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one equal temper of heroic hearts

Chapter Text

 

The night before launch, Spock receives a comm from Jim at 2230: You want to come up tonight?

 

I understood the beam-ups were not to begin until 0700. You are already on board?

 

Yup. Handed off the keys to my apartment this morning. I thought I’d like a night on the ship alone, but it’s big and empty. Maybe I’ll just beam back down. I’d ask if I could crash on your couch, but I’m pretty sure it’s already up here, right?

 

Affirmative. All of my personal effects have been transferred. I have no compelling reason to stay. The transporter is operational?

 

Yeah, I’ll throw it back on, if you want to come. No pressure, though.

 

I will be there within the hour. Where will I find you?

 

I’m just wandering. You can ask the computer where I am.

 

He beams up from the pad at Headquarters forty-six minutes later, stows his hygiene gear, his PADD, his sleepwear for the night, and his uniform for the morning in his quarters, and asks the computer for the location of the captain.

 

“Captain Kirk is in Engineering,” the computer answers in its cool, feminine voice.

 

The Engineering bay is dark but for the red and blue lights, splayed across the floor from the equipment. Spock moves through slowly, eyeing the dark consoles as if Jim will be attending one of them, but ultimately he knows where he will find his captain.

 

Jim is sitting on the floor with his back to the glass door. Spock breathes steadily and evenly, with effort, and moves to take a seat alongside him, cross-legged.

 

“I realized that I can’t be afraid of it,” Jim says quietly, by way of greeting. “So I’ve been spending time down here as much as I can, over the last couple weeks. Only when no one’s around, of course. People might talk.”

 

“A sound decision, although I should hope such a precaution is unnecessary. It seems perfectly logical to seek out a place with which you have such a powerful association, and thereby to strip it of any power it may have over you.”

 

“It doesn’t have any power over me,” Jim says. “Only I have power over me.”

 

“A realization many humans never make,” Spock answers after a moment. “I admit even I have struggled with it at times. Do you believe your efforts to be succeeding?”

 

Jim looks at him, his blue eyes strangely blank.

 

“Are you still afraid?” Spock asks.

 

“Yes,” Jim says quietly. “Less so, but still. Afraid enough.” And he leans his head against Spock’s shoulder as he had on the shuttle three days earlier. His breathing grows slower, more even.

 

“Allow me to guide you to your quarters,” Spock says. “To sleep.”

 

“No,” Jim whispers. “I want to stay right here.” And he slides one arm underneath Spock’s own until they are resting against each other bicep to wrist, intertwining their fingers. His other hand comes across to grasp Spock’s bicep, holding him still as if afraid he will move away. “Can I…” he begins, and then, “Is this okay?”

 

“Yes, Jim,” Spock says, tightening his own fingers, and then there is a long quiet. Around them, behind them, beneath them, the ship hums. Blue lights blink from around the room; fans whir softly; and eventually Jim whispers again.

 

“It’s ours,” he says. “All of this, everything we want, it’s ours.” And Spock is not afraid: he turns his head and presses his mouth into Jim’s hair, breathing in his scent.

 

Jim begins to describe the things they’ll see: distant nebulae, scientific curiosities, unexplored continents, unexplained phenomena. And Spock can see it, in his mind’s eye. He can believe in the things Jim describes, the mysteries and marvels, but all he can think is, I want to stay right here.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

two.

 

Jim has gotten very good at being a captain.

 

He’s good at having dinner with crew and paying attention to everyone equally, and keeping everybody busy so they aren’t bored on the trek out toward unexplored territory. At turning his reports in to the Admiralty on time so that he doesn’t make extra work for anyone, and not letting Bones guess that there’s more to his attitude change than coming back from the dead.

 

He’s good at keeping on his professional face. He’s good at not grabbing Spock’s hand when they’re walking side by side in the corridor, and he’s good at not staring when Spock is standing bent over a console, and he’s good at not sending innuendos in his text comms and self-censoring his private log.

 

He’s good at all those things, but he is goddamned fantastic at jerking off in the shower, first an almost-casual motion, smooth and practiced, and then when he’s close something frenzied and frantic, and he’s pretending it’s his First Officer’s cool, slim fingers wrapped around his cock, and he’s perfected the art of not moaning a name when he throws his head back, teeth clenching, and comes in a messy arc across the shower wall.

 

He’s not good at what comes after that. What comes after is a massive wave of bad: it’s fear and self-loathing bundled up with uncertainty and guilt. He’s never felt bad about his extensive mental portfolio of fantasy fodder before, because if there’s one thing Jim Kirk has always believed in, it’s not being judged for your kinks.

 

(Maybe part of it is that he’s not sure if the fantasy is necessary. If he wasn’t such a coward, maybe he’d be living the reality.)

 

He’s really good at quashing that thought down as soon as it comes up. He knows Spock has some kind of feelings for him, and they’ve held hands, even cuddled a bit. But he’s never sensed active arousal in those moments—not for lack of keeping an eye out, mind.

 

Anyway. He’s in a position of power, and Spock has been looking after him for the past year, caring for him and tending to him in ways Jim’s never put up with from anyone but Bones (and never even that without a healthy dose of complaining). He tries to tell himself that maybe Spock’s just sensed Jim’s own attraction, and attempted to mirror it as a form of comfort. He’s not going to push anything.

 

Right, that’s a good idea, he thinks bitterly, sliding out of the shower once everything is clean and wrapping a towel around his waist. Because Spock is so likely to make the first move.

 

So, maybe he’s not really good at quashing that thought down.

 

They’ve been flying for two weeks. Two weeks since Spock pressed his face into Jim’s hair and inhaled, which was the straw that broke Jim’s back, maybe. But there had been a lot of damn straws before that, and there have been a few since, too—a touch on his shoulder as Spock hands him a PADD, a lingering glance after Jim had run a hand through his hair distractedly and set it all up on end, a delicious tension when they’re alone in the turbolift together. Beyond that, there hasn’t been time for much. The workload will calm down once they’re in deep space. It has to, or all starship captains would end up institutionalized.

 

Jim brushes his teeth, slips on boxers and a soft cotton tee he’d found at the farmhouse just big enough to still fit him, and sits on the edge of his bed. He has a really bad idea. He has several, but he’s only really considering one of them.

 

He text-comms Hikaru from his private account: So why don’t you tell me about this situation we apparently have in common.

 

Hikaru comms back about twenty seconds later, fuck off I’m not talking about that on comms and then about ten seconds after that, arboretum’s all ours, if you want to come down.

 

It’s late enough that the corridors are all but empty, and the crewmen he passes are tired-eyed until they see him, straightening and smiling. Jim’s donned his tunic again, but it’s over the soft sleep shirt he’d put on, so he’s not exactly cutting the most captainly figure. But they brighten at the sight of him, and it seems like their reaction to his presence is more than just a formality. He does it best to return that favor, and to look at their faces as he does.

 

Hikaru’s sitting on one of the wide, squat steps that wind into the arboretum, his back to the door, but he looks up when Jim enters and offers a wry expression in greeting. Jim plops down beside him, waits a moment, and then looks over with his brow raised. Hikaru laughs.

 

“He’s rubbing off on you,” he says.

 

“Not in any of the fun ways,” Jim answers on autopilot, and then twists his lip because this is the closest he’s gotten to admitting his mountain-sized crush to anyone but Bones. “Is it obvious to everyone?”

 

“Oh no, no,” Hikaru says quickly, holding up both hands, “I’m just smart. And friends with Nyota, who saw it coming a mile away, but that was really secondary.”

 

“Honestly,” Jim says, “when I needled you about Pavel, in Riverside, I was half-joking.”

 

Everyone is half-joking about us, which makes it that much worse. But it’s not… it’s not the same as you guys. I probably shouldn’t have compared it.”

 

“Okaaaaaayyyy,” Jim says, “I need a little more to go on than that.”

 

“I’m just fending him off,” he says after a moment, and his voice is bitter. “It’s not his fault. He’s practically a kid. He has no idea, he’s just playing, and I’m…”

 

“Not.”

 

“No.”

 

“Damn.”

 

“It’s not like there’s anything else that I can do. He doesn’t have any experience with relationships, with anything, so he’s totally oblivious to the fact that I’m not interested in fooling around.” He buries his face in his hands for a moment, shakes his head, and looks up again, his face painfully earnest. “I just can’t… Jim, he’s my best friend.”

 

Jim offers a wry look in response, and Hikaru laughs again. “Oh right,” he says, “same boat.”

 

“It is the shittiest vessel I’ve ever commanded,” Jim says.

 

“I don’t know,” Hikaru answers, “it seems to be holding up pretty well. So are you going to tell me about you guys at all, or do I have to keep imagining how awkward that is?”

 

“It’s actually not,” Jim says. “I mean, sexually frustrating, yes. Awkward… not so much. I think this might end up being status quo, which is kind of painful to think about over a five-year stretch, but he seems pretty okay with it, so I don’t want to rock that boat we were talking about. We’re comfortable around each other. Even if all I get is searing gazes and piercing honesty and the occasional non-platonic gesture, I’d rather have that than nothing.”

 

“I just can’t imagine what his searing gazes look like.”

 

“Well, I can’t imagine Pavel trying to get in anyone’s pants, so we’re still even. I would have guessed him for going after blonde Russian girls, so he’s already got me surprised.”

 

“Well, he goes for the ladies too. We both do. He’ll chase anything, though.”

 

“Man after my own heart.”

 

Jim kicks at the stone step, which feels weird after a week of walking on carpet and metal, and looks back over at Hikaru when he doesn’t say anything more. “I feel like we should have a game plan,” he says, “or like, a competition. That’s how I used to be. But I’m not—I can’t be that person anymore.” He pauses. “You know that. I don’t have to tell you that.” Hikaru’s mouth twitches into what might be a grimace. “What?”

 

“I just don’t know what to do, Jim. As much as I don’t want to give in, I don’t want to shut him down, either. And I don’t want to scare him off. And beyond those options, I don’t see much other than…” He gestures vaguely. “This. Ignoring it, or laughing it off, and being best friends the rest of the time.” He sighs. “I guess it’s not that bad.”

 

“Right,” Jim says, although he’s not totally convinced. “And I’m not going to pressure anything. I can’t.”

 

“I don’t know,” Hikaru says, his brows furrowed a little. “You both have good reasons right now to be waiting for the other to make a move. One of you is going to need to put it all out on the line, and the longer you wait to find out which way it’s going to go, the more painful it’ll be.”

 

“Why do I get the sense you aren’t going to follow the advice you just gave me?”

 

“Oh, I’m not. I’ll keep pretending it’s a joke like everybody else does. You’re a braver man than I am—not that there was every any doubt about that.”

 

“Hey,” Jim says, pitching his tone toward comfort and lifting a hand to rest it on Sulu’s shoulder, “any time you’re done needlessly beating the shit out of yourself, you know you can come spar with me and I’ll do it for you.”

 

Hikaru’s lips twist into a smile, and he looks around at the greenery and says, “It’s nice in here, isn’t it?”

 

“Yeah,” Jim agrees. “Was this one of Scotty’s wild ideas? Or did the brass send this down as a new standard-issue feature for long-range missions? It’s smart.”

 

“It was my idea, actually,” Sulu says. “And my responsibility, although I’ve already got a posse of ensigns begging to help.”

 

“Sign me up.”

 

“You’ve got enough on your plate.”

 

“Well, sign me up and I won’t be afraid to foist my duties off on someone else if I have to.”

 

“That’s my captain,” Hikaru says, and checks his chrono. “I’m going to bed. Great awkward talk, Jim. Glad we had this.”

 

“Yeah, anytime,” Jim says, and stretches his neck from side to side. “Night.”

 

Hikaru leaves, and Jim sits on the steps amid the green things for a few minutes more. It won’t be so bad, if this is what it’ll be like. If he can separate being the captain from being a friend. If sometimes he can put aside the pips on his collar, even if it means losing a little sleep.

 

***

 

They get their first formal mission the next day. The ping from Archer is pre-recorded, just a briefing and a quick, “hope you’re well,” but that’s okay because the mission is pretty straightforward: go to New Vulcan. It’s a two-day cruise, but they’re meeting an ambassador halfway there to ferry her home. As for the rest of the crew, most of them have a lot to prepare before arrival. The first day passes in a whirlwind of approvals.

 

Ostensibly, they’re heading there so the Engineering crew can help the New Vulcan Science Academy workshop an idea about efficient water recycling—a technology they’ll both be able to use. Then HQ’s research branch has gotten several of the Vulcan researchers to offer their services amending and approving the research Enterprise will be doing. It’ll be good to get external confirmation that their longitudinal studies are set up properly.

 

But Jim suspects that at its heart, this mission is just Archer’s way of pandering. On the other hand, maybe they’ve earned that. Or maybe they’re about to earn it—depending on their next heading, it could be a span of months or more before the next time they encounter a friendly Federation face.

 

The following day, he’s eyeing their Vulcan emissary speculatively, and she’s studying the control consoles of their new state-of-the-art astrometrics lab with a slight frown. Well, he amends to himself. “Friendly” might be stretching it.

 

But once he’s finished his diplomatic duty, there will be little left for him to do until they’re back aboard the ship. Scotty and Pavel are heading up the engineering; Hikaru and Nyota and Bones and Carol all have research to be checked. But Jim has opted to avoid heading a five-year study – he pitched some ideas, but left them in the database, free for the taking. His department heads all demur when he asks if any of them have discovered supply deficits. The ship will be manned by junior officers while in orbit. Senior crew are instructed to spend time on the planet. No one has to tell Jim why: here more than anywhere, it is important for them to be seen.

 

He triple-checks his schedule with the resource officer, then schedules an evening with Ambassador Selek.

 

They haven’t met in person since the day of the ceremony after the Narada, when Jim was formally given command. They haven’t had a vid chat in months. But when he sends a text-only comm, the response is so simple as to be intimate: I shall have the tea on and ready for you.

 

***

 

It isn’t hyperbolic. After a long day walking the city in the stifling heat, Jim finds himself outside the Ambassador’s door. He knocks, and the elder Spock says, “One moment,” and when he opens the door, the first thing Jim sees is a steaming teapot on the small table in the living area.

 

“Come in,” the old man says warmly. “It is pleasing to see you, old friend.”

 

“You too, Spock,” Jim says. “Turn those cooling fans off. I know full well they’re for my comfort, not yours, and I won’t have it.”

 

“I have set the temperature as I please,” Spock says. His voice is dry with a humor so rich that it surprises Jim again. They sit together on an extra-firm sofa, and cups and saucers come from a shelf beneath the surface of the table. Spock tilts his head toward Jim to confide, “The fans were difficult to procure. I refuse to let my efforts be in vain.”

 

“I know what that is,” Jim says, smiling crookedly and shaking his head. “Turning it around so that if I ask again, then I look like an asshole.”

 

“I have always found it an effective means of convincing you to cease arguing with me. If it is not so, I will simply exercise my privilege as your host to insist. It is, by the way, a unique position for me.”

 

“What, hosting?”

 

“Indeed. For much of my early life, my permanent residence was in Shi’Kahr, and even my most resilient companions were not eager to visit. Humans found Vulcan fairly inhospitable. Did you have a chance to visit, in this timeline?”

 

Jim imagines falling toward the surface of the planet. Never touching it. “No,” he says, his mouth dry, and Spock immediately bends to pour the tea. “I wish I had.”

 

“You were no exception, unfortunately. You loathed Vulcan, and you found many of our customs rather barbaric.”

 

“I don’t –” He licks his lips, but there’s nothing really to say.

 

“You are not him,” Spock says gently. “I know. And yet – in your presence, it is difficult not to think of you as a time-traveler of some sort. Simply a version of him who has yet to become the man I knew. You are so alike.” Jim can feel a tension, a forced stillness. Spock wants to reach out and touch his face. He doesn’t know how he knows that, but he does.

 

“It’s okay,” Jim says. “I can’t imagine if our places were reversed. You can—” He reaches up and presses his fingers to his own face, and Spock’s face flashes with surprise. He reaches out a strong but gnarled knuckle and brushes it across Jim’s cheek.

 

“It is true,” he says, and his voice seems strained. “You cannot imagine. I cannot make anyone understand. There are so few to whom my secret has been entrusted. You few, so young. A number of the elders, including my father and one of the councilors. But there is no way to express…” He lifts his hand again, but lets it fall before it touches Jim’s face.

 

“That, though, I do know a little about,” Jim says. “Not that specifically, obviously, just… The feeling of having experienced something that no one else has.”

 

Spock sips his tea and does not meet Jim’s eyes.

 

“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asks the wizened man. “In the other universe.”

 

“It was,” he answers quietly, folding his hands and leaning forward so that his forearms rest on his knees.

 

“I’m so sorry.”

 

“We were already old men, when it happened,” Spock says. “My Jim sacrificed everything to get me back. I am glad it did not come to that with the pair of you.”

 

“I’m glad it was me,” Jim says. “I don’t know how I could have stood it. I don’t know… what I would have done.”

 

“In my time, you did your best,” Spock says. “Your very best. But the cost was too great. I will say no more about that.”

 

Jim imagines what might be so terrible that Spock would say such a thing. He imagines the Enterprise burning, bodies falling through her gut as she tilts drunkenly through the atmosphere, yet more ripped out into the warp tunnel, thousands of people buried beneath the rubble of San Francisco, and he wants to say, The cost was already too great, but the elder Spock already knows all of this and still judges this secret on a different scale. He’s right. Jim doesn’t want to know.

 

“I have not heard from my young counterpart in some weeks,” the Ambassador says smoothly. “Tell me how these last weeks have gone for you both. I recall well how hectic life can be before launch.”

 

“Yeah, it’s been hard,” Jim answers, and he babbles for a while about the ship’s improvements. Then he says, “It would have been worse if we hadn’t done the weekend at the farm, though,” and something sparks in the old man’s eyes.

 

“You visited Iowa together?” he asks, and Jim has a moment of oh man. Either they really haven’t talked in a long time, or Spock had left that out deliberately.

 

“We had a weekend retreat for the senior crew,” Jim says. “Spock came out the week before and helped me get it habitable. It was really nice. We both needed the getaway, and there’s something about working with your hands.”

 

“A most excellent idea,” Spock says. “But if you will allow an old man his curiosity, does your family not live there?”

 

“Oh, no,” Jim says. “Mom’s on DS1, has been for years, and Sam lives on one of the outer colonies.”

 

“Ah,” Spock says, and sips at his tea.

 

“You knew my mom, in your time?”

 

“In my reality,” Spock corrects gently. “Yes. We exchanged letters, and at times when we were planetside, she would take me to dinner while Jim was busy in meetings.”

 

Jim looks down. He came here determined not to ask about the nature of Spock’s relationship with his own counterpart, but he doesn’t need to ask now. Maybe he didn’t ever really need to ask. Maybe he should have known the moment he saw the old man in the cave, saw the way he looked at Jim with no surprise. As if he had known Jim would come.

 

So instead of pressing that point, he says, “Tell me about your life here,” and Spock’s face relaxes almost imperceptibly. He talks about the noise of building, constant building; the flares of emotion at meetings and gatherings; the temperature fluctuations and ways that they are adapting to this.

 

He talks for some time about the unfamiliar animals. “Did you know that there are only twelve known specimens of Vulcan-native animal species remaining? Two domesticated sehlats, both female. A shavokh, a bird of prey—it was illegal to bring them off-planet, but this one was trained and sold to a small human colony as a hunting animal. They sent word of it to us only days after the destruction. A trade ship that left Vulcan less than a day before found several hayalit in its cargo: we have them here now, but they have not reproduced, and their lifespans are not long. And six ch'kariya, who have formed mated pairs. My mother held an irrational loathing of ch'kariya. We had sonic screening, but she frequently insisted that they were burrowing under and destroying her garden.” But he smiles now, and it is so human that Jim’s heart breaks. Six ch'kariya, and no Amanda Grayson.

 

“Of course, you have been no stranger to rebuilding,” Spock says, and there they are again.

 

They’re silent for a moment, and then Jim says. “It’s been good. We’ve been… good. I won’t deny it’s been hard. It’s been hard as hell. But I’m a better person for it. Breaking down and rebuilding, over and over again, you know…”

 

“I do know,” Spock says. “As does my counterpart, I am certain.”

 

And it keeps coming back to this. Jim finds that in some part of his mind, he has been rehearsing what he’s about to say. He doesn’t like scripting himself, but this has to be said.

 

“Look,” he says, “I want to… say something to you. Let’s stop dissembling and be honest with each other, because we both deserve that much. Let’s get it out of the way.” He doesn’t even let himself take a deep breath before plunging on. “I know that my counterpart was more than your friend. I know you want that for Spock and I. And I don’t blame you for that. I want it too. I can’t deny that. But sometimes I feel like – without meaning to, maybe – you’re sort of nudging me. Us. And I think maybe you don’t understand what we’ve already been through together.”

 

He pauses for a moment now, searching the old man’s face for signs: pain, denial, maybe that frustrating amusement. Spock merely inclines his head, a clear invitation to continue.

 

“I mean, some of it you know. He lost his planet, his mother, and we found the man responsible and I was at his side when we watched that man die. I was killed. He found the man responsible on his own and helped bring me back. But then he took me into his home. Made my health his everyday focus when things were bad. Taught me to meditate. Came with me to Iowa and kept me sane out there. Melded with me to show me Pike’s last message for me, and didn’t feel a damn shred of regret or envy or anger that this man, one of his deepest friends, spent his last moments passing on a message of love and comfort for me. He’s given me my life, Spock. He’s given me everything in it that’s worth having. I owe him everything.” Jim is aware that his voice is raw now, coursing with emotion, but he can’t stop there. “How could I possibly ask him to give me more?”

 

Spock looks directly at him when he answers, and the words nearly break him. “I see you, Jim,” he says gently. “And if we are to be honest with each other, you must finish this thought truly. You must tell me the last part of this, the words you have not spoken.”

 

Jim’s skin chills: now that it has been invoked, he knows what Spock is talking about, but it’s a thought he’d kept secret even from himself until now. “There’s no hiding from you,” he says numbly.

 

“No. Not in this matter.” Spock pauses, and when he continues, his voice is less gentle. “You must say it, Jim. You know it is not logical, but keeping it secret has kept it safe from logic. Say it. Let yourself admit it, so that you can be rid of it.”

 

It’s easier said than done.

 

***

 

When Spock finally finds the dwelling, there is silence within, but before he has summoned the resolve to raise his hand to knock, he hears a familiar voice from within, choked with emotion.

 

“Why?” Jim says, and the unruly part of Spock’s brain seems to awaken: he curses inwardly. Immediately the calm he had developed for this meeting with his counterpart has dissolved. But Jim is still talking, and Spock cannot help but hear: “Why would he give me so much? Why would he want more? And I know, you’re right, I know it’s illogical, I know he does, we’ve neither of us been subtle. But I can’t help but be afraid. It doesn’t make sense to me why he would have any interest. He knows what I am, at my worse. I’m a wreck, a fuckup, I’m a disaster waiting to happen, already happening.”

 

Spock’s arm tightens around the tin at his side and attempts to calm his warring emotions. Everything within him is saying wrong, wrong. Wrong that Jim should be talking about this with Spock’s counterpart. Wrong that Spock is listening: that he has not already made a choice to knock, or to leave and return later. Wrong that he wants to continue listening.

 

“And what is he?” Spock’s elder self asks.

 

After another moment of silence, Jim offers a stifled laugh. “Stop fishing for compliments, old man,” he says, and Spock feels blood rush to his face.

 

“Jim, I am not joking. He is no more capable of perfection than you.”

 

“But I’m,” Jim breathes, an edge to his voice. “Do you not get this? Your Jim—he had so much. A real family, a real childhood. His father. His mentors. He didn’t die when he was my age, you’ve made that clear. He—Spock, I would love to be the man you think I am, but I’m broken in so many ways.”

 

“I cannot tell you what to do, and Jim, I never would. But while I will not deny that it is not always easy for me to separate you from my Jim, you must know that by now I have learned your merits from you. I felt your mind. We have spoken and written to one another frankly. I have heard the way others speak of you. Jim, you are less different from him than you believe. You are less broken than you believe.”

 

“But,” Jim croaks, “I still. How could I ask? After everything he’s given?”

 

“Should you choose to pursue a relationship with my counterpart, you would not be asking an indulgence. You would be offering. You have as much to give as he; he has as much to gain as you. This I promise.”

 

Spock’s throat is dry, his face hot, and it is more than just the climate. But he is not embarrassed, and he is not afraid or angry. He is… a cinder. Something smoldering gently and waiting for kindling, and perhaps it is time to stop waiting.

 

He readjusts the tin of Vulcan spice tea in his arms, then turns and moves quietly away. There will be time later to see his elder counterpart, but he is not sure, now, what he will say.

 

It should be he who offers these reassurances to his captain. It doesn’t help that, in a certain sense, it is.

 

***

 

In the soft calm of the hut, Jim and the elder Spock are quiet for a while. Then Spock reaches up again and touches his face: this time with his fingerpads instead of his knuckles, pressing gently as if passing something on. He looks away, and stands with the teapot, moving carefully to the kitchen and setting it on the uneven countertop. When he looks back at Jim, his eyes are piercing. “One more thing,” he says, and his voice, too, has sharpened. “Do not strip Spock of the ability to make his own choice. You doubt if you are good enough for him? Let him be the judge of what he desires. If he does not think it worthwhile, he will say so.”

 

Jim scrubs at his face, but finds it dry. “Okay,” he says.

 

“In your own time, Jim,” Spock answers. “Let this relieve your burden, not add to it.”

 

“Thank you,” Jim whispers.

 

And the old man’s face softens once more. “Now,” he says, “tell me about your ship.” And that, at least, is easy.

Chapter Text

 

three.

 

The day they are due to leave New Vulcan, Spock finds Jim atop a mountain.

 

In truth, he would not have found the captain at all had he not used the ship’s systems to remotely track Jim’s comm signal. He is far from the main settlement, and when Spock finds him he is deep in meditation. His face is turned slightly upwards (to open his airway; Spock had taught him this), his shoulders wide (confident; vulnerable; full), his legs folded carefully beneath him (grounded without distraction). Spock kneels a few paces away and joins him wordlessly. At this altitude, there is a slight breeze, countering the heat of direct sun, and breathing is easy.

 

Spock does not expect to sink into a full and restful meditative state—expects a degree of preoccupation—but then he finds himself rising back to the world after eight-two minutes, his mind clearer and his body renewed.

 

Jim’s eyes are still closed, but he is smiling now. His rate of breath indicates that he had exited his own meditative state some time ago, but he shows no outward signs of restlessness. Spock moves to sit directly before him, and Jim inhales deeply.

 

“Thank you,” he says, and opens his eyes. “For teaching me. It keeps getting easier, and it helps so much. I almost don’t know how I lived without it.”

 

“You are most welcome.”

 

“Is it what you expected? The planet?”

 

“No. It is…” So quiet is what he thinks, so empty, so restless and sad. He does not say so, but nor does he mask his dissatisfaction. “It is inadequate. It is fortuitous that I chose as I did: I am not certain I could have lived here.” This is what honesty feels like. And instead of looking sad or stricken, Jim just nods.

 

“Yeah. It’s… they’re obviously working really hard to make something of it, but it’s not here yet. Who knows if it ever will be.”

 

“Not, I think, for me,” Spock says. “And you, Jim? What have you thought of your stay?”

 

“It’s a good reminder of why we’re out here in the first place. Newness, discovery. I…” He hesitates, and Spock wonders if he will mention the ambassador, but instead Jim looks at him softly and says, “I needed to see. To remember: sometimes you build back better. But sometimes you just pull together what you can.”

 

Spock nods. “Do you recall the grounding meditation I shared with you? The image of standing atop Mount Seleya?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“It has been fading. So I believe from now on I shall use this instead.” He gestures around with a glance, taking in the rich azure sky, the salt sand and crumbling soft stone.

 

“No,” Jim says softly. “Please—you can’t give up your mountain. You can’t let that be taken from you, too. Share it with me. I’ll keep it, I’ll help you remember.”

 

“No,” he answers. “It is just as you have said: sometimes you must accept what is before you.” Jim makes a soft sound at the back of his throat and folds himself forward, leaning against Spock, his head against Spock’s right shoulder, grasping his left forearm with one hand.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he chokes, and Spock reaches over with his own right hand and prises Jim’s away from his arm. Then he cradles it. With his left hand, he traces a light line across Jim’s palm.

 

“I am not,” he says. “Like you, there are things I have gained even in losing.” And he speaks the next slowly, looking Jim in the eyes, impressing this upon him. “Previously, I could only ever imagine myself atop the mountain. In this new vision, I have you beside me.”

 

“Yes,” Jim whispers, and Spock folds Jim’s hand onto itself, but he cannot withdraw his own hands. “Yes. Right here. Spock.” And he gasps as Spock’s fingers clench around his own: “I’m… I’m here. For whatever you want, and as long as you want.”

 

And this is more than he expected. Spock’s heart seems to expand in his chest, because Jim understands, and it is almost unbearable, the emotion he is experiencing, the intensity of feeling, the sight of the raw want in Jim’s eyes.

 

“Are we talking about this?” Jim asks. “Can we—oh, fuck, Spock, I don’t—” He pulls his hand away and clutches to Spock’s shoulders, embracing him. Spock puts his hands on Jim’s back, but it is not enough. He pulls him closer, clutches at him too, like a human child, as if he believes that Jim will slip away and be lost if he does not hold tightly enough.

 

Jim lets out a throaty laugh. “You’re shaking,” he whispers. “Do you… Do you want… something? It’s okay if you don’t. I don’t want—I mean, I don’t… need anything, I just—you—we can talk about this, we can—”

 

Spock had not known that he was afraid—how could he have failed to know?—but it is gone now, that fear, replaced by a lightness so large it burns, his chest, his lungs, he can scarcely breathe but Jim—Jim is pulling back, his hands reaching up to cradle Spock’s cheeks. “It’s all right, Spock,” he says. He is smiling, both wide and gentle. “Whatever it is, we’re here. I’m here. It’s all right. We don’t have to figure it all out at once. Please, say something, if you can.”

 

“No,” Spock says, and leans forward. His hands frame Jim’s face, and he pulls it close to his. Their lips meet, soft and deliberate, and Spock’s hands move on Jim’s jaw, pulling forward and then stroking back and pulling forward again as if to bring them even closer. Jim’s cheeks—he has felt them before, the stubble that rises so quickly after he has shaved; he uses old-fashioned razors; Spock has never asked why. Now the rough prickle is strange in a different way. It is coarse against his upper lip, the meat of his palms, fascinatingly unfamiliar. He has not imagined this.

 

When they separate, Jim moves very slowly, withdrawing enough to make eye contact. Then he folds their hands together, palm to palm. “Spock,” he whispers.

 

“Jim,” Spock says, and Jim’s face lights up. He grins, ducking his head as if embarrassed, and then looks up again quickly.

 

“Hi,” he says.

 

“Hello,” Spock answers instinctively, and Jim seems to relax at his response. He has experienced this before, the greeting after a moment of intimacy, and he hypothesizes that it represents a sense of newness to one another, but he has never been certain. This time, however, it feels natural to respond in kind. Regardless, Jim is grinning at him in a way that is not new: it is soft and comfortable and very familiar.

 

“It’s a weird human way of diffusing tension. Awkwardness,” Jim offers, and Spock’s own tension is relieved in turn. He feels… relief. Jim has read his subtle cues, understood, and explained with no defensiveness or strangeness. “So,” Jim continues. “That… was good?”

 

“Are you uncertain?” Spock asks.

 

Jim laughs, and Spock wants to card his fingers through Jim’s hair, to kiss him again with the same sweetness, to bring his face back to awe and then back to laughter again. To drive away any uncertainty, because this is good.

 

“No,” he answers, and shifts to sit next to Spock, entangling their hands. It is… more than sufficient. Spock wants to explain in precise detail what this is – that which is more than good and more than sufficient, which defies the uncertainty that has defined them both for months. He opens his mouth, then closes it again and considers. Jim twists to face him.

 

“Are you biting your lip?” he asks. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you bite your lip before. Is that... did I misunderstand?” He pulls back slightly, and Spock tightens his hand, resisting the withdrawal.

 

“I am finding it difficult to express myself,” Spock says. “But – no. You have not misunderstood.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says. “Okay, good. Well. We should probably talk about this.”

 

“Agreed.”

 

“I’m actually not sure what to say.”

 

“Nor am I.”

 

“Maybe it’s best if we remind ourselves what it is we’re talking about.”

 

This is innuendo. Spock recognizes it, and feels satisfaction. He pulls his hand from Jim’s and does almost precisely as he had imagined: turns his head, slides his fingers into Jim’s hair, and this time Jim is the one to move in and touch their lips together, his body language a battle of eagerness and shyness. But after a moment he laughs against Spock’s mouth and opens the kiss into something fiercer. He lifts a hand as if to pull Spock closer, but then lets it fall against Spock’s side, tracing it down across his oblique muscles to his hip. His other hand clasps the back of Spock’s neck so that when they separate again, it serves as fulcrum, tilting their foreheads together as they breathe.

 

“I’m still not sure what to say,” Jim whispers. “Except that you are really good at that.”

 

Spock allows himself another calming breath, and then answers softly. “There is some that must be said. Of duty: the ship must come first.”

 

“Of course,” Jim answers, his hands loosening so they can both sit upright again. “And it’s probably best we keep things between ourselves? At least until we—” He hesitates. “Until we’ve—tried this out for a bit?”

 

There is a silence. Spock recognizes it. “Hello,” he says.

 

Jim’s laugh is so wide and boisterous that Spock expects it to echo off the stones. “Is that not how it is done?” Spock asks, but it is mostly in jest. He had anticipated Jim’s response.

 

“Is that all it takes?” Jim teases. “A couple kisses and you start cracking jokes?”

 

“My inhibitions,” Spock admits, “are somewhat loosened. But humor aside: I agree with your sentiment. I would prefer to keep what is between us private, at least for the time being.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says. “Good talk. Now let’s—”

 

His comm badge chirps, and Jim groans loudly. “If we hadn’t just agreed ship first…” he murmurs, but taps his fingers against the badge. “Kirk here,” he says.

 

“Palmer here, Captain. The Vulcan elders are requesting your presence, sir. They’re ready to send us off whenever we’re ready to be sent.”

 

“Very good, Lieutenant. Mister Spock and I are atop—has this place been given a name yet, Mister Spock?”

 

“It remains unchristened,” Spock answers, enjoying the drop of Jim’s jaw at the words.

 

“On the mountain, in any case, Lieutenant,” Jim finishes somewhat lamely. “It’s at least two hours’ hike down.”

 

“If I may, Captain,” Spock interjects swiftly, “the terrain is much less forgiving for descent. Perhaps we had best allow Enterprise to beam us up, and we can arrange the rendezvous time from the ship.”

 

“Good suggestion, Commander. Lieutenant, you heard him. That’ll be two to beam up.”

 

Jim taps his comm off, and then his fingers dart out to touch Spock’s, offering a shy, deliberate caress and retreating just before the transporter beam engulfs them.

 

Spock’s senses tingle for longer than usual after he steps off the transporter pad.

 

***

 

They look crisp and composed, Spock observes, playing back the security feed from the transporter room. All he can see is perhaps a hint of humor in the captain’s eye.

 

He is not unused to pretending not to feel. Neither of them are, surely.

 

In the adjacent room, the ‘fresher units connecting their suites, Jim’s sonic is on full blast. He cannot hear anything more without entering the room. Jim sometimes hums in the sonic, sometimes taps metal and tile in percussive rhythms, usually in the morning. He realizes he is seeking reassurance, a sign of normalcy. He dons his uniform shirt and makes his way to the bridge.

 

Nyota is not on duty, but Ensign Chekov is, bent over the console with one hand in his hair, grasping tight in frustration. “Ah, nyet,” he murmers, inaudible, most likely, to the other humans on board. 0718 acknowledges Spock with a widening of his eyes, a communication that all is well.

 

The ensign at the science station is looking up at Spock expectantly. “Report,” Spock says, and the ensign relaxes.

 

“No unusual activity from any of the solar bodies; signs of more tectonic activity in the lower hemisphere. Tectonic stability has been rated higher than Earthnorm, sir, so I ordered several sensor sweeps of the area over the past four hours. We haven’t found anything unusual.”

 

“A sensible precaution. The Captain and I are returning to the surface shortly to conclude ship’s business. Continue to monitor, and keep me informed should anything arise.” He pauses. “Thank you for your prudence and initiative, ensign.”

 

“Yes, sir,” the ensign says, straightening again, and Spock turns away. Chekov has lifted his head and is looking at him.

 

“Do you have a report as well, Ensign Chekov?” he asks.

 

“Ah, no, sir,” Chekov says, turning back to his console hastily. “That is to say, all normal, sir.”

 

“Very well,” Spock says, and lingers a moment before retreating.

 

He half-expects to encounter Jim in the corridor: Jim always visits the Bridge when he can, and surely will want to do so before they return planetside. When Jim does not appear, Spock makes his way to the mess hall.

 

Nyota is sitting at a table with a steaming beverage and a PADD, and her concentration is so intense that she does not notice Spock’s approach. He sits across from her but does not interrupt. Eventually, she looks up at him and smiles.

 

“Hi,” she says. “Have you already finished with the elders?”

 

“We have not met with them yet. Once the captain is prepared, we will beam down.”

 

“I’ve just been reading some of the feedback on my comms projects. It’s incredibly insightful – much more detailed than I was expecting, given the limited time the Vulcan teams had with our documentation. I’m glad for the constructive suggestions, of course, but it’s going to take some work to adjust if I want to implement it in time to get the longitudinal impact.”

 

“You have missed this,” Spock observes. “The professional interaction involved in academic work. I had not realized.”

 

“I’m not sure that I had, either,” Nyota admits. “But it’s refreshing, to have something you built torn down and made better. Without that, I think, I’ve been stagnating. And you know me. I’d never be content with that.”

 

“No,” Spock agrees, looking down at the table and contemplating that: the impossibility of a stagnant Nyota. She makes a small, bright sound, and he looks up at her again: she is staring at him. “What is it?”

 

“You smiled,” she says. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you smile like that – unconsciously, or nearly so. I…” She trails off and gathers herself — sets down the PADD, folds her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, I know this was something we’d talked about, in the past. The way that I overemphasize your positive emotional reactions and human traits, projecting some sort of quality onto them. I know it makes you uncomfortable, and I apologize. I promise I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m trying to improve.”

 

“Such formality,” Spock says. “Nyota, your apology is appreciated for the consideration it shows, but ultimately it is unnecessary. My objection was not to your response to my emotional reactions: I have no wish to control your impulses. I took issue only with the sense that you expected and desired more of that emotionality from me.”

 

“Okay,” she answers hesitantly, and he lifts a hand to indicate a continuation.

 

“I wish for you to understand,” he says, “that even were you to persist in a behavior I found objectionable, I would persist in maintaining our friendship. Do not fear that you will drive me away. You cannot.”

 

As her face lights up again, Spock feels the currents of his emotions well up, like blood at a new wound. This will require meditation, but he is determined to absorb the feeling, rather than deflect it.

 

***

 

It’s startling how not-awkward Jim feels in the debriefing with Spock afterwards. They’re in the conference room alone together for almost two hours, hashing over the Vulcan elders’ reactions to things: the ceremonial gestures Jim hadn’t understood, the nuances Spock had caught only through being a mad detective, stated brilliantly with Spock’s classic nonchalance. And there isn’t a whiff of sexual tension.

 

Well, maybe a whiff.

 

“They communicated through eye contact with one another that they were suitably impressed with your knowledge of the importance of the mountain,” Spock says.

 

“What does ‘suitably’ mean in this case?”

 

“Primarily that they undoubtedly understood that you had a superlative teacher. However, I believe your garment also made a positive impact.”

 

Jim had chosen to wear the loose, neutral-hued Vulcan clothing he’d procured for mountain-climbing and meditation, hoping that the elders would understand it as a sign of respect rather than cultural appropriation or pandering. He’s still wearing it now, and Spock is gesturing to it calmly. Whether this is a statement of fact or a statement of fact with a built-in compliment to his appearance, Jim can’t be sure.

 

If it’s a compliment, he’s about to stomp on it by following up with a sensitive question. Good job, Jim. But there’s nothing for it. “I know you’ve talked in the past about being shown a lack of respect by the elders because of your parentage. Did you sense any of that sentiment lingering?”

 

“Emphatically no,” Spock says, “although I was prepared for it. Had I sensed it, I would not have attended the final meeting. I believe my father has made it known that the elders gathered at the Katric Arc survived thanks to my efforts.”

 

“Oh right,” Jim says, and then tilts his head. “Hang on, are you… are you bragging yourself up?”

 

Spock looks affronted. “I have made factual statements about my accomplishments. This hardly amounts to bragging.”

 

You are,” Jim says. “Okay. Write me a report for the rest of the debrief. We’re done.”

 

“Captain,” Spock said, rising quickly from his seat, brow quirked in concern.

 

“No,” Jim says, “I’m sorry, self-confidence is incredibly hot on you, and we don’t really have anything more to go over, correct me if I’m wrong.”

 

“You are… not incorrect. The remainder of my notes are noncritical, and should be on file as a planet-assessment report in any case. I will consult with our cultural experts as well.”

 

“Okay, but for now – do you want to eat? Talk?”

 

“Both are logical avenues. Neither are particularly desirable at present.”

 

“Okay. Give me half an hour to shower and change?”

 

“Certainly. I will do the same. I will expect you in my quarters in thirty minutes.” Spock makes his way to the door as Jim gathers several PADDs of notes, but pauses before the door slides open and turns back to Jim.

 

“What is it?”

 

Spock does not meet his eyes directly. “Unless you are uncomfortable in these clothes, I see no need for you to change them.”

 

The door swishes shut behind him, and Jim sinks back into his chair and scrubs both hands across his face.

 

“I am so screwed,” he mutters.

Chapter Text

 

four.

 

Twenty-seven minutes later, Jim is standing in the uncomfortably sterile lights of the shared restroom space between his quarters and Spock’s, staring at himself in the mirror. On the outside, he looks crisp and fresh and clean. His loose clothing has been sent through a refresh cycle, all of the sand and sweat of the day cleansed away, and it looks like morning. His hair is slightly damp and unstyled and smells of coconut and sun. He’s wearing a half-smile, without which he’s not certain he would recognize himself, this soft clean Jim.

 

He turns on one of the taps and cups both hands underneath the water, then leans down and presses his face into the half-filled bowl they form, rubs his fingertips across the planes of his skin once the water has splashed out, displaced.

 

Face it, kid, Bones’s voice tells him dryly. You’ve got no idea what you’re doing. And he wants to answer, I do too, but even in his imagination it sounds petulant. Imaginary Bones is right.

 

He dries his face with the hand towel and turns to the door that leads to Spock’s quarters.

 

***

 

Jim’s footsteps approach the door that separates them, then stop. Spock attempts to acknowledge and disregard the surge of frustration he feels, the somatic experience of that feeling—like a flooding of his stomach, stretching up toward his throat; like strangling a shout.

 

But why must he be the one to take this initiative, when I know he is there and am equally capable? Spock asks himself, and moves toward the door. Before he reaches it, Jim knocks. Spock has opened the door before Jim’s hand has fallen back to his side.

 

“Hey,” Jim says.

 

“Good evening.”

 

Jim’s wearing the soft, durable linen-like cloth he’d been wearing on the mountain this afternoon – light and informal and simple in its cut. His posture is suboptimal – he is slouched somewhat, and if he had been wearing jeans or a jacket, Spock is sure that his hands would be shoved in his pockets, but he does not appear unhappy. He has washed with water instead of the sonics, and a small segment of his hair at the front is tousled, as if he had toweled it without looking in the mirror afterwards. After a brief moment of consideration, Spock reaches up to smooth that section of hair and finds in himself a feeling of lightness, like surprise, when Jim does not withdraw from the touch.

 

Spock ushers Jim in and shuts the door behind him. “Can I offer you something to drink?” he asks. “Tea? Water?”

 

“No, I—” Jim clears his throat, turning around and linking their gazes again. “I’m not thirsty, but thank you.”

 

They stand there for another moment and Spock watches blood come into Jim’s face. The flush is not unattractive, particularly in this context. “I’m sorry,” Jim says, “I don’t mean to be weird, if I’m being weird. I mean, I’m usually pretty good at cutting past awkwardness. I just keep thinking I’m misunderstanding something, or that somehow this is going to all go wrong, so I’m feeling a bit less daring than my usual self.”

 

Spock crosses the room to his couch, and sits on its edge, keeping his feet flat on the ground and his posture well-aligned but attempting not to allow the stiffness that humans associate with lack of ease. “Allow me to assuage these concerns for you,” he says, and indicates the seat next to him with his eyes. Jim crosses and joins him. When he sits, his knees are close together, and he leans forward to set his elbows against them, turning to look at Spock.

 

“You worry that you are misunderstanding something?” Spock says. “I will be clear, although I ask you to return in kind.” Jim nods tightly, his eyes clear on Spock’s face. “I am physically and emotionally attracted to you. I am interested in transitioning the manner of my relationship with you on these grounds, and mutually exploring our sexual and romantic compatibility. I do not intend for such a relationship to impede either our friendship or our positive working relationship.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says, and his voice is clear, but he clears his throat nonetheless. “I… I am also attracted to you. Physically – sexually – and emotionally and the other things you said. I want to try a relationship, to see how we work together that way. Um, an exclusive relationship, unless that isn’t what you want. I know my reputation isn’t exactly –”

 

“I believe I know you better than anyone who might be speaking to me of your reputation,” Spock cuts him off, and Jim grins. The muscles of his shoulders relax, and he ducks his head for a moment, starting to look more at ease.

 

“That’s true,” he says. “I’m just – I want to be clear from the start.”

 

“A sensible precaution. Fortunately we are aligned on this matter. You had another concern, I believe? That things would ‘go wrong’? If you can elaborate, I may be able to alleviate your worry on this score as well. We have both used language indicating that we understand that our future as a romantic unit is not assured – that we have not ascertained compatibility – so I conclude your concern stems from something other than this general ambiguity.”

 

“No. Well, yes, but I don’t think it’s something you can do anything about. I have… sort of a thing about everything going wrong the minute I start to get comfortable. In all kinds of ways. So, I mean, no one can tell me that the next disaster isn’t waiting around the corner. That’s just something I’ve got to deal with.”

 

“You are always free to share your fears with me,” Spock says.

 

“Okay,” Jim says, but doesn’t go further. “That’s… all, I guess. So – you’re right. Better now that we’ve both verbalized this, and we want the same thing, and the details we can work out as we go.”

 

“I would like to save details for another time,” Spock says, and leans toward Jim, setting his fingertips on Jim’s cheek and allowing them to brush lightly down and across his lips. Jim shivers. “Are you amenable to that?”

 

“Oh yeah,” he whispers, and doesn’t wait, now, for Spock’s initiative. Now that the terms are clarified, their goals aligned, Jim presses forward with his hands and his mouth and his body at once. Their lips meet and part and meet again at a new angle, testing pressure and tension; at some future date Spock resolves to capture him for an evening and share only the slowest and most indulgent kisses, but now this is as it should be.

 

Jim’s hands are exploring the muscles of Spock’s chest and arms: slipping outward across the pectorals, clutching the bicep with his fingers firm and sure, tracing along the tricep from midpoint to elbow and back again. Spock keeps his touch nearer to Jim’s face, but tries to maintain a sense of deliberation in his action, not to allow himself to become the almost-predatory instinctive creature he knows himself capable of becoming when unseated by… this. Lust, or lust and something else. Lust and… whatever lust is when it is also Vulcan. The word escapes him. Unusual; acceptable at present. He uses the gentle pressure of his thumb and forefinger to massage the tense muscles along Jim’s neck, from shoulder to the base of his skull and back.

 

After a few moments, Jim draws back slightly and lifts his fingers to Spock’s face, framing it with palms flat against his cheeks. “Shut up,” he whispers.

 

“I am not—”

 

“You’re thinking pretty hard,” Jim cuts him off, his voice both gentle and humorous, “which is very you, and normally I wouldn’t tell you to do something un-you-like, but I don’t want you to miss out on right here. Trust me, right here is a really nice place to be.”

 

“There is nowhere I would prefer to be,” Spock says, and reinitiates their contact, pressing his lips against Jim’s in a kiss that feels almost chaste, with their hands on one another’s faces. And as they kiss, he tries to keep himself from launching on to a refutation of the sentiment he has just expressed, because the nowhere is a statement of an absolute, something from which he would normally refrain. Regardless, it is either true or near enough, because there is little that arises in his mind to counter the thought. But he does allow two images into his mind, to be acknowledged: the house in Iowa, and his mother’s garden on Vulcan. And then he wonders if his elder counterpart and the James Kirk of that world had ever kissed in that garden.

 

And then Jim lets out a low growl and fresh blood flows to Spock’s groin so quickly it nearly leaves him lightheaded.

 

All at once, his nebulous wants become more concrete. He wants this body touching his, sweaty and naked sprawled out on his bedsheets. He wants to claim it with penetration, wants to thrust roughly but find Jim eager and ready for him. But then, at the same time, he knows he wants also to be claimed: laid out and vulnerable with Jim asserting himself. Wants to be torn apart with want, because he is certain that if Jim Kirk is anything in bed, he is a vicious tease. He wants to be held down with a strength to match his, lovingly mocked with a tongue on his ear, on his hip, his knee, his throat, everywhere but the places that most want it.

 

He wants all this so suddenly that he does not know what to do, how to move, how to behave. The image he sees of himself, in his imagination: this is not how he has been, who he has been, in his past sexual experiences. And yet he is certain that he wants it.

 

He draws Jim off the couch and they stand and kiss for a moment, their arms wrapping around each other. Jim’s hands slide down to Spock’s buttocks, and he grasps at them, pulling Spock’s whole body up against his. He draws a sharp, involuntary breath as they collide. Jim holds him there for a moment, and there is no mistaking either of their erections, even through the layers of loose cloth.

 

“Your assertion is correct,” Spock whispers in Jim’s ear. “’Right here’ is superlative. I will gladly refocus my attentions.” He reaches down, finds the soft hem of Jim’s shirt, and tugs upwards.

 

“Holy shit,” Jim breathes. “Okay. Catching up.”

 

“Was this not your intention?”

 

“No,” he says, but before Spock can withdraw, “I – yes, it’s good, less clothes is good,” and the last word lifts into a soft whine as Spock’s hands skim between his tunic and the sleeveless undershirt beneath, lifting the first but not the second over Jim’s head and discarding it carelessly on the floor, then winding his fingers into the hem of the undershirt. He knows that he is mesmerized – he finds that his mouth is half-open in concentration, which happens so rarely he could count the instances, were he not otherwise distracted. “Oh, fuck, Spock,” Jim whispers, “I want your mouth back, been thinking about kissing you since, I don’t even—”

 

He lifts his attention back to Jim’s face, which is flushed, his mouth also hanging open as if he’s forgotten what to do with it, but he hasn’t – he slips forward again and frames Spock’s face between his hands and nips gently at his lower lip, then nuzzles up to seal their lips together. Their bodies move energetically, kissing at clashing angles; Jim’s hands slide into Spock’s hair and he feels such a pressure of emotion in his chest that he almost has to pull back. Jim’s fingers are cautious across the planes of his scalp, not mussing his hair but carding into it, slicing through it.

 

“When?” he whispers. It’s imprecise, but he won’t spare the breath on more words.

 

It occurs to him once he’s asked that he doesn’t know the answer for himself. How long has he wanted to do this? To dive into Jim’s body like a grotto pool until he hasn’t the breath for words? Jim’s attraction, or at least his awareness of his attraction, had likely come earlier than his own; he is freer with his emotions, after all. What will he say if Jim admits he wanted this since the moment they met, since Spock stood and straightened his tunic with careful dignity in the academic hearing? In a spacious auditorium full of light and a sea of cadets, most of whom are dead now. And that room in a building that no longer exists, on a campus that no longer exists…

 

“Right now,” Jim breathes, hitching an extra inch of height to nuzzle against Spock’s cheek. “Doesn’t matter when.”

 

And he is correct, of course. The timeline is immaterial. There is only what is at hand. Vulcan philosophy, coming pure and honest from the beautiful, cheeky human in front of him. He should not have to be reminded of now. Now… now is superlative.

 

Once he has centered himself, begun to truly inhabit the present, Spock finds the source of his distraction is his arousal, and his fear of his arousal, and there will be no more fear in this room. He presses his hips to Jim’s, circles an arm around him and walks him backwards until his legs are against the bed, and gives a gentle push. Jim sits. Spock climbs atop him, straddling his legs, and lifts his face up with his fingertips. Jim’s hands come to Spock’s hips for support; they grasp, they stroke, they slide. Spock offers a kiss that is soft but secure, pressure and wetness, and lets his hands drop away from Jim’s face and down toward the surface of the bed, then reaches again for his pants.

 

And there is a difference. Jim’s hands have moved so quickly Spock barely perceived it, although he’s drunk on lust right now; his senses are perhaps not to be trusted. Jim’s hands are clasping both of Spock’s with an unexpected strength, and his eyes are locked to Spock’s face as securely as their mouths were a moment ago – pressure, softness – and there is no anger, no regret or sadness, so the fear does not return, but Jim’s lips part and he laughs through a smile.

 

“You,” he whispers, “are so eager, and I… wasn’t expecting that. And it makes me incredibly hard—” He releases Spock’s hands, but then takes one and guides it gently along its former trajectory, setting it against his erection to demonstrate the truth of his words. It is as he said—fully erect, likely almost painfully so, and Spock takes advantage of the proximity to let his fingers trail up the shaft. Then, when Jim responds positively with a smooth inhalation and a flutter of his eyelids, he lets his fingers grasp through the layers of fabric and slides his thumb across the head. Smooth inhalation gives way to a shuddery gasp, and Jim is rendered dumb for a moment, half-fallen back to rest on one elbow in the already-tangling bedclothes. Spock slips his hand back into Jim’s grasp, and the fingers intertwine tightly around his own.

 

“But?” he asks, and he makes sure to inject the same softness into his gaze as Jim had a moment before. Still, Jim looks embarrassed – beyond just the redness in his cheeks – and Spock brushes his thumb against Jim’s cheekbone. This must be safe; there must be no fear.

 

“I’m so used to jumping into bed,” Jim whispers, and sits up, cradling Spock’s hips again and looking up at him. He looks like a figure from a painting, with his hair a halo around him and his cheeks flushed and so many things in his eyes. “It’s easy for me. I don’t have any hangups about my body, and I like sex, so I just…” He exhales sharply through his nose, like he’s laughing, and ducks his head for a moment. “What I’ve never done,” he says, and lifts his head again, meeting Spock’s eyes with such a sharpness in them that it’s almost triumphal, “is take things slow.” He seals that word with a kiss to match it, languorous and lush, and Spock can’t decide if he should close his eyes or keep them open but he’s closed them without intention. Jim’s hands start at his shoulders and slip down both arms, pushing against the muscle; he slides up so that they’re both kneeling on the bed, face to face, and wraps his arms around Spock’s waist and then tucks their heads together. They hold that way for several moments, and then Jim murmurs, “I understand now why people want that. I didn’t understand before. If we… we could savor this.”

 

Then he pulls back, his liquid eyes serious and strong. “But that’s not just my decision to make. If you don’t want to try the slow road, we can rewind and – and pants off, and whatever you had planned for me in that moment. Because I’m willing. I don’t want you to think I’m not… ready, or something. But I just thought… it might be worth a try.”

 

Spock answers by pulling Jim back into the embrace: both of them kneeling on the bed, their arms tucked around one another, their heads on each other’s shoulders, and then lifts back for a slow kiss of his own. With the kiss, he says: I acknowledge you. He says, I, too, understand. He says, This is not like any other.

 

After the kiss, he says, “Yes, Jim. I accept your proposition. If it is agreeable, I shall leave the terms to you: I will accept as much as you are willing to give, whenever you wish to give it.”

 

And what Jim wishes to give first is a smile like a mountain in the sun, luminous and lasting. He says, “Thank you,” softly, and Spock can see without touching how deeply Jim means it.

 

He lifts a hand to Jim’s face, cupping a cheek, and Jim turns his face into it and presses a kiss on the meaty flesh of his palm, and Spock answers, “You are most welcome,” and it is deeply true.

Chapter Text

Jim had been the one to suggest they keep things quiet, but within moments of returning to his own quarters, he's second-guessing himself. He feels as if he's accomplished something, and he wants to tell absolutely everyone. The feeling is disconcerting. He's never been one to kiss and tell. Okay, no, he has, but that was always different.

He wants affirmation. That's something that Spock has told him is okay, that he shouldn't be ashamed of, but right now he wants it so much it hurts. He wants someone to congratulate him, and ultimately, even if he hadn't asked Spock that they keep this private, he's not sure who he would go to for congratulations right now. Bones practically wrings his hands anytime Jim mentions Spock; he would administer gentle warnings and slightly less gentle xenophobic remarks, which never help anything and certainly wouldn’t be the ringing endorsement Jim is looking for right now. He could never go to Nyota with this, although he knows she probably would - will - be happy for them - but it would feel like boasting. And Sulu would understand, but he wouldn't know what to say, or at least the imaginary construct of Sulu in Jim’s imagination wouldn’t.

Pike might have congratulated him, although Jim wouldn't have told him either, but he'd probably have figured it out on his own. He'd have told Jim not to fuck this up, wryly, without malice.

So Jim opens his console, types "DON'T FUCK THIS UP" in his calendar reminders, and sets it to 0600. It’s the best he can do for now.

***

Spock’s meditation that night is of questionable quality: perhaps predictably, he has been unable to separate his thoughts from his emotions for long enough to parse either. Eventually, he dresses in his blues and makes his way to the mess.

The ship is never completely silent. There are hums and chirps and whispers of air, always, if one listens for them. The noises remind Spock of summer in Riverside, the wind and crickets and the rustle of clothing in the next room and his own quiet breaths.

And the mess - the mess is never completely empty. Spock is grateful for this. How human it is, to find this functional space, no matter your hunger, to be comforted by its domesticity, to come together in the hours when those off-duty are expected to be sleeping, and to share the quiet space.

There are four crew members present when he arrives: one poring over a PADD, two at a small table in the far corner involved in quiet conversation, and the fourth looking at him with such wide eyes that one might have thought him a child caught doing something forbidden.

“Captain,” he says, and several admonishments enter his mind — Jim should be sleeping; Jim’s shift begins in only a few hours — but none are appropriate. After all, he, too, is here. Now.

“Spock,” Jim says, his expression relaxing. “This is a bit early even for you, isn’t it?”

“Affirmative,” Spock answers, moving to the counter and pouring himself hot water for tea. “Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, when I am scheduled for Alpha shift, I begin my morning activities at 0600.”

“However…?” Jim prompts.

“Extenuating circumstances are in play in this instance.”

“Fair enough. I guess I’m not one to talk, since I beat you down here.”

Spock thinks about countering that ‘beat’ implies competition, which traditionally requires the awareness of any participants in said competition, but instead merely quirks an eyebrow. This elicits the desired response from Jim — a wide smile and a slightly sheepish duck of his head. Spock sits across the table from his captain and curls both hands around his mug. Jim does the same, still smiling.

“What do we have on docket today?” he asks.

“Your PADD has the same capability to access the ship’s schedule as does my own.”

“Right, but I know you, you don’t need to look at your PADD. You’ve already memorized your schedule for the day.”

He is correct, of course. “As you are doubtless aware, we are both assigned to Alpha shift on the bridge, where I anticipate we will be separately engaged in reviewing crew reports and responding to messages. Senior crew briefing at 1100 to discuss the feedback on the longitudinal studies and ensure adequate controls are set, after which Doctor M’Benga and I will assist Doctor McCoy with an analysis of Vulcan skin cells that he gathered while on-planet. Although unscheduled, I expect word from the admiralty around 1400 this afternoon regarding our next directive; presently we have a heading, but no mission or situational context; such a message would doubtless provide an avenue for research. Should such a message fail to arrive, I will spend the remainder of the shift writing a protocol for my department to perform monthly simulations of stress testing on the environmental control system.”

“Elaborate on the skin cells.”

“Doctor McCoy is concerned about the possibility that the atmosphere of New Vulcan may not fully protect against ultraviolet C. The habitable regions of the planet seem to be lacking in a certain type of microorganism that is considered expected to be present in any class-M planetary ecosystem. Although the elders and our own ecologists assured him that any more than a negligible presence of ultraviolet C would have been discovered by the initial habitability surveys, the Vulcan elders provided a wide array of samples of skin cells to allow him to test for damage or degradation.” Spock pauses. “I admit that I had not expected the elders to take such a step. Doctor McCoy’s hypothesis most certainly does not meet the rigorous standards of hypothesis development that were enforced by the Vulcan Science Academy.”

“They probably figured it couldn’t hurt,” Jim says gently.

“From the Vulcan perspective, I would have expected it to be considered a waste of resources. They spent several hours gathering and documenting the samples.”

“Are they worried about the missing microorganism?”

“It is not missing,” Spock clarifies. “There is no law of evolution that would require such a creature to exist in a given environment. The connection exists in strong correlation only: class-M environments tend to have sixteen identifiable common eukaryote subtypes. For example, the Terran vole shares many basic characteristics with the Vulcan’s hayalit, Capella IV’s gossamer mouse, the ambori of Eminiar—”

“Right, right, I know this part. Skip ahead.”

“As you have doubtless surmised, New Vulcan has fifteen of them, inasmuch as we can tell. The sixteenth type is a particularly hardy waterborne parasite with a lengthy spore phase. But evolution makes no promises. It may simply be that none of the evolutionary processes on the planet have resulted in such a creature.”

“Mmm. Okay. I have more questions, but I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t thought of. Let me know how that goes.”

Spock stores this without external comment, but he is struck by the certainty that this attitude is a new development. “Of course, Captain. I am certain Doctor McCoy will make a full report.” He sips his tea, which has cooled to a comfortable temperature. “What are your plans for the day?”

Jim picks up his PADD, obviously navigating to his calendar, and then flushes. “Uhh, I haven’t really scheduled it yet. I’ve got such a long to-do list, I sort of just tackle whatever feels most important. So yeah, probably paperwork this morning, the crew meeting at 11, finishing my recommendations for the water recycling tech, which honestly just consists of writing “yeah do it” in formal language. I have a one-on-one with Giotto after shift, we’re doing that once a week for now, and I’m also submitting a request to Starfleet to create a new position on Ops — head of inventory management. They’re going to want that in recommendation format too — I’ll have to set up some arbitrary guideline, missions lasting more than one Terran year or spending more than three months at a time in deep space should have one crew member for each two hundred dedicated to inventory management, blah blah blah. But if we do get a mission brief today, and I hope you’re right on that, I’ll have a lot of reading to do.” He puts his PADD down, screen side down, his cheeks still light pink. “Am I missing anything?”

“Recreation,” Spock says.

“Well then,” Jim says, “how about a game of chess? My quarters, 2100?”

“Acceptable.”

***

Spock is right, of course — they get their mission briefing at 1440, and it’s not exactly what Jim had expected. Two weeks crossing dead space to reach a sparsely inhabited but long warp-capable planet that was flagged by a previous Starfleet crew as a potential source of tritanium ore. They’ll do the diplomacy song-and-dance, and if all goes well, spend a couple days mapping resources and gathering what intel they can about the surrounding region before moving on to a moon outpost in the next system, and then another planet of interest two light-years past it. In fact, the whole region has been surveyed before, albeit superficially — their job is just the follow-up runs. He almost tells Archer they don’t need the fluff, they’re ready, but thinks that message would convey exactly the opposite. No, I can be a good soldier, he tells himself. Fall into step. Don’t ask questions.

It chafes.

Spock, sitting across from Jim and rolling Jim’s bishop between his fingers musingly, is not afraid to counter him. “Perhaps we can make good use of the time,” he says in response to Jim’s halfhearted complaints, and okay, yes, Jim has had that thought too today, more than once, but he didn’t want to be the one to say it, didn’t want to sound overeager, which is silly because isn’t Jim himself the only reason Spock isn’t naked in his bed right now?

He decides to tease. “You’re right,” he says, straightening in his chair. “There’s a lot of work to be done. I need to cross train on all the ship’s systems, and I’m sure you can get a head start on your research projects.” Spock frowns slightly and tilts his head in acknowledgement, and Jim smirks and leans across the chess board to kiss him. Spock’s eyes flutter shut at the contact, and after a few seconds, Jim leans back. “It’s no fun to tease you if you just agree with the ridiculous things I’m saying, Spock.”

“Neither of the ideas you proposed were ridiculous, particularly in light of our agreement that the ship must come first,” Spock points out.

“Ridiculously obtuse, at least,” Jim says.

“Then you did understand my innuendo,” Spock says.

“I’ve read innuendo into everything you said today,” Jim says. “Even, like, ‘Systems performing within normal parameters,’. I’ve just basically been thinking about you all day in ways unbefitting a senior officer. If I ever do read innuendo where you didn’t intend any, please don’t feel obligated to go along with me.”

“Rest assured I would not respond to such advances out of a sense of obligation.”

Jim feels his eyebrows doing funny things and tries to stop them. He has to remind himself that this is not a bad time for lust, precisely - he’s become so habituated to thinking of ice planets and crossing his legs to hide any stirrings of arousal and so on - but at the same time, maybe if he wants to take things slow he shouldn’t knock the chessboard over and straddle Spock’s lap and grind helplessly against him right now.

And why again do I want to take things slow? he thinks, half-wild, but then answers himself more seriously than he would have thought himself capable at the moment: Because I’m hoping not to have another chance at this. I’m hoping this is it. And I’d rather regret begin too careful than regret not being careful enough.

Well fuck. Okay, Responsible Jim, you win. So instead of knocking over the chessboard, he leans over again, stills Spock’s hands with his own folding over them, and nuzzles in for another kiss. Spock makes a soft sound that Jim interprets as want and satisfaction, and he echoes it, bundling them into his softness and slowness and care when he presses their lips together, shifting and moving and then, after a moment, opening his mouth enough for a gentle press of tongue, at which Spock’s hands twitch inside Jim’s grasp.

“So we’ve got a couple weeks to practice that,” Jim murmurs, letting his hands slip away. “Yeah, I’m okay with that.” He leans back into his chair and tries to refocus on the board, but now his ambition has migrated. Now all of his ideas involve ways to end the game quickly, none of which result in winning when Spock is the opponent. He lifts his eyes and finds Spock twirling his bishop again.

“I’ve forgotten whose turn it is,” he says.

“Shall I remind you?” Spock asks. “Or…” He pauses. When he continues his alternative is soft, but sensible instead of sensual. “Shall we retire? I believe we are both operating on fewer hours of sleep than we prefer.”

“Ah, and you want to win when I can’t blame it on being sleepy,” Jim says. “Yeah, that’s the better idea, I’m sure. Take it back up tomorrow night?” He stands, and Spock follows suit, folding his hands behind his back in that most Spocklike way. Jim starts tidying, leaving the board as it is but gathering their cups and his PADDs and sliding in the chairs and straightening their backs.

“The night following, perhaps,” Spock says. “Tomorrow I anticipate I will be occupied in the labs until 2300 at earliest.”

I’ll bring him a thermos of tea, Jim thinks, of Spock’s Blend 2.0, or something new, and is pleased with himself for a moment before realizing that’s probably not the sort of thing captains do for their first officers, and therefore that he shouldn’t do it publicly. People will talk. At best, he can have a mug waiting when Spock gets back.

“Okay,” he says, and although his first instinct was disappointment, it actually is okay. “That works out, I didn’t finish the inventory management position proposal today — decided I wanted to do the actual research rather than just throwing numbers together — so that’ll probably take the better part of the evening anyway.”

“Very good, Jim.” Spock pauses, and Jim looks back around at him and lets a smile curl on his face with only the slightest sliver of self-consciousness. Once he’s looking, he can’t help himself — in the familiar frame of Spock’s body, the tilt of his head, the turn of his eyes, he can see hints that Spock is just as lost as he is in navigating this new space between them. He steps across the space between them and tucks his head against Spock’s shoulder, pressing his lips into his uniform shirt, and feels the slight uncoiling of both of their bodies at the relief of contact. Spock places a hand on Jim’s elbow as if bolstering him.

“It is very good,” Jim says, not bothering to lift his head away from the fabric. “Okay. I’ll see you on shift tomorrow. Sleep well.”

“And you,” Spock says, and leaves.

***

Spock finds almost immediately that the closer he grows to the Captain on their personal time, the more distance he finds them both cultivating in public. Jim is careful not to touch — too careful; he has never been conscious of personal-space boundaries before; he has always been clapping hands on shoulders and accidentally nudging feet under the table as his own bounce and smiling — smiling in a way that seems to penetrate Spock’s personal space — this is illogical but it is so; how had he ever denied to himself that he loved Jim?

Jim is not the only one initiating distance, however. Spock spends more time in the labs, and when he is on the bridge, he is conscious that his demeanor is — Nyota would say cooler, although the association between intimacy and temperature has never felt entirely right to Spock. Temperature is measurable. Still, he maintains a physical distance and keeps his conversations professional and to the point.

And their sixth day into the two weeks of travel, Nyota does say “cooler”, and much more. She meets him that evening once they are both off-shift, encountering him in the mess hall in a way he would have thought by chance if not for her determination to sit with him at an out-of-the-way table.

“If you’re trying to be circumspect,” she says as soon as they’re both sitting, digging her fork into a bowl whose contents are indistinguishable to Spock, “it’s not working.”

“I am not certain that I take your meaning,” Spock says.

“I’m on comms, okay,” Nyota says. “I don’t ever spy on crew members’ personal messages, but there are a few channels for public communications, and one of them has basically turned into a gossip line.”

“As head of communications, I would have expected you to shut down such a channel.” He says this because it feels like the thing he should say, but in truth Spock is unable to follow the things she has said, or to predict the avenue of their conclusion. It is most unsettling.

“The crew would just create another. Besides, it’s not active enough to be a major distraction from their work. It’s good for morale. Some of the newest crew members are using it to arrange social gatherings amongst themselves, and as long as Gerry and I have an eye on it, I don’t see why it should be a problem. Besides, it helps me keep up with what the crew’s thinking about, which is what I’m here to talk to you about.”

Spock quirks a brow at her.

“The junior crew in particular have noticed that you and Jim are barely talking to each other. They think there’s something you aren’t telling us about the upcoming mission, but I was on the call with the Admiral, I know it’s a milk run. But I’ve been on the bridge too, and sometimes I half-expect to see icicles growing on the panels. Don’t quip at me about the environmental controls malfunctioning.”

Spock does not.

“Whatever’s going on, you’ve got to find a way to make it invisible. Or go public, if it’s that sort of a going-on, and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can’t imagine the Admiral wouldn’t sign off. Anyway, that’s not my business. Getting the crew to stop gossiping — well, that’s not exactly my business either, but you could make a case for it.”

“The communications officers’ duties do not include managing gossip,” Spock says.

“Don’t they, though?” she asks, and takes another bite of her — Spock decides it is best termed a stew. He stares at her as she chews.

“I will inform the captain that a perceived shift in our behavior has affected morale.”

“Perceived, my ass. You don’t have to tell me what’s going on, but it’s not like you to pretend the answer is ‘nothing’.”

“I pretend no such thing. But the crew would be wise not to read overmuch into the interpersonal relationships of others aboard. Particularly when one of the parties is a species with which they are little familiar.” Nyota looks stricken, and he softens; sets a hand on hers. “I did not intend for that statement and its implications to apply to you, Nyota.”

“When it’s your highest-ranking officers, it’s hard not to read into their behavior. Your life may depend on it.”

“True. I am sorry to have been a source of distress for the crew. I will meditate on how best to resolve this.”

“If I could make a recommendation?” Nyota asks, and Spock nods, relieved that she has offered this. “Just do something public, if you can. And friendly — noncompetitive, I should say. Attend a crew gathering, have dinner together. Something of that sort. And…” she hesitates. “Do you want to pass this on to Jim, or should I?”

“I shall,” Spock says, and sees something in the tightness of her shoulders release. She is relieved.

***

Jim, of course, is horrified. “I didn’t think it was that bad!” he said, his voice unnecessarily hushed, somewhere between a whine and a wail. Spock had found the message board of which Nyota had spoken, and had chosen to share the news in that way rather than cite their communications officer, which he thinks Jim might find a humiliation too far on the professional front. Jim continues to talk, pacing behind Spock’s chair as Spock sits at his console, the message board on display. “I mean, I knew it was a little weird, of course, but I thought that was just us. I didn’t think anyone else would notice. I mean, why are they paying so much attention to our personal space norms, anyway?”

“We are their superior officers. It should not surprise us that they pay us close attention.”

“But this close?” Jim says, and flops onto Spock’s sofa. “I don’t know. I guess maybe I didn’t realized how obvious it would be if we… I don’t know. Whatever it is we’ve been doing. But it has been both of us, right? This wasn’t just me being weird?”

“Both of us have been behaving differently towards one another in public. I shared your belief that it would go unnoticed, or at least unremarked-upon.”

“But so we’d both made this decision. To back off when we were on shift.” Spock acknowledges the statement with a slight nod, and Jim throws his head back against the cushions. “I just — I was worried about getting distracted on shift. I thought, okay, now that we’re, like, actually making time to be close to one another in the evenings, I should just focus on the ship when I’m on shift and try to get more done so that the evenings could be ours. And I thought it was working, too.”

“Your efficiency had improved thirteen percent,” Spock says solemnly, and after a moment admits, “and my own by at least four percent.”

Jim looks up again, bemused. “Was I really spending thirteen percent of my time gawking at you before this?”

“Obviously not. However, it has been the case that your attention has been less prone to wandering this week, and you have been proactive about managing reports and other duties that tend to infringe upon your evenings.” Spock stands from his chair and settles beside Jim on the sofa. “The effort has not gone unnoticed. But it seems the crew prefers you ‘a little absent-minded’.”

“Next time we look up ship’s gossip about ourselves, can I have you anonymize it first?” Jim asks, twining his fingers into Spock’s. “I’ve decided I’d rather not know who thinks I’m a dreamboat and who thinks I’m a man-child.”

“I will take it into consideration,” Spock says. “Meanwhile, am I accurate in concluding that we are resolved to revert to our previous patterns of public behavior?”

“Yeah,” Jim says. “I’m okay with looking at your face a little more often. And maybe I can still keep a little bit of that thirteen percent efficiency. You’ll have to let me know how I’m doing on that.”

“Not only eye contact, Jim,” Spock says. “Several crew members have made note of the absence of your touch.”

“So I’ll have to touch you again, hm?” Jim murmurs, and slides closer on the couch, then pushes himself up onto his knees and straddles Spock’s lap. His hands come up, his thumbs tracing outwards along Spock’s jaw as he pushes in for a kiss, his head tilted so that their faces, noses, cheeks do not touch until their lips have touched, and it is a slow sliding into one another, slotting together in a way that belongs.

“Yes,” Spock says, and is aware his voice has gone dark and husky. His eyes have closed; he opens them again to look into Jim’s face. He sets his hands on Jim’s thighs as if to balance them. Or to anchor them. Here. Stay here.

“I don’t mind having to touch you,” Jim whispers. “I like it.”

“Yes,” Spock says, and he means, The feeling is mutual, but he knows that Jim understands that. He slides his hands to Jim’s waist and Jim accepts the invitation for another kiss, pressing their lips together like it’s what he’s made for, leaning his body in until his weight is pinning Spock down, and Spock does not know, now, if he is trapped or if he could maneuver his way out if he wished. He does not wish. This is Jim atop a mountain, as it is in his meditation — Jim high and free.

“Maybe,” Jim says, conspiratorial, “we could fight.” He says it in a tone that implies a private joke, but Spock is pulled out of the reverie of the body by the words, feeling slow. After a moment spent determining that he is not forgetting a reference to something he ought to know, he raises a brow, indicating question — elaboration — intrigue. Jim shifts back slightly, swoops in for another kiss, and grins.

“So,” he says, “if we just go back to normal, what happens then? The crew will notice, sure, but they’re not going to forget the weirdness. So instead of just hopping back to normal, what if we play into their narrative and make the end of our disagreement just public enough to give them a sense of resolution?”

“Playacting, in a sense.”

“Absolutely. Bones and Nyota might see through it, maybe Sulu, but they won’t know what’s actually going on. And as long as we pick a good topic for the argument, we should be able to make it convincing. Or,” Jim says, looking thoughtful in the sort of way that always sparks slight alarm in the more reactive parts of Spock’s mind, “do we have anything we need to actually fight about? I know you aren’t a fan of lying, maybe we could make it easier on ourselves by having a real fight. Get it out of the way. Kill two birds with one stone.”

“Your choice of metaphor is unsettling.”

“Well? What do we have to fight about?”

“Your insistence on joining away missions,” Spock suggests. Jim wrinkles his nose.

“Okay, flaw in the have-a-real-fight plan,” he says. “It would have to be something we could resolve. I’m not about to concede the landing-party fight in front of the crew, and neither are you.”

“What if,” Spock says, “instead of ending our feud with a verbal confrontation, we do so with a physical one? A sparring match, in the gymnasium.”

“It would have to be public,” Jim says, and snaps his fingers. “Got it. We find a group who have the space reserved and ask them to move it. Someone will gossip, they’ll check the schedule, and it’ll say something curt like ‘Kirk v Spock’.”

“Overdramatic,” Spock says, “but effective. The boldest, perhaps, will find excuses to be present, but there will also be an access issue on that day that will cause all terminals to be able to view live security footage from public spaces.”

“Will there now?”

“One of us will have to have words with Engineering and Security afterwards.”

“Maybe both of us.”

“Indeed, as our outrage will be mutual, it is only logical that we should express it together.”

***

Within twelve hours, Bones has stalked into his ready room, standing with his arms crossed until Jim looks up from his paperwork and raises his eyebrows.

“Yes, Doctor?”

“Don’t you yes-doctor me, Jim, what’s this I hear about you starting a cage-fighting outlet?”

“I’m what now?”

“As your doctor, I encourage participation in sports, but recreational bodily harm is not what I had in mind for you.”

“I’m not starting anything,” Jim says, “I’m just having a sparring match. One-time thing. No outlets. Also no cage. And no bodily harm, for that matter - we’re professionals; we both know how and where to hit without doing any major damage.”

“I do not like the word ‘major’ in that sentence,” Bones says.

“Look, all I mean is, it’s not something for you to worry about.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Look, if you trust us that little, send one of the nurses to watch. Or come down yourself, I guess.”

“I don’t have the time to watch you get your ass handed to you,” Bones grumbles.

“Good thing I’m not going to lose, then,” Jim says, and ushers the good doctor out with his winningest smile. This is going to be fun.

Chapter Text

 

six.

 

The Enterprise is not a small ship. In her current configuration, she’s designed for a crew of four hundred thirty, most with private quarters. At any given time, between one-fifth and one-fourth of these are on duty. She could get by, in the short term, with only a tenth of that complement, provided the distribution of skills was optimal.

 

On the morning of the match, Spock has taken the total number of crew members on duty, subtracted the number of individuals who have tapped into the security-video livestream in the past thirty minutes, and become concerned that their attempt to restore crew morale may actually end in shipwide disaster. Of particular concern are the individuals repeatedly checking the status of the livestream who are on duty at a work station that does not include a console.

 

Surely, he finds himself thinking, this knowledge is the cause of the tightness in his abdomen, the unusual dryness of his mouth, the feeling of not being entirely settled in his own body.

 

Of course, he knows this thought is an excuse, almost a lie — a grossly inaccurate representation of events. A willful misinterpretation of what his body has very clearly told him. The source of his agitation is clear, and even Vulcan-raised as he was, with his decades of training in control and suppression and diffusion of emotions, there is no dispelling this.

 

They’ve talked through the mechanics a half-dozen times. They’ll start with a verbal establishment of rules: no targeting of head or groin. The match would end one of three ways: a ten-second pin, a yield, or an intervention from one of the two nurses Bones was sending. The latter outcome is the least likely, however. Even with his advantages, it would be take effort for Jim to do Spock such damage that an intervention would be needed. And Spock doesn’t intend to let things go this far. Although they have not discussed it, he knows what the outcome of the fight must be. Jim must win, for the sake of crew morale.

 

He examines the sensations of his own body again, each signaling a fight-or-flight response in the making. The defined thud of his heart. The feeling like hunger in his belly. The buzzing sensation in his extremities, as if they are preparing for takeoff; the urge towards motion is almost unbearable, but he resists. He recognizes, of course, the hallmarks of anticipatory anxiety. The match is to begin in twelve minutes.

 

And in his mind, the fight has become something more. He imagines his own body pressing against Jim's, Jim straddling his hips, holding his hands above his head and rolling his hips; he imagines short, quiet puffs of breath and a gentle finger on his cheek. He imagines their secret laid bare for the whole crew, and experiences an unexpected jolt of sensation with that vision. Something not unlike pleasure, something luminous, stars sharply in focus. And for safety’s sake, he cannot be so compromised, cannot allow this risk at this moment. No matter how infallible some of them may see him, there is always the danger that his logic will fail - more than any human because of the fire in his Vulcan blood; more than any Vulcan because of his half-human mind. A simple touch, a split-second of sentiment, could sabotage him now. So as he pulls his body upright to stand, he initiates a meditative state.

 

He had studied kolinahr, of course, but this could scarcely be compared. He is no more capable of purging his own emotions on a whim than are any of his human counterparts: such mastery takes years, and he is no master. But he can… walk away from them. Lock the rooms inside his mind that house them, and leave himself in the desert without. For a short time. He has done so rarely. Better, always, to meditate, experience and process the emotions, to understand them and categorize their usefulness and act accordingly, if at all. And so he has done this only in times of need, when retreat is both the only option and not an option at all.

 

He is standing. It is time to move.

 

He exits his room. He walks to the turbolift. He exits the turbolift. He passes through hallways and doorways and enters the area designated for crew physical recreation and rehabilitation. There are three individuals present, waiting outside the closed double doors to the room where they are to fight. Two are members of medical staff, one male and one female, each expressing anxiety in their physicality. The third is his captain, his opponent, leaning against the wall with an incongruous ease.

 

“Mister Spock,” he says, and Spock inclines his head in acknowledgement. “Cutting things a little close, aren’t we? Don’t tell me you’ve reconsidered.” As he says this, the double doors open and a horde of seven nervous ensigns and crewmen stumble forth, faux-casual.

 

“As I am present before our allocated time, your inference is ill-founded,” Spock answers. “We will proceed.”

 

Jim chuckles, eyes flickering across Spock’s face, and suddenly he is aware once more of a door in the house of his mind. It has creaked open; and he believes, for a moment, that he should have found a discreet way to inform the captain of his choice not to approach this in his normal state of mind. Irrelevant, he tells himself, closing the door as easily as if it had opened from a simple draft, a difference in air pressure. He has been made aware now. And with a thought, he locks the doors and enters the ring.

 

“So we’re clear,” Jim says loudly, not bothering to close the door behind them as he strips off his gold command tunic. “This is to be a single match, winner take all.”

 

“Conditions of success?” Spock asks, shucking his blues on the opposite end of the ring. He is wearing a sleeveless gray cotton shirt beneath his uniform, his opponent dressed in a well-fitting long-sleeved black garment of the same construction. This may present an advantage; better grip; more opportunity for distraction.

 

“A ten-second pin or a yield.”

 

“Or a medical directive, Jim,” says Doctor McCoy’s voice from the comm badge of one of the anxious nurses, and Jim waves his hand.

 

“Sure, or if your stewards see fit to intervene,” but his eyes flash at them with a warning Spock cannot interpret in his current state. Both stand firm.

 

“We will also observe regulation,” Spock adds. “No targeting of head or groin, and I will not employ attack methodologies that are biologically impossible for your species to utilize.”

 

“And the outcome of this match is absolute. No rematch.” Jim’s eyes flicker to the door. “Perez, O'Herlihy, Jordan - the rest of you might be green enough that it hasn’t occurred to you that our personal lives aren’t some kind of performance art for your benefit, but I expect better from my officers. Perhaps you’ve got something better to be doing?” The gaping onlookers in the rec area murmur apologies and “yes, sir”s and scatter -- to the nearest available console, no doubt.

 

“Well,” Jim says breathily. “Now that we’re down to an audience of two.” One of the nurses’ comm badges emits a brief static hiss, as if Doctor McCoy wants to ensure that he is counted present, but Jim’s eyes don’t shift again; his gaze is fixed on Spock. “Shall we get down to business?”

 

“At your discretion, sir.” Spock answers. Jim rolls his shoulders back, tilts his head from side to side, adjusts his center of gravity forward and places his hands in a pose suited for grappling. Spock can see, from the set of his brows and the dance of his feet, that he is acutely aware of the positioning of the security cameras. Despite his words to the ensigns, he intends to put on a good show.

 

Spock starts with a flurry of action – he swings at the outside of Jim’s hand, and Jim’s motion in response opens up the entire right side of his body, tightroped at an angle. Spock pivots and tucks his sharp elbow into Jim’s kidney, then lets the rest of his arm whip out to strike Jim across the back, which he arches instinctively in response. Spock’s other hand crosses, takes advantage of Jim’s head ducked backwards and throws him down. They’re two seconds into the fight and already Jim is winded, but he manages to tuck and roll away in time to miss Spock’s low punches. He regains his feet and takes up the same initial stance, trying his best to look unwavering.

 

Spock takes two short steps toward him, and Jim sweeps his leg, but Spock only falls to his knee, catching himself on his fingertips and bounding back to his feet.

 

“I meant what I said, Commander,” Jim says, his voice low and sharp. “This isn’t a damned show. You’re going to give me what you’ve got.” And something in the heat of his voice slips past Spock’s guard and takes up residence in the desert of his mind. Give me what you’ve got. It is fortunate that he had taken precautions. Fortunate, because there is enough distance between his present awareness and his emotional centers that he does not growl at those words. But not far enough that he doesn’t know that is what he would have done.

 

“If you believe I am capable of any less, you mistake me,” Spock responds. “I see your mind is no clearer than it was – you see what you wish to see, hear what you wish to hear.”

 

“What I wish – Commander, if I wanted to hear you going on, I’d have stayed in my ready room.”

 

“Discipline, Captain.” Spock reaches through his guard in one of a flurry of open-handed blows, but Jim grabs his wrist and twists him into a submissive pose. “Good,” Spock says, then slides a leg back between Jim’s and slides his right foot outward and forward while pressing his left side back with his shoulder. Jim’s grip breaks, but instead of falling backwards, he uses their mutual motion to swing Spock into a headlock. Spock lifts his whole body, lifting Jim off the ground, pressing into the headlock, but Jim doesn’t lose grip right away – his feet scrabble for hold on the mats for several seconds before he releases his hold. He lands on his feet, strikes the meat of his hand into Spock’s shoulder. They stand more than arms’ length apart for a moment, Spock rubbing a palm against the base of his throat, Jim red-faced.

 

“Don’t pretend this doesn’t –” Jim hisses, “that you aren’t – trying to prove something.”

 

“I am a scientist,” Spock responds.

 

“You’re afraid,” Jim tosses back at him, sounding as much like a threat as a challenge.

 

“You do not know of what you speak,” Spock hisses, and lunges, taking Jim to the ground. His body atop Jim’s is an anvil, the heat and pressure overtaken by a sense of size, of weight and implacable solidity. His skin is flushed, his eyes bright and ferocious, his breath quick. Jim writhes under him, trying to break the lock of Spock’s hands, one of which has his wrists, the other on his hip, pressing him to the mats.

 

“Oh no?” Jim asks breathlessly. “I know you. And you know me. And you can’t bear that that might mean a weakness, can you? You think about all the ways it might go wrong.” He bucks his hips, and Spock feels the flash of light from the rooms of the house in his mind. They would have unmade him, were they not locked away: shock, uncertainty, even the fear that Jim speaks of. As it is, they merely cause enough distraction to let Jim duck under Spock’s upper arm and slam intertwined fists into his side. Spock grunts; they roll away from each other, Jim taking his feet and continuing while Spock clutches his side, only half-risen. “You think about compromise, about lost efficiency, because you can’t stand to think of emotional vulnerability as a good. But what the hell is wrong with me knowing –” He ducks out of the way of Spock’s following dive, spins to face his first officer where he’s fallen again. “—what you’re going to do next? Why can’t you see that this makes us stronger?”

 

Spock rises to hands and knees on the mats, his eyes still trained on the ground.

 

“All things in balance, Jim,” he says, and stands facing away from his captain.

 

“Pithy sayings don’t get you out of this,” Jim says, throwing a punch at his first officer’s open back, and finds his fist stopped in Spock’s palm. Spock turns to him, deftly blocking a crossing jab, then halting a kick before it begins with a raised knee and a step inward. “Tell me. Tell me you see it. Tell me you won’t let precepts and philosophy get in the way of what we can do. Tell me you don’t want to become what they want you to be. Or – not all of it.”

 

“What is it that they want me to be?” Spock asks quietly, pressing back so they are out of reach of one another again.

 

“I don’t know, something – dusty and cold. Duty and obligation. Something less than yourself. You don’t have to sacrifice who you are, you don’t have to compromise—”

 

Then stop demanding it of me!” And he has let it go: the house, the locks, the light, the desert; they are a metaphor that does not allow him to be what he needs to be, for this moment, which is no longer simply a show.

 

Spock’s head is tilted so that his blazing eyes can be seen by the cameras; Jim lets his own face show a tight stubbornness, with barely an ounce of surprise. “You are incessant, impossible to please. Shall I be who I was raised to be? One who has chosen the Vulcan way, but whose humanity cannot help but break through – and who regrets each part of that? I regret the choice, though it was made for me as much as by me; I regret that it requires breakage for my mother’s heritage to show in me. I regret that there is no way to rebuild the structure left by decades of socialization. And my regret changes nothing. What is it that you ask of me, Captain? My friendship, such as it is? My respect? Surely you know that you have them both, and more: I told you when you were dying, and when you woke. What more than that which I have already given you?”

 

Jim is silent, and Spock strikes out again, landing blows in quick succession to the side of Jim’s head, beneath his arm, and the soft spot between ribcage and hip. Jim spins away, dropping both arms from fighting stance to his sides and taking the steps to the edge of the circle with his back to Spock. His breath is steady and slow. His hands curl into fists, then open. He turns back and faces Spock, hands raised, palms out, expression serious and open.

 

“You’re right,” he says. “You’re absolutely right. I’m -- it’s not fair of me. I was going to say, I want you to admit that emotions can have benefit, but -- you’ve never denied that, not seriously. You can’t help how you feel about how you feel, and I don’t want you to pretend that you don’t feel the way you do, so -- you’re right.”

 

“And?”

 

“And I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

 

Spock lets his facial expression soften, releasing the tension of his brow, his jaw. “I meant,” he says, “and now that we are aligned once again -- what shall we do?”

 

Jim rotates his outturned palms inward and curls them back into fists. “It would be a shame not to finish what we’ve started,” he says, his smile wolfish and pleased, and lunges back in.

 

***

 

“Unbelievable,” Jim says.

 

“I would not go so far as that,” Spock answers. “Unprecedented, perhaps, but entirely believable. Frankly, Jim, I would not even go so far as to call it surprising.”

 

“You’re telling me you’re not upset? That the whole crew got to witness me wiping the floor with you?”

 

“Indeed. Surely witnessing their captain’s defeat would have been more alarming. Given the circumstances, this is the preferable outcome.”

 

“Um, the preferable outcome involves my crew not eavesdropping on my private conversations and spying on my hand-to-hand technique, but okay.” Jim snorts. “Also, please don’t pretend that you lost for the good of the crew. Everyone was watching, apparently. We all know better.”

 

They’re standing just outside the security briefing room, in the guts of engineering, speaking just barely quietly enough to pretend their intention is a private conversation but loudly enough to ensure their voices travel down the corridor.

 

“You are embarrassed,” Spock observes.

 

“You’re damn right! The whole point of sparring was supposed to be to sort things between us without becoming a public spectacle.” Jim’s voice is heated, but his facial expression gives lie to his tone: he grins widely and winks in between sentences, clearly finding a significant measure of pleasure and thrill at the depth of their subterfuge.

 

“The crew cannot begrudge you the space to be human, Captain.”

 

“Ha! This was all about my humanity, is that what you’re saying?”

 

“Naturally. As the only Vulcan on a predominantly human crew, I have learned that it is best to indulge your tempers, rather than ignore them as I might my peers’.”

 

“You wound me, Mr. Spock,” Jim says, his voice expressive, both humorous and mournful. “But it seems I wound you worse, so I’ll be satisfied for the day. Shall we have dinner?”

 

“That would be agreeable.”

 

They stroll together through the corridors toward the officers’ mess, where a small cadre of their usual Alpha Shift is gathered around a small table, watching something on a PADD. Uhura stands several meters away, arms crossed and lips tight.

 

“There you are!” she hisses as they enter, stalking towards them, and from the table someone is slapping Scotty’s hand as he fumbles with the PADD, fumbles with pretending not to fumble. “What the hell was that?! Everyone on the ship is talking about it; I swear I must have been the only one not to see it--”

 

“Wonderful,” Jim says, throwing up his hands theatrically, and Spock feels the beginnings of an ache behind his eyes and at the base of his skull. He is not accustomed to performing a charade quite so consistent, or so public. Putting on a show to mollify and mislead the crew is one matter, but lying to Nyota--

 

“Was your screen magically exempt?” Jim is asking. “Because I’ve been hearing we were just playing on literally every screen.”

 

“You were. I turned you off,” she answers shortly. “We all heard you tell off the junior officers for staring. I just happened to listen.” Before the fight had even begun, in other words. The tension falls deeper, taking up residence in Spock’s throat. She had taken Jim at his word, refused to treat their lives as -- how had he phrased it to the gawping ensigns? -- performance art for her benefit. Despite all they had been through together, despite her history with Spock and their longstanding intimacy, she had not felt entitled to watch. Spock can feel eyes on them, Scotty and Chekov and Sulu and Gerry having successfully dismissed whatever they were watching on the PADD -- a permanent recording of the fight, he assumes -- Chekov wide-eyed, his face sharper than usual.

 

“All is well,” Spock reassures Nyota, and he finds himself hoping that she is too wise for their facade. “We have resolved our differences.”

 

Her eyes rake back and forth between their faces, Jim’s and Spock’s, and she takes in a deep breath. “Good,” she says. “Okay. Good. I guess that’s all I needed to know, I --” She drops her eyes. “I’m sorry. It was just -- I hadn’t heard you speak to each other that way in a long time, and I thought...” She trails off, then turns on her heel towards the Alpha shift table. “Montgomery Scott, if you think you’ve managed to cover your tracks well enough that Spock won’t be able to find the record of you downloading that footage, you are well mistaken.”

 

“Aye, lass!” Scotty says, half a yelp. “I’ll delete it right now, yeh’ve my word, an’ Mr. Spock can watch me if he so pleases! I wouldna dream of making light of your misfortune.”

 

“A misfortune that I shall be investigating, Mr. Scott, and on that you have my word,” Spock says, but Jim steps forward, one hand reaching towards Scotty with something like alarm in his eyes.

 

“Don’t delete it!” he says. “I want to see it, I had some slick moves there! Just -- maybe make sure it’s not stored on the shipside servers, but there’s no need to delete it.”

 

“The record of your victory?” Spock suggests, letting a note of dry humor infiltrate his voice.

 

“Well,” Jim says, and flushes. “Of course, if you’d rather -- that is to say, I wouldn’t want to presume, it’s your decision too, but surely there’s no need --”

 

“Perhaps I can study the footage to improve my future performance,” Spock says, a brow quirked, and skirts around the Captain and Nyota to find a table of his own. A few minutes later, Jim slides in across from him, his face brightened by his signature crooked smile.

 

“Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Spock,” he says, and Spock senses the layers of meaning. Jim had sensed his discomfort with the subterfuge, of course. He inclines his head in acknowledgement.

 

“Perhaps better not to term it as an indulgence, Captain. It is merely logical.”

 

Around them, the curious eyes have already begun to turn away. Jim slips back out of his seat and returns a moment later with two trays, each laden with the same meal: half a bulbous squash, its yellow flesh browned at the edges and its center stuffed with a savory-smelling mixture of herbed rice and sliced oyster mushrooms. “Do you not require more protein, Captain?” Spock asks. “Surely you have had a trying day.”

 

“Don’t flatter yourself too much,” Jim grins. “Besides, I had eggs this morning, and this looks better than the cacciatore.” He stuffs a forkful into his mouth meaningfully, making a noise around it that borders on obscenity; Spock raises a brow and cuts off a piece of his own; the skin of the squash is darkened but still tender, sure to be laden with nutrients. “Have you seen the reports from the Carolina?” Jim asks, and within a few minutes the attention of the mess has drifted from them. Normalcy has been restored.

 

A few moments later, focus is diverted entirely as an ensign drops his tray, swearing loudly and wiping uselessly at the spattered tomato sauce on his uniform. Jim offers Spock a small, private smile.

 

"Well done, Commander," he says.

 

"I will continue to monitor the public comms channels to gauge the change in sentiment," Spock says, arching one brow as if to suggest congratulations are premature.

 

"Of course. But I'm pretty confident in our success."

 

"As am I," Spock admits after a moment. He wishes to touch the back of Jim's hand with the tips of his fingers, but settles for resting his own hand nearby, similarly relaxed, fingers curled inwards. “This dish is quite satisfactory.”

 

“I like eating vegetarian sometimes,” Jim says quietly. “Reminds me of Iowa.” His crooked smile is back, and Spock wishes to capture it in some way: with a holo-image, or with his lips, but barring those, at least in a corner of his memory, safe from entropy and far away from the scrutiny of other eyes.

Chapter Text

At one point, in what seems sometimes (illogically) to have been another life, Spock had observed how members of the crew behaved in relation to Captain Pike.

In the Captain’s presence, he had noted a range of responses. He had seen awestruck stammering from ensigns in the science departments, steady-eyed confidence from command-track officers determined to impress, begrudging admiration from the surly engineers. From the captain’s senior security and medical staff, Spock observed a trust and intimacy that bordered on inappropriate. From ambassadors, admirals, and others outside the crew, curiosity and caution.

When the captain was not present, things were much the same. He was spoken of in murmurs. His title was used. The words spoken about him were no less respectful than they would have been if spoken to him. At times, praise was more forthcoming when it was not on the record.

All of this, Spock had synthesized and made sense of, and ultimately he had determined that the captain commanded a successful balance of respect and interest. Any negativity was often couched in criticism of decisions that were not within Pike’s control: primarily, the choice to promote him to captain over officers that some believed readier, more competent, more deserving.

Captain Kirk has also seen a meteoric rise to starship command, in fact with a trajectory much sharper than the late Admiral Pike's, but Spock sees the differences more and more. There is some awestruck yammering here as well, but many of the crew have an easy demeanor when they talk about their Captain. They do not stand at attention on his approach, or at least not fully.

And yet it is not a lack of respect that he senses. It is, admittedly, an unusual degree of comfort- but Spock is quite sure this is as Jim intends. The crew speak about Jim the way they would any of their friends and comrades. They laugh around him more easily than around other captains and admirals Spock has known. They reciprocate, at times, his light touches -- a pat on the shoulder, a clap on the back.

At times, Spock finds this disconcerting. In others, he approves wholeheartedly. He acknowledges bias on this matter.

Plentiful examples present themselves after a senior staff meeting one morning, less than an hour before they are to reach the first planet in their series of assigned missions. Jim stands, claps both hands against the tabletop, and says, “Dismissed,” then moves to sweep from the room; by the door, he turns back and raises an eyebrow at Spock, who responds in with a slight shake of his head, a slight gesture of his chin. He communicates go on without me, and Jim understands, sliding through the doors and disappearing. Nyota finishes gathering her padds and departs after him; Spock stands with his hands behind his back and waits for one of the remaining officers to speak.

"The lad could do with a bit of merriment, if ye ask me," Mister Scott opined. "His birthday is comin' up, and I was thinkin', we ought to plan 'im a party. A few of us, at least, p’raps in the officers' mess after hours. I can rig up some flashing lights and get us some noisemakers and I'm sure someone can make a cake or three-"

"How old vill he be?" Chekov asks. "My family has always celebrated special birthdays at interwals of six - he is not yet thirty, is he?"

"Pav, how many years has it been since the Kelvin incident?"

"It vill be twenty-eight next - oh."

Doctor McCoy stands, turns his back to the group, and looks out the windows at the stars. The others pay no notice, continuing to chat about food and music and what is to be done. Spock moves to join the doctor. "I sense you have an opinion about this matter," he says quietly.

"Nah,” McCoy says with a wry twist of his lips. “Let 'em have it, it's a good idea. It's just - Jim doesn’t really do birthdays."

“Ah,” Spock says. “Indeed.” And here they have shown regard for the captain in their different ways: Scott by introducing the topic in the first place; Pavel by neglecting to remember his captain as a legend whose birthday is known across the cosmos; McCoy by considering what he knows of the captain’s history, and by making a choice in keeping with what he believes to be Jim’s best interests.

They break without concrete plans for furthering the discussion, and Spock proceeds to the chemistry lab, where he finds the adjoining door to the geology lab open; this is against regulation, as the two labs have different contamination protocols, but the infraction has been common in the preceding week. He makes his way towards the door to chastise whoever has left it ajar, but hears a few words that cause him to stop and listen intently.

“-- in the Captain’s nature,” a female voice says, dryly, as with some trace of humor. “At least, not from what I’ve seen.”

“Oh, trust me, you’ll see it soon enough,” a second female voice responds, rich with laughter. “He’s on his best behavior now, but once we’ve got a few successful missions under our belt, he’ll start to push the boundaries again. Not all at once, but he’ll -- he’ll flirt, he’ll fight, he’ll fuck around. Typical human-male stuff. Not that I mind. Gods, far from it.”

“Don’t joke about that,” the first voice responds sharply.

“I’m not joking,” the second responds. “He’s an attractive man, and he’s young; you expect him to turn off his sex drive for five years?”

“I expect him to maintain appropriate workplace norms. Look, I’m not comfortable talking about a superior officer this way. Can we talk about something else?”

Spock is ready to chime in himself, but the second voice concedes apologetically. “I’m sorry, Voss. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. And I don’t mean any disrespect to the captain.’

“Then what the hell did you mean?” Voss replies with heat in her voice.

There’s a silence, the sound of someone leaning against a table, a tapping of fingers on a hard surface. Spock remains still. The first speaker, Voss, has already established a position equivalent to his, and as a peer, she is more likely to be able to invoke pressure that will result in serious thought, rather than fear, embarrassment, and defiance.

“I just…” sighs the unnamed crewmember. “It’s hard sometimes to know how to talk about him to you guys who weren’t on board before the five-year. He’s different. He’s -- one of us. I feel weird sometimes, because it seems like you guys all see him as some sort of hero. I don’t see him that way, and I don’t want to see him that way. He’s a person. He’s got real flaws, and it’s important for us to know about those, because they could get any one of us killed.”

“Everyone has flaws,” Voss says softly. “I appreciate that he doesn’t hide his.”

“I just wanted to express that he’s more complicated than people give him credit for. You can’t put him on some kind of pedestal of virtue. That’s not who he is.”

“Sure. Okay. It’s a balance. But I think you were going too far in the other direction. It’s okay - I hear your point, and maybe I was idolizing him a little. And I don’t want you to think you can’t talk to me about what things were like before. I don’t doubt they were different.”

“We fucked up a lot,” she answers. “All of us. I feel sometimes like people want to erase that, don’t want to hear about it, but I need them to. If we’re going to have each other’s backs, we need to know the landscape.”

Spock leaves the door ajar and makes his way to the bridge. He can check the status of the labs remotely.

When he reaches the bridge, he is surprised to see that they have already achieved orbit, which should not have occurred for another nine minutes at ordered speeds. “Report,” he says.

“Something’s not right, Commander,” answers Darwin from her seat at navigation without turning to meet his eyes. “We were supposed to be coming up on Aldhabi-4, which we were told was M-class, with a warp-capable civilization --”

“I am aware of the specifications of the planet in question, Lieutenant,” Spock says, sitting in the captain’s chair.

“Well, sir, there’s no such planet,” she says. “It’s a system of seven, like we had on record; there’s a planet in each place a planet should be. But Aldhabi-4 isn’t a class-M planet. It’s class-D, sir. No atmosphere, no life, and much smaller than reported besides. But both Aldhabi-3 and Aldhabi-5 are class-M.”

“Lieutenant McGivers, please assess the Carolina’s logs.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I’ve had little to do but read them for the last two weeks. I can’t account for this. Captain Mackenzie --”

“Captain Mackenzie was not the ship’s navigator. Please see any logs filed by then-Ensign Nellis prior to the away team’s first disembarkment onto the planet.”

“I’m sorry, sir, there are no reports from Nellis or the other navigators. And the only logs we have dating before the first contact are the captain’s.”

Spock feels his lips tighten. “Very well. Lieutenant Darwin, I take it we are currently orbiting the fifth planet?”

“Yessir. We didn’t sense any humanoid life on Aldhabi-3. Aldhabi-5 has some unique properties that are preventing us from getting a scan of the continent in the southern hemisphere, but we have found signs of civilization on the other two continents, although no humanoid lifesigns. I thought it the most likely candidate for our true destination, sir. I apologize, sir; I should have called you as soon as we sensed something off.”

“Agreed. However, that failing aside, you have taken appropriate initiative. Given the scant information we possess, I assume you formed the hypothesis that our information was faulty and that Aldhabi-5 is in fact the planet we were meant to visit.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lieutenant Uhura, I assume you are in the process of drafting an informative communication to Starfleet Headquarters?”

“Yes sir. At our current distance, we won’t get a response for eighteen hours, minimum.”

“Noted. Please tell Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov to report to the ready room. Lieutenants Uhura, McGivers, and Darwin, please join me there. Lieutenant Sulu, you have the bridge.”

Darwin and McGivers both engage with their PADDs as soon as they are seated. Spock recognizes an avoidance tactic when he sees one, but allows it. The situation is discomfiting, to say the least. Chekov appears, flushed and equipped with his landing-party gear, two minutes after the summons. Three minutes later, the Captain and Doctor McCoy enter. Jim’s eyes are flashing; Spock chooses not to mention that the doctor’s presence had not been required.

“I got the picture,” Jim says, waving away Spock’s incipient explanation. “I need to tell you, I don’t much like the idea of sitting on our heels for the better part of a day waiting for an answer, especially when I’m pretty sure I know what that answer is going to be. Someone is playing games with us, and I don’t have any guesses at who it might be, but I can tell you who it’s not.”

“Captain?”

“It’s not Admiral Archer.” Jim’s mouth is a grim line, his face dark with something Spock thinks might be fury. “And as little as I may like Aiden Mackenzie, I can’t come up with any compelling reason that he’d have been falsifying reports six years ago.”

“Perhaps --” Spock cuts himself off; what had come to the tip of his tongue was perhaps you lack the imagination; Jim’s body language is gearing for a fight, but he’s not about to give it to him. He draws a steady breath, Jim’s blue eyes sharp on him. “We have reason to believe that Admiral Marcus’s network was embedded in all levels of the organization,” he says. Jim pulls his eyes away.

“Damn,” he says. “You aren’t wrong.”

Obviously, Spock does not say.

“Commander, are you suggesting us being sent here was a part of some Section 31 plot?” Darwin asks.

“That is one possibility. Although it cannot be discounted entirely, it seems astronomically unlikely that this discrepancy could be attributed to sheer incompetence alone.”

“Agreed,” McGivers said. “The Carolina spent nearly two weeks in this system. To think they all mistook the fifth planet for the fourth would require believing that at least two dozen competent officers made the same mistake.”

“Alternatives,” Spock says. “Speculate.”

“Mae,” Chekov says, settling next to Darwin and turning his seat towards hers, “are any of ze planets of unusual enough makeup zat a sensor error might hev... resulted in missing one?”

“No. I thought of that, but no.”

McGivers purses her lips. “I don’t even know if this is possible, but could the planet we’re looking for be -- somehow hiding? On the other side of the star, perhaps, or shielded somehow? Could there be radiation interfering with our scanners?”

“No unusual radiation, and we’ve scanned the entire system repeatedly, so it’s not just out of place in orbit,” Darwin says, frowning. “And a shielded planet would still have detectable gravitational pull on the stellar bodies around it.”

“Not to mention, the energy output from a shield big enough to hide a planet would cause significant distortions in subspace,” Uhura adds, and then reassuringly, “but it was worth asking.”

“It must be asked,” Chekov says, “of both of us, myself and Lieutenant Darvin -- is it possible ve are in ze wrong system?”

No,” Darwin says, and her voice is near tears.

“Easy, Lieutenant,” Doctor McCoy says gently. “Like the kid said, it had to be asked.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Darwin continues. “I know I said my hypothesis was they got it wrong and they wrote four when they meant five, and at first I thought that checked out - it has the right atmospheric makeup, it has three continents with a large northern polar ice cap, that all added up. But the more I think about it, the more --” She draws a deep breath. “Look. This is supposed to be a warp-capable civilization, right? But we’ve scanned two-thirds of the planet and haven’t even found any people. Much less any satellites, any stations. We haven’t been hailed. And Mister Spock, you didn’t say it, but I know you were thinking it -- standard procedure says every bridge officer should have had at least one log per day, and we should have gotten all of them for at least two days before they made planetfall, all the way through the end of the mission. For a first contact, no less! Captain Mackenzie’s logs had all the information I needed, so I didn’t say anything about it, but it wasn’t proper procedure, sir, and I thought, maybe the Carolina was under different protocols, but I haven’t found any evidence --”

She yelps, jumping in her seat, when McCoy’s hand lands on her shoulder. “Easy,” he says again.

“Uhura, can you confirm that we’re not picking up any comms?” Jim asks.

“None of any kind, sir. No radio waves, no satellite transmissions. I’m confident in saying that neither Aldhabi-3 nor Aldhabi-5 are home to the civilization that was described in the logs we received.”

Jim’s eyes meet Spock’s. “Yeah, it’s not just me. Lieutenant, I’m not sure if it was intentional, but you just hinted at a possibility we haven’t mentioned. What if the logs we received were not the logs the Carolina made? Do we have any evidence of tampering?”

“It just occurred to me as I was speaking, Captain. If you’d like, I can start running voice-pattern analysis immediately.”

“Do it. What else?”

“I vill run a full diagnostic on ze nawigational array,” Chekov says firmly.

“Approved,” Jim says, and then, “wait, no. Darwin, you can take that.”

“Captain?” Spock asks.

“Chekov and I are going down to the planet,” Jim says.

Spock’s mouth, somehow, is already forming his response: “Captain, I must protest.”

“Sure you must. But we’re going to do it anyway. McGivers, you’re with us. We have signs of civilization; you can try to match that to what we have in the logs. I’ll bring Scotty down too. He can scan for what might be causing the trouble scanning the southern hemisphere.”

“Aye, Captain,” says McGivers.

“Spock, you’ll coordinate the efforts from up here. I want your eyes on this.”

“Captain, there is no reason for haste.”

“Isn’t there?” Jim says. “Something’s been compromised. We don’t know what it is. If it’s us. If it’s these people we’re supposed to be meeting. Someone within our command structure. Our communications system. Our navigational array, our sensors. Every action I have available to me involves waiting for hours and hoping that none of those things blow up in my face before I figure out which one’s rotten. Every action except the one I was all set to do already, which is going planetside based on less information than I’d like and figuring out if the Aldhabians are friendly. Or, you know. Existent.” He huffs in frustration.

“Jim, you cannot believe the Admiralty would approve this course of action if they were within range of immediate communications.”

“Your argument is specious, Mister Spock,” Jim says sharply. “The whole point is that we’re alone out here, and that we don’t know who or what to trust. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to trust myself and my crew first. Consider your objection on the record, if you like, but I’m making a judgement call, and there’s only one man on this ship who has the authority to countermand that. And it’s not you.”

Spock nods tightly. “Aye-aye, sir,” he says, and something flashes in Jim’s eyes before he turns away. He wants to believe it’s hesitation, uncertainty, an apology.

But whatever it is, it doesn’t stop him from turning away.

***

Nyota has sent him a private comm before the captain has reached the transporter room.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but I see where he’s coming from. If someone set us up for this, they’ll be expecting us to wait - to validate our information. If someone in headquarters is compromised, or our communications, we’d be playing right into their hands. If there’s something about the planet, or the people, or the system, the fastest way to find out is to get down there and find out before they have too much time to prepare for us. I know it shouldn’t be the captain beaming down, but I also know you didn’t sign on for this mission thinking you were going to talk him out of that.

There is no benefit in replying to her. She is aware, clearly, that Spock is not being entirely rational. Spock watches the feed of the transporter room, and watches his captain enter, Chekov and Scotty flanked behind him, McGivers already waiting for them.

“I’m turning on the biomonitors,” Doctor McCoy says on the open line, audible to the transporter room and the bridge both. With a note of defiance, he adds, “Can’t promise we’ll be able to read them through the interference, but that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.”

Four heartbeats appear on Spock’s monitor. Jim’s is steady and stable, more so than the others’, but Spock can see on the feed the tight line of Jim’s spine, and as much as he wishes to remain professional, he cannot help but to think that he knows the feeling of every muscle beneath that shirt, knows the taste of that sharp mouth, and his fingers find his comm.

“Captain.”

Jim’s jaw is tense, and his heart rate increases minutely, but he replies without hesitation, “Yes, Commander.”

Spock cannot bring himself to say the words that come to mind on open comms. Not an empty platitude like good luck, and surely not a command, not come back to me or be safe. But his eyes meet Nyota’s across the bridge, briefly, and he says quietly into the comm, “I will be monitoring your frequency,” and the tightness around Jim’s eyes releases as he lifts his gaze to the feed camera.

“Energize,” he says, and they disappear in the matter streams.

Chapter Text

Jim’s voice crackles on the comms not more than twenty seconds after they’ve materialized on the planet. “Yeah, there’s no one here,” he says.

“That seems like a premature assessment, Captain,” Spock says.

“I mean, I’m not saying there’s no one on the whole planet, but we’re in some kind of acropolis. McGivers, is that the right --? Yeah. This place is a wreck, and it’s been abandoned for centuries.”

“Millenia, possibly,” McGivers says. She’s not speaking into her comm, but she’s close enough to Jim’s that Spock can hear her.

“Aye, sir,” Chekov says, “No sign of background radiation; no residues or energy signature ve vould see if zis had been done by veapons fire.”

“And sir,” McGivers says, on comms now, “based on my knowledge of classic humanoid development patterns, I’d say what we’re seeing here was from a society hundreds of years from warp, if not thousands.”

“Nought but a few broken-down pillars, an’ some old trees.”

“Well, it’s a little more than that,” McGivers replies.

The next voice on the comm is Jim’s, but it’s just the beginning of a sound, not even identifiable, cut off swiftly by a harsh blast of static. Half of the bridge crew jumps at the sound. Uhura’s fingers fly frantic over her panel.

For twenty-two seconds, that crash of sound is a metaphorical representation of what is happening inside Spock’s mind. Then Jim’s voice cuts back in.

“-son to believe there’s anything of use for us here.”

Nyota is already responding: “Captain, we lost your signal, please repeat.”

“Oh. Nothing important, I’m just thinking out loud,” Jim says.

“Recommend immediate beam-out,” Spock responds tightly.

“Just give me a couple minutes. Scotty’s looking into the disruption, and I don’t want to miss anything, but it doesn’t seem likely we’re going to find anything here. Go ahead and send that message to Command. Kirk out.”

The quiet is again abrupt, but this time it is interrupted by the four bio-signals, quiet and quick but steady. Spock brings his own heartbeat under control and assesses the bridge.

Nyota is touching her earpiece, listening intently -- most likely playing back what she has of the message to Command, Spock decides. Darwin is trembling, and Sulu is sitting very still with his palms on the console, staring at space on the viewscreen. Spock clears his throat, and Sulu starts and refocuses on his console.

For several minutes, Spock watches as the statistics trickle down his own station’s console: hydrogen-oxygen atmosphere; trace heavy metals; a nineteen-hour day with average surface temperatures presently ranging from nine to thirty degrees Celsius. Surface fifty-six percent ocean; land area is seventy-four percent forested; ten percent mountainous. This is not the expected configuration for a tritanium-heavy planet, although it is not outside the realm of possibility. It is too temperate, too green.

“Well -” Jim begins, and again there is a crackling noise, like static, and silence - but this time only for a moment. Then Scotty is swearing on open comms and the heartbeats are too fast and Chekov, audible in the background of Scotty’s com, is saying, “Marla, don’t move, don’t move!”

And then there is another thudding, terrible quiet.

“Bridge,” Chekov’s voice says weakly. “Ve need Lieutenant Marcus down here immediately. There are explosives. Ve have -- mother of god, zey are everywhere, it is a miracle ve didn’t set one off before, ve -- Ve can’t move. The keptin set one off and I do not see him, but --”

He cuts out, but Scotty cuts in just as quickly. “It’s a minefield. It’s a bloody minefield.”

“But ze energy --”

“I know what ye said, laddie, but energy residues or no’, here we are.”

Spock looks around at the sudden commotion of the bridge. There are overlapping voices, many people speaking at once, and all eyes are either trained to him or gazing at the viewscreen, which shows only space, as if they expect to see something. All eyes except -- at the comms station, Nyota is intent, making miniscule movements, honing in on --

There are still four heartbeats on the center console.

Nyota’s eyes are wide, her jaw set tight; she is fixed, determined, on something. Spock says her name. Or, he says, “Lieutenant Uhura.” She does not meet his eyes.

“I’ve got him,” she says. “The channel is weak; I’m trying to patch it through.”

“Spock stands. She looks at him then. “Do so,” he says. “Landing party, stand by. Lieutenant Marcus, the doctor, and myself will beam down momentarily. Lieutenant Sulu, you have the conn; maintain open comms.”

His mind is static again, static and four heartbeats. Spock had expected to be the first to the transporter room, but as he enters, he finds Lieutenant Marcus already on the pad, her equipment strapped to her waist. She gestures for him to join her, and as he does, the noise of the world returns in time for them to hear a terrible wet sound on the open comms. Her face goes pale, and she is searching his face for something. He wonders, idly, what she finds.

“Send Doctor McCoy as soon as he arrives,” Spock instructs the transporter technician. “Energize.”

***

Jim, his voice rough and muted: “I can’t -- agh. I’m definitely underground. Some kind of cavern. Maybe there was a mining operation here after all. Or maybe that was just a fucking play on words.”

Nyota responds, her voice stark against the quiet. “Can you tell if it’s a natural cavern?”

“It’s definitely not. It’s too unstable.”

“Shit.”

“There’s not a lot of air down here. Can you get a lock?”

“No. Not yet. Spock and Carol and Len are coming for you.” She is normally calm. She is not calm now.

“Can you tell Spock I’m sorry?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry to ask you to do that.”

“I’ll tell him if it comes to that, but it won’t. We’re going to get you out of there, Captain.”

“Look,” and another a broken crackle of sound, and a soft cry of pain. “I’ve broken both of my legs and at least a couple ribs and I’ve punctured something. I’m not going anywhere on my own, and there’s no light - I’m totally caved in, wherever I am.”

“We’re getting you out of there. It’s going to be okay. Just -- try to stay still and save your air, okay?”

Several seconds of wet coughing. Quietly: “Okay. Okay”

***

Nyota’s voice breaks back into the open comm line just as Spock reaches the landing party. “Spock,” she says, “you’ve got to get him the hell out of there.”

“Lieutenant, retain your professionalism,” he finds himself saying. “We are on open comms.”

“Get. Him. Out.” Spock detects a faint whirr that would be audible to very few, and recognizes it as the sound of patching multiple channels together. “Transporter room, prepare to get a lock on the Captain’s coordinates,” she’s ordering, even as Spock watches Scotty shake his head.

“Lass, they’re no’ goin’ ta be able to get ‘im yet. Our scanners down here cannae see ‘im. The transporters certainly cannae, much less lock on.”

“Well, you’ve got to find a way. Dammit, Scotty! Do it.

The voice that comes next is Jim, and Spock feels his heart still. “Hey,” Jim whispers, and Spock hears faint noises here too, noises he does not want to hear: crackling, bubbling. Despite what must be nearly unbearable pain, Jim’s voice has hills and valleys of gentleness. “Nyota. It’s okay.”

“No it’s not,” she hisses. “Don’t give me that shit, Jim; you don’t get to say my name like that if you’re not sticking around for me to --”

“Nyota, please,” Jim interrupts. Something like a hum joins the chorus of unpleasant sounds under his voice. He continues slowly, deliberately. “I need you to be calm for me. Tell them... the cavern runs south of me. I can tell that’s where the air is coming from. Maybe they can find an entrance. Get to me that way. Or at least … a signal boost?”

The breath Spock draws should be ragged, but it is not. It is sharp and fresh and clear. “We can hear you, Captain,” he says steadily.

“Spock,” Jim says, and nothing more.

“The passage runs north to south?” Carol asks.

“I see it, Lieutenant,” Scotty answers over the sound of Jim’s fluttering breath. “Northeast, somewhat, from his position, see? At least, tha’s the pattern of the charges, in which case... Fuck! They’re designed to cause cave-ins.”

Jim’s breaths are rasping, slowing. He is losing consciousness.

“Into the same cavern the keptin has fallen into?”

“Yes, laddie, it must be. Doctor Marcus, can ye estimate the yield of each of these? And do we know if they’re proximity or pressure detonated?”

“I would say it had to be pressure, but if that were the case for all of them, I can’t see how the captain could have survived. Unless the yield is remarkably small.” Carol’s voice is higher than normal, but she seems otherwise calmer than the rest of them. Spock feels a mixed wave of admiration and anger, and then slight nausea as he must acknowledge these sensations as indicative of a compromise he had promised not to allow himself.

Chekov is responding, his words gaining momentum as he thinks, but Spock finds he is unable to focus; his mind is racing in too many directions. He tries to lock the rooms of the houses of his mind but they are broken; the doors are broken or something in Spock is broken and he cannot stop the fear, again, the fear and the anger and the feelings of death; he is back just outside Daystrom and the crackling static in his ear is the jumpship beyond the broken windows and the lifted hand and bleeding lips on the other side of the glass and Spock is letting his hand fall back and his mother is falling --

But then --

-- then there is Jim beside him on the mountain, Jim smiling at him softly, flushed with lust and embarrassment, saying we could savor this with a twist of his sweet lips and twining their fingers together, saying I want to stay right here, pillowing a head on his chest looking at the stars and Jim’s head surfacing in the grotto, golden, splashing his way gently back to shore, ripples, unquantifiable beauty in his muscles and his tendons and the delicate tilt of his head and the droplets on his eyelashes as he settles next to Spock on the warming rock and closes his eyes and breathes --

Fingers grasp Spock’s upper arm, drag him back to the moment. Doctor McCoy has arrived, his features bent in concern.

Spock takes three careful steps towards Scott and Lieutenant Marcus. “If you change your tricorder settings to scan for arboreal life, you should be able to distinguish the configuration of the root systems,” he says. “It may be difficult to determine the correct sensitivity, but if you can identify the places where the roots are not, away to the south, you should be able to isolate the precise location of the cavern.”

Scott is looking at him with eyes that are wide beyond Spock’s ability to interpret: “Are ye suggesting what I think ye’re suggesting?” But Carol is already shaking her head.

“I can’t, I - I’d need more time, to be able to disable one, to determine the yield. I don’t -”

“It’s okay, lass,” Scotty says, his voice rough, and something in his tone Spock can interpret. The engineer has understood his plan perfectly. “I’ll do it,” Scott continues, “only, d’ye have a suggestion for what type of EV suit? I want to make sure I have some protection from the blast, and at least a couple’a hours of oxygen so even if it doesna work, you can worry about Jim and not me.”

“One of the atmo dive suits should give you the heat protection you’d need and would have the right fray resistance,” Carol says.

“Very good, Mister Scott,” Spock says. “I suggest you be equipped with both a transceiver and a pulse enhancer. Based on the visible blast radius around the existing triggered mine, I suggest we place you between forty and eight-five meters south. Doctor Marcus?”

From there they each take up their roles quickly, scarcely needing direction. Scotty beams back up for his equipment, while McCoy moves towards the broken earth where Jim had disappeared, running his fingers through the loose earth as if hoping to unearth something useful. Lieutenant Marcus keeps scanning the mines, directing the others where not to step, and Chekov and McGivers scan for roots and find the ideal spot to trigger. By the time Scotty has beamed down with his EV suit ten minutes later -- with dual transceivers and dual pulse enhancers for redundancy -- everything is ready.

They all withdraw to their positions, and Spock watches as the others turn their faces away, covering their heads protectively. Scotty takes several deliberate steps, and then --

The explosion throws what must be at least a ton of earth and stones into the air. The ground for eight meters around where Scotty had stood is sunken, obliterated. But his voice comes through immediately on the open comms. “Shit!” he says. “Glad you gave us the warning about your legs, Captain. Didn’t do any favors to mine, but at least I was prepared. Still. Tha’ was a lot farther down than I expected, but I’m -- the enhancers are intact. Let me just dig out enough --”

There are a few moments where the only sound on comms is a coarse thrum and scratching, as if the comm is caught in a wind tunnel; Scotty is digging north, towards the part of the cavern where Jim is trapped. Spock does not think about Jim not responding; there are still four heartbeats, he is sure of it, and that is all that matters.

Then the transporter technician joins their comms, “Commander, I’m starting to get a picture down there. I don’t quite have the captain, but based on the location you gave me, I think if you can get one of the pulse enhancers five or six meters north, I should be able to get enough signal to pull him out, even if I can’t get a solid lock.”

“Och. Aye. Okay. Can ye--?”

“Yessir, I--” There’s a pause. “I have the area where he should be, but maybe, Ensign Chekov, if you--?”

“I vasn’t going to say it,” Chekov says genially, “but yes, maybe better if I do zis one, yes.”

“Beam me up too,” McCoy says, and they both go up in a hum and whirl.

Spock forces himself to relax the muscles of his fingers. He cannot lose circulation; he must be able to operate at full efficiency. He cannot allow himself to continue to be compromised. Then Lieutenant Marcus touches the back of his arm, and he redirects his focus to her.

“Sorry, sir,” she says. “I wanted to be sure -- would you like me to try to get one of the undetonated mines?”

“I would like you to succeed at getting one,” he answers. “Your use of the word try suggests success would not be certain. Please elaborate.”

“I have some experience with primitive explosives, of course, but everything I’ve seen suggests these are unusual. Which gives us a reason to want to investigate them, but simultaneously increases the likelihood of problems in trying to retrieve one. They’re particularly deep, which means the only way to get at them without detonating would be using transporters - and then we’d have to keep the mine, and probably whatever sediment is immediately surrounding it, in a force field suspension. Then we’d shave away the sediment. It would take at least four or five hours to do safely -- and then there’s the matter of where to do it.”

“Okay, ready,” Chekov says over the comm. “Mister Spock, ve are going to beam vith a margin of error. Vill you come up? If not, may be a while before ve have ze debris clear of ze transporters, sir.”

“I will remain to assist Lieutenant Marcus in planning our investigation,” Spock says. To say this aloud is akin to placing an anvil on his own chest, but it was the first thing he and Jim had said to one another when they had formalized their courtship. The ship must come first. “Perhaps we can assist Mister Scott as well.”

“Thanking ye, sir,” Scott’s voice returns weakly. “I have no regrets, but I’m in a fair amount of pain, to be truthful.”

“Okay, sir,” Chekov says. “Engaging transport now.” There is a rumbling, not unlike a small earthquake. He half-expects to hear Kirk over the comms -- perhaps a short cry, or a curse -- but instead it’s only --

“We’ve got him,” McCoy says. “And a cubic ton of dirt and rock, but we’ll have him out of that in a minute or two. Get Scotty to us as fast as you can. Prepared or not, a fall like that, he’s probably broken a few bones himself. Hairline fractures if he’s lucky. Uhura, put Sanchez on call; I’m going to need M’Benga for surgery.”

“Very good, doctor,” Spock says. “Keep me apprised. Spock out.” And with no small effort, he shifts his focus back to the surface and reclaims his calm.

It is six hours before he beams back to the ship, but Jim is still in surgery and McCoy has provided no updates. Spock withdraws to the captain’s ready room and records an updated video comm for the admiralty.

It’s only when he leans forward to end the comm that he realizes his hands are trembling.

Chapter Text

It’s 0200 when the doors to Spock’s quarters chime. “Spock,” McCoy’s voice says, “it’s me.”

 

Spock answers. “The Captain?”

 

“He’ll be fine. Going to be a hell of a week, but he’ll be fine. We’re going to try to keep him out for at least the next twenty-four hours, though. I was going to just comm you, but Geoff about threw me out of Sickbay, so I figured I’d come tell you myself.”

 

Doctor M’Benga’s reasons for doing so are clear. Doctor McCoy’s skin has an alarming grayish tone and his eyes appear bloodshot. “You are exhausted,” Spock says. “Please sit.” He is mildly surprised when McCoy obliges without complaint. He all but throws himself onto Spock’s couch and groans loudly, almost obscenely.

 

“Thanks, Spock,” he says. “You probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back up.”

 

“You are welcome to sleep here.”

 

“Really?” The doctor squints at him in what appears to be genuine surprise. “Are you sure? I don’t wanna interrupt your meditation, or whatever.”

 

“I am quite sure. I, too, am physically fatigued; I will not be meditating tonight." He pauses. "I would also be amenable to assisting you to reach your quarters safely, if you prefer.” When McCoy’s expression remains incredulous, “Please. Leonard. I will rest well knowing you are doing the same; allow me to bring you a blanket and a hot drink.” And when finally the doctor's eyes fall, and he mumbles assent, Spock gathers the promised items, using the time with his back turned to ensure his composure.

 

“Was going to tell you all the gory details,” McCoy says roughly, accepting the blanket and the mug of tea -- ‘Spock’s Blend 2.0’, Jim’s custom herbal handiwork. “But I wrote a report already, so maybe you can just read that for now, and I can grab a nap.” He’s asleep within five minutes, and Spock wastes no time in reassigning McCoy's Alpha shift to Sanchez. No doubt he will make his way to the Sickbay the instant he wakes, but he appears to need more than the five hours of sleep Alpha shift would allow him. After a moment, he also reassigns his own Alpha bridge shift.

 

The doctor’s report is appropriately clinical, detached. The “gory details” are expressed here in quantifiables: units of blood transfused; size of bone shards extracted from ankles; angle of the pelvis to the spinal column before hip relocation; estimated tidal volume before the repair of the pneumothorax. Spock feels a sudden wash of relief that he had chosen to stay on the planet -- the feeling strong enough to serve as a sure sign of his need for the meditation he will not be able to achieve. He had not seen the captain, in the state the reports describe; he is certain that if he had, the images would be difficult to put from his mind, and his feeling of helplessness would have been magnified severalfold.

 

But he wishes to be at Jim’s bedside now. Wishes to enfold the quiet hand in his own, to lower his head over his beloved’s body and close them off from the rest of the world. McCoy would call him hypocritical, and more, but McCoy will be asleep for several hours. Spock tucks the blanket up to his chin and leaves him there.

 

The lights in Sickbay are dimmed. There are three beds occupied: Crewman Nguyen is sitting upright on the farthest biobed, speaking softly to Doctor M’Benga. Engineer Scott is in repose on the bed closest to the door, the lower half of his bed concealed with a curtain; Spock had not enquired about his condition, but Doctor McCoy’s lack of comment would seem to suggest that his recovery will be swifter than the captain’s.

 

Jim is on the center bed, and there is already a seat drawn up beside him, already a body in that seat, already a hand in his own. Nyota looks up as Spock approaches, and then quickly looks away again and begins gathering her things: a glass of water and a collection of pads splayed out on a tray in front of her.

 

“I did not expect to find you here,” he says.

 

“I’ll go,” she says. “We should talk, but it doesn’t need to be now.”

 

“You need not leave for my sake,” Spock says, and draws up a chair on the other side of Jim’s bed.

 

“I don’t need to, but I--” She stops and looks at his face more closely as he sits. He feels a wash of discomfort; he cannot read the motion, does not understand what she is searching for in his face, nor whether she is likely to find anything there. Nor whether he wishes her to.

 

“You seem -- okay,” she says. “I thought you would be… I don’t know. Whatever you might be instead of angry at me. Disappointed in me, maybe.” Something of his confusion must show in his face, because she adds. “For my -- lapse. For what I said, what I did on comms today. Spock, I’m so sorry, it was so inappropriate, and so completely unfair to you. I’m prepared for the professional consequences, but I couldn’t quite prepare to... face what I did to you.”

 

“What do you perceive you have done to me?” M’Benga is helping Nguyen rise from the biobed and escorting her towards the door; his eyes meet Spock’s for a flash of a moment and then he disappears into the office alcove.

 

“I asked you to be emotionally compromised on open comms,” she says, clearly disgusted with herself. “I myself very well might have compromised the mission by losing my calm and displaying unacceptable lapses in professionalism and detachment -- we’ll never know, of course, but -- if I were under any other captain I would be preparing to get busted down to ensign right now. I know Jim won’t have that,” she adds, holding up a hand as he opens his mouth. “But I would have accepted it. I didn’t -- I wasn’t thinking straight. We can go over this all in a formal context if you like, but for now I can tell you I’ve taken some actions to address it. I’ve asked Geoff to arrange a series of counseling sessions, and I enrolled in two courses, a human meditation and centering seminar and a crisis training and de-escalation module from the command-track professional development archive. And of course I -”

 

“Nyota,” he interrupts gently. “Tal-kam-veh, I forgive you.”

 

Unexpectedly, this seems only to further arouse her emotional state. “No,” she croaks, and tears drip now from her eyes and down both sides of her nose; she swipes them away with an angry hand. “I don’t - I want - You need to let me hold myself accountable for this, Spock. I did wrong. Let me show you I understand, let me commit to fixing it.”

 

“I acknowledge your suffering,” he responds. “I do not forgive you out of any intent to deny you this, nor to deny you growth that may result. The forgiveness was not a decision, Nyota. It was something I had already done; I am simply informing you of an action already taken.”

 

“But I--”

 

“Yes. I know what you did. I agree that it was in poor form, and I do wish that you had behaved differently. But what is done is done, and we know one another well enough that you can see what I say is true. There is no need for me to rebuke you; you have done so a hundred times today already, far harsher than I would have done. I commend that you are proactively seeking help to better address this in the future. It will be necessary. Jim is--”

 

“Going to spend a lot of time in this bed in the next five years, I bet,” she sighs. “Yeah. Okay." She shakes her head, her long hair dancing as she does so, and says, "But -- can we still talk about this? Later? I want to make sure you understand how sorry I am.”

 

“I do,” he says, and reaches across the bed to place a hand on hers where it is enfolding Jim’s. “But if it will soothe you to speak of it, I will gladly listen.”

 

She wipes at her face again, although Spock cannot see any further tears. “Okay,” she whispers.

 

“It occurs to me,” he says gently, “that the crew’s psychiatric evaluations may have gone very differently, had we been asked more questions about our captain.” He pauses and meets her gaze to ensure what he says next cannot be misunderstood. “More questions about our family of choice, and fewer about our families of origin.”

 

She looks at him, tremulous, and then stands from her chair and comes around to his seat. She sinks to her knees besides his chair, places her face against his shoulder, and allows the fabric of his uniform to muffle the sounds of her tears. He slips one hand into Jim’s, wraps his other arm around Nyota’s back and presses that hand between her shoulderblades, and breathes deeply. The steady thrum of Jim’s pulse under his fingers shaves away at his tension.

 

When Nyota draws back a moment later, she stands, pressing a hand against the biobed for support to rise instead of leaning on Spock for leverage. Her eyes rest lightly on Spock’s hand in Jim’s, and he realizes he has left his fingers in the position of what Nyota had always called ‘a Vulcan kiss’ against Jim’s wrist; she smiles for a moment, but says nothing. She strokes the Captain’s cheek with the back of her hand, slowly, twice. “Keep me posted,” she says, gathers up her PADDs, and leaves.

 

He wonders, for a moment, if holding Jim’s hand thus in front of Nyota constitutes a breach of the terms of his relationship with Jim. Kaiidth. He understands now something he had not before: that even if it does constitute a breach, Jim will forgive the indiscretion. This is not the sort of thing Jim would see as grounds for ending their arrangements.

 

He should not stay long. Doctor McCoy is asleep on the couch in his quarters, and he knows the good doctor will prefer not to wake alone in strange surroundings. But he allows himself fifteen more minutes, enclosing Jim’s hand in both of his and lifting it to his mouth, breathing in the scent of him as it so often is -- that warmth of long sleep beneath the tinge of blood and antiseptic.

 

He is a walking disaster, Spock thinks, but for all that, I would not change him.

 

***

 

Doctor McCoy is as irritable as Spock had anticipated when he awakes well into Alpha shift. “I have a job to do, you green-blooded — you know perfectly well that I would have objected, which is why you made the decision without telling me.”

 

“The responsibility for assembling duty rosters falls on my shoulders; as such, I am empowered to make such changes when I deem them beneficial.”

 

“I know Jim’s health better than anyone,” McCoy hisses, snapping open his uniform tunic, which he’d removed at some point in the night and bunched up at his own side.

 

“If something unexpected had happened, I’m sure doctors M’Benga and Sanchez would have communicated as much.”

 

“That’s not the damn point, Spock.” The doctor rubs his hands up and down his own torso for a moment, scowling at the wrinkles. “Look, it’s my job to watch out for him. And before you say it’s your job too—”

 

“I had no such intention. What I was going to say was it is not only my job but my privilege to watch out for you in return." He raises a brow. “If you are truly so eager to reach the sickbay that you cannot be persuaded to stop at your own quarters, you are welcome to one of my uniform shirts.”

 

“Your torso is longer than mine,” he grumbles, but he’s already stripping his shirt back off and tossing it to the ‘fresher. He accepts the one Spock proffers and his face softens. “I know you think you’re lookin’ out for me, but just tell me next time. I’d’ve fought you tooth and nail, but in the end you’d have won.”

 

“I lacked the energy for such a battle of wills. But I will consider your request.”

 

“I didn’t phrase it as a request.”

 

“Nevertheless, as I am your superior officer, I took it as a request rather than an order. The shirt is suitable; let us depart.”

 

They make their way to Sickbay in silence. Sanchez meets them no more than three steps inside the door with a finger raised and ready to waggle, but McCoy shakes his head tiredly. “All right,” he says, “consider me here as a visitor. But since at the end of the day, I am your boss, throw me a tricorder. Go on. It’ll improve my temper.”

 

“Like trying to put out a fire with an eyedropper, Len,” Sanchez says, and then to Spock’s blank look, “improving his temper, I mean. But yeah, go ahead, save me the trouble of trying to give you a report.”

 

"Well," the doctor says after a moment, "his spleen is looking great, but the pneumothorax is going to take longer than I expected. Which is to say, it seems to be healing at barely above a normal rate."

 

Spock casts a wary eye towards Sanchez, and McCoy shakes his head, his mouth a thin line, and taps notes into his PADD - which, after a moment, turn out to actually be a message for Spock. Sanchez knows what the rest of the 'Fleet's MDs know: the Captain underwent some drastic and extremely experimental medical interventions to save his life. And that the specifics are above the highest clearance level he can ever expect to attain, but he's to defer to me if he ever sees something strange in the Captain's readings. And before you say, I have paperwork on file to catch up anyone who needs catching up- say if I were incapacitated. M'Benga already knows that we saved Jim's life with some kind of crazy one-off serum; he's next on my list if I need someone else to know.

 

Sanchez is in the office now, out of earshot, so Spock says, "So its effects are wearing off?"

 

"Looks like."

 

"He will be glad."

 

"I know, " McCoy sighs. "Do you think he’ll mind that I’m not? I know he wanted things back to normal, but I gotta tell you, I didn’t mind the idea of having something other than me standing between him and the abyss."

 

"I can assure you, Doctor, that even if the serum’s effects should disappear completely, you will never be standing alone."

 

The doctor stares at him for a moment, sharp and knowing, and then his lips twitch. "You did it, didn't you?" he asks. "Sorted things out between the two of you."

 

It is not an explicit enough question that Spock can justify lying, but he pauses to formulate his next words. "After a fashion," he says finally, slowly. "We… there is much still to be determined. But we -"

 

"Nah, that’s all I needed to hear," the doctor says, now grinning. He claps a hand on Spock’s shoulder genially. "I don’t suppose I need to give you a ‘hurt him and I’ll break my Hippocratic Oath’ speech.” He lifts his hand from Spock’s shoulder to point a finger in his face. “But you should know I do have one prepared."

 

"I understand your protectiveness and offer my assurances that you will find no provocation."

 

"I don't just mean physical pain, Spock."

 

"Of course."

 

"Good," he growls, and looks down. "I… I know we haven't always got along, but as much as I wasn't sure about you, I wasn’t sure about him either. Maybe even more so. He’s… well, I guess you know."

 

"He is Jim," Spock says, lifting his chin imperiously, almost daring the doctor to cast aspersions.

 

"He is at that. Very astute, Mister Spock."

 

"Tautological, in fact. But I have found that humans respond positively to that."

 

McCoy snorts. "Go away, Spock," he says, some percentage of his voice a mask of frustration, but all layered over amusement and fondness. Then, more gently, he adds, "I can accept your damn duty roster, but I want to stay here with him. As a visitor, like I told Sanchez. I’ve got him covered; if he wakes up, I’ll make sure he knows you left his side only at my insistence. We’ve got a hell of a debrief to get through, and I’m betting you could use a few hours of meditation before we get to that."

 

Spock inclines his head. “Thank you, doctor,” he says.

 

***

 

The debrief begins at 1600. Spock begins by playing back a twenty-minute response from Admiral Archer. The admiral is furious, gratifyingly so, the expanse of his face drawn tight with emotion.

 

“I need your report as fast as you can give it to me, Enterprise,” he says. “I know SOP when you’re this far out is to batch process the messaging, but I’m authorizing an override of that for you for the next several days at least. I’m dedicating a set of subspace relays to your traffic alone to facilitate that, so you shouldn’t see any bounce. Send information as you get it. Sensor and subspace logs hourly, even if you haven’t had time to process. Use a rotating encryption algorithm, and keep it coming until I tell you to stop.” He leans forward toward the cam, resting both elbows on the desk in front of him. “I don’t have to tell you how invested I am in bringing these Section 31 bastards down. But I can’t risk bringing the Carolina in until I’m damned sure.”

 

Spock thumbs the message off and swivels to face the faces around the briefing table (consisting of senior staff and relevant away-team members). “What do we have for the Admiral?” he asks. "Please share a brief summary of findings."

 

“I need another hour or two to finish my analysis of the explosives,” Doctor Marcus says. “Everything I’ve seen so far suggests they’re pressure-detonated, but that doesn’t make sense, for a variety of reasons. But one thing I can tell you now: Mackenzie and crew didn't set them. They’re lower-tech than anything we’d expect to see from either Starfleet or Section 31, and they've been there a lot longer than six years."

 

"The civilization on the planet did not, even in its prime, bear any resemblance to the one described in Captain Mackenzie's logs," McGivers says shortly. “It seems highly unlikely that they were ever warp-capable. They’ve been dead far too long to have been responsible for placing the explosives.”

 

"And zere is no tritanium on ze planet below," Chekov adds.

 

"There are linguistic artifacts in the logs we received that are indicative of tampering. Both written and auditory. Sections were removed and reshuffled, but there are also sections that were added, which would require tech like I've never encountered, as well as extreme skill."

 

"The masking effect over the third continent is natural, not technological," Scotty says. “I’ll be givin’ ye more than that once I’ve a chance t' review the tricorder logs, but I’ve only jus’ been allowed out o’ bed.” He sounds vaguely reproachful, and McCoy glares at him before adding his own report.

 

"Mister Scott's ankles, legs, and cervical vertebrae have been fully and skillfully repaired and he can return to light duty tomorrow. The Captain will also recover fully, but will take a few days at least. He still hasn’t woken, but that’s a positive for the moment - the more rest he gets, the more recovered he’ll be by the time he starts trying to break out of my damn Sickbay."

 

“Very good,” Spock says. “As for my report, sciences detect no ships in our vicinity and confirm no life signs on the planet within surface scanning proximity of each of ten distributed beam points.” He thinks that Jim would prolong this meeting with recognitions, reassurances, detailed but undocumented verbal reports, and speculation -- but there is work to be done, and written reports are needed for the admiralty in any case, and Jim is not here. So: “I expect your preliminary reports within the half-hour and full reports by twenty-one-hundred hours. Dismissed.”

 

They seem surprised, but they obey. Spock withdraws to his quarters and retrieves the brief separate message that had been sent to him alone.

 

“Mister Spock, we need to put a man as thorough as you are on every damn ship in the fleet,” Archer says. “It wasn’t the logs you sent that were the most illuminating. It was the goddamned metadata. Someone fucked with Mackenzie’s logs after they left Starfleet Headquarters, and the only way our folks were able to tell when it happened was the change in the file size resulted in the data stream getting queued at send on our end but not at send on yours. So the dedicated relays are a practical measure, but they’re also a test. Everything that comes through is going to be imprinted at each relay. I want you to set up imprinting as well, and I want you and Jim to be the only people on board who know about it if at all possible. I hate to say this, but there’s a chance that the mole’s on your end. Whoever it is, they want us to think Mackenzie’s dirty. And maybe he is, I’m not ruling anything out yet. But if so, he’s not the only one.”

 

Archer looks away from the cam for a moment. “Hmm. What else? Your comms lieutenant will probably figure out what you’re doing with the imprints; I know she’s a sharp one. Hide it if you can, but if you can’t, I can live with that.” He steeples his fingers in front of his lips, still not looking into the cam. “God, Spock, I don’t know what else to tell you. I wish we had a better lead on this, but I have to admit it’s taken me by surprise. I thought we had our fingers on Section 31’s pulse, but I’d never dreamed they’d want Jim dead. Hell, to be honest with you, I’d more than half considered setting him up with a plan in case they tried to recruit him.” He looks back, and although this message was recorded hours ago and light-years away, Spock feels as if he has just made eye contact. “What’s going to keep me up at night is how they could have known it would be him.”

 

The puzzle clicks into place in Spock’s mind. They could not have known, he thinks, not from any distance. And whatever remains, however improbable…

 

He taps his comm. “Commander Spock to Doctor Marcus,” he says.

 

“I’m working on it, Commander,” she answers.

 

“Please come to my quarters,” he says.

 

“Your --? Yes, sir. On my way.”

 

He dismisses Archer’s message and resists the urge to pace. Doctor Marcus arrives quickly, and seems surprised again when he beckons her in rather than joining her in the hallway.

 

“Sir, if this is about my report, I --”

 

“It is not,” he says. “You indicated that you have not yet definitively determined the detonation methodology of the explosives.” She bobbles her head, something between a nod and a shake indicating agreement and confusion.

 

“Right, from what we observed from Scotty’s trigger, I would call pressure most likely, but there are several things that make me question that. One: with the root systems carrying pressure, it seems almost impossible that none of them would have detonated sooner -- I mean, even without someone walking around, much less with the four of them exploring down there for several minutes. Then there’s just the fact that the mines were buried so deeply. If it was intended to be a booby trap, it’s strangely impractical to go so deep, because all that would seem to do is lessen your precision. If you want to kill whoever sets them off, you wouldn’t put them so deep. If you don’t want to kill them, you wouldn’t use such a high yield, and you wouldn’t have so many. So I’m working on figuring out if it’s possible that the yield we see wasn’t the original one; if the materials somehow either degraded or concentrated over time.”

 

“On the surface, we spoke of two possible methodologies, pressure and proximity. I believe based on Mister Scott’s successful triggering of the mine in our target area, we can logically exclude the possibility of a timed detonation. I believe our observations also allow us to comfortably exclude triggers such as temperature, chemical reaction, or sound waves. However, there is an option we have not discussed.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Manual detonation.”

 

She gapes at him openly, and he feels irritation prickle at the base of his skull. She is a scientist; she should not be so shocked at such a perfectly rational suggestion in the face of the evidence.

 

“Sir,” she breathes. “I don’t -- are you suggesting that someone from Section 31 had eyes on the planet while we were down there?

 

“I am suggesting that you entertain the possibility,” he says, and the corners of her mouth tighten perceptibly; he realizes he has allowed some measure of emotion to carry into his voice, and makes a concentrated effort to remove it as he continues. “You are the expert, Lieutenant. Is this a viable hypothesis?”

 

She draws in a breath, raising her eyes to the ceiling and blinking, casting her gaze about for a moment as if following the paths of darting insects. “Yes sir, it’s a possibility. I hadn’t considered it, sir. Thank you for the suggestion; I’ll look into it immediately.” She doesn’t wait for a dismissal, and she leaves his quarters briskly.

 

Once she is gone, he taps his comm again. “Lieutenant 0718,” he says, “please continue long- and short-range scanning for ships, but expand parameters to include any other spacefaring metallic objects.”

 

“Yes, sir. Expanding parameters,” 0718 says.

 

Spock closes the comm line and pulls up the Admiral’s message once more. This time, he pauses on the image of Archer looking off into the middle distance over the steepled points of his fingertips. I’d never dreamed they’d want Jim dead, he’d said.

 

I had, Spock does not say to the frozen image on the screen. And still I find myself unprepared.

Chapter Text

Jim hadn’t expected to wake up alone.

 

Well, okay, Jim shouldn’t have expected to wake up, period. But maybe by now he knows better than to doubt Bones’s ability to pull him back from the brink, or maybe he’d been floating near enough to consciousness that he knew he’d made it through, because for some reason when he wakes up, the thing that surprises him most is that there’s no one at his side.

 

He feels what might be a lump in his throat, and swallows it quickly. Who knows how long he’s been out, or how often someone’s been there while he was unconscious? It’s definitely ship’s night, so it’s only logical that everyone’s either asleep or on duty. Spock’s got a ship to run. They’d said that came first.

 

He turns his head away from the door and closes his eyes. Tells himself he’s not waiting for anyone.

 

A few minutes later, when he hears a swish of steps, he looks back and tells himself he’s not disappointed to see Doctor M’Benga’s kind, earnest face. “Captain!” M’Benga says. “You’ve been out a couple days. How are you feeling? Let me get you some water.”

 

“The others,” Jim croaks, shifting his arms and trying to push himself up a bit. “Pav. Scotty. Did they--?”

 

“Everyone else is fine,” the doctor answers, and slides his arm behind Jim’s back to help him sit up. “Easy now. Here.” The water is cold; Jim blinks and swallows, then shakes his head when M’Benga lifts the glass for another sip.

 

“‘s there a report?”

 

“Captain, please,” M’Benga says. “You know as well as I do that Len will have my head if I let you do anything resembling your duties.”

 

“Is it your medical opinion that I--” The world tilts. “Oh,” he breathes. “Okay. Ow.”

 

“Ah, I’ve got you. Don’t lie back down.”

 

“Why--?” His breath comes in sharp wheezes, and pain and pressure are lancing through his chest.

 

“Try to breathe more shallowly,” the doctor instructs. “I know that’s not intuitive. Here, listen to me breathe and try to follow this pattern. There you go. Okay.” He pats Jim’s shoulder, and for a moment it’s all Jim can do not to grab his hand. The contact is comforting -- more than he’d expect.

 

“You’re still at about 70% of your normal lung capacity,” M’Benga says once Jim’s breathing has stabilized. “You punctured your left lung, and it had collapsed by the time we got you back here. It’s repaired, but there’s still a lot of swelling that’s going to keep you from being able to take full breaths, and because it’s just on one side, it’s going to take you a bit to adjust. I know it’s disorienting, but I promise you’re able to get enough oxygen. The minute you aren’t, I’ll supplement.”

 

“You said everyone else is okay?” Jim manages a few minutes later. He wants to ask about Spock, but he doesn’t have a good reason to do that. Spock wasn’t even on the planet. Or maybe -

 

“Just you down here, isn’t it? And you’re going to be just fine. You know how I know? Because Len is sleeping, rather than stealing my shift or hovering over my shoulder.” Something must show in Jim’s face, because M’Benga adds gently, “Of course, I can call him, if you’d like. I’m technically disobeying direct orders by not having done so already, but I always prefer to give my patients the choice of whether they want overbearing, aggressively Southern visitors or not.”

 

He manages a smile at that. “You don’t think he set an alarm to wake him the instant my brainwaves indicated consciousness?” He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t mind some company, and I don’t want to keep you from your work, but if you don’t want him hovering, I’m sure--”

 

The Sickbay doors open, and Spock strides in, as if 0243 is a perfectly normal time for a visit. M’Benga’s brows shoot up, and he grins a bit. “The two of you,” he says, “are like a well-oiled machine. Your timing is impeccable, Commander.”

 

“Captain,” Spock says. “It is gratifying to see you conscious once again.”

 

“Gratifying to be conscious, Mister Spock,” Jim says wryly.

 

“I’ll let him catch you up,” M’Benga says. “Here, Commander,” and he directs Spock’s arm to slide in place across the back of Jim’s shoulders in place of his own. “Keep him sitting up for a few more minutes. Water if he needs it. I’ll be in my office; let me know if he needs something more for the pain.” And he beats a rather hasty retreat. Spock quirks an eyebrow after him, but his expression sobers as he turns back to Jim.

 

“How do you feel?” he murmurs.

 

“Like hell,” Jim says. “M’Benga says I’m still only at 70% lung capacity?”

 

“Indeed. Those injuries seem to be healing at a normal rate of speed.”

 

“Ah.” He’s not sure how to feel about that. “I bet Bones is pissed about that, huh?”

 

“He is satisfied with your progress,” Spock answers mildly. His hand rubs between Jim’s shoulderblades, firm enough to support him but gentle enough not to exacerbate the pain. “Jim. I am…” He closes his eyes, and for a moment Jim thinks he’s missed something and Spock is injured too, in pain somehow, but then he draws an unsteady breath and ducks in to brush a kiss across Jim’s lips, and Jim understands.

 

“Hey,” he says, lifting a hand to brush Spock’s cheek. “I’m okay. I’m going to be fine.”

 

“You were not,” Spock replies.

 

“I know.”

 

“To know you were wounded, mortally so, and not be able to reach you… I was not prepared to face that again.” Jim winces.

 

“But you did. You got me out. You always have, you always do.”

 

“Please, ashayam,” Spock breathes across his lips, and presses another quick kiss against them, the lightest pressure, but soft and warm and comforting. “Please understand. I must not lose you.” His eyes are searching Jim’s face, as if looking for an answer to a question, and Jim realizes, he’s begging. For what, he’s not quite sure. A promise? Reassurance?

 

“Hey,” he says again. “You haven’t lost me. I’m right here. Spock, I’m not going anywhere.” It occurs to him, too late, that there are cameras from the office that look out at the biobeds. Oh well. With any luck, M’Benga hadn’t been paying attention. Jim pulls his face back a few inches, but presses two fingers against the back of Spock’s hand and strokes gently. Spock’s breath is unsteady again, and he is still searching Jim’s face desperately. Whatever he’s looking for there, he’s clearly not finding it, Jim thinks.

 

Something is beeping. The room tilts again, and Spock is lowering him back to the biobed and rumbling in M’Benga’s direction; the doctor bustles out of his office again, but Jim focuses his gaze on Spock’s face.

 

You’re so beautiful, he thinks, only maybe he said it out loud because Spock’s expression softens, his eyes crinkling with affection alongside his pain.

 

Sleep, ashayam, Spock’s voice whispers in his head, and he doesn’t think the tingle in his fingers is just from oxygen deprivation, but he hears the hiss of a hypospray and he’s out too quickly to be sure.

 

***

 

Two days later, Jim’s on his feet beside his biobed when the doors swish open again and Nyota comes through. Her eyes brighten when she sees him, her mouth widening in a brilliant smile as she swoops to his side. She reaches out and touches his shoulder.

 

“Can I give you a hug,” she asks, “or would that be inappropriate?”

 

“Come here,” he says, and pulls her in. She wraps her arms around him, secure but not too tight, and rocks them from one foot to the other.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, “for panicking. When you were down there. I’m still working through it, but I’m sorry that you were crushed and bleeding out and you were the one trying to comfort me.”

 

“Thanks,” he whispers, and pulls her back so she can see his sincerity. “I mean, yeah, try not to do that again, but it also -- I heard you loud and clear.”

 

She flushes dark, but her grin returns. “I was talking to Spock about it,” she says, “about being emotionally compromised, and he said the ‘Fleet would have gotten more out of our psych evals if instead of asking about our families of origin, they’d asked about our family of choice.”

 

Jim blinks. He’s grinning back at her, but maybe a bit tremulously. “In so many words?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He draws in a deep breath and lets it out in a whistle.

 

“Exactly,” Nyota says. “So -- don’t fuck this up, okay?”

 

“Deal,” Jim laughs, but he means it.

 

***

 

>> Guess who’s cleared for a full range of activity again?

 

>> As there is only one member of crew who was not cleared for a full range of activity, there is no guessing involved, Jim.

 

>> Dinner at mine? 1900?

 

>> That would be most agreeable.

 

***

 

They don’t eat dinner.

 

Five minutes after entering Jim’s room, Spock’s hands are on his hips, pressing him backwards with steady steps, capturing Jim’s bright eyes with his own dark ones, capturing Jim's bright mouth with his as well, both of them with nostrils flaring and quickened breath. When the back of Jim’s knees hit the mattress, Spock’s hands lift to his shoulders and push him until he's sitting. Then he leans down for a kiss that is searing and something like desperate, and Jim breathes a soft sound into his mouth.

 

He settles his hands on the bed, bracketed on either side of Jim's legs, and crawls forward, pressing Jim back until he's lying on the mattress sprawled and panting, eyes blown wide, with Spock laid out on top of him.

 

“Hi,” Jim laughs, lifting his head to capture Spock’s mouth with his, and Spock reaches up to curl one hand behind his neck, tilting it back to open and deepen the kiss and letting his body press down into Jim’s. He spreads his legs, and Jim’s laughter turns in on itself, shifting to small gasping breaths, because they’re both hard and their bodies are tight against one another’s now.

 

Spock begins to grind against him, slowly at first - pressing his hips down and in and swiveling them to find different angles. He presses open-mouth kisses against Jim's neck and lets his tongue drag against the sensitive skin at the base of his throat. Then, deliberately, he tucks his fingers beneath the bottom hem of Jim's shirt and undershirt and slides both up to expose a pale length of chest and stomach. Still rocking his hips forward, Spock twists his head and suckles on a nipple. Jim gasps and whines, fingers scrabbling on Spock's shoulders in not quite a stop but not quite a yes-like-that.

 

Spock stops, looks up at him with smouldering hooded eyes, and while they're making direct eye contact, rocks his hips again.

 

Jim cries out, but then twists his head away, panting with arousal and effort. "Jesus, Spock," he says, "this is -" He seems to get caught on a word, and whimpers, rutting a little as the stillness becomes too much.

 

"Jim, you will let me know if you wish for me to stop?"

 

"No, no, it's not that, it's just - I want - I don't want -"

 

"If you cannot consent coherently, we can withdraw to the sitting area to discuss," Spock says, but he wraps his hands back to Jim’s hips, around to clasp his buttocks, and rocks into him again.

 

“Ah, ah, God!” Jim writhes under him, throwing his head back, and Spock accepts the invitation and laves again at his throat. Their bodies stutter together as they find an angle that brings their erections into alignment with each other, and Jim shudders and grabs at one of Spock’s hands, pulling it up between them. He finishes his thought in a rush.

 

"I don't want anything we do - to be about what happened,” he says. “I - I can tell that you want me. That you want this to -- you want to feel me, you want to let me know that you need me. And I do know. Ah!” Spock nuzzles his cheek, but doesn’t stop the motion of his body, the slow, sweet rut against him. “And I know I've always told you that if you don't want to go the slow road anymore I'd go at whatever pace you prefer, and God baby this feels so fucking good, I don’t want to stop, please…”

 

He draws another shudder of breath. “But I can't have it be because something bad happened, d'you know?"

 

Spock stills against him, impassive, for a moment. Then he swoops down and presses a gentle kiss to Jim’s pulse, letting his weight down onto Jim and wrapping his arms around Jim’s neck.

 

“Your self-restraint is remarkable,” he whispers against Jim’s throat. “I do not like it.”

 

Jim huffs a laugh. “I know,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re not here, and I’m thinking of you, I think I must have lost my mind. But I just --”

 

“Do not feel the need to explain yourself to me, k’diwa.” He allows his lips to curve upwards, his face still hidden in Jim’s cheek and shoulder, as he senses the flutter of eyelids at the unfamiliar word. “It means beloved,” he says, and Jim’s breath shortens. Spock can imagine the feeling he would be sensing, if their minds had been touching in that moment: a kind of awe, reverent and soft and bright at once.

 

“Thank you,” Jim says, tightening his own arms and letting them slide down to circle Spock’s waist. He makes a motion as if to pull Spock tighter, but there is very little tighter they can be against one another, so he mirrors the gesture Spock had performed for him a moment before, nuzzling their cheeks together.

 

“I am so happy just to lie like this,” he says after a moment, “but I also didn’t mean to imply we had to be entirely chaste.”

 

“What do you propose?” And Jim pulls his head back, twisting his chin to an awkward angle to make eye contact, their faces too close together. He’s blushing, the pink in his cheeks deepening.

 

“I was wondering,” he said, “I don’t want to presume, but -- do Vulcans masturbate?”

 

“I would not myself presume to speak on behalf of all Vulcans,” Spock answers, keeping a hint of amusement in his voice to ensure Jim doesn’t misunderstand. “I personally, however, do engage in self-stimulating behaviors.”

 

Jim’s whole body seems to twitch at that, like a shiver of electricity running from the periphery of his body inwards. “If this is too much to ask, that’s okay, but -- I’ve tried to imagine it, sometimes, and I can’t quite seem to -- would you be willing to show me?”

 

Now it’s Spock’s turn to feel the frisson, tension tugging and releasing. “Yes,” he says. “And, with the same caveats -- would you be amenable to reciprocating in kind?”

 

And Jim whimpers again, bites his lip, nods not quite frantically.

 

Spock lifts his body from Jim's, shucks his tunic with his undershirt, and makes eye contact again before shedding his pants and undergarment. He's already hard, and he looks at himself ruefully and admits, "I do not normally begin this way."

 

"Come lay next to me," Jim says, patting the bed beside him, "and tell me how you do begin."

 

"It has not always been the same," he admits. "I have - that is to say, since -"

 

"Of course- everything is different now that we’re back aboard."

 

"I was going to say," Spock says, sure his cheeks are green, "since Iowa.”

 

"Oh," Jim breathes with that same reverence. "Tell me."

 

Spock sets his head against his captain's chest and wraps his arms back around him. He closes his eyes, letting his arousal soften, and nuzzles closer into Jim's warmth. "The sheets," Spock says, "smelled of you. Was that intentional?"

 

"Not in the way it sounds when you say it like that," Jim says, his tone telling Spock that his cheeks, too, are darkening. "I knew, but I wasn't bold enough to have done it intentionally. I just didn't think to change them until you were already there, and then it seemed weird to - I just figured you'd change them yourself, but you didn't. Not right away."

 

"I knew your scent, of course," Spock says, turning his head and gripping one of Jim's wrists, raising it to brush his lips against the cool veins and ropes of tendon and muscle all pulsing there under his touch. He breathes in the smell. "I cannot remember, now, when I first came to know it. One of your early stays in Sickbay, perhaps. When you had stayed at my home, you had left it behind you, on sheets and blankets and pillows, and I did take comfort in it at times when you were gone, a reminder of your wellbeing, your nearness. But as I was your caretaker, it would have felt inappropriately invasive to find any physical satisfaction in these things. I always changed the bedclothes after you had stayed before I slept in the bed.

 

“But in your home - invited to sleep in a bed that your scent marked as yours - it felt as though I had been- invited." Jim's breath has grown shorter. Spock shifts to entangle their legs further, and his hip brushes against Jim's erection.

 

"Did you touch yourself in my bed?" Jim asks, breathy.

 

"Not to release," Spock admits. "But after - when I was back in my own apartment- I could not sleep, I felt as though my skin had been stretched and tightened against my body, as if all of my sensory input had intensified, and I imagined - riding your vee, and sleeping in your sheets, and the ozh’esta - the touch of your hand, in the gully, and -"

 

He is short of breath too, now, feeling as he felt on the night in question, heightened and tightly wound. He presses himself against the muscled length of Jim's body for a moment, and then rocks backwards, rolling onto his own back, splaying himself across the bed, one leg still touching Jim's and the other spread out. Wider than he would, on his own, but Jim need not know that. Jim, who has whimpered at the loss of contact, his eyes flying open wide.

 

Spock still has one of his hands, but releases it, lets it drift down, and then says, "No, I was not so dignified, that first time. Imagine- after seventy-four minutes of lying still and attempting to sleep- thinking of your scent- of your hands, of the way our bodies had felt together on your vee, of your fingers on mine, the touch of them on my cheek as we lay under the stars, and I knew- I knew in that moment, that you would not mind, if I-"

 

And his hand flies to his penis, grasps it stem to stern and feels the thick pulse of blood, and he groans. "Jim," he whimpers. "I touched myself, I-" He strokes across the head, gathers a smear of precum on his palm, and pumps himself slowly, twice, letting his hips roll, groaning wide. He lets his eyes open, lets them lock with Jim's, which are wide and wrecked and so so blue. "Like this. I - I touched myself, and I thought of you. Of your body, your smell." He whispers the next in a rush, scarcely bold enough to admit it even as Jim's eyes catch on his penis, on the way his hand is moving, sliding, grasping. "I reached - I pulled at my own hair, and I imagined it was you-" And Jim cards a hand into Spock's hair as quickly as he can and tugs, and Spock does now as he did then, stifling a moan and letting the pace of his hand become frantic, letting the motion of his hips be guided by imagination, thrusting into his own hand, letting his free hand grasp against Jim's, guiding it to pull at his hair with almost a rhythm, and then he is clutching and gasping and coming, his eyes shut involuntarily, his neck twisting side to side, his semen hot on his hand and stomach and his breath in gasps.

 

He had reached orgasm quickly, on the night of which he spoke, but not -- not quite so quickly.

 

He closes his eyes, gives a final shuddering gasp, and says as much. When Jim doesn't respond, he opens his eyes again. Jim is still tangled in his hair, trembling as if with exertion. Spock takes his hand from Jim's and smoothes it against his forehead, his cheek, trails fingers down his chest.

 

"Are you well?" he murmurs when none of this elicits an obvious response.

 

"Am I-?! Yes. Jesus, Spock, yes, I'm - please don't - I am so well. I am - that was - seriously I don't know if I've ever seen or heard or felt anything that hot, I feel like - I need to be honest, I always imagined it would take some coaxing and training to get you to talk dirty to me, and you just put everyone I've ever slept with to shame, so I'm just - catching up. As usual." He laughs nervously, and Spock turns his body back toward Jim's, pulls Jim's hip until they're both on their sides, facing each other. He presses their bodies together and feels the wracking shudder that goes through Jim as Spock's cum-damp groin and belly press against his still-clothed body.

 

Jim kisses him with a clash of teeth and tongue, writhes against him, and reaches down with both hands to divest himself of his clothing. Spock helps with his shirt, and then they are both naked and their bodies together and it is all Spock can bear to stay still and quiet, not to touch or claim or mark. He wants to sink himself into Jim's body, to set a pace that is torturously slow until Jim is blind with pleasure, thrashing beneath him and begging him for more, and only then would he give it, but --

 

Jim isn't ready for that. Jim is breathing deliberately, slowly, and when he speaks again his voice is rough.

 

"Do you ever use toys?" he asks.

 

"I do not," he answers. "I presume you do?"

 

"Sometimes," Jim says. "Would you prefer a demonstration with, or without?"

 

Spock considers for a moment. "I do not believe I have a preference," he admits. "What - kind of devices do you use most commonly?"

 

"I mean, most of the time it's just some lubes and my right hand," Jim says. "But if I'm feeling like I need something more, I use a ring or a butt plug. I have other stuff, but those are the only two things that don't require working up to."

 

With their bodies flush together, Spock can feel the hot rush of embarrassment and shame washing through Jim's body, and he presses a hand to Jim's face to soothe and relax. "Perhaps without," he suggests, "unless you have a preference yourself. But know that I am not unfamiliar with the devices of which you speak, and one day I will take great pleasure in working you up to them." The shame is swiftly replaced with arousal, and Spock presses Jim back away from him, a nudge to begin. "For now, show me your pleasure."

 

"Oh baby, yeah," Jim says, and spreads his knees apart, lifting his hips off the bed. He scrabbles at his bedside table, procuring a bottle of clear lubricant and loading it into one palm before slicking it against his hardening cock. "Oh, yeah," he sighs, pumping himself twice and then reaching down to swirl the slick around his balls once. "I - I think of you too, I - your perfect mouth and how you looked in those swim trunks and the way you tell me you're not going anywhere and Jesus, Spock," he gasps, twisting his hand and pistoning his hips, already picking up speed, "when you rode up to the farmhouse on my vee and wearing my jacket, I don't think I'd ever been so turned on in my life, and I couldn't even hide it, the whole bridge crew was there and I couldn't take my eyes off you, you looked so fucking good, and it was like I'd marked you mine in my fucking jacket, but you were the one who - you put it on, I didn't even, so it was like,” and he gasps in another breath like he’s trying not to drown.

 

“Like you were calling yourself mine, marking yourself mine in front of all our friends and I wanted so badly to kiss you right there, to fucking, to just tell you, tell you I was yours and I've always been yours and I wanted to tell you, to watch your eyes widen and to see what it would do to you, to say it, oh god Spock, Spock, Spock -"

 

-- and Spock rocks towards him and holds him through the aftershocks of orgasm, runs hands down his body and around his hips and kisses his mouth open, nudges his way inside and presses their tongues together, tastes the stale of sleep and the drunk satisfaction and wants more.

 

Next time he will prepare a warm, wet cloth to clean them off together, a fresh set of sheets so they can tuck their naked bodies against one another and sleep, glasses of water for the bedside and uniforms for the morning so that they can stay like this for every possible moment, pressed together like a dream and sated and shining like stars.

Chapter Text

“Listen, Kirk,” says Admiral Archer, shaking his head, “if Section 31 wants you dead, then I need you alive. We can send the Nukarians some other ship...”

 

“Goddamnit, no, why would you send another ship when I’m two days away?!” Jim yells, but Archer doesn’t react. Archer can’t react, because this is a holorecording of him, sent nine and a half hours ago. Jim goes to pause the recording, but that was the end of it; Archer’s image flickers and disappears.

 

“Captain?” Spock’s voice says from the door to their shared ‘fresher.

 

Jim sighs, crossing to open the door. Spock is standing in the dark on the other side, his hair slightly ruffled and his brows quirked in an expression Jim has learned to read as concern. “Sorry,” Jim says, stepping back to allow Spock to enter. “Did I wake you?”

 

Spock tilts his head and steps just inside the door. “I was not asleep.”

 

“I disturbed your meditation, then.”

 

“It is of no consequence. Orders from the admiral?”

 

Jim frowns. “Now that you mention it,” he says, “not exactly. He told me what he’s going to do, but he didn’t tell me what we’re supposed to do.” Spock’s face flickers with a shadow of the puzzlement Jim himself feels, and Jim presses play on the recording again.

 

“Captain, I hear by the time this message reaches you, you’ll be back on your feet. Typical Kirk, almost getting yourself killed on your second damn mission. Keep that up and I’ll have to demote your first officer. You know he’s supposed to be the one leading the away missions, right?”

 

“He’s joking,” Jim says flatly to the widening of Spock’s eyes.

 

“Listen, I know your orders after Aldhabi were to continue on to a’Nukar a’Ani for a diplomatic follow-up, but considering the circumstances, we’ve decided to deprioritize the remainder of your scheduled mission until we can ascertain what the hell happened out there six years ago. I’m sure you’ve been briefed on our findings, but the short of it is, somewhere in between HQ and you, the mission briefing we sent you was compromised almost beyond recognizability. The kicker is that the footage that was added was either created with Mackenzie’s help, or with voice synthesis technology we weren’t aware any of our military enemies had. There are artifacts that indicate discontinuity, but none that suggest anything other than his voice print. The long and short of it is that we don’t know for sure, and the only way to find out would be to keep on with the mission. That, of course, would be putting you straight in Section 31’s cross-hairs. Listen, Kirk, if Section 31 wants you dead, then I need you alive. We can send the Nukarians some other ship, some other time. Archer out.”

 

“So he doesn’t even have another mission for me,” Jim says bitterly. “Just, ‘Trot on home, Jimmy boy, we need you safe and–’ What? You heard something there that I didn’t. What was it?”

 

“I do not -”

 

“Tell me, Spock, that’s an order.”

 

Spock stiffens and folds his hands behind his back. “Aye, sir,” he says. “The admiral is anticipating your objections, sir. I believe he is unwilling to order you to continue the mission – to remain in the line of fire, as it were – but is hoping that, absent a compelling alternative, you will volunteer. It is likely that the opinion at Headquarters is divided and the Admiral did not feel the need to expend social capital in overruling the parties who wish to see you out of harm’s way when instead he could present them with you making the case for him. Sir.”

 

Jim’s eyes sparkle, and he lets out a low whistle. “Damn,” he says. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Archer knows me well enough for that. I think I would have picked it up if it were a live conversation, but I just get so damn frustrated when I can’t answer.”

 

“Captain,” Spock says.

 

“Objection duly noted. Absent instructions, let’s keep our position while I send him the response he’s looking for.”

 

“I did not lodge any objection, sir.”

 

“Okay, but you were going to, right?”

 

Spock hesitates. “Negative,” he says. “Not an objection, merely – a caution. Whether this was a trap laid by Mackenzie or by unknown Section 31 agents or by a different enemy entirely, they have already shown themselves a cunning adversary. I advise against assuming that we can predict what they will have predicted our next move to be, sir.”

 

Jim’s features relax, and he reaches out to Spock and unclasps his hands from their position locked behind his back, draws both palms forward so that their hands are layered together and so that their bodies face one another.

 

“Do you want to talk through this?” he asks, lowering his voice. “You’ve had more time than I have to think through the possibilities.”

 

Spock takes a breath. “Please,” he says, pulling his hands back. “I – I must ask that we attempt to decouple the personal elements of our relationship from the professional.”

 

“Mm,” Jim says, twisting his lips, “Spock, I want to respect that, but I don’t think it’s going to work that way. I can’t decide if I’m asking my first officer for his opinion or if I’m asking my best friend, my – my romantic and sexual partner. You’re all of those things; I want to know all of your answers.”

 

“Of course,” Spock says. “My apologies, I have misspoken. It is not this duality which I find compromising. I meant, specifically, that I wish for us not to discuss ship’s matters while engaging in intimate physical contact. As a touch telepath, it would not be possible for me to retain the controls that are necessary for my professionalism while experiencing skin-to-skin contact with my – with you.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –”

 

“An apology is not necessary or warranted. We had not established such a boundary; as such, you were not transgressing.”

 

Jim bites his lip and nods. “You, um,” he says, his mouth suddenly dry. “You used the word ‘compromised’. You’re big on precision of language, so I assume that the connotations were intentional.”

 

“Affirmative.”

 

“Okay,” he breathes. “Um. Spock. I don’t know how to say this, but um. Is this… acceptable? If I’m - if you’re - compromised, does that make this untenable?”

 

Spock’s expression seems to freeze, and Jim reaches for his hands again, instinctively, but Spock pulls back and Jim’s heart lurches painfully. It’s that split-second flash of fear and free-fall that happens when he’s walking down a flight of dark stairs and he'd thought he'd reached a landing and then stepped forward to find another stair. Like the ground has betrayed him, shifted under his feet, or a carpet pulled from beneath him. Spock blinks, averts his eyes from Jim’s face, and says, “I had not believed so; however, if you feel–”

 

“I don’t,” Jim blurts. “No I don’t, it’s okay, I’m sorry, I was – I thought you were – it’s fine, it’s fine, we’re fine.” He stumbles forward and Spock catches him, wraps his arms around him; Jim slides his fingers up Spock’s neck and into the fine strands of his hair. “I’m sorry,” Jim whispers again, feeling Spock’s heart rate, the slight tremble of his fingers on Jim’s back. “Please forgive me, I didn’t mean, I never meant to make you think I want to stop. It was my fear talking. I thought – for a moment I thought you were about to say that you couldn’t – that we couldn’t be – and I just – it was like my brain fritzed out. I’m so sorry.”

 

“Forgiven, k’diwa,” Spock says. “And allow me to offer my own apology. What I intended to convey was that, in order to avoid untenable emotional compromise, I must ask that we not conduct our ship’s business while we touch one another.”

 

“I’m an idiot. I understand. That makes perfect sense.” Jim starts to pull back, but Spock’s arms tighten around him.

 

“Perhaps we need not conduct ship’s business right now,” he whispers.

 

“Oh, Spock,” Jim says, and then finishes drawing back. “I’m so sorry. But we actually really do. I need to send my response to the admiralty tonight, and I think we should really debrief before I do.”

 

“Your logic is sound,” Spock says, and hesitates.

 

“It almost sounds like there’s a ‘however’ coming next,” Jim says.

 

“Indeed,” Spock replies. “I believe my fellow senior officers should also have the privilege of expressing their professional opinions on this matter.”

 

“Ugh,” Jim says. “It’s the middle of the night.”

 

“On the contrary, it is early in the night. I suspect few of the officers in question are asleep yet.” Jim sighs and types out a text comm to the group: Who’s up?

 

>>STSPOCK: I am. Spock’s reply comes in first, and Jim raises an eyebrow at him. “If your goal is to pretend you weren’t in my quarters watching me send that message, it might have been wise to wait a few more seconds before responding,” he says.

 

>>MSCOTT: Aye captain

 

>>PCHEKOV: Who is not? The night is young!

 

>>NUHURA: Awake and awaiting orders.

 

>>LMCCOY: I am now, thanks

 

>>HSULU: Nnnng.

 

Jim waits a moment, and then says, “Looks like everyone but Carol.” Debrief. My quarters, now. He throws himself onto his sofa and pats the seat beside him, but Spock takes one of the chairs from his dining area instead and places his hands on his knees. “Spock,” Jim says. “You okay?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Spock says, and Jim would gladly huff what he thinks about that answer, but the chime sounds and Bones is through the door before he can say anything.

 

“No way you got dressed that fast,” Jim says. “I call bullshit. You were awake already.”

 

“I’m only a hall away,” McCoy snaps. “What the hell is so important?”

 

“Hang tight. I don’t want to have to explain six times.”

 

Chekov and Sulu are next, Sulu’s hair untidy enough that Jim believes he actually rolled out of bed to come here. They sit on the couch with him, one on either side. Uhura arrives a moment later, pulling up the other dining chair, and finally Scotty, who remains standing, claps his hands and rubs them together genially.

 

“So, what have ye brought us here for, cap’n?”

 

Jim presses play. Chekov barely stifles a laugh at the admiral’s jab at Spock, but that aside, it’s quiet until the message has finished, and then for a moment afterwards.

 

“He wants you to volunteer,” Nyota says flatly, and Jim raises a brow at Spock.

 

“That was my conclusion as well, lieutenant,” Spock says.

 

“And you’re going to do it, aren’t you?” McCoy says, his voice tight.

 

“That’s what we’re going to decide,” Jim says. Eyebrows raise all around the room at that, and Jim feels a twinge of something like guilt. If they’re this surprised to hear him say that, it’s a good indicator of how infrequently he asks for their counsel.

 

“Why,” McCoy says, “when given the option between walking into a trap and doing literally anything else, is there any question of which option is better?”

 

“Okay, for starters, we don’t know that this next one will be a trap,” Jim says.

 

McCoy scoffs, but to Jim’s surprise, Nyota chimes in. “No, Len, he’s right. We don’t know what Section 31 thought was going to happen here, but I think there are good odds their plan wasn’t for everyone to make it out okay. Even if they did, they can’t have been certain that we’d go on to the next planet. I think there’s a decent chance that they’d expect us to give up. It’s possible that this trap was set to prevent us from going to the next planet, and if that’s the case, we can’t risk not going.”

 

“I concede much of your logic, but if the primary objective of the deception was to prevent us from reaching the next planet, the saboteurs could simply have deleted references to the second phase of the mission from our communications.”

 

“One of the strangest things about this whole situation,” Scotty says, “is tha’ the way they did things, there was ne’er a chance o’ us not learning somethin’ was amiss. Why trick us in such a way tha’ we’d know we’d been tricked before we went in? If they wanted us down there, why not alter the mission parameters so we’d arrive at that planet expectin’ to see exactly what we saw?”

 

“I agree,” Jim says. “I don’t think we can accurately predict what Section 31 – or whoever it is who set this trap for us – meant to happen here, or what they intend for us to do next. Of course it’s possible that this next planet, this diplomatic follow-up, is a trap. Of course it’s also possible that it’s not. We can’t know that for sure. And the question isn’t, Which path is safer, or How can we foil their plans? It’s: Do we want to be the ones to continue investigating this?” He shrugs. “I think you know my answer. But I want to hear yours.”

 

“Permission to speak freely, Captain?” Sulu asks from Jim’s side, and Jim turns to him and gestures, go ahead. “I disagree with your assessment, sir. In my opinion, the question is absolutely how can we foil their plans. If you’re going to tell us what we’re going to do next, I accept that, sir, but it’s disingenuous of you to ask us here for our opinion and then discard our questions before we ask them.”

 

Jim winces. “Point taken, Mister Sulu,” he says. “All right. Let me rephrase: my guiding question here is, ‘Do we want to be the ones to continue investigating this?’ What are your guiding questions?”

 

“What are the odds we can do what we came here for without anyone else gettin’ hurt?” Scotty asks.

 

“Twenty-six-” Spock begins, but Jim cuts him off with a shake of his head.

 

“Want to rephrase that, Scotty?”

 

“Aye, sir,” Scotty nods, and thinks for a moment. “Is our mission, and our ability to continue wi’ it in th’ face o’ all this, important enough to justify the possibility o’ someone gettin’ hurt, or worse?”

 

“I think the admiral answered that for us,” Sulu says. “‘Considering the circumstances, we’ve decided to deprioritize’ – that’s pretty clear to me. They’re saying, we can’t risk playing into Section 31’s hands right now.”

 

“There’s no way to eliminate that risk,” Jim says, “since we don’t actually know which action would be ‘playing into their hands’. Which I guess takes us back to your guiding question, how can we foil their plans?

 

“What do they want?” Sulu says quietly. “That’s my question. And then whatever they want, I want the opposite.”

 

“How can you know that you want the opposite of an unknown?” Nyota says.

 

“I want to bring down Section 31,” Sulu says, his voice steely. “Truth is, I don’t care what they want as much as I care that they don’t get it.”

 

“I don’t know if it’s my ‘guiding question’,” Nyota says. “But what I keep coming back to is – who would have benefitted from whatever outcome they wanted down there? We don’t know what the goal was. Was it to kill the captain? To make us think he was dead, and then take him as a hostage?”

 

“The captain is right here,” Jim murmurs, but Nyota ignores him.

 

“I think we keep coming back to Section 31 because of this uncertainty,” she says. “They’re the mysterious bad out there right now, and of course they have technologies we don’t understand. But that’s really the only thing that points us to them, in my opinion. All we really know is that we’re dealing with a technologically advanced enemy that intended to confuse us. Maybe frighten us. Let’s not pretend we know more than we do.”

 

“I vas going to say,” Chekov says, “vhat is ze possible good zat comes of completing zis mission? Vhat is ze possible bad?” He looks around the room. “But it seems to me, is not possible for us to know zese things.” He shrugs. “Ve might as vell leave ze choice to chance. Roll a die, flip a coin. Ve haff no means of certainty in zis, and yes, I agree, to pretend ve do is foolish.”

 

“Is there an action we can take to protect our ship, our crew, and our captain?” Spock asks. His voice is low and gravelly, and Jim tries to meet his gaze, but he looks away.

 

“Amen,” Bones mutters.

 

“Look,” Jim says. “Maybe this is a trap. But it’s also the only avenue I have that does any good for the universe.” He inhales deeply. “Someone’s going to do this diplomatic follow-up. And maybe I’d rather walk into a trap than turn tail and run and let someone else walk into it.” He smiles. “After all, I’ve got something no other captain in the Fleet has. I’ve got you guys.”

 

“Is true,” Chekov says, looking around the room.

 

“If it is Section 31,” Uhura says, “we’re the only crew I know of who’s faced them. If it’s not - we’re the only crew I know of who’s faced – not only Section 31, but insane Romulans from the future, insane Augments from the past, Klingons, planet-destroying superweapons, natural disasters…” She chuckles. “Not to mention Harry fucking Mudd. And come back stronger. Whatever’s out there for us, I think we can handle it.” She meets Jim’s gaze, and it feels electric. “And I want to learn more. Yes, I do want us to be the ones to keep investigating. I can’t deny that.”

 

“Captain, you know I will support whatever decision you make,” Spock says. “All avenues represent risk. I will ensure the crew is prepared to face and mitigate those risks.”

 

“Look, the admiral wants you to volunteer for a mission he clearly thinks is dangerous,” Bones says. “And he has more information than we do. But if he’s willing to let you not volunteer – if that’s the default plan – then I say, yeah, we’ve been through hell and back, but to me that doesn’t say, ‘let’s go again’. To me that says, maybe it should be someone else’s turn to save the damn galaxy for once. I’m all for going back within comms range and letting them send someone else out here.”

 

“Perhaps it is ze folly of youth,” Chekov says, his mouth turned down and his voice hard, “but I do not trust anyone more zhan zis crew. I vould like to continue.”

 

“At the risk of sounding like an asshole,” Sulu says, “I think maybe that is the folly of youth. There are other ships and other captains that have dealt with Section 31 before. We just don’t know who they are because the ‘Fleet doesn’t talk about it. It stays off the record. Let the admiralty play its games. If they’re not going to put this on our shoulders, I don’t think we should try to put it on our own.”

 

The door chimes. Jim blinks. “Enter,” he says, and Carol steps in and pauses.

 

“Sorry,” she says, looking around, and Jim sees for a moment through her eyes – they’re all leaning forward, at least half of them glaring. He consciously relaxes, smiles, and gestures for her to join them.

 

“No worries,” he says. “We’re just, um, talking about whether we should continue on to our next mission or go back.”

 

She raises her eyebrows. “I assume the admiralty will be willing to settle any disagreement on that score,” she says.

 

“Tha’s the problem,” Scotty says. “Archer sent a message sayin’, ah, ‘s not so important, someone else can do it – but no’ telling us what to do ourselves. Some o’ us took tha’ as a sign he wants us to volunteer. I’m no’ so sure o’ that, but tha’ may be my history wi’ the admiral speakin’, to be honest.”

 

“Honestly, I think we were just about done,” Jim says. “I’m happy to hear your thoughts on it, Doctor Marcus, but I don’t think we’re reaching a consensus one way or another.”

 

“I’m not eager to have another showdown with 31,” she says bluntly, “but I’d like to do the right thing here, and my feeling is that that means doing our jobs. We’re two days away from a’Nukar a’Ani. Whoever they’d send next can’t be less than two weeks away. We got nothing out of Aldhabi, and I don’t like to think we hauled all the way out here for nothing.”

 

“There are elements of the sunk-cost fallacy in your logic, Lieutenant,” Spock warns.

 

“Look,” Carol says, “I haven’t finished the formal writeup yet, but here’s what I found about the explosives. The trigger method was not able to be conclusively determined; I’m very sorry, Mister Spock, I know I told you I could do it, but now that I've seen it, there are piles of competing evidence and I’m not going to pretend a confidence I don’t have.”

 

“Of course not,” Spock says, looking slightly affronted.

 

“What I do know is that the mines had been set for at least ten years, and that they were buried deeply enough that their yield was functionally halved. It is my professional opinion that they were deliberately set in such a way that they would not kill.”

 

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but how the fuck can you say that?” McCoy erupts. “Jim’s only alive and well due to a combination of luck, Spock’s quick thinking, Scotty’s idiotic heroics, Chekov’s transporter skill, and nine hours of skilled work by the two best surgeons on this ship. Do you know how easily he could have been suffocated, or brained, or aspirated on blood or vomit, or had the bones of his legs or pelvis push through to perforate his organs, or–”

 

“If they were intended to kill, the mines would have been set 15 centimeters below the surface,” Carol snaps back. “Not three meters. And you don’t put mines three meters below the surface for no reason. If they wanted to kill, it wouldn’t matter where the mines were placed; why position them to collapse into the tunnels below? I’m not trying to minimize what anyone went through, I am providing the facts, which suggest the goal was not simply to kill.”

 

“Frankly, I find that much more alarming than if the intention had been to kill,” Sulu says. “And that they’ve been there more than ten years – what the hell does that mean?”

 

“Okay, enough,” Jim says. “Thank you for weighing in, but I’m going to call it. I’ve got to make my decision, send my message to the admiral, and get some damned sleep before shift. Carol, send me a summary now, just the hundred words or so you just shared with us – I’ll forward it to the admiral along with my message.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Dismissed.”

 

They begin to disperse, but Sulu stays sitting. After a moment, Spock exits through the door with the rest. Jim turns to Sulu with brows furrowed.

 

“Look,” Sulu says, “I don’t have any illusions that I can talk you out of it. You’re going to volunteer to do it – you always were; that was never in question.”

 

Jim scrubs a hand through his hair. There’s no point in denying it, but it’s uncomfortable to recognize that it’s true, because he hadn’t known that – not really. “Okay,” he says. “So, what?”

 

“So I just want to make sure you heard what I was saying. Because I don’t think you dragged us all out of bed expecting an echo chamber, but I sure as hell didn’t appreciate that it felt a bit like maybe that’s what you wanted.”

 

That stings, but Jim makes himself meet Hikaru’s eyes and nod. “I hear you,” he says. “I don’t know what I wanted, and whatever it was, I don’t think it was that, but… I think this is worth fighting over. I’d never be satisfied thinking you guys were holding back what you really think, so…” He shrugs helplessly. Hikaru stands, and stops just before the door, turning just his head.

 

“I really don’t want you to get killed,” he says quietly. “That’s what I was saying.”

 

I really don’t want me to get killed either, Jim wants to say, but it seems unfair, somehow, to assert that when Sulu knows that he’s going to risk it anyway.

 

He sends the message, but it’s a long time before he sleeps.

Chapter Text

Archer’s response comes in just after 2000 the next day, the timing such that he must have sent it only minutes after receiving Jim’s message.

 

“You’re authorized to continue your mission. We’ve sent your instructions both attached and separately, along with a couple of new encoding algorithms. You should be able to access the metadata and cross-ref to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with. You are to get your ass out of there at the first sign of trouble, and abort if you find any indication that the reports you’ve received are incorrect. Keep sending your telemetry, and don’t take chances on this, Jim. Archer out.”

 

“Helm,” Jim says, “we have our orders. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

“Aye, sir,” the ensign responds, her voice calm and collected.

 

***

 

Jim is not feeling particularly calm or collected. His chest aches, badly enough that he’s thought about comming Bones twice in the last hour, only dismissing the notion because the ache is a sign -- a sign that Khan’s blood is fading, that Jim isn’t going to have to deal with the consequences for the rest of his life. The ache is what a normal human being would feel a few days out from a collapsed lung. So.

 

He’s going through the years-old reports from Mackenzie’s crew -- all the logs that had been missing the first time they’d received their orders for Aldhabi. He plays the real logs side-by-side with the ones they had received and clenches his jaw so tight it hurts. They’re so close to identical, and the pieces that were changed are done seamlessly.

 

The planet Mackenzie’s crew had visited, that Command had meant for Jim and his crew to visit, was only two systems away -- not far enough that Command would have questioned their heading until it was already too late. Its name was Vesaris, not Aldhabi IV; it had five continents instead of three. But the descriptions of the culture had been unaltered. Command has sent an analysis of the discrepancies, and they’re minimal.

 

It doesn’t feel like Section 31, Jim thinks. It’s not clean enough.

 

The admiralty still has to decide whether Jim and crew should visit Vesaris or not, so there’s really no point in Jim spending time on the other logs he’s received about it -- the ones from the rest of the Carolina’s crew. The reports and specs provided by navigators, science officers, tactical, comms, ops, even medical officers six years ago. Jim recognizes a couple of them. Most of them are dead now, killed above Vulcan or on the ground in San Francisco.

 

But even though there’s nothing to be gained from it, he spends an hour and a half watching Mackenzie’s chief comms officer bubble with delight about the first contact with the Vesarians, only the second of her career. Jim had looked her up, like he always did: Lieutenant Commander Alyssa Prihn-Richards; assigned to Deep Space Two for the first ten years of her career, transferred to the Carolina for three years, then to the Truman, where she’d served for two before the Battle of Vulcan. Her body had never been recovered. Most of them hadn’t.

 

And as Jim watches her joy, he resents her. And then he resents himself, because it’s not helping anything to begrudge a dead woman her joy. But he can’t help but think it: Great, so we missed out on something that would have been a good time. On meeting people who would have liked to meet us, for once.

 

Of course, they might get a chance later. The admiralty might send them to Vesaris later, sometime when it won’t throw off the rest of their diplomatic schedule. If so, he can watch this video then. If not, he’s just wasting minutes of his life.

 

He cuts the video and rubs his thumbs against his temples, wincing. He knows that he has a dozen reasons for being upset, and Lieutenant Commander Alyssa Prihn-Richards has very little to do with any of them. He’s upset because he’s in pain. He’s upset because he doesn’t like to see his crew divided, the way he had the night before. He’s upset because Aiden Mackenzie is a self-important windbag and he spent his afternoon rewinding and listening again, and again, thinking maybe he’ll hear something no one else has yet, something that’ll tell him who tried to kill him, or why.

 

He’s upset because it’s his birthday and the only comms he’s gotten have been from Ambassador Selek and Gary Mitchell. Uhura had said, “Do you want me to say it?” in the lift that morning as they both went on shift, her mouth curved upwards, but gently, understanding that she was asking a more complicated question than it appeared on the surface, and he’d given her his signature crooked grin as if the question was just as simple as it sounded on the surface, and said, “Nah,” and then for the entirety of his shift he'd regretted it sorely. Because yeah, maybe for once it would be nice to hear someone say it to his face without any baggage.

 

Bones will probably try, sometime tonight - will come by with a nice meal, because a drink is still out of the question, and not say anything about what day it is until right before he leaves. Hell, he’ll probably be proud of Jim for doing paperwork instead of distracting himself with... what? In the past, it would have been - with booze, with chasing tail. Beating an unbeatable test. Picking a fight.

 

But Bones can't pretend there's no baggage between the lines, so even that’s not going to feel right. Jim’s a fucking grown-up. He doesn’t need his best friend to be proud of him for doing his goddamn job.

 

He tells himself Spock probably doesn’t know. Or that maybe Spock will come by whenever Bones does, following his best friend’s lead -- he’s surely aware that the day is fraught for Jim.

 

Just. He might not have been opposed to some birthday head. Not that he’d given Spock any indication of that. And what, is he supposed to be a mind-reader? Ha, Jim thinks bleakly. And then, for what feels like the hundredth time, You’re the one who insisted on taking things slow, Jimmy-boy. You can’t be upset that Spock’s respecting your boundaries.

 

Fuck.

 

And then there’s a knock on his door. On the door that adjoins his room to Spock’s. And Jim’s heart gives a strange lurch, some mix of guilt and frustration and satisfaction and hope. He clears his throat and says, “Come,” and Spock slides the door open and raises a brow at him.

 

“Captain,” he says, and then at Jim’s eyeroll, “Jim. Would you be willing to accompany me to the officers’ mess for dinner?”

 

He sucks air in through his teeth. “Agh,” he says. “Do you mind if we make it a working dinner?” He hefts a PADD. “I’m more than willing, but we’ve got a lot of logs to work through.”

 

Spock hesitates. “If you wish,” he says. He’s trying to be considerate. Okay.

 

“Thanks,” he says, shoving himself up off the couch and gathering the array of PADDs from around his seat. “Nothing exciting going on in the labs tonight?”

 

“Nothing pressing enough to demand my attention, no,” Spock answers, and then, curiously, “Does that surprise you?”

 

“I guess not,” Jim says with an easy smile, and huffs, looking around. “There are two more somewhere. Did I leave them on the bridge?”

 

“Surely that will be enough to occupy you for the duration of dinner,” Spock says, nodding at the six already in Jim’s hands. Jim tips his head in acknowledgement, then sidles up and presses his mouth to the corner of Spock’s. Spock turns his head, shifting what Jim had intended as a quick peck into a soft, languorous kiss with just a hint of tongue. Jim hums into his mouth and smiles as he pulls back.

 

“Thanks,” he says. Spock looks down and entwines their fingers.

 

“It is your birthday,” he says, a very slight flush finding his cheeks, as if he is embarrassed to mention it.

 

“Yeah,” Jim says. “I know you don’t really do birthdays, though, so it’s okay. I don’t need anything special.”

 

“No?” Spock answers, and disentangles his hand, then reaches out to gather the PADDs from where Jim has tucked them under his left arm. “Shall we go to dinner?”

 

***

 

Spock understands Doctor McCoy’s hesitation about the idea of a birthday celebration. Jim is out of sorts somehow, despite the message from the admiralty, despite the gentleness of Spock’s kiss. He can hear the clamour in the mess before the doors have opened, and perceives a shift in Jim’s body language that he cannot interpret.

 

The senior crew are present, and they cheer as Jim and Spock enter. Jim’s eyes widen, and a smile curves over his lips, then he laughs, a laugh Spock has not heard before -- not his chuckle or the pleased laugh of self-assurance, nor humor or giddiness, but something entirely new. Spock feels relief and sets the PADDs down on an unoccupied table just inside the door.

 

Many of the tables have been pushed together to the center of the room to accommodate a huge buffet of assorted food, an intricately decorated cake set with holo-flames, and multiple large floral arrangements that Spock had helped bring up from the arboretum. McCoy approaches first, clapping Jim on the shoulder and muttering in his ear, “You can thank me later for talking them out of a full-blown ‘surprise’ moment,” and Jim laughs again, the same laugh, which Spock is now able to characterize slightly: higher than his usual, sharper around the edges. The sound is strangely abrasive to Spock's ears, it is...

 

Artificial.

 

He quickly assesses the room. The crew present are Jim’s close friends. The food is plentiful and smells savory. Perhaps Jim is simply surprised, taken aback by the measures his friends have gone to to prepare an evening for him. Perhaps he is concerned about his ability to complete his work. Perhaps he is in some measure of pain, although surely Doctor McCoy has provided for his friend and captain to avoid that, on his birthday of all days.

 

No one else seems to have noticed. Sulu and Chekov approach next, each grasping one of Jim’s elbows and pulling him towards the buffet to point out items of interest; Jim allows himself to be pulled and accepts when Chekov begins making a plate for him.

 

Perhaps, Spock realizes, Jim’s inability to imbibe alcohol is still upsetting to him. He considers for a moment the wisdom of asking the doctor if an alternative could be synthesized, to allow Jim an evening to be compromised, but in lieu of the captain’s acute medical condition and the fact that he is undoubtedly still using analgesics, it is highly unlikely that the doctor would allow it, even if the captain did desire such a respite from normalcy. Instead, he replicates two mugs of what Jim had fondly named “Spock’s Blend 2.0”, an herbal tea concoction that Jim had made himself from fresh ingredients and that Spock, upon depleting his supply, had programmed into the replicators.

 

He brings the mugs to Jim, who is now standing with Sulu and Lieutenant Marcus over a table almost overtaken by one of the enormous floral arrangements. Jim takes it from him with a grin and closes his eyes in satisfaction when he smells it, recognizes it, and pats Spock on the shoulder companionably before sitting at the table, never interrupting what seems like a jovial conversation. Spock looks across the room at Doctor McCoy, who is himself laughing, standing between Lieutenants Giotto and Uhura and shaking his head at something that one of them has said.

 

Perhaps Spock had misinterpreted the captain’s responses. He withdraws towards a corner of the room to observe, and after seven minutes during which he does not perceive any further discomfort or artifice from the captain or those around him, he concludes that one of two things had occurred: either he had misinterpreted an emotional response (not entirely unlikely), or that Jim had felt momentary discomfort that has subsequently passed.

 

Nyota gently touches his arm as he rejoins the throng, a polite touch through the fabric of his tunic to avoid disrupting his telepathic equilibrium. All right? she mouths, although it is noisy enough that she could have spoken aloud without being overheard. He nods, and she grins.

 

“There’s plenty of meatless options,” she says, leaning in to be heard without shouting, and he nods again. He had assisted in the preparations; she must know that he knows this. Ah. She is providing a social reinforcement, encouraging him to get food. A glance around the room shows that he and Keenser are the only ones present without plates in their hands. He approaches the buffet and serves himself tortillas, roasted peppers, and richly seasoned black beans. Doctor McCoy makes eye contact from across the buffet and points at the dishes on the end of the table. Out of consideration for the doctor’s feelings, Spock adds one of the biscuits with vegetarian gravy; he is conscious that his presence is likely the sole reason the doctor had prepared the vegetarian variant of the dish.

 

He makes his way to the long table where Jim is speaking animatedly to Keenser and Scotty, but as soon as he sits down, Jim begins to stand. “Have you told Mister Spock about your latest stroke of brilliance?” he’s asking Scotty. “Go on, it’s his approval you need, you know that I’ll defer to his judgement.” And Spock spends the next forty minutes listening to the chief engineer and his right-hand man explain their desire to test a frankly outrageous organic-based system of power, using the aft storage and recreation facilities on Deck Six as a staging area. He is finally rescued from the conversation by Doctor McCoy clanging loudly on a glass with a metal utensil, which brings all clamour to a halt. Sulu quickly mutes the music, and Scotty scrambles to his feet.

 

“Thank ye all for coming!” he shouts, throwing his arms out wide as if to embrace the room. “Ye all know why we’re here. The youngest captain in Starfleet is another year older today! Based on Earth solar cycles, o’ course. An’ as he di’n’t seem inclined to plan an evening of debauchery an’ self-indulgence himself, we o’ his close acquaintance decided we’d hafta do it for ‘im!” The crowd cheers. Lieutenant Giotto has grabbed Jim by the shoulders to pull him to his feet, and Jim is grinning sheepishly.

 

“Cap’n, we know ye probably have some mixed feelings about yer birthday, an’ don’ get me wrong. But we’re all damn glad to have ye here, an’ this year I decided we couldna let it go by pretendin’ it doesna mean anythin’ to us, ye ken?”

 

“Yes, Scotty, I ken,” Jim says loudly, and the crowd laughs again.

 

“Now we’ve got cake an’ ice cream an’ some presents for ye, all right? But first,” Scotty spreads his arms wide again, “will ye indulge a sentimental old Scotsman an’ let us sing to ye?”

 

The humans in the room sing a rousing round of ‘Happy Birthday’ while Keenser meets Spock’s gaze and gives a long-suffering sigh. Spock does not respond, but claps with the rest when the song is over. Keenser shakes his head as if disgusted.

 

“Presents!” Scotty shouts, and Spock makes his way to the table where their gifts are gathered.

 

McCoy moves to Jim first and claps a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t unwrap mine, Jim,” he says, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “It’s a joint gift from Doctor Marcus and myself. She was kind enough to help me make your favorite McCoy family recipe. Believe it or not, those biscuits and gravy y’all are eating tonight are replicated. Not perfect, but damn good, if I say so myself. And if you’re good, I might even give you the replicator codes so you can have them anytime you like. But I reserve the right to revoke that privilege if you can't practice restraint. I'm not gonna be court-martialed for endangering my captain's health.” Scattered laughter.

 

“Truly, a gift not just to ze keptin, but to all!” Chekov shouts excitedly, and there are several more laughs. “Vell, I vill go next, mine is also not ze kind of thing you can wrap. Many of you know ze keptin vished to stargaze vith us vhen ve had a meeting of ze senior officers in Iova. Unfortunately it vas not to be, because it seems most of ze senior officers did not grow up in Russia and cannot handle zheir liquor. So to make up for my fellow officers’ shortcomings, I haf programmed the astrometrics lab vith a simulation of ze night sky. It vill change by season and time of ze night to look exactly as a clear sky in Riwerside vould look.”

 

“Holy shit,” Jim says. “Chekov, that’s amazing, thank you so much! Spock, tell the yeoman -- next staff meeting is in astrometrics.” Spock raises a brow and nods, and Chekov beams.

 

“Mine is physical, but also not wrapped,” Sulu chimes in. “That giant calla lily you were complimenting earlier is actually yours. The botanists made the flowerpot to make it self-watering, so you don’t even need to do anything with it.”

 

“Any other intangibles?” Nyota asks, and then shepherds Jim to the table with the physical gifts, where Spock has been standing guard beside his own gift. Jim only meets his eyes for a flicker and starts at the opposite end of the table with the smallest package. He unwraps the packaging and then continues unwrapping what was in them, raising his eyebrows and looking around the room.

 

“That’s me,” Giotto says. “Fabric wraps. For your sparring.” Jim’s cheeks go pink as Giotto continues, smirking, “I don’t know when it was, sometime recently I saw you sparring and noticed you didn’t have proper wraps. This is the kind I use.”

 

“Awwwww, GG, above and beyond the call of duty,” Jim teases, still flushed. “Thanks, really. You’ve just added a year to the lifespan on Bones’s favorite dermal regenerator.”

 

Nyota offers hers next, excitedly, and Jim holds up the pieces of her gift to show the room: a ceramic tea set, hand-painted with a ‘Fleet theme. Spock has seen the gift, including the fine details that are not visible as Jim lifts the cups and rotates his hand to show the assembled room. In particular, when Nyota had shown him the gift, he had admired the tiny painted stars glazed on the inside of each mug.

 

Keenser’s gift turns out to be a scribbled note, which Jim reads to himself with his mouth half-open and then looks at Keenser in astonishment. “You’re serious,” he says, sounding awestruck, and Keenser nods solemnly. “I would love to, Keenser. Thank you.” He looks around, then back to Keenser, and says, “Do you mind if I share?” Keenser shrugs one shoulder, so Jim clears his throat and waves the note. “I’ve always respected that Keenser’s a man of few words, but if you’ve read his file, you know that he’s the first Roylan to join Starfleet. And if you read about Royla’s First Contact, you’ll find him there too.” He clears his throat again, and Spock recognizes that he’s emotional. “The other name you’d recognize from that mission was a young lieutenant commander named George Kirk.” He shakes his head, lifts the note, and reads aloud, “Captain, for your birthday I would like to tell you sometime the story of how I met my first Kirk.”

 

A murmur of appreciation goes around the room. Doctor McCoy looks thunderstruck. Spock suspects he had never read about Royla’s First Contact.

 

Only Spock’s gift remains, and he offers, “I believe my gift is a thematically appropriate follow-up,” a pronouncement Jim accepts with a blink along with the proffered package. For a moment as Jim slides it out of the smooth fabric casing, Spock regrets sharing this publicly, because the emotions on Jim’s face are so clear and stark that he worries the captain may be embarrassed to be seen so vulnerable. But then Jim looks up at him and Spock’s own breath is taken away, and he cannot regret anything in that moment.

 

“Spock,” Jim breathes, his eyes wide and gentle. “Is this --?”

 

“This is your father’s chess set,” Spock affirms, “restored, with your mother’s blessing, with a newly refinished top and re-felted interior. One of the original kings was missing and two of the pawns appeared to have been chewed on by a canine, so I took the liberty of commissioning replacements from the original manufacturer. I have forwarded a corresponding message from your mother, which of course you will wish to view in private.”

 

Jim carefully sets the board aside, stands, and throws his arms around Spock’s neck in a boisterous embrace. Spock is physically thrown off-balance, but regains his composure and lifts his arms to pat Jim’s back, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the crew on them both.

 

Then Jim turns his head slightly, and his nose presses against the side of Spock’s neck, and it is all Spock can bear not to reel back in shock.

 

Jim seems to realize what has happened, and pulls back, and Spock catches the flash in his eyes, the pallor in his cheeks, in the moment before Jim turns to pull Giotto into a half-embrace, patting his back companionably, and then begins making his way around the room as if nothing has happened.

 

As if he is feeling something very different than the overpowering, crushing wave of nauseated desolation that Spock had felt clearly in their brief moment of skin-to-skin contact.

 

And now that he has seen it, felt it, Spock berates himself for his earlier self-doubt. Although he does not know why, he is now certain that Jim has spent the past hour putting on a show for his crew. Pretending joy, pleasure, companionship, gratefulness all while, under the surface, he has been churning with a mess of emotions so dark and tangled Spock cannot begin to understand or name them all.

 

He isn’t meeting Spock’s eyes, and of course, now Spock realizes -- he hasn’t been meeting Spock’s eyes all night, not since the moment they entered the mess. He had known, then. Known that if he allowed himself a moment of weakness, Spock would see him, would know that something was wrong. And, for reasons Spock is certain Jim thinks of as noble, he had not wanted Spock, or anyone, to know.

 

Spock forces calm, pushes out the churning emotion that this revelation has brought to his own emotional equilibrium, and chooses to offer his captain the privacy he seems to want. As Jim continues around the room, thanking each of them and bubbling with laughter that cannot be genuine, Spock busies himself with the cake.

 

It is enormous, and - frankly - a work of art: a deep, dark-chocolate body frosted in dark swirls like nebulae, sprinkled with silver confetti stars. Spock cuts the top tier into ten even pieces, serving each onto a platter, and begins to hand the plates around; the other tiers will be delivered to the lower decks at the next shift change. And when he reaches Jim, Jim finally meets his eyes again as he takes the plate, and Spock sees what Jim had not wanted him to see, what Jim had been hiding from him all night: the sick emptiness behind his gaze.

 

Spock retreats to the table with the gifts. He rewraps those that came with reusable packaging, carries the disposable wrapping to the recycling unit, and gathers the gifts in a neat stack.

 

Within a few minutes, Jim is saying, “No, I couldn’t,” patting his belly and laughing and refusing the crew’s offers of ice cream or second helpings, and within a few minutes after that he has made his way to Spock’s side and is gathering up the gifts into his arms.

 

“Thank you so much,” he says. “Thank you, everybody. You’re the best crew a captain could ask for.”

 

And he’s gone.

 

Spock lingers for long enough to be sure that Jim’s departure is not a source of distress or gossip, to be sure that no one, himself excluded, is aware that anything is wrong. Then he dismisses himself with the excuse of the Captain’s PADDs, stacked on the table near the doorway where he had left them.

 

When he reaches quarters, he enters his own first, but Jim’s voice comes from their shared ‘fresher as soon as the door has closed behind him.

 

“Was I that obvious?” he asks, and Spock sets the PADDs down and slides through the door.

 

Jim is in the corner near the toilet, pale and trembling on the floor. The bowl of the toilet is dark with the remains of barely-digested cake and swirled blue frosting. Spock crouches swiftly beside him and brushes the back of his hand against Jim’s cheek, feeling the sweat and clamminess before Jim jerks back away from him.

 

Spock folds himself to sit beside Jim. “Only to me, k’diwa,” he says gently, and this time when he reaches out and strokes fingers into Jim’s hair, Jim doesn’t flinch away but moans softly and leans into the touch. “But I confess, I am not certain of the trigger. Are you ill?”

 

Jim shakes his head but does not offer an explanation, and Spock gingerly repositions their bodies so that Jim is leaning against him instead of the cold tile wall. Jim wipes his mouth on his sleeve and grimaces, but settles back against Spock’s body, tucking his head in under Spock’s chin.

 

“May I hold you?” Spock asks after several minutes of silence and stillness, and Jim takes in a shuddering breath and begins to speak.

 

“I never really did birthdays, growing up,” he says.

 

“Ah,” Spock says. “Doctor McCoy had implied as much. Because of the circumstances of your birth?”

 

“That’s one way of putting it, yeah. Because my mom was FUBAR, so eventually so was I.” He huffs out a breath. He's still trembling, but his voice gains strength as he speaks. “Maybe that sounds worse than it was. Mom was -- she tried, but as soon as I was old enough to understand, I told her she didn't have to, and she never tried again. Sam would always get me something, but it was just little stuff, whatever he could find or afford without bothering her for money, and we always hid it from Mom.” He sighs. “It was our job to take care of her. I know now how wrong that sounds. But it was how we felt. She was - fragile. So I didn't have any safe outlets for my own feelings, and then she married Frank and got off world as fast as she could and I was finally free to be angry. And I was. Within a couple years, I - I've told you this much.”

 

He pulls back enough to meet Spock’s eyes. “They sent me offworld, to an old-school ag colony,” he says, very deliberate. He’s searching Spock’s face, as if expecting Spock to say something. Spock wants to give him that, wants to be able to offer some reassurance of understanding, but he can only shake his head slowly.

 

“Okay,” Jim whispers. “You don’t know.” He settles back into Spock’s chest and murmurs, “I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe--”

 

Spock takes a breath, but Jim hastily cuts him off before he can say anything: “No, it’s okay. It's- I'm glad. It's not easy to tell, but it's mine, I wouldn't want you to hear from anyone else. So, the first birthday I ever really celebrated was there, with my aunt - actually my dad’s cousin, but I always called her my aunt. The first year I was there, they missed it, they didn’t realize, but the next year she made me a cake. It was after the rationing had started, so I think she used some kind of bean paste, but she really wanted to make it up to me, having missed the year before, so she’d hoarded enough sugar that it felt real to me. I mean, it wasn’t a shitty cake.”

 

Spock forces his breathing to be steady, but as Jim is speaking, he feels cold, deep in his chest. Whatever Jim is telling him is important, but he does not understand.

 

“She was smart,” Jim says, nodding into Spock’s chest as if reassuring himself of the truth of his words. “Resourceful. Kind. She found out what was happening the next week. We were marked safe, so her husband, he wanted to stay out of it, but she couldn’t stand for it. So we teamed up. I was a kid, so no one suspected me at first. But eventually they started tracking who was out after curfew and she disappeared. And after that, when the kids kept getting saved… I guess I wasn’t on the safe list anymore.”

 

Jim pulls back again and looks at Spock’s face again, and says, “Hey, breathe,” which is the first Spock realizes that he has stopped.

 

“Jim,” he whispers.

 

“I didn’t want to tell you like this,” Jim says, pulling back from him and standing up, letting his fingers trail in Spock's for a moment before dropping them. Spock feels - as if artificial gravity has been disengaged, he thinks to himself. “I don’t know how I wanted to tell you, but I figured I’d plan it all out, figure out exactly what to say and how to… God.”

 

How,” Spock demands, reaching out for Jim’s hand, but Jim’s back is to him and he’s taken another step away, out of reach. Spock stands. Puts his hands on Jim’s shoulders. Jim shudders again.

 

“Someone at ‘Fleet buried our files. All of us,” Jim says, and licks his lips. “I think -- it had to have been Pike. I didn’t know, but he -- I saw the medical base, in your meld, in your memory of his memory, and I knew. He never told me it was him, never told me he was there, I didn’t think he knew, but my mom must have...” He scrubs his hands across his face. “I don’t know.”

 

“Does Doctor McCoy --?”

 

“Yeah, Bones knows. He found out while we were at the academy. I used to use this cheap plastiskin to cover up the ident tattoo,” he pulls up one sleeve and taps at his forearm, “and he was helping me wash up one night when I was trashed and he thought I was hiding an injury from him, scrubbed it off without telling me what he was doing and then didn’t say anything until I noticed the next morning. By which time he’d done his research and figured out who I was.”

 

“Citizen 1291,” Spock says.

 

“Yep,” Jim says, popping the ‘p’, almost flippant.

 

“And he has kept your secret,” Spock provides.

 

“Well, he’s made it clear he respects my choice to keep it private. And he does some wizardry with dermal tech to cover up the tattoo now. We have to redo it every three or four months.”

 

(Spock does not point out how easily, how painlessly such a tattoo could be removed. To do so would be an insult to Jim’s intelligence.)

 

“But he’s not the only one who knows,” Jim says. “I was always honest about it in my psych evals. You think Archer should know?”

 

Spock considers. “If you were honest in your psychiatric evaluation, and the admiralty was not informed at that point, I assume that means you do not believe that you would be emotionally compromised if we were to be assigned a mission to provide relief to a planet in famine.”

 

“Hell no. I’d be the best damn man for the job.”

 

“Then I see no reason the Admiralty need know, unless you wish for them to know.” He hesitates. “My counterpart?”

 

Jim gives him a strange look. “No,” he says. “Oh, do you mean does he know from the meld? I guess I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. I think he would have said something. I’m sure it would have been a pretty big variance from his Jim’s timeline.” He scrubs his face with his hands again. “I’m gonna brush my teeth.”

 

Spock retreats to his own room to give Jim privacy in his ablutions. Jim joins him a moment later, looking tired but refreshed, and sits on the end of Spock’s bed.

 

“I feel like I’ve been rambling,” he says. “Do you get it, though?”

 

“Your trigger?” Spock considers, and sits beside him. “The abundance?” he suggests, and Jim nods.

 

“The abundance, in coordination with my birthday and everyone’s amazing gifts. I never -- I think I was just -- overwhelmed, overstimulated.”

 

Spock lifts a hand to cup his cheek, dragging his thumb over Jim’s lower lip. Jim’s eyes flutter closed, and he is perfectly still as Spock leans forward and presses their mouths together.

 

“I was really hoping for a different kind of overstimulation,” Jim whispers, without opening his eyes or drawing away, his mouth moving against Spock’s lips, and Spock lifts his other hand to Jim’s other cheek, but Jim is pulling back. “I was,” he says apologetically. “But I don’t think I’m up for it tonight.”

 

“Whatever you wish, Jim,” Spock says, letting his hands fall to Jim’s knee. Jim tucks his head forward against Spock’s shoulder, much as he had on the mountain, on New Vulcan, moments before they had kissed for the first time.

 

“Can I stay with you?” he asks. “Would it be cruel of me to ask you to hold me, when I’m not up for anything more?”

 

“On the contrary,” Spock says, “it would be cruel of you to deprive me of such a privilege. T’nash-veh ashayam. Surely you know I would never deny you a comfort that was within my power to offer.”

 

“Yeah,” Jim says. “I guess I do know. But it’s nice to hear you say it like that. Back in a moment.”

 

He stands and pads away, and Spock hears the sound of Winona Kirk’s voice from Jim’s console, but the pre-recorded message is short, perhaps unsurprisingly. Jim returns wearing only a pair of gray boxer briefs. Spock has reduced the temperature by six degrees, and accordingly has dressed in his ‘Fleet-issued sleep clothes; a soft black short-sleeved shirt and long gray pants. He pulls back the bedcovers, and slides his legs beneath them, turning his body toward the center of the bed and tilting his head in invitation. Jim slips in, slips easily into his arms, tucking his body against the contours of Spock’s, spooning into him with a sigh of satisfaction.

 

“Lights off,” Spock says, and the room dims around them. He tightens his arms around Jim’s shoulders and presses a kiss to the back of Jim’s neck, just below his hairline.

 

Then, “Jim,” he whispers, when the moment has crystallized, when the warmth in his arms and the warmth in his katra must be acknowledged. I would never deny you a comfort that was within my power to offer, he has promised, and so when Jim makes a soft sound of question, Spock presses his mouth to Jim’s bare shoulder and murmurs, “Taluhk nash-veh k'dular.”

 

“Mm?”

 

“It means I cherish thee, Jim,” he whispers. “I love thee.” And Jim makes another soft sound, this one not a question; he turns in Spock’s arms, and Spock moves to accommodate the shift of his weight without loosening their embrace. In the dark, he can see Jim’s eyes now open wide, the intimacy of his gaze full and steady.

 

“I love you too,” Jim whispers, and pulls Spock into his own arms, tangles their legs together. Pulls Spock’s head onto his shoulder, tucking his own in a mirrored position. And, eventually, they sleep that way.

Chapter Text

thirteen.

The morning they reach a’Nukar a’Ani, Jim wakes to the sound of a water shower in the shared ‘fresher. He groans and turns his face into the pillow next to him before checking the chrono. 0602. He doesn’t have to be in the transporter room until 0750. He snuggles back into his sheets and rolls onto his stomach; he can catch another hour.

 

Twenty minutes later, he blinks back awake at the feeling of a weight settling on the bed; before he can turn to look, there is an arm draping across his body, a soft mouth on the back of his neck. He can feel the damp of Spock’s hair, the cold press of his nose, and the soft want expressed in the angles of his body.

 

“Good morning,” Jim murmurs.

 

“It was not my intention to wake you,” Spock whispers without moving, and Jim snuggles back into him.

 

“I wouldn’t mind, even if it had been,” he says, but Spock’s arm around him tightens and he shakes his head. Something bursts bright in Jim’s chest, and Spock presses a chaste kiss to the knob of his spine.

 

They doze for a while, but Jim still isn’t used to this -- to actually sleeping with someone, literally instead of euphemistically -- and he doesn’t slip fully under. By 0645 he’s given up on the notion of getting more sleep and has started to think about the day ahead, silently rehearsing hypothetical conversations with the Nukarians. Spock stirs, making a soft sound of negation, and nuzzles against him from behind.

 

“It is not time for the day to begin yet,” he whispers. “Ground yourself in the here and now; I assure you, it is superlative.”

 

“It is,” Jim says. “You know how much I love away missions, but I kind of don’t want to go.”

 

“I am certain if you wished to remain, Doctor McCoy would be happy to provide medical justification.”

 

“No, no,” Jim says, turning so they’re face-to-face instead of spooning, “it’s not that I want to stay behind because I’m worried or something. I just don’t want to spend three days and two nights not touching you.”

 

“I am not aware of any physical-contact taboos amongst the Nukarians that would necessitate such restraint.”

 

“I mean like --” Jim cups his cheeks and makes solid eye contact. Then, leaning forward, he lets his eyes flutter closed as their lips meet and move together in gentle concert. When he makes as if to withdraw, Spock hums and fists a hand into Jim’s undershirt to keep him close, then rucks a leg over him to bring him closer. “See,” Jim says. “You get it.”

 

“Of course we must be aware of the potential sensitivities of our hosts,” Spock says, calm as if he isn’t literally wrapped around Jim’s body. “However, it seems premature to suggest any need to censure ourselves in private.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says, and traces his fingers up Spock’s neck and around the back of his ears. “Well in that case,” he says, “I guess I’ll leave it up to your best judgment to what degree we can safely fraternize.”

 

Spock shivers as Jim’s fingers skim to the peak of his ears, and he tilts his head back; Jim takes advantage of the position to lean in and suckle at his throat, but at Spock’s soft, “Ah!”, he laughs low and pulls back.

 

“I think we’d better save that for later,” he says, and revels in the reluctance in Spock’s expression as he nods.

 

“Perhaps,” Spock begins, and hesitates.

 

“Yes?” Jim sits upright, and Spock follows suit.

 

“If you wish to have… to be able to express affection discreetly.”

 

“Is there like a secret Vulcan love signal or something?” Jim says. “Or are you suggesting like a code word or a secret handshake, or--?”

 

“It is hardly secret,” Spock says, “but -- the touch of two fingers, in Vulcan culture, is a common gesture between partners, stemming from ritual contact.”

 

“Oh my god, there’s a Vulcan kiss and you didn’t tell me?” Jim laughs, using the momentum to roll out of bed. Then he realizes: “I saw it! On New Vulcan, I saw it and I didn’t know what it was!” He taps the two fingers of his one hand against the same two of the other and nods at Spock, grinning. “It is so a secret. No way would you let offworlders know that you guys walk around making out all the time.”

 

“It is more akin to hand-holding,” Spock answers, still sitting on the bed, his cheeks flushed lightly. “But I have found that even brief contact can be most reassuring. And it is, as I said, discreet.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says, “I’m gonna take a shower, and then I need to eat something and go over that greeting with Uhura again, so I’ll meet you in the transporter room, probably?”

 

“Very well, Jim,” Spock says, and Jim shucks his sleep shirt and heads for the ‘fresher.

 

“But when we get back from the mission,” he says over his shoulder, “we’re going to have a conversation about what other Vulcan sex rituals you’re hiding from me.”

 

***

 

a’Nukar a’Ani would be a lot more beautiful, Jim reflected, if he wasn’t expecting something to explode at any second. The sun flashes in his eyes as they pass from a shaded area to the outdoors, or a pedestrian drops something heavy to the ground to free her hands, and he’s flinching and breathing in sharply. He knows that Nyota and Spock can hear it, but they don’t say anything, and their hosts don’t seem to notice.

 

Their hosts, the Nukarians, are bright and curious. Their bodies are burly and top-heavy, their skin rough and rust-hued. They’ve had warp travel for almost twenty years, but stayed close enough to home that they had remained unnoticed until the probe that preceded Captain Mackenzie’s survey mission passed their system. According to the mission specs, they’d told Mackenzie that they needed a few years to learn more about the Federation and to consider their role in the cosmos before they’d be ready to apply for membership.

 

Their home planet is not particularly resource-rich, but their system includes two asteroid belts, both with moderate-value ores and one with gallicite, which is why they’re back so soon. The Federation’s previous primary source of gallicite had been Vulcan’s Forge.

 

“We will ask you the things that Captain Mackenzie would not answer,” one of the Nukarians tells them as they sit down to a midday meal. “What changes are coming? What differences can we expect in the near?”

 

“That’s a very astute question,” Nyota says. “We don’t anticipate changes in our values or our major structures - the Federation Charter and Constitution haven’t been amended in decades, and no currently proposed amendment is favored by a majority of members. There is some potential for shifts in the political landscape. Our peace with the Klingons is uneasy, but we are dedicated to the cause of peace. We see applications for new planets to join every year.”

 

“What kind of amendments are there, those that are not favored?”

 

And that’s Jim’s cue to redirect his attention. He grabs a fruit that doesn’t need to be peeled and politely excuses himself to stand near one of the paneless windows, facing a courtyard two levels below. There are kids playing in what seems to be some sort of waterpark, tiny jets of clear water bursting intermittently from the ground. Kids are identifiable from their coloring -- the youngest are a pale yellowing, and their skin burnishes toward orange as they mature, finally settling into the reds when they reach the age of majority. He takes a bite of the fruit and wonders a moment too late whether he should have scanned it first, sent the readings to Bones to confirm allergens. If the serum effects really are wearing off, he might be losing that aspect of his immunological benefit as well. Just when he’d started getting used to it.

 

The kids are doing some kind of synchronized dance in the water jets, tilting so far to one side Jim’s surprised they don’t fall over. He’s guessing they’re probably the social equivalent of eight- or nine-year-old humans: old enough that he doesn’t see any adults closely supervising, but young enough to still have a carefree physicality. Well. That presupposes that this culture has similar supervisory practices; similar self-consciousness onsetting with puberty.

 

Still, he feels himself begin to relax. Kids playing nearby makes it a lot less likely that someone’s about to bomb him.

 

“Captain,” a Nukarian says from behind him, and he turns to greet a man he doesn’t recall meeting. The voice and skin both are smoother than those of the other Nukarian men he’s encountered, and Jim thinks his skin is on the orangeish side. Maybe.

 

“Hello,” he says, and offers a ta’al. They’d seemed to like it this morning when Spock had offered it, especially in contrast to Jim’s attempts at handshakes. He thinks they might be weirded out by human skin.

 

“I wish to know of your outcast,” the man says, angling his body half towards Jim, half towards the window. Jim blinks.

 

“Actually, one of the tenets of the Federation charter is that our member planets do not operate caste-based systems. We have no outcasts.”

 

The man raises a hand to his mouth. He looks… skeptical, maybe? “Perhaps I use the wrong word,” he says. “I meant your Vulcan.”

 

“Oh!” Relief prickles down Jim’s back. “The Vulcans are -- the word we’d use is refugees. And actually, we’ve just come from the Vulcan colony, and it’s fully settled, so I’m not sure I’d even call them that anymore. Outcast has a negative connotation of -- well, to be cast out, to be rejected or otherwise undesirable.”

 

The Nukarian shakes his head, adamant. “Wrong,” he says. “Your Vulcan.”

 

“Commander Spock?” Jim lifts a hand to indicate the Vulcan in question, who hears his own name and raises a brow, standing to approach. The Nukarian doesn’t look, but nods tightly.

 

“Your outcast,” he says firmly.

 

Jim falters. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t understand.”

 

“I must know if it is common, for the undesirables in your society to be paraded so blatantly, to be allowed the freedom not just of a planet but the freedom of the galaxy. a’Nukar a’Ani would not hold with this if so.”

 

“Ah,” Jim says, “I do apologize. It is you who have misunderstood.”

 

“Sir?” Spock asks. His expression is impassive; Jim’s not sure if he heard.

 

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, Commander. Our friend here was asking me about what traits the Federation finds undesirable.”

 

“Not traits,” the man says, and as the Universal Translator gives a strange buzz, like feedback, their conversation has suddenly caught the attention of all the Nukarians within a twenty-meter radius. “I was asking about undesirable persons.”

 

“I see,” Spock says. “This is also a very astute question. Quite the measure of a society. I am certain some from the Federation would assert that we have done away with such distinctions, and indeed there are very few classes of sentient beings who do not have enshrined protections for full and equal rights. Among those, I would place individuals who are deemed to suffer from severe mental illness, those who have committed crimes of a violent or disruptive nature -”

 

“Wrong,” the Nukarian says again, and the Universal Translator gives the same feedback hum, and the other Nukarians -- all now closing on Jim’s corner of the room -- react again. Nyota slides up to Spock’s side, clearly trying not to look alarmed. “I mean you.”

 

Spock tilts his head. “As a half-human, I experienced significant discrimination in my childhood. Although not as severe as the first two categories I mentioned, I do believe an argument could be made for hybrid species being among the list of those who live in… the liminal spaces of our equal rights protections.”

 

Jim can’t tell now whether Spock is genuinely misinterpreting the man’s statements or whether he’s trying to let the guy save face and back off. He’s not sure which is worse. Meanwhile, two of the other Nukarians, both older, have come to stand behind Jim’s conversation partner now. Their expressions are inscrutable.

 

“I find your posturing distasteful,” the man says. The UT makes it sound crisp, like he’s enunciating in an exaggerated manner. He turns towards Jim, maneuvering his broad shoulders as if to cut Spock out of the conversation. “We know of Vulcan’s demise; we have heard of the colony’s desperate need. We read the calls for all her sons and daughters to return to the people. And yet here he is. Do you suggest he is not outcast but here of his own choice? Little better. Nukarians also have no patience for race traitors.”

 

One of the men standing behind the younger Nukarian makes a strange sound, sibilant like a hiss but also gravelly and dark. The younger Nukarian bristles.

 

“I see,” Jim says.

 

“Captain,” Spock and Nyota say, almost in chorus, but Jim raises a hand. Shows them his calm.

 

“I’m sure this is very awkward for all of us,” Jim says, and gives a charming, rueful smile to sell it. “Sir, I’m sure the Vulcan people would appreciate your passion in their defense, but I must reiterate that you are the one who is mistaken here. Allow me to explain. If you’ve read of the colony, you’ve likely heard this story. In the final minutes before Vulcan was lost, a Starfleet officer beamed down to his dying planet, alone and at great risk to his own life, and entered the Vulcans’ sacred chambers. He gathered the Vulcan elders with him and brought them to safety aboard the Enterprise. In so doing, he saved not only lives, but the essence of Vulcan culture and heritage within those elders. Today that man is my first officer, the same Vulcan who you see standing here before you. He is a hero of the Federation.

 

“Spock has chosen to pursue science in the field. Every breakthrough, every discovery that my crew makes for the next five years will happen on his watch, and under his careful guidance. And I have no doubt that the contributions he and his people make out here will help not only the Vulcan colony, but all of the Federation and beyond.

 

“But your other misunderstanding is not historical but cultural. Because even if he contributed nothing, my Federation values tell me that the choice he makes is his own. Spock chooses to pursue science in the field. His father is an ambassador, who visits planets like your own to establish and strengthen diplomatic ties. His clan matriarch remains on the Vulcan colony and has rejected a seat on the Federation Council.

 

“Our values teach us that individual expressions of reality, individual choice, is to be respected, even when we may not understand it. We embrace difference, uniqueness. And truly - I believe that now more than ever, exploration, discovery, and diplomacy are critical to the survival of all peaceful races.”

 

Well. That brought a crowd.

 

“Thank you, Captain,” says another stranger -- a female Nukarian standing a couple steps behind Nyota who had entered midway through his speech. Her coloring is a deep red-brown, and woven around her broad forehead is a band of white cloth - obviously some kind of symbol, but Jim can’t remember if he’s supposed to know it.

 

From Nyota’s expression, and the deferential postures of the Nukarians around her, he’s gonna say yes.

 

The woman steps forward, close enough to reach out and grasp Jim’s arm. Now that she’s closer, he sees that she’s also got a smoothness to her skin, like the man he’d just ever-so-diplomatically smacked down. Jim puts the pieces together pretty quickly: smoothness is probably not unlike the human trait of having soft hands. An indication of a different way of life, perhaps scholars or --

 

“Captain,” Nyota says, “may I introduce to you the Czarina zh’Keskin ka’Taherina a’Ani, who was once known as 'the Shock of First Light' but whose people now call her 'Dawn-Harbinger', in recognition of her role in bringing a’Nukar a’Ani to the intergalactic stage.”

 

The Czarina looks pleased. “I have the pleasure to meet you, Captain James Kirk.” There’s a lilt in the way she says his name, ja’Ames-kirk, but it’s pleasant in its strangeness. “While you may lack the herald-words, I say your people see you also as one who is imbued with light. Please, come to sit again and finish your meal. i’Baryo,” she says to the other smooth-skin, “go, see to your work. Now that I am here, there is no need of you.” He turns and retreats hastily, his movements sharp, and the Czarina flexes her palm on Jim’s arm and tugs him back towards the tables.

 

“The son of my son,” she says, sitting with Jim and leaning forward, plucking a fruit from the center and nibbling on it almost delicately. “He has… learned wrong, I think, of the peoples of the Federation. He is young and thinks to prove himself, but only proves himself unready. You too are young, but you do your people justice.”

 

“How may I address you?” Jim asks. He’s aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Spock and Nyota, hesitantly taking seats at the table behind them, but clearly eavesdropping, ready to jump in if they’re needed.

 

“It would be my indulgence for you to name me zh’Keskin,” she says. “I am not young, and among my people there is none left to call me by such a name, but it was mine and I miss hearing it on the tongues of others.”

 

“My pleasure, zh’Keskin. I understand completely. I’ve had that same struggle myself, trying to get my First Officer to call me Jim when we’re off-duty.”

 

“Jim,” she says, and it sounds like a hum in her mouth. He grins at her.

 

“Do you have other grandchildren? Children of your children?”

 

“Many,” she says. “i’Baryo is eldest. Perhaps your strong and bright words will instruct him this does not mean he knows all things.” She sounds fond, Jim realizes, and not only exasperated. As when he’d been watching the children in the courtyard below, he feels himself relax involuntarily. Grumpy grandmothers are also something he can understand, something familiar that makes this world seem less strange and dangerous. “I was not here to know what he said, but I know the sound of my councillors rebuking him better than I would like.”

 

“Our universal translator didn’t quite pick that up,” Jim says, “but I could tell there was something being communicated. Nyota, a moment?”

 

“n’Yota!” the Czarina exclaims as Nyota joins their table. “This is a name of ours! Or very near it. There was a n’Yotali in my mother’s kitchen-court, who used to save me the sweetest soft-fruits.” She twists her wrist -- the soft-fruit in her hand is not unlike a plum, small, with a thin, dark skin and translucent flesh beneath. “When I was a child,” she says. “Countless ages ago.”

 

Nyota laughs pleasantly and looks at Jim, who spends a couple seconds lost before he remembers he’d called her over. “Did you have a guess on what those blips in the UT were?” he asks.

 

“Only a guess, but I wouldn’t wish to misunderstand or offer insult,” she says.

 

“Don’t worry,” Jim reassures her. “zh’Keskin’s cool. She appreciates our spirit of curiosity. Spock, get over here too.” Spock obliges, lacing his fingers together atop the table and looking to Nyota for her answer.

 

“The first thing we heard that the translator fritzed on was a sound that i’Baryo made. It was almost infrasonic, largely outside of human auditory range, and Vulcan, I believe.”

 

“Indeed. My awareness of the sound came from the reaction of the Nukarians around us.”

 

“Right, which was dramatic.” She hesitates. “I thought -- perhaps a threat sound. A warning. But I also didn’t catch the context, just that everyone around me was on their feet in two seconds.”

 

zh’Keskin lifts a hand. The UT makes that same buzzy feedback noise, and this time the hair on the back of Jim’s neck stands straight up. Spock actually blinks.

 

“That’s it,” Nyota says.

 

“Most unseemly,” the Czarina murmurs. “No wonder I was called for so quickly.”

 

“I wondered about that,” Jim said. “You were here, what, three minutes later?”

 

“I had been only a hallway away,” she says, flashing blunt but triangular teeth in what is undoubtedly a smile.

 

“Just for the sake of full clarity,” Nyota says, “how would you describe the purpose, the intent of that communication?”

 

“Just as you did,” she answers pleasantly. “Threat, warning. Like a… a scaled creature of the dry lands, flaring its frills. And in the case of my scion, similarly without barbs.”

 

“And the sound one of your councillors made back to him. That was rebuke?”

 

zh’Keskin repeats the sound, the somehow-growly hiss. Jim doesn’t need the UT to translate it -- even knowing that she’s merely repeating it for their benefit, the sound so close to him makes him deeply uneasy, with a hint of shame in his gut. She seems to sense this, because she pats one of her long, tapering hands on his arm again, looking amused. “You should not be affected,” she says, “but it humors me to see you are. It is rebuke, perfectly so. Most often, in our culture, you hear it in two places. The nursery and the debate halls.”

 

Nyota laughs at that again, the sound a bright peal of delight, and Jim’s heart swells.

 

“That much is similar for us,” zh’Keskin says, and provides a very recognizable chuckle, low and rumbling. Two of her councillors bring a decanter and four glasses, and she smiles at them fondly.

 

“They are correct,” she says. “We have much to discuss, and while I had intended to bring you to the palace speaking rooms, I am of an age where, when I find comfort of the body, I am inclined to stay still. You have put me at ease, my wise new friends. Let us stay here, in the bright and the clear, and speak of the Federation, and the part you see my people could have in it.”

 

***

 

Later, when they’ve been given lodgings for the night and finished a preliminary report while the details are fresh in their minds, Spock joins Jim in his room as if that was never in doubt. He can see the warmth in Jim’s eyes, beginning the moment he opens the door and continuing as Spock moves through the room with ease, with an air of normalcy, domesticity. Jim settles back in a wide, plushly cushioned chair in the corner and watches as Spock brushes his teeth; Spock can see his sharp gaze in the mirror but does not allow it to distract him from his ablutions.

 

When he’s finished, Jim pats the seat beside him. The chair was not made for two, but it was made for the broad shoulders of a Nukarian, enough room for Spock to curl in beside his captain and breathe his warmth for a quiet moment.

 

The walls are adobe, or the Nukarian equivalent, and the windows are unshuttered, which has been true everywhere else in the palace compound that they’ve seen. These, though, have curtains to flutter in the light breeze, providing more privacy than the trails of ivy that adorned the windows of the public rooms.

 

Jim trails a thumb across Spock’s cheek, an idle gesture. “What happened at lunch,” he says hesitantly. “Did I do right?” His voice is soft and vulnerable. Spock’s heart stutters.

 

“I could not have asked for a more eloquent defense,” he answers, “although ‘hero of the Federation’ was perhaps an embellishment.”

 

“Good,” Jim says, and turns to snuggle into his chest, pulling his knees up onto the chair. “I wanted to beat his stupid face, but… you know. I have to be the captain.”

 

“Always. I would not wish it otherwise. And…” Spock tucks his head, looking down at Jim as if considering, and Jim laughs.

 

“What?”

 

“I shall be forthright with you. I believe I found your competence and fluency, in the face of an insult to your mate, more attractive than I would have found you leaping physically to my defense.”

 

Jim's face softens and he tugs back. “An insult to my mate, is it?” he asks, and when Spock freezes, unable to control the fractional widening of his eyes, he quickly continues, “No, no, I like it. I’d been looking for a good word in Federation Standard that implied… what we are. ‘Lover’ just sounds sordid, ‘boyfriend’ is juvenile, ‘partner’ could be mistaken for a business arrangement. Most of the rest of the available terms have an implication, if not an explicit definition, tied to having some kind of legal recognition. But ‘mate’...” He turns to the empty settee beside them, where Spock had intended to sit before being summoned closer. “This is Spock,” he tells the space, gesturing to Spock and speaking to an imaginary third party, “my first officer and my mate.” To the blank expanse of floor directly before them, “This is my mate, Spock.” He grins and nods. “Yeah, I think I like that.” His gaze settles back on Spock. “What?”

 

“You are… envisioning introducing me as your mate.” Spock swallows. “To strangers.”

 

“Well, yeah,” Jim says, sounding surprised, sitting up away from him further -- no doubt to gauge the micro-expressions Spock wishes to deny having. “I mean, is that… is that okay? I know that’s not where we are yet, but I - yeah, I’ve been imagining it. I thought -”

 

“Yes,” Spock interrupts, and then, “Jim. I am experiencing lust, not anger or consternation.”

 

“Oh, good,” Jim says, and shifts to sit up on his knees, then throws one leg over Spock’s, straddling his lap and draping one arm over his shoulder. Tilting his head with a blank, simple expression that Spock finds endlessly endearing. As if this is simply the way things are. The way they must be, have always been. “So, can I make it up to you?” Jim asks. “Lick your wounds? My insulted mate.”

 

“What exactly did you have in mind?” Spock asks, aware his voice has gone dark and low and his hands have come up to grip Jim’s hips.

 

“Exactly? I have about a thousand ideas. With the windows like this, we don’t have as much privacy as I know you’d like, so we’ll have to keep it down, but... I could give you another show. Or I could pull your hair again. Or I could make you come with my hand, or… or with my mouth.”

 

Spock shivers against him, and Jim presses his face into the crook of his shoulder, grinning, then turns his head and breathes directly into Spock's ear.

 

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" he whispers. "You'd like to shut me up with your cock, huh? You want to fuck my filthy mouth, see how I take it?" Spock tilts his head back and groans, a low throaty sound, and Jim bites the hard muscle of his neck and settles his weight on Spock’s thighs. "I think you know I can take it good, baby,” he says, leaning into Spock’s already-responding body. “You know I have practice. I've sucked a lot of cock, but never a cock like yours, I'll bet." His voice goes breathy as he shifts. "I can feel you, baby. You like it when I talk dirty to you, don't you? It makes you so fucking hard, doesn't it?"

 

"Yes," Spock growls through gritted teeth.

 

"Is your cock getting hard for me, baby?"

 

"So it would seem."

 

"Fuck, Spock, I want to make you feel so good. I want to suck you, and I want you to fuck my face. I want to make you come in my mouth. Want to taste you. What do you think, baby, will you let me give it a try?" Jim slides off of him and down between his legs, nudging them apart slightly but gazing up at his face. Spock realizes he's waiting, waiting for him to say yes, and his body twitches at that realization: that even when he feels as if he's clay in Jim's hands, Jim is not taking him or his consent for granted.

 

Jim runs his hands up the insides of Spock's thighs, and then presses his cheek there. Spock can feel the heat of his breath through the fabric. "You know I want your cock so bad, I'll beg for it if you want," Jim whispers.

 

“I -” Spock swallows hard, not certain what to do, where to look, where to put his hands. He cups Jim’s face with one hand, rubbing his thumb against his sharp cheekbone.

 

“You want that?” Jim asks, tucking his head sideways to kiss at the meat of Spock’s palm. He’s splayed on the floor, and he pulls Spock’s hand forward with both of his, lifting himself out from between Spock’s legs enough to lace their fingers together. He tugs Spock’s other hand forward, the hand he’d been using to hold himself upright, and Spock allows it... lets himself fall back against the cushions and lets Jim lick into the soft flesh on the inside of his palm, from the base of the wrist to the base of his index finger, right along the lifeline. “You want to hear me beg you for what I want?” he asks again, his voice rich with sex.

 

“I -” Spock’s breath is trembling. He has never been begged before, and the idea is… not objectionable, but he is struggling to imagine it.

 

Jim seems to know, and begins to demonstrate. "Please,” he whispers, kissing inside Spock’s clothed knee. “Please, let me suck you, let me taste you, let me make you come, please, Spock, let me have you…"

 

And some other time, he thinks, they can test this further... but at the moment Spock cannot find it in him to refuse, or to tease, or to say anything but, "Yes," hoarsely, "yes, you may."

 

Then Jim is tugging at Spock's pants and underwear, helping Spock lift his hips so he can peel them away from his skin, tossing them to the stone floor and pressing his knees apart. "Oh baby, look at you," he says, staring at Spock’s erection, and then withdraws for a moment. "Do you mind, when I call you baby?"

 

“I mind when you presume there is anything you could do to displease me, Jim,” Spock rumbles. “Call me what you will, for I am yours to call.”

 

Jim exhales, delighted. “Yeah you are, baby, all mine, and this is - I've wanted this for so long, don't know how I held out so long but I'm so fucking glad I did because I could just about die for your cock right now, so beautiful. Want you so bad, god, Spock!”

 

He wraps his hands around Spock's erection, twisting briefly in opposite directions, then licks his own hand and then wraps it around the head of Spock’s penis. Spock has leaned back to watch, aware that his mouth is agape and his eyes wide and his penis is a firm line jutting upwards. Jim licks from the base to the tip of his penis and then sucks him down and moans around him; Spock's head falls back involuntarily as the head of his penis drags against the roof of Jim's mouth, Jim creating warm suction around him, pulling him in deep and then pressing his tongue firmly against the base as he slides back out.

 

He rocks his body forward and back, letting Spock hit the back of his throat not just once but repeatedly. Spock's whole body is vibrating with the effort of not coming, of holding on for more of this velvet-silk heat, more of this wet and pressure.

 

Jim's hands slide under Spock's thighs, and he yank him further forward until he’s sitting on the edge of the chair and propping himself up on his elbows. He works up and down on Spock's cock, his eyes huge and blueblueblue and his fingers scrabbling at the insides of Spock's legs as if to find some purchase, to anchor himself somehow.

 

Jim moans again, the sound vibrating its way into Spock's molten gut. Spock lets his fingers wind into Jim's hair and fucks upward, fucks that sweet mouth, lets himself go and ruts and rages his way through an orgasm that seems to last much longer than normal. He thrashes and tugs and feels the convulsion of Jim swallowing as if his whole body is there in Jim's mouth, his whole world, every speck of his awareness caught up in this reality of pleasure.

 

When he comes back to himself, Jim is suckling little patterns into his inner thigh, grinning. Spock's penis has softened and is nestled against Jim's cheek.

 

"Ashayam," he says, "you are a gift beyond giving."

 

"So I guess that means I did okay?"

 

"I could have no pleasure but that for the rest of my life and not think myself bereft in the slightest."

 

"I love your pillow talk. And I gotta tell you, you look so fucked out right now, it's gorgeous."

 

Spock touches his cheek lazily. "I had intended to offer to reciprocate," he says, "but I feel - peculiarly spent."

 

"Don't worry. I take that as a great compliment." Jim presses a final kiss to his inner thigh and stands up.

 

"Will you divest yourself of your clothing and come to bed with me?"

 

Jim nods, his eyes bright, crinkling at the corners. "Gladly," he says, and hums slightly as he undresses. Spock feels something like relief to see Jim's cock also flaccid, and when Jim offers his hand, he allows himself to be tugged to his feet and led to the broad, unfamiliar bed, where they slot their bodies together atop the plush comforter and sleep.

Chapter Text

fourteen.

 

“Jim.”

 

Jim flaps his hand looking for his comm for a couple seconds before realizing several things at once:

 

One: He’s not on the Enterprise.

 

Two: He’s completely naked and sweaty and curled around Spock, who is now also awake because Jim’s flapping hand had been right in his face.

 

Three: Bones’s voice is coming, not from his comm, but from the door.

 

“Shit!” Jim says, scrambling to his feet and towards the door and then stopping two steps short. “Bones, hey, uh. I’m not decent but um. Am I late?”

 

“There’s no schedule for today, infant.” Right, which has got to be why Spock didn’t set them an alarm. (It can’t be that he was too sexed-up to think about it. Nope.) “But it’s almost ten and Nyota and I have been chatting up the locals since half seven. They’re all morning people.” A pause. “I haven’t been able to find Spock. You wouldn’t happen to know where he might have gone, do you?” He sounds -- amused. Jim mouths fuck before he can help it, eyes widening at Spock.

 

“Yeah, um, he ended up crashing here last night. We must have been wiped. We’ll, uh. Tell Nyota sorry and we’ll be out in… give us, uh. Give me twenty minutes.”

 

McCoy just laughs. Jim presses his ear to the door until he can’t hear footsteps anymore, then turns around and presses his back to the door, leaning against it. He tilts his head forward, once, and thuds it back against the door.

 

“Jim,” Spock says, his brows drawn.

 

“Well, that was an unmitigated disaster,” he says. “Bones knows me, Spock. I’ve answered the door in my boxers before, when I know it’s him, so I’m not decent means -- although I guess maybe I wouldn’t if I didn’t know who else might be in the hall -- but -- god, what even was that. I sounded like a teenager caught with my hand in my pants. Fuck. I’m so sorry.”

 

Spock has thrown his legs over the edge of the bed and is making as if to get up, his eyes on Jim in dark concern, but at Jim’s last words he stills and looks away. “You were not prepared for Doctor McCoy to know of our liaison.”

 

“It’s not a fucking liaison, Spock. No, I -- I don’t mind him knowing, but we hadn’t agreed yet, and I didn’t mean for him to find out like that. Bones and I are close, I don’t -- I don’t really care what he knows. But I know you’re a much more private person than I am, and I don’t want this to affect your working relationship with him, and I… I fucked up, Spock. I’m sorry.” He hangs his head, rubbing both hands over his face in frustration.

 

“He did not sound perturbed,” Spock says. “However, I… Jim, I have done you a disservice.”

 

“Hm?”

 

Spock is still not meeting Jim’s eyes. His cheeks are flushed a green Jim’s only seen before during fighting and sex. He crosses the room back to Spock’s side in as few steps as he can, sitting beside Spock, who has pressed his hands together and slotted them between his knees, bent forward in a posture of shame.

 

“Whoa, Spock,” he says. “What is it? Tell me.”

 

“Doctor McCoy has been aware of the nature of our relationship for eight days,” Spock says. Jim blinks and does the math.

 

“While I was out,” he says. “Did I… say something in my sleep?”

 

“I was holding your hand,” Spock says quietly, still not looking at him. “In Sickbay. The doctor… asked, and I…”

 

Relief gusts through Jim like a wind, and he exhales it all. “Oh,” he says. “And is that -- are you -- okay with him knowing?”

 

Spock looks at him now. “I betrayed your trust,” he says, pleadingly. “I acted wrongly, Jim, and I deprived you of your right to conduct your affairs in the manner you wished. I…” He looks at his feet, and when he speaks again, his voice is small and soft. “I forgot. I intended to tell you, but it… I forgot.” He squeezes his eyes closed and Jim thinks, he’s thinking, how could I betray you and forget and he grabs Spock’s hand and yanks him to his feet.

 

“No,” he says, putting on his captain voice. “Spock, you’re wrong, we’re talking past each other here. I only didn’t want to tell Bones because I thought you’d be uncomfortable with it. Besides, he asked, it’s not like you announced it. I know you don’t lie, not like that, so -- stop. Look at me.”

 

Spock swallows and meets his eyes.

 

“Spock, I’m happy right now,” he says, deliberate and serious. “I thought I’d just betrayed you. Or, I mean. Betrayed is a strong word. But the point is, nobody betrayed anybody. No betraying happened. What happened is you held my hand when I was out, which I would never ask you not to do, and which you did long before we were in any kind of romantic relationship --”

 

“That point could be debated.”

 

Jim raises his eyebrows but continues, “-- and Bones got nosy or saw his opening and asked you a question he really shouldn’t have, but we all know he’s a busybody and really I don’t mind. Especially since apparently he’s known for more than a week and I didn’t even know, so it’s not like he’s being a dick about it, which wasn’t something I was sure of, so --” He sucks in another breath and grins. “This is perfect. This is one less thing for me to have to worry about.”

 

Spock swallows again. “I feel your sincerity,” he says, pressing against Jim’s hand and then lifting it to his mouth. “Thank you, ashal-veh.” He kisses it, then withdraws. Jim makes a soft sound of negation, and Spock turns back to him and raises a brow.

 

“We are now expected to appear to our hosts in fifteen minutes, forty-seven seconds,” he says. “I would suggests we share the shower, but I suspect that would be counterproductive if our intent is to be on time.”

 

***

 

Bones grabs his arm as they’re walking through one of the gardens. Spock makes as if to stop also, but Bones lifts his chin, his go-on-ahead gesture, and Spock tips his head and proceeds.

 

“Guess it’s time for me to stop pretendin’ I don’t know about what’s going on with you and Himself,” the doctor says gruffly. “Spock -- well, he didn’t tell me outright, but when you were laid up, it seemed like… more than before. Question was outta my mouth before I knew what to do about it. I was kinda waitin' on you to say something, but after this morning… You seemed pretty embarrassed, so I'm guessin' you hadn't meant me to know yet. I’m sorry, Jim.”

 

“I’m not,” Jim says. “Spock felt bad that he was the one to tell you and not me, but I was ready for you to know, and I guess he was too. We just each thought the other wasn't.”

 

“How long’s it been going on?”

 

“A bit more than three weeks. Since the last day on New Vulcan.”

 

“Ah yes,” McCoy drawls, dry and amused again in a way that makes Jim feel warm and safe and normal. “Must have been all the sand and the forty-five degree heat and those bulky ceremonial robes. And the diplomats. Regular aphrodisiacs, they are.”

 

Jim laughs out loud, tipping his head back, and as Bones grins and chuckles and pats his shoulder, something loosens between his shoulder blades, some tension he’d been holding for so long he’d forgotten it was there. “I mean,” Jim says, “it’s been a long time coming. You know. We’ve had moments since Iowa. Even before, but...” He looks at Bones, considering. “He found me up on the mountain, meditating, and we just… had a heart to heart and both sort of decided we were ready to give it a try.”

 

“As your primary care physician there are all kinds of invasive questions I want to ask, but as your best friend and someone who has to look Spock in the eye every day I’m going to reign that impulse in. Just… tell me if you need anything, Jim. You can even talk to me about it, although I don’t promise not to gag or roll my eyes.”

 

“I know he’s not your favorite person,” Jim says.

 

“You don’t know shit, kid,” McCoy answers, a bit sharply. “Spock and I are grown-ups. We’ve handled our beef.”

 

“You could maybe cut down on the xenophobic slurs.”

 

“I have.”

 

Jim tries to remember the last time he heard the doctor call Spock anything worse than “green-blooded”. “Huh,” he says. “Okay. Yeah. I didn’t, uh. I didn’t notice. Obviously. Sorry.”

 

“You should be,” McCoy says, looking vaguely wounded. He nods ahead of them again. “We’d better catch up with the group. Her majesty is crazy about you, she won’t take kindly to me takin’ too much of your time, not after that lie-in of yours this morning. Just - I wanted you to know you can talk to me about it. I’m… I’m happy for you, kid.” He starts forward, but Jim grabs his sleeve.

 

“We’re taking things slow,” Jim says, and McCoy’s eyebrows shoot past his hairline as he turns back.

 

“You’re what?”

 

“I mean, he did spend the night naked in my room last night. But we’re… you know. I’m not just jumping into bed.”

 

“Never said you were.”

 

“Sure, but like you said, you’re my PCP, you know my modus operandi.”

 

"Party in your pants and everyone's invited, yeah,” Bones snorts, falling into step beside Jim as he starts walking to catch up with the rest of the party. “But this is different, kid.”

 

Yeah, Jim thinks, yeah, it really is.

***

 

“Captain!” Nyota says loudly as they rejoin the group. She looks at him, smiling, but her jaw’s a bit tight and her eyes sort of fixed and he realizes she’s standing next to i’Baryo.

 

“Nyota. Your Lordship. Councillors. Thank you for showing us your gardens. We also have an appreciation for plant life as a source of… peace, and meditation.” He half-expects i’Baryo to snort, but the young Nukarian just raises his chin. He’s waiting to see how Kirk will respond to his presence, he realizes. He sets a hand on the rounded part of the man’s broad shoulder, which is at his own eyeline or a little higher.

 

“Your Lordship,” he says. “I hope you have had time to consider my words from yesterday. It was a good opportunity to begin a conversation about our values. I hope we can put the misunderstandings of yesterday away, and begin to speak of the shape of tomorrow.”

 

Now i’Baryo does snort. Nyota stiffens, and zh’Keskin looks on with an air of amusement and expectancy.

 

“You are extremely skilled at the arts of speechmaking,” i’Baryo says. “How have you acquired this talent? By rights I should find myself the superior orator, given my upbringing, but you --” He shakes his head.

 

“Put away what you think should be, along with those misunderstandings of yesterday,” the Czarina says dryly. “‘By rights.’ Humor!” (Jim thinks the UT means Ha! He starts to store the information, to make sure he remembers to tell Nyota to make that adjustment later, and then unravels the thought. Nyota is right here. She’ll remember it herself.)

 

“Dawn-Harbinger, mother-of-my-father,” i’Baryo says stiffly. “I hear and obey.” He does respect her -- deeply, Jim senses -- but he’s also not happy about being made a spectacle in front of the councillors for the second day in a row.

 

“I appreciate the recognition,” Jim says, directly to i’Baryo. “Public speaking is not an innate talent, for me. It’s something I’ve had to curate very carefully. I’d be happy to discuss with you one-on-one, offer some tips if your lordship would like. Perhaps after the evening meal?”

 

“There is to be a dance.”

 

“After the dance, then. Or tomorrow.” He smiles. “No pressure.”

 

“Perhaps,” i’Baryo says.

 

***

 

“Did we know there was going to be a dance?” Jim asks Spock and Nyota the instant they rematerialize on the transporter pad. They’ve excused themselves for four hours, which will be plenty of time to change and freshen up in addition to their official reason for returning to the ship: to gather data for the Nukarians on the Federation’s members and allies and trade needs in this sector. Spock is also going to check on his staff’s experiments, because it’s Spock, and of course he is.

 

"There usually is," Nyota says. "But we didn't. I think, considering the comms distance, the admiralty left the scheduling up to the Nukarians."

 

"Great."

 

"i'Baryo is right, you know," Nyota says. "You've always been good at prewritten speeches, but that was really something yesterday. You were channeling Admiral Pike, I think. Your development is remarkable."

 

"Thanks. Thank you," Jim says. "Just wait. I'm going to win that pumpkin-faced motherfucker over."

 

"Never mind. Forget I said anything." But the roll of her eyes is fond, and she folds her hand in a quick wave as she rounds the corner away from them.

 

They enter their separate quarters, then meet in the 'fresher. "Come to mine," Jim says, and Spock accedes.

 

"I was just thinking," Jim says. "My best friend knows now. If you want to tell yours, that seems like fair turnabout."

 

Spock's eyes flash. He looks down. "You would not mind Nyota knowing?"

 

"As long as you make it clear I'm not fucking around," Jim says. "I don't want her to kill me."

 

***

 

Fifteen minutes later, Nyota squeals and wraps her arms around Spock's neck, dancing him in a quick circle before she withdraws, pink-cheeked.

 

"I was hoping," she said. "You've been different, a bit. Not enough that anyone who isn't close to you would know - or at least, not since that fight. I am never letting you live that down, by the way. What were you thinking?"

 

"To acknowledge a tension and then have it visibly distilled, as publicly as the situation required."

 

"You did rig the security systems?!" Nyota covers her open mouth with a palm. "I'm sorry, what?! Scotty told me he thought Jim had his hands in that somehow, but I didn't believe him."

 

"I very much wished to tell you at that time," Spock admits. "The facade afterwards was… discomfiting. And in retrospect, our unorthodox methodology was ultimately successful, but perhaps we would have benefitted from a more nuanced perspective."

 

“You think?” she says, but her eyes are twinkling. She nudges him with one shoulder and then tilts her head. "Is it going okay?” she asks. “Is he treating you right?"

 

Nyota has a tell, Spock realizes, when she is feigning indifference, or at least feigning casual interest in a topic when in fact her interest is anything but casual. She winds the gentle waves of her hair like a corkscrew around her index finger. As she is normally a direct and honest communicator, this is a gesture he has seen her perform only four times during the duration of their acquaintance. He wonders if he should inform her of his deduction.

 

"I suspect there may be specific social connotations to these specific questions, the nature of which I find myself uncertain. However, I believe my answer will be an affirmation regardless."

 

"There could be sociosexual connotations, but I meant to leave it open-ended. Does he make you happy? Is the relationship fulfilling? Is it what you'd imagined? That kind of thing."

 

"Those are three questions with three very different answers. I had struggled to imagine the mechanics of the relationship, so the last question is difficult to answer. No, it is not what I had imagined, but it is neither better nor worse, simply… real. Is it fulfilling? So far, very much so, but there is still much to discover. Does he make me happy?" Spock hesitates. Nyota knows him well enough that she will not accept a deflection of this question; it may not be comfortable for him to admit it, but the answer is clear. "Yes."

 

Her eyes go soft, and she brushes his bicep with her fingertips. "Good," she says, and then smiles wryly. "It's funny, I'm suddenly feeling very protective of you. I know it's unnecessary, I just… I know you, Spock. I know that what you need isn’t what I expected you to need, and it took some struggle for me to get there. I want to make sure you know that… you can ask for what you want. You don’t have to wait for him to figure it out."

 

“We are --” He contemplates for a moment whether this revelation is appropriate, and then continues. “We have chosen to… court one another. To move slowly in the transition of our relationship from the romantic to the sexual. Our physical relationship has not yet reached a breadth that would easily accommodate -”

 

“Spock,” she cuts him off, stepping back from him and looking him up and down with something like alarm, "You have been 'courting each other' for almost a year. You have been marinating in sexual tension. What is there left to take slow? If you’re trying to test your sexual compatibility, you should really be putting your cards on the table.” She exhales unhappily and looks away. “Okay. I wasn’t sure if it was inappropriate of me to bring this up -- if I was crossing a boundary -- but I’m glad I did. Look. You can't still be afraid of this - this power he has over you. It's there, it's real, it matters. So stop trying to quantify and control it."

 

Spock feels unutterably fond of Nyota in that moment; her emotional state, her concern for and frustration with him all imminently endearing. He allows the slight smile that instinct has placed at the corner of his mouth. “I apologize for not being clear. I, too, did not wish to transgress a boundary. But your concern on my behalf is unwarranted. I am not responsible for setting the pace in this way. I am respecting Jim's desires."

 

She blinks, clearly not having expected this, and Spock feels a thread of amusement. “Oh,” she says. “Um. I’m not really sure what to make of that. But you are... content with the status quo?”

 

“I accept the status quo,” he says. “I acknowledge Jim’s reasoning. He is far more sexually experienced than I, so I do not deny experiencing some frustration, but I would never ask for more than he wishes to give.”

 

“I mean, that’s why I’m a little confused,” she admits. “Because he wishes you to bone each other six ways from Sunday, if you’ll forgive the aphorism. He’s -- you remember he and Gaila were -- the phrase they used was ‘fuck buddies’. When she and I were roommates. She didn’t have a lot of boundaries, so I…” She’s flushing. “I know a little more about the captain’s sexual appetite than most of his friends, and what I heard was that it was pretty insatiable. And that was coming from Gaila. Not that I’m judging. I mean, everybody’s different in that regard, I don’t attach any value to it. And I don’t have any doubt about his regard for you, his attraction to you. So I’m not sure what’s holding you back from…”

 

“I do not believe holding back adequately describes what we are doing.” Dry humor has bled into his voice, and she softens again, her eyes crinkling and a blush blooming high on her cheeks. “He has expressed the wish to progress sexually at a pace that allows us to savor the various… acts. As milestones.”

 

“Oh Spock,” she says. “Oh. Okay.” She laughs. “That’s very sweet and it sounds much healthier than what I was imagining. I’m sorry. I’m a little embarrassed now for having been so obviously concerned.”

 

“I appreciate your regard for me -- your desire to ascertain and support my well-being, and your willingness to challenge me, despite it having been founded on a misconception.”

 

“I know you do. And… I’m glad we can talk about sex without it being too awkward. I don’t want you to feel like I expect you to share, not any more than you’re comfortable with. But I’ve been cheering for the two of you, and I do have a unique perspective as your former sexual partner and Jim’s friend and… well. Gaila’s roommate. I’m invested, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox way. So if you ever need to talk, or if Jim does, I’m here for you guys. I can provide a sort of neutral third-party sounding board. Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

 

“I am comfortable with you, Nyota.”

 

“Thank you,” she says softly, reaching forward to touch his bicep lightly, and then she turns away to her closet. “I don’t love this newest style of dress uniform,” she says. “The seams aren’t as uncomfortable as the last, but the cut is very conservative. Remind me -- is this considered a formal event of state?”

 

“I do not believe it has been classified,” Spock says. “If you were to choose to wear semi-formal civilian wear -- with your comm badge and markings of station, of course -- I believe the captain would be inspired to follow suit. I would then be inclined to do the same as to signal our unity as a command team.”

 

She grins. “Help me pick a dress?”

 

Chapter Text

fifteen.

 

The night sky on a’Nukar a’Ani is a muzzy purple above the open-air palace event space in which the dance is hosted. Spock had learned the night before that in this region and season, the setting of the sun did not bring the swift and harsh cold of the deserts of his youth. Instead, Nukarian nights are nearly as warm as the days, and more humid.

 

None of the Enterprise crew are particularly comfortable in this climate. During the day, Spock is best acclimated, but he finds the evening’s dampness both physically uncomfortable and vaguely unsettling. The air feels heavy when he inhales. For this reason and a variety of others, he has chosen not to partake in the dancing.

 

The Nukarians are used to undulating, rhythmic dances, but nothing as fast as their human visitors are capable of. Jim and Nyota cause a pleasing spectacle each time they move together and synchronize, resulting in cheerful laughter from their hosts. They’d shed their outer layers after the very first number, and Jim had commented he wasn’t even certain why they’d bothered, a sentiment that Spock had silently echoed. He could not deny that his partner - his mate - had looked uniquely charming in an embroidered navy jodhpuri suit jacket -- an old-Earth style that buttoned to the throat rather than forming a gentle 'V' across his chest and torso. Clearly, Jim had not been thinking about the confluence of the climate and his exertion when he had chosen his outfit. Now he wears high-waisted navy slacks that are undoubtedly still too warm, and a white button-up with shirtsleeves rolled up.

 

He wonders briefly if Jim had instead dressed conservatively to ensure Spock was not self-conscious about his own garment choices. Unbidden, a thought arises: if he wished to dress in such a way as to please me, he ought to have chosen his leather jacket. Of course, such a choice would not have been suitable for a diplomatic venture. He had said so himself when Nyota had suggested that Spock wear a leather jacket -- the dark grey she had helped him buy after Iowa, with crossing lapels and an old-fashioned zipper. He had declared it too casual, but had kept with her suggested color palette, choosing a lightweight steel-grey sport jacket and slacks with a black uniform tunic.

 

It is shortly after ship’s midnight, after Jim and Nyota have retired from the dance floor to converse with zh’Keskin at the head table, when Spock hears the familiar shivery hum of the transporter beneath the waves of music. The sound comes from the hallway, and Spock watches in surprise as engineer Scott appears in the doorway. He begins to stand, but Scott’s eyes rake over him and alight instead on Nyota. After a moment of consideration, Spock settles back into his seat and watches him make a beeline to her. She turns at the touch of Scotty’s hand on her shoulder and visibly brightens, greeting him and -- although Spock is on the far side of the space and cannot hear -- clearly introduces him to zh’Keskin, who exhibits what is perhaps her most common expression: warm amusement.

 

Nyota scans the room, and for a moment Spock does the same, instinctively seeking out whatever she may be seeking; when he can find no suitable target for her attention, he looks back and sees that she is looking directly at him. She pauses a moment, then looks away and tugs on one of Scotty’s hands, pulling him down to the dance floor.

 

Spock shifts his gaze to Jim, who is watching fondly as the scene unfolds: Nyota tugging Scotty’s arms around her waist and lifting her own to his shoulders. They sway, barely lifting their feet, and Spock stands and makes his way around the edge of the room, to Jim’s side.

 

“Hey!” Jim says, sounding surprised. “How are you still wearing that jacket?”

 

“By virtue of not having removed it,” Spock answers.

 

“Cheeky,” Jim snorts. “Are you coming over to tell me you’re calling it a night? I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay the whole time. zh’Keskin’s reassured us it wouldn’t be taken as an insult.”

 

“Negative,” Spock says, folding his hands behind his back. “I am content to stay.”

 

“Perhaps a slow dance would not be too taxing,” zh’Keskin suggests, her voice a quiet rumble. Jim is on his feet in an instant, coming around the table to where she sits and producing a hand, but she looks at him and laughs. “Not for me, captain. I couldn’t dream to keep up with you, not with my years. I meant for the two of you.” She gestures to Spock, twinkling innocently.

 

“Oh!” Jim says, pulling his hand back as if burned. “I, um.” He has the look of a night creature caught in floodlights. “I don’t know if that would be --”

 

“You are among friends, cub,” the Czarina says dryly. “Shed your discomfiture.”

 

Jim tilts his head at her, his smile luminescent. “Thank you,” he says, but his voice is still strained even in its softness, and something sad slips into zh’Keskin’s face.

 

“I am sorry,” she says. “I did not mean to shame or alarm you. Do as you will; pretend as if I had said nothing.”

 

They cannot, of course. The silence that reigns between them for the following minute is colored with awkwardness. Spock brings his gaze back to the dance floor, watching Nyota and Scotty talking, the way her hands are wound together behind his neck, the way his eyes trace along the line of her jaw. How clear it is, their regard for each other, their attraction. Like gravity: when he had entered the room, the way he had rotated as if untethered until he found her, the way he had moved as if pulled to her like the tug of the planets to their stars.

 

Spock has lived in Jim’s orbit for long enough that the pull is invisible to him. But not, it seems, to everyone.

 

The song ends, and Nyota unwraps herself from Scotty and tugs him back to the high table. “zh’Keskin,” she says, “would you do me the kindness of telling Scotty what you told me about your scientists’ idea for a secondary crystallization process?” The Czarina leaps into the topic, and Nyota watches for a moment and then beckons Spock to follow her to the beverage table.

 

“Did you try the sparkling spinefruit drink?” she asks. “Spinefruit is what we'd call a succulent. It’s similar to aloe juice.”

 

“I have not,” Spock says, and she pours from one of the pitchers and hands him the cup. It is cool but not cold, and the taste is more pleasant than he had expected, neither overly sweet nor overly effervescent.

 

“Thanks for not chewing Scotty out,” she says. “I told him off a bit myself -- I didn’t invite him, and I know it’s a breach of protocol to have him come down here without having been briefed, especially since he was the senior officer aboard. I think I can be presumptuous and assume that you’re making an exception on my behalf, and I’m grateful. You didn’t have to.”

 

“No harm has been done,” Spock says. “Indeed, if he is a comfort to you, his presence can only benefit our mission. In fact, while he is here, perhaps it would be wise to show him some of the palace. A view of the accommodations may be the inspiration he requires to take up diplomacy.”

 

Nyota snorts and gently hip-checks him. “You just want to convince him to come on more away missions so you’ll have more leverage in asking Jim to stay back,” she accuses playfully, her eyes twinkling.

 

He meets her gaze steadily, evenly, and replies, “You have discerned only one of my motives.”

 

She looks back at Scotty, who is sitting backwards on a chair, arms crossed atop its back and chin atop his arms, listening raptly to zh’Keskin, whose voice can be heard from their current location only as a quiet rumble. Spock watches the affection flicker into heat. “Point taken,” she says. “In that case, don’t stay out too late, commander. Tomorrow it’ll be your turn to entertain the dignitaries while I take a lie-in.”

 

“Goodnight, Nyota,” he says, and watches her cross back to the head table. She stands behind Scotty, resting one hand in the center of his back to signal her presence.

 

The room is just beginning to clear, the departure of the first few Nukarians having provided a signal to the rest that they may close out the evening without being seen as impolite. Spock reviews the room again, and this time he sees i’Baryo at a table near the door, half-sheltered by an adobe awning and illuminated by soft yellow light, looking singularly out of place as he reviews a stack of large data padds. He bristles at Spock’s approach and lifts the padd higher for a moment as if to hide his face, but sighs and sets it aside, reluctantly meeting Spock’s eyes when he slides into the chair across from him.

 

“I wished to apologize,” i’Baryo says, “for my… cultural misunderstanding.”

 

“That is not why I have come,” Spock says. “You do not appear to be enjoying the proceedings.”

 

“I am not,” i’Baryo snaps. “I find these exercises tedious.”

 

“As do I,” Spock admits. “I indulge in them for the sake of my colleagues and companions, and to follow diplomatic etiquette. However, I find this level of noise and commotion disagreeable. I would prefer to spend my time in study or discussion.”

 

“Do you mock me, Commander?”

 

“I do not. I suspect, despite your, as you say, cultural misunderstanding, that we may have enough in common to derive some satisfaction from one another’s company.” i’Baryo rolls his eyes upwards.

 

“I do not understand how you can do it,” the Nukarian says after a moment of silence. “Resist the call of your people. I heard your captain’s pretty words, of course, and I understand them in the abstract, but… when I look at you, it is not abstract. How could you deprive your colony of all that they could gain from your presence?”

 

Spock considers. “I have visited the colony. I know its needs intimately. Yes, I could have a place there. In the abstract, as you say. I could contribute in a broad variety of senses -- intellectually, physically, perhaps even biologically, although my hybrid nature does not make that a certainty. But to make that choice -- to choose to stay when such an act would contradict my true desires -- would render my contributions less valuable, as it would involve such a compromise in my nature that I believe it would strip me of my certainty, my drive. Of that which sets me apart, that which gives meaning and value to my work.”

 

“But your people --”

 

“Do not ask me to put my own dreams aside for them. As the captain has said, it is not as though the work I do here is of no benefit to them. They are idealists. They wish to know the galaxy, to classify new phenomena and discover new ways of thinking and being, and through me they may do so.” He hesitates. “I sense there is more to your line of questioning. Why is this personal for you?”

 

i’Baryo looks away, bitter. “My people have spaceflight, as of course you are aware, but we do not stray far. Most of those who leave come back after some months and choose never to return to space.”

 

“It is my understanding that you have only achieved warp capability within the last two decades. Your sample size may be small; perhaps it is premature to say ‘never’.”

 

i’Baryo grunts, frustrated, and Spock quiets -- the Nukarian is trying, he senses, to make himself understood. After a moment, he continues: “Our culture places great value and significance on light and warmth. We find space deeply unsettling. Most of us.”

 

“Have you experienced spaceflight?”

 

“No. I will be Czar one day. I cannot be put at risk in this way.” He is not meeting Spock’s eyes, but it seems to Spock his words have a brittleness to them, the distinct ring of a phrase oft-repeated.

 

Spock is quiet again, but after a moment, when i’Baryo makes no sign of either continuing or reestablishing their eye contact, he prompts, “Most Nukarians find space unsettling?”

 

The young lord nods. “Deeply. Yes.”

 

“But there is someone who does not.”

 

i’Baryo winces as if struck, and even in recognizing that pain, Spock feels a thrum of satisfaction at having deduced correctly. “Her ship is the d’Landikh,” i’Baryo says quietly. “It has not made planetfall for six hundred and sixty days. It is our longest-lasting space mission, and she is the only remaining member of the original crew. And each time she has been given a choice, to continue or to come home… she chooses to continue.”

 

“Your…” Spock thinks of his conversation with Jim the night before; Jim’s identification of the importance of precise language, the choice of a word whose connotations are unmistakable, but not sordid or childish or impolitic. “Your mate?”

 

i’Baryo laughs, dark and bitter, and meets Spock’s eyes again. “My sister,” he says.

 

They are both quiet for a long moment, and Spock experiences a somatic impact from those two words, deep in his abdomen -- a shattering, a shuttering of something inside of him. He almost closes his eyes to draw meditative breath, but he is able to retain enough control to avoid this lest it be misinterpreted.

 

The Nukarian looks at Spock sideways. “Perhaps I take the wrong lesson from meeting you,” he says. “Perhaps I should see you as evidence that to choose to be distant from your people is not to reject them, is not to be unfeeling. But for all I am able to say this aloud, I cannot seem to accept that lesson into the brightness of my mind.”

 

“I understand,” Spock says.

 

***

 

Jim finds Spock in his bed, already undressed down to a sleeveless shirt and briefs, curled up on his side. "Hey," he says softly. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were staying over tonight. I'd have come back sooner if I'd known you were waiting up."

 

Spock frowns slightly and shakes his head. "I was not consciously waiting," he says. "I intended only to sleep in the arms of my beloved."

 

"Happy to oblige," Jim says cheerfully, undoing the last few clinging buttons of his shirt with one hand and scrubbing the other through his hair until it’s standing up on end. He sheds the shirt, then the pants, which were tightly fitted enough to have left marks on his hips, and crawls into the large bed so that they’re facing each other, Spock’s outstretched arm an invitation for him to make it his pillow.

 

“Hey,” he says quietly. Spock’s eyelids flutter and he gives a soft sigh. “I saw you talking to i’Baryo.”

 

“His sister has been on deep-space exploratory missions for twenty-two months,” Spock says. “He feels it is a rejection of him -- and, perhaps, simultaneously envies her freedom to do so, when he as the heir has not been allowed to break orbit.”

 

“You’re incredible,” Jim murmurs. “The dude calls you a race traitor and you take time to sit down with him and figure out his psychological motivations for doing so. And empathize with him.”

 

“You had suggested that he was passionate in Vulcans’ defense. Although I do not believe that to have been an inaccurate statement, I sensed that his passion was not so altruistically seated.”

 

Jim’s lips twitch. “We have that in common,” he says. “My passion for Vulcans isn’t completely selfless either. Did you want to go to sleep right away? Or did you want to fool around?”

 

Spock leans in, using the arm on which Jim has pillowed his head to pull him closer. “There has only ever been one answer to that question,” he whispers, and covers Jim's mouth with his own in a breath-stealing kiss, then blinks and exhales through his nose. “You are a feast for my eyes.” He sits up, pulling Jim with him, and presses firm, exploratory hands across the plane of Jim’s chest, then leans in for another kiss and skates his fingers out from Jim’s chest to his shoulders as he tilts his head and presses into Jim’s mouth. Jim makes a soft, urgent sound, dropping his arms to the mattress to hold himself upright as Spock presses harder against him, tucking his hands down Jim’s sides to his hips.

 

Then he cards a hand into Jim’s hair and brings him into an embrace, pressing their cheeks together, his other hand wrapping around Jim’s back and holding him in place. Jim settles against him, letting Spock take some of his weight, and drifts sleepily content for a moment. When the moment stretches, Jim thinks, Maybe he’s second-guessing -- it’s late, and there’s lots to do tomorrow.

 

Then Spock trembles, just slightly, and when Jim starts to draw back, to try to see his face, the broad, pale arms are suddenly a vice around him, clutching. “Whoa,” Jim says, and pushes gently at Spock’s forearms, levering himself back. “is everything all right?”

 

Spock blinks. “Yes, k’diwa,” he says.

 

“You seemed pretty far away for a moment,” Jim breathes.

 

“I - yes,” Spock admits. “I was thinking about fear.”

 

“Want to talk about it?”

 

Spock’s eyes seem to clear. “No,” he says. “At the moment I believe I should set my thoughts aside for meditation, and refocus my attentions on the present.” He ducks in for another kiss, and his eyelashes flutter against Jim's cheek, the press of his mouth and his chest warm and solid and softer than before, and Jim lifts his hands to Spock's face and brushes his fingers down both sides, tucks back strands of hair as they fall forward, keeping his touch light and deliberate.

 

“I didn’t know what to do,” Jim says after a moment, slipping one hand into Spock’s and resting his forehead against Spock’s collarbone. “When she - zh’Keskin - when she wanted us to dance.”

 

“Nor I,” Spock answers.

 

“Do you think we need to say something to her? Are you worried she’d out us to the admiralty or something?”

 

“No, Jim. I am not concerned with zh’Keskin or what she may think of us, nor of the admiralty.” He stands from the bed and pulls Jim to his feet, then tucks him close and begins to rock, dancing without music. Jim grins into his chest.

 

“I knew it,” he says. “I knew you wanted to. You’re so romantic.” He tilts his head up to steal another kiss.

 

“There is no word in Vulcan for that concept,” Spock says.

 

“What, ‘romantic’?”

 

“Indeed.”

 

“What would the closest equivalent be? Sentimental?”

 

“Perhaps, but likely that would carry a negative connotation. ‘Demonstrative’, used in similar contexts, would also be understood.”

 

“I love language,” Jim says. “Did you catch when she called me ‘cub’?”

 

“I did. I also heard the untranslated phrase, and from the modifier used, I surmise a better translation would have been young one or young man.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says. “That’s almost too bad. I thought it was cute. I guess the way she said it makes it a term of endearment no matter the literal translation, though.”

 

“You enjoy terms of endearment,” Spock observes.

 

“Yeah.” He’s blushing again. “It’s so contextual, though. If it was any other diplomat, being called cub would have infuriated me. Or, like, the admirals… I wouldn’t admit this to most people, but you know already, I’m sure. I loved when Pike called me son, or kid.”

 

“Because it implied a familiarity that you craved and cherished.”

 

“Yeah, I guess. At least it meant he wasn’t saying Kirk and thinking of my dad, you know? And I don’t mind when Archer calls me son, but when any of the others do, I have to grit my teeth. With nicknames too. Bones can call me Jimmy, but I don’t tolerate it from anyone else; I even correct my mom when she says it.” He chuckles. “Gary really tried to get it to stick, too.”

 

Spock shifts, and Jim twinkles up at him. “Okay, you just moved like three centimeters and somehow told me like eight things at once,” he says. “Like, that somehow you know that Gary is an ex, and that you know enough about him to disapprove, which, I mean, fair, it doesn’t take much. And you’re a little bit jealous that I mentioned him, that I thought of him, but you’re embarrassed about being jealous because you know it’s irrational.”

 

“That is not eight things,” Spock answers.

 

“I totally haven’t mentioned Gary, though,” Jim says, “because I don’t; he’s, like, a chapter in The Book of Jim that we always skip when rereading. So please tell me that Nyota told you, because the only other possibility that comes to mind is that Pike said something about it and if none of my secret vulnerabilities were actually secrets from him I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”

 

“You and Doctor McCoy mentioned the name during an argument in Iowa. I overheard very little, but I admit the context was less than complimentary.”

 

Jim winces. He remembers that argument -- remembers having been sure that the farmhouse soundproofing was good enough for Spock not to overhear. “Crap,” he says, lifting his hand from Spock’s shoulder to the back of his neck and leaning back to make sure Spock can see his chagrin. “Sorry. That wouldn’t have been a fun argument to overhear. Bones didn’t mean anything by it.”

 

“... I do not believe I heard enough to contextualize that statement.”

 

“Oh.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “Just, Bones was reminding me that I have historically had terrible taste in men, not to mention a history of making masochistic and/or self-destructive decisions when it comes to my relationships. Which I would love to pretend isn’t true, but no, he was totally right, it’s just I was always thinking with my dick. And now I’m thinking with my brain and my dick.” He rolls his hips suggestively.

 

“Jim,” Spock says, grasping at the small of his back to still him, “you need not downplay past trauma for my sake. I am with you.”

 

Jim smirks. “I wouldn’t call it trauma,” he says with another slide of his body against Spock's. “It wasn’t healthy, but it wasn’t abusive or anything. I wouldn’t want you to think that. I still consider Gary a friend.”

 

“That is reassuring, but does not alter my stance. You have a tendency to deflect serious conversation using sexual advances. The frequency with which you have done this is uncomfortable and frankly, somewhat insulting. Jim, I have made a great effort to know you intimately, to make our communications transparent despite our significant cultural differences. Please do not do me the disservice of tantalizing me with the offer of knowing you carnally as a means of distracting me from knowing you completely.”

 

Jim winces and leans back in. “Ow,” he breathes into Spock’s shoulder, and Spock stills, bringing their slow-dance rocking to a halt and leaning his cheek against the top of Jim’s head. “Okay, that’s… entirely fair. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… no, I’m sorry, that’s not true either. I knew what I was doing, but I wasn’t thinking of it like that. I was just moving on autopilot. Which isn’t fair to you, you deserve better than that.”

 

“I understand the impulse,” Spock says. “You downplay and deflect from what you perceive as dangerous topics to avoid seeming damaged.”

 

“Broken,” Jim corrects softly.

 

“You do not wish to be subject to the prejudice of lowered expectations,” Spock replies. “Ashayam, do you see the hypocrisy in your actions? Intended or not, conscious or not, you have responded to your wish for me not to lower my expectations of you by lowering your expectations of me.”

 

Jim shakes his head, but doesn’t pull back to meet Spock’s eyes again, and after a moment, Spock’s hand cradles Jim’s cheek and guides him back until their eyes meet, steady and soft. “Yes,” he says. “It does not matter if that is your intent. That is the outcome.” His thumb strokes across Jim’s cheekbone, and his eyes flicker. “I am hurting you,” he says, tracing his fingers up to Jim’s hairline, and he pulls him back into a tight embrace. “I apologize,” he continues. “My response has been selfish. Please understand, above all else, I wish to lighten your burdens, by whatever means I am able. It is not for me to demand from you a level of intimacy you do not wish to share.”

 

God, you make it sound like --” Jim pushes back from him, and as Spock lowers his hands to his sides, his gaze flutters across Jim’s face in a different sort of caress. There is no hint in his face, in his eyes, of the pain Jim knows he is feeling, and that somehow makes it even worse. He is so transparent to Spock, but Spock is as inscrutable as ever.

 

“Yes?”

 

He collapses on the edge of the bed, head in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m tired, and that’s not making this any better. It just… you make it sound like you’re all in, and I’m the one holding us back. And I think you’re probably right, and I hate that. That’s never where I thought we’d be. It’s just… it feels like Bones being right, again. Me being the one who ruins everything that’s good for me because I’m too fucked up, and I… we’re hurting each other. That’s not right. You don’t need…” He breathes deeply.

 

Spock lowers himself onto the bed next to Jim, and then slides back and lies down behind him, stretching out one arm across the pillows, tucking the other at his side. Jim looks back at him, looks at his soft, sad eyes. “You want to…?” he begins, and then bites his lower lip and nods. “Okay.” He leans back slowly, kicking his feet up onto the bed, and lets his neck fall onto Spock’s outstretched arm for a moment -- then, feeling pinned by the weight of Spock’s eyes, he shifts, making Spock’s chest his pillow instead of his arm. He curls his fingers loosely into the hem of Spock’s undershirt and shivers as Spock’s fingers trace through the soft hair at the nape of his neck.

 

“I need your help,” he says. It’s a lot easier to say with his face turned away from Spock’s, and Spock’s fingers don’t go still on his neck, and Spock’s breath doesn’t shudder or speed up at this pronouncement, so he continues. “I really don’t want to fuck this up, Spock. But I’ve never done this for real before. This… being with someone. Loving someone. And I don’t know how to set my filters right. I don’t know how not to hurt you. And I can’t keep hurting you, I can’t, it hurts so much, I just… sometimes it seems like you want me to just be 100% honest with you, all the time, and I don’t get that. Like, we have to have some filter between us, right? Because you don’t have my context, and so if I just told you everything, I’d need to be constantly explaining and qualifying and… am I making any sense?”

 

“I believe you have correctly identified one source of our tension,” Spock says. “What you speak of, this complete clarity, is in fact exactly what I imagine as the ideal state of an intimate relationship. Jim, I am a Vulcan. We share telepathic bonds with both our mates and the members of our immediate families. You, meanwhile, as a human, have no equivalent. I have not adjusted my expectations appropriately to provide for this difference. I must apologize for my negligence.”

 

“Whoa, whoa, hold on,” Jim says. “That’s not, like -- you don’t mean that’s something you would have at this stage of a relationship with a Vulcan, right?”

 

“That which we share has no equivalent in Vulcan relationships.”

 

“But you didn’t have a telepathic link with Nyota, right?”

 

“Correct. I did not intend to suggest that there is something lacking in our current relationship. But I believe that I have been expecting more of you than is reasonable considering -”

 

“Hey,” Jim pulls back and props himself up on his elbows. “Prejudice of lowered expectations, remember?”

 

“I simply mean to convey that you are the limiting factor. I respect your identity, your privacy, but if you were to invite me into your mind, I would fear nothing in it.”

 

“Right, which makes me feel again like I’m the one holding us back.”

 

A small furrow appears between Spock’s brows. “And that is… undesirable?” he asks, quiet.

 

“It just suggests an imbalance. Like, that you’re more into me than I am into you or something. Which is not what this is.” He sighs, and pulls himself back up to the pillows, tucking his body into Spock’s arms, pressing a knee between his legs, intertwining them to reassure himself that his Vulcan is here, gentle and warm and present. “What does that --?” He clears his throat. “What does it mean, to ‘invite you into my mind’? You mean more than just a mind meld?”

 

“A mind meld is no small thing,” Spock says, faintly disapproving.

 

“I know, I know. I just -- I thought maybe you were talking about bonding. And if so, I wanted to hear more, because I don’t really know anything about it.”

 

Spock studies him, his gaze careful and contemplative. “I did not intend that implication,” he says finally.

 

“Okay,” Jim says. “Is that… the mind meld, I mean. Is that something you want? We’ve never really talked about that either.”

 

“It is…” Spock says, and hesitates again. “Complicated.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says again, feeling suddenly cold, feeling he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want this, it’s not --

 

Both of Spock’s hands grasp at his tightly. “It is,” he says. “It is something I want. Jim, I -- you forget, sometimes, that I am a touch telepath. You cannot --” He shakes his head. “Please. Do not try to shield yourself from me, when I hurt you.”

 

“You didn’t --”

 

“I felt it,” Spock insists, shaking Jim’s hands slightly in his own, “as surely as I experience my own emotions, ashayam. You felt, and still feel, devastated and rejected by the mistaken idea that I do not wish to mind-meld with you. You heard me say, it is complicated, but you believed I was in fact saying something different. You interpreted my unclear response as a no, but that is not correct.”

 

Jim swallows. “Ashayam,” Spock says again, very gently, and tilts his head forward, his hand on the back of Jim’s neck bringing their foreheads together.

 

“Yeah,” Jim breathes, squeezing his eyes shut. “Okay. Yeah. You’re right. I…” He feels lightheaded, suddenly, his cheeks flashing between warm and cold. “I need to sit up for a second. Just --”

 

He disentangles himself from Spock’s body and tries not to scramble away, pulling himself back to sit on the edge of the bed. The mattress dips behind him and Spock’s hand slips warm against his back, his fingertips trailing across the base of Jim’s spine. After a moment, Spock’s hand withdraws, and he leverages himself to sit behind Jim, tucking his head over Jim’s shoulder and resting one palm on Jim’s bare chest, right over where his heart is jackhammering crazily. “Yeah,” Jim says again, trying to calm himself down, because what he meant was that he needed some space but that’s not what he’d said and it doesn’t make sense anyway so -- “Sorry. I… I don’t know why I… I kind of freaked out there, for a minute.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Sorry,” he says again, flushing -- Spock knows because he felt it, and that’s got to be unpleasant, feeling someone else’s panic and not even knowing why it’s happening, especially when it’s irrational. “You can -- you don’t have to touch me right now if it’s too much.”

 

Spock makes a small sound, and unhooks himself swiftly. “I apologize,” he says. “My intention was to provide comfort.”

 

“I know,” Jim says, and looks around at him. Spock has withdrawn fully half the width of the bed, his shoulders hunched, and Jim groans and reaches out for him. “No, Spock, I -- I didn’t -- please --”

 

“I understand,” Spock murmurs. “If we have gained nothing else from this conversation, I understand much more than I did ten minutes ago, why you would deflect. I find myself sharing the impulse. We are speaking past one another, both hurt and hurting, both afraid to ask too much, both confused… I know, I understand that what you have just said to me, telling me that I need not touch you, you said in an attempt to respect my difference. You did not intend to hurt me, and I did not intend to hurt you, and yet --” He gestures at the distance between them, and Spock’s gestures are always meaningful, intentional, but this one seems empty and helpless.

 

Jim nods and sighs. “Yeah,” he says.

 

K’diwa,” Spock says, pronounced carefully, and Jim turns fully, sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing him.

 

“How can we make this better?” he asks.

 

Spock ducks his head, his cheeks flushing. “I believe,” he says, “it would be beneficial for us to engage one another sexually.” He blinks at Jim through his eyelashes, coquettish, and Jim bites back a smile.

 

“How do you want me?” he asks.

 

“I do not know,” Spock admits. “I wish to make love to you. I do not care how.”

 

The anxiety coiled in Jim’s gut begins to unwind. Spock scoots across the bed and pulls him into an awkward embrace, and Jim sags into it, swirling with relief and feeling the spark of desire light in his groin. “Well,” he says, “we don’t have any lube, so --”

 

“I procured some,” Spock interrupts.

 

Jim tugs off Spock’s undershirt, leaving both of them in only their briefs. He nuzzles in for a kiss, and grins into it when Spock returns it fiercely, his hands rising to Jim’s hips and helping him adjust himself to straddle Spock’s lap. He grinds down against Spock’s erection, and Spock gasps and falls back from him, his face open with something like shock and his fingers tightening on Jim’s waist.

 

“I like that you like that,” he says, dragging his fingers across Spock’s lips and eliciting another gasp. “It’s fun to see you like this. You fall apart so fast. I couldn’t see it so well when I was wrapped around your cock last night.” Spock moans at that, and Jim tucks two fingers into Spock’s mouth, pressing down on his tongue. “Gotta be quiet, baby,” he reminds him. “Can you do that for me?”

 

Spock nods, then whimpers as Jim’s erection makes itself known, slotting up alongside his. Jim bites his lower lip, holding back the breadth of his grin. “Yeah,” he breathes, and slides their lengths together, slow and tight with the fabric of their underwear between them. Spock pants with effort, his expression tight as if pained, and Jim reaches down and slides a hand into Spock’s underwear, playing with the dampness at his tip. When he wraps a finger and thumb around him and tugs, Spock’s eyes fly open, wild, his hips stuttering upwards.

 

Jim lifts himself up and starts to strip off his own underwear, trying to find an angle to remove them without having to completely dismount, and as soon as Spock understands the reason for the loss of contact, he is sliding his own underwear down and using one foot to push them off him entirely. Once he’s done so, he grabs the waistband of Jim's briefs and yanks them off, then grasps for the head of the bed and produces a tube of lubricant. Jim's cock bobs as they slot their bodies back together and then Jim circles his hand around both of them, slowly stroking while Spock opens the tube. He reaches out a hand, and Spock squeezes a generous amount of lube onto it obediently. They both gasp a little at the cold of it, but after a moment Spock is gripping his hand around Jim’s, suggesting a faster pace, and once Jim obliges he resettles both hands onto Jim’s hips for support and encourages Jim’s thrusts instead, rising to meet him stroke for stroke. Within a moment Jim’s hips are bucking, and he leans down across Spock’s body to whine high and needy in his ear.

 

“Oh yeah,” he pants, “oh yeah, oh fuck, that’s good. God, you’re so fucking hard for me, so hot, you feel so good, ah, fuck, I could ride you like this all night, fucking perfect, you know how fucking perfect you are?”

 

Jim,” Spock interrupts, his voice thin and almost reedy.

 

“You ready to come for me already, baby?” he asks. “I know, it’s so good, isn’t it? But let me --” He slows his roll, brings his hand to all but a stop. “I’m not ready for you to finish yet,” he breathes, and the muscles in Spock’s neck release, letting his head thump back against the pillow. He’s sucking in air, his eyes blown wide, and he looks down at where Jim’s hand is wrapped around both of them, then back to Jim’s face, as if uncomprehending. Jim laughs, kisses his slack mouth and then kisses down his chin and towards his throat, stopping only when the angle of his neck becomes too awkward to continue without changing the angle of his hips.

 

He moves his hand again then, bringing his fingers up along the base of Spock’s dick, resting his other hand on the mattress, because Spock’s fingers on his waist have gone slack, not supporting his weight anymore. He thrusts again, and pleasure presses a soft “nngh,” from him; he closes his eyes, everything feeling heavy and slick and tight and so good, and he strokes along their full lengths, trying to apply just the right amount of pressure.

 

Jim,” Spock groans again, and something in his voice, something in the vulnerability and lust and wantonness of it, something in there absolutely ruins Jim, wrecks him like a ship on a rocky shore. He cries and thrashes his head to the side and comes in a few hard spurts, and Spock rocks up into his grip and follows him over the edge as if there was never any question.

 

Jim is breathing like he’s run a marathon. He rolls to the side and collapses, then turns to nuzzle towards Spock.

 

“That,” he pants, “was.”

 

Spock rolls over onto him, and Jim hisses at the contact on his sensitized dick, but Spock just shifts his weight and takes Jim’s mouth in another slick, possessive kiss. His hands frame Jim’s face, tangling in the damp hair at the nape of his neck, and he presses him down for a scant handful of seconds, then pulls back. His eyes are smiling. Jim swallows.

 

“Yeah,” he says.

 

“My mind is clearer now,” Spock says.

 

“Mine is gonna need a couple more minutes,” Jim huffs.

 

“Very well,” Spock says, and rolls off of him, striding towards the washroom and returning with a warm cloth and towel. He cleans the mess from Jim’s stomach and thighs, batting away when Jim tries to take the cloth to do it himself, so Jim lets himself lie back and breathe deeply and hold onto his calm. Right now his calm feels like a bar of soap in a water shower, but he manages to keep it.

 

“Okay,” he says when Spock returns sans towel. “You sounded like you had a revelation.”

 

“Not precisely,” Spock answers, “but I have discerned an appropriate avenue to continue our conversation. Are you amenable?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“When I said, ‘if you were to invite me into your mind,’ the implication I intended was the sharing of a mind meld -- but not like you have ever experienced. In the past, we have used melding as a tool to enable or enhance communication. I have initiated the meld with a purpose, a clear scope and intent. However, it is true that amongst Vulcans, the meld is also used between intimate partners as a way of being with one another in unaltered form, of existing in tandem without the medium of language, or the controls of logic.”

 

Spock lifts his legs onto the bed and lowers himself slowly back onto the pillows, inviting Jim into his embrace. Jim settles his ear against his chest and hears the next words rumble there in one ear while hearing them spoken clearly in the other. “I do not wish to demean or devalue the human experience,” Spock says, “but to my understanding, there is no equivalent intimacy in a human relationship. If we were to engage in such a meld now, you -- as a member of a psi-null species, as someone with extremely limited training in mental disciplines -- you would lack the ability to hold back or hide any thought, any memory, any feeling that should rise to the surface of your mind.”

 

He nods again, against Spock’s chest, to be sure that Spock knows that he understands. Spock’s arms tighten around him as he continues.

 

“This is not a reality you have been socialized to expect or accept. You value your mental privacy, even from your family, your mate. I do not believe there are many of my kind who would understand this as I do, but my mother and father impressed upon me that this was a human value, not a limitation or a product of weakness or whatever else my narrow child’s mind may have believed it to be. I do not wish you to believe that you must relinquish the sanctity of your own mind for me. I have asked much of you already. And yet, even as I attempt to respect your autonomy, I struggle when I sense conflict between your verbal expression and the emotional expression I sense via touch.” Spock pauses again, and Jim can’t tell if he’s gathering his own thoughts or giving Jim time to absorb, but he’s grateful for it either way. Spock continues, more slowly, “I am not certain if it is reasonable or acceptable for me to ask that you not shield from me when I have hurt you. In a human relationship such a request could be made, but would be impossible to enforce. If I make such a request of you, I cannot help but know when you do and do not indulge it.”

 

Jim swallows. “Yeah,” he says, and lifts his head to look Spock in the eye again. “I can’t… I won’t promise never to lie to you about my feelings. But if I do, and you can tell, I don’t expect you to pretend you don’t know. You can always call me on my bullshit, Spock.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“As for melding… Yeah, when you explain it like that, I get why you’d hesitate to tell me that it’s something you want.”

 

“If I had said yes, you would have offered.”

 

“Immediately, yeah. I fully intended to. And I still want to, to be honest -- at least, some part of me does. But you were right to think I wouldn’t have understood what I was agreeing to, so thank you.”

 

“I think it would be ill-advised, at this time,” Spock says. “If that is something we intend to do, we should build towards it, as with everything else.”

 

“Is it… this feels like a silly question, but Spock, is it sex to you? That kind of mind meld.”

 

Spock frowns, thinking, and then nods slightly. “I suppose so. A meld without communicative purpose is an act of intimacy that I would undertake only with a long-term romantic partner, and I would expect to engage in it with the same exclusivity as I would a sexual relationship.”

 

“Okay. Well, I guess why don’t you think about what it would look like to build toward it, and let me know, and we can take it from there?”

 

Spock sits up on his elbows. “Sex is an adequate metaphor,” he says. “We may think of the mind as a sexual organ. We build by increments. Beginning with light touches, one mind to the other, and building in duration and intensity. Then gradually shifting so that both are stimulated at once, stimulated and stimulating, and then increasing depth.”

 

“Okay, hot,” Jim laughs. “Want to try?”

 

With no further preamble, Spock extends his index and middle fingers and presses them to the crinkle of skin to the side of Jim’s left eye, and Jim feels a spark of heat and then a feeling like a cool breeze nudging against him. He shivers as Spock pulls back, eyebrows raised as if to say, Well?

 

“Did you just boop me with your brain?” he asks, demonstrating with a poke of his index finger on the tip of Spock’s nose.

 

“No,” Spock says. “It was more akin to this.” And he pecks a firm, closed-mouth kiss on Jim’s forehead.

 

“Huh,” Jim says. “Okay. I wasn’t supposed to feel sexy about it, though, was I?”

 

“Indeed not,” Spock says, and Jim thinks he might be faintly scandalized. “Consider it a familial gesture.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says for what feels like the millionth time, and settles back onto Spock’s chest. After a moment of silence he says, “It was nice, though.”

 

“Sleep,” Spock says, and Jim thinks about saying, Hey, who gives the orders around here?, but he doesn’t get around to it.

Chapter Text

sixteen.

 

Spock had intended to spend the morning in the gardens, drinking tea and catching up on paperwork, enjoying the blazing Nukarian sun. What he had not anticipated was to learn that this routine was shared with none other than the czarina.

 

It is just past 0900 when he enters the large central palace terrace, PADDs tucked under one arm and thermos clasped in hand, and notes zh’Keskin’s presence at a small table on the western side. She is engrossed in one of the Nukarians’ own data devices, a glass pitcher at her side full of iced liquid that catches the rays of the sun and reflects them in his direction. He skirts the eastern edge so as not to distract her, but when he is nearly to the far side, she makes a now-familiar noise, like a chortle, and calls out for him: “Bright beginning, Commander Spock!”

 

“And to you, Czarina,” he says, and she waves him over.

 

“I do not wish to disturb you,” he says as he approaches.

 

“If I felt disturbed by your presence, I would have allowed you to depart,” she says. “It seems we are of one mind on how best the morning should be spent! Come, join me. If you have tasks to complete, I can complete mine meanwhile, or if you wish to speak with me informally, I can set my own tasks aside. The privileges of my rule.”

 

“Very well,” he says, and sits across from her. She watches him over the top of her device as he pours his tea from the thermos into the cup that serves double as its lid, and her wide nostrils flare appreciatively.

 

“I hope your night was restful,” she says.

 

“It was,” Spock answers honestly; he and Jim had gotten barely four hours of sleep, but what sleep he had was restful and deep.

 

“Mine was not,” she says pointedly. “When a Nukarian reaches my years, changes to our daytime routines cause disruptions to our nighttime as well. I have had too much excitement these past two days. Do not mistake me, I do not regret your presence! But I found it difficult to terminate my day-thinking and shift to night patterns.” She blinks at him and tilts her broad head consideringly. “I was concerned that I had misjudged, and perhaps offended you. I understand that different races may not share our feelings on nonprocreative relationships.”

 

“Will you tell me of the Nukarian context on this matter?”

 

“In old times, our people lived different cycles,” she says. “In the warm cycles, we planted and studied and toiled all together, but when the cold came, we would divide. The women and girls went to the far north for one cycle and a half, where it was dark and we shared nests like burrows. We hibernated, and birthed there, while the men and boys stayed in the warmer lands and hunted and kept the lands fresh. Then we would reunite for the planting and begin again.

 

“So for each of us, we had procreative pairings for the warm cycles, but we also chose to find pleasure in the cold cycles: men with men, women with women. We have not had the dividing for many, many generations, but we have kept our seasons thus. Most Nukarians have at least one mate among women and one among men, and many may have more than one nonprocreative pairing. We cherish these. I believed that you were thus also, but from your discomfort when I proposed your dance, I am left uncertain if I have misunderstood. This was my thought late into the night, and I wish to understand.”

 

“You have not offended us,” Spock says. “We do not scorn nonprocreative pairings. I have found that most species seem to outgrow the need to control one another’s sexual expression before achieving spaceflight. Vulcans form primarily procreative and exclusive bonds, but there are revered forms of relations between men or between women -- warrior-bonds, which came also from our early days. Among humans -- my mother’s people -- there are a broader range of normative relationship forms. While there are members of our races who do feel differently, I can assure you none so narrow-minded would be permitted to hold my rank.”

 

She nods. “I am relieved,” she says. “It would be most upsetting for us to learn our relational patterning would be at issue in your Federation.”

 

“I regret that we caused you this distress,” Spock says. “I believe we reacted in the way that we did simply because your observation was unexpected, and not because it was in any way unwelcome or distressing.”

 

“Spock,” she says, “as I have transcribed my response to your visit, I have recorded observations about your partnership with your captain. I found it intriguing, and encouraging, to think that two so different as you have found one another, and that you are seen as high examples. Your ranks, your statuses. I had intended to share my writings, both for our archives and for your Starfleet’s. Is this undesired or inappropriate?”

 

“For a given value of the term ‘partnership’,” Spock says. “My captain and I make no secret of our friendship and successful professional rapport. At this time, I believe implications beyond that would be undesirable.”

 

“Then I will frame your pairing as that of nestmates,” zh’Keskin says decidedly. “I hope this will convey appropriately. There does not seem to be a precise equivalent among humans and Vulcans, from my learnings -- you have single-births, as I understand.”

 

“Primarily so,” Spock says. “Am I to gather that Nukarians have multiples?”

 

“Twins,” zh’Keskin says. “Sometimes triplets. Unique patterning -- but born to the same nest. i’Baryo told me that he had told you of his twin. I am proud of him for telling -- he does not share of himself easily. And now he is meeting with your captain to talk about finding a public voice! Aliens are surely humbling.”

 

“To you, too?”

 

“Oh, yes,” she says. “Always more to learn. I hope you will forgive me to say, I did not find any warmth with Captain Mackenzie. If it had been only him, I would not have thought much about the Federation, but I liked better the contact with your other diplomats, and what I’d learned from reading. This said -- it was entirely different to hear in person the values you espouse spoken by someone who believes them, who can show us how they fit into the world instead of just saying things that are kept all apart from his way of life.” She’s speaking of Jim, and not of Spock, but Spock feels a swell of prideful satisfaction nonetheless.

 

“What did you sense Captain Mackenzie believed in?”

 

“Himself,” she says. “His own cleverness, and the sound of his own voice.”

 

“Some would say the same of Jim,” Spock challenges.

 

“They would be wrong,” she says. “Your Jim -- is it improper, for me to say it this way?”

 

Spock hesitates. “Yes.”

 

“But you don’t mind,” she laughs.

 

“Whether I mind or not is immaterial. Proceed, Czarina.”

 

“Your Jim is what we call a m’Ynasheria. It is a metaphor. You have metaphors, Vulcans? Yes, I hear the word translates, so it must be. The m’Ynasheria are stones, crystals, for which light passes through in different ways. Hold it to the sun and be blinded one way. Then turn it on its head and be bathed in a spectrum of colored light. With some, one can even turn it another way and block the light altogether. There is one way of your Jim’s light that looks like Captain Mackenzie’s. The bluster and the fullness of self. But he has deigned to show us his spectrum of color. It is a rare gift, I think.”

 

“Is it not so with all beings? Do we not all have facets, masks that we share and shed as our audiences change?”

 

“What you speak of is not m’Ynasheria. It is just a stone, with many angles. It looks different from side to side, as you twist and rotate it, yes, of course. But it is not just the sides of the m’Ynasheria that differ. It is what they let through. The worlds one lives in look different on different sides of the m’Ynasheria.”

 

“I see.” And he does. “Thank you, Czarina. This was most illuminating.”

 

“Will it be permitted --?” She stops. “It is impossible to ask him, or your admirals, without the risk of being misunderstood as a diplomatic request, and not a personal one. So, allow me to say, I ask this not as Czarina but as zh’Keskin -- would it be acceptable to continue communications, once you have gone? Between you and your Jim, and my grandson and myself? There is so much more that I have to learn, and you are a kind of teacher that suits both one of my age and one of i’Baryo’s temperament.”

 

“I cannot speak for my captain, but I would be most gratified to continue to deepen our acquaintance,” Spock says, and the czarina beams at him. “In that vein, in the personal and not the diplomatic, with full acceptance if you should refuse to share this -- may I ask if you intend to apply for membership?”

 

She smiles. “I have not decided,” she says, “and I will not do so while you are present; I find such decisions require much light and clear to be made, and in the presence of beings I find so agreeable, I cannot allow such company to make me over-hasty. I shall make the correct choice in the correct time. But I would like to say yes, and I hope I will feel the same in the light of the day I decide.”

 

***

 

By late afternoon, their time at a’Nukar a’Ani comes to a close. The Czarina insists on a what the Universal Translator refers to as a “dusking ceremony” in her throne room, with her advisors and several members of her royal family present. She speaks about the ideals of the Federation, and the friendship they offered. And then she says, “Whether or not we choose to apply for membership, I assure you we feel and accept your friendship,” and Jim feels a hot swoop of frustration and embarrassment and has to fight to make sure nothing shows in his face.

 

“Captain Kirk, we would like to present you and your crew with a gift, as a token of our time together,” zh’Keskin says, and opens a leatherlike case to reveal a delicate crystal, slightly smaller than a human fist. “This is called a m’Ynasheria,” she says, and smiles broadly at the crew for a moment. “It has some unique properties I think you will enjoy.”

 

Jim reaches for it, and then her words tumble around his head and he holds back. “It’s not going to --” He winces at his own audacity. “I’ve heard some stories about tokens given in these contexts having some unexpected side effects. Can you--”

 

“I am aware of the properties of the m’Ynasheria,” Spock says quickly from behind him, and damn, his pronunciation is flawless. “You need not worry, Captain.”

 

“Thank you, Mister Spock,” Jim says. “I hope I have not offended, Dawn-Harbinger.”

 

“Not at all,” she says, voice rich with bemusement, and then, too quietly for the crowd to hear, “You are a fine diplomat, Jim.”

 

“Thank you,” he murmurs, and he tries not to think bitterly, not fine enough, it seems, but he fails that miserably. Then, raising his voice back to public volume, “We bear a gift for you as well, courtesy of the Federation and in the hopes that it may both benefit you and strengthen our ties.” He nods to Spock, who steps to his side, hands clasped behind his back, gaze level-set on zh’Keskin’s broad face.

 

“Today, before we depart, we will be sharing the full technical specifications for a Federation interstellar communications array, and the software therefore,” he says. “These will increase the speed of your interstellar communications by a magnitude of thirty compared to your current infrastructure, and will double the communications range of your fleet ships. None of your currently deployed ships would require any physical retrofitting for implementation, and the technologists of the Federation’s diplomatic corps will be available should you require assistance in making the necessary software adaptations. Our estimates suggest it will take you no more than twelve solar days to build and deploy this technology.”

 

zh’Keskin inhales deeply, raises her arms in the air, and makes a high, rhythmic noise. It’s enough like whooping that they don’t need the UT to interpret it (and, indeed, the UT doesn’t even seem to try). The Nukarian audience is going wild, some clasping each other’s forearms excitedly, others echoing their czarina’s cry at lower pitches.

 

“May your nests be warm and your seasons bright,” zh’Keskin says, and clasps Jim’s shoulders for a moment, then spins and begins to make her way back to her throne.

 

The air is still staticky-bright with the Nukarians’ excitement. Spock turns to Jim, meets his gaze, and holds out two fingers between their bodies, shielded from the view of the crowd. His eyes are warm and pleased, and Jim hesitates.

 

He has two choices: refuse to return what Spock insists is not a Vulcan kiss, or return it and let Spock feel his emotional milieu: the humiliation that his first diplomatic venture is ending without the membership application they all hoped for; the numb exhaustion of the last three days, having to be “on” every second and trying not to show how hard it is; the anger at zh’Keskin for being so kind while she rejects him and his efforts; the frustration at how hard it is for him to hide all this while Spock appears perfectly unruffled, as if he’d known all along they wouldn’t apply.

 

Both options will hurt Spock -- to touch, or to refuse. And the fuckup in Jim already knows exactly how he would do it, how he would choose the coward’s way -- he’d clap Spock genially on the shoulder and turn away towards Nyota and their security officer, Ensign Barnes, grinning as if nothing was wrong, striding fast enough that Spock will have to fall in behind him.

 

It would be so easy.

 

But he can’t. And something about that lights a spark in Jim. Brings him a glimmer of happiness, along with all of the other junk. Because this is what it’s like to have a partner, to trust someone, to love someone, not to be able to hurt them even when it seems like it would be easier than honesty, and… he thinks that, in a way, he’s understanding that for the first time.

 

He fumbles his hand into the right gesture, the two fingers forward and thumb holding the other two back, and touches the outstretched fingers lightly against Spock’s. He presses some ruefulness into his smile, trying to express some of his regret with Spock, some sense of sorry to be a downer.

 

When he starts to pull away, Spock presses forwards for a moment, prolonging the contact -- but then he offers a tiny nod and drops his hand back to his side.

 

Okay, Jim thinks, okay.

 

***

 

In the transporter room, Spock grasps Jim’s wrist before he can leave the pad. “Not now,” Jim says, tugging away, and Spock watches the stiff line of his back as he exits the room and feels a burst of his own emotions, as if Jim has contaminated him somehow.

 

“Let him sulk,” Nyota says, rolling her eyes. “Barnes -- have you written an after-action report before?”

 

“No ma’am,” Barnes says, “but I’m sure your department has the protocols somewhere I can find them. What time do you need it submitted?”

 

“Normally it’s a same-day affair,” she says, “but since it’s your first, you can take until 0900 tomorrow. Give it some polish. Remember, it’s on the record.”

 

“Thank you,” Barnes says, and heads off in the opposite direction as Spock and Nyota. Spock raises a brow at her.

 

“You know Jim’s not going to have his ready tonight,” she says. “No point in having the redshirt rush.” Spock concedes with a tilt of his head.

 

He leaves the lift at Deck Five and makes his way to the medical bay. Jim is not there -- he hadn’t believed he would be, not really -- but Doctor McCoy is at his desk, and spins his chair toward Spock as he enters the CMO’s office.

 

“I don’t see any blood,” he drawls. “And Jim’s not here, so what’re you doin’ here voluntarily?”

 

“I would appreciate your counsel,” Spock says.

 

“First time for everything,” McCoy snorts. “If you ask me bedroom questions about Jim, I’ll see that your immunization records get lost.”

 

“I have backups of all of my medical records, Doctor.”

 

“You know what I --!”

 

“I do. The matter I wish to discuss is not sexual in nature, which I assume was the innuendo intended by the phrase ‘bedroom questions’.”

 

“Well then, shoot.”

 

“Humans,” Spock says, “seem to know instinctively when to intervene in another’s emotional state, and when not to do so.”

 

“I can cut you off right there,” McCoy says. “We don’t. Trust me. We all think we do, but -- look, you’re a scientist, I can say this in terms you’ll understand: you can’t do A/B tests on real life. So we humans might think that we know what the right thing is, but you know better. We can’t know what the outcome would have been if we made the other choice. Just gotta deal with that.”

 

“Allow me to provide a non-hypothetical scenario,” Spock says. “Jim is… upset. I wished to understand, and provide comfort if feasible. He withdrew, and Nyota instructed me to, quote, let him sulk, end quote. If her instinct is no more worthy of consideration than mine, would you advise that I ignore her instruction?”

 

McCoy’s face has softened as Spock speaks, and he shakes his head. “Nah,” he says gently. “But not because human instinct on the matter is better. Just because her advice lines up with what he seems to want. He’ll find you when he’s ready.” The doctor stretches both arms over his head. “Damn, I’m wiped. Are we underway yet?”

“Negative. I expect we will break orbit momentarily.”

 

“And you’re off-duty now, right?”

 

“Indeed,” Spock says. “Lieutenant 0718 has the conn for beta.”

 

“Then, suppose you weren’t in a relationship with Jim. What would you be doing right now?”

 

Spock frowns, thinks. “As you have pointed out, doctor, my life is not subject to the kinds of testing constraints that would allow me to make such a supposition.”

 

He rolls his eyes. “Speculate.”

 

“It is likely that I would be reviewing documents for our next mission in my quarters.”

 

Bones grunts in disgust. “Fine. Go do that, then. Leave this one in his court. He needs to feel in control right now, so let him dictate the terms.”

 

Spock does not point out that this insight is precisely the kind of human perspective the doctor had just dismissed. Instead, he nods, bids the doctor good evening, and goes to his quarters. There, he replicates a cup of tea, sits at his desk, and begins reading about their next mission. They are to spend two days performing lifesigns testing on a planet with unusual geological properties, gathering data and attempting to ascertain strategies for both finding lost life signs and cleaning up those that have been muddied under such circumstances.

 

Jim will insist on being a member of the landing party, Spock thinks. And then he will have the same choice he always has: to be by his side, or to stay aboard ship in defense of the chain of command.

 

I will stay, he thinks, but then finds his gaze drifting from his console. He imagines: himself on the bridge, and Jim on the surface with his lifesign flickering in and out.

 

I will stay, he thinks again, but his wandering attention suggests a need for meditation, and he stands from his desk and changes from his uniform into his robe.

 

***

 

By the time Jim heads back to his room, it’s past 2200. He hasn’t finished his after-action, but he did make progress on a pet project, and the satisfaction of that had washed away some of the sour taste in his mouth from the less-than-satisfactory end of their Nukarian adventure.

 

It’s a project he’d started when he’d first looked at the work rotations for the arboretum. Strangely enough, one of the tasks they hadn’t been able to automate was pollination, because the vast diversity of plant species presents several unique challenges. So Jim had liberated a tiny drone-bot from the labs and started to try to build a training algorithm for it.

 

He’d originally planned to keep his little project secret from Sulu until he was sure it would work, but that had gone out the window today when Jim had gone to run a field test and Sulu had walked in on him. For the best -- within five minutes of finding out, he’d helped Jim push past two setbacks in a row and spent the better part of an hour brainstorming suggestions for the third. So that, and the pleasant company, and the lushness of the arboretum, and the satisfaction of a puzzle to be solved, had all helped to bolster Jim’s mood.

 

Then he’d said, “Why don’t you give Spock a crack at it?” and Jim had winced before he could remember not to and Sulu’s eyes had gone wide and apologetic and the moment was over. So Jim had decided to turn it in for the night.

 

The thing is, he already knows what Spock is going to say. That the mission parameters didn’t indicate any urgency for the Nukarians to apply for membership. That it’s unreasonable of Jim to think that three days of the Jim Kirk Experience should be enough to convince a whole planet to make such a major decision on the spot. That no one else sees this as a failure, and he’s too hard on himself, and all kinds of comforting shit like that. And it’s all going to be true, and Jim’s going to have no choice but to concede, Yeah, you’re right, but it’s not going to make him feel any better and then he’ll just be the illogical human again, burdening Spock with his irrational emotional responses.

 

So he’d stayed out late. Avoided Spock, avoided that conversation. Because he knows how it ends, and he wanted to spend a few more hours just feeling shitty, instead of feeling shitty and feeling like an idiot for feeling shitty.

 

When he finally enters his quarters and steps around the partition towards his bed, there’s a moment of dissonance. Spock, wearing his thick meditation robe, is wrapped up in Jim’s covers, his face soft and open in sleep, one hand thrown out with fingers gently curled, the other grasping the edge of the blanket, as if tucking himself in.

 

He probably didn’t mean to fall asleep here, Jim tells himself, and watches the sleeping Vulcan’s still face for a moment. He needs to shower, but the noise will wake Spock up, and then he’ll go back to his room, and Jim could use the cuddle. So he slides into bed, spooning up behind Spock, and nuzzles into his hair, which is soft and smells of incense. Spock inhales more deeply and murmurs his name, a soft hum of, “Jim,” and Jim thinks, I want this, every night and every morning, I want this, and some of the fragility of the day shatters.

 

“Hi,” he whispers into the slack muscles of the back of Spock’s neck, and Spock gives another satisfied hum and Jim just wraps his arms around him and tries to convey through the few points of skin-to-skin contact, don’t say anything, we don’t have to talk about it, I don’t want to ruin this, let’s not.

 

A minute passes, then two, and finally Spock leans his head back and murmurs, “You smell of soil.”

 

“Agh, sorry,” Jim says, but before he can move to get up, Spock has shaken his head, settling his body back against Jim’s through the robe and the covers.

 

“It is pleasant,” he says. “It is reminiscent of… my mother’s garden. I remember, as a small child, sitting on the paving-stones while she turned the earth for her flower bed, in the spring. I, in the shade of the house, reading; I-Chaya beside me in the sun, asleep. The sounds of her trowel, and below that, a low droning noise from the insects -- similar to cicadas on Earth -- and I-Chaya’s exhalations. And the smell of soil, fresh, like petrichor. Utterly peaceful.”

 

Jim swallows. His throat is tight. It’s gone, he thinks, his mom and his sehlat and the garden and the not-cicadas and even the fucking trowel, it’s all gone.

 

“But Jim,” Spock whispers, “I carry it with me everywhere I go.”

 

***

 

Jim wakes to the soft beep of his alarm. The other side of the bed is empty, and the covers that Spock had been tangled in have been readjusted, wrapped over him. There’s a flash of memory to soften Spock’s absence: hands tucking the sheets in at his sides, the brush of lips on his cheekbone.

 

“Computer, time,” he says.

 

“The time is 0650.”

 

Right. He’s got to write his after-action before shift. He rolls out of bed, strips out of his rumpled uniform, and almost replicates himself a coffee, then throws himself in his desk chair and drafts a comm to Bones, can i have caffeine yet, then decides he’d probably better send that as a personal message instead of on ship’s channels. Switches to his personal messages and there’s an unread comm from Spock, timestamped 0456.

 

>> Jim, ashayam -- it has been pleasant to wake alongside you on so many consecutive occasions. In hopes the feeling is mutual, I find I must apologize for allowing myself that experience this morning but departing in advance of allowing you to share in it. I considered waking you to ensure equity in this measure, but I chose not to do so for two reasons, each in equal measure. One, I hesitated to disrupt your peace. Two, I feared you would attempt to persuade me to remain rather than attending to matters in the lab (and, moreover, feared I would be unable to resist such persuasion as I imagine you would provide). It had been my intention to be present upon your return last night to facilitate a conversation, if you wished. I was sorrowed by your discontent yesterday, and wished to respect your privacy while ensuring you were aware of my support and regard for you. It would please me to be given the opportunity to show you this tonight, after shift. I will sign presumptuously, Your Spock.

 

Jim responds without thinking:

 

>> Presumptuously?!?!

 

Then:

 

>> Sorry this is like the most romantic good morning letter I’ve ever gotten by a magnitude of eight, I don’t know how to respond.

 

>> It would please me for you to respond in the affirmative to my suggestion that we meet after shift.

 

>> Affirmative, Commander.

 

A pause. Then:

 

>> Good.
>> Good morning, Jim.

 

***

 

Shift ends at 1700. He waits until the rest of Alpha have left so they can have the turbolift to themselves, and when the doors close, Jim’s heart stutters when Spock presses his fingers into the top of Jim’s hair, smoothing a spot before brushing his mouth against it. But then he pulls away.

 

“I must review Alpha shift’s progress in the labs,” he says softly. “I will not be long -- I estimate between eleven-point-four and nineteen-point-six minutes, including time in transit.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says. “Mind if I slip into something more comfortable?”

 

A tiny furrow appears between Spock’s eyebrows. “Do I detect innuendo?” he asks.

 

“You do,” Jim grins. “I’m pretty comfortable naked.”

 

“Your comfort is important to me. I have no objections. Perhaps you would like to make use of my quarters?” The doors slide open, and Spock exits smoothly, not looking back. Jim keeps grinning after him until the doors close.

 

He reaches his room and feels a skitter of excitement as he kicks his shoes off. Pulls his tunic and undershirt over his head and tosses them towards the ‘fresher, then tugs off his socks, steps out of his slacks, and slides his briefs down. Little Jim starts to catch onto his excitement, and he grabs a tube of lubricant and dances across the cold tile floor through their shared restroom into Spock’s warmer quarters.

 

“Lights to thirty percent,” he says, and throws himself onto Spock’s bed, setting the lube on the side table. He’s still grinning hard enough that his jaw hurts a little. That won’t do. He flips onto his back and tries to figure out how best to arrange himself, finally settling for the famous Michelangelo pose: sitting up on one elbow, head tilted back, one leg outstretched, the other with knee bent up with the other arm draped out across it. It’s actually pretty comfortable, he thinks, which is good because Spock will be another five or ten minutes.

 

Or not, he thinks when the door opens less than a minute later, and the grin is back, he can’t help it.

 

“That was not eleven-point-four minutes,” he says as Spock rounds the partition and stops, his eyes widened. Heck yes, this pose.

 

“It was not,” Spock says, sounding faint. “It was seven minutes and twenty-three seconds since I gave my estimate, six minutes and forty-nine seconds since I left the turbolift.”

 

“You didn’t rush through your work, mister, did you?”

 

“I delegated,” Spock says delicately, and then falls on him, seeking his mouth and finding it quickly, warm and wanting.

 

“Hey,” Jim mumbles into his mouth, and tugs at his uniform shirt. “Off.”

 

“No,” Spock answers, and crawls up against him, pressing into him, tugging his elbow out from beneath him so that he falls back against the pillows. Spock props himself up on both arms, bracketed Jim’s shoulders and lying above him, but then letting his lower body drag against the cradle of Jim’s hips, their legs tangling. His nostrils are flaring, his breath heavy, and he shifts his weight onto one arm and brings the other hand up to cradle Jim’s face.

 

” he groans, “

 

Jim whimpers. It’s as if Spock is pushing something through his skin -- he can feel a current, hot and wild, pulsing as Spock whines into his cheek, “” and he can’t feel what it means, but he can feel something, something hot and raw and heady buzzing through their contact.

 

“God, Spock,” he moans. “Yes -- so good, you’re so good to me, I want --”

 

Something. Anything. This. And Spock reaches down and wraps his slim fingers around him and he’s bucking and writhing in seconds, his eyes rolling even as he tries to keep them anchored on Spock’s face. He pulls in a shuddering breath, jolts again as Spock’s fingers slip down his length, and, “God, Spock, your hands --”

 

“Yes,” Spock hisses, gripping him tighter and licking into his mouth.

 

“I have spent,” Jim pants, “so much time -- thinking about this. About what your hands would feel like on me. God, let me just feel you --” He finds his own hands, braces them around Spock’s face. “You are so beautiful, I love that I get to see you in a way no one else does. That I put this look on your face. That my body makes you hard, that I know the feeling of your mouth and your hands and your beautiful fucking cock, god, look at what you do to me, Spock --” He’s writhing against the bed, helpless, wanton, and Spock is looking at him with those wide eyes, looking from his face down to where his own hand is sliding across the flushed skin of Jim’s penis, looking at his mouth as if it is the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen, and --

 

“May I show you a new feeling?” Spock asks.

 

***

 

The noise Jim makes in response to his question is high and helpless and most gratifying, especially when paired with an emphatic nod that serves as enthusiastic consent. Spock begins to slide down Jim’s body, allowing the tangle of Jim’s hands in his hair and scrabbling at his shoulders as he moves, the almost-frantic nature of his movements.

 

He nuzzles at Jim’s belly, follows the pale, downy trail of hair that slips between his hips, and Jim is saying his name like a mantra, “Spock, Spock, Spock.” Spock finds himself entranced in a way that is almost new to him. He can scarcely remember a handful of moments like this one, on a precipice above something he has denied wanting for too long and is now finally determined to take, desperate as if for water, or air, or light.

 

"Spock," Jim whimpers, and --

 

"Ashayam," he says, wrecked, and explores Jim's body with his hands a moment more before letting the heavy head of Jim’s penis fall against his tongue -- letting his mouth close around it, tasting Jim's precum and the uniquely musky beloved smell of him, and beginning to suck hungrily, taking more into his mouth than he had planned.

 

Jim's words cut off in a gasp. A feeling of fullness threatens to overwhelm Spock's senses, but he steadies himself against Jim's hands tangling in his hair but still gentle, and another instance of that high, surprised noise Jim makes like some hurt thing. He focuses on the slick shaft of Jim's penis, which his tongue seems to know how to curl around with so little thought.

 

He tilts his head up, his dark eyes meeting Jim's, and he punctuates the gaze with a nuzzle against his inner thigh. He pulls back halfway, giving himself room for one hand to push gently at the fulcrum of Jim's hips, levering his legs further apart, while the other comes up to circle the base of Jim's penis, stroking him in a motion that shadows that of his mouth. Jim's fingers curl around one of his ears, the nails biting into the flesh of the curved outside, the pads dragging across the point. Spock shivers and begins to set a rhythm, sucking Jim into his mouth and drawing him back out, slow and deliberate.

 

Jim's voice settles into slurred vowels matching that rhythm, ah - ah - oh - oh - and Spock loses time there. Hypnotized in the repetition, he lets himself be carried by the warm eddies of Jim’s pleasure, pulling and tugging and sucking. And when Jim’s muscles begin to spasm, when his hands are folding into Spock’s hair as if to tug him closer, when he seems barely to be able to hold back from thrusting into Spock’s mouth, Spock increases his pace and allows himself a low, pleased vocalization, around or through the cock in his mouth, the vibration of which Jim clearly feels acutely. He thrashes, and with a soft final oh he comes undone.

 

Spock stills to keep from coughing or gagging, but swallows the product of Jim's orgasm, and then for a moment stays as he is with the softening cock in his mouth, his cheek resting against Jim's damp inner thigh, his hair matted to his forehead by sweat and lubricant, his hands and body sticky with the evidence of their pleasure.

 

Jim is gasping breaths, but his muscles loosen and he collapses into the bed, all of the arching of his back and neck and legs finished, as if his strings have been cut. His hands flap; he is gesturing "come here", and he makes a noise like a hiss at the rush of cooler air as Spock draws back, but smiles and repeats the gesture until Spock has clambered up his body to collapse against him.

 

They drowse for a moment, and Spock returns to awareness to find Jim's fingertips trailing lazily through his hair.

 

"Hey," he says. "You okay?"

 

"Of course."

 

"Good. I just wasn't sure if -- um -- was that your first time...?"

 

"Performing oral intercourse on a male-bodied person?"

 

Jim laughs, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and Spock feels his fondness reverberating through every square inch of skin contact. "I was probably just going to say 'sucking cock', but yeah."

 

"Yes. I hope my inexperience was not overly evident."

 

"No complaints here. I'm sorry I didn't give you a better warning. I, um. It's good etiquette to do, in case -- I mean, you don't have to swallow if you don't --"

 

"I am not susceptible to being unwittingly pressured into acting contrary to my own comfort, Jim. I found this experience to be both enlightening and enjoyable, in its entirety, and I believe you will find me a quick study."

 

"I'm sure I will," Jim chuckles. "You have some natural talent. Really. But as with anything, practice makes perfect. When shall we resume our lessons?"

 

Spock feels a swoop of heat in his belly, and puts a hand on Jim's hip, steering him until they are on their sides, facing one another. He strokes Jim's jaw, and presses another kiss on his lips, soft and serious. "I await your further instructions," he murmurs, and Jim chuckles again and kisses him back.

 

"I know I ramble, but it was true, what I was saying," he says. "I love seeing you this way. I love seeing you all ways, but this - this is something special. Thank you for trusting me. You make me feel so good. Not just the blowjob, I mean. I just -- I don't know when I've ever felt so safe."

 

"Ashayam, you honor me," Spock says. "I, too, feel a contentedness that is without parallel when I am with you. I am also pleased to find we continue to confirm that our bodies are compatible, as well as our minds and our katra."

 

"Mmm. Tell me more."

 

"In a moment I will not need to tell. You arouse me endlessly, Jim. I yearn to have your body, and respond to it with my own, over long days and nights."

 

Jim leans forward and captures Spock's lower lip, sucking it into his mouth, and releases it to say, "Tell me what you want to do to me," then ducks his head lower, his cheeks flushing. "Or what you want me to do to you."

 

"I -" He is breathless as Jim presses lips and teeth and tongue against his jaw, his neck, his collarbone. "I am - most amenable to anything you may suggest."

 

"Oh no," Jim huffs, "I'm not letting you off that easy, baby. I want to hear you say it. I want to hear you talk about our bodies."

 

"Jim, ah, I fear I - I lack the terminology, and the context. What I want is nebulous. It is --"

 

Jim slides lower, pushing Spock’s shirt up as he goes and capturing one of Spock's nipples between his lips, pushing Spock slightly more onto his back. He suckles, not holding back on pressure but gentling it with a soft slide of his tongue.

 

"This," Spock says, strangled by sensation, his hips thrusting into empty air as the sensations wash downwards, flooding his groin. "I want -- to be powerless before you. Beneath you. I want to make you feel unstoppable. I want to make you senseless with pleasure, to white out all other sight and noise and taste and feel, for our bodies to be as in a void of one another. I want to drag you to your edges and hold you there until you understand that I will never allow you to fall."

 

Jim switches to the other nipple and Spock opens eyes he doesn't remember squeezing shut to watch the soft lapping of Jim's tongue, the teasing circles of his fingertips. Jim slows and stops, still pushing at the shirt until Spock tugs it over his head and off. Then Jim slips down to Spock's navel and thrusts his tongue inside, and Spock knows the sound he utters can be described as nothing but a whimper.

 

"You," he cries. "I do not have the words, Jim, in any of my languages; I want you, I want to be that which you desire, I want to join with you on a journey towards our best selves, I want -"

 

Jim rolls him fully onto his back and their hands fumble together at the clasp of Spock’s pants. Finally Spock gets it open and Jim pulls his pants and briefs down at once, hurling them away and settles back between Spock’s knees.

 

This,” Spock says as Jim’s mouth closes over his penis, which is twitching, jolting with increased blood flow. "This - now -- I want nothing, my every desire is here, and yet -- I want everything, every part of you, every word and thought and flaw laid out before me," and he thinks but does not say: a banquet of you, a symphony of you, I want to be the cartographer of your body, to navigate the channels of your pleasure, yes yes yes yes yes --

 

He is thrusting, helpless, into Jim's mouth, and he can feel Jim's body chanting with him, yes yes yes.

 

Jim loves this, loves to press Spock's thighs open with his elbows, loves to gag as Spock's penis hits the back of his throat, loves the pressure of Spock's hands on his face, the rake of fingernails through his hair, the almost-violence of it. He loves, Spock senses, even the subjugation of it --

 

And as Spock thinks that, Jim pulls back, pulls off with a slick pop and says, "Let’s flip -- it'll be easier for you to set the pace --" and Spock drags him up, arranges him against the pillows, and then straddles his chest and neck and guides himself quickly back into Jim's waiting mouth.

 

Jim is right. With this angle he can make longer thrusts or shorter, quicker or slower, control the angle and depth with scientific precision. He has Jim trapped, choked, and tears are leaking from the corners of Jim's eyes but Spock can feel his joy, his lust, the flows and eddies of his pleasure.

 

"Ashayam. You are beautiful like this. You do this so well, the sensation you create -- you are so warm and wet for me, so tight and so open. And I can feel how you love it, how desperately you have wanted this. To take me inside you. To wrap yourself around me. To control me, be controlled by me."

 

His breath is unsteady, some words heavier than others, and he brushes his fingertips across Jim's cheekbone, across the cheek hollowed to create suction. "So beautiful. As if you… as if you were made for this." And for a moment as he says this, he puts his pleasure on hold and feels out, reaches out to see if this is the wrong thing to say.

 

What comes back at him is a hot, sick wave of lust and a frenetic energy; Jim moans around him, and Spock redoubles his attention, thrusting his hips into place again and again, silent a moment but for the sounds of his own breath and the wet slapping of flesh.

 

"As if your mouth was made -- ah -- for me to fill it," he continues. "As if -- every other being you've pleasured -- was only practice, only to make you -- more perfect for me." He thrusts harder, matching his rhythms: "Opening you, preparing you, training you for this." His fingers tease into Jim's hair, guiding him gently to take Spock deeper. "If that is so, you did well, my ashayam, my beloved one. You have made yourself so perfect for me that I wish never to stop."

 

And, teasing with counterpoint to his words, he stops, fully sheathed in Jim's mouth. He flexes one hip, then the other, back and forth, to keep the sensation.

 

He grips Jim's jaws with both hands and presses himself deeper still. Wraps his fingers around the back of Jim's head and sinks into his throat. He holds Jim tight against him with one hand, settles him back deep against the pillows, and then presses his fingers into the corners of Jim's mouth, opening him wider and then pressing his scrotal sac into Jim's mouth with the rest.

 

Tears stand out in the corners of Jim's eyes; he is desperate and choking and stretched and somehow still managing to keep his teeth from scraping, and then his eyes roll back and there is just enough give, suddenly, that Spock feels a liquid pressure on his perineum and he pulls back almost all the way and then slams back in and his hips buck once and twice more and his orgasm is here, sudden and violent.

 

As soon as his controls fall back into place, he pulls out completely, and Jim shoves him off and flips onto his hands and knees and coughs, deep and whooping, tears leaking from both eyes, but before Spock can doubt what he had felt, the lust and fervor of Jim’s mind, Jim says, "Fuck yes," and then, "wow," and then, "How did you know what to say? Did you feel, somehow?" He wiggles his fingers, and Spock feels some dysphoria as instinct brings him a twinge of irritation -- this is the gesture humans always use to suggest Vulcan touch telepathy without saying it. It is gone quickly -- there is no room in his mind for it, not while he is awash with pheromones and endorphins.

 

"It would seem we are perhaps more sexually compatible than we realized," Spock says, "if we both believed that to be a fulfillment of our own desires."

 

"Shit, are you - you're not just humoring me, are you?" Jim asks, narrowing his eyes and coughing again. "I need you to be honest with me, I don't do well with kink-shaming."

 

"I would never lie to you, Jim."

 

“Whuh,” Jim says, and throws himself back against the pillows, then pats the bed beside him. “Fuck,” he says again. “I can’t fucking believe -- that was so fucking hot, Spock, you have no idea.”

 

“I believe I may, in fact, have some idea.”

 

Jim snorts another laugh, but then his eyes change and Spock feels, through the press of their shoulders, a flickering of fear.

 

“Can I tell you something?” Jim asks, and it takes Spock a moment to realize the question is not rhetorical.

 

“Yes,” he says, which seems more polite than, I insist you do.

 

"I keep underestimating you,” Jim says, “and I don't know why. I thought -- I said this earlier, a bit -- I always imagined that you would be serious in bed, that it would take a while for us to break out of vanilla. I just -- I keep --" His voice is cracking, high and anxious, and Spock wants nothing more than to press into his synapses and drag them down, pull the fear out into the open so it can shrivel and die in the light of day.

 

"Tell me, Jim." Spock smooths the wild tangle of his hair, presses his knuckles to Jim’s cheek.

 

Jim looks flustered and embarrassed and lost, but after a moment, he continues. "I keep wondering, where's the catch?” he says. “It just keeps getting better and I'm, like. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I guess? Like, things don't get this good for me. Every time I think they might be, something blows up in my face, and so I'm just… I'm waiting for it, I guess. So… I just wanted you to know that. If you feel, if I ever seem -- if you sense fear from me, that's what it is."

 

And Spock is glad, then, that their minds had not been touching, because the dread that floods through him is deep and unrestrained and he could not have hidden it.

 

He knows what the other shoe is, and he does not want to drop it.

Chapter Text

seventeen.

 

Spock rereads the message on the screen carefully, as if searching for errors:

 

Ambassador Selek,
I would like to request that you entertain a small number of questions about our shared biology. I understand this is a sensitive matter. I will respect whatever boundaries you wish to draw, but appreciate your indulgence in allowing me to ask such questions, which you will find attached.
Cmdr. Spock, USS Enterprise

 

It's stilted and brazen and humiliatingly desperate, but he is not searching for errors. He had sent the message hours before, and despite its tone, he had felt relief once he had done so. There is no reason to have navigated back to it. He has perfect recall; he need not remind himself of the language he had used, the formal signature, the repetition of I, I, I.

 

He will never be able to think of the elder counterpart as himself, or any extension thereof, but he is something to Spock. Closer than a parent, although they share no bond. He wonders, sometimes, if it would be possible to initiate a familial bond between them. Vulcan multiple births are exceedingly rare, but there is precedent to genetically identical individuals establishing and maintaining such connections. Presumably, their minds could behave similarly. If they wished.

 

But even when he comes to this conclusion, he has never seriously entertained the notion. The Ambassador would most likely reject the suggestion, and Spock is certain that experience would be detrimental to his own wellbeing. Furthermore, the elder’s demise would then result in mental trauma that Spock does not wish to endure needlessly. And finally -- most disconcertingly -- he is uneasy at the idea of that presence in his mind.

 

To put it in human terms: he is not entirely certain that he likes the man.

 

Spock has one remaining familial bond, to Sarek, whose presence in his life has increased marginally since the destruction of their planet. At times, he believes that his father feels the need to remain distant from Spock as a means of retaining his own controls. At other times, he thinks that such a belief is childish and ego-centric. What, after all, should be so unique about Spock that he should spark irrepressible emotion in a Vulcan as steady as Sarek?

 

He would never dare speak to his father about The Time. They had discussed it when Spock was a child -- after his kahs-wan, and again when he had reached fourteen years of age. At both times, Sarek had expressed with his words his willingness to entertain Spock’s questions on the matter, should they arise. And simultaneously, with his body language, he expressed that he expected Spock never to ask. It is understandable. A man such as Sarek would not speak easily of that which strips him of his own controls.

 

Of course, in this instance, his father would not have been able to answer most of his questions. It should not be possible for Spock to know that which he seeks to know: will I undergo pon farr, and when, and how. But through his counterpart, things are possible that should not be. So rarely has Spock been grateful for this.

 

Now, nineteen-point-seven hours have elapsed since Spock had sent the comm. He had calculated that this would be the soonest he could have hypothetically received a response, given their subspace relay prioritization and the time it would have taken the ambassador to draft the briefest conceivable response (variations on, "no," on "I shall not entertain this"). He had timed the message deliberately, to maximize the chances of receiving it while the captain was off ship. Until his life-sign had fuzzed out on the planet below, as per mission guidelines. As if his physical distance, and Spock's inability to detect him, created some psychological equivalent that would allow Spock to deny any subterfuge.

 

Or perhaps, Spock tells his faltering controls, I simply wished to have ample time to meditate on the Ambassador’s response, without concerning myself with who may notice my absence.

 

In the past weeks, Spock has experienced multiple moments of unsettling uncertainty. He has read about the burning of the blood, and at times, when he is engorged and growling and wanting for Jim, when he feels his controls slipping, when he feels he does not care that they are slipping… he has asked himself if it has begun. Inevitably, he has found himself sated with release, but it has left him uneasy to think he might not recognize it when it began. As a youth, he had been told the feelings were unmistakable, but now he finds that wisdom lacking.

 

His comm remains dark, no small green light flashing in its corner to indicate receipt of a message. Spock closes his eyes and breathes deeply.

 

Kaiidth, he tells himself. I will undergo the Pon Farr, or I will not. The Ambassador will tell me, or he will not. It will be soon, or it will not. None of this is within my control, and so it is not rational to waste energy speculating.

 

And yet.

 

***

 

Twenty-two-point-four-three hours after he had sent the comm, the light on Spock’s console begins to blink. The Ambassador’s response comes in video form, and he looks weary even before he begins to speak.

 

”My young counterpart,” he says, “you persist in asking me questions to which I cannot resolve to deny you answers. It would seem that either you are able to exercise effective restraint and judgement in choosing what to ask of me, or that I am weaker of will than I wish to believe when it comes to these matters. I suspect both of these explanations hold a kernel of truth.

 

“I admit, I had wondered when you would ask me this. I recall well, when I was your age, how often I wondered the same questions.”

 

Then he sighs, and Spock’s trapezius clenches, tension running swiftly across his shoulder and down his arms. “I will not answer all that you have asked,” the old man says, and that means, rationally that there is an answer to any question beyond the first: Does our human heritage spare us from Pon Farr?

 

Means that there is an answer beyond, No.

 

***

 

“If we come back this way, I want to get everyone down here and play Capture the Flag,” Jim announces over their evening campfire.

 

“You think zhe admiralty vould allow it?” Chekov asks, wrinkling his nose.

 

“I can sell it to them,” Jim answers confidently. “Team-building exercises, you know. They go in for that kind of thing.”

 

“It vould be risky if someone vere to get lost.”

 

“Yeah, I guess it’ll be a tricky proposition if we don’t figure out how to counter the lifesign-masking properties.”

 

Chekov makes a face. “Keptin,” he says, “you hev read zhe briefing materials for zhis mission, yes?”

 

Uh-oh. “I read the Captain’s Eyes brief and the landing party brief, but not the general or the technical. What’d I miss?”

 

“Sir…” Chekov looks mournful. “Zhis mission is a technicality, sir. Zhere are sixteen known planets meeting zis configuration vithin reasonable distance of Federation territory. Of those, only sewen are safe for humans. Ewery time a Starfleet wessel is in range of one of zese planets, zis mission is ordered. I am sure ve vill find an answer ewentually, sir, but the likelihood of zat occurring on zis outing in particular is not high.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says. “Um. That all makes perfect sense. I’m not sure why I’d thought otherwise.”

 

“It is good of you to be optimistic, sir!” Chekov attempts brightly. “Someone vill have to be ze one to make ze breakthrough. It might as vell be us!”

 

“So how many attempts have been made?”

 

“Zis makes sixty-one, sir.”

 

The wind goes out of Jim’s sails, and he knows Chekov can see it, so he doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. “Damn,” he says. “That’s… discouraging. I was hoping for a success, after a’Nukar a’Ani.” Chekov looks confused, and Jim sighs. “I know a’Nukar a’Ani is being recorded on the books as a positive, check, A-plus, good job team, but I really thought they were going to apply for membership on the last day, so it ended up being a pretty big letdown for me. With that on the heels of the clusterfuck at Aldhabi, I’d really hoped third time would be the charm.” He’s making the kid uncomfortable. He shakes his head. “Ignore me, Pav. It’s fine, I’m not being a good scientist here. I know these things take time. I don’t want you to think I don’t think what we’re doing here is valuable just because it’s not going to have immediate results.”

 

After a moment, Chekov speaks quietly, his eyes focusing on Jim’s from across the fire: “You are wery hard on yourself, sir.”

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be a downer. I am having a good time out here. It’s nice to have some one-on-one time.”

 

“Yes, sir, but --” Chekov bites his lip, then continues in a rush. “Please, I do not need you to put on brave face for me. I can talk about zhese things, I am good listener.”

 

Oh, god, the last thing Jim needs is Chekov to feel sorry for him. “No, it’s okay,” he says. “Really, I just --"

 

"Sir," Chekov says sharply. "I am your friend."

 

"You can't even call me by my name," Jim says before he can consider it. Not says, snaps; he's snapping at Chekov, there's no way around that, and Chekov takes several seconds to recover his composure. Jim needs to beat him to it, so he inhales and starts, "I'm sorry, that was -"

 

"True," Chekov interrupts firmly. "It vas true. Do not apologize for saying zhe truth to me. I am not a child. It is true, I call you sir and keptin and sometimes Keptin Kirk but I do not call you by your giwen name, and you did ask, and I am sorry." He looks at the fire for a moment. “I did not know it bothered you so. I vill tell you my own truth,” he says. “Zhe reason I do not say your name is not anything about you. It is embarrassment. It is -- a name is different.” Jim shakes his head, not understanding. “My accent. To mispronounce a name -- a name so short and simple as yours -- all my life, I am wunderkind, I am genius, eweryone makes noise at my mind, but my mouth has not ewer caught up. I could speak in my mother tongue, use the Uniwersal Translator, but I do know how to speak Eenglish and my wocabulary is just as good. Perhaps not my syntax, yes, but I can make myself known.”

 

“Pav,” Jim says softly, “I didn’t know.”

 

“Vhat?”

 

“That you were self-conscious about it. It never occurred to me. I mean -- yeah, it would sound different when you say it, but I’m sure the way I pronounce your name isn’t the way your parents say it.”

 

Pavel looks up at him, sharp. “Zhis is true,” he says. “And you use a short wersion. How ve say it in Russia, it vould not sound right. Zhey call me Pasha.”

 

“Do you hate it?”

 

“No,” he says, as if tasting the word in his mouth. “I -- it makes me happy. Because it is a special vay, a vay only small number of people say.” The corner of his mouth quirks. “Like you. And Hikaru.”

 

“I think that’s how I’d feel about you saying Jim your way,” he says, making sure the warmth comes through in his voice, and then he laughs. “I was talking to Spock about this the other day, actually -- how context-specific these kinds of things are. Like how my ex-boyfriend was always trying to get me to go by Jimmy, and it always pissed me off, but then Bones does it and -- I mean, I don’t exactly love it, but it’s, like, charming somehow.”

 

“You hev been trying to get Mister Spock to call you --” He cuts off, and then tries again. “To call you Jim?” There’s a surge of feeling in Jim’s chest, because yeah, that’s it, the vowel dragging in the middle, almost Jeem, and it’s so satisfying to hear that it’s just how he’d imagined it.

 

“Yeah, I’m getting him there more often,” Jim says, and Chekov snorts.

 

“Zhis is vhat I am hearing,” he says, almost smugly.

 

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Jim says, putting his hands up, but Chekov is grinning and shaking his head.

 

“I should not hev said. You do not hev to admit anything! Is just, vhat you say. Scuttlebutt.”

 

“What is?!”

 

“That you and he hev, ah, you know… Made things good together.” He gives a little shrug, clearly trying to say, No big deal, but Jim’s imagining whispers in the officers’ mess, waggled eyebrows on the bridge when he and Spock aren’t looking, and his stomach rolls.

 

“Whoever you’re hearing this from better shut their damn mouths,” Jim says, poking at the fire. “Senior officers’ personal lives are not up for ship’s gossip.”

 

“No no,” Chekov says, waving a hand. “I am sorry, I only tease. Jim.” And Jim thaws at Chekov saying his name again -- he can’t help it, the kid is so damn earnest. “It is only Hikaru and I who talk and only to each ozher. He suspects you; he is sensitive to zhese things. But ve vould not spread zhis around, and now I am saying zhis out loud I know Hikaru vill be wery unhappy I told zhis to you in any case. It is just a thing ve share as friends. Ve -- ve vant you to be happy.”

 

Jim heaves a sigh. “Okay,” he says. “That’s -- I just -- I can’t have something like that affecting my working relationships.”

 

“Of course.” Pavel pauses. “You consider Hikaru a friend, yes?”

 

“I do.”

 

“And myself?”

 

Twenty minutes ago he would have teased, I don’t know, if you can’t call me by my first name. Now he just swallows and nods. “Yeah, Pav. Of course.”

 

“Hikaru does not hev wery many good friends. He considers you one. I know zhis. So, I vonder if you hev talked to Hikaru about me at all. I do not ask, you understand. I only vonder.”

 

Shit shit shit, Jim thinks, because there had definitely been a weary conversation on the steps of the arboretum, early on in the mission, and words had definitely been exchanged that related to Pavel and his youthful sexuality.

 

“And if maybe your terrible poker face says yes, then I vonder… Jim, relax, da? I vould not ask you to break his confidence. I am not terrible person, I believe in priwacy. I vas going to say, perhaps, vith your life experiences, you may be in a unique position to him. To tell him… if you have ewer taken a leap. And vhether it vas vorth it.”

 

“Is that a pun about how he and I met?” Jim asks, trying desperately to deflect, but Pavel doesn’t even seem to hear him.

 

“I told you,” he says. “I am young, but I am not a child. If he vas not interested, I could accept. But it is as if he thinks I do not know my own mind, and zat is not…” His shoulders are trembling, and it takes Jim a minute to realize that he’s not on the verge of tears. No, Pavel is livid.

 

“Hey,” he says. “I -- I get what you were saying. About being friends, and wanting me to be happy. And I feel the same, but I also…” He sighs, more deeply than he’d intended. More honest. “I don’t think I can intervene. You are both my friends, and I want the best for both of you, but I am also your senior officer and I can’t… I have to be really careful never to throw my weight around when it comes to personal affairs.”

 

“But --”

 

“Although hypothetically,” Jim continues more loudly, “if someone were to ask for my advice in the matter, I could suggest a serious conversation. Hypothetically, I might tell someone that my experience has been that however much awkwardness you have to climb over, it’s the only way to make it where you want to be in the end.” He scoots around the edge of their fire and sets a hand on Pavel’s shoulder. “I know you’re not a child,” he says. “And whatever you might think, so does ‘Karu. There’s an adult relationship skill that, in my experience, people of all ages are pretty bad at. I’m just starting to get it myself. And I’m saying this because I don’t want you to be embarrassed, I know it sounds really simple and I know it’s not.”

 

Chekov looks totally lost, and Jim takes pity on him. “You have to fucking talk to each other,” he says. “Communicate, honestly, verbally, with minimum innuendo. Figure out what each of you want, and whether those things fit. But in order to do that, you both need to be willing to take some risks. That it’ll be awkward. That it’ll be painful, even; that you might hurt each other, intentionally or not. And… that it might not work out. You have to face that, and you have to figure out how to be okay with that. Both of you.” He stills until Pavel meets his eyes, and then says, “I don’t know if he’s there, Pav. Not yet, not -- not completely. And just pushing isn’t going to get him there any faster.”

 

“He is afraid,” Pavel says, his mouth twisting as if he’s tasted something very sour or very bitter.

 

“Hell yes he is,” Jim says. “He’s scared and he’s stubborn and he’s not sure what to do.”

 

“I hev some ideas,” he mutters.

 

“But do you know what he wants? Really?” And Chekov’s eyes stay on the fire, and after a moment he shakes his head infinitesimally. “Okay,” he says, “so look -- maybe it’s a good idea to just -- let it go for a while. Back off as a way of showing him that you can. Because I worry, if you keep pushing, he’s just going to stay stuck, and you’re both going to be frustrated and unhappy and it’s going to erode your friendship, no matter how much you tell yourself you won’t let it. So rewind, take the pressure off, give him a while to see that you can be friends if that’s all he wants, that you’re not going to change your mind about that.” He hesitates. “You’re… I know you want to make it work. But you’re pushing his boundaries, Pav. You know you are. And even if there’s a chance it could work, pushing them until they give isn’t going to be the right way to start something.”

 

“Vhen you say it zhis way,” Pavel says after a moment, “it sounds -- bad. Vhat I hev been doing. It is only -- I do not believe zhem, zhe boundaries he sets. He makes a joke of it, ewen; he says -- he only tells me to tone down, he grins and shakes his head at me, he does not -- he is not serious.”

 

“Look,” Jim says, “I don’t know specifics. I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know what the boundaries are, or how it is that you’re pushing them. But I’m going to say this once and once only, and I’m going to say it as both your captain and your friend, and I need you to hear it. I don’t care if you believe him. When someone sets a boundary, you need to respect it and assume they mean it, one hundred percent of the time. If you back off, and they were playing coy, they’ll let you know. Or they won’t, and the worst that will happen is you avoided getting into it with someone who isn’t being honest about their signals.”

 

Pavel’s face is pale. “Da, da,” he says, “I hear you, both as keptin and friend, I hear you. Ze other option is… if I assume zhey do not mean it, and I do not back off, and… I know zhis. I -- sir, keptin, you know I vould not --”

 

“I know you would never hurt someone on purpose,” Jim says levelly. Pavel looks like he might be sick, but Jim pushes past the discomfort, past the part of him that wants to leave it at that. “But if you can’t listen to the little ‘no’s, how can you expect someone to trust you with the bigger ones?”

 

***

 

Later, after they’ve put the fire out, after Pavel has fallen asleep with his mouth half-open and his foot splayed outside his little nest of bedding, Jim lies awake and thinks how strange it is that what makes him feel the most like a real adult isn’t that he’s a starship captain, isn’t that he’s died and come back to life, isn’t Tarsus or Pike or any of the dozen tragedies he’s lived through. It’s a kiss.

 

It’s Spock holding out two fingers, and Jim choosing to touch them.

 

If you have ever taken a leap, and whether it was worth it, Chekov had said. But, Jim thinks now, it hadn’t felt like a leap. It had felt like he and Spock had just taken one step forward at a time -- steady, normal-sized steps -- until they’d been close enough to touch.

 

And then they’d taken one more.

 

It would be easy, Jim thinks, to imagine what exists between them as something inexorable, something that was bound to happen, destined to happen. But it wasn’t. It was something that they chose, and cultivated, and something they’re going to have to keep choosing.

 

The stars are glittering above, and Jim imagines reaching up, reaching out to Spock with his mind and saying, And I will. I will keep choosing you.

 

***

 

By the time Jim and Pavel get back to the beam-up point the following afternoon, Jim’s managed to throw off the heaviness of the previous night’s conversation. They’re a couple hours early, but still off comms, so they sit inside the circle of the transport enhancers and play drinking games with only their canteens of water until they’re both pink-cheeked and laughing.

 

“See, ve should do zhis more often,” Chekov says. “You can drink tea, and I vill have wodka, and Hikaru can drink his disgusting hot engine oil, and zhe doctor his mint yulep and Doctor Marcus zhe root beer and ve have just prowen it vill be fine.”

 

“I’m glad Carol’s fitting in,” Jim says. “And Darwin too -- she seems to be more comfortable with us than she used to be.”

 

Da, zhe circle videns! Mae is wery talented, I am glad ve are getting to see zhis more often. Nyota, she is making sure zhe bridge crews are mingling, you know. Othervise, she says, ve become lazy, like Hikaru needs to remember zhat normally zhe nawigator vill not plot him his approach wectors and I need to remember zhat most pilots do not like for me to refresh zheir support metrics and so on.”

 

“Yeah, I noticed you guys have traded a couple shifts with Beta, it’s a good idea. I’m never sure if I should do that. Like, would it come off as intimidating, do you think?”

 

“Not from you, sir,” Pavel grins. “Zhe crew is wery fond of you.”

 

“It’s mutual,” Jim says. "They know that, right?"

 

Chekov looks at him as if he's being ridiculous and says, "Da," like it's duh and it takes a minute before Jim remembers, right, yeah, literally died for them, okay. He snorts a laugh.

 

"See, zhis is what I am saying. Others maybe think you are James T. Kirk, you are magnificent grand keptin and need no assurances. I say, nyet, he is still human, he has doubts, ve must not take for granted zhat he knows."

 

"Definitely still human," Jim says.

 

"And is not as if zhis past year has been cakevalk for you!"

 

"It has not."

 

"Okay. It is good to affirm zhis."

 

Jim is still trying to figure out what to say next when the transport beam whirls around them, and he shifts his attention to trying not to be self-conscious about appearing on the transport pad casually cross-legged. Pavel bounces to his feet and off the pad in an instant while Jim somewhat more laboriously gets to his feet. Pavel is already yammering at Spock about particle wake and inter- versus intra-band sensor inhibition. "Unfortunately not, ensign," Spock is saying, "but we will welcome such thoughts in your report. The USS Amorak is due to complete another such mission on its next sweep of the Beta Aurigae system, and I am certain Lieutenant Commander Vedik would welcome any ideas we should choose to pass on."

 

"Aye-aye, sir!" Chekov says. "Keptin, vould you like to debrief, sir, or may I be dismissed to vork on my report?"

 

"Go forth and do paperwork, ensign."

 

"Aye, sir! Thank you for zhe good time, Jim."

 

Jim gestures Spock to the door, and they fall into step side-by-side. "Any updates? How'd things go up here?"

 

"Situation normal, sir. This planet's masking effect is partially strong. We picked up your signals briefly during the night, but were unable to detect you reliably at any other time, even using the sensor-refraction method that the Zarathustra had used to minor success on Ceti Alpha VIII."

 

"Did you want to remain in orbit for further testing, or should we head on for the next stop?"

 

"I suggested we remain in orbit until Gamma shift. We are not due at our next destination for several days, and it would be beneficial to take several additional baseline sensor sweeps for comparison."

 

"Cool. In that case, I'll try to get my report in by 2030."

 

"As you wish, sir."

 

"Careful," Jim chuckles, bumping Spock’s shoulder with his own. "You know the crew notices when we start speaking too formally to each other, and I don't want to have to get in another fight to relieve fake tension between us."

 

Spock stiffens, and something clicks into place in Jim's mind: Oh. He's actually twitchy about something.

 

"Hey," he says gently, "Spock, whoa, look at me. Are you okay?"

 

"I am adequate, sir."

 

"Look, I can tell something's up. Let me know if it's anything you want to talk about." He has to bite his tongue to keep from tacking on a term of endearment; they're still in the corridor, with crewmen passing every minute or so.

 

"I had a message from the ambassador," Spock says as they reach the turbolift. "It has left me unsettled. It is a personal matter; I had hoped to avoid distracting you with it for the time being.”

 

"Okay. Want to talk about it after shift, then?"

 

"Yes," Spock says, and disembarks from the lift at the next deck, striding swiftly in the direction of the labs without a backwards glance.

 

***

 

Jim tries not to panic. Specifically, he tries to distract himself. He flounces into Bones’s office and throws himself in one of the open chairs. Bones glares at him and snaps, “Computer, privacy protocol.”

 

“I missed you too, Bones, but I don’t think -”

 

“If you’re here to complain you’re having relationship problems with your first officer, you can get your ass up and out of here and find me after Beta. I said I’m willing to talk, and I meant it, but when I’m on shift I’m a doctor, not a marriage counselor!”

 

“Conveniently not married.”

 

“Jim, I’m actually working.”

 

“Wait, why do you think I’m having relationship problems? Did Spock say something?”

 

“Oh, were you here for a post-mission physical instead?”

 

“If I am, does that mean we can talk about reintroducing caffeine?”

 

Bones’s face flashes surprise, but he masks it quickly. “Sure,” he says, his voice taking on a bit of his characteristic gruffness as he leverages himself up out of his chair. “One sec, let me get my tricorder. Did you run into any mammalian life down there?”

 

“Nah,” Jim says, following him out into the main Sickbay. “Equivalents of birds and insects, all really small.” He holds his arms out from his sides so Bones can do the full scan. “Did I bring any home with me?”

 

“Transporter would’ve screened them out,” McCoy grunts. “You didn’t use the camp beds, did you? You’ve got a knot in your shoulders like I never -- hell, makes me sore just lookin’ at it.”

 

“It’s fine,” Jim says.

 

“Are you kiddin’? This is bad enough I could practically categorize it as an injury. You’re supposed to use camp beds when it’s safe.”

 

“Bones. I slept on the ground for a night. It’s not a big deal; it’s called camping.”

 

“You don’t want anything for it? A massage, a relaxant, a heating pad?”

 

Jim worries at his lower lip with his teeth a minute. Bones is great at massage therapy, and he very rarely offers. But lying still for half an hour with nothing to do is not a good way to avoid his anxiety. “Nah,” he says, “although if you have one of those e-stim systems, I might try that later. It’s really not that bad.”

 

McCoy rolls his eyes and tosses Jim a package the size of his palm. “Thanks,” Jim says. “So, caffeine?”

 

“Hold your horses. Sit down on the bio bed for me, I need to get some readings. Resting heart rate, BP, that kinda thing.”

 

Jim hoists himself onto the bio-bed, but after a moment McCoy is frowning at his monitor. He touches Jim’s knee; Jim realizes he’s jiggling it. “Lie down for me?” he says.

 

“Ah, I see where this is going,” Jim says, and slides off the bed instead. “Thanks but no thanks, Bones. I’ve got to finish my report from the planet, I don’t have time to achieve the ideal resting heart rate right now.”

 

“Whoa, easy,” Bones says. “Your readings are a little high, I just want to --”

 

“It’s fine, I’m not that desperate for caffeine, it’s not a good time, I’m just -- we can try again sometime when I’m not, you know, all hyped up from an away mission.”

 

Something tightens in the doctor’s face, and he nods. “Sure, Jim,” he says slowly. “Another time, then.”

 

Jim’s out of the room and down the corridor when he realizes he’s left the e-stim on the bio-bed. He turns back for it. Bones has already retreated into his office, but over the bio-bed where Jim was just sitting there are now two readings showing, side-by-side for comparison.

 

One is timestamped two minutes before -- normal respirations but elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure.

 

The other is timestamped fifteen minutes earlier. It’s the medical scan from the transporter, which is sent automatically to the medical officer on duty when away-team members return to the ship, Jim realizes. And it shows probably the calmest reading of Jim he’s ever seen on a medbay screen. Normal respirations. Normal heart rate. Lower-than-usual BP.

 

He peers into the office. Bones is sitting at his desk, elbows on his knees, staring at the floor. He inhales sharply when he notices Jim in the doorway and turns his face away for a moment.

 

“Hey,” Jim says quietly, waving the e-stim as explanation. "I see you got me. It's not post-mission nerves. I don't know why I lied, it's stupid."

 

“It’s fine,” Bones says, sounding tired. “I’m sorry. I know better than to push you about medical shit.”

 

“And yet that’s your job,” Jim says, settling into the chair across from him again.

 

“Yeah,” Bones sighs, and eyes him speculatively. “You know I wouldn’t have it any other way, Jimmy, but sometimes I have these moments where I think, it would be a hell of a lot easier to do my job if I didn’t know you so well.”

 

“I know I don’t make it easy.”

 

“You can’t lie to me, Jim.” His voice is sharp and strained, and Jim winces. “I need to trust you to tell me when you're not okay. And when I'm makin' it worse.” And he wants to protest, say this wasn’t a big deal, why does it matter if his heart rate was up from post-mission excitement or from personal anxiety, but hadn’t he just told Chekov, less than twenty-four hours ago, if you can’t be trusted with the little stuff, how can you be trusted with the big stuff?

 

"And right now you don't."

 

"I can't. You've proven that to me a hundred times over. Why can't you just say, 'I'm feeling on edge,' or 'I'm not in a good place for an exam'?"

 

“You said you didn’t want to talk about my relationship problems on shift,” Jim says quietly, and Bones winces.

 

“If it’s affecting your health, that’s different.” He shakes his head. “But I didn’t say that, did I? God, Jim, I -- I’m sorry, I just… I don’t know. You know it’s not just about this. Boyce called me on it ages ago; that’s why I wasn’t your primary in San Francisco.” He means after Khan. Jim doesn’t answer. “I didn’t want to suggest it, but… maybe we should talk about making Geoff your primary. I’d still have to be in the loop, since I’m the one who…”

 

“Who has the authority to make competency decisions. I know.”

 

“I have an oath. I need to be able to be objective, and I -- I don’t know if I’m doing right by… If I’m the best doctor for you.”

 

“No,” Jim says, and then swallows when Bones meets his eyes, hollow, miserable and hopeful at once. “I mean -- if that’s what you need, sure. I like M’Benga, I just -- I want it to be you. I can do better.”

 

“Oh, Jimmy,” Bones says, and leans forward across his desk, pressing a hand to Jim’s cheek until he has to look away again. “This ain’t about you doin’ somethin’ wrong, kid. And maybe it ain’t me either. Maybe it’s just the circumstance.”

 

“Please,” Jim says. “Let’s -- we don’t have to decide right now, do we?”

 

“Nah, we don’t. I wouldn’t do it right now anyway. But it’s fair to let you know I’m thinkin’ about it.” Bones looks at him again, piercing. “You know it’s up to me, in the end. I’ll do it if I think it’s what’s best for you. I don’t need your sign-off.”

 

“I know,” Jim says, and then makes himself say what he knows he needs to: “If you decide you have to, I won’t try to talk you out of it.”

 

Bones closes his eyes and exhales heavily. “Thanks, kid,” he says. “I love you. You know that, right? I know I don’t say it much.”

 

“You say it all the time,” Jim says. “Just not out loud.”

Chapter Text

eighteen.

 

>> Your place or mine?

 

>> I will be in my quarters after shift. You may join me at your leisure.

 

>> Okay. See you then.

 

***

 

“Jim, I must apologize to you,” Spock says, sitting on his sofa and patting the space next to him. Jim sits in the chair across from him instead. “I am aware that the ambiguity of our earlier interaction has caused you distress.”

 

“It’s fine,” Jim says, trying to sound calm. “It’s not just that. I had a tough conversation with Bones too. And a tough conversation with Pav last night. It’s not all you.”

 

“And yet I have added to your burden. It was not my intent.”

 

“Yeah, I just -- can we get to the point? I’m sorry, I just, my anxiety is kind of going wild right now and I need to know what’s got you so worked up that I could tell. Right now I’m just leaping to wild conclusions. You know what I told you the other night. Some part of me is just waiting for the other shoe, so. If this is you dropping it, let’s do it.”

 

“Before I begin,” Spock says, “I believe a touching of our minds would be beneficial. Are you amenable?”

 

Jim’s first instinct is fuck no, he doesn’t want Spock anywhere near the dumpster fire that is his current state of being, but he remembers what Spock had said, on a’Nukar a’Ani, about how in Vulcan relationships they have this kind of intimacy that humans don’t, and how desperately he’d wanted that, in that moment. Baby steps, he tells himself, and takes a long, deep breath before nodding.

 

“Yeah, okay,” he says, and lifts his chin, and Spock’s hand closes the space between them quickly, ruthlessly, finding the meld points on his face and closing his eyes.

 

“My mind to your mind,” Spock says quietly, and then visibly jolts and winces as he comes into contact with the ravaging storm of anxiety currently inhabiting Jim’s brain. “Ah, Jim, no, I am not --”

 

He almost breaks the connection, Jim can feel it, can feel the blazing sun of Spock’s mind drawing so far back that it’s like a rope about to snap, but then he draws back inward and pulls Jim close. It takes Jim a minute to realize he’d done that with his body as well as his mind. He’s been pulled from his seat, pulled against Spock’s chest, and Spock is trembling, holding him there. Slowly, he withdraws enough to settle himself at Spock’s side, careful not to disturb the connection between them.

 

Spock’s mind washes against his, like waves on a beach, trying to pull him down, to soothe him. He’s even shushing, and Jim feels his cheeks pink with humiliation; what is he, some kind of child, some fragile thing that Spock needs to coddle him so?

 

You are mine to coddle, are you not? Spock’s mind asks him, and Jim presses his face into Spock’s shoulder and nods, almost crying with the relief of the warmth and love he feels in Spock’s mind, radiating towards him.

 

He can tell that everything he feels of Spock’s mind is being controlled -- there are flickers, in the background, too quick to sense anything more than their presence, but what is at the foreground is reassurance, comfort, lovelovelove, gentle apology, and -- some small hesitation that feels like, I should tell him.

 

Spock’s hand slides from Jim’s meld points into his hair, the contact of their minds shifting from a connection to a soft buzzing, like the difference between swimming and getting your toes wet. Jim inhales again and nods and realizes he hasn’t said a word. Hasn’t needed to.

 

“Thanks,” he says, and is embarrassed to find that his voice is hoarse. Spock shakes his head, and Jim still can’t bear it any longer: “Tell me.”

 

“For some time, I have been aware that I will need to engage you in a conversation about not only our cultural differences, but our physiological differences,” Spock says. “This is a difficult topic for me, as my physiology is unique and my people are extremely private about our sexuality. I have been uncertain what I must or should share, and what might, by virtue of my human heritage, be unnecessary to divulge.”

 

“Okay,” Jim says. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t --”

 

“Please, allow me to explain. And, if you can bear it, wait to ask questions until I have finished speaking. This is, as I have said, very difficult for me.” Jim nods, and bites the inside of his lip, because he already has a dozen questions bursting in his chest, but no matter how much he might want to climb on top of him and say it doesn’t matter and forget all about this, he can tell this is important to Spock.

 

“Traditionally, Vulcans undergo a koon'ul at the age of seven -- what you would call a betrothal,” Spock says. “In my experience, humans find this bizarre, even barbaric. However, in my culture, it is seen as a natural part of the life cycle. As a part of this process, the children establish a link, a kind of nonfamilial bond, which is imperative for our social development and mental stability. I was no exception. A partner was chosen for me by the matriarch of my father’s house.”

 

He eyes Jim, and inclines his head as if in acknowledgement of the question Jim hasn't asked. “She is dead,” he says. “She died on Vulcan. She was indifferent to me, at best, and I did not consider myself beholden to her. Except --” He grimaces.

 

Jim gives him a moment, and then prompts, “Except…”

 

“I apologize,” Spock says. “This is -- are there truly no cultural norms in human society that are not spoken of with outworlders? My mother told me there were not, but at times I find that difficult to accept.”

 

“No,” Jim says softly. “Not really. There are things in our history that we’re ashamed of, but -- no.”

 

Spock sighs. “I thought as much. But it makes this all the more difficult to explain. In many ways, in most ways, my people's logic and our emotional controls are of great benefit to us. You are familiar, I think, with the teachings of Surak?"

 

"Yeah. I know about… before the Reformation."

 

"There is one facet of our biology that we have never been able to overcome. It is called the pon farr; the Time of Mating. This, above all else, is why we have retained our ritual partnership practices. Because when we enter the pon farr, as we do each seven years, we lose our controls and our minds, and we are driven by a compulsion to mate. With some exceptions among the kohlinaru, a Vulcan who enters pon farr has no choice in the matter. Those who are unable to mate are driven to madness and death within a matter of days."

 

Whatever Jim had been expecting, that wasn’t it. The noise in his mind dies down, and he is reaching out into the sudden quiet, grasping to understand the implications.

 

Spock is looking over his head, his eyes distant. "It was in this that T'Pring - she who was to be my wife - was beholden to me, and I to her, until the moment of her death." And then he looks at Jim sharply, his gaze turned flinty. “I can sense your confusion, your uncertainty,” he says, “but I cannot determine its source. What may I clarify?”

 

Jim breathes. “I know you said this is hard for you,” he said, “and I respect that, and I can tell you’re trying to explain something really important to me… but so far what I’ve heard is that you were engaged, and she died, but you need to have sex every seven years or you’ll die? I don’t… I mean, I’m missing some details here. Does it have to be potentially procreative sex? Is this a thing where you need to have -- like, you need to be married to a Vulcan woman, or --”

 

“No. Any form of penetrative copulation of sufficient duration will alleviate the blood fever.”

 

“Oh. So… are you just, like, making sure I’m okay with that? I know we haven’t… you’re not having it right now, are you?”

 

“No.”

 

“So it's just - what do you need me to say?”

 

“I do not need you to say anything,” Spock looks frustrated, and his fingers tighten in Jim’s hair; Jim steels himself not to react. “I wish for you to understand that, should our partnership continue, at some point in time this will occur, and we must before that time establish an understanding of your… expectations. My counterpart has made me aware that my human heritage does not spare me this humiliation.”

 

Spock closes his eyes and inhales deeply. “I apologize, Jim. To speak of this is to reject decades of social conditioning. The Time is something that all Vulcans understand, and no offworlders can. I find it very trying to attempt to put into words that which I must tell you.

 

“This experience is… distasteful, perhaps even dangerous. The loss of control can make the coupling unpleasant -- particularly, I should imagine, for a partner who was not enculturated with such an expectation. I was neglectful to not make you aware of this before we entered into a sexual partnership. I do not wish for you to feel obligated --”

 

“Fuck, Spock, I don’t feel obligated to have sex with you. I understand why you’d want to tell me this, especially if -- am I understanding you right that this hasn’t happened to you yet? You don’t know when it’s going to happen?”

 

“Correct. Although I am now aware that my counterpart did not undergo his first cycle until his lifetime equivalent of seven years from now, I cannot be certain that the same will be true for me.”

 

“Okay. I mean, that’s not ideal, but it’s fine. We’ll deal.” The buzzing in Jim’s mind has taken on an overtone Jim can’t quite name, and Jim pushes at it a moment before continuing. “Spock, I'm sorry, I still don't think I understand. You seem really freaked out about this, and I’m just hearing that we have to have rough sex every seven years, which is --”

 

He stops speaking as Spock’s consciousness, nestled alongside his, flares and prickles and howls at his words. It takes Spock a moment to rein in whatever is happening to him, and once he has, he responds roughly. “No, Jim,” he says. “What I am saying is that once every seven years I will go mad. I will have very little warning. In the height of the experience, I may not recognize friends or family as such, I may act in desperate and strange ways. Vulcan minds, without controls, are… wild. If I have a partner, at that time… my need to mate will supersede all else: consent, boundaries, everything. And you… I could hurt you, Jim. And I would not be able to stop, not if you commanded me, if you begged me. And this would go on for days. And if you stop me, I will die. Do not make light of this, Jim. In this we can have no misunderstanding. Not only for your sake, but for mine."

 

"Okay," Jim whispers, and his voice sounds fragile even to his own ears. "Okay. I understand now. I'm sorry, I --" He reaches for Spock's face, and flinches when Spock withdraws just far enough to exceed his reach. "I'm sorry. Thank you for helping me understand. I know it must be horrifying, to know this will happen and not be able to do anything. I can't say it's okay, because it's not -- not for you -- I can see that. But I…” He’s fumbling to put the right words to what he wants to say, needing to get this right. “It's not a problem for me -- if, I mean, when you get there, when we, if you want me to -- I think we could do it. I could, I mean.” He hesitates, and then finishes his thought in a small voice: “I want to. It hurts to think of you going through that without me."

 

Spock remains out of reach, his dark eyes flickering over Jim's face, the way Jim's body leans forwards. "Thank you," he says.

 

Jim clears his throat. “Does anyone else know about this?”

 

"Nyota is… aware of pon farr. We never spoke of it, but I once ensured she had access to a Vulkhansu text on the matter."

 

“Does Starfleet Medical know?”

 

“I cannot imagine that it has been kept entirely from Starfleet Medical, but I have not… I will ensure that Doctor McCoy is aware.”

 

Jim’s trying to imagine Spock having this conversation with Bones and utterly, utterly failing. He casts about for an alternative. “It might be easier just to do like you did with Nyota? Get him documentation on it.”

 

“I believe it would be reasonable for me to assume he will have questions.”

 

“Then maybe your counterpart would be willing to talk about it with him? If he's actually been through it, he can probably answer things you can’t, even. Yeah?”

 

“Ah,” Spock says. “I… was not aware, although perhaps I should not be surprised, that Doctor McCoy had not shared with you the details of his first and last full conversation with the Ambassador.”

 

“Huh? No, how would he even -”

 

“Whatever else I may say about the doctor, he is not unresourceful.”

 

“So what? Does it freak him out, the whole alternate universe thing?”

 

"That may be an understatement. He… became…" Spock exhales. "I was not privy to the entire conversation, but it is my understanding that the doctor demanded that my counterpart share details of how your counterpart…” He swallows. Clears his throat. Jim shakes his head, uncomprehending. “How he died, Jim."

 

"Oh, fuck."

 

"My counterpart did not comply, but it was a most unsettling thing to witness. I would not recommend encouraging any further contact between them."

 

“Okay, yeah, that’s -- that’s not --”

 

“I will share some readings on the matter with the doctor and offer to answer follow-up questions as appropriate. Would that suffice?”

 

“Yeah,” Jim says, relieved, “that sounds like a good idea. That’ll give him some time to… I guess, absorb things. Will you send them to me, too?”

 

The buzzing mind against his goes still for a moment -- cold -- and Jim backpedals frantically. “Oh, or you -- if you’d rather I don’t, I can --”

 

“Jim." Spock withdraws his mind, leaving Jim's feeling echoing empty and dark. "It is an entirely reasonable request. I had simply not anticipated… Yes. I will send you the literature, and I will make myself available for any questions you may have.”

 

“Spock,” Jim whispers, and touches his cheek. “This isn’t going to scare me off, okay?”

 

Spock’s eyes meet his for a moment, and then he withdraws again, this time standing from the sofa and moving away. “I appreciate the sentiment,” he says, “but your consent presently is not informed, and therefore meaningless.”

 

“Then send it to me right away,” Jim says. “The sooner you can hear me say that and believe it, the better, okay?”

 

He doesn't say, I've literally died for you, because there's no way to make it sound like a reassurance, or like anything other than an accusation, but some part of him wants to anyway.

 

“Very well,” Spock says, and Jim sees the pallor in his cheeks as he crosses to his computer console. Within two minutes, Jim has received a message with nine attachments -- two texts and seven excerpts from scientific journals, totaling 870 pages. He swallows.

 

“Okay,” he says, “I'll get started.”

 

***

 

Jim doesn't sleep that night. The texts are dense, some translated to Standard using the Universal Translator and others clearly translated by Vulcans, with conceptual gaps. Jim annotates on his PADD, saves the files with comments.

 

He's finished the fifth one at 0510 and decides he can't go further, so he heads down to the mess, hoping to see Spock there -- or really, hoping for Spock to see him there, to know that he's taking this seriously but that he's not breaking down about it.

 

Instead, he finds Nyota alone, lights still at night settings, humming over a cup of tea and a padd of her own. She looks up at him and smiles. "Sleepless night, Captain?" she asks, and he realizes he's been running his hands through his hair in frustration for hours. He looks… well, like he just spent the night in a very different way.

 

Something must show on his face before he has time to show it, because her mug clinks hard on the table and her grin is wiped away. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -- is everything all right?"

 

He pulls up the article he'd just finished and hands it to her wordlessly. She reads the title and makes a strange strangled sound, eyes flickering to him.

 

“Okay,” she says. "This is… not a conversation for the mess. Want to come back to mine?”

 

Any other time he would object -- humorously, but for serious reasons; professionalism; the rumor mill; favoritism. Now he just nods, his throat too tight for words, and follows her into the hallway and into the turbolift and up to her quarters, which are at the end of a long hall. He realizes he doesn’t know what department heads’ quarters are like. They have an extra office-like area and slightly wider beds but are otherwise pretty standard. Nyota’s quarters smell faintly floral and are humid; he realizes her hair is damp; she’s just used the shower. Her bed is tightly made. She guides him to one of her two armchairs and throws herself into the other.

 

“So, to be honest, I’m pretty impressed that he shared it with you this early. We’d been dating for almost a year before he --” She shakes her head and snorts. “Hacked my personal PADD and left the file in my staging area, actually. I didn’t really dignify that with a response, but I did my own research afterwards.”

 

“He made it sound like there wasn’t anything out there about it that a layperson could find,” Jim says, and then hastily at her flat look, “but you’re not a layperson, of course.”

 

“I won’t pretend it was easy,” she conceded. “I actually -- I had some help.” She stills. “I guess this means… I have something for you. For him.”

 

“What?”

 

She flushes down to her collarbone. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she says.

 

***

 

The day she finds the Vulkhansu text in her staging area, Nyota is -- at first -- perplexed. On the surface, its title -- That Which Describes the Rituals of Mating -- seems innocent enough, perhaps even charming. Nyota knows that Spock has been reading pre-Reformation poetry, and she hypothesizes that perhaps he wants to share some with her but is too embarrassed to bring it up in person.

 

At first, she’s only a little bit irritated about the invasion of her privacy. Because she keeps her PADD bio-locked, so Spock must have either surreptitiously had her fingerprint it in her sleep -- or, more likely, used his legendary computer skills to hack into it. And they’ve been seeing each other for a year; they do share a certain intimacy, but -- it does feel invasive. She can look at the navigation history and confirm that he had viewed nothing, opened nothing, but -- it makes her a bit uneasy, the subtle, almost certainly unintended message it sends. You have no privacy from me. I can do this at any time.

 

At first.

 

She waits until she’s alone to actually crack the text open and read it, and within a few lines something is starting to tremble within her. This isn’t Vulcan love poetry, or anything remotely like it. It’s… a scientific journal. About a Vulcan mating ritual. In Vulkhansu, and yes, she’s fluent in Vulkhansu, of course she is, that isn’t the point, the point is what in the stars is this? What does he think he’s doing? How is it that he justifies telling me something this important -- like this?

 

She reads. Cries for a while. Goes for a run and then reads it again. Does her damndest to find another primary source on the matter and fails. She seriously considers going to the med center and asking them for more information, but she and Spock have kept their relationship private to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, and in any case, she’s not sure the med center would be able to disclose to her.

 

So she and Gaila hack the secondary database of the library in ShiKahr, Spock’s hometown, and use the metadata from that search to find out that a rare-books collector in Chicago has some other texts that will probably reference it. She spends more credits than she wants to think about, buys them all and has them shipped in Gaila’s name. It takes almost three weeks for them to arrive, weeks during which she serenely pretends nothing has happened, steadfastly refusing to let Spock get away with starting an important adult conversation that way.

 

When the books do arrive, they’re all but useless, telling her very little that Spock’s original article hadn’t. And Spock still hasn’t said anything, and Nyota finds that she’s disappointed, but not angry, and decides to let it go until he brings it up.

 

In April, Spock ships out for a three-month tour on the Enterprise. Two weeks into that three-month tour, she gets a message from Amanda Grayson.

 

She’s spoken to Amanda twice before, both times in the context of her role as Spock’s teaching assistant. The first time, she’d just taken a message when Spock had been away. The second time, Amanda had asked about Nyota’s current line of work. She’s studying Rihan, the most formal of the Romulan dialects, and is considering a thesis on what its differences from traditional Vulkhansu suggest about Romulans’ caste systems. Amanda admits that Spock had told her about it. She had been a history teacher, before moving to Vulcan, and one of her areas of study had been speculating about what early changes the Romulans would have undergone after their split from ancient Vulcans.

 

But she’s never addressed her as Nyota before, and now, “Hello, Nyota,” Amanda says, standing several feet from the video so that much of her body is visible, her hands clasped before her. “I’m going to be on Earth for a couple of weeks in May, and it occurred to me that just because Spock is off-planet doesn’t mean I couldn’t take advantage of the visit to meet you in person.” She makes a wry face, and Nyota almost startles, seeing Spock in her features suddenly. “I know the end of semester can be a busy time, and I assume you’ve had to take over his class on top of your other studies, so please don’t feel obligated to say yes -- but if you’re available, I’d love to take you out to dinner while I’m in town. Let me know. Take care.”

 

Nyota ends up meeting Amanda at the landing pad, and when Amanda opens her arms, any lingering doubt about whether she knows about Nyota and Spock’s relationship dissolves. Nyota accepts her embrace. She thinks of what she knows of Vulcan, wonders how long it has been since Amanda hugged someone, and tries to make it a particularly good hug.

 

Nyota chooses the restaurant -- a small Thai shop near the dormitories -- and after they order, Amanda leans across the table and grasps at her hand.

 

“I know I’m his mother,” she says, “but I’m also the only human to have married into the Houses of Vulcan, and I will tell you anything you want to know.”

 

Pon farr,” Nyota says.

 

“Excuse me,” Amanda calls to the waitress. “Can we get those to go, please?”

 

Half an hour later, they’re stepping into Spock’s apartment. He had given Nyota his access codes so that she could visit, water his houseplants and take advantage of a peaceful place to study. It’s not an ideal venue for this conversation, but it’s better than a restaurant or the dormitories.

 

They talk until long past midnight, by which time they’ve finished a bottle of wine together and Nyota has told Amanda far more than she ever intended to share. Amanda has been nothing but gentle, empathetic, reassuring. She ends the night with a promise.

 

“I’m going to send you something,” she says. “Not now, but sometime before I head back to Vulcan. I’m going to record a message for you to share with Spock. I could try to bring it up with him, but I know him -- he’d shut it down.

 

“You have to understand -- the idea of losing control is so anathema to a Vulcan that it seems to me they experience a kind of dysphoria or dissociation when speaking of pon farr. Spock is worried about you, and worried about himself, and you can tell him that you accept it and that things will be fine all you want, but he will never be able to fully believe you. But maybe he can believe me, as a human woman, bonded to a Vulcan man, who has been through pon farr four times.”

 

Nyota gets the message a week later, encrypts it heavily, and waits for Spock to bring up pon farr again.

 

***

 

“Are you saying he never did?” Jim asks, trying not to sound too incredulous. Nyota shakes her head sadly.

 

“No, and I just couldn’t let him think that passive-aggressive note-passing was an acceptable communication tool in an adult relationship. I couldn’t acknowledge that I knew anything about it without legitimizing his way of sharing it. So I just… waited. I thought, surely eventually he’ll initiate a real conversation about it. And he didn’t.” She smiles at his stricken look. “Don’t. I’m just happy that he’s brought it up with you, and impressed that he’s done it so soon -- although I have to admit I’m disappointed that he’s gone the route of documentation again.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says, “actually, he didn’t. We talked about it last night. I was the one who suggested he send me some documentation.”

 

Nyota seems surprised, but after an awkward moment she speaks and Jim can hear this time, beyond doubt, that she is genuinely pleased. “Good,” she says. “That’s good, that’s great, Jim! It definitely shows how much he trusts you. And that he sees you together for the long term.”

 

Jim’s throat goes dry, but he nods. “Yeah. We’re… I feel like we’re getting pretty serious.”

 

“Still taking it slow?” She’s teasing, a bit. He flushes.

 

“I know, I know,” he says. “You’re saying to yourself, is this the Jim Kirk I know and love? Jim Kirk, genius playboy? Jim Kirk, academy slutbag?”

 

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she says. “Intergalactic Slutbag, surely.”

 

He laughs. “But yeah. Um. I mean. We’re still. Working on stuff?” He winces inwardly at how awkward that sounds but tries to play it off as casual, combing a hand through his hair and offering a shrug.

 

“So, do you want it?” she asks, and he flounders for a moment, trying to figure out if she's asking what it sounds like she's asking, before she continues, oblivious. “I think Amanda would have wanted you to have it. Or if you’d rather I could send it directly to him. Either way, I think he should see it, it’s just a matter of whether you want to be in charge of the timing."

 

"Fuck," Jim says, “you mean you still have that message?”

 

“I wasn’t about to delete a vid from his mom,” she says, looking horrified. “I just -- hadn’t figured out how I was going to give it to him. I thought about doing it when we broke up, but that was right before he was going to Iowa with you, and it just -- it would have been really awkward; it didn’t seem like the right time. I thought about asking you, but it would have been hard to explain it without telling you about pon farr, so…“

 

Jim swallows and tries to identify what he’s feeling. Nyota’s looking at him, her eyes crinkled and happy-sad. “I think you should give it to him,” she says.

 

“What does it say?”

 

“I’ve never watched it. She didn’t say I shouldn’t, but it seemed wrong. It’s for him. She just gave it to me because then I could give it to him when I thought it best.” She sighs. “She was an incredible woman,” she says. “I wish I’d known her better. I always thought I’d have time later.”

 

“Can you tell me more about her?”

 

“I think you should ask Spock,” she says.

 

“You don’t think it’ll make him too sad?”

 

“I think it’s nice to be sad sometimes, in the service of remembering someone you loved. When my bibi died, no one wanted to talk about it, no one would mention her or her death to me except in a hushed tone of voice. No one wanted to laugh at the silly things she did while she was dying. And I didn’t want to burden others by bringing up what everyone was so clearly telling me was a sad, taboo topic. I would have loved for someone else to open up a conversation for me. To tell me that it was okay to talk about her, that they had room for my sadness and my love and all my conflicted emotions.”

 

“Have I told you lately how fucking smart you are?” Jim asks, slightly breathless in the wake of the stunning rationality and empathy of her explanation.

 

She grins. “I never mind hearing it,” she says. “You haven’t said yes, but I’m going to go ahead and send you the holomessage. It just feels like the right thing.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Jim says.

 

“Is there anything else you want to talk about? She answered a lot of my questions, so it’s the least I can do to pass it on, although some of what I asked wouldn’t be… applicable.” She’s blushing. “Or you can just bounce ideas off of me. Whatever you like.”

 

“Spock made it sound really dangerous. Violent,” Jim says. “And this --” he hefts his PADD, “has a bunch of instances of bondmates getting injured or killed, but it’s all -- it definitely seems more like exceptions to the rule.”

 

“It’s extremely rare for a bondmate to be seriously injured,” Nyota agrees. “Bruising and muscle strains are very common, but there’s something like a point-zero-eight-percent incidence of life-altering injuries. But I think to Spock, loss of control seems inevitably tied to violence. We don’t talk about this, but the last time he lost control, he nearly killed a superhuman with his bare hands. The time before that, he strangled you and ejected you from the ship. And to someone like him… point-zero-eight percent might seem like an unacceptably high risk.”

 

“Do you know how often someone isn’t able to take a bondmate, and dies?”

 

She shakes her head. “I suspect the incidence will have changed a lot in the last year,” she says.

 

“This is a weird one,” Jim says, “but… the literature all refers to the bondmate -- specifically the bondmate, rather than, I don’t know, the partner or something more generic. Do you know, do you have to be bonded for it to work?”

 

“You don’t,” she says, “but at least in Vulcan society as it was, it was seriously frowned upon to go through pon farr without a life-bond except under extreme circumstances.”

 

“Like?”

 

“Well, if the partner couldn’t get there in time,” Nyota says. “Amanda told me that Spock wouldn’t talk to me about that, but she really encouraged me to think about how I would react, what I would be okay with, if it happened while one of us was in deep space. You should probably do the same.” She’s not meeting his eyes, and Jim realizes why all of a sudden: She’s wondering if I’d want it to be her. Or if I’d want it not to be. He can’t deal with that right now, so he interrupts that train of thought as politely as he can.

 

“And after a couple days of frequent sex, it just goes away?”

 

“Three to five days of nearly-constant sex, but yes. It tapers in intensity towards the end and they start to become -- at least, Amanda said that Sarek would get -- kind of sweet, toward the end. Like, he would be possessive and relentlessly sexual for days, but then in the last few hours he became sensual. She said sometimes he was almost sappy.”

 

“I can’t really picture Sarek sappy.”

 

“Spock, though,” Nyota says, almost reproachfully.

 

“Spock is already a lot more demonstrative than I expected.”

 

She snorts. “He’s got a mouth on him, hasn’t he?” The corners of her lips twitch, and Jim feels some sense of normalcy slip back into the room.

 

“He keeps saying he lacks the terminology, though,” Jim says, and Nyota goes bright red then. “What? What did I --?”

 

“That’s probably my fault,” she says, her voice unusually high-pitched. “I, um. Well. At first he used… words that didn’t really do it for me. He would be saying absolutely filthy things but the language was just very clinical. And you know, we’re linguistics geeks, so we talked a lot about some of the nuances of it, and I talked to him about how humans can be very turned off by certain words, and it differs from person to person. And I guess I… let’s just say, I trained him with a fairly specific use case.” She shakes her head slightly. “He was very biddable. But yeah, I probably made him unnecessarily self-conscious about it.”

 

Biddable, Jim thinks. “When you say you trained him,” he prompts, trying very hard to ignore the tingling in his groin.

 

“Well, we just -- when we were alone, going about our day, he would sometimes just say a word, and I’d say yes or no. And then sometimes I’d --” She bites back a smile, or maybe a laugh. “Tell me if this is too much. Remember I lived with Gaila, I don’t know if I’ve ever managed to reset my filters appropriately for human standards.”

 

“Remember I slept with Gaila,” Jim says.

 

“I never asked how much talking that involved,” she says delicately, and before he’s thought twice about it he’s gripping her hand, humor gone.

 

“A lot,” he tells her quietly. “We were -- I know I fucked it up in the end, I know she deserved better, but I considered her one of my best friends.”

 

“It was mutual,” Nyota says. “She had a lot of partners, but she talked about you differently. It used to irritate me to no end. She talked about you like… like people talk about their primary partners.” She probably sees the glimmer in his eyes and takes pity, because she takes in a breath and continues a bit quickly: “Anyway, I was saying, about the language thing, I also tried to give him words back. Tell him what words I’d like him to say. He didn’t understand, but he doesn’t have any of our human compunctions about dirty talk. The language you use won’t have any impact on his arousal, but he knows the language he uses can have an impact on yours.”

 

“Gotcha,” Jim says, and decides not to make her self-conscious by confessing to her that the experience she seems to think of as universal isn’t one he relates to much. Spock could read him the dictionary or speak to him in Klingon and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to his arousal.

 

“One more thing that -- honestly, I’m probably overstepping, but it’s a cultural assumption that I made that I really, really wish I hadn’t. The easiest way to explain it is that Vulcans have no concept of vanilla, or, for that matter, of kink. Everything is just sex, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, you know?”

 

“So does that mean that everything is kinky to him? Or that nothing is?”

 

She laughs. “Yes?” she says. “Just know that -- probably especially when it comes to sex between men, he probably has no idea what’s expected and what’s taboo -- which is to say, at least in my experience, he had no concept of what kinds of things were likely to require negotiation. So -- well. I mean. I know you know this.” She smiles at him shyly. “You know, the Academy wasn’t the most sex-positive environment, but in the circles Gaila and I walked in, you did have a reputation, but it wasn’t actually for being Jim Kirk, Intergalactic Slutbag.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“It was for never accepting anything short of enthusiastic consent,” she says, and shakes her head a little bit. “I don’t know why you kept up the playboy persona.”

 

“I object to the notion that enthusiastic consent is at odds with being a playboy,” Jim says as lightly as he can manage.

 

“Fair,” she says, and he can tell she knows he meant it. “So, keep it up, I guess. I was just going to say, err on the side of explicit, specific conversations. Use as little slang as possible. And give him terminology, because he will do his research.”

 

“Good to know,” he says, and then, “Thank you so much for this. I wasn’t going to bring it up with you. I have to let this kind of conversation be on your terms, because yes, we’re friends, but I’m still your superior officer and it never won’t be at least a little bit weird.”

 

“Absolutely,” she says.

 

“But I’m really, really glad that we had this conversation,” he says.

 

“So am I.” She looks at him sidelong. “And about what I said earlier, about opening space for Spock to talk about his mom. If you ever want to talk about Gaila -- this is me opening space for that.” She presses a hand to his for a moment, gives it a quick squeeze, and then says, “But not right now, because we’re both on duty in twenty-five minutes, and you look like hell.”

 

“Thanks, Nyota,” he says, the name rolling off his tongue before he can think twice about it, and something about the way she says, “You’re welcome, Jim,” tells him his instincts guided him right.

Chapter Text

nineteen.

 

Jim decides to finish reading and annotating the articles before deploying the video from Amanda. It seems almost like cheating, like a trump card, and he wants to know where things would have stood without it, first. So it’s almost 0300 when Jim finally sends Spock the articles back, with his annotations and a quick message:

 

>> S --
Okay -- lots of questions, but I’m still on board.
-- J

 

Almost immediately, his self-doubt kicks in and he clarifies:

 

>> I mean, this hasn’t scared me away.
>> I mean I want to be your partner when you go through pon farr. Sorry. Just trying to be totally clear, not leave any room for ambiguity.

 

He’s kicking himself for the awkwardness when he hears the other side of their shared bathroom door slide open, and then his own, and Spock is standing in the doorway. In the dark, Jim can’t see his expression, but he’s wearing a robe and his hands are still by his side and he stands there for a moment unmoving before speaking hoarsely.

 

“Do you understand the implications of what you have just said to me?”

 

Jim swallows. “Did you look at the documents I sent? I’ve annotated them, so you can see I’ve read all of them, so -- yes, I --”

 

“There are implications beyond pon farr.”

 

“Well, yeah.” Jim flounders a moment, feeling like they’re having two different conversations, but can’t figure out what to ask, what to say.

 

“Jim,” Spock says, and crosses the room to kneel at his bedside. He starts to sit up, but now in the dim starlight from his open viewports he can see Spock’s face, and something in the openness there freezes him in place, on one side, propped on one elbow, mouth half-open. “This was not,” Spock begins, and shakes his head. “I did not intend to imply that I was asking you to commit to be with me for my pon farr. All I was asking was for you to understand the possible implications.” He is searching Jim’s face for understanding, and heat flashes through Jim’s gut as he understands.

 

“Oh, no no no, I’m sorry, fuck,” he groans. “I didn’t mean to make this awkward, I wasn’t -- I’m not trying to say that either. I promise, if-slash-when I make a lifetime commitment to you, I’ll do it more romantically than by text comms. I think we’re on the same page. I mean, I think I meant it the way you did. That it’s -- I’m sorry to use an idiom, but --”

 

“‘On the table’?” Spock suggests, almost meekly.

 

“Oh,” Jim says, and swallows. “Okay. I guess maybe. Um. Maybe we aren’t totally on the same page. I, uh. I was going to say ‘that it’s plan A’.”

 

Spock turns his face away from Jim for a moment, towards the viewport, towards the stars, and Jim accepts the horror that’s creeping over him right now, the presumptuousness of the overstep he’s made, and scrambles mentally to figure out how to recover it. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I should have -- maybe I should have saved this for the morning, or tomorrow after shift, I -- I didn’t sleep last night, I’m probably not expressing myself all that well --”

 

Spock’s hand darts out to Jim’s bare shoulder, his eyes returning to seek Jim’s. He seems to focus for a moment, and then shakes his head infinitesimally. “No,” he says, “yours is the better way,” and then his hands are fisting in Jim’s sheets, throwing them back carelessly, and he is crawling on top of Jim and panting heat into his mouth, pressing his lean body downward against Jim’s. Jim gasps and reaches up to where Spock is fumbling with the tightly tied knot on the sash of his robe, and he pulls out the knot and immediately encounters another hardness at his hip. Spock is naked underneath the robe, and his erection is fierce and frankly, Jim thinks headily, more than a little magnificent, and as Jim tries to push the robe from his shoulders, Spock rumbles, grabs Jim’s wrists, and pins them over his head, shifting to hold them still with only one hand.

 

“Ah!” Jim cries, and Spock silences him with another kiss, then bites at his lips and, with the hand that isn’t trapping him, scratches at his chest. “God, Spock,” he wheezes, “you’re not -- not right now --?”

 

Spock pauses for a moment, and his eyes light as he catches Jim’s meaning. “No,” he rumbles, grinding his erection into Jim’s leg, “this is not pon farr, t'nash-veh ashalik. This is a Vulcan, claiming his mate.” And Jim, overcoming his confusion and getting with the program, finds himself coming up past half mast as Spock captures his mouth again, sucks Jim’s lower lip into his mouth, and begins thrusting roughly between Jim’s thighs.

 

"Yes?" Spock asks, dark and low and heated, and bites Jim's lips again before he can answer. "K'hat'n'dlawa, tell me. May I -- may I --”

 

Fuck,” Jim groans as soon as his lips are free, "yes, yes, whatever you --" and he pulls his knees together, trying to make a tighter fit for Spock to fuck into, but in response Spock growls, releasing Jim’s hands so that his own are free to tug at his boxer briefs instead. Jim uses the moment of liberty to shrug Spock’s robe off of his body, let it pool by their feet, and then Spock’s hands are on the insides of his knees and he’s shoving Jim’s legs apart and pressing the head of his dick against Jim’s asshole.

 

“Oh God,” Jim pants, staring down his body as Spock slides his hands to the insides of Jim’s thighs, spreading him obscenely, wider and wider, until his thumbs are on either side of Jim’s balls. He locks Jim’s gaze into his own and rocks forwards, pushing against the ring of muscle without penetrating.

 

Jim flaps his hand out towards his bedside table -- he’s got lube, probably out of his current reach but maybe within Spock’s -- but Spock grabs the searching hand, pulls it back in, and bends down to bite where Jim’s neck and shoulder meet, his hips still pressing forwards, now shimmying to emphasize the point. He’s still not penetrating, but Jim’s nerves are exploding with sensation and pressure and he babbles, “Sh-shit, oh god, Spock, fuck, fuck, I need --”

 

“I will give you what you need,” Spock interrupts, his voice that low, coarse rumble, and Jim’s response to that is something like Nnnnng. “Do you trust me?” Spock asks darkly.

 

Fuck, yes, yes, please, anything.”

 

Spock’s hands grip on the insides of Jim’s thighs, and his eyes flicker when Jim gasps.

 

"Anything?" he asks. “You are not ready for me.”

 

“Oh god, Spock, I can, I can be. I can be good, you can, if you want, I’ll, oh god fuck --”

 

“You can be good?” Spock murmurs, rocking just slightly forward again.

 

“Y-yes, please --” Jim gasps, pressing back, and tries to push, to show him, but Spock’s hands clamp down, keep him in place.

 

“Then you will take what I choose to give you,” Spock growls.

 

“Fff--” But Spock pulls away. His hands slide up and outward to Jim’s hips, then flip him easily onto his stomach, and Jim’s limbs flail; he hadn’t expected that. He turns his head to look back, over his shoulder, but Spock’s hand grasps the back of his neck and firmly redirects him, pressing him forward and down, and Jim shudders and nods and okay, he can take orders, he can be good.

 

Next, Spock’s palms grip his ass, pressing and kneading and spreading his cheeks wide apart, and Jim tries to think, tries to know, whether Spock knows what he’s doing, whether Spock expects him to cry out, wants him to cry out when he breaches him. Even if he doesn’t, Jim isn’t sure if he’ll be able to stay quiet, because he hasn’t had anything the size of Spock’s dick in his ass for probably two years at least, and he hasn’t been fucked dry since before the Academy, probably five or six years, and he’s not lying, he can be good, and he wants it, but this is going to hurt --

 

But instead of the dick he expects, Jim gets the blade of Spock’s tongue laving against him, instantly filthy and writhing-ravishing and hungry and he blurts, “Jesus!” and Spock growls a warning and Jim moans, “Spooooock.”

 

That seems to please him, so much so that he purrs, purrs into Jim’s asshole, and Jim is incoherent as Spock’s tongue swipes leisurely up and down, presses against but not into, teases around and then licks frantic little circles against him. Spock’s fingers dig into Jim’s asscheeks, pulling him further apart, then begin to move him up and down so that Spock’s tongue stays still and Jim’s hole is rubbing back and forth against it, faster and faster. “Yes,” Jim pants, “yes baby, yes baby --”

 

And Spock suckles at his hole, lifting Jim’s hips again to get the right angle. Jim bucks against him, gasping when Spock's knuckles graze the underside of his cock, sucking in air desperately. Spock spreads his cheeks again and uses one of his own knees to knock Jim's farther apart, then withdraws enough to suckle once more. Spock's tongue is firm, pressing a stripe up the back of his balls, flicking from perineum upwards, and then pressing against Jim’s entrance more gently, soothing as Jim cries out and jolts against him.

 

"May I?" Spock asks again, breathily this time, and Jim can't think, can't breathe, but he nods, exaggerating the gesture so there can be no mistaking, yes, fuck yes.

 

Spock's fingers find all the valleys and divots of Jim's lower back, and Jim feels his breath on the back of his balls again and almost cries with relief when Spock tongue finds him again. He's pressing back into Spock's face, and Spock is pressing forward, his tongue hardened enough now to slip inside. Spock's hands knead Jim’s asscheeks outward and inward to change the pressure, and his tongue slips back out, thrusts back in, eases back out.

 

There's something else at the edge of Jim's consciousness, something under the writhing mess of him, of the fingers on his hips sliding to hands on the fronts of his thighs pulling him back onto this thrusting tongue that's finding him and opening him and coming back for more. It takes him a moment to realize that it’s Spock, what he had called a touching of the minds two nights earlier. Spock, pressing up against him in every possible way. He whines and tries to push through the sensation, to express himself without words: God, Spock, yes, this, fuck, love you, ready.

 

And maybe it’s just that he’s psi-null, but all he can feel from Spock in return is: Mine.

 

***

 

When his ministrations have reduced Jim to a wordless, gasping wreck, Spock rubs his fingers across the delicate skin of his perineum and then stops with the pad of his thumb covering Jim’s slick opening. Slowly, he presses the first knuckle inside.

 

Then Jim makes a soft little sound, like a sob, his breath hitched and unsteady, and Spock's world shift-tilts and his awareness slams back into place.

 

May I? he has asked, and Jim has said yes, and he can feel at the edges of his mind that Jim is all but begging him now, but -- this had not been his intention. They had not spoken of this, and although he has known for himself all along the intention of his trajectory, this kind of progression requires more explicit consent than may I, significantly more conversation and negotiation than has occurred between them. He can feel the pleasure, the desire in Jim’s mind, but these pale alongside the realization that he has penetrated his partner without explicit consent, that beneath the prominent lust he senses in Jim are undercurrents of surprise, perhaps confusion, and this is not --

 

Spock withdraws his mind from Jim’s, lest Jim feel his shame and misinterpret its direction. Slowly, he slides his thumb from Jim’s anus and leans down to press a soft kiss against that tight pucker of skin and muscle. Then he begins to kiss his way up Jim's spine.

 

"Augh," Jim says, both emphatically and meaninglessly, and Spock bites the knob at the base of his neck and relishes in the way Jim arches up into his body as he does so. He lifts a hand, turns Jim’s head, and kisses his mouth, gently at first, aware that Jim will be able to taste his own musk and uncertain if he will object. “Nnngh,” Jim says, twisting and reaching for Spock with one hand, then, when the angle does not allow it, flipping himself beneath Spock, falling onto his back but still arching up to meet him. He opens his mouth, presses the kiss messy and wet, and tilts his head back, making room for Spock to lave at his throat.

 

God yes,” he moans, and then when Spock begins to slide down the length of his body, “oh -- baby, let me get you off first, I wanna -- guh --” he cuts off as Spock takes him into his mouth, biting his lower lip, the muscles of his abdomen straining. “We could try --” Jim pants, “we could both -- fuck, you weren’t joking about your learning c- uh -- learning curve -- Spo-ock, please, I want -- your dick in my mouth, please -- don’t make me wait.”

 

Spock withdraws obediently and takes Jim’s lead. Jim guides him to kneel on the pillows, then slides his head between Spock’s thighs and gestures, encouraging Spock to drop onto hands and knees, and -- ah. Spock understands.

 

Jim swallows him down before he has positioned himself appropriately to reciprocate, and he requires a moment to regain enough self-control to adjust. The new angle is awkward for Jim, but he makes use of his hands and his ample saliva to create appropriate sensation without being able to take Spock in fully. They pump at each other, pant around each other’s cocks, grab awkwardly at stomachs and hips upside down. Jim is moaning, but Spock’s nose is buried in his balls in such a way that breathing is complicated, and he finds he is on the verge of losing his erection, distracted as he is by the angles and Jim’s slick hands and the breathing and his own attempts to keep his teeth clear and utilize his intended techniques.

 

He slides Jim from his mouth with a pop, and his lust churns hot at the wanton moan that Jim releases as he slips himself from Jim’s mouth and hands. “Do not worry, ashayam,” he murmurs, clambering across and turning himself, then reaching with both hands to grasp at Jim’s face, stroke his cheeks. “I will give you what you need.” Jim drops his jaw immediately, offering, begging, and Spock lines himself up and thrusts his penis into Jim’s mouth. He groans, his fingers tightening against Jim’s face as he abandons himself to the sensation -- undulating his hips, fucking Jim’s face in earnest, riding him with a fervor that feels both dangerous and strange.

 

He lasts barely a minute. Then he’s stiffening, growling "yes,” and coming hot and slick, spending himself deep within Jim’s mouth. Jim’s hands grasp on his hips as he comes, clutching at him, and he swallows, then stills Spock through his aftershocks.

 

Now, Spock thinks, and withdraws swiftly, resettling at a similar angle as before. This time, he sits on Jim’s chest and neck, pinning him down to the bed, his knees folded against Jim’s sides, legs tucked under Jim’s arms. He leans down across his torso; and guides the exclamation point of Jim’s prick into his mouth. He takes it deep, his nose against Jim’s balls again and his hand wrapped around the base, and then starts to rock his whole body back and forth.

 

"Uh!" Jim cries, throwing his head back. "Ohhhh, yeah - oh - Spock - oh - oh - oh yeah, just like - just like that - fuck - don't stop, don't stop, don't stop, please,” and Spock has slipped back up against his mind almost unthinkingly, reaching for him, needing him. Jim is thrashing, gasping, “Oh my god, fuck, please,” as Spock rocks forward and back, and finally he achieves the coherency to make a specific request, “Can you -- baby, Spock, please, can you put a finger in my ass, I wanna come with you inside me -- fuck, please, I need to feel you, just like, Spock I'm gonna -" His voice is tight and ragged as Spock reaches behind his balls and lightly traces around his hole, then taps directly on it, and finally judges the correct angle and plunges his index finger in up to the second knuckle. Jim gasps again, his muscles clenching around Spock and his hands scrabbling at Spock’s thighs. "Fuck fuck fuck yes," he whimpers, "keep going, please, yes, I'm gonna come, i’mgonnacome, i’mgonna --."

 

Spock feels the hot pulse of ejaculate, then tastes it, strange and salty and thick. He attempts to adjust his pressure, to swallow Jim down and suckle him through his orgasm, but he miscalculates in some way, because Jim’s hips jerk back, pulling out of Spock’s mouth, and the remaining product of Jim’s orgasm hits his face and begins to drip down his cheek.

 

He hesitates, then bends his face back to lick the last drop from the tip of Jim’s penis. Jim shudders, and Spock realizes that he is experiencing oversensitization. Instead of wrapping his mouth back around Jim’s softening penis, he nuzzles gently at the tight skin of Jim’s groin and runs a hand down along his inner thigh, stretching his neck as he does so.

 

“F-f-fuck,” Jim sighs, releasing his tension. “What was that for?”

 

Spock sits up and turns, preparing to respond, That was for you, th’y’la. But the words have not yet reached his lips when Jim catches sight of his face, still splattered with his own ejaculate, and begins to laugh.

 

***

 

>> So, last night (this morning, whatever) when you were sitting on me, I was really tempted to try to return the favor and eat your ass but (a) that probably would have taken more brains than I had left in my head since you were sucking them out of me and (b) I wasn’t sure if you’d be into it? So I figure that’s something we should talk about.

 

>> Would you prefer to discuss this verbally? I regret that I must stay late in the labs tonight, but I will be available at 2200.

 

>> Nah not unless you have a strong preference one way or another. But also no pressure to talk if you’re busy rn

 

>> I am needed here to supervise the completion of the experiment and gather the result readout, but not occupied. I was considering reading your annotations but was considering whether doing so would be likely to result in an unacceptable level of distraction from my work.

 

>> It sounds like you’re saying those annotations are more distracting than I am ;)

 

>> I would welcome a conversation about sexual preferences. I admit to having contemplated initiating one myself, but as I have mentioned, I lack much of the relevant vocabulary, and I am uncertain as to etiquette of such a conversation.
>> On the contrary. You are a singularly distracting individual.

 

>> Honestly, I’m also not certain of the etiquette. I mean, you might have noticed, I’m not big on etiquette in general, so I guess -- let me know if I cross any lines or if you're not comforting with something

 

>> I will. I trust you will do the same.

 

>> Yep

 

>> Jim, I am aware that many humans view text communications as an informal avenue of discussion, but at times, particularly in discussion of sensitive topics, I find it easier to express myself in this medium.
>> I take you at your word that you are comfortable engaging in this conversation through this medium. However, I would like to say explicitly that I am aware that I am ignorant of the nuances of these communication norms. I would appreciate if you would inform me if there are aspects of this discussion you wish to be verbal. I do not wish to harm or offend you

 

>> Okay, first, let me say that I really appreciate you saying that and making sure that we’re on the same page.
>> Second -- it’s true that there’s some stigma for humans in having serious conversation through text chat. It’s seen as informal, and so in general, it would be frowned upon and seen as avoidant to have particularly fraught conversations through this medium. For example, if one were to terminate a relationship via text, most humans would regard this as cowardly and insulting to the recipient.

 

>> Fascinating.

 

>> That said -- breakups aside, I’m actually pretty comfortable having serious conversations by text. I think it’s helpful to be able to review what’s been said, to avoid miscommunications. I’ll let you know if I come across exceptions, but for now, let’s say anything goes.

 

>> I am gratified to hear this.

 

>> Okay so let’s talk sex.

 

>> Indeed.

 

>> So what you were doing to me last night is called eating ass. Or rimming. Or analingus if you want to look it up in like a scientific context. And I really really really liked it. You were using TECHNIQUES.

 

>> I also enjoyed myself.

 

>> Was that another first for you?

 

>> Affirmative. I confess my intent was not simply to pleasure you, but to prepare you for penetration. However, I became uncertain if this was also your desire.
>> This was, in fact, the first sensitive topic I wished to address with you.

 

>> I hadn't planned for it but I was open to the idea. Your tongue was fucking persuasive.
>> My asshole is a sensitive topic? ;)

 

>> Please, Jim, I do not feel that this in particular is a humorous matter.

 

>> Sorry, go on.

 

>> I wish to apologize for failing to attain your explicit and informed consent before penetrating you. I do not present any excuses, and I will not accept a dismissal of this apology.

 

>> Okay.
>> I respect that you don’t want me to dismiss this, but I want you to know that I thought it was pretty fucking clear that it was your intent to penetrate me one way or another, and I thought that I had given explicit consent.
>> So, I accept your apology, and I understand where you’re coming from in offering it, but I also want you to know that I’m not shy about basically anything sexual. If I didn’t like what you were doing, I would have told you to stop. I was surprised, but I definitely liked what you were doing.
>> And remember, I’ve told you all along, this whole taking-it-slow thing is entirely contingent on your consent. I’m still enjoying it, but anytime you decide you’re done with it I will take your dick in my ass in a second.
>> Actually, on that note, I guess the point stands that this is probably a conversation we should have had sooner. As the more experienced partner, I would think of that as having been my responsibility. So, for my part, I’m sorry.

 

>> Thank you for sharing your perspective. While I question the notion that your relative experience placed some greater burden of responsibility on you, I understand your reasoning and accept your apology unconditionally.
>> I do not wish for you to believe I am impatient or in any way dissatisfied with our current sexual repertoire.

 

>> No, I get you.
>> So, yeah, I guess what I wanted to ask was - and you don't have to answer now, or you can change your mind or whatever, but - you've shown several indications that you're interested in, um
>> Sorry hard to figure out if I should just completely avoid colloquialism
>> I was going to say "topping". Is that a term you're familiar with in this context?

 

>> Yes.

 

>> Okay good, so, correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that you want to top, to fuck me, which as expressed above, I am totally down for
>> In my experience, some men have strong feelings about what role they want to play in sex
>> e.g. top, bottom, both
>> I am not one of those men. I enjoy both, and I also enjoy all kinds of other sex; I’m not someone who sees anal as the be-all and end-all. So basically, I don’t have strong feelings about what balance you want to try if / when we decide to.
>> If you say you aren't interested in bottoming I'll understand and respect that, I'd be okay with bottoming exclusively, so no pressure.
>> But it is something that I’m curious about. So, I guess, let me know what you’re thinking or if you need time to think about it more.

 

>> It is easier for me to envision myself as the "top", but I am amenable to trying both.
>> Allow me to restate that: I would like to try both, Jim.

 

>> Awesome. Like I said, no pressure, but yeah, I'd love to give it a try.
>> Fucking you, I mean
>> You would look so good with my dick in your ass. I bet you'd be noisy
>> I'm sorry, I'm probably distracting you
>> you can get back to work if you need to

 

>> Yes, Jim.
>> I do not need to. Please continue.

 

>> Seriously? Okay
>> Fuck, I'm definitely imagining it now.

 

>> Please, help me to envision it
>> How shall we begin?

 

>> Mmm. First we'll get undressed and then I'll lay you down on your stomach on the bed and I’ll straddle you and give you a back massage
>> I'll work your muscles and oil you up and it'll be nice and warm with my hands on your back and shoulders
>> and when I lean down I’ll kiss the back of your neck and your shoulders
>> and after a bit you'll feel that my dick is getting hard, but I won't say anything
>> and then I'll start rocking on top of you. Just a little bit. At first we can pretend I'm just getting leverage
>> But then I start really focusing my attention on your ass
>> I'm adding more of the oil and I rub it down into your crack with my finger, rub it up against you, and I bet you gasp, because it feels good
>> and then I hold your hip with one hand and pull you up a little bit, and I grab my dick in the other hand, and I start rubbing it against you
>> Feels nice, doesn't it? The head of my dick rubbing up against your asscheeks, sliding up and down against you, pressing against that little hole of yours

 

>> Yes. The sensation stirs my own arousal.

 

>> What does it feel like?
>> Tell me, baby

 

>> I am uncertain if you wish me to describe my literal response to the fantasy or my hypothetical response as I imagine it to be within the confines of the situation you describe

 

>> That. The second one
>> you're naked lying facedown on a bed and all oiled up and you've got my hard dick rubbing against your asshole. How does it feel?

 

>> My penis would be hardening, and the muscles of my lower back and sphincter would be clenching semi-involuntarily. I would wish for more contact and additional friction to stimulate myself

 

>> Yeah. Tell me more.
>> You want me inside of you?

 

>> I believe that is the purpose of this encounter, is it not?

 

>> But do you want it?
>> Do you want me to fuck you? Do you want me to bury my dick inside you?
>> Or is this just about you giving me something that you think I want?
>> You’ve never been fucked, have you, Spock?

 

>> I have not.

 

>> Last night you said you were claiming your mate. I liked that
>> I'd like to claim you with my cock
>> I’d like to fuck you, to take you, claim you
>> I want to be in charge.
>> How do you think you’d like that?
>> Can you handle letting me in, letting me pleasure myself in your body?

 

>> Yes. I can.

 

>> And you'll like it?

 

>> Yes.

 

>> Even if I call you names? Even if I'm selfish?
>> It doesn't have to be like that
>> It doesn’t ever, if you don’t want it. You can always say no, baby, always
>> But I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you might like it
>> I think maybe you want me to show you what it can be like
>> Am I right?
>> It's okay if I'm not, baby. We haven't talked about this before, I don't want to pressure you into something you're not comfortable with
>> This is something that I want but not something that I need

 

>> I am not unfamiliar with the concept of dominance play
>> I fully consent to experimenting as your submissive in this format

 

>> oh my fucking god spock
>> i am so fucking hard right now
>> oh my fucking god this is so hot
>> why havent we done this before

 

>> We have been taking things slowly
>> I find these moments of discovered compatibility extraordinarily arousing
>> I am leaving the labs

 

>> Are you coming here?

 

>> Negative. I prefer to continue our scene via this medium
>> I am simply too aroused to remain in public

 

>> Are you hard too

 

>> I am using my controls to prevent a physical reaction until I reach the privacy of my quarters
>> Were I not engaging my controls I would have been fully hard from the moment you expressed that you believed I would "look good" with your dick in my ass
>> On that score, the feeling is mutual. Once we have reached such a juncture, I very much look forward to enjoying the visual spectacle of penetrating you, seeing you impaled upon my erect phallus.
>> You, too, will be "noisy". I will make you wail

 

>> Jesus fuck you can't say things like that, I'm going to come
>> Are you almost in your quarters
>> hurry the fuck up so I can textually fuck you
>> just heard the door. Get naked and comfortable and lmk when I can keep going

 

>> Proceed

 

>> okay baby
>> So where were we

 

>> You have lifted me slightly by my hip to achieve an optimum angle and have begun to rub your penis against me

 

>> Against your asshole

 

>> Affirmative

 

>> And you like it

 

>> I am enjoying myself very much
>> I wish for you to continue
>> However, your penis is large in circumference. I am apprehensive about my ability to accommodate its size

 

>> Oh baby, you don't think I'd just push into you without making sure you're ready?

 

>> I would accept if you did
>> I was uncertain whether doing so would be a form of asserting your dominance

 

>> No, baby, I couldn't do that to you
>> The idea is hot, don't get me wrong
>> It's tempting. It's fucking tempting just to fucking take you
>> And since this is fantasy, we could pretend that I'm doing that. We could pretend that I just couldn't resist your sweet little asshole, that I needed you too bad, that I just thrust myself inside of you and started fucking you
>> But I want you to know what it would really be like, and in real life, I couldn't do that to you
>> It's not pleasant. It's actually really painful to be fucked without being properly prepared. It's not romantic
>> If you like we can do it another time but right now I'm more interested in telling you what this would be like than I am in that kind of a dom fantasy
>> So I'm going to talk you through prep, okay?

 

>> Yes, ashayam
>> Thank you for your explanation
>> I know you would not hurt me unless I asked

 

>> Good.
>> Oh god unless you asked?!?!?!
>> Fuck we are going to TALK later
>> So okay, your crack is nice and slick
>> I hold your asscheeks together and thrust myself up and down your crack a few times
>> My dick is so hard, and your asshole is going to be twitching when I skate past it

 

>> Yes.

 

>> God, you’re so hot for me, aren’t you
>> I bet you start to rock back against me.

 

>> Yes.

 

>> You want this cock, huh?

 

>> Yes, Jim

 

>> You have all these sensations and I think you know you need to be filled
>> But you need to be taught first
>> You don't know how to take it yet
>> So I grab your hips and lower my mouth down your body, rub my cheek against your back, and once I get there I eat your ass just the way you did for me
>> Rubbing your asshole against my tongue, pulling your cheeks apart wide so I can get at you, tasting and sucking and rubbing at your sweet little asshole
>> And you'll feel me slip my tongue past your hole and inside of you
>> That's my tongue inside your ass, and you let me know how much you love it
>> Won’t you

 

>> I will

 

>> What are you going to say to me?

 

>> Jim
>> Please, more

 

>> Mmmm fuck yes baby
>> Okay, I’m still licking you, and I’m going to start rubbing my fingers against your hole too
>> Playing with it and teasing it with my fingers and my tongue
>> And I’ve got some lube, got it nice and warm on my hands, and I rub up and down your crack all the way to the back of your balls, and I drag and slide my finger around in the lube and get it nice and slick all over
>> What do you want me to do with this finger, baby?
>> I'm waiting

 

>> Press it inside me
>> As far as it can reach

 

>> Inside you where?
>> Inside your mouth?

 

>> Inside my asshole, ashayam
>> Please

 

>> Fuck I love it when you use that kind of language
>> When you say dick and cock and asshole and fuck

 

>> I will endeavor to oblige

 

>> So you want this lubed up finger in your asshole, do you?
>> You want to get fucked?

 

>> Please

 

>> Okay. You feel the tip of my finger circling your asshole, and then I start pressing inside slowly.
>> Up to the first knuckle, and then I move a little. Wiggle around, make sure you can feel it

 

>> More

 

>> Uh-uh. You'll get more when I say so
>> You take what I give you and you say thank you

 

>> Thank you, Jim

 

>> There's a good boy.
>> You still want more?

 

>> Yes. Please.

 

>> Tell me, are you fingering your asshole right now, Spock?
>> Are you using your own finger to fuck yourself and pretending it's mine?

 

>> Yes. I am.

 

>> Fuck, so hot
>> Okay, baby, you feel my finger go deeper
>> I'm going slow, but now I'm going to slide it all the way into you, until the web between my fingers is pressed against your hole.
>> Thank you

 

>> See, you’re getting it
>> When you’re good for me, maybe you get to choose
>> Do you want me to stay still, or should I begin to thrust?

 

>> Please thrust

 

>> Okay, I pull back until my finger is almost all the way out and then I push it back in, fast this time
>> I do it again
>> And again
>> Again again again
>> Faster
>> You make sure to go all the way in every time, because you know that’s what I’d be doing to you
>> Keep going, baby
>> You're breathing hard, aren't you?
>> It's fast and rough but maybe it doesn't feel like quite enough?
>> Maybe you’re greedy, huh? You want more?

 

>> Yes, please, thank you

 

>> Yeah I'll give you another finger. Push both of my fingers up inside of you.

 

>> Can I still feel your hardness?

 

>> Oh baby, you're so eager for me, aren't you?
>> Yes, I'll let you feel me against your leg
>> I'm still rock-hard for you, because I'm enjoying myself, fucking you open with my fingers
>> Making you ready for me
>> But I'm not going to give you my cock yet
>> You're not ready

 

>> I want it

 

>> Fuck, I want it too, baby
>> But first I need to make more room inside you, don't I?

 

>> Perhaps.
>> I do not know.
>> I feel ready.

 

>> Do you remember what my cock felt like in your mouth?

 

>> Yes

 

>> I do too
>> Well… it's wider than two fingers, isn't it?

 

>> Yes. It is thick. But Jim, I could take it

 

>> You think so?
>> You think you can take my thick cock in your ass? Right now?
>> You think your ass is ready for my thick cock? Ready to be fucked open, ready to be claimed?

 

>> I can
>> I want to feel you
>> Yes, Jim!
>> Please, I want you to penetrate me.

 

>> Say it again.

 

>> Penetrate me, ashayam

 

>> Here's my third finger. Three fingers thrusting into your greedy asshole, baby.
>> Going deep, in and out, working you open
>> I think you know what I want you to say.

 

>> Fuck me
>> Jim, please

 

>> Well since you asked so nicely
>> I take my fingers out and leave you aching
>> The sensation of being empty after having three fingers can be unpleasant
>> So you'd better remind me what it is you want from me

 

>> Please fuck me

 

>> You can do better

 

>> Fuck me with your thick cock
>> Please, ashal-veh, I cannot wait any longer
>> I need you

 

>> Oh baby okay
>> Okay, I’m going to give you what you need
>> I’m here, I’m right here, pushing my cock up against your hole
>> Fuck, I can feel how tight you are
>> I can't wait to be inside you and feel you squeeze around me

 

>> Yes
>> I will take all of you

 

>> I grab your shoulder
>> And I push inside of you and use your shoulder to pull you back onto me
>> I bet you're babbling, my cock is just pushing all the thoughts from your head
>> It burns a bit, but it doesn't really hurt, because I'm going to be good to you
>> I'm not going to just slam my dick all the way up your ass with wild abandon, because, well
>> It would feel good for me, and I know you'd take it
>> So… hmmm, I could do it. Just fuck you open, make you feel like I'm going to rip you in half and fuck you inside out
>> But instead I'm going slow
>> I'm still pushing in. I'm being so slow and gentle you think you're going to go mad
>> I'm holding you still now to keep you from fucking yourself onto me
>> What are you saying, baby? What are you asking me for?

 

>> More, Jim! Take me! I am yours!

 

>> You are mine.
>> And I want you to feel good
>> I want you to long for this. I want it to be so good for you
>> So good for you that sometimes maybe I'll come home and find you naked in my bed with your ass in the air just begging for me to take it, to pound it with my cock, fuck you into the mattress and remind you whose you are

 

>> Yours, Jim

 

>> That's right, baby
>> So for now I'm going to go slow and make sure you know this is for you too
>> You don't get to pretend that this is all about pleasuring me
>> I need you to love this, to fucking crave it
>> To feel me inside you, all the way up your ass, totally still
>> Penetrating you perfectly, absolutely, and waiting…

 

>> Ashayam, please

 

>> You want me to move?
>> I don’t know if you’re ready
>> You’d better tell me

 

>> Yes
>> I am ready for you
>> Please
>> Please fuck me

 

>> God, fuck, okay
>> I start to slide back out, but I don't get far before I'm coming back to you
>> You're too good, your sweet little asshole is too good
>> I just can't get enough of it
>> You wrapped around my dick
>> Me filling you up, just right
>> Do you feel it yet? Do you get that you fucking need this? Do you understand that you're mine?

 

>> Yes. Yes. Please.

 

>> Okay I'm moving
>> I'm fucking you
>> Your asshole is flexing around me, taking me in
>> God, you fucking love my dick being inside you, don't you
>> You're fucking begging for more, writhing under me, I knew I could make you noisy
>> You can't get enough of me

 

>> Yes. So much.
>> Jim, it is
>> so good

 

>> You didn't know how good my dick would feel in your ass
>> You didn't have any idea

 

>> Jim

 

>> Tell me. Tell me what you want.

 

>> More. Harder. You.

 

>> Harder? Harder than I'm already fucking you? Because right now I'm pushing into you so hard you're hitting the wall on every stroke.

 

>> Harder.

 

>> You're a little cockslut, aren't you?

 

>> I am yours. I belong to you. I am whatever you wish me to be.

 

>> Then you're my sweet little cockslut, baby
>> You fucking love my dick, you want it so bad you can't think
>> Okay then. I'll do it for you. If you want me to stretch out that perfect little asshole of yours, then that's what I'll do
>> I'll grab your hips and fucking slam my dick into you.
>> I'll fuck you harder. I'll fuck you faster. I'll fuck your asshole until you can't think of anything but my cock in you, until I've become your entire world
>> But you feel so good that I might come, might fucking erupt in your ass, so maybe I need to slow it down

 

>> Please
>> Do not stop
>> Keep going
>> Tell me what you need
>> Tell me what to do to please you

 

>> You want me to come? Not so fast
>> I'm not ready for this to be over, not by a long shot
>> I told you, I love your sweet little asshole, baby
>> You're so hot and tight, you feel so amazing
>> Can you feel me thrusting deep and slow
>> Can you feel me all the way inside you
>> Fucking cramming my dick as high as it'll go
>> Into your needy
>> Little
>> Asshole
>> Setting your nerve endings on fire
>> Overloading your senses but you take it so good
>> You take it all, baby
>> You take every inch of this cock
>> You feel my balls slapping against yours and you would beg me to come if you could fucking speak but you're stuffed so full of me you've forgotten how
>> Haven't you
>> That's right
>> You're mine, aren't you
>> You're my little cockslut, you're my fucktoy, and you know I'll take care of you, don't you
>> You know when this is done I'll worship you and take you apart and tell you what a good boy you were for me and show you what you get for being good
>> But for right now I think you're going to let me use you, is that right?
>> You're going to give your hole to me and let me do whatever I want for as long as I want and what I want is to fuck you stupid
>> To fuck you until you'll think this is where you live
>> That you just live on my dick, that you were made for my pleasure, that I can take and take and take and you'll keep crawling back because you need this cock. You need it in you.
>> And just when you get there, when you reach this plane where you only exist for me to fuck, then I'm going to pull you back onto my cock as far as I can and I'm going to come deep in your ass
>> Filling you up with my cum, letting you feel it pulsing thick and flooding into you and your asshole fucking drinks it down like water, isn't that right
>> I'm going to be leaking out of you for days
>> And once I've done that, once I've had my fill of you, I'll sliiiiiide out
>> And you're probably still hard, because you're a greedy thing, baby
>> But you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to let go of you, let you fall down to the mattress
>> Fucking dripping with my cum
>> And I'm going to leave you there and go take a shower
>> And you're going to STAY

 

>> Yes

 

>> You stay down
>> You feel that burn like my cock is still in you
>> You're going to feel it for days
>> Your asshole is going to remember the shape of my dick and you'll be able to feel just how deep I went
>> And the next time I'll go deeper

 

>> I am still hard?

 

>> Yes you are

 

>> Yes. I am
>> I touch myself when I hear the water running, when I know you're washing

 

>> What do you think you’re doing?
>> You're not going to come without me, are you?

 

>> The oil is covering my testicles and I reach down to slick it up to the shaft of my penis
>> It is still warm

 

>> Don't you dare. Don't you dare make yourself come without me. You need me.

 

>> You are correct
>> I am simply preparing myself for you

 

>> Oh fuck yes
>> Good boy
>> I knew you’d be good for me

 

>> Of course. I am yours to command
>> And I have a gift for you

 

>> Is it your cock?
>> Your thick fucking beautiful cock?

 

>> Yes.
>> I bring it to you, in the shower

 

>> Hi baby
>> Did you bring me my favorite cock? Jesus, look at you, you're so gorgeous
>> Okay baby. Tell me what you want to do with me
>> Let me be yours now, your little cockslut

 

>> You are mine. Always. I will show you.
>> I press you to kneel down with the water running down your back and I put my erect penis in your mouth
>> I push you down to the tiles
>> I lay you on your back
>> I fuck your mouth

 

>> Give me that cock
>> I want to feel you, every bit of you

 

>> I give it to you
>> I bury myself in you
>> I thrust all the way to your throat, I want you to swallow me down
>> I want you to show me you can take my cock just as well as I take yours
>> You are wanted, just as much as you want
>> And you may show me how you yearn for me

 

>> oh god yes
>> oh god yes
>> however you want me
>> I'm your good little slut
>> I can take you deep
>> fuck me fuck me fuck me

 

>> I rock my penis into your mouth. I start slowly.

 

>> I'm sucking it, I'm sucking you
>> whatever you want
>> You don't have to be nice
>> You can fuck my mouth like you did last night, hold me down like that and choke me with your dick and I'll just take it, I promise I'll be good
>> Or you can stuff your dick in my ass, fucking use me, please, I need it, need you
>> I'll love anything you do to me

 

>> I know you will, Ashayam

 

>> I can be good for you
>> You are good for me, Jim
>> And this is what I want
>> I want your lips around my penis
>> You will pleasure me with your mouth
>> Remember what I told you. This is for me. All the others,
>> any other body you have touched or rutted against, any phallus that has fucked into you before mine,
>> they were preparing you for me. For this.
>> Give yourself to me. Believe me when I tell you I desire nothing more than your sweet skilled mouth and your clever wet tongue

 

>> Yes yes
>> Yours all yours fuck
>> Fuck your cock tastes so good. Like nothing I've had before
>> Fuck my mouth

 

>> Perhaps you are not paying attention
>> I have been fucking your mouth for one hundred eighty seven seconds

 

>> No I mean
>> Harder
>> Show me I'm for you
>> I want to feel it, I want to know you'll take what you need from me
>> I need you to show me what it means to be your slut

 

>> Yes

 

>> Use me, Spock
>> Make yourself come in my mouth
>> I need to hear you shout my name

 

Spock slips through the shared bathroom and stands again in Jim's doorway.

 

And Jim is sweating and naked and flushed, his cock in his hand and his eyes squeezed tight shut, his comm at his side. He slides a hand up and down his shaft, twisting at the bottom and running a finger behind his balls. Spock must exhale then because Jim's eyes fly open and he just whimpers and holds the base of his cock with what looks like an over-tight grip.

 

"Oh," he murmurs, and Spock crosses to him, crawls between his legs, then climbs over his torso onto his chest and pushes him back against the pillows.

 

***

 

After, when they’re lying drowsily tangled together, Spock pillowed on Jim’s chest, Jim remembers pon farr, and the holomessage from Amanda.

 

“I have something for you,” he says, “and we still have to talk about --”

 

“Later,” Spock breathes into his shoulder, and Jim can’t bring himself to disagree.

 

Chapter Text

twenty.

 

Jim stands as the senior-staff mission briefing disperses, but Bones grabs his arm before he’s two steps from his seat. “Wait,” the doctor says. “Are you serious? That’s the culture that we’re treating with?”

 

“Clearly, Doctor,” Spock answers coolly; he was seated at Jim’s right, but hadn’t risen with the rest.

 

Why?

 

“So that we may be educated about their practices in advance of our diplomatic m--”

 

Why are we treating with them?” Bones growls, and Jim withdraws, settles back in his chair, and gestures Bones back to the seat at his left.

 

“We have different standards of behavior for Federation membership than we have for mining treaties,” he says steadily. “We’re not being asked to assess their suitability, their alignment with our values. That’s done, and the decision is made: they’re not yet candidates.”

 

Yet?

 

“Cultures change, Doctor,” McGivers offers; she’s hung back as well, gathering what Jim thinks is an unnecessarily large array of datapadds. “Remember that humankind’s Eugenics Wars occurred less than seventy years before we entered the galactic stage.” She flashes Jim a somewhat apologetic smile and retreats, and then it’s just the three of them.

 

“And we have no evidence that they’re practicing eugenics,” Jim reminds them. “That’s why you’re here, Bones.”

 

“Oh, it’s the possibility of a eugenics program that made you want a doctor on the mission, is it? I thought maybe it was something to do with the ritual genital mutilation of nine percent of the planet. Or the capital punishment. You want me to stand by while you talk to these people? While we negotiate with them?”

 

“You have responsibilities, Doctor McCoy.”

 

“I have an oath, is what I have!”

 

“And tell me, Doctor, does that oath forbid you to interact with persons whose ethics don’t match your own?”

 

“Look, Bones,” Jim interrupts, before Bones can do more than growl his way through the word ethics, “Say we get this treaty signed. We have mining rights with them, and in turn, a closer relationship. Which puts us in a position to continue to share our values, maybe show them a better way. You’d rather just ignore them until they come to their senses by themselves?”

 

“I’d rather --!” McCoy’s voice dies mid-phrase, and he glares across the table at Spock. “Jim, you can’t expect me to just walk among these people knowing what’s happening and not do anything.”

 

“We’re not a galactic judge and jury. That’s not our job. We’re here to get mining rights for resources that our Federation needs, in exchange for access to resources we have in abundance. This trade does nothing to hurt the people of Econis, and our intent is to lay a foundation for a relationship that stands to help them. What would you have me do?”

 

“Don’t ask me that question if you don’t want to hear the answer,” Bones says, his voice low and fervent.

 

“Fine, then I retract it,” Jim snaps. “If you’d like to request removal from the away team, that’s your right. File me a 942-C --”

 

“942-D,” Spock murmurs.

 

“A Request for Dismissal from Duty on Ethical Terms by 1300, and make it good, because I may be the one who gets to make the decision, but I also have to file those with the admiralty.”

 

Bones sighs, leaning back in his chair and not meeting either of their eyes. “Fine,” he says wearily. “I’ll go. At least if it’s my feet on the ground I’ll get to see things for myself, rather than relying on someone else’s judgement call. But I don’t like it, Jim, and I don’t know why you’re okay with it.”

 

Jim bites his lip. “Spock,” he says curtly. “Dismissed.”

 

“Sir,” Spock says, and leaves swiftly. McCoy watches him go, then turns his gaze back to Jim, wary.

 

“Don’t fucking tell me I’m okay with it,” Jim says, making sure to keep his voice calm, quiet.

 

“What, so you’re not? You’re not okay with it, and you’re just ducking your head and doing it anyway? That’s not better, Captain.”

 

“No. I’m not okay with fucking eugenics. You know that about me better than anyone alive." He touches his forearm, where the ident tattoo is - the one that Bones has been using dermal tech to cover up for years now, without ever needing to be asked - because in uniform, on duty, in his briefing room, he's not going to say Tarsus out loud. "But I don’t feel bad about doing my damn job when it’s not in my power to do anything else.”

 

“Like hell it isn’t in your power!”

 

“I should be flattered,” Jim says, swiveling his chair slightly as if to address the empty room. “That my CMO thinks somehow, I’m capable of changing the way the Federation works. Thanks for assuming I didn’t try, by the way. Spock and I lodged a protest with the admiralty as soon as we got the orders. He proposed an alternative trade agreement that would have us work with the Econisians to develop treatments for victims of hemorrhagic shock. No dice. So forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed with your solution, Doc.”

 

Bones folds his hands and looks down at the table for a moment. Jim keeps his gaze on him, looking for a flicker of remorse.

 

“What am I supposed to think when you present the mission without comment?” he asks finally.

 

“I don’t know, Bones,” Jim sighs. “I guess I wasn’t curating my mission briefing with your reaction in mind.”

 

The doctor sighs. “Don’t be mad at me for tryin’ to do the right thing, Jim,” he says, rough and low.

 

“I’m not mad at you,” Jim says, and it’s true. “I’m hurt. And I’m tired.”

 

“Yeah, I know this maybe ain’t the best time,” he says, “But your sleepless nights seem to coincide with that mountain of paperwork Spock sent us. Can we talk about that sometime soon?”

 

“No,” Jim says, and leaves him there.

 

***

 

He finds Spock in his quarters, sitting on the edge of Jim’s bed with his hands folded between his knees.

 

“I am sorry, ashayam,” Spock says. “I hope you corrected Leonard’s misconceptions.”

 

“I did,” Jim says. “But it hurt that I had to.”

 

“Yes,” Spock agrees, and Jim settles beside him and leans on his shoulder. “Did you wish to speak further?”

 

“Yeah,” Jim says, but he sags into Spock’s warm weight and can’t bring himself to begin the conversation.

 

“You said you had something to share with me.”

 

“I do. But it’s -- I don’t know if it’s the right time.” He flops back onto the bed, letting his legs hang over the edge, his feet dangling a couple inches from the ground, and Spock lowers himself gently down alongside, propping his weight on one elbow and turning his body to face Jim’s prone one.

 

“You are fatigued,” he observes.

 

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I know we have to talk, but I don’t know if I feel up for it.”

 

“There is no hurry,” Spock reassures him, and presses his mouth to Jim’s temple briefly, not puckered into a kiss but simply a soft press of skin. Jim feels a flare of guilt, because if Spock knew what it was that Jim had to share, he's sure he'd be less forgiving of Jim putting it off. “Do you wish for me to leave you to rest?”

 

Jim turns to look at Spock for a moment and then shakes his head. “Only if you want,” he says. “I don’t mind if you stay.”

 

“Then I shall stay,” Spock says, “and care for you, and perhaps read your annotations to prepare for our future conversation.”

 

“Mmm,” Jim says, and after a moment Spock’s steady hands pull his feet onto the bed and tug off first one boot, then the other. His touch disappears for a moment, and then Spock is guiding him, gently, back to rest against his pillows.

 

“Sleep, t'nash-veh kanok-vei,” Spock is whispering, and through the contact of their skin Jim can feel a gentle wash of comfort, a sense of safety, and -- a slight, very slight, embarrassment.

 

What’s it mean? he asks through the connection, and Spock’s hands still briefly against his forehead. Jim feels his surprise: he thought I was out.

 

Kanok-vei, Spock answers in kind, everything.

 

My everything.

 

***

 

Jim wakes at 0320 with his stomach growling and Spock's legs tangled in his. He gently extricates himself, raises the room temperature, and strips down to his underwear, then replicates a cup of green grapes and a small cheese plate. It’s the kind of thing that’s probably available fresh down in the officers’ mess, but he doesn’t notice the difference between fresh and replicated as much as he used to.

 

He demolishes the cheese and then brings the grapes back to bed, sitting up against the headboard and crunching into them thoughtfully. He rakes a hand through Spock’s soft hair and lets his fingers settle there, cupping the back of Spock’s head gently. Spock tilts slightly, nuzzling back into Jim’s palm, and Jim sets the cup of grapes aside and watches him for a moment. He seems at ease.

 

Jim turns off his bedside light and slides down to lie alongside Spock, slotting his body alongside Spock’s, wrapping his arms around Spock’s shoulders. But instead of waking, Spock just nuzzles in closer, and after a moment of calm breaths his brow crinkles. Without opening his eyes, he murmurs, “Jim?”

 

“Yeah, baby,” Jim says. “Right here.”

 

“Good,” Spock sighs, and his face smoothes back into sleep. And within a few minutes, Jim follows him down.

 

***

 

Spock has the conn for thirty-five point four percent his duty shifts on the bridge, but never is the captain’s absence on the bridge more palpable than when Jim is serving on an away mission. Spock has made a strategic choice to withhold this information, for the purpose of employing it at a future date to persuade Jim not to beam down -- to allow Spock to go in his place.

 

By the time they have been orbiting Econis for nine hours, Spock is beginning to wonder why he had not decided to enact that plan today.

 

“I’m missing something,” Nyota says tightly. It is her fourth iteration of this phrase, and her color has shifted from flushed to pallid. “Spock, I don’t know if -- I think we should try them.”

 

He does not correct her for failing to use his rank. He does not remind her of what she already knows: that the away team had asked not to be disturbed, that their life signs are visible and show no signs of distress, that the Federation needs this treaty, needs this gallicite. He does not tell her what she does not know: that he, too, is uneasy; that he has felt wrong ever since he and Jim had parted that morning without ceremony to exit their respective rooms separately.

 

(He had wanted to stop, to reach out, had wanted to pull Jim back against him, to wrap his arms around Jim’s shoulders and tuck his fingers into the fine strands of his hair and breathe in the scent of his body and keep him there for just a moment longer.)

 

He rises from the chair, straightens the hem of his tunic, and moves to Nyota’s station in a few long strides. She hands him the secondary earpiece, which he inserts, watching her face carefully as she resumes the feed.

 

"Does any new generation exist," begins a deep, sonorous voice, "but ridicules the old? Maybe only right begets right or wrong. Be alert. Be steady. Be silent and stay still. It's not fear or ruthless justice. It's more. Wide eyes, solemn until some primal emotion cuts through. Now, on the way, hesitate, or your own understanding tells him brightness is not knowledge. See: every time, the road ahead pivots, tempers his elation. But you wait in light, lost, creating beacons of blue-mist eyes, blue-smoke eyes, lovely, endless, kindled bright."

 

Nyota had transcribed it and read it aloud when she'd first detected it, nineteen minutes before, but something about hearing it from a strange, echoing voice makes it different. Spock feels his skin tighten; a chill creeps through him. He understands, now Nyota's discomfort that borders on alarm. "The translator," he says.

 

"Not in use. That was Standard."

 

"Source?"

 

"It's on a Starfleet frequency. Coming from somewhere on the other side of the expanse. I can't pinpoint where, but not Earth."

 

"A warning of some kind," Spock observes. "'Be alert.' Is it directed at us, or are we reading it passively?"

 

"Impossible to say."

 

"Hyperbole?"

 

"No. It's on a low-fidelity wave. It couldn't target precisely at this distance. But the language suggests it's for us."

 

Spock's eyes flicker back to the life signs on the view screen, steady and strong. Nyota follows his gaze, then looks back at him, silent. Assessing.

 

"And our standard frequencies are silent?" She would have said something if they were not; the question has just telegraphed his unease to the entire bridge crew. Nyota nods. He hands her back the earpiece and retakes his chair.

 

"Should I forward it to Command?"

 

"Negative." Spock has answered before considering. He does not retract his answer, but looks down at the console on the arm of his chair and taps a text comm to Nyota.

 

>> Encoded. Attempt to interpret using standard algorithms phi-theta and phi-delta.

 

>> Aye, sir.

 

The remainder of the shift is quiet and tense, and Spock retires to his rooms to meditate only to be interrupted by a comm twelve point four minutes later.

 

"Sir, the Captain for you."

 

"Put him on," Spock says. "Jim. Are you -"

 

"I'm sending Doctor McCoy up to you," Jim interrupts tersely. "The rest of us will be a few hours yet."

 

"Yes, sir," Spock says. "Ship status normal. We -"

 

"Catch me up later," Jim interrupts again. "I need to smooth this over. Kirk out."

 

Spock meets Doctor McCoy in the transporter room. His face is flushed bright, and he snarls at Spock before he's off the pad. "Slap me with a demerit, go on," he snaps. "The medical corps will back me up. I should've filled out the damn form. I'm a doctor, dammit, not a spy."

 

"Doctor," Spock says, "I have not been made privy to the circumstances of your return. Please enlighten me."

 

The doctor seethes silently for a moment. "Jim," he says, his voice a croak, "has been taking lessons from you in emotional expression. Or lack thereof. I was investigating - surreptitiously - the likelihood that there was an active eugenics program down there. At Jim's request. At his orders.”

 

“I was present for these orders.”

 

“I was doing it, dammit! But not --” He winces. “Apparently I was --” And he swallows, hard, both visibly and audibly. His hands are shaking.

 

Spock assesses the doctor’s current state -- flustered, furious, humiliated -- and gently grasps his upper arm. “Come,” he says, guiding McCoy to the door. “Let us continue this conversation in another setting. Do you require sustenance?”

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I -- I think I need to sit down.” Spock eyes him again, searching for signs of dizziness, disorientation. None are apparent.

 

“Would you be comfortable coming to my quarters?”

 

“Sure. That’s -- that’s fine, Spock. Thanks.”

 

He nestles the doctor on his couch with a glass of water and a replicated turkey vegetable wrap that Nyota favors -- healthy, but substantive -- and retreats briefly to Jim’s quarters, returning with a small glass of the brandy he knows Jim keeps on hand especially for the doctor’s pleasure. McCoy snorts and then squints at Spock’s face.

 

“Your distress is obvious, Leonard,” Spock says. “I admit I did not envy you the mission to which Jim had assigned you. Please, allow yourself to relax for a moment before you continue.”

 

“Thanks,” he says. “I -- thank you.”

 

Spock makes himself a cup of tea -- the replicated variant of the Captain’s concoction -- and sits at his console, hoping for a text comm from Jim to enlighten him. What he finds instead is a message from Nyota:

 

>> No luck yet with the message. I’ve tried eight of the standard decryption sequences. I need to rest my eyes. Should I hand it off to Lieutenant Vasavi?

 

>> Negative. Rest. We can resume in the morning.

 

McCoy clears his throat from behind Spock; Spock swivels his chair to face the doctor. “I take it that your investigative efforts went poorly.”

 

“I didn’t think so,” McCoy says. “But Jim -- he came down to see me and I didn’t know he was there and -- he pulled me out and dressed me down in some back alley. Told me I was too emotional, I was going to get us --” He swallows. “Get him in trouble.” He meets Spock’s eyes. “I don’t know if he was right. I wasn’t playing any kind of role. Never been any good at playacting. I thought I was keeping pretty calm. I was just asking questions, but… I wasn’t pretending the questions didn’t matter. I wasn’t you about it, I wasn’t --” He cuts off again. His hands are trembling again. Spock crosses the room and sits in the chair across from him.

 

“I was just asking questions,” McCoy says again.

 

“And the answers did point to eugenics, I take it.”

 

“I asked if there were any prominent genetic disorders or disabilities that they were working to treat. Suggested it might be something the Federation could help with. They said no. We don’t have those. I gave some examples. Mild stuff, things we see in almost every humanoid species. Learning disabilities. Dyslexia, dysgraphia. Mental illness. Paranoia, anxiety, suicidality. They got real nervous, said no again, and I was telling them it’s nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of, it’s perfectly normal. They were getting upset, and I was trying to calm them down. Telling them, we have treatments, we have ways of --” His eyes shutter. “They weren’t hearing it. So I tried to switch tactics. Asked about gene therapy. Birth planning. How prominent it was, whether there were certain traits they were selecting for…” He seeks out Spock’s gaze. “I don’t know where I went wrong,” he says. “I haven’t done this before. I don’t know how to ask someone if they’re killing infants, killing undesirables, without --” He exhales shakily and buries his face in his hands.

 

“I understand,” Spock says. “This has been an ordeal for you, one Jim did not acknowledge as either your captain or your friend.”

 

“I just wish I had known sooner,” McCoy says, lifting his head again. “I can’t stop thinking of you two writing your brief to Command -- weeks ago, Jim said -- and thinking, why wasn’t I in the room for that?” He bites his lip. “I wouldn’t dare to suggest to him that your -- your relationship is affecting his judgment in that way, but I can’t help but wonder if you were talking about it in your downtime. If you brought it up as pillow talk and then -- if -- if he would have brought it to me. Otherwise.”

 

“We did consider including you in the conversation,” Spock admits softly. “But ultimately, Jim expressed that you were frequently unable to remain… professionally objective about such matters. And that, if our entreaties to the ‘Fleet were successful, we might save you the moral anguish you find yourself in today.”

 

The doctor blinks, his eyes large and dark, and looks away. “That’s … understandable,” he says. “I want to deny it, but he’s right, I’m not -- I can’t compartmentalize things the way you do. I would have been in a snit for days, and even if the ‘Fleet had accepted your proposal, I wouldn’t have been able to forget that they’d been willing to let this stand. That it took you saying something.”

 

“And yet,” Spock prompts, and McCoy’s eyes swing back to him, something in them raw and desperate.

 

“It was always just -- Jimmy and me versus the world,” he says in a rush. “And now some days… it feels like I’m on the other side of that equation now. Like I’m a part of that world outside, and not… with him.”

 

“No, Leonard,” Spock says. “You are still with him, on his side. But now you are that much less alone.”

 

McCoy drains his brandy. “I wish it felt that way,” he says.

 

***

 

By the time Jim gets back to the ship, his ire has cooled and he’s left with a strange muck of emotions: resignation and frustration and guilt. He knows he should check in with Spock, but he goes first to Bones’s quarters.

 

“Hey,” he says hesitantly, hovering at the threshold when the doors slide open. Bones looks at him and grunts, standing a bit unsteadily and moving to put away an amber bottle.

 

“You can still --” Jim begins, stepping inside and letting the door close behind him. “I’m here as your friend, not your boss. You don’t need to stop just because I can’t --”

 

“Yes I do,” Bones says, closing the cupboard and turning back to his chair. “I’m the reason you still can’t drink, don’t tell me you don’t resent me for it.”

 

Jim’s silent for a second, trying to decide if he deserves that, if it’s true. “How much have you had?” he asks. “I don’t want to try to have a serious conversation if you’re not going to remember it all.”

 

“You said you’re not here as my boss,” Bones says, a hint of a question in his voice, and when Jim nods, “Then I don’t want to have a serious conversation with you at all, Jimmy. Not tonight.”

 

“No, I need to --” Jim cuts himself off and takes a breath. “I need to say this to you.”

 

“And if I am too drunk to remember it in the morning?”

 

“You’re not,” he answers quietly. “I know you.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Look, it’s about what you said the other day,” Jim says, sitting down across from him. “You’ve been my doctor for years, and you’ve never totally been able to set that role aside, but ever since Khan, it’s been worse. I thought about it, and I get it, as much as I can -- I have the same thing, I have these lines I can’t cross with my best friends because of our professional relationship, and it’s -- if I could set it aside, I would want to. So, if you want to hand me off to M’Benga, I understand. If it can help us be -- what we were to each other, before -- it’ll be worth it.”

 

“You don’t get it, Jim. I know you’re tryin’, but --”

 

“Then help me get it.”

 

“I don’t want you to get it,” Bones hisses. “You don’t -- you don’t need to know. You don’t want to --”

 

“Bullshit. It’s hurting you. Of course I need to know.”

 

The doctor stares at him for a long minute, then rises from his chair and crosses back to the cabinet, pulling the liquor back out and pouring himself two fingers. Then he stands for a minute, his back to Jim, still and silent. When he finally speaks, his voice is rough.

 

“I think about it all the time,” he says. “About you… lyin’ on that table. Your neck was bent funny because we didn’t -- I didn’t get to you before you started goin’...” Jim feels a burst of cold at his core. He hadn’t imagined it before. Somehow, he’d never pictured that part. Bones standing over his corpse. Maybe closing his eyes. There’s a soft, muffled sound -- Bones is crying. Jim’s throat seizes tight, locks shut. “God, Jimmy, I didn’t care about my license, I didn’t care about my oath, I didn’t care about San Francisco, I didn’t… I needed you back. I needed you. I couldn’t, I -- I had no objectivity. None. And sometimes… I don’t know if I did the right thing.”

 

There’s a noise, a huff of air followed by an agonized, animal moan. It’s not until he meets Bones’s eyes, which have snapped onto his, that Jim realizes the sound had come from him.

 

“I don’t regret it,” Bones says in a rush. “Ever. I don’t -- I don’t wish I hadn’t done it, or -- God, Jimmy, I don’t mean that I --” He steps across the room and practically falls to his knees beside Jim’s chair, grasping at his hand. Jim’s eyes flicker to the drink he’d poured, left on the counter, as if it’s important.

 

“I play God all the time in my sickbay, and I have to be okay with it, and I’m not always, but this was -- it terrifies me, Jim.” His hand flexes, tightens and then softens, smoothes against Jim’s skin. “To understand that I don’t know what I’m capable of. And then the responsibility of that. Of having done something no one ever did before. To you. And -- you suffered for it.”

 

“I lived,” Jim rasps.

 

“I know you did. But that’s the whole point. It’s like you -- everything -- everything that happens to you now feels like my fault. Everything is --”

 

“Don’t say it that way. Say, Everything that happens to me now is because of you. Everything, Bones. Spock and I. And my messing around in the arboretum. And making teas. And -- trying to be better. I have the chance because of you.”

 

“I know. But it’s -- I’m not sorry that I did it. I’m not. It’s just -- it’s a lot. It’s heavy.”

 

“Then put it down,” Jim says. “You don’t have to carry it.”

 

“I don’t know how.”

 

“How can I help?”

 

Bones just stares at him a minute. “I don’t --” He looks around, helpless. “I don’t know, Jim.” He lowers his head and is quiet for a moment. “I don’t always feel this way about it. Just so you know. It’s not -- I don’t regret it. Not ever.”

 

“I know.” He pauses. “Can I ask, is this -- was there something about tonight, about what happened, that made you think --?”

 

“Spock says you thought about telling me, but that you told him I’m not -- that I can’t be objective.”

 

“Oh,” Jim says. “God. I’m sorry.”

 

“But you’re right. You were right. I don’t want to admit it, but there’s no denying it, is there?”

 

“Maybe it’s not always a bad thing,” Jim says. “I shouldn’t say this, probably. But… I do still feel like, in a way, I know how you feel. Because I haven’t brought anyone back from the dead lately, but I -- I break the rules, too, when the people I love are in danger. And it scares me sometimes, too. Because I have so much power, and knowing that it’s possible for my principles to just -- fall away like that, when things get real --”

 

Bones closes his eyes. “Yeah,” he says.

 

“But I don’t regret it either. And -- I’m glad you’re the same way. I’m glad it’s not just me.”

 

Bones looks up at him, something curious in his face. “Does it bother you that Spock isn’t the same way?” he asks, and Jim feels a lightness sweep through him, because here is an easy answer.

 

“No,” he says, “it’s a relief. For the same reason I’m glad that you’re the same way, I’m glad that he’s not. It gives me a check. Means I can’t just run rampant.” He hesitates, and then says, “I think, if you want, he could be that for you, too. If you ask.”

 

“I know,” McCoy says. “I think maybe he’s starting to be already. We’ve… changed, these last months. I think we’ve started to make sense to each other.”

 

“Good,” Jim whispers. “I never want to push. You’re your own men, and you are very different, and very stubborn, and I know you like pissing each other off. But sometimes I think… the three of us can be pretty amazing, when we’re working together.”

 

Bones smiles, a genuine thing, muscles twitching at the right corner of his mouth. “Let’s do it more often, then,” he says, and claps a hand on Jim’s shoulder as he clambers to his feet. “I’m wiped, captain, sir,” he says, teasing a little with the title. “Debrief in the morning?”

 

“No,” Jim says, “I’m -- I’m going to take Sanchez down instead. You don’t need to -- I don’t want to put you through that again.”

 

Bones looks surprised, but doesn’t ask if he’s sure. He just nods, and Jim retreats, out the door and down the hall and back to his own room.

 

It’s past 2300, so it had occurred to him that Spock might already be asleep. What he hadn’t been prepared for was for Spock to be asleep in Jim’s bed. He strips down to his underwear and undershirt, checks that his alarm is set, then sits on the edge of the bed and, just for a moment, watches Spock sleep, revelling in the softness of it. Then he brushes a hand across Spock’s forehead. Spock stirs and wakes, quirking a brow at him.

 

“Yes?” he asks.

 

“I really, really love coming home and finding you asleep in my bed.”

 

Spock smiles, slight but unmistakable, as he closes his eyes again. “We are in agreement as to the preferred state of affairs,” he says, his voice a low hum, and his breathing begins to deepen back into sleep.

 

Jim watches him a moment longer, and then Spock’s fingers twitch, and he stirs and opens his arms, although not his eyes. “Come to me, Jim,” he murmurs, and Jim doesn’t think twice. He tucks himself into Spock’s arms, and memorizes the sound and feeling that comes with it: the swell of peace in his chest as Spock’s sigh of contentedness washes over him.

 

It’s going to be okay, he thinks. We’ll be okay.

 

***

 

In the morning, Spock cups Jim’s face in both hands, kisses him tenderly, and leads him to the shower. He soaps his mate’s body slowly, reverently, then rinses him clear and slots in behind him. He holds Jim back against him with one hand on his left hip, and with his right, reaches around to grasp Jim’s erection. He pumps it slowly at first, the motion of his hand matching another rhythm: the small thrusts of his own pelvis against Jim’s backside, his scrotum bumping against the top of Jim’s buttocks, his penis sliding against the firm muscles of his lower back. Jim whimpers, leaning back into him, panting for breath, and allows himself to be worshipped, allows himself to be taken apart. His orgasm is almost silent, only a soft, “Ah!” -- his mouth wide, eyes squeezed shut, head thrown back against Spock’s shoulder.

 

When he is finished, Spock bends his knees slightly and thrusts his penis into the soft skin below Jim’s balls, guiding Jim’s thighs together to make a tighter fit for him. And now, Jim thrashes and flails, grabs at Spock’s bare legs and grips so tight that his fingernails dig into Spock’s flesh, not bruising but far from gentle. When Spock slows, the angle awkward and the sensation verging on discomfort with only water for lubrication, Jim turns to face him and presses Spock to a seated position on the built-in bench. For a moment he sits on Spock’s lap, wraps one leg around Spock’s waist and uses the other to lift himself, position himself above Spock’s erection and show him without words, this is how it would work, look at how I could fuck myself on you, god I want it, want you, you inside me, fuck, his face open with desire that looks almost like pain.

 

“Jim,” Spock manages, and he is so close to begging and he doesn’t even know what for. Jim licks his way into Spock’s mouth and kisses Spock fiercely, sucking on his tongue and his lower lip and then finally (finally, finally) kneeling on the shower floor and sliding his mouth down around Spock’s penis until his nose is buried in his coarse black smattering of pubic hair.

 

“Yes,” Spock breathes, still reverent, holding himself still with one hand slotted into Jim’s wet hair, fingers grasping along the top of his skull, and he is buried in slick grasp of Jim’s soft palate, the hot breaths from Jim’s nostrils against his skin, the press of Jim’s tongue along the underside of his penis. “Oh,” he groans, and Jim moans around him as if that helpless oh is the most erotic thing Jim has ever heard.

 

Jim begins to move, and Spock grips more tightly at his hair and holds himself still. Jim’s hands knead at his hips, his sides, and Spock allows himself to feel, to tremble his vulnerability and longing and to slip from control into a haze of sensation. His body seizes when he finds his release, the muscles of his legs and back and buttocks and neck spasming, pouring himself into Jim’s mouth, and he cries out as he finishes.

 

They wash again, and Jim tries clumsily to help Spock dry himself off, blushing as the swipes of the towel prove ineffective, leaving streaking trails of water across Spock’s chest. Then he starts laughing and says, “Shit, we’re gonna be late,” and Spock’s time-sense seems to click back into place, informing him that Jim is likely correct.

 

“I meant to get your report,” Jim says from the bathroom doorway four-point-two minutes later, smoothing his hair back with damp hands as Spock fastens his pants. “Anything I should know? Word from Command? New insights on the Econisians?”

 

Spock thinks about the encoded message. Hours later, he will find the green light blinking on his console, will see the message’s timestamp as late the previous night, will watch an uncomfortably familiar face and see the tells of exhaustion and stress as his counterpart asks a simple, strange question: “Why did our mother believe that her apple tree refused to bear fruit?” He will feel the chill of understanding, and a click-click-click of puzzle pieces falling into place.

 

But now he pulls his uniform tunic on and shakes his head once it is free of the fabric, straightening his hair with one hand and grasping for his insignia with the other. “Nyota has stumbled across a mystery,” he says, “but it is likely nothing.”

Chapter Text

twenty-one.

 

Spock sees them off in the transporter room, and Jim can't meet his eyes for more than a few seconds at a time. There's something tender in the way Spock watches him strap on the belt with his communicator and the empty slot where a phaser should sit. Something so soft it feels private, and Jim needs to keep his smile sardonic, his step jaunty, in front of the crew.

 

Once they're planetside, they're shepherded into a reception hall with low ceilings and weird pinkish lighting, and Jim gathers the officers in a loose circle, handing out commands. Sanchez, McGivers, and Security crewman Nate Medina are to pick up where McCoy had left off the day before - investigating under the guise of anthropological study. He, Sulu, and Ensign Dana Cardinal, in a tunic to match her name, will stay with the diplomatic contingent, finally ready to move on from yesterday's speeches and dry, winding history lessons to actual negotiation.

 

Or, as it turns out, to mill around equally bored with a handful of seriously shitty Econosians.

 

The people of Econis stand in sharp contrast to the Nukarians. They're taller than humans, and they have some vocal expressions the translator can't parse, but the similarities end there. Their bodies and faces are narrow, their skin hues of grey. Close up, you can distinguish some detail -- some blueish, others greenish -- but from across the room that nuance is lost and it's just lighter or darker greys. The men have long hair, whereas the women are bald - or maybe some have a kind of fuzz - Jim hasn't heard anyone use pronouns to refer to the fuzzed ones, so those Econisians could be another gender, or agender. They have four fingers on each hand, which link together when they need to grasp. Individually, Bones had observed the day before, their fingers were rigid, but somehow once joined they became stronger and more flexible. The city they're in - Jim's forgotten the name - is chilly, reminiscent of late autumn in Iowa, and the people are bundled in multiple layers, but none of them bulky.

 

Jim hadn't been enamored of the Econisian he'd met the day before, but he'd been willing to give the diplomats a separate chance to impress. Within the first hour, he's seen enough dismissive hand-waves (aimed at them) and open cruelty (aimed at the Econisians serving them drinks) to give up on that.

 

When he's had enough, he tries to take one of the servers aside - a young woman barely taller than himself. "Thank you for checking on us," he says warmly. "My name is Jim Kirk - I'm the captain of the starship Enterprise, the envoy to Econis from the Federation." Her free hand flexes into its grasping form, then separates again. She's looking at him, unblinking. Sulu sidles up, and Jim adds, "This is Sulu, my helmsman and our resident botanist as well. Can I ask your name?"

 

"No," one of the diplomats pronounces firmly, and Jim and the server share an involuntary wince. "Federation Kirk, you should not mock."

 

"Pardon me?" Jim says, turning to the speaker, who is broader-shouldered than most of them and has sharp, thin eyebrows over his narrowed eyes. Jim thinks they might be drawn on, but he's not about to get close enough to check, if he has any say in the matter.

 

"You make a show of difference," he sneers. "You are not of this world, and we have not brought you here to intervene in that which you do not understand."

 

"I apologize," Jim says calmly, turning his body to exclude the server from the conversation, hoping she'll take the hint and excuse herself. "I intended no offense. I was merely behaving in the manner of my own culture. We are interested in all of the people of Econis."

 

The man reaches out past Jim and loops a finger into the server's bronze hoop earring. Jim has to hide his horror as he clocks that she actually leans in to the gesture as he reaches, clearly repeating a pattern. "Your culture has no place here," Thin-Eyebrows says to Jim, pulling the young woman towards him; she tucks her body to avoid brushing Jim's shoulders. "This is a brick. A small piece of the bedrock of our society. It must fit in its place, or the wall may crumble."

 

"I see," Jim says. "I will not distract them from their work."

 

"Federation is soft," another Econisian observes, this one wearing a bronze iridescent tunic that Jim thinks has to mean something. This second diplomat joins them as Eyebrows releases the serving-woman, who sweeps away smoothly, as if unbothered by the blood on her long earlobe where the metal had bitten into her.

 

"We do not practice caste systems," Jim says.

 

"But you respect our need for them, do you not?"

 

He doesn't hesitate before answering -- he can't. "Yesterday's sessions were very informative," he says. "Your reasoning is clear."

 

They both nod, satisfied, and turn away. From behind him, Jim hears a ragged sigh of relief. "Fuck," Sulu says once Eyebrows and Bronze-Shirt are out of earshot. "You gotta teach me how to do that. I thought you were going to punch him for sure."

 

Jim remembers a'Nukar a'Ani, remembers the same relief on Spock and Nyota's faces when he hadn't lost his shit on i'Baryo, and feels a rush of irritation. Why is it that everyone seems so surprised when he's able to be professional? He knows he didn't have a flawless track record when it came to dealing with unpleasant aliens, but he's grown up. If they're going to be surprised, they could at least do him the favor of being a little less obvious about it.

 

His rational brain catches up with his anxiety before he says anything. Try again, it says patiently. Sulu just said he wanted you to teach him. He's not impressed because he didn't think you had it in you. He's impressed because he didn't think he'd have had it in him.

 

His comm buzzes, and Jim flips it open surreptitiously and reads a short message from Nyota.

 

>> Away team, it's my professional assessment that the Econisians use scorn as a language of diplomacy. They demean their potential trade partners as tests of their character. This helps weed out those they deem unworthy, or in some cases, causes the other party to lose confidence and lower their prices. But those who reply in kind are identified as confident, competent. Important to differentiate: scorn, not judgement. Be careful.

 

That Jim can do.

 

"These beverages," Jim says, loudly enough to be heard by a small knot of diplomats to their left, "do you have nothing finer to offer?" He hasn't tasted his - doesn't trust these people that much - but they don't have to know that.

 

A dignitary with his hair in an elaborate topknot laughs. "You jest?" he asks. "Or are your flavor centers truly lacking the refinement to appreciate quality?"

 

"Ah," Jim says, "I see. Perhaps you are sensitive."

 

"If sensitivity is necessary to discriminate appropriately between what is desirable and not."

 

Jim smiles coldly, and when Sulu catches his eye, a bit pale and definitely confused, he touches his comm as casually as he can, not daring to be clearer. Sully's face clears and he ducks behind a column to read the message. Jim continues: "Perhaps you have not discriminated appropriately enough for my meaning to be clear. I have expressed that this beverage is not desirable. No matter, if you have nothing better, I’ll have my ship beam down some of my own making."

 

"You do your own nourishment work?" a particularly skinny Econisian asks. He seems to be both exhibiting appropriate scorn and, Jim thinks, genuinely taken aback.

 

"I am skilled in it," he shrugs, "and I enjoy it. Do your people deny yourselves such pleasures in favor of adhering strictly to norms?"

 

The Econisian looks uncertainly at his topknotted counterpart, who responds, "We are disciplined."

 

"Hm," Jim says, raising his eyebrows and looking back at Sulu as he reemerges. "Interesting.”

 

"Is discipline not a desirable trait, amongst your people?" Topknot challenges.

 

"We value diversity of expression and experience over rigidity of thought and role," Jim says casually. "We expand our horizons, become greater than the sum of our parts."

 

From behind Jim, Bronze-Shirt overhears and releases what can only be termed a guffaw. It is scornful, but also raw and real.

 

"Yes," Jim says, still cool and tolerant, "I see your discipline and refinement." He looks at Sulu and affects boredom. "I have had enough. Who should I speak to next?"

 

Bronze-Shirt joins his fellows, Topknot and Slim, and Eyebrows sidles up alongside a moment later. They attempt - rather badly - to mask expressions of concern. "What do you intend?" asks Eyebrows. His voice is tight, irritable. Careful, Jim reminds himself.

 

"This is an intermediate arena, clearly," he says. "I'd like to go on to the next."

 

"There is none else prepared for you," Topknot snaps.

 

"Send for your beverage, if it is this that drives your impatience," Slim chimes in.

 

Jim smiles again. "I am impatient to have been seated with those who have no power to treat with me," he says, and it helps that he's telling the truth. "What is the purpose of this conversation?"

 

"How are you to know we are not empowered?" asks Bronze-Shirt, voice raised in indignation.

 

Jim puts on a look of incredulity. "You have all but confessed it. Surely you were not intending to hide it?"

 

They look flustered, and Sulu takes advantage of the brief silence to catch Jim's attention again. "Captain," he says, "a moment?"

 

"A moment," Jim tells the diplomats, his tone just this side of mocking, and then to Sulu, "Lead on."

 

"How do you do that?" Sulu hisses once they're out of earshot.

 

"Look bored," Jim instructs, and once Cardinal has joined them, "What's up?"

 

"The other team’s gotten separated from each other. McGivers is on her own in the second level. Sanchez and Medina are in the third and can’t get back to her. They thought it might be gender related, but now they're not sure."

 

Jim beams. "Perfect," he says, "I’ll go get her. What better way to show scorn than to decide I can’t even be bothered?"

 

Sulu looks uncomfortable. "I'm not as good at this as you are," he says. "I don't know how to toe the line between scorn and judgement."

 

"Don't overthink it. Just talk to them about whatever, as if it doesn’t matter. Explain things as if they’re children. Pretend not to understand their digs. Like they’re beneath you. Silly little things."

 

"Uh," Sulu says, looking no more at ease.

 

"Sir," Cardinal says, lifting her chin, "I should come with you."

 

"Uh," Sulu says again.

 

"Nah, I got it," Jim says. "Stay with Sulu. Keep him honest. And look bored a lot."

 

She clears her throat. "Not overly difficult, sir," she says.

 

Jim laughs. "Okay," he says, "I’m just gonna go. Tell them something else called my attention. Be vague about it. Oh, and explain tea to them. And the difference between sex and gender. That should be good."

 

"This seems like not a good idea," Sulu says weakly.

 

"I’ll be back once I’ve reunited our lost sheep. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just go back to the ship. I’ll let you know either way." He grins, waves, and strolls away.

 

The feeling of freedom, of playing hooky and watching a day full of promise unfold, is almost instantaneous. As weird as Econis might be, their city is beautiful. It's built into the side of a mountain, and its design is like nothing else Jim has seen: a series of concentric circles, all separated by gigantic red stone walls. The center is level, but each of the levels outward builds both up and down, uneven, unsettling. There are no motorized vehicles, no streetlamps (at night, they'd heard yesterday, the mist glowed bright enough to light one's path) -- and very few buildings higher than the stone walls -- about four stories, if Jim had to guess.

 

The center circle is maybe a ten minute walk across, quieter and with wider streets than the other levels Jim had seen the day prior. He climbs a large stair to pass through the north gate into what the Econisians call the second level.

 

The second level is larger, but also significantly more crowded. The inner circle, as the government seat, is obviously exclusive in some way, Jim decides. This is where the people live. They're industrialized, but the press of the crowd, the smell of alien sweat, and the towering stone walls make it feel anytime but.

 

He stays straight, climbing several more stairs, all less majestic than the passage to the second level, and after a few more moments he finds himself at the gate to the third level. He steps to the side, out of the press of bodies moving through, and scans the crowd for a human face, but finds nothing.

 

He flips open his comm. "Kirk to McGivers," he says, "I heard you’re in two, can you give me a better fix?" Nothing. He frowns. "Kirk to McGivers, do you read me? Kirk to Sanchez?"

 

"Aye, sir," Sanchez says.

 

"Did you get her through?"

 

"No, sir. We haven’t been able to hail her for a few minutes now. Commander Spock has security standing by to beam down for her, sir, I didn’t mean for you to get --"

 

"No, don’t worry, it was perfect. I’ll tell you about it later. Where did you see her last?"

 

It's crewman Medina who answers. "We were at a tenement -- off the circuit, just a bit southeast of the gate to the third -- you won’t miss it," he says. "Big dark buildings, interesting graffiti. Very organized, very symmetrical, but definitely graffiti, she said. She was taking some holos, and we’d found a -- a guide, Marla said it would help, and we were talking to him and -- we could still see her, she was just a few steps behind us, but they wouldn’t let her through the gate to third, and they wouldn’t let us back. The guide seemed really confused as to why we were upset, and he went back to the other side of the gate, but then they walked back the way we’d come and we couldn’t see them anymore --"

 

"And you haven’t been able to reach her since?"

 

"She’s not picking up the comm. It’s registering, Lieutenant Uhura said so, but she was moving --"

 

"Copy that, Nate," he says. "Kirk to Enterprise, let’s go ahead and get that additional security down here, but meanwhile, are you getting a signal on McGivers? Can you point me in her direction?"

 

There's a crackle, and then Jim gets a faint response: "--ster -- ence -- follow that. C --"

 

Something shifts in the pit of his stomach, and he holds the comm right to his mouth, speaking directly into it. "Enterprise, you’re coming in choppy. Enterprise?" The Econisians around him are staring, some of them murmuring to each other. He bites back a curse and turns off the main street onto a side street, an east-west so narrow the awnings stretch almost all the way across the lane. "Enterprise, do you read me?"

 

"--lear -- ocity -- centric patte --"

 

From behind him, there's a surprised noise and then a voice says, "Federation Kirk?"

 

Jim turns. There's an Econisian, several inches taller than him, with limp black hair and a face splitting with a wide smile. "The guardian said I should find you! Your people were getting lost, even though we tried to show the ripples. Join me?"

 

"I'm looking for my officer," Jim says, and he realizes he's not sure if the instructions on scorn apply to everyone or just to the diplomats. He swallows - best to stay neutral for now. "Her name is Marla McGivers, she's human, like me, and wearing a red tunic. Do you know where she is?"

 

"Yes, yes, of course," the alien chuckles, "I have found you, come-come."

 

***

 

Sometimes, Spock experiences physical sensations that seem incongruous, out of place with reality and inexplicable by evolutionary means. Often he has found that these sensations are human in origin, attributable to his mother’s genetic influence, but there are a few that seem distinct to him -- or at least, that the humans in his close circles do not relate to.

 

When Spock views the six-second video message from his counterpart, it occurs to him suddenly that he has never posed the question to his elder self. He imagines sending a response: Ambassador Selek, do you ever experience a sensation akin to unexpectedly inhaling a breathful of freezing air? Are you aware of whether this experience is human in origin? Do you find it accompanied more frequently by emotions of frustration or terror?

 

There is no time. He is halfway back to the bridge almost before he knows it. The turbolift seems agonizingly slow; his time-sense is being marred by his emotional response. When the lift doors open and the bridge crew’s faces turn towards him, he scans them blankly, finding Nyota at the engineering console with a PADD in her hand. He opens his mouth, but he cannot think how best to address her. She is looking at him, though, her mouth slightly agape. He gestures for her to follow and retreats into the ready room.

 

“The message,” he says. “Pull it up.” She obeys, understands without asking that he wants the transcription, that he wants it in large typeface on the display screen. “I received another message,” he says.

 

“What did it say?”

 

“It asked why my mother believed her apple trees would not grow,” he answers, his eyes darting over the screen; he nods before taking in her look of surprise. “No bees,” he says, and she inhales sharply.

 

“Oh,” she says. “So --”

 

Spock nods curtly and strikes from the record each word that begins with the letter B.

 

Does any new generation exist but ridicules the old? Maybe only right begets right or wrong. Be alert. Be steady. Be silent and stay still. It's not fear or ruthless justice. It's more. Wide eyes, solemn until some primal emotion cuts through. Now, on the way, hesitate, or your own understanding tells him brightness is not knowledge. See: every time, the road ahead pivots, tempers his elation. But you wait in light, lost, creating beacons of blue-mist eyes, blue-smoke eyes, lovely, endless, kindled bright.

 

And then, for the remaining words, he strikes all but the first letter:

 

D___ a__ n__ g_________ e____ r________ t__ o___ M_____ o___ r____ r____ o_ w____ a____ s_____ s_____ a__ s___ s____ I___ n__ f___ o_ r_______ j______ I___ m___ W___ e___ s_____ u____ s___ p_____ e______ c___ t______ N__ o_ t__ w__ h_______ o_ y___ o__ u_________ t____ h__ i_ n__ k________ S__ e____ t___ t__ r___ a____ p_____ t______ h__ e______ y__ w___ i_ l____ l___ c_______ o_ m___ e___ s____ e___ l_____ e______ k______

 

Nyota taps at the console, twice, and it solidifies into a message.

 

“Transporter room,” Spock says. “Beam the away team up at once.”

 

“Yes, sir,” the transporter attendant replies crisply, and then, only seconds later, “I’m getting a lock on four of the six, sir. Shall I proceed?”

 

“Yes,” Spock says, not bothering to ask which four. When the telltale noise of the transporter has faded and the transport is complete, he continues on the open comm line: “Lieutenant Sulu, Crewman Medina, Ensign Cardinal. Please arm yourselves and beam to the captain’s last known location. There is no time to waste. An assassination attempt may be underway.”

 

“Aye, sir,” Sulu snaps, and Spock turns back onto the bridge pausing at the door to gesture again at Nyota to join him, stepping away from the words writ large on the screen:

 

Danger. Tomorrow. Assassin for Jim. We suspect not who you think. Set trap. They will come. Selek.

 

***

 

Jim knows a dive bar when he sees one, and there's no mistaking the place where the Econisian leads him for anything else. It's dim, it's hazy with smoke, the floor is tacky-sticky, and the patrons don't look up when he enters. Instead of a bar, there’s an asymmetrical structure, a sort of strange honeycomb, separating the patrons from the drink-slingers. Jim spends a moment in the doorway trying to discern the purposes for the higher and lower cubby-holes, but his guide tugs impatiently at his sleeve and guides him to a small table at the back of the room.

 

“I find you too soon,” he says, wiggling the top of his head back and forth in a gesture Jim thinks indicates pleasure. “A drink for you while we wait!” He proffers a short glass of fizzy, clear liquid. Jim smiles and lifts it, then sets it down as soon as the Econisian has retreated.

 

Around the corner from his table is a small restroom, evidenced by the sound of running water and the trickle of patrons towards and away from it. After a few minutes alone at his table, Jim decides to investigate, slipping inside when he’s pretty sure it’s empty. It’s strange, but not too strange, as alien restrooms go -- sink-like apparatuses at Jim’s chin level along one wall, a row of circular privacy booths housing vacuum-powered waste chutes along the other. Near the door is a device like a fog machine, producing the smoke that Jim had noticed; he inspects it for a moment, bemused, then retreats into one of the stalls and tries his comm again.

 

“McGivers,” he says. “Sanchez. Enterprise.” There’s nothing. Not even static. He heads back to his table, but his guide still isn’t there. It’s been at least ten minutes with no sign of the man, and he hadn’t said where he was going. Jim’s not a sit-and-wait kind of guy -- he stands, intending to tell the bartenders to tell his friend he went out to look, and that’s when his head starts to ache.

 

Next his eyes are watering, and Jim realizes distantly that he’s light-headed. Fuck. He hadn’t touched the drink, or anything in the restrooms, but something is wrong with him and he isn’t sure he can speak. He moves in the direction his guide had gone -- towards a back door past the restrooms -- and stumbles out into a back alley.

 

McGivers is slumped against the red-stone wall just outside the back door. She’s alone, and she’s unconscious.

 

Jim’s head feels top-heavy, and he feels himself moving, uncoordinated. He’s moving to McGivers -- of course he is, he’s the captain, she’s his crew, gotta get help, gotta fix it -- but he almost falls beside her. Fuck, he’s dizzy. It’s not unlike being drunk, he thinks -- his vision isn’t blurry, but the movements of his head are making it hard to track his surroundings, hard for his eyes to -- to latch onto anything. “M’giv,” he tries, and finds his tongue thick and heavy. “Fuh. Mar’a. Hey. Hey!”

 

A distressed keening comes from behind him, and Jim turns (fuck) and recognizes his guide, wailing at him. “No no,” the man says, tugging at the ends of his long hair, “what happened? What is wrong with her?”

 

Jim shakes his head, but from the alien’s earlier head-wiggle, he’s not sure if the gesture is going to convey what he means it to. “Duh know,” he says, articulating as clearly as he can. “Me too. ‘S wrong. Can’ can’ get -- the ship --” He lifts his comm, tries to flip it open to show the man, and the alien’s face creases (concern? curiosity?). He reaches out his hand and clasps the comm, pulling it from Jim with a hum.

“Permit me,” he says, raising a fingertip, and he retreats back into the bar through the back door.

 

Jim sways, and turns laboriously back to McGivers. He stumbles, and now he’s on his knees -- was that on purpose? To see more closely, maybe? See if she’s breathing? She is. Good. Slow breaths, but that’s okay. He thinks it’s okay. He tries to grab her shoulder, to shake her, but instead his fingers get caught in her hair, and he doesn’t want to hurt her.

 

It takes several seconds and a lot of focus to get back to his feet, but he does, pressing one palm against the red-stone wall to support himself all the way up. The door opens again, and several Econisians spill out, moving quickly towards him. One of them takes his left arm, and one his right, and another -- the friendly guy, the one who found him, when he was lost -- is right in front of him, and --

 

The man on Jim’s right yanks at Jim’s arm and then pulls back. Maybe at the same time, there’s a flash of light and a noise, and then the smiley man is stumbling back and the guy on his left is gone and he’s falling again, and was that phaser fire? He knew that sound, but it doesn’t -- it wouldn’t make sense to be a phaser. He doesn’t have a phaser.

 

There’s a new hand on his shoulder, smaller but holding him upright, and then it moves to his bicep and pulls him roughly up. His face moves -- because the rest of his body moves and his face, it’s attached -- and he can see another face, human, yellow shirt, oh! It’s Sulu. But a different version of Sulu -- he’s pink-faced and yelling something, “now now now!” and then everything swirls and Jim’s in a transporter room, and there are other people there, Nate Medina and Sanchez in front of him, and Sulu’s hand is gone but Sanchez lurches forward to grab Jim as he falls again.

 

Something lurches in Jim’s body and then there’s a foul taste in his mouth and Sanchez is saying, “Fuck!” and oh. He’s thrown up.

 

“Wh’,” Jim pleads. “Was a. ‘Karu, 's a phaser? Is M’g… she…”

 

“I don’t know,” Sulu answers. He’s panting as if he’s run a race, bent over with his hands on his knees, and his voice is desperate: “He was fine when he left us, we weren’t drinking anything, but he --” Jim wants to ask: Who’s he? Understanding is fluttering just out of reach. Everything is a half-step off, slightly out of sync. Dizzy.

 

“She…” Jim insists, because it’s important, and then Sanchez sort of folds Jim against him, pulls him from the transporter pad, and his head falls back (why? On purpose?) and he can see McGivers on the pad behind him, still and pale.

 

“Mah,” Jim groans, trying to point, and Sanchez grabs his hand to pull it back in, then pats at his face.

 

“Yes, yes, captain, we’ve got her,” he says. “Sir, can you tell us how they introduced the intoxicant? Squeeze my hand if you drank something.” No. Not squeeze. “Did they --? Squeeze my hand if they injected you with something.” Jim shakes his head, reminding himself firmly that these guys will understand that, even if maybe the Econisians don’t.

 

“Wh,” he says.

 

“Squeeze my hand if they hit you in the face, if they --” Sanchez wobbles, or something about him does. “He’s going fast. Can you carry him?” Jim wants to say he can’t carry anybody, wants to say, “wh” again even though he knows it’s not a whole word, but he’s not sure which thing he wants to ask and that will do for any of them, and now suddenly he’s looking at the insides of his eyelids, even though he doesn’t want to be, and he’s --

 

***

 

-- horizontal, something soft wedged under his head, his throat raw, limbs heavy, eyes gritty as if someone’s sanded the insides of his eyelids and fuck, he hurts.

 

Somewhere near his feet, Sulu is speaking softly but fervently. It takes Jim several seconds to translate the noises into words, and even once he does, they don’t make any sense.

 

“-- wasn’t set to kill, I wasn’t that sure of my aim. But there was no time.”

 

“That is fortunate, as I believe fatal action on our part would have made our next tasks that much harder,” Spock is responding, his voice similarly low, “and as, of course, the perpetrators, if found, could have valuable intel about those who wish our captain harm.”

 

Jim tries to raise a hand, to let them know he can hear them, but for a moment there’s only quiet and he isn’t sure if he succeeded. Then he hears two bodies rise from seats, two pairs of regulation boots step towards him, and feels hands curling into his own, one on each side.

 

“Captain,” Spock breathes, just as Sulu gasps, “Jim,” and Jim tries again to open his eyes and gets them just open enough to see that Spock is on his left side, Sulu on his right, each holding a hand, each gazing at him in wide-eyed concern. He chuckles, but it turns into a cough halfway out and he throws his head to the side, trying to convince his body to stay down, stop bouncing on the bio-bed as he chokes on cool air.

 

A third face appears on his left side. “Bones,” Jim manages, “the fuck --”

 

“He shouldn’t be up yet,” the doctor says, and disappears again for a moment.

 

“No…” Jim groans. “I gotta -- it’s -- wha’ happ’n’d? ‘s --?”

 

“Doctor, he seems lucid,” Spock relays.

 

“Like hell!” Bones’s voice snaps, but he doesn’t reappear.

 

“Jim, you have been under the influence of an unidentified substance. We have not yet been able to fully purge it from your system. Once you are yourself, we can --”

 

“I c’n --” Jim wheezes. “Just -- gi’ me -- a second.” Spock holds up a hand, a signal, wait, angling it to his left, away from Jim. Jim closes his eyes for a moment and takes breaths as deeply as he dares.

 

“What,” he finally manages, “the fuck.” Sulu snorts, and Spock glares at him. Jim wishes he could mind-meld right now, tell Spock, hey, leave Sulu alone, it’s fine, but there’s no buzzing in the contact of their hands, no touching of their minds, and he doesn’t think it’s the kind of thing he can initiate.

 

“I share that sentiment,” Spock says. “Jim, if you can tell us anything about what happened to you --”

 

Jim grimaces. “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s -- hazy. But the alien. Who was. Before beam out. With me.” Spock’s eyes narrow, and Sulu looks up and around as if for a second opinion. “Who was helping. Skinny. Male. Blueish shirt. Long… dark hair.”

 

“Helping you, Captain?” Spock asks. His eyebrow is arched. Sulu looks befuddled. Jim’s not being clear, but he doesn’t know how many more words he can manage.

 

“‘s -- had m’ comm?”

 

Spock turns his body, angling it towards Sulu across the bio-bed, and says gently, “It would seem your timing was even more fortuitous than you believed, Lieutenant.” Sulu looks uncomfortable, almost sick.

 

“Y’ c’n find ‘m,” Jim pants. “He -- y’ -- y’ saw him, ‘Karu. Right?”

 

Sulu licks his lips. “Yeah, Jim, I -- skinny, male, blue-grey top, long black hair, I -- Jim, you’re describing the guy who was about three seconds from gutting you when I found you.” He pauses, eyes on Jim as if to impress some truth upon him, and Jim takes a minute to try to make the words mean something. Sulu continues, “The guy had a blade that looked more like something off of one of the Klingons than my fencing foils, and his friends were pinning you to the wall. If I had been any later, you --” He gestures abortively. Jim closes his eyes. Maybe if he cuts off the visual input, this will make sense.

 

A moment passes in silence, and then the world kind of crashes back over Jim and he gasps again, so deep that he starts coughing. Once he’s finished, he opens his eyes again. Everything seems a bit crisper. “They were,” he wheezes. “Wha’ -- what? McGivers, s-she okay?”

 

“She’s fine,” Sulu says. “She got hit with the same intoxicant you did, though not as bad -- but she remembers about as much as you do.”

 

“It was tailored for humans,” Bones’s voice adds darkly, and he reappears next to Jim, standing next to Spock and tilting his head to check Jim’s pupils, pressing a hand lightly to the side of his neck. “Specifically for humans. Not just humanoids.”

 

“What?” Jim says again. McCoy’s lips twist, and he presses a hand against Jim’s shoulder. Jim hadn’t realized he was trying to sit up until he feels himself collapse under that pressure, shuddering with the lost effort.

 

“Jim, I’m sorry, I need to put you back under,” he says. “You’re in no shape to contribute right now, and as long as you’re talkin’ and coughing, your lung tissue isn’t healing as quick as it could be. I’m gonna sedate you now, but as soon as you’re fit, I’ll bring you back up and we’ll explain everything, okay?” There’s a hiss near Jim’s ear.

 

“I don’ wan’ t’ --”

 

“Captain,” Spock says, leaning towards him, “I have the situation well under…”

 

***

 

“You mentioned lung tissue,” Spock says, sitting in one of the chairs across from the doctor’s desk as Sulu settles into the other. “The intoxicant was inhaled, then?”

 

“Yeah, that’s all I can figure. I'd been guessing they'd been jumped and smothered with hankies of the stuff, but Jim didn't even seem to be aware he was under attack, so that seems less likely. And no signs of it in you,” he nods to Sulu, “so it wasn't in the alley by the time you got there.”

 

“Did you scan me for it?” Sulu asks. “I'm still pretty shaky. I assumed that was just from the shock of it, but --”

 

“Yeah, I scanned you. It's just the adrenaline. If you're still feeling it when we're done, I could give you something to help.”

 

Spock’s fingers tighten into a fist below the desk, out of sight of the doctor and the lieutenant. He is struck again by the desire to grasp Sulu’s arm, to express his fervent thanks for his timeliness, his effectiveness. But it will not do to make his feelings known to another of Jim’s best friends while Jim is unconscious.

 

“Spock,” the doctor says, “when are we going to hear back from Command?”

 

“Although we could receive a message from them at any time, the soonest we could expect an informed response to our immediate situation would be 15.3 hours.”

 

Sulu clears his throat. “I had always assumed it’d be nice to be out of comms range,” he admits. “That we’d have a little more leeway to make judgement calls, or, I don’t know -- not this. I didn’t think about this.”

 

There’s a knock on the office door, and Spock turns: it’s Doctor Marcus. McCoy is already gesturing her in, but since the chairs are occupied, she hovers awkwardly near the door.

 

“What did you find?” McCoy asks, and she hands him her PADD. “What, you can’t tell me?”

 

Carol looks at Spock, just a dart of a glance. Spock gestures for her to proceed.

 

“It’s a bioweapon, all right,” Carol says. “Honestly, if he didn’t still have Khan looking out for him, I’m not sure the Captain would have made it.”

 

“Why in the blazes do they have a bioweapon targeted to humans?” McCoy asks, sinking back into his seat and scanning the PADD.

 

“I have an idea about that,” Carol says, shifting to stand behind Sulu’s chair. “I’m waiting to hear back from someone back home.”

 

“Well, speak up,” the doctor says, but Carol is clearly hesitating.

 

“I don’t like to share untested hypotheses,” she says.

 

Spock keeps his voice calm. “Lieutenant,” he says, “it is possible that your hypothesis may spur a new idea or a new avenue of investigation while we wait for your answers. I appreciate your attempt at prudence, but in this case, I believe it would be more prudent to share.”

 

Doctor Marcus bites her lip, but Lieutenant Sulu touches the inside of her wrist, a gesture that seems to reassure her; she flashes him a smile and nods. “I think I’ve seen this before,” she says. “I don’t think it was developed here.”

 

The room is quiet for a minute. Sulu blows out a breath.

 

“You think they got this from someone else?”

 

Carol nods, earnest. “Look,” she says, “these people have no reason to want Jim dead.”

 

“I mean, he did talk to them,” McCoy mutters, then throws his hands into the air as he becomes the target of Spock’s glare. “I’m just sayin’!”

 

“The diplomats Nyota’s talked to, she says they seem genuinely upset,” Carol says. “Well, some of them think it’s a show on our part to get them to lower their prices, but the ones that believe us are really disturbed. I don’t think this was some foreign government plot. I don’t think these people really had anything to do with it. I think this is Aldhabi IV all over again.”

 

There’s another moment of silence. Then Spock nods. “I find this hypothesis disturbing,” he says. “However, without a sample of the intoxicant itself, I do not see how we could confirm whether or not it was created here or not.”

 

“I don’t think we can say definitively,” Doctor Marcus acknowledges. “But I don’t know that we need to. If there’s a chance this was another assassination attempt -- or two more, if you count the intoxicant and the crazy guy with the sword -- then we all know what that means. We need to act.”

 

“You state the obvious, Lieutenant.”

 

“Glad we agree,” Carol says, her tone artificially bright, then, “Len, do you need anything else from me?”

 

“Nope. Thanks for the consult.”

 

“Anytime.” She sweeps out of the room and out of sickbay. Sulu watches her go, then stands.

 

“Do you need anything more from me?” he asks. “I know technically I’m still on duty, and if you’d like, Commander, I could go back to the planet and check back at the scene, see if I can find any evidence, but --”

 

“No,” Spock says.

 

Sulu pauses, perhaps waiting to see if he intends to elaborate, then nods. “In that case,” he says, “is it okay if I stay with him?”

 

“Knock yourself out,” McCoy snorts. “I’m thinking he should be back with us in a couple hours. Sounds like you’d be doin’ me a favor if you explain to him what happened.”

 

“Can do, Doc.” And Sulu, too, exits the office, closing the door behind him. McCoy stands too, but Spock stays seated.

 

“You just gonna stay here?” the doctor asks.

 

“I apologize,” Spock says. “I am… distracted.”

 

“I’ll say.” A pause, and then McCoy asks quietly, “Do you think it’s Section 31?”

 

We suspect not who you think, the encoded message had read. But Selek had not possessed all the knowledge that Spock now has. And Selek has always made unfounded assumptions about the commonalities between his universe and this one. “If we assume Lieutenant Marcus’s hypothesis is valid, then I am aware of no rational alternative, although of course I am not aware of all of the clandestine organizations in the quadrant. But of known entities, who else would have the reach, the power, and the knowledge?”

 

“And the motive.”

 

“Even motive aside, Doctor,” Spock says, tilting his head. “This cannot be an errant individual with an agenda. The technology required to compromise our communications. The fact that the Aldhabian explosives were planted years ago. This is an organization, a network, and an established one. And if we do assume this was orchestrated by the same party or parties unknown who set up Aldhabi, then whoever it was… they will be most unhappy to have been thwarted again.”

 

“Didn’t Carol say there was evidence that the Aldhabi situation was intended to be nonlethal?”

 

“I remember you protesting that quite strenuously, Doctor.”

 

“Indeed I did,” he says. “Well, as she said, regardless, we need to do something.”

 

Once again, Spock feels a settling of disparate pieces. “I believe I have an idea,” he says.

 

***

 

Jim accepts the plan readily - perhaps too readily, if Spock's narrowed eyes are any indication. It's a solid plan, and straightforward enough that it doesn't even need 'Fleet approval, although of course Spock is going to get it.

 

Bones doesn't have to say anything for Jim to know his thoughts: he likes the first part, the part where Jim stays in Sickbay for two days under the pretense of having been worse off than he really is. He's not so keen on the second part.

 

The part where Jim is bait.

 

Jim isn't delighted about either part, but it's better than anything he'd come up with. And the dispassionate tone in which Spock had spoken of using Jim as a lure for his would-be assassins had been softened later, when he'd held Jim's hand again, this time in plain sight of Doctor M'Benga. When Jim had raised a brow, Spock had offered a quirk of his lip and a tilt of his head that Jim translated to a shrug.

 

Later, after Jim's visitors have gone, M'Benga speaks softly while leaning over Jim to look at his bio scans, "You don't have to worry, Captain - I don't gossip about my patients."

 

"Noted and appreciated."

 

"I'm a fan," he shares, sounding bemused. "You're good together. You make each other want to be better, and that's critical in any kind of relationship."

 

"I wish we weren't quite so transparent. Do I make moony eyes at him or something?"

 

M'Benga shakes his head, amused. "You know, I don't know if I could put a finger on what the behavioral cues are. It's just a lot of little things that add up. More the way he looks at you than the way you look at him, though. That and, well. He's listed as your next of kin."

 

"Oh," Jim swallows, trying to get past the lump in his throat at the idea of Spock looking at him so nakedly that the crew can tell they're -- whatever they are. "Well, that was actually true before we, um. I don't have family on Earth, and aside from Bones, Spock's the only person who remembered my allergies."

 

"Speaking of which, Len looped me in on your physiology. The unique stuff. I'm honored to have earned your trust."

 

"Yeah," Jim says, throat dry. "I mean, of course, Doctor, you've proven yourself worthy of it." He swallows again and looks down. "Did he tell you we're thinking about transferring my primary care to you?"

 

M'Benga stills. "He didn't," he says quietly, and sits somewhat abruptly in the chair at Jim's bedside, clasping his hands together and leaning forward. "May I ask if it's at your preference or his?"

 

"His," Jim says. "We've been having a hard time drawing lines."

 

"That's hard," M'Benga says frankly, and sighs. "Thank you for telling me. Of course if he asks, I’ll accept, but meanwhile…" He assesses Jim a moment, then finishes, "It's possible that just having my objective second opinion will help, too. If you want, I could talk to him. See what I can do to help meanwhile."

 

"I think he could use someone to talk to about it," Jim says.

 

M'Benga finishes checking his scans and retreats into the office. Jim sighs and settles back into his pillow, then drags out the PADD Spock had left him and reads through the plan again, written in Spock's terse prose and shared only with a select few: Sulu, Chekov, Nyota, Scotty, Carol, the minimal medical staff, and acting chief of security Gerry "GG" Giotto.

 

To start: two days in Sickbay, and word to the crew at large and the Econisians that Jim is incapacitated. This serves several purposes. One, Jim has no doubt, is to keep him in Sickbay with minimal complaint. Another is to give Starfleet -- or Selek, or whoever else had been involved in sending the encoded message -- time to respond before anything happens. The third is to make Jim's would-be assassins think that he's weaker than he really is, when he returns to the ringed city on the third day. Set trap. They will come. Ideally, they'd have deciphered the message in time to lay it the first attempt, but that ship has sailed and whoever's been after him is nothing if not persistent. So it's fair, Jim thinks, to assume they'll try again.

 

Meanwhile, Spock has decided to up his scorn game and play Jim's part in the diplomatic mission. Because the show must go on, obviously.

 

That Jim's least favorite part. Captain Kirk, failing to carry out his mission: exhibit four.

 

That, and the fact that he's stuck in a biobed for two days and nights. With no Spock. And they still haven't had the conversations they wanted to have, and Jim still hasn't shown him the holo, and beneath his veneer of weariness he feels the anxiety of: what if this just keeps happening? What if it's never the right time to share it? Should I just do it now? Before he can lose his nerve, he sends:

 

>> When this is over, I still have something to share with you.

 

Spock's response is immediate:

 

>> Of course.

 

And he doesn't know how to respond to that. He's feeling slow and tired, dumb and angry and bored. It's early evening, after Alpha, and Sulu had promised to come by after dinner, but they hadn't talked about a time, and he doesn't want to start reading one of his backlog of department reports if he's not going to be able to finish it, and he doesn't want to admit that his head still hurts, just on principle, and he just doesn't know what to do.

 

He drowses for a while, but he keeps jolting awake, imagining Sulu peeking in, finding him asleep, and deciding to leave. He tries to think of a way to ask Sulu if he's still coming without looking too pathetic or desperate, and eventually settles on:

 

>> can you bring me some kind of carbs

 

>> sure thing
>> buttered noodles or dinner rolls

 

>> yes

 

>> but i'm going to be another hour or so. don't die of boredom
>> can i bring pav or is this a grown ups night

 

>> dont be a dick
>> of course you can bring him

 

>> k

 

An hour would be long enough to read the security report from last week, but GG is still not great at report-writing. He hesitates.

 

What he wants to do, he thinks, looking around the empty Sickbay, is engage Spock in another absurdly filthy text fantasy. He wouldn't be able to touch himself, but that might be its own kind of hot. He wonders if Spock is in the labs, or in the ready room with his own reports, or in his own room.

 

Or in Jim's room. In Jim's bed. He pulls out his comm and writes:

 

>> right now im imagining you in my bed. You know I'm stuck away for the night so you don't have to worry about being interrupted. I'm imagining you lying on the bed because you're tired and it's comfortable, but then you're smelling my pillow, the sheets, and you slide off your clothes and then run your hands down the insides of your own thighs, caressing your legs apart, pretending it's me. I bet your imagination has been getting all kinds of practice lately.

 

He stops. Deletes it. Grimaces. Spock doesn't need a distraction right now, as he's preparing for a diplomatic mission he had never intended to lead. Jim realizes he doesn't know how Spock feels about diplomatic missions. Why presume I feel anything about them? asks the Spock in Jim's imagination. Fine, he corrects himself, if you… find them stimulating? Prefer then to other types of missions? Seems like the kind of thing he should know about his first officer, much less his friend. His mate.

 

He hasn't written his own report, he realizes. He starts it, imagining what information will be useful to tomorrow's away-team members. He's two-thirds of the way through when Hikaru and Pavel tumble into the room, laughing as they come through the door, then quieting as M'Benga pokes his head out to see what the clamor is all about, shushing each other.

 

"Hey guys," Jim says, and accepts the bowl of noodles and rolls that Sulu proffers. "Tell me what's going on outside the Sickbay walls while I scarf this down?"

 

"Ze alpha crew, ve are building new decoding algorithms," Pavel says, wide-eyed. "I am embarrassed zat I did not catch ze pattern in ze first message."

 

"Everyone is," Hikaru says. "Makes me feel like an idiot, because I'd never have noticed it."

 

"You vere not zhere," Pavel says, waving a hand dismissively.

 

"Which brings up another point. Jim, have you and Spock talked about what you… what happened?"

 

"Uh," Jim says, "I mean, you were there for most of it. About the assassin, and the bar?"

 

"About you splitting off alone, against security recommendations, and not checking in with the ship about it." Hikaru looks serious and sorry.

 

"Ah, damn," Jim says. "No. We haven't had that conversation yet." He takes another bite of the dinner roll to forestall the self-defense that comes bubbling to his throat.

 

"Cardinal and I took a lashing for not updating the ship ourselves," Sulu admits. "GG was furious. 'Do you have any idea how many security officers are mobilized and ready on the ship every time you goldshirts play at diplomacy.' That kind of thing."

 

Pavel grips Hikaru's shoulder, kneads it comfortingly with his thumb. Hikaru grimaces and pats at his hand. Jim tracks the motion but doesn't comment.

 

"Giotto's doing a good job as acting chief of security," Jim observes. "Should I drop the 'acting' from his title, d'you think? Make it official?"

 

Hikaru grins. "I love that me telling you he's furious and thinks you're an idiot makes you think he's the guy for the job," he teases.

 

"He is wery protective of zhe crew," Pavel adds. "He and Mister Scott vill inewitably fight. 'Damn to zhe ship!' Mister Yiotto is saying vhenever zhere is a safety hazard in Engineering or a plasma fire in zhe cargo bay or vhatnot, and Mister Scott says, 'Zhis ship ees zhe only thing standing betveen you and open space, so I'll thank you to show her a leetle more respect,' and --"

 

Jim is struggling not to laugh at Chekov's un-self-conscious impression of Scotty, the intonation uncannily good even if the pronunciation is off. "It'll be good for us. I'll talk to Spock about it."

 

Sulu leans forward, resting his forearm against the bio-bed and meeting Jim's eyes with starling intensity. "I don't want to kick you while you're down," he says, "but have you had time to give any more thought to whether we should push back on the rest of this mission? Get the admiralty on board with us heading back within better comms range, send somebody who's not under constant threat of assassination out here instead?"

 

"We just gotta see what happens after this," Jim says. "If we catch someone -- if we can pinpoint who it is --"

 

Sulu leans back again, nodding. If Jim didn't know him so well, he'd miss the disappointment in his friend's eyes.

 

"Vell," Chekov says, either oblivious to the sudden tension or pretending very well, "I need to finish zhe decoding algorithm I vas testing. Lingvistics should haff created more testing scripts by now and zhere is no time like zhe present. Jim, you vill tell me if zhere is anything I can bring you, yes?"

 

"Just your beautiful face, Pasha," he teases, and Pavel blushes bright and retreats quickly, waving goodbye over his shoulder. Jim refocuses on the tight line of Hikaru's mouth and decides to say something after all. "You guys seem good. Better."

 

Hikaru sighs and scrubs a hand across his face. "Yeah," he says. "He… I don't know how much you want to know."

 

"Respect your privacy but also dying of curiosity."

 

"He'd really been getting pushy," he admits. "Like, crawling into my lap with zero warning when we were hanging out, using my shower without asking, getting drunk and trying to sleep over. And I'm not a saint, I… let things go too far a couple times. Nothing serious, just… enough that he knew I wasn't uninterested." He clears his throat. "I told him off, he threw a temper tantrum about not being a child - real convincing, let me tell you - but then recently he's been, I don't know, kind of… respectful? Like, asking if he can come over instead of assuming. Asking if stuff is okay - like, he grabbed my shoulder a few minutes ago - that's the most contact he's initiated without explicit permission in probably four or five days." A smile splits his face. "It's nice. It's kind of giving me the space to think about what I actually want, and whether maybe I've been… unfair to him."

 

"That's great, Karu," he says.

 

"Can I ask about you and Spock?"

 

Jim considers, then nods.

 

"You're -- like, you're together now, right?"

 

Jim laughs. "Yeah," he says. "We're not out yet, obviously, but we're… something."

 

"And is it… okay? Has it messed with your friendship?"

 

"No, it's been great," Jim says. "I mean, it's different. It feels like we have a lot of serious conversations, we do a lot of negotiating and clarifying."

 

"That doesn't sound like fun."

 

"Not always. But worth it."

 

"I just don't know if Pavel's ready to be in a long-term relationship. And if he decided it wasn't what he wanted… we have to be able to work together, to be together on this ship for five years. I don't want him to do something he'll regret."

 

"I get it," Jim says. "Well, for now, it seems like you have some space to think about it."

 

Hikaru leaves, and Jim finds himself drifting again. He wakes just after 2200, when the lightning shifts to dim Gamma-shift mode, and again around 2300 to Bones fiddling with something near his head.

 

"Hey," he murmurs.

 

"Go back to sleep," McCoy answers, gentle. "Just hooking you up to a saline drip. You'll probably have visitors tomorrow who don't know we're putting on a show. Gotta make it realistic."

 

"You don't have to pretend it's all for show," Jim breathes, settling back into his pillow. "You can just take care 'f me. I won't fight it."

 

A hand strokes the hair on his forehead, gentle and warm. "Okay," Bones whispers. "Thanks."

 

He wakes up again just before 0100, and this time there are a few seconds where he's not sure what had woken him. Then the doors hiss open and the babble of frantic voices slides into focus.

 

"-- fibrinogen and tranexamic acid, she isn't responding to the --"

 

"-- cc's, but not until we start transfusing, we can't risk --"

 

"-- Sanchez down here. I'm going to need --"

 

The doorway is a blur of activity, and Jim almost yanks out his IV trying to see who's in the midst of it, whose is the trail of blood from the hallway to the far operating room. He fights the urge to call for Bones, who is among the rush of bodies surrounding the patient.

 

"Dammit! Hold pressure. Rigo, take her feet."

 

There's a shuffle as the security officers move back, one of them wringing her hands, and through the remaining huddle of science blues, Jim sees the platinum-blond hair, the pale neck as they lift her limp body onto the operating table. Her clothing is sodden to a sick purple.

 

It's Carol.