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Sha Ka Ree

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“Are you on your way?” Jim’s voice crackled through his communicator. It had been a good few minutes since Spock had toppled the last of the rocks blocking their exit out the cave, and he was due to arrive at Jim’s location with another cart of rubble, but that wouldn’t be necessary anymore. The hole he’d managed to make was easily large enough to step through, and the sight of what lay beyond it had arrested him.

Spock stood, statue-still, staring out over the dark expanse of a wide desert. White sand swirled in eddies along crags of black, volcanic stone, and the glow of starlight on the scene speckled the drifts and dunes like glitter. A chill breeze, heralding the freeze of night, blew steadily, stirring the stale air of the cave where he stood and tickling the scrub brush that grew along the mountain’s base. But the desert, though beautiful, was nothing in comparison to what it held.

Like the mast of a sinking ship reaching from the waves of a vast ocean, a crag of metal split the dunes, rising toward the sky and framing the stars with the angled tip of its wing. Whatever it belonged to was lost to Spock’s view, obscured by mounds and banks of quiet desert, but it was right there, within reach, some ancient wreck of some ancient vessel.

“No need,” he finally managed to say, reminding himself that awe was an emotion. “I suggest you make your way toward my location.” His voice was as numb as he was. All he wanted to do was to strike out into those dunes, to crest them and finally find whatever it was that had been tantalizing them all this time, the metal deposit that held the key to their escape from this planet. But it wouldn’t be right to do so without Jim.

“We’re through?” Jim’s voice eked hopefulness, relief, excitement, more emotion than Spock had heard from him in almost two months, emotion that Spock was sure he could feel even across their distance if he had let his barriers down. Spock found he was too distracted to examine the warmth that spread through him at the thought.

“We’re through,” Spock confirmed. “I will wait for you here.”

He only hoped Jim would be quick. They had mere hours before the night began to get too cold, and-- whatever it was they were about to explore-- it would be far too much work for the few habitable hours of evening they had left.

After a short time, Spock heard Jim’s footsteps approaching, gratefully without the dragging sound that meant he’d pushed his strength.

Spock did not turn at Jim’s arrival, merely waited, scanning the wing with his eyes, from the harsh angle of its tip down to where it disappeared below his view. Time had worn away whatever paint may have identified the vessel, but something about its construction looked familiar.

“Holy ship!” Jim half-choked when he came to Spock’s side, falling to the wall as he took in the sight before him. “That’s a-- that’s a ship .”

“It would appear to be,” Spock said calmly. He had the advantage of many minutes’ more time to digest the sight than Jim.

“Not a metal deposit, then,” Jim uttered softly, “a ship .”

He did not wait for Jim to compose himself before he moved forward, climbing over the last of the rubble and slipping slightly down the short slope to the base of the mountain, where stone turned to sand.

“The air is so dry here,” Jim remarked, a little breathless as he moved along behind him.

Spock checked his tricorder. “Humidity is in fact down by 70 percent.”

“That’d do it,” Jim said. “I’m not used to this.”

“Nor am I.” Spock could have said that the dry air was reminiscent of Vulcan. He could have said that if it weren’t for the chill that already tickled the air, he would feel at home with the air in his lungs and the desert beneath his feet. But he had not said something so personal in many weeks, nor would he start now.

Before them, the dune between them and the ship rose, high enough to obscure most of the wreckage from view, everything but the bent tip of its wing. His feet sank as he began to scale the sand, making progress torturously slow, but he held the tricorder out, scanning, picking up the structure of the shipwreck even before it came into sight completely. Behind him, he heard Jim laboring, but he did not turn to offer a hand. He did not slow his own steps. His heart was racing, and he had to know. After all these months, he had to know.

As Spock began to crest the dune, he let his eyes trace the wing downward, noting the way it thickened at its base, the way it held tight to its hull with rivets the size of his head, then the hull itself, bulbous and broken.

And, finally, as his feet found the top of the dune, he could see the crashed vessel in its entirety.

The hull had buckled-- a raw ripple of twisted metal against the ground, though only half seemed visible now. The desert had buried much of the wreckage, sand resting in slopes and waves along its jagged, torn edges. The metal was scorched from ages-old fires, pock-marked with sand from erstwhile windstorms.

The lack of humidity had kept the metal, if not the already damaged ship, in good condition, hardly a speck of rust on the shards and slices that had resulted from its crash. But it was stripped in many places, panels and consoles torn off, leaving bolts and loose wires hanging. Those wires swayed gently in the desert wind as glittering sand swirled itself into the exposed innards of the ship.

But his eyes did not linger long enough to take in much else. Instead, they moved outward, past the wreck that had arrested his attention, and scanned the rest of the landscape.

What he overlooked now was not one shipwreck, but hundreds. Maybe thousands. From this distance Spock could identify none, but they ranged in size from their own shuttlecraft to the monolithic vessel, the centerpiece in a disturbing tableau. Sand had laid itself in wind-blown layers over many of these ships, leaving wings or warp nacelles sticking out like seedlings. Others were piled on top of each other, shards of sharp wings slicing into cockpits, full decks of larger vessels completely destroyed by the impact of small cruisers. He looked upwards, mentally tracking the path of the wormhole exit they had seen. This must be where it deposited ships that slipped through its stream.

Jim drew up beside him, finally, laboring a little for breath. When he straightened, Spock could almost feel realization setting into him. Spock said nothing, eyes returning to the largest vessel, wondering why it smacked of familiarity in spite of its condition and age.

He turned his attention to his tricorder, attempting not to focus on Jim’s awestruck silence, the way his eyes lit up with the fire of discovery as they took in the ship and all that surrounded it.

“My god,” Jim muttered to himself. Spock did not reply.

Instead, he did the only thing he knew to do. “Scans show this vessel is-- was -- warp-capable,” he read out from the tricorder screen. “Three decks, five-hundred-thousand square feet. Likely meant for colonization. Capacity: four-hundred individuals. Age: 3,489 standard years. Origin--” Spock stared at his readings, some unnamable emotion tightening his throat. He would say it was a mistake, but the moment he looked back at the wreckage he could suddenly envision what it would have looked like in its prime, with paint streaked along its wing in perfect geometrical precision, with the script of its name flowing along its hull.

“Origin?” Jim asked, prompting Spock to continue, though Spock had entirely forgotten he’d said anything aloud. “Spock, what’s its origin?”

Spock swallowed, and as a cool gust of wind buffeted him he felt himself shiver.

“Vulcan,” he replied. “This ship is Vulcan.”

Jim turned back to it, and though Spock was not looking at his expression, he could only imagine Jim’s shock mirrored his own.

“How did a Vulcan colony ship end up here? And the others-- Spock. This is a graveyard .”

“They must have suffered the same fate that we did.”

“So, what, this is some kind of interplanetary Bermuda Triangle?”

“That would seem to be an appropriate metaphor,” Spock said, scanning the seemingly endless sea-- the carcasses of empty ships. Silence echoed around them, broken only by the whisper of the breeze over soft sand.

“Are you alright?” Jim’s voice was low, such that Spock almost hadn’t heard.

Spock turned to Jim, the question surprising him out of this strange sense of mourning calm that had come over him. Jim had not asked something so personal in a great long while.

“Yes,” he answered simply, though he no longer knew if that were true. A Vulcan vessel, carrying hundreds of souls, lost. Swallowed by this planet just as they had been. He wondered if any had survived, but part of him hoped their deaths had been quick. And then there was the matter of the other ships, the-- yes, it was a graveyard-- that stretched before them to the rolling white horizon. How many lives had this planet claimed?

“We should get back to camp,” Jim said after a moment, for once the voice of logic between the two of them. “Look at you, you’re already freezing.”

Spock looked to his hands, realizing only then that they were shaking. He didn’t know if it was due to the cold or the shock. In either case, he should not have expressed his discomfort so outwardly. He clenched his hands into fists and settled them at his sides.

“I am loathe to leave now. We have only just discovered--”

“Spock,” Jim said, voice hard enough to draw Spock’s eye to him. His face, far from the tightly clenched, expressionless mask he’d been wearing for almost two months now, looked concerned. “These ships have been here for, what did the tricorder say? Three-thousand years? More than that for most of them, I’d guess. They’ll still be here tomorrow.”

“You are not curious?”

“I’m tearing out my hair curious,” Jim responded, “but we have to do this the right way. Come back with something to carry materials, food so we don’t keel over, daylight to see by…”

“The starlight is quite bright,” Spock supplied.

“I’m putting my foot down on this one, Spock,” Jim said, though he did not sound authoritative. In fact, the tenor of his voice seemed almost gentle.

Spock took a moment to absorb his words, to look back over the scene. Then, he resigned himself to logic, as he always did eventually. “Very well,” he said. “Tomorrow.”

After that, it still took him a moment to turn his back, but when Jim began to descend the dune, Spock followed. Something in him was hurting, so he focused on the spot between Jim’s shoulder blades, forcing himself to think of nothing but the shift of fabric before him, something solid to set his eyes on.

But that only lasted until he drew level with Jim and they walked side-by-side back up the slope, into the cave, and forward.

Along the long trek back to camp, Jim occasionally muttered quiet, awestruck expressions, “amazing,” being the most common. Spock seldom responded but to agree, though he assumed Jim was talking more to himself than Spock anyway.

Until, of course, the questions started coming. Then, it became obvious that Jim sought an answer. So each question Jim asked, Spock jumped on it like a starving man jumped on food.

“How many do you think are out there?”

“According to the tricorder, scans identify six-hundred and twenty-one unique vessels. We could likely discover more buried under the sand if we had stronger sensors.”

Some time passed before the next question.

“Any others we might recognize? Federation?”

“Unknown. It is likely tomorrow will yield greater understanding.”

“Do you think any of them are in better shape than our shuttle? Something that might be easier to repair?”

At this one, Spock looked to Jim, to the hope that gleamed from the bright shine of his hazel eyes-- unnaturally bright, truly, in the dim light of the tricorder. “Given their age, unlikely,” he responded, but because Jim’s hope had a way of inspiring hope in him, he added. “But possible.”

Looking at Jim often reminded him that anything was possible. He had the light of exploration in him, steps strong and confident despite his fatigue, an adventurer’s curiosity fueling him. Spock ached physically with the emotions inspired in him by that confidence, especially when he felt his own so shaken by what they’d just seen.

They walked in silence for a while longer, and Jim began to cast glances at Spock which Spock pretended not to notice. If Jim needed something, he would say so. Spock had trained himself well to allow Jim to initiate.

Finally, he did.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay, exploring that ship tomorrow? We’re going to have to scavenge it, and-- Spock, they are your people.”

Spock took a breath through his nose and tucked his hands behind his back, looking forward. He did not wish to see the expression on Jim’s face that accompanied his tone-- that caring concern. It was so rare anymore that he could not allow himself the strange affirmation it instilled in him.

“Thank you for concerning yourself. I will be all right.”

Spock did not know if that was true. But he had done well controlling his emotions over recent weeks, in spite of the circumstances. Though he was shaken, it would take more than a millennia-old shipwreck to break him.

“Do you want to go over the scans together when we get back to camp?” Jim asked, and Spock turned to him, surprise almost causing him to halt his steps.

‘Together’ was a word Spock did not expect to hear Jim say again.

“Certainly,” he said formally to cover his surprise. “We can, perhaps, come up with a plan to maximize our time tomorrow.” It was likely Jim meant nothing by the offer. There were certain things they had to do together. Certain things made easier when done together. ‘Together’ didn’t mean anything more than what it meant. It couldn’t.

Jim nodded, looking straight ahead. “Great. Let’s do that, then.”

Spock felt a flash of longing even as he tried to stop it. He thought of the necessity of closeness, looking over the tricorder’s small screen. Jim’s knee near-touching his own, heads bowed together over the light. Except at night when warmth necessitated it (and even then only sometimes) they had not been that close.

But there were more important occupations for his mind than these selfish wants; his world was larger than the man beside him. Even so, he had to admit to himself that the implications of that world were easier to deal with knowing Jim would be there.

Conflict. Indecision. Spock was far too used to going to war with himself.

 


 

Jim didn’t know how they were going to explain to Starfleet when they returned exactly what they had found on Alpha Novus V. If anyone dared another landing party, they could probably find the ship graveyard, but it would be another two-thousand years buried under the sand.

And two-thousand years might wear away the paint on the bow of the modern Romulan trading vessel he uncovered with its bright stripes of red and yellow. Two-thousand years might rot the cushions in the bedchamber of an unidentified single-person cruiser he’d found smashed into the hull of a larger, shredded ship that looked Klingon if Jim squinted. Two-thousand years may cause the inevitable decay of the humanoid half-skeleton he’d discovered in the cracked window of a highly advanced escape pod, which was decorated with faded markings that could have been letters in the Standard alphabet. Two-thousand years might shove sand in the circuits of computers that, if he just had the time, he could probably figure out how to work. The knowledge of countless cultures was buried here.

But they focused the majority of their attention on one.

As the ship in the best objective condition, with the most usable and familiar metals, the Vulcan colony vessel was their obvious choice. Spock familiarized himself with the design, aided by having briefly encountered blueprints of such ships in his studies, and delegated tasks to Jim that he did not outright say were low-impact. It wasn’t hard for Jim to guess, though. Spock’s own projects had him scaling the tilted side of the ship to reach metal panels at the base of the wing. Jim’s projects had him pulling circuitry out of walls in the ship’s mess hall from a safe and comfortable seated position.

It was fine, if a little maddening. Spock did things like this-- quietly and sometimes subtly proving that underneath that emotionless mask, he did still care. Honestly, it made Jim feel terrible, but over the last two months he had gotten used to feeling terrible, and he doubted taking on more demanding tasks would help.

Even when they worked beside each other, Jim missed Spock. He missed Spock’s quiet jokes and mother-hen hovering. He missed the warm looks they used to share over their meals; he missed their philosophical debates, their comfortable nights of chess, the ease with which he could fall asleep beside him knowing Spock would be there to soothe the worst of his nightmares.

They were efficient together now, which was good. It had been the point, after all, of severing their friendship, but efficient was all they were. And Jim had been, so far, unable to stifle that overwhelming longing to have Spock back. Even just as a friend, a companion. Anything but this.

But it was probably for the best, given what they’d found-- this massive graveyard that still shocked Jim each time he looked out over it. If he had the option of coming to Spock with his grief at all this lost life, with his fear that they could have ended up in the same state-- well, he may well have dissolved. And that wouldn’t be good for either of them.

Maybe Vulcans had the right idea. If Jim were able to shut off his feelings, he would too. So now he tried to do what Spock would do. Treat everything like a project, a science experiment, and stop caring so much-- or, rather, stop letting on that he cared so much. About the ships, yes, but about Spock, too.

That was the secret. They both cared. They both cared so deeply it ate them alive, but neither one of them was willing to say so. It was times like these, though, Jim wanted to make sure Spock knew that he would drop everything to comfort him if he needed it. He wanted to let Spock know that he wasn’t alone, and that it was all right if scavenging the remains of this ship was unsettling. Hell, it was unsettling to Jim, and he couldn’t read the inscriptions on the walls or recognize the equipment they tore apart. For Spock, it was a part of his history, and Jim knew in spite of what he said that he was affected by it.

So Jim was glad their projects those first few days kept them separated. It kept him from trying to be that emotional rock to Spock. His comfort wasn’t wanted, nor did it apparently help, so it was best to keep his head down and allow Spock to process it all on his own.

But, of course, that meant Jim had to process it all on his own, too. He spent a lot of time thinking about his family, holding fake conversations in his head, cataloguing all the things he would tell them when he returned. This place, this beautiful planet with its endless surprises, had begun to feel more like a prison than a paradise. Jim couldn’t appreciate its beauty or marvel at its secrets without someone to share it with, so he had to share it with the people in his head, memories and hopes for the future. Perhaps that was a fault of his. He did miss people, and Spock couldn’t be even that to Jim anymore. Nor could Jim be that to Spock.

So they moved on, separately and together, existing in a strange limbo that Jim was still figuring out how to navigate.

With their attention on the ship graveyard, they packed up camp and moved themselves closer, still deep enough into the cave system to stay warm during the night, close enough to a spring to fill their canteens, but it no longer took two hours to trek to the site. Each day, as heat sank in and Jim was forced to get his mandated eight hours rest, Spock would cart their bounty back to the shuttle-- metal panels, still insulated; all the wires needed to reestablish some semblance of environmental controls and shields; support struts for the shuttle to sit on; and even some construction equipment, rudimentary welding materials. Spock assured Jim that he could get them functioning again with enough power, and Jim didn’t doubt it. Not if Spock said he could.

It would be nice not to rely on their precious phasers for crude welding. Especially because one miscalculation while, say, fastening panels around the power cells, could easily kill them.

But for all the progress they were making and how satisfied they both were by that progress, Jim began to nurse a steady worry. Spock was acting differently. Not like before, not the kind of different they had agreed upon, but the kind of different that spoke to something deeper.

Sometimes, on the occasions they scavenged the same section of the ship, Jim would notice Spock run his fingers down intricate lines of Vulcan script, inlaid into the metal. He’d look contemplative, sad, even. Far away. Jim never commented on it, still working to maintain that distance they needed to maintain, but it killed him not to say anything.

If they had still been friends, they could have comforted each other through the worst of this. If they had still been friends, he could have laid a hand on Spock’s back when he looked like he needed it, or helped him translate the emotional weight of this ship into numbers and statistics and tasks they could complete.

But he held back, just as he saw Spock holding back, and he just kept telling himself-- in a refrain that became as familiar as his favorite songs-- that distance was what they needed. Distance.

Until the day that Spock finally came to him. Not the way Jim wanted in his loneliest moments, but in a way Jim had missed.

Jim had been gently clipping copper wires from the inside of what looked to be the pilot’s console on the half of the bridge that hadn’t been crushed on impact. The whole ship was on its side, so the console hung over him, wires draped like the fringe of a tapestry in front of him. The copper would be useful if they could get long enough cords of it, so he untangled, snipped, untangled, sliced, the work of a few hours with his crude metal knife.

Partway into his task, he heard Spock’s footsteps approaching on the harsh metal, a sound that rang through his ears, tucked as he was into the console above him. He pulled out, casting his eyes to the corridor that led off the bridge.

The interior of the ship was a sort of dark, green-gray, oppressively dark much of the time, and incredibly Vulcan. Thankfully, there were enough gashes in the hull that light filtered in, impressive, stark shards of it that laid over dusty consoles and, sometimes, made the ancient metal gleam.

When Jim looked to the corridor, Spock was walking along the wall, illuminated in one of these slices of light, which cast thick shadows along half his face. He had his tricorder in-hand, looking a little lost even though he knew his way around this ship by now.

Jim tried not to look concerned when Spock met his eyes.

Veh El’es Ekhlami ,” Spock said, his voice curling around the strange syllables of the language and echoing in the empty carcass of the bridge.

Jim raised a brow. “Excuse me?”

“The name of the ship,” Spock explained shortly. “I managed to repair a computer in one of the living quarters in an attempt to learn more about this vessel. It was called Veh El’es Ekhlami , and it crashed in the year 2056.”

“Two-hundred years before our own time,” Jim mused. He labored to his feet, then made his way over to Spock, who stood purposelessly in the opening of the corridor, fingers slack around the device in his hand. Jim leaned against the wall (or, rather, the floor), crossing his arms over his chest. He wondered why Spock had made the special trip just to tell him this, wondered if maybe Spock had needed to talk about it. “What does it mean?”

“By its age, it means that they did not go through the same wormhole that we did. However, they were deposited in the same place. Therefore--”

“I meant, what does the name mean,” Jim asked, holding up a hand to pause Spock. He’d inferred what Spock was telling him from the date of the ship’s disappearance, and the implications of that were terrifying, but they were also big. They had to focus on one thing at a time. He saw the pain in those eyes, try as Spock might to hide it, and he wanted Spock to talk about what he’d come here to talk about. They could go over the rest afterwards. Jim hated himself for it, but he still considered Spock a friend, would still bend over backwards if Spock needed him.

Selfishly, Jim hoped Spock had come here because he needed him.

Spock met Jim’s eyes, the vulnerable look he was giving him entirely at odds with the clinical tone of his voice. “Loosely, the name translates to ‘Surrounded by Freedom.’”

Jim bit the inside of his cheek, looking down at his feet, and suddenly Spock’s sadness made more sense. “An optimistic name for a colonizing vessel,” he said softly, grief gripping him. As they’d torn the ship apart, he’d tried to push from his mind that these had been real people. Spock’s people. Vulcans. Now it was all too apparent.

“And sadly ironic, given the ship’s current state,” Spock said. “However, we know there were survivors. The lack of remains-- the fact that the ship has already been stripped in multiple places…” He trailed off. Rare for Spock. Jim stifled the urge to reach out and place a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“If you’re interested, we could scan the rest of the desert,” Jim suggested. “See if we can find evidence of where the survivors went.”

“That is not relevant to our mission,” Spock practically snapped, his face hardening. “It is likely the survivors died a slow death out in the desert. The search would be fruitless.”

Jim stood straight, arms falling to his sides in surprise. He had been so careful, and still he said the wrong thing. Talking with Spock was like walking on landmines anymore. “We don’t know that, Spock,” Jim said, voice hardening to match Spock’s tone, admittedly more angry at his anger than anything else. “Don’t you even want to consider it? If they survived long enough to scavenge the ship, they probably established some kind of campsite.”

“I fail to see what bearing that has on our situation.”

Jim shrugged, tossing his hands. “I don’t know. None, I suppose. But aren’t you curious? These are Vulcans.”

“They were Vulcans,” Spock corrected him. “And now they are gone. The past should not affect the possibility of our own future. We should concentrate on the vessel itself and what we may gain from it.”

Jim didn’t buy that explanation alone. Every day, he saw it breaking Spock’s heart to scavenge something that once belonged to his own people, and Jim thought that, if anything, the past should be honored, respected. Maybe acknowledged with more than a list of facts and figures the way Spock wanted. But he remembered the way Spock had spoken when they’d buried Captain Pike. His voice had borne no emotion, and Jim had had to practically beg him to say a few words of recognition. This was just how Spock dealt with things. Jim had been trying, and needed to continue trying, to understand and accept that.

But he was doing very poorly.

“Then why did you repair the computer in the living quarters?” he asked, somewhat harshly, if only because he knew Spock wouldn’t have a logical answer, at least not one that would satisfy. “Because you were curious, right? The same reason I want to look for evidence of the survivors.”

Spock’s eyebrows drew together. “My reasons for repairing the computer were entirely logical. With a more detailed blueprint of the ship taken from the memory banks, I am now able to identify areas which may contain useful materials.”

Okay, so that was actually a pretty good point. Even if they had been doing a fine enough job finding those areas on their own.

But this was simply another, ever-present reminder that Spock did not want to feel anything. Jim tried to get his brain to change tack, to calm his momentary ire and keep his tone neutral. It was just infinitely frustrating that Spock would seek him out, seemingly for comfort, then pull away the next moment. But Jim had been dancing this dance for two months now, so he regained his steps, diverting the conversation.

“Fine,” he said, trying to pick up the pieces of his earlier, fractured thoughts. “So... Do you have any working theories about how the ship got here if it didn’t go through the same wormhole we did?”

Spock seemed to consider this, his face shifting slowly back into his usual, collected sculpt. It was such a subtle transformation that Jim wondered how he’d even noticed, but he knew Spock. He knew Spock well . And he knew that this is what Spock needed and wanted to concentrate on now. Something that could be fixed.

“It is possible the intensity of the wormholes varies from storm-to-storm. I am, however, reticent to believe it.”

“Why? It’s as good a theory as any.”

“Comparing scans from the ion storm that stranded us to the storm we last recorded, it is far more likely that the web shifts.”

Jim felt himself dangerously close to a sigh, so he closed his eyes for patience. At this point, so little about the hopelessness of their situation would surprise him, but still. That thought stung.

“Of course it does.”

“That is just a theory,” Spock said, almost in reassurance, but Jim tried telling himself that he didn’t need his reassurance. Nor did he want it.

Distance, he kept reminding himself. Distance.

“But it’s one of the better ones we have. So, what, the biggest wormholes open up just over the mountains, and the ships that come through crash here?”

“Likely. Though I would not be surprised if there were similar crash sites elsewhere on the planet,” he said.

“So how did we avoid ending up in this one?”

“Velocity,” Spock responded simply. “A shuttlecraft missing its engines could not make it over the mountain.”

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. He supposed that made sense. If only the rest of it did.

“So, theoretically , the wormhole web shifts and theoretically there are multiple, large wormholes that open up in the same general area as the one we came out of?”

“Theoretically,” Spock confirmed. Jim wished his immediate reaction hadn’t been to smile at that gentle echo, but he had to fight the feeling all the same.

“So, theoretically, we have no idea which one is ours.”

“That is my understanding of the situation, yes.”

It was a shame that Spock was the smartest person Jim knew. He trusted Spock’s guesses more than he would trust most people’s facts, so these theories to him spelled disaster. Mostly because they were likely true.

“But we only have data from one and a half ion storms. So,” he paused, resigning himself to it, even though the thought settled something sick in his stomach. “So I suppose we’ll have to wait for the next storm to know for sure.”

“That is correct,” Spock said, something tightening his brows, and Jim wanted to tack on something positive. Of course we’ll figure it out. Of course we’ll make it. Of course everything is going to be okay.

But he didn’t feel it. The words would have been empty, and they would have played into a desire he shouldn’t have felt-- to comfort Spock. The very man who rebuked Jim’s comfort if it was offered, even if it was offered subtly.

“I believe we should return to our tasks,” Spock said after a moment, and Jim straightened, trying to reclaim some of the brief flares of frustration that had colored their conversation, only because it was easier to deal with than the rest of his emotions. He could at least keep the distance between them if he was angry at Spock. It was decidedly harder to do so if he was worried about him.

But as he agreed with a quiet, “Let’s get back to it,” and Spock turned to move down the corridor, Jim felt his face fall, the careful mask he had crafted for Spock’s sake fleeing him. No matter what he wanted, he did worry about Spock. He would just have to do so in the privacy of his own thoughts.


“Spock, can you come take a look at this?” Jim asked, the fifth planet’s day into their scavenging. He had been using the tricorder to locate other ships in the area, hoping to find one newer than three-thousand years. Though, sadly, he was out of luck on that front. The Vulcan ship seemed to be the most recent crash, or, at least the most recent crash that wasn’t decimated by its impact. But, while he’d been searching, a strange blip had come up on the tricorder. Not a lifesign necessarily. It was too far away to tell, but it was moving.

They were both at the base of the crash in the ship’s shadow, Spock slowly digging at the insistent sand beneath the vessel, attempting to get at panels that hadn’t yet been stripped by themselves or the long-dead Vulcan survivors. At Jim’s voice, he stood, dropped his shovel beside the rest of their supplies and made his way to Jim’s side.

He leaned over Jim’s shoulder, breath coming out sharp from his labor. Jim felt it ghost across his ear and he shivered in spite of the heat. “What do you think that is?” he asked, pointing to the strange reading. It didn’t move far, or fast. If Jim were to say it was doing anything, he’d call it pacing or, perhaps, swaying.

Spock reached around him and took the tricorder from his hands, and Jim released it immediately. Spock must be distracted to risk touching him like that, but they’d avoided the contact, thank goodness.

“I do not know. Perhaps the tricorder is malfunctioning.”

“I think I might go investigate,” Jim said, voice a little too eager if the way Spock’s eyes shot up to meet his was any indication.

But Jim was far too tired to hide it. He hated working closely with Spock like this. Some time away might be good for him. Though they tried not to wander off without each other in the desert-- it was still a dangerous, uncharted area of a dangerous, uncharted planet-- Jim figured a phaser and a tricorder could be protection enough, and nothing was quite as dangerous as staying in Spock’s company, risking the chance of accidentally smiling at him, snapping at him, teasing him, touching him.

“I do not advise it,” Spock said cooly, handing the tricorder back to Jim and stepping out of his personal space. That was, at least, a small blessing.

“Oh? And why not? Don’t tell me you’re worried.”

“Jim,” Spock said, a subtle warning in his voice.

Jim huffed, bringing a hand up to pinch at the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, sometimes I forget we’re still playing this game.” He didn’t, really. But it was easier to say that than to admit that sometimes he just wanted to get a rise out of Spock. Anything to prove he still felt something. Even though Jim knew he did. It was childish, but Jim had been at the end of his rope for a while now and he just didn’t have the strength to stop himself. “If you’re not worried, then why do you ‘not advise’ it?”
“The reading is approximately two miles away, in an area of this desert we have not explored. In addition, Its properties are entirely unknown.”

“I’ll have the tricorder with me. If it starts to read anything dangerous, I’ll come right back.”

“And your leg?”

“I’ll take a lot of breaks. And I’ll keep my communicator on me. It’s so close, Spock. I go farther than that when I’m hunting.”

Spock considered him, brows curling inward. “Why are you so determined to run headlong into danger? Do you not understand the risks?”

Jim rubbed his head. Even when Spock claimed not to worry, he treated Jim like he was made of glass. “Nothing risked, nothing gained,” Jim said simply. “Who knows, it might be something useful. Or at least interesting. The ecosystem out here is entirely different from our oasis. Wouldn’t it be a waste if we didn’t look?”

Maybe it was a little underhanded to take advantage of how well he knew Spock, but appealing to his scientific curiosity was the easiest way to convince him to do anything.

“I will go with you,” Spock settled on finally.

Unable to restrain his sigh, Jim dropped the tricorder to his side, trying to put all of his exasperation into one look. “You’re in the middle of something. I’ll be fine.”

“Since you cannot guarantee that assertion, it is only logical--”

“Spock,” Jim said, inelegantly flopping his arms at his sides, “don’t. I’ll be fine. And, frankly, I could use some alone time.”

That hurt to say aloud, though it was true. He had to just keep saying what was true. He’d decided months ago that honesty was the only way the two of them could function, even if it felt like all the honesty was loaded on his side.

Spock considered him, and Jim wished he could see that his comment had hurt him in any way. Not that he wanted to hurt him, far from it, but he wanted to affect him. According to Spock, he had that ability-- if only it ever showed. Jim knew he shouldn’t be testing boundaries like this. He had agreed to maintain distance. In fact, he had insisted on it. But actually following through on that worked much better in theory than in practice.

“You will check in via communicator every five minutes.”

“Spock--”

“Every five minutes. And you will keep me appraised of the situation as the readings become more clear.”

Jim took a deep breath. “Alright. Thank you. For letting me go.”

“I am sure you would have gone whether I allowed it or not.”

Oh, and it was happening. He felt a wry smile trying to make its way to his lips, the kind of smile that came from knowing that Spock knew him, understood him, even. The kind of smile that came from getting a reaction out of the man who, lately, felt more like a statue than a person.

“Right,” he said, moving past Spock toward their supplies, hopefully before Spock noticed his expression. “I’ll be back before you know it, and I’ll keep you updated.”

He grabbed one of their phasers and a canteen, ensured his communicator was at his belt, and began to walk in the direction of the blip. All he gave Spock was a wave over his shoulder, not even a look back. That was all he could really muster.

Maybe a part of him wanted to cast a glance behind him, just because he knew Spock didn’t expect him to and maybe Jim could finally catch him unguarded for a half a second, but he resisted the urge.

Instead, he trudged forward, plugging his destination into the tricorder then heading west toward the reading. He could follow the mountain range, where the sand was a little more shallow, and where the rock curved toward the horizon. Then he wouldn’t have to trudge through deep shoals and he’d have some kind of landmark to guide him.

The midmorning air was warm, and a breeze ruffled his choppy hair as he walked, feet sinking on every step into the white sand.

In spite of the heat, it reminded him of the aftermath of those heavy Iowa blizzards on the farm, when he’d pull on his boots and run out into the white morning-- snow reflecting light and light reflecting snow until it blinded him, flurries shining like sequins as they swirled over pale, rolling banks.

But the air was too dry, too hot. As Jim reached the base of the mountain range, finding that middle ground where sand met slope, the memories began to fade-- replaced instead with the stark reality of this place. The mountains weren’t quite as sheer here as they were on the other side of the range, but they still stood dark and fierce, reaching high into the blue skies. The landscape around him, too, was speared by dark crags of volcanic stone, and he didn’t doubt that larger formations could lie ahead. No, this wasn’t Iowa. This was nothing like Iowa.

Sometimes he forgot how homesick he was-- he’d been traveling for years, after all. But remembering the farm when he’d never been so far away from it always shot sadness straight into his gut. What he wouldn’t give for a blizzard, the chance to make snow angels outside with his brother, the chance to curl up in the living room with a book and a mug of coffee.

He shook his head, attempting to dislodge those impossible wishes. All these months, he had done so well, pushing aside the pain in favor of forging a way forward. He had to keep doing that, even without the extra support of Spock’s presence.

After a few minutes, he pulled his communicator from his belt, pausing as he’d promised. “Still alive,” he practically sing-songed over the channel, receiving a stiff “Confirmed,” in response.

Rolling his eyes, he clipped the communicator back to his belt.

Jim didn’t know what kind of mood had gripped him today. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and maybe he was letting some of that exhaustion color his already volatile emotions.

It hurt, keeping Spock at arm’s length, but he was so tired of feeling sad about it. Now he just wanted to lash out a little. Jim had no right to it-- he was being petulant, immature, and willfully so, but he’d been alone now for two months and he was scared. He needed some kind of human interaction. Even if it was negative. Even if it was just the frustration in the lines of Spock’s face when Jim called him out on being worried.

Jim moved along, noting the contrast of this place, white on black, stone on soft sand, heat on a landscape that looked like snow. It was a reminder of the infinite diversity of Alpha Novus V, and maybe a reminder of the lessons it had to teach.

In spite of the pain, or maybe because of it, Jim had learned a great deal from Tarsus IV. He’d learned how to survive, how to make himself strong, how to be there for people and how to take care of himself. Maybe Alpha Novus V-- be it paradise or prison-- would teach him something too.

But, god, that was still a terrible name. He ran over some more possibilities in his head to distract himself. Then, after a few minutes, he flipped open his communicator again.

“Still alive,” he said lamely. “And Spock--”

“Is something the matter?”

Jim almost laughed at the interruption. Incapable of worry, Spock had once said. Right. “No, no. Just wondering. What do you think of Alcatraz?”

“The old Earth prison?”
Jim shouldn’t have been surprised Spock knew what it was. The island that housed the Alcatraz museum was right off the shores of San Francisco, after all. “No. Well, yes, but I meant as a name for the planet.”

A few moments of silence followed the suggestion, and Jim felt more than a little self-satisfied. “If this is your attempt at humor--”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Fine, I’ll keep thinking. Kirk out.” He closed the communicator, hoping the suggestion had offended Spock a little. It had been decidedly less pleasant than previous proposals. But maybe it was the most appropriate name he’d floated by Spock so far. Though Spock hadn’t outright argued with him just now, Jim imagined what he would have said if he did. Probably would’ve brought up that no one had trapped them here for any purpose, and that neither of them were criminals. Logical reasons, of course.

Spock always had logical reasons for refuting his names, but Jim found as he trudged forward that it didn’t feel like a game anymore. Now that he’d said it, he wished he hadn’t.

As promised, Jim took frequent enough breaks, sitting in the shade of the stone and taking short sips from his canteen. Progress was slow thanks to the sink of the sand, but he was getting closer. With each small bit of distance covered, the tricorder picked up more. He registered plants somewhere just before the strange reading, likely growing near another spring in the mountainside. He also registered a few nooks and crannies a ways ahead, formed by larger walls of rock. It seemed, whatever this reading was, it was tucked into one of those nooks. That was likely why the sensors were having trouble with it. It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes into his trek that scanners actually revealed what it was.

“Still alive,” he said wearily into his communicator, tired of saying as much. “And, Spock, I’m finally getting a better read.”

“And?”

Wow, not even a ‘confirmed’ this time.

“And it’s a lifesign alright.”

“What are its properties?”

“Don’t get too excited,” he said, barreling ahead so Spock couldn’t protest the emotion. “It’s not humanoid. Certainly not developed, but it’s some kind of small mammal. And it’s not alone. I think it’s part of a herd.”

Even as he spoke, he watched the small group of purple dots, moving in the same wandering fashion as the first.

“I request that you return. We are unfamiliar with the life on this side of the mountains. You say it is a herd, but it could easily be a pack.”

Jim couldn’t really refute him on that one.

“I understand, but I’m going to keep going. At least see what else I can pick up before I head back.”

There was a crackling silence, then, “Confirmed. Spock out.”

A little surprised by how easy that had been, he kept going, wandering into an area that became decidedly rockier than where he’d begun. While he still tread along sand, the volcanic rock jutting out of the desert was taller, wider, forming overhangs and rocky slopes. Off to the north, toward the desert at large, he could see what looked to be paths leading under and around some of these crags. Nothing purposely constructed, but something he’d imagine the local wildlife using to reach the shade of the rocks.

Looking ahead, he seemed to be headed for one such path. Between the towering mountains beside him and the increase in height in the rocks to his other side, it was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, in spite of how much space he actually had, at least fifteen feet between the walls.

It was another five minutes or so of walking before the tricorder registered something new-- something almost certainly impossible.

It had only been a few minutes since his last check-in, but this was huge. He fumbled over his communicator in his hurry, flipping it open and nearly dropping it into the sand. “Spock,” he said, forgetting to tone down the urgency of his voice.

“Are you in danger?” came the immediate reply. Jim was too shocked to be annoyed.

“No, I just-- you won’t believe what I’m picking up here.”

“I’m en route to your location,” Spock said, without missing a beat and without even asking what Jim was looking at.

“You’re what? No, Spock, I’m fine. I--”

“I left six minutes ago.”

“You what?”

“I left six minutes ago,” Spock repeated, in the same, even tone.

Jim dropped his tricorder to his side, running a hand through his hair in frustration. “Why?”

“You claimed there were multiple creatures--”

“And we agreed I could handle it.”

“You agreed--”

“Spock--”

“I am concerned for your safety.” Spock said it in the same voice he’d said the rest, calm, cool, collected, as though this didn’t phase him at all. But Jim of all people knew what it meant for him to admit as much aloud. There was a pause, “It would be unfortunate if you were to be eaten.”

“You--” Jim sighed, rolled his eyes upwards and tried to find a little patience in the strip of blue visible through the crags of rock. “Okay, so you’re on your way. Can I please keep going?”

“You will remain in your present location.”

“Oh I will, will I?”

“Jim.”

“‘Jim’ isn’t a logical argument.”

“Jim, please remain in your present location.”

With a defeated flop of his hands, Jim glanced down at the readings. Mere feet ahead, just around a couple bends, the herd (or pack) of purple dots was still meandering, but it was what they were meandering through that had arrested Jim’s attention. Structures. Legitimate structures. Buildings . Signs of civilization, however old. How could he just wait?

“How will you even find me? I have the tricorder.”

“I noted the location of the mysterious reading in case this became necessary.”

“Of course you did.”

“I know it is difficult for you, but please exercise patience.”

A moment passed and Jim bit back the impulse to complain.

“Confirmed. Kirk out.” With that, he clipped his communicator back to his belt, and kept walking.

Spock wouldn’t know for sure that Jim had disobeyed, or, rather, ignored him. And all-in-all, the difference really was just a few feet.

He pulled out his phaser, deciding that Spock at least had a good enough point about the lifesigns being potentially dangerous. As he walked, he kept the weapon raised, ready just in case. And as the sand beneath his feet began to deepen, signifying an opening in the passage just ahead, he heard small noises that may or may not have warranted the caution.

What sounded like something between a goat’s bleat and a bird’s chirping reached his ears. At first, it seemed to be just one creature, but it was soon answered by a few of its fellows. The sound they made was surprisingly delicate, and Jim could only imagine the animals that made it were either harmless or deceptively deadly.

He took a breath, rounded the last corner, and leveled his phaser at the first thing that moved.

It turned out that ‘goat’ wasn’t too far off the mark. The animal that shuffled around in the line of his phaser was small, with what looked to be some kind of hoof shaped like a wide, flat disc, seemingly adapted to walk along the sand without sinking. Its legs were mere spindles covered in wiry white hair, which blended into a fuzzy dun brown the higher it climbed up the creature’s body. The little thing was thin, its neck long and curved, with a head almost like a deer that tapered into a trunk-like snout. It had no tail, no ears that Jim could tell, and baseball-sized eyes deep-set into its skull. As Jim watched, it turned toward him, pointed its snout upwards and flared its nose like a sunburst, like the nose of a mole. It made that sound again, and the rest of the herd looked up.

There were perhaps ten of them, and each began to squawk, pulling their noses from the sand where it looked as though they’d been foraging. Jim readied himself in case they were about to attack, but the one closest to him simply turned and began to hop off, discs slipping quickly along the sand. He followed it with his eyes as it gathered its herd with it, disappearing back into--

Into the nook he’d found himself in, which had widened into an open clearing with a wide passage on its far side. The place was large, at least a hundred yards wide and quite a bit longer than that. Along the lines of the walls and spread throughout the clearing in a perfect grid, were small, sandstone structures. He lost sight of the creatures, enraptured instead by the sight before him.

It was a town. A village.

Straight-cut and crafted sandstone had been used to construct the buildings, each small, square things; each with openings that likely functioned as windows at some point long ago. Some of these openings bore what he supposed he could call shutters, slabs of metal from the scavenged ship that hung from hammered hinges on the walls. There were no roofs, though he suspected anything made of wood or leaf would have rotted away by now.

Twenty structures in total (at least that Jim could see) were each large enough to hold, he assumed, a small family. Along the sides of some of the central homes, raised beds housed what his tricorder identified as workable soil, which must have been harvested from elsewhere on the planet, though it was intermixed with sand now. Whatever plants had once grown in them were long dead.

His stomach clenched at the sight as he walked forward, holding his breath, listening to the sound of desert wind over the rocks that still rose high on either side. Sand swirled slightly along the tops of the structures’ walls, eerie movement in a place that was otherwise still now that the creatures had disappeared beyond the passage.

Jim wandered forward toward the nearest structure, a perfect mirror image to the others, and peeked through the opening in the stone, hoping to find more evidence of the lives of these people. But even sheltered as this place was, the desert had reclaimed it. Sand laid a thick layer over the interior of the homes, and drifted up to the sides of the northernmost buildings where it must’ve fallen from the rocks above, creating dunes that had likely already buried a few buildings outside of Jim’s vision. In another two-thousand years, it might be completely consumed.

No wonder surface scans had concluded no record of civilization. In their own time, this would be lost history.

He stepped carefully, as though he might disturb whatever rested here. As though it were sacred ground and he didn’t belong. This place felt like it could have been a home, just not his own. And he was intruding.

He could practically see Vulcan families living here, the adults turning the sand into paste, drying it for rock, sleeves of their long, torn robes rolled up. Children helping their parents braid leaves for rope. Vulcans were known for working well in a community, and it looked as though they had established one.

How lucky were he and Spock, that they arrived just in time to find evidence of life-- evidence that someone else had crashed on this damned planet and done something with themselves.

He steadied himself against the solid wall of the nearest home, feeling a rush of heartbreak and hope. He wanted to lose himself in this place, to dig through the sand and uncover whatever had been left for him to find.

And there was even more . This clearing was large, yes, but Jim looked in the direction the small creatures had trotted, through that wide passage that led farther along the mountain range where the tricorder read more buildings. He wanted to move forward, to see how the Vulcan survivors had expanded beyond this tiny village, but the moment he took his first step, he thought of Spock.

Spock was on his way. Spock would walk into the thick of these buildings and the past would be right there -- something he couldn’t ignore or pretend not to see or pretend not to care about.

Jim couldn’t let him go through that on his own. Nor could he stomach the idea of exploring any further without Spock at his side. These had been Spock’s people. He needed to see what lay ahead even more than Jim did.

So Jim walked back the way he had come, head swimming with thoughts and impressions and feelings he didn’t even know how to begin to sort. And questions. Myriad questions. If the Vulcan survivors had made it this far, established solid homes, then what happened to them? Where were they now?

He leaned against the wall, stone digging into his spine, and waited.

It didn’t take long for Spock to arrive. Without the need for frequent breaks, and with the urgency his worry had likely instilled in him, Spock’s footsteps became audible mere moments after Jim had settled against the wall. When Spock rounded the nearest corner, his expression melted as much as it ever did into one of relief.

“You are unharmed,” Spock said, a breath escaping his chest as though he’d been holding it in.

“Of course I am,” Jim said, and he was about to tack on something teasing to diffuse his own unsettled emotions before Spock continued, taking a minute step forward.

“What is troubling you?”

Jim paused, surprise freezing him. Was he so transparent? Whatever lessons he thought he’d been taking from Spock in the quiet stoicism department were obviously failing. He didn’t know if he could explain what he’d seen, so he opened his mouth, closed it, then worried his lower lip between his teeth, forcing himself to look away.

“Jim, what did you find?”

Jim raised his eyes again, meeting Spock’s. He could see the concern in them, but Spock shouldn’t have been concerned about Jim of all people.

Please, don’t worry about me, Jim wanted to say. It’s my turn to worry about you. But he couldn’t say it aloud, so he said it the only other way he knew how.

“I think you just need to see it. Just-- stick close to me, okay, Spock?”

The request likely confused Spock, since ‘close’ was off-limits and since he’d been assured moments ago that there was no danger, but Jim asked all the same. He wanted Spock to know that he was right there. Spock was probably the last person on Alpha Novus V to need emotional support, or to admit to needing it, but damn if Jim wasn’t going to provide it anyway. No matter what they’d decided to be to each other, no matter how Jim had wanted to cling to his frustration and sadness, he couldn’t let Spock handle what lay ahead on his own.

Spock nodded, suspicion pulling his brows together and deepening the divots at the corners of his mouth. “Very well,” he said, and came level with Jim, holding out his hand in the direction of the opening. “Lead the way.”

Jim did, but made sure he never left Spock more than a step behind.

When they rounded the corner, Jim stepped to the side, allowing Spock a clear view of the town. He held his breath, eyes laser-focused on his friend.

Spock moved forward at the same steady pace, passing Jim, arms stiff at his sides. Jim didn’t fail to notice the way his whole body seemed to tense, the way his jaw clenched and his breath all but stopped. Then, Spock halted and stood just inside the grid of homes. A breeze fluttered his hair in its tie, the only part of him that moved.

Jim came forward, wanting nothing more than to reach out and place a hand on Spock’s shoulder, his elbow, the small of his back, anything to show he was there, but he didn’t want to shake Spock’s foundations any more than they were already.

He at least knew one way to help. Spock was terrible at dealing with emotions, but excellent at dealing with information. All they needed to do was to turn all this, everything that was too big to handle, into something Spock could categorize.

“Spock?”

Spock seemed to startle, glancing to his side where Jim held the tricorder lamely out to him, trying not to look concerned.

“Did you want to…” Jim trailed off, offering the tricorder a little more obviously. Spock seemed to take a moment to understand what Jim was asking, but he ended up delicately removing the device from Jim’s hands, nodding in thanks. He seemed very far away.

Pulling his eyes from the scene before them, Spock looked down at the tricorder, initiating the scan. Jim had already done as much, and he’d recorded the composition and age of the stones, the layout of the town. But Spock needed to do this for himself.

“This village has been here for more than three-thousand years,” Spock said, half in wonder. “However, additions and repairs are as recent as nine-hundred years old. The masonry and architecture is of Vulcan technique, as is the grid-pattern of the layout. It seems we have found the… the home of our survivors.”

“And if they built additions and repairs as recent as nine-hundred years ago,” Jim said, throat tight, “they lived a long time. Generations.”

Spock gave a stiff nod, but didn’t look at Jim. Instead, he moved forward, eyes falling to the tricorder whenever they lingered too long elsewhere. “This collection of dwellings would have housed, at most, a hundred Vulcans,” he said, voice so purposely stiff that it scared Jim a little. “Based on the crash, there would have been more survivors.”

“The animals I found ran in that direction, toward some more buildings according to the tricorder” Jim said. “They were obviously prey, so it’s probably not dangerous.”

Spock looked to Jim, and Jim saw his hands clench almost unnoticeably around the tricorder. “Then we will proceed.”

Spock’s voice was calm, but his eyes held something heavy and dark. It was like watching a hurricane blow in. Jim didn’t want it to get to the point that those winds picked up, didn’t want to see Spock break. But they had to keep going. They were both explorers at heart, and neither of them would’ve turned away from the promise held in the passage ahead of them.

After a moment suspended between the understanding in their eyes, they turned at the same time, moving forward. Jim stuck close to Spock’s side, but let him lead as his eyes traced the path on the tricorder screen.

Jim kept one eye on Spock and the other on the passage before them, already seeing a few feet ahead where it opened up again-- and already seeing the corners of what must have been another structure through it.

It turned out, there was much more to this village. Larger buildings on this side, set up in a similar grid-pattern, boasted more than one level, though time had crumbled some of the remaining walls. It was wider here, more open, and about twice as large as the space that had preceded it. The rock walls on either side of this clearing stood higher but without any overhang that obscured the blue sky. It made the sunshine glint stunningly bright off the old white stone.

What drew Jim’s eye, though, wasn’t the composition of the buildings so much as what cut through them, A constructed path-- wide enough to be called a road-- split the middle of the town, flattened slabs of volcanic rock that divided the area in two and led through to the next passage in the rock. Much of the road was covered in sand, but Jim could tell with a glance that the Vulcans had sliced the stone off the mountain with a laser cutter, or something akin to it. It made for a beautiful effect, if eerie. The passage to which the road led curved southward toward the mountain range, clearly laid with intent. Jim glanced at Spock.

“Where do you think that leads?” he asked, and for some reason he felt a knot of dread in his stomach at the question. Maybe it was Spock’s reaction to it, the narrowing of the space between his shoulder blades, as though steeling himself.

“There is only one way to be sure.”

Jim agreed, and they soldiered on, silent but for the crunch of sand between their boots and the stone. Jim felt himself tensing, a kind of fear sinking into him as they passed under a craggy overhang, between the thick rock walls, and rounded the corner.

The scene that opened up before them existed in startling, perfect contrast to the world they had just passed through. An acres-wide bay of grass lay in the hollow of the mountain range, where towering spires and walls of stone hugged the field’s southernmost curve. The grass, made up of wide dun-green shards, started sparse and sporadic near their feet, but thickened the closer to the mountain it grew.

Jim’s eyes darted round the meadow-- if it could be called a meadow-- noting a stream that ran along its eastern edge, springing from the mountain in a tumbling waterfall and slipping back into the rock just a few yards away from where they stood. It was beautiful, and its sound echoed gently around them. He thought suddenly that there must be more of these natural springs around for the grass to grow so thick here, so he scanned the mountain range for signs of waterfalls, but what he saw instead gave him pause.

Jim reached out a hand instinctively to Spock’s arm, gripping his elbow without once taking his eyes off the sheer mountainside.

Vulcan script was scrawled along the towering rock at the far edge of the meadow. It was carved deep into the stone, deep enough that they could see it even from this distance. He doubted Spock could make out what it said from here, but Jim had no doubt he recognized it for what it was. It looked to be some kind of monument, and inspired in Jim a hollow feeling of mourning that nearly made his knees buckle.

Spock didn’t seem to notice the hand on him, but broke the contact when he moved forward, zombie-like toward the meadow. The tricorder fell to his side, followed by his arms. Suddenly, his shoulders were lax. He knew something Jim didn’t.

What could this mean? What had this place been to these people?

Spock stopped a little way ahead of Jim, eyes downcast. It took a moment for Jim to collect himself, jogging forward the best he could to Spock’s side.

“Spock,” Jim said, quiet and entreating. He didn’t know how to follow it, didn’t know what to say or ask. He just had to say something to break the silence that felt taut between them. Without a glance at Jim, Spock got to his knees, and Jim followed the line of his eyes downward.

The grass where Spock knelt had been flattened by a small metal panel, likely taken from the ship, cut into a perfect square and set here with some sort of intent. It was a little overgrown, but Spock brushed off the grass that lay on top of it. Vulcan script was carved into the metal, something Jim couldn’t even begin to read. But it obviously carried some weight. When the entirety of the message revealed itself, Spock sat back on his heels. His eyes lifted, scanning the meadow. Jim followed his gaze, noting other places where the grass wasn’t growing. More of these panels, Jim guessed.

“Spock,” Jim said again, kneeling beside him and noticing only now that Spock’s shoulders were trembling. The motion was slight, so slight that Jim thought it might be a trick of the sunlight reflecting on the nearby stream. But as he scanned Spock’s face for answers he found that the storm had darkened in his eyes. “What is it? What are all these?”

Spock didn’t look at Jim, merely pulled the tricorder from his shoulder and shoved it into Jim’s chest, knocking him off balance. Then, Spock stood, turning on his heel and walking back in the direction they’d come. Jim pivoted, following him with his eyes. “Spock!” he shouted, but Spock didn’t seem to hear, an unknown purpose speeding his steps as though he were fleeing. Jim looked down to the screen, trying to figure out what it was that had set Spock off.

And then he saw the readings.

Jim struggled to his feet immediately, catching sight of Spock disappearing around the corner back toward the town. “Spock, wait!” he jogged to catch up, a little lopsided on his leg, gripping the tricorder whose readout screen listed the number of bodies buried in this meadow. Two-thousand and fifty-seven Vulcans. Each with a panel marking their grave.

Jim was not nearly as fast as Spock, so even jogging as Spock walked he didn’t actually catch up to the man until Spock was almost completely outside the village. Jim lunged forward, grabbing Spock’s elbow and wheeling him around. “Spock, stop!”

Spock’s eyes met his, and Jim saw it-- something in him was screaming, and it was taking every single bit of control he had to hold it in.

“Spock, calm down. It’s okay.”

"Two-thousand and fifty-seven of my people lived and died here,” he said, voice wavering. “two-thousand and fifty-seven--”

“Spock,”

“Jim, please.” Spock turned away, pulling his arm from Jim’s grasp and heading down the passage they’d taken to get here.

Jim followed, heart pounding with worry. “Spock, talk to me.”

“That would be unwise.”

“Okay, then tell me what you need.”

“I need meditation. Quiet. I need…” Spock trailed off, slowing then stopping in his tracks, fists clenched at his sides. Jim was afraid to move too close, but he approached anyway, a hand outstretched.

“What do you need?” he asked again, chest tight.

Spock forced his hands open, tried to smooth out his shoulders, tried to straighten his spine. But he had curled in upon himself like a dead insect, stiff and unmoving, whether he willed it or not. “I do not know what I need,” he practically whispered.

Jim’s heart broke at those words. Spock knew everything , and if he didn’t know something he damn well figured it out. Jim could only imagine the kind of war that was waging in him-- grief and heartache compounded by the shame of feeling anything at all.

Jim put a hand on Spock’s arm and stepped in front of him. Nervously meeting Spock’s downcast eyes. “Please, Spock,” he said, stepping a little closer, “let me.”

Whether or not Spock knew what Jim meant, he gave a stiff, curt nod, an expression of trust Jim wasn’t sure he had earned. But even though neither Jim nor Spock knew what Spock needed, Jim did know what helped him when he was gripped with fear and sadness and loss.

Hesitating for the briefest of moments, Jim raised a hand to the side of Spock’s face where it hovered just above the skin. Jim waited for Spock to draw back, to smack him away, but Spock simply stared at him, eyes wide.

There wasn’t any turning back now. With a hard swallow, Jim drew the corner of his lip between his teeth, then softly brushed his fingers against Spock’s temple, a caress so light it barely felt like they’d made contact at all. Without knowing exactly how to convey it, he tried to exude everything into that touch, soothing calm, affection, assurance that Spock wasn’t alone, that he was going to be okay.

Then, in a moment that stole the breath from Jim’s lungs, Spock leaned into the touch of Jim’s fingers, eyes fluttering closed as he breathed through his nose. “There,” Jim said around the choke in his throat, “just breathe.”

He cupped the curve of Spock’s face, more sure of himself now, curling his fingers slightly, afraid to move in case he broke the moment or scared Spock away. But they stood like that for a long time.

He didn’t know if it was the emotions he tried to project through their contact or the simple matter of his touch that calmed the storm in Spock, but under his hand Jim felt the release of tension, inch by inch, heartbeat by heartbeat. He timed his own breaths to the rise and fall of Spock’s chest, willing it to slow.

Finally, Spock parted his lips, a soft sigh escaping. “I am troubled,” he said, voice so quiet Jim had to strain his ears to hear, “because they simply... gave up. They resigned themselves to their fate. They established a settlement rather than attempting to repair their ship. They never tried to return to Vulcan. They--” he stopped himself, perhaps hearing the emotion in his voice that he’d been so good at stamping down.

This was too much for Spock, Jim could tell. The final straw. And though touching him so intimately hurt, and though Jim knew they would have to return to their detached efficiency after all this, he couldn’t be selfish right now. He couldn’t protect his own heart when Spock’s needed him.

“They were colonists , Spock” Jim said, urging Spock to lift his eyes. “These people fell into a horrible situation and lived through it, did exactly what they were meant to do. How many generations do you think that was?”

“Likely ten, though their numbers must have dwindled--”

“Spock, ten generations . That means they had spouses, families. Life . How is that a failure?” Jim tried for a smile, something warm, encouraging.

Spock’s brows tilted upwards, surprise and something else smoothing the furrows on his forehead. They were silent for a moment, Jim hyper-aware of the heat of Spock’s skin, the sound of the breeze billowing around them, the coarse fabric of Spock’s shirt under his touch.

Then, slowly, Spock raised his hand and laid it over Jim’s, the pads of his fingers stroking Jim’s knuckles with such delicate wonder that Jim almost forgot to breathe. And through that touch, he felt his own emotions reflected in Spock, coming from Spock. Affection he wasn’t sure Spock still felt for him now projected as clearly as though Spock had whispered it against his lips.

It overwhelmed him, like a tidal wave rising and wetting the soles of his feet until his whole body fell into its current. After everything, this had remained the same. Spock cared for him, so deeply Jim wondered that he had ever doubted it, ever thought Spock’s affections had waned with the force of distance.

As Jim stood dumbstruck before him, heart hammering against his ribs, Spock laced their fingers together and pulled Jim’s hand from his face, bringing it between them and cupping it in both of his own. Jim pulled his eyes away from the contact, focusing on Spock’s face, the tips of his ears tinted green, a softness to the way he held his lips. Jim ached, watching Spock’s guard fall like this, completely undone, and he was sure Spock could feel the admiration and awe and relief that Jim exuded through their contact.

Because he could also feel Spock’s. He had missed this feeling, the simple comfort of warm eyes and gentle understanding, the way Spock looked through him and Jim looked through Spock and they always saw each other at their worst, their most vulnerable, and never balked at what they found.

Oh, but this would hurt later, when it all went away.

After a few breaths, Spock gently pressed their clasped hands to Jim’s chest and released him, arms falling to his sides, saying something in his expression that was just as incomprehensible to Jim as the Vulcan script had been.

“Thank you,” Spock said, and maybe that was it. Gratitude. He still wasn’t looking directly at Jim, but that was alright. Jim could barely look at Spock either, but he suspected he was in a better emotional state than the man before him.

Jim felt a soft, reassuring smile touching his lips, unbidden, but he felt too much to hide it. He held his hand against his own chest where Spock had left it, fingers still tingling from the contact. Slowly, he released Spock’s arm.

“Better?”

“Calmer,” Spock corrected gently. “But I would like to leave this place.”

“Of course. Right,” Jim said, realizing he was standing directly in Spock’s path and stepping to his side. He gestured forward, suddenly embarrassed by the way they’d touched, embarrassed to have been so vulnerable at the moment Spock needed him to be strong.

But it had worked. And though Jim was terrified to speak, to somehow ruin the delicate balance Spock had achieved, he wondered that Spock had allowed him to help. Under all the frosty silence they’d crafted these last couple of months, he still trusted Jim.

They walked on together in silence, but not the kind of silence that they had become used to. No, this was much more akin to the quiet contentment they shared when they had allowed themselves the comfort of each other. Jim tried telling himself not to get used to it. But savor it? That, he could do.

 


 

It was kind, if unecessary, for Jim to dance around the subject of the Vulcan village. The entire walk back to their cave, he was silent, and Spock felt reticent to break that silence. The last hour had been enlightening in myriad ways, and there was still so much to digest, to consider, to meditate over and then, only after that, to discuss.

There would be much to discuss. For now, it sufficed to tell Jim that he needed time to meditate. Jim was reluctant to leave Spock alone, and Spock was insistent that Jim not go wandering again, and so they retreated to camp. Spock to absorb himself in the darkness and Jim to get a much-needed meal and some time to rest.

“Will you attempt to sleep?” Spock asked as they made their way into the cave’s depths. He could hear Jim’s fatigue in the rhythm of his steps, an obvious limp.

“Sleep? There’s at least six hours before bedtime.”

“Then how will you occupy your time?”

Jim kept his eyes forward as the light from the tricorder illuminated their path, his voice hesitant. “I might go over some of these readings,” he said. It was delicate, as if he worried even saying that much might cause Spock another emotional outburst. But Spock was under shaky control now, still processing so much he didn’t know how to process. If he let his mind wander for more than a moment, it would retreat to the village, to those falling structures and silent graves. He couldn’t allow that until he was safe, seated, and able to close himself off. After meditation, he would be fully functional. Or so he hoped.

“That is wise. I regret I am not able to assist you.”

“It’s a small screen,” Jim provided. “You know, always hard to go over these things together.”

“Indeed,” Spock said, though he knew that was an excuse to make him feel better. They had spent many hours huddled over that screen together in the past. “Please inform me if you have any revelations after you have had a chance to examine the data.”

“I think we’ve had plenty of revelations for one day.”

Spock didn’t know if Jim referred to the revelation of the Vulcan survivors, or the revelation Spock was slowly undergoing, but he was right that much had come into startling clarity. Still, Jim didn’t know the contents of Spock’s mind-- the revelations he himself had come to. Would come to. If he let himself come to them.

But even considering the weight of these thoughts without delving into them was too much, and he found he could only concentrate on the bouncing beam of light that illuminated their path, the crunching sound of their footfalls, the impressions in the sand where they’d dragged their mining cart, the footprints they’d already left through the now-familiar passage. Physical, tangible things.

They neared their campsite, remains of last night’s fire in view, and Spock moved forward to tug that stiff, heavy fur off their makeshift bed.

“I do not know how long I will be in my meditation,” Spock said, clutching the fur between his fingers out of Jim’s view.

“Don’t worry,” Jim said, and Spock heard a small, nervous smile in his voice. “I’ll be here-- and quiet-- the whole time.”

When Spock turned back to Jim, he knew his own expression contained gratitude, maybe too much, but he had regained such control over so many of his myriad emotions that if gratitude was the one that chose to show itself, he counted himself fortunate.

As Spock crossed his legs on the cushion of the fur, he could feel Jim’s restlessness. Whether it was the remnants of the tentative mental link that had been formed by the touch of their hands or the fact that he simply knew Jim preferred to remain active, he did not know. However, after a few minutes, he heard Jim settle, likely absorbed now in the readings. But Spock was trying to force his attention inward, where the real battles lay.

He focused on his breaths for a few minutes, mentally repeating mantras of control to center himself, falling into the familiar words and allowing them to sweep him away, into the parts of his mind that rolled and shook like a ship on choppy waves.

two-thousand fifty-seven people. Ten generations. The numbers swirled through his mind like riptides and they hurt . He tried to categorize that hurt, to understand its origins.

They had estimated that four hundred people had been on the colonizing vessel, and one hundred fifty people may have survived the crash. That meant that the majority of the two-thousand-fifty-seven lost souls in that graveyard would never have known the planet Vulcan. They would never have seen the spires of Shi’Khar, known the taste of redspice. Their katras would have been lost at the moment of their deaths, with no one to transfer them to a katric ark. They would have suffered great hardships after losing the majority of their original number and creating so much from scratch. And yet as far as Spock could tell, they had not attempted to leave this planet.

Had the challenge proved too much? Had they discovered the wormhole web and calculated the odds of getting home as Spock had? But even in the face of those odds, wasn’t it worth a try? They had not attempted to solve their problem. They had not tried to get home. Why?

But Jim’s words came back to him. ‘They were colonists.’ How simple an answer, and yet how logical. Of course, if they had been assigned a purpose, these Vulcans would execute it. By a miracle, they had crashed in a hospitable desert. Given the changing climate of the planet, it was likely it had been warmer three-thousand years ago. Warm enough that the heat waves rising off the sand may have whispered something like home.

It was easy to allow his imagination to wander, though he tried to suppress it. It was easy to think of the trek from shipwreck to shelter, the green blood that would have dotted the white sand as they carted their injured, their tired children, long robes trailing. It was easy to imagine the endless toil of burying their dead, the way they must have dug into the dirt of that meadow with makeshift tools the way Jim and Spock himself had dug the graves of their crewmates.

But the Vulcans would have buried far more people after their crash-- somewhere around two-hundred-fifty of them. They may have lost children. Elders, even. Friends, family, colleagues. Bondmates. Then, they had given up. Resigned themselves to their fate. Trapped.

Perhaps Alcatraz was a suitable name for the planet after all.

Or, Spock forced himself to remember, they had continued on. Fulfilled their purpose. Lived. Thrived-- for a time.

Was their legacy one of resignation, or of hope? Jim thought the Vulcans had succeeded in something. And, perhaps they had. Perhaps they had even been content.

But Jim frequently saw hope where Spock did not. Jim saw promise where Spock saw none. Jim saw potential and possibilities where Spock saw challenges. He wanted to believe as Jim believed, to feel as Jim felt, but it had become clear over the last two months that their beliefs might always be at-odds. Even (and especially) when their feelings were not.

And then his thoughts slipped again wandering from the source of his pain, which still burned like a fresh wound, to the source of his comfort, which pulsed and shined like sunlight in the recesses of his mind. For all that they had tried to distance themselves, Spock always unconsciously sought thoughts of Jim when he needed reassurance, comfort, hope.

Jim wanted to try ‘this,’ he’d said those months ago. In spite of the illogic of it all. In spite of Spock’s inexperience and the fact that he could never give Jim the emotional connection that Jim wanted-- needed.

And Spock had acted logically in the aftermath of that tumultuous mistake, done the reasonable thing. He had chosen not to complicate their lives. And now Spock was sick with wanting, just as Jim was. To what end? Reducing the pain of when they returned, reducing the risk of staying here alone as long as they had to, but at the cost of something else. Contentment. Maybe even happiness if Spock would allow himself to feel it.

Perhaps their success, like the success of the Vulcan survivors, should not be measured in their tangible goals, but in the way they used their time, their life, their energy.

It had taken two-thousand and fifty-seven of his people, buried in ancient graves on an unnamed planet, to make him reconsider the balance of logic and emotion. But now he reconsidered it. And when he was able to sift through the sights, smells and sounds of that abandoned village without the pang of loss to cling to him, he would be able to understand what that meant.

Hours must have passed as Spock mulled over these thoughts, but he took his time with them. On the edge of a decision that would change his life forever, he could not afford to hurry. To rush headlong into something just because he wanted it.

He breathed deeply, steady in the knowledge that this decision would be reached logically, and at peace with the fact that it also had to be reached emotionally. The two could not always be treated separately.

More time, he decided. Just a little more time. He could not allow himself to decide anything in the wake of what he had felt today, but he could promise himself that a decision would be made.

Slowly, Spock pulled the hooks from his thoughts, distancing himself from the village, his people, from the graveyard and the empty ship and the whole of this planet that had claimed the lives of thousands of individuals. When he took his last, deep breaths and opened his eyes, he found his gaze moving thoughtlessly to the side, where he still felt Jim’s presence.

Jim was lying on his stomach on a rumpled cushion of blankets, holding the tricorder out in front of him and scanning its screen with sharp eyes. Only his face and hands were fully illuminated in that white-blue glow, and it was likely he couldn’t see Spock had come out of his meditation. Spock took advantage of that to watch him for a while. Jim scratched his head, gnawed on the corner of his lip, ran his tongue along his teeth, all the while dutifully reading. Jim could be reckless and overactive, but when he focused on something, he gave it his full attention. It would make him an excellent captain someday, Spock thought fondly.

The emotion welled up against his will, but it did not surprise him. Fondness. Longing.

More time, he reminded himself.

Spock began to experience a moment of guilt for continuing to watch Jim while his presence was unknown, so he cleared his throat, finding it almost comical when Jim practically tossed the tricorder in his surprise.

“Spock!” Jim said, scrambling to a sitting position and shining the light of the tricorder at him, “You’re awake. Well, you know what I mean.”

Spock shielded his eyes against the brightness, which prompted Jim to lower it. He set the tricorder down on the floor between them so the light shone upwards and cast a dim illumination over them both, throwing impressive shadows along the rough cave wall. “Indeed,” Spock said, unable to repress the flash of pride that his voice now sounded steady to his own ears. “I am surprised you did not decide to wander off.”

“I was under strict orders to stay right here and rest,” Jim said with a twitch to his lips, though Spock knew that ‘orders’ were the last reason he had stayed. “How are you feeling?” Jim tacked on before Spock could respond.

Spock considered the question, unwilling to lie or dodge after the insights his meditation had given him.

“I feel fine,” Spock replied, and his answer must have surprised Jim because the man’s eyes widened before his smile warmed, smoothed, softened and spread itself, crinkling his eyes in that way that was endearing and sorely missed.

“Good.”

“Did you make any discoveries?” Spock gestured to the tricorder.

Jim looked to it, then shot his eyes back to Spock. The smile slipped. “Are you sure you want to talk about this now? You’ve had a long day.”

“The day has not been longer than any other, by pure span of time.”

“You know what I mean.”

Spock appreciated the concern, but he was alright. Somehow. After everything he’d learned today, somehow he was still alright. “I am quite centered now, Jim.”

Jim looked skeptical, but beckoned Spock over all the same as he took the tricorder from the ground. Spock stood and approached, watching as Jim smoothed out the blankets to make him a place to sit, then crossed his legs with the tricorder in his lap.

Spock settled beside him, knees a bare millimeter from touching as they were every time they shared the small screen. Perhaps he was more aware of it now due to the contents of his meditation.

“So, I did find out a few notable things,” Jim began, and it sounded as though he was warring between sadness and excitement. “Those garden beds we found? Alongside some of the homes? They actually grew Vulcan plants in them.”

“It would make sense for a colony vessel to contain seeds. I am, however surprised they did not plant them on a wider scale. If the meadow is any indication, there are areas near the established village that could have been agriculturally useful.”

Jim gave a noncommittal tilt of his head. “Maybe, but they probably wouldn’t have risked disturbing the natural ecosystem. Some of the plant evidence we picked up indicates prolific species.” He pointed to the readings, and Spock nodded.

“That is an insightful observation, Jim.”

Jim glanced at him with a smile on his lips, then as though realizing their proximity, hurriedly looked back to the screen. “Right. Thank you. And, ah, let’s see. Oh, I also went over the scans of the buildings themselves. Looks like the sandstone was handmade, as expected. I haven’t seen any naturally occurring sandstone here, but you have to admit that’s impressive. If they started with, what did we estimate? About one-hundred-fifty people? They must have worked quickly.”

“Necessity does breed ingenuity,” Spock said. “Our own situation is a rather perfect example.”

“I suppose so,” Jim said softly. “But I can only imagine how much work it took to make a whole town from scratch. Let alone one that lasted three-thousand years.”

“Indeed. That they accomplished so much with so little is admirable.”

Jim raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve changed your tune, Mister Spock” he observed, and the warmth folded in the sound of his name made Spock’s heart thrum.

Spock nodded, eyes on the screen as he suddenly found looking at Jim directly to be difficult. “During my meditation, I reconsidered a great many things. You are correct in saying their survival was not a failure. My people are… resilient. These colonists took the most logical course of action to ensure both their survival and the fulfilment of their purpose, and they did well. Should we make it back to the Federation, I would like to find a way to commemorate them.”

Jim’s shoulders fell a little and his chest rose with a deep breath. He waited a beat before he responded, but when he did his voice contained all the awe and affection that Spock had felt flowing through his touch earlier. “I think that’s… an excellent idea. And, Spock?” Spock met his eyes, a question in them that he did not ask, “I’m glad you feel that way.”

Feel. Spock immediately corrected Jim in his mind. He thought that way, but he didn’t feel that way. Then again, perhaps they were one in the same.

“Thank you, Jim,” Spock said gently.

“For what?”

He should have expected the question, but still it took him off-guard. Spock thought on it for a moment, wondering how to begin. He felt he owed Jim so much, and none of it was easy to translate. Nor would all of it be wise to say aloud. Though he was centered, he still felt the undercurrent of emotions within him, powerful enough to give him pause. Powerful enough to warn him not to get swept away.

Nervousness rose, and it took him only moments to identify its cause. There was much he needed to express, and perhaps he could allow himself to express some of it now. He simply did not know how it would be received.

“Our conversation earlier opened my mind to different perspectives. About the Vulcan colonists, yes, but also--” he paused, and Jim scooted sideways so he could get a better look at Spock. As this also pulled Jim farther away from him physically, Spock did not know whether to feel relief or disappointment.

With a breath, he continued. “I find it strange that, at the moment I felt most emotionally unstable, it was neither logic nor meditation that calmed me. It was... you. For all your impressive ability to affect me, you are also able to center me in a way I did not know was possible. I thought, erroneously, that I needed to distance myself. That we needed to distance ourselves from each other. But, Jim.”

Spock kept his eyes on Jim’s, knowing Jim knew what he was about to say. He would have felt it when their hands had met so intimately before. But it was important that Spock say it aloud-- for both their sakes.

“I miss you,” he finally finished, the emotion rising in his throat and choking on the last word. He swallowed, averting his eyes so he couldn’t see Jim’s expression. “I apologize for the emotionalism of the comment, but it is true.”

“Spock,” Jim began, but Spock held up a hand to silence him, knowing if he stopped now he might not gain the courage to begin again.

“Please, Jim. I am attempting to apologize. I am sorry I allowed my fear to control me. I am still afraid, because I already care for you more than is wise. But I have come to realize that I will care for you no matter what we choose to do and I am… I am happier when we are not cold toward each other.”

Jim’s breath was accelerated, and Spock could dimly hear his heart beating a staccato rhythm. Fear or anticipation, he didn’t know. He’d established his barriers as strong as he could, and he could not afford to drop them now. Unsure how to continue, Spock felt himself bring his hands into his lap, touching his own fingers the way he wished he had the courage to touch Jim’s.

“So,” Jim said, voice a quiet choke, “what exactly is it you want?”

And there was that word again. Want. What did Spock want?

Immediately, his thoughts supplied one word, ‘Jim.’ He wanted Jim. But that could mean a great many things, and just because he wanted something did not mean it was his by right.

“I want to return to the way we were,” Spock replied, unsure if the answer was correct but finding no better way to phrase it. “I understand this may not be satisfactory, but I cannot be more or less to you than I am.”

He only hoped that Jim would not ask what that meant. Spock did not know what he was to Jim, he simply was. Just as Jim was to him. It was undefined, perhaps undefinable, but it existed, and they could not ignore it forever.

Spock couldn’t feel Jim’s emotions, but he saw them clear as day when he raised his eyes to Jim’s face. He had not looked so vulnerable in so long, eyes wide, lips lax, and his heart--

It was racing. Spock could hear it now, pounding against his ribcage, and he remembered the way that heart had beat against his back when he carried Jim through the cave so many months ago, or when his chest had pressed against Jim’s in a mess of breath and wandering hands. Oh, but Spock wanted that , too. And still there was so much in the way.

They were quiet for a time, and Spock thought he could allow Jim time to process the request. But impatience gripped him, sudden and hard, and he wanted Jim to speak. If only so he knew if his own desires, even the deepest of them, were even possible anymore.

“What do you want, Jim?” he asked gently.

Jim’s lips pursed and he looked down, eyes falling to Spock’s hands. Spock wondered if Jim was perhaps thinking back to the brush of their fingers earlier. Through that contact, Jim would have felt that Spock wanted more than he was currently proposing, but he may also have felt that Spock was not prepared to ask for it yet. Spock hoped Jim would understand and respect that. He had before.

After a moment, Jim chuckled, raising a hand to scrub his face, his smile humorless and somehow sad.

“I think what I want is impossible,” he said, voice low.

Spock gave him a quizzical glance, almost concerned, but Jim wasn’t looking at him. Maybe he couldn’t.

“Are you familiar with Zeno’s paradox?” Jim asked.

“Of course,” Spock replied immediately, almost offended that Jim hadn’t just assumed that he would be familiar with such rudimentary theory. “Which one?”

Jim huffed a laugh and in spite of Spock’s walls he could almost feel the hollow amusement that flowed from his companion. “I shouldn’t have even bothered asking. You probably know it better than I do.” At Spock’s maintained stare, Jim continued. “I was thinking about Dichotomy. You know, before you can travel any distance, you have to first travel half that distance. But before you can travel that distance, you have to travel a quarter, then one-eighth, meaning it’s impossible to actually get to your destination because you have an infinite number of tasks to complete.” He paused, then lifted his eyes to Spock’s, a small smile touching the corners of his lips, but reaching no higher. “Does that sound about right, Professor Spock?”

It took a moment for Spock to realize Jim was teasing him, albeit gently. Spock shifted slightly, confusion making him uncomfortable. “Indeed, but may I ask what bearing that has on our situation?”

With a half sigh, Jim’s smile faded. “You see, Spock,” he said, “I want to travel this-- this distance. And I feel like I’ve been moving in halves and quarters and eighths all this time, and--” he stopped, cast his eyes upward as though searching for the words in the rough texture of the rock above. “And I guess I’m saying that maybe this is as close as we can get-- as close as we should get. And maybe I need to accept that.”

Something clenched in Spock’s gut at the quiet admission, a feeling of guilt and sadness rising in him when he searched the depths of Jim’s eyes. He knew in his heart that Jim was mistaken, that they could be closer, could defy the paradox and occupy the same space-- become one rather than two. But in the torrent of emotion that had gripped Spock today he could not ask for that, nor could he ensure that he could maintain it. Jim deserved certainty. Jim wanted certainty.

And they both knew Spock could not provide him with certainty. Not now.

After a time, Jim spoke again, likely realizing that Spock had been struck a little speechless. “I miss you, too,” Jim admitted softly, the words lighting a fire in Spock that had been dulled to embers, but still burned. “And I’d rather have you as a friend than nothing at all. Even if that much is too much. Even if that much is-- oh, ‘unhealthy.’ ‘Unwise.’ I hate this-- the way we’ve been.”

Spock felt himself take in a shuddering breath. “As do I,” he said. It was all he knew to say.

Jim swallowed, scooting forward almost imperceptibly. “So, friends, then?”

“If you will allow it.”

With a breath, Jim ducked his head, that sad smile returning to the curve of his lips.

Once again, somehow, they had found a way to meet in the middle. Consistently, they found themselves on opposite sides of what seemed to be a divide-- philosophically, ideologically, practically-- and yet all it took was a conversation. A few honest words. And when Spock reached out, Jim reached back.

He found he was infinitely grateful for that. He could not instill hope in Jim-- the idea of a ‘maybe someday,’ but he felt that hope rising in himself. Maybe someday, they would travel the remainder of that distance.

More time, Spock reminded himself once again. A mantra now. Just a little more time.