Jim hadn’t quite managed to fall asleep yet. But it wasn’t as though he’d tried very hard. He hadn’t even laid down. It was early evening, and he was supposed to be resting while Spock did, well, whatever he did while Jim slept, but he was frozen where he sat, the light of his communicator illuminating the wall where he’d been carving tick marks every day before he fell asleep. Even when they’d been at their other campsite, Jim had kept track of the standard days and eventually consolidated all of them here, onto the rough stone of the cave near the caldera.
And now, he stared at them all, neat little rows lined out by the laser cutter, tallies that made the wall of their home look a bit like a prison, though it had stopped feeling that way quite a while ago. He counted those tallies again, one more time, just to be sure. And the outcome was the same.
Three-hundred and sixty-five.
One year. The second Jim laid down to sleep, it would be the beginning of year two on Alpha Novus V. Or, well, Sha Ka Ree. Paradise.
Something ached in him at the thought and he lifted himself to his feet, shining the light of his communicator over the first few tallies. Day one. He stroked the line softly with his fingertips. The day of the crash, the day Carter, Taigen and Nelson had died. Day four. Pike.
Guilt rose in him again as he scanned the three-hundred and sixty-one tally marks that came after, remembering the day he’d finished carving his chess set-- around here, Jim thought as he touched a mark about five months in-- shore leave, somewhere about a month later. Eight months, the ship graveyard. Nine, the day they’d kissed in the blistering sunlight of the desert and Jim had felt so happy he thought he could burst.
And now, day three-hundred and sixty-five.
The way the two of them had been carrying on, it had begun to feel like nothing in the world existed. Because nothing existed. Not here. Not in this world. They had made such progress on the shuttle, taken long walks in the forest, gone swimming, made love, spent their nights curled around each other and breathing each other’s breath and Jim had smiled and laughed and felt so light he’d allowed himself to forget that this place was supposed to feel heavy.
Maybe he’d wrapped himself too much in that relief. At the sight of three-hundred and sixty-five tally marks on the wall, Jim felt the first shot fired in what could only become an internal war. Happiness shouldn’t come with the price of guilt. At least, that’s what he told himself. The likelihood of living through this was so slim that finding solace, even joy, was a blessing. He should try to be happy, strive for it.
Even, a part of his mind whispered cruelly to him, if that happiness wasn’t sustainable. Even if his life here could never fully coexist with his life in their own time.
Jim didn’t like the direction of his thoughts. He seldom did when he was left alone long enough to fall into these pits of clarity and heartbreak. But he couldn’t risk wandering around without the tricorder that Spock had, wherever he was. As much as he wanted to clear his head.
He glanced at the communicator in his hand, not for the first time. This had been what they were afraid of, hadn’t it? Becoming too attached to each other? Too dependent? But Jim wanted Spock here to calm his anxieties. To assure him that he wasn’t selfish for only now realizing that three of their crew had died a year ago today.
Jim shut off the light, turning away from the wall and laying himself on top of the bulldog fur, which-- after a year-- didn’t smell like the beast’s thick musk anymore. It smelled like home, the smoke of the campfire. He curled up on it, closing his eyes and trying to reach for the sleep he knew he needed. His leg throbbed from the day’s work, his muscles ached, a steady beat of pain pounded between his temples and still he couldn’t get his mind to turn off. Not now.
A year ago today. Jim still saw it in his dreams, the nights that Spock didn’t sleep beside him. He hadn’t forgotten the sound of Carter’s bones breaking against the bulkhead. Hadn’t forgotten the way Taigen’s body had been whipped around with a hold on a frail tether as she got swept into the unforgiving wind. Hadn’t forgotten Nelson, his hands scrambling for purchase as the floor tore beneath him. And then there was Pike, a man Jim had looked up to, had idolized and dreamed of serving under. And he was gone, too.
Spock was right. The odds of the two of them surviving, being trapped here together, finding each other, were miniscule, but it had been a stroke of excellent luck that Jim did not deserve. Once again, he profited where others lost, when even now he would trade his own life for any of theirs in a heartbeat.
Jim buried his face in the fur, heaving a sigh. There was no sense dwelling. He knew that. The facts were the same. He was here and the others were not. He had lived a year on this planet and the others had not. He had found happiness, love, a kindred spirit, and the others had not. He should thank his fortune, not curse it.
But the pain remained, and he couldn’t help it.
A few long minutes passed in that dark, overwhelming silence. Jim felt himself beginning to trail down that rabbit hole of dangerous thoughts before he became aware of a presence. It was hard to pin down, as there were no outward sounds to suggest any movement through the cave, but he supposed it could be called instinct.
He sat up, glancing around their blue-lit campsite, but saw and heard nothing.
“Spock?” He called.
But, of course, that was ridiculous. He was probably just getting lonely, wishing Spock was there hard enough to make himself think he was. But a few moments later, he heard the crunch of boots on rock echoing a way’s away. He turned in the direction of the cave’s entrance and narrowed his eyes.
“Spock?” he called again.
“Jim,” a voice returned, and Jim didn’t know why he breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t as though the footsteps could have belonged to anyone else. But he was glad Spock had come back of his own accord. It meant Jim didn’t have to add the guilt of calling him to the guilt that already weighed down his shoulders.
Spock rounded the corner after a moment, and Jim sat up, giving him a smile that probably bore his relief too noticeably. “I knew you were coming,” he said.
“Indeed?” Spock asked. He settled himself beside Jim on the blankets and shut the tricorder off. Then, he raised his hand with two fingers extended and Jim met them without hesitation, absorbing the calm, loving comfort that buzzed between them. “The link between us does strengthen daily,” Spock continued, “I would not be surprised if you were able to sense my impressions more fully as time goes by.”
Jim stroked his fingers along Spock’s, concentrating on the catch of his skin, trailing his touch down his palm and circling around to brush against his knuckles. Spock took in a little breath that made Jim grin up at him.
“I’m sensing a few ‘impressions’ right now, Mister Spock,” Jim flirted gracelessly, but Spock broke the contact of their fingers rather than give in, as he usually did. Instead, he leveled a look at Jim, his hard-eyed expression shadowed and blue and somehow concerned.
“That is not the reason I am here, Jim.”
Unsurprised, Jim laid a hand on Spock’s knee, rubbing circles with his thumb, concentrating on the movement rather than the eyes that bored into him.
“Then what are you doing back already?” he asked, hoping Spock knew the question wasn’t accusatory.
Spock shifted subtly closer, his own hand coming to rest atop Jim’s. “Another product of the connection. I felt that you were in distress.”
Jim almost laughed, if only to cover the discomfort that arose at those words, but he restrained himself, flashing a dismissive smile instead. “I’m sorry,” he said. “‘Distress’ is just such a dramatic word for me being a worrywart.”
Spock knew Jim was deflecting. It was clear in the way his hand curled around Jim’s, in the feeling of understanding that flowed through him. Perhaps Jim had forgotten when they started this relationship that there may be downsides to having a telepathic boyfriend. God, if any of his previous lovers had been able to hear his emotions--
“What is the matter?” Spock asked.
Though Jim had wanted Spock here to calm his less than calm emotions, he found he didn’t exactly want to talk about them. He wondered if Spock sensed that in him, too. If, maybe, he could convince Spock that it didn’t matter. But as far as he knew, Spock couldn’t hear his thoughts, just his feelings, so he wouldn’t know that the memories that were hurting Jim were entirely outside their control.
So, he resigned himself to addressing it, tightening his own fingers around Spock’s. “It’s been a full year,” he said softly. “I was just thinking about them. And this place. Us. All of it.”
“Would you like to share your thoughts?”
Spock was good about asking these things, and thankfully good about accepting it when the answer was no.
“No,” Jim said, “It’s unavoidable. I’ve never stopped thinking about Tarsus. I doubt I’ll ever stop thinking about the crash either. I just--”
So maybe the answer wasn’t no. If he were ever to say it aloud to Spock, maybe now was the time. He’d said it once to Pike, almost a full year ago, but the feelings hadn’t gone away. They’d faded, been pushed aside again and again for the opportunity at happiness, but they never really left. And he’d never shared them with Spock.
“I don’t deserve this,” he said finally, giving voice to the worry that shook him awake at night, that slipped every once in a while into the current of his everyday life and, sometimes, poisoned it. “To be alive, with you, to be happy on the same planet where they died.”
Through their contact, a flash of anger seared into him, and he raised wide eyes to Spock, jerking his hand away from their touch. It felt familiar, the bitter barbs that pricked him and buzzed up his arm. He’d only felt it once when they’d sat across the fire from each other and he’d grabbed Spock’s shoulder with his own rage boiling over. He’d hoped never to feel that kind of emotion coming from him again. What could he have done to make Spock angry ? But Spock, too, looked surprised, as though he hadn’t meant to-- to what? To feel it?
“I apologize,” Spock said immediately, holding up his hand as though to still Jim. “I should have--”
“Why are you angry?”
“It is no fault of yours--”
“Obviously it is, or you wouldn’t--”
The gentleness of his voice took down a few of Jim’s defenses, and Jim felt himself cautiously uncoil a little tension, though he kept his hands in his lap.
“It was a selfish, emotional reaction,” Spock explained, contrite in the way he looked down, clenched his hands, knit his brows. “I-- To me, the value of your life is limitless. The idea that you might-- you might not understand that fact…” Spock trailed off, and suddenly Jim thought he understood, at least in some capacity. But Spock continued, collecting his thoughts. Jim could almost feel the gears working in his mind. “It is illogical to value one person more than another, and yet, selfishly, I am gratified that it was you who survived. But you, Jim-- you will always value others more than yourself. It is an admirable quality.”
Jim still felt that sting of anger, still felt as though it had been meant for him, but Spock clearly regretted his reaction, and his words were soothing. Somehow Jim always managed to forget that the force of his own feelings was returned, that Spock cared about him just as much as Jim cared about Spock. If Spock had expressed what Jim just had, he supposed he would’ve been upset, too.
There were a few moments of silence before Spock placed a hand over Jim’s once again. Through the touch, the anger had gone, replaced now with a softly flowing affection. “You said once,” Spock said, “that we deserved to find happiness here. Those words have comforted me in recent weeks. Please do not second-guess them now.”
Jim searched Spock’s eyes for a moment, then returned the clasp of his hand. With a sigh, he leaned forward, placing a small kiss to Spock’s cheek, raising his free hand to tuck a wayward lock of hair behind the tip of Spock’s ear.
“Thank you, Spock,” he said softly. The sadness had not left him, but maybe it was the great duality of man that he could feel that sadness with such force and feel happiness, too. One emotion did not, nor could not, sacrifice the other.
A minute may have passed as these thoughts floated through him, solidifying into a sort of truth, something he thought he might be able to hold onto next time the guilt caught up with him. He was glad Spock didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. Glad that Spock always seemed to know when he needed room to think.
“Funny,” he said softly after a time, thumb tracing the line of Spock’s jaw, “No offense meant, but I never expected a Vulcan to teach me how to deal with my emotions.”
Spock rewarded him with a half-smile, leaning into the touch. “Nor did I expect a human to do so for me.”
“So it’s okay?” Jim asked, vulnerability coloring his words, though he found he wasn’t as ashamed of it as he once may have been, “to be-- well-- to be okay ?”
Bringing his free hand to Jim’s knee, Spock gripped him slightly, strong and comforting. “It is, in fact, preferable. The ones we have lost would not wish to see us lose hope. Nor would the ones to whom we are attempting to return.”
With a sigh, Jim found he agreed. Though the feelings remained, they were quieter now, and sometimes that was the best Jim could hope for. They stayed like that for a time, Spock gently holding his hand, conveying acceptance and calm which murmured through him as though Spock were whispering reassurances into his ear. Jim stroked his fingers. “Will you stay for a little while?” he asked, giving voice to the very impulses he knew he should have fought against. But he needed Spock as much as Spock needed him.
“Of course, Jim,” Spock responded. He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Jim’s lips. “As long as you would like.”
And Jim knew then, in that moment in the dark of a cave on a planet so far removed from everything he’d ever known, that he loved Spock, though the possibility of it had occurred to him before. The understanding dawned on him as they laid together on the fur beneath them, as their hands clasped and Spock brought his warm lips to Jim’s once again. It wasn’t so much a realization as it was a recognition, a single moment among many, a confirmation of a truth that had been blooming for a long, long time. And a small part of him said, almost loud enough for him to hear, that he deserved this.
Maybe with time he would be able to believe it.