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Sha Ka Ree

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Six months later

 

If they had been going for pure aesthetics, the shuttlecraft that now stood before them on improvised struts would be a massive failure. They’d repaired panels on the shining Starfleet steel with metal that was pock-marked with sand, that dull gray that bore the dents and scratches of an ages-old crash. The entire back half looked boxy, unwieldy, a wide, solid rectangle that flared out at the end to hold the engines that they had, basically, made from scratch. Half the shuttle had been nearly unusable, so the majority of it it had been made from scratch. It wasn’t exactly pleasant to look at.

The interior was even worse, though it was currently obscured by the door they’d only just gotten functional a few hours ago. They hadn’t replaced the carpet-- what could they replace it with? So the floor consisted of hammered-flat metal shards they’d scavenged from the graveyard, fused together like Frankenstein’s monster with sloppy welded lines. The tanks in the engineering alcove had been tied to the wall with rope (braided from stripped saplings) to prevent them clanging together in the turbulence and bursting again. They’d even used hardened clay (dug from under the sand) to glue bits and pieces in some of the less-essential-to-survival controls. Jim imagined his engineering instructors at the academy taking one look at their handiwork and either commending them for their resourcefulness or tossing them out an airlock for their recklessness. Something like this should not be able to hold together.

But it would. As they stood in the twilight staring at it, they both knew it would. Spock had spent days, months, on calculations to ensure they cut no corners, and Jim had spent plenty of time himself securing panels and cords and connections to be airtight, durable, perfect.

Nothing could be less than perfect.

Jim leaned against Spock’s shoulder now, grateful for the arm that practically held him up, wrapped around him with a strong, calm grip. They’d toiled longer than usual today, if only because they knew they were so close and Jim was sure they could finish before sunset.

And here they were. The orange light had begun to fade to lavender and the leaves were starting to collapse and in the distance they could hear the dangerous, stirring howls of bulldogs, but they had finished.

Well. Mostly. They had at least assembled the edges of the puzzle. Now all they had to do was fill it in with those last pieces.

“So let’s go over it one more time,” Jim said, weary but with a thrill to his voice he couldn’t contain. He straightened, turning to Spock and holding up a finger.

“Jim--”

“One, we need to get the environmental systems functioning. Right now the console controls only affect that one vent, so that’s going to mean messing with some internals.”

“Jim--”

Jim held up another finger, “Two: the ramscoop. I know we’ve calibrated it, but we have to be sure it will interface with the rest of the propulsion--”

“Jim.” Spock lifted his fingers to Jim’s, though that had not been the point of Jim’s gesture. The hum of the kiss distracted him, long enough for him to forget entirely what he was saying.

“You-- Did you just kiss me to shut me up?” Jim asked incredulously, laughing a little bit as he pulled his fingers off of Spock’s. “You know that is not nearly as effective when you use hands instead of--”

Spock leaned forward, an arm coming around Jim’s waist as he brought his lips to Jim’s, effectively cutting off his train of thought. Jim sputtered around the kiss for a second, but Spock’s rough tongue managed to divert his attention and soon he found his arms around Spock’s shoulders, fingers tangling up in his hair, mind going a little blissfully blank. Oh but he was weak when Spock kissed him like that. And Spock knew it, the bastard. Jim could feel Spock’s satisfied spike of pride over their link, though Jim found he wasn’t quite as annoyed by it as he pretended to be.

When they came up for air, he whapped Spock on the side of the head, lightly but admonishing. But he made absolutely no effort to break the hold of the arms around him. “If you recall, Mister Spock, you were the one who said we should concentrate on the shuttle and nothing but the shuttle,” Jim reminded him gently.

Spock awarded him a half-smile, leaning in to brush their noses together. “We have spent the greater part of twelve hours doing so.”

Jim stroked Spock’s cheek lightly. “Can we talk about it a little, though? We’re doing so well, Spock. In a few days, it could be air-worthy. Do you know what that means?”

Something like fear floated across their connection, something that trembled and wavered and made Jim go stiff in Spock’s arms. And then-- it ceased. “I do,” Spock responded, somewhat evasively.

Narrowing his eyes, Jim examined Spock’s expression, hoping to find a hint of that fear so he might be able to unpack it. But after a few long moments, he saw nothing.

Sometimes, since Spock’s flare of anger almost six months ago, Spock would do that, cut off Jim from a certain emotion to avoid worrying him, or to give himself more time to process it.

At first, it had driven Jim crazy. If he were being honest with himself, it often still did. He wanted Spock to trust him with his emotions, especially considering Jim had, hopefully, never given him cause to think he wasn’t allowed to feel something.

But Jim had been trying to understand. This connection they shared didn’t allow for a lot of privacy. Spock always knew when Jim was upset or excited or horny or anxious, which was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that he didn’t really have time to think through his immediate reactions. So he’d trained Spock pretty well to accept ‘not yet’ as an appropriate answer to ‘would you like to discuss anything?’

In a way, Spock cutting Jim off from his emotions was his way of saying ‘not yet.’

So Jim wouldn’t press him about his flash of fear, but he didn’t want to drop the subject of the shuttle just now.

“Can we just maybe run down a list of what’s next? Quickly?”

“Of course, Jim,” Spock replied, sounding somewhere between resigned and caring. “But we needn’t do so here. The bulldogs seem to be waking.”

Jim smiled gratefully, only now extricating himself from Spock’s arms.

“They are, aren’t they? I swear, I’m never up this late,” he said with a laugh. “If I collapse on the way home, promise you won’t leave me here to be eaten.”

“As you are of little use to the mission in pieces, I promise I will take it upon myself to carry you,” Spock joked, though he would deny it was a joke until the day he died, Jim was sure. He left a hand on Spock’s elbow as they walked, a steadying thing, as he was  limping more obviously than usual. He was tired of taxing himself like this, but their progress had been worth it. And at least it meant he could coax another neuro-pressure massage out of Spock tomorrow. Those massages had become nearly routine, and Jim could admit that Spock’s gentle hands were the only thing that helped the pain anymore.

“So,” Jim continued, shaking out those distracting thoughts for now. “The shuttle. Environmental controls, ramscoop and a test-flight. I think that’s all we need now, isn’t it?”

Spock hummed, considering. “I believe so. It would do well to test it during an ion storm so we can be sure that it will hold through the turbulence.”

Jim’s brows knit, “With how seldom those storms kick up? I’m not sure. If we get an ion disturbance, we should just go. It’s been months since the last one. So long as it holds off a few more days, gives us time to put together those finishing touches… I mean, we’ve mapped our trajectory--”

“Theoretically--”

“And the rest...” Jim interrupted, trailing off with a hopeful lilt. “I think we’ll be ready.” Spock seemed to close off slightly, his eyes darkening. But whatever he was feeling was cut off from Jim again. Jim didn’t know how to feel about that. “Don’t you?”

“Hmm?” Spock glanced to Jim. It was seldom Spock was distracted enough to not hear him. Although Jim half wondered if Spock had wilfully not heard him. Or pretended not to. A tic of frustration rose in him, in spite of himself.

“Don’t you, Spock? Think we’ll be ready?”

Spock shrugged slightly, the fabric of his sleeve shifting under Jim's fingers. Jim tightened his hold. “Perhaps,” Spock said. “We will review the state of the shuttle at next daylight.”

Jim gave him a suspicious look. It was clear that, whatever Spock was thinking, he did not want to talk about the journey home right now. When had that happened?

There was something Jim wasn’t understanding, and he couldn’t force Spock to open up about it. The best thing to do would be to allow Spock the respite for now. Spock had done the same for Jim hundreds of times over the last year and a half-- ignoring what he believed to be pressing concerns in order to indulge Jim in a hunt, a day of foraging, a day of relaxation. So, Jim could do the same for him. He let out a sigh, releasing the tension he’d created within himself.

“Okay,” Jim agreed. “I’ll drop it.” He cast around his mind for another topic of conversation, but found himself turning again and again to the subject of the shuttle, to the possibility of home, to the last steps in their long journey, to his optimism and then, again, to Spock’s fear. Drop it , he told himself forcibly.

As they made their way into the cave, he nudged Spock’s shoulder. “Hey, do you want to join me for a bath?” The water always soothed them, both of them, and he could tell Spock had not unwound the tight coils of his mind just yet.

“That would be satisfactory,” Spock responded, a note of relief in his tone that Jim didn’t fail to notice. Or maybe he simply felt the relief in Spock’s mind. He hadn’t quite gotten used to the connection yet, despite the months now that they had allowed it to grow. Or maybe he was so used to it that he couldn’t tell the difference between a normal interaction and one that took place in his head. It was hard to say.

But he never dwelled on the connection itself. Whatever it was, however it worked, it sustained him. Under everything they did, he felt a consistent wave of affection flowing through him. Whether they were touching or yards away from each other.

Now, he tried to project that affection himself. He released Spock’s arm when they got to their campsite, but even over that small distance he attempted to send a kind of reassurance. To let Spock know he wasn’t mad. He understood. And it was okay.

Jim removed his belt with its communicator and phaser and set it off to the side, but his slacks sagged without anything to hold them up. They’d been torn and slashed, the elastic had broken, and Jim had lost so much weight that they could hardly even function as pants without their belt. It struck Jim then that he didn’t even know what he’d do when he had access to new clothes. Crisp, clean uniforms, soft flannel shirts, jeans and boots whose soles hadn’t worn through their traction. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about it before, but now it looked like it might be possible.

And soon.

Drop it , he told himself again.

Spock held out his hand to rest on Jim’s shoulder as Jim drew level with him. Then, they made their way quietly but contentedly to the lake and shed their clothes, sinking into the hot spring. Jim sighed at the feeling of the water cradling him, and noticed that Spock seemed to relax the moment he stepped in, too.

The hard edges softened on him, and maybe it was the glow or the sheen of steam that rose from the water, but he looked ethereal.

“Feeling better?” Jim asked gently, sending a little splash Spock’s way. It barely crested over his chest, but it made Spock offer Jim a soft, indulgent kind of look as he sank deeper into the water.

“We may have overexerted ourselves,” he said fondly.

Jim swam over to him, reaching out to brush their fingers together as he approached and balanced his toes on the shoal of sand beneath him. Spock relaxed into the touch, the fear and whatever else gone from the threads of his mind.

“Well, we can take the night off-- not much to do in here anyway.” They’d long finished any portable projects, so lately they tended to spend their nights playing chess, talking, recharging themselves so they could push themselves to the limit at each daylight.

“I believe we can find some way to fill our time,” Spock said, voice low, the tone of it sending an immediate shiver down Jim’s spine.

He smiled and shifted closer, happiness welling up inside him as it always did when Spock looked at him like he was looking at him now-- dark eyed and purposive. With one wet hand, he reached up to Spock’s head and ran his fingers through his hair, which flowed freely and laid along the surface of the water. It had grown longer over the months, now reaching halfway down his shoulder blades. Jim delighted in this hair, braided it, fisted his fingers in it when they made love, pulled it into pigtails and ponytails and whatever else Spock would let him do-- and it turned out he let him do almost whatever he wanted. He hoped, with a sudden pang of heartache, that he didn’t have to add those daily joys to the list of things he would miss about this planet.

“You aren’t going to cut this when we get back, are you?” Jim asked, voice almost a whine. Spock pulled himself close to Jim under the water, hands curling softly around his waist, humming as Jim ran his fingers along his scalp.

“I likely will. It is considered unprofessional in most circles to allow it to grow long.”

Jim puffed out a dismissive sound, running his hands down Spock’s shoulders and arms to wipe away the sand that had streaked his skin.

“Are you still concerned with professionalism? After all this?” Jim gestured to the cave at large, which he hoped encompassed the whole of their situation, their relationship, the last year and a half. But he smiled when he asked, if only because he knew Spock would always be concerned with professionalism.

“When we return, I must be,” Spock replied. And a surge of sadness rushed over Jim’s mind before it cut itself off-- abrupt and halting. Smile fading, he took Spock’s hand under the water and looked down, watching their fingers lace in the blue glow.

They were silent for a moment, and Spock seemed almost apologetic, like he knew Jim had sensed that momentary lapse in his emotional control. Jim wasn’t nearly as adept at stifling his own emotions, so Spock could probably feel his concern. But maybe that was okay. Concern wasn’t always such a bad thing, and Spock needed to know that sometimes Jim worried about him.

“Do you want to talk about anything?” Jim asked suddenly, raising his eyes to Spock’s. They had vowed to be nothing but honest with each other, after everything. He didn’t think Spock was being deliberately untruthful, but he wasn’t being as open as he usually was. And maybe that was on Jim. Maybe he just needed to ask.

Spock met his eyes, something shaking under the surface of them, but it was like looking at their hands through the ripples of the water. There was an image, almost tangible, but obscured by flickers of shadow. Jim didn’t have time to examine the expression much longer. With a little splash, Spock slipped forward through the water, touching their foreheads together where Jim felt the hum of Spock’s familiar mind against his own.

“I would like to cease talking for a time,” he responded, tilting his head and leaning in for a kiss. Jim didn’t exactly want to get distracted by Spock’s lips again, but they pressed tenderly to his own, as if asking permission.

So he granted it. Spock would talk when he was ready, but for now his free hand had come to the curve of Jim’s lower back and he pushed himself against him under the water, and the heat of his body combined with the heat of the spring made Jim dizzy and maybe he melted, just a little bit, into the feeling.

When Spock got into this kind of mood, where he ran his hands along Jim’s body and released happy little moans into his mouth, Jim couldn’t help allowing it. In honesty, he loved it. Besides, if this was what Spock wanted, who was Jim to deny him? Sometimes they needed to sink into each other, forget the world-- Jim knew that better than anyone.

They held each other there in the spring, hands wandering, hips hitching softly and causing ripples around them, Jim gasping wetly around Spock’s shoulder as they rocked against each other, moving like one in the water. Though the sounds they drew from their breathless lungs sometimes stirred the birds into motion, their world was restricted to the space they shared. Jim would hardly have noticed the birds’ wings if it weren’t for the impressive, fractured lights they shined on Spock’s face, the glint they left in his dark eyes.

When they came, sharing twin cries as the same swell of pleasure crested over their bond, Jim pressed himself into the crook of Spock’s neck, lips meeting Spock’s skin under the water. Spock’s hands stroked at Jim’s back, running up and down his trembling muscles as Spock breathed heavily against his ear. The trail of his fingers felt delicious, as delicious as the mouth that moved to claim his own again as they slipped together into the depth of the water.

They cleaned themselves up after that, unhurried, willing to linger in the quiet of afterglow in the heat of the spring. But eventually Jim laughed at his pruning fingers and Spock remarked on the time and Jim realized that yes, he was bodily exhausted.

They air-dried on the ledge overlooking the lake, Jim casting looks at Spock who seemed so unashamed to be naked anymore. It felt surreal, even after all these months. Perhaps it would feel surreal for a long time. Maybe even for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes he thought about the rest of their lives. They still hadn't talked about what would happen when they returned, the direction they’d walk now that they had crossed each other's paths, but Jim knew that, whatever happened, he wanted his life to include Spock. Someday soon, they would have to start the conversation, but in this Jim was as avoidant as Spock was. Out here, the future seemed so far away, two-thousand years away, in fact. And as desperately as Jim wanted to get home, he still worried sometimes, wondering what home meant anymore. Wondering if he could take any of this with him into the rest of his life.

Eventually, as Jim rested his head against Spock’s shoulder and allowed himself to get swept into his thoughts, he felt his eyelids falling shut. Even though he felt an aching hunger in his empty stomach he thought that maybe he’d rather just sleep as soon as they got back to camp. Or here. He wouldn’t mind falling asleep right here with the gentle warmth of the man beside him keeping him safe.

Spock’s hand had been stroking Jim’s thigh absently for a while, and now stopped its caress, gripping him gently. “Are you alright, Jim?”

“Mm,” Jim mumbled, but that seemed to be answer enough. Spock turned to lay a gentle kiss on the crown of Jim’s head, and Jim felt all his soft, sighing, loving, protective energy through their contact. He sank into it, into Spock’s shoulder, into the feeling of stability he never expected to find here.

“You are tired,” Spock said, but he sounded reluctant to move, almost as reluctant as Jim was. “We should return.”

Spock made to stand, but Jim stopped him with a hand on his arm, pulling back to catch Spock’s eyes. “Wait, Spock,” he said, though as Spock settled back down beside him he realized he didn’t know exactly why he’d said anything at all. He was still a little sleep-heavy, a little groggy with the heat of the spring that wafted over them, a little drunk on this feeling that spread through him hot as whiskey, but he was happy here, and he wanted Spock to know that before they returned.

He lifted a hand to Spock’s cheek, knowing he should have reached this moment a long time ago, but the vulnerability that colored Spock’s anxious mind made Jim wonder if maybe Spock needed to hear it now more than he had before.

So Jim’s lips ticked into a smile and he stroked Spock’s cheek, making sure Spock’s eyes stayed steady on his own. “I love you,” he said, offering up those words as reassurance, commitment, understanding. He’d said them many times in his life, but somehow never to Spock. And somehow they’d never felt quite like this.

Spock’s eyes widened, beams of disbelief and hope and trilling joy shining from his mind as his breath faltered, but Jim wasn’t about to backtrack or apologize. It had been impulsive to say now, but it was true. And he knew-- had known for a long time, in fact-- that his feelings were returned.

With a swallow, Spock looked down to the clench of their hands, then back into Jim’s eyes. Jim didn’t expect him to say it in return, nor did he need him to. But Spock looked as though he wanted to speak anyway. So Jim stayed silent, feeling soft and a little giddy and maybe a little nervous-- though he had no cause for it.

Finally after opening and closing his mouth more than once, Spock spoke.

“Explain,” he said.

Jim snorted his surprise, bringing a hand to his mouth to stifle the noise. When he was sure he wasn’t going to laugh, he lowered it, smiling so hard it almost hurt. “Excuse me?”

“Explain,” Spock repeated, spine straightening. Somehow, buck naked, cross legged with half-wet hair, he still managed to look convincingly Starfleet.

“Explain ‘I love you?’ You can’t be unfamiliar with the sentiment, Spock.”

Spock searched Jim’s eyes, an intensity to him that Jim hadn’t really been prepared for. Jim felt his smile slipping. It wasn’t even close to possible that he had misread Spock’s own feelings, so where was this coming from?

“I understand the sentiment,” Spock said, stilted as though he wasn’t sure how to frame the words. “However, I do not understand why.”

“Why?” Jim asked, resting his hand on Spock’s leg and squeezing it. “You’re honestly asking me why I love you?”

“I would like to know,” Spock said, voice softer now, “so I may continue to do the things that inspire this emotion in you.”

Jim laughed fully now, resting his head against Spock’s shoulder. Spock laid a hand in his hair, and it remained there as Jim reined in his laughter and lifted his gaze once more. Spock’s look of confusion, and the trembling kind of worry that slipped across their connection, only made Jim’s smile widen.

“Because, Spock,” Jim said, laying his hand over Spock’s and bringing it to his own cheek, “you’re the kind of person who would say ‘explain’ before you’d say ‘I love you, too.’”

“I fail to see how that is a desirable reaction.”

Jim shrugged, laying a kiss on Spock’s wrist and releasing him, allowing Spock to drop his hand. “It’s just you,” Jim said. “It’s just… very you.”

Spock didn’t seem to know what to make of that. He looked down, then back to Jim as though requesting something more, but that was all Jim had. The only thing he hadn’t yet shared with Spock. And somehow he didn’t mind that he had no secrets left, that Spock knew everything that was in him and everything that he was. It felt freeing, fulfilling, and-- more than that-- it felt inevitable. If anyone could ever know him like this, it would be Spock.

Jim nodded toward the campsite, setting out to save his stunned lover from the pressure of a response. “Shall we?”

Spock looked to him with knit brows. He seemed to be in a kind of fog, disoriented, caught off-guard. Jim rather liked the thought that he may have surprised him.

“Of course, yes,” Spock said after a moment. “Allow me to collect our things.”

They stood, Jim a little shaky from fatigue, and Spock gathered up the clothes they’d been sitting on. Jim took his hand again when he’d straightened, twining their fingers together, and held steady as they walked naked and barefoot back to camp, wanting Spock to know that he didn’t regret what he’d said for a moment.

Truly, he should have said it a long time ago, but it may have been Spock’s influence that made him keep it in. The fact that outwardly Spock didn’t express everything clearly, that he often danced around the subject of emotion as though it would burn him. But Spock loved Jim for his humanity-- Jim had felt it in him. So really it was only logical to tell Spock he loved him. And to tell him often.

As they returned to their quiet camp, Jim vowed to do so.

Spock got dressed quietly in the dim blue light, then set about starting the fire while Jim slipped into the other jumpsuit. It was softened from too many washings and torn now along its elbows, but at least not sweat-stiff like his uniform. Laying himself on the bed, he watched Spock blow on the logs to encourage young sparks. He made a rather striking tableau in the orange glow of new fire and the blue light that shone from the caldera.

“You should not sleep before dinner,” Spock said gently, casting a glance to Jim who obviously looked as though he were about to pass out.

Jim smiled, something soft. “I won’t, I promise,” he said, though he wasn’t sure he could keep that promise. Already he was drifting. Spock moved over to him now that the fire had sprung to life, and settled down on the blankets somewhat near Jim’s head. Jim craned his neck to look up to him, not failing to notice something heavy in Spock’s gaze.

Spock grazed the back of his hand lightly along Jim’s face, expression unreadable in the flickering shadows.

“What?” Jim asked sweetly, reaching to lay a hand on Spock’s thigh.

Spock stared at him for a moment longer, swallowing something hard then turning his eyes down. “I love you too,” he said quietly, and Jim felt it again, that swell of despair, the undercurrent of fear, the emotions that now felt as though they were too big for even Spock to put a stop to.

And suddenly Jim was wide awake, his smile falling. “What’s wrong?” he asked, raising himself on his elbows as Spock dropped his hand. Love wasn’t supposed to feel like that. It was supposed to feel like flying, giddy and weightless and warm. The reverence Spock had felt when Jim had said it was absent now, replaced with a feeling Jim thought could swallow him whole if he let it. What had happened in the last few minutes?

Spock breathed through his nose, turning to look into the fire, clearly upset. Jim could tell by the way he held his expression in stiff lines, as though trying to fit it into a grid. Sitting up fully now, Jim shuffled over to Spock’s side.

“Spock, you don’t-- you don’t have to talk about it, but you’re starting to scare me a little.”

With a sideways look, Spock let out a small, stunted breath. “I apologize, Jim. That was not my intention. I simply wished to reassure you that your feelings were reciprocated.”

“I know they are,” Jim said, bringing a hand to Spock’s back and stroking gently. “That’s not what I’m worried about.” He paused, hoping Spock might volunteer something, provide him with something, but he remained still, silent. Jim’s fingers curled against Spock’s back. “What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Spock settled his hands in his lap, twisting his fingers the way Jim sometimes did when he was nervous. Jim watched the motion for a few moments before laying his hand over Spock’s to still him. God Jim hoped his nervous tics weren’t rubbing off on Spock. The Vulcans would never take him back if that were the case.

“The end of our time on Sha Ka Ree is imminent,” Spock said after a minute, his mouth a thin, straight line. Jim hadn’t seen him look so staunchly Vulcan in a very long time, but it looked like he was trying to wear his old mask. “I have not allowed myself to consider the possibility of our return with any urgency, but with these repairs… Whether we die or return to our own time, the moment we take off in that ion storm, everything will change.”

Jim scooted a little closer. “But, Spock. That’s what we’ve been working toward. Everything has to change, doesn’t it? We can’t… we can’t stay here.”

“I understand; however--” Spock stopped, stuttered slightly, and Jim swallowed. He hated seeing Spock so unsure. “Should we make it back to our time, you will once again be surrounded by people. Though I know your feelings are genuine, I confess I am afraid--” He paused again, a tick of frustration making its way to his forehead. But he didn’t need to go on for Jim to pick up the meaning. Suddenly, even with the warmth of the fire and Spock beside him, Jim felt a chill spike along the network of his nerves.

“You think when we get back to our own time, I’m going to stop loving you.” He didn’t ask it as a question. In fact, his tone surprised him with its insistent edge. The accusation stung. He wondered if Spock could feel just how much.

“That--” Spock took in a breath. “That is my fear. When you have the choice of anyone, you will likely decide that I--”

“Spock,” Jim interrupted, angry in spite of himself. He tried not to send it over their link, but he didn’t know how successful he was. Spock seemed to draw away from him, folding almost unnoticeably upon himself like the leaves of their forest when night began to set in. “You honestly think the only reason I feel this way about you is because we’re alone?”

Spock turned to him, eyes hard. “You cannot tell me that the thought has not occurred to you, too.”

Jim’s immediate impulse was to deny it, but he bit back his reaction, pulling away to give himself room to think. Sure, in the beginning he had questioned his feelings. In the beginning he’d worried it was exposure, proximity, need and dependency, but everything had changed. Jim knew his own heart. And if this were truly some product of desperation then he would have been aware of it, and been able to put a halt to it. Right?

But he couldn’t stop himself from loving Spock. It had been such a steady, natural progression in him, something that had woven itself into everything he did, every thought he had. Falling in love had been organic, slow, and beautiful , and he didn’t like the insinuation that it could also be false.

“I love you,” Jim said again, “and I’ll love you when we get back to Starfleet. We could be rescued by a crew of beautiful, dancing Orions and I’d still--”
“Jim, please,” Spock said, and Jim’s heart broke at his voice. “You cannot promise--”

“Oh, come on, Spock,” Jim practically groaned, rubbing his forehead. “That’s what love is, isn’t it? A promise? Of course I can.”

Spock fell silent, the firelight flickering in his eyes. Somehow even that wasn't enough. Spock had felt his mind, hadn't he? Spock had to know how overwhelming this feeling was, how it had gotten its hooks in him and refused to let go and how every time he looked at Spock he felt that same, all-consuming longing to just exist beside him. Spock had to know that. But maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he couldn’t believe in it.

God, but they were both a little damaged, weren’t they?

“Why don’t you check?”

Spock looked to him, surprise written in every line at the corners of his eyes, no longer wearing that carefully constructed mask. “Excuse me?”

Jim took Spock’s hand and held it to his face, a challenge in his own eyes. “Look in my mind if you don’t trust it. I know you keep saying you don’t want to meld--”

“It is a massive violation of privacy--”

But I’m asking you to. I don’t know how to reassure you other than that,” Jim said with finality. “I don’t have anything to hide from you, okay? You can look in every dark corner if you want. Tarsus, my exes, my Academy transcript-- anything. Just... ” Jim paused, his momentum faltering with his breath. “Just look,” he finished lamely.

Spock’s eyes locked on his own. “Perhaps now is not the time. You are tired.”

“I’d rather you check now than spend all night worrying,” Jim chided gently, spreading Spock’s fingers along his face. He didn’t know the meld points, but he knew which parts of him reached out when Spock’s hand grazed his temple, his cheek. He felt the buzz of electricity between them that sparked to life whenever they made contact.

And he knew Spock felt it too.

Spock seemed to soften, his shoulders falling, his brows tilting downward. “Are you certain, Jim?”

Jim swallowed, nodded, trying to convey his insistence rather than any lingering trepidation. He’d never trusted anyone in his life the way he trusted Spock. In the beginning, he had needed to trust Spock. He’d needed to believe that the only other person on this damned planet would look out for him, so he convinced himself to rely on him. Now he knew Spock would look out for him. He just wanted Spock to know that the street went two ways.

But Spock didn’t make any move. He seemed arrested, stiff. Jim tried to relax himself, resting his hand over Spock’s. “I’m not mad, Spock. I just want you to-- to see it. How else can I prove it to you?”

“I do not want you to think that I do not trust you,” Spock intoned gently. Jim could feel Spock’s guilt like a sickness in his own gut.

“I know,” he said, attempting to give Spock a small smile, some kind of encouragement. “You don’t trust you . That’s your problem.”

“If you are positive--”

“Spock. Please.”

Breathing in, Spock arranged his fingers, a motion so smooth it felt like he must have done it a hundred times. His fingertips pressed against Jim’s temple, his cheek, the point below his ear. A long moment hung between them, the space of heartbeats. Then, finally, he heard Spock whisper, strained.

“My mind to your mind. My thoughts--”

“To your thoughts,” Jim finished for him, but he didn’t know those words. He shouldn’t have known those words. Confusion pulled at the edges of his mind for a moment-- a single moment before he slipped.

He closed his eyes in immediate fear, his stomach flying into his throat as he fell. Air flew past him, whipping his hair and roaring in his ears and blowing him backwards as though he were being pulled into a vacuum and suddenly he was weightless. He remembered this. Remembered falling, remembered flailing against unforgiving winds. Panic gripped him like a fist around his heart, and his hands-- some part of him-- flailed, reached out. He couldn’t scream, couldn’t cry out, but who would help him even if he did? The others had fallen and the captain was at the controls and--

And something grabbed him. He jerked to a stop as the rush of wind swept past him, leaving him floating, completely still in a feeling that couldn’t be eclipsed by sight, by sound, by touch. It surrounded him, a soothing sort of darkness with a blue glow at its edges. His frantic heartbeat began to ease as something familiar licked at the shores of his consciousness, and he felt like he was waking up from some dream, some nightmare.

Spock? he asked, but the word didn’t manifest in the sound of his voice, that single syllable that was now so familiar it should have come easily to his tongue. Instead, in appeared in a feeling-- warmth, the smell of salt and tree oil, the coil of flower stems around strands of hair, dark eyes with gold flecks and wide pupils and something soft that brushed against his fingertips and his lips and that feeling that swelled and bloomed like petals inside him.

A light flickered, as though the first sparks of a fire had started, and he heard his own name whispered in his mind. But it wasn’t his name , not in a way he’d ever heard it, just as Spock’s name hadn’t been ‘Spock.’

‘Jim’ was a golden glint of hair in dying sunlight, a feeling of calloused hands brushing along the sting of a burn, a ringing, echoing sound of laughter, the smell of aloe and the splash of water against his face and he felt calm, solid, safe and certain.

But he didn’t feel it. It came from somewhere around him, this consciousness that floated through and within him and he knew it was Spock because of course it was Spock. It could only ever be.

With the recognition, Jim’s heart thrummed in his chest, in his abdomen, and if he could smile he would have smiled but his body didn’t exist here, even when he felt it. Confusion seeped into him, around him, immediately soothed by explanation. He knew intrinsically now that everything he felt and saw and sensed was a memory.

What do you want to see? He asked without asking, consciousness swimming alongside Spock’s. Swimming. And before Spock even had time to answer they were swimming, racing to the center of the lake and Jim knew he was losing because he was laughing too hard to keep his breath and he kept swallowing mouthfuls of water. And that water-- he remembered watching water pour down Spock’s face, knowing even then that he was in trouble because Spock was blue in the lake’s light and beautiful and shining.

Then, something pulled him reluctantly out of the memory, echoing the feeling of clasped hands with the scent of open air as though they were walking through the forest, one of those quiet morning strolls. The flowers were just opening around them, releasing that morning-sweet scent. He sighed into it and followed without thought, the same way he would always follow because he trusted that hand to lead him. He felt in that moment Spock’s whispering assurance that if he led, he too would be followed, he too would be trusted.

But where were they going? Back , a voice responded without voice and Jim felt nervousness grip him. Now was good. Now was wonderful. ‘Back’ could mean a great many things.

Then, suddenly he was warm again, but everything hurt . His leg throbbed, his head throbbed, and when he opened his eyes he saw the image of the Enterprise ’s Vulcan commander sitting by the fire, a strip of carpet around his shoulders to keep him warm while Jim laid stiff and injured in an emergency blanket, trembling. The image floated too far away and it felt wrong .

Shaking from the hold, he felt himself resisting. He didn’t want to go back because that was a different time and a different life and it wasn’t what they were here to see. What were they here to see?

The consciousness returned to him, folded him in its comfort as an apology floated through him and he sank back into it, like coming home, and he was coming home, opening the door to the farmhouse while his father and mother stood at the sink doing the day’s dishes. A dog barked from somewhere inside and Jim called its name. But, no, this wasn’t his home now.

No. Home. What was home? His mind wandered into a brightly lit corridor, packed with people in identical uniforms carrying padds and slugging bags. A cadet walked beside him, gesturing widely, and Jim was laughing. Of course he was laughing. This was Gary. Gary always made him laugh even when Jim wasn’t sure he could and Jim loved him, didn’t he? Even though sometimes Gary shouted too loud, too hard and sometimes he said things that hurt, Jim still loved him, right? But then he was back under a swath of blankets-- home, the Academy-- and he’d just whispered that word, ‘love,’ and the man beside him stiffened just like Ruth had stiffened when he said the word to her and in the memory Jim hurt .

The mind within his own hummed with regret and secondhand sadness but it was okay, Jim tried to say. He wasn’t hurting anymore, didn’t regret it because if Gary hadn’t broken his heart he wouldn’t have been so eager to leave, wouldn’t have accepted the Farragut assignment so readily, and then he was back on the Farragut . Home. Surrounded by the constant hum that had become background noise to his life. A starship, the sound of the engines flying him through space. Space , exploration, his life now. The sparse room that surrounded him, his room, smelled clean and stark and Jim felt comfortable and happy but--

This wasn’t his home now either.

No, this was his history, part of the path that brought him here but here was something else entirely. Here was--

Here was the sweet scent of flower petals in silky hair where Jim pressed his face, breathing in, here was a warm body in his arms at night and the comforting presence that slipped into his nightmares and shooed them away and a solid figure beside him, sitting on the sand outside a village built three-thousand years ago by a group of people who had beaten the odds and here was a pile of blankets at the mouth of a cave where a kiss pressed against his chest and here was home, too.

Here was peace and pleasure and companionship, the rise of an eyebrow and the tilt of half-smiling lips, the gentle tenor of a voice that didn’t joke but teased and every time he spoke Jim hung on his words and every time he almost smiled Jim glowed with pride because he loved making Spock smile, loved it when Spock looked at him like he respected him, loved it when Spock kissed him, shared his ideas, played chess across from him and ran down lists of numbers and helped Jim pick flowers and missed the target with the arrow every time and suddenly Jim felt his fingers curl around a single chess piece with the crushing weight of loneliness on him but again the feeling wasn’t his own. The memory wasn’t his own.

Why was Spock lonely? Why would he ever be lonely when Jim was right here and Jim loved him and Jim wanted him? But a feeling, whether his or Spock’s, insisted that Jim had been lonely too. Jim was still lonely-- he missed his family and his friends, the clatter of trays in the mess, the steady beep of the phaser bank where he leaned back in his seat and chatted with the other officers and he was lonely and Spock could not fill that gaping hole in Jim no matter how much he wanted to.

And how Spock wanted to. Jim felt it smack into him like he’d been knocked off his feet, how Spock wanted to be everything that Jim was to him. Everything. How the only way he knew to hold onto him was to stay on this planet that had brought them together. Paradise. A place where thousands of his people had lived and breathed and loved and died and it was the only place that Spock knew he could do the same. But when they returned he would just be another person, another person who saw Jim’s light shining and flew to it.

But Spock could never be just another person to Jim. Spock was connected, intrinsic, a miracle, right? Jim had never believed in miracles, had laughed at the idea of them and called them coincidence or luck, but isn’t that what you said, Spock? A miracle?

And he had no intention to squander it. It had been a miracle to survive Tarsus, to make it into Starfleet, to survive the crash, and then, God, to find Spock here of all places, a planet that had claimed countless lives but let them live-- and maybe it let them live for this. For each other. Maybe everything had been worth it because here they were together and they would stay together no matter what waited for them beyond that wormhole. Because Jim loved Spock. Because that love had saved his life and changed him and he couldn’t imagine a world in which this feeling would fade. Couldn’t imagine a world, even the world he had left behind, without Spock in it.

All Jim wanted was to bring Spock home.

The rush of wind returned, blew through him and froze him without feeling and he felt himself wrench a gasp from his empty lungs and then--

Firelight. He blinked into it, raising a hand to shield his eyes against the glare, but he smacked into something, someone-- Spock.

Jim startled, eyes focusing on the face in front of his, wide-eyed, fear reaching across the connection of their skin. Why did he hit me? A voice in his head asked, and Jim raised his hand again to soothe the side of Spock’s face, stroking gently.

Spock’s fingers fell from his meld points and Jim could no longer hear his thoughts in words, only those vague impressions that floated through him.

“I didn’t mean to,” Jim said aloud, voice shaking and raw. “I… I forgot where I was.”

“I thought perhaps I had gone too far,” Spock responded. “It was not my intention to--”

Jim pulled Spock forward, resting their foreheads together, silencing him gently. “I told you, Spock. Every dark corner. It’s okay. And, really, the worst thing you dug up was Gary Mitchell . I think I’ll live.” He found it in himself to chuckle weakly.

Spock swallowed, still contrite and hesitant. So Jim pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose, a reassurance, a physical connection to somehow maintain that feeling-- not just closeness, but wholeness. Entirety. Completion. He’d never felt anything like it before. The world around them didn’t seem real, even as it came back to him-- the crackling of the fire, the smell of smoke, the warmth of the hand that had fallen to his knee and the way it rubbed gently through the thin, soft fabric of his torn clothes.

Somehow even this, sharing breath, wasn’t close enough.

And Jim felt raw, an exposed nerve that stung and ached, but he knew the salve was there.

“Are you still worried?” Jim asked, a whisper against Spock’s lips.

“I--” Spock started, but he paused and collected himself, longing and love flowing through Jim with currents strong enough to pull him under, but there was something else, too, a tingle of awed amusement. “I am incapable of worry,” he finished.

With a laugh that started in his belly, Jim dropped his head and rested it on Spock chest.

Incapable of worry. Isn’t that what he’d been saying from the beginning? Incapable of worry, anger, sadness. Love. And, according to Spock, incapable of humor. Jim was beginning to think there was nothing Spock was incapable of.

“Of course you are,  Mister Spock,” he said affectionately when he had his voice back. He raised his head and met Spock’s eyes. “Silly me.”

Spock stroked a line down the side of his face, a touch that sparked against his skin and made Jim want to be back in that place, that strange fusion of their minds, the connection that had been so alien and yet so familiar.

“Can we do that again sometime?” Jim asked after Spock had been silent for a while. Spock drew away slightly, an eyebrow raised.

“You could not have enjoyed the meld,” he deadpanned, and Jim shrugged.

“Well, maybe we can stick to better memories next time, but…” he trailed off, unsure of how to say it. He had liked feeling close to Spock. He had always liked feeling close to Spock. Sharing their thoughts without barrier or restriction was, undoubtedly, the closest they could get. Dichotomy be damned, he thought with some amusement.

Spock seemed to pick up on the emotion, because the hand on Jim’s knee squeezed slightly, and his lips quirked. “If you wish,” Spock replied, “but only if you have had adequate rest. It was difficult to keep you on-track.”

Jim chuckled. “Isn’t it always?”

Spock, thankfully, didn’t take that bait. He simply stroked a hand through Jim’s hair, and pulled away.

“Please relax now, Jim. I will make dinner before we rest.”

The exhaustion had returned to Jim now, full-bodied, and reaching into the back of his mind where he tried not to fall into its currents. So he didn’t object to Spock making dinner. Instead, he laid back on the blankets and watched Spock work, hoping now that his lover felt as at-peace as he did, that Spock could allow himself excitement at the idea of returning.

Because Jim was excited to return. This, what they shared, didn’t need to be sacrificed. Maybe he could transfer to the Enterprise (if he was lucky) or Spock could transfer to the Farragut (if he wanted to), and Jim could introduce Spock to his family and visit Vulcan with him and they could take shore leave together, or go camping for ‘old time’s sake.’ He could build his life and career like he’d always dreamed, but with a surprising addition that, somehow, made the possibility of the future shine all the brighter.

As Spock risked intermittent glances at him, almost shy in the way he would avert his eyes each time he met Jim’s, Jim hoped-- and believed-- that Spock could see some of that brightness too.

 


 

The hum that subtly shook their seats was almost alien. While they’d booted up the shuttle many times to scan and test systems, they had never once turned on piloting controls, never once kicked the engine into life. Now, the shuttle seemed to waver the way a beast’s shoulders would shuffle as it prepared to pounce. There was a pent-up energy beneath them, anticipatory, as though the machine itself had been waiting to rise.

But, of course, machines did not have a will or a goal. Machines were extensions of their users. So perhaps it was they who were suffering the worst of the anticipation.

“Disengage struts,” Jim said beside Spock, his voice coming out in short syllables, hard with concentration.

Spock complied, tapping some controls on his screen.

The shuttle clunked dangerously, but did not falter. Spock could swear he heard Jim let out a sigh of relief, but when he looked to him he saw only hard determination in the lines of his face.

“Status?”

Spock scanned his screen. “Temperature, eighty-nine degrees fahrenheit; humidity at ninety-four percent; wind at ten miles per hour; clear skies. Power at one-hundred percent. Shields at one-hundred percent.”

Jim cast a look to his side, and Spock was pleased to see a smile on his lips. “Good weather for a test flight, wouldn’t you say?”

Not trusting himself to speak with the inexplicable nerves that took hold of him, Spock nodded, something hard in his gut. It would be better, he thought, if they had waited for an ion storm, but Jim was right. This was an optimal time to at least figure out if the shuttle would fly. And the next time ions darkened the skies, they had to go. There was no option anymore.

Jim’s hands rested on the controls, his arms steady and sure in their placement. He had claimed to have flown ‘plenty’ of Class-F shuttlecrafts in practice at the Academy, and though Spock had piloted more in practical application, he knew he was most useful at the sensors-- not to mention that Jim had expressed a rather vocal distaste for navigation. He only hoped Jim’s practice flights returned to him easily.

“Alright. Let’s go,” Jim said, and Spock felt nerves that mirrored his own float across the connection of their minds. That didn’t stop Jim, though. He simply took the controls and pulled them back with one hand, his other tapping the glowing keys that would stutter the trigger of the ion engines. With a rather unpleasant jerk, Spock felt his stomach fall into his feet, and they began to rise.

Jim’s let out a low whistle, as though he’d been holding his breath but didn’t want to let on. “Okay, a bit of a shaky start. That’s fine,” he said, more to himself than Spock. Spock wanted to reach across their small distance and lay a comforting hand on Jim’s shoulder, to reassure him that, so far, they hadn’t fallen apart and he doubted they would. But his eyes remained glued to the screen, reading system outputs as quickly as they appeared to him, and he didn’t want to risk looking away just yet. These first few moments were critical.

Jim pulled back on the helm and the shuttle shook as it climbed off the ground. Out the window, Spock watched the slope of the mountain out of the corner of his eye. It rose with them, and, slowly, receded. Jim was taking it inch-by-inch, hardly engaging thrust at all, but that was wise, patient.

“Holding steady,” Spock said, and he felt Jim relax beside him, pulling back just a little more, encouraged.

“Tell me the second that changes, Mister Spock,” Jim said with a nervous chuckle.

“It will not,” Spock replied, though he kept an eye on it all the same. “We were meticulous.”

Even as he said it, he reminded himself of the clay that held together sensitive connections in the interior of the shuttle’s panels and of the rope that twisted round the tanks in back. He swallowed.

As they cleared the tops of the trees, Jim tapped some of the controls, eyes flicking between the console and the forward window.

“Trajectory?” Jim asked, glancing at him briefly. Spock looked out over the wide canopies, the green leaves dotted with shining white colonies of fat little birds off in the distance. They hadn’t decided where to fly, had they?

“The village?” he suggested. “We could land in the desert off the grave site. It is also close enough to the cave system that if we break down we will be able to return to our materials with little trouble.”

Jim looked to Spock, a note of surprise in his mind and his eyes, but Spock maintained a steady gaze. Jim should know by now that the village and its graveyard did not carry the same painful weight as it once had. “Lay it in, Spock,” Jim agreed after a moment.

Spock did so, plugging in the coordinates and looking to Jim when the task was done. Jim gave him a tentative half-smile and returned his gaze to the window, tapping the key that would send them forward.

And it did. The shuttle jerked again, slamming Spock against the back of his seat, but Jim compensated for the surprise of it quickly, easing the helm up as they sailed over the canopy of trees and turned gently through the still air.

They rose steadily as they flew, the canopy receding, the intimidating slope of the mountain’s height suddenly surmountable. Spock recalled walking along the range’s base, staring upwards in futility, but now as they climbed higher into Sha Ka Ree’s atmosphere it became nothing more than a small hurdle, something they could hop over and fly past. Spock’s eyes unfocused from the screen, settling instead on the green world outside. From their height, and as they climbed, the clear blue sky stretched out wide and bright over lush trees, which seemed to grow even taller out in the distance than they did in their own part of the oasis.

And, from here, they could see now that it was an oasis. Though the scans had told them as much before, it was startling to see it in such contrast-- the lush greens and purples, the deep blue of far-off lakes that reflected sunlight like mirrors-- all of it cut off from the desert by high, rising, black mountains and plateaus. It was clear now, for all that they had explored in the last year and a half, the area with which they were familiar was miniscule when the rest of the planet and its infinite mysteries now stretched out before them.

A black canyon in the distance sliced into the landscape like a charred scar, surrounded by white sands that spread in waves to the line of the horizon and well past it, a harbinger of the fate of this world. In two-thousand years, it would be nothing but desert, nothing but sands. Everything their eyes looked over now was temporary, ephemeral, and--

“Beautiful,” Jim muttered beside him, his voice almost lost in the hum of the shuttle. “Do you see that canyon, Spock? What I wouldn’t give to explore it. Looks like there’s a river…” he trailed off, pulling the shuttle off-track just slightly to fly closer to it.

The navigational console beeped, alerting them that they were diverging from their course, but Spock ignored it, tapping the control to turn off the alarm. He found he would much rather fly over the canyon or see their oasis from a bird’s eye view than stick to an arbitrary destination right now. Sometimes it was okay to veer off the path, so long as one regained it eventually.

Jim glanced at him sideways with a tilted smile, but didn’t comment. Rather, he simply engaged thrust and sped them forward, flying them over the mountain range and in the direction of the canyon.

“Status?”

“Still stable,” Spock responded, unable to help the touch of amazement to his voice. In spite of the confidence he projected, the fact that nothing had yet broken down or exploded was a bit of a surprise. “How does it feel?”

Jim looked down to the console, shrugging. “Fine. Smooth, believe it or not. We did something right.”

“For our sakes,” Spock said with an undercurrent of amusement, “I hope we have done everything right.”

Jim snorted a laugh, then pulled the shuttle down, speeding her along the canyon, the deep gash that it carved in an otherwise smooth desert. There was a river, as Jim had suspected, far below the sharp walls of volcanic rock. It looked to be dotted with green, and as they flew lower it became clear that some kind of wildlife wandered at the river’s banks-- small white dots that could have been those desert-dwelling deer or something else entirely. Something new. Spock could feel Jim yearning to touch down, to explore, but Spock looked to him pointedly.

“Jim,” he said. And that was all he needed to.

“I know,” Jim groaned. “You see it, though, don’t you? I just wish--” Jim let out a sigh, pulling up the shuttle and turning her around. “I just wish all of this would still exist in the future. There’s so much here . So much we could study and learn and--” Shaking his head, Jim straightened himself. “But you’re right. We have a mission.”

“And it would not be wise to fly too far from our camp. Should we become stranded--”

“More stranded,” Jim tacked on with a wry smile.

More stranded,” Spock conceded, “it will become infinitely more difficult to return home.”

Jim sighed again, turning the shuttle round and returning in the direction they’d come.

“Okay, to the graveyard then,” Jim said, “lay it in, Mister Spock. Again.”

Spock’s lip twitched and he set in the course, though they could see their destination from here. What mattered was testing the navigational systems.

And, when the console began to complain, Spock became infinitely grateful that they had done so.

The whining beep that accompanied the error message on Spock’s screen blared through the small cabin, and Jim shot a glance over to him, mouth thin. “What’s happening?”

“I am unsure.” Spock circumvented the error message and called up a diagnostic, eyes focused on the screen as Jim flew. “It claims the navigation system is malfunctioning.”

“What?” Jim barked, anger and embarrassment flashing over their bond. “I spent hours on the navigation. And it was working a few minutes ago! What could be wrong?”

Spock read quickly through the diagnostic. “Unreliable connection,” he summarized. “The positioning system is unresponsive, though the navigational sensors seem to be working.”

“So it knows what’s around us but doesn’t know where we are?”

“In short.”

Jim let out a frustrated groan and jerked the shuttle to the side, causing Spock to grip the edge of his seat.

“I’m sorry,” Jim said harshly, his brows knit, his jaw set. Spock attempted to send something soothing to him, but Jim was clearly perturbed. “Let’s just land this thing so we can figure out what’s wrong.”

Spock remained silent for a moment as Jim guided them back to the shuttle’s original crash site, where their tools still lay in the sand. He was unsure if he should express his theory, but he may have neglected to remember that their mental connection went both ways.

“What’s on your mind, Spock?” Jim asked, somewhat exasperatedly.

Spock cast him a gentle look. “The positioning system is what you pulled from the Veh El’es Ekhlami , yes?” he asked.

Jim shrugged, hands still hard on the helm. “Yes,” he said, “but it looked fine.”

“It is more than three-thousand years old, Jim,” Spock reminded him. “It is possible that it has simply ceased to function.”

Jim’s fingers tightened their grip and he let out a breath. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he admitted, and Spock felt some of the anger drain from him, replaced with a sort of despair.

Guiding them back to their landing site, Jim didn’t speak but to ask for confirmation of flight status. It was a blessing, if not a miracle, that all other systems were functioning perfectly-- even the environmental systems that Jim had been concerned about. But Jim was a harsh critic when it came to his own work, Spock had noticed. Though a malfunctioning device from an ancient ship could hardly be considered his fault, it was obvious Jim would find a way to make it seem so.

They landed softly on the sand, much smoother than their initial departure, and Jim powered down piloting functions as Spock powered down sensors.

For a moment, they sat in silence.

“If the part’s broken,” Jim began, staring down at his hands, which rested purposelessly on the console in front of him, “we’re out of options. It was the only positioning system in that whole graveyard that wasn’t damaged. Well, at least the only one that would work with Federation-standard equipment.” They had, of course, stumbled upon ships whose navigation looked to still be functional, but there had only been a couple of them, and each had utilized systems that were indecipherably unfamiliar to them both.

Spock swiveled in his seat. “There are options. Rather, there is one option,” he said, though he knew Jim was aware of their last hope. But he was unwilling to suggest it until they knew for certain.

Jim sighed, suddenly looking tired, worn-down, shoulders slumping, all the excitement of their test flight leaving the light of his eyes. “Right. Well, let’s see the damage.”

Spock pressed the key to open the shuttle door, which slid only somewhat creakily into its sheath, then made his way outside to their tools.

By the time he returned, Jim had already pried off the panel over the sensors. He was seated on the floor, bad leg kicked out in front of him, reaching into the mess of wires and circuits with recklessly bare hands.

Spock settled on the floor beside him, handing him the knife. It was not the most delicate of tools, but Jim took it without a word and deftly sliced at the wires that connected the positioning system to their sensors. Pulling it out, he turned it over in his hands, then handed it moodily to Spock.

Steeling himself, Spock took the tricorder from where he’d set it on the floor and ran it over the device, gut clenching painfully at the readings.

Jim clearly didn’t need to hear him say it.

“Dead?”

Spock met his eyes. “Jim--”

“Shit.”

It was seldom Jim cursed, seldom he felt even a fraction of the hopelessness that now radiated off of him like heat. Spock set the system and the tricorder down and placed a hand on Jim’s knee.

“Jim,” he said again, harder this time, forcing Jim to meet his eyes with the word. “There is another option.”

Taking in a deep breath, Jim set his hand on top of Spock’s, looking down at the tricorder. “We can’t, Spock. We don’t know when the next ion storm is going to be.”

“It has been months since the last one,” Spock reminded him. “It must be soon.”

“But we don’t know that. Without the tricorder, we’re blind out here. The most it’s going to be able to do without its positioning system is read the weather. We won’t know where the bulldogs are, we won’t know where to find each other if we separate… I don’t like it.”

“Nor do I, but it would take many more months to assemble a new device from scratch. We have survived on this planet so far. If we remain outside the depth of the forest and retreat to the cave before nightfall, we are in no danger.”

Jim gripped Spock’s hand, worrying the corner of his lip between his teeth. “As designated security officer on this mission,” he said lowly, “it’s my duty to state on-record that I’m opposed to this idea.”

“If it helps,” Spock started, but he paused and took a breath before he continued. “I am rather opposed to it myself.”

Jim’s lips twisted into a slight smile, though it held little humor. “Then I guess we’re both on the hook if this goes south.”

Spock felt a tinge of fear that he forced himself to suppress. He had done much to protect the man who sat in front of him now, just as Jim had done much to protect him. He doubted either of them would be comfortable with this decision, despite the fact that they both knew what needed to be done. The tricorder’s positioning system would mean the difference between plotting a sure course through the wormhole web and trying to navigate it by sight in low visibility. There was no alternative, and they could not leave any aspect of their journey home to chance.

“Very well,” Spock said, straightening his spine and removing his hand from Jim’s. The contact was missed, but the hum remained, a pleasant sensation that spread through him every time they touched. It served now to remind them that they really were in this together, even the worst of it. Especially the worst of it. “I will disassemble the tricorder if you will ensure the console is prepped.”

Jim swallowed and nodded, heart hammering loud enough for Spock to hear.

“Let’s just hope a storm hits soon,” he practically mumbled to himself.