"This is going to be horrible," Jim muttered, pressing the door chime. Next to him, Spock brushed a hand against his, a barely-there show of support that eased the sick feeling in his stomach somewhat.
Spock answered the summons after nearly a minute of uncomfortable waiting, dressed again in his meditation robes. "Good morning, Captain, Commander," he greeted serenely, stepping back to allow them inside the room. "Were my descriptions of the cell useful in your calculations?"
"They were," Spock replied tersely, but without any of the antagonism of the past several days. "Your assistance allowed us to finish the calculations with fewer trials."
"That's what we need to ask you about," Jim interjected, looking over at Spock in surprise. Not that Jim expected him to handle the situation with anything less than professionalism – previous sarcasm aside – but coming from Spock, this level of courtesy bordered on indulgent. "The trials were successful."
Spock inclined his head, gracefully settling down on the low couch recessed into the wall. Swathed in the loose material of the traditional robes, he looked more comfortable in his own skin than the vulnerable, angry prisoner who'd appeared on the transporter pad five days earlier, even with his hair cut close and bones pressing sharply against his skin. "I suspected as much."
"I'll hear from Command later this afternoon, so I wanted to make sure you're ready for whatever decision they make," Jim said, taking a seat on the opposite couch. Spock remained standing between them and placed his hands behind his back, letting Jim handle the situation. "For the record, though, I lodged a petition on your behalf to let you to stay here. We'll have to wait and see, but I think you have a good chance of being allowed to stay."
"That will not be necessary," Spock replied. "I wish to return to my universe."
"Why? You showed me; if you go back there you'll just be in prison for life!"
Spock shook his head. "I deeply appreciate all that you and your crew have contributed towards my well-being. However, I have meditated extensively on this topic and realize that permanent occupancy of a different universe would not be wise. I am superfluous here, and though I may superficially be more comfortable were I to remain in this universe, I would indeed rob myself of any chance to improve my own. Here, there exists a far more peaceful integration of alien races and cooperation between Vulcans and others than I ever thought possible. There are limited versions of these institutions in the political situation I know, but fractured into contending alliances instead of the cohesive whole displayed here. While it will take a significant amount of time, I do wish to lessen the violence. I believe this will provide sufficient incentive for an escape from my prison," he added. One corner of his mouth curved up into a hint of a smile, and Jim recognized the determination to fix an impossible situation from long experience, aching with the hope that Spock could fix this one.
"Okay," Jim found himself agreeing. "We'd better do it before the admirals call back, in case they want to keep you."
Spock's eyes swept up Jim's body as they both stood, making his appreciation clear. "In another case, I might find myself amenable to being kept," he remarked mildly. Standing apart from the two, Jim's First observed with only the bare edge of caution. "In this instance, however, I think that role has been filled. I look forward to serving in such a capacity in the future, if circumstances allow."
"I do not believe any factor as random as circumstance will play any significant role," Spock offered, taking a place beside Jim and brushing their fingers together in a more deliberate motion. As far as blatant displays went, at least it was tame by human standards. Jim didn't want to think about Vulcan standards. "If I am not mistaken, you will find a much more reliable force to guide such events."
"Be that as it may, I would make one request before I begin to prepare for transport," his counterpart said. Though his voice sounded even, his eyes betrayed the possibility of mischief.
Oblivious, Jim asked, "What?"
Leaning in, Spock pressed a firm kiss to Jim's mouth, finally following up on his attempt the night before. Though he kept it brief in deference to his counterpart's new role, he used his time wisely, leaving Jim winded as he pulled away. In response to the raised eyebrow Jim could feel directed at them, Spock said, "To last until I find my own."
"You sure you don't need another?" Jim asked, somewhat dazedly. In his defense, he wasn't quite accustomed to getting kissed by Spock, even if it was the wrong one, so he thought he could be excused. Judging by the two raised eyebrows he received, neither Spock saw it his way.
The communicator attached to Spock's belt chirped. "We're ready for transport, sir," Scotty reported.
"Acknowledged, Mr. Scott." Replacing the comm, Spock looked to his counterpart. "Are you prepared?"
"One moment," he said, retreating to the partitioned bedroom area. Since it was fully enclosed, unlike the crew cabins, Jim had to wait in confusion until he reemerged, clothed in the dirty, worn prison uniform Bones had removed shortly after his arrival. He looked smaller without the excess fabric of the robe to obscure his slight frame.
"Will your superiors object if you return me without first consulting them?" Spock asked. "I can record a message regarding my decision for their benefit, if you wish."
Jim shook his head. "I'll take care of it," he said, heading for the door. His First Officer followed at the end of the line as they proceeded down the hallway to the turbolift, allowing his counterpart to speak with Jim in the last few minutes before his departure. "I think they'll agree that it's more important for you to help out in your own universe than serve as some additional data for ours."
"You sound rather confident that I will be able to exert some influence over the circumstances of my universe, Jim. You are aware that I will be returned to prison, correct?" Spock asked, sounding indulgent.
"Well, I wish we could send you back with some supplies or transport you out of your cell, but that's a bit more interference than we're allowed, even in special cases like yours," Jim said apologetically, leading the way into the turbolift and punching in the deck selection. "But I know you can do it. All the other versions of you have done some pretty impossible stuff before, too."
"I am certain I have not fulfilled any criteria for 'impossible' tasks, Jim," his First said mildly as they filed out of the turbolift and headed for the transporter room.
"Yeah, because everyone can save Earth, create a formula to start the engines without a warm-up, and return a lost shuttle to the ship with no fuel. You're not fooling anyone, and you can do the same," Jim pointed out. When they entered the room, Scotty brightened behind the controls and nodded respectfully at them.
"Everything's ready, Scotty?" Jim asked.
"Aye, sir. I'll be sad to see you go, Mr. Spock," Scotty added wistfully.
"Your company has been most enlightening, Mr. Scott," Spock replied, his amiable tone at odds with the tension visible in the set of his shoulders. Taking a quick breath, he steeled himself and turned to Jim.
"Your service honors me," he murmured, reaching up to brush his fingertips against Jim's temple, sparking a brief burst of gratitude there until his hand fell away.
Spock stepped away, and Jim offered him a tight smile. "Glad you stopped by," he said. Goddamn, he hated letting Spock go back. He hated even sending anyone on dangerous away missions, but there would be no status report on this one. As much as he tried to ignore the feeling and focus on Spock's resolve to get free and find his Kirk, sending him off seemed like abandonment.
He liked this Spock. A lot. And maybe he was just spoiled from having his First Officer with him in everything and the ambassador as a constant source of reassurance, but a selfish part of him that remembered the years of continuously required validation wanted to keep this Spock as well.
The set of Spock's shoulders relaxed slightly, and the corner of his mouth twitched upward. "As am I. Goodbye, Jim."
"Bye," Jim said, voice cracking imperceptibly. Next to him, Spock and Scotty echoed the farewell as Spock took his place on the transporter pad.
The beam of the transporter swallowed him.
The shimmer of a transporter beam flashed in the corner of Spock's vision as he rematerialized on the hard bench of his cell. Turning his head to the side, he barely caught the transmitter's disappearance, simultaneous with his own appearance. Spock found himself hoping that the military police guarding the compound did not pick up on the minimal activity through the multitude of cameras positioned throughout the hallways – if he was fortunate, no cameras were pointing towards his cell at the time.
Spock settled into an easy cross-legged position, allowing a minor lapse in discipline by leaning his weight against the cold concrete of the wall. After the emotional strain required in order to ensure that the captain would return him here, he permitted the indulgence for the moment, protected against judgment by the others by the darkened halls.
As for the others – he didn't yet feel certain that he should inform other inmates of his future attempts to return to Vulcan. While he knew he could trust select members of his former crew with the knowledge of his foray into the alternate universe, plenty of inmates had put forth potential escape scenarios, none of which ever succeeded. The remote nature of the location precluded any attempts lacking help from human allies, who were systematically rotated to different parts of the prison or out of the compound entirely in order to prevent such occurrences. Even so, the humans he had found trustworthy in the more peaceful universe did not have equally well-meaning counterparts, leaving him with no definite way of appealing to potential allies. The next round of guards, cropped from military members on leave, were set to arrive in three weeks' time. Spock could start by testing his crewmates in the interim, then move on to locating human targets with enough apathy towards Earth's recent military campaigns. Likely one or two could serve well enough, with application of enough persuasion.
That night, he meditated deeply on possible aspects of the prison he could turn to his advantage in escaping. With the brief respite from this universe that the starship had provided him, Spock was able to reach some of the higher levels for the first time during his imprisonment.
The following weeks began his foray into information-gathering, starting with discreet questions to former shipmates who worked primarily in one area of the prison. Like most, Spock's assignment rotated between menial tasks in different workstations, but others had gained permanent assignment to the cafeteria or shipping dock or Sickbay. None of those he spoke to stood out to him as beneficial to the meticulous planning that an escape would require, and Spock resigned himself again to staking the increasingly-dwindling chances of release on the incoming crop of guards. Surely one could be bribed with money or freedom from the military service – not many volunteered their services to the position, and with the majority unhappy with their assignment, Spock thought it might be possible to find the one or two accomplices necessary. It would require more effort than with the help of another Vulcan, but his further understanding of human behaviors and motivations could only aid him.
On the day of the guard rotation, Spock took a position near the fence of the quarrying yard, where he could watch the incoming crop to rule out those who were fundamentally xenophobic. A group of six towards the front of the line walking into the prison's main doors marked themselves as untouchable from the start, from the loud jokes about devil ears specially projected for the Vulcans' hearing. The rest of the group passed in similar fashion, though some simply peered curiously at the ongoing labor or ignored the yard entirely. Altogether a disheartening group, though Spock thought he might be able to salvage a chance at some relationship with some bribery. He returned to his work with less force behind his swings, fixing the faces of the guards who could potentially be swayed in his mind for the occasion when he would encounter each of them face-to-face. Though he kept his focus ostensibly on his work, Spock remained attentive to the chatter of the new group, in case some relevant information appeared among the background of questions about the health of family members, colorful stories from recent military tours –
– and from the rear of the line, a Southern drawl grumbling about understaffed medical wards. Chipping further at the unyielding stone with his sledgehammer, Spock kept his head down as the yard supervisor passed by, lifting it to look only once the man moved to another row of workers. As he glanced up again, eyes roving the pack of guards passing through the door, he pinpointed the speaker among the crowd.
All military personnel were required to serve a stint at the prison, providing a more experienced pool of guards than one made entirely of regular law enforcement. Spock had thought it would be more improbable than this, but considering his observations in the other universe, perhaps it was more likely than not that Spock would meet some of their counterparts in his setting. Still, the reappearance of those he had not expected to see for months of years caused an illogical warmth in his lower abdomen as he stared unabashedly, ignoring the chance of being caught to catch a glimpse of the figure he sought.
Next to the speaker, a blond head turned in profile, placing a conciliatory hand on the doctor's shoulder.
Perhaps Spock knew where to start.