns to their booth and slides in across from Spock and McCoy. The red vinyl squeaks uncomfortably as he gets settled. “You alright Spock? You’ve been kind of quiet.”

Spock’s mouth is a thin, tight line, but he nods. He spears a few bedraggled leaves of lettuce with his fork. He’s been picking his way through what passes for a salad here for the better part of half an hour. McCoy, meanwhile, is on his third plate of home fries.

“See, this, this is good food,” McCoy groans, wiping his mouth with a flimsy napkin. “Potatoes, grease, and salt.”

“I thought you were a doctor.”

“Not speakin’ as a medical man here, Jim, I’m speakin’ as someone who’s been on the road for four hours and could do with a pick-me-up.”

Jim takes another bite of his chicken sandwich and nudges Spock’s ankle under the table with his foot. “You sure you’re good?”

Another nod.

“. . . to where your heart has ever been . . . since first you were my bonnie bride . . .”

The walls of the diner are packed tight with playbills, posters, framed records, license plates, old flyers. They’ve seated themselves directly under a neon coke sign, and the red glow does remarkable things with the palette of Spock’s skin.

They sit for a while and just eat in silence, with McCoy fielding the occasional shy glance from Jim across the table and Spock staring into his salad without really seeing it. After McCoy orders his fourth plate Jim starts wondering if he’s just hungry by nature, or if Jim catching him in the bathroom had got him thinking about how fishbone skinny he is. Jim can’t imagine what a broken marriage could do with a man’s opinion of himself, let alone a man with a streak of anxiety in him a mile wide.

Jim still has a handful of fries left. He scoots his plate towards McCoy, just slightly, and McCoy gives him a suspicious look but takes the gesture for what it is. He eats one. Jim feels his heart skip.

I should do it, he thinks. What it is he barely knows, but if he doesn’t make a move soon he won’t do anything at all. Just sit in the backseat, watching McCoy’s head bob to old 70’s hits on the radio, never knowing.

He’s not stupid. He knows what he looks like, and what most people want from him. The kinds of things people think about when they look at him. But McCoy . . . he could give McCoy more than that. He could be more than that, if McCoy asked him to.

He’s already Jim’s best friend.

If Jim could only work up the nerve, he might be more.

Spock sets down his fork and tents his fingers, leaning his elbows on the table. He looks pensively up at the sign, his face looking alien in the neon glow.

“. . . your voice is sad whene’er you speak . . .”

“Jesus,” McCoy sighs pleasantly. He leans back in his seat and stretches- Jim catches a glimpse of the pale slip of his belly as his shirt rucks up. “That was satisfyin’ as hell.”

Spock hums noncommittally.

“I’m gonna hit the head. Don’t forget, I’m payin’ this time,” McCoy adds, sliding out of the booth and stretching his legs too.

He walks the length of the diner to the restrooms and Jim turns to Spock, frowning. “Hey, was it something I said?” he asks, having learned that straightforward questions and answers are the best ways to handle Spock. “Are you still sore because I cheated? Hey,” he says again, nudging Spock’s ankle again.

Spock twitches, and seems to resurface from whatever bad place he’d been lost in. “No,” he says. “Just considering.”

Jim doesn’t push the point. He picks at his remaining fries, glancing up at Spock occasionally as he waits for him to speak. He’ll speak when he’s ready- or at least, Jim hopes he will. He hopes Spock feels safe enough to divulge.

Spock clears his throat. “My . . . father,” he says haltingly, “was not so . . . demonstrative, as your Mr. Pike seems to have been.”

“Oh.”

“This is not to say he did not care for me, in his own way.”

Jim nods, at a loss for words.

“I feel . . . guilty,” Spock’s voice is more of a mumble now, almost lost beneath the crooning from the jukebox, “for going against his wishes. For leaving for an . . . an uncertain fate in California. You told me you feel as though you betrayed Mr. Pike by failing to live up to your bright future. I feel much the same.”

Jim pushes the fries aside and leans forward, touching his fingertips to Spock’s wrist. Spock’s hand jerks away unconsciously, and Jim falls back, hands raised in surrender. “I know,” he says gently. “I know you do. Maybe you made the right choice, striking out on your own, maybe you didn’t, but even if it all goes ass-up, I promise you, I promise . . . you’re gonna be okay. So will I. So will your dad.”

“I,” says Spock, and Jim’s heart lurches in horror when he realizes Spock is crying. There’s a brightness to his eyes that wasn’t there before, and his shoulders are hunched, as though struggling to contain an outburst. “I’m afraid I- I- I am uncertain of my future.”

“Spock,” Jim murmurs. “You’re the brightest guy I know. You have a hell of a future ahead of you.”

“I cannot be sure of that.”

“Of course not, no one can.”

“Even if I wanted to go back to my father,” says Spock, and Jim is startled by the surprising ferocity in his voice, “he would not welcome me back.”

He stands up abruptly. “Spock,” says Jim, mirroring the action, “if you need some air, get some air. But don’t go ditching us, alright?”

Spock is patting down his pockets. He mutters something almost like, “I do not want him to see,” when Jim reaches out, grabs his arm and holds it still.

“Remember?” he says gently. “Len said he’ll pay.”

Spock seems to stare straight through him, his face twitching. Then he nods slightly and straightens out his shirt, brushing past Jim and out the door at a brisk stride.

Jim watches him go.

Then he slaps the table hard enough to rattle the silverware.

The brief act of violence mollifies him somewhat. He sits down and fumbles with McCoy’s coat, looking for his wallet.

By the time the waitress comes around with the check, Jim has found it, and his mind is a million miles away when he flips the wallet open. He pays in cash and thinks about Spock. Jim’s feet are practically twitching to take him out there, to drop him at Spock’s side and . . .

And sit. Just sit with him, faces tilted to the sun. Bleeding out. Spock could do with a little silence right now, but something tells Jim that he needs Jim’s silence more.

As he tucks the receipt back into McCoy’s wallet he feels something hard and round in one of the card slots. Not change, it’s too lumpy for that. But metal. Jim glances at the bathroom door, finds it occupied. He upends McCoy’s wedding ring into his palm.

The worn-out gold still had some gleam to it. It’s been polished not just once, but many times.

Jim feels an unbidden rush of unkind hatred towards Jocelyn McCoy. He feels guilty for it at once, and tucks the ring back where he found it. She had hurt McCoy, yes- and very badly, at that- but from the way McCoy tells it, they hadn’t been much good for each other anyway.

Even holding the ring feels like a violation. Like he’s caught McCoy in the act of something shameful.

Jim stows the wallet back into McCoy’s jacket and leaves it on the table. He gets up, legs aching from the confinement of the booth, and leaves the diner with only a brief glance at the restroom door.

He finds Spock out behind the building, sitting in the dust, his back leaned against the hot metal of a dumpster. Jim plunks himself down next to him and rests his hand on Spock’s shoulder. Spock, head bowed, does nothing to dissuade him.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” says Jim, because he’s not sure what else he can say. “You’re only human.”

His thumb rubs circles into the back of Spock’s neck. Spock makes a low, frustrated sound and rubs the bridge of his nose with one hand.

“You’re not a failure,” says Jim. “You’re not a lost cause.”

He knows at once that it’s the right thing to say because Spock visibly sags, his shoulders slumping under Jim’s hand.

“You’re not a lost cause for ditching MIT. McCoy’s not a failure for losing his wife, or the custody battle, or anything else for that matter.”

Spock gives him a dark look, his eyes half-lidded, and says nothing.

Jim’s skin crawls with discomfort as he reads the look on Spock’s face. He licks his lips. “And,” he says. “And . . .”

And you were supposed to do great things.

He was so, so proud. He gave you his time, and his attention.

And you squandered it.

“And neither am I,” says Jim. The words seem to bleed out of him, but out they come.

“Neither are you,” says Spock, in quiet agreement. “Neither are you.”

 

It’s a long, lazy road to the Devil’s Tower, and they take their sweet time getting there. They stop only once, at a gas station outside a small town with a ridiculous name. McCoy spends a little too long inside the convenience store, and returns with a pair of god-awful sunglasses and a shopping bag he puts in the trunk before Jim gets a chance to see.

They drive on, towards the afternoon sun, Spock with his head demurely lowered to avoid the light and McCoy with his sunglasses, grinning, facing it head-on. Jim dozes in the backseat, feeling too well-fed to want to do anything but sleep.

He loiters on the line between deep, satisfied slumber, and complete awareness- his thoughts spiral in strange, dreamlike directions, but he can hear every word Spock and McCoy are saying in the front seat.

He’s glad they’re talking. Bonding, growing closer. There had been a terrible look in McCoy’s eyes when he found them outside the diner; a look that was quickly eclipsed by something almost wistful when he offered his hand to pull Jim up. “Glad you’re gettin’ on well,” he’d said gruffly. “Good for you to have friends your own age.”

He didn’t know about Spock, and Spock didn’t tell him. Nonetheless, Jim gets the sense that Spock could do with a little closeness. He seems like the kind of person who doesn’t handle a loss of control well.

The open plains of Wyoming smear colors in Jim’s eyes as they streak past the window. The movement of the car beneath him, and the knowledge of the highway flying by beneath that, is unbearably soothing. The voices of Spock and McCoy are even more so.

Jim feels as big as a goddamn mountain.

He feels full. The thought of the two men in the front seat, of having two whole people in his life whom he can love, is almost too much for him to grasp. Something is roaring in his chest, something as big as the universe.

Jim sighs as the sun presses warm against his skin.

He is in love.

He already knows that whatever that looks like- whatever McCoy needs from him, whatever Spock doesn’t need- he’ll give it. He watches the dark silhouettes of their profiles against the sunlit windshields, murmuring to each other, and they must be murmuring something good because McCoy has the same look in his eyes that he has when he looks at Jim.

This . . . this could be good.

This could be everything.

 

The Devil’s Tower is an exquisite natural rock formation, dizzyingly high. Jim, who’s not sure what he’d been expecting- a mountain maybe, or a dull rock face- feels an unexpected surge of wonder upon seeing it.

It’s him who leaves the car first, closely followed by Spock. He stands with his hands sheilding his eyes to look up at the distant pillar. It resembles nothing so much as the stump of a vast tree, standing alone in a distant tangle of vegetation. A monolith. A dark tower.

“I do not shoot with my hand,” Jim intones solemnly. “He who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.”

He hears McCoy’s snort of laughter from behind him, and grins.

“This geological formation is ancient,” Spock says in wonder, unfolding a little park booklet and looking between it and the sheer, smooth rock face. “Beyond ancient. It’s possible that this is all that remains of a long-dead volcano at this site.”

“So how big would a guy have to be,” says Jim seriously, “to cut down a tree of this size?”

Spock plows on, ignoring him. “The base of the mountain is populated primarily by prairie dogs and white-tailed deer.“

“And tourists.”

“I’d like to get a closer look,” Spock looks almost excited. Jim’s heart could burst from his chest to see him like that. He’s carried himself with such easy relaxation since he started talking with McCoy. “I’m going to hike to the base.”

“I’ll go with you,” McCoy says brightly, squinting at the sky over the rim of his sunglasses. “I could do with a trek through the good old-fashioned wilderness. No people, no worries.”

“A few people,” Jim grins, leaning against the hood of the car. It’s hot enough to sear him through his jeans. “A few worries.”

They’ve parked in a dusty lot set aside for hikers and tourists, far enough away to get some ideal photos but close enough to make the trek to the base. It’s the last day of June, so while a not inconsiderable number of tourists are getting out of their cars and hiking towards the tower, most of them lack the equipment of serious rock-climbers.

Spock sets out on the nearest hiking trail, winding towards the base of the rock formation. His map is still unfolded in his hands as he checks it. McCoy lingers for a moment before following him. “You comin’?”

Jim shakes his head, waves them on. “You go,” he says. “I’ll give you two some space.”

McCoy gives Jim a firm, lingering pat on the back of the neck before following in Spock’s footsteps. His first-aid bag is slung over his shoulders, and his hands are in his pockets. It’s a hot, dry day, the sun halfway to the horizon but still bright enough to set the stone aglow.

Jim watches them go with a burning fondness still lighting up his head like fireworks. He leans back on the hood of the car and puts his arms behind his head, eyes falling closed. Enjoying the brief moment of silence.

He feels good. He feels flush with life, and new possibilities.

He spends a few minutes taking pictures in front of the distant pillar, head cocked to the side like he’s leaning against its massive bulk. After that he goes and sits out amid the flora, finding a cool, shady spot between two spindly trees and opening his log book to document the day. There’s a clump of thin, reedy desert flowers nearby. Jim clips one, and after a moment of thought, tucks it into the back of his journal.

He had hated how lonely he’d been in Riverside. Turns out, being alone is far, far sweeter when you know you don’t have to be lonely anymore.

Jim sits cross-legged, journal open in his lap, and writes for what feels like hours. Spock and Len litter the pages in carefully inked, curving letters, penned with much more care than the rest. He feels like a teenage girl. It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling.

He only looks up when McCoy prods him in the leg with his shoe.

“Hey,” he says breathlessly. His skin is shiny with sweat, like he’s just hiked a mile, but he’s smiling fit to burst as he runs his hand fondly through Jim’s hair. “You been sittin’ here this whole time?”

Jim blinks up at the horizon; the sun is dangerously low in the sky by now, and the desert has the shimmery, creamsicle-orange color of an early sunset. McCoy offers his hand to pull Jim up, and he takes it, holding on a little too long as he gets to his feet.

“He’s fine,” says McCoy, in answer to Jim’s unasked question. “He wanted to stay for a while, take some notes on the local geology before the sun goes down all the way.”

“How was the hike?”

“Invigoratin’, Jim, you should have been there. Even Spock seemed to think so. ‘Kept readin’ off supposedly interestin’ facts about the local vegetation.”

“You committed it all to memory, I hope.”

“Every word,” says McCoy, with surprising sincerity. “I like him, Jim.”

“Me too.”

Jim stretches his arms up over his head, wringing a little of the tension out of his limbs. He lets them drop. “You know, I think I like Wyoming too.”

McCoy’s appraises Jim, considering. He evidently arrives at a conclusion he likes because he claps Jim on the back, and starts steering him towards the lot where they’ve parked the Volkswagen. “Hey, c’mere. I got somethin’ for you.”

Jim chuckles, feeling uncomfortably aware of McCoy’s palm against his back. His mind, already slow from the evening heat, begins to escape him. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” says McCoy with an amused smirk. He pats Jim once more on the back before letting his hand drop, and pops the trunk of the car. He leans over into it and starts digging around. “I seem to recall you makin’ some kind of crack about my age back at the motel . . ?”

“Christ,” Jim laughs, bracing his hand against the driver’s side door. “You didn’t.”

McCoy holds up a full sixer and raises an eyebrow. “I’d say don’t tell your mom but that seems a mite tone-deaf.”

Jim smiles, takes one of the beers and cracks it open with a satisfying hiss. “You’re not wrong.”

They lean against the hood of the car, happily exhausted, and knock their bottles together. The trunk kept the beer cool, not cold, but nonetheless that first swallow is just about the best thing Jim’s ever tasted. McCoy’s body is warm next to his. The sun paints pretty pastels with the angles of the Devil’s Tower. It’s the kind of night that could make a kid reckless.

Jim takes a deep, cool swallow of beer, eyes closed and head tilted up, and gasps when he lowers the bottle. He wipes his mouth on the back of his wrist. “I’m glad we came here.”

“So am I,” says McCoy, not looking at the tower.

Now and then another group of hikers, hefting all manner of bags, backpacks, and camping gear along with them for late-night adventuring, will catch Jim’s eye. He wonders if they suspect he’s nineteen, knows that none of them would care if they did. He raises the bottle to one teenager in a mock toast, and she shakes her head and follows her parents along the trail.

“You know,” says Jim, “I think this might be the happiest I’ve ever been.” He gestures at the high, craggy mountain face. “Not just this, here, but . . . all of this. You, and him, and the long road away from Riverside.”

McCoy rolls his beer back and forth in his hands. Jim watches his fingertips smudge the glass. “I’m glad you’re happy,” he says quietly. “You got no idea what you look like when you’re happy.”

Jim looks down at his own hands, wringing them idly together the way he always does when he’s nervous. It’s not nerves, though. Not this time.

“I didn’t think I’d ever have this,” Jim mutters. “Figured it was my own fault for letting my life slip through my fingers, y’know?”

“Don’t be a fool, Jim,” says McCoy. He catches Jim’s arm, hooks his thumb under it just so, to turn Jim to face him. “You’re sharper than you think, and a good leader. If you’ve got a fault it’s that you’re young, and untried, and think every hard luck case is worth pickin’ up.”

“They are. You are.”

“You’re young,” McCoy says helplessly. “God you’re young. The universe loves boys like you, Jim. You’re life ain’t slippin’ through your fingers. You ain’t a goddamn lost cause at nineteen. You ain’t gonna end up like me.”

“You’re not a lost cause.”

“You can’t see it, Jim,” McCoy says bitterly. “You’ve got no right lookin’ at me the way you do. I’ve lost everything.”

“No,” says Jim.

He touches his hand to McCoy’s chest and McCoy’s breathing hitches.

“You haven’t lost everything,” Jim says fiercely. “You’ve still got this. You’ve got your hands, your beating heart, your bones. You’ve still got this.

Bones looks stricken. His hand comes up to clasp tightly at Jim’s, and to Jim’s dismay, he can feel it shaking. “Jim,” he says, and all at once Jim remembers that the last thing he needs is for Bones to be holding his left hand right now, but before he can pull away, he sees Bones’ expression shift as he realizes something is wrong.

Jim tries to gently extricate his hand from Bones’ grip but Bones doesn’t let go. Instead he holds it carefully in both hands, his full attention now directed towards running his thumb lightly over the ring and pinky fingers. Jim feels a weak bubble of affection rise in him as he endures the sudden attention. Please, he thinks, don’t ask. I think I’m in love with you. Please don’t ask.

“This didn’t heal right,” says Bones, a note of frustration in his voice as he examines the two fingers in question.

Jim knows they didn’t- after all, they hadn’t been properly set. Bones could feel out the imperfections in the joints without even looking. Of course he could.

“What happened?” Bones asks. He holds Jim’s hand like he might hold a wounded bird.

A momentary shiver runs through Jim and he ignores it. Football accident, he thinks. No, motorcycle accident. Slipped on prom night. Broke them on a bully’s jaw.

What he says instead is, “My stepdad shut a car door on my hand.”

Bones’ thumb has been tracing slow, careful circles on the back of Jim’s hand. The soothing motion stops, just for a moment, and then resumes.

“I see,” says Bones.

“I was back-talking.”

“Were you now.”

“I was a real brat,” Jim adds, very quietly. It’s important to him that Bones knows that. It’s important to him that everyone knows that.

“This healed a long time ago,” says Bones.

“I was eleven.”

Jim has the decency to pretend like he can’t see the look on Bones’ face. “Y’know,” Bones says, his voice steady and surprisingly calm, “I don’t think I like your stepdad much.”

Jim chuckles weakly. “Yeah, well. I got him back for it.”

“Oh did you now?”

“I drove that goddamn car off a cliff.”

Bones’s eyes, Jim decides, are far too telling for a man who claims to be so cynical. “That’s my Jim,” he says, squeezing Jim’s hand. “That’s the man I followed west.”

It’s Jim who leans in first.

Bones’ lips are soft and dry, unprepared for this, and as Jim touches his mouth to his he hears Bones make a sound like he’s been punched. Jim presses a little closer, a little more insistent- here I am, he thinks, settling in more firmly against Bones’ mouth. Take. Take. He feels Bones’ hands against the smooth, hard lines of Jim’s waist, and god, he wants to feel how those hands might slip into place in the small of his back.

They don’t. Bones pulls away first and Jim chases the kiss for a moment too long, lips still parted for it before the realization can travel from his mouth to his brain. The mortification follows quick, and Jim shuts his mouth, face burning with embarrassment.

Bones is looking at him like a man in a corner, all wide-eyed and hoarse-breathed, and something is wrong, something is very, very wrong and it’s all Jim’s goddamn fault. Of course it is. If he’d only managed to keep it in his pants for a single moment, if he could just have taken Bones’ attention for what it was- friendship- and not made such a fool of himself.

He should’ve known better.

Jim slams his fist down hard on the hood of the car, and winces as he splits the skin. Bones notes it, his eyes flickering down like he can smell blood, but it’s a testament to how shaken he is that he says nothing, offers nothing.

Jim’s ruined it. He’s ruined everything.

I break everything I touch.

“I can’t . . .” Bones says weakly. “Look, I . . . Jim . . . nineteen . . .”

He gestures helplessly between their bodies, at a loss for words.

Shame begets anger, and Jim can feel the anger rising hot and ugly in his blood. Anger is easy, easy, easy. Anger at himself for making himself vulnerable to an older, better man. Angry at Bones for keeping that goddamn ring in his wallet. Anger at the cool, sharp taste of beer still lingering in his mouth.

Bones must see something in Jim’s eyes because his look of devastation worsens. “I can’t,” he repeats, in a very small voice.

“Why?” Jim snaps, and Bones actually flinches, damn him. “Why not?”

“You don’t get it, Jim,” He grips Jim’s shoulders- Jim can feel the heat of his palms through his shirt. “It’s not . . . you’re . . . I’m me,” he stammers. “You got eyes, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I got eyes,” Jim narrows them. “Eyes that see you rubbing your ring finger when you look at me.”

“Jim-”

“You’re not a married man anymore, you know. It doesn’t matter how faithful you think you are. She’s not coming back.”

Bones’ face goes ice-white, his hands clenching down hard on Jim’s shoulders before he shoves him roughly back. He stabs a finger at Jim’s chest, mouth opening and closing as he tries to get words out. For one wild moment, Jim wonders if Bones is gonna hit him. It’d probably hurt less.

“Fuck you,” he croaks. Then he gets in the car and slams the door.

Jim kicks the door hard with a snarl, leaving a dusty bootprint on the paint. Stupid, stupid, stupid for letting himself say that shit, like he had any right to after getting what he should have expected all along. He shouldn’t have mentioned his wife. He shouldn’t have done any of it. Stupid.

His ears are ringing. Beyond that awful noise, he can hear footsteps crunching on gravel. Jim whirls around, fists clenched and ready for who knows what, only to see Spock trudging wearily back up the trail. He looks exhausted, but happy.

“Had a good time?” Jim snaps.

Spock’s steps falter. “Yes. I did.”

“Great!” Jim’s voice is all false lightness as he wrenches open the driver’s side door.

He slides in behind the wheel and slams the door behind him. He twists the key in the ignition and the headlights blaze to life, abruptly illuminating Spock in cold, artificial light. He doesn’t so much as blink at the sudden brightness, but his eyes narrow, and Jim wonders for a moment if he’s going to get in the car at all.

He does. He slides into the backseat without a word, and sets his map of the region on the seat beside him.

Bones, meanwhile, is sitting in the shotgun with one boot up on the dash. His arms are folded tight like a petulant child. He looks murderous.

It’s a testament to how badly Jim pissed him off that he doesn’t say a word when Jim pulls them out of the lot and sends them tearing off down the southbound road. Ordinarily, any attempt on Jim’s part to drive would be met with well-meaning admonishments and complaints about carsickness. Not tonight.

Jim’s hands tighten on the wheel- it’s his car, it’s his own goddamn car- and sets his eyes to the dark horizon. He thinks of being eleven, driving fast and driving faster. If you so much as touch that car, Jimmy, I swear to god . . .

But Jim breaks everything he touches.

“Where are we goin’,” Bones mutters. It’s less of a question and more of a curse.

“Colorado,” says Jim, because that’s the direction they’re pointing, and right now he feels like he could drive and drive and drive till the driving kills him.

“What’s in Colorado?”

Jim’s foot falls a little harder on the gas than he means to.

“I don’t care.”

Chapter Text

His legs won’t move.

You goddamn psychopath.

Nothing moves, actually. There’s a dull ache in his limbs, and a shiver of pain somewhere in the vicinity of his liver. Jim’s head is ringing like he’s been kicked by a horse.

Wake up. You’re bleeding.

He wants nothing more than to sink back, back, back into the black waters of sleep. His skin prickles hot and cold all at once. There are hands on him. Smoothing his hair back, gripping his collar, shaking him into alertness.

Jim.

Jim mumbles something incomprehensible and is greeted by a sharp smack to the side of the head. It stings like a bitch. “Wake up,” someone hisses. Bones. “You crashed the goddamn car.”

Jim grins, a dazed show of teeth. “Shoulda seen Frank’s face.”

“No, you crashed our car.”

“No, no.”

“Yeah, Jim, you did.”

“No,” Jim repeats. Bones’ face is swimming before his eyes, going in and out of focus. His eyes are red-rimmed and viciously intent. Jim can feel Bones’ fingertips skimming along his face, his neck. He’s got Jim’s wrist tight in his other hand, like he’d been checking the pulse.

Jim can hear the wind whistling against the side of the car. No rumble of the road, no music on the radio. Just the wind, and the hiss of a cooling engine.

“Jesus,” he groans. He presses his hands to his eyes, tries to rub the haze out of them. “Jesus Christ.”

“Nope,” Bones grunts, squeezing Jim’s shoulders as he peers into his eyes. “Just me. Listen, some of the glass-”

“Spock,” says Jim. He grips Bones’ arm and uses it to steady himself as he drags his aching body out of the car. “Check on him.”

“Have you got-”

“Now, Bones.”

The order, issued in that tone, is enough to shut Bones’ mouth. He nods curtly and leaves Jim wobbling in the dust, jogging around to the other side of the car. Jim tries to stay upright but his vision is hazy, and he has to lower himself to the ground before he collapses. He braces himself with both hands in the dirt until his vision clears.

There's nothing around for miles.

It’s dangerously dark. Jim can only discern the horizon by finding where the stars stop- the darkness paints the plains and the sky equally nebulous shades of bluish-black. The most he can make out are a few dim, chunky silhouettes of rocky outcroppings rising against the sky. They may as well be alone on an alien planet.

Jim doesn’t want to look behind him. He looks anyway.

Oh.

He tries to tell himself it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. It looks like they went off the road, fast, and rammed through a lot of tangled undergrowth before grinding to a halt on a rocky embankment. Jim’s car looks like a beached whale lying slumped in the sand. The hood is crimped and hissing, and the whole frame is listing to the side as though something load-bearing has given way beneath it.

Jim, still on his hands and knees, tries to catch a glimpse of the underside of the wreck. He doesn’t know much about cars, but he’s reasonably sure they aren’t meant to look like crumpled aluminum foil.

“Shit,” he says weakly. He wipes his eyes with the heel of his palm. “Shit. Shit.”

There’s no going back from this. One chance at freedom, at being someone to somebody, and he’d totaled it on the side of some dark highway in the middle of nowhere. Recklessness. Selfish, childish recklessness. Anger at himself for being too young and too stupid, anger at Bones for not being young enough or stupid enough to take him seriously.

Like he’d take him seriously now.

The night air pricks his skin until goosebump rise. Jim’s shirt is sharply torn on the left side, exposing a cluster of glass cuts spiderwebbing across his arm and lower torso. Maybe that’s why he’s so dizzy. Jim doesn’t want to think about it.

“He’s not dead!” shouts Bones from the backseat. There’s a wildness to his voice that only upsets Jim further. If Bones doesn’t keep it together now, Jim thinks he might just pass out.

He gets to his feet and helps Spock climb down from the backseat. He’s a little unsteady on his feet, and he lets Jim and Bones support him on either side for a moment before he stands on his own. He looks calm, but shaken. “I’m alright, Jim.”

Jim wants to crawl under a rock and die. Bones looks like he’s picking out a suitable rock already.

“I’m,” Jim croaks. “I.”

“It’s a good thing,” says Bones, coldly and clearly, “that Spock’s alright.”

Jim nods.

The three of them sit down heavily in the dirt and stare at the car. Jim can hear something dripping. Oil, probably. They’re lucky the damn thing isn’t on fire. The night air licks insistently at Jim’s cuts but he bears it with a grimace. The last thing he wants to do right now is ask Bones for help.

Bones keeps glancing from Jim to the car and back again. He looks murderous. “You really screwed the pooch on this one.”

“You’re right,” says Jim. He has no strength to argue with him. “You’re right.”

He takes a deep breath and sits a little straighter. Now is not the time to fall apart. He can fall apart later. Right now, he needs make this right. Jim checks his phone battery- nothing, of course. “Spock, how’s your phone looking?”

Spock is sitting with his back leaned against Jim’s shoulder, his arms tightly folded against the nighttime chill. “I’m afraid mine is completely out of charge,” he says, like he’s reading off a damn statistic.

“Mine too.”

“What do you think the odds are that someone’s gonna drive through this particular patch of nowhere tonight?” Jim asks miserably.

The hiss of the engine grows quieter as the metal cools off. No one has an answer for him.

 

Time passes second by second, hour by hour, like water wearing away at a ravine. Jim counts the minutes by how many mosquitos he slaps off his neck.

Bones had the foresight to pack a flashlight in his med kit- a tiny plastic one, barely the size of a keychain- and is holding it in his teeth as he inspects Jim’s arm. Jim stares straight ahead, watching Spock pace in wide parabolas around the car. As Spock had wisely pointed out, there was nothing to do but wait it out until morning, and hope there was a town somewhere within walking distance.

Jim hisses when Bones applies the antiseptic. “It’s fine,” Bones mutters, rolling his eyes. “You’re fine.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I know you are.”

“About everything.”

Spock’s silhouette is a dim, distant shadow now, a black spot against the stars. Jim can barely distinguish him. He wants to call out, have Spock come over and mediate, but he knows that’s not an option. Not for this. This is Jim’s to fix.

“Why’d you have to say that shit to me at the Devil’s Tower?” says Bones. His voice is ugly, bitter, but his hands are still steady when he holds Jim’s arm.

Jim shuts his eyes, lets his head drop. “Bones . . .”

“And I don’t wanna hear you lie.”

“. . . I was pissed. I wanted to hurt you and figured it was the worst thing I could say.”

“Yeah, you were right.”

They watch Spock lean against the car. His bag is slung over his shoulder, along with Jim’s. His face is tilted towards the stars.

“If anything had happened to him,” says Jim.

“Well, Jim, I might just’ve killed you myself.”

“Get in line.”

Bones snorts a laugh and turns back to his med kit, sifting through it for a bandage suitable for Jim’s cuts. Jim picks idly at clumps of dry grass. “You don’t have to stay. In the morning, when we walk to wherever the next town is. You don’t have to stay.”

“Got nowhere else I wanna be,” says Bones. He doesn’t sound happy about it.

“Leonard!” Spock says loudly. “Jim!”

Jim looks up, shocked, and his eyes are met by the bright, distant glare of headlights. It’s a car. No, it’s a pickup truck.

“Holy shit,” Jim breathes, shrugging Bones off as he scrambles to his feet.

“Excuse me!” Spock shouts, approaching the road with one arm raised. “Excuse me! We need help!”

“Stop the truck!” Jim jogs to a halt beside him, hands braced against his knees as he catches his breath. “Please!”

The headlights grow closer, splitting the darkness with two beams of artificial light. Jim watches miserably as the truck passes them without any sign of slowing down.

“Dammit,” he mutters. He rubs the back of his neck. “Dammit.”

Bones cups his hands over his mouth, evidently gearing up to hurl some abuse at the receding taillights, but the truck lurches to a halt before he gets a chance. Spock hurriedly tugs Bones’ arms down

The truck is a big, hopelessly out-of-date model, but polished like new. The few seconds between it halting and it backing up feel like an eternity. Bones takes a few hurried steps back from the road as it slows to a stop in front of them.

The passenger window rolls down and an older man in a dark red wifebeater leans out, elbow hooked over the window frame. He squints at the wreckage. “You lot havin’ a bit of trouble then?”

Jim can see the driver seated behind him, craning his neck to get a view of the carnage. He's a slim, handsome man in a collared shirt and vest, both in varying degrees of eggshell yellow. His eyebrows are raised in bemusement.

“Yeah,” says Jim, still a little breathless from shouting. “You could . . . you could say that, yeah.”

“I don’t suppose,” says the man in the tank top, but the driver leans into him and mutters something that makes him pause. Jim stands there, awkwardly watching them whisper amongst themselves, until the stranger clears his throat and leans back out the window. “I don’t suppose you’d like me to have a look at her, then?”

“Please,” says Jim earnestly. “We can pay you.”

The stranger waves Jim off. “Bollocks to that. It’s no trouble.”

He shoves the truck door open with one grimy workboot and hops down with surprising lightness. He wipes his hand on his grease-stained jeans before offering it to Jim. “Montgomery Scott,” he says with an easy smile. “My mates call me Scotty. I’m the night shift at the local garage.”

Behind him, the driver’s smile twitches.

“Jim,” says Jim, shaking Scotty’s hand. “Jim Kirk. These are my friends, Spock Grayson and Dr. Leonard McCoy.”

“Pleasure, pleasure,” says Scotty, offering each of them perfunctory handshakes while he scopes out the car. “Hope y’haven’t been stuck here long.”

“Long enough.”

The first thing Scotty does is get on his knees, kneeling down to inspect the underside of the car just like Jim had. Jim can tell Bones is itching to be useful because he sidles in alongside Scotty at once, briskly professional, as though Jim’s Volkswagen were a patient in need of critical care.

The driver leaves the keys in the ignition and hops down from the cab of the truck, walking around front to greet them. “You picked a good place to crash,” he says, offering his hand to Spock first. “Good time, too. A couple hours later and we might never have found you. Hikaru Sulu.”

“Spock,” says Spock, “and Jim.”

Sulu’s hands are smaller than Scotty’s, but his handshakes are just as firm. “Pleasure to meet you both.”

“So . . .” says Jim, glancing over his shoulder at Bones and Scotty. They’re circling the car now, Scotty pointing out weak points in the metal, Bones anxiously bobbing around behind him. “Are you two just out looking for hard luck cases?”

“Not hardly,” says Sulu, without elaboration. He checks his watch- a big, solid-looking black timepiece- and glances at Scotty’s back before returning his attention to Jim. “I think the bigger question is, what are you three doing out here in a car with Iowa plates?”

“We’re going to California,” says Jim. “All three of us.”

A look of interest crosses Sulu’s face. “You’re driving there?”

Spock nods. “Yes, we are.”

“Not in that, you’re not.”

Jim looks around and sees that Scotty is already returning the rest of the group. He’s scrubbing down his hands with a wet wipe from Bones’ first aid kit. He looks grim. “Well,” he says, in that very particular Mechanic’s Voice that indicates bad news is on the way. “I cannae promise anything.”

Jim’s heart sinks into his shoes. Scotty must see this because he raises a hand in a placating gesture.

“Hang on,” he says, “hang on. If y’don’t mind a bit of a drive, we can tow her back to the garage and I can-” Sulu clears his throat, and Scotty hesitates. Then he gives the group an apologetic grimace. “Give us a moment, lads.”

Jim watches, nonplussed, as Scotty and Sulu move a little ways away and start talking in hushed tones, their backs to the rest of the group. He leans a little closer to Spock and whispers, “Do you think they’re actually gonna fix my car?”

“I see no reason why they would,” Spock whispers back. “There is nothing to be gained from helping us.”

“Maybe they’re just nice people.”

“Or they could be hoping to take advantage of us.”

“They’re not highway bandits, Spock,” says Bones, coming up just behind Spock’s shoulder. He scowls at Sulu’s back. “Did you see that kid? He’s nineteen if he’s a day.”

“Age is not an indicator of intent, Leonard.”

“I did said we could pay them,” Jim whispers back. He straightens up hurriedly as Scotty and Sulu turn around and rejoin the group.

“So can you fix it?” Bones prompts.

“Aye,” says Scotty. He exchanges a quick glance with Sulu, whose face betrays nothing. “I can fix her. Let’s just bring her back to the garage and see if I can’t have her up and runnin’ by noontime on the dot. Not a minute later.”

“Really? You mean that?”

“Oh, aye. Sure enough. Not a minute after noon,” says Scotty with a wary smile. “Y’don’t want t’ be there when the day shift gets in. He’ll, uh. He’ll price gouge y’out of house and home, let’s say. Me though,” and here he points at his chest with one thumb, “I’ll get y’up and running again for nothin’ at all. No need to thank me.”

Bones shoots a warning look at Jim. Jim swallows, but holds out his hand. Scotty’s grip just about crushes it. “Thank you,” says Jim, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on the leg of his jeans. “You have no idea how grateful we are. You’re a miracle worker.”

“Don’t go giving him an ego,” Sulu says dryly. He taps his watch in Scotty’s direction. “Tick tock, my friend.”

“Right then,” says Scotty, rubbing his hands together briskly. “Let’s get her hooked up. Quick now, we got a long night ahead of us.”

 

The three of them squeeze into the back of the truck, packed tightly together in the cramped backseat. Jim has to move several buckets of still steaming chicken wings off the seat before he can cram himself up against the wall. Bones takes the middle, in a misguided attempt to accommodate for his legs by propping them up on the console between Scotty and Sulu’s chairs. Jim, still balancing two fast food buckets on his knees, has no space to shift positions.

“Sorry about the mess back there,” says Sulu, hopping up into the truck. He folds the driver’s seat back into an upright position- Jim whines- and settles in, turning the key in the ignition just as Scotty hops up into the shotgun. “We, uh. This is the most people I’ve had in this truck at one time.”

“I can see why,” says Spock, with just the barest hint of detached amusement that makes Jim stifle a snort. He can’t see him from this angle, but he doesn’t need to.

Jim tries to find a place to put his feet, but there’s not an inch of floorspace that doesn’t crunch with discarded fast food wrappers. “What are you even doing out here this late?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” says Scotty, with the resigned tone of a man used to sleepless nights. “Thought we’d go out and get some wings, bring them back to the house.”

“It’s all very domestic,” says Sulu. The truck pulls back onto the road, careful not to jostle the Volkswagen as it rattles along behind.

“You came out here,” Spock says, with audible concern, “to get fast food?”

“The nearest wing place is forty-five minutes away.”

Spock cranes his neck to catch Jim’s eye across Bones’ lap. Jim mouths small towns at him and shrugs.

“Ach,” Scotty grunts, turning around in his seat and gesturing for Jim to pass a bucket up. “Pass one of those up here, aye?”

“You live together, then?” says Spock with interest.

“He’s my roommate.”

Something hard and sharp is digging into the jut of Jim’s hip. He realizes it’s a library book, one of several squashed behind him and Bones in the backseat. They all bear the bright, peeling stickers of a small town library.

The small town in question doesn’t rise up from the gloom for a good fifteen minutes, during which time, Jim learns more about Scotty and Sulu than he ever wanted or intended to know. For one thing, Scotty is an over-sharer.

Jim likes them. Sulu in particular; he gets the sense that there’s a wandering mind there, and a heart brimming with the same directionless desperation that drove Jim to leave Riverside in the first place. He can’t help but wonder if he’s Scotty’s only friend. It wouldn’t surprise him.

Sulu drives them up a winding, pothole-pitted road on the edge of whatever lonely old town they live in. Street lamps cast pools of orange light every few meters, intercut with the flickering shadows of moths. The houses are all the same washed-out white of rural suburbia, and the Closed signs are flipped around in every storefront window.

Scotty’s garage, when they find it, is in a wide lot packed with similarly junked out cars. A candy wrapper skitters across the asphalt when Jim steps down from the cab of the truck. The sign over the office door says Archer’s Automotive. The garage door itself is chained and padlocked.

“Right then,” says Scotty, rubbing his hands together as he approaches the padlocks. He pulls a battered leather wallet out of his back pocket and starts flicking through the card slots. Sulu rolls down the driver’s side window and leans his head and one arm out, watching the proceedings.

“Thanks,” Jim says warily, glancing briefly at Sulu before watching Scotty start fussing with the locks. One by one they disengage with clangs and rattles. “This must be a lot of trouble for you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Sulu. His voice is all cool confidence- it reminds Jim of Spock, in some ways, though Sulu seems far more at ease in his own skin than Spock is. “You’re doing him a favor. He needs to be kept busy.”

“Yeah?”

“He lives for his work, honestly,” says Sulu, and there’s a note of discomfort in there that is not lost on Jim. “It’s good you showed up when you did.”

“Good that we showed up?” says Jim, incredulous. “If you hadn’t shown up, we might still be stuck on the highway.”

The chain hits the asphalt with a dull clatter. Scotty heaves the garage door up with one hand and lets it slide up and out of the way on its own as he kneels to spool up the chain. “Alright!” he says loudly, and Sulu ducks back into the truck. “Load ‘er up!”

Jim stands off to the side, acutely aware of how close to his back Bones and Spock have remained throughout this whole ordeal, and watches Sulu slowly pull into the garage, towing the Volkswagen behind him. Inside, lights snap on with a staticky hiss. The low, rolling grumble of heavy machinery powering on makes the whole building seem to tremble, like it’s yawning, wondering why the system is being engaged at this hour. Scotty jogs down the length of the garage and drags up the door at the other end, allowing Sulu to drive out the other side, leaving the wreck of Jim’s car comfortably parked inside.

“And there we have it,” says Spock, with quiet interest. “They have our car.”

Jim wonders when it had become our car. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess they do.”

“Give us a hand, would you?” Scotty hollers from the far end of the garage. Bones glances at Jim before jogging forward to help.

Sulu, meanwhile, meanders his lazy way back towards Jim and Spock, twirling a plastic pen between his fingers. There’s an empty dog dish by the garage door. He nudges it aside with one foot. “I haven’t seen him this excited over a wreck since before the accident.”

Scotty is hunched over by the office door, fiddling with something, and after a moment, the lock clicks open and he vanishes into the office. Sulu comes and leans against the wall, squinting up at the moths circling the streetlights. Jim joins him. “Accident?”

Sulu’s hands are in his pockets. His shoulders rise and fall in a lazy shrug. “He built a car a while back, and we took it out for a test drive. It didn’t go so well.”

Jim, who failed shop, stares at him in surprise. “He built a car?”

Sulu nods. He twirls his pen between finger and thumb, and Jim notices the teethmarks grooving the cheap blue plastic. “Yep. Built her from scratch, engine and body.”

Inside, Scotty returns from the office, having changed into a cargo kilt and heavily laden tool belt. Jim watches him and Bones get into a heated discussion at the far end of the garage, and can’t help but feel a twinge of envy all how well Scotty’s infectious passion for his work seems to play with Bones’ bull-headed stubbornness.

Outside, Jim can hear crickets chirping. Archer’s Automotive is situated in a part of town with a lot of shuttered windows and dirty green lawns. It’s cold, and quiet. The only illumination comes from the interior of the garage, the streetlights, and the pale eye of the moon.

“It’s funny,” says Jim thoughtfully. “Here I am, a hundred miles from home, and for all I know, this could be Riverside.”

“That’s small towns for you.”

“Tell me about it.”

Sulu gives him a sidelong look. “You don’t seem like a small town guy to me, if you don’t mind my saying.”

Jim would be lying if he said he didn’t preen a little. “Well. Thanks.”

“Yeah. You’re lucky you got out.”

Gently, as though testing a boundary, Jim gives Sulu a little nudge with his elbow. “Hey, so I’m road-tripping for a few days. Big deal. You could get out too, if you wanted.”

“I tell myself that I will,” says Sulu, “and then I don’t.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“Scotty says I’m more interested in books than people.”

“That guy? That guy says that?”

“He means it as a compliment,” Sulu smiles. “He’s worse, believe me. He reads technical journals for fun.”

“Shakespeare,” Jim confesses.

“Genre fiction for me. I read The Princess Bride when I was twelve and that was it. I was a lost cause.”

“You should embrace it,” says Jim. “Get out of this town. Get into trouble.”

Sulu gives him a wan smile, drops his head. Something tells Jim that Sulu is the sort of man who fantasizes late into the night, struggling to reconcile his own understanding of himself with his disappointing, small town life. He probably has a list of things he’s going to do when he leaves town, and when the itch to leave rises up in him again, he revises the list until the itch goes away.

He’d either thrive in a big city or drive home with his tail between his legs at the first sign of trouble. Jim is eager to find out which.

“I’d like to get out,” says Sulu. His voice is quiet, but steady. “You’re from a small town. You know how suffocating it feels.”

“I do.”

“I haven’t had anything to occupy myself. I tried raising a garden a while back, figured it was more or less like putting down literal roots, but. Nothing helps. Scotty’s even worse than me. I think he’s going a bit crazy, living with me.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“Why’d he move in with you?”

Sulu takes a deep breath, exhales it through his teeth. “It’s . . . it’s complicated. He’s going through some things,” Jim eyes him, arching an eyebrow, and Sulu lets out a laugh that’s more of a shaky exhale of breath. “He had the rug pulled out from under him, let’s say. He’s still got the car, and John’s even letting him keep her here for a while, but . . . I don’t know. I think this whole thing’s got him pretty rattled, and honestly I can’t blame him. He’s driving himself crazy, cooped up on my couch.”

“You should take her out for a drive,” says Jim, his curiosity mounting by the minute as he tries to picture what kind of ghastly accident Sulu is describing. “You should drive her. What’s the point in building a car from scratch otherwise?”

Sulu shakes his head dismally. “It’s not that easy to just strike out and hope for the best.”

“It is that easy.”

“I did the road trip thing already, Jim. I ended up stuck in a dead end town. No college opportunities, no pilot’s license, knee-deep in debt with a deadbeat roommate twice my age. Not all of us get to be Jim Kirk.”

They lean there in silence for a while, watching the moths chase each other in circles.

“Do you want to see?” asks Sulu, his voice unreadable.

“See what?”

“The car.”

Something jumps excitedly in Jim’s belly. “Yeah, I would,” he says, eager. “Where is it, is it out back?”

Sulu nods. He flicks the pen back into the garage like a cowboy flicking a cigarette and leads Jim around back, out where they keep the disused vehicles waiting for a touch-up. Jim follows, hands in his pockets.

He’d been expecting a sports car, or something faux-vintage. All chrome and leather and read, polished wood. Instead, parked just behind the building, they find a huge, clunky seven-passenger van, painted a dull silver. The doors are slightly disparate shades of gray, as though they’ve been replaced with doors from other vans. It looks like a vehicle that’s been welded together with chewing gum and prayers.

“There you have it,” says Sulu, with an apologetic smile. “The culprit.”

He taps his foot lightly against the license plate. NCC1701.

Jim might be in love.

“Holy shit,” he laughs, jogging up to the driver’s side window to get a look at the faux black leather interior. “This is Scotty’s passion project?”

“You could say that,” says Sulu. His rueful smile gives way to a more genuine one as he watches Jim fawn over the wheel wells. It’s clear he’s as proud of this monstrosity as Scotty is. “We keep saying we’ll drive her to San Francisco someday. I got family there.”

Jim circles all the way around the van before returning to the driver’s side. She’s built like a tank, with a heavy, retro look to her body. Jim can barely believe Scotty built her himself. Behind him, Sulu’s standing with his hands behind his back, enjoying Jim’s attention as though he personally was the recipient of it. “What do you think?” he asks, too lightly to be entirely casual.

“I mean . . . I think I’m in love?” says Jim. His heart swells when he hears Sulu’s sputter of incredulous laughter. “She- she?”

“She.”

“She’s beautiful,” Jim runs two fingers along the edge of the hood, admiring the smooth polish beneath his hand. “I can see why Scotty loves her. She must’ve taken him months. What an enterprise.”

“Yeah.”

Sulu sighs, as though reminded of something unpleasant. He gives the driver’s side door a little bump with his hip. “We’ve wanted to test her out for a while now but . . . for the most part, she’s permanently GNDN.”

Jim’s frowns. “GNDN?”

“Goes nowhere,” says Sulu, sullenly. “Does nothing. Just like us.”

Jim knows that feeling a little too well.

He tweaks the wing mirror just enough to catch his own reflection in the glass. “I wanna have a word with Scotty about this car.”

 

Jim finds Spock up on a tower of tires in the corner of the garage, cross-legged, a creased roadmap spread out across his knees. How he got up there is anyone’s guess. Jim leans his shoulder against the tires and looks up at him, tilting his head back as far as it will go to catch Spock’s eye. “I guess this means you’re not giving up on the road trip, huh?”

Spock makes a distracted humming sound, and Jim realizes his attention is far from the roadmap. He follows the line of Spock’s gaze to the remains of Jim’s Volkswagen, which has been jacked up off the platform. The hood, badly damaged, has been pried open. Bones and Scotty are leaning shoulder-to-shoulder over the engine.

They’re arguing about something technical- Jim can hear it in their tone. He smiles and and looks away, down at the scuffed toes of his shoe. Scotty argues well with Bones. They’re gonna get along just fine.

Spock, for his part, hasn’t looked away. “How badly do you think it troubles him?” he says after a while, very quietly, so as not to be heard over the ambient noise of the garage.

Jim scrapes at the floor with one foot. “Hm?”

“His age. How he’s . . . older, than either of us.”

Jim can see the gleam of sweat along Bones’ face and jawline. He swallows. “I think he . . . thinks. A lot. About a lot of things.”

Bones is smiling now, his mouth twisting in that special way it does when he’s about to deliver a joke. Jim can hear Scotty’s laugh from all the way across the garage- it’s a light, sparkling thing, like the hiss of a welding torch. He must offer something to Bones because Bones nods in agreement, and Scotty ducks into the back office for a moment before coming back with a couple of beers.

Jim watches Bones roll his sleeves up in three neat, tight turns. He follows the movement of his throat as Bones takes a swig of beer, and watches his hands as he sets the bottle aside, returning his attention to the engine. There’s a warm, needy tingling in the pit of his belly that should feel good, but instead, only feels frustrating.

He looks away again when he feels the creeping sensation of someone watching him. Spock catches his eye, and while Jim’s first instinct is to quickly pretend he hadn’t been looking, something in Spock’s expression makes him pause.

“Go on,” he mutters.

Spock hesitates, something clearly on his mind. “Jim,” he says finally. “I look too.”

The back of his neck feels hot; Jim rubs it awkwardly, looking away. He can hear the excited lilt in Scotty’s voice as he talks about Jim’s car, and the polite interest in Bones’ voice as he keeps him talking. He very carefully does not look at the black grease streaked up Bones’ tanned, hairy forearms.

“I said something I shouldn’t have said,” he admits quietly.

“Yes, I read as much from Leonard’s expression.”

“It was way over the line, but he . . . the way he looked at me, y’know. Like I was a kid. I think,” Jim tries to force a smile. “I think I . . . kind of wanted to hurt him. Just enough for him to take me seriously.”

Spock raises an eyebrow at him. “Did it work?”

“. . . No, Spock, it didn’t.”

Scotty is gesturing them closer. “Talk to him,” says Spock, his voice quick and hushed as Jim hurriedly goes to check on the car. “Your disagreement is jeopardizing the stability of our group.”

Jim splutters in surprise, but Scotty is already talking. “Well,” he says. “You’ve gone and made a right mess of things under there.”

Jim’s car looks even worse under the harsh fluorescent lights. The external damage isn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s the internal damage Jim’s worried about. He crouches next to the rear of the car and places his hand on the fender. “Can you fix it?”

“Aye,” says Scotty, folding his arms. “I can fix it. But it’ll take time.”

“We have to be out of here by noon,” says Sulu sharply.

“Two weeks, minimum,” Scotty has the decency to look apologetic about it. “That’s if you want me workin’ on it.”

“We can’t wait two weeks.”

“I’m with Spock,” Bones agrees. “We can’t spend two weeks stuck in the middle of nowhere. No offense.”

“None taken,” says Sulu mildly.

“Hang on,” Jim holds up his hands. “Why’s it so important that we be out by noon? That’s when Archer comes in, right? Maybe we can get a second opinion from him?”

“No need,” Bones says with a shake of his head. Scotty, who’d been about to speak, falls silent. “Scotty here knows his shit. We don’t need anyone else.”

“Thanks,” Scotty says quietly.

“But we have nowhere to stay for two weeks,” says Spock, one eyebrow raised. Jim wonders if he’s thinking of his own car, the one he’d abandoned over too many bad memories.

“How are we supposed to get to San Francisco without a car?”

“I don’t know,” says Jim. He folds his arms, gives Sulu the same cool, quiet look he’s seen Spock give Bones when he’s trying to make a point. “I really don’t know.”

Sulu doesn’t duck his head, or try to look away. He tilts his chin a little higher, looks back at Jim with half-closed eyes.

“Do you want to go somewhere?” Jim asks. “Do you want to do something?”

Scotty looks from Jim to Sulu and back again. “What’ve you lot been doin’ out back?” he says suspiciously.

“Scotty,” says Sulu hesitantly. “We could . . .”

He makes an awkward little half-shrug gesture. Scotty, uncomprehending, mimics the shrug back at him.

“They could take the van,” says Sulu, finally.

A range of emotions cross Scotty’s face before skidding to a halt on indignation. “No,” he snaps. “No, no, no. Absolutely out of the question. You’re not taking her with you, not without me, and not without Hikaru to drive her.”

“That’s the idea,” says Jim, with a look at Sulu. They exchange small nods.

Scotty goes red in the face. “What?” he stammers. “You havin’ a laugh? Me? Us? Ditch all and drive to- where was it you said you were going?”

“California.”

“California!” He throws his hands up and drops them again. “California and all!”

“It’s not like you have anything better to do,” Sulu mutters under his breath.

“I heard that,” Scotty snaps, poking a finger at his chest. “I heard that.”

“I mean it,” says Jim. “Come with us.”

“Excuse us,” Spock mutters, pulling Jim aside.

“What? What?”

“Are you quite certain about this?”

Spock’s voice is conspiratorially hushed. Jim lowers his own to match. “Look, we need a car and we’re tight on cash. The way Sulu talked . . . it sounded like they were just waiting for an excuse to quit wallowing in self-pity and daydreams and get out of this dead-end town. We could be that excuse, Spock. We’re practically doing them a favor.”

“And you need their car.”

“And I need their car.”

“Hold on,” says Bones. “You can’t ditch. You have a career here, right? You told me you loved this job.”

Scotty stops. He laughs nervously and offers Bones a shaky smile. “The thing is . . . See here now, like I said, your car’s totally banjaxed, and I might be able to pull somethin’ together but as it stands-”

“What were you going to say?” says Spock, and his voice is perfectly civil but Scotty actually flinches.

“Tell them,” says Sulu. “It’s a waste of time dancing around it.”

Scotty scowls at him. He straightens up a little, adjusting his toolbelt. “Well,” he says, a little testiness in his voice. “I may have . . . stretched the truth a bit.”

Jim’s heart starts to sink. “Excuse me?”

“When I said I’m the night shift,” Scotty says slowly, “what I mean by that is, I was the night shift. Alright?”

“He hit Archer’s dog,” says Sulu.

“The dog is fine!” Scotty says hastily, raising both hands as though surrendering a weapon. “He’s fine, lads!”

“First trip out with the new car,” says Sulu, “and he hits a dog.”

“It was humiliating,” Scotty stammers, and Jim can see the precise moment when embarrassment gives way to frustration. His eyes are burning with it. “Hit one bloody dog, didn’t I? And John goes and rips me a new one? Didn’t matter to him how good I was with the engines or how dedicated I’d been to this bloody garage, the only garage in town, mind . . .”

“Good god, man,” Bones murmurs. “I’m sorry.”

Spock raises an eyebrow. “Is that all? You lost your job?”

Occasionally- only occasionally- Jim wouldn’t mind slapping that placid expression off that pale, pointed face.

Scotty doesn’t go white with anger, the way Bones does, and his hands don’t shake. On the contrary, Spock’s words seem to cause the tension to leave him, and he stands poised as still as a dead machine, eyes narrowed, lips set in a grim line.

“How would you feel?” he says, and his stillness belies the quiet ferocity in his words. “Five years I’ve been workin’ for him, eh? Only to be scrapped like so much junk metal for an elementary school cock-up like that? I’m forty-bleedin’-three ain’t I?”

Bones lets out a low, weary exhale. He’d know, Jim thinks. He’d know better than Jim would. If it’s true that Scotty’s work was everything to him, then to lose it all- moreover, to lose it all for something so pedestrian as an accident- must’ve wounded him hard and deep. Devastating. The ugly, life-defining kind of devastating. No wonder he’s stagnating, doesn’t know what to do with himself. A man that intelligent, that private and driven, without any outlet for it- Sulu had a point. He was driving himself crazy cooped up in this town, and, from the sound of it, had been driving Sulu up the wall.

He wouldn’t be easy to road trip with. Still . . .

“At least no harm was done,” says Spock, in that mild way of his, like a distant relative who’s just heard of a tragic loss in the family. “The dog recovered.”

“Aye. But I could do without the wee bugger givin’ me the evil eye every time Archer takes him walkin’, like my own Punxsutawney Phil out makin’ all the days look the same. And they do,” he adds, open bitterness in his voice. “Now I’ve got no job, every bleedin’ day looks the same.”

“You can’t be caught in here, can you,” Jim mutters. “You’re not supposed to be able to get in.”

Sulu, watching the proceedings calmly from the sidelines, shakes his head. “It’ll only be a few days,” he says in a coaxing voice. “We can see how she handles a long-term road trip. You might even like it.”

There’s a moment when Jim thinks Scotty’s not going to go for it. He can see a certain reluctance in his eyes, a hesitance to throw in his hat with strangers. He wonders why Scotty kept the truth about his job quiet- shame, or fear. Or, more likely, the desperate urge to do something, and the knowledge that they wouldn’t let him help if he weren’t a real mechanic.

No, Jim thinks, that’s wrong. If Scotty’s not a real mechanic, then Bones is not a real doctor, and Bones, as he often says, is a doctor first and everything else second.

“Just a few days?” Scotty says warily. “Till we get to California? Hikaru, you’ve got family there, aye?”

Sulu nods.

Scotty swallows. “Alright then,” he says. “But I’m bringing my books.”

 

The last hour before dawn passes in a sleep-deprived haze. Scotty and Sulu run back and forth from the office to the garage, shouting to each other about all the hasty, last-minute minutia of leaving town. Sulu walks incredibly fast for such a short man. Jim does his best to stay out of their way but can’t quite avoid Bones, who catches him looking for abandoned leftover boxes in the break room fridge.

“What do you think of those guys?” he asks, with a jerk of his head in Scotty’s direction.

Jim’s just found half a box of takeout. He starts picking at the damp fries with a fork from Archer’s office. “I like them,” he says slowly. “You?”

“I like ‘em too,” Bones mutters. “Scotty could talk the ear off a horse, and he ain’t the most honest man I know, but he ain’t a bad guy either. I’d’ve probably asked him if you hadn’t.”

“Hikaru told me as much.”

“Getting fired didn’t do him any favors. The man’s balanced on the edge of a midlife crisis already and frankly he could do with someone to talk to.”

“Good thing we came along when we did, then,” says Jim. For once, he feels too anxious to eat. He gives up the fries as a lost cause and leaves them on the counter.

Bones puts them back in the fridge for him. “He’s rooming with a man half his age,” he says, very quietly. “No job, no family, all on account of somethin’ he didn’t even mean to do. Lotta guys don’t come out the other side of bullshit like that. I think he sees a lot of late-night fast food in his future, and he don’t like it.”

“He loved his job, didn’t he,” Jim looks at Bones. “Before he lost it.”

“More than anything.”

“You know, I think the two of you could be real friends someday.”

“Yeah,” Bones leans against the counter, hips angled, mouth set in a grimace. “‘Cause I’m so good at making friends.”

“You’re better at it than you think,” says Jim. And then, a little quieter, “Thank you. For staying.”

Bones is looking at him with this sad, aching wistfulness that makes it hard for Jim to hold his gaze. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere, Jim.”

“I thought I ruined it.”

Jim’s dimly aware that he’s fiddling with his hands, the same way he does when he’s anxious or upset. He doesn’t look at Bones. “I thought you were gonna leave. I figured it would just be Spock and I, driving to California alone.”

“Would that be so bad?” says Bones, very gently.

I want both of you, Jim thinks.

“I don’t want to drive either of you away,” he says instead.

Bones looks at the ground.

“You’re the closest things to friends I’ve ever had,” Jim hesitates. “Closest thing to more than friends I’ve ever had.”

“Surely there’ve been others,” says Bones. His voice is a little lighter, like he’s going for teasing, rather than accusatory.

Jim laughs shakily, rubs the back of his neck. What could he tell him? That he’d spent his teenage years with a ceaseless hunger, always yearning, rarely slaked? He flirted with anything that breathed because it was fun, advantageous. He could get away with it. Then he went home and curled up in the bunk bed he used to share with Sam and thought about the way Janice Rand’s legs flashed in the sun when she played volleyball.

Those were the nights when Frank was sober. When he was drunk, Jim’s mind would inevitably wander to the lines at the corners of Mr. Pike’s eyes.

“Spock is good for you,” Bones says softly. “You know he is. You deserve each other.”

Jim doesn’t answer.

Bones takes a deep breath, lets it out in a tired sigh. “When I look at you and him . . . s’like lookin’ in a window, you know? I feel like a voyeur.” He adds, almost too low for Jim to hear it, “And I in my corner, snarlin’.

Jim narrows his eyes at him, incredulous. “You’re not exactly touring the States with a child wife, Bones.”

Bones makes a strangled choking noise. “That’s not- I didn’t think you’d-”

“Recognize it? I thought you said I was smart.”

“You know what I mean,” Bones says weakly. “It’s not the kind of shit you read in Iowa high schools.”

“Mr. Pike had me read the banned book list,” says Jim, by way of an explanation. He waves the comment off. “Bones, you just . . . I don’t ever want you to think you’re on the outside, looking in on something you can’t have. It’s not just me and him. Never just me and him”

“Speak for yourself,” says Bones, turning to face Jim with his arms still folded. “You can’t speak for Spock.”

“Then ask him,” says Jim. He gestures to the door. “Ask him.”

Bones makes a little scoffing sound in the back of his throat. His eyes linger on the door a little too long before his gaze drops.

“Ask him,” repeats Jim.

Bones holds his gaze for a long moment. Jim can remember the heat of his skin when he’d kissed him out in the desert, in the shadow of the tower. He’d been impulsive then.

He’s impulsive now.

This time, Bones allows himself to be kissed.

Something inside Jim feels poised on the cusp of shattering, like the warm, scratchy kiss of Bones’ lips on his is going to topple him from his precarious orbit and plunge him back to earth. He parts his lips, just slightly- a question. Bones’ answer is a soft sound from deep within his chest, and a slightly more insistent kiss back.

Jim can feel his breath when their lips part, hot and damp against his skin. “Bones,” he sighs. “Bones.”

“Jesus,” Bones mumbles, dazed, and for some reason that’s the funniest thing in the world because it makes Jim tremble with the effort of holding in his laugh, grinning helplessly against Bones’ mouth.

“Ask him,” he sighs, voice low.

Bones’ hands are hesitant when he touches Jim’s waist. They linger for a moment before adjusting his shirt to fall properly against his skin. Jim’s muscles jump when he feels Bones’ knuckles brush against the V-line at his hips. He feels faint.

“. . . It ain’t been easy, since the divorce.”

“I know.”

“I’m terrified I’m gonna become one of those greasy old men hittin’ on young things in diners.”

“You won’t,” Jim’s hand smooths up Bones’ arm to his shoulder. He can feel the hard lines of muscle and bone beneath his shirt. “You’re too gentle. Too much of a good person. Yeah,” he adds sharply, when Bones’ lips part to protest, “you heard me.”

Bones lets out a low groan and Jim wonders if it’s exasperation or something else. He feels good in Jim’s arms. He’s thinner than Jim, and slim-waisted. Jim remembers with a pang that the man doesn’t eat enough. He doesn’t smell like Bones, not after today- he smells like a car ride, a late night, a musty, greasy garage. Jim doesn’t smell any better, and he feels sticky, disgusting. His skin itches with the need for a shower.

“What do you think they’re doin’ out there?” Bones murmurs.

“I don’t care,” says Jim. Cautiously, he leans forward and rests his chin on Bones’ shoulder.

He can’t decide if he’s won something, or lost. Instead he closes his eyes, and listens to Bones breathe.

 

Outside, the sky is turning from black to gray. The barest streak of salmon-pink horizon shines between the dark, blocky buildings of the surrounding town. Scotty, having jogged back to his and Sulu’s house to throw a travel bag together, returns to find that Sulu’s already pulled the van up out front, and is chatting idly with Spock while Jim moves their bags from the backseat of Jim’s wrecked Volkswagen to the interior of the van. Jim can tell that his conversation isn’t entirely attentive; his gaze keeps darting to Bones, now turning off every light and the garage, or to Jim, who stands aside to let Scotty toss a heavy-looking duffle bag into the backseat.

Bones catches Spock’s eye, just briefly, and Jim sees a moment of familiar understanding pass between them. He swallows, his heart jumping nervously in his chest, as Bones walks over and slings an arm around Spock’s shoulders. It’s too casual- the kind of thing a man would do with a friend- but when Spock does nothing to shrug Bones’ arm off he squeezes a little tighter.

“All done,” says Jim hoarsely, wiping his hands off on the thighs of his jeans. There’s a thrill deep down in the center of him, part excitement at seeing them together, and part morbid curiosity as to whether or not they’ve talked about him.

“Here we go,” Bones says, his voice light. He holds up his arm, almost perfunctorily, and Jim feels something inside him sigh with relief as he slides in at Bones’ side. “On the road again.”

Jim nods as he looks at the remains of his car, which they’ve tucked out of the way in a far corner of the parking lot. Hopefully Archer won’t mind. Not that Jim’s keeping his hopes up for it to be salvaged.

Still. She’d been a good car.

“Shit,” he mutters, ducking out from under Bones’ arm. “Shit. Forgot something.”

He jogs over to the ruined Volkswagen and pops the driver’s side door. He untangles the trio of fluffballs from the rearview mirror and brings them back to the van, twisting the fraying string around his fingers.

“Everyone present an’ accounted for?” says Scotty, tapping the side of the van with his knuckles.

Jim climbs up and into the van, stooped over, until he flops into the spot directly behind the driver’s seat. He’s got a window, a sticky cupholder, and legroom. He grins breathlessly at the others outside. “Alright! Who’s driving?”

Bones clears his throat just as Sulu hops up into the driver’s seat, keys already in hand.

“The lad drives,” says Scotty, cutting Bones off. He has to clamber over Jim’s seat to get past him and finally flops into the backseat. He spreads his arms across the headrests as though claiming all three seats for himself. “No offense to you lot, but I don’t trust anyone else behind the wheel of my lady.”

Sulu offers Bones a shrug and an apologetic smirk. Bones looks aghast. “Now hold on there,” he stammers, heaving himself up into the shotgun seat. “I get damn carsick if I ain’t driving.”

“The next thousand miles are gonna be real fun for you then,” Jim laughs.

Spock has to sidle past Bones to get to his spot. His hand rests lightly on Bones’ upper arm as he passes. “If you feel ill, you may feel free to swap seats with me.”

“One more thing,” says Jim. “One more thing.”

He leans forward into the front seat, his head ducked low so he doesn’t bump the ceiling, and tilts the rearview mirror till he can see his eyes. He can see Spock settling comfortably into the seat behind Bones, preparing for the long ride ahead. At the back of the van, Scotty has both feet up on the seat, and is already cracking the spine on one of Sulu’s library books.

He hangs the fluffballs from the rearview mirror in a messy tangle of strings.

“Alright. Let's drive.”

Chapter Text

They drive along winding mountain roads that cut through Colorado like curls of ribbon.

America fills the horizon in a flood of brackish green trees and blue sky. The AC struggles to hold the summer heat at bay so Sulu rolls the windows down, one arm out the window, the other tapping along to the 60’s on 6 spilling from the radio speakers. He’s thriving out here, like a wilting plant finding new life in the sun. The steering wheel has already conformed to the shape of his hand.

Bones looks a little green, but he’s still alive. Jim picked up a handful of cherry popsicles at the last gas station they stopped at, and while most of them have long since melted in the heat, Bones is still working his way through his. He says it settles his stomach. His sunglasses are polished black mirrors, but when the light hits them the right way, Jim can see his eyes.

Jim had expected Scotty to be an even worse road trip buddy than he was a roommate, but as the hours roll by and they fall into an easy rhythm on the road, he finds himself warming up to him enormously. He is completely content with his own company, and has spent the last hour stretched out across the backseat, lost in a book of abstract mathematics. Now and then he’ll laugh loudly and the shock will disrupt the whole van as everyone remembers he’s back there.

At the gas station, while Jim paid for the popsicles, he had noticed Scotty and Spock standing out by the gas pumps. They refilled the tank in silence, not talking, not bickering- simply standing at ease with one another and looking up at the high, peaked mountains bracketing the sky on either side of the highway. It was a nice thing to see.

(That was after Bones, stunned into silence by the sight of Sulu’s flip phone, had demanded to see Scotty’s. He was mortified when Scotty, aggrieved, unclipped his own phone from his belt and waggled it pointedly. “Y’won’t catch me anywhere near one of those things,” he’d said, gesturing to Bones’ smartphone. “These now, there’re just good old-fashioned hardware. I can fix it if anythin’ goes wrong.”)

Spock, meanwhile, has Jim matched at an even four wins, four losses. They’d thought to stack some of Scotty and Sulu’s books in the gap between their chairs, making a more or less stable surface to play on, and the little magnetic chess board has been unfolded and refolded enough times that the creases along the middle make it difficult to play. Jim thinks of it as something akin to a water hazard or sand trap, and Spock insists that that’s not how the game is played. Jim can see Bones’ reflection in the rearview mirror, and Bones smiles crookedly every time he catches him looking. Now and then he’ll make some wry comment from the front seat, intended to rile Spock up, but if Spock is riled, he makes no sign of it.

The van winds its way along the easy curves of the highway, down through the dips and cradles between the mountains. The windows are by turns hot with sunlight and cool with summer shade. Jim moves his pawn, Spock moves his rook. Sulu hums along to the radio in the front, Scotty dog-ears pages in the back. Jim hasn’t felt hungry in a while.

“Jim,” says Spock. “Your move.”

Jim opens his eyes, blinks once or twice to bring himself out of it. “Sorry,” he says, with a small smile. “Just enjoying the moment.”

“The moment where I put you in check?”

“Yeah,” says Jim. “That moment.”

He castles. Spock tents his fingers and surveys the board with quiet intensity. He always thinks before he acts, and he always acts with precision. Jim watches him slide his bishop across the board, careful hands steadying the stack of books beneath so it doesn’t collapse, and feels a subtle quickening in his heart.

Jim had wanted him almost from the moment they’d met, but that desire feels like something else now. A quiet, insistent need. Bones’ skin against his was arousing, yes, and made something warm and frantic throb below Jim’s belt, but being with Spock feels different. Like Jim could be at ease with him. Even comfortable.

There’s a thought that makes Jim’s hands twitch in his lap. With Bones he would feel a need to perform, to be better than he is. To feel desirable enough to compete with the women in Bones’ past. Spock, though. Spock sees Jim as he is. Jim’s not sure he’s even capable of seeing him as anything else.

Five moves later and Jim has Spock in check.

“There,” whispers Jim, grinning. “I got you.”

Spock inclines his head. “You have me.”

They drive south all day long, until the mountain roads give way to flat, sunlit valleys. The trees grow thicker, and then more sparse. Sulu takes them off the highway and onto what he hopes is a shortcut, and they’re on it for forty-five minutes before they realize they’re lost. Their maps- incomprehensible and smudged with red marker- are passed back and forth from Bones to Spock to Scotty and back to Spock again, all of them insisting that they take a different exit, a different route, a different freeway. Jim, caught in the middle of what will soon devolve into a real argument, takes matters into his own hands.

“Everyone, cool off,” he says firmly. Everyone turns to look at him. He feels like Mr. Pike trying to manage a disruptive class. “Look, we’ve been driving all day. Let’s find somewhere to stop for the night, and we’ll figure out where we are in the morning.”

Scotty has the map again and is leaning up between Jim and Spock’s chairs, opening it wide so they can see. “I cannae make sense of this thing,” he says, irritated, “but it looks like we might find a motel a few miles off the next exit.”

“You heard the man, Sulu. Take us through the next exit.”

“We don’t need to stop. I could keep driving,” Sulu mutters, but he does change lanes.

“I know you could, but the rest of us are going to lose our minds if we don’t get some sleep and a hot meal.”

“Sleep in the car!” says Scotty, folding up the map in a huff. “That’s what I’m doing. She’s more comfortable than some bloody rat-trap, anyhow.”

“Absolutely not,” Bones twists in his seat. “We’re not leaving you in the car like a dog in a convenience store parking lot. You’d cook real fast in this heat.”

“I’ll crack a window.”

“Scotty.”

“Fine, bloody ‘ell,” says Scotty, slouching back into his seat. “Oy, lad, fancy going half-and-half on a room at the All-Nite?”

Jim can almost hear Sulu’s eyes rolling. “Just like old times.”

“We can all squeeze into two rooms, right?” Jim says, smiling uncertainly at Spock.

Spock’s expression does not change, and for a moment, Jim allows it to frustrate him. Give me something, he thinks desperately. Anything, come on.

“I see no reason why not,” he says, after a moment. “Three rooms for five people would be illogical.”

Bones has gone quiet up front. Jim swallows, exchanges looks with Spock.

“You can crash in our room, if you want,” says Sulu, glancing over at him. “We can do three, right? We can do three.”

“I . . . can,” says Bones, hesitantly. Jim tries to catch his eyes in the rearview, but all his can see are the black, mirrored lenses of his sunglasses. “If Jim and Spock want to share a room, I mean.”

“No,” says Spock, his voice suddenly sharp. Jim, whose “No,” had been poised on the tip of his tongue, falls silent. “We’d like you to room with us. Jim?”

There’s an odd note of intensity in that final word, as though he’s asking to be backed up. “Yeah. Yes,” says Jim. The magnetic pieces have long since been tucked away, but the folding chessboard is still in his hand. He flips it open and closed with his fingertips, wearing the crease deeper, not thinking about it. “We would. Both of us.”

Bones laughs an awkward, hasty laugh, followed by a cough of surprise as Sulu veers off the next exit. Jim, well used to Sulu’s unique approach to driving by this point, lets the shifting center of gravity lean him gently against the window. Spock sits perfectly still, his hands folded, staring out his window as though hoping the passing scenery will distract him. Jim recognizes this peculiar stillness in him. It’s excitement. Uncertainty.

It takes them less than ten minutes to get to the motel Scotty had mentioned. He bickers with Sulu all the way there, the kind of bickering that reminds Jim of the fierce, dysfunctional fondness between siblings. He wonders how long they’ve really known each other.

He keeps his mind firmly on that subject for the entirety of the drive.

 

It’s a warm summer evening and already dark, with a bare strip of red along the sunset horizon. The neon sign over the All-Nite illuminates the parking lot in dim, flickering pink light. Mosquitos tap at the windows, and Jim draws the curtains closed so he doesn’t have to look at them. The neon shines through the aging fabric, outlining Jim’s hands in pink and casting sheer, black shadows across the floor of his room.

The curtains make a loud shhhink sound when Jim slides them across the rail, and after that, there’s silence. All he can hear are the mosquitos tapping on the water-spotted glass, and the quiet gurgle of an air conditioner in the room next door. They took Room 6. Scotty and Sulu took Room 4. Jim finds himself wishing he could hear them arguing over sleeping arrangements or something. He hasn’t showered. He feels sticky and gross, and reeks of a long car ride. He envies the next room their air conditioning; the hot summer air is making him sweat.

The neon light highlights the silhouettes of Bones and Spock’s bodies, still standing by the door. Their faces are in shadow, and Jim can’t quiet make them out. None of them reach for the light.

He hears a fwump as Spock drops his bag by the door, next to the old TV on its dusty cabinet. Then he wordlessly walks past them towards the bathroom. For a brief moment, when he turns on the bathroom light, his shadow seems to stretch across the room. Then the door closes behind him, and a moment later, Jim hears the shower turn on.

Bones tosses his bag haphazardly next to Spock’s. He laughs nervously, runs his tongue along his teeth before sitting down on the foot of one of the beds. He wipes his hand down his face and lets out a weary sigh.

Jim feels like he’s at a job interview, or lying awake the night before a long, one-way voyage. Bones pinches the bridge of his nose, eyes closed, and Jim slowly crosses the room to the bathroom door and drops his bag outside it. Then he starts to undress. He can feel Bones’ eyes following him. Watching my back, he thinks in a daze, tugging his shirt off over his head. Like always.

He twists awkwardly to scrape off his shoes and socks, leaving him in jeans. Bones doesn’t look away when he turns around.

Jim sees the movement of his throat when he swallows. Bones nods at the bathroom door. “You invited me in,” he says. There’s an uncertainty in his voice that almost comforts Jim. This is new and dangerous for both of them. “You wanted me here.”

“Yeah, we did,” says Jim. “We do.”

“We’ve . . . talked. He and I. And you’ve talked?”

The halting awkwardness in his voice makes Jim breathe a little easier, allows him to feel more confident. He forgets his confidence sometimes, yet it was confidence, more than any of his other gifts, that had gotten him through high school. And after high school, the highway, and after the highway . . . here.

Jim nods. “We’ve talked.”

Bones has dropped his gaze to his hands. He rubs his palms together with a soft rasp. “Good,” he mutters. “Good.”

A radio crackles quietly to life on the other side of the wall, and Jim listens as it cycles through this stations before settling on some sort of talk radio. It’s quiet, thankfully. Too quiet for him to make out the words. The sound of indistinct muttering from next door does something to ease the silence.

“You’ve got no idea what you look like, do you,” says Bones, still looking at his hands.

Jim knows. He’s used it to his advantage before, but not this time. Bones is too smart for that, too cynical. He loves Jim too much.

“Yeah,” says Jim, coming closer. He stands in front of Bones at an easy slouch, hands in his pockets. “I used to do pushups on the cinderblocks out in the backyard.”

“I would’ve liked to see that.”

Jim twists his mouth into a smile. He moves in a little closer, slotting himself in between Bones’ legs, and holds his head in both hands when he kisses him. Jim is careful when he does it, and slow- he doesn’t want to push him- and after a moment Bones reaches up to touch the small of Jim’s back.

“Sometimes ‘seems like you and him an’ those knuckleheads next door are the only folks in the universe who ain’t out to get me,” Bones murmurs after a moment. His voice is hoarse and slightly slurred.

Jim kisses him silent, holding Bones a little more firmly as he sways on the spot. He feels delirious with the thought that he had dreamed of this, of getting out of that goddamn town, of finally being able to breathe. His whole body thrums with the music of summer- he can feel it rising in his blood, making his hands tremble, his heart throb when he holds Bones’ face in his hands and keeps him still.

“God,” Bones sighs weakly, moving to press his mouth against Jim’s neck.

Jim bumps his nose against Bones’ forehead. He grins, his chest rising and fulling rapidly as he catches his breath. “When I met you,” he whispers hoarsely. “That first night . . . I think you really did want that kind of company, didn’t you.”

Bones lets out a low, miserable groan. His fingernails dig into Jim’s back.

The bathroom door opens, and the light casts harsh shadows on the angles of the beds and TV cabinet. Jim stills, acutely aware of being watched, and he feels Bones’ posture stiffen.

After a moment, the bathroom door closes, leaving them once again in darkness. Jim feels the mattress dip as Spock comes closer, leaning one knee on the mattress’ edge. He doesn’t move, still holding Bones, wondering if he should move first, or if Spock will. Then, to his surprise, Bones carefully runs his hand up to the back of Jim’s neck and pulls him down for another kiss.

He hears Spock’s breathing change.

Jim pulls away, and lets Spock cup his hand under Bones’ jaw to turn his head. It’s him he kisses first, not Jim, and the sight makes Jim feel like his head is full of blinding light, maddening, dizzying. Along with it comes uncertainty, the creeping fear of abandonment that threatens to make him pull away entirely and leave them to enjoy each other.

He watches Spock unbutton Bones’ shirt, sliding it down around his shoulders as his hands begin to hesitantly explore Bones’ torso. Jim can’t help but lean in and press his lips against Spock’s cheekbone before moving them down to his jaw. Bones falls back onto the mattress with a muted thump. He cups both hands over his mouth and closes his eyes, steadying himself.

Spock holds Jim’s face in his hands and kisses him, hard and thorough, and Jim has to twist awkwardly to keep the kiss going as he crawls up onto the bed. The two of them lean over Bones, holding each other, and when they pull away Jim finds himself stunned into inaction by the look in Spock’s eyes.

“Careful,” says Spock, very quietly. His voice is hoarse.

Jim nods shakily; he knows. He knows that if they’re feeling anything like he’s feeling, then they’re desperate to perform. To be good enough for this cautious, messy thing they’re about to do.

“God,” Jim drops his forehead against Spock’s collarbones. He feels Spock’s hand, firm and careful, running through the short, bristly hairs at the back of his head. It feels as cool and comforting as a dock leaf on a nettle sting. “God.”

It’s awkward, the way they touch each other. Their hands fumble- Bones’ hands on Spock, Spock’s hands on Bones, and both of them reaching out for Jim, Jim, Jim- and Jim’s whole body feels like it’s tensing up, overwhelmed by too much heat, too much physical sensation all at once. It takes a long moment for that tension to ease, until he can really feel Bones’ hands feeling out the muscles in his thighs, and Spock’s hands sliding down Jim’s arms with all the sweaty eagerness of a boy feeling someone up for the first time. Jim laughs, shaky and delighted, and holds Bones down with one hand while the other slides down the front of his boxers.

“Mighty keen, ain’t you,” Bones croaks.

Jim grins helplessly against Bones’ mouth and kisses him again.

Bones tries to move, to attempt to give back some of what he’s getting, but Spock’s hands are firm against his shoulders, pressing him into the mattress. He leans down and murmurs something in Bones’ ear, too quiet for Jim to hear. Jim can feel Bones’ body shudder beneath him. His fingernails dig painfully into Jim’s back, but he lets him love him with his hands. Every inch of him, until neither of them can breathe. Until the only thing keeping Bones grounded is Spock, holding him down and keeping his eyes on Jim.

Jim’s whole body feels as raw and electric as a live wire. He skims his other hand up Bones’ pale belly, up to the dark tan of his forearms, and Spock seems to sense that this small act overwhelms him because Jim feels the mattress dip as he kneels, wrapping his arms around Jim from behind and pressing him against his chest.

Jim closes his eyes. He tilts his head up, lets Spock kiss his neck, touch his hands. He can feel one hand move down his belly, past the waistband of his jeans. Jim grits his teeth. He knows he won’t last a moment- he’s too young, and it’s been too long since he’s felt a hand there that wasn’t his own.

Bones makes wounded sound in the back of his throat. Jim feels his body tense beneath his hand, then relax. He quickly runs his other hand through Bones’ hair, eyes still closed, hoping to assuage any lingering anxieties about not lasting longer. The last thing he wants is regret, not from any of them. He wants to remember this for a long, long time.

Spock must’ve felt Bones spend himself too because his grip on Jim suddenly tightens. Jim can feel harsh, heavy breathing against the back of his neck, and Spock’s free hand gripping Jim’s upper arm tight as a vice. He wishes desperately that he could see Spock’s face.

Jim’s eyes open wide when Spock takes him over the edge. His mouth drops open, his back arches. He can feel something deep in the very heart of him, something that cracks open and unspools like the spiral arms of a galaxy.

He can feel Spock’s hand shaking slightly when he withdraws it from the front of Jim’s jeans. His whole body is trembling, but slowly it subsides into stillness. Jim’s ears are ringing with his own heartbeat. He feels dazed, exhausted. Utterly spent and drained.

Bones’ eyes are dilated wide, and his breath comes in heavy gasps. Jim, exhausted, slumps off of him to fall next to him. He watches Spock lean down to kiss Bones’ one more time, hard against his open mouth, before he too collapses on the other side of Jim.

They don’t argue about who sleeps where, or whether or not there’s enough room. Jim’s head is on Bones’ shoulder, his arm thrown across his chest, and Spock is a warm, clinging weight at his back. He can hear their fast, wrung-out breathing slowly give way to the steadier exhalations of sleep.

Jim closes his eyes, assured that they will be there when he wakes.

 

Jim dreams of water. Cool, calm water on the coast of some distant shore. He watches the waves lick the sand and wonders, is this California?

Dimly, as though from a long way off, he realizes that the waves don’t sound like the ocean, but more like water hitting tile. That realization stirs him from sleep, slowly at first, then completely. Someone is taking a shower in the room next door, and they’re singing. Loudly.

“I’ll be back, though it takes forever! Forever is just a day . . .”

Jim groans and shifts, trying to get comfortable, but it’s impossible to move with Spock wrapped around him like a deadweight. Bones’ arm is tucked under Jim’s head, and has certainly gone numb by now. The both of them are still asleep- Jim was the first to wake up, for once- and he’s got no hope of getting out of bed without disengaging from the tangle of limbs.

Disengaging is the last thing that Jim wants. He lies there, sweating as the morning sun lights up the windows, and listens to the singing.

“Forever is just another journey! Tomorrow a stop along the way . . .”

It’s a female voice, low and sweet and pleasant. It’s coming from Room 5.

“Then let the years go fading, where my heart is, where my heart is. Where my love eternally is waiting . . . somewhere, beyond the stars . . .”

Jim is just wondering whether Scotty and Sulu can hear this too when he hears the distant sound of a door slamming. “Bloody hell,” he mutters, borrowing one of his favorite phrases from Scotty’s lexicon. He pushes himself up on his elbows and starts wriggling out from under Spock’s arm.

He leaves them in bed together- Bones mumbles in his sleep and clings closer to Spock in Jim’s absence- and blearily checks the peephole in the door. Seeing nothing, Jim opens it and wanders outside, blinking in the direct sunlight. His jeans have that particular gross, clingy feeling of having been slept in. His bare skin feels too hot in the morning air.

Sure enough, he finds Scotty up and out of his room, in nothing but boxers and socks. He bangs exasperatedly on the door to Room 5 and frowns when he sees how Jim is dressed. “Slept like that, did you?”

“It’s fine,” Jim mutters. “Don’t worry about it.”

The door creaks open slightly, halting on its little chain. A face peers out from the crack. “Who is it?”

“Mornin’,” says Scotty. “I’m from Room 4, and I’m here on account of your singin’.”

“I hope I didn’t disturb you.”

“Nothing disturbin’ about your singin’, lass, provided it ain’t at the crack o’ bleedin’ dawn.”

The door closes, then opens again, revealing a short woman in a two-piece red pajama set. Her hair is still wrapped up in a towel and she’s only got one green hoop earring in. Apparently unconcerned, she leans against the doorframe and folds her arms. “Should I be flattered?”

“Take it how you like,” says Scotty. He leans one hand on the doorframe and tilts his chin a little higher. He would look dignified were he more clothed. “I, uh. You’re singin’s not bad.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. She reminds Jim of Spock, in a way- the same restrained intellect, and the same quietly confident posture. “You haven’t even introduced yourself,” she says. “Or should I just call you Room 4?”

“Montgomery. Scott. Montgomery Scott. Scotty,” says Scotty, staring at a fixed point three inches to the left of the stranger’s head. “My friends, they. Ah. They call me Scotty. Jim, he’s one of ‘em. Calls me Scotty. Say hello, Jim.”

“Hello,” says Jim. After an awkward moment he holds out his hand for a shake.

She shakes it. “Hello yourself,” she says pleasantly. “My name’s Uhura. Don’t mind if I don’t tell you my given name, but, you know. Strange men on a strange highway.”

Scotty laughs loudly. Jim offers her a sheepish grin.

Uhura shakes Jim’s hand for a little longer than is comfortable before she lets it drop. “So, uh, are you two road tripping together?”

“More or less,” says Jim. He shrugs in what he hopes is a charming way. “I’ve been driving across America, picking up strays.”

“If anything it’s me what’s been pickin’ up strays,” Scotty says. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the van, currently gathering dust in the parking space outside Room 5. “Jimmy here crashed his old car so he went and nicked mine.”

Uhura looks surprised. “Is that your van?”

Scotty nods, giving her a wary look. Jim’s known Scotty for barely more than a day and he already knows that look- he’s gearing himself up for an elbow in the ribs, or some smart comment about it being a mom van.

“Nice,” says Uhura, with a smile that lances straight through Jim’s heart. “I like it. My dad taught me how to drive in one of those.”

Scotty’s eyes brighten. “Really?”

“Yeah,” she says. “He-”

She hesitates when she sees Sulu shuffle blearily out of his room. He rubs the sleep out of his eyes and looks around, frowning when he sees Uhura. “Are you the one who was singing?”

“This is Uhura,” Scotty says quickly. “And yes, she was.”

Sulu’s fully dressed but his hair is still wet from the shower. He offers Uhura a handshake which she accepts in good grace. “Sulu, Hikaru, lovable rogue. Nice to meet you.”

“Pleasure’s all mine.”

“What brings you out this way?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but,” says Uhura, with the look of someone who’s been waiting for someone to ask, “I’m road tripping, just like you. I thought I’d take a year off before college, do some hitchhiking, brush up on my languages.”

“College?” says Sulu with sudden interest. “Where are you going?”

“Languages?” says Jim. “What languages?”

“Uhura,” Scotty says weakly. “That’s a lovely name.”

Uhura shifts from one foot to the other. “Swahili,” she says slowly. “Spanish, Russian, a little French. I’m sorry, I wasn’t ready for the third degree at, um,” she makes a show of checking her wrist for a nonexistent watch, “the crack o’ bleedin’ dawn, apparently.”

This is met by a stammered chorus of right and sorry and go back to your singin’. Jim’s just thinking of a number of things he wouldn’t mind getting back to himself when Uhura stops, halfway through closing the door on them, and reopens it again.

“Actually,” she says. “You know what . . . are you guys hungry?”

“Always,” Jim admits.

“God, yeah. Famished.” says Scotty.

Uhura smiles. She jerks her head in the direction of the road. “There’s a Waffle House just a few miles down that way. What say I take you boys out to eat, say in . . . twenty minutes? I’d like to get to know you guys better.”

“Yes. Absolutely. ‘Course, yes,” says Scotty, giving Sulu a hopeful look.

The corner of Sulu’s mouth twitches. “Sure, that sounds great. Twenty minutes.”

Jim doesn’t hear what Uhura says next because he’s already jogging back to his room. He throws open the door and sunlight falls across the bed, making Spock- who had just sat up- cover his eyes and shrink back into the blankets.

“Jim,” he mutters. Bones stirs sleepily next to him and gropes an arm across his chest to pull him closer.

“Get dressed!” Jim says cheerfully. “We’re going to Waffle House with the cute girl next door!”

“Girl,” Bones grunts from under the covers. Jim leaves the door wide open, flooding the room with sunlight, and starts the long and arduous process of looking for a shirt.

 

The Waffle House is cramped and gray and smells strongly of burnt sugar. The windows are streaked with poorly-dried glass cleaner, and the table feels sticky when Jim leans his elbow on it. He barely notices.

“So, let me get this straight,” he says through a mouthful of toast. “You can speak like . . . a dozen languages, but you’re not majoring in linguistics?”

Uhura, who is on her third cup of coffee and has been lighting up the booth with hitchhiking anecdotes for the past hour, shakes her head. “Just lucky, I guess. I prefer electrical engineering. I’m hoping to find an internship as a radio technician somewhere down the line.”

“Electrical engineerin’, eh?” says Scotty, delighted. He works his fork through three layers of pancake and swirls it through a pool of syrup. “Applied to many schools, have you?”

“A few,” says Uhura. Her smile wilts a little. “No responses yet.”

“Aye, I wouldn’t worry your head about that,” says Scotty. “Any school worth their salt’ll hop at the chance to admit you. They just like to take their sweet time about it, is all.”

Jim, Spock, and Bones are crammed in on one side of the booth, with Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura on the other. Jim is on the aisle and he has a good look at the other customers. There aren’t many, but several of the barstools along the counter are occupied. Some of the tables crowded into the center of the room have families at them.

There are six greasy laminated menus on the edge of the table- the waitress forgot to pick them up when she dropped off their food. Jim picks one up and pretends to peruse desserts while Scotty and Uhura talk, all the while hiding his barely contained smile. He wonders if his contentment after last night is contagious.

He likes Uhura. Apparently she’d been a radio DJ at her high school, and a popular one too, which makes him wonder why she’s hitchhiking alone through middle America when she seems to have a life waiting for her back home. Jim watches her over the top of his menu. She catches him looking, and smiles. “So, what . . . you just struck out across the country without a plan? Seems to me like your crew’s been wasting a lot of gas, driving in circles.”

“We’re not- we do have a plan-” Bones says hotly, but the effect is ruined somewhat by Sulu choosing that moment to upend a half-full cup of cold coffee into Scotty’s lap.

Scotty makes a strangled “Gnrk-!” sound and leaps out of his seat so fast that his knee hits the table, scattering silverware.

“Oh, damn!” Sulu yelps, standing abruptly to avoid the slowly spreading spill. “Shit! Sorry!”

“Christ,” Scotty groans, wiping ineffectually at the damage. His face is scarlet. “Damn it all.”

Jim’s already trying to empty the napkin dispenser, but it’s long-since empty. He mutters something profane under his breath and twists in his seat, leaning over into the booth behind them. “Hey, can we borrow your napkins?”

The booths are spacious enough for four people to sprawl out, or for six people to sit uncomfortably close together. This one is occupied by one person, a boy, who is currently holding a roadmap with one hand and eating a strawberry waffle with the other. His yellow hoodie is zipped up to the throat despite the heat, and he has the most atrocious haircut Jim has ever seen.

He stops chewing for a moment and stares at Jim. There’s a look of nervous concern in his eyes, quickly followed by bewilderment.

“Can we borrow your napkins?” Jim repeats, slower this time. “It’s life or death.”

Behind him, Bones is trying to reassure Scotty that it’s not that bad. Spock, disturbed by this, reiterates to Scotty that yes, it is indeed that bad.

The boy’s eyes flick from Jim to his crew and back again before narrowing in confusion. “Zat’s all you want?”

Jim frowns. “Um.”

“I mean . . . yes, yes, of course. Yes,” the boy stammers, dropping his roadmap and tugging two handfuls of napkins out of the little dispenser. “Here you go.”

“Thank you,” Jim says slowly, still eyeing the stranger as he takes the napkins. He turns back to the rest of the group and passes them over, letting Scotty blot helplessly at his crotch. He keeps glancing at Uhura, evidently mortified.

“Sorry about that . . .” Sulu says weakly.

“It’s fine,” mumbles Scotty, embarrassed. He sits back down. “Accident.”

“I’ve got a pair of sweats you can borrow,” Jim says. “Not that they’ll fit you.”

Sulu stares bleakly down into his empty bowl. Jim can tell that mistakes weight heavily on him, even hilarious ones, so he gives him a friendly nudge under the table with his foot. Sulu’s eyes flicker towards him briefly, and his frown seems to soften in an apologetic sort of way.

Uhura, vibrating with ill-contained mirth, sets her mug carefully down on the table. “So,” she says, keeping a carefully straight face. “As I was saying. You guys seem lost.”

“We have a car,” Spock points out, “and a destination.”

“Maybe we can give you a lift?” says Scotty, in a valiant attempt to reclaim his dignity. “Where was it you said you were headed?”

“New Mexico,” says Uhura, her eyes brightening.

Sulu winces. “You’re not going to Roswell, are you?”

“Why not?” she says eagerly. She ignores Sulu’s groans. “Every July they hold this huge festival celebrating extraterrestrial life- it’s supposed to be unmissable. I’ve always wanted to go.”

“It’s a tourist trap,” says Sulu. He drops his head back against the vinyl seat. “It’s just a flashy way to drive some traffic through the town.”

“Come on, Scully,” Jim smiles. “I thought you of all people would be into that kind of thing.”

“What, kitsch?”

“Urban legends, modern folktales. The romanticism of it all.”

“It’s tasteless.”

“And it’s exactly where we happen to be going, fancy that!” says Scotty. He stares across the table at Jim. “Innit, Jim?”

Jim hesitates. His eyes slide to Uhura, who is currently crooning I want to believe in a sing-song voice in Sulu’s ear. Scotty stares Jim down, eyes narrowing.

Ah.

Jim catches Spock’s eye, and at Spock’s nod, he turns to Scotty and nods as well. “Yeah, oddly enough,” he says. “We were, uh, gonna swing by anyway, assuming we don’t get lost again.”

“Oh, well, that’s settled then!” Scotty gives Uhura a little nudge with his elbow. “You could hitch a ride with us, if you’re agreeable. There’s room for you, and we’re goin’ your way.”

“If we can find your way,” Bones mutters. He has Jim’s roadmap sprawled across his knees, flipping through pamphlets with one hand and stirring a half-empty bowl of grits with the other.

Spock glances down at Bones’ lap, and raises an eyebrow when Bones shifts uncomfortably. “You’re holding it the wrong way.”

“I know how to read a goddamn map, Spock.”

“Spock?” says Uhura, incredulous.

Jim folds his arms defensively. “Hey.”

“No, no, it’s cool. For once I know someone with a weirder first name than me.”

“I can’t believe I got us lost,” Sulu grimaces. He has both elbows on the table, head in hands. “I had one job.”

“Your one job is driving, lad,” Scotty claps him roughly on your back. “Cannae be expected to juggle navigatin’ as well.”

“If we leave the highway-”

“We’re not leaving the highway, if Sulu here takes any more back roads, I’ll be sick.”

“What if we just cut through here?”

“Actually if you follow zis route until you hit ze state border and zen take back roads from zere, you’ll hit Roswell in . . . eight hours? Maybe less?”

“Eight hours,” Spock says thoughtfully, taking the map from Bones and spreading it across his own lap- the table is too crowded with empty dishes for him to use it. “There seem to be minimal stops along the way, but as long as we’ve eaten our fill . . .”

“Piss breaks.”

“Of course, we’ll have to account for that as well.”

“Hang on,” Bones says sharply, twisting in his seat to look over the back of the booth. “Who in the hell are you?”

Jim glances up and realizes it’s the boy he’d talked to earlier, now kneeling on his seat with his elbows propped up on the back of Jim’s booth. “I’m good with maps,” he says vaguely.

Jim sits up a little and looks over at the next table, where the boy’s own roadmap is folded into a messy stack with his own set of tacky destination brochures. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“I came prepared so zat zis,” the boy gestures down at Spock’s map, “would not happen to me. Two people, ewen three, can drive across a country as big as zis and not lose zeir way, but . . .” he does a quick headcount, “six people will only argue over each other until zey end up in Mexico. Can I take a look?”

Spock, at a loss for words, passes the map up to him. “We’re going to Roswell,” he says. “Apparently.”

“Yes, I can see zat,” says the boy, his voice already distant as he turns his attention to their original proposed route.

He’s young. Younger than Jim, which isn’t a comforting thought. “Striking out on your own for the first time?” he asks, eyes narrowed as he waits for the boy’s answer.

The boy glances at him, then looks back at the map. “Something like zat.”

Jim waits until the others are distracted by the stranger’s input before peering over the back of the seat to get a better look at his things. Mostly maps and bus schedules. One backpack, lightly packed. He’d left his wallet and phone on the table like he expected to find them again when he returned to his seat. Sure enough, the phone was a burner.

Jim remembered what Bones had said about burner phones. It meant the kid had no GPS, even if he wanted one- though he probably liked knowing that he could get from A to B without help anyway. It also meant it was unlikely that anyone looking for him would find him.

Jim knows a thing or two about being in trouble. The boy is young enough- and weird enough- to be a runaway. He watches Sulu cheerfully conversing with the new boy across the table, even going so far as to ask for his name, and wondered if they were getting involved with something better left alone.

If it had been Jim, just Jim, riding across America with only himself for company, he would’ve been more eager to make friends with the boy. Maybe even to pick him up, the way he’d picked up Bones, and Spock, and . . . the rest. But now there’s more than just him to consider, now there’s Scotty, and Sulu, and the warm, easy whatever-it-was beginning between him and the other two. Not to mention Uhura, who would stick with them until Roswell at least, but after that . . .

“Chekov,” the boy is saying, “My name is Chekov,” and Jim can’t help but wonder why he left off the first name. Maybe, like Uhura, he preferred to keep those things to himself.

He realizes that Spock has been watching him, eyebrow raised, evidently waiting for comment. Jim shakes his head and gestures for Spock to keep listening, and, after a moment, Spock turns away. It’s good that they don’t need to talk anymore to get their thoughts across. Spock knows what Jim is thinking with only a gesture.

“How old are you, honey?” Uhura says in obvious amazement, helping Scotty clear aside some of the dishes so they spread the map out flat.

“Twenty-one,” says Chekov, a little too quickly. Jim rolls his eyes and passes it off as a yawn. “If, uh . . . if you are going to New Mexico I wouldn’t mind . . . you know . . . I can get you zere.”

He makes an awkward gesture between himself and Uhura, evidently taking her for the leader of the group. Jim lets it happen, too interested in the proceedings to care.

“I wouldn’t mind that, actually,” says Sulu distantly, still looking at the maps. He uncaps Jim’s red marker with his teeth and begins outlining Chekov’s suggested route. “I’d rather have you up front than . . . well . . .” He tilts his head at Bones. “Particularly if we’re in for an eight-hour drive.”

Bones grimaces. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Really?” Chekov’s eyes brighten. “You’re, I mean, you wouldn’t mind?”

“You’ll be in good hands,” Uhura reaches across the table and touches the back of Chekov’s hand, gives him a gentle smile. “These guys are cool. Just don’t spill anything in the cupholders.”

“Yeah,” says Scotty, glaring at Jim. “Sounds about right.”

“I said I was sorry,” Jim mutters. “Listen, as far as Roswell, alright? But I’m not promising any farther.”

“Zat’s fine!” says Chekov eagerly, ducking back into his booth to collect his things. “Zat’s, zat’s more zan fine! I’m just glad you didn’t- I, I’m glad, zat’s all.”

“Wanna see her?” Uhura says, counting out the money for the bill. “Your new ride? She’s gorgeous.

“Is she just inviting people to our car now?” Bones mutters to Jim, amid the flurry of confused movement as everyone starts clambering out of their seats at once.

“My car,” Scotty clarifies, with no small amount of pride.

“The car,” says Spock, but no one hears him.

Jim takes his time following the others out, still pensive, still wondering how many more stray hitchhikers they’re planning on picking up before they get to California. By the time he gets out into the parking lot, a little dizzied by the sudden switch from recycled air conditioning to stifling humidity, Uhura and Scotty are already getting Chekov acquainted with their vehicle. Bones and Spock are off to the side, evidently waiting for Jim, and Sulu is leaning against the driver’s side door, watching Scotty and Uhura talk with no small amount of interest. He catches his eye and waves. Jim waves back.

Sulu smiles and pushes off from the door with a little flick of his hips. He taps his watch at Scotty- evidently a regular occurrence between them. “We gotta get moving. Chekov, you ride shotgun,” he adds as he hoists himself up into the driver’s seat. He settles in with the sigh of someone well-fed and eager to be off.

“Guess that’s me in the back again,” Uhura hops up into the van on the other side and starts climbing over the seats. “You don’t mind, do you, Scotty?”

“Nah,” Scotty says brightly, following her in. “But, I mean. Only if you don’t mind.”

“Great. Do you mind if I read over your shoulder?”

“Not at all, lass.”

Bones, who looks appalled at the thought of sharing the backseat with Scotty and Uhura, nudges Jim with his shoulder. “I’m gonna get carsick back there,” he mutters. “Just you wait.”

“I know you didn’t sign up for this,” Jim whispers back. He laughs a little. “Guess you thought- and I thought- it was gonna be just you and me all the way to California.”

“Well now,” says Bones. “It ain’t all bad.”

He nods to where Spock is climbing up into the van, settling in just behind the passenger seat. Jim smiles, nudges him with his elbow. “Go on,” he says quietly. “I have one more thing I need to do.”

Bones nods, leaves Jim to his own devices at he hops up into the van. Jim waves Chekov over before he can get in and takes him off to the side, underneath the shady awning of the Waffle House.

“Chekov,” he says gently. “Are you in trouble?”

For a moment, the boy says nothing. He just stares, his mouth working furiously, as though unsure of what to say. “No,” he says finally, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “I’m not.”

“Are you running away?”

“I- no. Yes. I mean,” Chekov says weakly. He glances over at the van with a sort of helpless look, as though afraid that it’s going to drive off and leave him alone in the parking lot with Jim. “It’s . . . it’s complicated, alright?”

Definitely running away, Jim thinks. He nods slowly. “I see.”

“My parents know I’m here,” says Chekov, with the urgency of someone who knows he won’t be believed. “I am just . . . trying it out, being on my own, and, I, I like you guys. But I can’t tell you why, or it’d ruin it.”

“You can’t tell us why you like us, huh?” Jim says, disbelieving. “Is it our good looks? We’re a pretty handsome crew.”

Chekov laughs nervously, shoves his hands into his pockets. “Look,” he says, “I’m not in trouble. I can tell zat you zink I’m too young, and zat you have been in trouble many times-”

“Beg pardon?”

“-but I promise you, I’m fine. I won’t cause trouble. Just,” and here a pained note creeps into his voice, “just . . . let me stick with you for a while, please? I’ve been taking these terrible, shitty buses across America and it’s very boring without anyone to talk to, you know?”

Jim sighs. He knows. Wordlessly, he gestures at the van, now idling with the engine running.

Chekov smiles hopefully and grabs Jim’s hand, shaking it firmly up and down. “Zanks,” he whispers.

“You stick with us as long as you need to, kid,” says Jim, and he can’t deny there’s a certain little thrill at getting to call someone kid. “But if you’re in trouble, I’m not getting you out of it.”

Chekov nods solemnly. He lets Jim climb up into the van first, since he has to climb awkwardly into the seat behind Sulu, before settling in himself. Chekov clicks his seatbelt into place and immediately starts unfolding one of Jim’s maps, holding it at an angle that obscures almost the whole passenger’s side. From where he’s sitting, Jim can see that first red line he plotted, connecting star to star.

I’m a long way from Riverside, he thinks, without fear or trepidation. He leans back in his seat, smiling to himself. “This had better be some festival,” he says. “If I don’t see some real, live aliens, I’ll be severely disappointed.”

Bones, now relegated to sitting directly behind Jim, leans forward over the shoulder of Jim’s chair. “I’ve been lookin’ at some of Uhura’s brochures,” he says with interest. “They go all-out. Mock dissections and everything.”

“Anatomically correct?”

Bones scoffs. “For Martians, maybe.”

“I’m more interested in the music, honestly,” says Uhura distractedly, already craning her neck over Scotty’s shoulder to get a look at what he’s reading. “You guys do have good music, right?”

“60’s on 6?” Sulu says helpfully. Uhura groans.

“We’re looking at long trip here,” says Chekov, twisting in his seat to address the group at large. “I’m zinking eight, maybe ewen nine hours.”

“Put on something fun,” says Uhura. “I’m going to suffocate back here after eight hours of 60’s on 6.”

Sulu obligingly cycles through a number of radio channels, looking for one that a majority vote can settle on. They skim past “San Francisco” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” and almost settle on “99 Luftballons” before Jim demands that they pick something, anything else.

They find the next station halfway through “Sabotage.” Uhura lets out a whoop of excitement and Sulu, evidently satisfied, leaves the radio on that setting. “Alright,” he says, throwing the gear into drive. He backs them out of their parking space. “Sabotage it is.”

Jim grins to himself, a secret, private smile. Then he digs around under his chair until he finds his bag. After a moment of searching, he finds his journal. He’s strapped a pen to the back with a rubber band.

Jim slides the rubber band off with a twang and spins the pen in one hand, rolling it between his fingers. He closes his eyes and breathes in slowly, in and out, and listens to the quiet symphony of four different conversations happening around him at once.

Then he opens his eyes, and begins to write.

Chapter Text

Jim is no stranger to summer festivals.

Riverside had a few of its own, with the Fourth of July Parade surpassing all of them in size. They would shut down Main Street and line it with tents, jugglers, face painters, and Roy the drugstore guy selling hot dogs fresh off an engine grill.

Roswell reminds Jim of Riverside in many ways. The city has the faded look of an old polaroid, and looking at it is like looking through a heat haze. It makes the parade decorations look all the more vibrant by comparison. Jim finds himself overwhelmed by how much there is to look at- it’s like the UFO Festival itself had crashed down into Roswell and shattered in a burst of Day-Glo green paper mâché.

Several of the nearby storefront parking lots have been blocked off for pedestrians, and vendor stalls have been set up along the sidewalks. Hundreds of tourists fill the outdoor market in colorful droves, many of them dressed in all kinds of tinfoil and body paint. A few bored-looking alumni from Goddard High School are dressed in antennae and passing out event flyers; Jim takes one and sets off down the sidewalk, confident that Spock and Bones will follow.

“Fascinating,” says Spock, perusing his own event flyer with a small smile on his face. Bones taps his shoulder and jerks his head at a nearby park bench, mercifully vacated, and the three of them sprawl into it, taking in the scenery. Jim rests his hand on the back of the bench but it comes away sticky, and he wipes it off on his jeans with a grimace.

Pop country plays loudly from several large outdoor speakers, spaced equidistantly at various points along Main Street. The air smells like sweat and elotes and fry oil. Vendors are selling everything from astronaut ice cream to tarot card readings. Someone’s tacked up flyers on all the street lamps, warning against dehydration and wearing too little sunscreen. Not that Jim had needed a reminder about the sunscreen. Bones had already bullied him into it.

Jim puts his arm casually around Spock’s shoulders and leans in to look at the schedule- it’s packed. Events are booked all weekend, many of them running past midnight. Panels are presented in English, with Spanish interpreters. The Roswell UFO museum is hosting an “invasion” of experts in the field, and there are glow-in-the-dark parades every night. Sure enough, the mock autopsies Bones had mentioned are listed under the Saturday column. The description promises a “hands-on” element that Jim doesn’t doubt is along the lines of a middle school touch-and-feel haunted house.

“They’re having a film festival,” Spock says with interest, pointing out the relevant paragraph. “Uhura and Sulu will enjoy that.”

“Planetarium shows too,” Jim says, pointing at a different one. “We could go together. It would get us out of the crowds.”

Spock glances mildly around at the various vendors. “I was under the impression that the crowds were half the appeal of any small town festival.”

Jim bobs his head in agreement. “True, true. But getting away from them can be just as fun as being a part of them.”

“If you two are thinkin’ about about sneakin’ off, better do it soon,” says Bones. He’s wearing his sunglasses again and they make him look more dangerous than he is. “Before the others catch up to us.”

“We’re not sneaking anywhere without you, if that’s what you mean,” says Jim.

He reaches around to rub Bones’ shoulder and Bones shrugs him off. “Hey now,” he says with a nervous chuckle.

Jim takes his hand away. “Sorry.”

“Not out here, alright? You know where we are.”

Jim exhales sharply through his nose. Then he gestures wide with one arm. “Do you really think anyone will care? In this crowd? That girl over there is painted green.

“Just-” Bones mumbles. He makes a placating gesture with one hand.

Spock has Jim’s marker in one hand- the red one, the one he uses to mark up all the maps- and has been circling events on the flyer and drawing lines through others. He looks sidelong at Bones for a moment before returning his attention to their schedule. “You’ll be alright, Leonard,” he says quietly.

Bones sighs. He stretches his legs out and tilts his head back, letting the sun turn his sunglasses into black mirrors. “You can’t know that, Spock.”

“I mean it. I won’t let anyone try anything.”

A shiver of silent laughter passes through Bones. He lifts his sunglasses off his nose and squints at Spock with one eye. “And what’s that supposed to mean? Are you about to kick someone’s ass if things go sour for me, Spock?”

“Yes.”

Bones laughs incredulously. “You can’t kick anyone’s ass, Spock. What are you, a hundred and eighty soaking wet?”

Spock caps the market. “I am more than capable of defending myself- and you, if necessary, and Jim- should the situation call for it.”

Jim hums in delight. He knows Bones won’t have forgotten the strength in Spock’s arms when he’d pinned Bones down that night in the motel room. Jim certainly hasn’t. It’s all he’s been able to think about. Evidently it’s all that Bones has been thinking about too, because his face turns faintly green when he sees Jim’s knowing smirk. He scowls back, a half-hearted affectation.

Spock, who has been perched on the edge of the seat with uncomfortable straight-backed poise, sighs and sets the event flyer aside. He leans back, just enough to sit down proper. “You have doubts.”

“Doubts?”

“You don’t believe I could follow through on such a promise.”

“I don’t doubt that you’d try,” Bones admits, not unkindly. “But . . . aw hell, Spock. I know you. Something tells me you haven’t been in a lot of fights.”

Spock purses his lips thoughtfully. “More than I would have preferred, in ideal circumstances.”

“Yeah,” says Jim, “but that’s true of anyone.”

“You have good arms,” says Bones, this time directed at Jim. He leans his elbow on the back of the bench. “You’re good in a fight, aren’t you, Jim?”

“No,” Jim says, after a moment. “I’m not. But I’ve been in a few of them.”

“No?” Bones frowns. “You can’t be serious.”

“Mostly I just kind of hurl myself at my opponent and hope for the best.”

Bones laughs and slaps the back of the bench. Spock merely arches an eyebrow. “I don’t like to think of you being bad in a fight. Not without Leonard or myself there as your seconds.”

“You’re not my chaperones, Spock,” Jim grins and shoves his elbow against him, just as an excuse to touch. “I was doing alright on my own before you two came along. What? I was!”

Across the street, some folks from the post office are hanging strings of football pennants up over the entrance to the post office. They’ve draped similar pennants between the fluttering vendor awnings. Apparently the Goddard Rockets have an upcoming home game.

“I didn’t mind the fights,” says Jim. As it leaves his mouth, he realizes it’s more honest than he meant it to be. “Sometimes a good fight was the best thing I had to look forward to in Riverside. I think I enjoyed getting punched.”

“I bet you had some of them coming,” says Bones.

Jim laughs. “Yeah.”

“Some of them.”

Jim’s laugh wavers a little but he’s still smiling. He clears his throat roughly. “I wish I’d known you then. Hated giving myself stitches.”

“Well,” says Bones drily, “I’ll be there for the next one. If there is a next one, which there had better not be or I’ll kick both your asses myself.”

A lone firework bursts overhead and Jim, who’d been about to reply, jerks in surprise. He looks around eagerly for another one with no luck. He hadn’t even seen the burst. A star shaped smear of smoke hangs in the air for a moment overhead and is quickly carried off by the desert wind. Most likely it had been a test shot, preparing for the coming parade.

Even sitting here- doing nothing, simply living and breathing and being in this time and place- is exciting. Small town fairs remind Jim of the cheap, sugary popsicles he’d bought back in Colorado. Bright and sweet until you sucked them down to the dry center. Jim had to admire it. One not-quite-spaceship crashes in a dying town and suddenly thousands come from miles around to breathe a little technicolor life into a thriving extraterrestrial-themed tourist destination.

“Hey!” cries a distant voice. “Jim! Spock!”

Jim glances over just as Uhura comes jogging up to meet them, smiling. She’s already sweating in the summer heat and her hair is frazzled by sun. She looks transcendently happy.

“You should’ve seen where we parked,” she says, sitting down on the other side of Bones and leaning over to look at Jim. “I saw license plates from at least thirty different states and a lot of . . . interesting bumper stickers.”

The rest of the group- Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov- follow behind her at an easier pace. Scotty seems interested, if a little tired around the eyes, and he keeps squinting up at the sun like he has a grudge against it for shining. Chekov and Sulu are walking elbow to elbow behind him, both looking around with wary interest and occasionally whispering to each other. Jim notes, not without suspicion, that Chekov has his hood up. He’ll suffocate in this heat, Jim thinks, followed by, Jesus, I’m starting to sound like Bones.

“Twenty-five dollars for daylight parking!” says Scotty loudly as he approaches. He leans his hip against the back of the bench and shakes his head disapprovingly. “Twenty-five bleedin’ dollars!”

“We weren’t going to find anything better,” Sulu sighs. “We were lucky we found a lot at all, let alone one with enough space for our tank of a car. Probably won’t find a hotel either with the festival on.”

“We parked behind a crab shack,” Chekov says to Jim out of the corner of his mouth.

“A crab shack? In New Mexico?”

“It was not a wery good crab shack.”

Uhura takes the event flyer from Spock’s hands and looks it up and down. “Where are you guys headed? There’s a gift shop on Main Street Chekov and I wanted to visit . . . the one with the mural.”

Bones frowns. “The Invasion Station?”

“The Invasion Station.”

“God,” Sulu mutters. His hands sketch quotes in the air in front of him. “The Invasion Station.”

“No one said you have to join us,” Uhura says lightly. She waggles her eyebrows at Sulu. “There are free crafts outside the town hall. Want to join the fourth graders at the make-your-own-tinfoil-hat booth?”

“Come to think of it, maybe the Invasion Station doesn’t sound so bad.”

“I cannae believe you’re not enjoying this,” says Scotty, incredulous. “This ought to be just your thing.”

“I’m not used to being around this many people.”

“Zere’s a petting zoo?” Chekov frowns, looking over Uhura’s shoulder at the event list. “To pet ze aliens?”

“I’ll leave you to enjoy the space ponies in peace,” Jim grins, standing and stretching his arms up over his head. “Spock, Bones and I are seeing a planetarium show, maybe get in out of this heat. Anyone want to join us?”

Scotty, distracted by the strong smell of freshly-baked pretzels, isn’t listening. “Uhura? Can I buy you a pretzel?”

“But . . .” Chekov frowns. “We were going to ze gift shop.”

“I’ll take you,” says Sulu quickly, looping his arm into Chekov’s and steering him back towards the main crowd. Jim watches him lean in and whisper something. Chekov looks back over his shoulder at Scotty and Uhura.

“Suit yourself,” Jim shrugs.

“We should set a place, and a time,” Spock says thoughtfully, checking his watch. “If we are going to split up, we should establish a meeting point. Somewhere easy to find even after dark.”

“Sherman’s,” say Scotty and Uhura, in unison. Then they look at each other, delighted.

“Haven’t you seen the flyers?” Uhura explains. She points out a stack of them on the corner of the nearest vendor table- they’ve been weighted with some sort of imitation space rock so they don’t blow away. “Scotty and I keep hearing people talking it up. It’s this all-ages party spot on the other side of town. Only open summers.”

“For the tourists,” Jim nods. “Sulu will love that.”

 

Sulu, unsurprisingly, does not.

It turns out to be the kind of karaoke arcade that can only be found in a very particular kind of southwestern tourist town. The sign says Sherman’s in splashy green letters with plastic globs of slime making a dripping effect down the front windows. A smaller, glowing sign points the way to a defunct mini golf course out back. The parking lot’s packed with everything from vintage motorbikes to kitted-out hippie vans; apparently everyone else in town had the same idea about where to be on a Saturday night.

Sulu squeezes the van in between a pair of decade-old Range Rovers and everyone hops out and stretches their legs. Uhura and Scotty- who had been whispering to each other in the backseat ever since the crew reconvened at the van- had evidently found great success at the Main Street carnival games. Uhura shows Chekov a soft, fuzzy alien plushie, and happily tells him Scotty had won it for her.

Jim, who heard from Scotty himself that he’d slipped the carnival man a fiver to let him win, grins as he watches this exchange. He’s exhausted, having spent the entire day jogging from attraction to attraction with Spock and Bones in tow, but nonetheless he finds himself insatiable for more. More excitement, more good food, more knowledge that his newfound friends are enjoying themselves and each other.

Evidently both Chekov and Uhura had stopped by one of the facepainting booths outside the visitor’s center. A large, pinkish-purple nebula swirls across Chekov’s face, neatly framing one eye. Jim would have trouble recognizing him if he didn’t know better. He wonders if that was deliberate, if there was a reason that Chekov might be worried about someone recognizing him.

Uhura had gotten two stars, one on each cheek. She keeps poking them to see if they’re dry. Jim feels his heart jump with fondness when he sees her. Not long after Scotty had privately confided the fiver trick to Jim, Uhura had leaned into him and murmured- don’t tell Scotty, but I paid the man five bucks to let him win. It had taken a lot of self control to keep a straight face after that.

Jim wonders if she really will stick with them only as far as Roswell. He hopes not. He’s shared scarcely one car ride with her and he already he can’t imagine leaving without her.

“You should have done facepainting!” says Uhura, strolling up to where Spock and Bones are already halfway to the front entrance of Sherman’s. “They do makeup too. You’d both look lovely in eye shadow.”

“While I appreciate the sentiment,” says Bones, elbowing the revolving door open, “eye shadow ain’t exactly my- holy hell.”

The inside is, if possible, even more garish than the outside. Sherman’s exists in some liminal space between old-school nostalgia and outrageous B-movie sci-fi. The bar and karaoke stage are kitted out in lime green and fluorescent purple lights, giving them the appearance of some sort of bizarre alien lab. The decorative plexiglass pillars in the corners of the room contain plastic “aliens” floating in some sort of jelly, and most of the high, barstool-style tables scattered around the room have already been claimed by tourists, cosplayers, and all manner of costumed alien enthusiasts. Jim can spot a handful of men and women in dark suits, holding back smiles while they show off comically fake FBI badges. A drunk man on stage is croaking his way through some unidentifiable lyrics.

The room opens out on the left side, revealing the arcade half of the building built on a slightly raised upper level. That side is almost as loud and colorful as the first, complete with tacky glow-in-the-dark solar system carpet and enough arcade games to make an eight-year-old’s head spin. There are pool tables too, and a bowling alley, and the sound of dozens of quarters rattling into machines all at once makes Jim salivate.

“Oh,” Uhura grins, giving her alien plushie a little squeeze. “Now this is a tourist trap.”

Bones rubs his hands together, already striding purposefully towards the bar. “Hope y’all enjoy yourselves at the kiddie table while my 21+ ID and I get good n’ pissed. Scotty, you with me?”

“Well if you’re insistin’. . .

“I am,” Bones slings an arm firmly around Scotty’s shoulders, grinning. “I know your type. First sign of a good time and you’ll be hidin’ in a corner with a library book.”

“I didn’t zink zere’d be so many people here!” Chekov says loudly, looking a little uncomfortable. He flips his hood up again.

Jim is just about to ask him if he's alright when he’s interrupted by a screeching roar from outside. It’s loud enough that even the guy on stage looks at the door. He scowls like he’s been interrupted in the middle of a recital.

“Who drives like that?” says Sulu, frowning at the door.

“Evidently someone who owns a 1966 Thunderbird convertible,” says Spock. He’s walked over to one of the windows and is watching the parking lot.

Sulu scrambles for a spot next to him. “A Thunderbird? With an engine like that?”

The multicolored light from the dance floor shimmers off the revolving door as it turns. Three young men enter one after the other, all squinting at the sudden transition from nighttime parking lot to LSD fever dream. The one in front- a stout one with thick dark air and a jacket that squeaks like new leather- removes his sunglasses and tucks them into the neck of his white teeshirt.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh, yes. This is it. Do you smell all that sweat?”

The man behind him looks college age at least. He’s wearing a baggy hoodie that seems to envelop him, but his hood is down, and he’s looking around the bar with cheerful, almost child-like interest. “Sure, yes, fine,” he says distractedly. “If you don’t mind, I’m just going to . . .”

And he’s already off, making a direct line towards the bar. The young man with the sunglasses waves him off with a laugh and elbows his remaining friend in the ribs. This one is quiet and neatly dressed, but muscular, with long, straight hair tied neatly back from his face.  His dark skin contrasts sharply with the bone-white color of his friend’s, who, having had enough of standing around, steers him eagerly in the direction of the game room. Jim can see them conversing with each other, but whatever they say is too quiet for him to overhear over the sound of the karaoke guy singing through the guitar part.

Uhura tucks her new plushie into her back pocket. She tents her fingers, eyes narrowed as she fixes Jim in a glittering stare. “Jim,” she says. “Karaoke. You and me, right now.”

Jim’s stomach drops. “I, uh.”

“You must,” Uhura says firmly.

“I’m not much of a singer.”

“Good!” Uhura takes his arm and leads him forward. Her smile is calm and encouraging. “You’ll have fun. Do it just this once, and if you don’t have fun, I won’t ever ask you again. We’ll do it together.”

Jim gives Spock a desperate look. Spock looks placidly back at him as Uhura steers Jim up front towards the karaoke stage. “Wait here,” she says, and she makes it only three steps before doubling back. “You know Common People, right?”

Jim’s mouth feels dry. He wishes desperately that he were over twenty-one. “Yeah,” he croaks. “I know Common People.”

He watches, dazed, as she darts away into the crowd. She doesn’t come back until the “Common People” karaoke track has already started, and when she does, Jim is still standing where she left him, dumbfounded by what he’s gotten himself into.

She has two cordless mics- one red, one yellow- that Jim strongly suspects have been turned off for the sake of the customers. Uhura presses the yellow one into his hand like she’s passing a torch. “Trust me,” she whispers. “Don’t worry. I’ll start.”

Jim can tell she’s reigning back her excitement for his sake, and he wishes she wouldn’t. Determined to walk upright to his grave, he waves her hand off and follows her up unto the karaoke stage.

The song’s already playing and Uhura doesn’t waste any time. When she starts in at the I took her to a supermarket part, her voice is strong enough that it doesn’t even need the mic to carry. Jim stands just behind her right shoulder, standing awkwardly stiff, until she slides to the side and makes a ta-DA motion with her arms, forcing him to jump in.

“Are you sure you want to live like common people?” he sings, his voice starting low but growing louder. Shit, he hasn’t sung in front of a crowd in a while. “You want to see whatever common people see? You want to sleep with common people? You want to sleep with common people like me?”

This is it, he thinks, his stomach knotting up with tension. This the big moment, the crescendo . . .

“But she . . . didn’t understand! She just smiled and held my hand!”

He hears an encouraging whoop from Bones down below and realizes that he, Spock, and Scotty have found a free table and laid claim to it. The three of them watch with a mixture of pride and hysterical amusement as Jim and Uhura wail their way through the chorus.

“Sing along with the common people!” Uhura sings out happily. Jim is privately relieved when no one does. “Sing alone and it might just get you through! Laugh along with the common people!”

“Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you! And the stupid things that you do ‘cause you think that poor is cool!”

Jim feels like dying but Uhura is making it look effortless. Jim watches her spin in a circle and strike a pose on stage, drawing a scattered cheer from the few people who are watching. “Like a dog lying in a corner! They’ll bite you and never warn you- look out! They’ll tear your insides out!”

“‘Cause everybody hates a tourist!” Jim’s almost out of breath trying to keep up with her. “‘Specially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh!”

It’s okay, she mouths to him silently across the stage. It gets easier.

Jim stumbles his way through the next verse. It gets easier.

Spock and Bones are still watching him, whispering to each other. At one point Scotty excuses himself from the table and slinks away by himself, just as Bones had predicted he would. It gets easier.

His voice is a little clearer now, a little steadier. He waits for Uhura to lead and falls in behind her, meeting her you will never understand with his how it feels to live your life and when they both leap forward into with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go, they sound good. Jim sounds good. And he’s starting to have fun.

It gets easier.

“Rent a flat above a shop!”

“Cut your hair and get a job!”

“Smoke some fags and play some pool!”

“Pretend you never went to school!”

“But still you’ll never get it right!” He’s nearly screaming now, and her voice rises to match him. “When you’re laying in bed at night!”

“Watching roaches climb the wall! If you called! Your! Dad! He could stop! It! All!”

Their heads are spinning. Their hearts are thundering. Jim feels alive and happy and young, and when Uhura grabs his free hand to spin him, laughing, into the chorus, he spins with her, and Riverside is a thousand lightyears away.

“You’ll never live like common people!”

“You’ll never do what common people do!”

“You’ll never fail like common people!”

“You’ll never watch your life slide out of view!”

“And dance!” she cries. “And drink! And screw!”

“Because there’s nothing else to do!”

Their final note rings out as the music screams into silence. Jim is sweating, ecstatic. He knows he sounded terrible, but he doesn’t care. “Thank you,” he manages to whisper, even as they’re waved off the stage. “You were right. That was fun.”

Scotty’s left an empty seat at Spock and Bones’ table so Jim invites himself into it, letting out a heavy sigh of relief when he sits down. Uhura puts an arm around his shoulders and squeezes him tight. “He killed it up there, didn’t he?”

“That’s our Jim,” says Bones, with a pleased smile. “Anything for a little attention, eh?”

Jim rubs his eyes, wipes the sweat off his forehead. “That was . . .” his voice trails off. “. . . I’m never doing that again.”

Spock smiles knowingly. He sits straight-backed, with his hands neatly folded on the table, and Jim feels the urge to reach out and take one of those hands in his. He wants a lot of things- to pull him in close and kiss those beautiful hands, that serious mouth.

But he won’t. For Bones’ sake, if not his own.

On the other end of the room, Scotty’s found himself an unoccupied table under one of the decorative alien tanks and is trying to read by the light of the phosphorescent glow. He doesn’t appear to notice when the music, after a long hold on a deserted karaoke stage, hastily switches tracks to Alice Cooper’s “You and Me.”

Jim sees a few couples wobble tipsily onto the dance floor and begin dancing. He watches as Uhura awkwardly works her way across the floor, skirting around the couples, until she reaches Scotty’s table.

Scotty, still squinting at a mechanical diagram, doesn’t notice her until her shadow falls across the page. He looks up. His lips part in slight surprise, but she’s already holding out a hand. Gentler than the friendly, familiar way she’d dragged Jim up on stage. A little more uncertain.

Jim sees Scotty hesitate. Then he carefully dog-ears the corner of the page and leaves the book on the table, letting Uhura lead him out onto the dance floor where they begin to sway.

Spock catches Jim watching them. “They are good for each other,” he says quietly. “They are good with each other.”

“You ever wish we could dance like that?” says Jim.

He looks at Bones when he says it. Bones is watching them with a wistful expression, the faintest smile on his face, as though the song has worked its way into his soul. He catches Jim looking at him. “Maybe,” he says. “Someday, y’know. After.”

That word- after- feels like a light touch on a tender injury. The promise of painful healing to come. Scarcely a week ago, Jim would’ve shrunk back from any mention of the glorious, terrifying, agonizing after.

“Do you think there will be an after?” he asks, thinking of the desert, and the highway, and the fragile web of circumstance that leads them all down the red-marker line to San Francisco.

“Yes,” says Spock, without an ounce of uncertainty. “There will.”

“This ain’t a summer romance, kid,” says Bones, holding Jim’s gaze like he wants to make sure he’s got his full attention. Jim feels a dull weight in his chest begin to lift.

 

They order fries and stay there for a while, just the three of them, listening to the music and enjoying the lively activity of the people around them. Jim’s got a pocketful of quarters and is itching to get into that arcade, but Spock seems content to just sit, eating fries and arguing with Bones over whether or not to stay for the whole weekend or strike out again come morning. Eventually the dispute evolves into a full-blown argument, resulting in Bones hopping down from his stool in disgust and leaving to find a men’s room.

Jim doesn’t begrudge him that. Bones gets angry, as Jim knows, and he has enough mastery over himself to know when he needs a moment to cool off. Spock however looks as sullen as he’s ever seen him, insofar as Spock has ever looked sullen. Jim is just pondering the best way to coax someone out of an unacknowledged dark mood when Spock frowns, and gestures over at the arcade section. “Jim.”

Jim takes the opportunity to steal an extra fry. “What’s so fascinating?”

Spock nods in the direction of the pool tables. Jim sees Chekov, currently bent over a table and lining up a shot. Eyes narrowed, lower lip sore from being worried between his teeth. Jim can’t see the shot when he makes it, but he sees Chekov’s shoulders slump in disappointment. Sulu, who’d been leaning on a pool cue beside him, actually thumps the table in frustration. The two older men they’re playing against- one short and ugly, the other tall, and uglier- whisper among themselves before one of them leans down to take a shot of his own.

“How much do you think they’re playing for?” Jim asks. He fishes another fry out of the basket.

Spock shakes his head. “It would be illogical for them to play for money. They have been playing badly all night.”

“Really? Look again,” Jim smiles. He points at Sulu with one fry- he’s just sunk a shot, a good one too, and after a lot of frowning and calculating angles. Chekov gives him an encouraging slap on the shoulder, like a good shot is a rarity for him. Sulu looks relieved. “They’re hustling.”

Spock leans his elbows on the table and watches Chekov more closely. “Fascinating,” he says, after a moment. “How can you be sure?”

Jim shrugs. “Intuition,” He gestures at Sulu again. “Look, I’ll bet you anything he’s going to start muttering encouragement to the ball on his next shot. That way, any shot he just happens to make will seem lucky- like a fluke in a bad player’s streak.”

Spock watches, eyes narrowed in fascination, as Sulu lines up the next shot. He can’t hear a word over the beeps, clicks, and rattles of the arcade, but he can see Sulu’s lips moving. He hums thoughtfully just as Sulu sinks another ball. One of their opponents swears so loudly it turns heads.

“See, even on the last game, you can’t let them know you’re good,” says Jim. They watch as Scotty and Uhura wander off the dance floor, fondly bumping shoulders with each other as they make their way towards Chekov and Sulu’s game. “The whole trick of the hustle is making sure they never know they’ve been hustled.”

Jim watches for a minute longer as the pool game breaks up, Sulu confidently counting his winnings while the other two men whisper behind his back. After a moment the group pairs off again, with Sulu and Uhura disappearing into the depths of the arcade while Scotty slings an arm around Chekov’s shoulders and leads him out into the parking lot.

“I fail to see the logic behind it, in this particular case,” Spock admits after a while.

“Hm?”

“There was no need to gamble. I do not believe Sulu needed the money.”

“It’s not about . . .” says Jim, but he stops and tries again. “It’s . . . look, he grew up in a nowhere town. He probably read a book about how to hustle pool once and always wanted to try it.”

Spock tilts his head slightly to the left. “Have you done it? Would you, if you didn’t need the money?”

Jim laughs uncomfortably. “Why do you ask?”

“I believe you and he share more commonalities than you might like to admit.”

“We all share commonalities. That’s why we’re all here.”

“And we all have our differences,” Spock punctuates the statement with a cold glance at the door of the nearest men’s room.

A smile tugs at the corner of Jim’s mouth. He inclines his head towards the bathroom door. “He’s been in there a while. Maybe you should check on him.”

“He is not that old, Jim.”

“I- no, no I mean,” Jim jerks his head sharply towards the restroom. “You should check on him. Maybe work out some differences.

Spock looks steadily back at him. A slight crease forms between his brows.

“There are seven of us now,” Jim says gently. He slides off his stool and digs a hand into his pocket, feeling for the quarters. “Wouldn’t it be logical to take advantage of the few moments of privacy we get?”

Jim can tell by the look in Spock’s eyes that he’s thinking about it. He takes Spock’s hand and gives it a little squeeze before striding off towards the arcade half of the room.

He hopes his posture doesn’t betray how uncertain he feels. The widening distance between them feels like a ribbon, stretched- Jim walks on anyway, and mentally scolds himself for being so childish. There will be times, many of them, when Spock and Bones will be alone without him. The sooner Jim can accustom himself to this, the better.

The tacky murals all over the arcade section remind Jim of the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars he stuck all over the underside of the top bunk when he was a kid. This place is wildly off-beat, yet feels somehow familiar. If Jim closes his eyes, he may as well be in Riverside’s one and only bowling alley. He can smell pizza grease and sweat. A thinly-disguised roulette wheel rattles in its frame and spits out tickets. You could get lost in a place like this if you played your quarters right, and Jim always did.

Most of the games have been reskinned with semi-outdated pop culture franchises. Jim doesn’t spend long ducking in and out of rows of cabinets before he finds something that catches his eye. There’s a Galaga knockoff on the end of a row of shooters that looks engaging enough- one player or two. Red ship, blue ship. Jim doesn’t recognize the characters on the side of the cabinet at first glance, but the moment he slides two quarters in, a badly pixellated cutscene informs him that Captain Peter Quincy Taggart needs his help to rescue Lieutenant Madison from the enemy fleet.

Jim hums to himself as the first round of ships begins dropping from the top of the screen. His tiny NSEA Protector slides back and forth across the bottom, firing on all cylinders. Enemy ships explode in tiny pixellated bursts. The scoreboard reads Zap! Zap! Zap! in scrolling text at every kill.

It would’ve been perfect had Jim not been distracted by intermittent whoops and hollers from off to his right. Someone is playing a shooter, and winning. Loudly. Jim leans over to see a couple times, irritated, and only manages to locate the culprit after the enemy mothership blows the Protector out of the sky.

He recognizes him at once as the young man who drove in with a Thunderbird; the one with the leather jacket and the bad taste in friends. He’s playing a hunting simulator and has had great luck shooting deer. Jim sees him enter his handle for the scoreboard but he doesn’t see what it is.

The young man sets down the plastic rifle and looks around, pleased, as though hoping someone had seen him. Jim doesn’t look away fast enough and their eyes lock. He feels a sinking in his stomach as the man comes over.

“You don’t mind, do you?” the newcomer asks in a pleasant voice. He gestures to Jim’s knockoff Galaga game, which is currently pleading for more quarters. “I’ll be your P2?”

“I’m doing alright on my own, actually,” says Jim, but the stranger is already inserting his quarters and slapping the Player Two button. The game begins and Jim hurriedly returns to the joystick. There are two ships now. One red, one blue.

“Excellent,” says the stranger, smiling broadly. “I’m rather good at this game.”

He laughs, and sound of it kicks Jim right back to high school. He’d known a kid who laughed like that- a tall, lank junior named Finnegan. He’d hated him.

They play for a long moment, not talking, but Jim catches the stranger glancing over at him once or twice. Eventually he breaks the silence. “I’ve always liked that song.”

“Hmm?” Jim grunts, focussing on the gameplay. “What’s that?”

“Common People. 1995. I’m surprised you’ve even heard of it. It’s a classic.”

Jim slaps the button a little harder than he meant to and looks at the stranger, incredulous. “. . . Yeah, I’ve heard Common People.”

“Most people our age haven’t,” the stranger continues. “You’re what . . . eighteen? Nineteen?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen, I thought so. Me too!”

“Fascinating,” says Jim. God, I wish Spock were here.

“Just turned nineteen, actually,” says the stranger cheerfully. “Thought I’d hit the highway while I’m young, you know? Wind in my hair, Nirvana on the radio.”

Bones had said something very similar to him once. A lifetime ago, in a near-deserted rest stop just outside Riverside. Jim smiles faintly at the memory. The stranger doesn’t appear to notice.

“Have you ever left Roswell?” he continues, making Jim look up in surprise. “You should try wandering the open road like me and Kerouac.”

“I’m not from around here,” says Jim. The red ship dances with the blue ship. The enemy dissolves row by row. “I just came here for the festival.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. I’m from Iowa.”

The stranger slaps the console, delighted. “Wonderful! You’re road-tripping across America, just like me. Love it. Should’ve known from how, uh, authentic your jacket looks.”

Jim glances down at his own leather jacket. The creases are deep, and the elbows are worn butter-soft with use. He looks back up at the stranger’s jacket. New leather, creaking and polished. “Thank you?”

“Mine, well,” The stranger shrugs lazily, as though finally giving in to a friend’s insistent pleas for a story. “If you must know . . . I won it off the back of a bruiser in a bar in Kentucky. Nearly lost an eye, but, I think he grew to respect me in the end.”

“Oh,” says Jim. Then, “The tag’s still sticking out the back.”

“Keep your eyes on the screen,” says the stranger sharply. “We’re losing.”

Jim, amused, returns his attention to the game to find that they’ve already lost. Jim scored higher, with a little 3 x ZAP! icon popping up at the end to triple his score. The stranger tsks sharply and leans forward to type.

QQQ

The stranger wipes his forehead and gestures to the cabinet for Jim to enter his handle. “Haven’t introduced myself yet, have I? Sorry about that. My name’s Trelane. Quentin Trelane. And what do I call you?”

“I . . . don’t usually give my name out to strangers on the road,” Jim lies, eyeing Trelane. He thinks about JIM, burned into the scoreboard of an arcade cabinet in a faraway town, but makes no move to enter it.

Trelane bites his lip and nods. He looks excited. “I see. I see. You don’t mind if I put you in, do you?”

ZAP

Trelane slots in a few more quarters and another cutscene unfolds onscreen. “I respect that,” he says, as he and Jim take up their positions at the cabinet once again. Two ships, two joysticks. One red, one blue. “I watch my back too. No one else is going to watch it for me. I made this road trip happen without help from anyone- with my car, my friends- and I like it that way. Makes it feel like it’s all worth something.”

“She is a nice car,” Jim admits. He feels a sudden pang of loss for his own car, now long since abandoned for Scotty’s. She’d been his first taste of freedom . . . of hope, really. Still, if he could have her back, he’s not sure if he would take her. Not now that he knows what it’s like to fill a car with passengers.

“She is, isn’t she,” Trelane sighs happily. “My dad bought her for me. Hey- you here alone?” He raises a hand in mock surrender when Jim looks at him sharply. “I’m not prying! I’m not.”

“I’m not here alone,” says Jim. It feels good to say it, almost vindictive. He realizes that this is the first time in a long while that he’s felt like he can say that. I’m not here alone.

“Good,” says Trelane. He sounds genuine for once. “That’s the way to do it. You’re the captain of your own ship, but without a crew . . .”

The Game Over screen has been flashing at them for a while now. Neither of them have noticed.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m here alone,” says Trelane. His eyes are searching Jim’s face, looking for something. “My friends, they aren’t . . . they aren’t what I wanted them to be. What I thought they’d be,” After a moment, Trelane sighs and looks away. “Life’s over after nineteen, you know? I want to cram in one last teenage summer. A real sunshine and cherry coke summer. No summers after nineteen. I’d rather be dead than be twenty.”

Jim wonders what kind of person this is, who’s so desperate for someone to talk to that he’ll outpour this kind of innocent pretentiousness onto a complete stranger. Jim doesn’t like him, and likes him less by the second, but nor does he feel good about walking away. If it had been him out here, all alone . . .

“Sometimes . . .” he says slowly. “Sometimes you take the summer you’re given. Nirvana on the radio, sunshine and cherry coke, all that. Other times you have to make the summer yourself.”

“I envy boys like you, you know,” says Trelane. Jim’s heart sinks in anticipation of whatever he’s going to say next. “America- I mean the real America, the wheat field, apple pie America- loves boys like you. Young and dumb and broke. No one holding your back or waiting up on you. Nothing to stop you from tilting your face to the west and driving into your future with your head held high. Doesn’t it feel good?”

“. . . Not always.”

“But it’s what you have, isn’t it? It’s all you have,” Trelane presses on, heedless of Jim’s attempts to interrupt. “Me, well, I don’t like to brag about it, but I come from a well-off family. I wish I had what you have. I want that experience, you know? Of being some down-on-his-luck deadbeat, trying to grasp at some concept of meaning that I’ll never really find. That’s what I’ve been chasing. I’ve got the right car- you saw the Thunderbird.”

“I saw it.”

“It’s black, though. I never liked that. It’s supposed to be red. That whole Hunter S. Thompson thing. Hey!” Trelane suddenly claps his hands together. His attitude of wistful despondency is gone, replaced by a sudden burst of childlike excitement. “Hey look, listen- order some golf shoes, otherwise we’ll never get out of this place alive! Ha ha!”

Trelane looks at Jim expectantly, arms spread wide. “Hunter S. Thompson?” he says after a moment. “Gonzo journalism? Tell me you read that book.”

“I did, yes,” Jim nods wearily. He looks longingly at the men’s room door on the other side of the karaoke bar. “It was on the banned book list at my school. Mr. Pike-”

“So you see what I mean,” says Trelane, as though that settles the matter. “God, I loved that book. I really connected with it. I myself have smoked weed in the past. I could have given Mr. Thompson quite the run around. Have you ever smoked weed?”

“I . . . no,” says Jim, because it’s easier than explaining how Finnegan had talked him into a single hit, once, and that Jim had spent the rest of the house party standing alone in an unfamiliar kitchen, frantically monitoring his vitals for any signs of change. Jim gestures at the pool area where Trelane’s college-age friend has claimed Chekov and Sulu’s abandoned table. “Is that your dealer?”

Trelane blanches. “No,” he says sharply. “Cy is my friend. We’re friends.”

“He’s selling weed to those high schoolers.”

“He’s a good guy!” Trelane insists. “He’s not- he likes me. So does Khan.”

Jim wants to make some flippant, perhaps cruel comment about that, but before he can he finds himself distracted by the game screen. The cabinet, lacking a new player for several minutes, has started playing pixelated clips from The Journey Continues: The Movie.

Jim feels something like déjà vu reverberate down the halls of his mind. He leans forward, squinting at the cutscene, trying to make out the faces. Trelane glances up at the screen too. “Oh? Is this The Journey Continues?

Jim narrows his eyes in confusion. He recognizes Dr. Lazarus. He also recognizes . . .

“I used to love Galaxy Quest as a boy,” Trelane is saying, utterly oblivious to Jim’s dawning realization. “I always considered myself something of a Captain Taggart. The games I would play out in the yard, rolling around in the grass- Mother would have fits every time I came in with grass stains on my school clothes. Did you ever watch Galaxy Quest?”

“I preferred Babylon 5,” Jim says distantly. Then he runs for the parking lot.

“Hey! What-” Trelane’s voice trails away behind him as Jim, eager to hear his theory confirmed, darts across the dance floor towards the revolving door. He gets there just as someone launches backwards through it, colliding with him directly and sending them both crashing to the floor.

Jim hits the ground hard and gasps, all the wind knocked out of him. The man who’d hit him scrambles to his feet first, wheezing, and stands bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. He doesn’t offer to help Jim up so Jim pushes himself to his feet alone, and both of them stand there for a moment, facing each other, dizzy.

Jim can hear more commotion outside, the sounds of fighting. The man who’d crashed into him is thin, bearded, and dressed up for the festival in what looks like an unplugged competitive fencing jacket. He looks dazed. Jim shoves past him and runs outside just in time to see Scotty lay a right hook into someone’s jaw, sending him up and over the hood of someone’s Kia.

“Alright!” Jim roars. “Enough of that! Hey!”

There are five of them in all- Scotty, Chekov, and three more tourists in similar sparkling costumes. The parking lot, alive with people coming to and from their cars, is bustling with activity even at this late hour. People are keeping their distance, looking on and occasionally giving drunken shouts.

Chekov runs by him in a blur of yellow and Jim grabs the back of his hoody, yanking him backwards until he trips over his own feet. His facepaint is smudged and his nose is dripping blood all down his mouth and chin. He’s got a bruise rising on his right cheek.

Jim feels a hot rush of anger with him for getting involved in whatever this was, and an even more livid frustration with Scotty, who’s forty-goddamn-three and should know better. “What the hell happened here?” he snarls.

Scotty, who’d been struggling to get out of a headlock, shakes off his assailant with an oath and comes to stand beside Jim. The man who’d been holding him takes a step back, hands raised, his steps a little wobbly from too much drinking. His friends come to stand next to him too, all breathing heavily, all in varying states of disarray. “It was nothing,” says the largest one. His nose sounds clogged- Jim wonders if Chekov managed to elbow him in the face. “They started it, not us.”

“Why you absolute-” Scotty leaps forward but Jim’s already got his arm, holding him back. The doors spin behind them, just in time for Spock to hurry out into the parking lot and see Scotty lunge.

He grabs Scotty sharply by the shoulder and it’s like all the fight has been leeched out of him; he shakes off Jim and Spock’s hands and stands sullen beside Chekov, not talking. Jim gives Spock a grateful look before returning his attention to Scotty’s new friends.

One of them spits on the ground before walking away. The others go with him, muttering amongst themselves and shooting filthy looks over their shoulders. The smallest one punches the hood of someone’s car as they leave.

Jim takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, letting the adrenaline in his system kick itself out. There’d been a time not long ago when he would’ve relished a scrap like this, would’ve thrown himself into it headlong without caring if he won or lost. Not anymore. Now he just feels drained, anxious. Those guys had looked big, and his friends- Chekov especially- had looked very, very small.

Thank god it wasn’t Spock. Or Bones.

Neither Scotty nor Chekov are making eye contact with him. Jim gets right up in their faces and waits, silent and expectant, until they look.

“I want to know if one of you started it,” he says.

No response. Chekov looks away from him, down at the ground. Scotty is watching the sky.

“Chekov,” says Jim. Chekov’s eye twitches. “I know you. You started it, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t!”

“Well, who did?”

Chekov swallows. “I don’t know, Jim.”

“I don’t know, Jim,” Jim mutters under his breath. He turns to Scotty. “Scotty. You should know better.”

Scotty has the decency to look ashamed. “Sorry, Jim.”

“Who threw the first punch?”

Jim’s not sure when the roles became reversed- when he became the adult, and Scotty the unruly troublemaker. Right now he has his hands in his pockets, and a furrowed brow as he stares at a point three inches to the left of Jim’s head.

“Scotty?” Jim prompts, annoyed.

“I did,” says Scotty, very quietly.

“What was that?”

“I did!”

“You . . .” Jim pinches the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave off a headache. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Bones, followed by Sulu and Uhura, following Spock out into the parking lot in confusion. “Bones, go have a look at Chekov, will you? He took a nasty hit to the jaw.”

Bones doesn’t ask questions- he gets right to it, firmly shutting down Chekov’s protestations as he sits him up on the hood of the nearest car and begins to check his bruising. Jim returns his attention to Scotty, who’d been attempting to sidle away while he was distracted. He folds his arms. “What caused it, Scotty?”

Scotty smiles apologetically. “Well . . . they were talkin’ shit, Jim.”

“Must’ve been some shit.”

“Aye, it was.”

“You threw the first punch?” Jim says, more to himself than to anyone else. If it had been Chekov, he would’ve understood, especially with what he knows now, but Scotty . . .

Scotty looks in Chekov’s direction. “The lad wanted to, but I held him back.”

“You held-” Jim glances at Chekov, then back to Scotty. “Why did Chekov want to start a fight?”

“Well, they . . . now look,” Scotty mumbles, “you’re not really telling us off, are you, Jim?”

“Yes, I am telling you off!”

“Well, uh . . .” Scotty says through gritted teeth. “They . . . overheard you an’ those two talking. Saw you come in together.”

He nods at Bones, still attending to Chekov’s injuries, and Spock, who is standing quite still by his shoulder, watching him work.

“And?”

“And they called you a . . . a hitchhiking freeloader who turns two tricks to make the rent, Jim.”

“Is that all?”

“No, they also compared you to a ten-dollar truck stop boy.”

“I see . . .” says Jim slowly. It’s not the worst he’s heard.

“And then they said-”

“I get the picture, Scotty.”

“Sorry.”

“And after they said all that . . . that’s when you picked a fight with them.”

“Oh, no.”

Jim blinks. “No?”

“I didn’t see that it was worth fighting about!” Scotty holds up his hands in mock surrender. “After all, we’re being enough to take a few insults, aren’t we?”

Jim just stares. “What was it they said that started the fight?”

“They called my car a mom van, Jim!” says Scotty, with breathtaking sincerity.

“They- she is a mom van, Scotty, you-” Jim groans, pinches the bridge of his nose again. That headache’s coming on strong. “That’s when you hit them?”

Scotty lifts his chin. “Well, Jim. This was a matter of pride.”

“I wish you had stayed reading in the corner,” Jim mutters under his breath.

Bones, meanwhile, has been carefully blotting up the blood from Chekov’s nose with a damp bit of gauze. He looks much like he did when Jim saw him last, if a little more sex-rumpled. His hair is sticking up at the back, and Jim allows himself a private smile at the thought of the kind of rough handling that must’ve caused it. It’s almost enough to cheer him up.

“I don’t- stop zat!” Chekov snaps, leaning away from Bones like a recalcitrant child.

“Hold still,” says Bones firmly, waiting until Chekov begrudgingly leans forward again to continue his work. “You too, Scotty. I’m checking you next.”

“Y’cannae kick up a fuss every time one of us gets so much as a scratch!” Scotty moans. He folds his arms and leans his hip against the hood of the nearest car.

Bones gives him a look. “I can and I will! I want all of us gettin’ to San Francisco in one piece.”

“Gives you something to do, eh?” says Jim, with no small amount of fondness. Nonetheless he keeps an eye on Chekov, determined not to forget why he came out to the parking lot in the first place. He has suspicions that need confirming.

“Yeah, I’d be perfectly happy with nothin’ to do, thank you,” says Bones. He checks the bruise on Chekov’s cheek, and, apparently finding it nonthreatening, leaves it alone. “Every doctor and nurse from here to California lives in hope that one day we’ll wake up and find that everybody on the planet is perfectly healthy and in possession of a signed certificate from God sayin’ that they’re gonna die peacefully in their sleep. Then we can all retire and go fishin’.”

“Ow!”

“Stop fussin’.”

“Stop fussing, Chekov,” Chekov mutters. “Hold still, Chekov, quit complaining, Chekov. I’ve had about enough of zat from you.”

“Now that I’ve got you here . . .” says Jim, leaning against the hood of the car on which Chekov is seated. “And since you’re not about to move until Bones is finished with you . . .”

Chekov eyes him warily. Jim wonders if this is how young he seems in the eyes of Scotty and Bones. Yet they listen to him, somehow, in a way that they would never do for Chekov. They yield to Jim without being asked.

“I’ve got you all figured out,” says Jim. He watches Chekov’s eyes widen. “I know who you are, I mean. Why you’re out here all alone and so eager not to be found out.”

Chekov looks quickly around at the tourists straggling in and out of Sherman’s. Then he ducks his head, as though hiding. “Come on . . .” he mumbles. “Jim . . .”

Jim shakes his head with a little click of the tongue. “No more dancing around it. I saw a clip from the movie. You were the kid from Galaxy Quest, weren’t you?”

Bones, who’s been looking through his first-aid kit for a packet of tissues, looks up in confusion. “Laredo?”

Spock gives Jim a long, neutral look. “I . . . don’t believe he played Lieutenant Laredo, Jim.”

“Not Laredo,” Jim snaps over his shoulder. “The kid, the boy! The child psychic!”

“Charles V?”

“No not Charles V! Dr. Lazarus’ brother, the one they introduced in the movie and never mentioned again.”

“Keep it down!” Chekov says frantically. “Keep it down!”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Jim asks, desperately curious.

“It wasn’t-” Chekov says helplessly. “It wasn’t me, I’m sewenteen.”

“You told us you were twenty-one!” Bones punctuates the statement with a sharp, short smack to the back of Chekov’s head.

“But I thought . . .”

“I look exactly like him?” Chekov says bitterly, still rubbing his scalp. “I am wery aware of zat, zank you. Zat was my dad who played Dr. Lazarus’ brother.”

“In the movie,” Jim repeats dully.

“In the movie.”

“Well, what’s so bad about that?”

“Because zat’s all people care about!” Chekov exclaims, all in a rush like he’s finally had a chance to let something out. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to know zat no matter where you go, what you do, or how good your grades are, all people will ewer see in you is a lesser, washed-out wersion of your dad?”

Jim feels something cold and painful clench in the pit of his stomach. He nods, just the once.

Chekov carries on, his voice quieter now. More miserable. “It has giwen me no end of trouble. I wish I looked like someone else. Anyone else,” and then again, even quieter, “I don’t even like Galaxy Quest.”

Jim shakes his head wearily. “I can’t believe no one’s recognized you yet. Here, of all places, I would think . . .”

“I’ve been trying to keep my head down,” says Chekov, just as another thin string of blood drools down from his nose.

“Well, you did a lousy job of it,” says Bones. He tilts Chekov’s chin up, lets him take the tissue to staunch the flow. “There, you’re good to go. Mind that you don’t let it bleed everywhere.”

“What the hell? What the hell did you do to my car?”

Jim jumps in surprise, turning to see Trelane staggering through the revolving doors with one hand over his mouth, the other shaking, pointing. Jim follows the direction of his gaze and sees what must surely be the black Thunderbird, or what remains of it, parked in a handicapped spot right by the door. The car’s been violently keyed. Deep, black marks scar the paint, and someone’s taken a bat to the windshield, shattering it. Something’s dripping thick and slow from the underside of the car. Jim winces and looks around, wondering who else has noticed. He’s shocked that he hadn’t noticed sooner, but the disturbance between Scotty and the tourists had captured his attention completely.

One of Trelane’s friends- the long-haired one, the one he’d called Khan- follows him out. His eyes are wide, his mouth slightly open in shock. Wordlessly he runs to driver’s side and drops to his hands and knees, checking beneath the car. Trelane’s panicked gaze jumps from the car to Jim, then to Scotty and Chekov, both looking a little worse for wear, then back to Jim. His chest heaves up and down with unsteady breaths.

Khan actually slaps the pavement in frustration before clambering to his feet. He points one shaking finger at Jim, having evidently reached the same conclusion as Trelane. “You,” he snarls. “You . . .”

Sulu is backing towards the van, fumbling in his pockets for the keys. Jim steps forward with his hands raised. “Alright,” he says weakly. “Alright, let’s just . . . hold on for a second . . .”

“You,” Khan repeats tremulously. He points at Spock next. “And you. All of you. Do you know what you’ve done? We’re stuck here until we can get this fixed! Stuck in this . . . in this . . . desert nowhere!”

“D-damn it!” Trelane wails, actually fisting his hands in his hair. “I should’ve known you and your buddies’d pull something like that after I told you I was well-off! You goddamn freeloader! You ruined my road trip!”

Jim’s patience just about gives out, but he musters up the last of his politesse and doesn’t yell. “Maybe,” he says, his voice carefully neutral, “if you hadn’t been talking about it so loudly and publicly, you wouldn’t have invited bad attention-”

Trelane swings at him before he can finish and Spock all but leaps in front of him, shoving Trelane back with his forearm. Trelane whines like he’s been hit and backs off, cradling his arm. People are starting to gather now; news of a second fight breaking out in the parking lot is starting to spread. Sulu pulls up along side them in the van and stretches across the front seat to unlock the passenger door. “Let’s just go!” He pleads. “Now? Please and thank you?”

“We just got here,” says Jim angrily, stepping forward, but this time he feels Bones’ hand on his shoulder and stops.

“He’s right, Jim,” says Bones, but his voice is gentle. “You’re not getting into a goddamn fight with these assholes.”

“You’re going to pay for it!” Trelane actually stamps this foot this time. His face has gone blotchy red with anger. “You, you, you can’t just leave us!”

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Sulu mutters nonsensically under his breath as Uhura and Scotty pile into the van, followed quickly by Chekov. Bones has to grip Jim under the arm and steer him firmly away from the conflict, flipping Trelane off over his shoulder as he does. Last to follow them in is Spock, who backs away slowly, holding eye contact with Khan all the while.

Trelane’s on his knees beside the car now, frantically trying to buff out one of the key scratches. Khan, white-faced with fury, actually stoops and picks up a rock, chucking it hard at the side of the van as Sulu pulls away. “I’ll find you!” he shouts, his voice fading as they peel away from the parking lot. “I’ll chase you through Arizona, and through Nevada, and all the way to California before I give you up . . !”

 

They don’t talk for a long time after that. Their hasty exit is still worrisome in the backs of their minds.

Driving through town at night is a nightmare with Main Street closed for the parade. Sulu lurches the van up and down festively decorated side streets while Jim, feeling tired and slightly ill, cracks open a can of ginger ale and sips it cautiously. Everyone groans at the satisfying hiss of carbonation.

“God,” Bones mumbles, sounding exhausted. “That could’ve gone better.”

It’s too dark to see him but Jim feels Bones lean up against the back of his seat and wrap an arm around Jim’s waist. Bones rests his chin on the top of the seat, just by Jim’s right shoulder, and Jim tilts his head enough to brush a sticky kiss against his forehead. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “It could have.”

“Dr. Lazarus’ brother?” Sulu is saying, incredulous. Chekov, still dabbing at the blood from his nose, grunts in affirmation. Sulu shakes his head. “I didn’t even know he had one.”

“He was introduced in ze movie and was newer mentioned again.”

“Oh. Weird.”

“I know, right?” says Jim between sips of ginger ale. He gestures vaguely at Spock. “It’d be like if you had a brother.”

“I do.”

Jim chokes so loudly that Scotty and Uhura, who had fallen asleep on each other’s shoulders in the back, jerk awake in surprise. “You, you,” he stammers, “You have a brother? You have a brother.”

Spock nods. “I didn’t deem the information relevant until now.”

“You didn’t deem it relevant?” Jim stares at him, shocked beyond all reason. “What’s his name?”

“Sybok.”

“Sybok?

“There any normal names in your family?” asks Bones, incredulous.

“I suppose not,” says Spock. Then, a moment later, “My sister’s name is Mike.”

“Mike?”

“Mike?”

“Spock!” Jim splutters. “You can’t- you can’t bury the lead like that! A sister? Named Mike?”

“Technically she is more of an adopted cousin.”

“As long as we’re confessing,” says Chekov, covering a yawn with the back of his wrist. “Sulu, is zere somezing you’d like to share with ze rest of ze class?”

“Pavel . . .” Sulu groans, visibly slouching a few inches lower.

Jim kicks the back of the seat. “What’s this? What’s this now?”

“I . . .” Sulu says weakly. “I mean . . . I didn’t know . . .”

Bones, just on the cusp of falling asleep with his chin on Jim’s chair, blearily stirs himself to consciousness. “C’mon, then,” he says. “Out with it.”

Sulu looks genuinely distressed. Jim sees him tapping one finger repetitively on the wheel. “I may have . . . I was playing pool with these two guys earlier and I may have mentioned . . . that I . . . owned . . . that fine black Thunderbird out front.”

Jim’s jaw goes slack. “You’re kidding.”

“I wanted to impress them!” Sulu says desperately, all in a rush. “I didn’t think they’d be that mad about, I, I mean two hundred dollars is nothing! I thought they’d be into it! You know, ah, hustled by a dashing stranger, you know, at the pool hall, I mean I’d be flattered, wouldn’t you?”

“Dashing stranger,” Chekov snickers. He makes quotation marks with his hands. “Dashing stranger.”

“How was I supposed to know that they’d . . . I mean they really did a number on that car . . .” Sulu keeps glancing up at Jim in the rearview mirror. This is the most uncomfortable Jim has ever seen him. “I guess that makes it . . . our fault? Technically? A little bit?”

Jim sighs heavily and slumps back into his seat. It’s not that he doesn’t understand it, he does. Sulu had wanted to feel special for a moment- Jim gets that. He’s acted out in worse ways for less. Maybe Spock’s assessment of them hadn’t been too far off.

“Don’t worry about it,” says Jim. He follows up his earlier kick to the seat with what he hopes is an encouraging nudge. “Not tonight. Just . . . focus on finding us someplace to sleep, alright? I’d rather not sleep in the van.”

“Could sleep standing up . . .” Bones mumbles from behind him, dozing off on Scotty’s shoulder now.

Sulu holds Jim’s gaze in the rearview for a moment before nodding. “Alright,” he says, still sounding a little unsure of himself. “I’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah,” Jim groans, exhausted. “Figure something out.”

He stretches for a moment before curling up against the window, his cheek hot against the cool glass. The streets are lined with sparklers and lanterns, every shade of kaleidoscopic light filling the streets with color, but above them, beyond them, he knows the sky is full of stars.

Chapter Text

The first thing he sees is the sky.

The stars shine with a cold light. Spacedust ribbons across the black in a spectral array of blues and greens and violets. This is a sky unlike any sky Jim has yet seen.

Seawater rolls in lazy waves around him, tugging at his clothes, splashing playfully at his waist. The water is bright with bioluminescence, full of nocturnal plankton. Jim Kirk raises one dripping hand and slicks his hair back from his face, letting his eyes adjust to the brightness as he looks from the sea to the sky.

San Francisco lies before him. He had imagined it in the sun. At this hour, the city is lit up carnival-bright, full of wide windows and open doors and glaring neon lights. The seawater feels cool and bracing against Jim’s flushed skin, yet the stars, so distant, seem to give off a radiant heat. This is California.

Jim feels something happy and childish bubble up in his chest. He laughs and tumbles backwards into the sea. The water is cold, sparkling. After a moment of blissful submersion he breaks the surface, gasping, and sees a slim silhouette kneeling on the sand. He swims towards it.

He would know that silhouette anywhere, black and featureless though it seems. He could pick it out on a highway at midnight, or on the dark side of the moon.

Jim leaves the water and, still dripping, sits beside Spock on the beach. His feet are sticky with cool, black sand.

“Here we are,” says Spock. His voice is quiet. “California.”

He too has tilted his face towards the sky, but his eyes are closed. Jim knows the look of him when he’s deep in meditation. Jim mimics the posture, his legs tucked under him, his palms laid flat against his knees. Straight-backed, he looks at the stars. He wonders what peace Spock finds there, what meditative bliss. When Jim looks at the stars, he sees infinite possibilities, few of them peaceful.

“Is this my place?” Jim asks. It is easy to ask these things in dreams. “Beside you? In California?”

Spock’s eyes open to slits. Then he closes them again. “Like attracts like,” he says. His voice is heavy with infinite patience. “You are made of a different material than I.”

A hum of approval from behind them. A warm, calloused hand sliding into Jim’s wet hair, making it stick up. Jim knows those hands. He doesn’t have to look up to know Bones is standing just behind him, one hand in his pocket and the other in Jim’s hair, watching the waves roll in.

“This was good,” says Bones, and he sounds happy. His fingers brush the short, bristly hair at the back of Jim’s neck, like a beloved pet. “You were good.”

Spock exhales, low and warm, before he stands. The sand doesn’t stick to him. He watches with detached interest as Jim climbs to his feet.

“Good,” says Jim, feeling oddly detached from the word.

“Good, yeah,” says Bones. “It was fun. You were fun.”

He looks different. Healthier, happier. His skin is evenly tanned and his eyes are brighter, carefree in a way that Jim’s never seen them. He has the polish that dreams give those we love.

Bones watches the sea for a moment, considering, then turns his back on it to look at the city. Jim’s legs feel as heavy as lead. He watches Bones’ eyes, obsessed by them, as their attention shifts from city light to city light. Weighing the options.

“Thanks for taking the edge off,” he says.

Jim feels a strange tightness in his chest, a creeping sense of anxious dreamdread. “Thanks?” he croaks. He looks to Spock, hoping for what, he doesn’t know, but Spock’s eyes are on the city too.

“Summer’s over,” says Bones. His voice is patient, slow. An adult to a child. “I know you know that, Jim.”

Jim’s not sure if he nods or shakes his head. His whole body feels numb. Had the water been so cold . . ?

Bones smiles, not unkindly. He puts his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “I got a wife, Jim,” he says gently. “You’re good for a summer, but I got a life I’m itchin’ to get back to.”

“Like attracts like,” says Spock, from just behind Jim’s right shoulder. Jim turns sharply, and he’s gone, nothing- only shadows. Insubstantial.

“Insubstantial,” Jim breathes. The world rattles around his head like a penny in a piggy bank.

“I already got one kid,” Bones’ voice is quieter now. Jim can’t see him anymore. “No place in my life for another.”

Jim tries to shout, but his voice is caught in his throat. His heart lurches, and with it his body- a sudden, painful movement that makes his forehead bump hot glass and then he

wakes up more tired than when he slept, rising to the surface of consciousness with his face pressed against the car window and his legs folded up against the back of Sulu’s chair. His eyes are still sticky with sleep. Looking out the window, he sees only darkness. Midnight in the desert. He’s been asleep for scarcely two hours.

Jim rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand and looks blearily around. It’s too dark to see anything but the shapes of his friends’ bodies, and the glowing face of the dashboard, and the headlights illuminating the road ahead of them. The radio is mumbling softly, just loud enough for Sulu to hear and just quiet enough to let everyone else sleep. Looking into the back, Jim can see that Uhura’s head has drooped onto Scotty’s shoulder. He looks away.

Night brings a languid texture to the long drive through Arizona. Jim watches the highway race past with sleepsore eyes. The vibrations of the engine lull him in and out of a vague, dreamlike doze. His thoughts spiral out like galaxies, yet he’s acutely aware of each song rolling into the next, and the sound of Spock’s slow and even breathing. Try as he might, he can’t recall what he was dreaming about.

They’ve slept in the van for multiple nights now- there were no empty hotel rooms to be found in Roswell, not for the whole weekend- and Jim gets the sense that the crew is getting heartily sick of each other. Jim isn’t exempt from this. He too finds himself annoyed by Uhura’s daytime monopoly on the radio, or Chekov’s irritating laugh.

Still, he doesn’t suffer from it as badly as Spock does. Late into the second night, when everyone was exhausted and caffeinated and shifting around to get settled, Jim saw him taking deep and steadying breaths, eyes closed, hands on his knees. Trying to meditate.

He wonders if Spock ever thinks of that evening in Colorado, when they’d had the whole night ahead of them. The two of them, and Bones, in a sweat-sticky motel room in the middle of nowhere. The first and only time they’d had a chance and taken it.

They can’t take a chance now. Not when they’re sleeping every night in cramped quarters with four other people. It’s driving Jim up the wall, and, he suspects, Bones isn’t doing much better.

Nonetheless there are moments when Spock and Bones’ bickering dies down. When Sulu and Chekov stop snickering at Scotty and Uhura from the front seat. When Jim feels that somehow, impossibly, all seven of them are going to make it to San Francisco without killing each other.

It had been Chekov who suggested they take the long way around, and Jim had agreed with him. He had confidence that the kid wouldn’t get them lost, and he knew that Chekov had an interest in keeping them on the road for as long as he could. He hadn’t been with them very long. Not compared to Bones, or Spock.

Jim knew that feeling. The feeling of wanting to draw it out, hold on to this summer just a few minutes more. A few hours. A few days.

They’d decided it earlier that afternoon, as they were pulling out of a fast-food parking lot. The van smelled of grease and sweat even with the windows cracked. They were overheated and hungry, and even then, Bones waited until Jim had gotten halfway through his chicken sandwich before starting on his own.

“So,” Jim said with his mouth full, “if we cross Arizona first, going more or less northwest, and then take a quick shortcut through Nevada before heading for the California coast, going north from there . . . that means we’ve got plenty of time to make a few more stops, right? Bones,” and here he twisted in his seat, looking into the back. “We haven’t gone anywhere you wanted to go yet.”

Bones took a long, slow sip of his cherry coke, considering. “Arizona . . .” he said thoughtfully. Jim could see the gears in his mind turning. “What’s in Arizona . . .”

Truth was, Jim had been both excited for Arizona and disappointed by it. He had been hoping for clear skies and hot sunlight and chalky deserts with brackish, scrubby plants. When he got them, they felt strongly underwhelming. Uhura agreed with him on that point and Jim didn’t blame her. Out here there were a lot of empty miles between the towns, and with the heat nigh unbearable even at night, it wasn’t the friendliest territory for a hitchhiker.

Sulu, though. He loved it. “There’s plenty in Arizona!” he said over his shoulder, his voice slightly raised so Bones could hear him down the length of the van. “This is cowboy country!”

Bones nodded thoughtfully, his eyes on the desert flying past outside. “Frankly, I could do with a nap more’n anything else.”

Chekov, who had been reading the maps in the passenger seat with the air of a beleaguered father ignoring his children at the breakfast table, glanced briefly at Sulu before returning to his reading. “We don’t want to miss zis turn!” he gestured towards the exit fast approaching them on the right. “We’re turning, eweryone! Turning!”

“Don’t-!” said Sulu sharply, but he was already turning off, and in a sudden burst of activity Jim, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov all hurled themselves to the left, shouting that they’d been hit. “You’re going to flip the car!” Sulu shouted back into their laughter. “Do you want to flip the car?”

Jim, picturing the look on Sulu’s face, laughs quietly into his hand. Spock shifts in his sleep beside him, just a little, and Jim’s laugh fades into an easy silence. He catches Sulu’s eye in the mirror; dark and red-rimmed, watching the road with a patient intensity that reminds him of Spock at the chessboard. “You tired?” he mumbles, keeping his voice down enough to not wake anyone up.

Sulu glances at him in the mirror. “I’m alright,” he whispers back. “I’m staying caffeinated.”

“Issfine,” Jim rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand, sits a little straighter. “Pull off at the next exit and we’ll get you a bed for the night. Won’t even flip the car.”

“I’m awake, Jim. I’m not gonna run you off the road.”

“I know you won’t. Pull off.”

 

The next morning, Jim wakes in a warm bed for the first time in days.

He’s pulled from the ease of a deep sleep by a powerful need to piss. He slips out from under the covers and shuffles blearily into the bathroom, feeling pleasantly rested. The bathroom’s attempt at rustic decor only lifts his spirits further; he hadn’t had a chance to appreciate the wonders of Arizona motel kitsch the night before. Jim returns to bed still smiling and slides in in front of Spock, who’d taken the middle and had fallen asleep with Bones pressed up against his back.

Jim closes his eyes and nuzzles into the pillow. It had taken them less than twenty minutes to find a motel after Sulu pulled off. After stumbling, exhausted, through the ordeal of renting two rooms, an incoherently tired Jim had collapsed into bed and had let Spock and Bones slot themselves in wherever they could. It had been the first time they’d been alone in some time, yet Jim had felt nothing but the sweet exhaustion of a man looking forward to a long night’s rest. It was a long, nourishing sleep; the kind of sleep that left Jim feeling a new man, replenished and revitalized.

Jim brushes his nose lightly against Spock’s cheek and watches in amusement as his eyes open to two narrow slits. “Good morning,” he whispers. “Can you believe he’s still asleep?”

Spock, unmoving, glances down at Bones’ arm where it’s slung over his waist. “I believe the good doctor is drooling on my neck,” he whispers back, just as softly.

Jim grins and nuzzles his nose against Spock’s cheek again. “I can’t believe you were asleep either,” he says. “Early-risers, the both of you.”

“I was perfectly awake, Jim. I was only meditating.”

“Mmm. Alright, Spock.”

“I had no wish to dislodge Leonard.”

“You told me he was drooling on your neck.”

“I am happy to let him do so. He does not strike me as a man accustomed to sleep.”

Jim touches his lips to Spock’s, very lightly, and their hands find each other beneath the gingham bedspread. Jim entangles their fingers at once, Spock’s long, clever ones and Jim’s fingers still stiff from scarring. “The last few days,” he mutters under his breath. “They’ve been . . .”

“Exhausting.”

“Yes.”

Bones sits up, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand. He mumbles something unintelligible. “Morning, old man,” Jim says warmly.

Bones scoffs, reaches out to rumple Jim’s hair and give his head a gentle shove like he’s an errant child. “Love you too,” he says drily, and, seeing that Spock is awake, he leans down to kiss him thoroughly on the mouth. Jim watches, his throat feeling dry, as Spock reciprocates with what, for him, amounts to a gentle enthusiasm.

“Haven’t slept like that since Colorado,” Bones mumbles into Spock’s mouth, his eyes following Jim. Jim feels hot at the memory and looks away, unable to hold back his smile. “I’m gonna go wash up. Spock, you comin’?”

“Don’t mind me,” says Jim with a theatrical sigh. He sprawls onto his back, admiring the view as Bones shimmies out from under the covers and stretches. “Motel showers aren’t exactly built for three.”

“They ain’t built for two either but I’m feelin’ up to makin’ an effort at it,” says Bones cheerfully.

Spock sits up in bed, supporting himself on his hands, and actually smiles as he watches Bones disappear into the bathroom. “I’ll take care of him,” he tells Jim, very quietly, before getting up himself.

Jim stays in bed for a long moment afterwards, feeling the warmth of the sunlight playing across his chest and wondering about Spock. After a while he sits up, tries to stroke some semblance of order back into his hair. He wrestles himself into his clothes- his jeans are practically creaking, he needs a new change and soon- and wanders out into the parking lot in his socks.

The heat is so oppressive, even at this hour, that it feels like a bucket of warm water has been upended over him the moment he opens the door. He goes outside anyway and squints at the clear blue sky, the desolate parking lot, the tacky neon cowboy sign that swings its lasso back and forth, back and forth. Jim vaguely remembers a vending machine at the front desk. The check-in office is three doors down and he has to pick his way gingerly across the steaming concrete to get there.

The office is resolutely holding to the kitschy standard of the rest of the mote. There are flies buzzing around the faux longhorn ceiling light, and the cow print wallpaper makes Jim’s eyes water. The man at the desk is perhaps mid-thirties, heavyset and red-faced. He glances up from his paperback when Jim enters. “Ah, Mr. Kirk!” he smiles broadly. “Friend, Kirk! Excellent to see you, very good to see you! I hope you’re enjoying your stay? Enjoying it very much no doubt, from the look of your, hrm, well I’d better not say.”

“I’m sorry,” says Jim weakly, awkwardly zipping up his fly, “but I can’t remember your name.”

“Of course, of course,” the man at the desk waves a careless hand. He’s wearing a garish shirt, open-necked, with a polished chain gleaming on his chest. “You were quite wiped out, I must say. Miracle you didn’t crash your van. Ah, Mr. Kirk,” He rubs his hands briskly together, still smiling. “It’s a pleasure, a privilege to have not one but seven guests here at once! Though of course, I would have preferred it had you taken ah, more than two rooms, let’s say, but no matter, no matter, one mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, ha ha! Harry,” he adds cheerfully, almost as an afterthought. “Harry Mudd.”

He offers his hand. Jim hesitantly takes it and has his hand promptly throttled like the neck of a rabbit. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance of coffee?” he asks, extricating his hand from Harry’s grip. “Is there a breakfast spot anywhere around here? A diner?”

“Coffee? Coffee? Why yes, absolutely, for a nominal fee I can most certainly do coffee,” says Mudd with a pleased look. He reclines in his chair and gestures around at his cramped office. “Feel free to use the facilities. You’ll be staying another night, I trust? Several? No breakfast spots around here, I’m afraid. Damn shame. Damn shame.”

Jim frowns. “No diners?” He digs a handful of ones out of his pocket and starts smoothing them out on his knee for the vending machine.

“Terribly sorry, my dear Mr. Kirk,” says Mudd, inexplicably crossing himself. “Afraid our little town got bypassed a few years back. Most of us local businesses have fallen on hard times. We had a mall once, you know. Rather successful. Shell of it’s former self now, very sad. Your friends in Room 8, I don’t supposed they can be convinced to, ah, spread out into Room 9 as well? Four to a room, you know. I can’t abide penny-pinchers.”

“I’ll ask them,” Jim mutters, feeding his dollars into the machine.

“Oh, thank you,” says Mudd, with another bright grin. “I had a good feeling about you, Mr. Kirk, I surely, surely did.”

Jim glances at him with an uneasy smile. “You say there’s a mall here in town? Is it still open?”

Mudd shrugs lazily. “A generous word, but yes, certainly. If you can call a handful of shabby outlet stores and an Orange Julius a mall.”

They watch in silence as the rack holding the chocolate-covered pretzels unspools with a quiet rattling sound. It gets stuck halfway through. “Oh, give it a good thump,” says Mudd, and Jim smacks the machine hard. “Anyway, as I was saying-”

Jim, however, is distracted by the rack of dusty pamphlets and postcards just inside the door. He picks up a waterpark brochure and flips through it, finding it to be dated from 1997. Then he finds another, more recent one, this one from the National Parks Service. “Is there any good camping around here?” Jim says curiously, reading the back.

“Ah, erm. Well,” says Mudd, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yes, I suppose. There’s a site just out of town- a few miles, really- but that’s all desert, you know. Scorpions, devilish creatures. And snakes! No, no,” he waves his hand as though dismissing the idea entirely. “Camping is entirely out of the question- you can’t get the quality Mudd experience out in the desert!”

Jim hums thoughtfully. He folds up the pamphlet and tucks it into his back pocket. “What time’s checkout?”

Mudd folds his arms and gives him a sullen look. “Noon.”

 

Back at the room, Jim finds Spock sitting cross-legged on the faded carpet with Bones sitting across from him, shuffling a deck of cards. “Took you long enough,” says Bones wryly, not looking up. “Figured we’d spend the day in, give the others a chance to stretch their legs.”

“Checkout’s at noon,” says Jim in a distant voice, his mind preoccupied. “You know the van’s not out there, right? We did park out front?”

“Didn’t you hear ‘em? They left for downtown while you were talkin’ to the creep at the desk. Relax,” Bones adds hastily, when Jim frowns. “They ain’t even a mile away. We could walk.”

The prospect of walking even a mile in this heat makes Jim’s neck prickle in anticipation of sweat. He plops himself down next to Spock and watches Bones deal out the cards. “There’s a mall downtown and frankly I’ve been itching to get out of these clothes. Also,” he adds, producing the pamphlet from his back pocket, “how do you feel about camping? I don’t like the look of the guy at the desk.”

“In the desert?” Bones says doubtfully, but Spock looks up with sudden interest. Jim knows what he’s thinking. The stars will be magnificent on a clear night. Jim had done a lot of stargazing in Iowa. Peering up from the backyard, imagining his father among the pulsars and quasars.

“Unfortunately, we neglected to pack camping equipment,” says Spock.

Jim doesn’t miss the faint wistful air in his tone. He folds the pamphlet back up. “Again, mall downtown. We can freshen up, restock our supplies for the rest of the trip. Sulu was talking about needing a change too, remember? Consider it refueling.”

Bones purses his lips, hums thoughtfully. “I haven’t been to a mall in . . . Hmm. Been a while.”

Jim examines his hand. It’s not a great one. “I’ve heard they’re underwhelming.”

“Shut up. They used to be real hangouts for the youth. A piece of Americana, right there.”

“I guess they were just before my time.”

“You’d’ve made great mall trash, lookin’ the way you do,” says Bones, with a lazy smile. “Do you have any threes?”

Jim looks up sharply. “I thought we were playing poker.”

“Go fish,” says Spock. Then, “Did you imagine yourself a cowboy as a child, Leonard?”

They go around the circle, counter-clockwise, swapping and drawing when appropriate. Bones nods. “‘Course I did. Grew up on those stories. The Lone Ranger, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid,” He draws another card. “Used to play at bein’ Wild Bill and Annie Oakley with my first crush on the playground. Made a damn nuisance of myself.”

“Do you have any fours?”

“Go fish.”

“What about you, Jim? ‘Spect you had a bit of an imagination yourself as a boy.”

Jim thoughtfully traces the edge of his cards with one finger. “I played a lot of Pretend on the playground, sure. Never cowboys, though.”

“Shame. You’d’ve made a damn fine outlaw.”

A smile tugs at the corner of Jim’s mouth. “For me it was . . . it was all kinds of things. Sea captain one day, spaceman the next. Mafia boss the day after that.”

Bones laughs. “No kiddin’?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jim grins. “I was obsessed with gangsters. Even tried to get my mom to buy me a violin, just so I could carry around the case. I had a little suit and everything. Such a dumbass back then.”

Spock raises an eyebrow. “How old were you?”

“. . . Eight. Must’ve been eight.”

“Then you weren’t a dumbass,” Bones says gently. “You were eight.”

Jim drops his gaze. He clears his throat. “And you? What did you pretend to be?”

“Myself, only smarter,” says Spock.

“Yeah. I think we all pretended that once in a while.”

“Ah-ha!” Jim cried, slapping down his cards. “What do you say when you win? Is this a fish? A full fish?”

“I don’t know,” Bones frowned. “There must be something you say.”

“Full fish. Next hand.”

“We oughta play for stakes.”

“We could. Or . . .”

“Hmm? What’s that?”

“Come on,” Jim leans forward with a conspiratorial smile. “The others are out . . . finally have the room to ourselves . . .”

He’s not sure what possessed him to be so forthright about it. Bones and Spock exchange pointed looks, and Bones looks away at once with an amused snort. “What?” Jim says sharply, embarrassed. “What was that? What was that look?”

Bones is covering his mouth with his wrist, squinting at Jim with brightly amused eyes. “We were waitin’ to see how long you’d hold out.”

“I had thought for another twenty minutes at least,” says Spock, in the same tone that he would use to discuss an interesting roadside landmark.

Jim can feel his face go bloodless, and he ducks his head, his fists clenching on his knees. “That’s . . .” he mutters, not entirely displeased. “That’s . . . don’t tease me like that. I don’t like you conspiring behind my back.”

“Who’s conspiring?” Bones says cheerfully. He sets his hand aside, the game forgotten. “Just a friendly wager is all. Look at him, Spock,” he adds, the corner of his mouth twitching. “He’s gone white as a magnolia in May.”

“Just for that,” says Jim, shuffling the deck together again, “we’re gonna keep playing. Don’t give me that look!” He adds, his embarrassment deepening as he catches Spock’s eye. “Conspirators, both of you. Mutineers.”

“I do not know what you mean,” says Spock mildly.

“You do. You do.”

“What are we playin’, then?” says Bones, in a pleasantly indulgent tone. He shifts so he’s sitting cross-legged, still glowing with pleasure at having gotten a rise out of Jim. “Poker? Strip poker?” he adds with a leer.

Jim runs his tongue along his teeth, continues shuffling. “I’ll make it up as I go along.”

“You always do,” says Spock, very quietly.

Jim cuts the deck, begins to deal it out. “We oughta go to the OK Corral,” says Bones, his eyes on Jim. “I hear it’s a tourist trap now. Stand-up buildings and shootouts at high noon. I’d like to see you walkin’ those streets. All dressed up. Bet you’d look a real treat.”

Jim hesitates for only a moment before reaching down, adjusting his dick through his jeans. He hears Spock’s low, satisfied exhale, and feels his body respond to the sound, twitching and eager. It is a new thing- a strange, interesting thing- to talk like this in the broad light of day. He watches as Spock reaches out, his hand interlacing with Bones’ right there in front of him, and it’s . . . fine. It feels incredible.

Jim swallows. He shifts a little closer to the two of them, turning the remains of the deck over and over in his hands. “Now, this is pretty simple,” he says, smiling in spite of himself. “Each player gets six cards, except the player on the dealer’s right, who gets seven.”

Bones groans, his eyes rolling skyward. “Dammit, Jim, if you’re lookin’ to seduce me, you don’t have to make a whole damn show of it.”

“The second card is turned up, except on Tuesdays. Now, two jacks is a half fizzbin-”

“A what now?”

“Fizzbin. The name of the game is Fizzbin.”

Bones’ face passes directly through denial, anger, and bargaining and lands firmly on depression. Spock, whose face begins and ends at acceptance, exhales heavily through his nose. “Do I need another jack?”

Jim is fairly certain that if he holds his laughter in any longer something inside him will rupture, but he keeps a straight face when he says, “No, god no, if you got another jack you’d have a sralk, and that’s an immediate disqualification. You need a king and a deuce.”

“A king and a deuce.”

“Except at night.”

“Jim, I swear I’ll put you over my goddamn knee,” Bones growls low in his throat. He reaches across the deck and tugs Jim in close by his shirt collar, kissing him hard enough to wring the breath from his lungs.

“Fascinating,” says Spock, with something like amusement.

Bones pulls away with a satisfied grimace, looking at Spock while Jim struggles to catch his breath. “Oh? What’s so fascinatin’ over there?”

Spock looks at him with a carefully neutral expression, though his eyes are shining. “It is fascinating to me how easily he drives you to distraction. Your mind is quick to wander.”

“You say that like you ain’t damn distractin’ yourself,” Bones mutters. His hand finds Spock’s knee, then slides up his thigh. Jim, still sprawled halfway in Bones’ lap, gets an arm around his shoulders and kisses his neck, his fingertips tracing the bumps of his spine through his shirt.

“I do not try to be,” Spock straightens imperceptibly, leaning into Bones’ touch.

“I know you don’t. That’s the appeal, ain’t it?”

“I don’t understand,” Spock nods in Jim’s direction. “Surely the appeal is in the trying. When our Jim makes such a display of himself-”

“Christ.”

“-I believe half the joy is in watching him do so for our pleasure.”

“Well,” Bones says with mock thoughtfulness, his eyes narrow slits as he regards Spock over Jim’s shoulder. “I won’t deny your point, Spock. But there’s a certain appeal in how goddamn cold you are,” His hand finds the place between Spock’s legs, palms him openly. “Makes a man really have to put in the work to get a rise out of you. And I’m a hard worker.”

Spock’s eyes fall closed. He stretches, catlike, before settling himself in closer to where Bones and Jim are entangled. “What is the goal of this game?” he says quietly in Jim’s ear.

Jim’s known him well enough to know that this is his voice when he’s teasing, not serious. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath to steady himself. It’s difficult, with Bones’ hands on him. “Uh . . . it’s to get a royal fizzbin. But the odds are astronomical.”

“That right?” Bones purrs, amused. He nips lightly at James’ ear.

“Spock, what are the odds of getting a royal fizzbin?” Jim asks, a little desperately.

Spock’s face twitches, amused. “I have never calculated them.”

“Well, there you are,” says Jim, but Bones’ mouth is already on his. He groans lowly, settling more comfortably into Bones’ lap. “Of course . . .” he murmurs, his hands splayed on Bones’ chest, moving down. “The point of the game is- ah- to strip the loser down as- as quickly as possible . . .”

“Look at you,” Bones mutters, not listening. He turns Jim in his lap, a moment’s ordeal as Jim clings to him so tightly, but soon he has Jim’s back pressed to his chest and is holding him there, letting Spock’s hands finally touch him unobstructed. “Lookin’ like that, you’re bound to make a man think dangerous thoughts.”

“Oh- oh yeah?” Jim groans through gritted teeth. He wriggles a little, a half-hearted escape attempt, but Spock’s hands are firm on his shoulders and they hold him still, pressing him up against Bones’ front. “You a bad man, looking to take advantage?”

Bones laughs, a little wicked. “Might be.”

“You oughta let a boy my own age have a go at me,” Jim grins. He reaches up, tilts Spock’s face down to kiss him along his jaw, his cheek, the pleasantly sharp angle of his ear.

“Yeah?” Bones growls. He gets his arms around Jim and gives him a playful squeeze, rubbing his hardness against the small of Jim’s back. “You think lettin’ schoolboys paw at you will be good enough for the great James T?”

Jim shudders- he likes that. Too much, maybe. Bones feels him tremble in his arms and smiles against the back of his neck, his hands wandering to between Jim’s thighs. His breath is warm and damp against Jim’s ear when he murmurs, “Only got one thing on their minds, Jim. That’s not what you need, is it . . . a boy like you needs a man’s touch . . . straighten you out . . .”

Jim can’t see Bones’ face, but he can see Spock’s. The pupils of his eyes are wide and dark as he listens. His fingertips touch Jim’s collarbone, then his throat; he holds his head still kisses him deep and slow, eliciting a low groan from Bones behind him.

“Christ,” he mutters against Jim’s neck. “The hell am I gonna do with you . . . two little brats givin’ me the runaround . . .”

Jim groans weakly. “You’ll have a hell of a time keeping us in line.”

“I look forward to it.”

“You know,” Jim murmurs, his voice hoarse. “Maybe I will get dressed up. Something about this place, something in the air, make a man want to feel like a real cowboy.”

Bones nuzzles into his hair, humming thoughtfully. His hand slips under Jim’s shirt, slides up his belly. “Yeah . . . see what you mean . . . but then, lookin’ like that, you’ll have a whole army of desperados to fight off. And me too.”

Jim turns his head to meet him. “Is that a promise, Bones?”

“Yeah,” Bones murmurs against his mouth. “Reckon it is.”

 

There had been a time, Jim knew, when American malls were roaring centers of activity. A place where youth culture thrived, particularly in small, dusty towns in the midwest. Now, though, it was plain that Mudd hadn’t been lying; the bypass had killed nearly all the commerce this town, and its mall, had to offer. The gated storefronts looked onto darkened interiors, stripped of all life but for the occasional patch of tacky 80’s carpeting. What few stores remained open were drab and poorly stocked, and the whole thing had the eerie glow of an airport by the light of the pink-tongued fluorescent bulbs.

It was no small structure- it took Jim perhaps five, ten minutes to walk from end to end- but he found the rest of the group in what passed for a food court, where he expected them. They were loitering outside an Orange Julius, still with the original devil logo on the sign. Jim caught sight of them from a distance and for a moment felt a rush of affection for all four of them. My crew, he thought, smiling inwardly to himself. Hanging around the Orange Julius like mall rats.

“There you are! God, you reek,” says Uhura, by way of greeting. She nudges Spock cheerfully with her shoulder. “Did you fellas walk here?”

“Somebody took our van,” says Jim, with fake annoyance. He leans his hip on their table. “Anyone else feel like camping? I don’t want to stay another night in that motel if I can help it.”

“Seconded,” says Chekov, stirring his milkshake idly with the end of a straw. “I didn’t like him. Seemed like an unprincipled, ewil-minded, lecherous kulak to me.”

Jim mentally files away kulak for later use and begins to delegate tasks. “Alright. You, and you,” he says, turning his attention to Scotty and Uhura. “Load up on snacks. You three, go see about camping equipment. You needed a change of clothes, right?” he adds, looking at Sulu. Sulu, mid-slurp, nods in assent. “Alright then, you’re with me.”

Someone’s phone goes off. A repetitive, factory-setting beeping. All eyes turn to Spock; his brow furrows, his lips part slightly. “Excuse me,” he says slowly. Jim can hear the confusion in his voice and he doesn’t like it.

He watches as Spock walks a distance away, pulling out his phone and snapping it open, with an uneasy feeling building in his gut. He looks back at the rest of the group. “Okay,” he mutters, his enthusiasm somewhat dampened. “Like I said. You’re with me.”

Bones is worried too, not that he’s ever anything but. He and Jim exchange looks, but he leaves with Chekov anyway, leaving Jim and Sulu to comb the empty mall for clothing stores. The near-silence, broken only by the distant, tinny whistle of country pop over the loudspeakers, gives Jim the feeling of being underwater. They duck into the first store they see, and while Sulu takes his time picking over the options, Jim grabs the basics and nothing more. White tee-shirt, jeans, socks. His leather jacket’s creaking with dust so he not-so-subtly shakes it off, earning him a look of scorn from the exhausted-looking clerk at the desk.

“Too much?” asks Sulu, popping up from behind the discount rack. He’s holding up a yellow flannel and a pair of boots that make Jim think of rodeos and square dances.

“I say go all out. Here,” Jim sweeps a white hat off a mannequin, holding it out to Sulu. “Try this.”

Sulu examines his reflection in the sunglasses mirror. “Hat, or boots, I think,” he says thoughtfully. “Not both.”

They look at each other. “Hat,” they say in unison.

Sulu chuckles and looks around him. For a moment they both become aware of how quiet it is, but for the sound of their voices. Jim can hear his heartbeat in his ears. “Time feels thin here, doesn’t it?” says Sulu, his voice distant. Then he seems to come back to himself and laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry. I know that doesn’t make much sense.”

“I know what you mean,” says Jim, and he means it.

They change in the fitting rooms and leave the store together, feeling stiff and awkward in their new clothes. Sulu tilts his hat low over his eyes and squints at the tube lights high above. Their edges are black with dead flies. “This place is a ghost town,” he says, and Jim knows what he means then too. This part of America feels sick, like a dead thing still breathing. Like a horse with a broken leg. Jim watches Sulu’s eyes and wonders what he’s thinking about- if he’s imagining the ghosts of long-dead outlaws having shootouts among the kiosks, showdowns at the food court.

“Makes the mind run wild, doesn’t it?” says Sulu, a little awe creeping into his voice. “A dead mall in Arizona. The adventurous world of yesteryear meets the husked-out shell of the modern day.”

Jim smiles despite himself. It’s a romantic notion, exactly the sort that sings to him. He wonders what it would be like to see the world through Sulu’s eyes. “You know how they say that nature will always grow back to reclaim the modern world?” he says, as they stroll past the gated storefronts and the Space for Lease signs. “Do you think the same could be said of history? That the past, like dandelions in concrete, grows through the cracks of our memories to reclaim our souls?”

“I’d like to think so,” Sulu hums thoughtfully. He chuckles. “When I was a kid I used to think the spirits of the old white hats would live on in me.”

“I think they do,” says Jim honestly. “Thinking makes it so.”

“Ironically, Hamlet wasn’t talking about ghosts when he said it.”

“Maybe ghosts are just . . .” Jim gestures vaguely in the air in front of him. “You know. The past, bleeding through. Who’s to say the old white hats don’t live on in you, through the remembering?”

“And the old sea captains in you.”

“Exactly.”

They walk on in silence for a moment, contemplating. “You’re an odd one, Jim,” says Sulu, after a while. “I’m glad I met you. I can’t talk like this with anyone else.”

“Spock says we share commonalities.

“Speaking of,” says Sulu, frowning. “What was that all about, earlier?”

“I don’t know,” Jim’s stomach twinges anxiously. The whole point of the burner after all was avoiding being called; how anyone outside of their group could have known Spock’s number, he couldn’t say. “I thought-”

“Zere zey are!” cries a familiar voice from up ahead. Bones and Chekov are just exiting a sporting goods store, both laden down with bags.

Bones grins appreciatively at the sight of their new outfits. “Lookin’ good, both of you,” he says, shifting his bags onto one arm so he can pull Jim in and kiss his cheek. “Love the hat. Would’ve gone black hat myself- always had a thing for the villains.”

Sulus tips his hat cheerfully in Bones’ direction. “Pardner.”

“I’ll be back,” says Jim, wriggling out from under Bones’ arm. “You guys find the others, alright? I’ll catch up in a sec.”

He leaves the three of them discussing the relative merits of Morgan Earp and Ike Clanton and ducks into the nearest men’s room. The air is noticeably colder, with the sting of mildew and dust. The off-white ceiling tiles look shine unpleasantly in the greenish tinge of the light. Jim grimaces, but his need to go is strong enough that he relents. The middle stall is occupied, so he enters the first one and shuts the door.

The seat is cold and the inside of the door is smeared with graffiti in every color. Jim’s gaze moves from name to name, doodle to doodle, phone number to phone number. After a while he remembers the roadmap, usually stowed in his logbook but currently shoved into his back pocket, and unfolds it to give himself something to do. It’s full of stars, scribbled in dry red marker, and long red lines where Jim has written the routes, but now too it’s full of Chekov’s scribbles in blue ballpoint pen. Some of them are in Russian, in handwriting so bad that Jim couldn’t read them even if he knew the alphabet.

Something tugs at Jim’s heart as he looks at it. He traces the line from Iowa to California with the tip of his finger. There’s the splash of darkness over Texas where Sulu spilled his coffee. There’s the empty spot over the Pacific where Scotty scribbled some incomprehensible technobabble with a four-color pen. There’s the red star that Jim drew over Riverside. Mr. Pike is somewhere under that star. Jim wonders what he would say if he could see Jim now. What he might think of what Jim’s done with his summer. Jim feels . . .

Proud. He hopes Mr. Pike would feel the same.

The cardboard tube rattles in the paper dispenser when he reaches for it. Jim grinds his teeth together. “Hey,” he says awkwardly, knocking on the dividing wall between the two stalls. “You got any paper in there?”

Silence. Then the sound of the dispenser popping open, and a minute later, half a roll sails over the top of the stall. Jim catches it with a muttered thanks.

The soap dispenser is almost empty. Jim wrestles a few drips of foam out of it and washes up, looking at his face in the cracked mirror. He’s tanned dark- very dark, actually. It hadn’t occurred to him that this trip might physically change him, leaving its mark on his body as thoroughly as it had on his mind.

He’s still contemplating this when the other toilet flushes. “There’s no soap,” he says automatically as the other person starts rinsing in the sink next to him. They reach for the paper towels at the same time, make eye contact, and Jim yelps, “Khan!” so loudly that Khan actually jolts back a few inches. Then his other hand is flying towards Jim’s face and Jim drops without thinking. He kicks Khan’s legs out from under him and he hits the ground hard, gasping, as Jim scrambles for the door.

“You-” Khan chokes, white-face with fury as he claws himself to his feet. “You-”

Jim slams the door on him and all but leaps back out into the mall, where sure enough, he sees Chekov, Bones, and Sulu- now with Scotty and Uhura in tow- arguing with Trelane and the red-faced, college-age kid he’d called Cy. “Hey!” he shouts furiously. Seven heads whip around. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you following us?”

“Are. You. Following us?” Trelane snaps back, in an unkind imitation of Jim’s voice. He looks just as he looked in Roswell, though a bit more tired around the eyes. He’s snapped the price tag off his leather jacket. “Think you can just key up someone’s Thunderbird because you’re jealous?

“Shut up, Trelane,” Jim grows through gritted teeth. “That’s not what happened.”

The bathroom door crashes open behind him and Khan bursts out, his shoes skidding and squeaking on the waxy floor. “Tough guys like you think you own the universe, huh?” He shouts at Jim’s back.

Jim storms right up to Trelane and shoves him hard in the chest. Trelane, evidently not expecting Jim to actually touch him, staggers back several feet and looks up at Jim with the shocked look of a man who’s bleeding out. “If my dad hadn’t wired me the money for a rental,” he splutters, “we’d still be stuck there in that, that . . . shithole! You ruined my road trip! My only road trip!”

Cy, who is drinking something out of a brown paper back, takes a step back with his hands raised. Khan steps forward, still fuming, but Sulu all but elbows Jim out of the way and stands behind him, putting himself between Jim and Khan.

“It’s not his fault!” he says desperately. “It’s my fault! I’m the reason they destroyed your car!”

Khan’s gaze snaps to Sulu, and his eyes narrow. “Is that so?”

“No, no!” Jim’s arm jumps in front of Sulu to hold him back. “No, he’s not! It’s my fault, mine alone. Take it up with me. Quentin,” he adds sharply. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Trelane, caught in the act of removing a set of pristine, unused brass knuckles from his pocket, freezes as though struck. “Trelane!” he croaks, indignant. “My name is Trelane!”

“Trelane, then. In case you haven’t noticed,” Jim spreads his arms wide, gesturing to the rest of his friends, “there are seven of us, and two of you. Three if you count that guy.”

“Whoa, hey, don’t count that guy,” Cy says weakly, still backing away. His gaze flicks back and forth, looking for exits. “That guy is not looking to get involved in any, uh, personal feuds thank-you-very-much. That guy is just gonna go back to the rental . . .”

“Oh no,” Trelane says quickly, holding out a hand. “Oh no, no no no, no you don’t! You’re staying here!”

“I’m with him,” says Jim, keeping one eye on Khan all the while. He’s breathing heavily, his fists balled at his sides, watching Sulu with something like malice. “Let’s just all agree to go back to our cars, drive off in different directions, and never speak of this again, alright?”

“Alright!” yells Cy, from several yards away. “Excellent plan!”

“No, no!” Trelane snaps, first at Jim, then at Cy. “No, in fact, it’s not alright!” He levels his gaze at Jim, poking one shaking finger at his chest. “Khan is right. Tough guys like you think you own the universe. Swaggering around like you’re too good for me.”

“Jim,” There’s a note of warning in Bones’ voice. “Jim.”

Jim’s whole body is tense with the effort of holding himself back from laying Trelane out with one punch. Bones’ hand is on his shoulder, a firm grip that brooks no argument, and Jim is just about to say something he regrets when he sees Spock arrive out of the corner of his eye, catching up with the rest of the group. His face is white with something like madness, and his phone is clenched tightly in one hand. He stops short when he sees Trelane, his expression moving swiftly from one of rage to one of confusion, and then to cold, dangerous apathy.

Jim shakes Bones’ hand off him and steps up to Trelane. Trelane is slightly taller, and for a moment, Jim takes a savage joy in the way Trelane can’t meet his eyes. Like he thinks Jim is some wild thing that his parents warned him about. Like he doesn’t know that Jim won’t bite unless Trelane bites first.

“I’m not going to stand here and listen to this,” says Jim. His voice is cold, firm. Reasonable. Something he learned from Spock. “Whatever I said, I’m sorry for it. Whatever I did, I regret it. And I’m sorry about your car. Now go on your goddamn road trip and leave me and my friends out of it. Come on,” this last he says to Spock, who, upon returning to the group, at once took up a position just behind Jim’s shoulder as though snapping back into orbit. “We’re leaving. All of us.”

“Jim,” Chekov mutters under his breath, jogging to keep up with him as Jim turns on his heel and stalks away. “Do you zink he’s likely to follow us?”

Jim grimaces. Chekov has been eager for a fight, ever since he whet his teeth on one in Roswell. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m worried about what he thinks he’s going to do.”

He looks over his shoulder. Trelane’s still standing there, now with Khan by his side; Cy is nowhere to be seen. He’s positively trembling with frustration, his eyes narrowed, his expression one of mingled alarm and confusion.

Jim stops, turns around and spreads his arms. “Well?” He snaps. “Are you gonna do something about it?”

Trelane flinches.

“Jesus, Jim,” Bones grins, and scattered chuckles pass through the group. “You didn’t have to put the fear of god into him. He's only a kid.”

“I’ve known people like that, Bones,” Jim mutters. They make their way down the main walkway of the mall, headed for the nearest exit in a scattered cluster. “I grew up with people like that. They love to hold grudges. Anyone they can look down on, or feel jealous of. Just so happens that for him and me, it’s both. No,” he lowers his voice, just quiet enough for Spock and Bones to hear. “It’s Khan I’m worried about. He’s only with Trelane because he knows he’ll let him get away with whatever he wants.”

“I’ve known people like that too,” says Spock. His face has calmed somewhat, but his eyes are bright and wary. Jim wants desperately to comfort him, but he can’t do it, not now. He can still feel Trelane’s gaze burning into the back of his neck.

Outside, the summer sun is blazing. Jim can’t see anything that looks like a rental, which is probably for the best- judging by the way Spock’s hands are twitching, he wouldn’t mind instigating an act of violence. Instead they cross the parking lot towards the van and file inside, one after the other, with their tents and camping gear wedged in on Jim and Spock’s laps.

It’s hot enough to choke the life out of them inside; they roll down all the windows and sit in silence, every one of them with their minds on Trelane, and the dumbstruck look on his face as Jim had walked away.

After a long moment, Uhura giggles. Like a dam breaking the laughter bursts forth, everyone laughing themselves into hysterics. Jim rubs the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Quick,” he chokes, still laughing. “Let’s go before he changes his mind.”

“Did we settle on a campground?” Scotty says hoarsely, sitting slumped against Uhura’s side with his hand over his mouth.

“I’ve got one,” Jim holds up his now hopelessly crumpled map, passing it up into the front seat for Chekov. “I’ve got one.”

 

It starts in silence. Spock’s hand finds Jim’s, their fingertips brushing together. The merest glancing touch. “Jim,” he says quietly. Nothing else.

It’s dark out here. Dark and quiet, but for the nighttime breeze that rustles the brush and cools Jim’s skin. His jacket is spread beneath him and Jim, lying upon it and looking up at the sky, feels a sense of peace and utter contentment the likes of which he’s never known in the whole of his short, but very long life. He likens it in his mind to the moment of waking, just before the day’s responsibilities settle in, yet prolonged over minutes, hours- he couldn’t say how long he’s been lying here. Time has no meaning out in the desert.

The park where they’ve settled for the night is dotted with other, similar campgrounds. Fires in the darkness, glowing, illuminating the colors of other tents, the shapes of other campers. Bones, dubious, had anticipated drunken revelry, but Jim hears nothing. The others ignore his crew from a safe distance, and he, theirs.

Now and then he’ll tear his eyes from the stars- god, the sky over the desert, shot through with veins of silver- to check on his friends. The memory of Trelane’s lunacy still stings. Jim has begun to feel proprietary over his crew, as though he’s some sort of guardian of their interests. He wonders, briefly, if this is how Mr. Pike felt when he surveyed his students. Cadets, he’d called them, to general embarrassed groans.

Bones and Uhura are sitting together in the mouth of one of their tents, working their way through a sixer and conversing very seriously in hushed tones. Jim can’t hear what they’re saying over the crackling of their campfire, which Sulu is currently coaxing higher, hoping, apparently, to toast some marshmallows. Chekov is nowhere to be found; after a brief moment of scanning the horizon Jim sees that he’s wandered over to another campsite and is chatting up a woman there. He can’t see Scotty.

Spock, had laid down beside him from the first, and had been watching the stars in silence until now. His fingertips touch the back of Jim’s wrist. Jim turns his hand, lets Spock settle his own in Jim’s palm. He wants to ask what’s happened, but he doesn’t. He waits for Spock to speak first.

When he does, his voice is hesitant, unsure. “My father called today.”

His hand twitches in Jim’s. Jim rubs his thumb along the back of Spock’s wrist and keeps his eyes on the sky, admiring the stars shining like a handful of sea-foam in the black. “I thought,” he says slowly, “that the whole point of having a burner phone was so that he wouldn’t.”

“That was my hope,” says Spock. Then, very quietly, “He wants me to come home. Back to Boston. He said they’re willing to forget all of this.”

Jim nods. “Did you tell him about us?”

“No.”

“Are you going to?”

Spock hesitates. Jim regrets his tone at once- he had been too sharp. Sounded too worried. He tries again, gentler. “You told me once that you wanted to chart your own course.”

“I did,” says Spock. “I do.”

He props himself up on his elbows. Jim can see his profile now, Halloween orange in the flickering firelight. “I thought my father would not welcome me back,” he says. “Now that he is, I do not know if I want to go.”

His voice is so cold, so reasonable, Jim thinks. He wonders what must go on in that head. I know what I want, Jim thinks, but he can’t ask Spock to stay. Not for a summer. Not for Jim.

“What do you want?” he asks instead. He sits up properly, legs crossed, his new jeans already caked in desert dust.

Spock looks at him. “I want to be sure,” he says, like nothing could be more obvious. “I want to be sure that I want whatever San Francisco has for me. I want to be sure that I don’t want MIT. I want to be sure that you won’t grow bored of me. I want . . . to be sure,” he finishes, quietly, miserably. “I want to be sure.”

They’re silent after that. The cool desert air teases at Jim’s skin, prickles along his bare arms.

“It is a strange thing, to love the stars,” Spock says, looking up at them. “But I do.”

Jim nods. “The stars are sure.”

“Yes.”

“You can chart a course by them.”

Spock lowers himself back down and puts his arms behind his head. “Your father loved the stars, didn’t he?” he says. More of a musing than a question. “Perhaps that’s where you get it from. Your romantic mind.”

“Maybe,” says Jim. He hesitates, then reaches out to brush his fingertips through Spock’s neat hair. Spock’s eyes fall closed. He tilts his head into the touch. “You know, I used to think we owed it to our fathers to pursue their dreams for them.”

“And now?”

Jim smiles faintly. “Now I don’t believe that anymore,” He lets his hand drop. “You should chart your own course. Go back to Boston. Or stay,” he adds, a little desperately. “Stay with us.”

He can’t see Spock’s face clearly, not in this light. It reminds him of a dream, a dream he can barely remember.

Spock’s hand finds his again, and squeezes it. “I’ll follow you,” he says quietly. “Wherever you go.”

Jim swallows. He squeezes Spock’s hand tighter. “We’ll chart it together,” he says weakly.

“Together.”

The fire snaps and crackles nearby, and Sulu hums in satisfaction. The marshmallows are a success, then. Jim and Spock don’t notice. They sit close together, shoulder to shoulder, bleeding into each other’s heat. Jim’s eyes sting from the smoke and the lateness of the hour; he rests his head on Spock’s shoulder, trusting him not to go anywhere, and closes his eyes. The sounds of the desert, of Bones and Uhura murmuring quietly to each other, of Spock’s breathing, lull him into a state of quiet tranquility.

“Only a few hours till morning,” Spock murmurs finally. His lips brush Jim’s brow as he gently eases Jim off him. “I’m going to get some sleep.”

Jim blinks, smiles. Lifts Spock’s hand to his mouth to kiss his fingers. “You go,” he says. “I’ll stay up.”

Spock leaves him to look up at the stars. The others are still murmuring. Jim can hear the rustling sounds of life, can feel the sudden chill as Sulu stamps out the fire. They’re going to bed. Jim, sitting here, could almost be alone in the universe.

Down near the horizon line, Jim sees a faint red ember, glowing and fading. He squints, and soon realizes it to be Scotty, sitting quite close, cross-legged like him. He’s smoking. Jim didn’t know he smoked. He’s sitting a little ways off from the camp, looking up at the stars. After a moment he seems to sense that he’s being watched; Scotty looks over his shoulder, catches Jim’s eye. Two ships hailing each other in the fog, Jim thinks, somewhat nonsensically, as Scotty waves him over.

“D’you smoke at all?” Scotty asks, as Jim sits down in the dirt next to him.

“Sure I do,” says Jim, with theatrical uneasiness. Scotty laughs, offers him the cigarette. Jim takes a pull, coughs once for dramatic effect. “I didn’t know you smoked,” he says hoarsely.

Scotty doesn’t answer, distracted by the movement of Jim’s fingers on the cigarette. “If y’don’t mind my asking . . .” he says hesitantly, nodding at the ring and pinky fingers on Jim’s left hand.

“Oh,” Jim grimaces. He passes the cigarette back. “Yeah. I had an accident when I was a kid.”

Accident. He thinks of Bones holding that hand in his, feeling out the imperfections in the joints. He’d told the truth, then. Bones had a way of bringing the truth out of him.

Scotty nods slowly, not questioning it. He holds out his right hand and shows Jim a knobby line of scar tissue, running right across the base of his middle finger. “Had a bit of an accident myself,” he admits, sounding sheepish. “Nearly lost the bloody thing.”

Jim’s eyes widen. He takes Scotty’s hand and turns it this way and that, inspecting the scar. “Lost? What happened?”

Scotty watches with grim amusement. “You’ll laugh.”

“I won’t.”

Amusement gives way to a self-satisfied grin. “Well. Nearly sliced the damn thing off workin’ on the van.”

Jim lets Scotty take his hand back. “Glad you didn’t, then. It would’ve been a shame to lose it for something so . . .” he gestures vaguely in the air.

Scotty gives him an odd look. “So . . ?”

“You know,” Jim shrugs. “Meaningless.”

Scotty shakes his head with a small laugh. “Nah. Wouldn’t have been meaningless. I built that car to last longer than I will, y’know. Felt more important than me, at the time.”

Bones is like that, Jim thinks. Scotty spent his life using his hands to build things that will outlive him. Bones could understand that. Bones and Scotty were nearly as alike as Jim and Sulu, in some ways.

Scotty frowns, and Jim can hear him grinding his teeth together. “You know the feelin’, I’ll bet,” he says. His voice is distant- his mind is elsewhere. “The feelin’ that you want to bring somethin’ new into the world. Somethin’ good. Bet you didn’t think you’d get it, either,” He looks over at Jim and smiles knowingly. “I bet y’saw your whole life stretched out in front of you. The small town. The dead end job. Like me.”

“No, hey,” Jim says hurriedly, feeling himself flush. “Listen, there’s nothing wrong-”

“Ach, shut up, lad,” Scotty says cheerfully. He studies the cigarette in his hand for a moment, then flicks it off to the side. The ember glows briefly in the dirt, then fades. “I’m fine with it, I suppose. Staying in one place. Fixing my cars. Y’get folks who’ll push you to make more money, be a success story. I dinnae want that. The high life, y’know. I’m happy with my cars an’ my technical journals,” He gives Jim a small smile. “That may not be what you’re made of, Jim, but it’s what I’m made of.”

“Why the van?” Jim asks, because he’s been wondering about it for a while. “Most people build sports cars.”

“Dinnae build her for me, did I? Or at least, I wanted her to be useful for more than just me. Even if it were just Hikaru, or bloody Archer. I love cars n’ I been lucky enough to spend my life surrounded by them, fixing them, building them. Not everyone gets that, lad. A legacy built on the things you love,” Scotty laughs. “She was right there when y’needed her, wasn’t she? She was there for me too, and she dinnae even know it. She’s a miracle car.”

Jim shakes his head. “You’re a miracle worker.”

“You’re the miracle worker, lad,” says Scotty, with surprising sincerity. He gestures at the surrounding desert, and at the tents behind them. “It’s thanks to you I’m here. Feelin’ like myself again. Thought I’d never feel myself again, if I’m bein’ honest with you.”

“Yeah,” Jim says. “I get that feeling,” He gives Scotty a sidelong look. “You know . . . this summer won’t last forever.”

Scotty shrugs. “Nothin’ ever does. Just because it won’t last dinnae mean it’s not important now. Dinnae mean it won’t color every other summer afterwards.”

The corner of Jim’s mouth twitches. “You know, Trelane told me there are no summers after nineteen.”

“Bollocks to that.”

“It’s stupid, I know.”

“But a part of you believes him, I can tell,” says Scotty. He nudges Jim with his elbow. “That’s on account of you’re nineteen, lad. Every summer feels like your last. Here, I’ll let you in on somethin’ . . . the summers stay sweet, aye? Every single one of them. Now, sometimes,” he adds, grinning in response to Jim’s skeptical smile. “Sometimes they roll in unannounced, an’ not in pretty wee packages between spring an’ autumn. Sometimes they show in, I dunno . . . a banjaxed red Volks on the side of the road. But, come they do.”

Jim’s eyes have wandered to the stars as Scotty speaks. He swallows, and doesn’t answer. He hopes Scotty knows that’s answer enough.

“I almost missed mine this year,” Scotty says thoughtfully, sounding almost amused. He lays down on his back with a groan of effort and puts his arms behind his head. “Had my head too far up my own ass. So, as far as I’m concerned, keep your eyes clear an’ your chin up and your future’s gonna be full of summers, lad. You wait and see.”

“You’re a wise man, Scotty,” Jim admits.

“Nah,” Scotty says drily. “I’m just old. Spock, now. He’s wise. Young, an’ a bit of an odd one if y’don’t mind my saying, but he knows what he’s doing. That’s more than I could say when I was his age.”

“What were you doing when you were his age?”

“Hell if I know, lad. Pissin’ into the wind. Y’do a lot o’ that when you’re young.”

“Don’t I know it,” says Jim quietly, his eyes on the stars.

They lie there for a while, not talking. Scotty lights up a second smoke and offers it to Jim; he doesn’t cough this time, and the smoke is whipped away by the nighttime breeze. This trip, Jim realizes, is bigger than him. The world is bigger than him, and the sky, unfathomably vast, is bigger than the world.

They stay until the sun spills over the horizon in a blaze of light, bathing the desert in red and flickering gold. Then, and only then, does Jim fall asleep.

Chapter Text

They keep stopping.

Doesn’t matter where, really. Gas stations, diners, tourist traps. Sulu turns the key, the engine sighs into silence. Everyone stirs to life. I just need to stretch my legs, says Chekov. I’m hungry, says Uhura. Let’s stop for another lunch.

Jim knows the truth as well as anyone. They don’t want it to end. None of them do. California is there- just there- on the horizon, and none of them want to reach it. California means sand and stars and the Hollywood sign and the end of it all, well and truly. Jim can’t see beyond California. He doesn’t even know what it means to go beyond California. What’s beyond California?

Water, he thinks, realistically if uncreatively. The sea, and the sky.

He produces a gas station receipt from the inside of his logbook and scribbles on the back of it, just a few scraps of verse from a book he once read in school.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by

Jim passes this note across to Spock, who reads it, and raises an eyebrow. He writes back:

If you take to the sea, you’ll have to explain it to Leonard.

Jim’s smiles wistfully.

No one takes to the sea these days, do they?

No, I don’t believe they do. But I they still dream of it.

You’re an astute judge of human nature, Spock. You know that?

I only wish I were an astute judge of my own nature.

Their seven-hour drive drags on for nearly a full day. Chekov has them taking what he calls shortcuts, but Sulu never complains about the roads, and Scotty doesn’t complain about the milage. They touch Nevada, just barely brush it with their wheels, and Jim is so engrossed in passing notes back and forth between himself and Spock that he doesn’t realize they’ve crossed over into California until the border is half an hour behind them.

For a moment, the realization steals the breath from his lungs.

I didn’t notice, he thinks. His heart is full of panic, then exultation. I didn’t even notice.

The mood in the car is somber after that. The air needs clearing, but no one clears it. Shy glances are exchanged. Gazes meet, then look away. Jim catches Bones’ eye in the rearview mirror and is surprised when Bones looks quickly out the window, as though unable to look at him. He sits slouched in the back, cramped up against Scotty’s side with his arms folded, looking uneasy.

Up in front, Chekov clears his throat. “Four, maybe five hours to ze coast,” he says. “Zhen we go north.”

No one says anything. Chekov falls silent, looks down at the map spread open across his knees.

“Is he still behind us?” Jim asks quietly.

Uhura twists in her seat, surveying the road. “Yeah,” she says. “He is.”

They’d noticed it after their last pit stop.

Sulu had pulled out of the parking lot, one hand on the wheel, the other unwrapping his gas station ice cream. The others, all unwrapping similar ice creams, were so preoccupied with not dripping all over the seats that only Scotty had noticed the ugly, off-white rental car pulling in for gas behind them. They lost sight of them after that, but half an hour later they had caught up again, and were now trailing after them a good ways down the road as though they hoped not to be seen. This had gone on for miles.

“What does he zink he’s going to do?” Chekov frowns, squinting at the distant car in the rearview mirror. “Zere are sewen of us.”

“We should stop,” Bones mutters. His hand is resting on the shoulder of Jim’s chair. Jim reaches up and touches the back of his hand. “Ought to pull over and make him lay off.”

They should. In fact, they should’ve done it miles back. But Sulu had looked to Jim for the word- the whole crew had- and Jim found himself reluctant to give it. They weren’t doing any harm back there, after all. Just following. Keeping pace. Reminding them that the next time they pulled over, there might be trouble.

The brat was going to waste his whole summer trailing them like this. Paddling along in Jim’s wake like he thought Jim wouldn’t do something about it. Jim grinds his teeth together and looks up at the rearview window again. “Sulu,” he says. “Let’s make another stop before we hit the coast.”

“Aye aye, sir,” says Sulu, which sends a ripple of amusement through the rest of the car. “Where are we stopping?”

“I don’t know. A park or something. Someplace nearby where there aren’t many tourists.”

“Oh, lad,” Scotty says uncertainly. “You planning to kick his arse, then? Mind you don’t beat him too badly for McCoy here to set him to rights. He’s just a kid.”

“A kid who’s sucked on too many silver spoons. He thinks nothing bad will ever happen to him,” Jim mutters, his eyes on the mirror. “Goddamn it, I’m that bad thing today. Sulu, take the next exit.”

 

They aren’t far from LA when they stop. The cool, clear morning they had enjoyed has given way to an overcast sky, threatening rain. The hikers have all gone home for inclement weather. It’s the work of a few minutes to park.

There are no fees, no tollgates. Jim waves his hand and says they’re hikers, and the off-duty park ranger loitering at the mouth of the Pacific Crest trail shrugs her shoulders and lets them by. All seven of them, walking with a silent hush between them. All looking over their shoulders. Only when they see the rental pull in and park opposite do they start giggling among themselves.

Spock quickens his pace to meet Jim’s, falling in just behind his right shoulder. Bones does the same on the left, and the three of them walk on ahead, up a long and grueling walking trail that curves through lumpy beds of sandstone rock formations and wide, flat desert shrub land. On a sunnier day, it would be beautiful, the sun refracting off the rocks like they were dipped in gold. As it stands, it is only dusty, and wearying, though Jim knows Spock must be itching to explain how these extraordinary shapes first formed. In the far distance, growing closer all the while, are several massive projections of rock that seem to leap into the sky. The hiking trail branches several times, circling around these mountainous forms but never quite approaching them. Jim, his eyes on the spires, leaves the path, and the others follow him with no complaint.

They look like the splash of a pond when a rock is thrown violently into it. An explosion frozen in time. Jim is not in love with the natural world- that’s more Spock’s area- but something about the dynamic, alien shape of those high spires makes him smile. They remind him of the Devil’s Tower. God, could it have been only a few days ago that he had gone there with Spock and Bones, all three of them strangers to each other?

Bones and Spock have said nothing to him on this march. Perhaps they know he has other things on his mind. The other four hang back, still looking over their shoulders, talking among themselves. Jim hears Chekov lean closer to Sulu and ask him why they’re called the Vasquez Rocks.

“A bandit named Vasquez once used this place as a hideout, back in the 1870s,” Sulu whispers back. His eyes are bright with interest. “A good man, an honorable man, but a bandit. A Robin Hood type. I once read that he signed autographs from his jail cell and used the money to pay his lawyer.”

The shadow of the spires stretches out and out, even on an overcast day. The terrain gets rockier, the incline steeper. Tufts of brushy plant life sway in the wind. Jim finally stops in the shade of one of the spires, looking up, up, up at the high projecting rocks. “God,” he breathes, very quietly. “There’s nothing like this in Riverside.”

Nothing like this in Riverside. The same could be said of Spock, or Bones, or any over the others. Nobody like them in Riverside. Jim would’ve hardly believed there was anyone like them on the planet.

“When he shows up,” he says, “I don’t want any of you trying anything. I’ll deal with it myself.”

He sits unceremoniously in the dust. The others sit around him in a messy semi-circle, and Jim is reminded absurdly of the Knights of the Round Table.

“He’s just a kid,” mutters Scotty. He seems more somber now, like he’s wondering if Jim’s actually going to do something serious.

“I’ve been in a few fights,” says Jim. He taps Scotty’s knee with his foot. “This isn’t one. This is a little posturing to make a kid go away. I don’t want him following us to San Francisco,” There’s certainty in his voice now, as he realizes the bitter truth of his words. “I don’t want him to reach San Francisco.”

A long way off, distant, but still visible, they see three figures hiking through the dust towards them. Three on seven. Idiocy more than bravery, but Jim never cared much for the line between them. One of them is staggering- Cy, no doubt. Drunk off his ass and letting Trelane lead him on whatever inane crusade he wants.

“I’ll handle Khan,” says Spock quietly.

Jim shakes his head. "You won't have to."

He hopes he's right.

 

They face each other silently in the dust. Jim’s mind is full of showdowns, outlaws; he can tell Sulu’s is too, from the way his hands twitch, as though eager for a six-shooter that isn’t there. But it’s not up to him . . . this is for Jim to deal with. He feels proprietary, almost paternal, towards every one of them. No matter if Sulu drew Trelane’s ire. Jim is the leader, and as the leader, it's up to him to take the punches.

Trelane’s face is flushed. He looks exhausted from the hike, but happy, and his eyes are narrowed with gleeful excitement. Behind him, Khan is standing very still. Waiting for an order, maybe. Spock’s eyes don’t leave him.

“Well?” says Trelane. “Are we doing this?”

Jim puts his hands in his pockets, standing at an easy slouch. His gaze flickers to the rocks towering above. If he can lead Trelane there, call it a hunt, a chase . . . he could tire him out. Talk to him. Jim has Trelane figured back to front, and the slightest show of resistance will make him give up the charade like a petulant child with a game they’re no longer winning.

“You and me,” he says. “Just us. Leave everyone else out of it and that includes Khan.”

Khan starts, his lip curling. Trelane waves him off. “Fine,” he says, too eager. “Sure, sure. Fine. One-on-one style, eh? Like a duel? I could get into a duel.”

He produces his brass knuckles from the pocket of his jacket and slides them back on. His eyes shine like he’s been waiting for a chance to break them in. “I like this,” he says. “I like this a lot.”

“You-” says Jim, and Trelane leaps at him.

It’s so unexpected that Jim actually staggers back, his arms jumping in front of his face. He tumbles, hits the dirt, skids and scrambles. Trelane tries to jump on him feet-first, aiming clumsily for his neck, but Jim rolls out of the way and heaves himself to his feet. Damn idiot, he thinks, already pelting towards the rocks. Could’ve broken my goddamn neck.

“Running already?” Trelane gasps, out of breath. He bends over, bracing himself on his knees, and wheezes a few breaths before he’s up and running after Jim again. His brass knuckles, never used, flash in the light. “What are you running from, Jim Kirk? Eh?”

Jim actually laughs, breathless. His boots grind and slip on the sheer surface as he tries to scramble up the rocks; something sharp digs into the rubber of his heel and Jim gasps as he loses footing, sliding back several inches before managing to get his feet under him again. Dust and chips of stone tumble down around him, making him cough. His hands are rubbed raw from scraping on stone.

He turns. Trelane is still a good distance behind him, awkwardly hopping from rock to rock. His foot lands on a sheer edge and he wobbles dangerously, teeth gritted, eyes wide and shocked as he swings his arms wildly. No sooner as he regained his balance than he’s off again, clambering up towards Jim with a panicked, eager look in his eyes. The knees of his jeans are torn, the skin beneath bloodied. He’s clearly fallen a few times before.

Jim groans low in his throat and starts climbing again, the skin on his palms cracking and bleeding further with every sharp edge he clings to to haul himself up. The dust is suffocating. His clothes are caked with it, and it fills his lungs, making him feel light-headed. Jim manages to pull himself up to the top of the outcropping and rolls onto his back, lying there for a moment, gasping. Behind him, but gaining all the while, he hears Trelane’s heavy, wheezing breaths.

What are you running from, Jim Kirk?

Jim struggles to his feet, still a little shaky from the exertion. He’s ripped his shirt in the climb. It practically hangs off him.

He can see for miles up here.

The sandstone spreads out and out, nothing but California as far as the eye can see. Far below, he can see the others. Chekov is whooping and hollering, goading Trelane on. Khan is standing at a distance with his arms folded, looking up at him. Very still. Watching to see where this goes.

A pale hand claws at the edge of the rocks. Jim takes it in his, pulls Trelane up with a grunt of exertion. Trelane clutches at his hand, his arm. He looks back at the long distance he’s climbed and wobbles on his feet, overwhelmed. He sits down very suddenly. Jim looks down at him for a moment.

Then he sits beside him. “For god’s sake,” says Jim. “Go home. You made it to California. Go home.

Trelane flops onto his back. His breaths come in painful wheezes. “I . . . I can’t go home yet. I haven’t done it yet. You know what I mean,” He coughs. Props himself up weakly on his elbows. “It isn’t good enough.”

Jim feels his heart twinge with something almost like sympathy. Almost. “Listen, Trelane-”

“Are we gonna fight or what?” Trelane’s already, pushing himself to his feet, breathing heavily through his open mouth.

“No,” Jim stays sitting, looking up at him. “Not if I can help it.”

Trelane stares down at him. His face is flushed, his hands shaking. Jim can see the gears turning in his head, uncertainty and trepidation. He thinks about what Scotty had said. He’s a kid, Jim. He’s just a kid.

“This isn’t the last summer, Trelane,” says Jim, very gently. “There will always be more summers. Don’t waste this one picking a fight with me.”

He watches as all the fight drains out of Trelane’s face. He looks miserable, but beyond that misery, there’s something like relief. He sits down again, slouching in the dust. He doesn’t look at Jim.

“I look at all your friends down there and I think . . . what am I doing wrong?” he mutters. “I did everything right. The car. The Nirvana. I even got . . . friends.”

“Khan isn’t your friend,” Jim gazes out over the sandstone valley, still dark with the blush of an overcast sky. “He only hangs out with you because you’re rich and he likes power.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

They sit together, not talking. Jim closes his eyes, breathes deeply. He can smell the impending rain.

“This’ll be a story, I guess,” says Trelane. He doesn’t look happy about it. “Came all this way to kick your ass only to pussy out when it finally came to it.”

His brass knuckles are lying next to his hand, discarded on the ground. Jim picks them up. He turns them over and over in his hand. The initials QT are inscribed in the interior. “Where’s you get these?” he asks, sliding his fingers into the slots.

Trelane looks over, shrugs. “Dad bought them for me.”

“Never used?”

Silence.

Jim sets the knuckles aside, balancing them on Trelane’s knee. “You have people who are worried about you, Trelane. Your parents are worried about you.”

“What, and yours aren’t?”

Jim smiles faintly. Shakes his head. “Call them, Trelane. Don’t ruin your summer. Not this one.”

It’s a long, heavy silence after that. Trelane’s phone is in his hand and Jim watches him worry it between his fingers, unsure. Jim knows the feeling. The certainty that any brief glimpse behind him- any look back at Riverside- brings the whole castle crashing down. Eyes up, look forward. Never, ever look back.

What are you running from, Jim Kirk?

 

Sunset spilling in through the windows, outlining sleeping faces and bodies in candy-colored light. The radio murmuring quietly, sixties-on-six. Sulu driving with his eyes on the road but his mind in his books, loitering in those dusty tales of heroism that live in his head. Scotty and Uhura sit nestled into each other like cupped hands, quietly asleep. Her head rests on his shoulder. His leg lies across hers. Behind Jim’s chair, Bones is sleeping with his head bowed, chin on his chest. Like he doesn’t even see California outside the window. Chekov, like Sulu, is awake and equally oblivious. He doesn’t look up from his maps, preferring the ink-and-page America to the real thing outside.

And Spock’s hand, lying in Jim’s like a bird at rest. Jim runs his thumb along the veins of Spock’s wrist, but he doesn’t stir. Just sleeps, his eyes closed and peaceful, his reflection dimly reflected in the window’s curve.

Jim’s journal- captain’s log, he smiles to himself- lies splayed open in his lap. He’s spent the better part of an hour going through it. It’s full of receipts, tickets, stamps, scrap paper. Notes to himself written on anything and everything. There’s the pump receipt from his first fuel-up in Riverside. A business card from Archer’s Automotive. A perfect eagle feather, flattened, but undamaged.

It’s not only his own clumsy handwriting. There’s Spock, the words so perfectly formed that they seem almost typeset. There’s Bones with his illegible doctor’s scrawl. Jim closes the book but doesn’t move it off his lap, his hand resting on it as though to feel its heartbeat. His phone is burning a hole in his pocket. What are you running from, Jim Kirk?

He squeezes Spock’s hand, just a little tighter. He takes his phone out and flips it open.

Strange, to climb down without Trelane. To see him up there perched like a bird, a dark line against the sky. Phone to his ear, calling home. Even stranger to feel Khan’s gaze burning holes into the back of his neck as he walked past him without a words, and to hear the silent, unspoken acknowledgment of his friends as they turned as one to follow Jim back to the van. Only when they were alone, really alone, with the van door slid shut behind them and locked against the outside world, did they start talking. All of them talking over each other. What happened? What did you do? What did you say?

He told them the truth- nothing happened. It wasn’t enough for them, but for the time being, it would have to be.

Spock’s hand twitches in his, and Jim closes his eyes, momentarily overwhelmed. Here, here and now, was everything. All that he needed.

Yet . . .

What are you running from, Jim Kirk?

There was no ending without the beginning. No San Francisco without Riverside. Jim runs his thumb along the worn buttons of his phone and dials before he can regret it. He looks over at Spock, sleeping in the seat beside him. He can almost feel Bones’ breath on the back of his neck.

The dial tone drags on and on. He almost hangs up before it clicks.

“Hello?”

Jim closes his eyes. “Hey,” he says, immediately mortified by how hoarse his voice has become. He clears his throat. “Hey, Mr. Pike.”

Silence. Then, “James? That’s not James Kirk, is it?”

Jim smiles shakily, aware that Pike can’t see him. “Yeah. Yes, sir. It’s me.”

“You don’t have to call me sir, you know.”

“I know.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you, James,” says Pike. Jim can hear the smile in his voice and hardly dares believe it. Pike. Happy to hear from him, even now. “Haven’t seen you around, either. What have you been up to?”

“Well,” Jim hardly knows where to begin. “I, er. I took a drive.”

“A drive?”

“To San Francisco.”

“I see,” Pike says, and Jim’s not sure what he was expecting. Disappointment, maybe. Confusion. Not genuine interest. “How’s that been for you? What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stay here, taking in some sunshine. Enjoying what I’ve got,” Jim squeezes Spock’s hand a little tighter. “Maybe I’ll go to Boston. Maybe I’ll be happy.”

“I know you will, James,” says Pike. He sounds fond. “I have to say . . . I’m glad to hear from you. I’m pretty damn proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Jim leans back and groans, shakes his head. “I’ve done nothing,” he says. “I haven’t done anything.”

“You got out.”

Jim swallows. He looks down at his lap.

“Tell you what,” Pike says, with a little laugh. “I want to hear everything. Right from the start. Come on,” he chides, when Jim doesn’t answer right away. “I bet you’ve got so much to tell me.”

Jim can’t help himself.

He smiles.

Chapter Text

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.”