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My communicator is open in my hand, Scotty and my ship alive and whole on the other end of the channel. With my free hand I reach up and pull what's left of Parmen's laurel off of my head. It's tangled up with my hair but I yank, it comes loose and I throw it on the floor. Spock's wreath is already there, just off to the right. I can see it in my peripheral vision. I'm looking at Parmen. I'm not going to take my eyes off of him until the transporter beam connects; I don't trust him farther than Alexander could throw him without kironide and he knows it. His gaze darts back and forth between Spock and me. There's caution there, more than a touch of fear. Good.

"Energize," I say into the communicator, and I wait out the inevitable lag time before the beam takes me, all of us, reassembling our atoms in a transporter room empty of everyone but Kyle.

"Sickbay now, all of you," Bones says. Alexander is looking around the room, fascination in his eyes.

"Doctor, I—" Chapel begins, but I cut her off: "Just a second." I'm at the transporter console, thumb on the comm link. "Kirk to bridge."

"Scott here, Captain."

"Take us out of here, warp factor one. Once we clear the system resume course for Starbase Twenty-six and nudge us up to warp three."

Scotty's relief gusts out at me from the mic. "Aye, sir. It'll be that good to see the backside of this blasted planet."

"That it will." Relief is catching. I can hear it in my voice. "Carry on, Mr. Scott. Kirk out." I turn slowly, scanning faces: Kyle's curiosity, Bones' narrow-eyed speculation. Uhura's glance skitters away from mine and I am—so sorry, Lieutenant.

"Ms. Chapel, the doctor has spoken," I say, but I'm looking at Spock. The inward fold of his lips, his hands empty at his sides. No tricorder, he's clean of his scientific trappings. Only that ridiculous toga a testament to the last few hours, this is Spock stripped bare. We demand human behavior of non-humans; we know best, don't we? And here it is, what I thought I wanted and it's not at all…what I want.

In some ways we're no better than those ancient spoiled brats dirtside. Not one of us.

"Jim, you coming?"

I say, "Soon, Bones," which doesn't make him happy. He'll manage. With an ironic look in passing, but that's a given. Uhura and Chapel trail after him, blank-faced sleepwalkers. Spock is already gone. I doubt Bones will see him at all unless he corners him in his quarters, and although Bones has enough brass for anything, I don't think he'll press the issue. Not after today.

I turn my back on the empty door and turn my attention to the only thing from Platonius worth salvaging. Alexander is standing beside Kyle, who's doing a decent impression of a civilian cruiser caught in a freak ion storm. Alexander's smile lights up the room, his questions fill it, and I feel my mouth twitch towards my first voluntary smile in too many hours. "It sounds like you know something about starship systems."

He backs away from the transporter console and turns, transferring his grin from Kyle to me. "We all had to if we wanted to keep our ship working. Propulsion was my job. Well, one of them."

"Scotty is going to love you," I tell him, and he goes slightly pink around the ears.

"It's—" His smile is embarrassed now, "It's nice to meet people who care about new ideas. About getting somewhere." He looks down at his hands, held open and slightly raised in front of him. "As soon as their powers began to develop, Parmen and the others stopped caring about anything but—playing, I guess."

Well. I suppose I can count this abortion of a mission a success in two ways. One, we know not to come back here, and we can prevent others from falling into the same trap. Two, Alexander can start living his own life. Instead of everyone else's. "Mr. Kyle," I say, "Contact Mr. DeSalle and have him assign someone to show Alexander around. Whoever it is can bring him along to sickbay when he's ready."

"Yes sir."

"Thank you, Captain." Alexander waves me out, lord that smile, nothing to worry about there. Elsewhere is something I don't want to think about right now.

I pause outside the transporter room. Sickbay? Or should I follow Spock's example and make myself scarce? The turbolift is tempting but—no. Better to get this over with now than have Bones on the warpath later. Much better for my command autonomy. Bones isn't above a little enforced medical leave when pushed, but thankfully his present ire is for a horse of a different color, not to mention blood-type.

Sickbay is, as always, cold against more of my skin than I'd like and antiseptic harsh in my lungs. Spock is conspicuous by his absence and Bones' irritation. I listen dutifully, uh-huh-ing in the right places as Bones gives me a twice over, a clean bill of health and a warning: misuse the kironide while it's still in your bloodstream and your next three physicals will make hell look like a vacation.

I'd say, what's new? But then I'd be strapped down in iso so fast my head would still be spinning after ten parsecs. Old officers' charm school lessons come in handy at the damnedest times, even when it's only lesson number one: know when not to say when—or anything else.

Keeping quiet does the trick. I'm sprung on my own recognizance, barring any kironide incidents, with a temporary ban from the bridge. "Leave the immediate decisions to someone who isn't likely to start flipping switches with his brain," Bones says. "If the effects haven't faded after twenty-four hours we'll see about flushing you out."

Something else to look forward to.

I leave him grumbling over my test results and leave the room before he can change his mind. Uhura says, "Captain?" as I go by her. She's sitting on a diagnostic bed, palms braced on the foam top. Her legs swing; she's kicking her heels gently against the side like a kid. She smiles at me, gloriously accepting, it's all right, sir, it wasn't your fault, and redemption is mine. I don't have to say a word.

I hold my hands out to her and she takes them as she did down on Platonius, this time of her own accord. Squeezes warm and tight then lets me go easy with that gorgeous smile lighting her up from the inside out.

"Well miss, let's have a look at you," Bones says, and Uhura rolls her eyes and smiles at me again, ruefully this time. I grin my understanding. Sickbay is Bones' territory; Uhura and I aren't senior comm officer and captain here, we're equals in captivity. I've got my walking papers, though, and she doesn't. I mouth I win at her and she crosses her eyes at me and hops down from the bed. Still grinning, I turn away before I start laughing, then veer immediately hard to starboard; Chapel is incoming on my outgoing.

We're stalemated in the doorway, each of us trying to get out of the other's way. Not doing a very good job of it. Finally I say, "I think we're at cross-purposes. You stay there and I'll go around."

"Yes, Captain," Chapel says. Her head is down, she's not looking at me and—damn. I know where she's been. That kicked puppy look doesn't lie. I touch my hand to her upper arm and she half turns, tries to smile. She still won't meet my eyes.

"Ms. Chapel—Christine?" Finally, a straight look. I smile at her, give her arm a little shake. "None of us is at our best right now. What happened down there, it…shook us up. All of us."

I've been infatuated, in lust more times than I can count; even in love once or twice. And I sincerely hope I've never been as painfully obvious about any of the above as Chris Chapel is right now. It's embarrassing for both of us; the best I can do is hold on to her arm and my smile while she stammers, "I-I'm sorry, sir. I don't kn-know what's come over me."

She knows; I know; the whole ship knows. Probably the entire quadrant knows, Romulans and Klingons included. I'm not about to throw it in her face.

"Captain." She swallows. Her throat muscles jerk and her hand rises, fingers hovering over the exotic paint around her eyes. "Do you think he—?"

"I think that two shifts from now none of this is going to matter. I think you're over-thinking things," I say firmly, and I catch her shoulders in my hands. "It's going to be all right, Christine," I tell her and I tighten my grip, holding her in place. I will her to understanding, maybe just agreement, and she gives me what I want. Doesn't everyone? You're the captain. She's nodding as she pulls away from me.

"Your turn, nurse," says Bones from the inner doorway. I look at him over Chapel's shoulder and he frowns back. He shakes his head at me, his mouth twisted around words he's not going to say in front of Chapel. "Get out of here, Jim. You're scaring the natives."

"On my way." But Chapel makes a noise—stifled, strangled almost. Her fingers clutch at my wrist and her eyes are wide and urgent. I know what she wants from me. I say, "I will, don't worry," and I see the tense line of her shoulders begin to droop.

Gently, I pull my wrist from her limp fingers. "I'll see you, Bones," I say and I get out of there before either of them can ask me for anything else. Blood work, more tests…pound of flesh?

No, that's not fair. Bones never takes more than he has to in the name of health and science. Chapel's request is no more than I'd planned on; I'm already headed in that direction. I have a feeling this conversation is going to be bad, but putting it off can only make the situation worse. I belong to the school of one-quick-rip, as my mother used to say. Now is almost always better than later.

Or it will be as soon I get I rid of this toga.

::

Fifteen minutes for a shower and a fresh uniform becomes half an hour. Almost, I don't go at all. Inside the sani-fac, standing under the rare wet heat of a water shower I change my mind three times. Change it back each time. "Water off," I say, then, "Radiation sixty percent," and close my eyes while the burst of heat and air strips the wet from my skin.

The sealed sanitation cube opens when both it and I are dry. I open my eyes. My reflection looks back at me from the bulkhead mirror. My skin is flushed, supersaturated. I stayed in the cube longer than I should have, yet another 'why' I don't want to think about.

I have to think about it. Even if I don't now, Bones will make sure that I do, and soon. As he should. Who, I wonder, will he talk to? Physician, heal thyself.

Maudlin and melodramatic, Kirk. Why don't you throw in some self pity and make it three for three?

My reflection rolls its eyes. I step over the discarded toga and walk naked into my cabin. I'll throw the toga in the waste disposal slot later. Right now I don't want to touch the thing. The light on the comm console flashes at me, monotonous red; I have transmissions I need to deal with but…Scotty has the conn. I'm officially off duty for twenty-four hours. I have a mountain of reports and transfers I should start on, and I feel like I need to sleep at least half of my allotted off-time. And there's Spock.

God, Spock.

I sit down on the edge of the bunk and reach for the comm link. My finger hovers just shy of it. One hour. I can give myself that. The starbase is a little over ninety-eight hours away at warp three. I can spare one hour. Spock…can wait that long.

I touch the chronometer control pad. "Alarm sequence three for 1930, one minute sustained." I let myself topple over onto my pillow. Starships are designed more for utility than luxury, but right now I wouldn't trade my hour on this bunk for two Terran standard months in the most decadent suite on Argelius. I close my eyes and fall headfirst into nothing.

::

I don't remember falling asleep but when the comm's signal drags me back to consciousness exhaustion is still a black hole centered at the base of my skull. I feel myself getting sucked back down into it and I resist, sitting up and pressing receive as I scrub interrupted sleep from my face.

"Kirk here," I mumble, and Bones says, "Where the hell have you been, I've been trying to raise you for an hour."

"Asleep." I glance at the chronometer. 2105. Overshot my target by over two hours and slept right through the wake-up call. "What's up?"

On-screen, Bones' mouth tightens. "Not you and not Spock. You two are going to be the death of me."

"Don't hold back, tell me how you really feel. What's on your mind, Dr. McCoy?"

"I think that's my question."

I scowl at the screen and he scowls right back. The Klingons and their mind sifters have nothing on Bones' brand of psychological warfare. "If you want a straight answer…"

He sighs and there's a breath of silence. Then, "The kinesis still with you?"

I concentrate for a moment. The top memory flat in a stack of them begins to rise, I try to hold it in place but my mind keeps…slipping. The disk drops, teeters on the edge of the stack then clatters to the deck.

"Jim?"

"Still there, but it's fading," I say.

"Same here. I'd like to run some tests on that demon elf of yours but apparently he's not accepting any calls right now. Took himself off duty for a three-shift rotation."

Southern sarcasm thick enough that you could stand a fork up in it, that's Bones. Spock is going to be paying for this for a month, minimum. Bones knows how to hold a grudge; he says it keeps him warmer at night than any woman ever could. "Did you try the deck three labs?" I ask.

"I've tried everywhere. You're my last resort."

I laugh out loud at that. "Good to know where I stand."

"Jim…" There's a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Go ahead, Bones, you know you want to. I grin at him and, mission accomplished, he's grinning back, albeit reluctantly. "Oh, go back to sleep."

"Actually, I thought I'd give Spock's thermal imaging program a trial run. When I find him, I'll send him your way," I say, and get an eyebrow for my trouble.

"Where've I heard that before?"

"And you'll hear it again. Kirk out."

I cut the link to the sound of his exasperation then crawl out of my bunk and into a fresh uniform. As I step into the head I catch splintered movement in the mirror. I don't turn. I don't want to look myself in the eye. I relieve my bladder, splash water on my face, and push my hair back off my forehead with wet fingers. Unsteady fingers. I drop my hands, curl them into loose fists. I turn away from the basin before I give in and look; I leave before I decide to take Bones' advice and go back to bed. The easy way out: that's not the road Jim Kirk ever takes, is it? One of these days, maybe I should. For variety's sake.

Outside my cabin the corridors aren't empty, but they're not as full as they are during alpha or beta shifts. I pass only two crewmen on my way to Spock's quarters, located down around the curve of the corridor from mine, five doors past the turbolift. His security lets me in without trouble; we've programmed our personal security for mutual access, which I've had cause to be thankful for more than once. The door slides open and I step into dry heat and lights that come up automatically, dull and ruddy: Vulcan normal. His bunk is made and unwrinkled. His workspace is characteristically clutter-free. I slide into his seat and power up his terminal. "Computer, begin data re—"

"Identification required."

Spock. You'd leave your door open to the world, but your computer? "Authorization requested for Kirk, James T, access code zero one tango sierra five. Verify voice print."

Aside from the hum of its internal mechanisms the computer is silent. Then, "Voice imprint verified. Kirk, James T. Rank: captain. Priority one access granted."

"Kind of you."

"Statement is irrelevant. Specify task."

It's like talking to Spock at his rigid best. I'm feeling better already. "Data retrieval. Time and date of Commander Spock's last log entry."

"Working…last entry in ship's log made by Spock, Commander, stardate 5781.8, one day, three point two four hours ago. Last entry in personal log made by Spock, Commander, one point six seven hours ago."

Have I mentioned that I'm not a nice guy? I'm not. And I'm not above cheating if it'll give me an edge. "Play back personal log entry."

"Unable to comply. Entry has been deleted."

Of course it has.

I lean back in Spock's chair. Vulcan ergonomics—there's not much give to them. I rest my arm on his work station and my fingers brush the only non-compartmentalized item there, a stylus. It's been snapped in two.

"Computer. Calibrate internal sensors for thermal pattern recognition. Confirm Commander Spock's present location."

"Working…calibration complete. Location for Spock, Commander: deck twenty, forward recreational facility."

Spock's in… "The pool?"

"Affirmative."

Well, that was easy. I wish we could've done that with Ben Finney. Next crewman I have go insane or missing… "Computer, remove all record of this session from all memory files, private and public." I wait for confirmation then I terminate the connection, power down the terminal and rise to my feet.

Ten seconds. That's all the time it takes before I'm standing outside Spock's quarters. The door hisses shut behind me and I know.

I left easy behind in Spock's cabin.

::

There's no defined day in interstellar space, no night, no noon. Shipboard time consists of eight hour shifts, Federation standard time, which begin and end within a larger timeframe that has no set end or beginning beyond the boundaries we impose on it. Spacers subsist on artificially induced biorhythms. We of Starfleet live staggered lives, three circadian blocks sifted through stratified layers of rank. When I left, the chronometer in Spock's quarters read 2133. That's my night, my downtime. To the fresh-faced lieutenant exiting her quarters one door down from Spock's it's a bright good-morning.

"Lieutenant." I nod to her and she replies, "Sir"—polite, correct, bland—and goes past me without breaking stride. I note the loose-fitting man's uniform shirt and regulation black trousers. Short, purple hair.

I smile at her attractive, retreating backside. The attire and hair cut are very Spock-like. In fact, the lieutenant probably is one of Spock's, given the science blue shirt. And when I say Spock's, I mean one of his unasked-for protégées. As science officer he oversees all of the science departments, but there are a few lab personnel who accord him respect above and beyond what's owed to a superior officer. From what I can tell it's something like those humans who've rejected Terran emotionalism to live the Vulcan way; only this isn't Vulcanism. It's not Vulcan they revere, it's Spock himself. His…brain.

After Sigma Draconis VI, I can't help but find that reverence both amusing and disturbing, although at the moment I'm leaning towards tolerance. If the crewmember who just saw me coming out of Spock's quarters at what amounts to the wee hours of morning for both of us was anyone but one of Spock's people, the rumors surrounding this ship's command team would undoubtedly take an embarrassing turn. Embarrassing for Spock, that is, even if he wouldn't show or admit it. Me? As long as rumor hasn't paired me up with a Denebian slime devil, I figure I'm doing all right.

There is no sign of the lieutenant or anyone else when I reach the turbolift, and I can only be grateful for it. At the moment I'm not up for small talk, sympathetic or not. The lift doors open, I step through and Bones' voice drawls in my head, so how are you doing, Mister Starship Captain? I'm not positive enough of my answer to pick one and make it stick. Sometimes I'm not sure I know what I'm doing, never mind whether I'm doing it right, but I always cut that line of thinking off fast; it reminds me too much of a time when I couldn't make a decision to save my life or the lives of four of my men, slowly freezing to death in below freezing temperatures. I can't afford to ask myself that kind of question. Not if I want to keep my crew and ship intact, not to mention my sanity. A few hours ago I came closer to losing all three than I've been since the Defiant.

I didn't lose, and there will be yet another commendation to add to the already impressive record of Jim Kirk, youngest captain in the Fleet. We made it back to the ship, plus one. We're safely away. Why do I feel like I'm still standing in that travesty of a theatre with a whip in my hand and Uhura looking at me with complete trust in her eyes?

I wrap my empty hand around a stability grip. "Deck twenty," I tell the lift, and it hums into motion.

I am the captain. To keep my command I must be the captain. If I go to Spock with my uncertainty plain on my face there will be no peace for either of us. Once, I decided Spock's life was worth not just my career but my own life as well. The exchange of my peace of mind for his is nothing at all.

"Twenty." My lady. Beautiful through to the sound of her voice. I brush my hand along the clean grey of her bulkhead as I pass through the lift doors, and I imagine for a second only that the almost subliminal thrum of her warp drive deepens to a purr. If I told Bones what I hear when I listen to her he'd laugh, shake his head and offer me a drink. Spock would ask what purpose indulging my irrational fantasy served, and if none then did I require that the good doctor shake his beads and rattles in my direction?

Scotty…would understand. She sings to both of us, though I suspect the song each of us hears is not the same. Like any true lady, mine is a lovely tease.

"Captain? Is everything all right, sir?" For the most part deck twenty is deserted during late beta and gamma shifts. But there are a few diehards who come here to spend their energy on the mats or the courts, like the crewman standing next to me, his hand not quite touching my shoulder. He's dressed in a regulation bodysuit, sweat stains all down the front of the cloth. A wrestler, I think. Like recognizes like. Another time, I'd offer to take him down. Now, I dredge up a smile for him.

"No trouble, Mister—" I know his name, he's engineering, starts with a, "Phelps. Thank you." A grin breaks up his solemn look and I say, "I believe Mr. Spock is around?"

He pulls himself to attention at the mention of Spock's name. "Yes sir, the commander has the pool area reserved until 2230 hours."

"Very well, mister, carry on. I won't keep you from your…shower?" I suggest, and his grin returns.

He says, "Aye sir. I can take a hint," and continues on towards the cleansing I interrupted. I wait until I can't hear the fall of his footsteps anymore before I follow.

::

The corridor outside the lift connects with the walkway dividing the men's and women's locker rooms and showers, which in turn leads directly to the pool. I hear rhythmic splashing long before I leave the darkened hall and enter the pool room. Attempt to enter the pool room, I should say; the doors are sealed. Not that that means anything to a command grade officer, especially not the captain of the ship. My override easily trumps Spock's stasis command.

The doors open for me and sweat breaks out on my forehead as soon as I'm through them. Spock must have played with the environmental settings; it's not usually this hot in here. The pool water itself is kept a moderate twenty-six degrees and the air is mild rather than warm, a nod to the various races that use these facilities. Not all of Enterprise's crew has the same blood composition or cellular structure. There's a lot of compromise involved when you crowd so many different species into what amounts to a warp-propelled village, as the uncharacteristic lack of humidity in the air reminds me. What's comfortable for Spock wouldn't be for, say, a Lassatian. They don't require arctic conditions, though their planet is mostly wind, ice floes and snow-covered wastes, but when Lt. Mrrgrth, our resident Lassat, wants a dip in the water she will occasionally reserve an hour of time and lower the pool and air temperatures to something no human—and certainly no Vulcan—can endure for long.

Luckily, what's comfortable in terms of physical conditions for Vulcans is bearable for humans, if not optimal. I'll sweat a little more—okay a lot more than normal, but I'm not going to keel over any time soon. I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead, reset Spock's temporary lock, and then I walk over to the edge of the pool and watch him swim.

In the time it would take me to make a full lap he completes two. He skims the surface of the water near to me and the powerful stroke of his arms and legs throws up a fine spray which mists my skin and mingles with the sweat beading my hairline and pooling around my collar. I don't think he notices me—I don't see how he could—but he completes his lap and then he upends himself underwater and swims straight for me, surfacing less than a foot away from the pool's side. He grips the lip of the pool with both hands and I step back as he propels himself from the water in a rush of air and sprayed drops to stand in front of me.

Water drips from his nose and eyelashes, streams down his body. "If you will excuse me briefly, Captain," he says, and without waiting for my answer he walks past me towards the towels stacked on the built-in bench that runs the perimeter of the room.

I follow more slowly, giving him time to dry off and, maybe, regain his equilibrium. I stop a short distance away from him; I'm waiting for him to acknowledge me, and I find myself really looking at him, his physical self, something I'm not in the habit of doing. Spock is—Spock. He's there, and that's what I see when I look at him on the bridge or in the mess, or dirtside on a mission. I see what he represents to me—my science officer, first officer, greatest advantage—not how he looks. But now I do see, and I'm not sure what to think. His back is to me; his muscles shift beneath his skin with the movements of his hands and arms as he efficiently strips the water from his body. He is so thin. Too thin, almost. He is made of hollows and angles and edges. Has he always been this way and I'm only just now noticing?

"If I recall correctly," I hear myself say, "procedural protocol dictates that any officer or crewmember who feels him or herself incapable of active duty must first inform his or her commanding officer then report to medical for a full examination before removing him or herself from the duty roster."

I wouldn't have thought it possible for him to get any more rigid, but the lines of muscle in his back look as immovable as rock. In three concise, deliberate motions he folds his towel into a neat bundle. He leans forward and pushes it through the recycler slot, and then he turns just as deliberately to face me. He's wearing basic black exercise shorts and nothing else; he stands at attention, his hands locked together behind his back, his gaze directed off into the distance. I have seen admirals in full dress uniform who exhibited less dignity.

"Your recall is unimpaired," he says. "I offer my apologies for what must appear to be illogical and inappropriate conduct on my part. I am prepared to accept the disciplinary measures appropriate to my offense."

When he looks through me like that, talks to me like—like one of the computers Bones accuses him of being, sometimes I…almost hate him. I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but right now I feel like Sir Edmund Hilary must have felt when he first confronted Everest. Spock is less than a meter away from me, and it doesn't matter. I can't touch him, not with my hands or my words. He's too far removed from me and he'll stay that way unless I do something to keep him from completely closing up, hiding himself behind Surak's disciplines. That, and I need him to stop looming over me like some kind of stone monolith.

"Spock. Sit down." He hesitates and I say, "Please."

He obeys me, of course, sitting stiffly on the bench, slightly bent forward. He rests his forearms on his legs and clasps his hands again, this time in front of him. He doesn't meet my eyes; he's looking at his hands. I'm looking at him, at one of my two closest friends. He's dearer to me than any of my family ever was. And there is nothing I can do for him. He's fighting for control but there's none left to him. He's ripped wide open, hunched over into himself, his pain. Yes, Spock, your pain. You can deny it all you want but you're hurting; it's in the way you sit there, refusing to acknowledge me as Jim, not the captain. A reflection of my own hurt, I look and I see and I face the reality of violation. Today, down on that planet, we were violated. Spock, Uhura, Chapel, Bones…

Me.

And Alexander. Centuries of slavery, his mind and body forced to behaviors and inclinations not his own.

I don't think I can do this.

I'm staring at the top of Spock's bent head; his hair is plastered shiny-wet to the shape of his skull. I'm wondering if I left my guts down on Platonius along with my balls, and that's when it hits me: Spock's been here before. He's faced this kind of situation, will face it again. And how much more intimate, more total than any outside invasion is the domination of self and self-will by biological imperative?

Sere heat, gritty red pain in my eyes, my chest, my muscles sluggish and slow to respond. Debilitating uncertainty like nothing I've felt before or since. I didn't understand, not then. I couldn't. I saw, experienced the results but I did not understand. Now I—think I might. Just a little.

Violation of the mind by the body: is there a more total rape? Can there be any violation more devastating to a Vulcan? Maybe. If by betraying the mind the body isn't responding to inherent hormonal urges but following the demand of another sentient being's will, isn't that the ultimate betrayal?

Where there is no control there can be no sanity. When sanity is gone, what's left? That's Spock's logic, Vulcan's logic. Mine? I don't know.

In seven years, more or less, Spock's pon farr will cycle back around. What happened today could happen again. Truth. I can lie to myself. Not to him. I won't add one more betrayal to the pile.

"Captain." Hoarse, like he's been crying, even though I know he hasn't. "Again, I must apologize. I find I am having some difficulty assimilating our interactions with the Platonians."

Name him, Spock. He's a man not a demon; it won't summon him. "With Parmen, you mean."

His knuckles are white, as though bone is about to burst through skin. "I wished harm to him," he says, so quietly I have trouble separating the words. "Jim." His eyes come up to meet mine. "If you had not stopped Alexander…neither would I have."

"Spock." It's all I can say. I can't tell him what he would have done because I don't know. I don't think he would have let Alexander kill Parmen. But I'm not certain. Because there was—one moment, one second when I would have let it happen, and Spock can see that in my eyes. He must see it because he drops his gaze to his clasped hands and doesn't look at me anymore.

I drop my hand to my side; I had—foolishly—started to reach out to him. "I haven't logged my report yet," I tell his bowed head. "Certain incidentals…won't be included. But there will be enough intel to ensure my recommendation that Platonius and its system be placed under strict quarantine is followed."

"That is my recommendation as well." A tremor runs through him. He stills it immediately, his hands gripping each other even tighter. "I have submitted my mission report," he says to the deck. "The file has been transferred to your terminal. I left nothing out, Captain. Please do not omit any action of mine from your own documentation. It is unnecessary."

I can't stand this. I have to step forward, into the careful circle of empty space that surrounds him, no matter where he is. I have to reach, have to touch; I can't bear what he's doing to himself right now and I don't know any other way to help. Don't know what to offer except—myself.

I touch people. Maybe that's a bad habit for a commander to have, but I've found that subordinates respond favorably to a congratulatory slap on the back, light touch on the shoulder, your hand on their arm and a smile on your face. As long as it's not intrusive or overly intimate, touch is a welcome thing for most humans, many other species as well. It grounds us, gives us a sense of unity. Makes us feel that maybe we're not so alone out here in this endless vacuum intermittently filled with stars and planets and the eternal unknown.

But Spock, he's only half human, and he ignores and distrusts that half of himself. As well, I think he's just naturally reserved. Even if he was fully human, he'd still be made uncomfortable by the kind of casual touch that many races accept as the norm. Only a few people are allowed into Spock's personal space. I remember, about half a year into this mission, how surprised I was to realize that I was one of those people. It was…immensely gratifying. So gratifying that for a long time his acceptance of me was enough.

When did it change? When did I start to push further in past his boundaries, even those almost imperceptible ones he imposes between himself and me? When did I decide, however subconscious that decision may have been, that touch was my right? My shoulder pressed against his. My hand at the small of his back. The first time I did that, the look he gave me…

He was right to make his discomfort known. I shouldn't expect him to make exceptions for me; I am his friend and I owe him understanding, not conditional acceptance. But I can't help but think. Is this how it's always going to be? Me reaching, Spock retreating. For the rest of this five year mission? The next? How long before my patience gives? Or his tolerance.

But I'm forgetting. My human ideas of friendship aren't Spock's. He told me once that he was ashamed to think of me in terms of friendship. That those emotions held little or no relevance for him as a Vulcan. He said that more than three years ago, and I think, I'm almost sure…

But that's the problem. Almost isn't good enough, not when it comes to Spock. He still hasn't taken my hand.

I must look ridiculous, standing here in front of him with friendship open in my palm and hope in my eyes. Well, I've got my pride, even if it is the inferior human kind. I've been told on occasion that I have too much for my own good. But if Spock can't meet me halfway then he can't, and I won't embarrass either of us further. I step back away from him, my arm falls to my side, and that moment when I've already withdrawn my invitation is when he reaches.

Spock, you stubborn…Vulcan. How do you always manage to do this to me? You make me second guess myself and I don't know if I can forgive you for that.

And then he fits his hand against mine and I know I will forgive him anything.

I tug at him and he comes to my call as he's done so many other times in every imaginable place or scenario, plus a number of each I couldn't have imagined in my most surreal nightmares. I pull him to his feet; I feel his hand start to loosen around mine and I tighten my grip. He stops moving, his hand lies still in mine and I examine the clasp of our hands. Thumbs hooked in opposition, palms pressed flat together. I have wide palms and short fingers. His hands are as narrow and bony as the rest of him, and as long. We are our hands; they are microcosms of us.

One finger at a time, I let him loose, and his hand drops from mine to dangle parallel to his hip. "Let's swim," I say. I skin my uniform shirt and undershirt over my head and drop them on the deck.

Modesty is considered a virtue but it's never been one of mine. Spock has never been bothered by my lack before, and he doesn't seem to be now. He stands quiet beside me while I strip down to my briefs, then just as silently follows me back to the rim of the pool.

We position ourselves—not close, but not that far apart. I say, "Mark!" and I'm in freefall, out of dry hot air into wet suspension. I feel the surge and pull of the water around me as Spock goes past. He's coming up out of the dive, clean thrust of arm and leg, and I follow him and we break the surface together. Here, as everywhere else, we're in tandem, falling together into the stroke-slide of distance swimming. He can lap me any time he wants but instead he matches me. And maybe I push myself a little harder than I normally would, and maybe he slows his stroke by a few seconds more. Slows himself for me.

Five laps become ten, become twenty. The muscles in my shoulders and back strain and my arms burn with every forward stroke. Burn turns to ache and near pain, and then I'm over the threshold; I'm on the other side of pain in that place where muscle fatigue and straining lungs don't matter, and I feel like I could do this for hours, days, forever. My focus narrows until there's only the crawl of my body through the water and Spock beside me, as lost as I am to anything that's outside us, this.

I think I could die like this and not realize it until I'd already drowned; it takes the sound of the door signal to break the bubble, bring us back to our exhausted bodies and the pool room. "Still locked," I gasp, my head barely above water. My lungs are protesting their abuse. "I forgot."

Spock treads water beside me. "Shall I let them in, Captain?"

"Yes. I'll go under for good if I don't stop soon," I say, and, still in sync, we strike out for the nearest side.

::

For a long time after Spock terminates my override and lets a party of six crewmembers into the pool room, we don't speak. Not in the rec showers or on the way to the turbolift, and not in the turbolift. I lean my head against the lift enclosure and let vertigo take me fifteen thirteen eight seven six and gradually upward momentum slows…stops. The doors whisper open.

I can feel Spock watching me, waiting for me to exit first, so I do. We hesitate together just outside the lift; his quarters are portside, mine to starboard. This is where we go our separate ways.

"Jim, do you wish," he begins, and my immediate "Yes" collides with the rest of his question.

His face is impassive but I think I see amusement in his eyes. "You cannot know what I intended to ask."

I smile, sharing his amusement at me and at this insane galaxy of ours. "It doesn't matter. The answer was going to be yes. Whatever you need, Spock. I mean that."

It seems I've perturbed the imperturbable. He draws himself up, spine straight, hands clasped behind him. "There is nothing I require," he says with quiet dignity. "However, I would—" He swallows visibly, is it so difficult to say? "I would welcome your company."

The basic need for companionship is still there, still functional, even after forced intimacy. Not a very logical response, is it, Spock? Perhaps instead of logic we should thank illogic? But then I guess it's the kind of companionship and who you share it with that makes the desire for it seem…logical.

"Your place or mine?" I ask. I smile at him again and this time his eyes smile back at me. Relief rolls over me in a weary, endless wave.

Spock is still looking at me, I'm sure he can see how tired I am, he must feel my lethargy in his own body. We set out to exhaust ourselves in the pool and I'd call our efforts an unqualified success. "You require rest," he says, slow and strangely hesitant. "Jim, perhaps—"

"I'm fine," I cut in. "An hour or two more without sleep isn't going to incapacitate me." If I let him he'll have me tucked up in my quarters within the next few minutes. Tomorrow we'll be back on the bridge with nothing settled between us. Nothing to show for what we left down on that sewer of a planet.

My pride. Spock's control.

"The board is presently in my quarters," he reminds me.

"Right." I feel my smile reshape into self-mockery. "Your win."

It's tradition by now: whoever wins the best of five games gets possession of the tri-d board. Which means the loser must play the next five games on the winner's territory, Vulcan normal or Terran normal. I still say Spock has the advantage. Heat makes humans sluggish in mind and body. Cooler temperatures don't seem to have much effect on Vulcan brains or muscle. "Your move, Mr. Spock. I'm right behind you."

The position of his eyebrows tells me he doesn't believe a word that comes out of my mouth. Still, he's willing to humor me. "Very well, Captain."

"Although," I say, falling into step beside him, "no one said we had to play chess."

His eyebrow hikes up another millimeter or two. "If you have a preference, I am willing to expand the parameters of our play."

He sets himself up, he really does. It says a lot about how tired I am that I resist saying something that I'm pretty sure would, if not turn him green then definitely earn me blank stare and a quick slaughter on the chess board. Instead I say, "No preference. I was just offering, in case you had one."

We've stopped walking, are standing in front of his door. He glances at me as he disables the security I reset earlier. "You are already aware of my preference," he says, then steps through the opening door. I grin at his back—I think he truly enjoys being literal at human expense—and follow him in.

The heat is not as extreme as it was down at the pool; Spock looks up at me from where he's just sat down at his work console and says, "Is the temperature satisfactory?"

I drop into the seat across from him, run my finger along the spines of the books sitting on the bulkhead shelf. "I thought the idea was to give one of us a handicap."

"At this time, I find I prefer compromise." He drops his gaze to his linked fingers. His head is bent slightly forward; the angle turns the dual line of his eyebrows severe, makes his eyelashes seem thicker. Abruptly, he lifts his head and looks straight into my eyes. "You did ask my preference," he says. And I know that nothing we said or did this past hour changed anything for him.

It's been a long time since I last cried—twenty-four years. I was twelve. My mother's mother had just died. It was the first burial I'd ever attended; for most of the twenty-third century most Terrans living on-world have opted for cremation. I remember standing beside my grandmother's open grave and thinking that burial seemed so much more final. We scattered my grandfather's—Dad's dad's ashes over the land he loved, and it felt to me as if we'd set him free on whatever journey he was ready to take: be born into a new life, move on to another dimension…anything seemed possible. I watched my dad and my mother's brother fill in Gran's grave until I couldn't anymore; I had to turn my back. I felt each shovelful of dirt pressing against my chest, and when I went to wipe the fear-sweat of suffocation off my forehead, my cheeks were wet.

That was my first burial. It was far from my last, although most of the ones I've attended or officiated over since have taken place on every imaginable planet but Earth, for people whose graves I dug myself, one way or another. I cried for none of them.

I didn't cry for Dad's death, or Sam's or Mom's. There were no tears in me for Gary or Edith, not even for Miramanee. The pain swelled beyond the point of what seemed bearable, until I thought it would push me past sanity. It faded each time, without insanity and without tears; I've never had much patience for unrelieved pathos, in myself or anyone else. At this moment, though, heat prickles my throat, stings the backs of my eyes. Spock won't cry, not when he's in his right mind and not ever for himself. Something in me wants to cry for the release, of any kind, that he denies himself—the same release I've denied myself.

If he could just hit something, me. I'd let him if I thought it would actually help. If he could smash something like he did his monitor that one time. But that was pon farr, and Spock will go to lengths I can't even imagine to escape that brand of insanity. I'll let him deal with this his way, I owe him that. I just need to know: "Why are you doing this to yourself? There was nothing more you could have done down there to protect yourself or the rest us, nothing any of us could have done but what we did. We followed every path open to us until we found something that worked. Spock, the kironide worked." I lean forward, further into his space, trying to tell him with my body language that this matters, to the friend as well as the captain. "Did something else happen, something…not physical? Do I need to find a starbase with a healer?"

"No."

Brusque, closed off. Like his face, his body. Whatever this is, he doesn't want me to see it. But I have one more move to make before he has me in check. It's unfair and manipulative—but I've never claimed to be otherwise.

"You know McCoy is going to pick up on this. You've already got one strike against you, going off-duty without reporting to him or me first. He's on red alert now, and he'll keep at you. You know that."

Silence. Then, "Yes." A whisper. "I know."

Wrong. All of this is wrong and I am angry. There are many shades of grey to living, but I believe that there are certain constants of right and wrong. What Parmen and his Platonians did to us was an absolute wrong. Whatever he did to Spock…but I'm not going to let myself feel that, not now. I'm going to hold on to my anger; letting it go here won't do Spock any good.

He is turned away from me. I stand and circle the console so I can see his face, his lack of expression. "Their minds are…exceptionally open," he says. "I'm uncertain if that is due to the kironide or just a trait peculiar to their race. It produces an effect something like the sound of one person shouting to another across a considerable distance."

"What about Alexander? Is he the same?" I ask.

"To a certain extent. The genetic mutation which affected his growth also affected his ability to project. I cannot sense him unless I concentrate. Conversely," his entire body seems to tighten, "Parmen was quite loud."

"I see." I have to move. I'll lose—something—if I don't. I link my hands behind my back and make a circuit of Spock's living area. I stop when I'm facing the far bulkhead. "Mr. Spock. Am I to understand that the whole time we were down there, you knew what they were thinking?"

I can't keep the captain out of my tone. Spock can't help but respond. I look back at him over my shoulder and he straightens in his seat and meets my eyes. "Not precisely, sir. I received images, fleeting desires. Nothing concrete."

"Fleeting—desires." Yes. I think I do see.

An alien race playacting at human behavior, specific behaviors adopted over two thousand Terran years ago. The Greek ideal: young, athletic male bodies in…congress. Those last few hours on Platonius it occurred to me to wonder how strong that ideal was in Parmen's mind. The ancient Grecian civilization was known for its worship of male beauty. I don't kid myself thinking I'm anything spectacular, but I'm not chopped liver and neither is Spock. We're both physically fit and not exactly repulsive to look at, if the person looking is humanoid. Obviously the Platonians found us attractive enough to impose sexual themes on the performance they forced from us. If Parmen hadn't brought Chapel and Uhura down, if he'd taken that last step…

I wonder which of Parmen's 'fleeting desires' Spock saw. Would he have understood what he was seeing?

Yes. My ears or my mind: I'm not sure which of them I heard that with, but Spock's chair just slammed back into the bulkhead and he's on his feet. I think I can make a pretty good guess. He's standing in the false doorway between his work area and sleep space; his fingers are threaded through the partition screen and he looks like he's about to fall over.

"You had neutralized his telekinetic abilities," he rasps. "There was no need for killing. And yet, I wished to kill. I wished him dead. Even now, I wish it. I cannot control."

When Spock's face and voice are without expression or inflection, it's time to worry. I've seen him just before he attacks; he doesn't warn you, doesn't make any noise, he just goes for your throat. How does the saying go? Pray that the man behind the phaser is a petty, gloating bastard: he may give you a chance to escape. A good man who believes he's doing right will kill you without a word.

I've been here, done this before. Deliberately broken Spock's reserve open and exposed the emotional core of him because I believed I had to. Last time I nearly got my head caved in for my efforts. This time—

I step into his circle of empty space. Into him. He looks dumbly at me and I don't know how so much impassivity can be made to look like misery. But it has been and does. This time I'm going to try something besides racial slurs and tritanium conduit.

I am—glad that Parmen was prevented from taking his final step. Glad for Bones, that he didn't have to watch. Glad for Uhura and Chapel. Their trust was not broken; they're back on the ship, physically unharmed. Glad for Spock, that he wasn't forced one more time against his will to harm someone he cared for. Especially me. If Parmen hadn't settled on Uhura and Chapel, I have no doubt that Spock and I wouldn't be standing here together. Perhaps we never would have again, not in a similar situation. Not as the people we are now.

For myself, for Spock, I'm glad we can choose this, what we are together in this room, this situation. I choose to stand this close to Spock. When I raise my hands and grip his shoulders, turn him to face me, I do it because I want to do it. My will. My choice. And Spock's. He could push me away, make me go; he has the strength. He hasn't pushed, not yet. He is trapped stillness beneath my hands, his muscles tight with suppressed motion.

"Spock." Don't stop me. You said that to me, do you remember? Before planetfall at Talos. Now I need you not to stop this. "Let me."

His body is fever-hot under layers of t-shirt and uniform, burning my hands. I curl my fingers into the give of muscle under skin, I can feel the jut of his collar bone, I'm gripping him that hard. It must hurt him but he doesn't protest. His mouth moves, "Jim," the shape of my name, no sound. Not yes, and it's not no: he can't give me either. It's my move. I slide one hand up around the back of his neck and kiss him.

His hair is smooth under and between my fingers. His mouth is relaxed, parted but not open, and passive. Not quite a rejection. He knows how to kiss; I've known that for a while, since he kissed Leila Kalomi in front of me—several times. I almost laughed, then. It was so…ridiculous, so unlike Spock that I was sure the man kissing Ms. Kalomi wasn't Spock at all. And maybe it wasn't him. His response now is nothing like I remember it being then.

I pull my mouth from his, pull back until I can see his face. His mouth is damp from mine. His pupils are huge. "Kiss me back," I say. "You can." And I don't know what I expect him to do, but whatever I did expect is not what I get.

I told him to kiss me and I am kissed, held still by I don't know what as he raises his hand. Slides fore and middle fingers over my forehead, across my cheekbone. Brushes his thumb over my lower lip so gently it's barely a touch. Then his hand is gone. There's no physical contact point, but I can feel him in places that are physically impossible to touch. "Again," I breathe, and again he lifts his hand to my face and I lean up into him and pull his mouth back down to mine.

His hands are on my face. I'm tugging his t-shirt from his pants. Sliding my hands under his shirts, pushing them up out my way. I want to feel his skin against mine. I wouldn't lie to him earlier; I won't lie now to him or myself about this. I want this. Not for him, for me. I want to tell Spock he's absolved of all fault of aggression he'll imagine was his after the fact. I've never met anyone so eager to take his own, self-imagined guilt trips. I'll tell him later. I don't want to separate my mouth from his, not when his lips part and move against my lips, counterpoint, and finally he's kissing me back the human way.

The damned shirts are in my way, both his and mine. I scrape my teeth lightly over his bottom lip then I lean back and grab the hems of his shirts. "Up and off," I say, and fit actions to words. Spock raises his arms without protest, lets me pull his protective covering from him. I toss his shirts away, do the same with mine as I did with his and I'm reaching for him again. Before I can touch him, his hands catch mine. He exerts pressure, just enough to hold me away from him. I raise my head and meet his eyes.

We're in limbo. Half out of our clothes, not yet close enough to reach his bunk. His back is to the divider. I've got him pushed up against it, at bay.

"Jim?" He sounds so lost that it hurts me to hear his voice. I let my hands go limp in his.

"I can leave. If that's what you want." It might kill me, but I will walk out of here right now if he needs me to.

His grip tightens. "No!" Skin against skin. I'm getting—feedback? I can feel his consciousness pushing at the boundaries of my own. Agitation, uncertainty... "Unless you wish to…I…Jim, I cannot speak as freely as you do."

Almost there, Spock. I tighten my hands around his and step back into his space. "I don't need you to say anything you don't want to say," I tell him. "I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do."

He's crushing my hands; I feel as though my mind is being invaded. I hang on to him, ignore the pain, and I wait. It's not long before the pressure eases—in my mind and on my hands. "You said—whatever I need. I do not know what that is."

"I don't think anybody does. Not really." I look into his eyes and I smile. "Want is something else. I want to touch you, I know that. But I don't know if I should—if you want me to."

His answer doesn't come in words. It's in his eyes, so open to me. He lifts my hands in his; he presses one of them against his face. The other he lays on his shoulder. Then he lowers his arms, rests his hands on the bare skin of my waist. Touch, freely given. I close the circle.

His body is a strong, thin arch into mine. I press my mouth open against his throat; I want to breathe him in, taste him, and his skin is desert-hot, almost too hot and dryer than a human's skin would be. He does sweat. I've seen it happen, but it takes a lot to make him perspire. I want to see if I can be the catalyst. I can feel his cock hard against my hip and I shift my hips, press my own erection against his, and I hear his breath hitch. I trace the lines of his back and shoulders with my hands: his skin is smooth, fine-pored the way human skin rarely is. I'm going to touch as much of it as I possibly can. This may be the only chance I'll ever get.

With my body and hands and the press of my mouth, I push Spock backwards until he's flat up against the partition. I lick the dark green mark I've made on his neck one last time before I pull away from the steady grip of his hands and grin at him. "Stay like that," I say. "You're going to need something to hang on to."

His hands drop obediently away from me. He braces his palms on top of the partition's shelf. I grin at him again and drop to my knees.

Not drop, really, slide. I slide my hands down the bony jut of his ribs, the deep indent of his waist, and I follow my hands down until I'm kneeling in front of him. I palm the heavy bulge of his cock and his hips jerk forward: he can't keep himself distanced, not from this kind of direct stimulation. I reach for the seal of his pants.

Again, I don't know what I've been expecting—but I can't say I'm disappointed. He's a little longer than me, not as thick. Aside from the underlying hint of green, there's no difference between Vulcan penises and human penises that I can see. I feel my laughter build, rising from my gut and chest into my throat. I'm remembering rumors heard during both my Academy days and while living on a series of starships after graduation. Charting runs seem to stretch out forever, and four hundred plus people means a lot of bored, prurient curiosity. What humans aren't sure of, we're free to imagine however we want. Enough inches to scare a horse, grass green, neon green, serpentine green, multiple ridges in the strangest places, bumps, lumps, corkscrew protrusions, and oh god, I remember one of my exes was obsessed with the idea of tentacles…

"We have met the enemy," I laugh, gasp it out against his skin, "and he is us." Hard and real in my hand, one drop of pre-ejaculate beaded at the tip. I angle his cock away from his abdomen, lean down and lick. Bitter salt. Just like me. I open my mouth and suck him in.

Something creaks—I tilt my head slightly and look up as far as I can without dislodging his cock from my mouth. He's gripping the divider so hard he's leaving permanent finger marks in the polymer. His head is tilted back, balanced against the screen's edge. His eyes are shut tight. He looks like he's in pain and I think he is, if not actual physical pain. His hips twitch under my hands; the head of his cock slides against my palate. I pull my mouth up the length of him, dragging my tongue over the ridged underside until only the glans is still contained by my lips. I tongue the slit, I get another taste of pre-ejaculate, then I let his cock slide from my mouth. It jerks, sways and brushes against my lower lip. I look back up at his face.

He's beautiful. He, complete within himself. I can't look at him objectively, he's Spock and he is beautiful to me in all ways—this physical way too. I want to be inside him so much. I want to feel the heat of him around my cock and in my mind at the same time. Just thinking about what it would feel like is making my cock is as hard as it's ever been. It throbs in time with my pulse and I reach down, press my hand against it. Not too hard. I could come just like this. Looking up at him, up the long stretch of his cock and his body to the agony of need in his face. I watch him try to suppress what I'm making him feel, see his muscles tighten against emotion, the unwilling gasp of his mouth, and I turn my head back and forth, just slightly, letting my lips graze the soft skin of his glans. He makes a hurt noise deep in his throat and opens his eyes.

Spock has never been inscrutable to me. Not even during our earliest days as a command team. There's always been something between us, some…understanding that goes beyond mental boundaries, physical law. It's part of what makes us so good at what we do. I am not, in and of myself, a totality. Without Spock I doubt I'd have survived my first year as a starship captain. And whatever it is that makes me conceivable to him leaves him just as open to me. He can keep his facial muscles from moving, hold his emotions apart from the rest of him. His eyes will always tell me exactly what's going on in that impressive mind of his. Now they're asking, begging me for something I am all too willing to give.

His fingers loosen their cramped grip on the partition. He raises his hands towards me. Hesitant. Unsure. "Yes," I say, my mouth moving against his cockhead, and his hands come up to cup my face and I'm sucking his cock back into my mouth, cupping his tightened balls in my hand while my mind falls down into his.

Let go. Come for me. Spock, please, just…

He comes and he is silent, but only his mouth, open on my unspoken name. He comes and I am there in his mind, Jim, as real as his cock is in my mouth, real as his semen, scalding and sour against the back of my throat. I try not to choke, try to swallow around his cock, and my own cock is still so hard, jerking against my palm. My balls are drawn up so tight they almost hurt. I'm going to come, no, I am coming, in my pants like a teenage kid. I press my palm harder against my cock, as though I'm trying to physically hold my messy human reaction apart from Spock's awareness. I feel the last spasms of Spock's orgasm in my mouth, hear my strangled breathing loud in my ears. My own orgasm pounds in my temples, pulses against my hand as my semen spreads out under the thin fabric of my pants, warm and damp under my palm.

There's always a moment when I'm coming when everything else just…goes away. A few seconds of sensory deprivation: can't hear, see, breathe, can't do anything but come. Carol Marcus told me once that if she ever decided to kill me, she'd do it while I was too busy coming to pay attention. The white-grey fuzz in front of my eyes starts to fade and the thought that I'm glad I'm on my knees in front of Spock instead of Carol surfaces briefly before disappearing. I realize that the sense of 'other' is gone as well. Spock's hands are gone from my face; I can't hear him anymore.

In my mouth, his cock is starting to go soft. I let it slip from my mouth, a trail of semen and saliva across my lower lip, limp and wet against his bare thigh. I relax my hand around his balls; they're soft now in the hollow of my palm, smooth. I let go completely and I reach up, curve my hands around his hipbones and lean forward, pressing my sweaty forehead against his abdomen. Feeling the in-out shudder of his breath.

His breath comes in short, harsh gasps. His abdomen strains beneath my cheek and he's curling forward over me, trying to curl in on himself, but I don't let him. I catch him and rock backwards until I'm on the deck on my ass, legs splayed. I pull him down to me and he wraps himself around me, long arms, legs, Vulcan-strong muscle holding me immobile. Holding me there, for him. I am for him. I've known that longer than I'll ever admit, even to myself, and I hold on to him as totally, as fiercely as he holds me. While his body shakes, I hold him, and the demons called up by that other, the demons I just set free with my mouth and hands shake us both so hard I don't know why we aren't in pieces on the deck. I don't let go. Not when my arms ache from holding and my body aches from his hold, and my skin grows damp with my own sweat from the combined heat of him and the room. I feel his cheek grow wet against my neck and I rest my head on his shoulder and I am. Here.

::

By the chronometer's blue-green glow, it's approximately five hours after I left Spock's quarters for deck twenty when I shake him just enough awake to clean him up and get him into bed. He doesn't protest although his reactions are more involuntary response than anything else, his movements subdued. He lets me sponge the dried semen from his skin then point him towards the commode without hindering my actions, but neither does he help. After he relieves himself he cleanses his hands, raises his head and looks at me, and his eyes are blank. Opaque. Instead of the impression I always get of life hidden from sight, of Spock's personality trying to break through, there's no movement behind the wall. Like there's nothing there to hide.

I cup my hand over the round of his shoulder and I say, "Bed, Spock." He nods once and when I give a gentle push towards his bunk he takes over where inertia fails, stripping off his pants and boots and sliding under the sheets with awkward care. He slides all the way to one side, leaving a space, and then he looks up at me, one eyebrow raised. A question.

Do you intend to stay?

Do I? Would it be fair to Spock, given that he isn't really himself? No matter which way I look at it, the answer seems self serving. I want to stay—I can't tell if I want it because I think it's the right choice under these circumstances, or if it's just the easiest way to maneuver Spock around to where I want him, something I know I'm capable of doing. All I'm sure of is that he's still watching me, waiting for my decision. His eyes…but I can't read him. The shield is still up, if a shield is what I'm seeing. Maybe he really has no feelings about this one way or another. But I know Spock too well to believe that. If he didn't want me here, I'd know.

"Mr. Spock," I say, "you can be a very large pain in the aft when you want to, did you know that?" But so can I. As Spock sometimes, not in so many words, likes to point out. He's not saying so now, though, so I sit down on the side of the bunk and start on my boots. "You'd think after years of you and Bones, I'd have gotten that through my head by now."

The side-seal on my left boot opens easily for a change. I pull it off and tug at the other one, and Spock says in a voice just this side of ruined, "You do know, Jim. You would not be here if you didn't."

Oh god.

I let go the breath I inhaled just before he spoke. "Go to sleep, Spock," I say. "That's an order." And I make sure my voice makes it an order. I know Spock needs that sometimes. He needs to be told to let go before he can. And he does this time. He says, "Yes, sir," in his roughened voice, and it's a long, terrible moment before his inner eyelids start to drift upwards.

The sound of warp is silence. There are the engines, and the internalized noise of ship life, but otherwise there is no audible indication that the Enterprise is traveling light years through spacetime, encased in a bubble of other-dimensional subspace. The bulkheads in the crew quarters are soundproofed; the availability of privacy is as necessary for most beings as companionship is. If a starship couldn't provide for those needs, Bones would have a lot more head cases on his hands than just myself and Spock.

In each crewmember's quarters, there are only what sounds that crewmember allows. Spock's a musician; he appreciates the musical diversity of the instruments and techniques that each different race and species brings to performances in the rec rooms and lounges of the Enterprise. But in his own quarters, on his own time, he rarely engages audio programming. He utilizes none of the recorded sounds of various planets that help crewmembers adjust from shore life to ship life, a habit that sometimes continues even after acclimation is achieved. When we play chess in his cabin we play in silence. Now, in that same silence, the slow steadying of his breath as he pushes himself towards unconsciousness is as clear to me as his voice would be. It's almost terrifying how fast he goes under once he puts his mind to it; what's even stranger, by human standards, is the way he doesn't seem to be asleep at all.

When Vulcans sleep their outer eyelids don't close fully, and the inner lids rise to protect the iris. Some don't close their eyes at all, although I think that's more common with meditation. I've seen Spock do that: lay on his back with his eyes wide open but not tracking. It's…eerie is the only word for it when you first see it. Bones says it's "Just damned unnatural, is all."

Well, he says it to Spock when he wants to get him going, but after four years of away missions and shared dirtside quarters neither of us notices Spock's sleep habits anymore. When I drop my second boot and twist around to look at Spock, he's stretched out on his side with his eyes still half open, and it seems normal to me—not human or Vulcan, just Spock.

I twist myself further around, pulling one knee up on the mattress so I'm sitting in the space he left for me, watching him sleep. His breathing is so slow that I go through two and a half oxygen cycles before he completes one: another Vulcan trait. For all that Amanda's DNA makes up half his genome, Spock is Vulcan. I forget that sometimes; he's been just Spock to me for so long. Somehow, though, he seems more Vulcan when he's asleep than he does awake. Maybe it's the way the red light makes his face seem even more angular than it is. The way the points of his ears break up the even line of his hair. If I told him that right now he reminds me of a picture of a faun from an illustrated story my mother used to read to me when I was a child, he'd probably never speak to me outside of duty again.

I'm honest enough, human enough to admit that Spock's ears have made my fingers itch since the day I materialized on Enterprise's deck seven transporter platform and asked my then unknown science officer if I had permission to come aboard. It's something about being Terran, I think, something in all those ridiculous legends we absorb as children that make Vulcan ears, the slant of their eyebrows, so irresistible. The first Vulcan I ever saw in person was one of my instructors at the Academy. She was…the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I thought that when I walked into her lab the first day, and then I immediately wondered why I'd thought it. She was tall, thin and angular—like Spock, only with shoulder-length hair, and breasts. Nothing in common with the women I'd previously been attracted to aside from the breasts. She waited until we were seated before telling us that now that we had wasted our time and hers by sitting down, we were going to get up and go outside—she would tell us where we were going once we got there. And that's when geology started to become something more to me than the dirt under my feet. It wasn't just T'Harva's appearance that mirrored Spock's. Her mind was as expansive, incisive, just as ruthlessly curious as his. Just as fascinating.

Bones likes to rib me about my proclivity for short, smart blondes. He says I'm sensitive about my height, that my ego won't allow me to get hard for a woman who might top me intelligence-wise as well as in the centimeter department. I admit it: I like intelligent women. And I do…enjoy…leaning across or down rather than up. But with Commander T'Harva, it didn't seem to matter. I still can't believe I didn't flunk out of her class; I was too busy staring at her. So busy listening to her expressionless voice bring life to a subject I didn't care about other than to get through it that half the time I forgot to take notes.

Is that what this is? Closed circuit echo of my early fascination with the 'other'? But I've met over a hundred Vulcans in the years between then and now, and T'Harva is the only one I ever reacted to that way. The way I react to Spock. She was the only one I ever wanted to touch as I'm touching now, my forefinger tracing from point to lobe and back again.

Spock. Oh my friend, this is the truth of me. Humanity's truth and its failure. We are driven by emotion, what Vulcans call insanity, to extremes we know will cause nothing but harm. We love without sense or logic and by love we are driven to touch, even when we know it will mean an end. Still we touch, we can't help ourselves, and through touch we destroy. What we love. Ourselves. The repercussions of my actions tonight aren't certain. I see them laid out before me, roads I have taken, can't take again, will walk down to my own destruction. Not Spock's. Never Spock's.

His skin is a brand against mine. His hair is fine and cool between my fingers. I let it slide through, and again, and I trail my fingers down his neck, his shoulder, his arm, down the dip of his waist to the jut of his hipbone and I watch my palm curve over the angle of bone under skin. If the arcs and angles I'm spouting are poetic rather than geometrical, I've been awake too long. I'm tired. I should get up, get my shirt and boots back on. Get out. I'm not going to. Because I am selfishly, greedily, unapologetically human and I need to be here, listening to Spock breathe. I need my hand on his hip, need to know that when I sleep it will be with his too-hot skin under my hand. I need…

Spock. That's all, really. Just Spock. And right now, until he wakes up and kicks me out, I've got him.

"Lights, one-quarter," I say, and the room's red illumination dims. I stretch out on my side beside Spock. I pull the sheets up over him and rest my hand on his covered hip, and for the second time in fifteen hours I close my eyes and stop being for a while.

::

Past the end of one shift and well into the next, until the comm bleats, waking me and stirring Spock from his deep coma of mental and physical exhaustion, I stay. I lean over Spock and engage the pickup, sound only, and Bones doesn't wait for confirmation to say: "Damn it, Spock, you've had almost twenty-four hours to get in here. Now you listen to me, you green-oiled machine. If you don't hustle your skinny tail down to sickbay right now, I'll—I'll send Christine up there after you. So help me I will!"

Right. Spock's quarters. And Spock, who just opened his eyes and is now staring at me. I'm pretty sure that when I'm prone all I look is sloppy. Spock manages to look completely clothed even though he's naked as an albino Cevethan land eel. He pulls it off without a hitch.

His lips twitch as though he knows what I'm thinking. Well, he probably does.

"Hi Bones," I say. "Spock's asleep—" Up go the eyebrows, "—but I'll send him along first thing when he wakes up. Kirk out," I add over Bones' indignant, "You're next, you traitor!" and I terminate the link.

I give Spock the best smile I can manage on short notice. "Morning. Or something like that."

He blinks slowly at me. His voice is sleep-rough: "Prevarication, Captain?"

"No, no," I protest. "Slight exaggeration at most." It's true. He's not asleep anymore but he looks half dead. He looks like I feel, and I feel like a few more hours of shut-eye. But Spock is made of sterner stuff—the sternest—which means he's already struggling up from the twist of sheets and looking towards the head with intent.

I bow to the inevitable with less grace than expedience. "Go ahead."

He looks back down at me, his raised eyebrow his only sign of confusion. "Jim?"

"Get going. We both need to." Another look, this one of silent thanks. I watch him disentangle himself from the sheets and walk towards the head. He's as bare as he was when I nudged him into bed; the difference now is I'm a lot more alert and lot less conflicted than I have been at any other point during the last twenty-odd hours. This time I'm fully able to enjoy the view, and oh yes, it's definitely worth the price of admission.

The head door closes, ending my brief enjoyment. I roll over onto my back, prop my hands beneath my head and listen to the flush of the commode and the muted sound of Spock asking for sonics. He sets a sterling example, does my first officer. I should get off my rear and follow it, but somehow I…don't.

It's true that we both have infinite backlog: leave schedule rotations to approve; reports to log; data readouts requiring consolidation; transfers to and from Starbase Twenty-six to finalize; all the paperwork miscellanea that is the underbelly of command, and it all needs to be dealt with before we dock. If I had any decency I'd get up and leave while Spock's still in the head. That's what he expects me to do, but I've said it: I'm not a nice guy and I will be not-nice if it will get me something I want badly enough; you don't get to my level of command without a long streak of stubborn backing you. With any of my past sexual companions, staying would've gotten me what I wanted. The man standing naked under sonic bombardment next door is like no one, nowhere in this galaxy. Any galaxy. If I stay I have as much chance of scaring him off as I do—what?

I'm not even sure what I want from him. How can I expect Spock to choose for me?

He exits the head on the heels of that thought, fully dressed; the door seals shut behind him. I swing my legs over the side of the bunk, plant them flat on the ground, and I watch him bend over his terminal and retrieve a stack of memory flats from his work console. He straightens and he turns towards me, he's a hundred mesh circles of blue and black and green-tinged white cut through screened partition.

"Four point one five years ago, I informed you that the friendship between us caused me shame. It now shames me to have said such a thing. Most of all to have said it to you." His voice is a deep ache centered in my solar plexus: the best kind of hurt. Does he know how amazing he sounds? Leila Kalomi might have told him, or even Commander sa Chreyn. Not T'Pring.

"Friendship was also an inaccurate word choice," he continues, "though I did not reach that conclusion for some years afterward."

I curl my hands around the edge of the mattress. I look away from his stiff, straight body, look down at my feet flat and naked against the thin carpet covering the deck. I'm not sure I can listen to this, not even for him.

"Jim."

I curl my fingers tighter; light weave scrapes under my nails. Slowly I raise my head and he's standing next to the divider screen, facing me. He must have put the memory flats down; his hands are as empty as his expression. Serenity untouched by anything human, that is Spock's face. But his eyes—dear god, his eyes.

"We have left this—" He pauses and I can't, the air, I can't get enough. I'm drowning in air and there's not enough oxygen in the universe. "A long time. Too long, I think."

It sounds like a statement but there's a question in there. Room for human hope. I'm breathing again, air flooding my lungs. I swallow words I can't force through the tightness in my throat, and I try again until I'm choking on my own voice, "No. Spock, you—"

I'm stuttering. When it really counts, Jim Kirk can't get his mouth to work. I can't believe I can't make myself say what I need to, but it doesn't matter. He's across the room in seconds, in front of me, bending down. Kneeling stiffly, awkwardly at my feet; positioning himself as he does for meditation. He doesn't touch me; his hands are loose, splayed across his thighs. Black fabric stretched around, over, under solid muscle and it's imprinted bone-deep, how it felt to have his body curled around mine, moving to fit the shape of me. Is that memory of him only my imagination?

I don't know. I want to know.

I look up from what made sense ten hours ago and is now alien, and he's looking back like he's been waiting for me to do just that. His gaze is steady. Knowing. He knows me, where my mind went for those few seconds. He followed me there, and suddenly I'm certain. Not my imagination.

I said it ten hours ago and now; a hundred years from now I'll still be saying this, to him. I'll still be reaching. "Let me?" Before, it wasn't a question. I told him, I didn't ask. I might not next time either and there will—there will—be a next time. I ask this time for the last and for all the times I won't in the future. "Please." My hand is almost touching his face.

Someday I'm going to learn how to make my eyebrows work for me the way Spock makes his work, and then I'll drive him just as crazy as he's driven Bones and me the last four years. Today is not that day. His head is tilted slightly to one side and his right eyebrow is on a collision course with his bangs. I could be imagining the slight curve of his mouth but I don't think I am. He's smiling at me the way only Spock can smile, something that's more the look in his eyes than the shape of his face. He says, "I believe my permission was given some time ago." And that easily I am defeated.

I welcome defeat. Reach out to it and brush my fingers against, curve my palm carefully over skin and hair and pull forward and there is a kind of completion in the press of his mouth together with mine. Not kissing, at least not what I've always thought of as kissing. Just the shape, the feel of his mouth against mine, the thread of his breath. Everywhere our skin touches there is Spock, his thoughts a faint echo up the back of my neck, at the edge of my mind. I smile against his mouth. "You have an interesting way of granting permission, mister."

He leans back just enough that I'm looking into his eyes. "You did ask, Jim," he says. "You merely refrained from speaking your request aloud."

For the second time in ten minutes I'm speechless. Spock takes advantage of my silence, rising to stand over me. "I must see Dr. McCoy if I wish to pursue my duties without hindrance. I trust I will see you later."

Later. Too ambiguous. "Mr. Spock."

He stops before the door and turns back towards me. "Captain?"

"Chess," I say. "2100, my quarters. Don't bother bringing the board."

Both of his eyebrows shoot upwards. "Curious. I find the arrangement to be illogical yet satisfactory," he says after a moment. "A most illogical response on my part. I shall be there." And then he's gone.

For a minute after the door closes I stay where I am, my butt propped on the edge of the bunk. I realize I'm grinning like an idiot. "Satisfactory doesn't begin to cover it, Spock," I say, and I laugh out loud at myself. It's true, satisfactory isn't the word I'd have chosen. But Spock did and even if right now he doesn't trust his own judgment, I trust him.

It's a good place to start.