Jim missed the pond where he used to go fishing. It lay a little way into the forest, maybe a mile or so. The path that led to it was well-trod after all this time, a wavering white line of worn sand, a small mark they had left on this planet. Giant flowers always bloomed around the lake’s edges, encouraged into growth by the rising humidity off the water and the break in the trees’ canopy that let in the golden wash of sunlight. It always smelled sweet, and sometimes Jim could catch one of those fat birds snapping silver, shining fish in their beaks before the sound of his footsteps scared them off.
But as the days turned into weeks, then into another long month, he came to terms with the fact that abandoning that pond, and their strolls through the forest’s depths, was worth it to stay safe.
The good news was that they no longer needed the tricorder to tell them where to get food. Jim knew the location of every sprig of greens and every clutch of mushrooms and every towering fruit tree, and he knew the types of places to look when they’d picked a resource dry. This planet was familiar to them now-- at least their oasis was. And they could survive as they had for as long as they needed to, with or without that valuable positioning system.
If only there was any indication that their time on Sha Ka Ree was nearing its end. For more than a year and a half-- God, almost two years now-- they had been working toward one, single goal. Repair the shuttle. Now that it was done, it sat a staunch reminder of how little of the future was within their control. They had no idea when another ion storm would stir the skies. It had already been months since the last one, but every day they walked outside to find the same vast expanse of blue above them. The birds chortled their awkward little songs, the leaves shone green swaths over the white sand, and Jim ached.
He wanted to go home. They were so close to going home. Spock tried to soothe him over their bond any time he caught Jim thinking about it, but it was difficult to stay soothed for long. All this time, Jim had shoved aside his homesickness, his fear and anger and anxiety and now that they were ready he felt restless.
So they occupied themselves the best they could. While reluctant to explore too much without the tricorder to keep them safe, they now had a fully operational shuttlecraft to fly around the planet. They never went too far at risk of getting stranded for the sake of recreation, but they were able to visit the Vulcan village another few times, which was gratefully distracting.
Spock seemed able to walk its paths now without the weight of grief on his shoulders, and so he talked idly with Jim about the architecture, the Vulcan technique for making sandstone, the way the colony may have functioned in order to maximize their resources.
He talked, too, about Vulcan’s broken history of colonization, how attempts had been few and far between and how the planet had consolidated its efforts into its own betterment over the centuries. There was so much about Vulcan culture Jim had never thought to learn about, and now he found himself gripped with curiosity. Luckily, he had a library of information in his companion, and Spock seemed happy to discuss it.
Spock seemed happy much of the time, in fact. It made Jim feel better about his own less-than-consistent emotions. When Spock was happy, Jim let the feeling swirl into him, and oftentimes he could muster his own excitement and interest. His own joy.
While they talked, they’d sift through the sand, attempting to find any remnants that they could of the Vulcan colonists. Mostly, they were unlucky. In some of the homes, they found old metal sleeping platforms, likely taken from the crashed ships. In one, the tiny home of what Spock assumed was a bonded pair, they found three small magnetic cylinders. Spock had gone quiet for a time after that, then informed Jim that those were pieces of kal-toh, the ‘greatest game of strategy in the galaxy,’ as he’d once called it.
Jim had imagined them then, a nameless, faceless couple with a game set up between them, whiling away one of Sha Ka Ree’s interminable evenings with what he was sure they had considered an incredibly logical use of recreational time.
And then he had looked to Spock, whose posture was relaxed unless he thought about it, whose hair grew long, whose decidedly illogical emotions Jim could feel constantly thrumming under his own consciousness, and he wondered if the Vulcans here had maintained their Surakian teachings or if they had felt the kind of freedom he knew Spock felt.
Not that the two were mutually exclusive, of course. Spock loved logic, if that could be said without massively contradicting itself, but outside of Vulcan society he seemed to have come to terms with what that word meant to him. So Jim wondered if, maybe, these Vulcans had done the same.
It was one evening, a month or more after they had fully repaired the shuttlecraft, that they had flown it up to the mountaintop, finding the flattest stretch of stone on which to land. It had been Jim’s idea, to watch the slow sunset from on-high, and Spock had not refuted it. Without any other occupation that required their time, it was as fine a pursuit as any. And they didn’t have to worry about wasting power thanks to the solar panels they’d constructed along the shuttle’s sides.
So they sat on the roof of their ship with their legs hanging off the back as the sky took on its evening violet hues, Jim shifting now and again as the welded seams of metal dug into his legs. But Spock’s hand laid gentle on his thigh and he felt comfortable, for the most part.
Which is why he felt free to ask, finally, what had been kicking around in his head for a while now. They’d been silent for a long time, trailing their eyes over the forest far below them, watching from an angle they’d never seen as the leaves collapsed. Now, Jim looked upwards, toward home.
“Do you think the Vulcan colonists followed Surakian teachings?” he asked.
The question seemed to surprise Spock. He took a moment before answering, following Jim’s gaze toward the sky. “Undoubtedly,” he said eventually. “Even two-hundred years ago, few did not.”
“I meant in the end,” Jim said, glancing sideways at Spock to gauge his reaction. “After all those generations?”
Spock seemed to consider this, his brow furrowing. “I could not say. It is likely they passed down their traditions. Vulcan places great value on custom. But perhaps they ‘let loose’ as you would say? At least to some degree.”
“Like you have?”
Spock turned to him, a half-smile on his lips. “As I have, yes.”
Jim grinned and wrapped his arm around Spock, pulling him in until his head rested on Jim’s shoulder. Though the sun had only barely set, he felt a chill inching in-- it was far colder up here than down below-- but the warmth of Spock beside him staved off the discomfort for now.
“Is that why you’re nervous?” Jim asked, “about going back?”
He felt Spock stiffen slightly, but thankfully he only felt a small pinch of anxiety from his mind.
“It is. At least in part,” Spock said, not bothering to deny the feeling, for which Jim was grateful. “Our time on this planet has altered me in ways that I did not expect.” He paused, tilting his head almost imperceptibly so the soft corner of his lips pressed to Jim’s collar. “When we return, I will be changed. It is unlikely it will be simple to step back into the life I once led.”
Jim heard the hint of mourning in his voice, even before he felt it. In honesty, Jim had nursed similar fears, similar feelings of loss. Change, even for the best, always meant something would be left behind.
“When my dad came back,” he said softly against the crown of Spock’s head, “after we thought he had died-- he was different too. It took a few years for things to settle back into place. At first, I hardly recognized him.” He nuzzled into Spock’s hair, “and I’ve been a little worried myself that my family won’t recognize me. But, well, my dad was still my dad when he came back. You’re still going to be you and I’m still going to be me. We’ll just have an adjustment period.”
Spock relaxed against him, a calm fondness in the brush of his mind alongside Jim’s.
“I believe the adjustment period is what concerns me.”
Jim smiled. “You don’t think your parents will take too kindly to your long hair and human lover?” he joked, tilting his head to meet Spock’s eyes. He was disappointed to find little humor in them.
Suddenly, Jim felt a little more nervous himself. “Wait, your mother is human. They won’t be upset by this, will they?”
“Upset is a human emotion, Jim,” Spock reminded him, almost ironically.
Jim let out a breath through his nose. “I mean it. Are they going to-- I don’t know-- disown you?”
Spock thought on that for a moment, sitting up straight and turning his eyes back to the forest below them. The cold nipped at Jim as the wind blew past, and he noticed Spock shiver.
“My mother will simply be pleased I am alive, I would imagine.” The way he said that settled something heavy in Jim’s chest, as though Spock didn’t know for sure that his own mother would have missed him. Or, maybe, as though he didn’t know if she would have missed him enough to overlook whatever perceived new faults weighed on Spock now.
“My father, however...” Spock paused, expression unreadable and emotions cut off. “I hope you will not take it personally when he objects to our relationship. It is to be expected. He has convinced himself that I will someday marry T’Pring, and I have never given him reason to suspect that such an arrangement is undesirable to me. This will come as a shock.”
Frankly, it had come as a shock to Jim, too, so he could only imagine Spock’s staunchly Vulcan father might faint. But Spock’s words brought another thought to Jim’s mind, one that he’d done a rather fantastic job pushing aside thus far. “And T’Pring?” he asked, the name unfamiliar on his lips. “What will she think?”
Spock didn’t appear concerned by the question, his shoulders rising and falling subtly in his version of a shrug. “It will be an inconvenience to sever the bond between us,” he said lamely, “but I do not doubt she will have no emotional reaction to it. Finding another mate will be a simple task for one of her status, and I believe it would please her to be free of me.”
Jim raised an eyebrow. He could hardly imagine someone wanting to be ‘free’ of Spock . “How can you be sure? You’ve been engaged since you were seven. I would think that would take precedence over some guy you met in the woods.”
The flash of amusement that colored their link made Jim smile slightly, though it didn’t assuage all of his worries.
“What takes precedence is mental compatibility.” Spock assured him. “T’Pring would have been a suitable mate, but you...” his hand found Jim’s on the metal between them, fingertips brushing Jim’s own ever so slightly. He didn’t need to finish his thought. The word ‘miracle’ seemed to float unsaid in the air, and it made Jim’s heart ache beautifully.
“Won’t your father respect that?” he asked, tone soft, inquisitive, “He married a human after all.”
“For logical reasons,” Spock responded.
“Of course.” Jim rolled his eyes, taking a deep breath. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
The amusement returned to Spock then, and his fingertips lightly stroked along Jim’s.
“I believe he will come to respect you,” Spock said, “as will my mother. At any rate, I will give them little choice in the matter.”
Jim broke the kiss, running his hand along Spock’s wrist where he began to trace mindless patterns along his veins.
“Well, my parents are going to be thrilled,” he said, shooting Spock a warm smile. He’d thought a lot about how they might react to Spock, and he’d come to this conclusion a long time ago. He couldn’t imagine a world in which they wouldn’t adore this man, gentle as he was, intelligent as he was, as much as he loved Jim.
Spock raised an eyebrow, and Jim nearly laughed at the disbelief he felt rippling from his lover. He could almost hear Spock’s thoughts, as though he’d said I doubt that very sincerely, Jim aloud. But with that doubt came a humming insecurity that Jim sought to alleviate.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he said fondly. “My family’s liked a couple of my partners, but Gary .” He laughed, “Gary was a little wild-- and I think we only went out because I joined Starfleet and started feeling nostalgic for my rebellious phase. Trust me, in comparison alone, you’ll look sparkling.” Gary was the most recent of his partners, as he hadn’t exactly found time or occasion to date on the Farragut . And in spite of how he’d hurt Jim, he always stood out as the most important romance of Jim’s life. Until now, of course. Often, he could think of Gary fondly, in spite of how his parents had felt about the match.
He paused, shifting his eyes to Spock. A new emotion had begun to slip through, subtly enough that Spock may not have even been aware of it. If he had, he probably would have cut it off by now. “Wait,” Jim tested, searching Spock’s face. “Are you jealous?”
Spock stiffened slightly, and Jim felt a hum of annoyance coming off of him that ceased abruptly. Jim wasn’t even upset by it.
“No,” Spock lied easily, and Jim snorted.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Jim said, though Spock knew as much by now.
Spock looked to where Jim’s hand laid softly over his wrist. “It is simply strange to be reminded that you-- you have had lovers before me.” The insinuation hung in the air: different from me , he seemed to tack on. Better than me , his emotions hinted.
Jim nearly rolled his eyes, but stopped himself forcibly. They had melded enough times now for Spock to know that, in Jim’s mind and heart, he was paramount. “Sure I have,” he said, “but you knew about them. It’s not like I told you I was betrothed three months after sleeping with you.”
With a start, Spock met Jim’s eyes, suddenly nervous, but Jim was smiling. He’d long forgiven Spock for the surprise of it all, given everything that had followed. He looked back out over the landscape, sighing.
“You know how I feel about you,” Jim reminded him softly. “And like I was trying to say, my family is going to be so happy. Finally, a logical choice for their son.” He smiled at the word, and felt Spock relax under his hand.
“Humans are not always receptive to Vulcans. You are certain they will approve?”
“Positive,” Jim responded, “and, better yet, if any illogical humans can get on your dad’s good side, it’s my parents.”
“I will take your word for that.”
Jim laughed, squeezed Spock’s wrist. “It’s going to be alright,” he reassured softly, “all any parent wants for their children is someone to make them happy. Even Vulcans, right?”
“Happiness is a human emotion, Jim,” Spock reminded him again, this time without any of the mirth of before.
Jim felt his stomach clench at the tone, but he didn’t want Spock to succumb to those anxieties that Jim could practically feel consuming his mind. “Well,” he said lightly, turning to Spock, “then we’ll just have to come up with a logical reason for our relationship, right?”
Spock looked at him with bare confusion, and Jim smiled, something encouraging. “How about... Ah, alright. I’ve got one. It’s logical to date a Starfleet officer, because your career will never get in the way of your relationship. That’s a fair reason.”
“Given the fact that Starfleet discourages relationships between officers whenever possible, that would likely not suffice,” Spock tested.
Jim hummed, feigning deep thought. “Okay, then how about the fact that it’s logical to date a human when you’ve chosen a predominantly human profession. Research.”
“Researching humans and establishing romantic mental bonds with humans are two very different things, Jim.” Though Spock protested, Jim could see the corner of his mouth lifting.
“Okay, different reason, then,” he said brightly. “Because I’m a compatible mate? That’s logical enough for you .”
“My father will no doubt argue that T’Pring is also a compatible mate. And Vulcan.”
Jim pursed his lips, thinking. “Well, it would be illogical to object to your relationship after you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, right? It could cause you undue emotional distress.”
“As a Vulcan, I should be able to quickly process all forms of undue emotional distress,” Spock said.
It had started out as a game, but now Jim paused, unsure if he could think of any other logical explanations for what existed between them. By all accounts, this was a terrible idea. They’d established as much from the beginning. But this was the first time in a long time it seemed to matter. For a second, he felt his own trembling trepidation well up. Then, Spock let out a short sigh and met Jim’s eyes.
“Perhaps, the only explanation that needs to be given is that I care for you. Whether my father understands that or not, he must respect it.”
It was Jim’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “He must?”
The cool air blew past them and the first lonely roar of a bulldog called out from the forest, echoing in the evening.
Jim felt a small smile tugging at his lips, the anxiety ebbing away. Spock, concerned though he was, had kept his promise. He had no more doubts, even in the face of rejection from his own family. Jim marveled at the feeling that inspired in him.
They were quiet for a while, staring at each other, Jim attempting to absorb Spock’s surety. Somehow, just the look in his eyes was enough.
“We should get back,” Jim said lowly after a time. “It’s getting late, and without the tricorder--”
“Of course,” Spock responded. He took Jim’s hand, asking silently as he did sometimes, and Jim obliged, leaning in to place a gentle kiss to his lips. His eyes fell closed as he breathed in Spock’s warmth.
When he pulled away and their eyes met again, Jim felt that familiar bloom inside him. Love, and all its overwhelming, beautiful, terrifying implications, some of his own, some of Spock’s.
And though he liked having Spock all to himself, and though the complexities of life outside Sha Ka Ree still scared him, he found he couldn’t wait to share Spock with the world, with the people he cared about. Any hardship was worth that, and neither of them would have to endure such hardship without the other.
The fire flickered over them both, lighting Jim’s skin in hot, orange hues and casting shadows at the hollow of his collarbone, the slight dips of his ribs, the curve of his arm. He glittered with sweat, and his chest, dotted and streaked with evidence of their lovemaking, rose in deep breaths. Tiny, purpling bruises were beginning to appear along the juncture of his neck and shoulder, but Spock could not muster a feeling of guilt for them, knowing how Jim had felt as he’d sucked at that sensitive skin. The world seemed to be catching up to Jim again while Spock watched, transfixed, awestruck as he always was by Jim’s warm beauty after he’d come completely undone by Spock’s hands. He never looked more human than in these vulnerable, intimate moments. And Spock loved him like this.
Jim’s eyelids fluttered, a soft smile on his face that crinkled the corners of his eyes as he floated in that blissful haze. But Spock’s gaze fell then to Jim’s hand, which lay at an awkward angle on Spock’s chest. His fingers absentmindedly stroked Spock’s skin, and Spock found that was what drew his focus-- the soothing quiet of Jim’s touch, his hand still trembling slightly. Goosebumps prickled his arms, raised his fine hair in a golden forest, but Jim didn’t seem to notice or care. He always drifted a while in the afterglow.
“Jim, you must be cold,” Spock said softly, drawing his lover’s attention. Jim had shoved Spock off of him as soon as they’d gotten their breath back and tossed the blankets to the side, seemingly to shed the heat, but the night was beginning to freeze and Spock could not imagine Jim was comfortable. With the cold creeping in through the far side of the cave, Jim would be frozen in moments.
“Burning up, actually,” Jim said, turning to Spock with a grin on his kiss-bitten lips. “I don’t think you realize how hot you are.” Spock raised an eyebrow and Jim chuckled. “Yes,” Jim said, though Spock had not asked a question, “in all meanings of the word.”
Feeling soft lines at the corners of his eyes, Spock nearly smiled. “Would you like me to get you some water?”
Jim cast his eyes to the canteens by their emergency kit, then looked back to Spock. He seemed to consider it. “You know what I want?” he said, rolling to his side. The angle worked better, and he laid his hand flat on Spock’s chest, running it down his body until it rested over his heart under the blankets.
Spock didn’t pick up any further arousal from Jim, and he assumed he was quite satiated, but there was something decidedly lustful in his tone. “Jim, the average refractory period for a human male is thirty minutes. I find it hard to believe you are already interested in intercourse again.”
Jim laughed, dropping his head. Spock felt his heart beat uncomfortably hard at the music of that sound and he was sure Jim could feel it through his fingers, but all Jim did was lift his eyes back to Spock, looking at him through those impossibly long lashes.
“No, no, but it’s just as good.”
“Then what do you want, Jim?” Spock asked indulgently.
As one eyebrow would be unable to convey the proper amount of disbelief, Spock raised both. “It is below freezing outside.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Jim laughed. He scooted forward, patting down the blankets over Spock’s chest and setting himself up so his chin rested on his folded arms. “But it’s a sauna in here. What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of mint chocolate chip. Or, oh, pistachio. Rocky road .” Jim let out a prolonged groan, sinking his forehead onto Spock’s chest.
Spock had only ever heard Jim make a noise like that during sex. He found it hard to imagine that the thought of ice cream, of all things, would inspire such a reaction.
“Yeah,” Jim continued with a lazy smile when he raised his head, “if I could have anything in the universe right now, it’d be a bowl of rocky road. We used to make ice cream on the farm-- real cow’s milk. Real sugar. I know it’s not quite the same, but ice cream will be the first thing I eat when I get my hands on a food synthesizer again.”
Spock raised a hand to Jim’s head, stroking through his hair gently. Jim leaned into the touch, his eyes closing. “You’ve had ice cream before, right?” Jim asked, voice rumbling with a sort of warm contentment.
“I have not,” Spock replied. He knew it was considered a treat for humans, but he had never understood the human propensity for sweets. “Sucrose has inebriating effects on Vulcans. I do not know what a bowl of ‘rocky road’ would do to me.”
Jim’s eyes opened and a wicked grin made its way to his lips. “Inebriating? Oh, Spock,” Jim crawled up him, swinging his leg to Spock’s other side and straddling his hips over the blankets. “I would give anything,” he said, leaning down and brushing his lips lightly along Spock’s, “to see you under the influence of ice cream.”
Jim tilted his head and Spock met his lips gladly, hands running down the hard lines of his arms. Rocking his hips lazily, a motion that was stimulating even through the layers between them, Jim hummed into Spock’s mouth. The average human refractory period may have been thirty minutes, but Spock certainly felt a twitch of interest himself. He had to remind himself that they were already staying up too late. It would be wise to get some rest.
Spock pulled away from their kiss gently, attempting not to watch as Jim’s tongue darted out to lick his lips. Bringing his hands back up Jim’s arms, he tried to smooth down the hair that stood on end.
“Jim, you are cold,” he chastened softly, “lay down.”
“I told you, I’m burning up,” Jim scoffed, “ you’re cold.”
Spock looked to his own arms where goosebumps raised his own hair on end. It took a moment to digest the sight, to contrast it with the undeniable fact that he was perfectly, comfortably warm, and to notice now-- distracted as he’d been-- that something seemed to prickle and tingle beneath the surface of his skin.
Then, it took a moment longer for the implications of that to sink in.
Jim felt the shock in him even before his expression changed. Spock could tell by the way the man above him stiffened, the lust leaving the light of his eyes. “Spock? What’s wrong?”
Unable, it seemed, to speak around the stone in his throat, Spock took Jim by the wrist, raised his arm and held it up at Jim’s eye level. Jim, confused for a moment, looked to it.
It took a second for everything to fall into place. But Spock felt it the moment it did. A jolt of surprise shot through him, fear and uncertainty, and he could practically hear Jim screaming not now with every thought in his head, but--
“Now?!” Jim half-shouted, scrambling off of Spock and limping, barenaked to their equipment. He knelt to fish the tricorder out of the kit. It had been all but useless since they had removed its positioning device, but as Jim had said-- it could still tell the weather.
Spock threw the blankets off of himself, moving to Jim’s side where he crouched just outside the ring of firelight. Jim was staring at the screen, worry radiating from him as its blue glow lit his face from below. It shadowed his eyes, drew dark lines at the corners of his lips.
“Well?” Spock asked, surprised by the edge of his own voice. It sounded desperate, not like himself at all.
Jim’s shoulders fell. “Ion disturbance,” he said, voice almost lost in the crackling of the fire. “Spock,” he looked up, eyes wide, “Spock, we have to go.”
Body tensing like a taut rubber band, Spock didn’t even bother to cut off the feeling of fear he knew he emanated. Jim would have felt it anyway, and Spock knew in that moment that each of his worries was reflected in the mind that reached out to his own for comfort, for assurance.
But how could he provide comfort when the very ground beneath his feet seemed to shift?
“Jim, we have not yet tested the shuttlecraft in temperatures this low,” he said, mind providing a thousand more arguments in this one’s wake. “Nor will visibility be at its height.”
Jim set the tricorder down and stood, moving past Spock as though he hadn’t even heard him. Frustration prickling, Spock turned, watching Jim as he moved to their bed, toward the messy pile of clothes they had shed earlier.
“Moreover,” he continued pointedly, “we could quite easily freeze to death--”
“I know ,” Jim said, voice harsh, “but Spock, this is the first storm in nine months.” He turned to Spock as he wiped his chest and abdomen with one of the leaves he’d pulled from their bed’s padding. “ Nine months . We can’t risk staying here without the tricorder that long, waiting for another. And who’s to say the next one won’t be at night, too?” He tossed the leaf to the side and slipped his thermal over his head, tugging at its torn hem. He then knelt for his slacks. “How many do you think we’ve missed because we’ve been sleeping or distracted or--”
Spock approached as Jim yanked his slacks up to his waist and buckled the belt, only noticing now that Jim’s hands were trembling. Spock’s heart stuttered at the sight.
“ Spock ,” Jim interrupted, the syllable short and clipped. Their eyes met, and Jim held him there in that gaze, brows tight, mouth thin, jaw set as though no argument in the world could dissuade him, even though Spock could feel how scared he was, how the reality of what they were about to do had finally hit him after months of optimism and restlessness, how he wanted to be sure they would make it, that they would be okay, and how he knew now that he couldn’t be sure of anything.
After a few long moments, a series of pounding heartbeats, he felt rather than saw Jim soften, a kind of resignation weighing down the corners of his lips.
Stepping over the furs, Jim came up to him, putting his hands on either side of Spock’s face, a tender touch that belied his outward confidence. “I know, Spock. I-- I know,” he said softly, his countenance melting into something tremulous, scared.
What it was that Jim knew, he didn’t say. Did he know that Spock had been attempting to mentally prepare himself for this for months? That Spock still feared what would happen to them if they made it back to their own time? Or, worse, if they didn’t? Did he know that Spock had imagined Jim’s death in countless ways and could not stomach the thought of putting him in danger? Did he know that Spock loved him too much to take anything on chance, to risk losing him when he was everything Spock had?
But as they stared at each other in perfect stillness and Spock felt the rising, billowing, familiar thrum of love through the hands on his face, he understood that Jim likely knew all of this.
But it didn’t change anything. They still had to go.
Spock brought a hand to one of Jim’s, pulling it from his face and pressing a gentle, human kiss to his knuckles.
“Very well,” Spock said, though his throat felt hard, his voice stiff. He released Jim’s hand and stepped out of the sphere of his warmth, moving past him to collect his own clothes. “We will require tools.”
Jim was already behind him. Spock heard him begin to dig through the emergency kit to ensure everything was there. “I say we bring the whole kit — medical and everything,” he said. “And some food, just in case. We don’t know how long we’ll end up drifting when we make it to the other side.”
Spock did not fail to notice that Jim did not say ‘if.’
“That is an adequate plan,” Spock replied as he pulled his tunic over his head. “We will use the communicators for illumination on our way to the shuttle. The storm clouds will likely obscure the stars.”
Concern spiked across their link and Spock turned to Jim as he buttoned his slacks. “Jim?”
“It’s going to be dark,” Jim said, standing. “And our tricorder-- We’ll have to hurry once we get outside. We don’t know hunting patterns, or...”
Suddenly unsure if the concern wavering along his consciousness came from himself or from Jim, Spock swallowed, then knelt to pull on his boots. “I am far more concerned about the flight itself than the short distance to the shuttle, Jim. Please, do not worry.”
“Right,” Jim said. Then, softer, “right.”
“How much time until the storm starts in earnest?”
Jim seemed to startle, casting around for where he’d set the tricorder. Picking it up and dusting off the sand, he looked over the scans. Spock didn’t necessarily need an answer when Jim ran a defeated hand over his face. “It’s already started,” Jim said stiffly, “The tricorder’s reading Force-1.”
“Then it has only just begun.” Spock made his way over to Jim, gently taking the device from his hands and looping it over his own shoulder. Jim looked to him-- for comfort, for support. All Spock wanted to do was provide it, but his own fear caused his stomach to ache, pulled at the frayed threads of his emotional control. It already took everything he had to simply maintain a steady set to his shoulders, to appear assured in their decision.
Maybe sensing this, Jim stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Spock’s waist, tucking his face into the hollow of Spock’s neck.
Within him, Spock felt something cracking, a fissure in his already shaken foundation, and he buried his nose in the crown of Jim’s hair, bringing his hands to Jim’s back as Jim did the same to him. Jim’s heartbeat pounded against Spock’s chest and his breath warmed Spock’s skin and Spock’s fingers curled into the fabric of Jim’s tunic because the moment he released him, he could not guarantee that he would ever hold him again. It was possible they would survive the storm, but the odds were against them. The odds had only ever been against them.
But they had made it this far, hadn’t they?
They stood like that for a long time, too long, as Spock inhaled the scent of him. Jim felt like home in his arms.
“We’ll be okay, Spock,” Jim said softly, voice muffled against Spock’s neck. And Spock was sure he was attempting to convince himself as well. “I’m scared too, but we can’t stay here forever. I want--” Jim pulled away just enough to meet Spock’s eyes. There was something swimming in them. “I want to introduce you to my family,” he said, a choked laugh falling out with the words. “I want to take you to all the national parks I kept trying to name this planet after. I want to play kal-toh and go on dates . To-- to restaurants and museums. I want to… ”
“Go home,” Spock finished, bringing a hand to Jim’s face to stroke his cheek, thumb ghosting over his skin. “You want to go home.”
Jim sighed, closing his eyes and leaning into Spock’s touch. “I do.”
Spock’s heart clenched. This place, this tiny stretch of sand in a cave on a planet lightyears from his own, had become a home to him. To them both. But it was not where they belonged. They had lives to lead and it was simply selfishness and fear that made Spock wish to stay, to keep Jim at his side, to absorb himself in the freedom he’d found here.
But the steady presence of the man in his arms reminded him that, while they had to leave this planet, their paradise, they did not have to abandon all that it had given them.
An understanding flowed between them, wordless but powerful, and Jim let out a breath of relief and apprehension that Spock felt as though it were coming from his own lungs.
“Okay,” Jim said. “Let’s… let’s go.”
It took a few minutes to gather their supplies, all of which they tossed rather unceremoniously into the tub of their emergency kit. They pulled their jumpsuits over their uniforms for warmth, for all the good they would do, and Jim slung his bow and arrows over his shoulder. He had wordlessly handed their last phaser to Spock, communicating with a tinge of amusement underneath his ever-present anxiety that Spock’s accuracy with the bow had hardly improved.
While discontent at the idea of Jim relying solely on the bow for protection, especially while carrying the emergency kit too, Spock reminded himself of the distance. One-hundred yards. In the dark, yes, but they would manage.
There was little else they could do for warmth or protection, so, steeling themselves, they took one last, long look around their home. There was no time to return to the caldera, to dip once more into its warmth, to stir the birds into motion before extinction swept the species into history. There was no time to run their fingers along the tallies on the wall or visit their crewmates’ graves or allow themselves the grief of knowing they would soon lose this place forever.
They had spent the last month exploring Sha Ka Ree, absorbing everything it had to give them, watching sunsets from the mountaintop and bathing in the lake’s blue glow and gathering flowers that, soon, would not exist and maybe that was the best goodbye they could hope for. Weeks of unhurried exploration, an idle paradise that they’d always known they would have to destroy someday. Today. Now.
And all they could do was meet each other’s eyes and agree to move forward.
So they did. Silently, they set set off side-by-side down the cave, just the light of Spock’s communicator to illuminate the way. He tried not to dwell on the thought that this would be the last time he would walk this now familiar path, but the truth of it sank into him all the same, carrying with it an unnamable pain.
Spock began to shiver in the cold before Jim did, his breath coming out in barely visible gusts of steam, but it was many feet before the cave’s mouth that he could feel Jim’s discomfort grow too. A crack of lightning burst somewhere outside, a rumble of thunder following it. Jim jumped at the sound.
Teeth chattering, Jim managed a laugh. “I’m-- I'm a little paranoid,” he admitted, words coming out stuttered.
“It is only the storm, Jim,” Spock reminded him, just as he attempted to remind himself.
With a single glance beside him, half reassuring, half attempting to anchor himself in Jim’s presence, Spock set forward around a bend, down a passage, and finally into the dark cold of open air. The moment the mouth of the cave became visible, he leveled his phaser along the line of his eyes and scanned the world that opened up before them.
The light from the communicator illuminated the nearest trees of their forest, a side of Sha Ka Ree neither of them had ever seen. Tall, naked trunks stood cracked and angled against the dark sky with branches like bony fingers reaching upwards. When a whiplash of lightning burst above them, Spock realized in its light that their white bark was luminescent with a sheen of frost. Frost, which also clung like cracked paint to the leaves of ferns where only the barest flush of green broke through. The flowers that dotted the edge of the forest had long since collapsed into icicle-laden buds, leaving a frozen, still tableau that seemed too harsh, too angular, colorless and lifeless.
Spock scanned the trees, phaser at the ready, feeling Jim’s trepidation as Jim drew up beside him. Jim shifted the weight of the kit in his arms. “It’s f-- freezing,” he said between shuddering breaths. Spock suppressed his own reaction to the cold, grateful at least that his Vulcan control allowed him to do that much.
“Indeed. Let us hurry.”
They began to walk quickly, side-by-side into the darkness, the small beam of light from Spock’s communicator illuminating frozen white sand. When another flash of lightning hit, followed by another swell of thunder, Jim glanced at him.
“Did you hear that?”
“The thunder?” The barely contained panic in Jim’s voice was enough to give him pause, but Jim was paranoid. He had admitted it himself. Spock’s hold tightened on his phaser.
“No,” Jim said. Spock turned his head to see him worrying his lower lip between his teeth, steps slowing. “No it wasn’t.”
“Jim, hurry, we--”
Then, he heard it. Though faint, disguised under the echo of insistent thunder, something snapped within the forest. Spock pointed his phaser at the trees, a chill gripping him that had little to do with the cold itself. As his communicator beam split the darkness and cast dangerous shadows over the sand, he felt Jim move closer to him.
The sky itself faded from its brief flashes, leaving the world dark and eerily quiet, but for the rumbling growl that Spock could now hear lingering in the air.
It could only be coming from one place.
With a hard swallow that seemed to freeze his throat closed, he moved the beam of light against the shining tree trunks, catching a prickle of black hair between branches.
Behind him, Spock heard the emergency kit fall to the ground. In the next instant, a hand shot out to clutch at Spock’s elbow. “Run!” Jim croaked.
Another flash split the air above them, and without thought they sprinted. The light on the ground before them shuddered with each footfall, cutting through the cold air. Spock scanned the trees as they hopped over roots and stones, their feet slipping on the sheen of ice that laid itself over the sand. He could see nothing, even when light flashed in the sky again. Everything was indistinct, frozen in a haze of his own breath before his eyes. He could feel Jim’s pace lagging behind his own, his sharp breath panting, and so he forced himself to slow.
Just as he made to turn, to pick Jim up and carry him if necessary, a mass of muscle and meat and hair slammed him to the ground.
Skull cracking on the stone of the mountain slope, Spock’s vision blurred, ears ringing from the impact, but he forced himself to roll onto his back. A beast hung above him, black fur obscuring his vision as it straddled him. Its deafening roar echoed in the otherwise silent air, but-- no, it wasn’t silent. Jim was screaming, and Spock was sure he heard his name on the outskirts of his consciousness.
All he knew to do was to scramble against the cold ground beneath him, to push himself beneath the bulldog and slip through its legs as he had managed to do once before so many months ago, but the beast growled again before he could even find purchase on the sand and a paw the size of a boulder swiped at him. Pain shot from his arm where the piercing drag of massive claws slashed through his skin, pulling a cry from his lungs. The force of it sent him rolling to the side, clutching himself as the phaser fell from his grip.
Then, the creature was above him again and he heard a crunch as it stepped on their last line of defense.
Well, not their last.
From somewhere to the side, Spock heard a swoosh, a thunk, and the bulldog roared again, pained and primal and penetrating as it reared back. Then Jim’s voice rang out. “Get off of him!”
Spock opened his bleary eyes to see an arrow sticking out of the beast’s thick neck. Its pinprick eyes were focused on a spot to Spock’s left, and Spock craned his aching head to look.
Jim stood in the white beam of the light that glowed from Spock’s dropped communicator, shivering from head to foot but with his hands steady on the bow and arrow he held. His eyes were steely, in spite of the fear that Spock felt rolling off of him. They hung suspended in time, the space of a moment that allowed Spock to draw a breath from his frozen, straining lungs, and then the bulldog advanced.
Spock could feel blood freezing to his tunic where the bulldog’s claws had slashed him, could hear the breaking branches and scrabbles of claws on stone that heralded the approach of another creature, but he had one single objective. Light flashed in the sky above them again, a spiking tendril of energy that illuminated the scene, and his stiff fingers reached for the busted phaser. It could no longer function with its intended purpose, but it was not wholly useless.
Spock grabbed the phaser’s core, which glowed a faint red with its leftover power, and struggled to his feet. Jim let loose another arrow, and Spock watched it smack into the creature’s eye. It howled, answered by another growl between the trees. So close, too close. Too close to Jim.
The bulldog fell bodily against the sand, arrow lodged in its skull as it jerked in its final throes, and Jim looked toward Spock, face pale with fear and cold in a flash of lightning as he began running for him. Only a few feet separated them, but that was enough.
Out of the forest, a black mass surged, slamming into Jim with the force of a linebacker, knocking him into the sloped mountainside as Spock felt a cry rip itself from his own lungs. He felt Jim’s pain as though it were his own, causing him to stumble backwards, clutching his head. But Spock was Vulcan. He was Vulcan, and he could suppress--
Then, the pain ceased-- Jim’s pain-- and Jim’s body rolled down into the sand as though he were made of rubber. The bulldog straddled him, as the last one had done to Spock, and Spock surged forward. He ran, fast as his frozen legs would carry him, and leapt onto the creature’s massive head just as it raised its claws above Jim’s body.
With a primal shout that rang loud against the mountainside, Spock shoved the phaser core into the bulldog’s eye. Its violent growl ripped through him as its claws ripped through the skin of his back, raking into his flesh with intent and fury, and the pain seared him, agonizing and debilitating and he couldn’t stamp it down, couldn’t focus for the feeling of hot blood soaking his clothes.
The beast shook him off like he was nothing more than a fly and he fell hard onto the ground, crying out and clutching his injured arm, trying to blot out the pain that shot through the torn flesh of his back and into his spine.
The creature pulled back and shuffled away a few feet, shaking its head fiercely, black blood oozing from the wound which carried the scent of charred fluid over the air. But its pain did not prevent it from its hunt. It pulled its head around like a ship pulling off of a dock, weighty and slow as its remaining eye met Spock’s own.
He felt dizzy from loss of blood, scrambling to his knees beside Jim’s limp form. Three thick gashes stung his back, one arm hung limp and useless at his side, and he couldn’t feel Jim’s pain, or his fear, or anything that made him Jim, human, t’hy’la.
In a moment of rash decision, he took up Jim’s fallen bow and grabbed an arrow from the cluster that had spilled out of Jim’s makeshift quiver. He forced his injured arm to grip the crude wood as tightly as he could, forced himself to notch an arrow against his trembling hand.
Just as the creature lunged forward, Spock took a breath, let his shoulder fall, tucked his elbow to his side, pulled back straight and shot.
A flash of lightning exploded above them and the arrow flew straight into one of the beast’s massive nostrils. It roared, reared up on its stubby hind legs, and Spock didn’t waste a moment before he laid another arrow against the bow, fumbling in the cold and the clouding pain, but he had to shoot again, had to do something . Pulling back with all the strength he had left, he forced himself to remember the feeling of Jim’s hand on his shoulder, the intoxication of his sparkling laughter as he told Spock to relax, to breathe. Jim’s hand traced down Spock’s arm gently, coming to the crook of his elbow and Spock could almost hear his whisper against Spock’s ear. Shift your focus , remember? With a shuddering breath through his nose as the bulldog let out a deafening growl, Spock let the arrow fly.
Whether by luck or miracle, a sickening smack rang out around them, and the arrowhead embedded itself in the back of the creature’s throat.
And then it fell, paws twitching and digging at the ground as blood poured from its wounds, soaking black into the pale sand. It choked, some disgusting, sputtering noise like an unsteady metronome against the high-pitched whine in the back of its throat. But its tremors soon ceased, its pained cries died, and it went still. As Spock watched, the fog of its breath disappeared into the air above it as though it had never existed at all.
Spock couldn’t hear for the ringing in his ears; couldn’t breathe this air that felt like icicles in his lungs; couldn’t move for the pounding, throbbing feeling that reverberated over his body like a drumbeat in time with his pulse; couldn’t think for the way his head swam, but Jim was laying there motionless beside him and it was only the quiet ghost of his steaming breath, illuminated in the next flash of lightning, that indicated that he was alive at all.
Spock struggled over to him, grabbing him and shaking him, his strength gone.
But Jim’s eyes began to blink open and his fear and pain came rushing back into Spock’s mind as though a dam had broken between them, and he was alive and waking up and maybe with that shred of hope Spock could force himself to stay upright, force himself to remain the solid rock he knew Jim needed him to be.
But Spock let out a choke of relief, of pain, of terror and regret and he wavered, vision turning to static at its edges, finally collapsing against the cold stone of the mountain slope.
The world went dark around him.
Every muscle in Jim’s body clenched tight with agony, his head throbbed, every limb and extremity felt frozen solid and that combination of sensations shook him with violent tremors. His awareness began and ended with that full-bodied ache, the cold that clutched at him like death, but the moment his senses returned to him he remembered where he was.
His eyes began to flutter and he braced himself, preparing for the puncture of claws, preparing for the deafening roar of the creature that had felled him, but he thought he saw a figure hanging above him, and the world was quiet but for the crack of lightning and rolling rumble of thunder-- and the panting, labored breath that pulled itself from his own lungs.
Then, a presence fell against the ground beside him, and, with a flash of despair and relief and fear that cut through him like a knife, something intrinsic and important and connected severed itself from his mind.
Jim shot up, a hand coming to steady himself on the slope behind him even as the chill of ice burned his fingers. Confusion swam around his clouded mind, swirling in eddies alongside that mounting sense of terror and rising with each frantic beat of his heart. And then everything came rushing back.
Jim scrambled to his knees, casting around until his eyes settled on the still form beside him.
Spock was curled in upon himself, deep gashes leaking the green of his blood along his back and his-- his arm , which lay in shreds beside him and bore the wounds of those same, massive claws. His hand lay millimeters from where Jim had passed out like Spock had reached out to him in his last moments of consciousness. And Jim felt the ghost of fingers on his shoulder, his chest, as though his body remembered Spock’s touch. Even if he didn’t.
Panic tearing through him like the freezing wind that whipped around them, Jim grabbed Spock by the shoulders, hefting him onto his lap and pressing a hand to his skin. But he couldn’t feel heat-- not through his own frozen fingertips and not in the pale skin he touched. Lungs laboring for breath whether through cold or dawning horror, he didn’t know, Jim ran his hand down Spock’s side, feeling for that ever present humming heartbeat that he’d felt flutter under his fingers a thousand times-- a thousand times. And he couldn’t tell if it was beating.
Shouting wordless fury into the silence of the night, Jim’s fingers curled into Spock’s clothes, eyes stinging and blurring and a sense of hopelessness rising in him like water, like a flood, and he couldn’t stop it-- didn’t know how to stop it because he’d never been able to stop feeling anything in his life,not like Spock could, and how could he force himself not to feel this ? Spock’s name tumbled from his lips over and over again as he tried to force himself not to shake him, as his trembling hands came to Spock’s face and he began to rock back and forth, forcing warmth into his limbs.
But he had to stop feeling this. He had to push it aside. He had to move so he could make sure Spock was alive, so he could get him home, so he could introduce him to his parents and take him to Yosemite and serve alongside him and live alongside him because he couldn’t live without Spock. Not now that he’d known him. Never again.
Jim hooked his arm under Spock’s back, attempting to avoid his gaping wounds, and he slipped his other arm under the crook of Spock’s knees. Before he stood, Jim glanced to the carcasses of the bulldogs around him, in complete disbelief that they were actually dead, that they wouldn’t rise up the moment he did and strike him down again.
They hunted in pairs. Jim and Spock had always suspected from tracks and broken branches that they hunted in pairs. They should have been more careful. They should have been--
It didn’t matter what they should have been. What mattered was now. Moving. Getting Spock to safety. He had no strength left, still reeling from the smack of his head against the mountain, but he lifted all the same, grunting with the effort, near crying out with it but biting his lip against the sound. Somehow he managed to struggle to his feet, casting his eyes in the direction of their shuttlecraft. The beam of light from Spock’s communicator only illuminated a thin strip of sand before him, but the lightning in the sky was bright, incandescent, and its flashes were beginning to come fast enough to see by.
Besides, they had walked this path every day for almost two years. Jim could carry Spock the rest of the way blind if he had to.
He struggled forward, resting Spock’s head against his shoulder, limping with the weight of him and the pain in his leg that shot up his thigh. Full-body tremors made his grip weak, made his shuddering breath come out in waves as it rose. But he kept going.
The shuttle became visible in shimmering shards of light as Jim rounded a bend. He choked out a cry of relief, ears open to the world around him, praying that no more creatures approached. He should have grabbed his bow, or the phaser-- what had happened to the phaser? But all he could think about was Spock, Spock. Getting him warm, getting him inside, feeling for that heartbeat that Jim knew was there because it had to be. They had promised to get off this planet together and, God, they would. No matter what, they would.
He smacked the door controls with his elbow, nearly losing his grip on Spock’s body as he moved, but it dragged itself open against the crunch of ice that froze in sheets along the shuttle’s hull, and he managed to practically dump Spock over the threshold before he climbed inside too.
His breath fogged before him as he closed the doors again, stumbling his way to the control console and punching the system on.
It revved to life, internal lights glowing painfully bright to his sore eyes. But he heard environmental controls kick into action, humming around him as the shuttle spurt warmth from its vents.
With the light to see by, Jim stumbled back to Spock where he’d left him on the cold metal of the floor, heart hammering as he turned Spock over onto his back. Jim brought an ear to his lover’s chest, trying not to think of the way he’d laid over this body barely an hour before, trying not to think of the warmth of their campfire or the half-smile that had graced Spock’s lips or how the light had flickered in Spock’s gleaming eyes and he’d looked at Jim like nothing else in the world mattered.
Breath rose the ribcage under his cheek, subtle but present, and Jim fisted his fingers in the frozen-stiff fabric of Spock’s jumpsuit, clenching his teeth against tears and begging himself not to break-- not yet. He could handle this. He’d gone through training for this, hadn’t he? Training. Survival courses at Starfleet where they scattered resources and started him with all the tools and he’d been told to save crash test dummies from impossible situations, not people. Not lovers. Not Spock.
Who was he kidding? He hadn’t trained for anything like this in his life and nothing could prepare him for it. Not Tarsus, not the Academy, not years of flying around on a starship as though he were acting out some kind of childhood fantasy… nothing could prepare him for this.
But he had to do it. Spock was dying. The storm might not last much longer, and there was no way their meager equipment could heal the wounds that still bled fierce and hot along the floor. Spock needed a doctor, and all he had was Jim. A nobody, a grunt at best, worthless and undeserving and unable to do anything but sit here frozen in fear. But Jim couldn’t fail Spock in this. It wasn’t an option.
Their mission had been to find the people who had set up that distress signal, to bring them home. He wanted to be a captain someday, didn’t he? What kind of captain would fail in the face of something so important?
Jim pulled himself up, swallowing the tears he had barely begun to shed and flexing his fingers in the steadily warming air. They’d abandoned the emergency kit, which held the medical equipment, the blankets, and they had to leave-- but at this rate Spock wouldn’t make it ten feet off the planet.
Steeling himself, Jim pulled Spock closer to the forward vents, where warm air slipped out like a quiet breath, the kind of sigh that Sha Ka Ree gave as it edged from midday into evening. He laid Spock gently on his side, stroking back the hair that had fallen out of its tie, trying not to focus on the pallor of his parted lips or the way his usually hot skin froze beneath Jim’s touch.
Standing, Jim wobbled toward the door controls, commanding them open before he could convince himself not to. At the gust of cold air that hit him, he squared his shoulders and stepped back into the frozen world.
He didn’t have time to falter, much as his body begged him to. He didn’t have time to hold Spock to his chest and let loose the sobs that beat against his lungs trying to break free. He hardly even had time to run back to their supplies. But he did, and he did it as fast as he could.
The air felt like gravel in his lungs, and he labored to breathe it in as he practically dragged himself to where he’d dropped the kit. He had to dance around the bulldogs’ carcasses as he ran, trying not to linger too long in their stench, in the thick smell of blood that clung to green splotches of sand.
The tub lay on its side where Jim had left it, and Jim didn’t waste a moment heaving it into his exhausted arms. Every nerve in his body screamed at him, but he pushed forward.
In the distance, he heard another roaring howl, reverberating under the rolls of thunder that shook the sky, a sound that shot fear into his gut. He let that fear speed his steps. If he could just harness it instead of panicking, he could move forward. He could fix this. He could still save them.
When finally he made it back to the shuttle, he was shivering bodily. A gust of warm air hit him as he smacked the door controls, and he tossed the kit inside, scrambling in and closing the door as quickly as he could manage.
He threw the kit open, impeded by the tremors in his arms, but managed to dig out the first of the emergency blankets, which he draped over his shoulders. Then he dug under the few aloe plants, the greens, the mushrooms, the berries and the chess pieces that clattered loudly as they tumbled, and finally he found the dermal regenerator.
Struggling over to Spock, he rolled him onto his stomach, gently setting his injured arm to the side. Without preamble, he gripped the torn edges of Spock’s jumpsuit and ripped it open at his back. Claw marks gouged his lover’s flesh like canyons, seeping blood that streaked his skin, but Jim felt a flash of relief that those claws hadn’t hit his spine.
He fumbled over the regenerator’s controls and held Spock steady, hand stroking a soft, terrified reassurance along Spock’s good arm as he ran the device over the wounds. But the regenerator hummed and whined with the effort. It had been losing power consistently over the months, hardly even healing the brief burns they’d gathered in their work, but he couldn’t allow it to die now. “Please,” he said aloud as the regenerator buzzed in his fingers, barely knitting the skin even after pass after pass after pass. “Please, please, please.”
It became a mantra, and his frozen lips formed the word as many times as they could, even after his breath failed him and he stopped making sound at all. It took too long, the work of agonizing minutes, and hardly any progress had been made. There were green stretches of skin where the wound had tried to close itself, forming into ugly half-scars, but Spock was still bleeding and the regenerator’s little light began to blink rapidly and it whined so loud Jim’s ears ached.
And they had to go.
Jim cursed loudly, throwing the regenerator against the wall as he felt himself breaking down. They were running out of time and Spock was bleeding out and they had a working shuttlecraft humming around them that they had built with their bare hands. And they had to go .
Tearing his own jumpsuit’s sleeves into strips, he bandaged the wounds as best he knew how, then tugged the blanket off his own shoulders to wrap around Spock’s limp body. Color had bled from the tips of Spock’s ears and from his cheeks, but Jim couldn’t look at him, couldn’t risk looking at him until this was done.
Laying a hand along the curve of Spock’s jaw for the slightest of moments, Jim stood and took a seat at the sensors.
This shuttle was made to be flown by two. A scientist at the sensors and navigation, where he now sat, and a pilot to fly them forward. And that was in the best of conditions. Somehow, Jim had to handle it all on his own. He hated navigation, always had. Though he’d never scored much less than perfect at the Academy, it had always been navigation that had kept him late at the library, that had made him wake up with his face pressed to his padd where textbook after textbook listed indecipherable coordinates and processes. How could he ever expect to manage this?
And the readout screen read Force-6.
“Is this a test, Commander?” Jim shot over his shoulder, a half-hysterical laugh tumbling out of his lips as a single hot tear ran down his cheek. He tapped the readout screen, bringing up the course they’d mapped, scanning the storm for the wormholes they needed. “See if the bumbling security officer has what it takes? Because I swear to God , you might as well just court martial me now.”
Security officer. Jim almost scoffed at the thought as he compared ion intensities and begged the computer silently to hurry. He had failed phenomenally as a security officer, hadn’t he? Four of their landing party were dead and the other...
Yes, he’d failed in one regard. But even if he was a shit security officer, maybe he could find some thread of reliability in himself and, maybe, he could be a pilot. Maybe he could be a navigator and a science officer and an engineer and whatever else he needed to be. If there was ever a time to make himself better than he was, it would be now.
Jim tapped the trajectory onto the screen and identified their exit wormhole, now the one they would have to fly through. Their course through the web would lead them out the one that had sucked them in in the first place, if he could just get a damned lock on it. Ion interference made inputting the trajectory difficult-- intensities seemed to shift and the course kept trying to set itself into adjacent wormholes, but after a few frantic minutes he managed to circumvent the worst of it, plugging in alarms that would blare if they veered even slightly or if the computer lost track of their path.
Course laid in, he programmed alarms for all the other possible things that could go wrong, and there were many. In lieu of Spock’s steady voice, he would need to know if the force of the storm increased, if any systems began to shut down, if their shields were damaged. Spock was right; they had never tested the shuttle in this temperature. It was possible that the complex mechanics that had functioned so perfectly in test flights would fall apart.
Possible, but unlikely. “We were meticulous,” he said under his breath, reprising Spock’s words, words that he had repeated to himself a hundred times since their first test flight.
Then, he returned to the pilot’s seat and disengaged the struts.
The shuttle clunked, and Jim cast a look back to Spock. There was no way to strap him in, no way to make him safer than he would be where he lay, but Jim knew how bumpy this was going to be, and his heart ached. He tore his gaze from Spock’s prone form and took a breath, tapping the controls and pulling back on the helm.
The shuttle rose, smoother than expected, and Jim didn’t bother keeping his speed slow for the ascent. The wormhole registered one-hundred miles west of their present location, so he had to hurry.
He slipped above the white spires of the trees, illuminated in the shuttle’s forward lights and looking skeletal, frightful, haunting, but he didn’t dwell on them. Instead, he sped them westward over the oasis, thrusters at maximum speed for atmospheric travel.
“Computer,” he barked, his voice hoarse, “ETA to the wormhole?”
“Three minutes and eighteen seconds,” a calm female voice crackled. Jim huffed.
“Glad one of us is keeping their head,” he said, swallowing through the hard clench in his throat that he couldn’t seem to get rid of.
The three minutes seemed interminable. Out the front window, Jim watched the storm raging, flashes of light in the atmosphere above them already heralding a rocky ride. From in here, he could no longer hear the constant crescendo of thunder, so its dazzling display of electricity and fog seemed surreal, as though he were watching a holo rather than staring out the window of a glorified tin can.
But the reality of it became ever present as they climbed higher into the sky. If he squinted, he could see a few wormhole entrances, but he trusted navigation systems to guide them, even as the shuttle started shaking and he had to white-knuckle the helm to keep it steady.
The rattling echoed in his skull, forcing memories of the crash back to the forefront of his already taxed thoughts -- the sound of rivets shaking in their hold, screws coming undone with the force of the pressure around them.
A crack of lightning split the sky in front of him and he veered, a little too late. It smacked against the side of the hull and sent them reeling, fishtailing in the unsteady winds. He pulled tight on the helm, wheeling her around, setting them back on their course and keeping his eyes straight on the flashing gray sky ahead of them. The beams of the shuttle’s forward lights cut slices through the fog before them.
“Status!” he shouted over the din.
“Storm at force-7,” the computer read, nearly impossible to hear through the rattle and metallic humming that surrounded his senses. “Shields at 80 percent. Entering wormhole in five…”
Jim swallowed, wanting nothing more than to risk a look back at Spock, but he couldn’t. Stay on course , he told himself. Please God, Jim, stay on course .
“Here we go, Spock,” he said under his breath.
“I’m going to get us through this storm.”
“I’m going to get you help.”
“I’m going to take you home.”
A grinding sound breached the hull and Jim kept his hold as steady as he could, tapping controls to compensate as their center of gravity shifted. It felt as though they’d been caught in a riptide, and he wondered if this was how Pike had felt at these controls when they’d crashed, weak against the current of time and space that flowed past them, that carried them like they were weightless through the atmosphere.
He forced his mind back into the present, focusing on the silver streaks of sky that rushed them as they sped forward. The shuttle jerked under his hands, then it dropped, making his stomach fly into his throat as he levitated off his chair. Then, with a thunk, he fell back down.
“Status!” he shouted again, but this time it was too loud to hear the computer over the sound. The tanks in back clanked together, straining against their ropes, and he heard a pop and a hiss of steam as something behind him burst. He couldn’t look away, though. He had to keep his burning eyes on the flash around him, the nearly blinding blend of greens and purples that sped past and sparked with intent.
“...environmental…” the computer said over the din and he strained his ears to hear the rest. “...ields at 35 perc…”
Cursing under his breath, he held steady. 35 percent was better than nothing, better than it had been the first time. But before he could allow himself a moment of optimism, another spike of lightning shot against them in a sudden and blinding flash, buffeting them sideways. If Jim’s fingers hadn’t been clenched round the helm, he would’ve fallen out of his seat, but he held strong, panic gripping him as he locked the helm and struggled over to the sensors. Under that incessant, screeching grind, he heard an alarm blaring.
“No no no,” he muttered to himself, gripping the console for support as he looked at the readout screen. It looked as though they’d been knocked a few degrees off course. They hadn’t gone through another part of the web yet, but he didn’t have much time.
Taking the system off auto, he plotted the course himself, manually entering the formulas for his trajectory by sight. 30 degrees west, compensating for wind, should put them back on track, at least for the moment. He plugged it in and fit the rest of the computer’s earlier trajectory into it like a puzzle piece, fingers dancing flying madly over the screen even as sweat dripped down his nose and fractured the blue glow of the console.
With the course laid in once again, he rushed back to the pilot's seat, not sparing a glance behind him to see if Spock had been injured further in the turbulence. There would be time to check once they made it through.
Jim’s breath came out in shallow bursts, his body succumbing to the kind of feeling that began to stab at him like needles when he was on the edge of a panic attack, his fingers tingling and his mind trying to drain into despair, but he watched the air crackle around them and took control back from the helm and tried to breathe, though the air felt thick and heavy on his chest.
Everything became too bright, too fast, a flash of white that had him shielding his eyes though he knew he should be looking, should be watching to be sure they made it through, but then--
Then, suddenly, the echoing scream of the hull ceased and the flashing faded into the background and they emerged as though bursting into a swath of inky black, clouded with flickering stormclouds. But those clouds no longer surrounded them, no longer swallowed them, they simply glimmered off in the distance, soundless and surreal. When he shouted for status, this time he could hear the computer through the ringing in his ears.
“... force-2,” it was saying, “shields at 20 percent. Environmental controls failing. Vents three and five inoperable.”
Jim groaned through his teeth but sped them forward, out into the darkness where, once the light faded from his eyes, he could make out stars shining like nightlights in the distance. But whether or not these were the stars of the year 2259, he had no idea. Whether or not this was his home, he had no idea. He set autopilot and shot from his seat, casting one look to Spock who had rolled, but not awoken. Then, he moved to the sensors. One single-minded objective.
Tapping madly, he called up diagnostics. They had held together, and it looked as though they had traveled the path Jim had set in, in spite of the fact they’d been ripped one way and another along their course.
Jim let out a choked breath of relief, then called up environmental controls. A few of their delicate connections had burst. He shut off the two inoperable vents, and the hissing sound that had faded into the background of his thoughts ceased.
“Computer,” he said, voice almost failing him. “How many hours of oxygen do we have?”
“Six point three five,” the voice read out.
Jim’s heart sank, but he had no time to dwell on it. Instead, he pulled up another screen and pounded out a distress signal, priority one, the highest power he could sacrifice. Then, he laid in a course for Earth, full impulse. That, he thought with some kind of trembling consolation, was a much easier course to follow than the one through the web.
Out the forward window, he could just see the disappearing edge of Sha Ka Ree, and he craned his neck to get one last look at the planet.
It looked from here to be a husk. Dun-brown and white with sand and cloud, and somehow small. What had been their world for two years was now this: A nameless planet in an unremarkable star system that no longer held the paradise they’d crafted. Sha Ka Ree was gone, maybe two-thousand years gone, and they now left Alpha Novus V in their wake.
Only when it faded from view and they sped forward at full impulse did he sink back into his seat, chest heaving and vision wavering. With the helm barely trembling and the course set, Jim allowed himself to swivel in his chair and, finally, to fall to his knees at Spock’s side.
The turbulence had shifted Spock, but he remained nearly where Jim had tucked him by the seats, now laying dead-still on his back, wrapped in the emergency blanket like a swathed child.
Jim lifted him gently, resting Spock’s head on his lap, and stroking back the hair that had fallen into Spock’s eyes. He only realized then that he was shaking horribly, fingers fumbling through the strands of soft, oiled hair, shock and fear and exhaustion making him weak.
But he didn’t have to be strong anymore. They had made it, at least through the worst of it, and now all he could do was wait for rescue. Or for their oxygen to run out. It was possible-- likely, even-- that they had been wrong, that the path had taken them to another time, another life, but he hoped, prayed, begged whatever deity that would listen that in this he hadn’t failed. That he’d finally done something worthy of the man in his arms and the life he wanted to lead. That he’d done something right and maybe, maybe there was hope yet.
Taking in a trembling breath, Jim curled himself over Spock’s body, tears spilling out of his eyes before he even had a chance to stop them. His hands clenched in the folds of the blanket and gripped as tight as he could, though every single nerve and every single joint was exhausted from effort. Shivering bodily, though no longer from cold, he let his tears slide against the fabric as he sniffed and sucked in air and heard himself, as though from far away, begging “wake up, wake up, wake up,” with everything he had.
But when his voice gave out, and when his pleas fell on deaf ears, he sobbed quietly against the crown of Spock’s head. Trembling hands that didn’t even feel like Jim’s own stroked Spock’s hair and his cheeks and sometimes in desperation he would press his forehead to Spock’s, begging for the feeling that sparked in him whenever their skin touched. Begging for a sign of life. A sign of Spock in the body that barely breathed and bled steadily in his arms.
Unsure how many hours he sat there, he only knew that space flew past their forward screen, that they beat a slow course for home, that someone, somewhere, had to hear their signal. That he didn’t have much time before Spock succumbed to his wounds and he succumbed to the thinning air.
And when he felt his limbs prickling with sleep, he laid down at Spock’s side, tucked his head against his shoulder, and cried until unconsciousness took him. Wherever and whenever it took him.