AN: Well, this is the end! Finally! After two years and change, this is the Very Last Chapter.

...Yeah I feel a little bit weird about it too.

I don't have any plans for writing another Trek fic anytime soon, which doesn't actually mean anything, but there you go. (Side note: I saw a description for the new movie, and it made me go HHHNNN with feels, so! We'll see, I guess.) The nonsense popping around my head at the moment is this...GIANT Doctor Who/BBC Sherlock crossover that addresses the problem of "If Harriet Jones was supposed to be the Prime Minister that led England into its golden age, which kicked off the First Great and Bountiful Human Empire, what happened when the Tenth decided she shouldn't be Prime Minister anymore and told everyone she looked tired?". The answer includes John Watson, because I love John Watson, and a few other surprise guests.

Or else a bunch of small and/or complicated Avengers fics because Tonyyyy.

More than that, though, I'm actively writing a YA novel that should turn into a four-book series starring a fourteen-year-old named James Dire who comes from a long line of international people of mystery, which is why, of course, someone's trying to kill him (just like they killed the others). It also stars his cousin, sixteen-year-old Rick Johnson, who knows nothing about any of that until James moves in. At which point Rick's life gets kind of... interesting.

For now, though, have fun with this chapter! The full title of the chapter song is Home (Phillip Phillips Tribute) by a band called Settle Down. Look it up, it's kind of perfect.

It was such an honor to go on this adventure with all of you. Please enjoy, and let me know what you thought!

PS If I do post more fic, it'll probably be on An Archive Of Our Own (AO3). My name there is distractedKat, and currently I have three teensy Young Justice fics centered on Robin because that was one of my MAJOR distractions when writing this. If that transition does actually happen, I'll warn about it in my profile. See you there! Or see you in print. One of those two ;)

Kisses to all of you!

West of the Moon:


Jim opened his eyes.

Wherever they were, it was grey. And chilly. Georgia was fussing at him, as usual, brandishing a tricorder in place of his habitual barrage of hyposprays. Spock was-


The Vulcan's fingers were still pressed against Jim's temple and cheek, and he had to fight a strong impulse to push his face further into that soft hand.

I would not mind if you did, he heard murmured in his thoughts.

Jim shut his eyes again, shaking his head minutely. Stop, he thought at the gentle sense of other in his mind. I'm awake now. Time to go.

Spock sat up, retracting his hand (and his mind) with a faint impression of reluctance. "It is satisfying to see you functioning properly again, Captain," he said blandly.

Jim snorted, but Georgia cut him off with a snarled, "I believe the trained medical professional will say when he's functioning properly, thanks so much for your input though."

"I think," Jim said, trying to sit up even while Georgia shoved him back into the chair. Jim wrinkled his nose at his doctor, who ignored him with practiced ease and began to take his vitals manually, comparing them to the data on the tricorder. "I think," the captain continue to his First, "that our priority should be to get out of here, find out who's holding us and why, determine whether or not they're dangerous, and get back to our ship."

"Aye, Captain," Spock agreed.

"Bones?" Jim prompted.

"I will agree," he said grumpily, taking a step back, "very provisionally, that you two do seem fine."

"Aw, us two, you do care about Spock."

"You shut up," Bones said, stabbing a finger at him. "Spock has given me less trouble in the whole time I've known him than you give me in a slow week. And yes, that's includin' the period of time when he lost his damned mind. He might be a green-blooded, sour-tempered, overly-logical sonofabitch, but at least he's not on a suicide mission that is-ironically I might add-gonna drive the rest of us into an early grave."

"About that," Jim began, heaving himself onto his feet.

They were interrupted by a door opening abruptly in the wall. Jim's hand jerked back in an instinctive grab for the gun he usually kept tucked at the small of his back.

He'd left it on the Enterprise. The transportation techs could tell when it was there, and their questions were hard to answer, especially with the whole crew perpetually on edge from Jim's misadventures.


What had to be their captors stepped into the room. It was a trio of aliens, all angles and dark, humanoid but tall and so thin. Their limbs seemed stretched, elongated, their fingers delicate nearly to the point of fragility. Fine cloths dyed in rich tones draped over their bodies in intricate twists. Their eyes were huge and almond-shaped, pale as nothing else on their bodies was.

The alien standing point stretched one hand out toward them, palm up, causing a slight scuffle as Jim and Spock both tried to step forward to protect their small group. It curled all but its forefinger into a spindly fist, until it was pointing at Jim. Spock took advantage of Jim's surprise by shoving Jim back behind him. "You need not devise a method to get out of here," it said in an airy, light voice set in an unexpected low octave. "We see your awakening and release you. Who we are is the Taina. We hold you to examine your essence in our point of turning. We are not dangerous. We will return you to your ship."

The Starfleet personnel stared at them. "... Okay," Jim said at last. "That was... informative? Thanks, we usually have to- Uh, well, it usually isn't that easy."

"The Taina do not set out to cause harm."

"Uh, okay." Jim glanced at Spock, then at Georgia, neither of whom seemed all that excited about how forthcoming their... hosts... appeared to be. "If you're in the question-answering mood, maybe you can humor me here a bit. What is a point of turning?"

The spokesalien shifted its hand until the long, fine finger was indicating one of the chairs Jim and Spock had been in. "The point of turning is a psychic program used to locate and examine moments in life when the direction is changed, permanently."

"Why did you use it on us?"

"To satisfy our curiosity."

"... Not very forthcoming, are you? Okay then, why were you curious?"

"We have not seen your like before. We were curious to see what you would have as points of turning."

"And Bones?" Jim indicated his doctor with a jerk of his hand. "Why didn't you examine his... point of turning?"

"Georgia-Bones McCoy is your physical health monitor and correction specialist. We do not know your physiology. It seemed prudent to leave him unexamined as a precaution."

Jim felt his jaw clench. "How do you know those names."

The Taina brushed one finger against its own hairless head. "You give the knowledge to us. We do not seek it. It simply is."

"Passive telepaths," Spock observed, the tight clench of his fingers behind his back giving the lie to the utter calm of his voice. "Do not worry. It should only be a surface touch, Captain."

"That's real comforting," Georgia muttered. "Thanks tons. I'm content as a cat in a sunbeam now."

"How did you take us?" Jim asked.

"We detected movement energy. We had not detected it before. The results of the energy were moved to this location for observation."

"So you picked up the energy signal from when we beamed down and... what? Teleported us again? Here?"

"That is not inaccurate," the Taina said.

"Then why haven't our people beamed us out of here?" Georgia demanded. "They know we're missin' by now, they have to. Why are we still here?"

The Taina motioned to the high ceiling. "Our building materials are synthesized to prevent extraction."

"Well that makes sense," Jim said dryly. "Otherwise they'd just be... like, teleporting each other all over the place without anyone's consent. And that wouldn't be bothersome."

"You are disturbed by our method of transportation," the Taina observed.

Jim clenched his jaw again.

"The captain does not object to your method of transportation," Spock corrected. "It is similar to a particularly common method of transportation among our own people, as you must have concluded from our arrival upon your world. Rather, he objects now-and in most circumstances-to intelligent life forms being moved against their will or without their consent. Had you asked it of us, many among our crew would have willingly volunteered to sit in your machines and provide you with data. However it occurs on your world, the 'points of turning', as you call them, are rarely benign for residents of the Federation of Planets. By taking us without our agreement and subjecting us to this process, you may have unwittingly brought to conscious thought wounds from the past that can only cause more distress. Regardless of your intent, it was... quite thoughtless to inflict upon a human. You might have done grievous harm."

"Thank you, Commander Spock," Jim said shortly. "That will be sufficient."

Spock settled beside him, projecting an aura of calm that Jim saw right through. He seemed, to Jim (who knew him), a suppressed type of satisfied, which was... fair. He'd managed to speak his mind, anyway. Why not be satisfied?

"We meant no harm," the Taina said. "We will guide you from the building. Your crew may retrieve you. We will not request further contact."

"I'm sure that's not necessary," Jim said. "Completely severing contact doesn't serve either of our best intentions. Our purpose here is discover new worlds and peoples; you fit both those profiles. We may not have started out on the right foot, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from our... assumptions and move forward. Starfleet is all about coming to understand differences." He offered the aliens his best smile, which might or might not help him, depending on cultural norms. "No one was hurt, and Spock was right. Most of the science department would probably love to take part of your... project. Some of my crew might be just as interested as you in finding out what their points of turning were. What do you say? Start over with us." He stepped forward, keeping the thought of handshakes, and what they were, what they meant to humans, at the front of his mind. "I'm Captain Kirk of the Starfleet flagship Enterprise. These are my crewmates, Chief Medical Officer McCoy and First Officer Spock. It's nice to meet you."

The Taina stepped forward, carefully wrapping its long, slender fingers around Jim's hand. "I am H'nell, what you might call Chief Scientist of Taina. I am the First Leader of my people.

"It is also nice to meet you."


It became one of the most lucrative trade agreements in Starfleet history.

For one thing, the Taina homeworld was rich in minerals the Federation always needed, including dilithium crystals. Even more advantageous were the terms the Taina set in order for the Federation to be allowed to mine the rich veins: They wanted Federation citizens to visit, and they wanted access to the technology needed to travel the stars. The Taina had known for generations that other peoples existed in the stars, but so few of them were interested in the engineering of space-worthy vessels that they had barely broken free of their own atmosphere. Starfleet had ships but needed dilithium; the Taina had dilithium aplenty but no means of using it.

They were, to put it plainly, a match made in the stars.

Another beneficial aspect to the partnership was the Taina's fascination with the multitude of peoples and cultures represented on the Enterprise. Jim's crew, somewhat predictably, were equally fascinated by both the Taina and their particular brand of technology. Humans had a natural desire to peer into their own consciousness, and that seemed to be a focus the Taina were singularly well-equipped to explore. The ship's psychologists, perhaps more than anyone else, spent hours in close discussion with the Taina, trying to see if their technology could be adapted to help patients who otherwise couldn't be reached by modern Federation advancements.

Jim didn't sit in on those conversations.

Spock, meanwhile, always seemed to be around, hovering at the edge of Jim's vision even when they weren't on duty. He ate all his meals near Jim, until Jim just got in the habit of making him eat with him, and then that became the norm. Georgia joined them when he could, but the medical team's obsession with the Taina was keeping the CMO very busy.

When Jim was exercising, Spock "happened to be passing by" and offered to spot for him, then volunteered to continue his hand-to-hand training. When Jim was in the rec room or observation decks for a bit of reading or just to hide from increasingly-rapturous reports from his young crew, Spock was either already there or arrived shortly after, ostensibly to meditate.

The whole thing was embarrassingly transparent.

"I'm not going to disappear," Jim finally said one night while they sat together off-shift, settled on the observation deck and watching the planet-the Taina called it Valstek-turn beneath them. Spock straightened an impossible degree beside him, doing the Vulcan equivalent of stiffening because he knew he was caught. Jim glanced at his profile for a moment before turning back to Valstek. "What I told you before, in the... dream. The point of turning. I said I'd give you time to teach me. To help me stop burning. I don't know if you can do it," he admitted. "I think it might be too late. I've been burning too long. Hell, I've been actively adding to the fire for... Well. A long time. Which, I don't even know why I'm telling you, you saw for yourself. But. I promised, didn't I? That I'd let you try? So I won't go. Even though it'd be easy, it would be so easy, I don't think you even realize- That's not the point," Jim said, sighing as he slouched into the wall they were sitting against. "The point is, you can stop following me around. I won't leave until you teach me or unless you fail. So calm down, okay?"

After a pause, Spock said, "I do not know how you discovered my observations. By my calculations based upon average levels of situational awareness in Terrans, I was quite subtle."

"Well, sure," Jim agreed with a companionable shrug, "but I'm not the average Terran, am I? I spent a good percentage of my life hunted in one way or another. I had to increase my situational awareness by a lot just to survive, never mind the levels of paranoia it took to trick all those assholes for so long."

Spock made a small noise of agreement. "Jim," he began in a low, cautious voice. "If I may pose a question."

"Shoot," Jim said. He winced a little when Spock stared at him in blatant (for a Vulcan) disapproval. "Sorry, bad colloquialism for this situation. Uh, go ahead. Ask away."

"Before, when you told me about Tarsus IV, you implied that you joined the mafia shortly after you returned to Earth and were released from the mental health facility. But you could not have been more than fourteen or fifteen at that time."

"Ah." Jim stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankle. "You probably want to know how I could join the mob at fifteen-nearly sixteen though, they kept me a while-and still have been an FBI agent. Which I was," he added, recrossing his legs. "That wasn't a lie. I got out on my own at just about sixteen and started setting up a cover as a street-smart runaway looking to escape an abusive father."

"Jimmy Georgeson," Spock said. "The last name from our confrontation in the ready room that I did not recognize."

"Yeah," Jim agreed with another shrug. "Not very subtle, I know, but it was the first one I made up on my own. The Federation guys said the trick to a good alias is to make it sound like something you're used to replying to. Like with Tiberius James. They were already part of my name, so I was used to hearing them. Jimmy worked because, y'know, Jim. And Georgeson-"

"Son of George," Spock said. "It was cleverly done."

"Nah." Jim shook his head a bit. "It was just what I had at the time. Anyway, street waif, hungry and desperate but not so desperate as to go home. Desperate, in fact, not to have to go home. The perfect mark for the mob. All I had to do was 'accidentally' fall into being helpful to one of the soldiers once or twice-warn them about police I'd called to be at a heist, protecting a package they dropped because I cut their bags, that sort of thing-before I got noticed. And once I got noticed, well, it was really only a matter of time before I proved my worth. I'm kind of good with tech, and even better with bullshit, which made me excellent at being in the mafia. Eventually I got in close with Anthony, who had no brains at all, and made him see I was the ticket to his place as underboss. It was Anthony who eventually made me family."

"Then how did you become part of the Federation Bureau of Intelligence?" Spock wondered. "Surely they would not accept a fully fledged member of the mob into their ranks."

"No," Jim agreed with a wicked grin. "That's why the day after my eighteenth birthday, not long before the offer to become family went through, I found an FBI agent and laid out my plan."

"To infiltrate the Scaretta family?"

"Yes, and to do it as a sworn member of the FBI."

"How?" Spock demanded.

"That's the trick," Jim laughed. "I was willing to just go as Federation's evidence, but Agent Douglas-"

"The agent at your side during the trial?"

"The very same," Jim agreed. "Anyway, Douglas brought me to Ross, who wasn't director yet but was on her way, and they put me in the FBI class closest to graduation. I fed Anthony a line about having to go, uh... tie up some loose ends with my old family, if you get my meaning."

Spock nodded. "He thought you were going to kill your abusive family as a final end to that part of your life."

"Yeah. So I got a month away, got trained and sworn in, and went back with an FBI-sanctioned fake news clip about the mysterious and brutal slaying of a pillar of my old community, Marc Georgeson."

"You were close to the truth with that."

Jim nodded. "Yes, but like I said, Anthony was dumb. He bought it. And I was welcomed into the Scaretta family as a full member of the FBI, with Douglas as my contact and Ross as our supervisor and, eventually, a whole team of lab guys to help with details. So what we said in the trial was true. Well, that part, at least." He shrugged again. "And that's the whole story."

Spock sat beside him, still and contemplative, considering what he's said. "What you have told me," he said carefully, "and, for that matter, what I have... seen." He shifted minutely beside Jim. "You said I am allowed to teach you how not to burn. You also mentioned the others, but-"

"It's alright." Jim bumped Spock's shoulder with his own. "I never thought you would try on your own, and they won't be much help if they only know pieces. You can tell them. Spock, you can tell them. The others. What you saw. I mean, maybe not all of it, some of it's not pretty, in fact I'd go so far as to call it ugly, but- Yeah. Whatever you think they'll need to know, if they're gonna help you teach me-" He motioned vaguely with one hand. "Whatever. Not to burn. Or," he added quickly as another thought occurred to him, "you don't have to, y'know, whatever you think is best-"

Spock laid a calming hand on the human's closest knee. "Jim. I will tell them the... relevant information. What there is of it. They will need to know, for instance, why it is you burn at all, and how many names you have answered to, and the circumstances of those names. However, some of what I learned I will also keep to myself. None of it was ugly, but I am... Vulcan. We are a possessive race." He turned to Jim, who looked up at him from his slouch. Once the captain's face was exposed, Spock reached out, brushing his psy-points gently. "The details are my own, and I will keep them."

Instead of pulling away, Jim pushed into his touch, something lost and longing filtering through the faint connection. "Do you really care that much?"

"More than you know," Spock said, "if you must ask. That, too, is something I will teach you."

"You don't have to." Jim reached up to grip Spock's wrist. "It'll be hard, it if works at all. You have to know, you don't need to do this."

"You are incorrect," the Vulcan said with bold certainty. He stroked a thumb over Jim's cheek, taking on a smug edge when Jim leaned into it. "This is not only something I need to do; I desire to do it. It is imperative that you learn to live so that you might live with me, and we can continue to explore the stars, unharassed by the history that has stalked you your entire life. You will live, and enjoy living, and we will build our future."

"Boy," Jim said eventually, still clinging to Spock's wrist. "When you change your mind about something, you really change your mind."

"I am a scientist," Spock said with that trace of smug pride. "Scientists adjust their hypotheses when new evidence presents itself."

"And what was your new evidence?"

Spock pressed their foreheads together. "This universe is a better place," he murmured, "with you in it. So I will keep you, Jim. I will keep you.

"No matter the cost."


Spock gathered the rest of Jim's command crew together for a mission update two days after they left Valstek. The update had nothing to do with Valstek, of course. It was about Jim.

When they were gathered around the conference table, Spock told them his story, chronologically, starting with the loss of his father.

"It is part of Federation record, and propagated through both Starfleet memorial services and Starfleet Academy training materials, that George Kirk sacrificed himself to save his wife, newborn son, and several hundred of his crew from certain death. The Federation lost interest in Jim shortly thereafter. When he was six, his mother remarried. Her new husband went by the name of Marc Anderson. What he never told his new family was that he was in Iowa as part of the Federation Witness Protection Program in order to hide him from the mob until such a time as he could testify in a high-profile case against them. His real name was Marco Scaretta."

"Jesus," Sulu muttered, rubbing a hand over his face.

Spock didn't even glance at him. "When Jim was twelve, the Scarettas found Marco. They sent assassins, one of whom was Anthony Scaretta, the underboss Jim later worked for at his bar. The assassins shot each member of Jim's family, including Jim, and set their house on fire. It burned to the ground. Jim survived the gunshot wound and managed to crawl through his bedroom window. Medical and fire emergency response teams arrived. They found Jim exsanguinating by his burning home and attempted to save him. Federation agents reported to the scene and gained custody of Jim's care. He was sent to a Federation hospital, where he eventually recovered. When he was healed, they determined to hide his survival by sending him to a promising school for exceptionally gifted youth."

Uhura frowned. "I never heard of an off-world school that-"

"It was located," Spock continued, standing tall and straight at the head of the table, hands locked behind his back, "on the failed colony world called Tarsus IV."

"No," McCoy said viciously. "Not that too. No."

"I do not understand," Chekov said, glancing around hesitantly. "What is Tarsus IV?"

Scott, who looked vaguely ill, shook his head. "Let him finish. You'll see."

"While Jim was attending the school," Spock continued, "famine broke out. The leader of the colony, a man by the name of Kodos, now called the Executioner, used eugenics to determine which of the colonists would be allowed to survive and which would die."

"But eugenics is bad science!" Chekov exclaimed.

"In this way, and for these reasons," the Vulcan said calmly, "half of the colony's four thousand humans were sentenced to death. By the end, some of this number included all of Jim's classmates. When only a tenth of the two thousand selected to die were left to hunt down and exterminate, Kodos held a banquet."

"A banquet!" McCoy snarled. "That fucking-"

"Jim, as Kodos' finest and final protege, prepared some of the food for the banquet. Then he attended. During his preparations, Jim poisoned the food, and so Kodos and his cohorts died. Starfleet arrived some time later, and found Jim still at table with the corpses. He was rescued and sent to a Federation mental facility. While he was there, he did extensive research into the Scarettas, trying to determine if the Federation was making any headway into dismantling the organization that killed his family. They had not. So he determined to do it for them."

"This is crazy," Uhura said, pushing back from the table but keeping her seat. She looked around at the others, expression nearly desperate. "He was a kid. This shit doesn't all happen to one person, this is crazy!"

"It is fact," Spock said calmly. "Whether or not you choose to accept it, these are the facts of Jim's life. If we wish to save him, we must understand how he came to be who he is. Will you listen or not?"

Uhura gripped the table with both hands and pulled herself back into place without a word.

"When Jim was released from the facility," Spock continued, "he assumed the name Jimmy Georgeson and began the task of infiltrating the Scaretta family. When it seemed clear that Anthony himself would take Jim on as family, Jim found and approached Federation Bureau of Intelligence Agent Douglas, who connected him with Agent Ross. Ross, now director of the FBI, and Douglas sat by Jim during much of the trial, once his true identity was revealed.

"Ooh," Sulu said with a note of understanding. "So that's how they knew him."

"Douglas and Ross, together with a team of specialists, trained Jim, who was eighteen by then, and saw him sworn in as an FBI agent. Once he had his credentials, Jim completed his infiltration. In that way, he was able to establish himself as an official on the witness stand when the time eventually came. He was nearing the completion of his-officially-six year mission when he met Doctor McCoy. He completed it a year later. Ensign Chekov ensured Jim was hidden at Starfleet and not lost forever, and so we find ourselves here today. We have our orders from Starfleet, but our mission is clear: We must teach Jim to live. Or we will lose him still. He has agreed to give us the chance," he said in conclusion, "but we must work together or we will fail. And now I will open the floor to discussion."

The room fell into silence.

"Well," Sulu said. "We're kind of screwed."

Uhura swiveled sideways in her chair to punch him in the arm. "Shut up," she said over his bark of surprise. "This isn't a bad thing. Learning about it isn't a bad thing," she amended. "What actually happened is horrible. But learning about it, getting the details, that's the best thing that could have happened. We never knew why he wanted to... leave us so desperately." She spread her hands out on the table, palms up and open. " Now we do. Our plans can reflect that."

"Do you have any thoughts to use as our beginning?" Chekov asked Spock. Then he turned to McCoy. "Do you?"

McCoy drew a deep breath, pushing it out in a long sigh while he scrubbed one hand down his face. "Hell, I don't know. We have to show him we're here, I guess. That we're not leaving." He clenched his jaw. "That we won't die, or allow him to die. How to do that, though? Without it seemin' like it's just a ploy?" He shook his head.

"Maybe that is the answer," Scott suggested. He sat forward when everyone turned to him, lifting his hands. "Just listen. Jim's been part of an act longer than he's been just a person, right? He might not know what genuine care looks like. So let's show him. Let's just do all the things we wanted to but held back because we were afraid to scare him off. He says he won't leave; we cannae scare him off, at least not now. All those little acts of kindness we held back, well, let's just not. They're genuine impulses," he added to McCoy. "Let's treat him like a friend, like family, like we treat each other, and he'll see, in time, that we mean it. When we don't come back for our pound of flesh, or make demands of him, or expect anything in return, he'll see. It might take a while. But he'll see."

"No more meetings to plan his life," Chekov agreed. "No more study sessions or rumor management. We let him live, encourage it, and live beside him. Da, I am in agreement with this plan."

"Operation: Friendship is go?" Sulu suggested, clearly half expecting someone to scoff at him.

"Yes," Chekov said instead, firm and determined as he'd been when he alone had refused to let Jim be taken from them. "Operation: Friendship is definitely go."

And whatever it was they each meant by that, they ended the meeting with the same sense of resolve: They would be Jim's friends if it killed them.

(Of course, because it was Jim, it nearly did.)


Almost immediately, their kindness seemed to backfire on them. Jim very obviously didn't know how to react to it, and his default had been paranoia for so long that prolonged exposure to benign gestures began to make him jumpy.

Uhura tried talking to him, as her family talked to her, and he was alright at the beginning. She'd set up her favorite tea and snacks during the first shift off they had together, arranging it on a picnic blanket on what she knew to be Jim's favorite observation deck. He played along with a laugh, trying not just to humor her, but to understand. It worked, at first. He grinned and enjoyed the food and listen to her stories, trying to share his own. When he stumbled, or didn't know how to go on, she prompted him with gentle questions. And it worked. At first.

But after awhile, his posture began to shift, his expression blanked and then became fraudulently friendly, his stories became the sort of Frankenstein's monster creations they had come up with at the Academy. He hid himself like he did in meetings, in briefings, in interrogations. When it became clear to her he couldn't come back to honesty, she smiled and packed the leftover sandwiches for him and let him go.

He lasted less than ten minutes, that first time. And she thanked him for it.

Her gratitude shifted over his expression in a shadow of confusion that she'd never seen before. Jim left with one of his most manufactured smiles, but she knew he would chew over the interaction for days. Just when he finished puzzling out what he thought she wanted, she would invite him to another picnic, and talk a little longer, and leave well-fed and thoughtful, and demand nothing in return. She would continue that cycle until he settled into the idea that she really wanted nothing but his happiness.

During their second picnic, just as planned, he lasted a full three minutes longer than the first time.


Scott's approach was, naturally, more direct. He brought Jim down into the heart of Enterprise, going over every inch of the mechanics with him. Jim kept asking, "What do you need?"

So Scott kept saying, "Nothing, lad. Don't you want to know your lady better?"

And Jim did, of course he did, he loved the Enterprise more than he would ever say, but he didn't need to tell that to Scott. The engineer could see it in his worshipful expression, in the gentle brush of his hand against every panel they passed, in the way he shut his eyes and just felt her rumble around him. Because of his love, he came down to the engines every time Scott called him.

Eventually he would wander down just to be there. Until then, Scott was content to call and be answered. Baby steps, after all.

Even Enterprise wasn't build in a day.

Hikaru taught Jim to fence.

Or, well, he tried to, anyway. Started to try to. He could tell Jim was interested in the way he watched Hikaru practice, so he just practiced around him all the time, at first. Whenever they were in the gym at the same time, Hikaru got out his rapier and worked hard to tempt Jim into asking for a demonstration.

It occurred to him, eventually, that Jim might not know how to ask. The very next day, he suggested that Jim might want to learn how to use a sword, just in case. It never hurt to be prepared, after all.

By that evening, Jim and Hikaru were sparring. It became a twice-weekly standing engagement that Hikaru saw less as a lesson and more as a personal victory. Besides, Jim really did pick up on fighting techniques with startling ease, and he also volunteered to help Hikaru improve his aim with a phaser.


No one asked McCoy what he did with Jim. They assumed it was medically related, another layer of the doctor's ongoing determination to prove his affection for Jim through hyposprays alone.

(If neither Jim nor McCoy ever told anyone about the long, rambling discussions they had in McCoy's office late at night or early in the morning when neither could sleep and both wanted to not be alone anymore, well, it wasn't anyone's business but their own.)

Jim and Pavel returned to their first mutual loves: coffee and theoretical mathematics. They debated and argued and percolated and wrote articles that turned several well-established disciplines on their heads. They agreed and disagreed and bickered about limited edition blends of specialty coffee grounds. They laughed and teased and, sometimes, got quiet and close and just sat curled together in contented stillness. They existed, together, outside the pressures of the mafia or Starfleet or anyone else who had expected too much of them.

It was all Pavel had ever really wanted.

Spock challenged Jim to a game of chess. After that first challenge, it became a ritual, and they played-sometimes several games in a row-every night.

At first, it was a learning experience for Jim, since he had apparently never played, not even classic chess, to say nothing of the three dimensional variety. So Spock taught him, and Jim's mind adapted to the game exactly as Spock had always known it would. He lost in the beginning, all the games but one, and that outlier occurred mainly because Spock kept getting distracted by the way Jim's fingers toyed so absently with the pieces he captured. During their seventh game, some aspect of the logic underpinning the entire thing finally settled in Jim's mind, and Spock was able to watch as understanding blossomed in his bright blue eyes. The captain shifted in his seat, stance becoming more cautiously aggressive and less passively observant. He switched the board so he was white and made an unexpectedly bold opening move.

Spock lost.

He won the next two games, then lost another three. Their average shifted from Spock's distinct advantage to a more even match.

Then, inevitably, it began to tip in Jim's favor.

"You are suited to this game," Spock observed as he made one of his final available moves. "I always thought you would be."

"You thought about how I would play chess?" Jim teased, taking his last bishop in a move Spock had not anticipated. (It reduced his play options from seven to three. Clever.) "Admit it, you only want me for my brain."

"Your brain is not the least of your attractive qualities," Spock allowed graciously. He moved his queen away from Jim's knight to buy a few more minutes of play.

Jim stared at him.

Spock raised a questioning eyebrow in response. "Have I said something to disturb you?"

"No," Jim said slowly, drawing the word out longer than it required while he made his next move. "I'm not disturbed, necessarily. Just… it's unexpected."

"That I would think about the way you would play chess?" Spock wondered, deliberately misunderstanding Jim's statement in order to watch his eyes narrow suspiciously. He countered Jim's attack on his king by taking Jim's rook with his queen.

After a moment spent studying him, Jim smiled warmly. "Of course," he said with a bright laugh, and took Spock's queen. "I mean, why would you even think about me and chess? It's shocking!"

"I am outmaneuvered," Spock admitted, tipping his king over. "Why should I not wonder about you and chess? It seems sometimes I wondered about little less. I did not understand for a long time," he said thoughtfully, "the way your mind works. I thought I might understand a little better if I could only see you play."

"…And now that you have?" Jim asked softly, reaching out to touch Spock's king. He picked it up, cradling it in his hands. "Is it what you thought?"

"Yes," Spock agreed, "and no." When Jim wouldn't look up at him, he leaned across the table and brushed two fingers briefly over Jim's cheek. "Have you forgotten? I have seen more deeply into your thoughts than the observation of a game would permit, however briefly that touch lasted. Now that I see the game, it does not shed light so much as permit definition. You play as I thought you would once I touched your thoughts. But I have wished to play with you like this since before I understood the desire. I would have taught you chess the day you showed me the salt and pepper game. I would have touched your thoughts that first day in the snow. The impulse to know you has never faded. Why else would I accept your calls when I thought you a murderer? You cannot have neglected to see the curiosity you have always drawn from me. You cannot mistake my interest."

Jim swallowed hard. "I knew you were curious," he admitted, looking at the far wall rather than Spock. "I just thought you were…" He shrugged. "I dunno, kind of crazy with it? Like just the way your mind worked prevented you from letting a puzzle go, and I was accidentally a puzzle you might never solve, and it triggered something like an obsession. But then I also thought you would be satisfied if you figured everything out, and… yeah. That doesn't appear to be the case yet."

"It will not be," Spock said with an easy gesture. "It was not that I could not solve a puzzle. It is that your mind is well suited to mine, better than any I have or will find in my lifetime. Of course I would cling to that discovery, even when I did not understand it. My people have a word for such a match, but I will not burden you with that knowledge when you have not yet even learned to settle into simple friendship. It will keep."

"And if I die?" Jim challenged, hands clenched in white-knuckled grips, one around the arm of his seat and the other still around Spock's king. "If you die? I might never know at all."

"You will know," Spock said. "If I cannot tell you, Uhura knows the word. Or else my counterpart will contact you and explain, if you desire to know that badly."


"Yes, you met him on Delta Vega."

"You know about him?" Jim demanded.

"Of course," the Vulcan replied, straight and calm in his seat. "He glimpsed your mind, Jim. He knew before I that you would try to run from us."

"He said he didn't see anything! That liar!"

"He did not lie. He implied."

"Is that a skill you learned from him?" Jim barked. "How to imply?"

"I will do what I must to keep you," Spock said. "I am Vulcan. I do not let go of those things that are valuable to me. And there is nothing more valuable to me than you and our friendship."

"What am I supposed to say to that?" Jim asked, voice harsh with emotion. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"I do not want you to say anything." Spock collected the chess pieces, leaving the king with Jim, and began to pack his game away. "You need not ever say anything to me you do not mean or want to say. I desire truth from you, Jim, when you have it to give to me. Otherwise I will take your silence or your humor or your teasing in place of it, until you are ready for it. You will receive nothing less from me." He stood, gathered the board and pieces, and dipped his head in farewell before turning to the the door between their quarters.

"You forgot your king," Jim said.

"No," Spock replied. "Keep it. It is your anyway. I will see you tomorrow."

He left before Jim could answer, which was really just as well.

Jim had no idea what he would say even if he could find breath for it. He clutched Spock's king instead, taking comfort in its ridges pressed into his hand, and shut his eyes.

Vulcans were exhausting.


In the end, it wasn't chatting or engines or fencing. It wasn't math publications or honest conversation hidden by hyposprays. It wasn't even chess.

It was a restless new addition to the Federation of Planets, a kidnapping, and eavesdropped ransom negotiations. It was yet another near-death experience.

Honestly, it would hardly have been Jim otherwise.

Jim hadn't even meant to be captured. Sure, a few months ago, before Valstek, Jim absolutely would have arranged to be taken hostage by angry locals. He would have played the brave, loyal Starfleet captain and died in an escape attempt.

But that was before Valstek. Nothing had been the same since Valstek.

He still didn't know what to do about that, but whatever. He had time. He always found the angle eventually.

This kidnapping, though, might put a kink in his plans. They roughed him up in a tidy, professional manner before they even started trying to contact his crew about terms. Then they tied him up, threw him in a cell, and left him to the thoughts swirling around his pounding head.

He wanted updates. He wanted to know what had happened to the rest of the security team that had been with him. He wanted to know if the scientists they had been shepherding around mineral fields was okay. He wanted Georgia to fix his head, or Spock to calm his thoughts, or Pavel to brainstorm his problems. He wanted Sulu's sword or Uhura's voice or Scotty's tech. He wanted—

He didn't know.

They came for him before he could figure out the correct word to describe what he wanted. "Your crew is discussing the terms of your return," the guy in charge (Jim kept wanting to think of him as the don, but he knew that wasn't… quite-) said. "Let's go listen in, eh? See what they really think of you. What you're really worth to them."

Jim didn't want to go. Situations like this never worked out for him.

He got dragged along anyway. Literally dragged, Starfleet issued boots squeaking on the floor, between two huge bulky muscle men.

Ugh, clichés. He didn't let Anthony operate like this for a reason.

…Hadn't. He hadn't let Anthony-

They had apparently hit him harder than he'd thought. Georgia was gonna be really pissed.

To put the finishing touch on the cliché, they tossed him into a small room, letting him crumple onto the concrete before grabbing his scruff and dumping him in a chair. Once he was kind of seated, he tried to lift his head and look around. One of the bruisers helped by grabbing a fistful of hair and yanking backward.

Thanks, goon.

He was on the see-through side of a panel of two-way glass. His bridge crew was on the other side, crowding one long edge of a small negotiation table. Scott alone of his senior staff was missing. Spock stood in the middle of the group, tall and elegant, as collected as he always appeared to be, though Jim noticed stress or frustration or something in the set of his shoulder, the line of his mouth. Georgia was at his right side, furious and vengeful, fiddling with a set of four hyposprays in a singularly ominous way. Uhura was beside Georgia, arms crossed, hip cocked, glaring fiercely. Sulu and Pavel were clustered together behind Spock's left shoulder, trying to put off the appearance of being too nervous to participate. Jim recognized the light in their eyes, though.

They were planning something.

Everyone's phaser holsters were empty, but Sulu still had his sword, which was weird. Had no one in the goon squad noticed he had a friggin' sword when they were taking weapons, or did they just not think a sword was dangerous anymore?

Whatever. Advantage to Sulu, then.

"You'll wanna hear this," the don-uh, not-don said, flipping a switch that let the conversations on the other side flood the room.

"We will not," Spock said flatly.

"This is insulting," Uhura added with a sneer. "You really think we'd agree to terms like that? No, wait." She held up on hand. "Actually what's insulting is the implication that we'd agree to any of your terms."

Jim felt his stomach sink. None of their terms, huh?

Good to know.

"We will give you one last chance," Spock continued. "You will release our captain to us, unharmed. You will surrender your weapons. You will cease your pointless revolution and turn yourselves in to the proper authorities. You will issue a personal apology to Captain Kirk, who only came to this planet to help your cause, for the inconvenience of being removed from his group. You will apologies to the security and science personnel you traumatized by kidnapping their captain. And you will do all these things within the hour.

"Or we will take our captain back by force and obliterate your base from orbit. Am I clear?"

Jim felt something swell in his heart, warmth and fondness and something else, a deep panging sense of… something. He wasn't sure he'd ever felt it before.

They had come for him. No excuses, no quibbling, no debates. They had come for him.

As no one else ever had.

"You'd better listen to them," he said hoarsely. "They mean business."

The don-not-don snorted. "Sure, kid. Whatever you say."

Jim felt a smile twitch on one corner of his mouth. "It's your funeral."

The don hit him, knocking him out of the metal chair.

It was the last thing he did.

In a perfectly choreographed move, Pavel and Spock both ducked just as Sulu unsheathed his sword and struck out at the closest burly intimidation goon. Georgia intercepted the negotiator, dragging him half way across the table to inject a hypospray directly in his jugular. The other goon tried to escape, but Spock had him pinched and unconscious on the ground just before Sulu's opponent landed in a heap next to him. The quasi-gangsters in the room with Jim began to scramble, one trying to open the door, another scrambling for Jim, who kicked at him and scooted away. The don just watched the proceedings with an increasingly furious expression.

"Told you," Jim wheezed.

Then Sulu hurled his sword at the glass, which broke in a silver rain all over the floor. Most of Jim's crew flooded the room, leaping over the low window without pause. Sulu streaked through the door, incapacitating the guards trying to flee and warn their associates. He cornered them with a few expert swipes, eventually herding them back into the room, where he pinned them in a corner with their boss.

The don looked furious. "You think this is over?" he spat. "You think this means you've won?"

"Yes," Spock said, otherwise ignoring him as he carefully lifted Jim off the floor, steadying him on his feet while Georgia began to gently check him over.

"For the pain," the doctor murmured, injecting him with one of the remaining hyposprays. "I held onto it just for you, so don't go fussin' around and spoil it."

"Sure thing, Georgia," Jim slurred.

His vision must have been more affected than he thought, because it looked like Georgia's expression gentled even further. He pet a hand through Jim's hair. "Damn fool child," he said. "You only call me that when you're in trouble."

Jim buried his face in Spock's shoulder and tried not to think about it.

"You can't get out of here," the don sneered. "Even if you have him now, you can't get out."

"You will not enjoy what becomes of you if you do not release us," Spock informed him.

"What can you possibly do?"

It finally occurred to Jim why one of his crew was missing. "Beam us up, Scotty," he mumbled.

He felt Spock smooth a hand over his hair, pausing briefly when he encountered the blood growing tacky near his temple. "You have had your chance," he snarled. Teleportation energy began to swirl around them, and the don's eyes finally filled with fear.

"You wouldn't," he whispered.

They beamed off the planet before Spock answered, but Jim thought he knew what he would say. It's what Jim would have said.

Watch me.

"We're safe?" Jim whispered when they arrived on the Enterprise.

"We are," Spock replied, helping Georgia to arrange Jim on his usual stretcher.

"We made it?"

"Yes, Jim."

"We're… here. Back. On Enterprise."

Spock gripped his hand gently. "We are home."

"Home. Good." Jim squeezed back. "Don't leave me."

"Never, Jim."

"No one," he managed. "Everyone has to stay. You promised. They promised."

He felt hands touch him, different hands from different friends, petting and soothing and stroking, on his hair and cheek, down his chest. "We're here, Jim," they said. "We'll stay."

And Jim-

"He believes us," Spock said, voice suspiciously tight with emotion, which was fine because he was right. It was true.

Jim believed.


After he was released from the medbay under strict orders to take it easy, damnit, Jim dutifully retreated to his quarters. Then he sent a message to Spock, inviting him over for chess.

It wasn't about chess, which they both knew. Spock didn't even bother to bring over his board. Instead he brought calming tea, a healthy dinner, and some mild-smelling incense to burn in the background.

"It will aid in your recovery," he said. When Jim raised both eyebrows at him, he clarified, "It should decrease any feelings of agitation, so your wounds will not be disturbed, which will aid in your recovery."

"Uh-huh," Jim said dryly. But he accepted the tea when Spock pour it for him. They ate and drank in companionable silence. When they were nearing the end, Jim asked, "What happened to the… whatever they were. The bad guys. What even were they?"

"They called themselves a union," Spock explained, "but they killed the actual union representatives to take their places in name only. In reality, they were more like-"

"The mob." Jim set his fork down deliberately. "Yeah, I figured. The don-ah, I mean, the boss. He was in with me, wasn't he."

"He was," Spock confirmed.

"What happened to them?"

"Precisely what we said would happen if they did not meet our terms." Spock lifted one elegant eyebrow when Jim stared at him in disbelief. "The Enterprise opened fire on their base, wiping it from the face of the planet. Most or all of the personnel had been arrested by then, but we will never know if any chose to hide there despite our warning." He shrugged. "Our terms were recorded and broadcast to many of the populous. Those people will speak. Now what they say is that the crew of the Starfleet flagship Enterprise will not suffer the loss of our captain. They will say that those who attempt to harm our captain will come to harm themselves. I think it a fitting message, since it is true."

Jim swallowed, sitting back heavily. "But why?" he said bleakly. "I mean, I think I know. I-maybe. It's because we're… friends. And friends take care of each other, or so it seems."

"Yes, Jim," Spock agreed. "That is one thing friends do for one another."

"Gotcha." Jim fidgeted a bit before finally blurting, "What should I do?"

Spock tilted his head. "Do?"

"For you guys. To, uh… show my gratitude, I guess. Or make things even. Is that something friends do? Keep things even?"

"After a fashion," Spock said after a moment of thought. "Not in the way I believe you intend, though. Put more accurately, things will even out naturally. You do not have to go out of your way. You are generous with your time, knowledge, and possessions, and the others will doubtless consider your continued presence among us 'payment' enough, as I do. More to the point," he continued sternly, "we did not come for you with thoughts of future payment. If you came for us, would it be in pursuit of a reward?"

"No," Jim admitted with a sigh.

"Neither did we. We sought you for your own sake, because you are our friend."

Jim studied him thoughtfully. "You know a lot about this for a Vulcan," he said. "I thought you guys didn't believe in stuff like emotions and friendship."

"Vulcans generally do not," Spock said, motioning casually with one hand. "I, you will recall, am not merely Vulcan. I am also human, and humans have a great capacity for… emotion. Friendship."

"So it just came naturally?"

"Quite the opposite," he admitted. "I learned by watching the command crew, by studying what they would do for you and each other. I learned through meditation, by examining what I felt for the others and for you. I learned by studying you, particularly when you thought no one could see you. You are a great exemplar of friendship, Jim. If only you would let yourself see it."

Jim shook his head, a small, confused motion. "I don't understand," he said. He lifted both hands, trying to express his bewilderment. "You- I'm sorry. That doesn't make sense, Spock. I'd notice if I'd been a friend to any of them, and I haven't. I dragged all of you into a mafia war, knowing how it would end. I knew," he said desperately. "I knew how it had to end, and I did it anyway. Even if we're friends now, that's new. It's something I didn't decide on until today. And I'll probably be terrible at it."

"How can you not see it?" Spock wondered. "You are such a puzzle. What can I do to make you see?"

"I don't know." Jim reached a helpless hand toward him, then let it drop on the table. "There's nothing, I guess. We'll have to agree to disagree."

Spock opened his mouth, hesitated a moment, then said, "I know of a way. It would let you see what you are to us, how you've been our friend, what you mean to me. You would understand it from the perspective of one who has lived it, without the cloud of your past."

"How?" Jim begged.

"You experienced it once before with my counterpart. Very occasionally, you have experienced it with me, though those instances have been… light. Barely a touch."

"The mind meld," Jim realized.

"Yes. We would initiate a full meld, which I do not think you have experienced yet. It would require a great deal of trust on your part," Spock explained gently, "which I do not, of course, expect so soon after-"

"Yes," his captain interrupted.

Spock blinked. "…Yes?"

"Yes, I trust you. I've always trusted you," he pointed out. "I told you more than anyone. I tried to give you a hint, even though it was stupid one. When the op was ending and I had no one, when I'd killed or lost the entire group, you were the one I called. Of course I trust you, Spock. It isn't anything new."

"You will meld with me?" Spock asked, and Jim saw him startle at the depth of longing in his own voice.

"Of course," Jim said. "All I need to know is how."

Spock stood. He stepped around the table, holding his hand out to Jim. "It will be more comfortable on your bed, if you have no objections."

Jim arched an eyebrow at him even as he accepted the hand up. "I would never say no to having you in my bed."

The Vulcan's steps faltered a little, and his ears picked up a distinct green tint. He felt the truth of Jim's words through the anchor of their joined hands and wondered why he hadn't asked for this weeks ago. Months ago. Perhaps even at the first meeting in the snow. Could they have been in each other's thoughts this whole time?

What heartache might have been avoided if Spock had only asked?

Jim squeezed his fingers gently. "Whatever you're thinking," he said, "stop it. What's that saying you Vulcans have? What is, is."

"Yes." Spock returned the gentle pressure and drew them both down to the bed. "You are right." He touched Jim's face with great care, turning him until they were settled together like perfectly matched nesting dolls. "My mind to your mind," he murmured, pressing his fingers to Jim's psy-points. "My thoughts to your thoughts."

Then they were together, falling into each other with no effort of conscious thought. Their minds twisted around each other, exploring and being explored, touching all the quiet and lonely and broken places, filling them with warmth and understanding and love. Jim showed Spock secrets and loyalty and the deep patience of an apex predator, showed him lying to people who thought him their brother, show him hate and anger that sat more deeply than any other emotion, burning all the others out in a fire that did not know compassion or mercy. Spock took it all without flinching, saw it and still thought Jim precious, admired him for the ruthlessness that would always live in his bones. He treasured Jim's faults as dearly as he did Jim's best qualities.

When he had all that Jim was tucked safe in his mind, Spock took his turn, showing Jim friendship, showing him what Spock himself had learned from the others. He gave Jim the meetings he'd had with the rest of the command team, gave him Spock's own understanding of their love and devotion. He taught Jim to understand Uhura's picnics, Sulu's lessons, Scott's engine sanctuary as gestures of friendship, of people sharing the most precious parts of themselves in order to be closer to someone they valued. They looked at Chekov's coauthored math papers and finally saw the teenager stubbornly tying himself to his first and closest friend in a public venue that could not easily be erased. They turned to McCoy and saw his steadfast, unyielding determination to be Jim's confidant. Jim used Spock's understanding of humans to finally, finally understand himself.

And because of that connection, Spock was present when Jim's stunted, rudimentary grasp of human connections blossomed into something rich and bountiful. He felt the knowledge of Jim's new patchwork family slide firmly into place, never to be shaken free. He sensed Jim's love finally reach out in fine, unbreakable tendrils of resolve, and he knew they at last belonged to Jim in the way he had always belonged to them.

They were home.

Home, Jim murmured in his thoughts. Is this what home feels like?

Yes, t'hy'la. We will be your home, as you are ours.

T'hy'la. Jim filtered through his thoughts, taking the translation when Spock offered it. Ah. I see. Another type of home.

Yes, Jim. They curled more tightly around each other, echoed in the outside world when they tangled their limbs and fell into the bed. Any type of home you wish for me to be, then that shall I become.

mine, Jim replied with faint, echoing uncertainty. Be mine and no one else's.

Spock filled their minds with conviction, with love. With the warmth and depth and never ending joy of having found each other, at last. As I ever have been, t'hy'la.

Jim basked in Spock's mind, taking comfort like he had never known and wrapping himself in it like clouds of peace.

They settled, and understood, and loved. And, eventually, they drifted together into sleep.

When Jim woke the next day, he declared it the best night's sleep he'd had since the fire, and vowed never to go to bed without Spock ever again. Spock called him ridiculous and shooed him into the shower to begin his morning routine.

(He was right, though.)


A few months later, the Enterprise found herself docked at a space station for mandatory maintenance that had Scotty foaming at the mouth. Because he was crazy, and because his team loved him, they finished their week-long upgrades in three days. On the last night in dock, Jim took his command team out for dinner, as much to show his gratitude as because he just enjoyed the freedom of being with them, whole and happy and well.

As they left, someone called Jim's name. The whole team turned, and most of them froze with a sharp flush of pure terror.

Jim alone smiled, lifting one hand in a wave. "Agent Douglas! Fancy seeing you here."

Douglas approached with a grin, badge gleaming from its place hanging around his neck. "Hi there, Captain Kirk. Small quadrant, huh?"

"Hmm," Jim said vaguely, shoving both hands into his pockets. "Can I help you with something?"

"Got a small problem," Douglas admitted. "Nothing too complicated. Director Ross thought you might be curious about it, though. Thinks it's right up your alley. Interested?"

Jim looked back over his shoulder where his command team was gathered. They looked impatient more than anything, and Jim felt that funny surge of warmth he usually got these days when he looked at him. "Nah," he said without any thought at all. He grinned at Douglas. "Turns out I have actual responsibilities, and I don't think my family would like it much if I abandoned them right in the middle of the adventure. Thank Director Ross for me, though. She was always a big help."

"I will," the agent promised. "And I'll tell her how you're doing. She'll be glad you refused." He nodded toward Jim's crew. "There was once an eighteen year old kid she knew, and this was all she ever really wanted for him."

"What a coincidence," Jim mused as he turned to his team. "It was all that kid really wanted, too."

"Goodbye, Agent Kirk," Douglas said softly.

"So long, Douglas," Jim said. He joined his crew, surrounded immediately by their chatter and casual touches, and never looked back.

And then, together, they went home.