[sticky entry] Sticky: Fanfiction Master Page

May. 17th, 2016 08:44 am
...in which I'm embedding links to all my published works. I'll be updating this regularly over the course of the winter 2015-2016 to try to collate all the random stuff I've tossed out there (theme for 2016 = Organize! or Simplify! or something else I've tried to do in the past with little success!)


Compeer | Star Trek Reboot/AOS | PG-13 (Part 1 of Congruence series) (complete)

Companion | Star Trek Reboot/AOS | NC-17 (Part 2 of Congruence series) (complete)


The Plebe, Chapter 20
Meanwhile, 20 Years Later...(Epilogue)

 


 

“Sulu, Rodriguez, Barrows. Front and center.”

Lieutenant Sulu’s answering “Sir!” may only have been an expression of relief at their captain’s arrival, but Kirk gave him no opportunity to continue. “Don’t ask any questions,” he panted as the junior officers fell into file at the edge of the sunlit glade. “Don't talk. Don't breathe."

Spock watched him pace the treeline, his eyes deliberately unfocused in an attempt to keep his thoughts in check. Given that the threats they had already encountered that day — a military aircraft, a pair of sword-wielding assailants, and a curiously beautiful but clearly predatory mammal — were all from Earth’s history, and therefore likely generated exclusively from the minds of the Terrans, Spock found it a commendable endeavor. Kirk echoed that thought to his crew.

“Don't think.”

It was a pity, Spock reflected, that this planet, as abundant in natural loveliness as Earth itself, was most likely going to kill them all. Jim's face as he looked down at McCoy’s motionless, bloodied corpse, then up at Spock, a mixture of misery, anger, and helpless incomprehension in his eyes…Spock gave himself a mental shake. It would not serve at this moment for him to let his own thoughts wander.

But one of them must have been unsuccessful, because an elderly man now approached them from the trees to their rear. Strange; although he was clearly humanoid in appearance, his long robe with its ornate decorations did not call to mind any Terran civilization that Spock was familiar with, and he bore no resemblance to the other, more violent manifestations the Humans had created today. Spock searched his thoughts to affirm that this being was not a creation of his own mind before alerting Kirk to his presence.

“Captain.”

The old man reached them and stopped, a kindly avuncular expression on his weathered face. Caution was obviously warranted; Spock was gratified that the captain’s initial response was one of mistrust.

“Who are you?”

“I am the caretaker of this place, Captain Kirk.”

The being had replied in perfect Federation Standard. Spock felt the fingers of his right hand twitch toward his phaser as Jim’s own suspicion visibly deepened. “You know my name?”

“But of course.” His smile was almost irritatingly benign. “We have just discovered you don't understand all this. These experiences were intended to amuse you.”

That shadow fell over Kirk’s features again, but this time the anger predominated. “Amuse? That's your word for what we've been through?”

“But none of this is permanent.” At last, something other than friendliness; the caretaker seemed genuinely perplexed at Kirk's enmity. “Here you have to only imagine your fondest wishes, either old ones you wish to relive or new ones, anything at all. Anything that pleases you can be made to happen. This entire planet was constructed for our race of people to come and play.”

It was not the word Spock would have used to describe their experiences on this planet, but he acknowledged that play was an inherently difficult concept for him to comprehend even under the best of circumstances.

Kirk seemed similarly nonplussed. “But that doesn't explain the death of my ship's surgeon.”

“Possibly because no one has died, Jim.”

They all turned to watch McCoy emerge from the trees and stroll toward them, Lieutenant Angela Martine on his arm, neither of them showing any sign of the fatal injuries they had sustained earlier that day. The doctor grinned at their open-mouthed confusion.

“We were taken below the surface for some rather remarkable repairs.” He tapped his chest with his free hand, and Spock felt Jim flinch at the reminder of the horrific wound that had been there only a short while before. “It's amazing — they've got a factory complex down there you wouldn't believe. They can build or do anything, immediately.”

That would explain the rapidity with which their thoughts were transformed into reality. Spock let his hands relax to his sides and watched Kirk, the remains of disbelief slowly draining from his face, smile with cautious relief at McCoy and Angela.

“We’re fine, Captain,” she assured him, dropping McCoy’s arm to take Lieutenant Rodriguez’ instead. She was turning her face up toward Esteban when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye — the caretaker, folding his hands inside the sleeves of his long robe and turning away from the captain to face Spock instead, his head tilting with interest. They stared at each other for a moment, the caretaker nodding gently as his smile faded. She tried to catch Spock’s eye for an explanation of that wordless communication and received none.

The caretaker turned back to Jim and extended his hands in a gesture of sincerity. “We regret that some of you have been made…uncomfortable."

The captain didn’t appear prepared to accept the apology, although Spock knew that his diplomatic training would result in at least a perfunctory response. His communicator beeped before he could deliver that reply.

“Kirk here.”

The crew released a communal sigh of relief at Uhura’s voice. “This is the bridge, Captain. Our power systems have just come back on. Do you require assistance?”

A pause while Kirk searched the caretaker’s face. “No,” he said at last, his voice still wary, “everything is in order, Lieutenant. Stand by.”

Her affirmation was interrupted by a thoughtful lift of the caretaker’s finger. “However, if you would use the proper caution, this amusement planet of ours could be an ideal place for your people to enjoy themselves. If you wish.”

Kirk’s eyes found Spock’s over the screen of his communicator and held them until Spock gave him a slight nod. “Lieutenant, commence transporting shore leave parties. Kirk out.”

Another glance at the caretaker, another incline of the greying head. Spock straightened his uniform. “Captain, I will return to the ship and take over. With all due respect, I have already had as much shore leave as I care for.”

A tired sigh escaped Kirk as the lifted the communicator again. “No, Spock, I'll go. You…”

The reply ended abruptly as if hacked off with a hatchet. All heads turned at his sudden silence, then followed his gaze to where a tall Human in trousers and a purple dress shirt strode easily across the glade toward them.

McCoy’s eyes widened in astonishment as they took in the grey-blue eyes and loose blond hair. “Sweet Jesus,” he swore softly.

“What is it, Doctor?” Tonia Barrows curled her hand around McCoy’s left elbow and tugged lightly. “Who is he?”

He mutely shook his head, still transfixed by the young man who drew up to him and grinned in recognition, one arm extended to shake his hand.

“Dr. McCoy. It’s great to see you again.”

The hand in McCoy’s numb grasp was cool and firm, the long fingers curling easily around his to squeeze it with affection. Somehow he managed to return the handshake, his eyes on a face he hadn’t seen in, oh Lord, too long.

“And Mr. Spock. Good to see you too, sir.”

“It is likewise a pleasure.” To Angela’s surprise, Spock accepted the hand that reached for his, inclining his head politely as he did so. The newcomer answered the gesture with a genial nod of his own before releasing Spock’s hand to turn away and approach the captain, still frozen in shock, the communicator lifeless in his raised hand, his eyes huge in a face that had gone dead white.

“Jim.”

There was no answer except for a slight downward twitch of his jaw, as if the captain were trying to resurrect the words that had died in his throat. The stranger smiled, almost sadly it seemed to Angela, before reaching for the unresponsive hand and gently prying its fingers apart to dislodge the communicator.

“Please, stay. Just for a day or two.” He filled the gap left by the communicator with his own fingers and gently drew the captain’s hand toward him, enfolding it within both of his. “I have so much to tell you. So much I want to hear about from you.”

A rustle from behind the dumbstruck crew: the caretaker, his long robes brushing the forest floor, turning to move away from Kirk and out toward the open glade. Spock turned to follow, the rest of the crew leaving the pair to fall in behind at his unspoken directive and make their way across the grassy field to where the first wave of eager crewmen would shortly beam down. They hadn’t gone far before McCoy reached out to seize Spock’s arm.

“Don't you know who that is?!”

“Of course, Doctor.” The Vulcan did not break stride. “My memory is not so faulty as yours.”

McCoy ignored the jibe to focus on the coolness of the response. “Are you saying you think it’s a good idea, to leave Jim here, with…him?”

“I see no reason for concern as long as the captain exercises the appropriate amount of caution, as the caretaker has stated.”

“But…but he…” McCoy struggled for words. “All these years, Jim hasn’t mentioned anything about him, hasn’t said a word about him, or what happened. Don’t you think that’s a sign?”

“I do not believe in signs.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Spock was being deliberately obtuse. “All I’m saying is, I thought he’d forgotten all about him.”

“He did attempt to do so.”

"Well, don't you think there just might be a damn good reason for that?"

They stopped and looked back then, to where the tall stranger, his hair lifting slightly with the breeze, broke into a sudden, blinding smile. Spock nodded with what seemed to the doctor more like satisfaction than agreement.

"A reason? Yes."

“So if that’s true.” McCoy argued, his worried eyes watching Finn bring Kirk's hand to his mouth, “tell me, why now? Why would he bring him up now, after all this time?”

"Doctor, it's all right." Angela reached for his arm and pulled him around to face her. "It's time for us to leave them alone."

"Indeed." Behind them, Spock opened his communicator.

Enterprise, Spock here. One to beam up.”

 



***FIN***



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The Plebe, Chapter 19
Nothing Says Winter Break Like Bedrest -- Chess with Chris and Hachi -- Bigger Heads than Yours


This must be what it feels like to be drugged, he thought, or agreeably drunk, a painless ease of mind and body in which both floated weightless in a delightful, enveloping warmth. He was aware that he was in bed and that somehow, for once, there was no alarm waiting to awaken him, no need to be anywhere else but here in this cradle, his skin absorbing the heat reflected back at him by its downy covers, his brain beneath his skull fat and placid and glowing with drowsy satisfaction.

And then a few irritations began to make their presence known: about his left shoulder, the bulk of a wrapping of some sort that insulated that part of him from the surrounding warmth. A dense, unmoving weight on his right thigh. And beneath the fingers of his right hand, a bristly annoyance.

He reluctantly opened one eye and almost snapped it closed against the intrusion of early light from a window. He waited a few moments before opening it again, then the other one, to examine what lay under his hand: a dark patch of hair that moved in time with its owner’s breathing, if the stuttering, wet snore that emanated from him could be called breathing. Mitch, sitting on a stool next to the bed with his head pillowed on Jim’s leg, his mouth relaxed in a slumber deep enough to excuse the thin line of drool that issued from it onto the bedclothes.

His hand dreamed of seizing the scruff of hair and tugging playfully on it to wake its owner, but both the motion and the mirth stalled, trapped into swimming lazy circles within his own head. He blinked himself further awake and focused harder, this time managing a twitch of one finger on the top of Mitchell’s left ear, his effort rewarded with a start and a stare of sleepy incomprehension at the smile he felt pulling at his mouth.

“Mih.”

The grin deepened at the comical expression of shock on Mitchell’s face. He swallowed dry air and tried again.

“Mitch.”

Mitchell straightened abruptly on the stool, fully awake now, one hand grasping blindly for Jim’s as he stared at his face. “Yeah, it’s me, I mean, I’m here.”

A weak twitch of his biceps signaled Mitchell to lean in, close enough for him to see the swollen capillaries in the wide brown eyes, the unshaven growth of beard.

“I have to…tell you…”

The dark head bobbed loosely on its neck, a wordless invitation to continue.

“B…Barnett.”

The name had come out as Parnett but Mitch nodded again and squeezed his hand in encouragement. “What is it, man? What about him?”

“His first name…it’s Dick.”

The whispery chuckle that followed floated between them in the silence of the hospital room as Mitchell goggled at him for a few long seconds, then dropped Jim's hand to press his knuckles against his eyes. On Jim’s left, a cautious movement: Nyota, uncurling her legs from where they had been tucked beneath her on the daybed, to turn and watch them.

“Oh my God. You asshole,” Mitchell said from behind his fingers. “You gaping, jail-raped asshole.” He moved his hands from his own face to place them on either side of Jim’s now helplessly giggling head, locking it against the pillow and pulling at his hair in a reflexive tug-of-war. “Don’t go back to sleep, do you hear me, fuckwad? Do not go back to sleep. I’m getting the sawbones.”

He gave Jim’s head one last shake before releasing it to bolt for the door, the now empty stool rolling backward across the room. Nyota rose and stopped it with her foot, then pushed it before her to seat herself across the bed from the spot Mitchell had just vacated.

The laughter died in Jim’s throat as he rolled his head on the pillow to look up at her. “You know, you are so damn pretty.”

It would be some time before he regained enough control over his thoughts to keep them from leaking out unbidden. But she didn’t seem to mind as she leaned carefully over him, her weight hovering above the bandaged shoulder, ignoring what felt like a million years’ worth of morning breath to kiss his mouth with her own.


***


“Checkmate.”

Pike frowned at the arrangement of the pieces that had just pinned his king on the rearmost rank of the third level. “Huh. Guess this will take some getting used to. Two out of three.” He cleared the pieces from the board while Jim reached for the handwritten note to scanned its careful, looping script again.

It is my hope that you will find this to be of some amusement during your convalescence.

There had been nothing else in the box aside from the graceful arcs of the three-dimensional chess board and a very brief set of instructions on its use. Pike’s dark brows knitted together as he read them over a third time.

“Can't seem to wrap my mind around these rules. Maybe this is Spock’s way of cheering you up, giving you a way to beat your superiors.”

“It was nice of him to send this.” Jim shifted against the pillows to find a more comfortable position, the ache of his mending collarbone chastising him for his refusal of McCoy’s pain medication. “I wonder why he didn’t bring it himself.”

Pike looked up from the instructions in time to catch the slight blush that crept up Jim’s neck at his own transparency. He gave a reassuring smile in return; Spock’s current whereabouts were of peculiar interest to him as well. And Barnett.

“Don’t know. No one’s seen him since…” Pike let the statement trail off, his own thoughts returning to the Finnegans’ cabin and the sight of Spock crouching before the unresponsive cadet, long fingers skating over the preternatural smoothness of the blank expression before him. Pike had felt himself mirror them both, his own body freezing into immobility while his heart fragmented under the growing conviction that they had lost him. But then Jim, his face still in Spock’s hands, had blinked twice, his first movements since they had stormed the cabin, then rolled his eyes to focus on the anxious ones before him.

“I didn’t tell them. I…I don’t think I did.”

He had watched Spock shake his head no before his eyes finally closed in exhaustion, his neck relaxing to drop his head forward into the hands enfolding it, its damp weight resting on Spock’s forehead. It wasn’t until the medical team approached them that Spock finally pulled his fingers away and stood to watch them release Jim from the chair; he had then turned his head blindly in Pike’s direction, his expression one of mild surprise as he folded at the knees, flowing like water to the floor in a dead faint of his own.

“He was admitted the same time you were. McCoy managed to keep him here all of about an hour before he took off.”

“Is he in trouble?” Jim answered Pike’s opening move, his eyes carefully trained on the board. “Is that why he didn’t come see me?”

Pike shook his head. “He’s not in any trouble. In fact, he was the one who convinced me to lead the recovery team once we got your communicator signal.”

“I didn’t send any signal. I didn’t even have my communicator on me.”

“Must have been Ben or his father, then.”

It is the king who is false

Jim’s lips tightened. “It wasn’t his father.”

“We can’t be sure about that. The attachments on Ben’s messages haven’t been decrypted yet; so far, there’s no direct evidence that the commodore was working with the Klingons.”

“Then why…” Another shift to push himself higher on the bed. “Why did Mr. Spock kill him?”

“He didn’t. Forensics ID’d the shot that killed Pat Finnegan as originating from a Klingon disruptor, so Spock’s off the hook for that. The commodore was dead before he got inside.” He frowned as he advanced a pawn. “Though he did seem to have some trouble obeying a superior officer. Not that I take it personally.”

“But isn’t that insubordination?”

“You could call it that, but the security team backed up his contention that Ben’s directive to fire indicated a probable threat. The only issue really under investigation is whether Ben…whether what happened to him, if it could have been avoided.” Pike shifted his eyes away from the lateral move of Jim’s rook to the eyes that wouldn’t meet his. “I’m sorry you didn’t make it to the memorial service.”

The undamaged shoulder rose in a slight shrug. “I guess I was still kind of out of it. Gaila told me it was nice. She said she cried, a lot.”

Jim’s rook had forked his queen and her knight; if there were any brain damage from the Klingon’s device, Pike thought, it didn’t show up here. He tried to catch the gaze that stubbornly avoided his and failed.

“Jim,” he began gently, “it’s all right to talk about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

“Not really.” He cautiously prodded a bishop across the level with his finger. “I know you and Ben were close.”

Jim promptly took the bishop with his knight, his face unreadable. “Look, I just don’t really want to think about it, okay?”

Pike would have pressed him further if not for the shadow that fell over the bright sheets and the accompanying rap of knuckles at the open door.

“Am I interrupting?”

Jim looked up toward the newcomer, the fleet admiral he had seen in the library reading room who now advanced toward the bed, his hand extended, a compact smile on his face. Pike pushed back from the side of the bed and stood, his eyebrows raised slightly at the unexpected visit.

“I guess you haven’t been officially introduced. Admiral Hachi Nogura, this Cadet Fourth Class James Kirk.”

“Pleasure to officially meet you, son. Just came by to extend my best wishes for a speedy recovery.” His handshake was firm and dry. “How’s that shoulder?”

“Better, sir, thank you.”

“Glad to hear it. I won't keep you now; we’ll have plenty of time to talk again when you’re back to your old self.” To Pike: “Commander. Walk with me back to Admin?”

Pike nodded at the thinly veiled order and rolled the bedside table against the wall, carefully so as not to dislodge the pieces. “Jim, I’ll stop by tomorrow. You can finish me off then.”

 

***

 

Outside, the officers pulled their collars up against the smattering of snowflakes that blew down from the rooftop of Medical at them. Nogura set off toward the campus at a brisk pace, Pike falling into step at his side.

“Sorry to pull you away from our young friend, but I have a few things of interest to tell you.”

It wasn’t too much of a surprise, Pike reflected, that the information conduit now apparently bypassed Barnett. He waited.

“We have biotech staff dissecting that thing they used on the cadet,” the admiral continued. “Appears to be a mind control sort of apparatus. We might be able to use that technology ourselves.”

No.”

The force of his response surprised him, and apparently Nogura too as he halted abruptly and turned to Pike, his face an open question.

“That machine is evil,” he continued resolutely. “It needs to be destroyed.”

“You need a long view, Chris. With modifications and refinements, it could be used for therapeutic purposes. The colony on Tantalus V has already expressed interest in the technology.” He placed his hand on Pike’s shoulder to steer him back on course toward Admin. “Don’t worry; it would be for rehabilitation only. You know the Federation doesn’t torture.”

They walked on in silence for a moment before Pike broke it. “What else, sir? You said you had a few things of interest.”

“Mm hmm. Yesterday a patrol found a small ship adrift in our side of the Neutral Zone. Two occupants.”

“Klingon?”

“The bodies, yes; the ship, no. It’s an Earth ship, registered to Pat Finnegan. Sublight capability only, clearly a private vehicle. We think that’s how the men that Spock described made their escape from the cabin.”

His stumbling across the snowy yard, Spock’s head tilting upward toward the stairs, his search of the second floor a few seconds later already yielding nothing. It made sense if they’d beamed out to Finnegan’s ship. Except that a vessel of that type would likely have no transporter.

His thoughts stuttered in confusion for a moment before returning to something else Nogura had mentioned. “You said ‘bodies’…?”

“That’s right, an officer and either a civilian or a subordinate. Both were dead when we found the ship.”

“Dead from what?”

“From the stills it looks like they killed themselves. Probably realized they weren’t going to make it back to their side of the Neutral Zone and carried out some sort of ritualistic disembowelment. Sliced their own guts out as neat as you please.”

A chill fluttered up Pike’s spine. “Oh my God.”

“I suppose they wanted to avoid capture. Hell of a way to do it; shooting themselves would have been easier. Both men were armed but neither one had drawn his weapon." His chuckle at Pike's strained expression was humorless. "And there's something else. Only one knife was recovered from that ship. So they either killed themselves in turn, or the officer gutted the other guy before killing himself. Damnedest thing I ever saw.” Nogura shook his head. “These Klingons must have balls of iron.”

Pike’s silence much was much longer this time; they did not speak again until they reached the stairs of the Admin building, shook hands, and parted.



 

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The Plebe, Chapter 18
WTF -- The Virgins in the Garden


 

The unexpected whine of phaser fire triggered a cascade of reactions on Pike’s part, the first being disbelief as one of the parka-clad strangers dropped to the deck of the porch. Stunned into momentary stillness, he watched as Finn went down next, his legs scrabbling against the thin layer of ice on wood as he tried to extricate himself from beneath the bulk of the second man, suddenly still and graceless as he toppled at another trill from Spock’s weapon. The confusion gave way to full-blown irritation at the sight of Spock, his weapon held high, loping across the snowy yard toward the cabin; obviously, they would have to review the meaning of keep them forward.

“Marquez, Saha. Hold your position and signal for backup. Advance on my mark only.”

Expecting assent, he didn’t wait for the tiny flash of light on his communicator that indicated it but moved immediately toward the cabin’s deck, his line of approach as direct and overt as Spock’s had been; there had been no answering fire from the cabin, and none appeared forthcoming in response to his panting, crunching course through the calf-deep snow. By the time he reached Finn, struggling weakly to disentangle himself from the dead weight on top of his, Spock had already kicked in the cabin door, the sound of his weapon discharging again clearly audible from the interior.

“Goddamn it.” He shoved the body aside with his foot and held his hand down to Finn to pull him to sitting. Finn's face, his mouth strangely florid against the paleness of his cheeks, tilted toward the open door beyond.

“He’s inside,” Finn panted. “They’re hurting him. Hurry.”

Pike nodded and entered, his own phaser raised to sweep the room. His eyes flicked toward the still form of Pat Finnegan, lying half off the sofa in an ungainly sprawl, the charred hole in his chest cauterized before it could begin to bleed, Spock’s phaser lying discarded at his feet. Spock himself was standing nearby, his back to Pike, motionless.

“Spock, what the hell were you—”

The dark head turned slightly and twitched upward toward the staircase. “They proceeded in that direction.”

He nearly slipped from the melting snow that dripped off his boots as he darted up the curving stairs to the second floor. The door to the first bedroom was open, a neatly made bed and side table the only furnishings in the otherwise empty room. Across the hall, another door, this one closed; Pike pushed it open with one shoulder, his weapon steady in the hands that arced it around the room. Another bed, this one with a duffel bag lying open upon it; he backed toward it, his eyes still scanning the room until he reached the open bag it to glance down inside it. Books, underwear, and a pair of flannel pajama pants that seemed to glow in the duffel’s dark interior. He tore one hand off his phaser and pulled the pajamas aside to reveal an open communicator.

AAAA

A small bathroom at the end of the short hallway was also empty; Pike made a second sweep around all three rooms before moving back to the staircase. “No one up here,” he called down. “They must have beamed out.” To his communicator he barked, “Move in.”

No answer or movement from Spock as he stared at what lay before him. From his vantage point at the top of the stairs, Pike could now see that it was Jim, seated in one of the dining chairs, a strange array of wires attached to his head.

“What in God’s name is that?”

Pike’s breathless query seemed to galvanize Spock out of the oddly immobile tableau; he reached one hand forward to place it on Jim’s left shoulder, then snatched it away as if the contact had burned him. Pike grimaced at the unnatural flexibility of the joint, the sound of bone grating on bone, then realized with a shiver that Jim hadn’t reacted at all, not even blinked.

“What’s wrong with him?”

There was no reply as Spock dropped to one knee and placed his hand on the side of Jim’s face, the thumb lightly tracing the bruised swelling on his lower lip. the fingers at first hesitating, then growing more urgent as they pressed themselves to his cheek and temple. Pike saw his mouth form the unspoken word.

No.

The other hand followed, searching the opposite side of Jim’s face with an urgency that bordered on panic, and Pike felt his own anxiety sweep like a claw through his gut.

“Is he all right?”

The security personnel entered behind them, the thuds of their footfalls as they sped up the stairs giving way to the growing drone of a ship’s approach. Spock took no notice as his fingers left Jim’s face to comb through the sweat-soaked hair, tugging off each wire and tossing it aside before returning his hands to cup Jim’s jaw in his palms. His face was a frozen mask.

“Spock, what is it?”

“Sir.” It was Marquez at his side. “The second floor is clear.”

“Right. Wait for backup out on the porch. Try not to let the cadet see —” He jerked his head toward Commodore Finnegan’s corpse, his own eyes still fixed on Spock.

“I don’t think that matters. Sir.” Marquez’ voice held a note of regret. “The cadet is dead.”

The denial that rose to Pike’s lips died as he raised his eyes to where the security guard was pointing toward the open door of the cabin. Through it he could see Finn looking toward them from his seated position on the deck, propped between the dead body of his assailant and the deck’s rail. He watched as the unnatural color he had noticed earlier took form, a slow flood of blood from his mouth that oozed lazily out one corner and down his jaw to pool at the collar of his shirt.

“Secure the area.” It would be a while before forensics could arrive to verify what his eyes already knew to be true. “Don’t contaminate anything.”

Marquez nodded and stepped out to where Saha crouched next to Finn. “Don’t touch him,” Pike heard her say, and Saha immediately pulled his hand away from the curved handle of the knife that protruded from Finn’s back.

He followed Finn’s sightless gaze to where Spock still knelt, his hands framing Jim’s face, his eyes closed in anguish against the eyes that, like Finn’s, stared at nothing, and in the thick silence among them that not even the roar of the ship landing on the snowy field outside could penetrate, Pike thought wildly that he would gladly slide a knife between Barnett’s own ribs, his life yet an insufficient exchange for the two boys they had just lost to his incompetence.

 

***

 

Childhood betrothals between Vulcans are outwardly a simple affair, a cordial agreement between two compatible families to be negotiated by an agent that Amanda had laughingly called a matchmaker but that Sarek, and Spock as well to some degree, recognized in a way she could not as the most crucial of linchpins to the entire process. For it was not just a promise to be extracted from the parents and their extended families that would unite their houses but also the bond to be created, the joining of their offspring’s minds that would ensure, once they had each attained their majority, their unfailing interest in one another. While Spock was already quite knowledgeable about, and therefore unfazed by, the sexual aspects of this interest, it was the concept of the mental bond that caused him rather more anxiety.

“It is not a simple matter for anyone,” remarked the marriage broker to the seven-year-old Spock when he voiced his concerns. “And you have an immediate disadvantage in your Human parentage. It will be rather more difficult for you to maintain the meld. Difficult, but not impossible.” She tilted her head to examine him, then placed one hand on the side of his face. “Slow your thoughts.”

An elementary process. She nodded in satisfaction. “Now I will open my mind to you. Observe the effect in your own mind.”

Spock felt the muscles of his back tighten in trepidation; he had attempted this before, a clumsy child play-acting with his mother, and the unchecked flood that had crashed through his brain when he touched Amanda’s face had thrown him to the floor in an agony of mental distress. But this time there was nothing, at first anyway, the peaceful dark of his own mind undisturbed by the expected intrusion of another’s. Then the darkness gradually lightened to the green of a small grassy field ringed with trees, the alien landscape of his mother’s home planet beneath the blue of a calm, cloudless sky. A few meters away, its nose twitching in curiosity, sat a small brown rabbit; it approached him at his beckon to sniff cautiously at his feet. He bent down to pick up it up and was delighted to feel its thought

I greet thee

before releasing it to scamper back into the trees.

He didn’t care that he smiled then, a grin that broke through his reserve. The marriage broker seemed pleased as well.

“What did you observe?”

“An Earth landscape. With a mammal that Mother calls a ‘bunny.’”

Even with his eyes closed, he knew that she nodded. “It is advisable to construct a framework upon which to segregate and categorize the thoughts of another. We all contextualize that framework differently. If that setting pleases you, use it.”

Over the course of his childhood and coming adolescence, Spock would receive multiple reminders of the regrettableness of his father’s choice of a bride. But at that moment, sitting in Sarek’s study with the matchmaker’s fingers on his face, he was thankful for the Human part of himself that created such a vibrant reality from the thoughts that gently flowed into his mind at her touch, those thoughts translating themselves into the calm eyes of fawns and mice that approached him from the forest’s edge and the fluttering of birds’ wings overhead, each one weightless and beautiful as they came to him in turn, to alight on his fingers or sit patiently at his feet. It had been his expectation that all subsequent melds would be as satisfactory. But the joining with T’Pring a few weeks later had been completely different, her thoughts a series of cool, closed volumes in an airless library, and it occurred to him later that evening that perhaps the formality of that contact was to be the rule rather than the exception. The marriage broker must have been unusually kind in making her thoughts so congenial.

Or so he had thought until the incident two nights ago, when he had inadvertently touched the cadet’s mind. That contact, though brief and unintended, had given him a view into a world he never could have imagined from his limited experience with the minds of others, an endless panorama of land and sea and sky, thunderous storms and pastoral calm, sun and clouds and stars all overhead in an intoxicating, impossible coalescence. The uninvited entry was an unforgivable breach but one, if he were to be honest with himself, he yearned to repeat, the longing to explore those dizzying vistas a tormenting, ceaseless itch in the base of his brain.

But where he had been tantalized by so much before, now, there was nothing.

The ground beneath his feet bore the unmistakable marks of some unnatural defilement, the sterile soil salted white and raked into curious parallel grooves, a few uprooted and shredded stems the only remnants of the lush landscape he had glimpsed but once. The sky above him was also white — not the gravidity of an imminent snowfall but the blank whiteness of light that, scattered about by the colorless earth beneath it, had nowhere else to go.

Cadet?

Nothing in response, just the sighing of a breeze that carried neither scent nor sound on its breath, nothing but the rush of the air itself, a corpse that stubbornly breathed on.

James?

He called out loud and listened to his own voice die away, not even an echo possible in this expanse of nothingness.

JAMES!

His mind screamed out the name, his full-throated cry awkwardly loud in the silence of this mind, and the answering stillness was horrible. He waited an eternity in the blankness.

Until finally

spock i am here come find me

a tiny thread of thought like a winged seed on the wind. He answered it with his own.

I am here

And saw Jim standing before him, one shoulder at an odd angle, his hands hidden in the pockets of his jeans. Strange; he had never visualized the mind’s owner during a meld, only the mind’s processes, and it occurred to him with a sickening lurch that the image could simply be a manifestation of his own hopes. He addressed it anyway.

“Cadet, I am here. I have come.”

The amber eyes were not blank now but discerning, suspicious. “They’ve already tried, you know. To trick me.” He spoke the words aloud through the bloodied mouth,

They shall pay

his voice sharp with disbelief.

Spock shook his head and held his hands out in a stance that he hoped inspired trust. He saw none. “They will harm you no longer, I assure you.”

“Or they could just be telling me that, knowing I wanted you

spock i am here come find me spock i am here

to come for me. They tried a lot of things.” A visible shiver ran through the slender frame as the hands pushed deeper into his pockets.

“Commander Pike and I received the signal from your communicator. We came at once.”

"You're lying. I never had a chance

SPOCK COME FIND ME

to use my communicator."

"Nonetheless, it is truly I. It is no trick."

“Yeah. Well.” The disbelieving face turned from Spock to look downward as he scuffed the powdered earth with the toe of one boot, watching the white dust settle back over it. “Whatever it is you want from me, you’re a little late.”

Spock felt a moment’s disorientation at the realization that the logic of the cadet’s mind had already defeated him; there would be, could be, nothing he could say that Jim would not ascribe to the knowledge gained by his captors’ ruination.

They shall pay with their own blood

He did not yet know true despair but felt himself close enough to its edge to grasp the wrists that barely protruded from the jeans pockets, a deliberate echo of their last meeting here.

“It is well, child. Do not fear.”

His action may have taken the cadet by surprise, or perhaps the revelation that followed was intentional. Either way he felt a sudden coldness at the sight of Jim’s hands, pulled now from the safety of his pockets, filthy with dirt and drying blood, the nails broken, some torn off completely. He smiled a little ruefully at Spock’s alarm.

“I told you, you’re too late.”

“Did they do this to you?”

They shall pay with their own blood I swear it to you I swear

The figure before him shook his head and looked down again at the blanched ground beneath their feet, the vast space around them from which everything had been stripped, down at the once fertile earth now scored with those curious parallel grooves, each the width of a Human finger. The coldness became an iron weight in his side.

You did this, to yourself? You damaged your own mind?”

Grief overwhelmed him at Jim’s silent nod. He pulled on the ruined hands to bring them to his face and wished for the relief of weeping, though he could not.

“Why would you do such a thing?” His voice was a cracked, alien sound. “How could you?”

He did not see the distrust in the golden eyes melt into unshed tears. “I had no choice. They wanted me to tell them something, and I couldn’t. This was the only way.”

“But I…we were coming for you. There was no need. Truly, there was no need for you to do this.” He pushed the fingers tighter against his face, trying to force his thoughts into the emptiness around them, trying to make him believe. But the cadet’s next words smashed the iron in his side into a million pieces of ice.

“I didn’t think you’d come, after what happened the other night. I knew you were angry. I wouldn’t blame you for hating me.”

Oh gods of our ancestors have pity on a fool

“No. That is not so. I…”

He could not bring himself to explain further, unsure whether he even understood it himself.

“It’s all right.” The hazel eyes averted themselves for a moment

he turned around and left me

as his hands gently disentangled themselves from Spock’s. “I’m not so crazy about myself either. Thanks for trying, though.”

he said he was my friend and he left me left me with them

“Cadet. You are mistaken.” He clutched at the wrists that tried to pull away from him. “Of course I do not hate you. I admit to being vexed that you did not take my advice to avoid Cadet Finnegan. I was angered…”

He found, even here, that he still could not go on. Jim’s half-smile unknowingly censured him.

“Turns out you were right. First chance he got, he sold me out.”

i trusted him but he turned away from me he walked away he left me with THEM

He heard his own voice, stronger now. “No. Hear me.” He enfolded the broken fingers within his own and drew them back toward his chest, forcing them to feel the vibration of each word. “Your trust was not misplaced. He did not abandon you.”

“But he did. He told me he had to, if I didn’t cooperate. I watched him leave. He was the only one who could have stopped them and he...he left me, he turned around and walked away.” And at that the tears finally spilled over, the anguished cry of a betrayed child.

Spock gripped Jim’s hands tighter and shook his head. “No, Cadet. He must have used your communicator to signal us, he warned us as we approached. He gave us the signal to attack.” A moment’s selfish hesitation gave way to what needed to be said. “He cared for you, deeply enough to give his own life, and that of his father, for yours.”

he did…?

Yes.

Stillness then, for so long that Spock began to fear he had failed. But then Jim drew in one ragged breath and exhaled to crumple toward the ground, hitting the dead earth with his knees and pulling Spock down with him, to fall forward into his waiting grasp and bury his face against Spock’s shoulder in the silent sobs of heartbreak. And around them the air finally breathed too, ruffling their hair and swaying the slender tendrils of the plants that started to rise cautiously around them, others joining them little by little to dot the white ground with the pale amber green of new growth.




 

 


 




The Plebe, Chapter 17
All Aboard -- About Face -- Three on a Match



Had Spock predicted that Admiral Barnett’s own professed affection for his little country mouse would gain Pike and himself immediate approval of their plan, he would have been disappointed. Barnett had instead fixed him with a fretful scowl from across the broad surface of his desk.

“Authorize a ship and security forces for…what? Breaking up a romantic weekend?” Barnett wagged his finger at Spock, the normally jovial gesture colored with annoyance. “You saw as clearly as I did what they were up to the other night. As long as the off-campus authorization is legitimate, I say, let them have their fun. I see no reason for us to interfere.”

“Sir, if I may.” Pike stepped forward to draw Barnett’s gaze away from the slight flush that crept upward from the black collar of Spock’s uniform. “The interference may be unnecessary, but we have no way of knowing whether this is really just a weekend visit. Someone sympathetic to the Klingons would be pretty interested in what Jim overheard in our meeting yesterday.”

“‘Someone’ meaning Pat Finnegan. Are the two of you crazed? Do you have any other proof, other than this message attachment theory?”

Pike shook his head reluctantly as he glanced at Spock, expecting the same response but seeing only a fixed stare instead as he responded to Barnett's irritation with a touch of his own. “Am I to understand that you will authorize neither the use of a fleet jump ship nor of two security personnel in this effort?”

A snort from Barnett was the only reply. “Spock, I don’t know what bug’s got up your behind, and I don’t care. Unless you have something else for me, I’m not sending an armed guard to the home of a career Starfleet officer to go chasing after a cadet with a valid off-campus pass.” He rose from his desk and signaled to his patiently hovering yeoman. “Comm ahead to Bambinelli’s; tell them I’ll have the chicken and waffles.”

“The cadets are not at the Finnegan home. Neither is the commodore.”

Two faces swiveled simultaneously toward Spock; Pike spoke first. “How do you know that?”

“I contacted the concierge at the Presidio, who confirmed that no one has entered or exited the commodore’s residence since he departed from those premises last evening. Alone.”

Barnett pursed his lips, one arm already in the sleeve of his overcoat. “What time was that?”

“19:42. Twenty-one minutes after Cadet Finnegan sent him a message requesting that he make up a bed for an unnamed guest.”

“You really have been snooping, haven’t you?” At Spock’s silence Barnett chuckled humorlessly and fastened his collar. “So our young man overhears intel about our fleet deployment, and an hour or so later is whisked away to some secret location by a family of spies. Is that your story?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“So where do you think these covert operations are being carried out?”

Spock ignored the sarcasm. “Unknown at this time. I have searched the database for other properties owned by the commodore and have found none. I have also attempted to trace Cadet Kirk’s communicator signal, but it does not appear to be operational. I am maintaining surveillance.” He reached below his coat to pull out his PADD, swiped at its screen, and frowned. “I stand corrected. The cadet's communicator was activated at 11:14 this morning. A series of pings. And another, identical signal at 11:15.”

“Signal?” Pike craned his neck to peer at Spock’s PADD. “Are you sure?

“A discernible pattern is reproduced several times.”

“Can you trace its location?”

“I will need the admiral’s station to do so.”

Barnett sighed and stood aside to allow Spock access to his desktop. “Be my guest.” He squinted down toward where Spock’s PADD now rested on the desk as he pulled on a pair of fleece-lined leather gloves. “This pattern. A series of pings, short, then long, repeated four times.” Some of the annoyance gave way to thoughtfulness. “And again.”

“Old-style telegraph code. AAAA.” Pike’s eyes widened; he seized Spock’s forearm. “Get those coordinates. Sir, we need that ship right now.”

“Why?” The disquiet that Spock had expected from Barnett was finally beginning to surface. “Does it mean something?”

Pike nodded once, his answer directed at Spock. “AAAA is an old naval distress signal. He’s under attack.”

 

***

 

The interior of the public shuttle car had been dimmed to allow an unobstructed view of the scenery outside, the unforgiving flatness of the Great Plains that would shortly give way to the rolling folds of Minnesota. Through the semi-darkness Jim could make out Finn’s sleeping form, his limbs splayed carelessly about as he reclined on the bench, the exhaustion on his face mirroring what Jim felt on his own. And in the moment before sleep claimed him again, Jim unfolded his own body to creep closer to Finn, to put one arm around him and rest his head on his chest and sink back into a welcome security. But his sleep was uneasy, the temperature in the car dropping as they moved over the frozen lakes below, the warmth of the body beside him insufficient to ward off the growing chill; he could feel the skin beneath his cheek goosepimpling as Finn shifted uneasily in his sleep, the cold becoming uncomfortable to him as well. And as hard as he tried to go back to sleep, he found himself only growing more aware and increasingly colder until he had no choice, the shivers that racked his limbs rousing him by force.

He dragged unwilling eyes open to see the kindly face of Cameron. “Are you awake at last, Human cub?”

The Klingon was standing before him as he lay on the sofa in the cabin’s main room, a crewelwork pillow propped under his left arm, his once sodden shirt now only slightly damp. He must have been unconscious long enough for the warmth radiating from the fireplace to dry it, although an impenetrable layer of cold seemed to remain; he clamped his jaw closed against the chattering of his teeth and stared back upward in silence. Beside him on the matching easy chair, the soldier whose leg he had injured inclined his head toward him and gave him a familiar, almost approving, nod over his braced knee. Beyond, he saw his erstwhile avenue for escape now blocked, the door barred on the inside by the hulking presence of the other two guards. Of Finn or his father, there was no sign.

He tried to push himself up to sitting and couldn’t help the cry that escaped him at the attempt, not at the ache on the side of his head but at the creaking pain that sliced through his shoulder. Cameron shook his head in regret.

“You have damaged yourself. Sadly we have nothing with us that will either heal the bone or ease its discomfort.” He chuckled as he drew up one of the ladder-backed chairs to seat himself next to Jim. “Your species has such a soft exterior, it is difficult to imagine how any of you can survive even one day without incurring such injury.”

“We do all right, thanks.”

The dry gasp lacked the confidence he would have hoped for. Cameron spoke in Klingon to the soldier behind him and received an answering grunt of laughter in return. “I translated your response for him. He is pleased with your courage, as am I. But James,” he added, leaning in closer, “it is as I have already said. You have been brave enough. Look at the result of your attempt to escape us. My comrade is injured, you are even more so, and neither of us have gained anything. There is no sense in avoiding my query any longer.”

“Maybe not. But at least I won’t hate myself for being a traitor.”

“Your loyalty is misplaced. Your Starfleet will crumble before us, not because of inferior might but because of a lack of objective.” Cameron stood and turned to nod at the soldiers standing by the door. “Help our young friend to stand.”

The world greyed out as Jim, supported by the pair of guards, pushed himself to his feet; he swayed between their combined bulk for a moment until the weakness passed, then followed Cameron back to the square kitchen table to seat himself, swallowing the groan of distress at the sound of his collarbone grinding against itself. They had been busy, he saw; the table had been cleared of the breakfast dishes and repopulated with a confusing array of wires all linked to a central, blinking box.

“It is a sort of mind scanner,” Cameron explained as the guards began to tie Jim’s ankles to the chair legs. “A portable prototype of a much larger device we have developed. It identifies neural pathways that contain information of interest and extracts that information, regardless of the will of the subject. I need only ask you what it is I want to know, and the scanner will examine each pathway in turn until the ones that contain the relevant data are found.” His expression regained some of its former sorrow. “It is somewhat disingenuous of me to refer to it as a ‘scanner.’ Truly, it is more of a sifter, in that it only preserves the desired neural links. Those that are irrelevant are, I regret to say, discarded.”

He waited while Jim digested that information, then bent to lean in closer. “James, listen to me. You understand what this will mean, do you not? Your mind will be destroyed, little by little, and the harder you fight to keep the information from me, the more of your mind will be irretrievably lost. And it is all for nothing, because we will eventually find what it is we want to know. Is it not better to simply tell me, before any permanent damage is done, what it is you know about Starfleet’s planned aggression in the Neutral Zone?”

His throat felt choked with dust, all steadiness gone as the words came out in a quivering whisper. “Go to hell.”

The injured guard across the room chortled and slapped his thigh; the other soldiers paused in the middle of strapping down Jim’s wrists to grin in response. Cameron did not smile at the exchange.

"Of course he is afraid, you imbeciles. There is no glory in taking a path one does not fear to walk." He knelt down to check the tightness of the ankle bindings for himself, then paused, one hand on Jim's knee. “We do not have such a thing in our mythology, this concept of eternal punishment. But I will be pleased to meet you again in the afterlife, should we be so destined." He stood and nodded at one of the guards to begin the process of attaching the innumerable wires to Jim’s scalp; the other retreated back to his post by the door.

the harder you fight to keep the information from me

So it was possible to resist the mind sifter, if only temporarily. Jim closed his eyes against the sight of heavy fingers affixing electrodes to his frontal skull and played with the illusion that he could hold the machine off, at least give it a plenitude of other thoughts to waste its efforts on, to gain enough time for someone to figure out where he was and what was happening. But his secrecy had been effective, his brief note to Mitchell insufficient information for anyone to locate him even if they suspected a reason to do so. The utter hopelessness of his situation suddenly yawned open before him.

how can I fight it how do i do that what can i

spock

A bedroom door creaked above his head, and he opened his eyes to see the commodore and Finn descending the curved staircase. Finn’s eyes met Jim’s, then turned away quickly toward his father as if for assurance.

“Gentlemen, welcome.” Cameron smiled at them and gestured toward the sofa as they reached the first floor. Finnegan patted his son on the shoulder before taking a seat; Finn moved toward Jim and looked down at him, unreadable eyes the color of water.

“My dad told me that Barnett asked you to spy for him. Is that true?”

“Yeah, to find the source of a security leak, which happens to be your dad.”

Finn sank to one knee, his eyes level with Jim’s. “You’ve got it wrong. The real traitor is Barnett; he’s the one that’s leaked intelligence to the Klingons, not my dad. He’s the one that brought them here to interrogate us.” He looked over to his father. “They got to Dad last night before we arrived, told him they’d kill us unless he cooperated. You need to do the same. That’s the only way we all get out of this.”

Despite the agony in his shoulder, Jim managed a sardonic smile. “You really think we’re all getting out of this?”

“They’re letting us go, you too if you tell them what you overheard. They promised.” He gazed up at Cameron, who nodded in agreement.

“Your friend is correct. Once you tell us what is is we want to know, you will no longer be of any use to us. Naturally we would then release you.”

“Naturally.” The smile was tinged with derision. “You can believe that if you want.”

“I want you not to get hurt any more. Jim, please.” He leaned forward to place his hands on Jim’s forearm, his face suddenly grey with grief. “You can’t want this, for them to ruin your mind just for one piece of information that they’re going to get anyway. All your hard work, everything you’ve already accomplished and everything you’ll do in the future, it’s all going to be destroyed for this one meaningless thing. Please.”

spock i am here

The tangle of wires made it difficult to shake his head, but he did so, slowly. “Nothing is meaningless. I’m doing what I have to.”

Finn stared at him a few moments longer, then rose slowly to his feet. “All right. Then you’ll forgive me for doing what I have to do, too.” He stepped back and turned to face the commodore. “Dad, I’ll be outside. If that’s okay,” he added with a questioning glance at Cameron.

An order was barked out; the soldier with the injured leg heaved himself out of the easy chair to approach Finn and systematically pat him down the front while his comrade, his handiwork completed, checked the back.

“I have instructed my men to accompany you. They are, of course, armed. I trust you will not do anything foolish.”

“No, just going for a smoke.”

The guard’s gloved hands had already found the pack of cigarettes; they held it to their noses and sniffed at it warily before handing it back to Finn and pushing him in front of them toward the door. The cavern of hopelessness again opened wide as Jim waited for the backward glance but received none, the door closing behind them before Cameron turned to look down at Jim with a mournful smile.

“It is always thus with the courageous, is it not, James? Abandoned to our lonely struggles.” He moved toward the table to place his hand on the small, twinkling box and the tiny switch on its side. “This is your last opportunity to change your mind, my friend. Will you not consider telling me the truth, now, before I am forced to take it from you?”

He had no answers left and could only shake his head again. Cameron nodded in resignation.

"You do great honor to your house this day, little man. Your name will be remembered."

spock i am here come find me

And flipped the switch.

 

***

 

The relative aridity and sparseness of vegetation on his home world made Spock’s occasional childhood visits to Earth a delight of the senses, and were it not for his most illogical foreboding on this occasion, the sight of the Finnegans’ cabin nestled among the dense, snow-dusted trees would have brought some of that youthful enthusiasm back. But as it was, the thrum of anxiety that had begun with his discovery of Jim’s absence from class that morning had deepened to a sensation too intense to allow the appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding him.

He wedged himself on the low fork of an ironwood tree and trained the sight of his phaser rifle at the cabin’s door. There had been no sign, as they had approached the cabin on foot, of any unusual disturbance on the property; the Rover, its own dusting of snow lighter on the hood, had clearly been driven up the night before, the tracks of its tires now only subtle parallel grooves in the snowy road below. The footprints leading to and from the cabin door were fresher than the tire tracks, consistent with the morning’s exploration he knew the cadet would have enjoyed. The number of prints, though, seemed excessive for only two people, at most three if the commodore had come here when he vacated the Presidio the night before. And one set of footprints seemed to stagger drunkenly off the side of the cabin’s porch. Curious.

His finger lay motionless on the trigger as he listened to the nearby sounds of Pike and the two security guards Barnett had granted them. It was a strange concept for him, the fact that Humans had ever managed to become the dominant predator species on this planet; their footfalls were so loud, the rustle of their restless, squirming limbs so obvious that it was difficult to envisage how their prey could ever fail to be aware of their presence. It would have been more logical, he thought, for Humans to be the species that evolved as vegetarians.

He silently checked his communicator.

pikecr: No activity but keep them forward

It had been the correct decision to request Pike’s assistance. He nodded inwardly with something like satisfaction and refocused on the cabin door. Nothing for several minutes, then an unexpected swing inward. Spock felt the breath seize in his throat, his index finger contracting minutely on the trigger, and waited.

A tall, pale Human appeared in the open doorway — Finn, wearing only in a long-sleeved shirt and pants against the cold and holding a small package in one hand. He was followed closely by two darker individuals, both wearing winter jackets and knit caps pulled low over their foreheads, the bulges beneath their coat flaps possible indications of weaponry. One of them appeared to have sustained some sort of leg injury, perhaps sports-related.

He watched Finn for any signs of distress as he pulled a book of matches from where it lay wedged in the box, bent over his cupped hands to light his cigarette, then leaned back to inhale the smoke. He saw none.

pikecr: Who the hell

spockst: Unknown

Silence for several moments before Finn spoke between exhaled puffs of blue-grey smoke.

“Any of you guys know Standard?”

“Some,” the slighter of the two responded. “They, no.”

“Mm hmm.” He lifted the pack of cigarettes toward them. “Want to try one?”

Eager nods indicated that his companions were not strangers to tobacco. They each tore off a glove to accept the proffered cigarettes; Finn dropped the butt of his own to the porch deck and ground it out with the toe of his boot before taking another for himself.

“Here, guys. Get in close. I only have one match left so we’re going to have to share.”

He struck the match and held it to the first stranger’s cigarette, his tone conversational. “This is bad luck, you know. Old wartime superstition. Breathe in.” His companion inhaled as the match touched his cigarette and smiled as the coal brightened. “Because the enemy can spot you on the first light. Second one — “ He paused to light the other man’s cigarette, receiving a nod of appreciation as it glowed in turn. “ — gives them a chance to draw a bead on you. And the third one.” He lit his own cigarette and raised his eyes directly to Spock’s rifle, his pupils through its sight constricted to pinpoints as he shook the match dead.

“Fire.”



 

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The Plebe, Chapter 16
Hit Me With Your Best Shot -- The High Road



 


“Dad." Finn's voice was taut. "What are they doing here?”

Jim looked down at his hands, willing them to lay his silverware down quietly and dab the syrup off his mouth with his napkin before turning to look at what he already knew was behind him: a trio of Klingons, one small by Human standards but with an unmistakable air of authority accented by the decorations on his uniform’s sash, the two that trailed behind him considerably burlier and dressed in nondescript Earth-style winter clothing. His practiced eye gave the leader about a ten kilo advantage over him with the henchmen outweighing him by at least forty.

One finisher two butcher hogs

He stood then, the scrape of the chair legs suddenly loud in the silence of the cabin. Behind him, unseen but welcome, came the rustle of Finn rising as well. The smaller Klingon raised an eyebrow, more in amusement than surprise, and nodded in almost friendly recognition as he halted directly in front of Jim.

“Cadet Kirk. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

His voice was soft and cultured, even pleasant, the Standard almost unaccented; the smile that accompanied his greeting revealed white, even teeth that were not filed to points in the traditional manner of the warrior. Were it not for the forehead ridges or the garb of the Klingon Defense Force, he could easily have passed for Human.

“How do you know my name?”

“Gentlemen, please. Let us be seated.”

He pulled off his gauntlets and laid them on the table before seating himself in the last remaining chair, gesturing for Jim to do likewise. After one more backward glance at the other two soldiers and a quick swipe of his palms on the thighs of his jeans, he did so, nodding at Finn to do the same.

The Klingon leader smiled at what he surmised was an indication of Jim’s nervousness. “There is no need to be alarmed, young man. We only wish to ask you a few questions, after which we will leave you to your most charming repast.”

The key chips to the Rover and skimmer, he had noted in that one glance, were sitting in a pewter bowl by the front door of the cabin; the subsequent wipe of his hands had confirmed the presence of his folding knife and analog compass in the pockets of his jeans. His communicator remained upstairs in the duffel, a costly mistake.

back right swing low charge jump keys out over run drive shore

“My name is qo’Mher, but you may find that hard to pronounce. If you like, you may address me as Cameron. I am sure, as we are all friends here, that you will allow me to call you James.”

He met Cameron’s eyes with what he hoped was an open, cooperative air, his hands clasped loosely in his lap, the fingers ice cold against each other. “That’s fine.”

“I would like us to be finished in very short order so that we may all enjoy our morning.” The benign smile matched an almost friendly humor in his eyes. “James, do tell me, and truthfully mind you, what you heard during the admirals’ meeting in the library yesterday.”

His voice was still steady, but the effort to keep it so was increasing. “It’s like I told Mr. Finnegan just now. I didn’t hear anything. I was asleep the whole time until they found out I was there and woke me up.”

The humor darkened into something like sorrow. “Oh, come now. We both know that is not true. Do let us try again. It is most important that you be honest with me.”

“I am being honest.”

Had Cameron not removed his gloves, the backhand blow would have been far more damaging, but the sudden salt of a split lip and a dangerous backward tip of his chair, neatly blocked by the guards standing behind him, were the only consequences. Thus far, anyway. Jim ignored Finn’s stifled gasp and aimed a look of injured surprise toward Cameron as he wiped the trickle of blood with the heel of his hand.

“I thought you said we were friends.”

“We will be, once you cease your lying.” The hand that had just struck with surprising speed now reached into the armored vest of his uniform to pull out and toss a small tablet onto the table between them. Jim didn’t need to strain to see its display: a grainy, bouncing video of himself huddled in the wing chair, eyes clearly open as three men conversed behind him. The only audible sound was that of the breeze that apparently rocked the tiny drone as it recorded them through the glass wall of the library reading room.

Cameron’s face showed only regret, not the smug triumph Jim expected at the proof of his prevarication. “It is a pity, is it not, that your structures are so effectively soundproofed. Otherwise we would not even be here to disturb your little vacation.” He pushed the screen closer to Jim with one finger. “We understand each other now, yes? You will tell me what was said in this room.”

“I don’t remember.”

back roll right turn swing right low

“Hmm.” The finger now pointed to the figure of the fleet admiral who faced away from the camera. “Who is this man?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met him.”

That at least was true, but Jim doubted it mattered at that point. Cameron seemed to agree as he sat back in his chair, the sorrow still in his eyes and in the benevolent smile below them. “It is not my practice to interrogate children,” he sighed, “but I will, if need be, to get the information I require. We have techniques that will ensure that outcome, so why withhold it from me any longer? You have been brave enough.”

“Jim.” Finn’s cracked whisper floated to his ear from behind as he kept his eyes fixed on Cameron. “Please, just tell them, whatever it is. It can’t matter that much.”

Anger flared again, this time shot through with pity. Unsure which man it was directed toward, he squeezed out the single word through gritted teeth, not caring any longer that it belied his ignorance.

“No.”

Cameron patted the table in what seemed like satisfaction, his expression lightening again to one of good humor. “Very well. Your response is commendable, if unwise.” He looked up toward the guards standing behind Jim’s chair and gave a curt nod.

go

Jim pushed back with all the strength in his legs, catching one of the warriors in the midsection with the high ladder back of the chair. The grunt of surprise signaled a fractional advantage, and he rolled off the chair to his right, pivoted to plant his right heel hard on the guard’s own booted instep, and bent to swing his upper body directly into the Klingon’s right thigh. The muted crunch of the knee giving way was a small triumph.

charge

The other guard was still reaching for his disruptor when Jim drove one shoulder straight into his lower abdomen, then thrust upward to flip him backward onto his comrade. The sound of their struggle to rise, eclipsed by Cameron’s gentle laugh of amusement, rattled in his ear as he bolted for the key chips and the door beyond.

keys out jump over run

The heat of adrenaline was a welcome flush against the morning chill outside. He closed his fist around the key chips and extended both hands to vault over the railing of the cabin’s front porch to the temporary safety of the woods beyond, never seeing the fourth Klingon that had been posted outside by the door. The guard’s clumsy swing of surprise caught him right below the ribs on his left side, the weight of the forearm enough to cause him to stagger and slip into the railing, his momentum flipping him over it to fall headfirst onto the sloping forest floor below. He heard a snap as he hit the ground, the sound dulled by a sudden blurring in his head, and felt for a moment the shock of icy snow against his cheek.

get up go go

Odd how his body refused to obey, stubbornly resting instead on snow that now started to melt beneath him, the resulting liquid no longer cold but suffused with a dry warmth that enveloped him as it seeped through the flannel shirt, and suddenly he was back in bed, snuggled below a lofty comforter, one motionless hand curled in front of him, the chronometer beyond it reading 10:36. He blinked stupidly at the holo on the bedside table, watching as the image of a smiling Virginia Finnegan dissolved and morphed into the steel toe of a boot, its wearer pausing for a moment to study him before finally bending down to lift him up.


***

 

Over the next several years to come, Captain Christopher Pike would on multiple occasions both appreciate and benefit from Commander Spock’s powers of observation and superior inductive reasoning. But that morning, in his office at Starfleet Academy, Commander Pike could only shake his head in befuddlement at Lieutenant Spock’s odd request and even odder demeanor.

“Let me get this straight. You want me to come off-campus with you to go looking for one of your students because he’s not in your class today? A class that you yourself have just canceled? Do you know how many things wrong there are with that plan?”

He stared hard at Spock, noting that something in his bearing telegraphed an impatience that bordered on urgency as he stood before Pike’s desk. “Sir. It is my belief that the cadet’s safety is at risk.”

“Based on what, exactly?”

The words seemed both rushed and somewhat reluctant. “The cadet was signed out last evening by Commodore Patrick Finnegan.”

“So I would assume from that fact that Jim is spending the weekend with Ben Finnegan and his family. Not a surprise. They’re friends.” Pike shook his head again. “This isn’t like you, Spock. If you’re upset that Jim’s skipping your class, you deal with it via the normal channels, when he gets back. I don’t see any need to play the truant officer and collect him now.”

Although the Vulcan was characteristically still, he gave the distinct impression of shifting uncomfortably before speaking again. “Sir. It is my belief that Commodore Finnegan is the source of the intelligence leak from ops, and that his son is the unwitting conduit for the dissemination of that information to the Klingons.”

Unsure what Pike’s speechlessness conveyed, he waited, watching the blue eyes blink several times over before the commander spoke again.

“I’ll start with the smallest of the many issues I have with that accusation. Barnett’s been chasing his tail for months over this situation. Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Spock closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to gaze directly into Pike’s. “I became uncertain of my own motivation in pursuing the trail of evidence I discovered.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Over the past several months, Cadet Finnegan’s communications from his father have been noticeably larger than what one would expect for standard messages. I traced this size discrepancy to encrypted attachments, invisible via the standard interface but discernible once I analyzed the messages at greater length. These attachments are subsequently propagated via Cadet Finnegan’s outgoing messages, messages that could easily be intercepted based on their non-secure status.”

“What…what’s in the messages?”

Spock closed his eyes again.

dad I have to tell you I met someone

“Nothing obviously incriminating. It is the invisible attachments that I believe contain the illicit data.”

“What size attachments? Containing what?”

“Two to three kilobytes, on average. Contents unknown without decryption.”

Pike's head sagged into one hand, the fingers wiping tiredly at his eyes. “You mean to tell me you’re accusing Pat Finnegan of treason based on a two Kb size discrepancy in his son's personal messages, and you can’t even tell me what’s in them?”

Spock raised one eyebrow. “I do not have the security clearance to decode encrypted messages or attachments.”

“You could have gotten that clearance from Barnett. You really need to nail this down before you start slandering a Starfleet commodore.”

“I do not engage in slander. I am merely repeating the facts, and my logical deduction based on those facts.”

“Facts that you’ve kept to yourself until now.” Pike sat back in his chair and looked up at Spock with angered disbelief. “Listen to me, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Pat Finnegan’s been here for years. I’ve known him since I was a cadet myself. We all went to his wife’s funeral, for God’s sake.”

Spock clasped his hands behind his back. “A more detailed investigation would indeed be required to provide the sort of evidence one would need for a formal charge. The preliminary indications, I admit, might be insufficient to convince Admiral Barnett of the commodore’s complicity.”

“What makes you think I believe you any more than he would?”

“Your association with and fondness for Cadet Kirk." The dark eyes grew visibly grave. "If I am correct, he is presently in the company of a traitor.”

“But even if you’re right, what would he — ” Pike interrupted himself to swear softly. “Shit.”

A strange ache lurched in Spock’s side. “Sir?”

“Jim was…he overheard some classified information yesterday. By accident. A briefing he shouldn’t have been in.”

“And the nature of that information?”

“Can’t tell you.” He rose to pull his overcoat off the coat rack. “But if you’re right, and I’m not saying you are, it’s possible Jim could be in some danger if someone knew that he was there.”

“So you agree to accompany me?”

“Get a hold of Barnett first, let him know we’re coming.” Pike shrugged on the overcoat. “And start thinking of some excuses to make if we end up ruining everyone's weekend for nothing.”


 


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The Plebe, Chapter 15
The Morning After -- Skip Day, or Not -- Meet the Father



 


The bedside chronometer, styled to resemble an old-fashioned clock, read 10:36.

holy crap overslept got to get up got to

wait

Sleep started to fall away as his brain recognized the unfamiliarity of a large and comfortable bed, its warmth provided by a flannel comforter above and a thermal foam mattress beneath. One glance at the sunshine leaking through the crocheted window covering over his head confirmed the chronometer’s accusation: for the first time in as long as he could remember, Jim had slept well past daybreak.

He resisted the urge to spring out of bed and instead burrowed deeper into the bedding to enjoy the languid return of the previous night’s events. They had left the lab together, stopping first by Watson for Jim to pack his duffel with the few necessities for a weekend away while Finn waited outside the door, pleasant but firm in his refusal to enter Jim’s room. The books and toiletries were automatic additions, the clothes less so; he had hesitated at his closet door, mulling over the option of bringing some of Mitchell’s instead of his own, but the shimmer of the green shirt on its hanger brought a rush of resolution, and he reached instead for the old flannel shirt and barn jacket, cleaned but otherwise neglected since his first day at the Academy, and stuffed them in his bag.

“You should leave a note,” Finn remarked as Jim joined him outside. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think I kidnapped you.”

Jim had dashed back inside to scribble a few words on his PADD and lay it on his desk for Mitchell to find, then it was off to the airtram stop for the short ride to the public shuttle station off campus. Despite his best efforts to stay awake during the leisurely trip to Charlevoix, Jim had nodded off, his book finally falling off his lap to hit the floor as he snored, unaware, until the polite beeping of the shuttle’s computer alerted them that it was time to disembark.

The disorientation on Finn’s face as he swiped at his eyes confirmed that he’d slept as well. “Everybody out,” he said, managing a tired smile. “We go by boat from here.”

The tourist boat ride Winona had taken her sons on during a vacation to Niagara Falls did nothing to prepare him for the choppy ink of Lake Michigan at night, nor for the size of the small skimmer that Finn, laughing at Jim’s doubtful expression, tossed their bags onto at the dock. “Don’t worry. The ride is smoother than you’d think. And there are plenty of barf bags in the cabin.”

He had ridden in the cockpit instead, pressed against Finn’s side for warmth, the fresh chill of the night wind preferable to the cramped interior of the tiny cabin. Both were wide-awake now, the cold spray wetting their overcoats as the skimmer bounced across the lake surface. Finn, his voice almost carried away by the stiff breeze, had leaned down to speak directly in Jim’s ear. “You sure you don’t want to go below?”

“No, it’s wonderful!” he had laughed back, delighted at the wind and the spray, the dark around them and the amazement of stars overhead. Finn had smiled down at him in return and, for the first time that evening, had seemed to relax, removing one hand from the controls to wrap his arm around Jim’s shoulders and pull him closer while piloting the small craft with the other. Jim was almost sorry when the boat’s engine finally slowed, the flat blackness that rose before them signaling the approaching shore. Finn guided the skimmer into a small wooden dock and tossed the mooring line over before extinguishing the onboard lights, the murkiness of the night now broken only by the wash of stars in the night sky.

“It’s so dark,” Jim noted as Finn handed him his duffel and extended his hand to guide him off the boat. He wasn’t sure, but he thought Finn nodded in the blackness.

“The island is uninhabited except for a few vacation cabins like ours. No shuttle stop and only a few roads. Perfect for hiking or hunting, although there’s not much to hunt out here.” He pulled at Jim’s hand. “The car is this way.”

After the bumpiness of the water, the unpaved road felt almost indulgently smooth. Jim’s eyes widened at the occasional patch of white revealed by the Rover’s headlights. “Is that snow?”

“Welcome to the great lakes. We don’t get as much snow here as the mainland, but we do all right.”

A sudden vision of roaming the solitude of the woods, his footprints behind him the only marks in the unbroken snow, bloomed in Jim’s mind. “You must love coming here. If I lived here, I’d never leave.”

“It can get kind of lonely, but if that’s what I’m in the mood for, then yeah, it’s pretty nice.”

Jim flinched inwardly at the unwelcome reminder that he was the reason Finn had wanted solitude in the first place. “Is it all right that I’m here?”

This time he saw the nod as the lights of the cabin ahead welcomed them. Finn waited to answer until after he had parked the Rover and killed the headlights, then paused, his hands still on the wheel. “I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about. It’s like I said earlier, I’m always going to want you, but you’re perfectly safe with me. You’ve got your own room, you can lock the door, I won’t be sneaking in to bother you. So if you’re all right being here, I’m all right with you being here. I’m actually really happy to share this with you.”

“This” turned out to be quite a bit larger than the rustic one-room cabin Jim had imagined; a large stone fireplace, its warmth already permeating the night’s chill, dominated the great room downstairs, a curving stairwell next to a tidy kitchen leading to the bedrooms upstairs. Finn had opened the door to the first room off the stairs and gestured for Jim to enter. “Towels are in the hutch in the corner and the bathroom’s down the hall. I’ll be in the room opposite yours. Wake me up if you get up before me so I can get breakfast started.”

Jim had expected he would do just that, but the muffled clanging of a frying pan and the smell of bacon that wafted up into his room confirmed what the chronometer had already told him; the morning had, uncharacteristically, begun without him. Finally driven by the twisting ache of hunger in his stomach, he rolled out of bed, pulling the comforter around him as a defense against the chill, and set off for the bathroom.

 


***

 


She wasn’t sure if it was a deliberately theatrical move on Spock’s part to arrive in the lecture hall exactly one minute before the start of class, but it occurred frequently enough for Nyota to recognize it as his habit and, that morning, to be startled at the sight of Spock already standing at the lectern as they filed in, his face immediately turning toward them as the three of them headed for their customary table. She tried to keep her expression neutral as she nodded politely in greeting, but when she saw her own apprehension mirrored in his eyes, her surprise turned to alarm. She could feel her own pulse quicken at his approach.

“Cadets. I notice that Mr. Kirk is not with you this morning.”

“Sir, he has the flu.” She frowned at Mitchell’s incongruous cheer at delivering the news. “I’m pretty sure the clinic, uh, informed his instructors.”

“Indeed. But it was my understanding that he was only excused from yesterday’s classes.”

The confusion on Mitchell’s face at Spock’s reply quickly gave way to wariness. He attempted a casual shrug. “I don’t know, he was feeling pretty bad. Probably needs today off too.”

“What was his status when you left him this morning?”

The question was sharp and urgent, two things that never, to the best of her recollection, characterized Spock’s speech. Her hand rose to Mitchell’s forearm, to squeeze it nervously. “Was he all right?”

“I…uh…” Mitchell rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “I didn’t exactly see him this morning. He must have left before I got up; he’s a real early bird.” His shamefaced admission quickly gave way to dismay. “I actually haven’t seen him since yesterday morning.”

“Accompany me to his room at once.”

The normal morning chatter of the eager cadets died at the sight of their instructor, abruptly and with no explanation or instructions, striding out of the lecture hall with three of their colleagues in tow. A quick glance at Gaila’s wide eyes validated the stab of fear that now turned Nyota’s legs to rubber as they struggled to keep up with Spock, finally jogging behind him to cross the campus green toward the old dorms.

She saw Mitchell’s fingers stutter on the keypad as he typed in the code to open the door, then stood aside to let them enter. Spock preceded them to stand by Jim’s bunk, his expression unreadable as he gazed for a moment at the neatly made bed, then raised his eyes to sweep them around the room. They finally came to rest on Mitchell, still standing by the door but springing to Spock’s side at the silent summons.

“Determine if anything is missing or out of place.”

Three heads nodded briskly; Gaila moved to search the desk, Nyota to the small bathroom, and Mitchell to Jim’s closet. He called out a moment later over his shoulder. “His duffel bag is missing. So are his hillbilly clothes.”

“Only one toothbrush and razor in the bathroom. Yours, I’m guessing.” The discovery lessened Nyota’s trepidation somewhat. “Shouldn’t he be in the infirmary anyway if he has the flu? Couldn’t he just have gone there for an overnight stay?”

“Unlikely.”

Something passed between Spock and Mitchell that she didn’t understand before Spock turned away to accept the PADD that Gaila held out to him. “This was on the desk,” she said, her voice a little breathless. “It’s Jim’s.”

He accepted it from her hand and passed it to Mitchell. “Kindly check for any messages he may have left.”

Mitchell swiped at the screen, frowning as it came to life. “Yeah, there’s something on here, but it’s sh…giberrish. Can’t make any sense out of it.”

“Reverse the image.”

He complied, brown eyes widening in surprise as he read the result aloud.

gone for the weekend i’ll be fine don’t worry see you sunday

“Gone?” Gaila was incredulous. “But underclassmen don’t get unauthorized off-campus privileges. Except for holidays.”

“Someone must have signed him out.” Spock extended his hand to reach for the PADD. “If you will allow me.”

The minute or two it took Spock to gain remote access to the Academy logbook felt much longer than that to the three friends. Finally a thoughtful tilt of his head signaled success. “Mr. Kirk was signed out last evening at 20:04 by Commodore Patrick Finnegan, Fleet Operations.”

Patrick Finnegan?” Nyota drew her brows together. “Any relation to Finn?”

“I must leave at once.”

Spock had already moved toward the door before they could react; she managed to grasp his arm just as he reached the threshold, the returning dread eclipsed by resolve.

“We’re coming with you.”

He paused and looked at her, then at the others in turn, noting the matching expressions of determination, then lifted Nyota’s hand off his arm and held it between his own for a moment. She knew then what his answer would be.

“He has chosen his friends wisely. But I cannot allow you to endanger yourselves as well. Nor would he wish you to do so for his sake.” He let her hand fall as he turned toward the door again. “Kindly return to the lecture hall to inform the rest of the students that class is postponed indefinitely.”

“Sir, you can’t go alone.”

He caught Mitchell’s eye with a backward glance over his shoulder and nodded his agreement. “I assure you, I shall not.”


 

***

 


There was a shower in the bathroom, but no running water. A small card by the sink explained that piped water had been shut off since the first of September, a precaution against freezing; the bucket of snowmelt next to the toilet was apparently the only water available. Jim was glad for the the towels that Finn had indicated, not so much for drying off but for washing in the first place, the plush terrycloth making the icy bath a little less torturous. He was fully awake by the time he passed the chilled washcloth over his face and hair, the chattering of his teeth coming between snickers of laughter at his own weakness. Funny, he thought, how just a few weeks at the Academy had softened him.

He pulled on the flannel shirt and jeans and slid his feet into his old work boots with a grateful sigh. Already he felt the misery of the previous day crumbling and drifting away, to be replaced with the promise of the crisp air outside and the wide patches of unbroken snow he noticed with delight as he peered out the bedroom window. From the flush of pleasure on Finn’s uplifted face as he bounded down the stairs toward the kitchen, he couldn’t help but feel he’d made the right decision to come.

“You look great. Recovered.”

Jim had opened his mouth to reply when he stopped short at the realization that Finn was not alone. Seated at the small square table with a cup of coffee in hand was a man whose startling resemblance to Finn, albeit a head shorter and several years older, proclaimed him to be closely related. Finn confirmed it a moment later as Jim reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Jim, this is my dad, Pat. Dad, this is Jim Kirk.”

“So this is Jim.” The handshake was firm to the point of discomfort. “Ben’s told me a lot about you.”

“He has?”

The surprise in Jim’s voice was met with a light chuckle as Finn’s blush deepened to scarlet. “Indeed he has. Please, sit down. Have something to eat.”

Finn slid bacon and pancakes onto both their plates. “It’s not like I went on and on,” he explained apologetically. “Just a few things, like what I was tutoring you in, what you’re studying, that sort of thing.”

“You told me quite a bit more than that,” the elder Finnegan smiled, turning toward Jim as he sat. “I’m just glad to finally meet the paragon of intellect and virtue Ben makes you out to be.”

The tone was light and teasing, but Jim felt the heat of embarrassment climbing the back of his neck. “I’m sure he exaggerated.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. Nothing I wouldn’t expect from the son of a hero.”

“I…” Something more uncomfortable threaded through the embarrassment. “I don’t think I said I was.” He tried to catch Finn’s eye, his own glance a question, and received a sheepish smile in return.

“Don’t blame Ben. Someone as important to him as you are, I’m bound to do a little snooping. One of the advantages to working in ops. Coffee?”

“Please.” Jim watched in silence as the dark liquid streamed into his mug and struggled to find a way to divert the conversation away from himself. “Do you come out here often? To the cabin, I mean.”

“Only when I need to these days. This was really more Ginny’s place than mine. A real country girl, my late wife.” Finnegan’s tone warmed as he wrapped his hands around his mug. “She loved to come out here any chance she could get. Chopping wood, back-country skiing, curling up in front of that fireplace to knit all those goddamn socks. She loved all of it. Wanted to move here permanently once Ben was born, and I probably would have done it, too, for her. Myself, I’m more of a city slicker.” His eyes focused on something beneath the surface of his coffee, then looked up; Jim noticed they were not the deep grey of Finn’s eyes but a sparkling, crystalline blue. “But I liked being here when she was here. And I brought Ben here as much as I could when he was younger, to keep a part of her living on in him, so he wouldn’t forget her.”

Winona had done the best she could, but Jim wasn’t certain he had any part of George Kirk living on in him. He looked up at Finn as he seated himself across from his father. “I’m glad you let me come,” he said with a grateful smile. “I think it’s great here.”

“It is a great place, to rest and recharge. Especially after all that excitement at the Academy, eh?”

The forkful of pancake that Finn had lifted toward his mouth halted in mid-air, then drifted back down toward his plate. “Dad,” he said, a warning tone in his voice, “please.”

“Jim knows I’m just making conversation, right?” At Jim’s cautious nod, Finnegan continued. “Now Ben didn’t give me all the details, but he did comm me last night to tell me you were coming and to get a second bed made up. When I asked why, he said you needed a break, that it had been a hard day.” He sipped his coffee, his eyes on Jim’s over the rim of his mug. “Anything to do with that meeting in the library?”

For a second Jim froze, his gaze taking in nothing but the two fair faces before him, nearly identical in coloring but for the golden cornsilk of the one having yielded years ago to pure silver in the other, two pairs of inquisitive eyes both turned toward him, one soft as morning mist and the other like glittering ice.

The queen is always true to her own color

It is the king who is false

A quick strike of anger gave way to calm; his answering smile was easy as he cut into the stack of pancakes before him. “Oh, you heard about that. I guess you would, being in ops.” At Finnegan’s nod, he continued. “Nothing to tell there, really. I went there to read a book and fell asleep. Woke up when they found me and dumped me out of my chair.” He nodded his thanks at Finn as he chewed thoughtfully and swallowed before continuing. “I can tell you, I’ll be taking my naps in my own dorm room from now on.”

“Hmm.” Finnegan tapped the rim of his mug. “So you didn’t hear anything of what was said? Nothing about the latest Federation starship deployment in the neutral zone, for instance?”

Jim forced his eyebrows upward as he reached for his coffee and sipped it before answering, his hand unwavering, his voice surprising him with its steadiness. “Is that what they were talking about? Like I said, I was asleep the whole time.”

“Really. My source says you awakened during the conversation.”

Finn’s eyes darted from one to the other. “Dad, come on. You’re making Jim uncomfortable.”

“It’s okay, Finn, I don’t mind.” He reached for a slice of bacon, speaking casually around the remains of his last mouthful of coffee. “Sir, your source is wrong. I don’t know anything about any neutral zone deployment. Sounds like a pretty bad idea to me anyway.”

“It may be.” Finnegan’s eyes remained, unblinking, on Jim’s face as he pressed a single button on the communicator at his hip. “But why don’t we find out for sure.”

He watched Finn’s cheeks pale to the color of cottage cheese, felt the rush of cold air as the door to the cabin opened behind him, and knew without turning around that the newcomers, for there were more than one pair of feet stamping snow off their boots, would not be so easily put off by his denials. Finnegan nodded at them, a genial smile pulling at his mouth.

“Pe’el.”



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The Plebe, Chapter 14
What the Cadet Heard -- Asked and Answered -- The Invitation





“Our friends are expecting a dust-up in sector 45. We’re posting four vessels there within the next two solar days, a full Constitution class welcoming party. It’ll look damned impressive.”

Jim jerked awake at the sound of Barnett’s voice, unusually crisp and loud in his ear. It took him a few moments to realize that he’d fallen asleep, tingling legs still tucked beside him in the wing chair that concealed him, the breezy afternoon his eyes had sunk closed to now calmed to the dark of evening. The indistinct reflection in the glass window wall showed the reading room to be empty save for himself and three grey-clad officers seated behind him.

An unfamiliar voice responded, deeper and slower than Barnett’s. “What are they bringing?”

Jim had the thought to make his presence known but froze at the reply. “We don’t know yet, sir." Pike. "Our source says at least two birds of prey, maybe three. Enough to look like a legitimate attack force on the space station.”

“So we show them we’re swinging a bigger sack, they stand down. Then what?”

“We go home, they go home, honor is satisfied, and they’ll think their smokescreen worked.” Some of the habitual self-satisfaction had crept back into Barnett’s tone. “Meanwhile the real party starts in sector 89. Intel says four to six battle cruisers already in position just on their side of the neutral zone.”

“What’s the target?”

“Not much out there, which is why they think it’ll be easy pickings. One monitoring station and one comm relay.”

A pause, then a sighing exhalation, both heavy with doubt. “That’s a lot of firepower for a couple of unmanned stations.”

Pike stepped in again. “Sir, knocking out those stations would disrupt communications with our manned outpost in 87. They could attack it and we’d never know.”

“And it would cripple our ability to keep tabs on those sectors,” Barnett added. “They could push the zone millions of kilometers back toward us by the time we replaced the monitor.”

Another pause; Jim could hear the sound of a stretch and a body settling back into its chair and wished he could do the same. “Who do you want me to send?”

“Six heavy cruisers should do it. Even if their force is double what we think, they’ll be outgunned.”

“You’re telling me you want to deploy all of our active cruisers for this one pissing contest over a monitoring station?” The doubt had turned to disbelief. “Dick, if your intel is wrong, we look like fools. Or get our asses handed to us if there’s some other activity along the border that we’re not prepared for because we’ve put all our eggs in this one bullshit basket of yours.”

“Our source relayed the communication directly from the Klingon High Command. I’m confident they won’t be expecting anything in 89.”

There was no reply to Barnett’s assertion, the silence that followed it lengthening beyond the bounds of a normal conversation. Jim had just started to wonder at the odd delay when his chair was pulled abruptly backward to spill him to the floor in an ungainly sprawl; a hand seized the back of his head to drive his left cheek hard into the carpet, its mate pressing a fully armed phaser to his right temple. He strained to look upward, his sight blocked from all but one piercing blue eye that narrowed in suspicion before blinking wide.

“Jesus Christ.”

Pike shifted his grip to the collar of Jim’s jacket and hauled him to his numbed feet, the phaser still at his head. Beyond him stood Barnett, an almost comical look of astonishment on his face, and a third officer wearing the uniform of a fleet admiral.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I…” The truth sounded idiotic. “I just came in here to read. I guess I fell asleep.”

Pike’s hand, rock steady when it held the phaser to Jim’s face, now shook visibly as he holstered the weapon. “I could have killed you. Jesus, Jim.”

One brief nod from the fleet admiral and Jim was released, his hands reflexively pulling at his uniform to straighten it. “Sir, I’m sorry. I just…I wasn’t feeling well. I thought it would be all right to rest here. I didn’t know you were going to have a meeting.”

“Who's this, Chris?”

The fleet admiral’s question was more peremptory than polite. Pike had just opened his mouth to reply when Barnett cut him off. “Hachi, this is James Kirk, George’s son.” He moved forward to wrap one arm around Jim’s shoulders in an awkward hug; it was a struggle not to openly shrink away from the contact. “Our newest fourth-class cadet and my own little country mouse. Absolutely trustworthy.”

“I hope that’s true.” The admiral jerked his head toward the lift. “Show him out.”

 


***

 


Pike waited until the lift doors had closed to release his grip on Jim’s upper arm. He blew out a heavy breath.

“Sorry about the takedown. You all right?”

Jim’s cheek felt raw from the carpet burn, but he knew better than to complain. “I’m fine. Look, I’m…”

“All our offices are bugged, our comms are being monitored. The only private conversations we can have are in public spaces.” Pike turned to face Jim squarely. “I don’t think you need me to tell you that what you just overheard is classified.”

The glib assurance he had been about to voice died at the gravity of Pike’s tone. He gave a single nod.

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes sir, my ass.” Pike shook his head in disbelief. “Next time, nap in your owned goddamned bedroom.”

They rode the rest of the way down in silence until the doors opened into the library foyer. Pike escorted him past the indifferent staff at the circulation desk to the outer doorway of the building.

“I’m going back up. Why don’t you go on back to your dorm.” He scanned Jim’s face as he passed him his book, retrieved from the reading room floor as they had exited. “You look like you could use a lot more sleep.”

Jim checked the chronometer: 18:43.

finneganbcg: Absolutely I’ll be working in the simulation lab Yukawa 1520 until 1900 we can meet after

“Thanks. But there’s somewhere I need to be.”


 

***


 

The door to room 1520 was still open when Jim approached, its lone occupant bent over a shoulder bag to pack it in preparation for the evening’s departure. The pale gold hair was neatly pulled back and tied against his neck, the ponytail brushing against the shoulders of the crisp white lab coat that covered the red-over-black uniform. It wasn’t until he turned at the sound of Jim’s footsteps, loud in the empty corridor of Yukawa Hall, that Jim saw the fatigue on the drawn face, the skin under his eyes almost transparent, bluish smudges revealing as sleepless a night as his own.

The smile he offered came without his usual handshake; he gestured instead toward the interior of the small lab.

“Welcome aboard the Kobayashi Maru. A.k.a., my capstone project.”

Jim stepped in, mindful of the loosely coiled loops of wire and cable that littered the floor, and let his eyes wander across the banks of tightly packed terminals, their surfaces alight with monitors and twinkling indicator lights, many of which were at least partly concealed by even more lengths of tangled cable. Finn’s sheepish laugh answered the question his look must have asked.

“This is just the software. You’ll be more impressed once the bridge mock-up is complete and all this is hidden by a bunch of consoles.”

“I am impressed. What does it do?”

“Collects and analyzes biometric data during testing. It gauges the subject’s physiological and emotional status and adjusts the program parameters accordingly, so that the test is always just a little bit too much of a challenge.”

“You’re rigging it so no one can pass?”

“I guess you could look at it that way. I think of it as customizing the experience to determine each individual’s threshold for command-level stress.” Another smile touched Finn’s mouth, and Jim noticed again how tired he looked. “I imagine you’ll pass it just fine.”

There was no irony in his voice, only a gentle approbation that Jim knew he didn’t deserve. He drew in a breath. “Finn, listen, about last night…”

“You’re going to apologize. You shouldn’t.”

“But I should have told you...”

Finn shook his head, his gaze dropping away from Jim’s face to his shoulder bag. “It was my fault. You don’t need to tell me anything.”

“But I do, please, let me.” He saw Finn’s mouth open again to expostulate with him and charged on forward. “I should have told you a lot of things. I know you thought I was older, and I let you believe that, on purpose, so you wouldn’t think of me as some boring hayseed kid.” He flushed slightly at the stinging memory of the words he had overheard his first day on campus. “And I was dishonest last night too, when I said I’d go home with you and I didn’t want to. I mean, I did, but because I like talking to you, not to do, you know, other things…”

Finn closed his eyes; Jim knew that had hurt but had to go on. “And that’s the worst thing. I knew you liked me, more — I mean, in a different way — than I do. And I didn’t say anything because I thought that if you knew I didn’t like you that way, you wouldn’t want to spend time with me anymore.” He thought he’d run out of tears the night before, but here they were back again, a burning pressure on eyes already swollen with remorse. “I’m so sorry, I really am.”

“I already knew all of that.” Finn sensed Jim’s start of surprise and opened his eyes, the lack of accusation in them somehow more damning than if they were angered. “Most of it, anyway. That’s why this is all my fault.”

“No, it’s…”

Finn held up one hand to interrupt him. “Let me finish. I knew you didn’t feel the same way, and I knew it from the beginning, from the moment I saw you in the clinic with Mitch, the way you were looking at him, how worried you were, and I knew you had no room for me. It was so clear, like it was written on your face, but I wanted to ignore it, and I did, in a way. I told myself I was just being patient, holding back to give you room so that you’d come around to me when you were ready, you know, waiting, not pushing you away. And then last night, you were just so…” He paused and shook his head again. “My God, Jim, I have no excuse. I lost my mind, lost control, and I ended up doing exactly what I knew I shouldn’t and pushed you away anyway, probably scared you too. I got what I deserved.”

“You haven’t pushed me away. I still really want to be friends.” He continued, emboldened by Finn’s vulnerability. “And I am scared, but only that you don’t want that anymore, like I threw all of that away.”

“You have nothing to be afraid of. I’m not going anywhere.” That tired smile again. “Well, except tonight, I guess. I’m heading out later for my dad’s cabin up in Michigan, the upper peninsula. I could use a long weekend away from…” He gestured with his head toward the equipment behind him. “…all this.”

Jim was uncomfortably aware that all this included him as well; the guilt was unbearable. “Can I come with you?”

The answer didn’t come as quickly as Jim expected. He watched Finn stare at his own hands, suddenly frozen on the zipper of his shoulder bag, and waited.

“You asked me last night why I was saving myself.” The words seemed dragged out of him. “That’s not what I’m doing. It’s just that I never met anyone I wanted to be with, not even close. Until you. And I’m absolutely sure about you. I know I’m not what you want or need right now, and I know there’s a fair probability that I may never be. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to go put myself out there for someone else just because we’re not together now.” He shrugged and pulled the bag onto his shoulder, his face lifting to meet Jim’s gaze. “Life is long. I truly believe that, Jim. I’ve already waited my whole life for you, and I’m going to keep waiting, whether it’s a week or a year or another twenty years, or until I die, or you do. If you want to be friends and spend time with me, I think you should know what you’re up against, that what I’m doing is waiting for you to want to be with me. All in. And that could be pretty uncomfortable for you.”

“You’d really do that? Wait twenty years for me?”

“I love you.” He shrugged again, the faint smile as calm as his eyes. “What choice do I have?”




 


 

 

The Plebe, Chapter 13
Sick Day




    "We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air."

The leaden sky outside was not what Jim would have called clear, but the passage bolstered his uneasy urge to leave the confines of his dorm room despite Mitchell’s advice to stay put. “You look like shit, man,” Mitchell had said as he handed Jim his fourth pill of the day. “Seriously. Stay in bed.” But sleep, the luxury of which had eluded Jim all night long, was a much different thing from staying in bed, where there was no comfort to be found; if he sat up, his stomach lurched sickeningly, and if he reclined, his head pounded with pain, so that all of the morning was spent alternating between the two positions, neither of which afforded him any rest. The pills didn’t seem to help, but he swallowed them anyway to belay Mitchell’s frequent references to the likelihood that Chapel would, if she detected any noncompliance with her directives, skin their balls.

At least he had his books. He had tried to read in bed, propping the volume Mitchell had abandoned the previous evening on a pillow to accommodate his aching eyes’ unwillingness to focus, until the constant shifting from lying to sitting frustrated him into rising at mid-afternoon to shower. He caught a glimpse of himself in the closet mirror as he undressed, his hair mussed in every possible direction, the petechiae that peppered his eyes and face easily discernible against the unhealthy wanness of his skin.

    "Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases."

He turned from the mirror with a bitter snort; Seneca might have some good advice about taking a walk, but he didn’t know shit about hangovers.

He set out half an hour later into the blustery coolness of the afternoon, the book tucked under one arm. Mindful that he was theoretically quarantined with the flu, he kept his other hand raised to shield his face with the collar of his jacket. He was especially careful to avert his gaze from the library annex as he passed it on his way to the main library building.

Thou sufficeth

The lift to the top floor of the library was, he noted thankfully, empty, the fireplace reading room it opened into nearly so. He kept his head down as he stepped across the old-fashioned carpeting, passing the few cadets and instructors nodding sleepily over their PADDs to reach a vacant wing chair by the glass wall at the opposite end of the room. It turned easily to face away both from the warmth of the gently lit room and from any curious eyes, and Jim stifled a sigh of relief as he curled up in it, drawing his legs into his chest. Below him, a few straggling students dodged the blowing fall leaves, their color muted in the sunless afternoon, as they hurried across the green toward the lecture halls. The quick twist of guilt at missing his own classes that day only added to the cramping misery in his gut.

He hunched forward to rest his aching forehead on his knees, finally releasing the hold in his mind that had kept the most wretched of his thoughts at bay until now. For while his physical symptoms were made bearable by the promise of their temporary nature, there was no such assurance for the thoughts that had taken hold earlier that morning, their circling persistence driving him from the comfort of Mitch’s light snoring against the back of his neck to squirm out of bed and find his PADD, his eyes exploding at the fresh torture of its too-bright screen, his cheeks burning with humiliation as he read the definition of single malt. He had already inspected the overturned stack of clothes, knocked to the floor when Mitch made up his bunk, and lifted the underwear and jeans and iridescent green shirt to his nose in turn, the brief tremor of relief at their clean scent quickly supplanted by the realization that Mitch must have undressed him, pulled him out of clothing dirtied either with vomit or piss or, God help him, shit, the evidence tactfully washed away before it could confront him, his mind filling in the blanks anyway as a brain creates the phantom pain of a lost limb. He had shied from confirming the worst of his suspicions and had only asked Mitchell how he had gotten back to the dorm, cringing inside at the revelation that Spock had carried him home, unconscious, perhaps already soaked in whatever bodily fluid his system had helplessly evacuated when he’d passed out into Spock’s arms. He had been too horrified at the mental picture to ask Mitchell if that had been the case; from his overly cheerful demeanor, Jim surmised that Mitch probably would have lied to him anyway.

The chime of the old clock tower across campus drove his mind in a new but no less awful direction, the very real possibility of his being dismissed from the Academy. He had, as Mitchell slept, also looked up the penalties for underaged drinking, estimated how many patrons would have witnessed his descent over the course of the evening, and calculated how many of them were either already aware of the transgression or shortly to be made so — first Spock, now Mitchell and Chapel, possibly Finn next, then his friends, the circle widening like a stain until it reached someone with enough authority to dig deeper, to unearth the records be had begged Pike to conceal, among them the exemption Pike had signed to allow him to enter the Academy as a minor child. Pike, to whom he had sworn he would comport himself adequately, honorably even, whose doubts about his capability he had, with the absolute certainty only the foolish possess, assured him were misplaced before proving himself so completely wrong.

    "No condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it."

There was no consolation in the thoughts that wheeled like vultures over a heart that ached with shame; he watched them for a moment with his mind’s eye before unleashing the worst of them, predators that tore that tender flesh to pieces for the circling scavengers to feast upon, so loathsome that he physically recoiled to press his back against the arm of the chair with a groan. For he had surely destroyed if not a friendship with Spock at least a cordial working relationship, the angry words he had spoken returning again and again to his own ear, each time sounding more childish and petulant, crushing in an instant what he had worked so hard to gain — the respect of his instructor, an acknowledgment that, despite his youth and rawness, he had within him the foundation of an officer and a gentleman. And he had shown himself, in the span of a few short seconds, to be neither.

And worse, even had he controlled his temper, there still remained the indisputable confirmation of his own depravity, the hardened flesh that Spock could not help but notice as it pressed against his own. The astonishment in those dark eyes was an accusation against which he had no defense; the only question that remained was who the object of that lust was, either Spock himself or Finn, and of the two possibilities, Jim was unsure which Spock would find less offensive.

Which led him, at last, to Finn. He was painfully aware that the same unworthy conduct he had openly denounced Spock for was what he himself would willingly have been guilty of had he not been intercepted: a thoughtless, loveless yielding to the physical desires of another. Jim couldn’t tell if Barnett’s attachment to Spock went much further than that simple urge, but he knew, and admitted to himself that he had known all along, that it was more than that for Finn.

The guy's crazy about you and everyone knows it but you

His own disingenuous denials echoed in his head, bringing with them a fresh, hot flood of guilt. Mitch had been more generous than he deserved, but Spock had not been fooled. The bitter knowledge that he would have given himself to Finn merely out of obligation and a vague curiosity, fully cognizant that he was making a mockery of his friend’s affection, was the hardest of all these things to bear.

Figure out if you like him back and either make it official or cut him loose

He rested his cheek on one knee and shifted his contemplation to the grey afternoon sky outside, watching as it gradually deepened into the color of Finn’s eyes.

Grieve not, beloved

Thou sufficeth in every regard

kirkjt: can i come see you



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The Plebe, Chapter 12
Special Delivery -- Chapel Nurses -- Tears and Vomit -- Bedtime Stories, Part Deux

 


Throughout his career in Starfleet, Gary Mitchell would be known not so much for his ability to plan ahead, which he himself would cheerfully acknowledge was not his strongest suit, but for his quick thinking, reliability under pressure, and steadfastness in times of trouble. That he had chosen, having exhausted all six volumes of Jungle King Tar-Chan twice over, to keep awake by reading Jim’s recently acquired edition of the letters and essays of Seneca aptly illustrated the former; it was only 20:17 when the trill of a key code override startled him from the slumber he had been lured into by the fifth paragraph of De Brevitate Vitae. The latter qualities quickly came into play at the sight of Mr. Spock, Jim’s slack form draped over one shoulder, standing in the doorway.

“The cadet is indisposed.”

Understatement of the year, my man

He sprang from his bed to slap at the door panel, grateful for the old-growth trees outside Watson that shielded his roommate’s ignominious return. Spock moved toward Jim’s bunk as the door slid shut behind him to lay his burden down with more care than Mitchell would have supposed him capable of.

“What happened? Sir.”

It was the briefest of pauses, but Mitchell caught the hesitation, his eyes widening in alarm as they darted between Spock’s unreadable expression and the frighteningly motionless body of his roommate. “What is it?”

“Cadet. I request that you keep what I am about to relay to you in strictest confidence. It is imperative that you not reveal to anyone the circumstances of tonight’s events.” The dark head tilted to examine Mitchell’s response. “I am sorry to entreat your dishonesty, but should you be asked, you must for his sake deny any knowledge of Mr. Kirk’s condition.”

As ignorance was what Mitchell would instinctively have claimed upon questioning anyway, it was no trouble to assent. The brisk nod he gave Spock elicited a slower one of what resembled cautious relief in return as Spock inclined his head toward Jim, his hands disappearing into the folds of his robe.

“He is intoxicated.”

“That’s all?!” The whoosh of Mitchell’s relieved exhalation was unnaturally loud in the smallness of their room. “F…gosh, the way you were talking, I thought he was dead. Drunk, that’s like no big deal.”

“On the contrary, it is, as you would say, a big deal. And an infraction in fact, against both his oath as a Starfleet recruit and the laws of your government.”

“What are you talking about?”

Grave brown eyes rose to meet his own. “The cadet is underaged.”

“No he’s not,” Mitchell argued, surprised that Spock should have gotten it so wrong. “He took a gap year after high school, so he’s like nineteen.”

Spock shook his head, his sad gaze returning to the still form on the bunk. “Indeed not. It yet lacks nearly six months until Mr. Kirk's sixteenth birthday.”

“He’s…he’s fifteen? That’s impossible! You can't even apply to enlist until you're seventeen!”

Spock seemed disappointed in Mitchell’s response. “You are the second of his intimates to express ignorance of that fact tonight. I find it disconcerting that you Humans know so little of those for whom you profess such affection.”

“He didn’t tell me. He must have hidden it, on purpose, he didn’t…” Mitchell’s whirling thoughts seized on Spock’s first statement. “So, Finn…he didn’t know either?”

The twinkling streetlights outside Bambinelli’s played across a handsome face completely drained of color, the eyes wide and dark with shock. Spock shook his head once. “He did not.”

“Listen, did he try to…”

“Mr. Kirk requires medical assistance." The interruption was followed by another uncharacteristic hesitation. “I request that you remain here while I secure the services of the campus medical staff.”

The urge to act was strong. “I could go.”

“No.” The sharp response drew a start of surprise from Mitchell. “It would be better for you to stay with him.”

“Can’t you just comm Medical, ask them to come over here?”

“There is a high probability that my communications are being monitored. It would be more prudent to alert them in person.” He turned toward the door. “Do not under any circumstances allow anyone into the room, nor communicate with anyone, until my return.”

“Got it.” Mitchell brought one hand to the back of his head, ruffling the short dark hair in worry as he stared down at Jim, at the blond lashes too dark against the unnatural pallor of his cheeks. Something about the very limpness of his body made Mitchell want to cry out in alarm. “You’re bringing back the doctor, right?”

Spock shook his head as he palmed the door open. “The nurse.”

 


***

 


Having just recently spent several days under the brusque, efficient care of Christine Chapel, Mitchell knew enough to be worried that her normally imperturbable features were now creased with concern. Her frown indicted both the medical tricorder in her hand and the men watching with apprehension.

“His nervous system is unusually depressed. How much did you say he had?”

“Assuming a dilution factor of one-third, approximately one-hundred twenty-three milliliters of forty percent ethanol.”

“Is that a lot?” Mitchell ventured, his own brow furrowing under the strain of the mental calculation.

“Even for a lightweight like him, that’s not enough to account for these readings.” Christine laid her medikit on the bed next to Jim and opened it to select a hypospray cartridge. “That’s only about three shots.”

“Consumed over a span of forty-three minutes, fourteen seconds.”

“You don’t say."

She looked up to stare hard at Spock until he closed his eyes against her indictment, then loaded the cartridge and pressed the hypo against Jim’s neck. They waited, the loud hiss dying in the expectant silence.

Mitchell was terrible at waiting. “He’s not doing anything. Why’s he not doing anything?”

The tart response forming on her lips was interrupted by a high, sighing whimper from the bunk, followed by a visible convulsion of Jim’s abdomen. Christine hooked her elbow under his right armpit and rolled him onto his side, then rose and turned in a single smooth movement to avoid the heaving glut of vomit that poured out onto the sheets.

That’s better.”

She passed the scanner over the gasping form on the bed, her frown lightening somewhat with each helpless aftershock. “Respiration’s still depressed, but he’ll live.” The hard look again, right at Spock. “How’d this happen?”

“It was unintentional. An unfortunate error in judgment on the part of the cadet and of his companion.”

“Finn?” Her face closed on the single word.

Spock bowed slightly in affirmation. “He was unaware of the cadet’s…status.”

Her stare moved from Spock to Mitchell, the unspoken accusation plain. Mitchell spread his hands out in a defensive apology. “He didn’t even tell me. I don’t think anyone knows.”

“Let’s hope that’s still the case.” Her fingers pushed the empty cartridge onto the bed and reloaded the hypospray to press it a second time into Jim’s unresisting neck, her eyes watching intently as the spasms relaxed into one final hitching sigh before he passed out again. She nodded and pulled out a small unlabeled vial of small red pills from the medikit’s side pocket. “Make sure he takes one of these when he wakes up or he’ll spend the next few days wishing he was never born.” Mitchell accepted the vial from her outstretched hand and shoved it into his pants pocket. “One every four hours after that until he doesn’t need them anymore. And keep him on his side for now so he doesn’t aspirate whatever else comes back up.” She slung the medikit over her shoulder and gave Jim one last look before turning toward the door. “Comm me every hour or two with an update but don’t say anything specific over an unsecured channel. And keep him out of classes tomorrow. Officially, he has the flu.”

“Nurse Chapel. I am grateful both for your skill and for your discretion.”

She shrugged off his thanks and palmed open the door. “I’ll let you gentlemen clean him up.”

 


***

 


It was that same high, sighing groan that jerked Mitchell from sleep, his arms and ass numb from hunching in Jim’s desk chair. Spock had long since dropped off the laundry, the bed linens and clothing now neatly folded and stacked on one corner of Jim’s bare bunk; Jim himself was in Mitchell’s bed, where Spock had deposited him after plucking him from the spreading pool of regurgitated fluid.

“Kindly remove the linens; they will need washing along with his clothing.”

He had complied, rolling the sheets into a rough ball while Spock disappeared into their small bathroom to return a moment later with several towels, one of them soaked with warm water. Together they had pulled off the soiled shirt, jeans, and undershorts, laying them carefully onto the pile of fouled bedding before turning their attention to Jim’s face and hands, then to the rest of his body. The occasional questioning glances Mitchell directed at Spock as they worked were met with silence until they had completed their ministrations.

“He will require the clothing he normally sleeps in.”

Mitchell nodded and crossed to the small dresser to remove a t-shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms, then turned back toward Spock in time to catch a brief flicker on the face that had remained carefully neutral up until now. He followed Spock’s gaze to where it rested on Jim, curled like a small, pink shrimp on the bed.

The dark eyes lifted toward his. “Please dress him while I wash the bedclothes. I should return within one hour, at which time I can assist you in moving him onto his own bunk.”

That he had indeed returned was evident now from the presence of the folded sheets. Mitchell stretched with a grimace, the tingling in his limbs affirming that he’d been crashed in the chair for well over one hour, and looked toward his bunk to find Jim finally awake, his eyes at first wide and questioning at seeing Mitchell seated at his desk from the unusual perspective of his roommate’s bunk. A moment later, he clamped his eyes shut and raised one wobbling hand to shield them from the light of the bedside lamp.

“Easy there, cowboy.” Mitchell lurched out of the chair to stumble toward the bed on feet that prickled with the pain of returning circulation. “I got something that’ll help with that headache.”

Jim’s voice was muffled by his hand. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Tied one on, my man.” Mitchell pulled the vial out of his pocket and pressed one of the pills into Jim’s palm, then turned away to move to the bathroom.

“Tied…what?”

“Got wasted. Partied hearty. I’d be proud of you if you were legal.” He emerged from the bathroom with a glass of water and grasped Jim’s hand to pull him up to sitting. “Take that happy pill with as much water as you can stand.”

Jim obeyed in silence. Mitchell waited, watching as the thoughts unfolded on his face, sluggish at first but quickening as the memories returned.

“You gonna be all right?”

Jim shook his head, his eyes widening in the paleness of his face. “I don’t feel well, I feel like…”

A moment later, Chapel’s red happy pill was floating on a lagoon of greenish vomit, a toddler’s first attempt at Christmas-themed art overlaid on the whiteness of the bedsheets. “Oh, God, I’m sorry,” Jim gasped before another convulsion struck, forcing tears from the corners of both eyes as he bent over to retch again. Mitchell waited, one cool hand like a blessing on the back of Jim’s neck, until the spasms lessened and finally ceased before rising to get the last clean towel from the bathroom.

“No worries. Ain’t nothing that hasn’t happened to every red-blooded man since forever.” He handed the towel to Jim to wipe his face and moved to Jim’s bed, plucking one of the clean sheets off the pile and flicking it open. “Give me a minute and you can move back over here.”

It wasn’t much longer than a minute before the freshly made bed beckoned. Mitchell hoisted Jim to stand on unsteady legs and shuffle the few short feet between their bunks.

“Sit down and let’s try this again.”

The second pill went down easier than the first; Jim sipped the water carefully and handed the glass back to Mitchell before lowering himself onto the pillow.

“It hurts my head more to lie down.”

“Yeah, but your stomach feels better, right?” Jim nodded. “So lie down until the meds take over. At least you won’t hurl again.” Mitchell shook the top sheet open and let it drift down over Jim. “Try to get some sleep. I’m gonna pop all this shit in the washer.”

 


***

 


Jim was still awake, curled on his side and facing their door as Mitchell returned, his eyes reddened by the lingering suspicion of tears.

“Mitch, I’m so sorry, really, I’m sorry I messed up your bed.”

“It’s nothing, man, I told you. Shut the fuck up already.” He peeled off his clothes and tossed them on the bare bunk behind him. “Lights to zero.”

“But you don’t have any sheets to sleep on.”

“They needed washing anyway. Somebody steals them, I don’t give a fuck. Move over.”

He waited until Jim rolled over to slide into the narrow bunk, his knees fitting into Jim’s from behind, one arm wrapping around his waist. “Listen, man, I know you feel like shit right now. But it’s gonna be all right. You’re gonna be all right. You just gotta get through the next couple days.”

“I don’t…” Jim waited until the choking feeling in his throat lessened. “I don’t think I’m getting through. I think I’m going to be kicked out.”

“Not gonna happen. Chapel already entered your exemption from class tomorrow. Fuck, I mean, today. And Friday if you need it.” Mitchell yawned, his arm tightening around Jim. “Go to sleep. You’ll be good in the morning.”

“No, I mean…what happened tonight…”

“You’re good, man. Spock’s got your back. You’re good.”

“I don’t feel like I’m good. And Mr. Spock…” He closed his eyes against the memory of the pale face before his, the eyes blackened first in fury, then in alarm. “I don’t know. I don’t think he'll stick up for me.”

“Bruh-bruh, I’m telling you, he will. I know it. I saw it.” Mitchell shifted to press tighter against him. "By the way, if L'il Elvis comes knocking on your back door tonight, it's not 'cause I'm into you or anything. Just means I need to take a leak."

“You don’t get it.” Jim knew he was supposed to smile but couldn't; he took a breath to hold back the hot tears that pushed against his eyes from behind and found that, for the moment at least, he could only tell Mitch about the least of his offenses that evening. “I…I took a swing at him.”

“You what? My man!” Mitchell’s sleepy laugh rumbled against his back. “Was he pissed?”



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The Plebe, Chapter 11
Bedtime Stories, Part One -- Come Sail Away





“Was he pissed?”

Jim studied the wall in front of his face, as much as he could without focusing his eyes, an activity that had already proven itself to be its own peculiar form of agony. The pre-dawn dimness of their dorm room helped a little.

“I thought he was, at first. But he didn’t act like it.”

“Of course he didn’t act like it — “ The sentence concluded abruptly without one of Mitchell’s customary pejoratives, unspoken out of deference to Jim’s current condition, but he heard it anyway in the hollow, aching chamber of his skull. Dumbass.

As if to negate the tacit slur, Mitchell tightened his arm to pull him closer. “He’s a Vulcan. They feel on the inside, they don’t show their weakness.”

“How do you know they feel?”

“Doesn’t take a fucking genius. No offense.” Mitchell stifled a yawn, his breath warm in Jim’s hair, the rasp of his beard stubble against the fresh pillowcase a deafening torment. “What did he say? When he found you at Bam’s?”

Jim squeezed his eyes shut and burrowed his face into the sheets to block out the growing light. “I really don’t remember.”

It seemed that lying to his friends was becoming his new hobby.


 


***

 



For the span of a few blissful seconds, Jim thought that Spock had mistaken him for someone else in the murky back hallway of Bambinelli’s; the sudden upshot of one slanted eyebrow relayed a brief but perceptible start as he rotated Jim to face him, the strained expression mellowing into a composure that he seemed unprepared to display. He dropped his hand from Jim’s shoulder and moved it to enfold its mate beneath the long black robe.

“Cadet. You should remove yourself from these premises straightaway. I will escort you to your dormitory.”

Jim shrank away from the prospect of being shepherded back across campus like a wayward calf. “That’s all right, I’m…we’re heading out now.”

"It would be a singularly unwise action on your part to depart with Mr. Finnegan. I must insist that I accompany you back to your room."

The words were spoken with a deliberate calm that, had the circumstances been different, Jim might have found disarming. But he knew what he’d seen in the grim line of Spock’s mouth and felt his back stiffen at the obvious disapproval.

“I’m fine. I don’t need your help.”

It was not the cool dismissal Jim would have preferred, the words wheezing from the strange slackness of his mouth without the conviction he was aiming for. Annoyed at himself, he pushed past Spock to stumble toward the door at the end of the shadowed hallway. Spock pivoted smoothly to let him let him pass and watched as Jim halted again, nonplussed at a brightly painted D on the rest room door.

"There is no need to take offense," he said to Jim’s back. "I merely remind you that it would be best for you to restrict your interactions with Mr. Finnegan to those of a professional nature. To reject his request for your companionship this evening, for instance."

Stunned, Jim spun to face Spock, indignation deepening the already high color of his cheeks.

"Wait...you've been spying on us?”

“Espionage was unnecessary.” Spock’s gaze was level. “The two of you were hardly discreet in your exhibition of sexual foreplay."

The neutral tone did nothing to mitigate the reproach of his words, made infuriatingly self-righteousness by the persistent vision of Barnett’s fingers stroking his hip. “You have," Jim said tightly, "absolutely no right to judge me."

"I do not judge. I merely observe and, when it is warranted, advise.”

“I don’t need your advice. I think I'm capable of choosing my own friends."

The raised eyebrow and the maddening uplift of one corner of Spock's mouth mocked his defensive reply. “Then you would do well to develop some degree of circumspection with respect to your friendships.”

“Circumspection?!” That word didn’t come out right, his mouth refusing to form correctly around it, but Jim didn’t care; the condescension had reached an intolerable level. “I’m not the one who’s sleeping with the commandant!”

It was hotly satisfying to feel his own self-control crack and even more so to see Spock’s lips tighten again in response. “My interactions with Admiral Barnett are none of your concern.”

“Oh, but it’s all right for us to be your concern? That’s not fair.”

“Fairness is not the issue. As a new recruit, you are ignorant of much of what transpires at the Academy. It is my responsibility as your instructor and superior officer to advise you as to the wisest course of action in any given situation. Devoting the remainder of your evening to Mr. Finnegan’s company is not advisable.”

“Well let me tell you, I don't give a…a fuck about your advice.” His hands had balled into fists at his sides; somewhere in his head, Mitchell roared with approving laughter at the adoption of his playbook. "I’m tired of you acting like you know better about everything and interfering with everything I want to do. So butt the fuck out and go mind your own business!"

Spock's eyes narrowed at Jim's rudeness. "Your personal affairs are indeed none of my concern, and I would prefer to know little, if anything, of them. But it becomes my business when the welfare of one of my students is endangered. I would not interfere unless that were the case."

"You haven’t got the right! My welfare isn't in any danger."

"Indeed it is. You plan to offer yourself to a person who would exploit your youth and inexperience, presumably for the express purpose of satisfying his own physical urges."

Jim’s mind stumbled at the bland but jarring statement, then recovered enough to deliver the counterpoint that had been simmering under his skin for too long to ignore anymore. “But you’re over there…” Jim jerked his head in what he hoped was the right direction, “…doing the exact same thing with Barnett! He’s like a hundred years older than you. And he’s your boss.”

“I have already warned you not to invoke my relationship with the Admiral, of which you know nothing.”

“Like you know everything?!” It was oddly euphoric, the sensation of his restraint shattering into pieces too small to gather back together. “Finn’s been a good friend to me and really helpful, he doesn’t exploit me, and he’s not going to exploit me, whatever you think. And he even defends you, he’s never said a mean word about you, he sticks up for you and your fucked-up grading and your fucked-up relationship, and he’s never asked for anything from me, he’s just helped me out of kindness. But I guess you wouldn’t understand that, you don’t get that, that people aren’t always calculating and selfish, that they can be nice to someone else without expecting payment.”

"On the contrary," Spock replied evenly. "He does expect payment, which you intend to remit tonight, in his rooms, after you leave here with him."

He pulled his arm back then, but the swing he aimed toward Spock's chin was defused by a quick seize of his wrist and a deft turn, his body spun by its own momentum to trap his right arm behind his back, his left arm grasped by the wrist as well and neatly pinned to his right collarbone. One firm push backward and he was against the wall, grimacing at the sudden pressure on his twisted arm and the imprisonment of his lower body by a well-placed foot and knee. He glared at Spock, panting, his flush of whiskey-fueled fury met by dark eyes so suddenly grave that his own eyes widened in surprise.

"Listen well," Spock said, his face mere inches from Jim's, his voice low. "If you are to bestow yourself on another, be certain it is truly your wish to do so. And that it is to one who accepts you not merely as compensation for services rendered, but as the gift that you are."

Jim found the one tiny shard of discretion that remained and bit back the protest that rose to his lips at Spock's words — no, that's not how it is, he's not like that. And as he dropped his gaze from the sternness of Spock's eyes to his tight-lipped frown, his breath rattling in his throat,

Are you to bestow yourself on another

he found a bit of stability in his careening mind, a still, dark slick of oil on the roiling waves of his thoughts, and he fastened on the recent memory, himself on the bar stool and Finn pushing between his knees, arms around him to keep him from toppling backward, his mouth icy cool and delicious as it explored Jim's, the bitter tang of the bourbon on his tongue masked by the sweetness of sugar and cream. And Jim watched himself for his own reaction, for some indication that the contact excited him as much as it did Finn, whose hands now roamed up Jim's back with undisguised eagerness to clutch and pull at the thin fabric of his shirt and whose groin, heavy and hard with need, now leaned urgently into his own.

Be certain that it is truly your wish to do so

And he could find no sign that it did, only a flicker of interest at the novelty of another man's mouth and hands on him and a gnawing guilt that he could only partially reciprocate Finn's affection.

no that's not how it is

no

As if he felt Jim's sudden regret, Finn pulled back slightly, his hands releasing their hold on his shirt to slide down to his waist and rest there lightly, his lips still on Jim's but his tongue retreating from its assault in mute apology. And as they rested there something changed, almost imperceptibly at first, just a slight warming of Finn's hands on his hips, the touch feather-light but steady. Then his lips softened, more pliant now and lush under Jim's, his kiss transforming from urgent demand to soft persuasion, until he pulled his mouth away at last to rest their foreheads together, their breaths puffing between them.

Be certain

And he felt his body become a conduit for the heat of Finn's hands, their warmth drifting upward from his hips to slow his breath and soothe the frantic thumping of his heart until it moved to envelope him completely, the bar stool beneath him dissolving as the rest of his surroundings quieted at last, the music and chatter fading into harmonious silence around him, the bothersome spinning of the room finally ceasing as it too melted away to leave him, his body now weightless and free, floating in the warm sea of his mind’s tranquility. And in that ocean of peace grew a joy at the unfamiliar feeling of complete acceptance, the assurance of a devotion that did not judge nor want anything in return, the utter absence of a desire for him to do anything other than continue to be who he already was. And that acceptance was almost unbearable, the buoyant ecstasy of being completely loved without the expectation of more than what was already being given.

Desire slammed into him then, the unexpected rush of blood and heat bringing a gasp of surprise as he felt himself swell, the physical response a reflection of what he had trained himself to conceal over the years of his short life, the tender parts of him that craved the affinity he now enjoyed in unlimited abundance.

Do you bestow yourself

And in the depths of the fluid heat surrounding him, something moved, great and slow as if unused to movement, twisting as it arose from the depths below to approach him as he floated and drift in lazy circles around him,

Do you bestow yourself

its heavy, dark body almost brushing his as it swam by, faster now, its tongue flicking out to scent him through the water, each contact a tiny jolt of electric delight.

Be certain it is your wish

He spread his arms and legs wide in the salty warmth that supported him, inviting the being to taste more of him

yes

and felt the creature rejoice, its desire penetrating the calm surrounding him, his own need surging as well until every cell in his body sang with elation. He could feel the heat of its body exciting his own skin into unbearable anticipation as it swam closer, his flesh growing harder than he thought could ever be possible, an unimaginable climax approaching to sweep over him. He arched his neck to open it in surrender, laughing as his head dropped backward…

…and struck the hard wall of the hallway behind him with a painful crack.

Startled by the sudden blow to his skull, Jim snapped his eyes open to find himself still trapped against the dank, grimy wall, his arms pinned against his body by Spock's hands on his wrists, the restaurant’s cacophony ringing in a head that shrank in pain from the abrupt return of noise and vertigo. He searched the face before him, noting the frown on Spock’s forehead, even deeper than before as his eyebrows nearly met across the bridge of his nose, his lips no longer set in a hard line but parted slightly as he stared back at Jim in shock.

A moment later, he understood the reason for Spock’s astonishment: like evaporating seawater, the hallucination had left behind a remnant, the unmistakeable evidence of his arousal, still eager and hard and pressed up now against the knee that pinned him to the wall.

no

oh NO

“It is well, child. Do not fear.”

The hand on his left wrist moved slightly, the fingers pressing gently on the juncture between his neck and shoulder, and he felt himself falling forward into Spock’s arms, his senses deadening, his last thought one of dismay at the retribution he knew would accompany his awakening.




 


 


 


The Plebe, Chapter 10
Vestis Virum Facit -- Back to Bambinelli's




Gaila backed up to inspect her handiwork, her chin propped up on one thumb, her index finger resting on the curvaceousness of her bottom lip. A snort of laughter floated toward her from the bunk across the room.

"Baby girl, if you spent this much time thinking about calculus, you'd be fucking valedictorian."

"Get out." She tossed the words absently over her shoulder, her eyes fixed on Jim like a sculptor surveying an untouched block of marble, the full-length mirror of Mitchell's open closet door comprising the third vertex of their triangle. She didn't turn as Mitchell rolled off the bunk with an audible grunt.

"I know when I’m not wanted,” he sniffed in mock resentment, but the brown eyes were serious as he gripped Jim’s biceps on his way toward the door. “Remember, man, curfew. And be careful."

Jim nodded with a smile he hoped was reassuring; a shooing motion of her hand was Gaila’s only reply. "Too red," she said to Jim's reflection as Mitchell closed the door behind him. "It fits you well, but it washes you out. Take it off." She moved toward him to carry out her own directive, her fingers brushing the skin of his throat as she unfastened the button of the snug military collar. "You need something in a lighter jewel tone. Yellow or green to bring out your eyes, you know, make them pop."

"It's okay, I can do it." Jim backed away before her hip could make contact with the guilty swelling in his shorts, the memory of the last time she had undressed him still fresh. He pulled his arms out of the shirt and handed it back to her to return to Mitchell's closet. "I guess I wear enough red anyway."

"True." Her hands floated across the rainbow of hanging shirts until she settled on one, a gauzy moss green button-down that she pulled to her face for closer inspection before pulling it out from the closet to brandish at Jim. "This one. Try it."

He recoiled in alarm as it fluttered toward him. "Gaila, I can't wear that in public," he protested. "It's practically transparent."

"It's practically delicious. Put it on." The slap of the hanger was painful against his naked chest. "The tech on this is excellent, you'll see. I'm surprised Mitch has something this fine."

A few minutes later, Jim had to admit that she was right; once on his body, the shirt's translucence was obscured by the faint metallic shimmer of its weave, only occasional glimpses of his physique visible beneath its shifting surface. Gaila's eyes met his as she brought her fingertips to a point, then flared them outward in triumph like a fireworks display. Pop.

"I don't know," he said, still uncertain as he twisted in the mirror. "It's kind of revealing."

"You're not going to a funeral, dummy. You want to look tasty." She tossed her head, hands on hips. "Now for the pants. Show me what you've got."

Jim reached into his own closet to pull out his one pair of neatly folded jeans. "This is all I have," he said in apology. "I should probably wear one of Mitch's."

"Absolutely not." She took the jeans from him and shook them open, fixing them with a critical eye. "These are fine. They're clean and they'll fit you. Anything Mitch has will be too big, you'll look like a clown in them." She tossed the jeans back to him and waited as he stepped into them, nodding with approval as he buttoned the fly. "Leave the shirt out for now and let me see." She smoothed the curved hem of the shirt to cover the worst of the fraying around the waistband and stepped back, one finger tapping her bottom lip again. "Now try it tucked it in, and roll the sleeves up, but not too much."

He complied and waited, squirming under her scrutiny. Auburn curls swayed with the slow nodding of her head.

"Perfect. Fresh but sexy. You're gonna knock his eyeballs right out of his face."

Jim bit his lip. "That's not...I don't think that's what I should be aiming for." He straightened slightly, watching in the mirror as the ghostly shadow of one nipple floated below the shirt's iridescent surface for a moment before disappearing. "Maybe I should wear an undershirt."

"Don't be stupid," she scoffed, diving back into Mitchell's closet. "If you want to have a good time, you don't dress like some prim virgin out on his first date."

By the time she emerged, two pairs of Mitchell's shoes in each hand, the worst of his blush had faded. She pushed the shoes into his chest.

"Jeans are fine, work boots aren't. Try these on."

He edged carefully toward the small desk chair and sat, bent forward over the armload of shoes to keep them from dropping before he could lower them to the floor. He chose the least flashy of the lot, a pair of grey canvas sneakers, to try first. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure baby, what?"

"What you and Nyota were going to say the other day. About Finn."

"Yeah. Stand up." Her eyes scanned his lower body. "That looks all right. Goes well with the jeans. Doesn't say party-ready, though. Try the high-tops." She backpedaled to Jim's bunk, perching on one corner as he kicked off the sneakers.

"The thing about Finn is, we were just surprised that he asked you out, because he never asks anyone out. Ever. And when anyone asks him, the answer is almost always no. Nicely, you know, because he's that kind of guy, he's not an asshole about it. Just very politely, no. That's why he's the Ice Man." She nodded her approval at the high-tops. "Maybe better. Stylish but not too douchey. Loafers next. Anyway, Finn's like candy everybody wants but can't have. Unattainable."

Jim's own opinion on the high-tops made him glad to pull them off. "Does anyone know why?"

She shrugged and tossed her hair over one shoulder, her eyes frowning at the loafers. "Not really. I've heard that he had a girlfriend once that he was really into, but she dumped him, or died tragically, or his dad drove her away, or something like that, and he's still wearing the willow for her. Try the grey ones again." She waited as he toed off the loafers and stood to slide his feet back into the sneakers. "Some people think he's just too busy to date, or he's emotionally dead, or frigid, or a sociopath. I even heard that he’s abstaining because he wants to enter a monastery, but that's probably bullshit. So, I don't know. Whatever it is, he's not saying." She rose from the bunk and moved to place her hands on Jim's shoulders, propelling him toward the mirror and positioning him in front of it again to gaze at his own reflection.

"Nobody knows what you're dealing with here. But I do know," she said, her voice lowering as her hands moved down his arms, "that you're a real heartbreaker. You’re gonna have him wrapped around your little finger."

His image dissolved, replaced with laughing blue-grey eyes and the easy confidence of a first-class cadet. "I don't think that’s going to happen."

"We'll see."

She held his eyes in the mirror as she stood behind him, her chin resting lightly on his shoulder, her hands trailing across his chest to smooth the shirt's placket from behind. Her breath was warm in his ear. "Clothes make the man," she murmured, her eyes smiling at the growing bulge the jeans could no longer hide. "Comm me when you get back and I'll help you take them off."

 

***

 

Jim was glad for Gaila’s insistence once he and Finn pushed themselves into the boisterous gaiety of Bambinelli's. Sensitive to the dismissive glances he and his drab, ill-fitting clothing had received on his prior visit, he found his discomfort with his current attire fading at the acceptance, maybe even interest, in the eyes that now turned to examine them as they entered. A moment later he smiled at his own conceit; it was not he but Finn who garnered their attention, his pale hair loose and glowing above the dusky amethyst of his elegantly cut shirt like the moon at early dawn, oblivious to the looks of admiration from the crowd he now towered over as he scanned the room. He looked down at Jim with an apologetic smile, his voice raised above the dual dins of conversation and over-loud dance music.

"It might be a while before they have a table.”

It wasn't the warmth of Spock's hand on the small of his back now but the firmer grip of Finn's hand on his shoulder that steered Jim toward the only available place to sit, a single high stool at the end of the bar. Finn wedged himself into the corner and gestured for Jim to take the stool. “You want an appetizer or something to drink while we're waiting?"

Jim shook his head, having already resolved that this evening would be spent modestly, both for economy’s sake but also to give his friends as little to talk about as possible; Mitchell’s jeering recap of their weekend outing still rankled. He tried to ignore his growling stomach as he scanned the sticky bar menu for something familiar and inexpensive. "Can I just get coffee?"

"One Irish coffee?" The bartender dropped two coasters in front of them, her harried expression shifting into a genuine smile of welcome as she looked them over. Jim hoped his hesitation came across as thoughtfulness rather than perplexity.

"Yes, please."

"I'll have Woodford on the rocks.” Finn pushed the menus back to the bartender and smiled at her with enviable ease. The smile softened as it turned toward Jim, their heads now level thanks to his perch on the stool.

"You look amazing."

He saw the normal cloud grey of Finn’s eyes, dimmed to smoke by the low lighting of the bar, darken even further, their sudden intensity constricting the breath in his chest. “Thank you,” he managed at last, his own gaze dropping to rest on the relative safety of Finn’s open collar as he wondered if he were expected to return the compliment. The clink of a bottle on glass beside them spared him the decision; Finn reached for his drink with a nod at the simpering bartender and took a sip, watching as Jim tore his eyes away from Finn’s throat to sweep them around the room.

“You ever been here before?”

"Yes, once." He intended to say as little as possible about the meeting with Pike and Barnett, but his gaze automatically turned toward the back table they had occupied on that occasion to find the commandant himself, seated at the same booth as before, a half-empty pitcher of beer and a plate of cheese fries in front of him. Jim’s involuntary gasp of surprise was followed shortly by a groan at the sight of Spock's familiar dark garb across the table from him.

Finn noticed his frown and leaned in. "What is it?"

"Mr. Spock. He's over there, with Admiral Barnett."

Finn glanced over to where Barnett and Spock sat, then shrugged. "He works hard. Even Vulcans need to relax." He sipped his drink again and studied Jim’s face. “Why does that bother you?”

“It doesn’t…I don’t know.” Jim struggled to veil his distrust — and, he admitted silently, dislike — of Barnett. “I guess I…I didn’t think he needed that.”

“Time off? Or a social life?” Finn grinned at Jim’s discomfort. “That’s kind of racist, you know.”

Jim opened his mouth to protest Finn’s assessment before he realized he was being teased. “I’m sorry,” he smiled in return, willing away the flush that crept up his neck. “I guess it’s just weird to see one of my instructors here.”

“Here you go, sugar.”

Jim turned to reach for the coffee, relieved at the bartender’s interruption, then stopped to stare in surprise at the curved glass mug before him. Her eyebrows rose at his consternation. "Everything all right?"

"Yes, it’s fine,” he lied, smiling his thanks and waiting until she turned away to push the huge dollop of whipped cream off the drink’s surface onto the saucer. Finn nodded in understanding.

“Not a big fan of whipped cream?”

“I just didn’t know it came like that. I generally take my coffee black.” He lifted the mug to his lips and almost spat the first gulp of coffee back out, one hand reflexively covering his mouth.

Finn’s hand rose to pat him lightly between his shoulder blades. “You all right?”

"It's sweet!"

"It's coffee with sugar. And a splash of single malt." Finn laughed as Jim wiped the dribble off his chin with one palm. "And of course the whipped cream on top."

"Malt?" Jim took a second mouthful and held it for a few moments as he thought back to the malted milk chocolate candies he and Sam both loathed. "I don't taste it."

"It's smooth, isn't it? They do a good job here." The fair head tilted at the sudden grin on Jim's face. "What's so funny?"

The next swallow of coffee was definitely better, the sweet taste growing on him, a pleasant warmth settling in his gut. "This one time, Sam and I...we didn't like our Halloween candy, so we let the dog have it. Mom found out and made her drink hydrogen peroxide 'til she puked all over the house. She was pissed at first, but then it got to where we were all laughing so hard." He chuckled at the memory of their border collie, her eyes wide with confusion as she hunched repeatedly to bring up endless quantities of foamy, tan-colored vomitus. "Poor Katie."

The look of curiosity deepened. "Will you tell me about Sam?"

And he surprised himself by doing that, as much as he could, the narrative getting easier to relate as the coffee disappeared, to be replenished with a tap of Finn’s index finger on the bar. By the time he reached the bottom of the second cup he had gotten through the hardest part, glad to find that he could actually laugh at the worst of Frank and vaguely baffled that Finn, who had listened in attentive, somber silence throughout, couldn’t seem to share his cheer.

“I’m sorry. About all that, what happened to you. I’m really sorry.”

Jim set the empty mug down and gazed in mild dismay at Finn’s eyes, faded to ice now as he signaled once again to the bartender, two fingers this time. “It’s all right,” he ventured, hoping to lighten the mood. “It’s no big deal anymore, not really.”

Finn shook his head, the silver hair swinging over his jaw before he raked it behind one ear. He drained his own glass and set it on the bar, shuttering his eyes behind the dense white lashes for a moment as if in thought, then turned to Jim and reached for his hand. “It is a big deal. I’m glad you’re dealing with it, but you can’t minimize it.”

The faint stirrings of a headache tickled the space between his eyes; he squeezed Finn’s hand reassuringly, wishing he didn’t look so grim. “The only bad thing now is not knowing where he is. He never commed or wrote, or anything, after he left. Maybe I’ll find him when I’m out there, you know, on a ship.”

Finn nodded, his brows drawing together. “When you have your own ship, you can go wherever the fuck you want.”

Surprise at the unexpected profanity tweaked the headache into a tiny flare. “I can…wait, you think I’ll make captain?”

“I know it.”

He closed his eyes briefly as the room swayed around him, wondering at the contrast between the compliment and the vehemence with which it was delivered. The words felt like sludge in his mouth. “How do you know that?”

“I know you work hard. You have the aptitude for it, and the temperament as well.” Their drinks arrived; Finn took a swallow of the fresh bourbon and tipped it toward Jim in a salute. “And God knows you deserve it more than anyone I know.”

He smiled weakly in response, his lips oddly numb to the heat of the third Irish coffee. He had already taken a long draught before he realized he’d forgotten to remove the whipped cream first, his scowl of distaste drawing a welcome chuckle from Finn.

"What's so funny?" Jim demanded, puzzled both at Finn’s laugh and the sudden shift of his expression that followed. His hand was unsteady as he set the mug down.

"You have whipped cream on your nose. Here, hold still." Finn released Jim’s hand to cup his jaw and reached for a cocktail napkin with the other, the movements dreamlike, the field of vision narrowed in a head that now fully ached behind the flush of warmth from the coffee. Jim sighed and leaned into Finn's palm.

“Why are you so good?”

The hand stuttered as it approached his face. Unafraid now, he stared into Finn’s eyes, fascinated as the ice swirled into a thunderhead.

“I’m not.”

“But you are. Like sticking up for Spock, I don’t know, it’s like, you’re…” He hiccuped lightly, his train of thought derailed. “Mitch said he’s Barnett’s chicken.”

Finn shrugged and dabbed at Jim’s nose with the napkin. "That may be. I don't know, and I don't care. That's their business. I don't see any problem with their mixing work and pleasure.”

“See, that’s what I mean. I really like, you know, how…fair you are." That wasn’t what he’d meant to say; a little frown touched his forehead as he searched for words that seemed to flow away from him like water. "I think it’s great that you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t, you know, gossip about other people, or cut down other people, like when Mitch was so rude to you and you were fine with it. Even Barnett in that convo…convolation thing you did, you said, I mean. He was laughing, like, not mad at you at all. You can do that, I wish I could. You make people feel good, even though you…”

Finn caught the pause and tilted his head. “Even though I what?”

It occurred to Jim to back off, but, emboldened by the single malt and his own unsatisfied curiosity, he barreled on. “Even though you’d rather be alone, you know, saving yourself, for the monastery.”

A single, sharp bark of laughter, then the crumpled napkin hit the floor. Finn closed the gap between them, tucking his hips in against the bar stool between Jim’s thighs and bringing the other hand up to cradle his jaw lightly between his palms, the gentle smile of amusement at odds with the turbulence of his eyes.

“Is that what you heard?”

“Is it true?”

“Not a bit.”

“So you don’t want to be alone?”

Maybe it was the odd angle of his head, too heavy to hold up now as its full weight rested in the blissful coolness of Finn’s hand, but he thought he saw a shadow pass over the face that still smiled before him. “No. Not any more.”

“Any more…? See, I don’t get that. Why would someone like you ever want that, when there’s so many people who want to be with you?”

The hands on his jaw twitched in alarm. “What?”

“That’s what Gaila said, and I know she’s right, like, it’s like, everyone. Everyone in here,” he stammered, impatient with his own incoherence. “You know, the way everyone looked at you when we came in, like you have this magic or something."

There was no response from Finn in the silence that bobbed between them; he thought he had gone too far. Finally one thumb stroked deliberately across the flush of Jim’s cheekbone. “Baby,” Finn finally breathed, the single word seemingly both endearment and insult, “don’t you know it was you they were looking at?”

Speechless, he watched Finn’s eyes nearing his, blurring and melding into one large pool of grey and black, the cool hands tightening on his jaw as he brought their faces together to remove the last of the whipped cream, a spot in the center of Jim’s upper lip, with the tip of his tongue.

Jim froze at the contact, his mind staggering to a stop at the touch as light and tentative as the alighting of a butterfly, and for a moment he was back home, the sun high overhead, the summer field around him alive with buzzing chirps and whirs, a single unwitting grass skipper flexing its perfect, fragile wings as it rested on the back of his hand. Afraid to startle it back into flight, he drew in one last quiet breath and held it, the bittersweet essence of the bourbon and cream on Finn’s breath stirring something dark below the surface of his befuddled consciousness. And Finn seemed to read something in his stillness, and responded, placing his lips gently over the moist spot he had just created, the kiss as chaste as the celibacy he denied.

The buzz became a drumbeat, his pulse echoing in painful thumps behind his eyes, and Jim found he could hold his breath no longer, his mouth dropping open to exhale as quietly as he could, an apologetic smile curving the lower lip that now slotted itself against Finn’s for support. The movement brought a quick intake of breath, then a groan, from the mouth that suddenly pulled away from his.

“I'm trying, Jim, believe me. I'm trying.

His eyes widened at the strangled whisper, his unspoken question silenced as Finn surged forward to take his mouth again. The hard urgency of his kiss drew a startled gasp from Jim, his own mouth opening beneath the force of it as his head fell backward, his hands reflexively lifting themselves to clutch at Finn’s waist to steady himself, his palms batting at the contours of the hipbones beneath as his fingers grasped nervelessly for purchase on the belt loops of his trousers. He felt Finn’s answering growl, a rumbling purr from deep within his chest as his tongue, delicious and cold from the ice of his drink, swept in to breach the accidental opening and claim everything within. It was like drowning, this struggle against a black airlessness, and he felt his eyes start to roll back, the leaden lids closing against the roar in his ears and relentless pounding in his head. He must have tottered on the stool then, because one of Finn’s hands moved from his face to the back of his head, his other arm wrapping securely around his shoulders to steady him as he backed off slightly, his mouth softening against Jim’s, his tongue now coaxing instead of demanding. It withdrew at Jim’s ragged, needy inhalation and stroked his bottom lip, the gentle arc its own apology.

“I’m sorry. I tried to hold back, go slow with you, but you just wouldn’t let me.”

“I wouldn’t…?” Jim fought to open his eyes; that battle won, he tried to focus them on Finn’s face, his hands locked in a death grip onto Finn’s belt. “I wouldn’t let you do what?”

“Be professional, stay away, leave you alone, act the way I should. All of the above.”

He frowned at the sluggish, infuriating crawl of his brain. “But why would you do…those, uh, those things?”

Finn shook his head, a rueful smile playing on lips tinted pink from the fervor of his kiss a moment before. “I’m your tutor.”

The room had shrunk down, its hubbub now a low, dull roar in the bubble surrounding them. He peered into the darkness beyond that bubble toward where he thought Spock and Barnett were sitting. “But you said you had no problem. Mixing work and pleasure.”

“No problem for them. With you, it’s a different matter.”

“Why?"

Finn’s face before him was a shimmering blur of white and gold; Jim was relieved when he moved it forward to nestle it against the curve of his neck, the fingers of one hand curling to grasp the hair at the back of his head, his other hand sliding down from his shoulders to press against his lower back. He touched the skin of Jim’s throat briefly with his mouth before trailing it upward toward his ear.

“Would you like to come home with me?”

“Home? To…where, where’s that?”

“I have a room just off the green. It’s small but it’s private, I don’t have a roommate. You can stay with me all night if you want. I’ll even make you breakfast.”

The only words that made sense as they percolated thickly through the bubble, smaller now and surrounding only his own persistently buzzing head, were all night.

“I promised Mitch I’d be back at Watson by curfew.”

He felt Finn’s smile touch his ear. “Don’t worry about that, I can take care of curfew for you. Your RA is a friend of mine. He won’t flag you.”

It seemed like too much effort to say no, especially as Jim found he couldn’t recall exactly how to get back to Watson anyway. “What about dinner?”

He snickered at the tickle of Finn’s teeth closing gently around his earlobe in reply, then nibbling their way across the line of his jaw to his bottom lip. “Food can wait,” Finn murmured against his mouth, and at last a ray of comprehension pierced the denseness of the bubble around his brain.

“Oh, you want…you want to have sex with me?” The snicker turned into an open laugh as he pulled away from Finn’s answering nod. “You want to be my chicken?”

Finn’s eyes softened as he angled his head, his lips twitching with amusement. “I don’t think you’re using that word quite right. But, yes.”

“But how are we going to do that? Unless you have, you know, a vagina.” Jim snorted at the comical picture in his head, his hands tugging at Finn’s belt, pulling him back in. “Tell me, do you? Have one of those?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Finn’s mouth sought his again, gently this time. “But you’re welcome to look for one.”

That sounded like a challenge. Jim let one hand fall off of Finn’s waist to slide clumsily down the front of his hip, his fingers finding and fluttering over the erection that twitched in response. He felt Finn’s breath catch in his throat and broke the kiss with a shaky laugh.

“Guess we’re out of luck.”

“We’ll think of something.” Finn covered Jim’s hand with one of his own and pressed it tightly against him, the quickening rhythm of his pulse hard against Jim’s palm. “Will you come with me?”

The smile on his face didn’t quite mask the plea in his eyes; Jim’s muddled brain couldn’t generate any reason to reject it. “Okay, sure.” He shifted on the stool, wincing slightly at the sudden twist in his gut. “I just need to go to the bathroom first.”

The touch of Finn’s mouth on his forehead was like a promise. “I’ll settle up here and meet you outside.”

Twisting off the bar stool onto the floor was easier than he thought it would be but still nearly disastrous. He gripped the seat for a moment and waited for an equilibrium that stubbornly evaded him, grateful that Finn had turned toward the bartender and thus missed his graceless dismount, before lurching unsteadily toward the lighted RESTROOMS sign and the entrance to the dark hallway below. Three nearly identical doors confronted him there; he froze in bewilderment, the unhelpful pictographs swimming giddily in front of his eyes as he strained in the dim light to determine which one was the men’s room. Deafened by the ceaseless beat of the dance music, he sensed rather than heard someone approach him from behind and had the thought that he should make way.

“’Scuse me,” he said as he swayed away from the stranger, the muttered words ending in a “Hey!” of surprise as a firm hand gripped his left shoulder to spin him around. He didn’t need to strain now to recognize the black eyes that burned into his, the mouth below them compressed into a tight frown that he might have guessed, had he not already known Spock to be incapable of emotion, to be one of rage.




 

 


 


 

 

The Plebe, Chapter 9
Debriefing -- A Game of Chess -- Mitch Reads a Book




“How was your weekend, boys?”

The innocent question from Gaila was met with a smirk and a toss of Mitchell's dark head. “Fucking awesome, if you like buying old shit nobody wants anymore.”

She put her bag down and settled into her seat, her sidelong glance at once teasing and mildly wounded. “You went shopping? And you didn’t ask me to come along?”

He went shopping. For antique crap. Baby girl, you should be thanking me that you weren't there. It was awful.”

Jim forced a smile through the familiar flush of defensiveness; Saturday’s pleasure of digging through the endless stacks of old books with Finn had been tempered by Mitchell’s hovering over them like some dour duenna. “You didn’t have to come," he said in what he hoped was an even tone. "I told you you wouldn’t like it.”

"Ah, hell no. Wouldn't have missed it for the world." He reached into his own bag and pulled out a battered, old-style paperback book. "How else would I have found this gem?"

Gaila plucked the book from Mitchell's hand, a moue of distaste on her face at its stale odor. "Jungle King Tar-chan. Really, Mitch?" she accused as she squinted at the cover. "An old cartoon book?"

"Yeah, but check out the middle. My man is getting head from a fucking chimp." He cackled with delight as Gaila flipped through its pages to inspect the bawdy centerfold for a moment before tossing the book onto the table with mild contempt. "Speaking of old shit nobody wants anymore," she sniffed as she took her seat, "you could at least have found something a little less tasteless. And smelly."

"Describes him perfectly." Nyota had come up behind Mitchell who now twisted in his seat to greet her with an awkward hug, his face burrowing happily into the side of her right breast. She smiled at Jim over the top of Mitchell's head and nodded at the bag that rested on the table next to him, its sides bulging more than usual. "Did you have better luck?"

"Oh yeah," Mitchell interrupted, his voice muffled by the soft flesh. "He got lucky all right."

She disentangled herself from Mitchell's embrace to seat herself next to Jim, her voice playful as she pulled out her PADD. "Really? Do tell!"

"He's just being a jerk." He tried to ignore Mitchell's poorly suppressed snicker. "Nothing happened."

Across the table, Gaila stared at him with guileless interest. "Nothing happened with who?"

"Whom," Nyota responded automatically, but her eyes were on Jim. "Nothing happened with whom? Tella?"

"No, God no. We just got a few books, that's all. It doesn't mean anything."

"'We...?!'"

The single word hung in the air between them, its unison utterance matched by the eager inquiry on both female faces. Mitchell leaned back in his chair, arms folded, and watched Jim's silent struggle with an almost ferocious glee before answering for him.

"Our boy," he announced, "has reeled in the biggest fish in our little pond." He paused to ensure that every eye at the table was fixed on him before continuing. "Mr. Finnegan himself, Cadet First Class. Got him trailing around like a bitch in heat."

"You mean, Finn? But he..." The look on Gaila's face as she stared at Jim was now one of mild shock.

Nyota nodded at her in understanding before turning back toward Jim, concern evident in the eyes that now inspected his flushed countenance. "Is that true? Finn's interested in you?"

Their own level of interest was beyond uncomfortable; Jim dropped his gaze to his hands and folded them together to keep from nervously picking at the callus on his palm. "No. He's just my tutor. We went out looking for books, that's all."

"My ass." Mitchell heaved forward to reach for Jim's bag and upend it. "Look at all this shit he bought him."

Jim gritted his teeth as several volumes spilled out onto the table, the clatter of the slide rule jarring in the sudden silence as it fell with them. The shock deepened on Gaila's face. "There must be...this must have cost a lot," she said at last, the eyes that she raised to Jim's wide with disbelief.

"Especially this." Nyota's slender fingers plucked the slide rule out of the jumble of books; she handed it back to Jim, her expression gentle but steady in its questioning as she swiveled in her chair to face him. "He must think a lot of you."

Gaila's chair rattled as she began to bounce with excitement, her hand gripping Mitchell's forearm. "Oh my God, Jim" she breathed, her blue eyes even wider, "you are so lucky."

"Luck has nothing to do with it," Mitchell pronounced as he leaned back again, his glib cheer grating in Jim's ear. "He bats those pretty eyes and Finn rolls over. It's fucking brilliant."

Nyota frowned at his needling. "Don't be an ass," she snapped at him over her shoulder, her eyes not leaving Jim's face. "You need to be careful," she said, her tone intense despite its softness. "Finn's not..."

"Please excuse the interruption."

The women started as Mitchell rocked forward abruptly to straighten in his seat; none of them had sensed Spock's approach. Jim's fingers tightened on the slide rule.

"Cadet Kirk. Perhaps you will be so kind as to accompany me to my office immediately following today's class."

It occurred to Jim that the worst thing about having an emotionless Vulcan for an instructor was the utter lack of concern about embarrassing him in front of his classmates. The best thing was that he didn’t appear, from the smooth serenity of his tone, to hold a grudge over the acrimony of their last meeting. He managed a smile and nodded up at Spock, ignoring the curious eyes that had all swiveled to goggle at him and their instructor.

“Sure, no problem.”


***



“I have a prior engagement after class on Wednesday. I trust it does not inconvenience you unduly to meet today instead.”

It must have been the cooler fall weather, Jim thought, or perhaps the required compulsory physical conditioning unit that Mitchell, in moments of sarcastic exhaustion, referred to as Phys Dead. Whatever the reason, it was noticeably easier to keep up with Spock's efficient strides as they proceeded across the campus toward the library annex after class. He was pleased that he could answer without panting.

"No, it's fine."

It was indeed no inconvenience; Jim had already made plans to meet up with Finn Wednesday afternoon to celebrate what they predicted would be solid success on that day's exam. A twinge of guilt accompanied the silent acknowledgment that he would prefer, having made no further progress toward identifying any persons of interest as potential Klingon operatives, not to spend the hour beforehand in uncomfortable silence in Spock's tiny office merely to keep up the appearance of a weekly tutorial.

That Spock too might find their time together tedious had never occurred to him until Spock opened his office door, gesturing for Jim to enter in front of him. The room was so spare that it was easy to recognize the smallest change to its decor, in this case the fact that Spock's computer had been pushed to one side of his narrow desk to accommodate the central placement of a familiar object.

"A chess board!"

"Indeed." Spock motioned for Jim to take the side chair as he poured him a cup of coffee from the freshly brewed pot, placing it by the ranks of white pieces before attending to his own cup of tea. He took his seat across the desk and watched Jim examine the figures for a moment before continuing.

"The board itself is 21st century Earth, crafted in the Italian region of Old Europe. It was my mother's; she had a fondness for vintage items such as this. The matching pieces were lost, so my father commissioned a new set that represents figures from Vulcan history." One thin finger brushed lightly over a pawn, a fierce-looking male warrior brandishing a shovel-like weapon. "Do you play?"

He could see the motes of hay dust swirling lazily in the slanting beams of sunlight that breached the high shuttered windows to escape, as they had, from the heat of the afternoon outside, could feel the trickle of sweat down the front of his neck as he frowned at the yellowed synthetic pieces perched on the edge of Sam's side of the board, a carefully arranged taunt. Come on, dumbass, Sam had muttered, eager to finish him off, move already. He shook his head.

"No, not really. I mean, I know the goal and how the pieces are supposed to move, but I never learned any real strategy."

"I daresay you will find that experience is the best teacher." Spock unclasped one hand from his tea cup to gesture at Jim's side of the board. "Please."

Jim hesitated briefly -- Pawn's first move, one or two-ve, Sam laughed -- before moving his queen's shovel-wielding pawn two spaces forward to begin the game. Spock's unhurried counter with the exact same move, one that allowed the easy capture of the black pawn, planted a seed of bewilderment in Jim's mind that bloomed a few moves later into the unsatisfying certainty that Spock was setting him up to win.

Maybe he's never actually played. Or he thinks I haven't. Jim's bemusement grew as Spock either ignored or failed to recognize his pawn's dogged march down the board in favor of maneuvering his own rook to take Jim's queen. But Jim had already calculated that the king would fall to him unless Spock changed tack to defend it. Which he did not.

There was no response to the threat of his untouched pawn as it finally reached Spock's second rank to rest directly in front of his king's bishop, nor to his tentative murmur of "Check," other than the advance of the queen's rook to the open file, a move that caused Jim to chew the inside of one cheek in consternation. He leaned back and gestured at the largely undisturbed ranks of pieces.

"I can just take your king now, so I win. Right?"

He expected a raised eyebrow of surprise, perhaps a grudging acknowledgment of defeat. But Spock's response was coolly placid.

“Indeed, not. Your last move has in fact ceded the game to me.”

"Why?" More argumentative than he intended, he realized too late, but Spock was unruffled.

"You see with your eyes, but you do not perceive with your mind. Look carefully."

There wasn't much to look at. "I'm sorry, but I don't see that I've missed anything."

Spock clasped both hands around his tea cup and leaned back in his chair. “You have made three errors. The first of these is that you were single-minded in your pursuit of my king to the extent that you did not attend to the protection of your own. Observe my next move." He swept his rook down the board and captured the white queen, enfolding it deftly in his fingers as he released the rook to replace it. "Chess requires a certain amount of four-dimensional thinking, the anticipation of myriad possibilities that unfold with the movement of each piece. One cannot merely attack without considering the outcome of one's failure to defend."

"But I'm only sacrificing one piece," Jim protested. "If you didn't move your king, I'd take it on the next move and win, so losing my queen doesn't matter."

"On the contrary, it matters immensely. That is your second error. By opening his rank, you have just lost your king, not your queen." He released the white piece to his side of the board but kept one finger lightly resting upon its base. "And the quarry that you have been so relentlessly pursuing throughout this game is in fact my queen."

Surely he couldn't have been mistaken about such a simple identification. Jim felt the prickle of anxious perspiration on his scalp as he peered closely at the pieces. The figure that Spock's finger now rested upon bore neither weaponry nor ferocity but rather an ornate scroll and a placid, almost contemplative, expression on a face crowned with an elaborately coiffed head of hair.

"But...I mean, I'm not an expert on Vulcan dress and whatnot, but this looks very much like a woman to me."

"It is. Vulcan society has a strong matriarchal tradition; the metalsmith who crafted these pieces honored that tradition by making the king female. A feminine figure, true, but fulfilling the king's role nonetheless."

A spike of familiar resentment at Spock's condescension pierced the confusion. "Well, I don't know how I was supposed to know that," he replied truculently,  "You could have told me."

Spock took a sip of his tea, his eyes on Jim's over the rim of the cup. "You could have divined that fact for yourself," he remarked. "Look at your own pieces. On what color did your king reside?"

He shifted his eyes away from Spock's hand to the square his rook now rested upon. "Black."

"And your queen?"

"White."

"Just so. My rank is the opposite. My queen begins the game on a black square." Spock leaned back, his hands with the half-empty cup between them lowering to his lap. "You can see that the king's identity was plainly before you, had you taken care to examine the board at the start. The queen is always true to her own color. It is the king who is false."

The inside of his cheek was a salty pulp. "What was the third mistake?"

The dark head inclined toward him, eyes lowered, in a gesture that resembled an apology before he raised his eyes once again to Jim's. "You were aware, were you not, that the contest appeared too elementary. You were correct on that score but did not attend to your own misgivings.  Your third error was in not examining your own suspicions more carefully; had you done so, you doubtless would have discovered the existence of the first two."
 

 

***

 


Sleep usually came easily to Jim, the deep, unguarded slumber of the young reinforced by years of rising before dawn. But it eluded him that night as his thoughts refused to settle, flooding his mind instead with visions of the chess games they had played over the course of nearly two hours in Spock's office, each of the three games that followed the initial failure presenting itself to him again for an unprompted analysis. The last of these had ended, as had the three before it, with his own king in checkmate, but not until each side had been decimated by the other, the field of play barren, the desktop beside it littered with captured pieces of both colors. Spock had, finally, raised that eyebrow.

"Had I known that you would be such an apt pupil, I should never have engaged you in play," he had said as he began to remove the pieces to the safety of their box. "I fear the next encounter would result in my defeat and must therefore devise some other enterprise for our next meeting."

Jim smiled at the recollection of the tiny quirk of the corner of Spock's mouth that had accompanied his unexpected glint of humor, his version of laughter now aimed at himself. It wasn't just the memories of that afternoon that now prevented him from sleeping, he realized; it was also a surprising urge to spring out of bed, activate the selfishly sleeping computer terminal on the small desk opposite, and research technique and strategy, maybe even play against the computer. But a live opponent on which to practice would be preferable.

He rolled over onto his stomach, his face half-buried in the pillow as he looked across the darkness of their narrow room to where Mitchell lay, his body disdaining its habitual sprawl to huddle beneath the blankets, his normally even snoring now an odd stutter. It took Jim a few minutes to recognize that sound as suppressed laughter; the occasional flash of light that penetrated the fabric of his sheets confirmed that, for the first time that semester, and perhaps ever, his roommate was reading in bed.

"Mitch, do you play chess?"

The covers were flung back to reveal Mitchell, the third of six volumes of the redoubtable Jungle King Tar-Chan in one hand, the gentle glow of his open communicator in the other.  He fixed Jim with a glare that pierced the dark.

"Fuck no, I'm not into that longhair shit. Go ask your boyfriend. And don't tell me he's not," he went on, sensing Jim's unspoken protest, "because he sure as fuck thinks he is, whatever you say."

Jim fought back the urge to sigh. "What about what I say?"

"God, you're an idiot. The guy's crazy about you and everyone knows it but you. Figure out if you like him back and either make it official or cut him loose." Mitchell flipped onto his back and aimed the communicator back at his book to illuminate the pages, the conversation plainly over in his mind.

The images of prancing chess pieces were replaced by a pair of smoke-grey eyes and a wide grin of triumph as Finn held up the volume of Seneca he had found among the stacks of ancient books. Here, he had said, pressing the book into Jim's hand, I think this is something you'd like.

"What did they mean, the girls, when they were talking about him in class today? Nyota said I had to be careful, but she didn't say why."

A snort of exasperation accompanied the sound of the book and communicator hitting the bed as Mitch tossed them aside to roll over and peer at Jim across the space that separated their bunks. "I don't know, dumbfuck, I don't have any goddamned ESP. All I know is what everyone knows about Finn. Model citizen and all that. Beats me why he's into you, but he is, and you're gonna have to deal with that sooner or later, because I can't be shadowing you on every date to make sure you don't get raped in the ass."

Jim was glad of the darkness that hid his flush of anger. "I didn't ask you to shadow me. And they're not dates."

"You just don't get it, do you?" Mitchell's tone surprised him with its own temper. "Look, maybe he's a good guy and maybe he's not, but either way, you're playing him for a sucker. As far as he knows, you do have a date on Wednesday, and you're gonna have to set him straight if that's not what you think too. Now go the fuck to sleep and let me read." He rolled away from Jim, his back a rounded barricade against the light that shone again under the blankets he pulled firmly back over his head.

The pleasure of seeing Finn again in a few days was mitigated by his own uncertainty at Mitchell's directive. Jim pressed his entire face into his pillow, blocking out the bluish glow of Mitchell's communicator as he forced himself to envision the two of them on a date, Finn's hand reaching for his in affection, his arm reaching down to wrap itself around Jim's waist. But the image refused to form as the tall pale figure blurred and split into two dark ones, Barnett's arm now around Spock's waist, his hand first resting on Spock's hip, then dropping lower to the upper thigh before slowly sweeping back to brush one buttock over the black robes that covered it.

You see with your eyes, but you do not perceive with your mind.

The queen remains true to her color. It is the king who is false.

Attend to your own misgivings.

It came to him then, his eyes snapping open against the warmth of the pillowcase, his waking gasp of realization eliciting an irritated grunt from across the narrow room.

"Easy there, Master Bator. Settle down."

"Just dreaming. Sorry." He turned onto his side to face the wall and forced his breathing to slow.

He's known all along he's been trying to tell me it's the king who is false the king

It's Barnett



 

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The Plebe, Chapter 8
Convocation -- The Gift



Classes were canceled the day of convocation, a morning so bright and crisp that Jim might have been tempted, were Nyota not speaking at the event, to skip them anyway and wander around the campus, or maybe off campus if he dared, to find a shady patch of ground with a tree trunk or rock to prop his back upon and lose himself in a book. As the interminable speeches interspersed with brief periods of diffident applause dragged on into late morning, he wished more and more that he had dared to do just that. Beside him, Mitchell telegraphed the same sentiment with his incessant, restless squirming.

“Goddamned fucking waste of time,” he muttered. “They should have just given us the day off. Fucking asswit parade.”

Jim muffled his snort of laughter with one hand and squinted at the speaker now on the podium several meters ahead, a gangly dark woman with impeccably styled hair. “What does a provost do, anyway?”

“Fuck if I know.” Mitchell shifted again to cross his legs, ankle to knee, and nodded at the officers seated under the commandant’s tent. “Probably get paid to suck Barnett’s dick, same as the rest of those slappies.”

The tone of the ceremony thus far was indeed self-congratulatory, Barnett’s opening speech in particular exuding a preening quality that Jim found faintly embarrassing. But he still felt a pique of defensiveness at Mitchell’s words as his gaze traveled down the row of speakers to where Pike was sitting patiently at the end. “They don’t all do that,” he whispered.

“Keep your panties on,” Mitchell shot back. “It’s just a joke. Far as I know, Spock’s got that job all to himself.”

“What job?”

“Don’t you know? He’s Barnett’s chicken. That’s the rumor, anyway.”

“Oh.”

The beauty of the fall morning dimmed. Jim digested the information in silence, unsure if he felt surprise at the news; it certainly seemed plausible, he thought as he recalled each time he’d seen Barnett and Spock together. He watched Barnett, seated in the shaded comfort of his tent and beaming fatuously as he applauded the end of the provost’s speech, and wondered why it should even matter to him. It took Mitchell’s elbow in his side to jolt him from his brooding.

“Look, man. Your boyfriend’s gonna speak.”

Even at this distance, it was easy to spot the pale blond ponytail beneath the cap that Finn now removed to lay it on the lectern as he began his speech. Jim watched for a few moments before remembering to protest Mitchell’s assessment of their relationship.

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“No? Well, for a guy who’s not your boyfriend, he sure as fuck is keeping you out late.”

“No he’s…what?” Jim shifted his gaze from Finn to search Mitchell’s face, startled at the grim scrutiny he found there; an uncomfortable flush followed a few seconds later as he realized not only that he had not explained the recent spate of evenings away from their dorm room, it had never even occurred to him that Mitch would notice. “I haven’t been with Finn,” he protested. “This is the first time I’ve even seen him in a week.”

“Yeah?” Mitchell’s face closed into a mask. “So he’s not the one who rearranged your face?”

The flush deepened. “No, I told you, I fell.” His dismay worsened at the defensiveness he heard in his own voice. “Why would you think Finn hurt me? He wouldn’t do that.”

Mitchell leaned toward Jim to tick each sentence off with his fingers, his hushed voice intense. “A string of late nights, you sneaking in just before curfew, zero explanation. Then one night you stagger in all beat to hell, marks all over you, very down-low, no one saying shit except for some weak as fuck excuses. After that, boom, no more sneaking out, you’re back to your farmboy hours, in bed by 2100 and up by 0400 like nothing ever happened. So unless you’ve been turning tricks behind the mess hall, my money says you two were hooking up, things got out of hand, he roughed you up, and now you’re laying low.”

It made sense. Jim was discomfited into silence by what he had to admit, given his own secrecy in the matter, was a logical deduction on his roommate’s part. He watched Finn speak for a few unseeing moments longer before turning back to meet Mitchell’s tense gaze.

“Mitch, I swear to you. I wasn’t seeing Finn those nights. All I was doing was working, on a…project. And now it’s over; I’d finished it up the same night that I tripped and fell on my way back here. Finn had nothing to do with it.” It was a good story, he thought, and essentially true, but something in him broke at not being completely honest with his friend. “He’s my tutor, that’s all.”

“Whatever. But you’re meeting up tonight, right?”

On the podium ahead, Finn was recounting a self-deprecating tale of an early misadventure as a fourth-class cadet; Jim waited for the gentle laughter from the audience before responding. “Yeah. In the library.”

“Ooh, very romantic. Just you and him and a bunch of moldy books.” The familiar bantering was tempered by Mitchell’s expression, still hard even as his body seemed to relax, his arms folding easily as he uncrossed and recrossed his legs to wag one foot at Jim. “Are you gonna tell Gaila?”

The irritation of Mitchell’s innuendo was preferable to the glum guilt of his own thoughts; he gladly rose to the bait. “Don’t be weird. There’s nothing to tell.”

“You keep bullshitting yourself and it’s gonna backfire on you. Just wait.”

“I’m not…”

A quick glance at Mitchell’s face showed him that the teasing was only superficial; the protest died on Jim’s lips at the sight of the normally warm brown eyes now stony with suspicion and hurt. Jim retreated back into silence, the only sound between them the ceaseless chuk-chuk-chuk of Mitchell’s impatiently jiggling boot, and forced himself to focus on the ceremony. Finn’s address had been a welcome change from the smugness of the speakers before him, refreshingly candid in the gentle fun he poked at the Academy and its leadership; the applause that now followed from cadets and officers alike was genuine rather than perfunctory, and even Barnett, the butt of some of the most daringly pointed anecdotes, laughed and clapped enthusiastically as he rose to slap Finn’s back and shake his hand. Nyota’s remarks followed, her contribution flawless and polished without being stiff, and Jim felt his spirits rise further with each successive speaker. By the time Pike had completed the closing remarks to officially conclude the ceremony, Jim was able to offer an unfeigned smile at Mitchell’s rousing shove.

“Thank God that’s over.” Mitchell yawned ostentatiously as he stood and stretched, his own mood apparently lightened as well. “Let’s get the fuck out of here, get some lunch, and hit the gym before your big date.”

“It’s not a…oh, no.” The smile quickly dissolved as Jim stood too and immediately spotted the unmistakable figure of Tella Kottke striding toward them through the dispersing crowd, Gaila and Nyota just ahead of her.

“What is it?”

“A girl I don’t want to talk to,” Jim answered miserably. Caught between the truth he couldn’t tell and Gaila’s creative lie, he waited numbly as they approached, searching the smoothness of Nyota’s face for some hint as to what was to come but finding none. He hoped that was a good sign but acknowledged to himself, as the unwanted image of Tella’s bare back and rolling hips flitted again through his mind, that he was pretty likely screwed.

He braced himself for the jibe to come, but beside him, Mitchell was unexpectedly, blessedly silent as Gaila reached his side to enfold him in a hug. “Wasn’t her speech the best?” She kissed Mitchell’s cheek and released him to take Jim’s arm. “She practiced all night long.”

Nyota’s stifled yawn confirmed Gaila’s statement. “Not all night, but most of it. I’m ready for a long nap.” She gestured toward Tella and pulled her forward. “Tella, you remember Jim,” she said with no trace of archness. “This is his roommate. Mitch, this is Tella Kottke.”

The hand that Tella offered Mitch was firm to the point of rigidity, but her expression softened when she turned to Jim with an uncertain smile.

“Jim. I’m so…” She paused briefly before reaching out unexpectedly to brush Jim’s fingers with her own. “I hope you’re doing all right.”

It was not the greeting he expected. He let her take his hand, mystified as she pressed it warmly between both of hers, the gesture intimate, almost fond. Mitchell gawked openly, his gaze flicking back and forth between Jim’s face and Tella’s as she frowned with regret at the bruise beneath his eye, its blackness fading to an ugly green.

“I wanted to say…I’m sorry, you know, about the other night.” She punctuated her apology with another squeeze of her hands on his. “And to let you know that…” She hesitated as she searched for words, then seemed to give up, the rest coming in a rush. “Look, I’m choosing to be with Bruce right now, but if things change, I’ll let you know. I’d like to, I mean, I’d be more than happy to get to know you better.” She clung to his hand, eyes downcast, flustered into silence.

Jim couldn’t help but respond to Tella’s obvious discomfort despite his own growing confusion. “Thank you, uh, for that. I guess I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to…I mean, I wasn’t trying to…you know…”

“It’s all right.” She looked up and smiled again, then dropped his hand, stepping back to where Nyota was waiting to take her arm. “We’re headed over to mess if you, both of you, would care to join us.”

He knew he owed her a yes. “Definitely. We’ll, uh, definitely be there.”

Most definitely. Ladies.” The delight in Mitchell’s voice was plain as the women turned to go; he barely contained himself until the pair was out of earshot before turning to Jim in jubilant accusation. “What the fuck was that all about?”

“I don’t…I don’t know, honestly.” Unsure if he really wanted enlightenment, he looked down questioningly at Gaila, still clinging to his biceps. She smiled slightly and raised her lips to his ear confidingly.

“Nyota told her that you were asking about her, that day on the green when she got hit with that disc. We put two and two together after you showed up outside her window at Shen the other night.”

“Two and two…” A horrible suspicion flared in Jim’s gut. “Wait, you can’t mean…you don’t think…”

“Mm hmm. But I forgive you.”

“You told her I liked her?”

Beside him, Mitchell guffawed at the crimson evidence of his mortification. Gaila pointedly ignored the mocking laugh as she nipped at Jim’s earlobe, the touch sending an unexpected shiver of pleasure forking down his spine.

“It’s the only logical explanation. But don’t forget,” she warned as she tapped his sternum with one finger. “When you’re over your little crush on her, you’ll be coming back to me.”

She pulled away from him, her expression one of feigned severity as she moved away from him to follow her friends. He turned to find Mitchell staring at him with the lingering derision he expected mingled with a disappointment he did not.

“So the other night, when you fell while working on your project,” he drawled, “whose fist did your face hit on the way down?”

Jim didn’t have the will to lie any longer. “Her — Tella’s — boyfriend. More like big-man-friend, really.”

“You know they’ll kick your ass out of here for that shit.”

“I didn’t fight him. He got the one punch in and it was pretty much over.”

Mitchell shook his head, his expression unusually serious. “I gotta tell you, I’m pissed at you. Gaila’s a good girl. You don’t need to do her like that.”

“I’m not doing her. I mean, I’m not doing anything to anyone. I don’t even like Tella.”

“But you’re following her around campus? Getting your ass whupped by the jealous boyfriend?” Mitchell’s voice telegraphed all the disbelief Jim knew he deserved. “Doesn’t add up, brah.”

“I’m not…” Jim blew out a breath, weary of skirting the truth. “It was a total misunderstanding. I swear to you, I don’t like her.”

Mitchell raised his eyebrows and gestured with a tilt of his chin at a point behind Jim, his expression still skeptical. “Here comes someone else who’ll be happy to hear that.”

“Jim!”

He turned at the sound of his name to see Finn striding eagerly toward them, cap in hand, the open smile fading into bewilderment as his eyes darted over Jim’s face, dove grey hardening into a metallic glitter as they came to rest at last on his left cheekbone. His neck prickled at the sight of Finn’s gaze shifting deliberately from his face to Mitchell’s in silent accusation.

Mitchell shrugged with casual defiance. “Down, boy. It wasn’t me.” His own eyes were darkly flat as they looked Finn up and down. “Good thing it wasn’t you either.”

Jim shifted uncomfortably as Finn reached for Mitchell’s hand, the motion smooth and reflexive from years of Academy protocol training, the silvery eyes never leaving his face. “I apologize; that was rude of me. I’m Ben Finnegan, Jim’s tutor. You must be Mitch.”

“Yeah.” The greeting was brief to the point of rudeness, Mitchell dropping the proffered hand almost immediately to fold his arms across his chest. “About that. You making any progress? ‘Cause I’m not crazy about my boy throwing his money down the shitter to get 50’s on Spock’s tests.”

A touch of pink washed across Finn’s cheeks. “He’s not paying me,” he replied, his voice stiff at the affront. “I offered to help. That’s all I want to do.”

“Help, huh. Mm hmm.” Mitchell was impassive. “You usually help people on Friday nights?”

“If I can." Finn raised his chin. "I work after class at Medical, so I don’t have a lot of free time in the evenings except for Fridays.”

“And a player like you has nothing better to do? How the fuck does that happen?”

Jim’s chest contracted in distress at Mitchell’s insolence, but Finn just smiled tightly. “I don’t have much of a social life. If I have free time, I spend it either working on my capstone project or tinkering with a few side projects. I’m trying to develop algorithms for holographic combat and tactics.”

“Holographic combat…?” Mitchell frowned. “What are you, some kind of jacked-up gamer?”

The taut smile widened into a wolfish grin. “All day long. Hard core.”

Mitchell’s barking laugh was as loud as it was unexpected, the coordinated blow to Jim’s back carefully placed between the shoulder blades to avoid the still-tender scrape.

“There you go. Fucking told you so.”

 

***

 

Jim scanned his final answer for errors, then looked up expectantly at Finn, who nodded and tapped the chronometer.

“That’s twenty-two minutes, from start to finish. How does your hand feel?”

“Good. It feels good.” He dropped the stylus and rubbed his left wrist experimentally. “I don’t even feel anything. Like I could go on for another couple of hours.”

“Let me see.”

Jim passed the PADD across the library table and watched as Finn scanned it, the grey eyes now calmed as they darted from side to side. “Huh,” he breathed after a minute. “It’s perfect. Even all the units. And you’ve got lots of time to spare.” He slid the PADD toward Jim and leaned back in his chair, arms folded. “You’re ready for that test, and the exam, and anything else Spock has up his sleeve. So I guess you don’t need me anymore.” One white-gold eyebrow arched with irony. “You can stop throwing your money down the shitter.”

It was the first reference Finn had made that evening to the earlier encounter with Mitchell, and Jim was glad for the chance to smooth over the incident.”Look, about Mitch…”

“Don’t worry about it.” Finn dismissed Jim’s worry with a wave of his hand as he reached for his shoulder bag. “Your roommate doesn’t like me much, and I’m okay with that. Can’t please everyone.”

“Sure he does, he’s just kind of…rough around the edges, I guess. I don’t know.”

“I do. He’s protective. And that’s a good thing, because you’re worth protecting.” Finn smiled ruefully at the bruising around Jim’s eye. “And you have to admit he has a point. Looks like you could have used someone to stick up for you. No, that’s all right,” he added quickly as Jim opened his mouth to answer, “you don’t have to tell me what happened. Just promise me you’ll be more careful. The Academy can be a rough place.”

Jim nodded in relief, the weight of another falsehood removed before it had even settled on his heart. “I will. Thanks.”

“Good.” Finn reached into his bag. “Here, I brought something for you.”

The flat, rectangular object Finn pulled out and handed over was completely unfamiliar; Jim peered closely at it as he ran his fingers over its smooth surface. “What is it?”

“It’s called a slide rule. Found it in an antique shop the other day.”

“All these numbers…what does it do? Is it a computer?”

“Yeah, analog. Sort of like an abacus, but for higher order calculations.” Finn’s face broke into a sheepish grin. “I didn’t know that when I found it; I thought it was some weird kind of ruler. The guy at the store had to tell me what it was.”

Jim was too engrossed in his exploration of the device to notice the crinkle of pleasure around Finn’s eyes as he watched his fingers push the slide back and forth. “This is pretty fun. How does it work?”

“You line up the numbers you want to enter by moving the sliding parts and reading the answer off the scale.” His smile widened at Jim’s growing delight. “I knew you’d like it. It made me think of you, the way your brain works, you know, the push out and the pull back, when you do your mental iterations. This kind of does the same thing.”

“Yeah, it does! Show me how to use it.”

“All right, think of a math statement.”

“Uh, one plus one.”

“Has to be harder than that; it doesn’t add and subtract. Time was, people were expected to do that for themselves. Try something else.”

“E 20.”

Finn laughed. “Okay, too hard for me. I’m just learning too. I had to dig up a manual on the net just to figure out how to use it. Something easier.”

“Two times three.”

“Good. Now push on that middle piece, the one that slides…push it over to where the one on that C scale is over the two on the D scale…no, not the second one, the first one.”

Jim frowned at the cluster of numerals and tick marks. “What do the C and D mean? And why are there two ones?”

“To answer your first question, I honestly don’t know, but we could ask the guy I bought it from. The two ones are because it’s logarithmic. Just look at the C scale, C1, it’s the one on the bottom of the slide…oh, here.” Finn rose and moved around Jim to lean over him from behind. “Let me show you. I can’t read it upside down.” He aligned their arms, reaching forward to cover Jim’s hands with his own, his chest grazing his shoulder blades as his breath stirred the little hairs on the back of Jim’s neck. His fingers on Jim’s were a steady, cool pressure. “Push the slide over until this first one is over the two down here...Now slide this little piece until the hairline is over the three on the C scale, and you follow that line down to read the answer off the D scale.”

Jim felt his own eyes widen in disbelief as they tracked up the hairline to find it resting on one of the numerous 6’s on the scale. “It worked!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty neat. It’s not as precise as you; best it can do is one or two significant figures. It’s amazing humans went into space using these little things to do their calculations for them.”

Jim’s eyes were shining as he twisted his neck to look at Finn behind him. “I love it, I really do.”

“I’m glad. I…” Finn looked as though he were going to say something else, then changed his mind. “I was thinking that you could use it in class, to help speed you up. For the team exercises.” He removed his hands and straightened to move back to the other side of the table and take his seat. “Mr. Spock wants to see your work, but you don’t use the terminal’s calculator like everyone else, so he can’t track your process. Maybe if he saw that you were using a different computer, he’d give you credit, even if you can’t log the keystrokes. At least maybe you wouldn’t have to write every single thing down.”

The vision of himself expertly utilizing the ancient tool under Spock’s approving gaze dissolved as Jim turned it over in his hands, noting the cracks and discolorations in its yellowing polymer. “I don’t know,” he hedged, trying to dampen his own enthusiasm. “I’d hate to break it by using it. It’s got to be really expensive, as old as it is.” He pushed the slide back to nestle between the fixed rules and offered it to Finn, who held his hands up in refusal.

“No, it’s yours. I think whoever made it would be happy if you’d use it.” His eyes dropped for a moment, veiled behind the dense white lashes, before flicking back upward to meet Jim’s. “I thought of you the second I saw it. You like old things, don’t you?”

Jim struggled to recall when he had revealed that detail about himself. “How did you know that?”

The sheepish smile returned. “I used my mad psych skills to analyze you. That, and I saw the books.” Finn nodded at the volumes visible through the opening of Jim’s shoulder bag. “Come antiquing with me this weekend and we’ll find you some more.”

“I’d like that.” Jim felt his own face warm with the pleasure of anticipation and tried to force it down. “But I don’t think I can afford it. I don’t have much to last me through the rest of the semester, and I can’t blow it all on books.”

“It’ll be my treat. No, listen,” Finn continued over the objection he saw blooming on Jim’s face, “let me do this. I don’t need any mad psych skills to know you’ve been taking care of yourself for a long time, but you can relax and let someone else take care of you now and then, right? It’s just a couple of books.”

The combined appeal of those pleading grey eyes with the prospect of adding to his small collection was irresistible; despite the niggle of guilt at his own selfishness, he heard himself agree. “All right. But only a couple.”

Finn beamed triumphantly as he rose and pulled his bag onto his shoulder. “Excellent. It’s a date. And bring your roommate too.”

Jim had bent down to stuff the PADD into his own bag but froze at Finn’s words to look up at him in confusion. “Mitch?” he frowned, shrinking from the prospect of an afternoon filled with confrontation. “But you…I mean…I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who uses ‘antique’ as a verb,” he finished lamely.

Finn’s voice was serious through the benign smile. “Agreed. But he’ll mistrust me until he thinks he doesn’t have to anymore. And the sooner we get to that point, the better off we’ll be. All of us.”


 

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The Plebe, Chapter 6
Back from the Brink -- Finn's Stroke of Insight




The figurative ink of Dr. McCoy’s signature was still wet on Gary Mitchell’s discharge order from Medical when he bounded triumphantly into the astrophysics classroom the following Friday, only to pull up short at a most interesting tableau: Jim digging a small bundle of what looked like feminine clothing out of his shoulder bag and handing it to Gaila, who promptly squealed and threw her arms around his neck in an energetic hug while Nyota sat facing slightly away from them, her lips pressed together as she packed up her own bag.

Gaila shrieked again, and louder, when she caught sight of him. “Mitch!” She disengaged from Jim as he approached their table and reached out to pull him into her embrace, her fingers lightly exploring the back of his head as she pressed into him. “Still feels kind of lumpy. They let you go anyway?”

“They couldn't keep me in.” He kept one arm around Gaila as he swung his bag onto the table and grinned at Jim. “Had to see how my two besties made out without me.”

He snickered at the deliberate double entendre as Gaila slapped his chest with her palm in mock annoyance while Jim shook his hand warmly, apparently oblivious to the joke. Uhura shot him a look of pure poison that he chose to ignore.

“My man!” He slid his arm out from around Gaila’s waist as he pulled Jim toward him by the hand to bump his shoulder. “How did everything go on Wednesday?”

Stunned that Mitchell somehow knew about the meeting with Barnett, Jim hesitated uncertainly before recognizing, from Gaila’s answering giggle, that he was referring to that night’s adventure in their dorm room. He fumbled for words, suddenly conscious of the three pairs of eyes that had all swiveled in his direction in anticipation.

“It, uh…it went fine. It was good.”

“Better than good.” Gaila took his arm and leaned into his shoulder. “But Jim doesn't kiss and tell; he’s a gentleman. Even returned my clothes.” She raised the bundle with her free hand and waggled it at Mitchell, snuggling warmly into Jim’s biceps as he blushed to the roots of his hair.

Mitchell was delighted. “Excellent, kids, that’s fucking excellent. You’re welcome.” He picked up his bag and scanned the front of the room. “Give me a minute while I talk to Mr. Spock. Then I need to get some lunch, badly. They don’t feed you shit at Medical.”

Jim nodded and picked up his own bag, the awkwardness of Gaila’s persistent weight on his arm a perfect excuse not to look down to where Spock stood watching Mitchell’s approach. During class, it had been easy to avoid the disapproval he knew he would see in those black eyes, were he to look; Mitchell’s absence left enough empty space at their table that Jim could sit facing the back of the room, his eyes fixed on his own terminal as he worked the day’s problems, his back chafing under the censure he could feel radiating toward him from the lectern.

A tug on his arm made him look down at Gaila to find the playfulness in her blue eyes dimmed. “You didn't answer any of my comms,” she whispered. “I wanted to tell you I was sorry.”

He smiled down at her ruefully, reflecting with a little pang of self-reproach that he had not behaved as he would have liked to the day before; he had spent nearly the entire day holed up in his room, the door locked, busying himself with an Earth history paper that wasn't due until the following week while comm after comm from Gaila went unanswered. There had been one from Nyota as well, a gentle but probing inquiry, and that one he had answered to assure her that he was fine.

From Spock, there had been nothing. He wasn't sure if he expected, or even wanted, anything from him anyway.

Gaila pulled insistently on his arm until he lowered his ear to her lips. “Next time,” she whispered, “I’ll wait until you give me the code.”

She gave his arm one last squeeze before detaching and aiming a pointed look at Nyota, who appeared at least slightly mollified in return. He caught her eye as Gaila turned away to collect her own belongings.

“You’re coming with us to mess, right?”

“I don’t think you need me to,” she said, tilting her head toward Gaila, “but, yeah” she added as she hauled her bag up onto her shoulder. “Just in case.”

The late morning was sunny but crisp, the promise of cooler weather in the air, and from the mass of bodies either hurrying along or basking on the grounds, it seemed that the entire Academy population was taking full advantage of the weekend’s perfect fall weather. As he scanned the sheer volume of cadets and instructors crossing the green, Jim began to think that Pike was right; Barnett’s plan was hare-brained. The idea that anyone, least of all himself, could detect any kind of illicit communication among this giddy throng was, indeed, bullshit. He mentally shrugged off the disappointment he felt at the thought that he wouldn't be much use to the admiral after all.

At least Pike will be happy that I won’t get myself killed.

He slowed at the sound of pounding footfalls behind them, letting the women move ahead, and braced himself for the blow he knew was coming. Mitchell did not disappoint, the backhanded slap landing squarely on the lateral deltoid that Gaila had relinquished a few minutes earlier.

“Good to be back among the living!” he crowed as he draped his free arm around Jim’s shoulders. “I’m going to make up that astro test tonight, so you’ll have the room to yourself. Again. For a little while, anyway.”

Jim smiled, thankful to have an honest excuse to decline Mitchell’s generosity. “Thanks, but I won’t be there. I've got plans."

The grin on Jim’s face broadened at the look of open astonishment on Mitchell’s. “Wait, plans? You have plans? Dude!” The hand on Jim’s shoulder tightened, then shook him soundly as Mitchell laughed out loud. “I’m proud of you, man! Hey, wait…” His expression grew suspicious. “Do these ‘plans’ involve books, in any way, shape, or form?”

It was Jim’s turn to laugh; Mitch knew him too well already. “Yeah, kind of. I’m meeting with my astrophysics tutor.”

“A tutor. On a Friday night.” Mitchell’s hand left Jim’s shoulder to slap the back of his head so hard that Jim almost tripped on the walkway. “You’re going to fucking tutoring on a Friday night? Christ, for a minute there, I thought you were fucking bomb-ass, you loser.”

Jim silently cataloged “bomb-ass” alongside “rad-balls” in his lexicon of Mitchell’s anatomically inspired phrases as his friend sputtered on. “And who’s lame enough to study on a Friday night, anyway? Besides you, I mean. No offense,” he backtracked as Jim frowned. “But seriously, brah, think this over. You’re gonna be hooking up tonight with some perv with no life? That’s wack.”

“I’m not hooking up, and Finn’s not a perv.” Jim surprised himself by flushing with mild annoyance at his friend. “He’s really nice, and he’s helped me a lot already. He’s the reason I got any credit at all on that test.”

“Finn.” Mitchell slowed for a moment, musing. “Tall firstie, white hair?”

“Yeah, that’s him. Do you know him?”

“I know of him. BMOC, big-time. Guy’s on like a million committees, lifetime member of the honor roll, that kind of thing. Plays a mean game of ultimate, too. How’d you get him to be your tutor?”

“I met him when we were at Medical the other day. He works there, part-time. He asked me if he could help.”

“He asked you.” Mitchell sounded slightly baffled, his expression growing thoughtful as he shifted his gaze toward the mess hall ahead. “That’s cool.”

His annoyance deepened; Mitch only said things were “cool” when they weren't. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, man, nothing.” He picked up his pace as Gaila turned her head around to look at them enquiringly, the suddenly serious tone of the conversation behind her catching her attention.

“Everything all right, boys?”

“Everything’s good back here, baby girl. No worries.” Mitchell called, then lowered his voice. “Am I gonna meet this guy?”

“What are you, my mom? He’s just my tutor!”

“Yeah, right, and I’m the fucking queen of England. Just be sure you’re back by curfew.” The order was punctuated with a painful elbow to Jim’s kidney, his startled grunt muffled by a woman’s nearby cry.

Hu-tegh!

They all halted and looked over to where two black-clad instructors had been hurrying across the quad toward the mess hall, one of them now bent over in pain and rubbing her shin. Her companion exclaimed at the stark welt already darkening to purple just below her knee. “Oh my God, are you all right?”

She nodded with a grimace as a coatless cadet rushed up to retrieve the disc that had struck her leg. “Sorry, ma’am,” he apologized, but the fierce glare he received in return was not one of conciliation, and he hurriedly backed away without waiting for an answer.

“Nyota, who’s that woman?” Jim asked softly, hoping his voice didn't carry. “The one over there, that just got hit?”

She nodded at the pair. “That’s Tella Kottke. She’s the RA for our floor. Teaches history, I think, or maybe anthro, I don’t know. Something like that. The other one’s her roommate. Why?”

“Just curious.” He tried to sound nonchalant as they resumed their walk. “She said something just now, like a curse, but in some other language. Did you recognize it?”

Another nod, this one accompanied by an eye-roll. “First thing you learn in any language are the swear words. That one was Klingon.”

 

***


As he scanned the rows of glass-walled study rooms in the library annex later that evening, Jim had to admit that Mitchell had been largely correct: very few of them were occupied, and those that were hosted lone cadets who apparently preferred the sterile safety of the library study rooms to more social surroundings.

Right now, I do, too.

Finn, already seated in one of the study rooms, saw him first and waved him in, then held out his hand to shake Jim’s in greeting. They were both still in uniform, but where Jim felt rumpled and more than a little sweaty after the long day, Finn seemed as fresh as Monday morning, neatly combed and shaved, his dress crisp. Jim suddenly wished he’d taken the time to shower.

“You look worried.”

The concern in Finn’s voice startled Jim out of his thoughts. “No, just…uh, preoccupied,” he hedged, smiling in apology as he fished for his PADD and pulled it out of his shoulder bag. “It’s been an interesting week.”

Finn leaned back slightly on the library stool, his head to one side. “Tell me.”

The gentle encouragement brought a flush of gratitude to Jim’s face. “Thanks for asking, but I can’t.” He hated to be secretive; confiding in Finn would help him sort out the events of the past few days, but he could think of nothing he could share with him that wouldn't cause harm to someone else. “Not everything, anyway. There’s other people involved.”

“I respect that.” Far from being disappointed at his reticence, Finn seemed pleased. “Gossip’s pretty useless. Let me know when it’s all about you and I’ll be all ears.” He leaned forward and placed his hands on the table between them, palms down. “Now let’s take a look at that test.”

He scanned the PADD that Jim passed to him, one finger pressed against his lower lip, for a few moments before looking back up at Jim approvingly. “Huh. That’s really good. You crushed the first half. The second, not so much. Run out of time?”

Jim nodded.

“What did he give you?”

“Pretty much what he said he would. Full credit for the ones I showed my work on, zero for the ones I just answered, even if they were right. It’s a 55 in the gradebook.” Jim felt a childish resentment streak through him as he spoke and hoped it didn't show in his tone.

“The next test will be a lot better. When is it, do you know?”

“A week from Wednesday, then the final exam a week after that.”

Finn nodded and handed back the PADD. “That sounds about right. He only gives three tests plus the final.”

“And I already missed the first test, from starting late.” Confusion wrinkled Jim’s forehead. “I don’t get how his class can be over in two weeks; it’s not even midterm yet.”

“It’s not over, it’s just that Spock doesn't teach the whole semester. Astro’s a team-taught course, so he tags out at midterm. Someone else will take over for the theory portion of the class, probably Bailey. Or Sinha, if you’re lucky.”

“What does Mr. Spock do for the rest of the semester, if he’s not teaching?”

“Research,” Finn answered. “Instructors here are a dime a dozen, but there’s no one on campus with Spock’s programming skills. He really likes to tinker around in a lab, and the brass is happy to have him overseeing their tech jobs for them. Win-win.”

“He told me you’re working with him on a project.” Jim regretted the words the moment they left his mouth; it annoyed him that he felt unable to contain his curiosity where Spock was concerned, especially when Finn had just expressed his own opinion on gossip. And Finn might resent that his name came up for discussion. “I told him you were helping me,” he added hastily, flushing again at the memory of Spock’s earlier admonition.

But Finn nodded enthusiastically, seeming glad to answer Jim’s questions. “Yeah, we’ve been designing a capstone test for firsts, to judge their strategic capability in an enemy encounter. He has the technical aspects of the scenario covered but has no idea what to do with emotional responses — panic, anger, that sort of thing. That’s where I come in.”

“Because you’re a psych major?”

“That’s right. I’m designing the subroutines that kick in when the cadet responds in any number of ways that are predictable for Humans but too illogical for Vulcans to understand. It’s my own capstone project.”

“So…you’re graduating at the end of this semester?” Jim felt an odd sinking in his chest at the thought of losing his new friend so soon, and it worsened at Finn’s wordless nod. “So you’ll be leaving.”

“That was my plan. Up until now.”

“Until now?”

Pink flooded Finn’s pale cheeks, but he didn't look away, his gray eyes darkening as they met Jim’s questioning gaze. “Yeah. Now I’m thinking, maybe I’ll stick around.”

The sinking feeling lightened in what should have been an uncomfortable silence but wasn't. Jim felt his smile of relief dim a little with selfish disappointment when Finn finally reached across the table to retrieve his PADD.

“Let’s see what we can do together tonight,” he smiled back. “To speed up your writing, I mean.” He paged to the last question on the test that Jim had answered fully, his eyes now serious, darting back and forth from the left side of the page to the flipped mirror image on the right as he read over the question and its response. A few moments later, he looked up at Jim’s apprehensive face and nodded encouragingly.

“I think you can really compress what you've got here. Now that Spock knows how you compute, you might be able to leave out all the verbal descriptions of how you do that, like the words ‘push’ and ‘pull.’ Maybe you can just go for the numerals, as long as it’s still clear what you’re doing.” He passed the PADD back to Jim. “Try the problems after that, the one about the single visible and the invisible binaries. I’ll time you.”

Jim could feel his spirits droop again as his left hand cramped around the stylus to write out his answers. By the time he set it down, he felt as sullen as his hand looked. Finn checked the chronometer.

“All right, that took you about twelve minutes to write it out, and the problems were worth ten points. At that rate, you’d finish a 100-point test in two hours. We need to cut that down to one.”

Jim’s mood sank lower. “I don’t think I can write any faster than that. My hand’s already killing me.”

“Then taking a few of the words out won’t be enough.” Finn searched the PADD, struggling to read its contents upside-down and backwards. “Why don’t you try shortening the iteration, too. Like, don’t write down every number, just a few checkpoints so that he knows where your numerical answers are coming from. Try the next one.”

He could tell it wasn't much better, although it was an improvement; Finn verified his opinion after checking the chronometer. “Okay, that helped shave another minute off of it. But you still need to go faster for a passing grade.”

“I don’t see how I can.” Jim hated that his voice sounded sulky but felt helpless to correct it. “My hand is dead. Even my brain aches.”

“Here.” Finn held out his own hand, and after a moment, Jim laid his palm on the invitingly cool skin and gasped at the sudden pressure of Finn’s thumb on the webbing between his index and middle fingers. “You need to let your mind’s energy flow through your hand, not resist it. Let your hand do what your brain wants it to do, and they’ll both stop aching.”

Jim coughed out a startled laugh as the pressure switched to the space between his middle and ring fingers. “Hey, that hurts!”

“It hurts because you’re making it hurt. Let me do this without any resistance from you. Focus on releasing the block in your hand.”

“I can’t…”

“Shh.” Finn pressed harder, forcing Jim to look up in protest from his hand to Finn’s steady gaze. His breath stopped in his throat as he watched the pupils constrict, lightening them from stormy to calm as his own heartbeat slowed, the pain in his hand fading. He barely noticed when Finn moved to pinch the skin between his last two fingers.

“Good. This is what it feels like to release the strain.” Finn’s voice was low, a calm and soothing murmur. “Your hand isn't working against you, it’s trying to work for you, but you’re not freeing it up to do that. You’re trying too hard.”

He laughed again, softly, this time in disbelief. “I don’t know how to do all this without trying. It doesn't exactly come naturally.”

Finn opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out; he dropped his eyes and seemed to search for words as he turned Jim’s hand over in his, his thumb now stroking the callused pads beneath each finger in turn. “Listen,” he finally said, “I don’t want to get too personal too fast, but I want to tell you something about yourself. Something you may not know.” He kept his gaze on Jim’s hand as his thumb caressed the palm, his eyes veiled by the silver lashes.

“I know…look, I know your life hasn't been easy," he began hesitatingly. "I don’t know why that’s true, you know, specifically or anything. Maybe someday you’ll tell me. But I do know it’s true. I can see it. It’s written on you, in you, written in your body like the tension in your hand. It’s written on your face, too, in your eyes. It’s all over you.” His thumb returned to the calluses below each finger and lingered on the largest of them, the one beneath his ring finger. “I know you had to grow up fast, to learn how to take care of yourself before most people do. I knew it the moment I saw you, the other day in Medical. That’s why…” He paused, struggling for words again, then changed tack, his thumb warming on Jim’s palm.

“And I know you try, all the time, you’re always working, in some way. Even if you don’t think you are, you are. You’re not afraid of hard work, you actually welcome it, because it gives you a way to change things, to change where you’re at and get you to someplace else.”

A strange buzzing started at the base of Jim’s skull, a warm insistent trill, and he felt his lips part in astonishment. “How…how could you…”

Finn shook his head, the expression on his face as confused as Jim felt himself, before raising his eyes back up to meet Jim’s. His voice grew stronger, more confident. “For the kind of work you used to do, working harder gave you results. If you were up against something difficult, you’d just turn the crank until you overcame it. But this, this class, the whole Academy, it’s not like that. Here it’s like working outdoors in the summer heat. If you go all out all day long, you’ll pass out, maybe even die. You can’t just work harder and make it here. If anything, you have to work easier, you know, smarter, not harder. And you can do that because you have plenty of smarter in you, more than anyone I've ever met. And Jim,” he went on, gaining momentum, “I know something else. You’re used to working on your own, with nobody to help you, because you've been alone. You weren't supposed to be, none of us are, but you were. I want…” He paused, seeming to fumble for words again until they came out in a rush. “I want you to know that all that is over. You’re not alone here. Your roommate, your classmates, they’re here for you, they’ll help you. And I hope, I really hope, that you’ll include me in that mix. Whatever you’re up against, I’m asking you to promise me, whatever it is, that you’ll let me help.”

A pleasant rush of gratitude struck Jim all over again; he curled his hand around Finn’s thumb and held on.

“All right. I promise.”

Finn brought his other hand to Jim’s, to press it firmly between his own, just as the vibration in his head intensified, somehow a demand for his attention. He tore his eyes away from Finn to look toward the glass wall of the study room and into the hallway beyond, the hallway that a moment ago had been empty but that was now occupied by Spock and Admiral Barnett, the pair of them apparently just having left Spock’s office. Barnett looked amused to see them and gave them a jovial salute; Spock’s expression was indecipherable as he glanced at them briefly before looking away.

He has no right to judge me.

He couldn't say why that was his first thought, or who it was even directed against, but it kept his hand in place until Finn patted it and laid it down on the table.

“Guess we should get back to work. You ready to try again, then maybe get something to eat?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.” He glanced back out toward the hallway in time to see Barnett place his hand on Spock’s shoulder to gently but firmly guide him down the hall and away.



 

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The Plebe
, Chapter 5
In Spock's Office -- A Plan Unfolds -- The Admiral's Bitch -- Jim and the Night Visitor -- Girl Talk


 

The moderated temperature of Spock’s office, noticeably cooler than it had been during his first visit, somehow made the taste of his tea more bearable. Jim was glad to find that he was able to sip from his cup without sputtering or even making a face. Across the desk, Spock was bundled against the coolness, a plush black cloak covering his standard black over black uniform, the white of the cloak’s collar and the pallor of his own skin the only relief from the severity of his garb.

He stretched one hand across the desk toward Jim to pass him a PADD upon which was displayed the exam he had just taken. “Let us review the preliminary results of your test. Your methodology is certainly unusual, at least as far as my own experience with humans.”

His tone, while not quite kind, did convey a gentle curiosity. Jim thought back to half an hour earlier when he’d pressed Submit on his touch screen and glanced up at Spock apprehensively to watch him tap his own screen, stare at it for a few moments, then swipe at it once or twice, one eyebrow raised in what Jim now recognized as the Vulcan’s closest equivalent to astonishment. A choking pulse squeezed his neck as he waited for Spock’s reaction, which finally came in the form of a lowered brow, a glance upward toward Jim’s seat to catch his anxious gaze, and a slow closing of his own eyes as he inclined his head in a nod of acknowledgment.

Well done.

He tapped the PADD with one slender finger. “I am particularly intrigued by your choice to utilize mirror writing.”

Jim blushed with a pleasure he knew he did not deserve to feel. “Thanks, but it wasn't my idea. My tutor suggested it.”

“Fascinating. Its clarity, once reversed, rivals or perhaps even exceeds that of your ordinary handwriting.”

Jim had noticed the same thing the previous evening when Finn had retrieved his PADD, flipped the image on it, and presented it back to him:

Cube root of 15

Is 3 too big pull in 2 too small push out 2.5 too big slide back 2.4 too small push out 2.45 push 2.475 pull 2.4625 push 2.46875 pull 2.465625 push 2.4671875 pull 2.46640625 cube gives 15 w 4 sig figs report 2.466 check 2.467 pull yes

2.466

“Takes you about fifty times as long to write it out as it does to do it in your head,” Finn had remarked with a rueful smile. “We’ll practice more of these so we can figure out how many steps you can leave out and still show enough of your work. We’ll also have to speed up your writing so you can finish the tests on time. But like everything else, you’ll get faster as you get better. And if you get really good at it, you might be able to keyboard it eventually so you don’t have to hand-write it.” He took back the PADD and gazed at it; Jim could see his own writing reflected in Finn’s eyes as he read its contents again. “You know, you compute very systematically. That’s going to be a huge advantage in your programming classes.”

“I probably need all the help I can get,” Jim admitted as Finn set the PADD down to nod at the waiter for a refill of his coffee. “I don’t have a lot of programming experience. My mom never even let me use a calculator.”

“You’ll be great at it.” Finn raised his cup and blew on the steaming liquid, his stormcloud eyes on Jim’s, before taking a sip. “I’ll help you.”

Spock’s voice jolted him back to the present. “I also noticed,” he continued, “that you were able to complete approximately fifty to sixty percent of the test by showing your work in an appropriate, if unorthodox, manner. However, the last several questions were simply answered without justification given for the responses. That will, as I explained earlier, adversely affect your score. I presume that time became a factor and that you therefore reverted to your normal habit in order to complete the exam.” He waited for Jim’s nod of assent before going on. “I imagine that, with practice, your proficiency with this technique will increase to the point that you can comfortably complete a test in the allotted time.”

“That’s what Finn said. The guy who’s tutoring me. That we have to work on my writing speed, I mean.”

Jim would have cause, much later, to think back to that moment when he first mentioned Finn’s name to Spock and felt the atmosphere between them shift, almost imperceptibly.

“Finn.” Spock’s tone was curiously flat, more emotionless than usual were that possible. “Do you perhaps refer to Cadet First Class Bentley Finnegan?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Do you know him?”

“Indeed.” Spock pulled his hand away from the PADD in front of Jim to reach for his own cup of tea and sip it before continuing. “Mr. Finnegan and I are currently collaborating on the revision of a tactical examination for upperclassmen. His programming skills are superior and his expertise in human psychology has been invaluable to me.”

The utter blandness of Spock’s tone belied the complimentary words; Jim bristled at what he perceived to be criticism of his new friend.

“I only met him yesterday but he’s been tremendous. Really helpful. I couldn't have figured out how to show my, uh, process on my own, and no one else at the AEC could help me. Would help me, I mean.” He knew he was rambling and willed himself to stop and take a breath. “Finn helped me when no one else would. And he wants to meet with me again on Friday to go over this exam, to help me get better, like you said.”

Spock set down his tea, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes for a moment, his features settling into stone, before re-opening them to capture Jim’s apprehensive gaze.

“Cadet.” Again Jim sensed that ripple in Spock’s equanimity, as if he’d thrown a rock into the middle of a still pool and was now bobbing in the wave front it had created. “I am gratified that you were able to secure the assistance you needed in order to succeed in this class. And I do not presume to dictate to you how to manage your intimate affairs. But I would advise you to limit your contact with Mr. Finnegan to comprise only those interactions necessary to continue your academic success.”

“Why…?” Jim’s initial flush of surprise deepened into one of indignation at Spock’s condescension. “I mean, why would you say that? He’s a great guy.”

Spock shook his head as he picked up his cup again. “I cannot say,” he replied, his tone so neutral that Jim couldn't tell if he meant I don’t know or I’m not allowed to tell. “I can only repeat my advice.”

A sudden, tight heat warmed the tops of Jim’s cheeks as he mutely searched Spock’s face for some explanation for the admonition he had received and found none. He had just opened his mouth to expostulate further when the door to Spock’s office opened behind him; the absence of a raised eyebrow told him that this intrusion was not completely unexpected.

“Admiral.” Spock set his cup on the desk and rose. After a quick look over his shoulder at the newcomer, Jim did likewise, turning to find himself staring at a tall, barrel-chested man with close-cropped greying hair and pouting, almost femininely plush lips that pursed slightly in annoyance as he saw Jim, then relaxed into a smile, the annoyance replaced with an easy graciousness.

“My apologies; I didn't know you had company.” He looked past Jim to give Spock a look of almost embarrassingly warm familiarity before his eyes shifted back to inspect Jim, his brows drawn together in inquiry.

Spock spoke from behind him. “Admiral Barnett, this is Cadet Fourth Class James Kirk.”

Jim started at hearing the name of the Academy commandant and wondered briefly if he should offer his hand, but Barnett did not reach for it and merely nodded at him, his eyes still examining his face. “Kirk, you say…?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not George Kirk’s boy, by any chance?”

Jim hesitated, resisting his mind’s urge to squirm as the ripple radiating outward from Spock grew to a disquieting wave. “Yes, sir,” he said at length. “That’s right.”

“I knew your father.” Barnett extended his hand now and took Jim’s, shaking it firmly. “A great man.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So this is your first year with us.” Barnett’s gaze had become so intently searching that Jim felt himself prickle with discomfort and was glad when Barnett released his hand. “How are you liking it so far?”

“Well, it takes some getting used to.” Jim clasped his hands in front of him, suddenly afraid that he had sounded too critical. “It’s active, I mean, really busy. There’s a lot more going on here than back home.”

“Yes, I daresay there is.” Barnett tilted his head, the full lips pursing again with thoughtfulness. “What are your impressions so far about what it is that’s going on here, as you say?”

“Uh, I don’t know. People are in a rush. Competitive. Maybe…” He took a breath, his indignation at Spock’s subtle disparagement of Finn still fresh. “Maybe not very straightforward, I think.”

Barnett’s eyes widened at Jim’s last comment, the initial surprise on his face turning into speculation. “Really? That’s interesting, very interesting.” He inspected Jim for a few tense moments more before seeming to come to a decision, his gaze shifting abruptly to Spock. “Spock, come see me tonight. The usual place. And bring your young friend along too.”

Even with his back to Spock, Jim could feel one dark eyebrow shoot upward. “Sir?”

“Bring Mr. Kirk with you tonight. Am I not making myself clear?”

“You are, sir.” Spock’s voice had flattened back out into the deadpan tone, but Barnett did not seem to notice. He reached for Jim’s hand again and squeezed it warmly.

“Until then, gentlemen.” Barnett nodded past Jim’s shoulder at Spock and departed as briskly as he had appeared. Jim waited until he had turned the corner to seize his shoulder bag and cap, so disoriented from the odd turn of the conversation and the growing turbulence of the wave in his head that he barely managed his own good-bye to Spock before bolting from the office.

 

***

 

“The usual place” turned out to be anything but what Jim would have expected for the apparently habitual meetings between a top-ranking Starfleet officer and a staid young Academy instructor. He had imagined, as he stared with growing unease at the contents of Mitchell’s closet, that it would be somewhat similar to the Officer’s Club in formality, and had Spock not relayed by his own dress that his uniform was inappropriate to the occasion, he would gladly have defaulted to wearing his reds. But Spock had appeared at the door to his dorm room in traditional Vulcan garb, layers of robes over which rested a cloak that, although similar in cut and color to the one he had worn in his office earlier that day, was decorated with elegantly curling script at its front edges, giving it if not a jaunty aspect at least an air of something noticeably less severe.

“I see you are not prepared,” Spock noted as he entered, the swish of his robes loud in the small room. “I will wait.”

Jim indicated toward the only place in the room to sit, the small chair at his own desk, but Spock had chosen to stand in the narrow space between his and Mitchell’s beds, his hands patiently folded beneath his cloak, while Jim turned to the closet to investigate his options. His roommate’s taste in off-duty wear tended toward club casual, and Jim had to push aside several shirts in overbold prints and shades more suited to Mitchell’s dark coloring to find what he disparagingly called “grandpa's church shirt,” a plain button-front in white. Mitch had been largely correct in saying that they were almost the same size, at least as far as shirts, but fitting into a pair of his trousers was more problematic; his was the fuller build of a grown man, and the khaki pants that Jim now pulled on ballooned rather noticeably around his waist and hips, the effect mitigated only slightly by the addition of a belt tightened to the last notch. The overall impression, he thought as he inspected himself in the closet’s mirror, was one of a boy playing dress-up in Daddy’s clothes, and he shook his head as he raised his eyes from the unsatisfying image to find Spock reflected there as well, a curious expression — almost one of unhappiness — on his face.

But when he turned to face Spock directly, the look, if it had ever been there, was gone, and he received a polite nod instead. “You look well.” He gestured toward the chronometer on Jim’s desk with one hand. “We should depart now if we are to be on time.”

It occurred to Jim twenty minutes later that perhaps he should have chosen one of Mitchell’s more vibrant outfits after all. The patrons that filled Bambinelli’s, seemingly unaware that it was a weeknight, laughed and screeched loudly to each other over the constant clatter of dishes hitting tables and glasses being toasted together. As they stood together amid the profusion of noise and color that swirled around them, it seemed to him that he and Spock were two crows in a room full of gaudy peacocks. Next time, he consoled himself as he pulled off the black leather jacket, I’ll know.

He surveyed the crowded dining area in search of Admiral Barnett and finally spied him, his large frame squeezed into a red leatherette booth toward the rear. Across the table from him, Jim was astonished to notice, was Commander Pike. He hesitated, frozen with uncertainty, until Spock placed one warm hand on the small of his back and leaned down to speak quietly into his ear. “Let us make our way.”

Barnett beamed cheerfully up at them as they approached the table; Pike’s expression, in contrast, was decidedly dour. Spock perched stiffly on the bench next to Barnett and left Jim to slide in next to Pike, whose lips tightened as he nodded curtly at Jim in greeting. Barnett either didn't notice or chose to ignore the tension.

“Chris here has told me a lot about you,” he smiled at Jim, waggling an almost teasing finger at him. “I think I was right about you earlier today. I think you’re just the person I need.”

Jim cast a sideways glance at the still stern-faced Pike before leaning forward slightly to make himself heard over the din.

“Need for what, sir?”

Barnett waited until the server had unloaded a tray full of tumblers, beer for himself and Pike and tepid water for Jim and Spock, before answering back. “There’s something going on at the Academy. Has been for months now.” He patted Spock’s knee with one hand and raised his glass with the other. “We think there’s someone passing classified information out of Starfleet and using the Academy as the conduit. It’s been damn hard to trace.” The affable smile disappeared as he paused to take a healthy swig of beer. “It’s serious,” he continued. “Critical tactical information is getting leaked to the Klingons. They've known about movements and operations there’s no way they should know about. It’s pretty clear that we have a spy.”

It flashed through Jim’s mind that this was some crazy joke at his expense, or perhaps a test of some sort. But the look of unhappiness was back on Spock’s face as he caught Pike’s eye across the table and held it for a long moment.

He shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “Sir, I find that hard to believe. I can’t think what information coming from here would be of any interest to the Klingons.”

“You’re right.” Barnett seemed pleased with his answer. “Spock thinks that someone higher up, maybe Operations, has a contact here on campus that he or she is passing secrets to. The intel might be flowing from Ops to the Klingons via someone at the Academy.” He took another swallow of beer. “It’s a good plan, too. Comms between Ops and the Academy are common enough that they wouldn't automatically be flagged as suspicious, and we don’t have the security measures in place to monitor and decode every comm to or from a bunch of egghead Academy instructors. Never saw the need. So you can see why it’s been tough to verify the leak, much less identify who’s involved.”

“What does this all have to do with me?”

“I’m looking for someone with fresh eyes, someone who’s not all wrapped up in the Academy culture, someone unbiased who can look past all the business as usual and spot the unusual. At the same time, this person needs to look like the opposite of someone trying to sniff out a spy.” He pulled his hand up from under the table to join its mate in wrapping around his glass as he leaned in toward Jim. “You’re your father’s son, so your loyalty is unquestionable. And you look like you just fell off the apple cart, bless your heart. You’re fresh, unspoiled, like the country mouse come to town. No one would ever suspect you of anything. You’re perfect.”

There was silence around the table as the dark eyes on one side searched the lighter ones opposite. Spock finally spoke first. “If I may, Commander,” he said directly to Pike. “You of all of us are the most familiar with the cadet. I would ask for your impartial assessment of his suitability for an assignment of this nature. For my opinion” — his eyes flicked toward Jim briefly — “is that the cadet is far too young and inexperienced to be of any assistance in this matter. In addition, any involvement on his part places him at extreme and undue risk to his person.”

Pike nodded and straightened, the disapproval in the glance he exchanged with Spock painfully clear as he addressed Barnett. “Sir, you yourself said it’s been hard to find the source of the leaked information. To expect Mr. Kirk to be able to contribute anything material to the investigation is unrealistic at best. And we’re talking about Klingon sympathizers here. Spock’s right; it could get him killed.”

“I’m not suggesting that he make any kind of move against the Klingons. All I’m proposing is that he keep his ears and eyes open and relate back to us. Anything that could serve as a lead, no matter how innocuous or inconsequential, that we might not notice but that he would. And,” Barnett added with some asperity, “I’m not asking for approval from either of you. In the end, it’s only Mr. Kirk’s approval I need.” He picked up his glass and swirled it, his eyes following the shifting foam patterns on its sides before moving abruptly upward to look straight into Jim’s. “What do you say, young man? Will you help me?”

Spock’s words had stung; Pike's concurrence deepened the sting into a burn. Neither of them thought he was up to the job.

He turned to Barnett. “If I can be of any help, of course. I’d be happy to.”

Barnett raised his glass. “Good man. I can see you take after your father.” He drained its contents and set the glass down with a satisfied grunt. “You’ll continue to meet with Mr. Spock at least once a week, in his office after your astrophysics class, like you did today. No one would find that out of the ordinary. If you've seen or heard anything you think is unusual or noteworthy, you’ll pass it on to him at that time. He’ll pass it on to me in turn.”

Jim glanced back at Spock, whose eyes held his only briefly before dropping to look down at the table. He forced a smile.

“Yes sir. Thank you, sir. For the opportunity.”

 

***

 

mitchellgs: how di dit go

kirkjt: i don’t know, maybe 50 or 60

kirkjt: but not 0

mitchellgs: awesome have fun tonight

Jim smiled tiredly at the good wishes; he knew his new roommate well enough to predict that, if Mitchell were to know how his evening actually went, he would argue with him relentlessly until Jim agreed not to help Barnett with his half-baked scheme. Pike had already voiced that same opinion, absent the excessive profanity and the blow Mitchell would have delivered to underscore his point, on their way back to campus; the two had elected to excuse themselves early, leaving Barnett and Spock to their pre-arranged dinner plans.

“You don’t have to do this, you know. You can bow out. Should bow out, really.” Pike walked hurriedly as if to distance himself as quickly as possible from the restaurant and the conversation that had just occurred therein. “Just because he’s an admiral doesn't mean you should let him bully you into doing something this irresponsible. It could get you killed if someone thinks you’re snooping around. Any intel you’d be able to acquire would be damn near useless anyway. Whoever’s leaking classified information is a professional; they’re not going to be leaving a lot of clues for you to find.”

Jim tried to lighten Pike’s black mood. “That’ll be good, right? Then there’d be no reason for anyone to come after me.”

“So there’s no reason for you to do anything at all.” Pike’s voice was tight. “Do yourself a favor and forget about Barnett. Let the higher-ups figure it out.”

“But I still want to try.”

“Jim.” Pike stopped abruptly and turned to face him, his hands taking hold of Jim’s upper arms. His expression was grave. “Listen to me. Barnett’s grasping at straws here. He’s manipulating you, appealing to your emotions by invoking your dad. I know you want to live up to his memory, I know that. But you won’t do it by chasing Barnett’s wild goose and getting yourself hurt or killed in the process. You’ll do it by focusing on what you want to accomplish here, your scholarship, and afterwards, your own command. But not this crazy bullshit plan to sniff out some Klingon spy.”

“You’re right.” Jim spoke in a rush, anxious to finish before Pike’s expression could change into one of relief. “I do want to honor his memory. And I’ll do it by doing what he would have done. He wouldn't say no if he’d been the one asked, if he had a chance to help. And I’m not going to either.”

Pike searched his face in the dimming light, then swore softly and released his arms. “You understand that you can’t even tell anyone about this ludicrous idea, or even this meeting tonight, not anyone.” He resumed his pace toward the campus, his strides short and angry. “And if anyone asks, if they saw you out tonight, you need to play it as an accident, you and Spock out to talk about his class or some such, and you just happened to run into us.”

“All right.” Jim frowned as something suddenly occurred to him. “Sir, did the admiral tell you about his plan? Did he ask you if you thought I’d be the right person?”

Pike snorted humorlessly. “Barnett? Hell no. He’s a one-man show. Like most of his schemes, this one came straight from the hip. I wouldn't have found out about it if Spock hadn't told me to come by tonight.”

“Mr. Spock…told you?” The sudden heat flared high on his cheeks again, just under his eyes. “Why? Because he thought you’d be able to talk me out of it?”

“He did the right thing.” Pike’s tone was sharp. “He knows Barnett well enough that he could tell there was something hare-brained up his sleeve but not what. I forced Barnett to fill me in before you came by threatening to comm Winona and get you yanked from the Academy.”

“What?!”

They had reached the front door of Watson; Jim stopped and faced Pike, the words jumbling madly in his mind in their struggle to get out. His eyes felt like coals in his head. “Listen, that’s…”

“No, you listen.” Pike lowered his voice, underscoring every word. “Barnett’s using you because he can’t get his own shit together. Spock knows that and I know that. The only one who doesn't know that is you. And you’re going to get hurt. For the last time, back out now. Because I don’t want to make that call to your mother to tell her she’s lost another loved one.”

“You won’t be making that call. Sir.” And Jim knew it was rude, but he turned away anyway, leaving Pike to stare after him as he climbed the stairs to the front entrance of the building, then ran up to the second floor and into the safety of his room to fling himself on his bunk, still clothed, one forearm pressed over his eyes to cool the anger that burned there.

 

***

 

He realized he must have dozed off when he came to with a jerk to find the room lights not at zero any longer but closer to twenty percent. A few more seconds ticked by during which he cataloged the other anomalies — the delicious feminine scent in the air and the feel of soft flesh pressing against his shoulder and thigh — before twisting his body away from the woman in his bunk and rolling off to land with an unceremonious thump onto the floor.

Above him, Gaila peered over the edge of the bunk. “Sorry to startle you,” she murmured with a slow smile. “But you’re so cute when you sleep, I didn't want to wake you up right away.”

He scuttled away from her, crab-like, backpedaling until he hit the wall at the head of the beds and could go no farther. She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin up with folded hands, studying him with curiosity as he did his best to disappear into the wall. From where he sat, he could see her bare legs bent upward behind her, the ankles crossed and feet swaying gently as she watched him. He also noted with dismay that her shoulders were equally unclothed and prayed that something was covering the area between her breasts and her upper legs, although from his vantage point on the floor, he could already see that, if she were wearing anything, it couldn't be much.

She laughed gently. “Don’t be freaked out. Mitch let me have his access code.”

mitchellgs: awesome have fun tonight

Realization of her intent clicked; his stomach took a nosedive. “Look, I…I like you, I mean, you’re a good friend, and…”

“I like you too. “ Gaila tilted her head and removed one hand from her chin to stroke the space he had just vacated on the bed, and he saw to his relief that she was, although barely clad, at least not completely nude, the strap of her lingerie falling languidly off one shoulder. “Come on back to bed. It’s more comfortable than the floor.”

“I, uh…I can’t do that. What you’re saying, what I think you’re saying, I mean.” He realized he sounded like a complete idiot, took a breath, and tried again. “I want us to be friends, you know, stay friends, not this other…uh, thing, you know…”

The unintelligible sentence ended with a squeak as Gaila swung her legs down and pushed herself up to sitting. “Don’t worry,” she smiled as she rose off the bunk. “We’ll still be friends. Just better ones.”

Mesmerized by the smooth expanse of skin that now moved inexorably toward him, he didn't recognize until almost too late that he was eye-level with a pair of lacy, nearly transparent panties and that he would have to stand to avoid the otherwise inevitable collision of her lush pubis with his nose. He planted numb feet against the floor and pushed himself up until he stood, wobbly and shaking, his shoulders and the palms of his hands flattened against the wall behind him.

“I, uh, have an early class. Tomorrow. Real early, you know, so I…”

“No, you don’t,” she smiled knowingly, punctuating her words with slow feline steps. “You don’t have anything until noon. You can sleep in. Late.”

She reached him and nestled into his upper body, her breasts swelling beguilingly over the cups of her skimpy bra as they pressed into his chest. “We have,” she whispered up at him, her eyes darkly blue in the dim light, “all night long.”

She pulled away from him then, and his sigh of relief froze in mid-exhalation as he realized she had only done so to give herself easier access to the buttons of Mitchell’s borrowed shirt, now unfastening themselves under her deft fingers until she had exposed his chest and abdomen to the warmth of her exploring hands. He groaned as she pushed the shirt off his shoulders and flattened one palm across his pectoral to circle the nipple slowly with her thumb, her other hand trailing down his side to the lean hip below, then forward to his navel, her fingers lightly brushing the darkening strip of hair beneath.

“Gaila, please. I…oh, no,” he gasped as she pushed one leg between his, her soft thigh cradling his scrotum inside the oversized trousers, and he felt the internal tug of war as his testicles vacillated between descending toward the welcoming warmth of the female flesh below and crawling upward into the safety of his own abdominal cavity. They opted for the former when she leaned in to place her panting mouth on his neck just above the collarbone, and he felt, through a growing haze of arousal laced with panic, her hand drop lower to tug on the buckle of his belt.

The high, thin scream building in his throat was mercifully arrested by the sound of the door opening behind her. Gaila turned her head, eyes narrowed, to find Nyota in the dorm room’s entrance, her own pajamas covered by a fleecy blue robe. Behind her, inexplicably, stood Spock.

“Lights to full,” he intoned dryly as they took in the scene before them: a nearly shirtless Jim pinned up against the wall by Gaila’s insistent knee, his eyes dark and huge and rolling like a frightened colt’s, two high spots of bright red the only color in the face that had otherwise paled beneath its tan. Nyota was afraid he was going to faint.

Gaila.”

Before her, Gaila pouted a little and tossed back a cascade of auburn curls before pulling her hand away from Jim’s waist. Nyota glared at the thigh that still imprisoned her quarry against the wall. “I told you. Back the fuck off.”

Gaila sighed and obediently removed her knee, the sudden absence of support causing Jim to slide partially back down the wall; he caught himself before he collapsed onto the floor and straightened as Nyota removed her robe to fling it over Gaila’s deshabille.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Jim as she pushed Gaila bodily toward the door. “You all right?”

He nodded, glad that his voice was reasonably steady as he answered. “Just startled, that’s all. I was asleep. I got…” He waited until Gaila turned her head back toward him to meet his eyes with her own. “I got scared. That’s all.”

She smiled at him, cheerful in spite of Nyota’s annoyed shoving. “Sorry we didn't get to finish,” she purred. “We’ll do it again soon.”

His answering smile was weak, fading once the women had exited; he watched through the open door as they disappeared together into the coolness of the night air. Beside him, Spock was ominously still. He shrugged the shirt back on and fastened several of the buttons before breaking the silence.

“Sir. What happened just now, I…I don’t want you to think…”

“It is of no consequence what I think. What is potentially of great consequence, conversely, is your concealment of the truth.”

Jim started at the uncharacteristically impolite interruption; Spock’s voice was surprisingly stern, even bordering on angry. “Do you not realize that your dishonesty could have grave repercussions for those you call your friends?” he continued. “This young woman tonight was very nearly guilty of a serious crime, one that would have been entirely avoided had you spoken what you ought.”

Spock had chatted with Pike about quite a bit more than Barnett’s dinner invitation, it seemed. Jim felt his resentment against the two of them rise anew and tried to push it down. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I…I’ll make sure it doesn't happen again.”

“See to it that it does not. It would at the very least be advisable to ensure that one’s door is locked in the future.”

Mindful of bringing Spock’s attention to Mitchell’s involvement in the evening’s events, Jim bit back the retort, and it wasn't until long after Spock had swept out of the room that it occurred to him to wonder, as he stared sleeplessly up at the ceiling and wished for the familiar lull of Mitchell’s lusty snoring, how it was that Spock had even come to be there that night.

 

***

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

Gaila was used to Nyota’s temper and shrugged beneath the blue robe, completely uncowed by the tirade she knew was coming. “He’s cute, and he likes me. I like him. Nothing wrong with that.”

Nyota halted and spun to glare at her roommate. “Are you cracked? Could you not see that he was fucking terrified? Jesus,” she swore as she resumed the march back to their dorm. “You want a boy like that, you have to go slow, not tits-out full bore.”

“I did go slow. I waited a whole week.”

“A week. Are you kidding me.”

“Besides, he seemed to like full bore just fine,” came the unabashed reply. “And, for your information, he’s no boy. Baby’s hung like a mule.”

What?!

Gaila laughed lightly as she pulled ahead. “Mm hmm,” she said over her shoulder as Nyota stood stunned. “And I know what your problem is.”

"Oh, you do.”

She waited until Nyota had caught back up with her before continuing. “I so do. You want me to clear out so you can have him for yourself.”

“The hell!

The look of frank astonishment on Nyota’s face was met with a knowing smirk. “Say what you like; I know it’s true. And you can forget about it right now, anyway; it’s never gonna happen. He’s mine.”

Those amber eyes, wide and dark in the dimness of his dorm room. “I don’t…I do not want him. That’s insane.”

Gaila shrugged again and wrapped the robe around herself more tightly as she swept on ahead.

“Sure. Whatever.”

 

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The Plebe
, Chapter 4
Exam Day -- The Thunderbolt -- My Dinner with Finn -- Breathe In -- Exam Day Deux




Calculate the rotational period of a binary star system if each star has a mass of 3.0x10^30 kg and the distance between them is 2.0x10^11 m.

Jim read the question, then glanced up at Uhura, already bent over her screen and writing, and Gaila, who twisted her stylus between her teeth as she winked saucily at him. The seat to his left was empty.

mitchellgs: they wont let me out mild concussion hurled all over chapels tits haha kick ass today

He took a breath.

"Look here," Finn had said, pointing to his right eye. "Look right here, and breathe in."


***


It was the color of his eyes that Jim had noticed first when Finn had entered the clinic, a blue that darkened in spots to the deep grey of a summer storm. They had widened as they rested on him, shirtless and barefoot with one leg dangling off of the biobed, then continued to stare at him with such an odd intensity that Jim felt his cheeks begin to warm. He was unaware of the picture he made as he held Mitchell's hand, worry over his roommate as clear on his face as sunlight on a stream; Finn had watched, transfixed, as the concern for Mitch shifted into curiosity upon his entrance, then into shyness, his gaze dropping from Finn’s face to fix on the button at the collar of his unfastened lab coat. Neither of them noticed the look exchanged between McCoy and Christine before the former spoke up.

“Finn, this is James Kirk.”

Jim had to reach upward with his free hand to shake Finn’s; he noticed then how tall he was and how oddly the turbulence of his eyes contrasted with the fairness of his skin and the nearly colorless chin-length hair, as pale and fine as corn silk.

“Finn’s a psych major who works here part-time. He also helps out in the AEC. He might be just the guy you’re looking for.”

The cool firmness of Finn’s grasp contrasted with the faint air of disorientation on his face as he continued to inspect Jim, the words tumbling helplessly from his mouth.

“I certainly hope I am. Just the guy, I mean. I do a lot of tutoring, all different subjects, not just psych. All kinds.” He paused for a breath, realized he was still holding Jim’s hand, and released it with a flustered laugh to push his hair behind one ear. “Whatever you need, I can probably help. Except organic chemistry, Orgo Two especially. Never did get a handle on that, you know, just enough to pass. Barely.” The nervous laugh, again. Christine’s eyes narrowed.

“Mr. Kirk knows his material.” The interruption drew Finn’s startled gaze away from Jim for a moment. “He doesn't need tutoring.”

Jim cleared his throat, suddenly uncomfortable at the baldness of her compliment. “Yeah, I need help with something else. It’s, uh, kind of hard to explain.” His gaze finally traveled upward from the the few light hairs at the V-neck of Finn’s scrub top to meet and be held by the stormcloud eyes. Finn drew a breath.

“Listen, I work here until seventeen-thirty, then I’m free. Why don’t you meet me for dinner tonight, eighteen-hundred at the Officers' Club. We can talk there about what you need."

Three pairs of eyebrows lifted in surprise.

“What he needs is help showing his work in astrophysics. You think that’s in your wheelhouse?” Christine’s question had an unexpected edge to it. McCoy ducked his head and pretended to check the neat dressing on the scalp of the now overtly snoring Mitchell.

“Absolutely,” he replied, his gaze still fixed on Jim. Her frown deepened as she glared at Jim, waiting for his reaction.

"The Officers' Club sounds pretty fancy," Jim finally answered, his tone doubtful as he mentally reviewed the inventory of Mitchell’s closet and his own paltry wardrobe. "I don’t think I have anything to wear."

"Your reds are fine. Just make sure you show up with a shirt on, and shoes. No shirt, no shoes, no service, am I right?" Finn reddened slightly and raked his hair back with one hand, leaving it to rest on the back of his neck. "And, uh, bring an example of the types of problems you have to solve. Your PADD too, of course. It’ll be a working dinner."

Jim hesitated, then replied with what Christine had to admit, with some irritation, was an adorably bashful smile. "All right, eighteen-hundred. I'll see you there. And thanks."

McCoy had waited until Finn had retreated back to the lab and Jim had padded out of the clinic, wet and bloody towels in hand, before turning on Christine. “Just what was that all about?”

She shrugged, not meeting McCoy’s questioning eyes as she rotated the rails on Mitchell’s biobed upward. “He came on a little strong, that’s all. Needs to tone it down.” She wheeled the bed past him to move it out into the corridor and toward a private room.

“Christine.” She stopped and waited, not turning to face McCoy. “Finn’s a good man,” he went on.

“I know that.” She continued down the corridor, the unspoken postscript plain in the straightness of her back.

And I don’t care.
 

***


Jim had arrived at the Officers’ Club nearly ten minutes early to find Finn already waiting for him outside. Gone were the rumpled lab coat and scrubs, replaced instead with the neatly pressed red-over-black of a first class cadet, the swinging curtain of white-gold hair now combed back and secured into a neat ponytail. He smiled with relief as he spied Jim and held the door open, motioning for him to enter.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t show. I probably should have picked a less stuffy place for our first meeting.”

Jim wouldn’t have used the word stuffy; the Officers’ Club was well-lit and almost as lively with chatter and the clinking of silverware as the mess hall. But the smaller tables with their starched cloths and matching napkins signaled greater formality by a full order of magnitude as did the glint here and there of candlelight on glassware.

"How come you get to eat here?” he asked as he edged toward the wall to dodge a server and his dangerously overloaded tray. “Isn't it only, I mean, for officers?"

"I serve on the Honor Council and the Board of Faculty Relations; it comes with a few meaningless perks. I eat here when I want to be by myself, you know, because it’s more private, not a bunch of loud cadets. Plus the food is better.” He shepherded Jim toward a table at the rear; a quick nod to a pimply waiter and two raised fingers got them tumblers of water, a basket of assorted bread, and the evening’s special. They seated themselves as the waiter tapped in their order.

"So tell me about yourself,” he asked Jim as he took a roll and buttered it. “First year here?"

"Yeah, that's right. Does it show?"

Finn’s smile was kind. "A little. Where did you transfer from?”

The question caught Jim off guard. “How do you know I transferred?” he parried.

“Because I haven’t seen you on campus before. I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if you’d already been here a year.” A flush of pink tinged his cheeks. “Well, that and the astrophysics. It's generally a second-class course but it's available to advanced thirds, which I figure you are."

"I already had four semesters of physics before I transferred." A few swallows of water helped the half-lie go down easier. Finn nodded knowingly.

“So, like Chapel said, that’s why the material itself isn’t a problem for you. But explaining it is?”

“Right. It’s like I can’t write down how I do math. Which is,” he added ruefully, “kind of a problem for my instructor.” He bit into his own roll and chewed, relieved to be telling the truth.

“That’s great, that gives me a place to start. We’ll try an exercise that might help. After dinner.” Finn leaned forward slightly. “Right now I want to hear more about you that doesn’t have to do with astrophysics.”

Jim took another sip of water and gave what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug. “There isn’t much to tell. I’ve had a pretty quiet life. Just Mom and me for most of it.”

“What about Dad?”

“Died the day I was born.” Finn saw Jim’s eyes shutter, their normal transparency veiled, and wisely abandoned the line of questioning.

“Almost the same story with me.” He nodded politely as their waiter set their plates in front of them and picked up a fork. “My mother died when I was a baby, so I have no memory of her at all. Just Dad and me since then. Plus a few girlfriends, on his part I mean, but nothing lasting.” He stabbed a baby carrot and chewed thoughtfully. “One thing I do know, I have her to thank for my weird name. Dad claims no responsibility.”

“Weird?” Jim looked interested.

“Yeah. Bentley Corentin Gadish Finnegan. Quite a mouthful, huh? You can see why I just go with Finn.”

Jim felt a sudden warmth in his chest. “I go by Jim. Same reason.”

Finn grinned broadly as he harpooned two more baby carrots. “Jim it is.”


***
 

“Okay, tell me what your issue is first.” Finn pushed his half-empty coffee cup to one side and folded his hands on the table. “No math yet, just verbally, you know, describe it in words.”

“I…I don’t really know.” Jim frowned at his own lack of articulation; he had searched his mind throughout the course of their meal how for a way to explain it to Finn and had come up empty. “I just calculate in my head but can’t record the process, in writing or keyboarding or anything. Can’t even describe it, really.”

“Try.” Finn reached across the table to pull Jim’s left hand off his own cup and pull it toward him, palm up, one thumb pressing gently on the wrist. “Imagine it in your head. Maybe you see images, or hear something in particular, or even smell something. Think about the whole experience of solving an equation. What do you sense?”

“I…I guess it’s like a picture, but not really. More like watching a vid, sort of. I don’t know.”

“Close your eyes and breathe in.” The pressure on his wrist was steady, soothing. “Now out. In. And out. Now open your eyes and look right here.” Finn pointed to one blue-grey eye. “Keep looking right here while I ask you a question. Let the solution flow in your head. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t say anything, don’t tell me the answer. Just watch the answer present itself to you, like a flower opening, and focus on what you sense. Ready?”

Jim nodded.

“What’s the square root of ten?”

He lost himself in that eye, the swirling blues and greys and the inky depth of the pupil that widened into a silence and calm so profound that there was nothing anymore, no dining room and no Finn and no anxiety over Mitch or the upcoming test, just himself and the problem at hand. It twisted before him, its contours shifting, colors playing over its surface, a beautiful thing he could almost hold and touch. An eternity passed until his next intake of breath, and it startled him so much that he drew back in surprise, the room coming back into view, Finn’s face tilted questioningly at him, his wrist still firmly in Finn’s grasp.

“How…how long…?

“One or two seconds. Did you get to an answer?”

Jim nodded mutely, his eyes wide.

“All right, now I’m going to ask you a similar question. Do the same thing you just did, but this time, I want you to talk about what you’re seeing while you’re seeing it. Don’t think about it, just open your mouth and start talking, whatever comes out, just go with it. No judgment or editing, you know, just stream of consciousness. Like Joyce.”

“How did you know I read Joyce?”

Finn smiled and shrugged. “Just a good guess. Ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Look right here. Breathe in. And out. In.”

yes

“What’s the cube root of 15?”

Jim felt his jaw release as he felt the question in his mind, the words forming lazily like the swaying of a hammock on a shady afternoon. “Two, eight, three, twenty-seven, two-point-five, fifteen-point-six-two-five, two-point-four — ”

“Jim, wait.” The cool thumb stroked across his wrist more firmly. “You’re giving me a string of numbers, so we know your calculating using repeated iteration. What I want you to do is describe to me what you’re doing. Tell me what you see in your mind.”

That was harder; the question evaded his inspection like a floater in the eye, rushing away as he tried to pin it down. “It’s like…I feel like I’m actually inside a cube, in three dimensions. At least my head is. In the cube, I mean. If it’s too big, I make it smaller. If it’s too small, I…I don’t know, inflate it or something, until it fits what I want.”

what do you want

“I want the edges of the cube to equal 15 when multiplied together.”

“Good! That’s very good. Give me your PADD.” Finn removed the stylus and pressed it into Jim’s right hand. “Now write it down, as much as you can, however you can.”

Jim dragged his gaze away from the tranquility of Finn’s right eye to stare stupidly down at his paralyzed fingers. “I can’t…it’s like it won’t, I mean, I can’t even move my hand.”

“That’s all right.” Finn looked down at the PADD for a moment, his eyes narrowed in thought, before smiling reassuringly. “Here, try this. He released Jim’s hand and transferred the stylus into it. “Try writing it with your left hand.”

“But that’s going to be even harder,” Jim objected. “I’m not left-handed.”

“Humor me.” He took Jim’s right wrist in his hands and massaged the pulse point with his thumb. ”Just give it a try.”

A few clumsy scrawls later, Jim dropped the stylus in defeat. “See? It looks like crap.”

“Don’t give up. Try writing backwards if you can’t write forwards.”

“How do I even do that?”

“Don’t think about how to do it. Just let your mind direct your hand.”

relax

yes

“Breathe in. Now out. And look right here.”

Jim closed his eyes, breathed in, and opened into the calm dark grey of the pre-dawn sea.
 

***
 

Calculate the rotational period of a binary star system if each star has a mass of 3.0x10^30 kg and the distance between them is 2.0x10^11 m.

And Jim transferred the stylus to his left hand, bent his head to the screen, and started to write.




 


 


The Plebe
, Chapter 3
Confession -- The Plan -- The Ice Man Cometh


 

“Damn, I love Tuesdays. Doughnut Day.” Mitchell elbowed Jim in the shoulder and squeezed in next to him at the mess table. “Eat up so we can get on over to the gym and get some sets in.”

Jim tightened his fingers around his coffee cup and didn't answer. Mitchell looked hard at him, taking an impressive bite out of one of the stack of doughnuts on his tray. “The hell is wrong with you? You look like your fucking dog just died.” He waved at Jim’s tray. “Look, man, you haven’t even touched your sandwich. You fucking love chicken salad. What’s up?”

Jim had kept a few of the details of his previous week’s meeting with Spock to himself, and he felt a sudden tautness high on his cheeks at the thought that it was likely time to come clean. Mitch deserved to know he’d soon be welcoming a new roommate.

“You remember my first day here, when Mr. Spock asked me to stay after class?”

“Yeah. When he told you to show your work. So?”

“He also said…” Jim finally took a sip of his coffee and pressed his lips together for a moment before finishing his answer. “He said I’m going to fail the test tomorrow.”

What?” The genuine disbelief in Mitchell’s rounded eyes was oddly cheering, the incredulity in his hushed voice even more so. He leaned in. “You listen to me,” he said slowly, emphasizing his words with multiple gentle pokes to Jim’s left pectoral. “There is no way you’ll fail. You’re about the smartest guy I've ever met. Spock should know that.”

Jim smiled weakly, grateful for Mitchell’s championship. “He does. At least I think he does. He knows I understand the material. But he said I have to show my work because I have to be able to justify myself to my CO. If I ever get that far.” He pushed away the tray, the chicken salad sandwich still untouched. “He told me to go find a tutor. To help me figure out how to, you know, demonstrate my process.”

Mitchell snorted. “’Demonstrate your process.’ Jesus, what a douche canoe. He’s probably just pissed that you’re smarter than him.” He tossed the remainder of his doughnut on the table and dusted off his hands. “Listen, don’t worry. I’ll help you. We’ll practice all that shit tonight. You’re a lock for tomorrow if all you need is to write out the mental math you already do.”

Jim’s shoulders slumped. “Thanks, but it’s not going to be that easy,” he sighed.

“Why the fuck not?”

“Because I, uh…I don’t know how to write it out. ‘All that shit.’” Mitchell smirked at the unaccustomed use of profanity but kept quiet as Jim continued. “He asked me to do it, to show him in his office, and I couldn't. I didn't even know where to begin.” He slurped the now cold coffee glumly. “I felt like a total idiot. Still do.”

“I don’t get it.” Mitchell leaned back in his seat and folded his arms, his forehead wrinkling. “Can’t you…I mean, are you telling me you don’t know how to write?”

“No, I do, I mean, my handwriting’s not great, but I can do it as long as it’s just words. And I’m good with keyboarding. But he asked me to do numbers, you know, equations. I can do them in my head but I don’t know how to take what’s in my head and put it on a screen.”

“How…how can you…gahhhh.” Mitchell shook his head rapidly from side to side, then pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes briefly. “Let’s go to the gym, man. I need to think. I can’t think sitting on my ass.” He rose and swung his bag over one shoulder before hefting both of their trays in a single fluid motion. “Come on.”

The coolness of the cloudy afternoon air was welcomingly refreshing after the crush and din of the mess hall. Mitchell strode slightly ahead of Jim, his brow furrowed as he gazed ahead at the athletic facility across the campus. After several moments he spoke up.

“So tell me this. How the hell did you get through high school without writing any math? Once you get to, like, geometry, you have to write a crap-load of proofs and shit.”

“I never had to.” Jim drove his hands deeper into his pockets as they walked. “All the tests I took just required keyboard entries.”

“Dude. Seriously? That’s dumb. You could cheat your way through if you hacked the lockdown. What kind of bullshit high school lets you take nothing but electronic tests?”

“I, uh, didn't actually go to a high school. I did the curriculum at home.”

Mitchell halted so suddenly that Jim ran into him from behind. He turned and glared.

“Wait…you were homeschooled?” He barked out a laugh at Jim’s abashed nod. “Fuck, that explains a lot about you.”

“It made the most sense. There’s a lot of work to do on a farm, so I’d have chores during the day and do my classes at night.”

“So you seriously never had an actual teacher. Before you came here, I mean. No, wait, don’t answer that.” Mitchell turned and resumed a brisk pace toward the athletics building, Jim following behind. “I don’t wanna hear about whatever your hillbilly girlfriend taught you behind the cowshed.”

“I didn't…”

“Shut up, shitkicker.”

They continued their trek in silence until they reached the doors of the athletic facility, where Mitchell turned and raised one hand to point an accusatory finger at Jim’s nose. “One thing. Just don't tell me it was your mom who homeschooled you. Do not tell me that, you big bleeding pussy.”

A genuine grin crinkled the corners of Jim’s eyes; Mitch was the big brother he would have had in Sam, if Sam had stayed. “I did most of it on my own. But, yeah, my mom helped. She has a degree in engineering physics and another in astrobiology.”

Mitchell rolled his eyes skyward. “Figures.”

 

***

 

Mitchell scowled as he sprawled on the locker room bench. Physical activity usually fostered his creative streak, but despite over an hour of training, he felt no closer to a solution for Jim’s predicament, and the unit test in astrophysics was now only twenty hours away. He wiped off the sweat running down his neck and chest and flung the towel on the floor in frustration.

“There’s a shit-ton of brainiacs at the AEC,” he panted, “and you couldn't find a single tutor there?”

“No,” Jim replied miserably from the bench opposite as he pulled off his socks. “Not one of them would help me. They all said I didn't need a tutor.” He didn't relate the details of the most hurtful of these rejections, that of one steel-haired woman who had squinted at him over the rims of her old-fashioned eyeglasses and told him, bluntly to the point of rudeness, that he was wasting her time. Which would be better spent, she had added acerbically, with students who genuinely need help, not grade-grubbers just looking to bump an A into an A+.

He sighed and dropped his face into his hands. “The exam is tomorrow. And I can’t show Mr. Spock how I solve problems,” he mumbled through his fingers. “I’m going to fail, my first test at the Academy and I’m going to fail.”

Mitchell’s expression hardened. “You’re not gonna fail, my man. That’s not gonna happen.” He studied the despondent figure in front of him in the almost angry silence that followed until a sudden light appeared in his eyes. “Wait, I got it, I got it!”

“What?”

Mitchell ignored Jim’s hopeless tone and sprang up to pace the short length of the bench. “AEC tutors are either instructors who teach the class or older cadets who've already taken it and done really well. Right?”

Jim shrugged. “I guess.”

“So of course they’re not gonna be any help. You don’t need help understanding it!” Mitchell quit his pacing and planted his hands on his naked hips, beaming triumphantly as he gazed down at Jim.

Confused at his obvious elation, Jim shook his head. “I don’t see where you’re going with this. I mean, who else could help me with what I do need? Aside from a tutor?”

“That’s just it. Listen, we've been looking in the wrong place. We need to find you someone who's not just book-smart like a tutor, but someone who's a fucking genius like you.” The pacing resumed. “You guys think alike, you know, you understand your own kind.”

The gloom lightened, a little. “You think so? That we could find someone who thinks like me?”

“Yeah, but we won’t find them in the AEC. We gotta smoke them out, you know what I’m saying?”

“You mean, go where people like me spend their time?”

“Exactly.”

Jim could feel his own excitement growing. “So we hit the library? Or maybe a theoretical physics lab?”

“No, you fucktard. The game room.”

Jim was stunned into silence, the look of dismay on his face wringing a cackle from Mitchell. “Come on, don’t be pissed,” he laughed, pleased with the brilliance of his plan. “Gamers are like you. That's why they're fucking gamers. Their minds are too weird live in the real world like the rest of us, so they spend all their time in fake ones.”

“Mitch, listen. I don’t think…” Jim took a breath, fearful of offending his friend, but certain that he was on the wrong scent. “I think it’d be a waste of time to go wait around the game room. I really don’t think there’s going to be someone there who has a lot in common with me.”

“Why not, Einstein?”

“I, uh…I don’t play games. I never have.”

“Let me guess. No time because of all your pussy farm chores.”

“Yeah, mostly. And reading.”

Gary Mitchell was not a complicated man, and Jim was, despite his roommate’s recently voiced opinion, not a fucktard, so the fist that swung toward him with the intent to further bruise his shoulder was entirely expected. The reflexive contraction of his obliques to avoid the punch, however, was not. Mitchell missed, his momentum pitching him off balance; he skidded slightly on the wet tile floor, twisting in the direction of his swing as he fell, the back of his head making shockingly loud contact with the edge of Jim’s bench.

“Ow, fuck!” Mitchell glared up accusingly at Jim from his awkward position on the floor. “You should be a gamer, you asshole. You wouldn't be wound up so tight if you played now and then.”

Jim snickered into his fist, amused at the sight of Mitchell’s genitalia flopping dramatically as his ass hit the floor. The grin vanished a moment later; Mitchell noticed the amber eyes widening. “What is it?”

“Mitch…you’re hurt.” He gestured to the back of his own head, and Mitchell mirrored his pantomime to draw back a bloodied hand.

“Oh, great.” He looked over his shoulder to the drops of blood that merged together to form an alarmingly large and still-growing pool. He paled slightly. “Help me up.”

Jim stood and hauled Mitchell to his feet before retrieving the discarded towel to press it against the back of his head. The thin fabric darkened immediately, an escaping trickle of red snaking its way down the back of Mitchell’s neck. He removed the towel, folded it into a tight pad, and re-positioned it against the now sticky hair.

“We should get you over to the clinic. It’s a pretty big gash.”

You’re a pretty big gash. Grab me another towel; I don’t want the whole campus seeing my junk.”

Jim doubted there was much mystery surrounding Mitchell’s junk, but complied.

 

***

 

Leonard Horatio McCoy had left an established medical practice to join Starfleet, so aside from being older than most recruits, he had already accumulated several years of clinical experience before being assigned to the Academy Student Health Center. To say he had seen it all, at this point in his career, would be an overstatement, but his expertise being far beyond that of a mere stitcher and ditcher, he gave the two barefoot and nearly naked young men that entered the clinic only a cursory glance before returning to the focus of his attention, the compound fracture of the lower leg of a grey-faced girl still in her lacrosse jersey and pads.

“Chris!” he shouted over his shoulder. “You got customers.” He gestured with his head to the newcomers: “Station two. Over there.”

Jim recognized the willowy blond woman who appeared in the clinic doorway from his arrival on campus the previous week; he also recognized the sour expression that he now tried to dispel with a polite nod. “Ma’am. My friend hit his head.”

“I can see that.” She elbowed him out of the way and pulled the towel off; Mitchell yelped as it stretched the raw edges of the wound, bringing a fresh spurt of blood. “I’ll need the glue gun and a cc of lidocaine,” she said to herself, then looked sharply at Jim. “Hold that towel back on there. I’ll be right back.”

Glue gun? Mitchell mouthed to Jim, and despite his concern at the additional bleeding, Jim gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. It wasn't long before Christine re-entered the room bearing a tray that held a small gun-like instrument and a tiny hypospray resting on an impressive bed of cotton gauze.

“Oh, shit,” moaned Mitchell. “I hate shots. I fucking hate them.” He twisted his face up to look imploringly at Christine as she dabbed at his leaking head. “Can’t you do it without a shot?”

“If I do, you’ll be off this table screaming,” she said crisply. “I don’t have the manpower to hold you down.” She pushed his chin away from her with one finger, rotating his face back toward Jim, and directed the hypospray at the back of his head. “Now keep still.”

A squeaking whimper escaped him at the hypospray’s first gentle hiss. Jim leaned in, making sure the anxious brown eyes were fixed on him and that Christine’s were not.

Now who’s the big bleeding pussy?” he whispered into Mitchell’s ear.

Mitch gaped at him for a moment, disbelieving, before breaking into a roar of laughter. Christine frowned slightly but took advantage of his distraction to complete the desensitization, then started to close the wound with careful, efficient sweeps of the tissue fuser. By the time Mitchell’s mirth had died down into the occasional chuckle and a swipe of his knuckles across his tearing eyes, she was packing the sealed wound with gauze. “Good job,” she said as she dropped the tissue fuser on the waiting tray and stripped off her gloves. “Overnight observation for you, mister. You can go back to business as usual in the morning if you check out all right. Until then, peace and quiet. And some clothes, please.” She pulled a stack of scrubs from a drawer under the biobed and tossed them onto Mitchell’s crotch. “You, too," she said archly to Jim. "That towel’s not hiding much.”

Jim gratefully slid into a pair of scrub bottoms before helping Mitchell pull a shirt over his bandaged head. When his friend offered neither verbal nor physical resistance to his awkward attempt at tugging the pants over his legs, Jim knew that Mitch wasn’t himself. He perched on the edge of the biobed and grasped Mitchell’s hand.

“Are you going to be all right? I could stay here with you if you want.”

“No, no, that’s dumb. I’ll be fine. Go ahead and check out the game room like I said.” He groaned as Christine guided him downward to lie on the biobed, his head sinking into the pillow. “Find yourself a genius. Or a shrink.” He yawned as his eyelids fluttered closed.

Across the room, Dr. McCoy’s other patient was also dosing, her broken leg now encased in a plasticast. He caught Mitchell’s sleepy pronouncement and raised an eyebrow, then moved toward them as he wiped his hands with a surgical towel. “Saw you drive up last Tuesday,” he said pleasantly to Jim. “How’s your first week been?”

Jim looked up into the steady blue gaze, and the polite lie he had been about to deliver evaporated. “Not that good. I’m about to fail my first astrophysics test.” He glanced at a lightly snoring Mitchell before continuing. “Mitch was going to help me find a tutor.”

“Or a psychiatrist,” Christine interjected as she dumped a mound of bloody gauze into an orange biohazard bag. Her tone was tart but the expression on her face was noticeably more pleasant than when they had entered the clinic. Jim felt a tug of hope.

“That’s right. Someone who can help me get what’s in my head down in writing.”

McCoy pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Son, we’re clinicians, not astrophysicists. But we do have someone here who might be able to point you in the right direction.” He moved to the door and called down the corridor beyond. “Finn! You got a minute?”

 

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The Plebe
. Chapter 2
Day One -- Tea and Little Sympathy




“Grab that table, at two-o-clock. It has the best stations.”

A firm hand clamped onto the base of Jim's neck to steer him toward a table near the center of the lecture hall; he tried, with some success, not to trip over the dozens of booted feet that seemed to come between him and the target toward which they navigated in tandem. Having reached their goal, he laid his bag on the table and slid into one of the chairs, only to be shoved over to the adjoining station as Mitchell scooted into the seat in his place.

“This one’s mine; I got my porn all set up on the station. That one’s clean, I think. I can get you the hack code if you want to, you know, customize it.”

“Your…?” Jim bit back the inquiry almost as soon as it formed; he had known Mitchell for less than twenty-four hours but had already learned that asking a question every time something confused him would earn him an eyeroll, a disbelieving exclamation of Jesus fucking Christ, and occasionally, as had been the case the previous evening in the mess hall when Jim asked why he should avoid the broccoli parmesan, a stinging punch to the shoulder. He had already endured a second blow earlier that morning when Mitchell found him packing two books into his shoulder bag.

“What the fuck, man, you bringing books to class?”

“Yeah, I might have time to do some…ow, Mitch, cut it out!” He had zipped the bag quickly and ducked out the door of their room before Mitchell could pull the offending books out, the persistent ache in his deltoid a reminder that, at least for the present, learning might be less painfully accomplished by observation rather than by inquiry. The screen before him now proved resistant to this strategy, however, as it yielded nothing to his gaze other than a slightly blurred Starfleet insigne and a steadily blinking cursor.

“You enter your username, family name plus any initials, so you’d be kirkjt, OK now enter your ID number…now say your name out loud so it can voice-print you…no, dumbass, your name, not your username…OK, you’re in. Sign out when you’re done by saying ‘Exit.’” Mitchell thumped him approvingly on the back. “Good job, brah. Do that like a million times and they’ll let you graduate.”

“Mind if we sit down?”

“Ladies!” Mitchell sprang up and gestured suavely to the two remaining open seats. “Please.”

Jim looked up at the new arrivals and recognized the girl from the other day, the one who had been friendly to him in front of the Admin building, and her lively redheaded companion. He rose in greeting, tugging slightly on the jacket of his uniform to straighten it, and flushed nervously as the latter looked him up and down before aiming a deliberately enchanting smile at him.

“Hi, James Kirk. I’m Gaila.” The eyes that stared into Jim’s were sky blue, direct and inquisitive, and in spite of his discomfort at her scrutiny, he found himself grinning back as he wondered how it was she already knew his name.

“I’m pleased to meet you.”

Her friend reached out one hand and he instinctively enfolded it with his own, noting the strength beneath its softness. “I’m Nyota Uhura. Welcome to the Academy.”

“Thank you,” he smiled. “Jim Kirk. How do you do.”

He bowed slightly over her hand, oblivious to Gaila’s wide-eyed appraisal of his backside as he did so. Mitchell caught the look and guffawed as Gaila sank into her seat and pulled off her cap to fan her face with it. “Mitch,” she breathed, her voice low and urgent, “please. Please.”

“Don’t worry, baby girl, I got you.” He patted the last remaining empty seat as he winked at Gaila. “Uhura, he’s here. Time to rock.”

She kept her hand in Jim’s as she sat, pressing it slightly before releasing it, and frowned at Gaila in warning; she had noted the exchange between the two and found it unaccountably annoying even as she herself had stared at Jim a little longer than was necessary for a polite greeting. The fitted cadet reds he wore revealed what the shapeless barn jacket from the previous day could not: a surprisingly muscular and broad-shouldered frame that, while still lean from immaturity, held a tantalizing promise of strength yet to come. And as he turned slightly away from her to sit, she had to admit that one could well understand Gaila’s sentiment with respect to his ass.

She removed her own cap, smoothing the straight black hair beneath as she forced the frown off of her face, and looked expectantly toward the front of the room. Jim followed her gaze to where it rested on a tall, slim figure whose measured entrance silenced the dozens of chattering students that now filled the hall. In contrast to the sea of red uniforms before him, his was black, as severe and uncompromising as the curveless slant of his eyebrows and the perfectly neutral, almost wooden, expression on his face as he approached the lecturer’s podium and surveyed the room.

“A Vulcan!”

Jim had only murmured the words, pleasantly dazed from this first encounter with an individual of so exotic a species, but the dark head immediately swiveled toward him, the black eyes beneath those brows boring into his across the crowded lecture hall. Discomfort prickled the back of his neck until he was finally released, an eternity later, by a curt nod, and he exhaled with relief as the instructor’s gaze dropped to his own station.

“Is he really the instructor? He looks too young.”

He had spoken in what he hoped was, to the lecturer at least, an inaudible whisper, his head angled toward Mitchell who pointedly ignored him to type on his touchscreen.

mitchellgs: look whos talking shut up asshat

Jim blinked at the screen before raising his eyes to Mitchell’s, stifling a huff of laughter at the comical scowl of exasperation he saw there before forcing his own expression into one of what he hoped was calm anticipation.

“We will begin,” intoned the instructor, “with a problem based on last week’s lecture. Please refer to your screens as I read the problem aloud.”

The smooth baritone was definitely not the voice of a child. Jim straightened and fixed his attention on the problem that now flashed on his station’s screen.

A binary star has a major axis of orbit of 100 AU and a period of 100 solar years. Calculate the masses of the two stars if they have maximum Doppler velocities of 15 km/s and 30 km/s.

The silence in the hall dissolved into urgent whispering as the occupants of each table grouped tightly together to discuss the problem. Across their table, Gaila leaned in to purr at Jim, affording him a view of the impressive cleavage visible through the collar of her slightly unzipped uniform jacket.

“He likes to set it up as a competition, to motivate students to work on the problem instead of slacking off. Your team gets points for being the first to get to the right answer, and the table with the most points at the end of the week gets a bonus on the next unit exam.”

Jim nodded, tearing his eyes away from the display before him and looking down at his own screen to type his answer. Hitting Submit Response caused the problem to fade from view; by the groans that floated throughout the hall, he guessed that it had disappeared from all the other stations as well. He looked up to smile at Mitchell with satisfaction, only to be met with a glare of what was now genuine irritation and a painful backhanded slap that landed squarely on his left nipple. To his right, Nyota laid a hand on his knee. “We’re supposed to work on it together,” she murmured in his ear, the reproof soothed by a reassuring squeeze.

“But…she said we have to be fast.”

Nyota shook her head. “Not at the expense of teamwork.” She tipped her chin toward the front of the lecture hall where the instructor was tapping on the lectern’s touchscreen. Jim swallowed, feeling an odd flutter in his chest as his entry flashed onto the large screen at the front of the room.

8.34 * 10^30 kg, 16.7 * 10^30 kg

The instructor glanced at the screen for a moment before turning to look at their table, one eyebrow raised in what Jim surmised was disbelief. He kept his own gaze steady and hoped he wasn't visibly sweating as the flutter turned into an uncomfortable pressure at the instructor’s words.

“I expected the answer to be expressed in terms of solar mass.”

mitchellgs: penalty for wrong anserw thanks a lot u fuckkup

“However,” he continued, “if one includes that value in the calculation, to three significant figures, the answer shown here is correct.” The eyebrow lowered back into impassivity as Uhura nudged Jim with her shoulder in silent congratulations.

“We will proceed with today’s topic: astrometric binaries for which only one star is visible. In these situations, one can still calculate the combined mass if certain assumptions are made…”

mitchellgs: how the hell u do that so fast

kirkjt: shut up asshat

 

***

 

“The unit test will take place next Wednesday. My office hours have been singularly underpopulated; I suggest you make plans to visit me before then if you are having difficulty with the material. Good day.”

The lecture hall rumbled with the sounds of bodies rising from chairs and bags being slung around shoulders. Mitchell stretched ostentatiously as he rose and stifled a yawn. “Lunchtime. Fuck yeah.” He ran a hand through his hair, spiking it with his fingers before pulling his cap on. “Let’s get on over to the mess before they run out of brownies.”

Jim grinned and reached for his own bag just as the instructor spoke again, his voice penetrating the din like a laser. “Mr. Kirk. Please remain.”

They all froze in surprise. Jim caught the silent exchange between Gaila, whose forehead wrinkled in a questioning frown, and Nyota, whose raised eyebrows and slight shrug of bewilderment only fed the tension in his gut as he nodded, suddenly dry-mouthed, and set his bag back down. Mitchell seized his forearm and gripped it tightly.

“You’re okay, man. I’ll be waiting for you in the mess hall.”

His roommate’s expression definitely did not project okay. Jim tugged on his uniform jacket and waited as the lecture hall emptied. At the front of the room, the instructor did the same, his taciturn features revealing nothing.

Spock. His name is Spock.

Jim mentally practiced saying the name, rehearsing the proper inflection as he gazed covertly at the Vulcan and wondered again how he could be, with his smooth, unlined face, old enough to serve as an Academy instructor.

The last of the students left the room, and the instructor wasted no time.

"Mr. Kirk.”

“Yes, Mr. Spock.”

Oh, that came out so wrong. He winced as he heard himself mispronounce the simple name and felt a flush of perspiration on his palms.

“It is my practice to enjoy a cup of tea after class. I request that you join me.”

The words were congenial but the alien face was curiously expressionless, the disparity casting doubt in Jim’s mind as to how enjoyable this appointment would actually be. He wiped his hands on his pants.

“Yes. Sir, I mean. Yes, sir.”

Spock ignored his incoherence, or so he hoped, and moved toward the door, clearly expecting Jim to follow the wordless command. He did so, snatching up his bag and cap and stumbling a little in his haste to hurry after. Despite the Vulcan’s apparently easy pace, Jim found he had to almost trot to keep up with him, his bag slapping uncomfortably against his hip as they exited the building toward the library annex a few hundred meters away. The midmorning sun that had been so welcoming when he and Mitchell had crossed the same rolling green an hour earlier now shone hot on his back where a trickle of sweat was already pooling at the waistband of his trousers. He was nearly panting with exertion by the time they reached the library entrance, grateful that the lack of conversation gave him a few moments to steady his breath as he followed Spock through the welcome coolness of the library to the maze of narrow corridors that housed faculty offices at its rear.

A wall of dry heat smacked Jim in the face as Spock opened the door to the small room that served as his office. He motioned for Jim to precede him inside and seat himself in one of the two chairs that faced each other across a rectangular desk. Several more moments passed in silence as Spock prepared two cups of tea from the brewer on one side of the desk while Jim stared at the only other piece of furniture in the room, a coat rack in a back corner, and willed himself to stop sweating.

The fragrance of the tea that Spock finally pushed across the desk toward him was pleasant enough; its flavor was not. Jim fought not to choke on the mildewy taste, managing to swallow what he hoped was a sufficiently polite quantity before placing his cup back on the desk and clasping his hands, waiting while Spock unhurriedly sipped his own drink. The combination of steaming tea and the oppressive heat of the office was almost unbearable. Finally, Spock spoke.

“Tell me, Mr. Kirk, how you judge your performance in class today.”

Jim frowned a little as he recalled the rest of the lecture and the problems embedded within its contents. “I think I did pretty well. I answered all the questions.”

“That is correct. However, today’s participation grade for you and everyone at your table will be entered as ‘Fail.’”

Despite the heat, Jim’s hands suddenly went cold. “Fail? But I thought…Didn’t I get the right answers?”

“Indeed you did. Your computational skills are superior.” Somehow it didn’t seem like a compliment.

“Then why…?”

“As I stated, your responses to the problems were appropriate. However, I require that you demonstrate your reasoning processes and methods of calculation. In none of the instances in today’s class did you do so.”

Jim blinked in disbelief, a knot of discomfort forming in his gut. “But I don’t understand why all that matters if I know how to do the problem and get the right answer.”

Spock sipped his tea, his eyes on Jim’s over the rim of his cup. He set the cup down.

“Cadet, why are you here?”

“You mean, here at the Academy?”

“Yes.”

The knot grew; he had not expected an interrogation.

“To serve on a starship. Explore the galaxy.”

“To command a ship of your own?”

“Yeah, eventually.”

“Then imagine this. You encounter a new star system with a planet that you suspect may be capable of supporting life. You ask your science officer to analyze the prudence of transporting down to this planet to explore it. Do you accept his word that it is safe to do so without his providing any evidence to support his claim?”

“If I trust him, yeah. Sure.”

“You would entrust him with your life in that situation?”

“Yes.”

“And the lives of your entire landing party, not just your own?”

Jim was silent at that. Spock nodded and took another sip of tea.

“You see the difficulty. The young are prepared to risk their own lives for so little. But as a commander, you must take into account that you are responsible for everyone under your command. To stake their lives on the word of one person, no matter how competent, is foolhardy. You must therefore demand that everyone under your command justify his or her assessment of every situation. Someday your commander will in turn demand information, or an opinion, or analysis, from you. For you to supply it without any justification puts your commander in the situation of having to take your word at face value in what could very well be a life or death situation. To do so would be, again, foolhardy.” He set his cup down and pushed his PADD toward Jim. “Demonstrate for me, please, how you arrived at your answer for this problem.”

The first question of the day floated up at him from the screen. A binary star has a major axis of orbit of 100 AU and a period of 100 solar years…

“Well, I used Kepler’s third law, then the mass ratio equation.”

“That is the correct strategy. But I requested that you demonstrate, not report, your solution.” Spock tapped the PADD’s attached stylus with one slender finger. “Please, write out the process you utilized.”

Jim picked up the stylus and twirled it between his fingers as he stared at the PADD. Spock waited, observing the initial flush in Jim’s cheeks drain away to leave him pale and sweating. Finally he set the stylus down.

“I can’t.”

One straight, black eyebrow shot upward.

“I mean, I can’t…write it down. I just do it in my head. I don’t know how to write it,” he finished lamely.

“Indeed.” Spock reached across the desk to retrieve the PADD and tap on its surface before returning it to Jim. “What is your response to this question?”

What is the approximate main sequence luminosity of a star of 2 solar masses?

He watched Jim pinch his lower lip between one thumb and forefinger as he scanned the screen briefly before looking up, his eyes unfocused and darkening to green as the pupils dilated with effort. A sweep of the long lashes closed those eyes for a moment, then reversed to reopen them, clarity returned. “Eleven. Eleven solar luminosities, I mean. Approximately. It’s closer to eleven point three-one-four if you want more precision.”

Spock blinked twice; the entire process had taken less than four seconds. “Tell me how you arrived at that answer.”

“By using the mass luminosity relation.”

“Again, correct. Please write down your calculations.”

Jim reached for the stylus, his hand hovering over it for a moment before dropping back into his lap, his stomach leaden with defeat. “I’m sorry. I just…I really don’t know how. I can’t explain it.”

“Fascinating.” Spock poured himself another cup of tea and sipped it reflectively. “You must correct this deficit before the test next week, or you will surely fail it as well.”

“Wait, you mean…I’ll fail the exam if I can’t show my work? Even if I get the right answers?”

“That is correct.”

“But…” Jim bit back the complaint before it left his mouth and forced himself to change tack. “How do I learn how to do that? Show my...process, I mean.”

“I imagine,” Spock remarked as he placed his cup back on the desk, “that there are any number of physics tutors who are available to help you. You might visit the Academic Enhancement Center on the second floor of this building.” He rose and straightened his uniform jacket. “I suggest you do so without delay.”

“Okay, uh…thank you.” Jim stood as well at the obvious dismissal and moved to leave before turning back toward Spock. “Oh, wait. I have another question.”

“Proceed.”

“You said that everyone at my table would also get a failing grade for the problems we did today?”

“That is correct. Collaborative work is an important part of my class. As you saw fit to answer all the questions yourself, you robbed your colleagues of the chance to demonstrate their own learning. That they in turn chose to abdicate their responsibility for answering the questions by allowing you alone to do so merits their failing grades.”

Jim closed his eyes at the memory of Gaila’s excited hugs, the last question of the day earning him a press of her lush lips against his cheek. “Sir, I…I respectfully request that you not fail my teammates. I was happy that they let me answer the questions myself, I wanted them to. I think maybe...I liked the attention. I wanted to impress them.”

He faced down the impassive gaze, his gut rolling with nervousness, until the dark head finally inclined slightly toward him.

“Mr. Kirk, I shall consider it.”



 

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