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PROLOGUE

Red Alert.

Red Alert.

Floor. Feet. Feet on floor, right, and the right way around, good, good; he's vertical, mostly, and he's pulling on clothes before his eyelids manage to unstick themselves. He casts an absent, bleary look around to confirm - his room, his clothes, no one else here unless they're lurking under the pile of laundry, check check check - and makes for the door.

Spock's door slides open at the exact same time as his own. They spare only a second to nod at one another before walking briskly, in tandem, to the turbolift. The nod tells Jim what he needs to know: Spock has yet to learn the cause of the alert, had been similarly woken up by the alarm, and even superior Vulcan physiology gets a bit strained by week after week of seemingly endless tasks and missions.

It's a time-saving nod.

The route back to the bridge is so familiar, he doesn't have to think about it. Turns out to be a good thing when various muscle groups are protesting the sudden switch from rest to full movement; there's an odd sense-memory of not-so-old injuries, from that mission with the rock-spitting plants. Faint spots of tension, like his nerves still expect pain at a particular stretch of ligament or pull of skin, though everything but the most superficial bruising have been healed: his body is clearly a bit suspicious of the Medbay-assisted return to full health.

When they step into the bridge, Kirk sees that Sulu has already taken the helm from his gamma shift relief. The rest of the alpha bridge crew show up within minutes - with the addition of Bones, to the utter surprise of no one. In fact, the Chief Medical Officer looks better-rested than most of them. Jim tries to look less like the Captain's chair is all that's keeping him sitting upright.

He clears his throat. "Report."

"We were shot by an unidentified vessel, sir," answers Lieutenant Pierce, who'd had the chair during gamma. "It'd been hiding behind GT-7112's moon."

"Did you fire back?"

"Only a warning shot, sir." Pierce shifts nervously, but holds Jim's gaze steadily enough. "The ship's size and armaments do not pose a significant threat to a Constitution-class starship; their phaser fire barely registered on our shields. We tried hailing them, but there was no response."

"Captain, the bogey's running," says Sulu.

"This area was recently flagged by the Tellarites as a possible hot zone for illegal trade activity." There was a time when Spock appearing suddenly by the side of the Captain's chair would have startled Jim, but now he just swings slightly to one side so he can look at his First Officer without risking a crick to his neck. Or - he winces - make the existing one worse, at any rate.

"Slavers," guesses Jim.

It's not a question, but Spock nods. Jim wants to think, optimistically, that human habits are slowly rubbing off on Spock, but he suspects that his friend is simply tired enough to take the path of least resistance over acting the model Vulcan.

"Pursue the ship, Mr. Sulu," says Kirk. "But maintain regular scanning of the immediate area - this ship may be bait of some kind." They've been having that kind of a week.

He has a faint hope that they would catch up to the slaver ship quickly. It takes half a minute for his brain to come up with a model that matches what he can see on the enhanced view and the readings from the scans. No wonder - the model is almost ten years old. Capable of warp, but doesn't seem to be using it, for some indeterminable reason; the Enterprise has the advantage in every way.

But five minutes into the chase, weeks of successively more strenuous missions finally take their toll: something major malfunctions in Engineering, causing them to lose speed, and by the time Scotty pulls off one of his patch jobs, the slaver ship has disappeared.

"Don't beat yourselves up over it," Kirk tells his crew, keeping the line down to Engineering open. He's already ended the Red Alert. "Everyone's tired, including our old girl; these things happen. Sulu - no, it's Darwin right now, isn't it? Return us to our previous trajectory and resume course as normal."

"Yes, Captain."

"Alpha crew, return your stations to your gamma relief and go back to bed."

"I presume you will be following your own orders, Captain?" says Spock, giving him a pointed look.

Jim plasters on a smile. "Only if you do, Mr. Spock."

Spock's eyebrow twitches. "Of course, Captain."

~ * ~

"Oh, this is such a coincidence, that I happen to walk into this here rec room, same as all you good people," Jim says the moment the door starts to slide open, "and right in time for a movie to start, too!" He prods at Sulu's outstretched leg with his foot. "Budge up."

"Stop trying to sound like a cowboy. You can sit by the Doc," says Sulu, not turning away from the screen. A hand is thrust up, palm open. "Entrance fee, first."

Jim rolls his eyes but drops the packet of chocolate malt balls into Sulu's greedy, exorbitant fingers. There is, indeed, a clear space right next to Bones, on the second row of oversized pillows that form a slanting line across the middle of the room. Jim suspects said space had been bigger before Bones had fallen asleep and slumped sideways into it. He shifts his insensate CMO enough to sit down, murmuring a quiet, "it's just me, Bones," when the familiar furrows appear on his friend's brow, and nobly allows Bones to use his shoulder as a pillow once he's comfortable.

He makes a point of not looking around the room, which is dark except for the impressively large screen in the front. He thinks he counts two or three bodies more than the last time they'd done this, and not all of the crew are necessarily comfortable with interacting with their Captain off-shift, though most relax once they get used to him.

"Now that Himself is here, can we start?" Uhura calls from a different part of the room. "There's one and a half hours left until alpha shift."

"I believe only two of the films on the shortlist will fit within that timeframe." The voice, not to mention the tone, is unmistakable, even if its proximity to Uhura's isn't enough of a clue. Jim tries to contain his grin; Spock doesn't show up very often, usually choosing to meditate in his quarters during the unpredictable periods of downtime. Maybe the Vulcan had gotten some proper shut-eye earlier - does that lessen the time needed for meditation? All Jim knows is that meditation doesn't replace real sleep, even if Vulcans need less than others.

"Nyet, Mr. Spock. There are three films - the running times include the end credits, which we do not have to watch," says Chekov.

"Executive decision: I am making it," announces Sulu. He does... something, Jim has no idea what, and the titles of the three options suddenly fly out of the selection menu on the screen and bounce around the room.

"I did not know our entertainment modules could do that," notes Scotty, from the back row of pillows directly behind Jim's.

"Me neither," admits Jim.

"Hannity played around with the graphics on this console last week." One of Sulu's hands snaps out and grabs one of the titles as it zooms past him. "The Last Unicorn it is."

"I was hoping it would be that one!" cheers Chekov. Jim sees his fist pump into the air. "I have heard many good things about it."

Oh, God. Jim's going to need a bit of fortification for this. "Pass me the popcorn, I can smell the caramel from here," he demands, reaching blindly behind him with the arm that Bones is not cutting off circulation to. Keenser grumbles something indecipherable but shoves the bucket at him. "Thanks."

I mislike the feel of these woods. Creatures that live in the unicorns' forests learn a little magic of their own in time. Mainly concerned with disappearing.


CHAPTER ONE

A five-year mission, to take them beyond the bounds of known space. Unfortunately, getting there requires the Enterprise to travel through light years and light years of known space, first; Starfleet Command, to the surprise of no one, seizes the opportunity to give them various assignments in the areas they are passing through.

A previous exploratory mission on TC-895 had noted that the local people, whose civilization is pre-industrial enough to allow for the fiction that 'Starfleet' is another tribe from a particularly distant island, adhere to very strict social roles, most of which were divided along gender lines. Young boys learn to hunt as soon as they can hold a spear; young girls learn to cook as soon as they can start a fire on their own; weapons can only be used by men; medicine can only be practiced by women.

"Wow, use of bold, italics, and underline," says Jim, tilting his PADD to show the report to Spock. "Seems like Commander Kim wanted to make sure we didn't miss it. I feel like there's a story there."

"I am looking at the same report, Captain," replies Spock, without even looking up. He's probably almost done reading. Jim's pretty sure Spock hadn't so much as read ahead as memorized the entire year's curriculum on the first week of school. Not that he knows much about Vulcan schools - maybe they run things differently.

The actual accounting of the mission is fairly dry, at least until Kim and a couple of Ensigns discovered unidentified technology sitting smack dab out in the middle of the forest, and then her background in engineering practically leaps out in the form of rough schematics and energy readings and investigative pressing-buttons-to-see-what-happens.

An unexpected diplomatic incident had called Kim’s ship and crew away before they could come to any conclusions about the nature of the technology. This had been six years ago; the standard post-mission review from Starfleet Operations had stamped the whole thing a Low Priority. There's a certain artistry in the wording of comments that Jim's slowly learning to read, word choices that position the report in question along the spectrum of relevance to pervading Starfleet interests; this one falls in the band of Not Important Enough To Send A Ship Out But If One Happens To Pass Nearby Get Them To Have A Look.

Sulu parks the Enterprise in orbit and scans the surface. The readings they get match the readings included in Commander Kim's report. "Nothing much seems to have changed in the last six years, unless they've found a way to hide all evidence of technological advancement. No noticeable pollutants in the atmosphere, which is consistent with a pre-industrial society at the populations estimated by the previous expedition."

The forest is too dense for them to get any useful readings at such a distance. Jim spends a moment considering the away team. He elects himself as a matter of course and elects Spock on threat of Vulcan eyebrow. He takes one last look at Commander Kim’s schematics and has a thought.

"Bridge to Doctor Marcus."

"Captain."

"I'd like you to be on the away team to TC-895; I think we may have need of your expertise."

"Of course, Captain. I'll head to the transporter room."

"Very good. Kirk out." He bounces up to standing. Despite the tiredness that's taken up permanent residence in his bones, the prospect of exploration (new world! possible mystery!) never fails to stir up excitement. He nods to the bridge crew. He notices, out of the corner of his eye, that there's a message on his PADD, and it's not in his official Starfleet inbox. "Mr. Sulu, you have the-"

[ PRIVATE MESSAGE ]
TO: Kirk
FROM: Spock
MESSAGE: Mr. Sulu has a keen interest in exotic flora.

"-actually, scratch that, you're coming with us." And yeah, there's a reason Jim knows better than to play poker with the man; Sulu's pleased look ghosts by in less than an eyeblink before he's standing and nodding like a dignified helmsman. "Chekov, you have the conn."

"Aye aye, sir."

Halfway to the transporter room, Jim calls in Scotty as well, in case the mystery technology is more than just weaponry.

~ * ~

"The healers I spoke to say that there had been a strong earthquake in this region several years ago," reports Carol, emerging from one of the solid wood-and-leather structures. "It's possible that the platforms had been buried and preserved from the worst of the elements until the earthquake unearthed it."

Unfortunately, they discover that Commander Kim had not been exaggerating how seriously the locals – who call themselves The Good People, how’s that for originality – take their prescribed gender roles.

"We seek only to protect that which is most precious!" the headman exclaims fervently. "Females should not be exposed to these instruments of death - their sweet minds will wilt before such gruesome brutality."

Jim remembers the healing-house they’d peeked into during the tour of the village-town; he thinks that the surgery in progress at the time, along the theme of keeping a man's intestines inside his body, had looked plenty gruesome.

“And we men, with our more savage nature, cannot truly bring healing, any more than the sun can prevent itself from burning our eyes when we look too long upon it.”

Jim sighs inwardly. “Perhaps if Mister Scott is the one who opens up the weapons platforms? Doctor Marcus will remain close, ah, in case he injures himself.”

“Ah, she is a healer! Why did you not simply say so?”

Bones prods him warningly. “Come on, Jim, before you say something stupid that you’ll regret.”

 

"This is a completely unfamiliar design," says Carol. Her voice and face and general body language all appear calm, her impatience coming through in faint frowns and brief twitches of tension over the arms, shoulders. Control, Jim thinks. Rigid and wholesale, unlike the camouflage-casual of Sulu or the deliberate precision of Spock. Jim doesn't know her well enough to guess if it's got anything to do with having Admiral Marcus for a father.

Scotty hadn't looked at all happy to be the one standing between her and the object of her furious study, and had scarpered the moment he got the panel open.

"Abandoned prototype?" asks Jim.

"I considered that, but see here." She points to the edges of the control panel. Jim had initially assumed, at a glance, that the black markings trailing around the side are just decorative marks, perhaps guidelines for the assembly of the device. Upon closer inspection, he realizes that it's some kind of writing, tiny blocks of circles and lines that must have been laid down by a very precise tool.

"I've never seen that script before," says Jim, whistling.

"Neither have I," says Carol. "I'm going to have Lieutenant Uhura look at it, of course, and she will send a sample to Starfleet in case anybody has seen something like it."

Jim hums. "You think these were built by a civilization we haven't met before, don't you?"

"It's the most likely explanation," says Carol. "I'm fairly sure these are from a space-faring vessel, or at least transported here by one, and there are only so many worlds capable of building this level of technology, especially if you factor in the weapons' age. I've made a point of familiarizing myself with their primary writing modes, enough to identify them on sight even if I cannot read them. Perhaps if we can initialize-"

An unearthly screeching echoes through the forest, loud enough that nearby trees lose a few leaves.

“Ah!” says their guide from the village. “It seems that the Krgolsjk have awaken early!”

“The what?” asks Jim.

Their communicators chirp. “Kirk.”

“Captain!” exclaims Chekov. “Many, many life forms, heading for you!”

Spock and Bones come running into the forest. “Captain, there appears to be a swarm of carnivorous bats heading this way.” He glances at the weapons platform. “It occurs to me that they may have been the reason these devices were installed here.”

“Of course,” says Jim. He turns to the guide. “Do these creatures attack often?”

“Every few days!” answers the guide. Jim is starting to find his enthusiasm somewhat grating. “Our warriors are skilled in defending the village against them!”

“Why don’t you just build defensive structures?” asks Carol. “Some kind of net will probably keep most of them out.”

The guide looks confused. “But how will the warriors prove themselves men?”

“Why did I know you were going to say that?” grumbles Bones.

Jim can hear the screeching now. He takes out his phaser. “Bats incoming!”

 

 

"Oh, damn, that hurts,” says Sulu through gritted teeth. “Okay, okay, just do it.”

"You will allow him to treat you?" gasps the guide, who looks as bitten bloody as the rest of them. "But this is against the natural order!"

"Listen," says Jim, "We will respect your tribes' traditions insofar as having female nurses and doctors treat your people. But I will not let one of our own bleed out to death when our best doctor is standing right there."

Bones is ignoring them, holding up a length of metal while Carol carefully heats it up with her phaser. Jim and Spock hold Sulu steady. Then Bones is pressing the glowing metal to the heavily-bleeding wound on Sulu’s leg. Sulu bucks and screams; the smell of cooking meat makes Jim wonder if Spock doesn’t have the right idea about eating only vegetables.

There’s a faint humming from the direction of the weapons platform, partially visible through the trees. Scotty jogs over, sees what’s happening, and looks like he’s about to be sick.

“Mister Scott?” prompts Jim.

“I’ve got the weapons platform online, sir,” reports Scotty unsteadily. “But the weapons themselves are not responding – I think there’s a subroutine that needs to be initialized.”

“Good job, Mister Scott,” says Jim. Bones seems to be done, and Sulu looks on his way to passing out. “Carol?”

“On it, Captain!” she says, sprinting off. Scotty follows close behind her.

They’ve revived Sulu some by feeding him water, and Spock is updating the Enterprise with the situation – after confirming that they are, indeed, in a part of the forest where the canopy is too thick to be beamed up through – when their guide jumps to his feet.

“The Krgolsjk are returning!”

Jim wants to punch the kid for sounding so happy.

There is a loud rumble, like a thousand angry wings slapping over the tops of trees. "Carol!"

"Give me five more seconds!" shouts Carol. She really is solid under pressure, Jim can't help but admire. Three seconds later, a much louder whine sounds, and a turret emerges creakily from the top of the platform. "Weapons online, Captain!"

Jim pulls Sulu up to standing and slings one of the man's arms over his shoulder. "Automatic targeting. Continuous fire for," he tries to remember how long the last pass of the bat swarm had lasted, “three minutes.”

"Done," says Carol, "though I can't guarantee it won't overload before then. These weapons have been sitting here for a very long time."

"Understood."

~ * ~

"Screw excitement," Jim groans from the depths of couch in Observation Deck 2, "never thought I'd see the day when I'm desperately hoping the next orders are for a good few light years' worth of star charting - but lo, it has come."

Spock, the only other person in the room, sits down at a nearby table with a steaming cup of tea. The faint aroma is unlike anything Jim's ever come across on Earth. "As we have finally exited the most densely populated areas of Alpha Quadrant, I predict that the volume of assignments from Starfleet will, at the very least, begin to decrease within the week."

"Unless that war with the Klingons breaks out."

"The general sentiment on both sides, according to the most recent accounts on the Federation diplomatic channels, remain in favor of peace," says Spock.

It's a good thing that Jim's face is currently smashed into the back of the musty-smelling couch; he's so used to thinking of Spock as First Officer and Commander that he tends to forget the part where Spock's the son of an Ambassador. Also the younger, reality-native version another Ambassador.

Jim is going to pretend that the stiff splotch of fabric next to his cheek is due spilled coffee. Yeah.

"Of course," adds Spock, a moment later, "neither side is willing to believe that the other isn't stockpiling armaments and reinforcing defenses. But the talks continue."

Jim sighs, disturbing the colonies of crumb-mutations between the cushions. "All it takes is just one person to mess it all up." A lesson they'd learned well; a shadow of it still hangs over the crew, in the way Bones seems reluctant to let Jim out of his sight and Spock has forgotten he'd ever had personal space issues, at least when it comes to Jim, and Uhura kicks his ass harder than usual during sparring.

"Such a risk is present for any venture," concedes Spock. "However, if one were to take a more... poetic view, it follows that one person can also provide the solution, or at least correct any disruptions."

"Balance things out, you mean?" Jim's not sure he can see that. It's a lot easier to break things down than to put them together again. Gritty particles nearly make him sneeze, probably the crumbs launching an assault, and he abruptly remembers: you had napkins hanging out of your nose.

"...following the laws of universal entropy. However, from a purely qualitative, phenomenological perspective, it is not without value."

Jim closes his eyes. "Sounds like you've been doing a bit of reading."

If Spock is aware of the diversion, he doesn't call Jim out on it. Jim doesn't ask what had driven Spock to 22nd-century philosophy. "Indeed, Unknown Immortality was quite informative on the topic of legacies and the significance of singular actions within the context of an unknowable history, but it was Thomas’ anthropological work on the worldly-life of mythological figures that I found particularly relevant to my own observations about-"

They're taking the Enterprise away from you.

Jim wakes up to an empty room with a large blanket thrown over him. Not standard-issue, either, but warm and spun out of a rough thread, the weave allowing air to circulate through the fabric. Naturally, it makes him think of deserts - one in particular, though he'd known the air and winds and sky of it more than the sands he'd never set foot on.

He carefully doesn't think about how soft the blanket feels, the gentle whisper of cloth that's seen years and years of careful washing, irregularities that hint at inexpert but dedicated workmanship; the care inherent, when the world it'd come from would have had little need for blankets.

 

 

Fencemaster: bored. someone bring me books. no porn.
Overlord: did those bat things bite your dick or something
Fencemaster: i was thinking i didn't want to subject myself or Doc to any awkward situations, but then i remembered Doc used to live with you.
Dr.Horrible: No porn in the medbay.

 

 

The atmosphere of TR-14-I reveals itself to be remarkably humid, likely due to a large percentage of the planet surface being water and the lush coverage of rainforest over most of the single main continent. It is enough to make Spock uncomfortable; he had noted the atmospheric conditions before beaming down with the away team, of course, but he had thought himself prepared for it after his years in San Francisco Bay. This is nothing at all the like, in the same way that a wind of 18km/h felt distinctly different in the Mojave Desert than it had in the Forge, even when most other environmental conditions were comparable.

Ignoring discomfort has become second-nature, despite an odd, primitive wariness at the presence of so much moisture - as if the desert-creature in his genetics is convinced it is enough to drown in. An understandable but entirely unhelpful instinct. Spock pays for his momentary distraction: he has lost sight of the Captain.

Fortunately, locating Kirk is a simple matter of listening out for Doctor McCoy's distinctive and agitated tone, then following it to its source. He finds his Captain and Chief Medical Officer standing at the edge of small pond. If it can be classified a pond: the liquid is a deep purple and highly viscous. As Spock watches, a bump rises up in the center, slowly increasing in size until it is unmistakably a bubble, and eventually pops with a thick blorp.

His sense of smell, sharper than the humans', picks up a faint hint of ammonia. His eyes, equally keen, notes the telling splash of liquid at the tip of Kirk's right shoe.

"Captain," he says, "it was extremely unwise to make physical contact with an unknown substance before myself or one of the other science officers has properly analyzed its composition. Furthermore, it is illogical to then try to hide evidence of the act." He pauses. "I would commend your foresight in having Doctor McCoy nearby in case of a medical reaction, but I am able to infer that he, in fact, followed you despite your wishes."

"The Captain appreciates the concern of the Chief Medical Officer and the First Officer," says Jim; his voice is heavy with that human staple, sarcasm. "However, the Captain would like to be allowed to do his damn job without members of his crew acting like overprotective parents."

The choice of words is entirely a coincidence; nevertheless, Spock ends up thinking of his most conversation with his father, less than 24 standard hours previous - a holovid conference lasting 15.4 minutes, wherein both sides provided concise and informative accounts of their recent ventures and passed on any details that might be of interest to the other. These communications do not have a set schedule, owing to the unpredictable nature of their respective duties, but Spock has not gone longer than a Standard month without at least exchanging messages with Sarek.

It has not escaped his notice that he has been interacting with his father, albeit at a distance, with far greater regularity now than he ever had as a child.

His father, at present, is back on New Vulcan. Perhaps it is a product of working with humans over an extended period of time, with their capacity for conveying as much information through non-verbal cues and cultural references as they do in direct communication. His father's calm, precise report on the fresh influx of Vulcans from numerous off-world postings casts an extra light on the clinical census report Spock had recently acquired from the Starfleet public servers.

It appears that a growing number of Vulcans have been resigning or abandoning their offworld work in order to return to New Vulcan. The trend encompasses all disciplines and levels of expertise, including Starfleet.

"The Council is investigating the matter, of course," says Sarek. Spock suspects there are already a few solid hypotheses being discussed - but Sarek will not speak of them until there is at least some proof.

He intends to mention it to Kirk, perhaps the next time they are able to enjoy casual discourse over hot beverages in Observation Deck 2. Spock still prefers their chess games, which provide mental stimulation in addition to relaxation, but he can certainly appreciate the need for quiet and rest.

There's a rush of hurried footsteps through the springy underbrush. Spock recognizes the irregular wheezing of Science Officer Hopf seven seconds before the man bursts out between two enormous fronds. "Captain, two of the Security Officers have been snatched by a giant insect!"

"Of course they have," mutters Kirk, low enough for only Spock to hear. Louder, he orders, "Lead the way, Lieutenant Hopf."

~ * ~

The private intranet had started life as a side-project whose existence induced mild fits of worry but fell short of losing Jim actual sleep. Starfleet doesn't outright ban the unsanctioned alteration or introduction of programming to its computer systems, because despite the growing military overtones it is still, at heart, an organization aimed at space exploration and scientific discoveries - the kind that understands that Shit Happens, so there better be room to improvise when it does. But the regulations strong discourage tampering, and Jim figures they'd be extra pissed about people messing around with their spit-shiny, (relatively) brand-new flagship.

Then again, tampering with software is what got Jim this whole gig in the first place, which is a case of mixed signals if Jim's ever seen one. Personally, he thinks that the intranet is one of the best ideas he's ever had. Not that he's entirely sure who should get most of the credit; the whole thing came into being somewhere between Scotty feeling experimental and Jim wanting to show off, a bit, because at the time he'd just gotten the Enterprise and knew, absolutely, that he'd leap-frogged a bunch of levels that he probably shouldn't have. A high-level player with only one major boss-fight under his belt.

At first it'd just been a private chat function between himself and Scotty, piggy-backing the ship's closed network but entirely separate. Which meant: no logs on the ship's record. He mentions it to Bones, naturally, but the next person to show up on the discreet little window was actually Uhura. The initiation had gone something like-

ScotInTheMachine: wait a second theres a new account on the log
N.U.: Took you long enough, I've been expecting one or both of you to come up with something like this.
Jimboree: how did u get in here?!?!
ScotInTheMachine: wat
ScotInTheMachine: uhura???
ScotInTheMachine: alsp yes how did u getin
N.U.: Kirk, we were on the same project for Dynamic Encryptions, I know how you like to hide your subroutines.
N.U.: Also, the way you two talk when you're on shift. It's pretty obvious you've been having conversations off official channels, even when Kirk's been too busy to go down to Engineering.
N.U.: I can hear you twitching in your chair, Captain, you might want to calm down before Spock notices. Like I said, I've been waiting for you guys to set this up, I knew what to look for.
N.U.: Five bucks says that Sulu will be the next one to find out.
ScotInTheMachine: ach my money's on chekov. i swear that kid is psychic.

Spock does not recall the exact stardate on which he began considering the conversations in Observation Deck 2 to be part of his and Kirk’s semi-regular routine. There is nothing that differentiates Observation Deck 2 from the four other such decks installed on the Enterprise – merely cosmetic deviations in the arrangement of the furniture and positioning of the viewing window in relation to the ship. It is not a remarkable room in any aspect – except that Kirk has demonstrated preference for it, which makes it so.

"I have no idea who my father is."

Spock's head feels curiously heavy when he turns it to look at his Captain. Kirk's face is shrouded in gloom, save for a few parts that are gently reflecting light from the various pieces of equipment around the otherwise empty room. To Vulcan eyes, he appears nearly iridescent.

"He was this name that Mom and Sam missed - and resented me for not missing." Kirk exhales slowly through his mouth. "Pike was the opposite.”

After a long while, Kirk adds, “For some reason, it never occurred to me that there'd be a time when he wasn't just there."

Kirk does not ask if their periods of insomnia share a root cause. He is either content to take Spock's silence as confirmation, or the cause does not much concern him.

 

 

His door chimes near the end of his weekly call to his parents. Hikaru ends with a cheerful "Talk to you later!" that he knows will leave his dad grumbling about the sad decline of manners in today's youth, while simultaneously boasting to his online mahjong group: just spoke to my eldest, you know, he's head pilot of a starship, and only in his twenties. "Pavel, that you?"

"Da."

Of course, it's easy to forget that he's young to be a Lieutenant, let alone being on a bridge command crew, when the guy he regularly hangs out with is barely done with being a teenager. Hikaru tells the computer to admit Pavel. "Oh hey, are those the chips you let me try last week?"

Pavel hands over the packet. Hikaru's got it open and is already digging in when he notices that Pavel is not his usual, earnestly energetic self. Instead he's sitting in his usual chair with a discontented air.

Hikaru plants his ass on the end of his narrow bed and shakes the packet at Pavel. "What's up?"

Pavel absently grabs a chip. Munches on it. "I am in need of... some advice, if I may."

"Of course. Speak your mind."

A deep sigh. Pavel looks like a man steeling himself for something - well, maybe more of a kid faced with a potential grounding in the near future. "My girlfriend - Irina? She says she may be pregnant."

Hikaru does not spit out the half-chewed chips in his mouth, but it's a near thing. "Your-" the repeated lessons in crisis management, both theoretical and applied, assert themselves before he can stick his foot into his mouth, or get processed Russian potatoes lodged in his nasal passages. He coughed hard. "Irina? Um, the one who lives in Moscow?"

Pavel nods. "She says she missed this month's-" he makes a gesture that Hikaru's brain refuses to associate with anything, so it's fortunate that the meaning is perfectly clear.

He almost asks, and she's sure it's yours? before he realizes how utterly tactless that is. Plus, if Pavel had any doubt, he'd probably mention it. Though Hikaru wouldn't put it past him to take responsibility for another person's kid.

God. Pavel with a child.

"And you are... happy? Scared? Worried?" prompts Hikaru.

"Everything?" says Pavel. "She is not asking me for anything. But... I cannot leave her to do this on her own. I would ask her to marry me, though I do not think she will say yes." He sighs deeply and slumps down further. "I do not know."

Something in the back of Hikaru's brain starts to ache.

"Right," says Hikaru, slapping his palms on his thighs and wiping off chip-seasoning dust. "Later, we're going to find you someone you can talk to about this. For now," he gets up and walks to his room's tiny, discreetly modified closet, "we're going to get roaring drunk."

"It's only three hours until shift," Pavel points out.

"Which is why I'm going to be sharing one of my hangover cures," says Hikaru, grinning; this is the real gift.

Pavel's eyes grow large, properly appreciative of the magnitude of Hikaru's gesture. People have given up all sorts of things for Hikaru's little pills: priceless artifacts, an entire year's ration of chocolate.

"You are true friend," says Pavel solemnly.

 

 

Spock keeps careful count of the boot-treads around his, and so is the first to realize when there is one less than there should be. He knows that only the Captain, Sulu, and Hendorff are ahead, all of whom are accounted for; he stops, plants his boots as firmly on the rocky ground as he can, and mentally takes stock of the rest of the away team as they run past him.

He starts running back as soon as he realizes who is missing. He thinks he hears the Captain calling after him, but he knows he has little time, and the Captain will have the same realization soon enough. "Ensign Chekov!" calls Spock.

"Over here, Commander!"

The muffled voice is coming from an innocuous-looking bush, which turns out to be concealing a narrow but deep fissure. Spock is careful not to kick sand into the gap as he peers into it. It is remarkably deep, and Chekov has slipped down a long way; visibility only goes as far as Chekov's eyes, his curls approximately the same color as the surrounding rock.

"Are you injured, Ensign?" asks Spock.

"I think my ankle is twisted, Mister Spock." Chekov's hands are scrabbling at the sides of the fissure, trying to find something to haul himself up by. Spock estimates that he would be able to climb up on his own.

The growls and yips are audible now, getting steadily closer.

"Mister Spock, you should run," pants Chekov. "Come back later. Maybe the beasts will ignore me to chase after you."

Spock thinks of the claws at the end of the creatures' legs, the configuration of muscles that resemble the tree-dwelling primates of Earth: odd adaptations for this type of rocky dessert environment. How many of these fissures might be hiding all over the plateau? And Spock cannot ignore the other data available to him: that Chekov is exceptionally intelligent, and indisputably brave, enough to be nodding earnestly and feeding Spock a lie, while piles of picked bones crunch dryly under his feet.

"Unlikely, Ensign," is all Spock says, because he is occupied with removing his belt and using it to tie one leg to the central stem of the nearby bush. Depending on the frequency of rainfall, some desert plants possessed deep, strong roots. He thinks he hears a new set of growling voices, echoing through the fissure; a new pack of the creatures, perhaps, or there is another entrance that the current pack is making use of. The ones that had been chasing them overland are mere seconds away - so are the Captain and the rest of the away team. It is difficult to estimate which group will reach them first. Spock doesn't dare wait.

The Captain runs into view the moment before Spock slides himself into the fissure, head first and arms outstretched. The tie around his leg and the bush stretches, then holds, though it feels rather precarious. Chekov coughs from the shower of sand and small rocks, but he flings up his arms and leaps for Spock without needing to be told. His fingers touch the ends of Spock's, too little and too far. Spock hears the whine of phasers firing.

Chekov shouts something in Russian, likely as a result of his injury, and leaps up again; this time, Spock manages to grip one hand and hold it. But their combined weight causes him to start to slip. Chekov yelps and attempts to let go of Spock. Spock, anticipating this, refuses to loosen his hold. The young man's emotions are bright and sharp against his skin; the fear is expected, but there's also relief and gratitude and a complicated, multi-layered warmth that Spock, to his own surprise, mentally envisions as the Enterprise. Some instinctive part of Spock's mind, unconcerned that the person whose emotions he's brushing against is psi-null, whispers, yes safe know crew tribe.

"Commander!" shouts Chekov. His mind is shouting go escape be safe and don't leave me please, one as loud as the other, the emotions translating the words despite Spock doing his best not to listen.

The Captain is shouting something above them. More phaser fire. Sand streams down around them; Chekov flinches and tries to shield his face. His wiggles his body, and other hand reaches up. Spock grabs it. Chekov looks up again. His eyes are slightly red - a symptom of irritation from small particles. This close, face-to-face, Spock's mind stalls at the reiterated observation that Chekov's eyes are blue.

Suddenly, he's staring through glass, staring at a familiar face devoid of life, and he'd thought he'd known, what loss was, what grief was, but this is different, unexpected, something he'd never thought to prepare himself for, it's already sweeping everything he knows away until all he is he feels-

He feels something snap, and he slides forward sharply, pulled down by Chekov's weight and his own.

Then there are hands grasping his legs. His sliding slows but doesn't entirely stop, his feet must be at the edge. Multiple voices are shouting. Several pairs of hands yank him backwards so hard that pain flares up Spock's left leg. Two heavy weights drop down over his legs, pinning them, which only exacerbates the pain, but at least he is better secured. From the way the weights are wriggling around, he suspects Sulu and the Captain are sitting on him. The pain is designated as background noise. Even with his Vulcan strength, his arms tremble as he pulls Chekov up - his grip is so tight, he's fairly sure he's bruising Chekov's hands, but Chekov doesn't seem to mind - until eventually Chekov is grabbed by reaching hands and Chekov is able to hold on to the rest of Spock's body. He apologizes as he clambers over Spock.

It is just in time - Chekov has barely been pulled out when the gleam of hungry eyes appear in the darkness. Spock reasons that this must be part of their hunting strategy: to sneak up on prey trapped in the fissure, perhaps to minimize the chances for a last-minute attempt to escape.

Unfortunately, while Chekov is free, Spock is still dangling.

A phaser shot streaks past and hits one creature directly on the face.

"Spock, catch!" shouts the Captain. Spock reacts on instinct - he will remember, later, that it'd felt more like the phaser had simply fallen perfectly into his grip, rather than his hand snapping out and catching the phaser that Kirk had dropped to him, which is how Sulu would recount it.

He shoots the second creature that had clambered over the first, missing the face but catching it in the chest. One more appears and is taken down by three different phaser shots.

 

 

Uhura smiles at Spock's quiet thanks for her gift of his PADD, and presses a quick kiss to his lips where, with a human, she might have patted or gripped their hands. She is sure she has Amanda Grayson to thank for Spock's leniency with regard to public displays of affection, though Spock has made his own compromise with Vulcan sensibilities by ranking mouth-kisses as less intimate than hand-kisses.

She's definitely not complaining.

She does give Chekov an affectionate squeeze on the arm when she passes his biobed, which he accepts with a tired "Спасибо". His ankle is in a light brace and there's a heat pack strapped to his shoulder.

Doctor McCoy is hovering in the hallway outside the medbay when she exits. "Something the matter, Doctor?" she asks.

"Hmm? No, no, everything's fine. Hobgoblin and Russian whizkid will be free to go after six hours - I just want to make sure nothing got into those abrasions."

Uhura hadn't seen any, but McCoy had probably already gone over them with a dermal regenerator. "So why are you hanging around out here?"

He casts a pained look at the door to the sickbay, and says in a low voice, "Because those two are the only patients in there right now, and they're being model patients."

"And - this is terrible?" says Uhura.

"It gives me the creeps, all right?" grumbles McCoy. "Chekov has always been easy to work on, but I can usually needle Spock a bit. He's not playing along today, though; it's like he and Chekov are doing a joint best-behavior act."

"Chekov's looking a bit down - maybe Spock just doesn't want to disturb him." Spock isn't particularly perceptive of human emotional states, but even he might notice the way Chekov's riot of curls is currently looking flat and lifeless.

"He's been hurt worse and still bouncing around the bridge after," says McCoy. "And the news about his girlfriend is old." A second later, he winces. "Um."

Uhura shakes her head. "I was the one who sent him to talk to you about the medical side of things. And yeah, he might have found out a while ago, but trust me - it's the kind of thing you can't really stop thinking about." Right, time to switch topics. She narrows her eyes at him. "The CMO chased out of his own medbay by the peace and quiet. You're too used to Kirk giving you trouble, aren't you?"

McCoy's eyes widen and he looks around frantically, as if expecting Kirk to materialize at the mention of his name. Two years of working with them, and Uhura has to admit that it's not an unreasonable reaction. "Don't say that! He'd never let me live it down."

"Why don't we get something to eat?" offers Uhura sympathetically. "I doubt your model patients will be giving the nurses and doctors any trouble. I'll even let you have my coffee."

"You're an angel among mortals," McCoy declares earnestly.

 

 

"I don't dream of Earth," says Kirk, eyes distant. He is slumped in a chair beside Spock’s bed, staring at the Medbay wall in the same manner as he stares out the viewing window on Observation Deck 5, as if he can see the stars drifting past. "Maybe a memory, now and then. And it's more like I'm dreaming of - my mom, or my brother, or riding my hoverbike. Earth's just background." Spock says nothing; not because Kirk's words do not necessitate a response, but because he can hear, somehow, somewhere in Kirk's tone, that there are more words to come. "So, I don't dream of Earth." A quiet noise, like wind rasping over low dunes. "But I do dream of Vulcan."

Spock breathes. What do you know of Vulcan? he wants to demand. You saw Vulcan in the last hour of its existence.

And yet, yet, Kirk had seen. The last hour - but ought the last hour be any less valuable than the millennia that had come before? Spock remembered the outpouring of sympathy and condolences from the Federation, in the months after; the demonstrations of care and goodwill. He remembered, too, the silence in the Enterprise, the emotions packed tight as old sands under the noise of confronting the Narada. Grief had been exchanged for purposeful action; Spock had thought, later, that it had been a better tribute for Vulcan than any number of flags and heartfelt speeches.

Chapter Text

Doctor McCoy's expression shifts from surprise to alarm when he looks up from his PADD and realizes it is Spock who has stepped into his office. Hyperbolic as his usual behavior, but Spock cannot fault him the reaction - he does not recall ever voluntarily visiting the Medbay before, and his presence usually signifies:

"Something's wrong with Jim."

"No, Doctor McCoy, the Captain was well when I saw him 18.3 minutes ago," Spock assures his CMO. He pauses for a moment before adding, "of course, given the Captain's history, it is entirely possible that his status has changed within that timeframe; but, as we are at warp in a relatively empty region of space, and it is not his habit to consume food at this hour, and he has already made his customary visit to Engineering today, the remaining potential avenues for grievous bodily harm is, by my calculations, acceptably minimal."

Doctor McCoy has adopted an expression that the Captain frequently refers to as 'the Crazy-Eyes Special'. "You know, Jim might have a point about us reaching uncharted levels of motherhening." The doctor leans back on his chair. "All right, this is not about Jim. What can I do you for, Mister Spock?"

"I did not say my visit is not related to the Captain," says Spock. "I have... lately come to realize the full importance of your decision to obfuscate the events surrounding Captain Kirk's," death, he means to say, death, because that is the truth, but the word sticks in his throat, "indisposition, and subsequent recovery. Furthermore, I have yet to express my gratitude to you for your foresight, and wish to do so now."

"Oh." McCoy looks taken aback. Normally, Spock enjoys surprising the doctor, but he has the acute sense that his words, while true and somewhat necessary according to social convention, have placed an uncomfortable strain of awkwardness between himself and McCoy, falling as they did outside the parameters of their normal interactions. He had not anticipated the extent to which they both take comfort in the set roles of mutual antagonism; to be precise, he is well familiar with how McCoy derives comfort from his exaggerated displays of temper, but has evidently failed to notice a complementary behavior pattern emerging within himself.

He half-expects the doctor to rally with a visceral emotional display and, illogically, finds himself hoping for an inventive insult or two. He is surprised when McCoy simply leans back. "Gotta say, that whole day was every kind of clusterfuck imaginable."

Spock recognizes the tone as the one McCoy adopts when discussing personal matters with Kirk, usually after all his blustering is done. To be granted a similar degree of accord is... gratifying. His voice is quiet when he says, "I wholeheartedly agree, Doctor."

"You were a hellion beast of vengeful rage; I was the one who came up with the plan."

"Indeed." Spock had not thought to consider it in such a light, but he can well appreciate the irony.

McCoy huffs. "I guess it was bound to happen." From another human, the light tone and the small shrug would indicate dismissal of the entire exchange. Yet Spock knows that, with McCoy, quietness and subtlety demarcate importance, while loudness and exaggeration are for the inconsequential.

It strikes him that such things cannot be explained to Vulcans who have not lived amongst humans.

Having conveyed his message, Spock is ready to leave, and is turning around to do so when McCoy speaks again.

"Just - I'm pretty sure the crew know. About what happened. Most of them, by now, which means all of them, sooner or later."

Spock half-pivots back to look at McCoy. He knows his face does not betray his surprise. Precisely nineteen people on the Enterprise had been sufficiently involved in what had been done to save Kirk that they were aware their Captain had really been dead. The rest had simply been informed that the Captain had succumbed to his injuries; between fighting Admiral Marcus' crew, fighting Khan, running around Engineering while gravity was malfunctioning, then working around the disaster-waiting-to-happen that was the warp core, it hardly seemed a stretch that Kirk ended up in a coma for two weeks.

Starfleet Command certainly hadn't asked any questions.

"You are not concerned," observes Spock, after a moment.

McCoy exhales loudly. "Do you know how long the waiting list was to get on the Enterprise, before the launch for this deep space mission? Three times more than any two ships on the Fleet combined. Word gets around. Yeah, we saw a lot of casualties during the shitstorm with Admiral Marcus, but before that, we had nil for months." McCoy folds his arms over his chest. "Jim Kirk never leaves anyone behind - that's what they're all saying. And now people know that we won't leave him behind, neither. Not one single person on this boat ain't glad we did what we did. I think, Mister Spock, that this kind of knowledge will only strengthen the crew's loyalty, to each other and to the Captain." The doctor spreads his hands. "Besides, it was never his crew who we were trying to protect Jim from."

Spock hesitates, then inclines his head. "If you are not concerned, then I will trust your judgment on the matter."

"Hah, that's a first." The absence of McCoy's near-perpetual frown, however, belies the sentiment layered over by his words. "Thanks, I guess." He makes a waving motion at Spock. "Now, get out of here."

[ PRIVATE MESSAGE ]
TO: Bones
FROM: Kirk
MESSAGE: r u n spock up to something

"So basically, what you're saying is," Kirk sways back onto the heels of his feet, "the death toll from Vulcan has thoroughly screwed up the Vulcan communal headspace, and Vulcans everywhere are having to go home. To re-establish mental bonds, or risk going crazy."

Spock resists the urge to sigh. "In rough, superficial terms - yes."

"Spock, you should have said something," says Kirk, frowning.

"I am doing so at present," Spock points out.

"You should have said something earlier. We passed New Vulcan only by a couple of light years." Kirk frowns at him. "The way you described it makes it sound like you've been walking around with the telepathic equivalent of open wounds."

"That is, in fact, one factor in my delaying to speak to you." It is odd - while Spock harbors absolutely no doubts, now, about the strength of Kirk's friendship and loyalty, seeing the occasional evidence of Kirk's concern, however misplaced, is still immensely gratifying. "I have been asking Dr. McCoy to monitor my brain activity and hormone levels-"

"- so that's why the two of you have been so cozy lately -"

"- and I have been recording my own observations of my mental and telepathic state. I have found no noticeable change since I began, certainly nothing like the systemic decline reported by my father. Indeed, upon accessing my medical history, Doctor McCoy noted that my readings have stabilized to how they were before the Narada attacked."

"Maybe it's a delayed reaction?"

"Perhaps. My father has also suggested that my human genetics may be shielding me from the full effects. However, I am investigating a different possibility." Spock paused. But Kirk was not an Elder, nor a member of the Vulcan Science Academy; the Captain of the Enterprise would hardly castigate him for presenting a hypothesis without evidence from a larger sample size. "Vulcans, as a telepathic species, evolved to live in tribes, in family groups. Bonds between members of a tribe provide mental stability and improve telepathic control.

“The very first bonds experienced by Vulcans are the family-bonds, established when they are children; Surak himself viewed bonds as part of our natural mental development, establishing a solid foundation for further training and instilling some measure of protection in the midst of a volatile external world. A significant percentage of the surviving population now no longer possess any intact bonds; it was these who had reported symptoms first, and suffer them hardest. The headaches and the terror-visions only receded once they were able to mind-meld with a compatible individual and create new bonds. Even bringing them into the presence of stable Vulcans brought noticeable improvement."

Spock hesitates, his hypothesis suddenly turning him... hesitant? Uncertain. "I posit that, as one of the few who have been fortunate enough to retain a parental family-bond, it may be enough to be in a familiar environment amongst minds that my telepathy recognizes as safe." Known, a part of him whispers. "The collective telepathic field generated by the crew of the Enterprise is, in effect, proving to be a suitable substitute."

"Wait, I thought most humans were psi-null?"

"I am referring to the passive telepathic field projected by most sentient beings. Furthermore, I suspect that the volatility of human emotions, and the freedom with which you express them, have an enhancing effect on the field, compensating for the stability of the trained Vulcan collective mind."

Kirk tilts his head and peers closer at Spock, as if attempting to detect any deception. "Well, if you're sure you're all right." The lingering note of doubt in Kirk's voice leads Spock to suspect that their beleaguered CMO may soon be interrogated regarding Spock's health in the near future. As Spock is confident that the doctor's tests will confirm his own assessment of his wellbeing, he is content to allow Kirk to indulge his protective instincts.

Kirk seems to remember that he has coffee, and picks up his mug again. They observe the light-streaks of stars during warp for several minutes in comfortable silence.

"You know, if it'll help, I'm happy to mind-meld with you," Kirk says casually, between small sips of his coffee.

It is extremely fortuitous that Spock has finished his tea and set his cup down on the side-table, for it is entirely possible that he would have spilled something, one way or another, had he not have done so before Kirk spoke. Liquid is precious.

Some of his shock must have leached to the surface, despite his controls, because Kirk worriedly asks, "Spock?"

"That is-" Spock coughs, forces himself to draw in a full breath. He feels hot, all of a sudden, though his internal temperature hasn't changed significantly. "Captain, you should be careful about making such offers. You are fortunate that I am cognizant of your intentions, which is to offer help and comfort to one whom you consider a friend. But in this context, the type of melding implied is the kind only shared by those of... close relations."

"Oh." There's a faint flash of hurt in Kirk's face, but he quickly musters a placid smile. "That's fine, Spock. Don't worry about it."

It is a fairly common phrase among humans, but in Spock's experience, don't worry about it usually comes out of the Captain's mouth precisely when there is a matter about which Spock should worry. He quickly considers the situation, re-examines his own words. Ah. "I do not mean to say- that is, I am not implying any lack or decrease in our... our friendship, Captain. But the melding I refer to is vastly different from the form you've witnessed me employ in the past, such as on the Narada - it is only done between family members and bondmates. It occurs on a far deeper level, and carries connotations that are... decidedly intimate. It involves a great deal of emotional transference."

"I see." Kirk seems to understand the significance of the sharing of emotions among Vulcans, as he appears mollified. And thoughtful. After a moment his eyes widen again, going quite round.

It is now Spock's turn to ask, "Captain?"

"Just. Um. Thanks for telling me, I didn't realize." Kirk coughs. "So, uh. I guess, you and Uhura...?"

There are times when Spock wonders how humans could have survived as a species when they seem incapable of fundamental practices in communication, such as finishing one's sentences. "We have discussed the possibility of attempting it in the near future, as it is a vital component of bonding. However, mental compatibility across species is rare - it does not always bear true even for those Vulcans who are bonded as children - and so we will be practicing a set of rituals designed for improving compatibility and thus increasing the likelihood of a successful bond."

"Oh." Kirk swallows. His voice sounds dry when he says, "I wish you both luck."

"Illogical," says Spock, standing up and fetching a cup of water. He hands the cup to Kirk, who takes it and stares at it as if he's never seen water before. "But I appreciate the sentiment."

Kirk nods and, after a glance at Spock's face, drinks the water. Spock intends to send Doctor McCoy a note later to have the Captain checked for incipient illness or overexertion.

[ PRIVATE MESSAGE ]
TO: Sulu
FROM: Spock
MESSAGE: Please be advised that Gertrude has once again escaped the confines of its containment box. While I do not mind harboring your specimens in the lab, this one’s tactile nature is distracting to my science officers.

They are in orbit around the moon of a peaceful, long-standing member of the Federation, and there are seven experiments in the science labs that require close watching, so Spock and Kirk elect to follow Starfleet regulations, for once, and have only one of them beam down to the city with the away team. Spock sees them off in the transponder room, then spends a majority of his bridge shift monitoring the experiments from his science console and, at important junctures, visiting the labs himself.

The away team sends regular feedback and checks in at the pre-appointed intervals without fail. The mission progresses with the exact level of incident they'd anticipated - to wit, none - and the relief from the general crew is palpable. Spock doesn't suspect anything is amiss until the third day, when Ensign Chekov asks him to check a set of calculations and asks, quietly, "Are you all right, Commander?"

"I am of sound health, Ensign," says Spock. "Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering, sir. You've walked in and out of bridge at least twelve times since I came on shift. You seem to have a lot of... energy."

He does. He finds himself unable to explain it, nor account for his lack of awareness of the fact. He is sufficiently perturbed that he seeks out Doctor McCoy once beta shift is done.

"Symptoms," demands McCoy, his tricorder hovering over Spock's neck.

"Restlessness. Anxiety without a specific cause. Difficulty concentrating."

"Any headaches? Fluctuations in your control?"

It eases some of Spock's concern to know that McCoy is searching for the same symptoms he has been. "None. It does not feel at all like condition described in the Vulcan Council's reports."

"Doesn't mean much when the patient has a whole different genetic combination to be tortured by. Maybe it's being cooped up in here when you're used to going down with the away team," suggests McCoy. His face is as doubtful as Spock feels; Spock has spent longer ensconced in the labs, to no adverse effects.

"Well, everything seems to be going smoothly down on Rex-3, but I bet Jim won't mind if you pop down-" McCoy's eyes widen.

"Doctor?"

"When was the last time only one of you went with the away team?" asks McCoy; then adding, as if he can't help himself, "as strongly recommended by Starfleet regulations."

It does not require much thought to arrive at the correct answer.

"Wait. Let me rephrase." There is something distinctly amused in McCoy's expression, now. Spock does not know why this makes him... nervous. "When was the last time Jim went on a mission without you?"

Spock stares at him.

McCoy stares placidly back.

 

 

Spock. Is currently wiping the floor with Ensign Telama, ostensibly demonstrating advanced hand-to-hand techniques but more likely giving the watching audience a valuable lesson in Why Not To Piss Off Vulcans. He's wearing the sleeveless version of the regulation exercise clothes, and the black fabric is making his pale skin look even creamier, the muscles of his arms looking way too well-developed for somebody who spends his days fiddling with science equipment. A bit of sweat would have completed the picture, but sadly, the Vulcan doesn't even seem to be breathing hard, though there is a healthy greenish flush to his skin.

The top of somebody's head slides into view in front of Jim. The person has their back to him, but he'd recognize that ponytail anywhere. It makes him realize that his jaw is almost to the floor; he closes his mouth so forcefully that his teeth click.

"He's, uh," Jim clears his throat, "he's really good at that."

"The Suss Mahn? Yeah, he says it was one of his favorite modes of exercise, growing up," says Uhura. Her ponytail brushes his collarbone when she turns her head and grins up at him.

He has no idea if something in his expression gives him away or it takes him too long to respond with an impressed-but-totally-platonic nod or, heck, maybe there's a secret body-language-reading superskill that they teach all the top Communications students. Her grin reforms into something gentler, kind. Before Starfleet, this would have pissed him off, made him act like an ass to turn that kindness into anger, but even as his stomach drops, dripping ice, he thinks, this is Uhura, and cannot help but feel a burst of fondness for this woman, for both of his friends.

A faint murmuring from the front line of watchers pulls Jim's attention back to the match. The bottom of Spock's shirt rides up as he stretches, and Jim can feel the collective twitch from the audience. Spock doesn't seem to notice the effect he's having, nor find anything odd in the number of people who are suddenly done with their workouts or resting or otherwise just hanging around the gym.

Uhura's shoulders are shaking, ever so slightly, like someone doing their best to keep from laughing out loud. It hits him again that she knows. And she will... go on shaking her head at him in the turbolift and judging his movie preferences and stealing his corn cobs, because she'd spent the first two years of their acquaintance irritated at him, and none of that has changed.

Also, hey, there's probably an upside to this.

"Are you sure he's telepathic?" Jim asks Uhura. "I mean, I'm completely psi-null, and I feel like I'm drowning in lust hormones here."

Uhura's non-laughing goes up a notch. "It's not that he's not picking up on the, uh, arousal and tension. He just thinks it's, you know, a side-effect of humans exercising, because it's always like this when he's in here."

Jim thinks about that. "So, what you're saying is, he thinks humans are naturally horny when they're working out?"

"Vulcan logic," grins Uhura.

A muffled thump comes from the mats, and there's a collective gasp.

Jim rolls his eyes, sharing Uhura's amusement, and mutters, "Come on, guys, at least try to look like you're here to exercise."

He gets a number of embarrassed laughs, and the crowd quickly disperses. Jim had pitched his voice to not carry over to Spock, but he knows better than to underestimate Vulcan hearing. And, in fact, Spock turns and spots him.

"Captain," he says, sounding for all the world like they've just run into each other in the ship's corridors, "would you care to spar?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim sees Uhura leaning towards Darwin and whispering, "Maybe if we're quick we can sell tickets."

 

 

Spock's only other experience of command partnership over an extended period of time had been with Admiral Pike. Working with Jim Kirk has been simultaneously similar and not at all alike.

"Trust me, if you think we're close now," Kirk grins, "wait until we've spent five years in deep space. Be ready for people to know your every annoying habit and guilty secret."

Once, the prospect would have made Spock anxious. Now he merely tilts his head at the Captain. "It is well that you will be the one to bear the brunt of it, Captain; I can think of no other being whom I trust more."

"Dammit, Spock - you can't just say things like that."

 

 

On the plus side, Jim thinks, the two of them are wearing clothes and no meat-eating native fauna have shown up to try a bite. So far.

Uhura is captivated by the stone slabs that make up a flat wall on one side. There are carvings on them. The lines were probably clear and elaborate at one time, but they've since been worn soft by age. Jim remembers the smooth wall they'd seen outside, right before the passage roof caved in; the protected environment in this room is probably why the carvings are still visible at all.

"It’s about some kind of… event. A lot of people died." Her hands traced the borders of the stone.

"Massacre?"

"Large numbers, yes," says Uhura, tapping a stone drawing that depicted layer upon layer of leaf shapes. "But it doesn't look violent.” She pauses. "I think it was a plague of some kind."

Kirk's eyes jump back to the stone that he'd thought was depicting a falling star. "Could that be a ship?"

Uhura squints. “Maybe. I think this is some kind of memorial.”

“To the people who used to live here?”

“Hard to say, the details are so worn down, but I don’t think so.” She points at a collection of dots at the very top of the wall. “Those look like a starmap of some kind. I’ll take a scan and compare them when we get back to the Enterprise, but I’ll bet you one of Sulu’s hangover cures that they won’t match the stars here.”

“I bet Spock would be able to name the place, right off the bat.”

“He’s not actually omniscient, you know. Or a computer.”

“I called him that, once. He thanked me for the compliment.”

They're quiet for a long time. It feels like hours but may have been minutes. Time can be weird, like that.

"Not that I don't appreciate it," says Jim, resting his head on the least abrasive rock, "but, you know, in my experience people don't like it when I get too close to their significant others." He frowns. "Damn, that sounds really narcissistic, doesn't it? I'm not saying that I think I'm so hot people can't resist, or, uh-"

"Kirk, I get it," says Uhura. She sounds as tired as he does, but there's a hint of a laugh in her voice, which he feels strangely victorious about. "And let's not kid ourselves- you do think you're that hot." She closes her eyes. And then, as if it's the most obvious thing ever, "You're not to blame when people can't keep their shit together."

There's a kindness there that totally blindsides him, because he'd been expecting something like, as if you're any kind of threat to the awesome that is me, which he can only wholeheartedly agree with. Instead, he lashes out, "that's great, but let's see how Spock takes it if he shows up and finds us in a compromising position."

Regret is immediate, because the words belong to a spiteful thirteen-year-old, and the bitterness in his voice would not have gone unnoticed by an inebriated Scotty, much less his Communications Officer. Might as well have planted a damn neon signpost.

Uhura doesn't answer right away. When he finally looks her in the face, he sees the wide-eyed concern he'd been dreading. But her voice, when she does speak, is mostly amused. "Right. How do you think Spock will react?"

The question brings him up short. He gives in to the laugh when it comes, lets the tension roll out of his fatigued body. "He's not going to notice, is he? He'll just make some comment about the temperature."

She laughs along with him. "His report will commend us for conserving body heat and increasing the chances of a beam-out by occupying a minimal amount of space."

RussianWhizkid: plomeek soup for red, blood for green
JTK: wat
Dr.Horrible: wat
N.U.: ?
AskMeAboutKilts: forgot to use PM laddie?

They receive an order from Starfleet Command to pick up a team of Vulcans who had become stranded on Nibia after their ship had suffered "a critical malfunction". Kirk keeps his game face on until the transmission ends, and then shares a look with Sulu; Chekov is shaking his head.

"Something amusing, Captain?" Spock asks dryly, popping up over Jim's shoulder.

"Oh, you know. Nibia." Jim shrugs. "Critical malfunction. It's like the vaguest way of saying that these Vulcans are stranded because important parts of their ship got stolen."

"I see." Damn, those bangs don't move a micron. "I was not aware of Nibia’s reputation as a hub of criminal activity."

"They are small fish," says Chekov helpfully. "Not unsavory enough to attract attention, but not place you flash credits around without bringing guard."

At the end of their shift, Jim invites Spock for a game of chess in his room. Spock shakes his head. "I'm afraid I must decline. Lieutenant Uhura and I will be having a discussion regarding the Vulcan exercises for improving mental compatibility."

"Oh, yes, I remember you telling me about them." Jim claps Spock on the arm. "Good luck, then."

"I do not know what I would require luck for, but as that remark is frequently used to convey positive sentiment in general rather than a specific situation necessitating the invocation of chance, I shall take it in such spirit. Thank you."

Jim blinks. "Not to mention, you don't believe in luck?"

The corners of Spock's mouth twitch. "Indeed." For a moment, he looks strangely shifty, insofar as a face with perfectly even bangs can be shifty. "Captain, I hope you will not find this overly familiar, but I would like to ask you to observe the sessions, if you have time."

"Of course, Spock." Jim ignores the twisting in his gut. This is Spock actually asking for something, which is behavior Jim wants to encourage. And it seems like the sort of thing a Vulcan, with all their hang-ups about privacy, would only ask a close and trusted friend. Besides, a little bit of suffering is good for the soul, right?

 

 

Of course, he should have known that the 'exercises' mainly consist of meditation. Endless, endless meditation. Spock and Uhura sit cross-legged on Spock's meditation mat, in Spock's red-hued room, facing each other, and Spock quietly instructs Uhura to focus on different things: the light of a candle, the heat of the room, the smooth stone he places on the mat between them.

There's enough of a sense of Tradition about it that Jim suspects he's playing the role of a chaperone, which makes Jim want to laugh and laugh because anyone who's ever met him knows that he's the very last thing from proper chaperone material.

His amusement dies down when he considers, really, who else is Spock going to ask?

Spock doesn't seem particularly surprised when Jim barely lasts fifteen minutes, eyes opening briefly to look questioningly at him. Jim just waves him back to his meditation and scoots until he's leaning against the wall. Uhura hasn't moved since she closed her eyes. The stillness seems to suit her; it makes sense to Jim that she'd be a natural at this, fitting into this aspect of Spock's life as easily as she's fit into everything else.

There's a PADD within reach. He picks it up, thinking he'll just read until they're done or, more likely, kick him out for harshing their meditative groove.

He doesn't realize he's falling asleep until he jerks awake, an unknown length of time later. The mats are back in their usual neat rolls, the incense has been put away, and the room is distinctly devoid of Spock or Uhura. Jim feels a hot flush of embarrassment at having snoozed through his friends' meaningful couple's bonding session. There's a blanket covering him, though, far too soft and lovely to be Starfleet issue, and the room's temperature has been lowered to almost ship normal, so hopefully Spock and Uhura aren't too pissed with him. Or maybe he'd looked so pathetic that they'd decided to just leave him alone.

There's no chronometer in Spock's room, so Jim finds out the time from the PADD he'd fallen asleep reading and, from there, apparently decided to use it as a pillow.

One hour until alpha shift. “Damn.”

 

 

Uhura jumps, startled, at the roar of noise from under the walkway. She peers over the railing. “Mister Scott?” No answer.

She climbs down the next set of stairs she sees. “Scotty?”

Another roar. She can identify the sound as voices, now, especially when there is a sudden burst of colorful and heavily accented profanity. One of the voices is definitely Scotty’s. She follows the noise, and soon can hear the tinnier sound of a video playing: faint music, clapping, a male voice speaking at a very fast rate.

She turns the corner and tries not to gape. “Are you guys watching football?”

A bunch of heads turn to look her way. Scotty is there, yes, and so is Science Officer 0718, and the rest are a good mix of crew. The most surprising one, though, is Doctor Marcus.

“Lieutenant!” exclaims Scotty, jumping to his feet. “Come, join us! We’ve got popcorn.” He glares at Keenser, who responds with a long-suffering look and shakes the tub invitingly at Uhura.

“So I see, Mister Scott,” says Uhura, grinning and looking around for an available seat. “Doctor Marcus, I didn’t peg you as a fan.”

“Ah, me neither, thought she was too posh for this sort of thing,” interjects Scotty before Carol can say anything. Unseen by him, Carol raises her eyebrow at Uhura. Uhura stifles a laugh. “Turns out Carol’s got a cousin in the Wimbledon FC!”

“My aunt used to take us to the stadium whenever mum and dad were busy,” says Carol. A fold-up chair appears from somewhere. Carol passes it over to Uhura. “And call me Carol, please. I take it you watch the footie, as well?”

“Please,” says Uhura, “You know that the United States of Africa won the last World Cup, right?”


DontAskScottyAboutKilts: THE BRITS HAVE TAKEN OVER ENGINEERING
N.U.: You’re not even in Engineering, Sulu.

"Other kids didn't really like me," says Jim. "I mean, they weren't mean or anything, but everyone knew that my mom went off-world as much as she could. She was always this, like, ideal mom when she was home, so I think a lot of the kids assumed that something must be wrong with me, and they didn't want to catch it; in case, I don't know, I chased away their own moms. Or something."

Spock stares down at his hands. Finds them clenched tightly around his knees. "My peers often derided me for having a human mother. My refusal to consider her inferior made them question the validity of my logic relentlessly. When I was younger, I could not understand - I once asked her why she did not act as a Vulcan. And so she did." The sadness he'd glimpsed on her face still causes a tightness in his chest. But worse had been the days after - the truncated greetings after school, the wholly Vulcan meals without a trace of Terran vegetables, the absence of touch beyond perfunctory adjustments of his garments. "I asked her to stop after 5.3 days. Instead, I sought to be more rigidly Vulcan, to demonstrate that her influence was in no way detrimental or - disadvantageous. It concerned me that she would take it as a rejection of her, but I think she understood. I believe she understood better than my father or I ever did."

"She sounds like an amazing woman." Jim winces. "I - I must have really - I'm sorry, Spock. For what I said that day, when we were running after Nero."

"The end result more than justified any distress caused by the means."

"Doesn't make it any less of a shitty thing to do to you, Spock."

He recognizes that determined tone. Jim Kirk's stubbornness is an immovable force - Spock suspects even Surak himself could dash all the principles of logic against it and still it would hold. "I accept your apology, though I maintain that it is unnecessary."

 

 

Pike had known about the ad-hoc intranet. Jim’s not sure why finding that out had shocked him.

“Jim, the Enterprise is a new ship with all the new toys and fresh new systems,” the Admiral had said, late in his office during one of their ‘mentoring’ sessions, which tended to involve numerous conversations via eyebrow while Pike goes over the Enterprise’s mission report. “Her command crew consists of a bunch of geniuses who, comparatively speaking, are barely out of their Academy years. Frankly, this is one of the most harmless not-exactly-regulation things I expect you to do.”

“Is that a challenge, sir?” asked Jim.

Pike had shaken his head. “Just – make sure everyone’s logs are still updated regularly, all right? And don’t make them too clean. My best advice is to keep to official channels during emergencies – that way, they get the expected amount of swearing and gallows humor, and if you get a bit quiet during the downtime, they’ll just think you’re bored.” After a considering pause, he’d added, “when you get around to adding a video function, keep your PADD far out of reach while you’re having sex. Trust me on this. Or your crew will stop your coffee for a month.”

~ * ~

"It is possible that I may have been overzealous in ensuring that the Tooaru understand that the Enterprise will not tolerate any harm or danger to a Starfleet Captain," says Spock mildly.

"Just any Starfleet Captain, huh?" says Jim. He may or may not be a bit freaked out, still, by seeing what Spock had done to the poor bastard who'd stuck a knife into Jim. It's probably good that the Tooaru are a warrior race who think acts of violence are the height of interpersonal discourse.

Jim can't exactly criticize someone for getting into a fight, not without being a massive hypocrite; he's done it for less reason. But still - this is Spock. His Vulcan First Officer. Who is, at present, assiduously avoiding his gaze by staring at the monitors behind Jim's biobed.

Bones marches in with a PADD. "The knife didn't nick anything vital, thank God, and I'm prepared to let you recuperate in your own room, provided that you take the next few days off and refrain from picking up anything heavier than a coffee mug."

"Have you heard anything about the, um," Jim spares a glance at Spock, "you know, the other guy."

"He'll live," says Bones. "Hold still while I give you this immune booster - who knows what was on that knife."

Jim stares at his friend. He doesn't know what's worse - that Spock had practically pummeled a guy almost to death, or that Bones doesn't seem to find this particularly noteworthy. Actually, if he doesn't know any better, he'd swear that Bones is being particularly solicitous of Spock, and vice versa. They haven't made a dig at the other since Jim woke up.

"Oh my God, are you two having an affair?" exclaims Jim.

Bones jerks so hard he nearly hypo's himself. "What? Where the- are you having delusions? Should I have scanned for brain activity?" There are two scanners stuck to Jim’s face even before Bones finishes speaking.

"I'm fine, Bones!" Jim bats him away. "Actually, I might be the only one acting normally around here. Bones, Spock nearly smashed that guy's face in!"

"Considering you were bleeding out on the ground with a knife sticking out of your side, I feel like the response was not uncalled for."

"But it's - ow!"

Uhura, who admittedly takes Jim's side only 25% of the time, is even less helpful when he runs into her on his way to his quarters. She must have just returned from the surface. "The Tooaru were very impressed with such a show of strength, sir," she informs him mildly.

"Yeah, yeah, even I was very impressed," says Jim. "But it doesn't... perturb you, at all? This is Spock."

She just gives him the look he's come to think of as 'I've got ninety-nine problems and you do not want to be one of them' and marches off.

The Tooaru are very impressed. The next time Jim beams down, with double security, the representatives fall all over themselves to apologize to him. Not to Spock, though the Vulcan is silently looming a few paces behind Jim and gets a few respectful nods - no, Jim is the one who gets the brunt of the bowing and scraping.

It turns out that, as the Tooaru structure their society according to fighting prowess, those of higher rank are assumed to be better warriors than their subordinates. They are clearly assuming that, if Spock had been able to do what he'd done and Jim is of a higher rank than him, well, best to apologize and offer a ridiculous amount of gifts.

Well, Starfleet Command is happy, at least. Apparently they'd had trouble getting the Tooaru to listen to any of their representatives in the past.

"It would have been helpful to have been informed of this before we went down there, sir," says Kirk through gritted teeth.

"A commendation will be awarded to yourself and those of your crew who took part in the negotiations," says Admiral Collins magnanimously.

Bastard. Kirk inhales slowly. "Very kind, sir."

Jim is off-duty and playing cards with Sulu, Chekov, and Brackett in Rec Room 1 when the subject comes up again.

"Not that it wasn't awesome," says Jim, only half of his attention on the game. "And I don't even have to lie on my log about how it improved relations with the Tooaru and greatly expedited the trade for supplies."

Of course, he'd made sure to look at Spock's report as well, in case the Vulcan tried something stupid like recommend a reprimand against himself. Spock's report had been as clinical as always, though, only describing the fight and the after-effects; combined with Jim's report, it made the incident sound more like the Tooaru hadn't taken been impressed with them at first, so someone tried to off Jim, and Spock had objected with extreme prejudice, and now the Federation has a shiny new trading ally.

Which, okay, is exactly what had happened. Mostly.

"But am I seriously the only person who's a bit freaked out by this?" says Jim.

"Yup," says Brackett.

Jim stares at her.

After a moment, Sulu sighs, not looking up from his own cards. "He would have killed Khan, Jim."

"Yeah, Bones told me, Spock had to chase him through half of San Fran-"

"Jim." And now Sulu is looking at him, posture still casual but his expression intent and utterly serious. Like he's trying to get Jim to understand something. "It was Khan. You, more than anyone, saw what he could do. Carol told us about - her dad. But Spock ran him down and fought him and nearly killed him with his bare hands."

Jim blinks. "Oh."

"Even Lieutenant Uhura could not stop him, not until she said you might still be saved," adds Chekov quietly.

"It was pretty awesome," says Sulu, smiling with vindictive pleasure.

 

 

Spock finds him in their usual spot on Observation Deck 2. "It is my understanding that my actions have left you... 'freaked out' is, I believe, the term you used."

Oh, shit, he heard. Jim has the sudden, sharp urge to shove his head through the nearest airlock. "I'm sorry, Spock. I didn't - I didn't actually mean it in a bad way."

But Spock has already moved on, full steam ahead on the logic train. "I do not blame you, Captain. In fact, I am surprised that not more of the crew have expressed such a sentiment. My loss of control was shameful and anathema to the principles of Su-"

"Spock." Jim steps as close as he can without touching. "I didn't mean it in a bad way. It was pretty awesome - which, I can assure you, seems to be the unanimous opinion of the crew. And I was freaked out by your actions, not you." He thinks, fuck it, and places his hands on Spock's forearms. It gets the desired effect of Spock looking him in the eyes. "Spock. I'm not afraid of you."

"You should be."

Jim smiles, lets his voice go low and soft. "I respectfully disagree."

He's not sure how long they stand there staring at each other; it might have gone on indefinitely, which would have been just dandy to Jim, but suddenly a wide yawn takes him over, and he has to cover his mouth with his hand.

"You should rest, Captain," says Spock. His voice is quiet, close, even though there's no one else in the room with them, and Jim gets the feeling this conversations has somehow drifted to the edge of what's appropriate for a Captain and his XO, or even for two platonic friends. But damn if he has to be the one to bring them back to safer ground. "You are still recuperating from your injuries."

Jim makes a noncommittal noise. "I haven't had peaceful, undisturbed sleep since..." Jim frowns. "Huh, I think it might have been that time you and Uhura were doing your joint meditation thing."

Spock frowns. "That was two weeks ago, Captain."

"I'm not saying I haven't slept," says Jim, "I have. It's just - I keep waking up, or being woken up. It's fine, Spock, I was like this as a teenager, too."

"Except, as a teenager, you did not bear the responsibility for hundreds of lives," Spock points out.

Jim stiffens. "If you think my performance has been suffering, Mr. Spock, I'm sure you know which forms to fill out."

"Your performance has been as exemplary as ever, Captain." Spock doesn't look perturbed. "I would have intervened if I thought that were not the case."

Strangely enough, this makes Jim feel better. "I know. I'm - I'm glad I can trust you to do that, Mister Spock." Damn it. This is why, he knows, that he'd never really stood a chance, when it came to Spock. Nobody else, except maybe Bones, understands just how much Jim cares about the Enterprise and her crew. Spock will put them first. Jim can trust Spock to put them first. It is, strangely, the most amazing thing anyone's ever done for Jim, to be someone he can trust with something so important, and Spock wouldn't even get it.

Jim is so, so screwed.

Chapter Text

"Ow," is the first thing Jim says after opening his eyes. The taut cloth stretched out a few inches from his face glows briefly, as if in agreement. Lines of characters, dancing circles and dots, trail out in spirals over the center of the material. They look vaguely familiar.

Memory returns before he's quite ready for it. An awful roaring from the sky; a pale form moving too fast to see anything except for an impression of great wide wings; the soft patter of what he'd first thought was rain; Ensign Jorrus screaming and clutching at his face, smoke and a sickly liquid streaming out between his fingers; Jim shooting at the creature and yelling at everyone to find shelter; wings suddenly blotting out the sun-

The cloth is pulled back. Spock's face peers down at him.

"Oh good, I hadn't gotten yet to the part where I wonder if I've been put into some sort of cocoon for a later snack," Jim mumbles.

Both of Spock's eyebrows dip down, the fat ends bending in close for conference, then seem to agree that Jim's only being half-awake and nonsensical. "The ol had turned its sights on you, Captain; you avoided its spit but were thrown by its wing. Fortunately, the Dar arrived in time and chased it away. They have a special weapon they had developed against the creatures."

And now the rest of it came back: dropping out of warp into an entirely uncharted region of space, moseying over towards the nearest sun system and discovering the M-class planet; scans of the surface revealing a small but thriving population. Then Spock had commented that he was getting contradictory readings on their level of tech: there were traces of compounds that could only be found on warp-capable worlds, but no sign of any ships, or even methods of transport more advanced than animal-drawn carriages.

"So, I guess that beaming down into the desert was not such a good idea," says Jim. He gingerly raises his head. His entire body aches, but the burn of it fades after a few seconds. His hands and arms find that the soft surface he'd been lying on is not flat but curves up, loosely following the shape of his body. "Oh, I was in a cocoon."

"It is their version of a biobed, and it has proven most effective," says Spock. "I would even venture to say that their medical technology surpasses the Earth's."

"Ensign Jorrus?" asks Jim. "And the rest of the away team?"

"All fine. Jorrus will have some scarring, but he retains the use of his eyes, and he claims that he likes his reconstructed nose better."

"And you've been able to communicate with the locals?"

"They call themselves the Dar. And yes, beyond expectations." Spock's expression turns thoughtful. "They were clearly aware that we are aliens, and reciprocated our attempts to communicate. When the Universal Translator only managed to translate 20% of their speech with any degree of accuracy, they provided what their own version of the device, though it was similarly unable to decipher Standard. Then Uhura was able to match their language to a very old, obsolete base form from the Enterprise's libraries. She and Chekov, and two of the Dar, managed to create a new translation matrix out of this obsolete base to act as a bridge between the two translator systems. It has been working remarkably well."

Jim chuckles, shaking his head helplessly. He's getting tired again, he realizes. "Best damn crew in the universe, amirite, Spock?"

He's not sure when his eyes closed. He hears Spock clearly enough, though. "Indeed, Captain."

 

 

“It's good to see you up and talking,” says Sulu, an hour later. “We were worried there, for a while. You looked awful.” He gets a sharp prod from Scotty. “Ow. It’s true!”

“He’s obviously lying,” says Bones, digging his fingers into various parts of Jim's face. Jim finds himself relaxing; the Dar's medical tech might be more advanced than theirs, but nothing convinces him he's safe better than Bones' miracle hands pinching, irritated, at him. “You were the very image of beauty in sweet repose. I thought that the deathly pallor was especially enchanting.”

“You’re such a sweet-talker, Bones,” says Jim cheerfully. “I’m glad to hear that everyone's still in one piece."

“We would have visited sooner,” says Sulu apologetically. “We looked in when we could, but the Dar are pretty strict about maintaining regular patrols around the caravan.”

“Not all of them are happy to have us here,” says Uhura, in a quieter voice.

“They would have had us camping apart, I think, if her ladyship had not taken a liking to Jimmy here,” says Bones.

“Not like tha'!” says Scotty hurriedly. For some reason, he throws Spock a look. “Gar says that the Captain reminds her of her eldest, whom she's not seen in a number of years.”

Well, being showered with motherly affection instead of an amorous one would be a nice change.

"The Enterprise?" asks Jim.

"Parked where we left her," answers Sulu. "Chekov and Marcus are keeping an eye on things. Marcus said that there's been no change since the initial scans; no signs of ships, or even computerized weapons."

"Tell them to keep watching. Also, tell Jorrus to head back to the ship, take some time off. Any of you are free to head back, too. But I want to stick around, if they let us."

Bones rolls his eyes. "Color us shocked."

 

 

“Have you come from far away, then?” asks Lady Gar. “Your leader says you are from the Federation, from what he called the Alpha Quadrant."

“Yes,” confirms Uhura, and then launches into the usual spiel on the history of the Federation, their goals for interplanetary peace and cooperation, the exploration of space and the pursuit of knowledge. Gar seems a bit intrigued and a lot amused, and doesn't make any comments, so Uhura segues back to, "Do all the tribes here speak the same language?"

“No, we each have a private language, which is never taught to outsiders,” says Gar. She adjusts the enormous axe strapped to her back, nearly as long as she is tall. But then, the Dar are half the height of average humans. “We use it when we are only among our own. But all Dar-folk learn seel.” At Uhura's questioning look, she clarifies, “That is what most folk call the language we are speaking now.”

“Ah,” says Uhura, “thank you for explaining.”

Gar turns to Spock. “Now that your leader is awake and recovering well, what are your plans?”

Spock glances away - Uhura can't see as well in the dark, but she'd bet her remaining store of chocolate that it's the same direction as the convalescence tent. “It is the Captain's decision,” he says. “However. The Federation has no record of your people. We detected compounds that are only found in civilizations that possess warp capability, and your medical technology matches this category; yet you have not a single ship, and you are crossing the desert on foot."

"A curious combination, is it not?" says Gar.

"You do not seem surprised to see others not of your world, which suggests that you have had contact with other worlds, even if you do not possess the means to leave your own planet." Had she seen a twitch in the Dar's purple-hued features? It is hard to be sure, when she's not yet familiar with a race's physicality. "We came here hoping to learn more about you and your history. That is still our interest, if we may be permitted. Furthermore, we now owe you for saving the lives of two of our members. If there is a way in which we may lend you aid in return, please inform us."

"Are you offering to teach us to build ships? Since, of course, we must be somehow unable to, because you have seen none." Gar and Spock exchange calculating looks. “The tribes each have their own views of other-world peoples and world-leaving. We have a... complicated history, which colors many decisions made today. Perhaps I will tell the tale to you, later. You have assured me that your interest is in exploration and science, not in war-making, and I choose to believe you.” She pauses, giving the impression that she is contemplating a new idea. But Spock is the child of a diplomat; he calmly waits for her to continue speaking.

“This caravan is headed for the City E," continues Gar, "the rightful home of my kin. A vicious storm of ol stole the mountain from us many scores of years ago."

Spock tenses, imperceptible to most people. Uhura can see, as if she's the one with telepathy here, the scene that must be replaying in his head: the Captain, standing tall and steady and facing the great beast with nothing more than his regulation phaser, trying to give the rest of them time to get away. Uhura doesn't think Spock even realizes he's angry - all of them are, even when they know that this is how Jim Kirk is.

"The ol brought death to many of our folk, and exile for the rest." Gar's somber expression turns fierce and proud. “The weapon which you saw used was only finished the year before the last. My brother has taken as many of it as we could produce in two seasons and gone to drive out the ol from our ancestral home. He was successful. Our people have been summoned home once more.” She tilts her head at him, considering. "You may accompany us to the City. There, you will learn as much as we will allow outsiders."

 

 

Bones has often complained that Jim can sleep through an ion storm. It's a skill that has served Jim well through rooming with Bones, plus the various outdoor expeditions and camping trips and a few road trips during their time at the Academy. Naturally, Bones has always insisted that he doesn't snore, and frequently calls upon his blank-faced colleagues and nurses to affirm his claim; as far as Kirk sees it, none of them had to share a tent with their august and septum-deviated CMO.

But not even Jim can sleep through the loud howls, the ringing of metal, the smell of burning hair - and exuberant cursing in at least two languages. He flails awake and falls out of his not-cocoon, hitting the ground with Starfleet-regulation emergency blankets tangled around him.

The howling, at least, gives him some idea of why he can hear people running every which way outside the tent. He recognizes Sulu and Bones' voices, and maybe Uhura's, further away.

He stumbles to the tent-flap. Bones had given him something after dinner, something to help him sleep better, and it makes Jim's head feel as if it's made out of wool, but he doesn't even consider the thought of sitting in the tent while there is fighting going on outside.

 

 

Jim ducks, barely in time to avoid the errant curve of metal whirling overhead. Is that an axe? He glances the other way, out of habit, to check the progress of the battle on the other side of the camp.

A knot of Dar fighting together are suddenly attacked on two fronts at once. One of the attackers is a toothy raccoon-thing, riding semi-attached to a scaly lizard-thing. The raccoon-thing narrowly avoids an enormous axe that would have cleaved its head in two. Jim blinks in recognition; that must be Gar, he thinks, because there's probably not two axes of the same extravagant size in the same camp.

The Dar recover from the joint attack with admirable speed. The second attacker is a raccoon-thing alone; it is quickly surrounded and taken down by a concerted series of axe-swings. The wounded raccoon-thing lunges at one of the Dar in a last-minute attempt at escape. He doesn't get very far, but Jim sees its bloodied hand throw something. A piece of bone? Several paces away, one of the Dar topples over.

The felled Dar had been fighting with Lady Gar against the raccoon-and-lizard pair. The rest of the group are still occupied with the single raccoon-thing. Jim realizes: Lady Gar is alone, and has not yet noticed that her side is unguarded.

Jim is already moving before any clear danger is apparent. Which is lucky, as he discovers he can't travel much faster than a brisk stagger. Her eyes - and axe - focused on the snapping lizard, Lady Gar does not see another raccoon-thing, smaller than the other two, sneaking in close.

Gathering what strength he has, Jim sprints the last few steps and barrels into Lady Gar just as the raccoon-thing snaps at the air where she had been standing. The attack draws the attention of the other Dar, and they go after the raccoon-thing with a furious roar.

However, there's still the lizard-thing and its rider-attachment, and they seize on the momentary distraction. It is Gar who rolls Jim and herself out of the way, just barely, of the lizard-thing's sharp claws, and her ridiculous axe that blocks the raccoon-thing's snarling bite. Jim is scrambling for something, anything, that he can use as a weapon, when he hears a familiar shout-

-and there is Spock, battle-bloody, charging at the lizard from behind and slashing at its side with an axe. Jim thinks, numbly, that is unexpectedly hot. Both raccoon and lizard roar in pain. The lizard's hind legs tense, preparing for a leap. Jim’s searching hands find a coil of rope.

“Spock, catch!” he shouts. He throws one end of the rope as hard as he can.

Spock catches the rope. He seems to guess immediately what Jim had intended it for, and rolls to one side just as the lizard pounces. Jim holds onto his end of the rope tightly and braces himself on the ground. The lizard's hind legs catch on the rope. It lets out a pained whine, and attempts to right itself, but Kirk and Spock release the rope at once, allowing it to become tangled with the kicking legs. The lizard falls into a heap, throwing off its rider. Out of nowhere, Sulu launches himself at the raccoon, swinging his axe wide like a sword. Seconds later, he is joined by two of the Dar; Jim assumes that the fighting in the other parts of the camp is dying down.

A loud growl reminds him that there is still a very angry lizard not ten feet away from him. Jim tries to push himself to his feet, looking around for Lady Gar, when-

Thwack.

- a thick bolt is suddenly protruding out of the lizard’s head. The great beast collapses.

Gar lowers the crossbow she had somehow acquired, shaking her head. “I may not be as good as my mother, but at this distance, it hardly takes much skill.”

 

 

The cleanup after the battle is done with an efficiency that tells Jim these people are used to such attacks. Lady Gar convinces Jim to sit next to her, and looks thoughtfully between Jim and Spock.

“I should have known, the moment I saw him,” Lady Gar nods towards Spock, who is impressing the Dar by hauling one of the lizard-things away all by himself, “carrying you to our healer.”

“Known what, my Lady?” asks Jim.

“Call me by my name, please,” says Lady Gar. “My people do not cling to proper titles as tightly as other tribes do. As to your question - they always come in pairs, my grandfather used to say.” Gar smiles enigmatically. “You are so much like my youngest son, for all that you are so tall.”

The general mood in the Dar caravan seems a great deal more relaxed towards the Enterprise crew after the battle. Lady Gar makes a point of recounting their rescue of her the next time they make camp, greatly exaggerating Jim's role in the whole thing. He is painfully aware that Gar and Spock had done all the actual fighting; he'd only fallen over and laid on the ground. It further helps their cause that nearly every Dar had fought alongside one of Jim's crew at some point in the battle. The Dar, as far as Jim can tell, had not had a high opinion of the fighting skills of humans before this, likely due to seeing them scatter away from the ol.

Now, there are rude-sounding jokes being tossed back and forth between the carriage beasts' lines, and shouted invitations to join various groups once the campfires are lit. Jim winces when a loud roar of laughter rises from the huddle that Sulu is ensconced in.

Drinking seems to be another way into the Dar heart, and Bones clearly thinks himself up to the challenge. Jim wonders if there's a way to tell his Chief Medical Officer that these people are likely in a league all of their own. Fortunately, Uhura seems to be of the same mind, and seats herself in the next group over, close enough to swoop in to rescue Bones should the need arise.

Jim finds Scotty helping a few of the Dar repair broken buckles and dented pots. “They can’t really set up a forge out here, or we’d be seeing to the weapons as well,” says Scotty, even though Jim doesn't ask.

“Luckily, the Dar always carry spares,” says the guy working next to him, pausing to wipe his face on a rag.

Spock has somehow been drafted into helping one of the Lady Gar's advisors with the logistics of each camp. Jim suspects that Gar had merely wanted someone else to suffer the brunt of the advisor’s long-windedness ramblings. It's a happy coincidence that Spock actually enjoys discussing optimal campsite layouts and balancing food rations; Jim walks away before he is tempted to remind Gar that Spock is his Vulcan, thanks, and she can have him for now but Jim fully expects to get him back at some point.

By the end of one week, Scotty and Sulu are the clear favorites in the camp; Sulu for his swordsmanship and amiable disposition, and Scotty for the way any object left within his reach seems to magically get fixed.

 

 

"I'm fine, Bones - you said that their medical knowledge is beyond ours, and their healer has declared me fit to pull my own weight around camp."

"Their knowledge is great for their own people, but it's not like they're used to treating humans. And that's before taking into account your body's tendency to surprise us."

"I can't spend another evening just sitting in that damn tent, Bones-"

What feels like a wall of cold water hits them. Jim coughs, shaking his head to fling the water off his face. Next to him, Bones splutters and struggles with the hair plastered over his eyes. Gar is standing by the river bank, face innocent despite the bucket still in her hands.

“I grew up with two brothers and have raised two sons. Believe me, I know many methods for settling ridiculous arguments,” she says with an ominous smile. “This is one of the more pleasant ones.”

 

 

“Are you all right, my Lady?”

Gar looks up and, seeing Jim, gestures for him to join her by the fire. Jim tentatively sits down next to her. “What did I say about titles?” she reminds him with a small smile, and continues before he can reply, “no matter; my thoughts are far away, tonight.”

“I’m a good listener,” offers Jim, "if, you know, you feel like sharing." He doesn’t know what it is about Gar that makes him feel so at ease. Maybe something in the way she twitches her bushy eyebrows at him; a memory of Pike hits Jim with a sharp pang.

"I thank you for the offer." Gar nods and stares at the fire. “I have not seen my sons in nearly three years.”

“Oh,” says Jim. He realizes, abruptly, that he doesn't remember how many years it's been since he saw his own mother. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. Such is the life of a wandering people. We parted well, and are assured in each other’s love - not all families can boast of that.”

Ain't that the truth. “You’ll see them soon, won’t you?” asks Jim. “The place we’re heading to - that’s where they are.”

“Yes,” sighs Gar. Her hands are twisting the edge of her overtunic. “But I do not know what state they will be in. There was a great battle, you see, because the ol do not give up their nests easily. I know little of it, save that many of our people died. The last messages we received said that my sons and daughter were both gravely injured.” She lets out a long breath. “They might already be dead. A mother should know these things, don’t you think? But I did not sense it when my brother died, many years ago; I only found out when what remained the host came back.” She pauses. “My other brother is there as well.” Her fingers flex and pull; it's a wonder her overtunic hadn’t ripped yet. “I might be the only one left of my family.”

Jim let the silence sit for a moment. “My father died on the day I was born. He died so that I could be born. My mother doesn't like to speak of him."

Gar takes a deep breath, and looks at him with eyes as old as mountains. "You cannot forgive him, for this."

“I don't know,” admits Jim. “He was... a good man. I think he might have been a great one, had he lived longer. And he died saving my life. I was angry at him, for a long time, but now - now that I do the same work he was doing, I think I understand. And I can be proud to be his son.” He swallows.

Gar hums thoughtfully. After a long moment, she says, careful, "Your mother is a woman of fierce dreams, grown into great hopes."

Jim clears his throat. "What makes you say that?"

"There is a bitterness in you that, I think, comes from her. There is nothing as sharp as the loss of a big dream. Or knowing it and having it snatched away." Her hands make an expansive gesture. "My grandfather was the same. He had lived in the City E as a child, and dreamed of returning our people there. He never forgave the Dar-Tara, the Council of All Tribes, for denying his request to lead a host. I understand why they did so, why they waited until there was a weapon that proved effective against the ol, but as a child, I was angry at them, for making our house unhappy."

 

 

The desert has given way to a surprisingly healthy forest when there is a great crash from a thicket, halfway down the line of the caravan. Jim turns from his position at the front. People have been wandering off here and there to forage for edible things, so it's not a surprise to see faces missing. Then there's a sharp series of curses in a distinctly Scottish brogue, and the sound of something blunt hitting the trees is followed by a shower of leaves and twigs from the lower canopy. Bushes and branches crunched under the weight of heavy boots.

“Stop moving, damn you!”

Briefly there are sounds of a great tussle, and further violence being committed to defenseless shrubbery. Then two grappling figures roll out into the open, both of them desperately attempting to dig fingers and knees into the other’s soft spots.

“Scotty!” yelps Jim. At the same time, another voice shouts, "Tir!”

The Dar suddenly releases Scotty, and seems to notice, for the first time, all the eyes staring at him. "Gar?"

Lady Gar pushes past the rest of the caravan to stand next to Jim.

Tir turns out to be one of the largest of the Dar that Jim has ever seen. He is still shorter than any of the humans, of course, but not by much, reaching nearly to Uhura’s shoulder, and he radiates such a sense of size that even Spock is instinctively giving him a wide berth.

“Tir,” says Lady Gar. But then she stops, as if unsure of her next words. Jim can see how tightly she is holding herself, the breath she seems reluctant to release.

Fortunately, Tir clearly knows what she is asking. “They live,” he says gruffly. “All four of them live, my Lady.”

“Don’t you dare start that, now of all times,” she says faintly. She sniffs, once, twice, her hands clenched tight into fists. And then the tension leaves her in one long, shuddering breath. “Uya. I did not dare hope.”

Jim lets out a breath he had not been aware of holding. He helps Scotty up and gestures for his crew to move away. The rest of the caravan seem to agree. All of them move away, back to the track they'd been following, leaving Lady Gar alone with her hoped-for news.

 

 

Later that evening, by the campfire, Lady Gar tries to glean more information about her family from Tir.

“Best wait to see them with your own eyes,” says Tir. “No point torturing yourself. Any little hurt I mention will sound ten times worse, and you won’t believe my reassurances until they’re right in front of you.”

“It’s lucky that you were out here in time to meet us,” says Gar.

“Well, I was waiting for you,” admits Tir. He glances sideways at Scotty. “I just hadn’t expected you’d have aliens with you.”

 

 

“It’s strange, how the world seems both large and small at the same time, once you’ve seen a bit of it,” says Gar, the next night. Her expression is mostly contemplative. There's a tension in her that's eased since they'd run into Tir. “I used to think that City-Vea, where my family lived after we were driven out of the City E, was the entire world. I had many maps of the outside, but I could not understand how big the world really was, or how far away things could be.” She looks away into the distance, voice quiet. “Often, I wonder if I will ever be content in a City again. Surely it will feel too small, when that I’ve traversed its length and width several times over.”

“I never liked living in Riverside - that is the city where I come from,” says Jim. “I thought that maybe it was just me, that there was something wrong with me. Everyone I knew growing up is still there, except for my brother." His mother doesn't count - he definitely hadn't known her growing up. "So maybe it was my family. And then I got the Enterprise, and the best damn crew ever, and - I can understand, now, I think."

“Hmm. I suppose people make a difference, too, in the life one builds.” A distant expression appears on Gar's face, and she stares off towards the great mountain in the distance, growing larger every day as they close the distance. Jim wonders if she's thinking about her family.

 

 

The moment they arrive at the pair of enormous doors at the foot of the mountain, a swarm of Dar flood out and swallow up Lady Gar, sweeping her inside with a great deal of chatter and excited gesticulation. More than a few Dar send suspicious looks towards the Enterprise crew, but the rest of the caravan wave them away. Even Tir seems to be vouching for them, speaking officiously to a heavily-robed Dar in a new dialect that the modified translator devices can't keep up with.

The Enterprise crew are escorted down hallway after hallway. At some point, an elderly Dar joins them, introducing herself as, "Ker, the Chief Historian."

Uhura takes it upon herself to get some of the information they'd been after since stepping foot on the planet. The first point being: how old, as a race, are the Dar?

Ker has a similar way of looking amused as Gar does, like they're enjoying a secret joke. "Our people remember the Tkon," she says gravely, "that great, grand empire whose reach spanned the galaxy. The Dar had barely found fire, then. It is believed that they came a few times, but found nothing on our world that they wanted; thus, their reign passed us by."

Uhura contemplates the nearest wall carvings. There seems to be endless miles of them, in addition to dozens of elaborate statues and monoliths and structures that seem part of the natural rock until one views them at a specific angle. It's something she's always found inspiring: how the fallibility of time and memory is its own universal constant, and yet civilizations always look for a way to say, I was here. "They are gone and your cities still stand. There's something in that."

Ker smiles approvingly. "As you say."

 

 

Jim hears, behind him, Scotty sidling closer to Bones. "Did we know that Lady Gar was their king’s sister?"

"No, I'm pretty sure I would have remembered her mentioning that," Bones whispers back.

"He wasn't King until he took the City E," says Tir. Scotty's boots thump loudly on the polished stone floor of the throne room.

"Will you stop following me?" hisses Scotty.

Spock discreetly clears his throat. Jim pulls his attention back to the throne, which they'd almost reached. It's in the precise center of the room, instead of against the wall, and carved right into an enormous pillar of stone that curved elegantly upwards, all the way to the ceiling. Layers of stone tendrils seem to branch out near the top and spiral away, so that it looks almost as if the ceiling had been drawn down by a vortex to form the pillar-throne.

"Brave visitors from afar," says the Dar occupying said throne. "I am Ger-Tiha of the City E. My good sister tells me that you have been fellow travelers along the sand-route, and lent our people aid when the lur-kip-ira attacked."

Jim bows low, aware that the rest of his crew are doing the same. "Lady Gar has been a most gracious host," he says. "We are indebted to her for sharing her supplies and shelter with us."

"You are Jim Kirk," says Ger-Tiha. "My sister says that you faced down a solitary ol. Are you a great warrior, then among your people?

"Not as such," admits Jim. "I can fight when I must, but I prefer not to."

"But you are a leader?" presses the Dar.

"Of my crew, yes."

Ger-Tiha nods. "Then you will understand, I hope, when you have learned of our past. In any case, you have gained the trust of my sister, which is no small achievement. You will be our honored guests during our stay here. And I will do my best to gain permission for you to learn what you seek.”

 

 

They're led to a suite - five bedrooms along a hallway, two beds per room, and a common living area. The beds are spacious for Dar but somewhat too small for most of the Enterprise crew.

"What do you think happened here?" asks Jim, lounging on a chair that probably serves as a couch for a couple of Dar. "Malthusian catastrophe?"

Bones shakes his head. "Doesn't fit. Those kinds of societies have certain identifiable characteristics, in the way they control the distribution of food and resources. There's been none of that here, at least that we’ve seen.”

Uhura looks up from the wall hanging that she's examining. "From what I could learn from Ker, something happened - she avoided specifying what it was, exactly - and their Council decided that it would be dangerous to leave their world. I wonder if the Tkon left something here, like one of those Portals we learned about in Galactic History. Or another, more militaristic race visited them, and they didn't want to draw attention to themselves."

Jim finds Spock in the hallway outside the suite, gazing at the statues and carvings with a stiff, oddly pained expression. It's far too easy for Jim to forget what Spock has lost, after getting so used to thinking of him just as the Enterprise's First Officer. Jim drops back until he's walking next to Spock, though he refrained from saying anything while Spock stares about them.

“They are all very old," whispers Spock.

“They make you feel young, huh?” says Jim; an attempt at levity that ended up sounding strangely wistful.

He knows what Spock means. Looking up at those monuments, once-living faces cast into stone to gaze somberly upon the world until the mountain itself is toppled down - a quiet chill burrows down Jim's spine. He doesn't like to think of time passing; of mortal lives sweeping into the world only to leave it again.

"The average Vulcan life span is three hundred years," says Spock quietly. "For most of my life, I did not know if my lifespan will follow that of my Vulcan or human side. Now that I have an answer - I do not know if it is better or worse, to know."

It takes a moment for the information to sink in. And then - Jim feels stupid for not realizing, for not connecting the dots. How old is the other Spock? Jim has known, since the mind-meld, that that Spock's Jim has long been dead. Somehow he's managed not to connect it to his own self - to the fact that one day he'll die, all of them who are human will die, and Spock will be left alone.

~ * ~

"Where are we?" asks Kirk. Behind him, Spock carefully analyzes the smells in the air. Something floral interlaced with the faintly metallic Dar scent, which he's come to identify with Gar; the mixture of sweat and human musk, Kirk being as eminently distracting as always; dust and stale air, an old, old space left undisturbed for decades.

"These, my alien friends," Gar's voice floats out of the dark ahead of them, "are our ships."

 

 

“I will tell you a story,” says Ker, sitting down in the middle of their guest suite’s living room. “You will think differently of us, after you have heard it. But, we hope, you will understand, and learn from the wrongs that others have done.

“Fifty generations ago, our people traveled the stars, as yours do. We visited many worlds, built colonies on a few, though we did not wander too far from our home system.

“One of our ally-worlds, Dara V, was the home of a race we called Tisee, though they had a different name for themselves. The Tisee were telepathic, and friendly; they had no interest in weapons, but were willing to trade some of their planet’s resources for our medical technology. Such was our fondness for them that we gave them a hundred of our wes-teil – those devices which healed your Captain.

“Then, the Tisee began to fall sick.

“It took us nearly a year to discover the nature of the illness, because we did not understand the Tisee’s biology. We learned that the sickness was caused by a mutated version of a virus from our own world, fairly harmless to our own people. But it was debilitating to the Tisee. Horrified, we devised a cure, and began to administer it.

“The Tisee who received the cure survived, at least for a short time – and then it was as if they simply laid down and died. After that, no more Tisee would accept the cure.

“I must confess that our ancestors – they tried to modify the cure, and then forced some of the Tisee to take it. Many of the Tisee chose to die, despite being only in the early stages of the sickness, instead of receiving the cure. I offer no excuse – our ancestors were driven by their own guilt into committing even worse crimes.

“When it became clear that there was no way to save the Tisee, our people… left.

“The shame of it drove the Dar-Tara to meet for one hundred days and nights. In the end, it was decided that an act of atonement was necessary. The Dar-Tara decreed that there will be no world-leaving for twenty-five generations, the same length of time as our friendship with Tisee had lasted. To ensure this, our computers were sent to sleep; everything with the power of flight, from the he-eth to the po-lef that protected us from the ol, was buried deep; the star-charts and alien artifacts were hidden away.

“You must understand – none of our people objected to this. We told our children that we gave up the power flight, that leaving the world was perilous, that our society was not ready to be amongst the stars. None of these are lies. Care of the ships and the knowledge have been passed down through the leaders of each old City.

“It has been twenty-two generations. The Time Of The Stars will come again. Until then, we wait.”

She goes quiet. Uhura had been so engrossed in the story it takes her a moment to realize Ker had finished. In a flash, she remembers a memorial on weather-worn world, alien technology in a forest full of bats.

"The weapons on TC-895,” says Uhura, “they're yours. I can recognize the writing, now.”

Ker pauses. "TC-895. The names you give worlds are different from our own. But yes, that may have been one of our outposts."

“And you just – lie to your own people?” says Kirk.

“Would you have had us do nothing?” asks Ker calmly.

“I don’t mean that. But – if the punishment is to deny yourselves space travel, it’s not exactly a full punishment if your people don’t realize just how much they’re missing,” says Kirk.

Ker blinks, clearly surprised. “Very astute, Federation Captain.” She places a hand around her throat; the Dar gesture for willing surrender. “I can give you no answer that will satisfy you, for no satisfactory answers exist. Consider, perhaps, that atonement need not be the same for all, in the same way that the guilt-burden is not the same for all. The general population did not have much of a say in what was done on Dara V, after all. Ignorance is their atonement, and diluted shame from the telling of the tale. Those of us in power, who are the children of the ones who could have made a difference – whose children will likely one day encounter such decisions again – the lying and mistruths are the atonement: the burden of unwanted secrets.”

 

 

They stay for two more days, exploring the City and helping the Dar clean up what the storm of ol had damaged. The Enterprise keeps a careful distance away. Ger-Tiha gains permission to hand over one of their old data storage units.

“I do not know how well it will fit with your systems,” admits Ger-Tiha. “Such knowledge is allowed me, as Tih, but… I decided it was better not to know, than to dream of what cannot be.”

“This, I definitely understand,” mutters Jim. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Uhura leaning down to whisper something to Lady Gar.

And then, it’s time to leave.

"You came as travelers, in peace, and you depart as travelers, also in peace," says Gar. She closes a worn, small hand over Jim's. "Come back to us one day. You will be welcome."

"Thank you,” replies Jim sincerely, “we will.”

 

 

He's busy signing off on a PADD when he steps into the turbolift, and so doesn't acknowledge Uhura until the lift is moving. When he finally raises his head and sees her face, however, he immediately slams the button to stop the lift between decks.

"What's happened?" he asks.

She doesn't meet his eyes. "I'd rather not talk about it, sir."

"Uhura."

And maybe it's his choice to use her name instead of her rank, or the friendship they'd managed to build between them, or, hell, maybe she doesn't want to waste another Improper Use Of Turbolift notice, even if this one will be sent to Jim. "Spock and I broke up."

Jim is so shocked that he nearly disengages the turbolift lock. "What?"

Uhura blinks rapidly. "Can we just... go to work?"

"Uh. Sure. Though, if you want a couple of days off instead, you only have to say."

"Thanks, but I'd rather just do my job." Uhura lightly brushes her fingers under her eyes. "A double-shift sounds perfect right about now, actually."

Jim hesitates a moment longer, but he can't exactly disparage someone for using work as a distraction from personal problems. Besides, Uhura is far more well-adjusted than he can ever hope to be. "If that's what you need. Just, you know, let me know if you change your mind." He gets the lift moving again.

"Yes, Captain." She glances at him. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it."

 

 

It's none of his business. It's really, really none of his business. Sure, there are times he's felt like an inadvertent satellite orbiting the Spock-and-Uhura love planet, kept in place by his close working relationship with Spock and his history of being a friendly irritant to Uhura. Plus, Uhura gives him shit for a lot of things but never for being sort-of-in-love with her boyfriend, which automatically makes her a hundred times more awesome than most of the people Jim knows. He hasn't forgotten their talk on That Planet With Stone Pictures, Addendum: That The Dar Probably Drew.

Actually, this is probably why The Break-Up feels like an oliphaunt sitting in the middle of the bridge, in the mess, in the too-cramped hallways.

"It's none of your business, Jim," says Bones sternly. "If anything, I would have thought-"

Jim blinks when his friend stops and doesn't continue. "Thought what?"

Bones sighs. "Nothing. Never mind. Just keep your nose where it belongs and let other people sort out their own problems. Only you can be overdramatic enough to substitute a larger and, mostly importantly, mythical version of a perfectly serviceable Earth animal in an overused metaphor."

"Bones, you meddle in my problems all the time!"

"I had to live with you for three years, it's habit-forming." Bones shakes his head. "Also I consider it an extension of my duties as the guy who has to put you back together when things inevitably go wrong."

"But-"

"Dammit, Jim, no."

Chapter Text

Due to the unexpectedly extended trip to Dar-Ti-Dara, Jim had mostly forgotten about playing taxi-service to a bunch of stranded Vulcans until Uhura discreetly reminds him to brush up on his Vulcan etiquette. Well, her voice and words are telling him to review the material she's sent him, but her eyebrows are asking him to keep an eye on Spock, now that she and Spock are giving each other space.

"I will do my best," promises Jim.

The Enterprise docks at the space station in orbit above Nibia-Sat I, the outermost moon, for some quick refueling and restocking. Jim can tell that some of the crew are hoping for shore leave, but they're only scheduled to be there for six hours, and in any case he'd rather not court trouble by mixing restless crewmembers with Nibia's more colorful inhabitants. He takes Spock and Bones with him on a shuttle to pick up the Vulcan party.

"I am T'Saak," says a dignified Vulcan lady. "I am the lead scientist appointed by the Vulcan Science Academy for this expedition." She names the rest of the group one by one: a wall of somber, blank faces arrayed behind her, gazing at Jim impassively.

"Captain Jim Kirk," Jim introduces himself, refusing to be put off by the dearth of blinking. "We are looking forward to having you aboard the Enterprise. A- a point of clarification, though. You have requested that the Enterprise not alter its course on your behalf? I mean, am I understanding that right?"

"That is correct, Captain Kirk. Your mission schedule lists a routine visit to the Ceti Alpha system in 38 days' time. There will be a shuttle waiting for us on Starbase 12.

"Well, while I appreciate the consideration, we can have you on New Vulcan in less than a week, with only a couple of days' delay for us."

"You misunderstand, Captain," says T'Saak coolly. "It is our intention to spend an extended period time aboard your ship. Purely in an observatory capacity - we will not obstruct or interfere with ship operations."

"Wait a minute," Bones cuts in, "I thought you guys just needed a ride home. Just what, exactly, are you people here to research? We didn't volunteer to be your guinea pigs."

"If you are implying that we deliberately stranded ourselves on this planetary system in order to acquire passage on your ship, you are mistaken," says T'Saak. "Furthermore, the subject of our observations will not be the Terran humans."

Ah. "Are you here because of Sarek, or because of the VSA?"

Jim would not have thought it possible for her to close down even tighter, but turns out it is. "This is a private Vulcan matter, Captain Kirk."

"The Captain and Doctor McCoy know of the... affliction that has been striking Vulcans who live offworld and apart from other Vulcans," says Spock.

Her gaze swings over to Spock. "You spoke of Vulcan matters with humans?"

"As my commanding officer and the Chief Medical Officer of the ship on which I am stationed, it is their right to know of possible medical conditions which may affect or compromise my ability to perform my duties," says Spock calmly. "It is Starfleet regulation."

T'Saak's features don't waver one bit, but her voice seems intent on cutting steel. "I accept this justification." She's clearly not happy about it, though.

"Well, I can already tell that this is gonna be a fun ride," mutters Bones.

 

~ * ~

 

Jim hadn't realized just how much Spock has... relaxed, for lack of a better term, around their crew, until the arrival of half a dozen Vulcans has him pulling up his walls again, working that Vulcan non-expression like his life depends on it. The other Enterprise crewmembers notice it too, if the meaningful looks and little frowns passing from face to face are anything to go by. At least no one says anything - one advantage, Jim thinks, of working with some pretty smart people.

The Vulcans, whose faces seem like they might be made out of granite, offer perfunctory nods whenever Jim runs into them in the hallways, but otherwise keep to themselves. He has no idea if they talk to Spock, if Spock talks to them, or if it's part of their 'observation' shindig not to interact with the subject. Maybe they're all playing an intricate game of Vulcans, What Vulcans?

As a matter of fact, Spock has lately seemed... off. Jim can't put his finger on what gives him away, isn't entirely sure he's not just imagining things, but gut instinct combined with an inordinate amount of time spent staring at Spock's face during their chess matches - he's prepared to claim it's for strategy, if Spock ever asks, but really, who actually expects Jim Kirk to resist a face like that for long - leaves him moderately sure that there's more here than just nerves at having the good 'ole folks from home hanging about.

"All right," says Jim, ambushing Spock outside his quarters. After three occasions of no-shows, Jim figured out that Spock probably thinks Observation Deck 2 is too public, too open; any of the Vulcans might come wandering in and catching him getting his emotion on with his human commanding officer. "Which of our guests have got your sensible regulation underwear all twisted up?"

The colloquialism doesn't even get a raised eyebrow. Spock gestures for Jim to step inside his room. "I am acquainted with most of the Vulcan science team, though to varying degrees."

"Spock."

A sharp exhale that's as good as a sigh. "Sokar. We attended school together as children."

And just from that, Jim's brain is able to make the leap from A to: "He was one of the kids who bullied you."

"It was many years ago. Vulcan children can be as volatile as the young of many other sentient species."

"...Meaning: he wasn't the only one."

"Captain." Spock looks away. "The other Vulcans do not know of this. It is in the past. Sokar has not approached me at all since the Vulcan science team boarded the Enterprise. It is illogical to dwell on his past actions when they have no relevance in the presence."

"Okay, I get that." Jim pauses for a moment. "I'm still going to be pretty pissed about it, though. And, you know - not that I condone it - but if you want to sneak in a kick or bucket of ice or something, I'm pretty sure the crew won't say anything about it."

Spock shakes his head. He looks amused, but there's something resigned about it. "Captain, you are mistaking the crew's sentiments towards you as being similar to their sentiments towards myself. I am Vulcan, on a mostly human ship. I have not forgotten this."

Jim just stares at him, his heart breaking a little. You've been talking to T'Saak, haven't you? He wishes he can think of a way to tell Spock that the crew think of him as First Officer and fellow crewmember first, before they even remember he's Vulcan; that by this point all of them, in one way or another, owe their lives to Spock's diligence and ridiculous intelligence; that if even one hint of any of this gets out, at least one of their esteemed Vulcan guests will be finding his stay on the Enterprise absolutely plagued with little inconveniences.

"You're," Jim flails his hands, "you're ours. You're crew." The word mine blares out so strongly in Jim's head that he's afraid Spock's telepathy will somehow pick up on it, even in the absence of physical contact. "That comes first."

Spock doesn't seem to be paying attention to him. Jim spots the meditation mat being taken out, and high-tails it out of there before he's invited to join in. He's ambling vaguely towards Engineering, still thinking over their conversation, when McCoy marches by in the opposite direction. His CMO takes one look at his face and says, sardonically, "Had a nice chat with Spock?"

"What?" Jim blinks. "Uh, yeah. How'd you know I was talking to Spock?"

But Bones is already stomping off, muttering about being a doctor and not a goddamn relationship counselor.

 

 

"I have news!" declares Pavel, stumbling into a halt just inside the doorway to Rec Room 2.

"Well?" asks Scotty. "Out with it, lad."

"Irina says it was false alarm!"

There are a couple of hoots, but it's not until Scotty asks, "And you mean this as good news, aye?" and Pavel confirms with, "Yes, I am not ready to be father!" that the general cheering breaks out. Pavel is clearly too happy to care that three-quarters of the people in the room shouldn't even know about his personal business.

"Right," says Sulu, making his way towards Chekov and slinging an arm over his friend's shoulder, "Come on, this calls for another round of irresponsible off-shift drinking."

 

 

One of the most important things Jim learned in the Academy, in his opinion, is the ways in which the mood on a starship is influenced by its command team. He knows that if the command team is happy, and work together well, then the rest of the ship tends to follow suit. It's why, even before the trial-by-fire that had been Nibiru and then Khan, Jim and Spock made the concerted effort to present an united front.

(Arguing with Spock in private is more fun, anyway, as then Spock will actually argue back.)

What he thinks isn't emphasized enough, however, is just how sensitive the crew's collective intuition can be. Probably only Jim and Uhura have any idea that Spock's childhood had been less than ideal - well, human ideal, he suspects 'having friends' isn't really a criterion for Vulcans - and Jim hasn't given even so much as a hint to Bones. Spock acts exactly the same towards all the Vulcans, neither avoiding them nor seeking them out, though he occasionally engages in scientific discussions with one or two of them. The only quantitative change is that there are six more people on board the Enterprise.

And yet, the crew just seems to know something is up. Jim spots suspicious glances at Sokar, feels the tension spike if the Vulcan is in the vicinity. He'd think it's just the crew being more self-conscious around the somber, stone-faced guests, but the other Vulcans don't induce nearly the same level of tension.

He's nearly convinced himself he's imagining things until he sees Sokar walk into the mess hall while Jim and Spock are in line for the replicators. Spock doesn't react, and Jim keeps himself facing Spock. But suddenly there's a surge in the number of people who are done with their meal and standing up with their trays, people lining up for food, people developing the inexplicable need to chat in groups; Jim finds himself in the midst of a sea of people milling around the replicators. There's no way Sokar can even get near Spock without elbowing his way through the crowd.

The funniest part of it is, Jim's pretty sure Spock hasn't even noticed.

 

 

Spock faults his own distraction for failing to see Sorak's approach until it is too late to leave without giving the appearance of outright fleeing. Sorak's face is characteristically blank, and passers-by would think he is speaking to Spock about unimportant matters. What Spock hears, though, is: "I hear that your father may be marrying again. Another human. Is it a fetish, do you think?"

"Considering the years you've had, Sorak," says Spock, "I expected you to have prepared better insults than that."

The impassive facade cracks slightly. "I hear that you, also, have shown interest in a human w-"

"Mister Spock," says Kirk loudly, shouldering his way into the room. "I have a few questions regarding those geological scans from Xantoras - if you have a moment?"

"Of course, Captain," says Spock smoothly. He nods shortly at Sorak, and follows Kirk out into the hallway. He isn't surprised when Kirk keeps walking, is content to follow as Kirk leads the way to the smallest debriefing room in the ship, where he engages the door to lock.

They exhale in unison, and gaze at each other in sympathetic understanding. "Damn," says Kirk, "that guy is a piece of work, isn't he? And can I say, again, how sorry I am that you had to hear crap like that coming out of my mouth?"

"You were not-" Spock has to swallow past the thickness in his throat. "You were doing something you deemed necessary, Captain, and I felt your remorse over it the moment I laid my hand on you. That is more than any of my childhood acquaintances gave me." Spock looks away. "Furthermore, your taunts were on my failings, directed at my insecurities; you wished to expose my compromised controls, and your aim, as ever, was true."

"Great, yeah, I'm good at that. Hurting people." Kirk leans against the far wall and closes his eyes.

"You misunderstand." Spock's hand is on Kirk's arm without Spock being aware of it moving. "Even when you attempted to incite my anger, you were still - you are not like Sorak and the others. It was never the insults towards myself that I took offence too."

He feels the arm under his hold tense up. Bicep brachii. A steely look appears on Kirk's face. Spock thinks of the enemies who have seen that look, who have fallen under it. He is secure in the knowledge that Kirk's anger is not directed at him, and for some reason finds this... warming.

Kirk scratches his head. "You know, I'm pretty sure I can get Sulu to walk by them with Yorick the next time the flowers are cranky.” The specimen from Denobula has a defense mechanism that involved spraying perceived threats with extremely unpleasant pollen; the mere reminder gives Spock the urge to shudder, which he automatically suppresses.

A shift in Kirk's balance brings him closer to Spock, subtly pressing back on the contact between his arm and Spock's hand. Spock doesn't move away. The distress from minutes ago has disappeared. "That won't be necessary, Captain."

 

 

Turns out that Jim doesn't have to do anything, after all - Sokar does the work for him. Jim finds out when he walks into what Pike would have called "a hullaballoo" in Rec Room 1.

"Say one more word against him," hisses Uhura, "and I will stun you with my phaser and leave you, drooling and unconscious, in a humiliating pose where every crewmember on this ship will walk by and see you. There will probably be pictures. And then I'll file a complaint to the Vulcan High Council regarding your behavior."

Sokar looks more terrified than if the threat had been purely physical. "It is illogical to defend one who has rejected your attentions."

Jim winces. Oh, boy, whoever had let that little tidbit slip is going to get a hundred degrees of payback from Uhura later. And she will find them out.

"Okay, one, you have no business making any comments about our personal relationship. Two, it is very logical to defend my friend. He is crew, he is tribe - kabila." Jim's eyebrows jump up; Uhura only ever slips into Swahili when she's really pissed off. “I thought Vulcans, of all people, would understand.”

"He is Vulcan in body, but his controls are weak," continues Sokar, clearly gunning for the Vulcan Who Does Not Know When To Quit award. "Who knows what will happen to him when he loses control? I speak of this for your sake, so that you might see the danger that you have allowed to live amongst you."

"Uh," says Sulu, who hasn't gotten up from the card table, "not to burst your monologue here, but we've all seen Spock in a rage."

Chekov nods, curls bouncing. Jim notices that he doesn't take his eyes away from his cards, though - they've all learned that lesson when playing against Sulu. "There was this man, genetically engineered to be superior to humans, I saw him crush a Starfleet Admiral's skull with his bare hands. Commander Spock chased him down and beat him nearly to death."

"Mister Sokar," Jim cuts in jovially. Sokar swings around to look at him, doubtless hoping that Jim will protect him from the mean, mean subordinates. "I see that you are getting to know my crew. We've been through a lot, you know; it's amazing what you learn about one another, when you go through what we have."

"Then you condone the belligerent behavior of your officers?" asks Sokar coldly.

"You'll have to ask me when I'm back on duty." Jim leans back against a table, crossing his arms. "However, I have an issue I wanted to bring up with you. I distinctly recall T'Saak assuring me that your team's presence on my ship will not affect ship operations."

"We have made our best effort not to interfere with or obstruct your crew's regular duties."

"Then why is it that - oh, where did I put that file." Jim clicks his tongue as he scrolls through the windows on his PADD. "Ah, yes. Ever since your team came aboard, visits to Doctor Helen Noel, ship psychiatrist, have increased by 30%. Visits to medbay for minor injuries caused by personnel error have increased by 15%. Morale ratings have decreased by an average of 1.34 points. And regarding yourself, specifically, Mister Sokar-"

Jim puts down the PADD. "You've been speaking to members of my crew regarding Mister Spock. Which is fine, you're free to do so, except personnel have reported your conversations as being "interrogatory" and "negatively suggestive" in nature, as well as "biased against Mister Spock". Every time you've spoken to a crew member, their work efficiency has decreased by an average of 19% for the rest of that shift. People haven't quite started avoiding you in corridors and leaving any rooms you're in, but it's getting there." Jim clears his throat. "So, you understand why this is starting to look, to me, like your presence is having a detrimental impact on the running of my ship?"

Sokar's eyes narrow. Jim has no problem meeting his gaze head-on.

"What are you asking of me?"

"Just - leave Spock alone. Don't talk to people about Spock. Stay out of his way. Don't interact with him unless he interacts with you first."

Sokar stares at him for a long moment. Then he nods once, a sharp bob of his head, and stalks off. Quiet blooms in his wake.

"I didn't know Vulcans drool," says Sulu distractedly.

"They don't, not usually," says Uhura, "but it’s not like cameras can tell if it’s real drool or not."

 

 

Doctor McCoy returns from the closed doorway connecting Rec Room 1 with Rec Room 6. "Don't pretend you didn't hear a word of that," he glares at Spock.

Spock can only shake his head. He wordlessly accepts the chocolate-and-Kahlua shot that the Doctor hands him.

 

 

"Medbay to bridge."

Jim accepts the call. "What is it, Doctor McCoy?"

"Got your Chief Engineer here, courtesy of Vulcan express," says Bones. He sounds equal parts annoyed and amused. "Scotty's had the flu for two days and tried to hide it. Fortunately for us, Spock got tired of slinging messages back and forth, and went to argue over some equations in person." In the background, Jim can hear a familiar accent sputtering out complaints. "I'm putting Scotty on medical leave for a week."

"Understood," says Jim, shaking his head and smiling.

 

 

One of the Vulcan scientists, Saavik, seems more interested in exchanging scientific knowledge with Spock, as well as learning more about humans in general, than postulating over the reasons for Spock's apparent good health. This, naturally, has made Spock more amenable to spending some of his personal time with her. They are in Observation Deck 2, discussing the latest equations concerning fluctuating gravity wells in binary star systems, when Saavik looks around curiously. "I have observed that the humans' rate of departure from the room has increased three hundred percent in the last two minutes, with no new humans entering."

"Ah." Spock stands and walks to the replicator. "It means someone has spotted the Captain on his way here, and the rest of the crew have departed to give him peace and privacy."

"Surely he has his own quarters, if he desires privacy? The Observation Decks are intended to be open for use by all of the crew. It seems highly irregular for a Captain to request one be vacated for himself without arranging a replacement."

How to explain, Spock thinks helplessly, that Kirk finds his quarters isolating and prefers to feel as though he is amongst his crew? That Kirk will go to his quarters to sleep but it is here that he finds rest? That Kirk, at the core of him, desires nothing more or less than to watch the stars, quite literally.

"He does not request the crew to leave - he does not object the presence of others, at all," says Spock, "rather, they choose to leave the room themselves, as a sign of respect." As well as gratitude, Spock thinks, and love. But he cannot explain such things to Vulcans; there is no sense in loving the commanding officer of the vessel one happens to be stationed on.

Inspiration hits, and Spock adds, "It is helpful to consider it the Captain's period of meditation. It is more expedient for him to do it here, in case he is called to the bridge, as the distance is shorter than from his quarters."

It is not even untrue. Despite the Captain's long-purported inability to meditate, it should not surprise Spock that Jim Kirk has formulated his own way to achieve the same effect.

The door slides open. Jim beams widely when he sees Spock. "Mister Spock!"

"I have taken the liberty of preparing your usual drink, Captain, in the interest of efficiency," says Spock, handing Kirk the cup. "Saavik and I will now take our leave of you."

He sees the flash of emotion on Kirk's face and identifies it as disappointment. He finds a mirror of the same emotion in himself; he wants, suddenly, for Saavik and the rest of the Vulcan team to leave the ship, his ship, their ship. He wants to stay and speak with Kirk while they watch the stars.

"Thank you for the coffee, Mister Spock," says Kirk. "I'll see you later on the bridge."

The urge to touch Kirk is, for a moment, overwhelming. "Of course, Captain."

 

 

Spock does not wonder at his own lack of surprise when the week their Chief Engineer is incapacitated is when they experience an unexplained malfunction in the warp core, right after being ambushed by a Klingon patrol.

"There is no precedent for this procedure," protests Sulek when he sees the calculations that Spock is running. Sulu seems to be successfully evading most of the Klingon fire, but the ones that do make impact are causing all the walkways in Engineering to rattle loudly. "The core is unlikely to sustain warp under these conditions."

Spock looks at him for a moment, then takes out his communicator. "Spock to Medical Bay."

"What's going on, Spock?" demands McCoy.

"We have a situation in Engineering. I am aware that Mister Scott is still recovering from his illness, but we need him down here as soon as possible."

McCoy goes quiet for a moment. "That bad, huh? Fine, he’ll be there. McCoy out."

"What difference will one more human make? There are sixty-seven of them down here already," says Sulek dismissively. "Protocol recommends that, should the chances of catastrophic failure exceed 70%, evacuation procedures are to be initiated."

Spock stares at the Vulcan. Remembers Dar-Ti-Dara, and following the Lady Gar down dusty, deserted passageways. You never realize how many shoes you've worn through and changed, until you see the footprints made by an old one. He climbs to a higher platform and looks out over the scurrying red-garbed figures. Somehow they seem to divine his intent: most of them turn to look at him, expectant, and the few who do not notice are quickly nudged by their fellows.

"The likelihood of warp core explosion within the next fifteen minutes is 83.6%," announces Spock. "Starfleet protocol states that evacuation procedures be initiated at this stage. Any personnel who wish to evacuate may do so without fear of recrimination." A pause. "That being said, Mister Scott is on his way down."

The few traces of uncertainty he'd noticed instantly evaporate. He waves them back to work. He espies a few discreet glances towards the doors, but no one leaves for the evacuation pods.

Several minutes later, Spock looks up at the rush of boot-steps. "Doctor McCoy," says Spock with some surprise. Not in the CMO showing up at the site of an emergency, but that McCoy had headed to Engineering instead of the Bridge.

As if reading his mind, McCoy nods towards Mr. Scott. "Thought I should keep an eye on him, seeing as he's still not too steady on his feet. Besides, I figured that if there are going to be any injuries today, it'll be down here. Might as well save myself some running."

Dr.Horrible: jim u've got cameras down here right
Jimbo: remembr dis galaxy's 1st incidence of transwarp beaming
Jimbo: successful 1 anyway
Dr.Horrible: suleks face right now
Dr.Horrible: i think he just shat his pants
Jimbo: i think *i* just shat my pants.
N.U.: Please tell Scotty that he better knows what he's doing.
Dr.Horrible: spock n marcus r keeping an eye on him
Dr.Horrible: at least i know to put seatbelts on
Dr.Horrible: u kids better be wearing em or god help me
MisterPilot: am I a kick-ass pilot or what
Spock: Well done, Mister Sulu.
MisterPilot: oh shit *spock* agreed to my awesomeness my life is *made*
Jimbo: next review i'm writing u need to establish higher long-term goals

The Enterprise's scanners detect: high levels of metallic compounds near the surface, the largest life-sign readings resemble activity profiles of plants, a very dry but breathable atmosphere. The thick cloud cover leads to a minor debate, as the ship would need to drop to a fairly low altitude in order to gain a visual of the planet's surface. Eventually, Kirk orders Sulu to bring up the shields and carefully lower them.

The surface of the world is a mixture of dark red and brown. Ravines snake their way across the uneven landscape, their depth and angles suggesting their origin as tectonic activity rather than weather or water. There are cylindrical protrusions scattered along the edges. The sides of these protrusions seem too smooth to be naturally-occurring; likely, they are the work of native flora or fauna. Spock spots round spheres sitting at the top of a few. Bulbs? Fruits? Seeds?

He performs a scan of the terrain and realizes that there the protrusions are, indeed, cylindrical and metallic, more like towers. They are also taller than they appear from the air, and their height is somehow proportional to the depth of the ravine where they are positioned.

CapCrunch: flip a number?

Spock frowns for a moment before he remembers that, with their Vulcan 'observers' on board, it is advisable to keep to Starfleet regulations, which means that the Captain and First Officer cannot both go on a mission without sufficient cause. Exploring a planet that seems to be exhibiting plants as the primary lifeforms is not reason enough for their combined presence.

Spock: odd
CapCrunch: even for me then
--RANDOM NUMBER GENERATING--
--Random number: 3659
CapCrunch: dammit

The away team is on the planet's surface for less than an hour before they discover that the plants aren't exactly growing on the metal towers.

"Are they plants or machines or what?" shouts Sulu as he and Spock sprint for their lives, dodging wire-like vines and a snapping toothy leaf that neither of them are willing to look at too closely.

Spock is not sure where the rest of the away team has gone. He had shouted instructions for them to head to a clear area where the Enterprise will be able to beam them up. That was when they'd learned that the tower-plant-machines can understand them.

"Perhaps a hybrid," huffs Spock. Sulu stumbles, and Spock grabs him by the arm, half-dragging him forward.

That is why, when a vine whips down and wraps around Sulu's torso, Spock is carried up along with him.

 

 

Spock returns to consciousness on top of one of the towers. The bulbous forms he'd seen from the ship's scans surround him on all sides. They appear to be... pods, of some kind. He belatedly realizes that he is no longer holding onto Sulu. He jumps to his feet, ignoring the burn of pain in various parts of his body. He spots the familiar head of dark hair poking out of the end of one of the pods.

"Sulu," he rasps. He clears his throat. "Lieutenant Sulu?"

"'m here," mumbles Sulu. He blinks blearily at Spock. "Seem t'be stuck."

Spock checks his belt and is relieved to find that his communicator and phasers are still attached. "Spock to Enterprise."

"Spock!" exclaims Kirk. "We’re tracking your life signs, but it's good to hear your voice. The tower things started throwing… stuff… at us. We had to pull up out of reach."

"The away team?"

"All of beamed up and accounted for." The sound fluctuates, spitting out static. Spock wonders if the hybrid metallic plant-towers are trying to jam their signal or listen in.

He takes a careful look at the pod Sulu is trapped in, and holds up his phaser. "Please remain still, Lieutenant. I shall try to cut you out."

The moment the red beam touches the pod, though, Sulu lets out an agonized scream. "Stop! Stop! The vines!"

Spock nearly fumbles his communicator. "Enterprise, please beam up Lieutenant Sulu as quickly as possible," says Spock. "He is injured. I have tried cutting him out, but it appears that the pod has defense mechanisms that cause the vines around the captive to tighten when the pod is damaged."

There's a faint click, and Mister Scott's voice comes through the wavering connection. "Negative... cannot distinguish... Lieutenant Sulu and the pod..."

Sulu's blood-streaked head turns sharply towards him, and Spock knows that the man has reached a similar conclusion as Spock.

"Enterprise," coughs Sulu, "beam out-"

"Belay that order, Enterprise," interrupts Spock.

"Beam out Mister Spock," shouts Sulu.

But Spock is already half-sliding, half-falling into the next pod, letting the thick wires wrap around his arms and legs. He can just about see the upper half of Sulu's head over the rim of their pods. "As you said to me once, Lieutenant Sulu: I am not going anywhere."

 

 

In addition to driving the crew nearly to the brink of exhaustion, the period of time that's now being called The Month Of Crazy - though it'd been more, like, two months - has definitely given them one thing: rock-solid grace under pressure. Every single alarm in the bridge seems to be going off, yet the entire bridge crew is cool as a Delta Vegan cucumber while working at double their usual speed. The Vulcans, who'd shown up right after the party started, are looking a bit nervous, though it may partly be due to how loud and chaotic the whole place is; Jim has a feeling that Vulcan vessels don't have nearly as many things that whine or ring or foghorn angrily.

"Science Officer 0718," he calls over his shoulder, "any results yet?"

He hadn't wanted to mention it over the communication line - who knows how well those plant-towers can understand them - but he'd gotten the Science Department to look into the information they'd received from the Dar, in case their people had once gone this way.

"Doctor Lee thinks she's found something, Captain,” replies 0718. “She's sending it to the science console now."

When Scotty confirms that now both Spock and Sulu are entangled in the plant-tower thing, Jim has to squeeze his fingers around the chair's armrests. He is distinctly aware of the way everyone in the bridge is avoiding looking at him directly. Except for Uhura. Actually, if his face is anything like Uhura's, he can see why people are flinching when they meet his eyes.

"I do not understand," he can hear Sorak saying somewhere behind him. "Commander Spock was standing three meters away from the nearest empty pod, and the scans showed that the rest of vines on that tower are inactive. How did he, then, become entangled in the pod?"

Because he damn well strapped himself in, Jim wants to snarl. He almost wishes Spock has remained Vulcan enough to do what's logical; the undeniable hypocrisy bites, though, because he'd have done the exact same thing. He has, already, thousands of miles above the surface of now-dead Vulcan.

His eyes widen.

"These pods are at the top of the tower, correct?" he asks.

It's Chekov who says, "Yes, Captain."

"How far are they from the ground?"

"It is difficult to tell, because of the thickness of the vines around the bottom and the-" and then Chekov seems to get what Jim is considering, because the words stop and he just stares at his Captain. Jim's always wondered if there's something going on between Sulu and Chekov. Even if there isn't, he's seen the way they work together, knows perfectly well how important that kind of trust becomes.

"Their tower is approximately 150 meters high, and the ravine below it is another 80 meters deep," says Carol from the science console.

He almost asks her for the calculations that Spock would have had ready at this stage, only to remember, belatedly, that she wouldn't know what he's planning, because she hadn't been there. Also, Jim has an idea of what the calculations would say, what the percentages for success are.

"Chekov," he says, making sure the kid - not really a kid, not anymore, but Jim will probably always think of him that way - looks him in the eyes. "Do you think you can do it?"

A pause, Chekov swallowing, then, "Yes, Captain."

Jim finds himself looking towards the communications console. He's not in the habit of second-guessing his orders, but this is risky - as in, this is Spock - and he needs someone else to confirm that what he wants to do is not precisely impossible.

Uhura meets his gaze squarely, and nods.

"Chekov, head over to the transporter room. I want you ready at my command."

"Yes, Captain!" Chekov springs out of his chair and leaves the bridge at a run.

"Darwin, transfer control of the phaser banks to me."

"Yes, Captain. Phaser bank control to Captain’s chair."

"Captain," Carol speaks up, because of course she's figured it out, "if you intend on doing what I think you are, please be aware that there is very little room for error." She nods at the science console. "According to the Dar's records, you have to cut the vines that are feeding power to the pods without activating the tower creature's defense mechanisms. If you hit the tower itself, the pods will close up, even if the tower collapses. The same if you hit the pods themselves, and then you'll also likely hit our people, since the pod shells might as well be tissue against the ship's phasers."

Jim swallows. "Understood, Doctor Marcus."

 

 

"Hey Sulu, hey Spock. How's it hangin'?"

The sound of Kirk's voice, indisputably tense, acts like a jolt of energy to Spock’s mind. Next to him, Sulu groans and attempts to shake his head before Spock can warn him that the action would likely exacerbate his headache. Sulu groans again.

"We are as well as can be expected, Captain," says Spock.

"Well, sharpen up - we've got a plan."

Spock considers informing his Captain that the tower-plant hybrids may be listening into the communication line. But if the rest of the away team has been retrieved, they would have passed the information on to the Captain. Indeed, Kirk says, "Sulu, stop sounding like a drunken seal for a second and listen: remember our first mission? With the drill platform?"

The vague reference to Vulcan and the Narada has Spock instinctively tensing up. Sulu makes an unhappy noise, but seems to understand what the Captain is referring to. "First time you saw my fencing," he says.

"It was totally badass," agrees Kirk. His tone tells Spock that he has noticed the way Sulu is slurring. "You still have to give me a lesson on that. First thing once you get back, yeah?"

Sulu blinks. He is visibly trying to remain conscious and lucid. "Yes, Cap'n." He tips his head back, as if trying to see the Enterprise through the cloud cover. "Think Chekov can pull another one?"

"Well, he's nineteen, now."

Sulu laughs, then winces.

"Mister Spock? I know it's risky, but we don't have the time for anything else."

"Understood, Captain," says Spock. "I have full confidence in you. And Ensign Chekov."

 

 

Even when they're expecting it, the familiar shape dropping down through the cloud cover is a momentarily startling. The burst of red light seems even brighter in the dim, perpetually overcast sky; the phaser beam slices clean through the vines holding the pods to the tower-nest. A few inches off in either direction will likely lead to death. But there's no searing pain of the phaser hitting flesh, nor do the vines close up around them: a very precise shot.

The vines go lax, slipping off his legs even as the pod starts to slide down the tower. Spock tries to help it along, pushes himself up by the sides of the pod, which is rapidly crumpling and darkening. The pod scrapes along the side of the tower for a few seconds, and then Spock is finally out of it. He is in free-fall.

He realizes that there is a crown of sharp spikes jutting out around the base of the tower. He tries to slow his descent, or at least kick off the rough surface to get far enough away from the tower that he will fall past the spikes, into the deep, dark ravine.

Then something slams into him, knocking him away from the first spikes. Sulu grins dazedly at him through the dried blood on his face. One of Sulu's hands is gripping his side, close enough to his heart that Spock wonders if the human can feel the organ hammering away underneath the skin. Spock surmises that Sulu's descent vector had been closer to the tower-wall, close enough for Sulu to kick off it and propel Sulu towards Spock at a sufficient force to alter his fall path.

They clear the spikes.

It is a beautiful planet, thinks Spock.

Sulu is chanting softly, fervently; Spock thinks it's a prayer until he hears an unmistakable "Pavel" in the garbled stream. Then again, faith-based entreaties towards friends who have the ability to engender a rescue seems, to Spock, theoretically more likely to yield results than entreaties towards hypothetical cosmic forces.

He doesn't realize he's closed his eyes until he feels, rather than sees, the transporter beam seizing his molecules.

The two of them hit the floor of the Enterprise's transporter bay with bruising force. Spock is somewhat astonished to find that he is clutching Lieutenant Sulu as hard as Sulu is holding on to him. He does not recall moving his arms to do so, and yet clearly he had.

Instinct, most likely; two land-based beings finding themselves in free-fall, reaching out and grounding themselves in one another.

 

 

"Thank you. I would not have survived had you not diverted my trajectory," says Spock, several hours later and safely ensconced in the medbay.

Sulu's eyebrows furrow in doubt, which put them at odds with his beaming smile. "I seem to recall a certain someone choosing to stay when they could have beamed out to safety." He shakes his head and says, mournfully, "We're all as bad as the Captain, aren't we?"

"Madder than the mad-hatter squared," agrees Doctor McCoy heartily, stomping out and jabbing them both simultaneously with hyposprays.

Chapter Text

They’re a week or so away from the scheduled trip to the Alpha Ceti system, traveling on sub-light while skirting the edges of a nebula, when Chekov says, “Captain, I think I detect blip from nearby planet.”

“View ahead,” says Jim. The various mini-screens showing readings from the nebula zip away. Sulu adjusts their heading to bring the planet into the center of the view. “Mister Spock?”

“There is some interference from the nebula, but I believe Mister Chekov is correct.”

“Well done, Mister Chekov. Mister Sulu, get us a little closer, if you please.”

“Yes, Captain.”

A few minutes later, the Enterprise is parked in a geosynchronous spot above the atmosphere of the grey-brown planet. Thick clouds in the planet’s atmosphere make it difficult to see anything below them. Its sun is a bit on the small side, and there are a couple of planetoids in slower orbit around the edge of the system.

Spock says, “The object is well within the planet’s atmosphere, descending rapidly. It is difficult to determine its nature directly, but an analysis of its emissions and descent trajectory leads me to conclude that it is a ship. Furthermore, it is damaged, and attempting to slow its downwards motion using only partially-functional engines.”

Jim turns his chair until he can see the communications station. “Try hailing them, Lieutenant Uhura.”

“Yes, Captain.”

He turns back to the science console. “Life signs?”

“Multiple, but interference from the nebula and a highly charged electromagnetic field around the planet make it difficult to ascertain an accurate number.”

“Anything, Uhura?”

“No, sir, no responses.”

“Captain.”

Damn. Jim wants to know who, exactly, thought it’d be a great idea to put science and communications on different halves of the bridge. “Yes, Mister Spock?”

“I formulated a hypothesis and proceeded to compare these readings with historical data – Captain, there is a 70% possibility that this ship is the same one we encountered 95.3 days ago.”

Jim frowns, trying to remember. That would place it within The Month Of Crazy, during which they’d encountered quite a number of ships, a few of which hadn’t responded to the Enterprise’s hails – or not with words, at least. But if he has to go with his gut, he’d pick: “the slaver ship?”

“The data supports the hypothesis, Captain.”

“Good enough for me.” Jim ponders his options. “Bridge to Engineering, if I were to ask you if you can beam a team down to the planet below, you’d probably say…”

“Too much interference, sir, sorry,” says Scotty.

Jim sighs. “Yeah, that’s what I figured. Can you prepare a shuttle, please?”

“Aye, sir.”

 

 

The blood under his skin seems barely to trickle, thick and sluggish and so terribly cold.

There is something odd about this, he knows, in the coldness or the blood-feeling or the jarring grind of things that should not be in contact. He can hear several voices nearby, one of them Kirk's. Good. Kirk sounds annoyed, but that is far better than- than that time before, better than cold distance or pained whispers.

An annoyed Captain is, at least, an alive Captain.

“…I swear his idiocy is catching ...this bloody planet will be the death of us...”

Waking flits by in snatches. It seems as if his eyes can only remain open for a moment. Open. Close. Open. Close. He sees a strange sky, made all of clouds; the spindly branches of dark trees; fog dripping into different shapes; almost-words alighting on him like insects, nipping at his mind in search of blood. The air is different, somehow. Full of smells unknown. He can hear the faint clomp-clomp of boots, more solid than anything else.

He is – he remembers – being hollowed out. Something missing. Something lost.

Warm, steady hands are checking his temperature, inspecting his limbs, the motions familiar and comforting. Not Vulcan - the skin is too rough and the grip too firm, but there is a familiar surety in the movements that speaks of long experience. He is content to let the healer go about his business - until he realizes that it is too quiet.

Spoke awakes with a jolt. He would have sat up immediately, if not for the grip restraining his arms and shoulders. He struggles, alarmed by how weak he is; finally, his unwilling throat manages a hoarse, “Captain!”

Voices. Shouting. He can see blurry shapes moving about, maybe-arms gesturing over him. The feeling of wrong and loss is stronger without the blanket of sleep to muffle them. He is terribly, terribly weak, as if he has not eaten in days. He is shivering, though not so much from cold as from a remembered, bone-deep numbness.

Left with no other choice, he lies there gasping, trying to focus his eyes on the ceiling. Rock, scattered minerals glittering from some light. His vision improves but slowly. When the healer slides into his line of sight, some of the pained tension in Spock's head eases: McCoy, yes, he remembers. McCoy, he knows.

A steaming cup is brought to his lips. Spock doubts he has any choice but to drink it; he needs help merely to raise his head. The smell is similar to the Terran blends he's tried in the past, at least. The liquid feels too hot, and Spock nearly splutters. The muscled arm holding up his head keeps him steady, likely having expecting the reaction. It occurs to Spock that perhaps it is his body that is too cold; Vulcan core temperatures are supposed to be higher than humans', after all. The warmth from the drink quickly spreads through his limbs, further reviving him.

“Thank you,” he croaks, when he is lowered back down.

"Don't mention it," says McCoy. The doctor looks worn, and Spock realizes that McCoy is being unusually quiet, face too worn to scowl. The last time this happened was-

Something seizes inside his chest. "The Captain?"

And then there is Kirk. Travel-worn, dirty, alive Kirk.

Breathing becomes much easier.

“You’re awake,” says Kirk, smiling. The unmistakable relief in his voice and face go further towards righting those places within Spock which the Doctor’s hands can never reach. “Spock. What do you remember?”

“Shuttle. Storm. We crashed.” He tries to sit up. This time, McCoy helps him.

“Sounds about right,” says the Doctor. “We bounced off something that ripped a hole in the hull of the shuttle, and when we hit ground, you were thrown clear outside. Thank your lucky stars for your greater bone density.”

Kirk claps a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. “In the meantime, we’re safe, and the children have shown us where we can hide from the nightmares.”

Spock frowns, sure that he has misheard Kirk. “Is anybody else hurt?” He tries to recall the members of the away team. Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Lee, Rand, Nguyen, half a dozen security officers. And then Saavik and Sulek, who had requested to accompany them.

“No one else with serious injuries,” says Jim dismissively, in the tone that means he is hiding at least one or two minor injuries himself. "The plan so far is to hide out and attempt to re-establish contact with the Enterprise."

Spock frowns. Several questions crowd into his mind at once. The one that eventually wins out is: “Did you say children?”

 

 

Twenty children, specifically, their ages ranging from six to fourteen. Nine humans, two Orion, three Rigelian, one Andorian, one Deltan, two Betazoid, two Lysian: the cargo of the slaver ship. They'd all been snatched from farming and mining colonies on remote planets in the Alpha Quadrant.

Spock remembers learning about child kidnapping in his studies at the Academy, and prior to that, hearing it mentioned on occasion by his father in his work as Ambassador. In no way had this prepared him for the sight of twenty small, dirt-covered face staring up at him, their expressions varying between blankness and fear and cautious hope. All of them are too thin for their biological structures, and their clothing appear on the verge of falling apart.

Beside him, Spock is aware of a sharp tension in the Captain's body. Kirk appears to be exerting a not inconsiderable level of control over his emotions, which has the effect of emphasizing just how affected the captain must be. The rest of the crew are faring little better. Only the Vulcans present no indication that the situation has any impact on them; Spock rather suspects that they are simply ignoring the existence of the children entirely.

“We will not be able to establish contact with the Enterprise from this location,” says Saavik, gesturing at the cave they’d taken shelter in. “We must seek a higher elevation.”

“Agreed. Sulu will have started looking the moment he saw the shuttle go down, so we need to make it easier for him to find us,” says Kirk.

“There is a mountain above us,” says Sulek. He points towards the entrance. The fog outside is grey and thick; even Spock’s eyes cannot make out more than vague rock-like shapes beyond a few feet. “There is a path outside that seems to lead upwards.”

“Or ends in a cliff,” says McCoy doubtfully. “Fog that thick, we won’t even see it until we step right into open air.”

“We should also try to boost the signal on the communicators,” says Uhura, “at the moment, the Enterprise will need to be right on top of us before they’ll hear us through that fog.”

“The nightmares are out there,” says one of the human children. “But they don’t like the mountain. They like the fog better.”

Silence. Until Spock asks, gently, “What are these ‘nightmares’?”

“They used to be like us. Like you,” says the Andorian, his antennae subdued. “But then they got sick. They forgot how to look at light without burning, how to keep their food in their stomachs. They made the fog so that they didn’t have to see the sky. Now they just hurt, all the time.”

“I would like to reiterate that those slavers didn’t look like they all died from the crash,” says McCoy. “At least two of them got pretty far aways from the ship before something took them down.”

“They didn’t even try to let their cargo out,” says Kirk coldly. “I’m not exactly sympathetic.”

“They got what was comin’ to ‘em, no question. I just mean, maybe that was lucky for the kids,” says McCoy. “Whoever got the slavers could have gotten ‘em too.”

“The nightmares don’t care about us,” says the first human child. “We’re not scared in the right way. They’s want des… desp…“

“Despair,” says Spock quietly. He has the urge to rub at his side, where his pulse has become momentarily elevated.

Uhura clears her throat. “What do these nightmares look like?”

For some reason, this makes a few of the children giggle. “All sorts of things,” says another human child, her tone suggesting that the answer should have been obvious. “Nightmares are always different, depending on who’s looking at them.”

“Some kind of psionic ability?” asks McCoy, whose expression is bewildered. “Empathy? They’re drawn to – to negative feelings?”

“’s only because they’re angry,” says the Andorian.

“Okay, we can’t stay here indefinitely,” says Kirk. “We’ll split up. A small scouting group will walk up the path and find a way to the top of the mountain, while the main group stays here to work on boosting the a couple of the communicators. The two groups will remain in contact via communicator for as long as possible, but if contact is lost, the scouting group will fire a flare once they reach the top of the mountain. With any lunch, the Enterprise will see the flare as well.”

And then a small voice says, “We know the way up.” They turn towards the voices. It’s the two Betazoid children. “The dreams showed us.”

 

 

After a few hours of meditation, Spock feels well enough to help with the efforts to modify their communicators. Or at least that is his intention, until McCoy demonstrates his preternatural ability to detect escaping patients and herds Spock back onto his makeshift pallet.

“Physically, your injuries are minimal. But you've been pushing yourself too hard lately, and now your body is taking longer to heal itself." Spock is handed a packet of their rations. “Didn't I say that you needed to take it easy? But nobody listens to me around here.”

“I am certain that everyone listens to you, Doctor McCoy. It is difficult to do otherwise, short of wearing noise-canceling devices,” says Spock. He takes a careful bite of the food. The burst of flavor is almost too intense for his strained nerves. Spock eats the mouthful slowly, giving his body a chance to acclimatize. The sudden, clawing hunger reminds him that he hasn't eaten in a long while. "Whether or not one follows your suggestions, however, is a different matter."

"Oh, fine, go on, sass the guy who's saved your life. See if I give you any of the good drugs next time.”

“As a Vulcan, I do not require pharmaceutical assistance in blocking my pain receptors-”

“Shut it.”

 

 

The Betazoid kids introduce themselves as Norid and Leesil. Uhura gently asks them if they know their family names; Norid volunteers his as Grax, “I think,” while Leesil solemnly shakes her head. They’re both shy and obviously nervous, so Jim takes it upon himself to try and distract them, both to get them to relax and to keep his own mind off the creepy, creepy fog.

"My mom was never around much," says Jim, carefully picking his way over the barely-visible path. "I mean, it makes sense, she didn't join Starfleet just so she could stay at home and raise two kids, and she's a brilliant engineer. She was keeping people safe, keeping ships in the sky. My brother Sam never forgave her, and never forgave me for not being angrier at her. But I got it, you know?"

"Who were you living with?" asks Uhura quietly.

"Frank. Step-dad." Jim shrugs. "He never really liked me."

Quiet. Then, "how many times did he tell you that it was your fault your mom wasn't there?"

Jim sucks in a sharp breath. "Shi- shut up. Just - just, no."

"You brought it up." She must read something in the tense line of his body. Well, it probably doesn't take a communications expert to recognize human body language for fuck off. "Fine. Fine." There is a sharp clack, then the roll of a stone heading downhill. "I was the one who convinced Spock we were mentally incompatible."

"What?" Jim spins around. "Why?"

"We did the meld.” Uhura smiles down at the ground. “It was... wonderful. Beyond anything I could have imagined." And, yeah, so messed up, he's so messed up, for feeling a flash of jealousy at the thought of Spock and Uhura sharing an experience that Jim had been helping them towards, something Jim hadn't even known to be an act of intimacy until Spock explained it and, this is the clincher, after Jim had already done it with Spock. A different Spock.

"And then you broke up with him?" says Jim incredulously.

Uhura laughs, though without much humor. "He has such an amazing mind. And I got to see parts of his life that he would never have told me about, you know, verbally. I might even say it's better than sex, if you can believe it."

The "oh yeah, I can," almost slips out before he catches himself and press his lips together. Too telling, too loaded, she knows about Spock-from-the-other-universe and this woman's ears are as good as telepathy and, somehow, she would know.

Fortunately, she's looking into the distance instead of at his face. "We were - we fit, just like I expected we would. But there was something... it's hard to explain, but it's like there was a part of him that was looking for something. It felt like… loose ends. Like something had been cut or ripped out and just left there. I don't know if he was even conscious of it, but I could feel it. I used to knit with my grandmother; her eyes are pretty bad, so she would use her fingers to feel for any knots or dropped stitches. That’s probably why it felt that way - my brain using existing associations and all - and it made me think of one of the compatibility-building exercises. It's supposed to be for later, after the pair have done a few melds. But I had a hunch."

The sad way she's smiling at him makes him dread where she's going with it. He still asks, "What was the exercise?"

"To bring up a memory with strong emotional components, preferably a shared experience. It’s meant to test the bond and also encourage the pair to strengthen their bond by sharing strong emotion."

Jim nods. "His mom?"

Uhura stares at him like he's sprouted some kind of abnormal growth. "No, Jim," she whispers. "Your death."

Something cold and hard drops down his gut. "Oh."

She ducks her head. "I forgot you wouldn't know. I was - I ran after Spock, after Scotty called him down to Engineering. I didn't - you were already gone by the time I got there, but I saw - how Spock was." She exhaled harshly. "We were all pretty - but Spock, Jim, I can't even describe it. I kind of wish I can meld with you right now, just so I can show you what I saw."

After a few minutes, Jim asks, nearly whispering, "So what happened when you brought up the memory?"

Uhura blinks and shakes her head, like she'd fallen into a pit of memories herself. "Instant lockdown. I was convinced that I had, I don't know, triggered a Vulcan kind of PTSD. The texts say that unpleasant memories can cause some initial resistance, but the Vulcan mind eventually recognizes familiar bonds and will reach out to draw strength from loved ones. He just... cut off everything."

Jim swallows roughly.

"The irony is," says Uhura, "that those loose ends I mentioned? I think the only reason they're there - the reason a part of him knows that something is missing - was because you died."

"So, basically, I'm the reason you broke up with Spock," says Jim.

"Oh, for f- Freaking Effy’s sake." There's a clatter of loose stone. Uhura's face is suddenly inches from Jim's. "Will you stop wallowing in your masculine angst for a moment and listen to me? You died, Jim. Spock lost you. We all did. But, for Spock – turns out you're the one thing he can't bear to lose, and now a part of him knows it, even if the rest of him hasn't figured it out yet. And, another woman might have been happy with the good fit I found with Spock. I could have just ignored all of that. We would have bonded, gotten married, maybe have kids – far, far down the line."

Somehow he’s not expecting her to reach up and around his head; he yelps when strong fingers dig into his hair and yank.

"But here's the thing I don't think you really get," hisses Uhura, pulling his face down until it’s less than an inch away from hers. "I love you, too, you ass. And I've seen the way you two are together. Both of you are the best thing to ever happen to me - in your own ways, and together. You damn well need each other. So I would appreciate it if one of you can stop dancing around the issue and do something about it.” She stomps away.

Then her boots stomp back. "Oh, one more thing." She waits until Jim is looking at her again, warily. "I still don't blame you for Spock and I breaking up. Because Spock and I have our own relationship, and you and Spock have yours, and even you and I have ours because, let's face it, I wouldn't put up with this sort of crap from anybody else. And none of them are mutually exclusive, and not a one of them makes the others any less."

She storms off, muttering. Even the fog seems to retreat from her.

"You shouldn't make the scary lady angry," says Leesil solemnly.

"You're got more sense than me, kiddo," agrees Jim.

 

 

Chekov jumps up from where he had been crouched next to the entrance. “There’s somebody coming!”

A low whine is all the warning they receive before a red beam shoots through the cave entrance. It hits the wall, causing rocks to explode and rain debris down on those nearby.

“I guess that answers the question of whether they’re friendly or not,” says Yeoman Rand.

Spock’s ears detect another whining sound. He pulls back Rand just as a second shot hits the cave.

“Perhaps they will let us negotiate?” asks Chekov.

“No,” says Sulek, who is staring at the entrance with a look of concentration. “I do not sense any minds approaching us. I hear the workings of metal and the hum of a power source, but no biological functions.”

“Robots?” says Chekov. He curses in Russian.

“Fine. Is there another way out of this cave?” asks McCoy.

“There is a small opening at the back of the cave that may lead to a larger tunnel network,” volunteers Saavik.

Spock pulls out his communicator in order to inform the Captain. “Lead the way.”

 

“The dancers call them shadows,” says Norid, after they’d listened to Spock’s terse and static-y summation. “Shadows of the sleep-bringers. The sleep-bringers brought them here to keep people away.”

 

 

Spock hurries back to their new hiding place. He sees that the Vulcans have distributed the spare weapons to what remains of the security team. Doctor McCoy and Yeoman Rand are crouched over a groaning Hendorff, performing triage with their characteristic efficiency. The children are huddled around Chekov and Nguyen; they seem oddly unafraid, more fixated in comparing Chekov’s light-colored curls to Nguyen’s straight dark hair. So far, Spock as learned that the Andorian child’s name is Palas, and one of the human children is called Navreen; the two of them have proven the most willing to talk, out of the whole group.

"There is another opening at the end of the narrower tunnel," Spock reports, "But there are five of these shadows stationed outside. I was able to approach undetected, however, and observed that they have gaps between the armor plates to allow for movement of the joints. I theorize that this is their weak spot, particularly the second division from the top, as it is beyond the reach their primary gun-arms."

He looks at Ensign Dune, whom he recalls as the youngest in the most recent wave of new crewmen. "Ensign, please hand your phaser to Doctor McCoy, and help Yeoman Rand with Lieutenant Hendorff. Telama, come with us."

McCoy raises an eyebrow at him but accepts the weapon easily enough.

"For what purpose are you arming the doctor?" demands Sulek. "As the most senior medical officer present, his primary duty must be in assisting the injured and-"

"Removing these shadows from our exit route will require finesse and accuracy," says Spock, "Doctor McCoy is proficient with old Terran projectile weapons and, furthermore, possesses the highest accuracy score amongst the Enterprise crew. We can give Lieutenant Hendorff no further care until we return to the Enterprise. Arming the doctor is the best use of available resources.”

McCoy follows him down the passageway to where it branches into two tunnels. Spock turns towards the narrower one. He is pleased to observe that the two humans are making an effort to keep their steps light and noiseless.

"Say, how did you know that I know my way around guns?" whispers McCoy.

"You've recounted numerous 'hunting trips' around your home town with members of your family,” says Spock. “As phasers are traditionally considered not appropriate for this activity, I inferred that you employed the usual projectile-based armaments."

"Wait, you've actually been listening to my blabbing?"

"Of course, Doctor. Your anecdotes are often nonsensical and only tangentially related to the subject at hand, but as a whole, they've been very useful for insights on the way humans process stress."

 

 

“Doctor Marcus?”

“Still nothing,” reports Carol from the science console. “Sir, unless they modify their communicators, their signal won’t be able to reach us through all this interference and weather.”

Sulu rubs his hand over his face. He’s already taking a risk by bringing the Enterprise into the planet’s atmosphere. He doesn’t want to go any further until he knows that they are alive, at least. He’s keeping to the general area where the shuttle went down, but the strength of these winds could have blown them miles off.

“Bridge to Engineering,” he says, “Scotty?”

“Good news. As long as we stay within the atmosphere, the planet’s electromagnetic field is counteracting most of the effects of the nebula, and I’ve accounted for the rest, with a bit of fiddling.” It occurs to Sulu that, on a different ship, the commanding officer would probably have a conniption at the thought of the Chief Engineer so blithely playing around with the ship’s systems. On the Enterprise, half the time the ideas came from the Captain. “We should be able to beam them up from this distance, though it would help to get as close as we can.”

“Understood. Good work, Mr. Scott.” Sulu ends the call and says, mostly to himself, “We still need to find them, though.”

“Captain,” says Carol, “I’m getting – a flare from that mountain! Due East.”

 

 

McCoy lets loose a string of profanities when Telama falls back with a deep wound on her shoulder. At least she has been hit by a piece of shattered rock, instead of the energy beam from the shadows’ built-in guns.

“No, don’t touch it, get over here,” orders the Doctor.

She half-crawls, half-drags herself closer to McCoy, carefully remaining within the cover of the rocky outcropping they’re hiding behind.

Impressive, Spock cannot help but admit, as he watches McCoy ripping off one of his own sleeves, tearing it further intro strips, and wrapping the cloth around Telama’s shoulder and arm, all without letting go of his phaser and even managing the occasional shot.

There’s a whine of static from Spock’s communicator. Spock fires repeatedly until the last of the shadows crumples over, checks that no more are coming, and answers it. “Spock.”

“…Enterprise… beam you out… need… come out into the open…” says Kirk’s voice.

Spock shares a look with McCoy; they silently exchange weapons. He trots over to the narrow entrance, conducts a visual check to ensure that no shadows are lying in way or regrouping, then gestures for McCoy to approach. McCoy helps Telama sit in a partially-obscured spot several feet from the entrance, then takes Spock place, hefting the phaser rifle on his shoulder.

“Go get the others,” whispers McCoy.

It seems that Kirk’s message reached the main group as well, because they are all ready to move when Spock reaches them. They are quiet as they file through the tunnel, even the children – Chekov, Lee, and Dune are carrying the youngest ones.

McCoy gives them a thumbs-up when they reach him. “Haven’t heard a peep,” he reports. “Maybe that’s all the ‘bots they’re sending this way.”

Spock edges carefully out of the cave. The fog makes it difficult to see anything, but he does not hear any movement beyond their groups’. Do these ‘nightmares’ make sounds? Too late to ask the children. He takes a defensive position behind a large boulder, still visible from the cave entrance. He waves McCoy and Jorrus out, who find their own hiding places further away from the cave but within sight of each other.

There hasn’t been any further communication from the Enterprise, but Spock assumes it is to allow them to get into position with as much stealth as possible. “Spock to Enterprise. We are approximately 500 feet southeast and 30 feet higher in altitude than the position where you left us. There is a long, curling ridge to the north-east.”

“…got you… don’t see shadows… get main group out…”

Spock signals at the cave entrance. A second passes, then Chekov emerges, carrying one child and holding the hand of another. He walks briskly, passing Spock’s position, then Joruss; he’s almost level with the outcropping that McCoy is crouched under when he and his charges disappear in a flash of light.

“…Chekov’s on board…”

A click, then, “…successful, Mister Spock,” says Chekov, “…clean up… dirt and blood…”

Spock breathes out, and gestures sharply towards Yeoman Rand, waiting just inside the cave. The rest of the group jogs out. As with Chekov, they had to get some distance from the cave before the Enterprise’s beam can pick them up. Spock watches them pass him, the fog blurring their shapes as they get further away, the successive flashes of light.

He sees a small, distant flash low to the ground – McCoy – and another flash where Joruss must be, and waits for his own turn-

“…Commander… Saavik and Sulek… not here…”

Spock jumps out from behind his boulder. He remembers seeing them leave the cave – he follows the path the group had taken. He doesn’t find anything unusual. He walks back and forth, ordering the Enterprise, “do not beam me up yet, let me find them.” Then he hears a quiet noise, words. Vulcan words.

He finds Saavik kneeling on the ground, head bowed. She is muttering words that are mostly incomprehensible, though there is a general sense of fervent denial. Sulek is eight feet away; he is speaking not at all, but lying on his back, his head turned to one side and eyes squeezed shut.

The now-familiar whine gives Spock enough warning to roll away, just as an energy beam slices the air where he had been crouched over Sulek. He fires, blindly, and again, and continues firing even as he bodily hauls up Sulek. Sulek gives no indication of noticing the somewhat rough treatment; only his breath against Spock’s neck tells Spock he is alive.

“Saavik, help me!” he orders. To his relief, she is not so far gone as Sulek; she stumbles over to him and slings Sulek’s other arm over her shoulders, bearing more of his weight to allow Spock to defend them.

He wonders where the Enterprise is, then realizes that some of the shadows’ energy beams are being shot upwards. He fervently hopes that they do not possess more powerful weapons, that might damage even starships. He can’t risk remaining in the open, anyway.

Spock looks around. The cave is now somewhat too far for comfort, with Sulek unable to help them. But there is a large, dark shape nearby. They stumble towards it. Spock is so focused on listening for more shadows that he doesn’t realize, until they’re nearly upon it, that it’s a ship.

A large, ancient Dar ship.

 

 

The entire structure shakes. A metallic screech overhead sounds not unlike a dying ol.

"Your confidence is illogical and therefore misplaced," says Saavik. The small space modulates her voice in such a way that makes her seem closer than the nervous shuffling of the Vulcan's body indicates. Sulek is lying on the ground, within Spock’s reach. "It is morally wrong to endanger an entire starship with a full crew complement of four hundred just for the chance of rescuing three individuals."

"I agree. I left explicit instructions with the away team that the Enterprise is to leave once the main group had been safely retrieved."

"Then why are you expending energy in keeping the area outside clear?"

Spock breathes in and out. "Because I know my Captain, and I know our crew. They will come for us."

 

 

Another rigorous shake. Closing his eyes makes little difference to the amount of visual input, so dark is the place they are in. He does it, anyway; memory is clawing at him, of a different world and a different cave and a strong, slight hand clasped in his own.

He should never have let go.

Saavik is still talking. "...is less than 10%. The odds of a successful rescue without a single loss of life is a mere 2%..."

Never before has Spock wished so fervently, so illogically, to be human - and moreso to be Kirk, able to simply snap out, It'll work.

He waits for Saavik’s words to peter out, for the silence to wash back in. Then he repeats, "He will come."

 

 

“You used code words.”

Spock turns towards Saavik’s voice. “What did you say?”

“Code words. You and Ensign Chekov. You employed code words to determine if the Ensign was truly beamed onto the Enterprise. I am trying to ascertain what the key is.”

“Ah. Yes.” Spock closes his eyes again. “It is simpler than you might expect, though it depends on the person to whom the message is addressed. First, he specified me by name. Then, he said the word ‘blood’. Starfleet uses the Terran Western Hemisphere color-association of red to indicate falseness or malfunction, and green to indicate correctness or normal function. As my blood is green, he was signaling to me that the situation was as expected.”

“I see.”

 

 

The children are right.

Spock stares at the nightmare hovering in front of him. Is it one creature or many? It changes shape as he watches. He is aware that he has already felt the touch of one, earlier, right after the crash. This one seems more curious, however. Perhaps it knows that it does not need to hurry.

Dream. Not nightmare.

What is the difference?

None. All.

Telepathic lifeforms. Empathic projections.

Sickness. From sleep-bringers.

The Dar. They said they tried to heal you.

Try. Fail. Brought sleep.

Spock shivers. That is why the nightmares are angry.

Nightmare alone. Worse.

You do not blame the Dar?

Sleep-bringers. No understanding. Cure divided. Alone after.

Their cure… divided you? Spock’s eyes widen. A hive mind. But the cure they developed affected your telepathy.

Sleep better. Alone worse.

The formless shape ripples. Somewhere, Saavik lets out a soft cry of anguish. You lied. You are a nightmare.

Not for you.

Why?

Known despair. Known fear. Known grief. The shiver of incredible effort. You understand already.

Then Kirk is there, hands gentle against Spock’s face, “Jim”, blue eyes tight with concern, every touch righting and rebuilding him anew; and soft, gentle words in his ear, “It’s okay, Spock, I’ve got you, we’re going home.”

 

 

Jim won’t lie – it gives him a kick to see the way the kids light up when he visits. Uhura, Carol, and Bones keep shaking their heads, though they won’t explain why they find it so amusing.

He catches Carol coming out of Rec Room 6, which has been converted into a temporary playroom and communal sleeping quarters for the children.

“Hey, Carol – thanks for finding us and getting us out of there,” says Jim.

She smiles at him, and he’s pleased to see how easily she does it, now. “It’s nothing you haven’t done for any of us, Jim.”

He nods at her and continues into the rec room, where the kids instantly gather around him. “Hey, kiddos,” he greets them, beaming at their answering chatter. He thinks about the way they still seem a bit shy around his crew. Once he’s perched comfortably atop his favorite movie-night-oversized-pillow, he leans towards them and, grinning, starts:

“Okay, kids, I think it’s time I tell you about my ship and my crew. The ship is called The Enterprise, which those of you who have learned to read will know. And my crew – well, not to brag, but I have the best crew ever.” This, he says in a whisper, before bringing his voice back up to normal again. “The first thing you should know is that we’re a lot like family, though maybe we go about it differently from the kinds of family you know. There’s Scotty, who likes to make things go really fast; there’s Carol, who likes to make things blow up. Uhura makes sure we can talk to other ships and other ships can talk back to us – if this doesn’t seem impressive to you, I dare you to go a whole day without talking to anyone. Sulu drives the ship; Chekov keeps the ship from running into things we shouldn’t run into, like planets and moons and suns. When something inevitably goes wrong and we get hurt, it’s Bones – that’s Doctor McCoy – who puts us back together again…”

 

 

The knock on his door is not entirely unexpected. However, the fact that the door in question is the one to the shared bathroom is.

He lets Kirk in. Tries not to think about the implications of Kirk avoiding the customary route via the outside hallway. Tries not to think about Kirk’s presence in his room, and the ensuing cascade of effects on Spock’s system.

“So,” begins Kirk. But whatever he’d planned to say seems to be forgotten in favor, “is it just me, or is it a lot warmer in here? Um. Than usual. I mean.”

A look of panic crosses Kirk’s face, for which Spock can find no clear reason. “It is, Captain. I seem to be finding it more difficult to achieve optimal body temperature. Doubtless it is an after-effect of interacting with the lifeforms on Dara V.”

The name of planet had been confirmed by a thorough search through the Dar’s files. The planet’s entry contains little more than a three-dimensional image of the planet and the name – which, in hindsight, stands out as unusual, as the Dar had tended towards verbosity in every other entry, including minute details for asteroids and lifeless moons.

“I guess I can understand why they ran home and shut everything down,” says Kirk. “I mean, it’s a pretty cowardly way of dealing. Still. That’s an awful thing to live with.”

“How are the children settling in?” asks Spock abruptly.

Kirk makes an unhappy expression, but dutifully answers, “They’re fine. Starfleet is trying to make arrangements with each kid’s home planet. They were hoping that the kids can be returned home to their parents, but all the human ones have turned out to be orphans, so they’re expecting the same with the others. Doctor Noel is recommending that the kids be kept together for a while, until they can re-acclimatize.”

“It would be best to minimize the effects of such sudden changes,” agrees Spock, “they’ve already been through enough.”

“Chekov’s a hit. I’m a little worried he’s reconsidering his stance on babies.” Kirk gives him a sly look. “They keep asking for you, you know. Apparently Mister Spock is the best at answering questions.”

“And it has not escaped my attention that you are considered ‘the best at telling stories’.” Spock quirks an eyebrow. “I shall endeavor to increase the frequency of my visits.”

“Saavik tells me that she is considering joining Starfleet.”

“She will do well, I think. She is willing to adjust her thinking.”

Kirk smiles, but it is a subdued version of his usual one, and quickly drops away. He stares at Spock for a long moment, as if expectant. When Spock says nothing further, he sighs.

“Okay, I’m not sure what it is I’ve done,” says Kirk, ducking his head, “and, you know, normally you’re not exactly shy about telling me when I’m doing something wrong. So – I would really appreciate it if you could tell me what it is I’ve done or I’m doing that’s making you avoid me like I’ve got the pl- um, sorry, bad choice of words, I guess, in light of recent events – I’d just like to know, so I can apologize and stop doing whatever it is you’re avoiding me for.”

“Captain,” says Spock, stiffly, “I am not comfortable discussing this with you.”

The way Kirk flinches, unexpected, sends a trill of alarm through Spock’s side. The room, which had been approaching an acceptable temperature since Kirk entered, drops colder once more. “Ah. Right. I guess you’ve noticed? Okay. Okay. Sorry.” And now Kirk has stopped looking at him. “You were bound to, I guess. Okay. I’ll- I’ll put us on different shifts, and – whatever changes you want, really, I’ll approve them. Whatever makes you comfortable.”

And – of course Kirk will assume that the fault lies with him, that it is he who has done something wrong. “Kirk...”

“I’m just – going now,” Kirk turns and heads for the door, where he turns again and meets Spock’s gaze: pained yet brave in the face of it, entirely the starship captain, like he’s never been when off-duty with Spock. “See you on the bridge, Commander Spock.”

Jim.” Spock closes the distance between them in an instant. “You are not – I fear that I may have – taken advantage, of our friendship.” Those blue eyes widen, waiting for him to elaborate. Spock resists the urge to look away; he refuses to be less than stalwart, when he is standing before Jim Kirk. “There is a – connection, between us. There has been, for some time. I believe it is – that is, you are – Vulcans have a word for it, but you could not have known, and I do not hold you accountable-”

Kirk’s eyes widen; his human hand seizes Spock’s wrist and brings Spock's hand to his face.

The thousand and one thoughts in Spock's head abruptly stop, all at once, at the unexpected contact. His mental facilities are clearly below ideal condition, because it is not until Kirk maneuvers Spock's thumb, index, and middle fingers into the familiar configuration that Spock realizes what Kirk wants him to do,

He almost snatches his hand back. But there's a bright, electric warmth to Kirk's skin that's trickling right down Spock's fingers and hand and arm. It is as if he can feel Kirk all the way from his extremities to the deepest recesses of his mind, and he worries that he's begun a meld without realizing it.

And then it hits him: where had Kirk learned of the meld? Because there had been no hesitation when Kirk had positioned his fingers. He's seen the way Kirk can absorb knowledge from documents, from books, and he knows Kirk has seen Spock meld with others, but some instinct of his own tells him that Kirk is following past experience.

The thought of someone else, some other Vulcan, sharing his consciousness with Kirk- with Jim- the primal rage sweeps over Spock, and he doesn't recognize his own voice when he growls, "With whom have you melded?"

He is careful about not hurting Jim, must never harm Jim, but those bright blue eyes widen in alarm. "Spock!" A part of Spock hopes, irrationally, that the man will step away, will be frightened of this vestigial shadow of ancient Vulcan; of course, this is Jim Kirk, who never runs from danger if he can charge towards it, who has always come for Spock. Kirk leans right into Spock's space,

emotional transference the reason I came back for you was how did you find me this simple feeling that person is you never and always touching and be touched

"You knew," Spock whispers hoarsely. "All this time, you have known."

"Yeah," admits Kirk. Those brilliant eyes close. He ducks his head. "Not for sure - but, yeah, I knew."

"You never said anything," says Spock. "You were willing to help Nyota and I towards mental compatibility, when you knew all along that you are-" mine, he only barely stops himself from saying. His overprotectiveness of late suddenly makes a great deal of sense.

He suspects Kirk hears it, nonetheless, because he is shrugging. "The two of you were happy. And I was happy for the two of you. You can feel that, right?" Kirk's face shifts closer, eyes bright with a strange intensity, as if he fears Spock wouldn’t believe him, as if Spock wouldn’t believe him even without both their emotions rushing down the same river. "I never wanted to come between you. I love you both. I would have been happy to stay in the sidelines, watching you grow old together."

"Jim," gasps Spock, trying to weather a surge of feeling that he cannot name. He doesn't understand, how one can choose to forego this completeness (this is the Vulcan heart, this is the Vulcan soul); at the same time, he does understand, would never wish Jim Kirk to be any different than the way he is (whatever you choose, you will have a proud mother).

Jim’s fingers find his, stroke heat into his body, the touch of fire and light and rightness; Spock pulls him in and covers that maddening mouth with his own, Jim’s instant acquiescence thrilling the ancient blood. Ties half-formed flare bright, parted from me and never parted, time and space itself proven inconsequential.

“Does this mean you’ll stop throwing yourself into danger, now?” asks Jim. Small sounds spill out of his mouth with every push of Spock’s fingers inside him; Spock finds this utterly fascinating and worthy of further exploration. Jim, naked, is beautiful, all golden skin and shamelessness. “J-just, there’s room for- for only one crazy c-cat on this boat.”

“Only if you take better care,” rasps Spock into the heat at the juncture between Jim’s thigh and groin. He licks the salt up from the skin there, curious. Jim gasps. “You are abysmal at keeping yourself safe.”

Jim’s eyes open and focus on Spock’s face, lightly swollen lips forming a slow smile. “I guess you’ll have to keep me, then, and do a better job of it.”

Spock swallows hard. He removes his fingers, then pulls one of Jim’s legs up and slings it over his shoulder – “oh, fuck, yes, that is seriously hot, you’ve got me so open, fuck,” – and positions himself. Jim pulls him down by neck for a clumsy, exceedingly wet kiss, mouth open and panting, “do it, Spock, take me, claim me, want to feel you inside,” and Spock is pushing in, crying out from the pleasure, Jim’s body tight and welcoming. Jim is chanting Spock’s name and “yes, yes, so good,” and kissing Spock despite the stretch.

Control strains, weakens; Jim digs his nails into Spock’s shoulder and urges him to move, harder, and control evaporates entirely. Spock withdraws then drives back in, trying not to simply slam their bodies together, trying to reign in his Vulcan strength despite the sweet, sharp pleasure Jim derives from every hard thrust.

Heat and pleasure roar through him. He feels barely contained within his body; and then Jim’s hand is clasping his, Jim is bringing Spock’s fingers to the meld points. “Everything, Spock,” says Jim, voice hoarse, and Spock whispers, “yes,” that Vulcan word searing through his thoughts, fusing them both; the heat reminds Spock of standing in the volcano of Nibiru, molten and inescapable, live-giving; he leaps knowing that Jim will leap with him, their thoughts twining and infinite; they fall into the consuming fire together.

Chapter Text

The day they are due to reach Starbase 12, Spock is not surprised to receive a request from T’Saak for a private meeting. He designates one of the small briefing rooms as an appropriate venue, and arrives five minutes early to find her already waiting for him.

“I infer, from this meeting, that you have gathered sufficient data for your needs?” Spock begins without preamble.

“For my own needs, yes,” answers T’Saak. “Whether the VSA will be satisfied with my conclusions, remains to be seen.”

He considers, and reconsiders, and then asks, “May I hear your conclusions?”

T’Saak inclines her head. “You do not suffer from ralash-fam kashek because you have already formed bonds here, with your shipmates. I suspected as much, from the beginning, and the events on Dara V provided further proof. Sulek, who has been living on New Vulcan since the loss of Vulcan-That-Was, and newly married besides, was incapacitated by the nightmares’ touch for 2.5 days, while you were functional after only a matter of hours. If we proceed from the premise that the strength of a Vulcan’s bonds provide a proportional level of telepathic stability and protection, then the connections you have formed here are analogous to full bonds-of-kin.”

“That is… unexpected,” admits Spock.

“Indeed. There is precedent, of course, for Vulcans to bond with humans – of which your very existence is proof. But all of those cases involve singular participants, not a network of psi-null individuals.” The look she directs him is intent and inscrutable. “Furthermore, there is – the Captain?”

Spock nods once; Vulcans do not speak of such private matters, but he owes her this truth. “Yes.”

She gazes at him silently. He feels the stir of anxiety, though he would not be able to explain why. Eventually, she says, “Then I offer you my congratulations.”

“Thank you,” says Spock, sincerely.

Some of the tension in her expression eases. “Spock, son of Sarek,” she says, gentle as she has never been towards him before. “I remember you as a child. I agreed to this assignment because I thought, of anyone, the ralash-fam kashek would hit you hardest. You often had difficulty interacting with other children. I believed that your human blood has merely been delaying the onset of symptoms. It is pleasing to see that family has found you, after all.”

She turns to leave. Spock says, after her, “I grieve with thee.”

T’Saak pauses. “Thank you.” She neglects to respond with the same; it is within Spock’s rights, as the betrothed-widower, but he thinks it a sign of her regard for him that she does not trap him into falseness merely for the sake of custom.

Perhaps that is why he finds himself asking, “Was T’Pring happy?”

T’Saak gives him a strange look, but does not seem displeased by the question. “Yes. She had found – his name was Stonn. They say he could have boarded an evacuation shuttle, but instead he left to find her.” T’Saak looks away. “They managed to send a message to me, before the end.”

“She was not alone,” says Spock. It seems hardly any kind of consolation, to a bereaved mother.

But T’Saak nods as if he has said something important. “No, she was not. It is a terrible thing, for a Vulcan to be alone. And she was not.” She raises her hand in the ta’al. “Live long and prosper, Spock.”

~ * ~

"Look, it's Mister Spock!" shouts Leesil.

Nurse Joyce tells them that most Vulcans look alike to humans, and doesn't the Ambassador look far older than the stern Mister Spock? They quiet down and nod.

Once she's left the room, Norid chirps up, "We know you're not our Mister Spock, Mister Spock."

"Indeed," says the Ambassador, looking very amused. “I would not, after all, be visiting just any group of children.”

"But why aren’t you out adventuring?” asks Palas. "Just last week, Mister Chekov sent us a holo of this new city they found, where all the buildings are made out of candy!"

"Ybetta, yes, I remember that place," says the Ambassador. "It wasn't quite as fun for the people there - they ate a very specific sort of mold, you see, and their slime hardened glucose crystals into something as hard as rock." He gracefully sits down on the mat, looking intently at each of them. "And I’m afraid I’ve gotten quite old; best to leave the adventuring to one’s younger counterpart. He has less trouble with his knees.”

“He doesn’t tell stories like you do,” Navreen reveals in a conspiratorial whisper.

The Ambassador barks out a laugh. “Well, he’s got quite a long way to go yet.”

“But he will be as good as you one day, right?” presses Navreen, as if quite concerned by this.

“Of course,” the Ambassador reassures her. “He’ll learn from the very best, and then he’ll practice lots and get even better. Telling stories, telling stories so well that other people will tell them too – that’s the best way to keep the people you love close.” He is silent for a moment, and then asks, eyes twinkling, “now, what would you like to hear today?”

THE END