Spock was unused to constant company. However, their situation necessitated it. The cave was large in that it extended far into the mountain, but very small in that it was seldom warm enough during the night to venture too far from the fire and they really only had about twenty square feet in which to move around.
This would not be too unfortunate, as Spock did not require outside stimulus to think or meditate, but for the fact that disagreements between himself and Mister Kirk had caused a different kind of frost to settle over their campsite, which was very distracting.
“You’re not making any sense,” Kirk snapped, rubbing his forehead as though pained with a sudden headache. He was sitting beside Spock at their small fire, tension in every line of his body.
“I am making perfect sense,” Spock responded, voice allowing no room for argument, though he suspected Kirk would make room if he had to. “We must start reconstruction tomorrow. Immediately.”
“Okay,” Jim said, holding out his hands as though framing his following words. “I see where you’re coming from. I do. But we have exactly enough food to get us through tonight. Exactly enough firewood to get us through tonight. We need to forage, chop down trees, hunt for food, fur. We’re going to be here a long time.” Kirk paused, then tacked on, “sir.” The word, added as an afterthought, sounded more like an insult than an acknowledgement of rank.
“The sooner we begin repairing the shuttlecraft,” Spock said, counseling himself into patience, “the less necessary your suggestions will be.”
“So how do you expect us to survive?”
“We do not need to devote much time to it,” Spock said simply, ignoring the disrespectful tone Kirk seemed to save exclusively for him. “I was able to gather sufficient rations in sufficient time yesterday. An hour per planet’s cycle should suffice.”
“One hour out of ninety-six? We’ll starve in weeks! We aren’t all Vulcan, Mister Spock.”
“If you were, you would be able to understand my point of view.”
“I understand it,” Kirk practically spat, “I just think it’s wrong.”
Spock opened his mouth to respond, but a mumble from the other side of the fire caught his attention. Kirk seemed to notice, too, his eyes flicking to Captain Pike, who had been sleeping since the two of them had returned from outside.
In moments, Jim was at the captain’s side, and Spock followed. “Captain,” Spock said, kneeling beside the man. Kirk sat across from him, brows knit, the fire fading from him. Now, worry pulled tight at every feature of his face.
“Spock,” Pike responded weakly. “You figure it out yet?” He seemed weakened, and it looked like he didn’t notice Kirk at all.
“Indeed,” he said, instinctively meeting Kirk’s eyes for a single, flashing moment.
“You may want to sit down for this, sir,” Kirk said softly, the tone of his voice suggesting a joke, though his heart wasn’t in it.
Pike huffed, what would’ve been a laugh if he’d had the energy. “I’m listening,” he said quietly.
So, Spock explained the situation, attempting to detach himself as much as he could from it. It was easier said than done, especially because he had so few facts, and far too many mysteries, to give to the captain. He could tell him, for instance, that they were about two-thousand years in the past, though it was impossible to narrow that down to a more exact date. He could even tell him that somehow the other half of the shuttle had traveled farther, just slightly but enough to be of note. But he could not tell him how they ended up here. Why the ion storm had intensified. How they would get home.
But Pike didn’t seem to have the energy to ask.
Not many would answer the news of unexpected time-travel with an exasperated sigh, but Captain Pike did. Closing his eyes, he lifted his hand and dropped it lamely to the ground, a sign-- Spock thought-- of frustration. They were silent for a time after Spock finished speaking.
“Well,” Pike said eventually, sounding far away. It was likely he would be drifting off again soon. “I think the two of you should brainstorm some ideas, then.”
At that, Spock locked eyes with Kirk. It was strange-- they had been at-odds with each other nearly the entire time they had been on this planet, and yet with one look they managed to communicate the same idea.
Namely, that neither of them wanted to continue that particular conversation right now. It had nearly devolved into an argument, and now with the captain having broken the tension, they could each consider their plans for a time. Besides, it wouldn’t do to cause the captain undue stress. Though the man would never admit to it, he was fragile right now.
There would be forty hours to come up with a plan-- whether it ended in compromise or an order.
“Perhaps in a few hours,” Spock said gently.
“Suit yourself. You’ve got nothing but time,” Pike responded. Spock did not fail to notice that Pike did not include himself in the statement.
After a beat, Spock returned to his place on his side of the fire, joined shortly by Kirk. The captain was awake, if quiet, but it looked as though none of them quite knew what to say.
So, they didn’t say anything, which suited Spock fine. He considered attempting meditation, but before he could do more than close his eyes, Kirk had already moved to where he’d abandoned his branch and knife. Without a word, he continued whittling, the scrape-shred of the blade on wood grating on Spock’s ears. Attempting to meditate was impossible through the steady sound, but thinking? Thinking he could do.
He had not had time to go over the math-- to figure out exactly how long it would take to rebuild the shuttle-- but it had hardly seemed worth it to discuss it with Kirk. So, Spock could spend the time doing calculations. When all else failed, he found a strange comfort in calculations.
The silence lasted for a long while. Occasionally, Spock would crack open his eyes to see the rough wood in Kirk’s hand, reshaped to a steadily sharpening point. They didn’t meet eyes again.
Then, after a time, Kirk spoke up, echoing strangely in the small, quiet chamber. “You know,” he said suddenly, his voice snapping Spock out of the steady progression of numbers he’d been going over. “While we’re here, I could see if I can track down that body of water we picked up with the shuttle scan. It said it was in the caldera, right?” He set his project aside and reached for the tricorder.
“Walking too far on your injured leg is inadvisable,” Spock warned, but Kirk likely knew that better than he did.
“What, like climbing a mountain at midday looking for phantom metals is inadvisable?” Spock attempted to convey his lack of amusement through the straight line of his jaw, but Kirk continued, “According to the readings,” Kirk said, scooting beside Spock and shoving the tricorder under his nose, “the water’s less than a mile in. I can handle that much.”
Spock was not entirely sure about that, but he deferred to Kirk’s judgement of his own injury. “And the cold?”
Kirk shrugged. “It’s not so bad yet. I’ll be back in less than an hour, probably. Unless I get eaten.”
“Unlikely, considering we are the only large lifeforms in this cave. However, you may yet pass out from the pain.”
Shining a strained smile, Kirk waved his comment away with a careless hand. “I’ve told you, it’s not that bad.” He turned to address Pike, who Spock wasn’t even sure was awake. “Is he always like this, Captain?”
Pike coughed out a small laugh, surprising Spock. “He just worries, Kirk. Can’t begrudge him that.”
Spock drew himself up straighter, “I object to the inference that I am capable of worry.”
Kirk smiled at him, and Spock wondered somewhere in the back of his mind what it took for someone to smile in a situation like this, and why Kirk’s smiles were so frequent, despite his obvious stress and despite the tension between them. Though Spock hesitated to call that kind of emotional strength ‘admirable,’ he did struggle to come up with a better-fitting word.
“I’ll be all right,” Kirk said, seemingly deciding that the conversation was over. Spock had little energy to continue arguing, nor did he particularly want to order Kirk to stay. Some time without the Lieutenant’s company could be beneficial.
“Very well, Mister Kirk. Please bring a communicator with you.”
Kirk saluted in the old-fashioned way, then stood awkwardly on his stiff leg. Spock narrowed his eyes, but said nothing
“Have fun, kid,” Pike spoke up weakly from the ground. Kirk’s responding smile bore a tinge of sadness, no doubt anticipating Pike’s death. Spock, too, knew the Captain was close. He did not allow himself the luxury of sadness at the thought. Regret, maybe. He knew as well as any that Vulcans were capable of regret.
With a goodbye, Kirk grabbed his crutch and the knife he’d been using to carve his spear, then set off down the cave, using the light of the tricorder to watch his step. After a few moments, the thunk-drag of Jim’s gait faded from earshot, and Spock let out a breath.
“He’s handling himself pretty well, don’t you think?” Pike asked, and Spock glanced over, shifting closer so he could hear the man’s quiet voice over the crackling of the fire.
“He is emotionally distressed, but, yes, he is able to compartmentalize better than most humans.”
Pike hummed his agreement, eyes lightly closed. “How are you holding up?” He asked, surprising Spock.
“I am functioning adequately,” Spock responded.
“That’s not what I meant.”
There was a pause. Why did humans constantly feel the need to inquire after one’s emotions? Even if Spock could admit to feeling lost, scared and worried, he wouldn’t. Especially not when the burden of command would soon fall on his shoulders.
But Christopher Pike was dying, and Spock owed him something. “The prospect of remaining on this planet for an extended period of time is disagreeable. As is the prospect of your death.”
Pike cracked his eyes to give Spock a look. “Don’t sugar-coat it,” he said dryly.
Spock shifted. “Your fever is decreasing.”
“For what it’s worth.”
“You may yet--”
“Spock, I expect that kind of thing from Kirk. Not you.”
“Very well, Captain.”
They were quiet again for a time, and Spock suspected Pike was about to drift off into sleep again. Just in case it was his last chance, Spock asked. “Captain. Should you perish during the night, do you have any last orders?”
Pike lifted his hand slightly. To do what, Spock didn’t know. But he lowered it again, the effort proving to be too much.
“Here’s an order for you,” he said-- frustration at his own weakness, anger, sadness-- all emotions that Spock could feel even without touching him. “Get the hell off this rock.”
Spock nodded, allowing himself a quiet “yes sir,” and no other indication that Pike’s state was affecting him. They fell into silence, and soon Pike was breathing softly. Asleep once again.
Able, finally, to meditate, Spock closed his own eyes and began the process of identifying and categorizing his emotions. For all the good it did.
It was merely ten minutes before he cast a glance at his communicator, abandoned on the ground beside him. He would not say he was worried, exactly, as his meditation had been meant to purge that exact emotion, but he did consider comm-ing the Lieutenant. Of course, such an action would be illogical, so he stopped himself, giving Kirk his space instead.
It was possible, he considered, that Kirk had simply made up an excuse to be alone. Humans did that, and Spock had no doubt that after everything they’d been through, Kirk might benefit from a little solitude. Moreover, ten minutes was not nearly enough time for Spock to worry that Kirk had gotten lost-- or eaten for that matter.
So he waited, falling back into his brief and troubled meditation, which was broken when his communicator beeped.
Snatching it immediately, Spock flipped it open. “Spock here.”
“Mister Spock,” Kirk’s voice came through. Thankfully, he sounded calm. Spock did not usually play into fantasy, but he had imagined in that solitary second a plethora of emergencies that could’ve befallen the Lieutenant.
“Yes, Mister Kirk?”
There was a pause, and Spock stared at the communicator, wondering if it had ceased functioning.
Then, Kirk’s voice crackled, “If the captain’s stable… you might want to come look at this.”
Spock raised an eyebrow and glanced at Pike, sleeping fitfully, but sleeping.
“Describe the situation.”
After another beat, Kirk answered. “I don’t know if I can. It’s… incredible.”
Spock resisted the pull of annoyance and resigned himself.
“Very well. Where are you?”
Kirk must have forgotten they had only one tricorder between them. “Oh, right, you can’t track me. You know what? Just follow the largest tunnels. There aren’t many places that veer off and most of them are too small to walk through anyway. Watch your footing, though. It gets a little rocky.”
“I will be on my way presently. Spock out.”
Spock closed the communicator and turned on its illumination setting. With one last look at the Captain, he stood. The fire would hold until he returned, and Pike was at least comfortable.
The dark walk was over rough terrain, but Kirk was correct that the cave did not split in many directions. Finding the path was easy, especially with the small light of his communicator to illuminate it. He found it was not colder the farther in he ventured, which came as a surprise. In fact, the air around him seemed to warm steadily.
More surprising still, as he reached the ten-minute mark in his walk, he saw what appeared to be a faint blue glow from the cave before him. There were a few twists and turns yet, he guessed, but there was something up there.
As he approached, Kirk came limping toward him around a bend, illuminated fully in the soft blue light. His face bore a look of wondering excitement, and he clutched the tricorder in his hand.
“I saw you coming,” he said, waving the device. “You have to see this, Commander.”
Spock, suspicion and caution slowing his steps, followed when Kirk turned on his heel and walked back toward the source of the light. Rounding the bend, Spock stopped, a moment of shock freezing him in place.
Kirk stood with his back to Spock, staring out over the scene before them. When they had registered water in the caldera of the volcano, Spock had not expected this.
A wide lake spread serenely across the floor of the volcano’s grand chamber, surrounded on all sides by tall crags of volcanic rock and tall, stalk-like plants emitting a quiet blue luminescence. The path he and Kirk were following sloped downwards about ten steep feet, which faded from pebbled dirt to softer sand as it neared the lake's quiet shore.
Dark trees wound up the walls, and Spock followed them with his eyes, realizing as he looked up that they were reaching toward a rugged opening at the top of the chamber, easily seven- to eight-thousand feet high, where Spock believed he could see the faint glow of starlight.
Each leaf that sprouted from the wide branches of these trees glowed faintly in its veins, small pinpricks of light that spread softly over the cave’s walls and reached out to lay a canopy over the edges of the lake. It was not a large body, as they could easily see the other side, but it was clear and still.
Spock approached the slope slowly, eyes transfixed on the water where, beneath quiet ripples he could see more of the stalky blue plants illuminating the sand underneath.
The cave did not terminate here. Rather, across the one-hundred-or-so yards of the lake there were multiple openings that led, presumably, through the volcano, or at least deeper in. Looking around, Spock could see potential paths to those tunnels that they could clear. Unless they wanted to swim across, of course. These paths were overgrown not just with the thin, looping roots of the cavern’s trees, but with hundreds of tiny aloe plants, sprouts of the high-protein greens they had been collecting-- everything on the planet that thrived in heat and humidity.
Kirk gracelessly stepped and slipped down the slope, crutch abandoned, coming to stand at the edge of the water and glancing over his shoulder at Spock, as though asking him silently to follow. Spock did, drawing up beside Kirk, whose breathing was accelerated with the thrill of discovery, eyes alight-- and not just from the reflection of the plants.
“Everything in here is bioluminescent,” Kirk whispered, and Spock turned to him. “At least, most of it is. Can you imagine how long these trees have been growing here?”
Spock could. He was not familiar with the physiology of these particular plants, but he guessed by the height of their thin trunks that thousands, if not millions of years had gone into their evolution.
“Is there a reason you are whispering?” He asked, voice low.
A grin split Kirk’s lips and he looked upwards. Spock followed his gaze.
Kirk clapped his hands once.
The sound echoed brilliantly in the chamber, and hundreds of tiny, darkly colored birds shot from the trees, wings spreading to reveal a bright, bioluminescent glow beneath their feathers. They screeched and squeaked as they flapped, swirling in a vortex upwards to the chamber’s opening, then back down to settle once more on their branches.
Spock felt the wonder of it soothing the lines of his face, but he didn’t care that it could be considered an expression of emotion. He’d made many scientific discoveries in his time with Starfleet, but none compared to the abject beauty of this place. He only knew one way in which to describe it.
“Fascinating,” he said, a quiet contentment in his voice that he forgot to dispel.
Kirk laid a hand on his shoulder and Spock looked to him. But the touch had no purpose-- he was not trying to get Spock’s attention. Merely, it seemed he wanted to share in the moment. Spock found he did not mind.
“Bioluminescent birds,” Spock said softly, returning his attention to the trees to look for the small creatures. They were practically invisible in the darkness without their wings spread, though he thought he saw the point of a beak in the nearest branches. “These specimens are scientifically profound.”
Kirk’s hand fell and he chuckled. “That’s it? Come on, Commander. They’re beautiful. This whole place…” He trailed off, but picked back up again, a trill of joy in his voice. “And, did you notice the best part?”
Spock gave Kirk a considering look, wondering what the human’s definition of ‘the best part’ would be.
“Stick your hand in the water.”
Eyebrow up, Spock glanced out at the lake. “Are you certain it is safe?”
“Positive. It filters through the volcanic rock like that spring you found. It’s not pristine, but, well, it’s not going to kill you.”
Accepting that, Spock moved forward, kneeling at the edge of the water and realizing only then that a small sheen of steam wafted from its surface. He didn’t need to feel it to know that there was a natural hot spring somewhere nearby, but he dipped a careful hand in anyway, marveling at the feeling of warm water against his cold fingertips.
“An excellent find, Mister Kirk,” Spock said as he stood, wiping his wet hand on his slacks and returning to Kirk’s side.
Kirk’s soft smile shone bright with pride. There was silence between them for a time as they continued to stare over the water, then Kirk spoke softly. “Once,” he began, tongue darting out to wet his lips where a gentle grin still lay, “during my first deep-space assignment, I got selected for this landing party. I was brand new to the Fleet, and I’d never stood on a non-colonized world before. It was a Class L planet-- something in the atmosphere that made it about as inhospitable as it was beautiful,” He raised his arms, gesturing as though painting a scene where he stood. “The chemicals made the sky this… this bright, brilliant purple, and the plants--” he looked to the ground, seemingly lost in the memory. “Gold as my rank stripes. I’m telling you, they glittered. It was the first time since joining Starfleet that I was sure-- I mean, really sure-- that this was what I wanted to do. You know, explore . I never thought I’d see anything so beautiful again in my life.”
Spock kept his eyes on Kirk, watching the play of light and shadow over his features, the way the ripples of the lake reflected serene movement on his softly smiling face. He looked tired, but more at peace than Spock believed he had yet seen him.
“This comes pretty close, though. You know?” Kirk finished, holding out his hands lamely to take in the chamber around them.
Spock returned his gaze to the lake. “Yes. I believe I do.”
There was another pause. Kirk did not express vulnerability often, at least not in Spock’s experience, and Spock was unsure why he of all people had been trusted with such an emotionally important memory. He did not know what else to say to honor it.
Thankfully, after a time, Kirk spared him the burden of speaking.
“So you want to take a dip?” The brevity of Kirk’s voice indicated that he did not want to linger in whatever emotional state the memory had inspired in him. “I can keep an eye on the captain. I think you could use a soak.”
Spock watched steam dance over the water, tempted. Whether he accepted or not, it was kind of Kirk to offer. He seemed to have forgotten their earlier argument. In the face of this discovery, Spock didn’t blame him. “You may bathe first,” he decided, “as it was your idea to explore the caves this evening.”
Jim thanked him with his eyes, nodding. “All right. We might want to consider moving camp a little closer. The water might be good for Pike if we can get him in it. And the heat would be good for you.”
“I will consider it, Lieutenant. The opening of the chamber would still serve to vent the campfire smoke.”
“Another good point. You’re full of them, Mister Spock.”
“To my surprise, you have your moments as well.”
Kirk laughed, an echoing thing that excited the birds back into motion. He put a hand over his mouth to stifle it, eyes smiling. It was rare that Spock was able to draw laughter from people-- typically because he did not try. But Kirk’s joy came easily, and inspired in Spock a strange sense of pride.
He left Kirk a few minutes later, after gathering a few samples, starting his trek back to their campfire. The idea of staying closer to the warmth of the caldera was pleasant, though he could do without the humidity. Perhaps he would discuss options with the captain.
Jim waited for Spock’s footsteps to fade into the distance before he shuffled out of his clothes, pulling the knife from his boot and setting it beside his equipment, He’d only been wearing his black shirt, which had turned brown with dust and sand, and the sliced waistband of his slacks had made them less than comfortable or secure, so finally getting out of it all felt good.
This whole place felt good. He was enamored by the bright blue stalks, the trees’ heart-shaped leaves and their glowing veins. The water. By god, when he slipped into that water he finally felt safe, for the first time in days. Warm and protected.
He didn’t start scrubbing himself right away, rather settled himself down on a submerged shoal of sand and soaked until the grime of sweat lifted from him, watching the trees for brief flickers of birds’ wings.
After some time, he pushed off from the shoal and flipped over, sailing across the lake on his back before slowing and coming to a stop, ears under the water, the bright opening of the volcano’s chamber above him. He closed his eyes and floated. It was cooler out here toward the center of the lake, though it wasn’t much deeper. He supposed the spring must originate from somewhere near the sand.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, only that he allowed the serenity of the place to reach deep into his bones, soothing the ache in his leg, in his shoulders, in his head. But with silence came the influx of anxieties, the potential to think too hard about all the things his mind wanted so desperately to avoid, so he couldn’t let himself remain.
If he sat in silence too long, the fear came back, the anger, the sadness, the certainty that something was wrong. Aside, of course, from the myriad things that were obviously wrong.
His mind echoed with the implications of two-thousand years. No chance, no hope of rescue, on an alien planet in a galaxy made alien by its age, completely unfamiliar to them all. But even with no hope of rescue from the outside, Jim wanted to try. Leaving this planet would be difficult; returning to their own time would be practically impossible. But so was everything else that had happened to them. Maybe they could make the impossible happen again.
They had a chance.
Jim opened his eyes to the comforting blue light and allowed a sad sigh to escape, unfettered now by the company of commanding officers. He wished senselessly in that moment that the others, the people they’d lost, had been given a chance too.
Pike had told him in no uncertain terms not to dwell on it, but Jim couldn’t help it. He was nothing-- a grunt at best, and yet he was the one of them who lived to see this beautiful cavern and its birds and--
He wished he could understand why he survived. Every time, he survived, when people better, stronger, smarter, younger, older, wiser, more kind, more loving, more important, more deserving than him didn’t. Screams echoed from places deep in his memory, and he thought back to the way Tom had cried on his shoulder all those years ago, tears sinking into his shirt.
Jim pulled his head from the water and flipped again, swimming slowly back to the shore. Water ran down his hair, dripping salt into his eyes where it collected his sweat.
Now wasn’t the time to think. He should get back, give Spock his turn, maybe even help him move Pike and set up camp down here. He should get back.
Though, not right away. No longer taking his time, Jim picked one of the reeds on the bank, dipping its bristles in the water and using it to scrub and scrape at his teeth. He felt a little guilty, gargling water from an ethereal, glowing spring and spitting it out on the sand, but not enough to forgo the feeling of a clean mouth. He gave similar treatment to the rest of his body, scrubbing himself so raw the heat of the water began to sting.
When Jim did finally make his way back to camp, he still limped, but he felt infinitely better. The tension had eased, internally and externally. If he didn’t think about it, if he just pretended, he could almost believe the last few days hadn’t happened. He allowed himself a little peace of mind as he walked.
Unfortunately, peace of mind could only last so long in a situation like theirs. When he came into view of the ring of firelight, reality smacked back into him like he was falling all over again, breath beaten from his lungs.
The captain was shivering violently, breath quickened, and Spock had abandoned the few samples he’d taken from the chamber to be by the man’s side.
Jim joined him there, and the two of them hardly spoke.
Night fell hard, as it seemed to do, and once again the three of them curled close to each other under the emergency blankets. Jim didn’t consciously drift closer to Spock during the night, but the Vulcan was warm. Comfortingly so, and his body instinctively moved toward that warmth. This was, he supposed, the only situation in which cuddling his commanding officer was appropriate.
On Spock’s other side, Jim sometimes heard the rasping breath of Captain Pike, the chattering of his teeth in the cold.
Jim slept fitfully, nightmares new and old swirling through his mind, one after the other. Tarsus and Alpha Novus V became the same planet, survival the same burning necessity, the fear of death and the pain of loss connecting the two intrinsically.
Morning did come, or at least morning to his circadian rhythm came, and Jim knew the moment he awoke that something had shifted in the world. Not only because he was alone beneath the blankets, but because the very air around him felt heavy. He sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes and glancing around the cave.
The red glow of the fire’s dying embers encircled a scene Jim had almost believed he wouldn’t see if he just hoped hard enough. Spock, sitting beside the body of Captain Christopher Pike-- a body wrapped in a strip of the shuttle’s carpet.