Jim surveyed the viewscreen in front of him, watching the planet beneath them gently turn, moving its way into the future. A future they’d assured, and for once, no-one had died. It was a rare occurrence -- too rare. He turned to Spock.
“Looks like we got a win-win here,” he said, and Spock shot him a reproachful look, consisting of a tiny raise to the eyebrow (almost imperceptible to the human eye) and a cast to the mouth that said I understand what you said and I know you are trying to goad me.
“I believe our performance on Delta X was adequate,” said Spock, and Jim laughed, turning back to look down on happy, happy Delta X, proceeding in accordance with the Prime Directive and now completely free of renegade androids. “Captain, our next course?”
“Shore leave,” said Jim, and he was looking forward to it so much he could practically taste it. “Mister Chekov, program us in for Risa; we’ve got an anniversary to celebrate.”
“Yes, Keptain,” said Chekov, and Jim pretended not to see the look Sulu gave him, and instead busied himself with considering his Bridge. His Bridge, properly his now that he’d done his time. Spock (Ambassador Spock from the other universe, not the man standing opposite him now) had berated him for it, telling him that the Enterprise was his in every universe, but Jim liked to know he’d earned his place here. It seemed a bit like cheating to just say “It was mine in another universe, gimme.” Jim wasn’t averse to cheating — well, changing the parameters of operation — but there were some things you just needed to do.
He saw the blinking light on his display, and was turning to look at Uhura before she’d even spoken. She met his eyes.
“Captain,” said Uhura, holding her earpiece to try to get better sound. “It’s Vulcan.”
“Visual?” asked Jim.
“I’ll patch it through,” she said, because while the screens were pretty, they weren’t essential. His crew had everything they needed in front of them; sensors, predictive space weather inputs, all that jazz. The signal was a little fuzzy (well, they were a long way from Vulcan), but Jim recognized Spock’s father right away. He didn’t dare turn to look at Spock and see if his first officer had reacted at all.
Jim still felt a little squirmy dealing with Sarek. Spock had assured him that Vulcans do not hold irrational emotive grudges, but Jim couldn’t help but think Sarek might be, when he met Jim’s eyes and gave him that calculated, bland look. And besides, Spock held grudges himself, even if he changed the topic every time that Jim brought it up.
“Captain Kirk,” said Sarek.
“Ambassador Sarek,” said Jim. “I’m assuming this isn’t a social call.”
“Your assumption is most logical.”
Jim could think of one reason and one reason only that Vulcan would call him, and dammit, he didn’t want to face that reason. Out of everything that had happened in the past year — all the shit and all the phaser burns and all the planets and all the people he couldn’t save, there was something he’d never change for the world, and that something was his Spocks. His own Spock drove him up the goddamn wall; he’d never seen someone be insubordinate by nodding politely and agreeing, but somehow Spock managed it.
He put up with it because Spock was Spock — ridiculously loyal and stupidly logical — the guy who’d kept Jim safe on too many missions to count, and who’d bitched and moaned (Vulcan style, which was mostly silence and eyebrows) when Jim had kept him safe on the other half of the too many missions to count.
Ambassador Spock was on the new Vulcan colony. He’d kept the title; he had joined Sarek in ambassadorial duties once the High Council had acknowledged his history, because New Vulcan needed all the diplomats it could get to deal with the resettlement process, the red tape, and the offers of help from near and far. Jim appreciated it because it helped keep things sensible if you got both Spocks in a room together. You couldn’t exactly call them “old Spock” and “young Spock” to their faces, even if old Spock was old. Old even for Vulcans. Not too old to send a weekly vid, or have a proper chat when the time and timezones allowed, though, and Jim loved him for that. I should not be your mentor, he’d protested at the start, but Jim had worn him down. Jim seemed to have that effect on Spocks.
Jim’s heart was in his throat because the reason why Sarek was calling had to be Ambassador Spock, and he wasn’t ready to lose either of his Spocks.
“You will shortly receive an order from Starfleet Command to divert to the Vulcan colony,” said Sarek.
“What?” asked Jim. “Is everything all right?”
“A settlement group has gone missing,” said Sarek. “A number of valued individuals within our small group of colonists are with them — many of my son’s classmates, and the man you call Ambassador were among them.”
“Missing?” asked Jim, and then he realised that made him sound like a slack-jawed yokel. “You require our help to locate them?”
“Our resources have been focused on re-building,” said Sarek. “We do not have the people or the technology to trace them.”
“We’ll be there,” said Jim. “Mister Chekov, plot a course for…”
“Wulcan,” said Chekov. “Yessir.”
“You will need to come to the capital; a guide will be assigned to your party,” said Sarek.
“We don’t need a guide…” Jim started, but Sarek was impassive.
“It is not a request. You will come to the capital and collect a guide,” he said. "To anyone not in the immediate landing party, you will indicate that this is your shore leave planet."
"Shore leave on the Vulcan colony?” asked Jim. "With all respect, I'm not sure the crew would be a good fit..."
"We will make arrangements," said Sarek. "All shall be explained, Captain."
“Transmission from Starfleet, sir,” said Uhura. “We’re to change course to the Vulcan colony. Extra on the second channel; I'll transfer it to your PADD for decryption."
“Confirm receipt,” said Jim, and Sarek was silent. He could feel Spock hovering, not saying anything, just hovering and watching and Jim put his palm flat against the wide arm of the Captain’s chair, just shy of any buttons. “Confirm that we will be collecting a Vulcan guide before embarking on the rescue mission."
He saw Spock turn back to the Science station just out of the corner of his eye, and Sarek’s expression didn’t even flicker.
“Our scientists will brief you on the conditions that you are likely to encounter before you leave,” said Sarek. “You are to be among the landing party, Captain Kirk.”
“It would be my pleasure,” said Jim.
“It was not a request,” said Sarek, and if Jim hadn’t gotten so used to Spock, he might have read it wrong, but he knew that Sarek knew that Spock knew that… fuck, Sarek knew that Jim would want to be right there on the front line, but protocol might dictate he send Sulu or Uhura, because at least Uhura could speak Vulcan.
“We will see you tomorrow morning, Colony time,” he continued. "Until then, Captain."
"Until then," Jim agreed, and he sat back in the chair and let it hold him as the Vulcans disappeared from the view screen. So. Sarek didn't hate him. That was a turn-up for the books.
He spent the rest of the day thinking up creative ways that colonists could die. Sadly, it wasn't too much of a stretch: in the past year he'd seen pollen that made people loopy; poison plants, poison water, poison from the system's star, revolution, war, accidentally colonizing a planet that had been colonized already, colonizing a planet run by weirdoes who liked to play games with humans, and--
He belatedly realized that Sulu was by his shoulder to relieve him for the dead hours between here and Vulcan; the bridge was never quiet on a starship, could never be totally uninhabited, but when they were just making their way through the long stretches of warp -- the interstellar interstates, as Bones called them -- it was possible to run with a skeleton crew on the bridge itself.
"Is everything--" said Sulu, and Jim nodded.
"Yeah, just thinking," he said.
"You don't want to do too much of that; might give yourself an injury," said another voice from behind him, and Jim got up.
“Bones,” he said, and Bones raised his eyebrows.
"Your powers of observation amaze me. Did you forget we'd agreed to go through all that goddamn paperwork for the planet with the sex pollen?"
"Fuck," said Jim.
"Not on the paperwork, and not unless you saved some of that pollen," said Bones. "Come on, we've got acres of Form 643B for you to sign. I already did the tricky bit in my limitless free time."
"You're a lifesaver," said Jim. "You have the conn, Sulu. I'm off."
They walked to Sick Bay together, the silence between them filled with the brush of Bones' sleeve against his own. Jim yawned; he was exhausted, and it sounded like the Vulcan colony was going to be another rough mission.
When they arrived at Sick Bay, the reports were all set out; Bones had been right, all Jim had to do was read and sign.
"So are you all right?" asked Bones, after Jim had read report after report of clinically-described, kinky sex-pollen sex. The one mission where he'd chosen to stay on the ship, dammit. At least he'd had Spock with him, staring with wide round eyes at the vision on the bridge screens of the Enterprise crew getting it on. They'd trained after, wrestling in the gym, and Spock had pinned Jim to the mat and his eyes had been as huge and wide and hungry as they had been when they'd been watching the crew fuck.
And then Chekov had wandered in and Spock had got off him and that was that.
"Why would I not be all right?" Jim asked.
"James Kirk, you are a terrible liar with daddy issues that can be seen from six parsecs away," said Bones. "And your surrogate daddy is lost somewhere on Vulcan."
"I'm a good liar," said Jim, feeling his eyes glaze as he read another account of the Enterprise Orgy. "I'm a damn good liar and you know it."
"I'm trying to be helpful," said Bones. Jim tapped his stylus against the desk.
"He's not a kid in the wilderness, Bones," he said. "First thing he did when he met me was face down some alien thing. Lots of legs. Slavering jaws. Definitely eats humanoids. Spock scared it off like a badass and then walked fifteen kilometers in the snow for dessert. And you know our Spock; he's not much different in that respect. Whatever happened to those colonists, he'll be the one keeping them safe. And he's going to trust me to come get them."
"Right, and you know this because you've suddenly developed psychic powers?"
"No," said Jim, signing a form. "Because I always have before. Why break the habit of a parallel universe lifetime?"
Bones nodded. "Makes sense," he said.
"You don't want to disappoint him," said Bones.
"Bones, three days ago you told me you were a doctor, not a psychiatrist," said Jim, signing the last report. "If you want to change career paths, let me know." He got up, tipping Bones a wink.
"Satan will be skating to work the day I become a psych, Jimmy," said Bones, clapping him on the shoulder. "Go shower, you stink."
"Love you," said Jim, and Bones made a hand gesture that was illegal on 30% of Federation planets. Jim waved goodbye, and went back to his room, aching for a decent shower to clear his head.
The water was hot and soothing, and when Jim came out of the bathroom, half-dressed, Spock was sitting on his bed. Jim finished towelling his hair, threw on a black shirt, and then grinned at Spock.
“You’re lucky I was wearing pants,” he said. Spock merely quirked an eyebrow in return. “Not that I don’t appreciate your presence here, but we usually save the random visitations until after a mission, not before.”
Jim had started it. Jim usually started things, but he’d learned early on that once Spock got an idea into his head, even a robot army from Omicron Persei Seven couldn’t stop him (and one had, incidentally, tried). Jim had used his override code to get into Spock’s quarters after a shitty, shitty mission where thirty-five of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids from his crew had died and it seemed sort of disrespectful to go and get drunk and wipe them out from his memory. He hadn’t really known what he could expect Spock to do, but Spock had looked at him, told him to stop being an illogical, emotional human, and then sat with him and helped him come up with the right words for thirty-five separate letters to thirty-five families, all of whom had counted themselves lucky that their kids were on the Enterprise and not on the other ships when Nero came.
“I wish to be part of the team tomorrow,” said Spock.
“And you will be,” said Jim, pulling up his comfortable chair and putting his feet on the desk. “What made you think I’d take a mission to Vulcan and not take my Vulcan first officer?”
“Regulations state that the First Officer must—“
“You know I don’t give a shit about regulations,” said Jim, just to watch Spock screw his nose up when he said shit.
Spock swallowed. “There may be some opposition from the Council if the Ambassador is not there and I am.”
“Is this another one of your Vulcanian-xenophobia things?” asked Jim. Spock was silent. “Spock.”
He could ask Uhura, because Uhura knew the customs of every culture in the goddamn universe, and she knew the neuroses of this particular Vulcan better than most because they’d made it six months before they’d decided they were better apart, but it would be a shitty thing to do because this was Jim-and-Spock time, and what happened during it didn’t leave the room. Unless it was paperwork, in which case it did. Whatever. Jim knew what he meant.
“Very few survived,” said Spock, eventually. “It would seem that my outburst on the Bridge—“ He paused. “Did not endear me to those who would go on to build the Colony.”
And Jim didn’t bust out with “That’s bullshit,” even though it was. Vulcans were Vulcans, and honestly Vulcans were pretty fucking weird at the best of times, but Spock was his own brand of weird and Jim liked that weird and he didn’t want to make it retreat because of Jim’s emotional outbursts.
“I need you on this mission,” said Jim.
“Lieutenant Uhura could—“ Spock began.
“—Lieutenant Uhura could not stop me from stabbing some Vulcan guide because I got pissed off with him for being too logical. You can.”
“That is hardly logical,” said Spock.
“But there’s a little tiny margin of error in there,” said Jim. “Just small enough that you have to admit I have a case.”
“I suppose if one calculated all possible outcomes,” said Spock, folding his fingers into a knot. “Then there is a definite chance that you would stab a member of your team. Granted, it is 0.01% — or slightly higher if you were to be switched with your violent counterpart from the mirror universe again— but it is there.”
“I’ll see you at the briefing tomorrow, then,” said Jim, and Spock inclined his head, but didn’t get off Jim’s bed until Jim stood, and then he moved to leave, stopping at the door almost as if he was going to turn back, but after holding for a beat of silence, continued to his own room. Jim sighed, shrugged out the tension from his shoulders, and flopped onto the mattress. It was made out of that thick memory foam so that you sank right into it — even with a little nightly turbulence, there should be no rolling.
He was determined to enjoy it; New Vulcan was a hole (well, in human terms), and Jim suspected strongly this was going to be another of those "sleeping on the ground" weeks, where the rocks didn't let you roll either, but that was because they were so fucking hard. He rolled over, told the computer he wanted lights at 10%, and stared at the ceiling. He’d pack for disaster. A few heatpacks, enough food to tide them over, and an extra communicator, just in case.
“Lights out,” said Jim, and his cabin was plunged into darkness. “Big day tomorrow, computer.”
“Noted,” said the computer. “Shall I put it on your calendar, sir?”
Jim stretched under the covers. “Sure,” he said. “Why not.”
The summons to Sick Bay had been waiting when Jim checked his messages next morning. He’d sighed, rolled over, and then tried to work out how many ways he could get out of it. It hadn’t worked. Bones had come and got him anyway.
“I’m not going to be allergic to the plants,” said Jim, as Bones gave him another hypo. “I’m not going to be allergic to anything other than the preservatives in half of your damn vaccinations.”
“I checked these ones, stop bitching,” said Bones. “And you’re not wearing your alert wristband.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Bones, you suck.”
“Only if you ask nicely,” said Bones, ticking off another shot on his PADD. “There. You should be immune by the time we hit the planet’s surface.”
“I hope you’re making Spock do this too,” Jim grumbled. “And yourself. And—“
The door to Sick Bay slid open, and Uhura strode in. “Finally,” she said. “I’ve been searching the entire ship for you.”
“My door is always open to you,” said Jim, with a significant eyebrow gesture, and she shook her head.
“Is he delirious, or can I hit him?” she asked.
“He’s your Captain; you’re not allowed to hit him unless he deserves it,” said Jim.
“Do you think you deserve it?” asked Uhura, and Jim laughed.
“What’s the problem, Lieutenant?” he asked.
"Shore leave on Vulcan," said Uhura. “The whole crew is speculating about what’s going on.”
Jim gave her his best wide-eyed Bambi look, and shook his head. "It seems as a gesture of drawing New Vulcan into the Federation and propping up their economy, Starfleet wants us there."
"Because Vulcan has always been a holiday planet for discerning species," she said. “Don’t worry; no-one from the Bridge has let on, but I want in on the landing party."
"Believe me, I would love you to be there," said Jim, "but I need someone interpreting and making sure Scotty and Sulu don't cause some sort of galactic incident." He didn’t feel he needed to mention what Chekov had got up to last shore leave; that would go down in Starfleet lore and eventually become one of the Enterprise’s onboard legends.
"Jim," said Uhura. "I am asking you this as my friend, not my captain; I have wanted to see the Vulcan High Council since I knew what a high council was. T'Pau, Jim. T'Pau. I used to have a quote from her as the lock screen on my PADD. Please."
"Oh, fuck," said Jim. He paused. Oops. "I'm saying that as your friend, not your captain. And…it seems we’re friends now. All right. Just get some documents ready for the others and make sure they actually read them this time, even if you have to threaten them with bodily harm."
"You do know the whole crew has decided there's something horribly wrong with Spock?" asked Uhura. "That's the best reasoning they've got for an unexpected turn to New Vulcan."
"There is something horribly wrong with Spock," said Bones. "It's called his personality."
"Hey, stop that," said Jim. "There's nothing wrong with Spock."
"Things I never thought I'd hear you say," said Uhura. "So what's this about plain clothes?"
"Wear plain clothes,” said Jim. "And don't bitch at me if you have nothing to wear. You wanted to come."
He needn’t have worried. It seemed “plain clothes” for Uhura was code for “look absolutely fucking stunning”. Even Spock had managed to dredge up something that wasn’t his uniform; instead, it was some sort of clean-lined Vulcan robes. Jim was impressed.
Ambassador Spock seemed perfectly happy to trot around in civvies, but his Spock seemed to own uniforms, pajamas, and one stunningly ugly sweater that when Jim had gone to make a crack about, Spock had made a hand motion that looked like the sign language for “neck-pinch” and Jim had shut up. Spock looked good in clothes that actually fitted him.
It had taken Jim a while to find something in the replicator that wasn’t a dinner suit or a uniform, or twenty-five years out of date (there wasn’t that much space on board for extraneous clothes); he desperately hoped that they weren’t going to be sent straight out into the field, because these shoes weren’t made for hiking.
“You scrub up well,” said Uhura, when they met ready for transport, and Spock just gave him an appraising look, nodding approval.
“Where’s Bones?” asked Jim.
“Ensign Orlaith went into labor,” Uhura supplied. “I believe he is off assisting the miracle of birth.”
“He has three qualified nurses, M’Benga and Chapel,” Jim said, and he knew for a fact that Chapel had experience with births because she’d told him she was a midwife before Starfleet. “Bones just doesn’t want to do the diplomatic stuff.”
Spock cleared his throat. “We shall be late if we delay any longer,” he pointed out. “And although I hesitate to say this, I do not wish to be late to the Vulcan High Council.”
They beamed down into a waiting room, and the Vulcan who collected them was like no other Vulcan Jim had ever met — he was shorter and somewhat fussy, ushering them into a tall-domed chamber. It was all new, had that shiny new-paint feel and smell to it — he’d only ever seen Vulcan in books, but it looked like they’d gone for a different style of decor. There were heavy drapes, though, like the ones in Spock’s quarters, and the seats above them were oversized, towering to make them feel small.
“It is an optical illusion,” Spock murmured. “The chairs are designed as a sort of trompe l’oeil; when the members take their places, they look larger than anything else in the room, even though they do not physically change size.”
That was good to know, because when the Council entered, they were scary-ass Vulcans. Jim could feel the warmth of Spock standing by his shoulder, and Uhura turned to glance at them, her expression saying what Jim felt writhing in the pit of his stomach. If the Vulcans were working to intimidate, it was effective.
One of the guards rang an instrument that resembled a stick all covered with bells, and the woman in the centre of the semicircle of chairs took her place. T’Pau. She needed no introduction. Everyone knew she was the only one who had ever turned down an offer from the Federation Council.
“It is most acceptable that you are here,” she said. “You answered our summons swiftly, Captain Kirk.”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied. “We were not far from your planet, and I—“
“Have ties to Vulcan that go beyond your duty,” she said, staring him down. Whoa. Okay then. “Do not be shocked, Captain. We have factored those ties into our estimation of your likelihood of success.”
She was an elderly woman, her skin papery and the cast of green blood beneath was a little more obvious, more coppery than Spock’s, and she moved with such grace and elegance, even in the short, measured gestures that she made.
“So,” he said. “The mission is to find the missing colonists? But to do it secretly, so that the rest of the planet doesn’t know they’re gone?”
“Do not interrupt,” said a man, and T’Pau held up a hand for silence.
“The mission is indeed to find the missing colonists with maximum discretion,” she said. “However, it is not as straightforward as that. If it were simply a matter of scanning for life-signs or following a trail, then we would have the colonists returned to us. They have simply vanished. No trace of energy weapons, no trace of transporter beaming, no evidence that they deviated from their planned course. Some of our best people are in this group, and if they cannot make contact with us or escape from the situation that they are in, then it behooves us to request assistance.”
“With all respect, shouldn’t we be out there now, then?” asked Jim.
Her gaze was impassive. “No,” she said. “The colonists have food and purification tablets for many months. If they are merely trapped, then they will be able to provide for themselves. If they are dead, then the timing of our rescue shall not matter.”
“If they’re in trouble now—“ said Jim, swallowing.
“It is far better to plan, Captain, than it is to react emotionally and rush at the problem like a frightened animal,” said T’Pau. Her expression softened. “I understand. It is in your nature; were it in mine, I would feel with thee, for my own House has members who are lost.”
He heard Uhura’s breath hitch, and he was itching to ask her why she had reacted to what seemed a relatively simple expression of sympathy, but he’d have to wait.
“So we’ll collect the guide and my people from the Enterprise, and head down to reconnoiter the area,” said Jim. “And then we’ll plan, based on the information that you have, and the information that we have gathered.”
“The guide is here,” said Sarek, and Jim hadn’t spotted him earlier. He wondered how he could have missed the guy — he had a strong look of Spock to him in this light, and his fingers were lightly steepled in front of him in a very Spock-ish gesture. Jim wondered if when he stood, Sarek knotted his hands behind him, or if that was just Spock. “Allow her to enter.”
Her. Her. Riiiiight. They clearly hadn’t heard about Jim’s reputation, which was a little unfair. He very rarely slept with beautiful alien women; most of the time they were either crazy, possessed, or androids (and one memorable time all three) and people just made surmises that he never bothered to correct. She turned out to be beautiful; she had her hair swept up into a complex hairstyle that looked like it might give her trouble getting through doorways, and she had on a silvery-white shift that glittered and gleamed in the light of the chamber. She was every bit the mysterious Vulcanean maiden from the holovids and sub-ethanet porn of Jim’s youth — copper-skinned, dark eyed, and beautiful.
“My name is T’Pring,” said the Vulcan woman, looking at Jim as if he’d just been sicked up by a Horta and left at her feet. “I will be your leader on this mission.”
“Whoa there,” said Jim, remembering just in time not to try to shake hands. Okay, so perhaps her personality wasn’t quite so stunning as her eye makeup had led him to believe. “I will be your leader. You will be our guide.”
“And do you not think I will be leading you through the wilderness, Captain Kirk?” she asked.
“Let’s discuss semantics later,” he said. “I would like to collect my pack, and I know Spock wants to pack a few items that he did not have time for before we left.” It would only be a first sweep, but Jim felt far, far more comfortable with at least enough food and water tablets for a few days, given that the Enterprise seemed to be cursed with everything going wrong on missions.
“Very well, but I do not want Commander Spock to be included on this mission,” said T’Pring.
“On what grounds?” asked Jim, as Spock stiffened slightly. “He’s a member of my crew; I say he goes.”
T’Pring stayed impassive. “On the grounds of the potential for fraternization.”
“Starfleet likes fraternization,” said Jim. “They encourage it; it’s the best way to keep people in the air.”
Spock cleared his throat. “This is, perhaps, a place where Vulcan custom may explain better. There is a potential for fraternization because T’Pring is my wife.”
Jim would forever be proud of his reaction in that moment. He didn’t spit-take, gawk, sputter denial, or lapse into “whaaaaa?” He just raised his eyebrows and resolved to murder Spock later. He couldn’t see Uhura’s expression, but he bet it was exactly the same.
“I’ll be there to ensure that you keep your hands off each other,” he said, and if he hadn’t have known better, he’d have sworn T’Pau almost grinned at that, while others muttered. Yes, Jim knew about Vulcan hand gestures, yes, the innuendo had been deliberate. For fuck’s sake, he was Jim-fucking-Kirk, the innuendo was always deliberate.
“Captain Kirk,” said T’Pring, and oh, he’d rattled her. “You will mind your manners before the Council, and in my presence.”
Jim could feel Uhura vibrating beside him with the desire to say something witty and scathing — but they’d all learned, hadn’t they, they’d all learned that they needed to shut up sometimes instead of speak. Well, except for Bones. Bones was still probably responsible for at least one interplanetary war.
“All right,” said Jim. “We’ll need to change, so any information you have on the likely conditions we’re going into will be helpful. We’ll give out the cover story that it’s a hiking trip, and I’ll take some trustworthy guys from the security detail to help out. I assume I have permission to reveal the nature of the mission?”
“Only those who are essential,” said T’Pau. “Go in the spirit of inquiry; return with success.”
“I thank you,” said Jim, and he felt a little flutter of pride at that, because he’d just managed a diplomatic conference with T’Pau, and he hadn’t fucked it up. “T’Pring, Lieutenant Uhura can show you to the ship, and you may collect any items that you require from our inventory, should you wish.”
“That is acceptable,” said T’Pring, and Jim probably should have thought about the fact that both women, well, presumably — both women had fucked Spock before he put them together on a team, but it was too late now. He sighed.
“It is done,” said T’Pau, and the bells-on-sticks were rung again by the guards, and Jim watched the Council leave, with the exception of one.
“I’ll follow you,” he said to Spock and Uhura, making his way over to the tall chairs. As he got closer, he could see that they were indeed an optical illusion — from this angle, the lines simply looked funny, not imposing in the way they had done. Spock’s father was fussing with something, clearly creating an excuse to not leave until Jim had.
“Can I speak to you?” asked Jim.
He looked up. “You are already speaking to me, Captain.”
Was that a joke? Had Sarek the mighty Vulcan just made a joke? Jim smiled.
“You didn’t have to call us when you first got the news,” said Jim. “You knew Starfleet would contact us. Why did you?”
Sarek nodded. “I did not have to contact you,” he said. “But you forget that my wife was human, Captain. I am aware that sometimes humans prefer to hear unsatisfactory tidings from one with whom they are familiar.”
Jim decoded the sentence, and then nodded.
“We do,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Thanks are illogical,” said Sarek, but Jim was experienced enough at reading Spock to know when a Vulcan was pleased. So Spock’s dad didn’t hate him after all. Everything — well, everything barring T’Pring and lost colonists and the desperate hope that this was a rescue mission and not a recovery mission — was coming up Jim.
Jim had packed the night before (all right, so he had a pack ready to go most of the time), so that left him loads of free time once he’d changed to sit in Spock's quarters and complain while Spock got ready for the trip. He probably should have been on the Bridge. No, he definitely should have been on the Bridge, but this was just too interesting to pass up.
“I should make a list,” Jim announced. “All the things Spock should have told me but didn’t.”
“You are being childish,” said Spock, watering what looked like a planter full of shells. “I did not tell you about T’Pring because I did not anticipate it being a problem in the time we spent together.”
“She’s your wife,” said Jim. “Should I set you up on a weekly drinking date with Bones?”
“For what purpose?” asked Spock.
“Bitching about your wives?”
“That will be unnecessary,” said Spock. “Are you planning to bring a pack, or are you planning to loll about on my bed and complain?”
“Things Spock Should Have Told Me But Didn’t,” Jim announced, gesturing to his already-packed pack. “Number One. We were BFFs in another universe.”
“As I did not know about that myself, I hardly see how I could have told you.”
“Number Two. I’m married.”
“It is more akin to a betrothal, and I do not understand why this distresses you.”
Jim propped himself up on his elbows to look at Spock. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess it’s just, Jesus, Spock, you’re actually married. And you were fucking Uhura. Points for being a smooth bastard, but minus a billion for good judgment and being a decent boyfriend.”
“Jim,” said Spock, with a long-suffering headshake. “You do not understand.”
“Spock, we have to stop this,” said Jim. “You have to tell me things. Important things like this, I mean.”
“How am I to know that something is important?” asked Spock. “I did not choose T’Pring. My parents did.”
“Wait, what?” asked Jim. “Whoa. WHOA. So not only are you secretly married, it was an arranged marriage? That’s not legal on—“
“Vulcan is not Earth,” Spock said, turning on him. “And I suggest you cease that line of speculation now, Captain.” He tested the weight of his pack. “I would also like to clarify that I was not cheating on Nyota.”
“If she catches you calling her that, she’ll make you eat your balls,” said Jim, and for that he was rewarded with a why are you so disgusting stare.
“I was not cheating,” said Spock, his voice still calm and flat.
“You were just…married to a hot Vulcan and dating a hot human,” said Jim. “If you didn’t have that hand thing, I’d totally high-five you. And then smack you because Uhura, Spock. Uhura. She’s a good person under all the hair and the geniusness.”
“I informed Nyota of the bond,” said Spock, giving the shells one last look. “It…may have assisted in her deliberations as to whether I was a satisfactory partner or not.”
“You see,” said Jim, sagely, “Humans don’t. Do that, I mean.”
“You must be the exception, then,” said Spock. “Are you coming?”
“Hey, I’m not a slut!” said Jim, following Spock out. “And how did this become about me?”
“Because you are easy to provoke,” said Spock, as Jim shouldered his pack properly. “Come on.”
“Wait,” said Jim. “Two things. I am the Captain. I say when we come on and when we don’t.” Okay, so that sounded a LOT less dirty in his head. “Two, you tell me about things. Important things. Unimportant things. Whatever.”
“You wish for me to inform you of the minutiae of my life?”
“Yeah, only with fewer syllables,” said Jim.
“Two conditions,” said Spock, as they rounded the corner towards the transporter room. “One. You are also beholden—required—you must tell me things as well.” Jim nodded.
“You will discontinue using numbered lists to express your opinions.”
Uhura was waiting for them with T’Pring, and Jim had never seen a better example of smile-and-nod-politely. Smiling had probably offended T’Pring. No, that was uncharitable. T’Pring looked as thoroughly bored with Uhura’s small talk as Uhura was with hers. Of course Jim wasn’t reading anything into the situation and expressions. Of course. He was a completely neutral party.
Spock went to join them and Jim wanted to smack him. It was like he wasn’t even making an attempt to understand the rules of manhood; no flaunting your wife in front of your ex-girlfriend. Both women had changed, Uhura into hiking boots and shorts and a shirt, and T’Pring into a sparkly top and pale-colored pants. Even her pack matched her outfit. The Enterprise crew looked decidedly scruffy next to her, dammit.
“So this looks like it’ll be a barrel of fun,” said Bones, and Jim turned to see him in the doorway. “Did you check the readings the boys sent through for the planet? UV is higher than Earth, atmosphere is thinner than Earth, it’s stinking hot in the day and freezing cold at night. Sounds like a total dream of a place.”
Jim coughed, because he could feel two pairs of Vulcan eyes on his back. “It’s the closest planet to the conditions on Vulcan that the Federation and the Ambassador could find.”
“An 84.5% match, taking into account equatorial zones and an increased percentage of ocean to land,” said Spock.
“Doctor McCoy didn’t mean to be rude,” said Jim, quickly.
“I find his candor refreshing,” said T’Pring. “Spock, you are not so candid as your human…friends.”
“Doctor McCoy and I are not friends,” said Spock.
“Agreed,” said Bones.
“As much fun as this is,” said Jim, “It’s time to go, kids.”
“That is illogical,” said T’Pring. “I am certain that in central Standard years, both Spock and I are older than…”
“Idiom,” said Spock, as they took their places. “You will find amongst humans that they make use of illogical and often physically impossible—“
“Energize,” said Jim, because if he was on the planet’s surface, they could split up into teams and he could put the lovebirds together. They beamed in first, the security boys in second, and dear God this planet was a hole. It felt like they’d beamed into an oven, the heat of the twin suns making the planet-face itself at least ten degrees Celsius over ship normal, and he suspected it was closer to twenty.
“This is the area of the Kwul-razh caldera,” said Uhura, as Jim climbed up onto a rock to count out who he had and ensure no-one had gotten lost in beam-down. “It’s thought that the first mass extinction on this planet was caused by the impact that caused this caldera.”
“There have been three,” said T’Pring.
“All right,” said Jim. Right, the place was a hole. “Split up; tell me what you can. We know there are no energy traces here, but that this was the last known location of the colonists. Maybe one of them left us a note or something.”
“Because that’s likely,” said Uhura. “Dear friends, just popped into another dimension for a while. Back Monday, love, Colonists.”
Jim blew her a kiss, and Uhura made a gesture back that he knew and loved. She took her little contingent of redshirts to check over what looked like a pile of sticks but she assured him was a copse of trees; Spock and T’Pring went off together, talking quickly in a language Jim didn’t know; and that left him with Bones, who was looking at the sky like he wanted to kill it. Jim wiped the sweat off his brow, surveying the landscape. He was one of nature’s sweaters — five minutes on a planet with a temperature a few degrees hotter than ship normal, and he was damp. Bones empathized; he had exactly the same thing going on.
“There is a stunning lack of colonists here,” said Bones, as Jim took in the sky (dust-red), the rocks (dust-red) and the ground (red dust), the sparse and knobbly trees, the mountains that stretched to the sky, all sheer rock-faces and patterned with the tell-tale lines of sedimentary rock. Thousands of years ago, this planet had water. Jim took a swig from his bottle and wondered where all the water had gone now.
“Captain!” Spock called. “There are petroglyphs on this rock.”
“That’s usually where you find petroglyphs,” said Jim, hopping from rock to rock to reach his XO. “I thought this planet wasn’t inhabited?”
“Wasn’t currently inhabited,” said T’Pring. “There is ample evidence of an indigenous civilization on the planet; however, it died out around four thousand years ago.”
“Ten credits that there’s still some of them alive under the surface of the planet, and they’ve captured the colonists?” Jim asked.
“I’ll give you twenty if they’re using the colonists as pawns in some bizarre human version of chess,” said Bones. “And fifty if you manage to not rip your shirt, sex someone up, or get injured.”
“Sex someone up?” asked T’Pring, and Jim sure as hell didn’t want to explain that one.
“Ignore them,” said Spock. “Captain, you should not make light of the situation.” He paused. “And besides, that is three conditions. Surely there should be fifty credits in the running for each of them?”
“Ha!” said Jim. “Spock is always on my side.”
“Not wanting to disrupt a bonding moment or anything,” said Uhura, and Jim looked up to see her standing on the rocks above them, “but maybe you lot should get out of that hollow and take a look at the horizon.”
Jim swung up onto the rocks, enjoying the burn of his muscles working in real gravity as opposed to artificial ship gravity. He looked out, and oh wonderful, there was a dust storm.
“Our equipment probably won’t stand up under the dust,” said Uhura. “Tricorders aren’t designed for dirty environments.”
“Shit,” said Jim. “Do we know anything about the weather patterns of this planet? Is this a cover-everything-with-sand situation, or flay-everything-alive situation?”
“I think we plan for the worst case,” said Uhura.
“All right,” said Jim. “We’ll need somewhere to shelter for the storm. All non-essential personnel are beaming back.”
“This would include you?” asked Uhura.
“What do you think?” asked Jim. “And besides, we won’t get T’Pring out of here that easily, and if T’Pring stays, Spock will stay.” He looked at the darkening sky. “Okay, so you and Bones head out — I’ll never hear the end of it if he gets caught in a dust storm.”
“I’m not going to—“ said Uhura, and there was a yell from somewhere over by the rocks. “What the—?”
“Come on,” said Jim, climbing down and bolting. Spock had turned, was moving too, and his superior speed meant he caught Jim easily. They rounded a huge boulder and — oh, wonderful — came face-to-face with a giant scorpion.
“Logic would dictate that there are predators on this planet,” said Spock, and Jim nodded ruefully.
“Well done,” he said, and then, “Is that Ensign Roberts?”
The scorpion had backed someone into a corner, and Jim realised with a sinking feeling that it wasn’t Ensign Roberts. It was T’Pring. He risked a glance at Spock, but Spock was his regular impassive self.
“How the hell did she even—?” Jim began, and Spock held up a hand. “All right, I won’t. Come on.”
There was a yell off to the right. Oh, there was Ensign Roberts. Probably emphasis on the was. Jim winced, changing the setting on his phaser to KILL.
“On my count,” he said. “One…two…” Jim and Spock raised their weapons in unison. “Three.”
Both shots bounced harmlessly off the creature’s carapace, but it was enough of a distraction that T’Pring could scramble away from it, because it had instead turned its attention to Jim. Fantastic.
“We’ve got an injury over here!” Uhura called.
“Call Scotty and get yourselves out of here!” Jim yelled back. “We’ll get T’Pring and follow…”
A claw clacked above his head, and he ducked, hearing the familiar whirr of a transporter beam as he bolted under the scorpion’s carapace and up towards the tail end.
“Captain, this way!” Spock yelled as a tail stabbed down and Jim had to dodge, his backpack wobbling on his back. He should just ditch it…but it might help to stop a — fuck, tail, dropping out of nowhere. The wind was picking up, blowing sand into his eyes, and he had to get some cover before the scorpion went for him again.
“Jim!” Spock yelled again, grabbing him by both arms and hauling him into the hollow with the petroglyphs.
“We’re fish in a barrel in here!” Jim replied, as the scorpions clattered overhead.
“They do not want to be out in the dust storm any more than we do,” said Spock, and Jim realised T’Pring was in the hole too, cowering against the back of the wall. She looked frightened. Now probably wasn’t the time to say suck it, Vulcans do have emotions, though, because there was a squealing scorpion trying to find them and the dust was really starting to blow around.
“Look,” said Spock, as the animal made its way away from them. “They are seeking shelter.”
“So should we,” said Jim, pulling out his communicator. “Mr. Scott. Three to beam up, please.”
“Well, you see, there’s a Thing about that,” said Scotty, his voice tinny through the speaker on the communicator, and Jim could have kicked one of the rocks if he didn’t know that kicking rocks led to broken toes.
“Storm causing interference?” he asked, heart sinking.
“We’ll make an engineer of you yet, Cap’n,” said Scotty, and he sighed, a whistle of breath through the speaker. “Look, we’ll do what we can. We only just got the others through without losing them to fragmenting. No promises.”
“It’s as good as anything,” said Jim.
“It would be much easier, o’course, if you dinna insist on…” Scotty started, and then a wave of static cut the communication. Jim’s eyes were stinging with sand, and he tried to wipe them clean, keeping his head down.
He turned to see T’Pring at the…gaping hole in the wall where the petroglyphs had been.
“I worked out the access code,” she said, and he could have hugged her. “We can shelter in there; I don’t think we will survive a dust storm in the open.”
Much as he hated to admit it, Jim didn’t think they’d survive a dust storm in the open either. He turned to Spock.
“Come on,” he said, grit in his mouth, crunching between his teeth, in his nose and eyes as the storm roared in and they tumbled into the little hollow of the mountain.
“Ow,” said Jim, and then, “OW.”
“Get off me,” T’Pring snapped, and then there was a crack-pop as Spock cracked a lightstick and Jim had to blink away the flash from his vision. He also rolled off T’Pring and hoped to God that the soft thing he’d put his hand on wasn’t a handful of vulcan boob. Though…vulcan boob. The day wasn’t going that badly.
“It would appear that the entry has closed,” said Spock, examining the rock wall with the light. “In addition, I have no signal on my communicator. I believe that this is a deliberate ploy on the behalf of those who created this chamber.”
“Thank you, Commander Obvious,” said Jim, dusting himself down. “You see any convenient levers? A big red button marked “PUSH HERE”?”
“I do not, Captain,” said Spock. “However, I do see a note from the colonists.”
“Wait, what?” asked Jim. “You’re shitting me. Let me see.”
It was written on paper, actual paper, in a precise hand that Jim knew well. There was only one person who Jim knew who always carried paper, who enjoyed writing and drawing with ink and hand rather than onto a screen. His heart thudded hard, which was stupid, because the elder Spock wasn’t his family or anything… wasn’t really anything, but he mattered, dammit.
To Whomever Finds This Missive,
The colonists of Settlement #240-A have decided, in the absence of any working door mechanism or lever, to make our way through the cave system. Satellite imagery of the area indicates a very shallow depth to the mountains here, and it is highly likely that there shall be egress through the other side. It is hoped that once free of the caves, our communication devices will become operational.
Ambassador Spock of the New Vulcan Colonies
“Right,” said Jim. “So we’re going for a nice walk in the cave.”
“You are not even going to try to get out?” asked T’Pring.
“It is illogical to believe that we would have a different result to that of the colonists,” Spock replied. “It is also simple to follow their path — the dust on the cave floor is clear.”
Jim looked around them, at the twinkle of water on limestone — or whatever it was, on this planet — like galaxies in the depths of the underground. T’Pring was already setting off down what seemed a well-worn path, but he took a few seconds to breathe in the cool air, to listen to the drip-drip of water around them.
“Captain?” asked Spock, and then, softly: “Jim?”
“Just appreciating the location,” said Jim, and he reached out to squeeze Spock’s shoulder. “Come on, your wife’s getting away from us.”
“I need another lightstick,” said T’Pring.
“Didn’t you pack one?” Jim asked, as they caught up to her.
“I did not anticipate becoming trapped in a cave,” she said. “It was not a logical outcome.”
“Very little of my life is what I would describe as a ‘logical outcome’,” said Jim. “I think we use Spock’s, and then when that dies, mine. Last thing we want is to be stuck in a cave without a decent light; we’ll never get out.”
T’Pring inclined her head. “Logical,” she said, as if Jim had just done a clever trick. “Continue, Kirk.” She took the lightstick from Spock, who seemed happy enough to give it up, palming the remote sensor from his tricorder and using it to test the air around them.
After ten minutes of walking, Jim realised that he had a new candidate for his mental list of Things That Are Awkward, but Starfleet Makes Me Do Them Anyway. Awkward Things included receptions with drunken Orions, anything where he had to make friends with rocks, and pretty much his entire early relationship with Spock. This was awkward, this silent walk through a spectacular cave, the ceiling vaunted above them, great pillars of rock shining in the meager light of the lightstick, soft scuffles of some sort of troglodytes off in the distance.
“It seems the colonists were correct,” said Spock, holding his tricorder up to the light. “The rock walls themselves are comparatively thin — I suspect that if we continue to walk this path, we will indeed make our way through the entire range.”
“Crazy,” said Jim.
“It is not—” T’Pring began.
“Idiom,” Spock said, managing to convey I put up with this all the time.
“Keep walking,” said Jim, and they walked and walked and walked until Jim’s feet hurt (Starfleet boots, gah), and his eyes hurt from staring into blackness and his brain hurt from the sheer weight of awkward and the not talking.
“Halt,” said T’Pring, eventually.
“Why?” asked Spock, and Jim was aching to just sit down instead of this silent trudging through the endless night of underground, which was much more damp and slimy than the endless night of space.
“I require a short period of rest,” she said. “I expect that the human does as well. He has been making horrible noises for the past twenty minutes.”
“The human,” said Jim, flopping onto a rock. “What, I don’t even merit Kirk anymore?”
“When you stop grunting like an animal, then you can start being treated like a higher species,” said T’Pring, sitting on another rock. Jim hoped she got a dirty spot on the back of her shiny white Vulcan trousers, but there was probably little chance of that.
“T’Pring, you cannot blame Captain Kirk for biological functions that he has little control over,” said Spock. “He would not blame you.”
“Spock,” said TPring, and in the glow of the lightstick, Jim thought she looked distinctly—emotional.
Spock held up the sensor, as innocent as could be. “By my estimation, the path will end within the next three point five kilometers; we will make it out the other side, and at that point we will need to make a choice based on the whereabouts of the colonists and the viability of our communication devices.”
“Good,” said Jim. “I’m going to be pissed if they’re all having some sort of party out there on the other side.”
“I think the likelihood of that is rather slim,” said Spock. “Vulcans do not party.”
Jim had to swallow a laugh, getting to his feet again. “Come on,” he said. “At the rate we’re going, I’ll have a party when we make it outta this cave.”
“I would have thought that you enjoyed confined spaces,” said T’Pring, as Jim shouldered his pack.
“Que?” asked Jim.
“I would have expected, as a sentient being who enjoys traveling for long periods of time within the confines of a spaceship, that you would enjoy being in the confined space of this cave system,” said T’Pring, as if he were slow.
“I like to get outside,” said Jim. “Best thing, when you’ve been on a ship for months, just to feel the sun…or suns…on your face. The wind, grass under your feet. You?”
“I prefer the outdoors,” said T’Pring.
“Well, we’ll be there soon enough,” said Jim, as Spock’s tricorder warbled and beeped. “Assuming we’re on the right track.”
“This path was constructed quite deliberately,” said T’Pring. “My theory is that it was built by the indigenous civilisation as a means of passing through the mountains as swiftly and easily as possible. I would not be surprised if this were a containment device, although I shall need more information before deciding if it is to keep the inhabitants in or the native wildlife out.”
“I vote keeping the scorpions out,” said Jim. “If I was a native to a planet with scorpions the size of flivvers, then I’d build some crazy-ass mountain hideaway to get away from them.”
“That is not a scientific hypothesis,” said T’Pring, and it was the first time he’d heard anything approaching warmth in her tone.
“The Captain is seldom scientific in his approach,” said Spock, a voice from the darkness behind them. “However, he is often correct. I am picking up a 30% change in the light value inside the cave; I believe that our journey may be coming to an end.”
“We’ve only walked what, 20 clicks?” asked Jim. “How is that even possible?”
“We were beside the most precarious part of the mountains,” said T’Pring. “The brittle mountain ranges are called so because they are relatively thin compared to ranges found on other Class M planets.”
The harsh black of the tunnel was softening to gray, like dawn breaking into day, and they kept on as Spock gave a running tally of numbers; 37.5%, 41%, 50% and even Jim could see without the lightstick now. They stumbled from the cave into the long afternoon light, the twin suns starting to bend toward the horizon.
The whole area looked like the impact crater from a massive asteroid, or perhaps the caldera from a supervolcano. The mountains ringed a flat plain, a distant Citadel in the centre of the ring. He could see it shimmering through the heat-haze, scrubby plants and trees clinging to life in the soft sand.
Jim’s pocket vibrated and whistled. “We’ve got signal!” he told the others, digging around for it and flipping the lid. “Wait, we’ve got a distress signal. It’s the autosignal from a standard issue comms unit — someone has set it to repeat.”
“Where is it located?” asked T’Pring.
“That way,” said Jim, pointing. “And it’s localized — I’m not picking up any signal from above us or outside this place.”
“Scanner indicates some kind of force field above the entire crater area,” said Spock, checking his readout. “It’s sophisticated. I would hypothesize that it is blocking the feed from our machines; therefore the distress signal is located somewhere in our current vicinity.”
T’Pring joined him, peering over his shoulder at the readout. “Very sophisticated,” she said. “Weather can pass through, but living beings and any projectile or energy weapons cannot.”
“What, so if a bird flies into it, it’ll get barbecued?” asked Jim.
“Highly likely,” said Spock. He looked at Jim. “Although, considering the temperament of much of the avian life on this planet, that may not be a disadvantage.”
“I have to test this,” said Jim. He pulled out his phaser, set it to maximum range, and fired at the forcefield. It lit up, green and flashing along the section they were at, crackling out along the sky for miles and miles and miles. Shit.
“Somewhat theatrical, but effective,” Spock said. “It would appear that we are trapped here until one of us can modify a communicator and reach the Enterprise. In the meantime, I suggest we follow the distress beacon.”
Jim nodded. “Logical,” he said. Oh, for fuck’s sake, he was going Vulcan. “All right, T’Pring, do your guide thing.”
“You require assistance to understand the guidance system in your communicator?” she asked, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
“I suspect that whomever is at the other end of that signal simply followed the road,” said Spock.
“The road?” Jim asked. “And I don’t know about you, but my communicator is only working for the distress signal; the guidance system has crapped out on me."
“Astonishing,” said T’Pring, jumping up onto a rock beside him, nimble as a gazelle. “When I stand here…nothing…but down where Spock is…”
“Wait, what?” asked Jim, getting off the higher rocks. “Holy crap.”
It was like one of those magic eye pictures, or the optical illusion where a drawing of a couple having sex turned into a shoal of dolphins (Jim always had trouble seeing the dolphins. When Chekov had brought it up on his PADD in the mess hall and shown Spock, Spock had looked at it, said “Dolphins,” and then continued to eat.).
Where there’d been a random mess of rocks on the sandy floor of the crater, there was now a long line, like a Roman road, heading straight for the far-off Citadel. Small streams had cut into the rocky bottom of the caldera, dividing it into pieces. Jim wondered if that was what had enabled this place to thrive — or perhaps the streams were not natural; perhaps they had been constructed by the long-dead indigenous inhabitants. He hoped the remnants of that civilization (because there were always remnants) hadn’t gone mad and were not planning to attack the party of Jim, Spock and T’Pring. That’d be all he needed to make this day truly horrible.
“I hypothesize that it was constructed by changing the density of the sand,” said Spock, bending to check the silicate crystals. “Yes; the sand on the road should be easier to walk on. I see footprints, too; I think there is no doubt that the colonists continued toward the Citadel and that the distress signal is theirs.”
Jim didn’t like to think about distress signals; he hoped it was just Vulcans being logical, and not an indication that someone there on the planet was badly injured, or there was some sort of virus infecting them all, or they’d been enslaved by scorpions and the disagreeable avian life…okay, unlikely, but Jim had seen some pretty damn unlikely things in his short tenure in charge of the Enterprise. He was prepared to believe that there were indeed more things in heaven and earth than humans would ever know about.
It was stinking hot outside the caves. He’d always sworn never to settle on a planet with a double-sun, and this place was just proving once again why. T’Pring pulled a small, folded thing from her pack, popping it out into a wide-brimmed sunhat. Dammit, Jim thought, why didn’t I think of that?
“We shall need to rest every hour, or you will risk heat-stroke,” said Spock, matching Jim’s stride as T’Pring led off.
“I’m capable of keeping up with you and T’Pring,” said Jim, and Spock was walking so close that the back of his hand brushed Jim’s.
“You are not when we factor in the environment in which we find ourselves,” said Spock. “The atmosphere is thinner, and the temperature hotter. We shall rest as a precaution; if you were to suffer heat-stroke, T’Pring and I have no way of helping you other than rudimentary first-aid.”
“Fine,” said Jim, and after twenty minutes more of walking he was more inclined to agree; it felt like he was gasping for breath, like he had to suck in a huge gulp of air with every step. He’d forgotten what real gravity was like, too; the push and pull and strain on muscles. He was going to sleep damn well tonight.
“Petroglyphs,” said T’Pring. “Stop.”
There was a stone carved with more of the strange alien writing. Jim took the opportunity to sit down and take a drink as T’Pring examined the rock, placing her empty water bottle next to her feet.
“This appears to be some form of milestone,” she said. “If my reading of these markings is correct — and it is correct— then there’s still at least double the length we have already walked today to go until we reach the citadel.”
“Yippee,” said Jim, wondering if he’d ever get his boots back on were he to take them off and try to rub some of the soreness out of his feet.
“Get me a drink, Kirk,” said T’Pring. “I shall require one before we continue.”
“What?” Jim asked.
“Drink. You. Get me one.”
“Get one yourself,” said Jim.
“I shall do it,” said Spock, picking up her water bottle and striding off back down the path towards one of the tiny streams.
“Did you just order your husband around like he was a slave?” asked Jim.
“No,” said T’Pring. “I ordered you around. My husband chose to fulfil my needs.”
Not touching that, Jim thought, because usually he’d have said “oh snap” or something, but T’Pring’s impassive face still somehow managed to convey the look of murder if he even thought it.
“You seem to have an odd idea of what it is to ensure the safety and comfort of your guide, Kirk.”
“You seem to have an odd idea of personal responsibility in fieldwork,” said Jim. “My crew get their own water.”
Spock was returning, and T’Pring stood, ignoring Jim.
Jim sighed, turning to Spock. “Spock, you cannot be under the thumb already.”
“I do not understand this idiom,” said T’Pring, “but if the implication of it is half as offensive to humans as it is to Vulcans, then you would do well to mend your manners, Kirk.”
“Being under someone’s thumb does not mean the same thing in Jim’s language as it does in ours,” said Spock serenely, handing T’Pring a bottle of water, purifying tablets still fizzing in the bottom of it. “There is a creek over there, and it follows the path. I suggest for maximum efficiency, we each gather our own refreshment, and only when strictly necessary. We do not know how long we will be trapped here.”
“How long have we got purification tablets for?” asked Jim.
“Eighteen days,” said Spock. “Assuming that we each drink rations appropriate to our species.”
“Less than that,” said Spock.
“I packed a little more than was strictly needed,” said Jim, because he always did, ever since Tarsus. “Mostly dehydrated stuff and nutrient packs.” They were light, and they’d keep them going, and he had a special pouch in his bag that was airtight and hidden, just in case. Spock raised an eyebrow.
“Did you anticipate this, Jim?” he asked. “Or were you merely being illogical?”
“When have you ever known me to be logical, Spock?” Jim asked.
Spock nodded. “T’Pring?”
“We must continue,” she said. “The distress beacon…”
“I don’t like how we can suddenly pick up the distress beacon now that we’re in here,” said Jim.
“You think it’s a trap?” asked Spock.
“When has it ever not been a trap?” asked Jim. “I’d love to just one time, just one time, go on an away mission and everyone is okay and it’s real easy to solve. And there’s no mad people turning themselves into cats, or using us as pawns in some great game. Y’know?”
“I know,” said Spock, and there was the barest hint of sadness to his voice. Even Delta X had difficulties. “We should continue, then.”
They kept walking, and Jim kept looking to the horizon, and he started to wonder what the hell was going on. No matter how much closer they drew to the Citadel, the damn thing looked the same; far off and unattainable. He gritted his teeth, shouldered his pack further onto his back, and continued.
“We should make camp soon,” said Spock, as Jim caught up to him.
“When the second sun hits the rim of the mountains,” said Jim, because dammit, he wanted to sleep in the Citadel, not the open.
“All right,” said Spock, as the first sun limned the mountains with light, the second still warm and red overhead.
Camp was depressing. They could each strap on a heatpack when it came time for bed, but that would only be for tonight, and Jim was starting to worry that if they didn’t reach that citadel soon, they’d freeze to death tomorrow night. It was cold enough, and it was only about an hour after sunset. He’d tried suggesting snuggling for warmth, and both Vulcans had shot him down with withering looks, so he’d built a fire instead, shooting one of the dry branches with his phaser and delighting in watching it catch alight.
Spock set to cooking from Jim’s little stockpile of dehydrated crap-in-a-pack; textured vegetable protein chowder or something like that, and Jim finally took his shoes off, rubbing the soreness out of his feet, taking off his socks even though he knew they’d be stiff tomorrow, and digging his toes into the desert dirt, letting the remaining heat of the day run between them. He’d found a handy rock to sit on, and T’Pring looked to have as well; she wasn’t complaining, but she had her shoes and socks off too.
“Here,” said Spock, giving him a nutripack that had been heated over the fire.
“This is disgusting,” said T’Pring, sniffing at hers. “Is this Starfleet’s idea of sustenance?”
“It is indeed,” said Jim. “Welcome to the ‘fleet. What comes out of the replicators ain’t much better.”
“It is substantially better,” said Spock, sitting on the sandy ground, way too close to the fire for Jim’s peace of mind. “You are simply using hyperbole to make a point.”
“If you fall into the fire, I’m not rescuing you,” said Jim.
“I will not fall into the fire,” said Spock. “I simply prefer to be warmer than you do.”
They ate in silence, and Jim pretended not to notice T’Pring moving closer to the fire now that Spock had got up there. He eventually squeezed the last of the chicken-flavoured protein that didn’t taste like chicken or protein out of his dinner sachet, and rolled it up to put back into his pack for disposal, realizing as he did so that the indoctrination in being an Agent of Good was nearly complete — four years ago, he’d have just buried the wrapper.
“I have dessert,” said Jim, breaking the silence and the click-pop of burning wood.
“You have what?” asked T’Pring.
“Human thing. We like to consume a sweet foodstuff after meals,” Jim said. “I brought chocolate.”
Chocolate was the secret weapon that he brought on most missions, and he couldn’t count how many times a few squares had staved off hunger pangs, or motivated one of the crew to just keep fucking walking with him through a desert, or a swamp, or a lost mountain range. He ferreted around in his pack, bringing out the smallish block he’d got from the replicator.
“So how’re you liking New Vulcan?” he asked, picking at the plastic cover with a nail. “It’s nice at night.”
“I detest it,” said T’Pring, and her voice was soft but it carried in the evening air. “Look at this place. It is not Vulcan. It will never be Vulcan. It is idiotic to pretend when the sky is different and the atmosphere is different and we’ve lost everything.”
“Not everything,” said Spock, and Jim’s heart ached. “People survived.”
“For what? To be that poor planet of unfortunates that Starfleet just couldn’t save?” she asked. “I saw the charity advertisements; they were disgusting. Vulcan children, made the objects of pity for outworlders. And you—you’re happy to be known, to be a legend of the ‘fleet.”
“I did not see those advertisements,” said Spock. “I am frequently a long way from broadcast range.” He paused. “We watch holo-vids. And play a lot of chess.”
“Oh Spock,” she said. “You are so naive.”
Yeah, thought Jim, he kind of was, but that was one of the many things that were so endearing about Spock. He was naive but not where it counted — he was also kind of a genius, really, and Jim was frankly astonished that Spock had stuck with him through so many fuckups and horrible problems, mostly caused by Jim not looking before he leapt.
“Perhaps,” said Spock. “But you seem to forget that I too lost my home, T’Pring, and that perhaps I am seeking a new one.”
“You are half-human,” she said. “You have a home. Earth.”
Jim knew that Spock had a fraught relationship with Earth — living there had brought him opportunity, but there were far more challenges than opportunities, even now. He remembered the talks on interspecies relations at the Academy, but he also remembered students calling Spock the elf, or greenblood; he also remembered Galia tellling some of the boys to go fuck themselves when they tried to tell her that all Orions are sex fiends. Humans weren’t always welcoming.
“I have a home,” said Spock. “But it is not Earth.”
“You cannot love this place,” said T’Pring. “It is too different; there is nothing familiar. There is no Vulcan history. The sacred places are sacred to people long dead, not Vulcans.”
“My home is the Enterprise,” said Spock, and Kirk snapped the block of chocolate in half, his hands suddenly constricting as his throat constricted. Fuck.
“I see,” said T’Pring, and Spock turned to Jim.
“Are you all right, Jim?” he asked.
“Sure, fine,” said Jim, hastily swallowing any emotions that might have just worked their way to the surface at Spock’s confession. “I was thinking.”
“About what?” asked T’Pring.
“When I was a kid, my mom sent me off-planet for a while,” said Jim, breaking off a few squares of the synthetic chocolate and then passing the block to Spock. “Didn’t go so well.”
“And this is relevant because…?” T’Pring asked, as Spock cracked off a few squares and passed the chocolate on.
“Long story short,” said Jim, because it was a long story, and he didn’t really want to tell it. “It wasn’t too dissimilar to this place, and I hated it like I’ve never hated anything. We ran out of food — the colony, not just us — so a few of us ended up on the run. We used to play a game.”
“Games are childish,” said T’Pring, but she took some of Jim’s chocolate anyway.
“Well, you don’t have to play,” said Jim. “But best story gets the last of the chocolate.”
“It’s synthetic,” said Spock quietly. “You will not suffer any ill-effects, T’Pring.”
“Starfleet synthesizes everything decent,” said Jim. “I’ll go first. Constellations. You look at the sky until you see a pattern, and then you explain it.”
“I see,” said Spock. “A way of asserting ownership over a new environment; of imprinting the narrative of your culture onto the landscape.”
“It’s high stakes when you’re playing for the last square of chocolate for the best constellation,” said Jim, and he pointed up at a line of stars. “See that one? That’s the Road. The fucking road that looks a lot shorter and easier until you’re on it, and then it’s long and hard.”
“That is rather obvious,” said T’Pring.
“You do better,” said Jim.
“It’s not a road,” she said. “It’s representative of a lirpa.”
“What’s a lirpa?” asked Jim.
“It’s a weapon,” T’Pring replied. “A deadly weapon.”
“That’s…a start,” said Jim. “Spock?”
“I do not know what to say,” said Spock. “I can think of only personal narratives to apply to these constellations, and I do not wish to share them.”
“C’mon,” said Jim. “I’ll tell you about the time I drove a car off a cliff.”
“I am familiar with that story,” said Spock. “You tell it every time you have imbibed too much alcohol.”
Jim laughed, because Spock was hilarious in many, many ways.
“C’mon, tell me a story,” said Jim.
“If one were being fanciful, then it could perhaps be said that the globular cluster in the lower quadrant is representative of a mother Horta, and the ring of bright stars around it…” Spock began, and he trailed off.
“Are her children,” said Jim.
He joked about the thing with the Horta, but Spock had been really cut up about it at the time. He’d come for a post-mission visit and then asked Jim about Jim’s own mother, and he’d shared a single memory of his own. It was one of the few times they’d permitted themselves to be physically close, Spock falling asleep from the strain of melding with something so alien as a Horta, and Jim watching over him.
Spock had a thing about mothers. It was like Jim and his thing for belonging; they never talked about it, but sometimes when Spock looked a million light years away, Jim would put a hand on his shoulder, and sometimes when Jim was ready to wallow in a festering hole of self-pity, Spock would discreetly run two fingers along the back of Jim’s hand. T’Pring pointed at another star. Fuck, Spock. Why did he have to be married?
“That is a planet,” she said. “Humans used to refer to planets as “wanderers” — stars that did not stay fixed in the firmament.”
“You know about human history?” Jim asked.
“I enjoy the anthropology and archeology of other cultures,” said T’Pring, and it figured she had some other interests beside being Vulcan and annoying the shit out of Jim. “The steps races took on their way into space. The illogical bound around the necessary core of logic is…fascinating.” She gestured to the sky, expansively. “You and Spock, you are wanderers, while I am trapped in my firmament.”
“Fascinating,” Spock murmured. “It would appear that the constitution of synthetic chocolate maintains those compounds to which Vulcan biology is sensitive.”
“You don’t have to stay trapped,” said Jim, and he thought about stopping himself, but he was a fair man, and stopping would be unfair. “You could come with us. I wasn’t kidding when I said Starfleet encourages fraternization; they even have compassionate postings so that couples and families can remain together.”
“You misunderstand the nature of Vulcan bonding,” said T’Pring. “And I doubt Spock would want me on board.”
“It would not concern me,” said Spock. “The choice is yours and the Captain’s.”
Jim’s Spock-to-normal translator pinged at that, and goddamnit Spock needed to make up his mind. Jim sighed.
“You keep telling me I misunderstand,” he said, “but neither of you have been particularly forthcoming about correcting my misunderstanding.”
“It is not spoken about,” said Spock.
“I’m not going to speak about it to other people,” said Jim. “I can keep a secret, y’know.”
“I know,” said Spock, and he stretched, the muscles and tendons in his shoulders clicking as he did so. “But I will not tell you more than I have already. We are bonded as children, and that bond continues into adulthood.”
“But you don’t even live near each other,” said Jim. “Doesn’t it get…I don’t know, lonely?”
“Vulcans do not get lonely,” said T’Pring, and Jim felt bad; her tone was distant, and she’d tucked her knees up to her chest.
“I don’t know about that,” said Jim. “I know Vulcans love. I bet you get lonely, you just don’t talk about it.”
“You need to refrain from making assumptions about our culture right now,” said T’Pring. “You are ill-informed, and you frequently offend.”
Jim sighed. “I don’t mean to,” he said. “Ask Spock. I’m still learning this whole diplomacy thing.”
“If you do not mean to offend, do not tell Spock and I what we are,” T’Pring replied. “I think it is time for rest; I do not wish to continue this conversation.”
Jim poked at the coals with a stick, rolling over a log and adding the rest of the wood that he’d gathered to the fire. He wondered if they’d attracted attention - if whoever was in the citadel could see them, if there were people there. Could the colonists see them? The Enterprise?
“We going to set up a watch?” asked Jim, as T’Pring slipped her socks back on, fastening the heatpack around her waist.
“I will only meditate a few hours,” said Spock. “I do not require sleep at this juncture. You do. Allow me to be on watch, as it were.”
Jim would have protested, but he knew that Spock would counter him with logic and dammit, this was sort of logical — Spock would have to sleep upon reaching the Citadel, but no more than usual. He sighed, tossing a heatpack to Spock.
“Make it last,” he said, his breath fogging in the air. There was no moon, just stars, and Jim felt a pang of longing for a pale watcher. He couldn’t imagine how the Vulcans felt, their whole world gone.
“We shall have to attain a more sheltered location by tomorrow night, or we shall freeze,” said Spock, as T’Pring settled on the other side of the fire, away from them both, digging out a hollow for her hip and tucking one arm under her head. She’d slept out before, Jim realised; she knew what to do. She seemed to drop off right away, and Jim followed her lead, digging out a hollow for his hip and resting his head on his hands.
“That was Tarsus IV,” said Spock, when the night air between them was still and freeing and silent. Jim rolled over so that he could see the shine of Spock’s eyes in the scant firelight.
“What was?” he asked.
“Jim, it is unlike you to be disingenuous with me,” said Spock, a gentle note of reproach in his voice. Jim sighed. “A colony where there was no food? In your lifetime?”
“Yeah,” he said, and he didn’t know; maybe he’d wanted Spock to catch him out. “We were all settler’s kids, y’know. It was a good game. Better than whose dog are we gonna eat today.”
“You often attempt to cover your response to traumatic situations by making light of the experience,” said Spock, sitting in a perfect lotus position.
“Yeah,” said Jim. “Did I fool you?”
“No,” said Spock, “did you expect to?”
“No,” said Jim, and Spock extended a hand between them, two fingers out in an unmistakable Vulcan gesture. One that, come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Spock use with T’Pring. Jim wondered if he should say anything, because Spock usually just raised an eyebrow at all of Jim’s usual pick-up lines and double entendre, and he decided it would be less potentially traumatic to go with the flow. He pressed his fingers to Spock’s, there in the dark. T’Pring was asleep, wasn’t she? Did this count as cheating? Shit.
It was too cold to hold the kiss for long, and eventually they had to withdraw back into the pockets of warmth afforded by their personal heatpacks; Jim tucked his freezing hand under one arm, still able to feel the press of Spock’s flesh against his fingers, the warm hum of reassurance that Spock’s gentle touch brought to him.
“Goodnight Jim,” said Spock, as Jim snuggled into his makeshift bed.
“‘Night, Spock,” said Jim, and he thought he could feel Spock watching him as he drifted off to sleep, whilst overhead the constellations winked and turned.
It was mid-morning when they made it to the Citadel, and Jim’s blisters had blisters; even T’Pring was quiet, all three of them trudging along under the blazing suns, their shoes making little scuff-puff noises as they went. They’d all woken cold; despite the heatpack Jim had suffered through massaging the feeling back into his fingers and feet, and he was relatively sure he had frostbite on his left little toe. T’Pring had shivered in the sunlight even as they walked, and Spock had silently eye-rolled and shifted from foot to foot, which meant that he was super-uncomfortable. The sun-warmth was trickling through Jim now, though, and he hoped it lasted.
As they got closer, the reason for the Citadel being so much further away than it had seemed became painfully clear — it was enormous, carved into the solid rock of a mesa in the middle of the otherwise flat caldera. Jim couldn’t even begin to speculate what geological conditions had allowed its creation; it was as if giants had decided to make the world’s most arid holiday home. The Vulcans guarding the gate were dwarfed — they looked like toys under the huge bas-relief carvings on the building. They raised sticks as Jim, T’Pring and Spock grew closer — lirpas? Jim wondered — and lowered them when T’Pring pulled off her magnificent hat and revealed her pointy ears, both Vulcans making hand signs. Jim raised his hand and—
“Don’t you dare,” T’Pring said, and he lowered it again.
“T’Pring?” asked one of the guards, and T’Pring turned, and Jim could have sworn he saw a smile on her face.
“Stonn,” she replied. “It is most gratifying to see you are uninjured.”
“You led a party out into the wilderness to find us?” asked Stonn.
“That’s…not exactly what…” Jim began, and T’Pring ignored him.
“I knew that you had to be alive,” said T’Pring, and oh this was bad. Or good, if one were inclined to catch divorced Vulcans on the rebound, but mostly bad. Spock didn’t take rejection well. He’d sulked for weeks after he and Uhura had broken up, and Jim was given to understand that was mutual, not this Vulcan-flirting that T’Pring was getting on with right under Spock’s goddamn nose.
“I thought I heard a commotion,” said a voice Jim knew even with his eyes closed. He turned, and grinned when he had visual confirmation.
“Ambassador,” he said, holding out his arms. He didn’t expect a hug; he got hugs in the privacy of cabins, or in quiet places like the observation deck, not right in the middle of a bunch of Vulcans.
“Jim,” said the Ambassador, hugging him tightly and Jim could just bask in that unconditional affection all day, really. He knew there were daddy issues there — he’d been to enough psychs to be able to quote the relevant journal articles back to them — but he didn’t care. This was Spock — the elder Spock — and Spock loved him not just for who he had been in another universe, but for who he was now.
"Elder!" said T'Pring, in her best pearl-clutching voice. Did Vulcans wear pearls? T'Pring probably wore pearls when she wasn't trekking through the desert. Actually, T'Pring was probably wearing pearls now, Jim decided, as the Ambassador gave him an extra squeeze that nearly cracked a few ribs.
"Yes, young one?" he asked, and Jim could recognise Spock's shit-eating not-actually-a-grin on that elderly face.
"This greeting is unorthodox," she said.
“Humans desire and, indeed, thrive on tactile contact,” said the Ambassador. “It is only logical that one who knows the correct response to human needs provide that. It is common in human culture for old friends to embrace upon greeting.”
“Old friends,” said T’Pring, and Stonn backed her up with a stony glare. “How does a Terran Starship Captain become old friends with a venerated Vulcan elder?”
“That Elder is very lucky indeed,” said the Ambassador, and Jim gave her his own best shit-eating grin. Then he got a look at the expression on the younger Spock’s face, and Spock looked like he had that time the computer had blown up and seemed that they wouldn’t be able to save her. Crap. He liked stirring up T’Pring, but he was fucked if he knew what was up with Spock. He would have thought that the Ambassador role-modeling would do some good here. Yes, Spock, you can hug me and none of your Vulcan bits will drop off.
"It has been some time since we have conversed," said young Spock. "You must inform us as to the goings-on in your colony, Ambassador."
"I think it would be more polite for you to introduce T'Pring to me," said the Ambassador. He turned to her. "My lady."
T’Pring stepped back, and Spock glared at the Ambassador. Spock didn’t express his emotions, my ass, thought Jim.
“That was unfair,” he said. “T’Pring, this is the Ambassador. He is…well-informed.”
“I see,” said T’Pring, and Jim felt bad for her. He wasn’t really ready to explain everything about the Ambassador, though, so well-informed probably covered it for now.
“Come in to the Citadel,” said the elder Spock, companionably. “See the town we’re building here.”
“So you’ve decided to occupy the ruins?” Jim asked. Probably a violation of Starfleet Code…
“Starfleet Code #649 prohibits colonists from making use of ancient ruins as domiciles,” said Spock sharply. “Why have you ignored this regulation?”
“I have ignored it because sub-clause #16 says that colonists can make use of these places if there is a need,” said the Ambassador. “The temperature will drop dramatically tonight — these buildings afford us what little shelter they can, and we are grateful for it.”
“We had heatpacks last night, but they’re all out now,” said Jim, not adding we had them because I had them in my crazy backpack. He didn’t know how crazy his other self had been. He hoped it wasn’t this crazy.
“Ah, if we had time to pack, my Captain used to carry heatpacks,” said Spock, fondly. “Well thought out, Jim. You can put your pack in my quarters, if you wish; there is ample room and as I grow older, I find myself less inclined to sleep.”
“Is there a room for Spock and T’Pring?” Jim asked. If he hadn’t known better, he could have sworn that Spock had shot him a death glare.
“There are ample rooms,” said the Ambassador. “Follow me.”
“Would it not be more logical for us to room together?” asked Spock, stepping in front of Jim before he could go anywhere.
“If there are ample rooms, I will room alone,” said T’Pring, ice-cold. Jesus, thought Jim. He wondered if she’d caught them last night, Spock reaching out gentle fingers to touch his.
“Very well,” said the Ambassador. “Jim?”
“I’m good with wherever,” said Jim. “Spock and I can just room up with you, and if there is a room where T’Pring can spend the night safely, that’s cool with me.”
He nearly said “all aboard the bus to awkward-town”, but he suspected that if they’d started like this, things were only going to get more and more awkward. And…more awkward, because there were other Vulcans following them in.
“T’Pring,” said Stonn, and T’Pring turned.
“Stonn,” she replied. Right, the guy from the gate.
“This is a…rescue party?” asked another guy, glaring at Jim and Spock with icy Vulcan disdain. “I was not aware that we had sent the distress signal to idiots.”
“We are trapped as well,” said Spock. “However, our shipmates know of our basic location. They will be searching for us.”
“Spock,” said the other guy, holding up a hand in greeting. “You came on a rescue mission and got your party trapped. How…typical.”
“Spock is not leading the party,” said T’Pring. “He is subordinate to the human captain.”
“And the human captain was allegedly being led by a Vulcan guide,” said Jim. “Your move, T’Pring.”
“Idiom,” she said, and she was back to haughty, disdainful T’Pring. He sighed.
“It is most acceptable that you are here,” said Stonn, and given T’Pring’s earlier pronouncement, they were being a bit obvious, weren’t they? “There are markings on the walls of the Citadel that are of great interest, and your expertise will be most useful. T’Pring. Come; I will show you.”
T’Pring didn’t take Stonn’s arm, but it was a near thing, leaving her pack behind, presumably for Spock and Jim to put into her private room.
“You okay?” asked Jim, as Spock bent to pick up the pack. The other Vulcans were leaving too, but some were watching quietly.
Spock blinked blandly at him. “Is there any reason why you would suspect that I am not okay?” he asked. “I will ascertain what information my people have already gathered about this place and report back, Captain. Ambassador, if you would show us where to leave these items?”
Jim didn’t dare make eye contact with Ambassador Spock before his own Spock had stalked off like a tall, mobile thundercloud. The elder Spock raised his eyebrows, and the other Vulcans left, one turning quietly to chat to the others. Damn. He shouldn’t have asked Spock about emotions in front of the Vulcans.
“He is so mad,” said Jim, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, running his fingers through his hair. “I’m actually a little frightened that he’ll try to strangle me while I sleep.”
“Jim, you know full well that he would not bother to wait until you were asleep,” said Spock, a note of reproach in his tone. “I do not imagine that this is easy for my young counterpart. Let him alone a few hours, and allow him to regain control. He will thank you for it.”
“You seriously creep me out sometimes,” said Jim, following him down a corridor to a spacious room, huge stone blocks making up the walls around them, and a hole in the centre of the ceiling. He put his pack down; no sign of Spock. “All right. I might go and see what T’Pring is doing; if there’s archaeology, then it might lead us outta here.”
“A most logical choice,” said Spock. “Later, it would be pleasing to me to spend some time with you, James.”
“Don’t call me that; my mother calls me that when I’m in trouble,” said Jim, but an unbidden grin was making his cheeks ache. “It’d be pleasing to me, too. Thought you might be dead for a while there, y’know.”
“I did not survive this long to be killed by a simple containment device, no matter how inhospitable the environment that contains me,” said Spock. “Go on. You are itching with curiosity. Go.”
It turned out that T’Pring and Stonn had decided that the markings in the Throne Room weren’t worth their time, and they’d headed out onto the rock plains nearby and down into the craggy little canyons that the river had worn into the flat plain of the caldera; Jim cursed Vulcans and their lizard-like love of heat as he walked under the blazing sun — the Enterprise was out there somewhere, and this damn force-field wasn’t exactly being co-operative in letting them be found.
He had no signal on his communicator when he checked it. He didn’t even have signal on his watch, and it was supposed to connect to the intergalactic timepiece on Rigel 7, even if it ended up in a black hole. The watch, not Rigel 7. Although he suspected that if the Enterprise got a call to Rigel 7, there’d be spaghettification on the menu.
He didn’t really know what he’d expected to find out there, but he sure as shit hadn’t expected to find T’Pring explaining something loudly and obnoxiously to Stonn whilst she checked over carvings in the rocks. He supposed he’d expected — well, wanted — to find them kissing, or in the midst of some torrid Vulcanean affair, so that Spock could break things off with T’Pring and no-one had to feel bad about anything.
“Come over here, Kirk,” T’Pring demanded. “What do you make of these?”
“Spock put your damn bag in a room for you, Princess,” said Jim, and the look Stonn gave him could have melted stone. “What am I looking at?”
“Does that look familiar to you?” she asked, brushing dust off a carving.
“It does,” said Jim, looking at the wiggly lines. “But it’s not a language. It’s familiar, though; you’re right.”
He tried to cast his mind back to where he might have seen the lines before. Not off-planet, not in a book (Jim didn’t have time to read that much, anyway).
“Shit,” he said. “It’s a circuit diagram. The symbols aren’t quite the same, but if you take that to be a resistor…then it’s obvious.”
“You are correct,” said T’Pring, tracing the markings with her finger. “That’s—this may be a way out of this predicament that we are in. It details a circuit…”
“It’s the instruction manual for whatever freaky dome thing the natives made,” said Jim.
“Not how I would have expressed it, but essentially correct,” she said. “Stonn, observe.”
“I see,” said Stonn, and Jim didn’t dare turn around to see what his face looked like, because he feared that he himself would collapse into a fit of rather uncaptainlike laughter.
“This, combined with the maps in the Throne Room…” said T’Pring.
“Maps?” Jim asked. Clearly he hadn’t had a good enough look at the walls.
“That is why we came here,” she said. “There are a series of maps in the Throne Room, detailing locations around the Citadel and up in the mountains.”
“So someone smart enough could turn off the dome,” said Jim.
“Possibly a failsafe,” said T’Pring. “However, I think it is more likely to be boasting.”
“Boasting?” asked Stonn.
“Many cultures wish to demonstrate their prowess in intellectual pursuits. This place is safe from all intruders,” said T’Pring. “It seems logical that sensitive information could be proudly displayed.”
“Pride is illogical,” said Stonn.
“But comforting,” said Jim. “We need to get copies of these.”
“Did you bring a camera?” asked T’Pring.
“Wasn’t exactly planning on taking happy snaps,” said Jim. He paused. “I think I know how we can do it.”
“Who always carries paper?” he asked, and then he realized that they probably didn’t really know Ambassador Spock and the simple joy he found in aesthetic pleasures. “We can take rubbings of the carvings; unless the colonists have cameras…”
“I believe there is one for the purpose of creating documentary evidence of the initial work of the colony,” said Stonn.
“Paper rubbings,” said T’Pring. “You mean such as ancient archaeologists used?” There was a hungry look in her eyes, like the look Spock got around complex math problems. Or around Jim, but Jim wasn’t going to think about that.
“Exactly,” said Jim. “I’ll go and find the Ambassador and ask him; you two find the camera.”
“No, I shall come with you,” said T’Pring. “Paper; I should have made the connection with the note. Stonn, you shall find the camera.”
Jim hadn’t thought it was possible for Stonn to look more sour, but he managed it. T’Pring kept pace with Jim on the way back.
“As far as I can tell, there is a 98% chance that the controls for the dome are not in the mountain, as we hypothesized they would be, but on the plains here,” said T’Pring. “The weathering from the streams has affected the profile of the ground; not so much that we cannot follow a map, however.”
There were smaller rocky outcrops on this side of the crater, and Jim didn’t relish searching all of them for a control room. He squinted, trying to see if any of them were extra-shiny, or suspiciously shaped.
“You’re planning to come with us to shut it down,” said Jim, realizing what she’d said.
“I think you will find that you are planning to come with me,” said T’Pring.
“And Stonn?” asked Jim. “I don’t think he’ll play nice with Spock.”
“You make the most ridiculous assumptions,” said T’Pring. “Yes, Stonn will accompany us. He is a strong and capable guard.”
“Strong and capable, huh,” said Jim, fluttering his eyelashes at her. “Sure thing, Princess.”
“You have called me that twice,” she said. “I know that you mean it to be a pejorative.”
“You think?” asked Jim.
“Why do you think I have not stopped you?” she asked, and she didn’t run, exactly, but she got away from him and they wound up back at the Citadel with Jim a little breathless (damn atmosphere) and just waiting for something to go wrong. They had to search through the building to find their quarry — Ambassador Spock was instructing a group of very tiny Vulcans, who all looked up at Jim and T’Pring in awe.
“Ah,” said the Ambassador. “You shall perhaps be allowed to finish your lesson early, young ones.”
“You’re teaching them?” asked Jim.
“Lessons must not cease,” said a tiny Vulcan. Jim wondered if Spock had ever looked like that, all bowl-cut and serious-eyed. “It is important that our traditions be upheld.”
“It is,” said the Ambassador. “And it is also important that you continue to assist your parents in making this place habitable; I must talk with Captain Kirk and the Lady T’Pring, so you have leave to do so.”
The children filed out — Jim had half-expected them to bolt out like humans, but they didn’t — and Jim shook his head.
“What are you teaching them?” he asked.
“Warp physics,” said Spock. “Now, what is it that you require?”
“Paper,” said Jim, because he wasn’t even going to go there. “We need to get an accurate recording of the petroglyphs in the throne room and out in the canyons, and taking a rubbing is probably going to be the best way to get the nuances of the more weathered rocks.”
“Logical,” said Spock. “I can give you paper and pencil; I was planning to take imprints of some of the petroglyphs myself.”
“Why?” asked T’Pring, as Spock rummaged around in the pile of teaching materials; an astrolabe, a few textbooks.
“Aesthetics,” said Spock. “When you have spent as much time as I living around humans, you learn that aesthetics are important.”
“Important for what?” asked T’Pring.
“Have you not considered why each Vulcan child learns music, T’Pring?” he asked. “Ah. Paper.”
He brandished a small sheaf of sheets of the precious stuff, and a block of graphite.
“Excellent,” said Jim. “Will you join us?”
“I prefer to go to the top of the tower at sunset,” said Spock. “It is a satisfactory place for me to meditate.”
“I—“ said T’Pring. “I do not require your company in taking the preliminary rubbings, Kirk. Stonn shall be there. You and Spock should consider which of the Throne Room panels we should copy, so that they can be done tomorrow.”
Jim quickly translated that into if you stop me having private time with Stonn, I will go all Vulcan warrior-maiden on your ass and nodded. Selfish? Yes. But It meant he’d have Spock to himself for a while.
“All right,” he said. “Ambassador, do you object to me going to the tower with you?”
“It would be most agreeable if you would,” said the Ambassador. “I informed you earlier that I should like to talk with you.”
It wasn’t really a tower. It was more like a whacking great mesa with a citadel built around it; when they climbed up to a rocky outcrop, Jim could see T’Pring heading back across the rocky ground to where they’d seen the circuit diagram. She was tiny, ant-like in scale; there was still so much rock above them, but the view was spectacular from here. Spock sat at the ledge, pulling Jim down beside him.
“You have questions,” he said, and Jim nodded.
"You knew T’Pring before we introduced her,” he said. "More secrets from your life?"
"You know of her relationship to Spock?" asked the Ambassador.
"I know she's his wife," said Jim.
"In my lifetime, her actions led to one of the darkest moments of my existence," said the Ambassador, and he put a hand on Jim's knee.
"Why am I not surprised?" asked Jim. "Did...everything was all right after?"
"Yes," said the Ambassador, gently. "But the memory of my actions that day still shames me."
"And you're not going to tell me what it is," said Jim, with a sigh. "You're a tease, Spock. And I know I would have forgiven you, no matter how badly you behaved."
"You did," said the Ambassador. "But my actions still shamed me, forgiven or no."
Jim rested his head on Spock's shoulder; he knew enough about shameful actions and the need for silence, and he also knew that this Spock (in contrast to his own, in contrast to most of the elders in Jim’s life) welcomed physical contact from Jim and Jim alone. In return, Spock put a friendly arm around him, warm and close. The suns were going down over the hills, making each double shadow long, turning the sky pink and yellow with deep, deep blue, stars prickling through the bronze. Up there, somewhere, was the Enterprise. The Enterprise and the Federation and everything, Jim's whole life.
"May I join you?" asked Spock, his voice breaking the stillness, and Jim turned a little guiltily. Oh hey, Spock, just having a quiet moment with your other self never seemed to go down particularly well with his Spock. He patted the rocks beside him, and Ambassador Spock dropped the friendly hug.
“Always,” said Jim. “What’s on your mind?”
“I have been working at deciphering the petroglyphs found inside the throne room,” said Spock. “I believe T’Pring is right — there is a control point for the mechanism that has protected this city, and I believe it may be in the nearby canyons or outcrops.”
“Will it turn on the central heating?” asked Jim.
Spock frowned. “I doubt the ancient inhabitants of this planet installed any form of heating, Jim. I suspect that they were probably energy beings in the immediate time before their extinction.”
“Never change,” said Jim, and Ambassador Spock didn’t crack a smile, but Jim got the impression that it was a pretty near thing.
“I’ll leave out several of my blankets for you both,” said Ambassador Spock. “It is bitterly cold at night; you’ll need them more.”
Jim tapped his fingers against his own knee. “So do we know where in the rocks the kill-switch is?”
“As far as I can tell, there is a ninety-five point eight percent chance that we can pinpoint the exact location, and that it is indeed within the energy dome,” said Spock. “However, as we are safe here for the night and the evening is fast approaching, I counsel searching for it in the morning. We will not run out of food or shelter in the meantime, and I am certain that the Enterprise crew are engaged in searching for us.”
“I’m certain of that too,” said Jim, with a little smile. His crew. “All right. I think that’s logical, Spock — we’ll let T’Pring know, and we’ll assemble what we’ll need tomorrow.”
“I wish to come,” said the Ambassador.
“No,” said Spock. “You are an Elder; you cannot risk yourself on a mission into the unknown. And you will slow us down.”
“He’s pretty fast,” said Jim, remembering walking for miles in the snow with the Ambassador. The bond they’d forged as they struggled through the deep drifts together had been fast and profound; there’s nothing like saving one another’s lives five or six times within the first hour that you’ve met.
“I—“ said Spock. “It is not—“ He stopped. He was clearly struggling to articulate what he wanted to say in front of Jim, and Jim sighed. He wasn’t a fool. If he left, Spock and Spock could have a heart-to-heart and talk this out.
“How about you take a few minutes to discuss it? I need to go and see a man about a horse," said Jim, and Spock looked mystified. He sighed. "I wish to take care of some biological functions."
He'd always wondered if Vulcans had toilets like human toilets; obviously here in the wilderness they had a chemical pit instead, and a few missions with Spock had put paid to any speculation about Vulcan genitalia. He briefly wondered why humanoid life in all its basic detail had shown up on so many planets, and once he'd, ah, taken care of things, he returned to his Spocks, hand sanitiser still sticky on his fingers.
"...are not clear," said the younger of the two Spocks. "You specifically said to me that you would not interfere, and yet you are making clearly romantic overtures…”
"Unintentional," said the older Spock. "It is not my intent to deprive you of your love, Spock."
Ah, right. T'Pring the magnificent strikes again, even when she's off "exploring the rock faces" with Stonn the asinine. Of course; whatever it was that Spock had done in the other universe must have been terrible -- the darkest day of his existence, he'd said, and maybe...
Fuck, what if Spock had been forced to do something that led to T'Pring's death? No wonder he was making overtures if that was the case; Jim hadn’t seen anything overt, but he also knew his own knowledge of Vulcan culture was like that tiny 10% of the iceberg. Jim sighed. And then there was his Spock, his marvellously confusing Spock, and what to do about the fact that Spock had kissed him — well, Vulcan-kissed him — and Jim had liked it.
"Then I suggest you cease this ridiculous, overly emotive behavior," said Spock. "It is not seemly for an elder to behave thus."
"Very little that is truly enjoyable is always seemly," his counterpart replied. "Very well. But if my distance causes comment, then you are the one who shall explain."
"There will be no explanation needed," said Spock, and Jim kicked a rock, letting it herald his 'arrival' back to the lookout.
"Something smells fantastic back there in camp," he offered. Spock looked at him as if he were insane.
"I thought you went to the latrines?" he said.
"Yeah; I passed the kitchens," said Jim. Damn, he'd thought he'd get away with introducing a neutral topic. “So did you work out who is and isn’t coming?”
“We will both be in attendance,” said Spock, Jim’s Spock, and Jim breathed a little sigh of relief. “Come, the aesthetic pleasure of watching the suns set will not be as great from your current vantage point.” He patted the rock next to him, and Jim joined him, looking out at the landscape. “It will be dangerous,” Spock continued. “The same thin rock walls that allowed us such easy egress from the cave may prove to be too fragile to walk upon, should there be a cavern under the so-called “off switch”.”
“We’re used to danger,” said Jim, and Spock nodded.
“We are,” he said. “As is my counterpart.”
The first sun had nearly vanished, and there was already a chill to the air. Jim resisted the urge to lean against the younger Spock; he probably wouldn’t appreciate it at all in the way his older version had.
“We’ll make it,” said Jim.
“I am not concerned about that,” said Spock, as the Ambassador got to his feet.
“You two young ones stay and enjoy the view,” he said. “I have things to do.”
Jim watched him leave, and then realized that Spock was doing the same, a look of concentration on his face that was only matched by his checkmate-face. Oh god, Spock didn’t have an o-face, he had a checkmate-face. Spock took his hand.
“Do you?” he asked.
“Huh?” asked Jim.
“Enjoy the view.” Spock’s hand was hot against his own, and Jim looked out at the long light caused by the remaining sun.
“Oh yeah,” he said, resisting the urge to squeeze. “Definitely.”
Vulcan food wasn’t half bad, and Vulcan hospitality was a lot warmer than Jim had expected. He’d even managed to borrow a mini-dermal regenerator for his blisters and the sunburn along his nose — bliss. There were plenty of children in the camp — of course, colonists always brought children — but they weren’t running around and squealing. Instead they helped knead bread, and helped to stock the fire with the wood from the desert plants. They were desperately curious when it came to Jim, though, and he kept catching them staring at him with dark eyes, before looking away and scurrying very seriously off. It was kinda adorable, really.
Spock — the old Spock — didn’t sit next to him at dinner. Weird. Jim joined him after, sitting next to him around the huge bonfire that the Vulcans had built for maximum thermal efficiency in an open-roofed room in the ruined citadel. It smelled a little like salt and sandalwood as it burned, and Jim stretched, enjoying the heat against his front as the chill air in the rest of the room nudged at his back.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were avoiding me,” he said, and Spock stared at the flames.
“We used to just heat rocks with our phasers to keep warm,” he said, and Jim knew not to stop him when he went into non-sequitur land. He’d usually say something that later on became really useful. “We would get lost on a planet once, twice a month in the beginning. Then life became complex when it should have been simpler.”
“Is that when you left?” asked Jim.
“I did things that I should not have done,” said Spock. He settled more comfortably, his feet close to the fire. “Jim, you should not be chatting with me. Go to your own Spock.”
Jim shrugged. “He’s with T’Pring,” said Jim. “Come on, don’t chase me off. I’m usually on my own; it’s a nice change to be trapped with people who aren’t insane or trying to kill me.”
“Do you really believe that he wishes for T’Pring’s company above yours? You are being almost maliciously oblivious.”
“Well, they’re married,” said Jim, tucking away maliciously oblivious for later. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that you were married.”
“It is hard to condense a life into manageable chunks, James, and there are some things that you should discover for yourself.”
“Don’t call me that,” said Jim, but there was no heat in his voice.
“Besides,” said Spock, the firelight reflecting off his pale skin. “T’Pring and I did not continue our married relationship in my universe. She challenged my right to be her husband, and I won, in theory, but in practice I lost.”
“I can’t imagine you losing anything,” said Jim.
“I almost lost everything that was dear to me,” said Spock. “Everything in the world that I genuinely cared about. But I did not, and I eventually overcame the pain and humiliation I caused to all involved, and I am here now.”
“Good,” said Jim. “And I think you’re possibly being a bit hard on yourself. I’ve seen my Spock get humiliated when someone else messes up the electronics in the turbo-lift and Spock has to go in there and fix it.”
“This is not a turbo-lift, James. Nor is it anything less than life and death,” said the elder Spock, his face grave.
“So should I be on the lookout for T’Pring trying to kill me?” asked Jim, and the silence between them stretched a few seconds too long. “Shit. Really?”
“It is not as simple as that,” Spock replied. “I do not believe that this T’Pring is the same woman as the woman I knew on Vulcan.”
“So the choice you made — the dark thing you talked about —?” Jim asked, barely daring to.
“I thought you were dead,” said Spock. “By my hand; I thought I had murdered you.”
Jim exhaled. “Oh.” He reached out for Spock. “Oh, fuck, I’m sorry. But you didn’t.”
“If I had, you and I would never have met,” said the Ambassador. There were voices carrying as the colonists cleaned up after the meal, the kids moving through the building like little ghosts, picking up firewood, and Jim dropped the Ambassador’s hand just in time, because one of the children settled beside the elder Spock, yawning.
“Are you attempting to shirk your cleanup duties, S’Blen?” asked Spock, as the boy hunkered down — presumably trying not to be seen.
“It is not shirking, Elder, it is—”
“Let him stay,” said Jim. “I like him.”
“Liking another sentient being when you have not interacted with them for even five minutes is illogical,” said S’Blen. Jim laughed, and it was loud compared to the soft conversation of the Vulcans. Heads turned, and he spotted T’Pring and Spock returning to them.
“It is decided,” said Spock, sitting beside Jim. “We will take the final rubbings in the Throne Room tomorrow; Stonn has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make the camera work.”
“My hypothesis is that the field is causing interference,” said T’Pring, sitting beside S’Blen. “Greetings, young one. Are you here to observe the stars?”
They could see the stars through the open roof — this room would be a delight in the daytime. There was one, more brilliant than any of the others, and Jim knew what that was, even though he realistically shouldn’t hold out hope.
“All the constellations are different here,” S’Blen said. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, Jim thought; he empathized with a kid forced to join a colony at such a young age. “This world is illogical.”
“We will learn to make new constellations,” said T’Pring. “That is part of finding a new world.”
“What is that ship?” he asked, pointing at the bright star that had synchronised with them, settled into a geostationary orbit. “Is it here to save us from the geomagnetic containment field? Will I be able to go home?”
“That’s the Enterprise,” said Jim, feeling a huge love that he couldn’t contain settle into his heart. That was the Enterprise, his Enterprise; he knew it even without his communicator working or a telescope.
“It is here to save us,” said T’Pring, offering Jim the Vulcan version of a smile, just a slight lift to the corners of her mouth. “Captain Kirk and Commander Spock have come to save the day.”
“We damn well have,” said Jim. “And tomorrow, T’Pring will lead us to where we need to go.”
“Yet, young one, this is your home now,” said the Ambassador, and his voice was gentle, almost sad. “I have assisted in the settlement of twenty such groups of colonists, and this place will soon feel right to you.”
“It is so different,” said the child. “I cannot imagine…”
“If Spock can settle on a starship, then you can settle here,” said T’Pring.
“Now go forth and complete your chores,” said the Ambassador, and S’Blen got up, bowing a little.
“Live long and prosper,” he said, holding out his hand. “You will find a way to help us return home.”
“Live long,” said both Spocks, and they turned to look at each other before continuing, “and prosper.”
“You should sleep,” said Spock, and his fingers brushed Jim’s — deliberately or not, it was hard to tell. “You are exhausted, Jim, and tomorrow will not be easy.”
“I should,” said Jim. “I guess I’m just waiting for something to go wrong.”
“Perhaps it will not,” said the Ambassador. “The universe can be very forgiving, at times.”
Tonight, Jim was about to drift off when something heavy dropped onto him. He recognised it as a second blanket — therefore not a threat — and he was murmuring thanks when someone climbed under the blankets with him.
“Spock?” he asked blearily, as Spock — his Spock, the younger Spock — tucked their bodies together. He was an extremely efficient spooner, Jim thought.
“Yes,” said Spock, so close to his ear that his breath tickled.
“Okay,” said Jim, snuggling in and dropping off.
He’d deal with this — whatever Spock thought he was doing — in the morning. Whatever Spock had thought he was doing, he’d picked the right night to do it; Jim woke in the dark with a thin rime of frost dusting his hair, and his nose so cold it’d gone numb, and a nice warm Vulcan curled around his back.
“Go back to sleep,” said Spock.
“Wha’ time is it?” Jim asked, trying to bury his head under the blankets.
“3.06am,” said Spock. “And on the Enterprise, it would be 1.26am. Neither is in your usual waking hours.”
“Why’re you in my bed?” Jim asked, as Spock took pity on him and pulled the covers over their heads.
“Because it is cold,” said Spock.
“Will the others be all—all—okay?”
“Yes,” Spock said. “Vulcans evolved on a desert planet. While we prefer warmth, our bodies have evolved for both optimal performance in freezing temperatures as well as in the heat of the day.” He paused. “Besides, a number of the colonists will have done exactly as we are doing.”
“T’Pring? The Ambassador?”
“The Ambassador has his own personal heating device built into his coat,” said Spock. “It is most ingenious.”
“And T’Pring?” asked Jim. Spock sighed.
“I observed her leaving for Stonn’s quarters,” he said. “I did not like to interfere.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jim, and Spock’s breath was hot on his neck. It felt confined here under the blankets, cocooned and safe. He was warmer already.
“I am not,” said Spock. “Jim, you should sleep. I can survive on far less rest than you.”
Jim snuggled in, but he’d had some sleep and his brain was determined to fire-fire-fire, keeping him up, keeping him aware of the steady rhythm of Spock’s slow breathing. He tried not to wriggle. He’d been told he was a wriggler.
“Sleep,” said Spock, sounding sleepy himself.
“Did I imagine you kissing me last night?” Jim said, which hadn’t been what he was going to say at all. And he sort of expected Spock to twitch back, but instead Spock reached for his hand.
“You did not imagine it,” said Spock. “Did I imagine you telling me to let you know what was going on ‘right from the get-go’?”
“You…didn’t,” said Jim, not quite knowing where Spock was going with this.
“Am I not being clear enough?” asked Spock, threading their fingers together, resting their linked hands against Jim’s stomach. “Get some sleep, Jim. I do not want to have to handle you in the morning if you are sleep deprived.”
“Oh,” said Jim, and it was like a warm spot was drifting up into his lungs from his stomach. “Yeah, just took me a while to get it. Humans are slow, sometimes.”
Spock pressed close. “Good night, Jim.”
“Night,” said Jim, and he was flying, fuck, definitely flying. Spock was warm and this was simultaneously one of the most uncomfortable and one of the most comfortable places he’d ever slept. He snuggled in, and wondered momentarily if sexing up Spock counted for the purposes of his pseudo-bet with McCoy, and then dismissed the thought just as quickly as he drifted off to sleep.
Spock was gone when Jim woke up, but his side of the blankets was still quite warm, so he hadn’t been gone for long. Jim looked at the rough stone of the wall, and a whole lot of pieces fell into place; he’d been so focused on the whole married thing that he’d missed the obvious. Or bonded. Or whatever-the-fuck Spock and T’Pring were, which didn’t seem like much to Jim.
He wondered if the elder Spock would tell him more. Probably not.
He snuggled into the blankets, stretching out underneath them. Maybe he’d be able to get some more sleep.
“Get up,” said T’Pring.
“I thought you had a private room?” asked Jim, looking up from the nest he and Spock had made in the blankets.
“I do,” said T’Pring. “And you are sleeping in like a lump. Get up. Spock needs your assistance in the Throne Room.”
“It’s…” said Jim, checking his watch. “Early. Humans need more sleep than Vulcans.”
He got up anyway, stretching until his back cracked a little, and T’Pring folded her arms.
“Kirk,” she said softly. “I know.”
“You know what?” he asked.
“Do not play the idiot human with me,” she said. “I am bonded to Spock. Do you think I would not know when he loves another?”
“Does he know about Stonn?” asked Jim.
She pursed her lips. “Yes. Did you know about Spock before this journey?”
“I think I suspected,” said Jim. “But I didn’t know.”
“If I…” said T’Pring, touching his arm, her fingers light against his shirt. She stopped. “I do not know. I want to… No.”
“Princess,” he said, and she looked at him from under her lashes. “I get the impression you’re used to people doing what you tell them to, but you’re not used to doing what you want to do.”
“That is oxymoronic,” she said, but her fingers tightened a little.
“You know how repressed Spock was when I got my hands on him?” asked Jim.
“I do,” she said. “We are bonded. Remember?”
“Do you think he’s—“ Jim faltered. He couldn’t exactly say happy to her, but he meant it. “Do you think he was more content then, or now?”
“We need to be on the colony, or Vulcan will not rise again,” said T’Pring.
“You hate it,” said Jim.
“We need to uphold tradition, or nothing will survive.”
Jim didn’t really know what to say to that, so he drew her close instead. She didn’t fight him, just leaned against him briefly before stepping back.
“I can see how you make people illogical,” she murmured, and turned on her heel and left him standing in astonishment beside his still-cooling bed. He ran his hands through his hair — if it weren’t for the dry weather, it’d be a grease-trap — smoothed out the covers, and went to find Spock.
Spock was in the Throne Room, taking rubbings from the walls. He’d changed — presumably he’d borrowed some clothes from the colonists — into the more thermally efficient Vulcan robes. Jim wondered if he’d got them from the Ambassador, moving quietly to his side, and even though he’d said nothing, Spock looked up at him. All right, Jim thought. He’d agreed to be clear to Spock as well, and as clear as snuggling under blankets was, Spock had been the instigator in both instances. Jim raised his hand, wordless, and held it there. He wasn’t naive, and he wasn’t stupid. He knew what the gesture meant.
Spock inhaled quickly, his breath shaking as he reached out to brush fingertips over Jim’s palm, up his index finger and down again, the paper and pencil falling to the ground unheeded when he dropped them. Jim reached back, pressing his palm to Spock’s jaw, bringing their mouths together in a kiss as Spock’s fingers closed tightly around his.
“Jim,” said Spock, when they parted. “Now is not the time.”
“I know,” said Jim. “I just thought we agreed to be clear with one another.”
“We did,” said Spock. “However, I believe this constitutes losing your bet with Doctor McCoy.”
“It’s only money,” said Jim, running his fingers over Spock’s. “And who says we have to tell him? We could split the spoils.”
Spock caught Jim’s moving hand in his, stilling him. “Do you think he will not guess?”
“Depends if you do that on the Bridge,” said Jim. Spock pressed his lips together, and Jim laughed. “Tease.”
“You have no idea,” said Spock, his voice low, and it was easy, so easy between them that Jim wondered why they’d never done it before. Sure, there was protocol, and there was fraternization, but there was possibility and the unknown and Jim had always preferred taking risks. They seemed to pay off.
“We should…” said Jim, gesturing to the paper.
“We should,” said Spock, and he picked up the sheet, leaning to take the rubbing of one panel that looked exactly like all of the other panels. Jim held the page for him, watching the concentration on his face as he worked.
“Aren’t you done yet?” T’Pring and Stonn had come to join them, it seemed, and T’Pring had a whole sheaf of pages in one hand, her pack, and her sunhat all ready to go.
“Done like a dinner,” said Jim, as Spock finished the task, labelling the rubbing with a neat hand. “I assume you know where we’re going?”
“You say that as if there is a possibility I do not,” said T’Pring. “Spock, paper.”
He handed the final rubbing to her, and she gazed at it, her fingers gently brushing the smooth paper.
“It is fortunate that the Ambassador had such primitive supplies with him,” said Stonn.
“They are aesthetically pleasing,” T’Pring said, “and not entirely primitive.”
“Illogical,” said Stonn, and wow, okay, so Jim really didn’t like him. T’Pring annoyed the crap out of him most of the time, but underneath the facade was someone that Jim thought he could learn to like, but Stonn…
“No,” said Spock. “Aesthetics are important. We would not choose our clothing, or listen to music, or even appreciate literature without an appreciation of aesthetics.”
“I would expect as much from you,” said Stonn, and he turned. “Come, T’Pring.”
T’Pring didn’t follow him; instead, she stayed with Jim and Spock, flicking through the papers until she found one that to Jim’s eyes looked no different to the others, carefully rolling the rest up and sliding them into the top of her pack.
“All right,” said Jim. “I’ll get my pack and we’ll go.”
The Ambassador was waiting for them by the gates, and they set off across the plains together. Despite Jim’s initial protestations about being the leader, they wound up with T’Pring leading and Stonn following her as she pointed out little markings on the rocks that could have been graffiti, could have been milestones. Could have been anything, as far as Jim was concerned.
This side of the caldera was infinitely more welcoming than the other had been — the presence of rocky outcroppings had allowed plants to grow, and afforded them some shade as they moved their way through. They still had to stop for Jim every few hours, though — his lungs were never going to be the same again — and after the third hour he sat on a rock whilst T’Pring checked the schematics on the pencil-rubbings.
“Spock, check the magnetic readings on those rocks over there,” said T’Pring, as Spock’s tricorder whirred and bleeped. A gust of wind blew off her hat and Jim caught it, putting it on the rocks next to him.
“Is there any reason we’re doing this in the heat of the day?” he asked. “I mean, it’s hot, I’m hot, we didn’t think it was that far away but all of my blisters have opened up again and…”
“This rock is magnetized,” said Spock, ignoring Jim.
“Excellent,” said T’Pring, and the breeze caught her hair. “Then we are on exactly the right track; there are a sequence of six magnetized rocks, and then we should be close to the controls.”
“Have we got much longer to go?” asked Jim, getting to his feet. He handed T’Pring her hat as Spock led off with his tricorder, following the trail of the magnetised rocks. He caught up to the Ambassador at the same time as T’Pring did. Stonn had powered on ahead, getting away even from Spock. “I’m serious when I say my feet hurt.”
“James,” said the Ambassador, patting Jim’s shoulder. “Stop complaining.”
“I’m not complaining, I just—“
“Complained,” said Spock, his expression far more lively than the younger Vulcans ever managed.
“I don’t complain,” said Jim. “I never complain.”
“You complain all the time,” said T’Pring. “Approximately 64.5% of my interactions with you have involved you complaining, James.”
“You wound me. It’s Jim,” he replied, offering her a grin. She inclined her head.
“James,” she replied, and then pranced down the path to join Stonn, her hair bouncing along with her gait. Fuck. It was just possible she’d won something. Spock squeezed his shoulder.
“Go and catch up to my younger self,” he said. “He will listen to you complain, as he has not worked out how to get you to shut up yet.”
“Right,” said Jim. He paused, walking backwards for a few seconds. “What do you need to do to get me to shut up?”
“That is for him to find out,” said Spock, and Jim jogged up to his own Spock, catching his fingers for a few seconds just to see his eyes widen.
“Jim,” he said.
“Relax. T’Pring knows, I don’t think the Ambassador cares, and Stonn—“ said Jim, “—where is Stonn?”
Spock scanned the path in front of them. “There,” he said, pointing. Stonn was waving to them from some way ahead; they jogged a little to catch up, arriving just before T’Pring and the Ambassador.
“I have found it,” said Stonn, brandishing his own roll of paper from the rubbings. “It appears that Vulcanian senses are superior to human machinery, Spock.”
Stay classy, thought Jim, but he smiled. “So,” he said. “Down there?”
“It would appear that way,” said T’Pring. “All right. So we will climb.”
“We shall require someone on belay,” said Spock. “Captain, do not even think about arguing with me.”
“I wasn’t!” said Jim, but as he had been about to just start climbing down, well, bullseye.
“I shall act as belay,” said the elder Spock. “I have the requisite strength, and I believe that both Spock and Stonn wish to explore the control room.”
“You saying I’m not strong enough to be on belay?” asked Jim playfully.
“You are not,” said Stonn. “You are human.”
“Fine,” said Jim, as T’Pring pulled a rope from her pack, fastening one end into a knot, handing it to the elder Spock.
“Do not change the knots,” she said. “Now. I shall enter first, so that I can ascertain the best line into the cave.”
“I don’t think it’s that dangerous,” said Jim. “Why would they have made it in the side of a canyon if there wasn’t a safe route in?”
“There was,” said Spock. “These are post-holes for a temporary ladder.”
“Damn,” said Jim, as T’Pring checked the knots on herself and then swung over the edge of the cliff like a spider monkey.
“The handholds and footholds are satisfactory,” she called. “And there is a clear entryway in the rock face. Allow me to…” She swung into the rocks, and Jim braced himself for a horrible crunch, but she entered an overhang. The rope went slack and T’Pring’s voice rang between the canyon walls. “I believe that this is the correct location. Come on.”
“All right,” said Jim, as the Ambassador pulled the rope upwards. Stonn stepped in front of him.
“I shall go next,” he said.
“All right,” said Jim, and he wondered what T’Pring saw in Stonn. “Good for you, yeah?”
He watched Stonn climb off the edge, and Spock turned to his older counterpart.
“If you wish to go into the canyon, I am happy to belay,” he said.
“I do not wish to enter the canyon,” said the elder Spock.
“You okay?” asked Jim, and he extended a hand. Spock caught his fingers.
“I am ‘okay’,” he said. “I spent my childhood climbing in canyons such as this, yet I find myself irrationally afraid of falling.”
Jim nodded. “Seems pretty rational to me. That’s a long way down.”
“You are not assisting,” said Spock, as the rope went slack. “Climb, Jim. I wish to watch your progress.”
Right, so it wasn’t himself Spock was irrationally afraid for, Jim realized. He settled the rope around his waist, blew both Spocks a kiss, and clambered off the edge.
Whatever purpose this place once served, it had also been beautiful. There were carvings up and down the rockface, and Jim realized that what T’Pring had meant by satisfactory hand and footholds were intricate parts of the sculpture, designed to allow ingress into the rocky outcrop.
“More boasting?” he asked, expecting the others to be waiting for him, but there was no-one there. Oh, right. So now was when the crazed people came out of the rock face and kidnapped them and then—
“I think we have found the control room,” said T’Pring, from an ornate doorway. “Just be careful; some of the panels seem to be live, and I am not certain what all of the rooms are for.”
“No touching unless it’s safe. Gotcha,” said Jim, slipping off the belay-rope. “What’s in there?”
“I have not got to that room yet,” said T’Pring, as Stonn opened the door to another room. “I think this is a temple to the gods, and to the artifice of the indigenous inhabitants.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Jim, pushing the unknown door open. “No, wait. That’s beautiful.”
One of the springs bubbled up here, fresh and pure from the centre of the planet, steaming lightly in the cave air. Jim looked up, and realized that there were channels in the roof that collected the water, carrying it away from the roof — but there were still stalactites growing, and their brethren stalagmites collecting in the corners. The spring was driving what seemed to be a series of turbines carved from the rock itself —
“Impossible,” said T’Pring, looking at the turbine. “This entire place runs on geothermal energy alone, and yet there has been no shutdown or problem in—it must be thousands of years.”
“Sealed environment,” said Jim. “And maybe there is no algae, or heavier elements that might calcify onto the turbines.”
“It is…amazing,” she said. “And your strange fears of there being survivors from some elder age have not caught up with us, James.”
“If you had seen half of what I’ve seen…” he said. She bent, holding a hand over the hot water.
“If only,” she replied. “I was offered a position teaching on Earth, but I did not take it.”
“Why?” asked Jim.
“Duty,” she said, pulling out a test kit from her belt. “Go and see if Stonn requires assistance in his work on the panels; he is an architect, not an electrician. We must shut this place down or as aesthetically pleasing as it is, we shall be trapped in this dome for the remainder of our lives.”
“I think I’m supposed to give the orders,” said Jim.
“Oh,” said T’Pring, dipping a vial into the water. “I suppose you are.”
“Captain?” Spock called from the corridor.
“In here,” said Jim, returning to him. “You decided to come!”
“Did you think I would not?” asked Spock. “Where are the control panels?”
“In one of these rooms,” said Jim. “Find Stonn, and we’ve found the panels.”
“In here,” said Stonn, his voice echoing. “This is the control room.”
The panels had buttons that corresponded to the petroglyphs, Jim realized, and Stonn was holding up a rubbing and examining one panel in reference to it.
“I believe it is based on prime numbers,” said Spock, looking over his shoulder. “If we turn off the yellow switches, and then the red, and then the circular black ones…”
“That should work,” said Stonn. “Excellent.” He stepped back. “Your mission, Commander.”
Spock’s hands hovered over the control panel, and he frowned.
“I see,” he said, apparently to the machine, and Jim turned at an extremely un-Vulcan shout.
“Spock! That panel is live!” yelled T’Pring, and Jim bolted for Spock, catching him around the chest just as his hand made contact. The shock ran through both of them, but Jim had enough momentum to shove them both to the ground, rolling on the dusty floor. Spock’s fingers were curled tight and Jim dragged him into a half-hug as T’Pring entered the room, her body radiating anger.
“Stonn, you knew that panel was live,” she said. “You knew. When we first came in here, I immediately ascertained it and told you to stay away.”
“Wait, did you tell Spock to deactivate the field knowing that the panel would shock him?” asked Jim, pulling Spock a little closer, trying to see his injured hand. Spock was breathing heavily, but there was no outward sign of emotion on his face. Simply the fact that Spock was allowing Jim to hold him like this in public, though…
“It was logical! The machine has clearly degraded in the years it has been here, but we needed someone to earth the current and remove the potential for shock,” Stonn protested. “If Spock had been uninjured, then the field would have been removed and we would have been successful. If Spock had not survived the shock, then the field would have been removed and you would not have been bonded to a half-breed.”
T’Pring’s cheeks were flushed greenish, and if she’d been human, Jim thought she might have slapped Stonn.
“Violence is illogical,” she said, and Jim reminded himself once again that he should never, ever anger a Vulcan. “Violence towards Spock is utterly illogical! If it would have come to it, I should have called kal-if-fee, but it would not have come to it.”
“You are bonded, T’Pring,” said Stonn. “By the law itself, that bond cannot be dissolved outside of kal-if-fee unless…”
“…Unless one party can prove one of the greater bonds to another,” she said. Spock gripped Jim’s forearm with his uninjured hand, his fingers tight. “Are you blind, Stonn? Spock cannot have me. He has a t'hy'la-bond to James. It is weak — still growing — but unmistakable. I can taste it in the back of my own mind when the two of them are near.”
Stonn stepped back, the wind gone out of his sails. Jim wanted to hoot and applaud, but he didn’t think Stonn would take it too well.
“A t'hy'la-bond?” asked Jim quietly, and Spock shook his head.
“Later,” he said. Jim could see the greenish seared flesh on his hand, fingers curled like a claw; it must be hurting.
“You lie,” said Stonn.
“Illogical,” she replied. “Why would I lie?”
“Why would you defend Spock, if he was no longer yours?” asked Stonn. “Clearly, this is conspiracy between you. Why else would you insinuate that Spock has—has—is t'hy'la to a human?”
“He is half human,” she said, and her anger was burning in her eyes. “There is no reason to think he would be more likely to bond to a Vulcan.”
“Then why do you defend him?” Stonn asked.
“Because I wish to,” she replied. She turned to them. “Spock, is it bad?”
“It is a deep burn,” said Spock, and Jim could hear the strain in his voice. He wondered if T’Pring could. “But I shall survive it. I was not in contact with the current long enough to sustain permanent damage; however, I believe I shall need rest before attempting to operate the machine again.”
“You’re not going to,” said Jim. “We’ll work something out that requires none of us having to touch it.”
“I was not intending to touch it,” said Spock, sounding mildly affronted. “I shall simply need some time before I attempt to operate it. I suspect you also are suffering some mild effects from the transfer of the energy.”
“Nope, I’m fine,” said Jim. “But I’d vastly prefer it if we could beam up rather than having to walk anywhere else.”
“Move,” said T’Pring, and Stonn moved out of her way. “Go and wait on the surface.”
“I—“ Stonn began.
“Go,” she said, and she ran Spock’s tricorder over the panel. “You are both fortunate; the whole thing is live.”
“T’Pring—“ said Stonn.
“I will not give credence to anything you have to say, so it is illogical for you to stay in my presence,” she said. “Go.”
Jim felt badly for Stonn, but he wasn’t about to argue. Spock got up, dusting himself down with his good hand as he walked to the panel, peering at it but keeping his hands to himself.
“We must ascertain a method of turning off the machine without any one of us taking the full force of the charge,” he said. “Ideas?”
“We nudge it with something that won’t conduct the energy.”
“What?” asked Jim, casting around for something. “I suppose we could take off our shoes and use a shoe or something…The tricorder?”
“The tricorder will conduct the charge and then melt,” said Spock. “We require something else.”
“The paper?” asked T’Pring. “If we fold it, then we may be able to use it to nudge the controls.”
“There is a chance that it will catch alight, or that the energy may be conducted through it. As there is with shoes,” said Spock. “I think the paper, if no-one has anything suitable in their bag. It is mainly cellulose, and as such will burn quickly should the charge be sufficient.”
“All right,” said T’Pring, picking up the discarded rubbing from the floor and folding it over and over, until it was a tight wad of paper.
“Give it to me,” said Jim. “I’ll do it.”
“Do not be stupid,” she said. “Your body is fragile and human; you cannot use a healing trance to repair damage.”
“Neither can you if you’re a nice crispy fried T’Pring,” said Jim.
“While I accept that you are an idiot,” she said, “I will not allow you to stupidly risk your life to help my people. If we cannot use the paper, then we shall simply climb to the surface and obtain a tree branch. I do not know why Stonn did not think of that in the first place.”
“Because that would be logical?” asked Jim.
“A branch will probably catch alight,” said Spock. “And we would need to test the conductivity of the wood first.”
“What is the sequence, Spock?” asked T’Pring.
“Yellow, red, black,” said Spock. “You do not have to do this, T’Pring; it is more logical to concentrate weakness in the party on one member.”
“I believe the correct Earth idiom is tough,” she said, and turned to the panel, ignoring any further objections. “Is there an internal order?”
“I do not know,” said Spock. Spock was no goddamn help, thought Jim; as Captain, Jim should be doing this, not T’Pring.
“There is an internal order to the petroglyphs,” said T’Pring. “It would be logical for there to be one in this case. I believe that it may be to do with…yes.” She reached out the paperwad and flicked a yellow switch. There was a crack-pop from the board and the unmistakable smell of burning paper, and T’Pring dropped the wad, stamping on it.
“All right, so fire is a hazard,” she said, picking it up. “James, fold another.”
“Be careful,” he said. “I can’t carry both of you up the cliff.”
“You will not need to carry me up the cliff,” said Spock, as Jim folded another. (He was good at folding paper into wads; one of his signature party tricks was the old school-paper-to-bottle-opener paperfold.) He passed it to T’Pring.
“I would feel so much more comfortable if I were the one doing this,” said Jim, as T’Pring flicked another switch. There was a groan and a wobble in the ground, just enough to leave Jim feeling unsettled.
“Something is happening,” she said. “More paper.”
He handed her piece after piece, and T’Pring fiddled until the entire room was filled with the soft woody smell of burning paper. The only fires they ever had on the Enterprise were a) unintentional and b) the harsh grey smell of electronics frying. Jim was getting to appreciate a good paper-fire, even if these little sprites were just burning out on the dusty floor.
“This is truly astonishing technology,” said T’Pring. “Far more sophisticated that we thought was within the capabilities of the indigenous civilisation.” She nudged a black switch. “There. That should be it.”
There was no great whooping whirr of a machine shutting down, but the final piece of paper didn’t catch alight. Jim took that as a good sign, and he pulled his communicator out of his pocket. Let’s see if we have signal, he thought; it’d be a lot easier to beam out of the cave than trying to climb the cliff-face with Spock injured.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Jim, looking at the screen and the absolute absence of any bars of signal. “Was that not the generator?”
“I believe it was,” said T’Pring. “Wait.” She moved out the door and over to the huge arcane pump room.
“I have no signal,” said Jim. “Nada. Zip. If that field is down, I should have signal.”
“It may work better on the surface,” said Spock, as T’Pring returned.
“Everything has stopped,” she said, as a cracking groan echoed through the walls. “This may not be a good thing.”
“Agreed,” said Jim, as the groaning got louder, and a distinct smell of sulfur filled the air. “How long d’ya think that was running for?”
“Thousands of years. Watercourses have probably changed because of it,” said T’Pring. “Come on!”
They bolted for the cave mouth as a hissing joined the creaking, and Jim momentarily wondered if Stonn would be okay but there was no time to stop; he heard a tear and realized that Spock had attacked his own sleeve with a rock to rip off part of the material.
“All right,” said Jim. “We’ve still got to get you up the cliff.”
“I can climb,” said Spock, wrapping the torn fabric around his hand. “I shall simply have to be careful.”
“My body does not respond to pain in the same way that yours does,” said Spock. “I shall compartmentalize it until I have time to respond to it.”
“I know that, but…”
“You frequently forget,” said Spock, and he looked up at Jim. “I am not human, and you cannot expect me to be human.”
“I know,” said Jim, and no power in the universe could have stopped him from brushing Spock’s cheek with his fingertips. “I’m your Captain. I’m allowed to worry about you.”
“Worry is illogical,” said Spock, but he rubbed his cheek against Jim’s hand.
“All right,” said Jim. “But I’m climbing up behind you, so that if you fall I’m there to catch you.”
“I would not expect anything less from you,” said Spock.
“Will you two hurry up?” asked T’Pring, swinging onto the rock face. “Spock, take the rope. James, you are on your own. Climb.”
The climb up was excruciating for Jim. He wasn’t sure what it was like for Spock, but when they got to the top the cliff was actually shaking, and the Ambassador was there, he and Jim dragging Spock up by the arms as soon as he got into grabbing range. Jim kept dragging Spock with him, and the Ambassador was fast behind them, nimble as a cat.
“Run!” said Jim, feeling somewhat redundant as the sound of rocks bounding off the canyon walls filled the air, and they ran, red dust roiling behind them, the ground mazing with cracks. He could see Stonn already well out of harm’s way, and bolted over the rocks after him, shoving Spock ahead of him as they went. With a final bellow, the cliff-face shuddered and gave way behind them, Spock’s foot catching on a rock and taking them both down when Jim crashed into him. They rolled, panting, and the roaring rockfall cleared so close behind them that Jim swallowed hard; thirty seconds more would have been too late. The dust filled the air in choking clouds, and Jim heard T’Pring coughing.
“You okay?” he yelled.
“We are safe,” the Ambassador replied. “I do not see Stonn.”
“Stonn’s fine,” said Jim, helping Spock up. He could see Stonn, standing on a rock like some great Vulcan vulture. “All right. If my crew didn’t see that, I’m gonna be pissed.”
The dust took less than a minute to clear, the blessing of a thin atmosphere and a higher gravity than Earth. In the meantime, Spock sat on a rock and looked miserably into the now rather large canyon, so Jim suspected that the burn and their subsequent flight had been a lot more painful than he had let on. The Ambassador had set off into the rock field and was now speaking with Stonn in a soft, measured voice, so Jim moved to Spock’s side, checking his communicator.
Signal. Blessed, blessed signal. T’Pring shaded her eyes, looking at the sky.
“I thought we’d see a difference in the color,” she said, and she sounded disappointed. “Can you reach your ship?”
“I can,” said Jim, dialling in. “Hello Enterprise.”
“Cap’n! It’s good to hear your voice,” said Scotty, and Jim felt relief flood his whole body like a warm tide.
“It’s good to hear yours, Scotty,” he said. “I’ve got five to beam up; tell McCoy that Spock’s hand is burnt, but no other injuries.”
“Aye, sir,” said Scotty. “Give me thirty seconds.”
The familiar queasy-off feeling of being beamed enveloped Jim, and he closed his eyes while he still had eyes to close, opening them to the walls of his ship, feel the sharp dip in temperature, and see Scotty and Uhura at the transporter controls.
“Jim!” said Uhura, the second she saw them. “Spock. Thank goodness.”
“Hey!” said Jim. “Guess which Team Awesome just managed to find the colonists, shut down the machine, and not get anyone killed?”
“The same Team Awesome that has an injured party member?” asked Uhura. “Spock, what happened?”
“I was burned,” said Spock. “It is not of consequence.”
It might not have been of consequence, but Jim made his way back to Spock anyway, brushing shoulders before brushing hands.
“Right,” said Uhura. “And pigs fly. Who else is injured? Do we need to beam others back to the ship?”
“I do not think many of the colonists will wish to return to the ship,” said the Ambassador. “Now that we have made the area accessible, there is no reason not to continue with the original plan. There is ample water, and building supplies can be delivered via starship rather than using a land vehicle.”
“I am leaving the colony,” said T’Pring abruptly.
“You were going to stay,” said Stonn, and she raised an eyebrow.
“Why would I stay with you, Stonn?” she asked. “You are an unsatisfactory mate. Excuse me.”
She stalked off, leaving Uhura wide-eyed.
“T’Pring,” said Stonn, chasing after her. He would probably be unsuccessful, Jim thought Especially as T’Pring had absolutely no idea where she was going on the Enterprise; she’d need to be located before she ended up making someone in Science or Engineering cry.
“Wow,” said Scotty, and Uhura nodded.
“What happened down here?” she asked. “Why is some random Vulcan suddenly a mate at all, even if he is unsatisfactory? And why are you two rubbing fingers like a pair of—“ She stopped. “Oh my god, you didn’t.”
“We’ll debrief later,” said Spock, and Jim’s smile twitched at debrief. “I believe that I should like a topical analgesic.”
“Oh, oh, of course,” said Uhura. “Scotty, call Bones.”
“I can make my own way to Sick Bay,” said Spock. “We should return to the colony once my injury is seen to.”
“I would like to beam down immediately,” said the Ambassador. “I believe it would be best if I were to bring Stonn with me.”
“That is not a bad idea,” said Jim, as there was a shout from somewhere out in the corridor. “As long as T’Pring hasn’t killed him.”
“It can be very disappointing to discover that one’s chosen mate is not all that they seemed to be,” said the Ambassador. “Get Spock to Sick Bay. He is in excruciating pain.”
Spock gave the Ambassador his patented death-glare, but the Ambassador seemed cheerfully immune, instead turning for the corridor and the source of the noise.
“He’s right,” said Uhura. “You should all go; Sulu has the conn, and we’ve been doing fine.”
“Oh, go on, break my heart,” said Jim, miming a shot to the heart. “I want to know that you simply can’t manage without me, Lieutenant.”
“I am staying on the ship,” said T’Pring, as the three Vulcans returned.
“If she wants to, she is staying on the ship,” said Jim, and everyone turned to look at him. “Fancy a ride to Earth, Princess?”
“Yes,” she said, giving Stonn a look that could freeze fire. “I do.”
“Come and join us in Sick Bay, then,” said Jim. “Ambassador?”
“I will return to New ShiKahr with you when you go, but I must return to the colony now; explanations are needed, and I must ascertain if this will indeed be a viable location for colonists, given the instability in the rock formations,” said the elder Spock.
“Okay,” said Jim and he stepped close to the Ambassador. “Just...take care.”
The Ambassador nodded. “I always do,” he said.
“All right. Sick Bay,” said Jim, because if he didn’t go then he got the feeling the Ambassador wouldn’t either. Jim offered one arm to T’Pring and one arm to Spock. Spock glanced fondly at him and then set off on his own, whereas T’Pring took his arm, folding her fingers around his elbow as they walked. “I thought Vulcans didn’t do touchy-feely?”
“I will need to get in some practice for Earth,” said T’Pring. “Do you mean to fulfil your offer, or was that simply to goad Stonn?”
“I mean it,” said Jim. “But we won’t be going for a day or so; if you change your mind…”
“I will not change my mind,” said T’Pring. “Believe me.”
Jim grinned. “Oh, I do.”
Shore leave appeared to have been a success, judging from the huge recycling bin of empties that Keenser was trundling down the corridor to the reclamation unit, and the the overall quietude of a ship that should have been bustling with life. Who’d’ve thought it? Shore leave on Vulcan. Jim grinned — perhaps they’d have a reason or two to return.
“Mister Spock, get your ass over here,” said a voice from behind them. McCoy. Jim could have hugged him. “You too, Jim. And you, Ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” asked T’Pring. “I prefer Princess.”
Jim laughed. He suspected that she knew full well the connotations of that particular word and was enjoying the hell out of fucking with the humans.
Bones only raised his eyebrows; he was substantially better at diplomacy where good-looking women were involved (and, probably, where he suspected that Jim had engineered an arcane practical joke.).
“Very well, Princess, all three of you into sickbay. I’ve sent M’Benga and an away team to the colony, and they’re checking over the people down there. The colony has already checked in to tell us that the damn colonists don’t want to leave now that they’ve turned off the machine; they worked out that the signal-block was gone before you’d even beamed back on board.”
“There is no reason to leave now,” said Spock. “The immediate danger has passed. In fact, were it not for the fact that we could not communicate with the outside world, this mission was almost…simple.”
“Look, I kept my shirt on!” said Jim. “Spock’s the one that tore his this time.”
“I’m very proud of you,” said Bones. “Did you get kidnapped by any crazed aliens for use in a human gladiator arena?”
“You are extremely strange,” said T’Pring, as the four of them made their way to sickbay.
“Nah, you get used to him,” said Jim. “You will, anyway. It’s going to be a good month or two before we can get back to the Solar System.”
“We’re taking her back with us?” asked Bones.
“I have decided to take up an offer that was made to me some time ago,” said T’Pring. “The University of Cambridge requires an extra-solar expert on the ancient culture of Vulcan.”
“I thought Spock was the only traveling Vulcan,” said Bones, and Jim clapped him on the shoulder.
“There’s room for one more,” he said. “Many more, even.”
“Lord help us all,” said Bones. “All right, you two go over there; Spock’s in the Officer’s Quarters.”
“The burn is that bad?” asked Jim.
“No idea,” said Bones. “But I’m not taking any chances.”
Jim hopped up onto a biobed, swinging his legs over the side as T’Pring examined a medical tricorder, and then a medical kit.
“Curious,” she said.
“All right, you two,” said Bones, pulling off gloves as he walked over to Jim on his biobed. “Let’s check if you’re uninjured.”
“I am uninjured,” said T’Pring. “Carry on.”
Jim laughed. “It’s not as simple as that,” he said. “How’s Spock?”
“Supposedly resting,” said Bones, replacing the gloves with a fresh pair. “He’ll be all right.”
“I know hands are important to Vulcans…” said Jim, risking a glance at T’Pring.
“Which is why I’ve used the dermal regenerator and he’s going to put himself into a healing trance. I’m a doctor, not a quack, Jim. You can trust me not to screw it up.”
“Sure I can,” said Jim, giving Bones his sweetest smile.
“So, no torn shirt, and you’re not injured, even If Spock is,” said Bones. “Thinking of hands, how did you go keeping yours to yourself?”
“Um,” said Jim. “Do Vulcans count?”
“Please tell me you didn’t,” said Bones. “You did not sex up Spock’s wife. That’s an ultimate breach of the chain of command.”
“I did not sex up Spock’s wife,” said Jim, hand on his heart.
“No,” said T’Pring, from behind Bones. “He sexed up Spock.”
Jim held his hands up. “To be honest, there was no actual sex,” he said. “Which I believe was a condition of the original bet. And T’Pring was okay with it! She said she was okay!”
“I give up,” said Bones. “I give up. I don’t want to share a starship with you anymore.”
“You love me really,” said Jim.
“Shut up and let me take your blood pressure,” said Bones, and Jim obediently held out his arm for the cuff. “If you’re not lying, you are in for so much shit on the Bridge.”
“Let’s not and say it happened,” said Jim, as Bones pressed a hand — and a hypospray — to his neck. “Ow, fucking hell! What was that for?”
“Making sure you’d had your shots,” said Bones. He was getting really good at palming the hypos.
“Humans are disgusting,” said T’Pring. “You are so…disease-ridden.”
“Yeah, you’re next if you’re en route to Earth,” said Bones. “Let’s see if you’re less of a baby than Jim, okay?”
“I am infinitely certain that I can accept a hypospray without complaint, Doctor,” said T’Pring, and Jim was learning to read her too, because that was a clear case of Vulcan challenge-eyebrows.
“That’s good to hear,” said Bones, and Jim hopped up.
“I’m clear?” he asked.
“You’re clear. Not going to stay to see how you should handle your hypos?”
Jim winked. “T’Pring can take care of herself,” he said, ducking past her quickly and heading across to the curtained off alcove where he knew Spock would be. They’d taken to calling it the Officer’s Quarters, because after any mission there was usually someone in there. Jim had sat vigil a few times; Scotty, Sulu, Spock, and one worrying time Chekov (people Chekov’s age had no business nearly dying, Jim thought). Spock was curled up in one of the biobeds, and Jim pulled up a chair, watching Spock’s eyelids flick and flutter as he failed at pretending he was asleep.
“Spock?” asked Jim. “Hey, you okay?”
“For a given value of okay,” said Spock, pale. He opened his eyes.
“Your poor hand,” said Jim. Clearly Spock was de-compartmentalizing the pain. “We’re off duty for a few hours; what do you say to sharing a bed again?”
Spock exhaled, his eyes fluttering closed and then opening again. “For rest, Jim.”
“Yeah,” said Jim. “I’m pretty exhausted myself.”
Jim crawled onto the biobed with Spock, and the readings went nuts, so he turned the volume off — not before Bones popped his head around the curtains.
“Get out of there; the two of you are too heavy for one biobed.”
“I’ll buy you a new one in the morning,” said Jim, but he got out because the biobed was creaking ominously. His communicator whistled, and he paused for a moment to drink in the heady sound of a working communicator before he pulled it out. “Kirk here.”
“Vulcan High Council wants to talk to you on the vidlink,” said Uhura. “Sorry.”
“Gah,” said Jim, bending down to kiss Spock’s forehead. “I’ll make your apologies.”
“Jim,” said Spock. “Do not tell them what Stonn did.”
“He deserves to be hung out to dry for that,” said Jim.
“Promise me,” said Spock.
Jim sighed. “I promise,” he said, and then started off to the upper decks and the vidlink room, and back to normal life.
To Jim’s utter surprise, it was neither Spock nor T’Pring who came up with a solution for the tricky problem of Spock’s marriage — it was Sarek. He had waited after their debrief with the High Council, inviting the three of them to stay for an evening in his own home; Spock, T’Pring and Jim. The new Capital was beautiful; there’d been a lot of money thrown at it very quickly, and it showed, modern architecture mixing with traditional Vulcanean colours, traditional shapes. Sarek’s own house was larger than Jim had expected, all echoing corridors and many rooms.
“Wow,” said Jim, when they went onto the balcony of Sarek’s home; it hung out over a long river of slow-moving silt, glittering and whispering under the light of the twin suns. “This place is amazing.”
“We did not attempt to rebuild what was,” said Sarek. “That is illogical. We incorporated what was, and created the city anew.”
“You did an amazing job of it,” said Jim, and Spock pulled out T’Pring’s chair, ever the gentleman. Another Vulcan glided over to the table, and Sarek gave a swift order in Vulcan, turning back to them all with an impassive gaze.
“I believe that there were certain events that were not included in your narrative,” he said smoothly. “Which of you will relate them to me?”
“Ha, I believe we had a spy in our midst,” said Jim, because he could see said spy approaching across the balcony. “And I believe he probably has already related those events to you, sir.”
“It was illogical to omit Stonn’s actions from your report to the Council,” said Sarek, as the Ambassador joined them with a friendly nod to Jim. “He acted from self-interest, and had Spock been electrocuted, the feedback could have shorted out the machine, trapping you forever. Even now, Stonn may cause problems for the colony should this irrational behaviour arise again.”
“I know,” said Jim. “But there’s plenty of strong wills out there in that settlement; I think he’d have a hell of a time controlling people.” He didn’t add that now that you know, I’m also pretty damn sure that there’ll be some very sticky tabs kept on the guy.
“I requested that neither Jim nor T’Pring relate Stonn’s actions to the Council,” said Spock, and he held out two fingers to Jim. Okay then. Hell of a way to come out to Daddy, Jim supposed, but he’d seen worse (being caught mid-coitus on the kitchen table came to mind, but they’d both been nineteen and really horny and what else were you meant to do when the opportunity for kitchen-sex came up?). Jim pressed his fingers to Spock’s.
“I see,” said Sarek. “It seems that even the report I received was incomplete. Is this wise, Spock?”
“I believe so,” said Spock. “I do not wish for this information to be shared, however.”
“You omitted Stonn’s betrayal so as not to reveal your bond to your Captain,” said Sarek. “Spock, that is illogical.”
“And so as not to humiliate me,” said T’Pring, her cheeks a little greener than usual. Jim felt sorry for her; she’d lost her husband and her lover. “Although this is an unnecessary concern.” She turned to Jim. “You must learn to school your reactions, James. Do not feel pity for me; I do not require companionship to find fulfilment. It is better to be alone than it is to be trapped.”
“This may, in fact, be an opportunity that outstrips that of being bonded to Stonn,” said the Ambassador, as the waiter brought around what looked like seaweed soup as a starter. “With Spock’s assistance, naturally.”
“I spoke with your grandmother last night, T’Pring,” said Sarek. “If you are rejected by your own house, you are welcome in mine.”
“Oh,” said T’Pring. “I couldn’t ask Spock to—“
“You would not be required to marry,” said Sarek. “T’Pring, it is logical to bring new blood into my house. So many died; there are so few members that remain.”
“It is illogical, if I were to go off-planet—“ T’Pring said, and Sarek held up his hand.
“It is time, young one, for us to reach further than our own shores,” he said. “Think. If we had spread throughout the planets as humans do, Nero would not have been able to take so much from us.”
“You think that we can learn from humans?” asked T’Pring.
“My wife was human,” said Sarek, and Jim had one of those blinding realisations, one of those ones that make you crazy and break your brain. Vulcans were bonded when they were children, but there was no way Spock’s mom and dad had been bonded at age seven. So Sarek— Sarek had also chosen to break with tradition, and either he had either divorced by challenge or he had shared one of the greater bonds with Spock’s mom (Spock had been pretty nebulous when discussing what they actually involved, probably for fear of scaring Jim off, but Jim knew they weren’t small potatoes). Spock’s dad was a dude.
“I remember her,” said T’Pring. “She made me Earth food on the night before the ceremony, and told me not to worry.”
“And you told her that true Vulcans do not worry,” said Sarek.
“I was frightened,” said T’Pring. “To become a member of your house, to face T’Pau and accept Spock’s bond was frightening.”
“You hid it well,” said Sarek. “Excuse me.”
He left the table, and Jim realized that Spock’s hand was trembling.
“I never saw them without each other,” said T’Pring. “Every time I had to come here, my mother would dress me up in my finest clothes, and every time Spock’s mother would tell me how beautiful I looked.”
“Aesthetics are illogical,” said Spock, and he met T’Pring’s eyes. “You said it, every time.”
“I did,” she said. “It was pleasing; both to be complimented, and to gain the approval of your father when I showed how controlled I was.”
“He seemed pretty open just then,” said Jim. “Granted, I’m the only one at this table who hasn’t known him my whole life, but…”
“He is not the same man that I knew,” said the Ambassador. “My father was strictly Vulcan, even to the detriment of our relationship.”
Spock was watching where his father had retreated into the house. “I believed that mine was, too,” he murmured, and Jim rubbed Spock’s knee. “I do not know what to think.”
“Spock,” said T’Pring, and her voice was gentle. “What is your opinion about your father’s invitation?”
“It is logical,” said Spock. “You have proven yourself a worthy sibling, if not a wife.”
“Then we shall cut the marriage-bond and I shall be named one of your house,” said T’Pring. “My own house will collapse in the next year; there are so few of us left. I do not wish to be party to that collapse.”
“Cut the marriage-bond?” asked Jim. “That sounds…painful.”
“May I suggest,” said the Ambassador, “that you allow me to assist you? I hold the memories of a broken bond to T’Pring; I will find it easier to walk those paths again.”
“You hold the memories?” asked T’Pring.
“You haven’t worked it out yet?” asked Jim, leaning forward. “T’Pring, this is Spock.”
“How so?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “A wormhole?”
“Alternative universe,” said the Ambassador, gently. “You are on leave, my friends, and as humans say, there is no time like the present.”
T’Pring put a hand on the Ambassador’s, and he turned his palm to face upwards, clasping at her hand.
“You may interrogate me all you like,” he said. “You will only find the truth.”
“I see,” said T’Pring, and she fell silent, her eyes fluttering closed. She exhaled, and Jim could hear some of the ill-tempered avian life scuffling in the bushes below. Spock’s foot grazed his ankle, and Jim met his eyes — yes, Spock knew exactly what he was doing. Jim ate in silence, under Spock’s hungry gaze.
“Yes,” said T’Pring, after Jim’s plate was entirely cleared, and the angry avians had moved on downstream. “I understand.”
“Today?” asked Spock, and T’Pring nodded.
“It is the most logical time,” she said. “You are on leave, and if it is a difficult break, your father will provide the requisite care.”
“Wait,” said Jim. “A difficult break?”
“The mind is not an easy place,” said the Ambassador. “Sometimes when a bond is broken, it snaps back like elastic.”
“Ouch,” said Jim, biting his lip. “It’s not safe, then.”
“Safer than allowing a bond to die,” said T’Pring, picking up some lettuce (or the Vulcan equivalent) on her fork. “A dead bond can burn a person out.”
“Sounds like a barrel of fun,” said Jim, but he couldn’t help a glance at Spock. “And you and I have a bond.”
“It will not die,” said the Ambassador. “At least, not until one of you does.”
Jim was about to ask how do you know that? but then he realized that was probably the dumbest question ever.
“Where’s Sarek?” he asked, instead.
“I would hazard that he preferred to withdraw before the conversation turned to bonding, and perhaps to his wife,” said the Ambassador. “If one of the greater bonds is broken, it does not heal.”
“Right,” said Jim, and any further words stuck in his throat because if that was the case, and universes were similar, then that meant the Ambassador had first hand knowledge of a broken greater bond and it was with Jim, a different Jim, and that was doing Jim’s head in. “So what do we need to do?”
They needed, as it turned out, to meet in the lush-curtained room that Sarek had set aside for meditation; red drapes hung from ceiling to floor, as they did in Spock’s quarters. Vulcans found the color red soothing, Spock had explained once, much as humans are soothed by green or blue. Spock had taken Jim to his own quarters, kept for him by a father who perhaps hoped that Spock would return to Vulcan, and then helped Jim into meditation robes; he would not figure in the breaking of the bond, but the room itself was sacred, and its rituals needed to be obeyed.
T’Pring had let her hair out again, instead of the hefty up-do she’d worn to Council, and she looked tiny wrapped in the robes and next to the Ambassador, who had only gained gravitas. Damn, Jim wanted to be that commanding some day.
“Kneel,” said Ambassador Spock, and Jim’s Spock and T’Pring took their places before him on the soft mats. Jim stood, awkward, in the corner. “For this to be done according to tradition, I must ask you to affirm your intent. This is not easy, young ones. Are you certain?”
“Yes,” said T’Pring. “I am certain.”
“As am I,” the younger Spock replied. “I can feel the betrothal bond weakening; I would prefer that it be not allowed to mutate of its own accord.”
“I must register my surprise at this swift turn of events,” said the older Spock. “It took many years in my my universe.”
T’Pring didn’t even blink at that, and Jim wondered what the Ambassador had told her in the time Jim and Spock had been getting dressed. The three of them knelt in a small triangle, and the elder Spock offered both of the younger Vulcans his hands, T’Pring and Spock tentatively taking one another’s hand as well.
“Jim, this will take some time,” said Spock. “You are to remain vigilant for anything — anything — that might go wrong.”
“I understand,” said Jim, and he watched them as their eyes closed as if in chorus, and as the three of them stopped that little unconscious twitch that people have when they’re trying not to think about the incredibly huge and scary thing that they’re about to do. He realized too late that he had no idea what he was supposed to do if something went wrong — get Sarek, presumably — as the three bodies in front of him stopped the tics of unconscious movement and settled into utter stillness.
“My mind to your mind,” said Spock. “My thoughts to your thoughts.”
T’Pring echoed the words, and Jim felt the pressure change in the room; it could have been his imagination, he supposed, but he had to pop his ears, the drop was so sudden. He concentrated, taking a seat on the floor and folding his legs under himself, breathing in the heady smell of incense and the soft spices that lay as offerings.
He watched Spock, wondering how he could have been so blind. Jim didn’t know what a bond should feel like; he prodded at his own thoughts, trying to work out which bit was the bond. Was it the bit that looked at Spock and hungered, or was that just Jim’s own lust? Was it the persistent headache that he’d had all of last month? He didn’t know, and he wasn’t really sure he could ask Spock, either. Maybe the older Spock would tell him.
He’d probably put on his serious face and say that is something you must discover for yourself, James.
T’Pring gasped, and Spock stiffened, his spine arching up, and then both of them slumped. Jim wasn’t sure if this was interference time until the elder Spock opened his eyes.
“Jim,” said the Ambassador. “Assist.”
Jim crawled to them, pulling Spock near. He looked dazed, his eyes unfocused, but he dragged his fingertips along Jim’s jawline. The Ambassador took hold of T’Pring’s limp body gently, brushing her hair back from her forehead.
“Go and meld with him,” he said, as he shifted his grip to hold her more tightly. “The broken bond will pain him beyond belief if you do not quickly re-establish your own connection with him.”
“I don’t know how to re-establish my connection with him; it was news to me that I even have a connection with him!” said Jim.
Spock’s tone was warm. “James, you have always had a connection to him,” he said, still gently petting T’Pring’s hair. “Go; I must weave in the ends of T’Pring’s thoughts.”
“Spock?” asked Jim. “Spock, we need to meld.”
They’d only done it once before, when they’d had no other choice, and Spock had been reluctant as hell. This time, the fingers tracing ticklish patterns along Jim’s jawline slipped up his face, and Jim slid into the meld easily, even as he heard Spock barely whisper something unintelligible. He closed his eyes.
It hurt. Jim didn’t remember much of it; it was like a dream, clear as a bell in the thirty seconds after he gasped in a breath and pulled away from Spock, but distant and muddy otherwise. He’d expected this mindmeld to be like his last — a rush of images and emotions that threatened to tear him off his feet — but this was nothing like it. It was like going underwater and breathing in — his lungs hurt, his muscles hurt, he hurt all over but Spock was there and he clung to Jim. Jim clung back for fear he’d drown.
He didn’t know when he slipped into sleep; he just woke up still hugging Spock, just the two of them curled tightly together on the meditation mats, the smell of stale incense fading, and his arm all pins-and-needles because Spock was on top of it. Someone who had cared about how cold Jim and Spock felt had tucked blankets over them. The same someone had also left him a jug of water, clean glasses and a pack of analgesics; Jim took two to deal with his raging headache, and then flopped back next to Spock.
Spock was snoring slightly. It was adorable. Jim rolled over and snuggled in, and Spock murmured something, bringing both arms up to Jim’s back. He wet his lips, and Jim kissed him.
“Fascinating,” said Spock, running his fingers through Jim’s hair.
“How are you feeling?” Jim asked.
“It hurts,” said Spock, quietly. “I did not anticipate it feeling like this.”
“Do you need to go into a trance?” asked Jim, scratching his own fingers over Spock’s scalp.
“Keep doing that,” said Spock. “I do not. It may be dangerous to retreat too far into my own mind.”
“You have to guide me on this,” said Jim, as he massaged Spock’s temples. “I know nothing about it.”
“For a novice, you are doing extremely well,” said Spock, closing his eyes.
“Are you hurting for me?” asked Jim, and Spock exhaled.
“Not only for you. Do not be so self-centred,” he said, and Jim kissed him again.
“This is why you didn’t think it was a problem when you dated Uhura,” said Jim, everything coming together in his head. “If you had a stronger bond than the childhood marriage bond, then when you came to your—“
“Pon farr,” Spock said, turning his head a little. He was embarrassed, Jim realized, even after everything.
“Then T’Pring would know and instead of doing your thing, you’d dissolve the bond.”
“Essentially,” Spock murmured.
“There’d be more guys shaking sticks covered with bells, wouldn’t there?” asked Jim. “And Vulcan elders looking disapproving. And lirpas.”
“Your lack of respect for my culture is stunning,” said Spock, nosing at Jim’s neck. “You are most fortunate that I enjoy your company regardless.”
“You need to tell me about a t'hy'la-bond,” said Jim. “Stonn looked like he’d bitten his tongue in half when T’Pring said it.”
“It is one of the greater bonds,” said Spock. “It does not have to be sexual.”
“But ours is, yeah?” asked Jim.
“Ours is,” said Spock, “if you wish.”
“I wish,” said Jim, and he traced a lazy pattern over Spock’s skin. “When you’re feeling better.”
“My Jim,” said Spock, contentedly.
“Get some rest,” said Jim. “I’m here.”
Jim raised his hand to shield his eyes. This planet was a dirtbox, hot as hell, and so dry he could feel the moisture being sapped from his pores.
“Inviting,” he murmured. They’d visited the Ambassador last time they’d been nearby to New Vulcan, and Jim had thought summer on that planet was bad, but it was a veritable oasis compared to this place.
“You are being uncharitable,” said Spock, and there was someone walking to them, waving merrily. He was human, wearing a tee-shirt that read UCAM, USYD, UDUG: The Big Dig, and it was dusty and stained with wear. The combined archaeological dig had been going on here for three months so far, and it was slated for another three, assuming the Enterprise crew could do their duty now, and the representatives from three different universities didn’t kill one another in the meantime. Jim didn’t think the various archaeologists would. They had one of the best team leaders in the known universe out there.
“Captain! Commander!” the boy said. “Wow. Didn’t think you were really coming. That’s amazing.”
“We aim to please,” said Jim.
“Yeah,” said the guy. “I mean, Princess said you were going to come, but man. Captain Kirk. I mean. Amazing. The guys in Tomb III owe me fifty credits.”
“Princess?” asked Spock, raising an eyebrow. Jim laughed.
“Come on,” he said. “So you bet we were going to arrive? Lay on, MacDuff.”
“Totally did. And it’s Aire, sir,” said the young man. “I’m a graduate student with the University of Sydney. That’s, uh, Earth.”
“I know where Australia is, Aire,” said Jim, as the boy led them through to a hole in a cliff-face. “Question is, why would you want to leave Earth to go and explore the solar system?”
“You’re Captain of the Enterprise and you really have to ask him that?” asked a dry, light voice.
“Princess!” said Jim, holding out his arms.
“James,” she said, and she hugged him. He was about to sputter from shock when she said, close to his ear, “I believe that this is the appropriate greeting for old friends?”
“It is,” he said, giving her an extra squeeze. “Dare you to hug Spock.”
She gave Spock a hand-gesture. “Welcome, Spock, once touching but now parted.”
“I thank thee, T’Pring, now parted but never forgotten,” he replied. “How is the dig progressing?”
“Shut your mouth, Aire, you will catch flies,” said T’Pring. “It is well, my friends. Shall we?”
“I see you’re getting a good grasp of human idiom,” Jim said, offering her his arm.
“I see you are still a condescending idiot,” she replied, but her eyes were alive and she took his arm. “You should write more often.”
“I should,” said Jim, as she led off.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said, as they walked. “I had hoped, but…I did not like to assume.”
“It is fortunate that we were in the quadrant,” said Spock. “We took shore leave approximately six-point-two light years away.”
“And James, are you well after that shore leave?” T’Pring asked, all coyness. Jim chuckled. Of course she knew; she was Spock’s ex.
“You’ll have to join us next time,” he said. He’d been exhausted and sore after Spock’s pon farr, and Spock had been a guilty wreck after bringing Jim back to the ship covered in bitemarks and bruises and injuries Jim didn’t really like to think about. Spock had, however, spoiled him rotten ever since, and the actual sex had been fantastic, so Jim thought he could live with Spock’s seven-year-itch.
“I am certain that line did not work on any others of your acquaintance either,” she said primly.
“Look,” said Jim, as she let go of his arm to let them into her tent. “One thing — we’ve kept things discreet. Not that Starfleet wouldn’t be fine with it — I mean, my mom and dad alone are proof that couples are valued on board ships — it’s just like you said when I met you. We’re famous. And some things… some things should be just for us.”
T’Pring offered him a soft look. It wasn’t exactly a smile, or anything, but if she’d been human it might have been. Spock reached out two fingers and Jim caught them with his, feeling the burn of happiness that came with it.
“I understand,” she said. “So to business, then. I’ve had four team members go missing, and we have been unable to find any trace of their disappearance. What can you do for me, Captain?”
“Everything in my power,” said Jim, and he gave her a smile.
“Good,” she said. “Because they’re my team, James, and I want them found.”
“We will,” he said. “Are you coming out on the search party with us? We’ll need a guide.”
This time her expression really was almost a smile. “I would not miss it for the world.”