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The Lotus Eaters

Chapter Text

Spock


 

Spock caught the trailing end of the captain’s tense conversation with Dr. McCoy as the two men arrived on the bridge. Kirk’s brow was furrowed, and his voice several decibels below his typical speaking volume, implying that something was wrong beyond the relatively simple parameters of their mission.

“–not tell us in the first report?”

“Does it matter? They’re probably a little distracted, Jim.”

They both hesitated at the top of the bridge, and McCoy briefly placed a hand on Kirk’s shoulder before they descended. The captain looked toward the science station and exchanged a nod with Spock as he passed by, his smile forced. Spock wondered, not for the first time, why humans often mimicked emotions they did not actually experience. While perhaps useful for deceptive purposes, when the true feelings of all parties were apparent, it seemed superfluous.

Kirk took the captain’s chair and called to Nyota. “We have a channel, Lieutenant?”

“Already open, sir.”

The viewscreen switched from a view of the lush red planet they were orbiting to the face of a slender woman, apparently in her mid-fifties, exhibiting the physical symptoms of sleep deprivation. “Galapagos to Enterprise,” she said. “This Captain Gates. I can’t tell you how glad we are to see you.”

“Captain Kirk here. I’m sorry we couldn’t come sooner.”

“I just can’t believe another Federation vessel was out in this godforsaken corner of the quadrant.” Her expression eased slightly, and Spock detected a faint thread of humor in her tone. “Least of all yours, Ace.”

This time, the captain’s smile appeared genuine. “My place or yours, Professor Hardass?” A few of the bridge crew snickered, and Gates gave Kirk a look that Spock could not decipher with any degree of confidence. It seemed to hover somewhere between cautionary and affectionate.

“We’ll come to you,” she said. “Everyone’s too busy moping around over here to hold a meeting.”

“Then I’ll see you in the transporter room, ma’am. Kirk out.”

The screen went dark, and the captain turned to McCoy, who was standing stiffly behind his chair. “Well?”

“Severe overstress, but you don’t need an M.D. to tell you that.”

“You’ll look her over?”

“I’ll do remote scans. Something tells me she won’t tolerate being poked and prodded. Good thing I’m used to that kind of nonsense.”

Kirk ignored the doctor’s pointed stare as he stood and motioned for Spock to follow them back into the turbolift. Spock almost paused automatically at Nyota’s station in deference to their tradition – she would pull him aside and tell him to ‘be careful out there’ before away missions – but it had been twenty one point three days since their separation, and he was uncertain if such gestures were still appropriate. She did hold his gaze as he approached, smiled faintly, and nodded once before turning back to her station. Another smile utilized as a mask, and in this case, Spock was at fault for the negative emotion.

He did not wish to consider the matter any further, so he focused his attention on the new information he had gathered as the turbolift whisked them to B deck. He knew Gates had once been a science professor at the Academy, but he had not been aware that Kirk was a former student. He found himself somewhat curious as to the origin of the moniker ‘Ace.’

“Because I was amazing, of course,” Kirk said without hesitation when he posed the query.

Dr. McCoy snorted. “What about ‘Professor Hardass?’”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Kirk looked at them each in turn, then shrugged. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

The reception of Gates and Lieutenant Brady, the Galapagos science officer, was unusually quiet. Typically the captain engaged any visitors in ‘small talk’ before official meetings, but today he omitted idle conversation. They reached the conference room, and he gestured for Gates to take charge.

“Three of them were staying the night to continue preliminary research,” Gates said as soon as she sat down. “Called home just fine at thirteen-hundred. We hailed them at seventeen-hundred when they missed check-in, and got nothing back. Been trying and failing ever since. That was Friday, and today is….”

“Monday, Captain,” Brady offered.

“Monday.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Damn lucky thing you folks were in the neighborhood. Regs say we’re not equipped to attempt retrieval in situations like this.” Her tone made it abundantly clear what she thought of such regulations.

“The sensors can’t even pick them up?” Kirk frowned.

“Bio-density on Sigma Nox is too high for orbital scans to be useful,” she said. “We’ve got heaps of non-human noise we just can’t parse through.”

Spock leaned forward and folded his hands in thought. “Had they sent back any data before they stopped responding?”

“Oh, plenty,” Lieutenant Brady spoke up. “Standard reports, species descriptions, biodiversity surveys – you know the drill. Lots of unusual stuff down there, but nothing that raised red flags. Certainly nothing that would explain the silent treatment.” His lips grew thin, and his eyes fell to the table.

It took Spock approximately two point four seconds to sort through the multitude of inefficient human colloquialisms. “May I see the data they collected?”

“Of course.” Brady established a PADD link, and Spock began to scan through the lists of flora and fauna, setting his mind to the task of memorization. There was a comparatively low number of recorded species, surprising given temperature and rainfall data. The rest of the meeting consisted almost entirely of expressions of disbelief and reiteration of known facts. The only interruption came from the assembling security team informing Spock they were on their way to the transporter room. Overall, nothing of particular interest to him, but then a change in the pattern of discussion caught his attention.

“Why didn’t you send us names with the first com?”

“Didn’t think it was important.” Gates turned her shrewd gaze on Kirk. “Why? You know someone?”

“Taylor,” he said, voice solemn.

“He lived across the hall from us back at the Academy,” McCoy offered, and his expression soured slightly. “A real practical joker.”

Conversely, Kirk’s mood seemed to brighten. “Yeah. Good man.” He stood abruptly and rubbed his hands together. “Well then, I say we get going. We have a few hours until sunset. Commander, are we ready?”

“I received confirmation from the team three point one minutes ago,” Spock said, noting Kirk did not bother checking his own PADD first. “They should be waiting for us in the transporter room.”

Gates nodded once, and stood just as briskly as Kirk. “Give me five minutes to suit up.”

“Hold on a second. Don’t you think you should sit this one out?” Kirk placed himself between Gates and the door.

“You really could use a good night’s rest,” McCoy said gently, approaching the woman as one would a belligerent animal.

Gates narrowed her eyes, crossed her arms, and suddenly appeared more stubborn than several Vulcan elders with whom Spock had unpleasant dealings in the past. “I’ll rest when my people are safely aboard my ship, thank you very much.”

Spock recognized the expression McCoy adopted as the one he used on Jim whenever monthly physicals were approaching. “When was the last time you ate or slept, ma’am? Two days ago? Three?”

Kirk caught Spock’s eyes and jerked his head toward the door before Gates could formulate a response. They made their escape, leaving McCoy to his craft. A mildly flustered Brady fled as well and fell into step behind them as they started toward the lift.

“If I were you, I’d say a prayer for your doctor.” He shot a glance back at the conference room door, where the escalating volume of the debate inside followed them an impressive distance. They were talking over one another, making it nearly impossible to pick out distinct phrases.

Kirk laughed. “Nah, he’ll be fine. He could use a challenge.”

“If you say so.” Brady shrugged and shot a sidelong glance at Kirk. “I don’t suppose there’s any way I can tag along?”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant. You haven’t had the kind of combat training Constitution class officers go through.”

“Combat training?” Brady’s eyes widened. “You don’t seriously think... I mean, we were there over twelve hours. The wildlife is downright placid. There’s zero sign of intelligent life or environmental toxins or apex predators–”

“We must be prepared for any possibility,” Spock interrupted. They had reached their destination, but Kirk delayed a moment, holding the doors and turning to face Brady.

“Trust me, Lieutenant. We’ll do everything in our power to get them home safe.”

“I know.” Brady stared at his feet, and his voice wavered. “All right. Just… when you find Kallie Lombard, can you contact me right away?”

“Absolutely.” Kirk let the turbolift doors slide closed, and almost immediately he sighed and slumped his shoulders, kneading a hand into his forehead. “I bet it’s some stupid technical error. All three of them are so fresh out of the Academy they’ve got dirt behind their ears.”

“Approximately seventeen percent of all starship crews now consist of recent graduates,” Spock reminded him. “Yourself included.” Survivors of Narada, commended and promoted disproportionately during reconstruction.

“Do you know what that sounds like to me? A lot of kids getting into trouble. Myself most definitely included.” The captain shot him a faint smile, although Spock had not intended his last comment as a jibe.

“A distress signal was never sent,” Spock said, directing the conversation back toward their mission. “Statically speaking, this does imply that the team experienced equipment failure.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. Something stupid like the fiasco on Psi 2000.” Kirk visibly balked when he mentioned the event. What little Spock did recall from that incident consisted primarily of the interior of Nyota’s quarters; shameful memories muddled by consuming grief and anesthetizing lust. She would not let him leave, nor was he inclined to, even with the captain pounding on the door and shouting about intermix formulae.

The rest of the ride down to G deck was spent in a mildly awkward silence.

Three bored-looking lieutenants were waiting for them in the transporter room when they arrived, outfitted in landing party gear. “Where’s Dr. McGrouch?” Morgan hopped down from the edge of a control panel and adjusted the phaser on her belt.

“He’ll be along in a minute,” Jim said. He retrieved two free sets of equipment from the corner locker, tossing one at Spock. “He has to nag someone to death first.”

“Another casualty,” Davis moaned. “When will his reign of terror end?”

Lautner rolled his eyes as he checked their emergency packs. “Not everyone has the singular talent of turning a five-minute appointment into a half-hour ordeal, Davey-boy.”

“Hold up, Captain. You’re tangled,” Morgan stepped toward Kirk, who was struggling with the strap of his pack.

“Oh, is that why I can’t move my arm?”

Spock snapped his last belt buckles into place and observed their banter, intrigued by the sudden shift in Kirk’s mood. No matter how preoccupied the captain was with the burden of command, brief interactions with his crew always seemed to revive his optimism and confidence.

By the time a smug-looking McCoy joined them, Spock was almost as restless as Kirk, eager to observe the environment of Sigma Nox firsthand. Unlike the captain, he displayed no outward signs of his mental state, such as pacing back and forth across the transporter room until McCoy complained of being made nervous. When Chekov finally arrived, apologizing for a delay he attributed to a delicate experiment, Kirk gave the order to energize before the ensign placed his hands on the control panel.

Upon beam-down they found themselves in a clearing roughly fifteen meters across surrounded by thick vegetation on all sides, the last known location of the Galapagos team. Everything was bathed in a deep orange glow due to the colors of the plants, mostly shifted toward the red end of the visible spectrum. It gave their environment the illusion of perpetual sunset, though the sky overhead appeared similar to Earth’s at midday. Almost every surface was covered in spongy red moss and vine-like plants, and the trees were more accurately classified as giant ferns.

“All right, fan out.” Kirk motioned to the security detail. “Standard sweep, ten-minute status reports. You see anything unusual, you speak up right away.”

Something swooped overhead with a rattling hiss, almost too quickly for Spock’s eyes to follow before it vanished into the trees. The only impression he gathered was that it was red, as if a piece of the foliage had detached itself from their surroundings and come alive.

“Belay that order. Anything unusual that could eat you.”

Spock was about to question the usefulness of such a criterion for evaluating danger before he noted the team’s quiet laughter, and decided it was not meant to be taken literally.

“Phasers on stun, boys,” Morgan reminded them. “I’m sure Mr. Spock wouldn’t appreciate us toasting the local wildlife.” She smiled and winked at Spock, who nodded once in confirmation, unsure of how else to respond. The three of them split up and made their way into the jungle. Spock noted that their typically flashy uniforms provided excellent camouflage in this environment.

“She likes you,” Kirk said lightly once they were out of earshot. Spock was puzzled to find that the captain’s eyes were trained on him.

“Sure seems that way, doesn’t it? Maybe I should give her a psych exam,” McCoy muttered, glancing around with obvious unease.

“Are you referring to Lieutenant Morgan?”

“Like you didn’t notice. If I were you, I’d be on that like a tribble on–”

“Jim,” McCoy said sharply, and Kirk’s eyes widened.

“Oh, not that you, so soon… I didn’t mean…”

Spock raised a hand to silence him. “It is quite all right.” He had become accustomed to people speaking with excessive tact around him regarding any topic vaguely related to Nyota, but accepting apologies for simple human forgetfulness was becoming tiresome.

Fortunately Kirk accepted his reassurance, and he returned to examining their surroundings. Spock configured the tricorder to give him comparative baselines. McCoy and Kirk crouched nearby, examining the forest floor for signs of activity, but the ground layer of vegetation was so dense that Spock did not think they would uncover any valuable data.

As he watched them, Kirk touched a delicate, feathery leaf of one of these plants. He frowned faintly and a line appeared in his brow, an expression that Spock had learned meant he was straining his memory. “Anthocyanins, do you think? Or something more like rhodophyll?”

“The star has a similar emission spectrum to Sol, so I would hypothesize accessory pigments that obscure any chlorophyll. Perhaps for added UV protection.” Spock began to check his tricorder readouts against the data from the last away team transmission. “Or it could be something else entirely,” he added, for accuracy’s sake.

“Let me guess. Further tests are needed?” Kirk shot him a playful grin.

“Indeed.”

Over the past one point one years, Spock had learned to expect surprises from the captain. He had been well aware of Kirk’s exam scores prior to their first meeting, but for a long time he was unable to reconcile that information with the carefree, cocky attitude the captain presented. Slowly he began to see firsthand that Kirk had a far greater appetite for knowledge than one would assume. The fact that he knew about rhodophyll, a compound whose discovery had only been published two months prior, was a testament to his academic drive.

“Well, I hope it’s the last option.” Kirk stood and clapped Spock firmly on the shoulder. “Nothing like a brand new photosystem to make your ensigns act like it’s Christmas for a week.”

Another surprise had come in the form of Kirk’s persistent disregard for personal space.

Perhaps disregard was not the right word. After all, Spock had never explicitly established boundaries between himself and his colleagues. Until he encountered the captain, his body language had proved more than sufficient to prevent any uninvited contact. But Kirk seemed oblivious to such subtle cues, and ever since that slap to Spock’s arm during the Narada incident, he had taken to touching Spock in much the same way he did the rest of the crew – a hand on his shoulder, a pat on the back, and on one occasion, an embrace so firm it would have been mildly painful for a human.

The tricorder fell silent in Spock’s hands, and he began to scroll through the results.

“What’s the verdict?” McCoy moved to join them. “The med scanner says they were here, but that’s about it.”

“Temperature and luminance changes are to be expected, but there is a significant difference in charged particle concentrations in the lower atmosphere,” Spock informed them. “Much less than yesterday evening.”

“What does that mean?” Kirk frowned.

“Typically, an electrical storm.” Spock did not like his own explanation, but was at a loss for possible alternatives.

“Small enough that the Galapagos never picked it up?” McCoy raised an eyebrow.

“It is likely their scanners are not configured for such parameters.”

“Anything else?” Kirk crossed his arms. “If nobody’s found anything in the immediate area by now, we need something more substantial to go on.”

Spock studied some of the data from the Galapagos sensors again and forced himself to make an educated guess, although he suspected apophenia was to blame. “Based on the patterns of the final signals received, I estimate at least one of them was headed east.”

“Okay, good.” Kirk flipped his communicator open with a snap of his wrist. “Kirk here. Change of plans. Everyone proceed toward sector five, but keep a wide spread. Acknowledge.” He waited until three confirmations came in before he led the way into the jungle.

Claustrophobia was not an entirely illogical condition, Spock thought as the canopy closed in overhead. In surroundings like this, a limited range of movement and vision naturally resulted in heightened awareness. Although the tree ferns were tall and easy to navigate between, many had offshoots along the trunks that they had to duck under or skirt around. Several times they passed what appeared to be perfectly round pools of water set in the ground, unusual pouches attached to a nondescript species of vine.

“I bet Sulu would love to take a look at this stuff,” Kirk said as they passed through a small patch of ‘brushtails.’ Their tall, thin stalks and large globes of delicate, pale orange fiber lent this section of the forest a certain ethereal quality.

“I shall send him the appropriate data files when we return,” Spock said.

McCoy snickered. “Have you two ever seen the conservatory he keeps in his room? The man can grow Beryloid orchids, and you know what they say about them.”

Spock had heard the expression before, which related free time and the financial demands of matrimony to the horticulture of sensitive plants. “Perhaps I should enlist his aid in future experiments.” He checked their projected course on his tricorder, overlaid with the Galapagos team’s survey data. “We will soon encounter the planet’s only evolutionary equivalent of an angiosperm. Judging from the reports, it is a… noteworthy species.”

Kirk and McCoy exchanged a glance that meant they thought he was being covertly emotional. He chose to ignore them.

They could discern the color of said species well before the form, as it was the only thing they had observed thus far not red or orange. It was a fine, speckled pattern of intermixed green and blue and yellow, with many shades in between that Spock would be at a loss to describe accurately. They seemed to shift under his gaze, never quite the same hue as they were mere seconds before. Then the tree ferns opened to a wide, round clearing, and the patchwork of glimpses became an extraordinary whole.

The massive structure before them was approximately five meters tall and seven meters in diameter, squat and teardrop-shaped. The curvature of its sides implied that they came together at the apex, but from their current vantage point, if such a feature existed, it was not visible. Its sheer scale was impressive enough, but coupled with the bizarre, mottled pattern and coloring, the organism was almost intimidating.

“Well, damn.” Kirk stopped in his tracks.

“I’m not sure that covers it,” McCoy added, following the captain’s example.

“They named this species Colossus pseudoarum,” Spock said as he approached the extraordinary plant. “Common name, giant bulbweed.”

“Looks like Van Gogh got a whiff of Altairian musk flower,” Kirk muttered.

“An unorthodox assessment, though strangely fitting.” Spock was forced to concede. Indeed, this was a case where the human adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ seemed to apply. And while Spock felt unqualified to judge the aesthetic merits of human art, this specimen certainly rivaled the work of a skilled painter.

He continued to move toward the bulbweed, intrigued by the intricate folding pattern of the spathes that formed its sides. Kirk followed him cautiously, inspecting the surrounding area, while McCoy seemed content to remain at the very edge of the clearing. Kirk picked up his pace just enough to reach the bulbweed before Spock. He touched the plant only to jerk his hand back sharply.

“Captain?” Spock suppressed the brief spike in his heart rate.

“I’m fine.” Jim hesitated and reached out again, touching the multicolored surface more cautiously this time. He grazed it with his fingertips twice, each brush slightly longer than the last, then finally rested his palm flat on the side. “It’s warm. Really warm.”

Spock verified with his tricorder before repeating the captain’s more tactile experiment for himself. “Thirty-six point five three degrees Celcius.”

“Wait just a darn minute, you touched it?” McCoy called from the treeline.

“Yeah, it’s safe,” Jim shouted back.

“But you touched it before you knew that!”

“Sort of,” Jim said, and turned to face the doctor, motioning for him to approach. “Stop clutching your torture kit and come see for yourself!”

“I’ll stay right here, thank you very much. It’s not natural.”

“Says the man who helped me dissect a Denebian slime devil,” Jim said, only loud enough for Spock to hear, and turned his attention back to the bulbweed. He shook his head in amazement before stepping back to call in for status reports.

//Lieutenant Lautner, checking in. All clear.//

//Lieutenant Davis reporting. Nothing so far.//

There was a pause before the third response. //Lieutenant Morgan here. I think I see someone, sir. Here are the coordinates.// The captain’s PADD chimed in confirmation. Spock peered over his shoulder and placed the site at approximately one hundred meters from their current location. //Should I approach?//

“Your call, Lieutenant. We’ll be there soon if you decide to wait.”

They hurried toward the new waypoint as fast as the gradually thickening undergrowth would allow. Every few meters, a branch or root or wayward pool would slow their progress. Spock and Kirk automatically took point together, holding back vegetation and scouting out the terrain for McCoy, who carried the largest equipment pack among them and had the most trouble navigating.

Spock was trying to discern if the doctor could comfortably duck beneath a cluster of orange vines when something moved in the trees to his left. Something large. It was the type of motion that commanded his instinctive attention, swaying and shadowed, and Spock turned sharply to face it. The forest canopy dimmed the late afternoon sun, and what light did make it through looked like orange columns, with just enough glare to make it difficult to see. Spock employed his second eyelids and still detected nothing.

“Now I know all these plants are real fascinating to you, Spock,” McCoy’s voice broke his concentration, “but I’d sure appreciate it if you quit dillydallying and helped us out.”

Spock faced his crewmates to find that both men had their feet tangled in a dense net of roots up ahead. The roots were mostly concealed by detritus on the forest floor, and had gaps between them just large enough to trap an ankle. By the time Spock was through assisting them, he had begun wondering if his previous observation was just a trick of the light.

After two point eight more minutes, the local plant life thinned out again, and they encountered Lieutenant Morgan crouching behind a wide tree fern. Her gaze darted back and forth between them and a point about five meters away, where a man was sprawled face-down on the ground near some bushes.

“I… I didn’t know, sir,” she stammered. “I thought, what if something were nearby, or if he was–”

“You did the right thing, Lieutenant,” Kirk reassured her as he jogged past with McCoy. “Cover us.”

Kirk turned the man over, and McCoy started scanning him. Spock approached, briefly inspecting their surroundings with a shaken Morgan. He reached the doctor’s side to see the downed officer was wide-eyed and motionless, unresponsive to verbal or tactile stimuli. Only his eyes were moving, aimlessly darting about, his pupils dilated even though his face was in a patch of sunlight. His uniform was torn and filthy, but the gold bands of his rank were still visible on one sleeve, albeit dangling by a few threads.

“Lieutenant Phillips,” Spock said. Kirk nodded, and tried using the man’s name to rouse him to no effect.

“He’s in bad shape, Jim,” McCoy said grimly, crouching to dig through his bag. “Tachycardia. Respiratory depression. Possible seizure activity.”

“Cause?”

The doctor pressed a hypospray into Phillips’ neck. “No idea, but whatever it is, it’s systemic. I’ve got to get him back to the ship. His vitals are too low.”

Kirk nodded. “Go. Let me know as soon as you find out.”

McCoy contacted the Enterprise, and he vanished with Philips amidst the swirling lights. The captain continued to stare at the spot they had occupied, the anxiety plain in his expression. He looked up a few seconds later and seemed surprised that Spock and the lieutenant were still standing there, but he recovered and called the rest of their team.

As Kirk relayed the new information, Spock studied the area more thoroughly, looking for anything that could explain what had happened. Phillips had no scientific instruments on him, no survival pack, no phaser. No standard equipment at all. What could make a trained Starfleet biologist completely abandon his supplies?

“I don’t like this, sir,” Morgan said after Kirk ordered a rendezvous and closed his communicator.

“I don’t either, Lieutenant.”

“If there’s something bad out here, we’d never see it coming. Phillips sure didn’t.”

“Agreed. That’s why we’re sticking together from now on.” A few seconds of silence passed, solemn and contemplative. “Let’s meet the others halfway. The sooner the better, right?”

It was then that Spock noticed some of the long leaves nearest to where Phillips had been were tattered, glistening with moisture. He stooped close to get a reading, and the tricorder confirmed the presence of amylase. Saliva, or something like it. Before he had time to ponder this data, Kirk and Morgan were several meters away, and Kirk was calling for him to hurry up.

The away team reunited and spent approximately an hour combing the area around Morgan’s troubling discovery. They found only hints of further human activity: a footprint, a scrap of uniform, a few areas with broken branches. Nothing delineated a clear human trail or some kind of struggle. Just as Gates had implied, the life form readings from their tricorders were useless. As they searched Spock counted three species of flying reptilian, seventeen distinct types of insectoid, and a species that appeared to be some sort of arboreal cephalopod. On the whole though, Spock confirmed the Galapagos team’s observations of an unusually low species and genus counts for a rainforest setting. All were either afraid of or uninterested in the away team.

One example of the latter, a peculiar segmented macroinsectoid called Repens lentus, was indifferent to almost anything except eating. The team had named it ‘cattlebug’ for this reason. Spock nearly tripped over one as high as his knee when he rounded a large tree fern, and it didn’t acknowledge his presence at all. He remembered Brady’s comment about life on the planet being placid, and decided this was an extreme example.

McCoy reported in toward the end of their search to give them news of Phillips’ condition. The away team huddled around Jim to listen.

//His receptors won’t pick up acetylcholine,// McCoy explained. //They’ve changed shape just enough that the molecule doesn’t fit. There’s something else too, a compound in his brain messing with his limbic system. We only figured that part out ten minutes ago.//

Over a year of dangerous missions and injuries, even deaths, and Spock had never heard this ragged inflection in McCoy’s voice before. He leaned in closer to the communicator. “Doctor, can you hypothesize what occurred prior to his collapse?”

//Well, he’s got a little acid damage to his esophagus. So I’d say he’s had some recent acute vomiting. A bunch of superficial bruises and cuts, too. Hell, if it wasn’t for the other symptoms, he’d look like a victim of the world’s worst bender.// There was a pause and an audible sigh. //We’ve got him stabilized for now, but I’ve got to get back to the lab. Run some more tests.//

“Keep us posted,” Kirk said. “And good luck up there.”

//Jim, one more thing. I don’t want any of you planetside after sunset. That’s right about when this team got themselves misplaced.//

“Your concern is noted. Kirk out.” The captain rolled his eyes as he replaced the communicator on his belt. “Mother,” he added under his breath. Spock watched the security lieutenants struggle not to react to Kirk’s slip of professionalism.

“Captain, Dr. McCoy’s concerns are based on a logical extrapolation,” he said.

“Maybe so. But the rest of Phillips’ team has been lost for more than twenty four hours, and with him the way he is… well, I get the feeling the window of action is closing.” Kirk ran a hand through his hair. “It is almost sunset, though. I think you three should head back to the ship.”

The lieutenants burst into protests immediately, and Spock stepped back to stay out of the fray.

“Captain?”

“You’re not serious.”

“Sir, you can’t.”

Kirk raised his hands to silence them. “Calm down, all of you. Nobody’s staying the night. I just want to stake out this place little longer. See if someone wanders back to the starting point.”

“But sir, if you think it could be too dangerous for us, then it’s sure as hell too dangerous for you,” Morgan protested. “Mr. Spock, talk to him!”

And say what, Spock wondered. He had no more influence over Kirk than a dwarf planet over its sun. “Lieutenant, I have learned that once the captain has made up his mind, very few forces in the universe can sway him.”

Kirk grinned. “Why, thank you Mr. Spock. That means a lot.”

Mystified as to how pointing out a personality flaw could be taken as a compliment, Spock declined further comment. He retreated while Kirk and the lieutenants argued for approximately three more minutes. Only when Kirk started to employ the phrases ‘direct order’ and ‘best judgment’ did they stifle their displeasure.

After making them swear on their lives not to speak to McCoy for at least two hours, Kirk called in the transport. The lieutenants vanished, at least one of them glaring fiercely at the captain, and Kirk’s posture visibly relaxed.

“One less thing to worry about,” he muttered.

Spock approached him. “Sir, why did you not insist I return to the ship as well?”

“I can persuade some junior officers just fine, but a battle of wills with you? No way.” Kirk heaved a sigh and smiled mischievously. “I learned a long time ago that once you’ve made up your mind, very few forces in the universe can sway you.”

Before Spock could retort, Kirk meandered toward the east side of the clearing, peering into the forest. Spock recalled an assessment of McCoy’s from a previous mission – ‘stubborn as mules, both of you’ – and decided that the doctor might, for once, not be entirely inaccurate in his criticism.

Darkness fell more quickly than on Earth, due to the planet’s shorter rotational period. The captain paced the forest’s edge as the reddish light faded, and Spock kept up environmental scans, adding and subtracting any variables that seemed relevant.

But as he suspected, this venture was proving fruitless. Given their point of reference of a Terran rainforest, there was no sign of anything unusual. Foliage rustled, strange noises echoed, and the shadows of the trees spanned the clearing. Ten point eight seconds after Spock estimated the sun was completely below the horizon, his tricorder started flashing an alert. He cued up the triggered reading and was momentarily perplexed by what he saw.

“Captain, I am picking up some unusual electrical interference,” he said. “Faint, but escalating.” He received no response, and assumed the captain was confirming it for himself. “The phenomenon might be localized enough that scans from space cannot yet detect it,” he continued, and still there was no comment.

He turned around and was confronted by an empty clearing.

Kirk was gone.


Chapter Text


Spock

“Captain?” Spock turned, surveying the clearing. “Captain?” he shouted into the growing darkness, and listened intently. There was no way to pick out the sound of a single human from the sound of any number of native fauna.

This was absurd. Why would the captain have moved out of earshot so quickly without informing him?

Spock shoved the tricorder into his pack and pulled out his communicator and arclight. “Spock to Captain Kirk. Come in, Captain Kirk.”

Silence. He tried again, and still there was no response. He needed a different approach.

“Spock to Enterprise.”

//Uhura here. What can we do for you, sir?//

“The captain has,” Spock hesitated, shining the arclight between the trees, uncertain how he should outline the scenario, “become separated from the landing party. Could you attempt to contact him?”

She must have heard the implications in his wording, but she didn’t comment. //Yes, sir.// Ten point seven seconds later she replied, all formality gone from her voice. //Spock, what’s going on? He’s not answering.//

“He was most likely disoriented by the unfamiliar setting.”

//Don’t give me that bull. What happened?//

“I cannot locate him, Lieutenant. He was here, and twenty seconds later, he was not.” Spock wondered briefly if he was dreaming. Vulcans did not dream, but considering the completely bizarre nature of these events, it did not seem that remote of a possibility.

//Hang on. He might not pick up, but his communicator will.//

Silence again, and Spock shifted his weight from foot to foot in his impatience. He was briefly startled by a strange, trilling sound somewhere in the distance. What if there was a predator in the area that the Galapagos team had not identified? What if such a predator could have taken the captain?

Nyota’s urgent tone cut through his thoughts. //Bearing two nine five. About fifteen hundred meters away and moving fast.//

Spock dashed into the forest.

Leaves, branches, and vines struck his face, impeding his progress. Something sharp tore into the sleeve of his shirt, but he kept moving as efficiently as possible. The beam of his arclight bounced erratically over the terrain, riddled with fallen trees and undergrowth. If his reflexes had lacked the benefit of Vulcan genetics, he would likely have tripped. He estimated the passing meters and the captain’s maximum speed and determined that he would come within sight of Kirk in eight point three seconds.

//Commander!// Nyota’s voice demanded acknowledgement. //Spock, are you there?//

Spock unclipped the communicator from his belt again, a challenging task while dodging various obstacles. “What is it?”

//The signal’s gone.//

He stopped in alarm. “Explain.”

//It’s just gone. I’ve been trying to hail him this whole time, but the communicator stopped broadcasting a few seconds ago.//

“Send me the last known coordinates and inform Mr. Scott.”

//I will. And I already have.// Nyota hesitated. //He wants to talk to you.//

The faint beep indicated that she had switched channels. //Spock, what the devil is going on down there?//

“Mr. Scott, I do not have time to explain. I have already relayed everything I know to the lieutenant.” He studied the coordinates and did some hasty mental calculations. “I will report back to you as soon as I locate the captain.”

//Spock, wait. We’re picking up some ionic interference in the atmosphere. It’s minor right now, but seeing as everything was crystal clear a few minutes ago….// Scott trailed off.

He did not have time to check his tricorder, but Spock was fairly sure the electrical activity he observed earlier was building. “Understood. Spock out.”

Fortunately his colleagues did not question him further, and he resumed his search. He plotted his trajectory based on the last signals received. It was hardly better than a guess, but there was nothing else he could do. The forest was dark now, and would have been pitch-black if it weren’t for the starlight. The fact that anything with minimal night vision would have a significant advantage over him did not escape his mind. He was trying to dispel that thought altogether when an irregularity a few meters ahead caught his attention.

A scrap of gold cloth dangled from a low-lying branch, caught up in a tree fern’s fronds. Beneath it was a communicator, the flash of silver highly visible against the dark red leaf litter. Spock picked it up to find that it was turned off, which explained why Nyota had lost the signal abruptly. Kirk had consciously disabled his communicator. The surrealism of it all boosted Spock’s heart rate to an uncomfortable degree.

//Commander Spock.// Scott’s voice. //Commander, come in.//

“Spock here.”

//No luck?//

He stared at the captain’s communicator in his other hand. “Not yet.”

A faint exhale of disappointment, and Scott’s voice was low when he spoke. //Well, I’m sorry to say I have some more bad news for you. The interference we mentioned earlier? It’s getting worse, sir. If we don’t beam you out now, we might not be able to at all.//

He did not have time for this.

The decision came to him with an unusual swiftness that under any other circumstances would have given him pause. “I will remain until I find the captain.”

A brief but pregnant pause. //Aye, Commander. We’ll keep in touch as long as communications holds out.//

Spock set off again, and he began doubting his predicted course. All the captain had to do was turn approximately ten degrees, and Spock would miss him entirely. He was surprised when eight point one seconds later, a patch of anomalous color emerged out of the darkness ahead.

There was the captain, facing away from him, walking at a quick but methodical pace. Sure enough his shirt was torn and his communicator absent, although the emergency pack was still slung across his back.

“Captain!” Spock called. Despite being hardly three meters away, Kirk gave no indication that he heard anything. He didn’t turn to acknowledge Spock, and his brisk steps didn’t flag.

Spock seized his shoulder and spun him around. Kirk stared at him, face utterly blank and eyes glazed over. He swayed a little where he stood, and Spock took hold of his arms, expecting him to lose his balance. Then Kirk blinked, and his eyes visibly focused, and his expression turned perplexed. “What… what’s going on?”

“Explain your actions at once.” Spock told himself the anger in his voice was merely an automatic front to command the captain’s attention.

“I don’t know.” Kirk glanced away into the underbrush, apparently preoccupied. Spock looked in the same direction and saw nothing remarkable. “I think there’s something… something I should be doing.”

“What you should be doing, Captain, is refraining from leaving the immediate area without stating your intent, refusing to respond to urgent hails, and discarding your communicator.”

The captain patted his belt and glanced down as Spock watched, bewildered. “My communicator?”

Spock held up the item in question.

“Oh. Uhura was talking, and I didn’t want… it was distracting me.”

“From what?”

The captain’s vague concern was being fast overridden by distress. “I don’t know!”

A branch snapped sharply a few meters away, loud enough that both of them jumped. Spock reached for his phaser and guided his arclight toward the sound, illuminating the responsible entity.

“Ensign Lombard,” Kirk said. Her clothes were tattered, and her face was streaked with dirt, but her pale blonde hair was highly recognizable. She lurched in and out of the corrugated shadows cast by the trees, staring directly at them. Kirk began to approach her, squinting at the light. “Ensign Lombard? Kallie?”

“Captain, wait–”

The ensign staggered toward them, and Spock could tell from her gait that something was horribly wrong. He detected the smell of necrosis just before Kirk reached her, and a moment later the captain came to a sudden halt, his expression unreadable.

Spock reached his side and watched the ensign, who continued on her path, though her eyes were not looking at them after all; in fact, she did not appear to see them. She stepped with one leg, then dragged the other behind her, then stepped again in a strange perversion of walking. Her useless leg was corroded with gangrene, and approximately three inches of her fibula were exposed, the white highly conspicuous against the blackened flesh.

Spock shone the arclight into her perfectly blank face as she passed them, and her pupils did not contract. When it became evident that Kirk would not do so, he took a few steps after the ensign to touch her shoulder. She did not respond, only shuffled out of reach.

He withdrew his hand and found that it was covered in a thin layer of sticky, coarse substance, like sand suspended in glue.

“What’s wrong with her?” The shock of the situation seemed to dispel the rest of the captain’s unsteadiness. “She’s headed where I want to go. Wanted to go,” he corrected, like an afterthought.

“Perhaps she can enlighten us as to the source of your temporary delirium,” Spock murmured.

That was when the ensign fell, tripped up by a tangle of hidden roots similar to what the team encountered earlier. Despite landing on her ruined leg, she didn’t cringe or make a sound. Almost immediately after she hit the ground, she began to claw her way across the forest floor, attempting to pull herself free. Kirk knelt at her side and tried to calm her, clumsily pawing through his emergency pack for the med kit. Spock moved to assist him and realized Kirk’s hands were shaking.

He was about to ask a half-formed question when his communicator beeped yet again.

//Enterprise to Commander Spock, come in. We have a wee bit of a problem here.//

“Mr. Scott,” Spock said. “I have located the captain and Ensign Lombard.”

//The captain, you said? Thank God. Are they all right?//

Spock held the communicator toward Kirk so he could answer as he struggled with the tranquilizer hypospray. “I… I’m fine. But she isn’t. Three to beam up, Scotty, and make it fast.”

Scott then confirmed what Spock had already deduced. //I hate to tell you this, sir, but we can’t transport you now. We can barely keep a hold of your com signals. The whole region has–// Scott’s voice dropped out, lost in the hiss of a static burst. Spock hurried to modulate the antenna. //–stranger than that. There’s a ship headed straight for us. Unknown type, not responding to hails.//

Kirk exchanged a stunned glance with Spock. “A ship? Is it behaving aggressively?”

//Not yet, but it’s still a few thousand kilometers–// Again the interference won out.

“Spock to Enterprise. Come in.” Nothing but choppy static met his ears, and this time adjusting frequencies wasn’t working. “Spock to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise.”

“Here, trade me.” Kirk plucked his lost communicator off of Spock’s belt and shoved the med kit into Spock’s hands. He took a few steps away from Lombard and maintained efforts to call the ship. Spock was attempting to calculate Lombard’s unnaturally fast pulse when all of the energy drained out of the captain’s voice.

“The phasers,” Kirk said. “They’re firing the phasers.” Spock turned and followed Kirk’s gaze up through a gap in the foliage as a thin red line flashed far overhead.

A faint burst of amber, and Spock lost his grip on Lombard’s wrist. “Photon torpedoes,” he said, not quite trusting his eyes.

Approximately fifteen degrees away from the origin of the phasers came an electric blue burst, arcing across the sky like lightning.

Any sign that Kirk had been recently incapacitated vanished as he was stirred into a frenzy. He fixed his eyes to the stars and jogged a few steps away, as if that could carry him closer to the ship. “Enterprise! Enterprise, this is the captain! Respond!” he shouted into the device, adjusting the dials. “Shit, I can’t cancel out the noise. Enterprise, do you copy? C’mon… there’s got to be a clear spot somewhere….”

Ensign Lombard started to groan quietly. Her movements were frantic enough that she was bound to injure herself further. Spock picked up the tranquilizer hypospray and loaded the cartridge, but could not convince himself to use it on Lombard knowing so little about the nature of her condition. He was searching the kit for alternatives when his communicator sputtered to life just long enough for him to hear a single, distinct phrase: Galapagos lost. Full retreat.

When he glanced up to see if Kirk had received the same message, it took a lifetime of training to fend off severe irritation. Once again, the Captain was nowhere to be seen.

If Spock were human, he would have paused for an utterance of profanity, or perhaps self-debasement, but wasting time in such a manner would be illogical.

He decided Lombard was beyond his help, but perhaps she could help him instead. He tore apart the roots that held her captive and hauled her to her feet, and after a moment of uncertainty, she resumed her faltering course. If she felt the same compulsion as the captain, she might lead Spock to him.

As they walked, a large cattlebug passed by, its armored segments clicking. This was the fastest Spock had seen one of them move. Or rather, two of them, as another had just come into view, headed in the same direction. Now three. The farther he followed the ensign, the more of them appeared, scurrying though the forest with the exact same orientation. In the interest of speed he made a hypothesis and switched the target of his pursuit.

It wasn’t long before he reached a meadow of brushtails. A strange glow became apparent through the trees here, dim but definite. Spock hesitated to check his PADD and ensure his sense of direction was accurate. He was almost certain he had been here before, and indeed, that appeared to be the case. He proceeded cautiously through the last layer of trees, the glow increasing exponentially, and found himself observing a spectacle unlike any he’d ever seen before.

The bulbweed was lit up so brightly that his arclight was rendered completely unnecessary. Nebulous patterns skimmed over its surface, individual streaks of color winking on and off like the pixels on an antique computer display. The spathes were alive with motion, rippling and unfolding at one spot and coming together on the opposite side. The air around the organism shimmered, and its extraordinary bioluminescence cast long shadows behind every uneven spot on the ground, radiating outward like the bars of a cage. Pulsing bursts of heat washed over him, so dense and humid they almost seemed solid. A low-frequency, oscillating hum reverberated deep in his chest.

Additionally, the ground was moving.

Flowing out of the jungle were hundreds, perhaps thousands of cattlebugs converging on the bulbweed from all directions, a sea of fast-moving legs and carapaces. Some were as small as Spock’s fist, and some were longer than he was tall. Where the bulbweed was closed, they swarmed around the edge like a breaking wave. Where the bulbweed unfolded itself, they poured inside and vanished into its depths.

Swaying above the fray was a shadowed outline with a distinctly different profile, very close to the ultimate destination.

The space of two point four confusing seconds was all it took. Spock watched as Kirk approached the parted spathes of the podweed, step by shaky step. He watched as Kirk climbed through the aperture, holding onto the spathes to support himself.

He watched as the opening began to close.

Spock threw his pack to the side and sprinted across the clearing, ripping his phaser free from its holster. The cattlebugs were everywhere, pressing around his legs, packed so tightly together it felt like wading through water. His sense of subjective time slowed dramatically, which was ultimately beneficial; it assisted his focus as he braced himself against the flow, as he aimed his phaser and fired.

The noxious stench that burst from the bulbweed made him recoil instinctively, and his target was engulfed in a thick cloud of steam and smoke. He could not classify the smell – it was acrid and sweet all at once, as distinct as burning rubber or rotting flesh – although something about it offended his senses on a primal level. He squinted through the smoke and drew a glowing orange line down the side of the plant as close to the former entrance as he dared.

Not two seconds after he pulled the trigger, a brilliant spark burst out of the phaser and singed his hand, and the red beam was cut short. Only then did he perceive the sensation of his hair standing on end, and the pinpricks of static electricity that crackled between his skin and clothes. He holstered the phaser and kept going. The cut he made would have to be enough.

He shoved the rest of the way toward the bulbweed, unable to avoid crushing the smaller cattlebugs underfoot. There were so many it was like walking on glass. When he touched the burned gash, delicate blue-white arcs leapt from the surface of the plant to his hands and arms. The charge was great enough that his muscles spasmed, and he had to fight to keep control of his fine motor capabilities, to close his fingers around the leathery leaf on either side and wrench the plant apart. At first it seemed as futile as prying apart a boulder from a tiny crack, but luckily the bulbweed gave out before his strength did. The tear widened, and putrid, muggy air poured out.

Inside it was too dark to see beyond half a meter. The deep hum was tremendous this close, and the sound of so many macroinsectoids trapped in a cavernous space was intensely unsettling. In his haste, he had abandoned his arclight back at the clearing’s edge. He reached into the plant as far as he could, seeking anything other than the cool, tough shells of the cattlebugs. The tips of his fingers caught a hint of fabric, but he couldn’t catch hold. He strained to extend his reach, leaning into the plant, and fell forward as the first cattlebug forced its way past him. His hand hit the interior floor, soft and sticky, but not before brushing against cloth on the way down. He seized a handful of uniform and pulled back against the increasing flow of animals, dragging a dead weight with him.

Finally the captain was close enough that Spock could take hold of an arm. A hand appeared through the opening, a gold shirtsleeve. The captain’s foot hooked on the inside of the gash, but Spock yanked him free, and Kirk slumped onto the ground at his feet. He was listless, and his eyes were closed, and Spock couldn’t evaluate his status in light of a new threat.

The pattern of cattlebug movement around him had been changing all throughout the extraction process, growing irregular and indecisive. Yet Spock did not anticipate they were capable of shifting focus until the first one charged him out of the darkness.

Serrated pinchers clamped over his left forearm as he raised it to defend himself, but there was no pain. Whether this was due to the effects of human adrenaline or Vulcan mental discipline was unclear. He shook off his alarm and grabbed his useless phaser, slamming the butt down onto the cattlebug’s head. The creature shrilled and let go.

Almost as soon as its jaws released him, other cattlebugs launched to take their comrade’s place. Spock struggled to keep the captain’s head above the fray. He kicked and stomped and threw blows as best he could with his free arm. Some of his assailants were so small they couldn’t touch him through his clothes. Most were large enough that they could break or bruise the skin. They were fragile, but tenacious to the point of suicide, and they had the advantage of sheer numbers. They would overwhelm him, bleed him to death by a thousand bites and smother Kirk beneath a colossal swarm.

Every sense but sight narrowed to nothing. All sound hazed into a muted roar. The sickening smell vanished from his mind, and an instinctive and single-minded calm overtook him. Everything morphed into simple patterns of defense and evasion, suus mahna forms laid out before him that plotted the most efficient path of escape.

He threw Kirk over his shoulder and dashed for the edge of the clearing, shoving aside and vaulting over any cattlebugs that got in his way. He stumbled once, miscalculating the distance between two open patches of ground, and almost dropped the captain entirely. He altered course to retrieve his survival pack, illuminated by the arclight he never bothered to turn off, and this proved an almost lethal decision. In the second it took him to pause and grab the pack, he was nearly surrounded by the aggressive horde that trailed them.

It took almost a full kilometer before the cattlebugs gave up and the stragglers dispersed. Spock couldn’t remember the distance in between. He must have stepped in a vine pool somewhere along the way, because his leg was wet up to the knee, but he genuinely could not recall having done so. He slowed his pace to shake some of the smaller and more tenacious cattlebugs out of his clothes, crushing them when they wouldn’t let go, and kept moving awhile longer for safety’s sake. Eventually he found a tree fern with a low canopy to serve as a crude shelter. The second he allowed himself to conclude the danger had passed, his legs almost collapsed beneath him, and a nearby branch was the only thing that kept him upright.

Kirk curled into a fetal position when Spock placed him on the ground and knelt beside him. Spock realized then that his hands and uniform were streaked with red, and he hastily inspected the captain for injuries. Nothing serious presented itself, and he concluded the stains were from the cattlebugs.

The static must have ruined his tricorder’s sensors, as they reported nonsensical numbers when he tried to scan Kirk. Spock opted for a less equipment-based technique, pressing a hand to Kirk’s forehead. He was covered in sweat, and his skin felt abnormally hot to the touch. Spock estimated his temperature was on par with a high-grade human fever, but it was impossible to be certain. The captain’s pulse was quick, his breathing labored, and his face strangely slack. Spock rolled him face-up and pulled back an eyelid, shining the arclight into pupils that did not contract.

The hyposprays in the med kit were damaged like the tricorder, but they had a manual backup mode. Spock reluctantly administered a fever reducer and tri-ox compound, concerned that anything more could trigger an unfavorable reaction. There was nothing else he could do except wait for Kirk to come out of his bizarre chemical daze.

Assuming, of course, that it was temporary.

His mind was not composed enough for any strenuous mental tasks, nor could he meditate under these circumstances, so he took inventory of everything they had. One emergency pack containing simple medical supplies, rations and hydration packs for three days, a water purifying kit, spare power packs, and a beacon. The latter two items appeared to have sustained electrical damage like the faulty tricorder, broken hyposprays, and dead phaser.

After a few tests, Spock added his PADD and communicator to that list of casualties. The arclight was a self-sustaining reaction that only required electrical current to ignite, and Spock hypothesized if he ever turned it off, it would also be rendered useless due to a failure of that critical component. Other than the pack itself, there was nothing else. The captain’s pack was gone, lost somewhere between the bulbweed and the jungle. Either way, Spock could not search for it now.

He tried multiple times to get a response out of Kirk, or at the very least, persuade him to drink, but Kirk gave no indication he perceived eternal stimuli. Every now and then he would shift beside Spock and make a sound of distress, as if he were about to regain awareness, but ultimately he fell back into something resembling REM sleep. His eyes constantly roved beneath his eyelids, yet he tensed and changed positions fitfully, which should not have been possible in a dreaming state.

Spock cleaned their wounds, remembering Phillips and Lombard, with their dilated pupils and persistent unresponsiveness. He remembered Doctor McCoy’s words: Tachycardia. Respiratory depression. Possible seizure activity. When he managed to clear out McCoy’s voice, he heard Mr. Scott’s instead, ordering a full retreat. The ship could be light years away by now, and given the alternative, that was likely the most preferable option.

Spock always considered his independence to be one of his most advantageous traits, a quality born out of necessity. He spent much of his life alone amongst both of his parents’ species. Alone, yet never truly isolated, never without some form of consultation or support. Now thanks in part to his imprudence, his superior officer was dangerously ill, their supplies were damaged, and they were marooned on a hostile planet.

In this particular scenario, independence had afforded him little. Spock wondered what the Surakian response to his dilemma would be, but the New Vulcan masters were far removed from this place.

Night deepened, and the jungle closed in around them. Spock settled beneath the tree fern and waited for dawn.

Chapter Text


Kirk

The smell was the only thing Jim knew. He grasped for a word, any word to describe it, but it was just too unique. Like cut grass, or gasoline fumes from a Corvette, with an intangible heaviness to it that made his head swim. He couldn’t give it a name, even a simple comparison, and the more he tried, the less it mattered. Heat bundled around him, a wool blanket during a fever, thick and wet and smothering. It immobilized him, dragged him down into a dark, tropical sea while fish swam lazy circles around him and teased him with their tails.

Too heavy, too heavy. His head tilted back, then snapped forward as his spine buckled with the shock of falling to his knees. At least, that was what must have happened – he felt no pain, and the impact was dull, and it was too dark to see. He could still hear though, a constant buzz, a chorus of clicking and shuffling all around him. He could still feel the fish, their fins whispering over him. They had to be fish, because he was drowning.

He shook with the sensation. He could feel the throb of his heartbeat through the tiniest veins in his hands, the drag of every hair on his body against his clothes, the shift of individual fibers in his tendons as he moved. This should have frightened him, some distant corner of his mind insisted, but it didn’t. His brain was expanding with the universe, opening like a flower, and the world was inexplicably right.

The current swelled until it was too vast for him to fight any longer, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

Then there was light, and a sharp ringing in his ears, a foul thread creeping through the thick, sweet air. The pieces were slipping away and he couldn’t reclaim them, couldn’t even move to try. The fish around him snapped into a frenzy so fierce he was dragged by them, pummeled by them, and thousands of sharp teeth nibbled at his skin. An earthquake shook him for what must have been hours. He plunged back into the ocean in short bursts punctuated by an unsettling darkness, swimming, drowning, swimming again.

Swimming during a rare respite between missions, on an evening spent beneath the stars that swarmed overhead – like the shameful thoughts he almost voiced in a frenzy of emotion when he looked – upon the face of a woman who made impossible claims, but whose eyes had that same fire – as his heart while he subdued his rival in the glittering dust – was the pendant that was supposed to release him, and it was his fault – he should have left at the first sign of this madness, and now everything was falling apart.

Falling. Jim fell, but he never hit the ground.

Everything ached. Everything felt horribly out of place. Consciousness came and went, teasing the tips of his fingers only to be jerked out of reach. There was no way of knowing how much time passed, but it felt like the long side of eternity.

Tactile sensation came back to him before anything else, and his first lucid thought was that he was somewhere unpleasantly warm. Or maybe it was unpleasantly cold. Either way, his skin was clammy, and his arms and legs numb. He drifted on the surface of the ocean for awhile. Hearing came next, although there wasn’t much to hear. The crunch and rustle of leaves, a few animal calls, a familiar voice that faded in and out.

When his vision finally returned, it was like the sun rising more than curtains being pulled back. He couldn’t seem to control his eyes, which were fogged over even though he was pretty sure they were open. On second thought, that couldn’t be right, because everything was red; he must be seeing daylight through his eyelids. But gradually the light got brighter, the images clearer, and the red organized itself into lines and shapes surrounded by a pale shade of gray. He blinked tears out of his eyes, which stung like everything else.

“Captain?” A hand on his arm. “Are you aware?”

Jim wanted to say something, anything, but his mouth was too dry to respond and the words stuck in his throat. He nodded instead, fighting a stiff neck, and thought he heard a faint sigh.

“Can you drink?”

He nodded again, and a blurry version of Spock hovered over him, placed the straw of a hydration pack to his lips. Electrolytes and artificial flavorings had never tasted so good, and they washed out some of the sharp, stale taste in his mouth even if they didn’t help the hunger pangs. He would have downed the whole thing if Spock hadn’t pulled it away, warning him about drinking too much too fast.

All right, he thought in an addled sort of way. Clearly, they had a serious situation on their hands, and as the captain, he shouldn’t be flat on his back. So he grit his teeth together, planted his palms on the ground, and levered himself to sit up.

It was as though he had simultaneously hopped on an out-of-control carousel and been hit in the face with a sledgehammer. There were so many things wrong at once that his body didn’t know which problem to process first.

“Captain? Are you well?”

Spock supported him and keep him upright, but he had to lie back down or his head was going to explode. He struggled a little, but just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the pressure eased up. He focused all of his attention on the tip of Spock’s command badge until the world stopped tilting beneath him like a dinghy in a storm. When he came out of the daze, Spock rearranged him so his back was against a tree trunk.

“How would you describe your current physical state?”

“Run over by a freight cruiser,” Jim croaked. His voice sounded horrible.

“And your mental state?” Spock peered at him. “What can you remember?”

“Give me a… a minute.” Things were coming back to him in disjointed pieces, so he leaned back and waited for them to fall into place. He tried and failed to catch his breath. It was like someone had tightened a belt around his chest. “We were looking for the missing crew. Found one.” He was pretty sure about that part, but then the memories started to blur. “You and I stayed, and the rest of the team… left?”

“Affirmative.”

After that was the dark, warm sea and the fish, although in hindsight, that didn’t seem right. There weren’t any large bodies of water for hundreds of miles, if he remembered the local map correctly. Jumbled together in that strange mess of impressions, a skeleton ambled toward him, and sky gods battled over a backdrop of stars. It almost made sense, but not enough that he could figure it out.

So what could he figure out? The sun was up, for one. He must have been blacked out for hours. No one else was with them. And now that he was paying attention, Spock looked like he’d been dragged through hell and back by the tips of his ears. His uniform was torn in about a hundred places, and dotted with dark green stains. A piece of black undershirt was tied around his right hand.

Jim took a not-so-wild guess. “We’re stuck here, aren’t we?”

“That appears to be the case.”

“And we have no idea what happened to the ship?”

“Other than the fact that they were attacked and began a retreat, no.”

Of course, Jim thought. If they were still here, chances were the Enterprise wasn’t. Either way, hearing the facts out loud was more upsetting than he expected. “I guess the Galapagos is gone, too?”

“The Galapagos was abandoned.”

“Oh.” Jim ran a hand through his hair and frowned when it came out covered in some kind of gritty slime. He tried to wiped it off on his pants, which seemed to be crusted over with the same substance. “What the hell am I… never mind. I’m starving. Please say we have rations.” Baby steps, he told himself. Maybe some food could get his head screwed on straight before he started making captainly decisions.

Spock offered him a ration bar from the emergency pack sitting off to the side. Jim tried to take it, but he was shaking so badly it fell right out of his hand. He tried not to feel put out that Spock had to open the packet and break the dense bar into smaller pieces for him before he could pick them up with a steady grip.

He chewed on the rations for awhile and watched Spock, who sat down nearby and stared intently at nothing. Jim had seen him lost in thought before, but this was different, like he wasn’t all there.

“Let me see if I’m understanding this,” he said, partly for his own benefit and partly to draw Spock out of himself. “We’re stranded, most of my supplies are missing, I’ve got no idea what happened to me last night–”

“You were lured by and entered the interior of the Colossus pseudoarum specimen we observed yesterday afternoon,” Spock interrupted flatly.

“What?”

“You entered the bulbweed.”

“I entered…”

“The bulbweed.”

Jim stared at him for awhile, but the general idea didn’t make any more sense. “Why?”

“I suspect a mind-altering pheromone was to blame,” Spock said, and his eyes grew distant again. “You were not yourself.”

That either explained a lot, or not much at all. Jim wasn’t sure which. “So we’re stranded, I got mind-screwed by some overgrown tulip, and you got your ass handed to you by…” he gestured at Spock’s battered person.

“The cattlebugs.”

This time Jim was sure he must have heard wrong. “What?

“The cattlebugs.”

Those trilobite-looking things that couldn’t be bothered to move if someone lit a fire under them? “You’re kidding.”

“I am not.”

“They’re dangerous?”

“Only when the bulbweed is threatened, I believe,” Spock said. “The two species appear to exist in a biologically co-dependent relationship.”

“So I take it you, uh, threatened the bulbweed?”

“In order to recover you, I was forced to damage the plant.”

It was surreal, having someone saying all these fantastical events happened to him, yet not remembering a single thing. Jim felt like there were two of him – the Jim in Spock’s story, and the Jim with the headache from hell – who existed completely independent of each other. “Okay. I think I have the gist,” he lied, rubbing his eyes. “What do we do now?”

“I’d like permission to scout the area, sir.” That response came a little fast, like Spock had been lying in wait for the right time to say it. He was obviously restless in more ways than one.

“Feel free. I’ve been out of my head over half the time we’ve spent here,” Jim said. “I think you’re in charge for now.”

Spock nodded once, and scanned the forest around them. “I will search for food and water. We have only enough rations to last for a day between the two of us.”

Jim’s heart dropped into the pit of his stomach. “Do you really think we’ll be here longer than that?”

“It is logical to prepare, in any case.” Spock frowned ever so slightly, and Jim knew before he spoke he was going to say something neither of them wanted to hear. “If the aggressor ship was strong enough to drive the Enterprise away, it may be some time before she can recover us.”

The idea of a ship so powerful it could force his silver lady to flee with her nacelles between her pylons was worrisome, to say the least. “You’re probably right. I don’t like the thought of you going alone, though. Or of me sitting here bored the whole time.”

“If you wish, you can examine our electronics while I search for supplies,” Spock said. “I was too preoccupied to discern the source of their failure last night.”

“Failure,” Jim murmured. “Don’t tell me they’re all broken.”

“With the possible exception of the arclight, a cursory assessment indicates the affirmative. The bulbweed produces an intense electromagnetic effect when active. ”

“Perfect.” Jim kneaded his forehead, as if that could placate the crew of pickaxe wielding Klingons chipping away at his skull. “Yeah, I’ll take a look.”

Spock seemed satisfied, and he upended the emergency pack in front of Jim. A small avalanche of devices poured out, and the clamor of metal on metal echoed through Jim’s head, the perfect accompaniment to the busy Klingons. Jim flinched at both the sound and the scope of the problem facing him. As soon as the pack was empty, Spock slung it over his shoulder and moved to depart.

“Be careful out there,” Jim called after him.

Spock stiffened visibly. “I will not go far.” He hurried on his way, a flash of blue between the black and dark red tree trunks. Jim wondered if he said something wrong, but he couldn’t feel particularly bad about it under the circumstances.

Jim, be careful.

Spock’s voice. Jim glanced up, but Spock was already gone. He must have imagined it. Something from a past mission, maybe, although he couldn’t remember the last time Spock called him by his name. Definitely not since those shore leaves he took on New Vulcan a month or two after Narada, after which he came back so determined to be an über-Vulcan it was painful to watch. Jim chalked it up to being tired and started to sift through the electronics.

The tricorder still worked. Well, worked was a relative term. It turned on, made some noises, and flashed its lights, but Jim had a sneaking suspicion that the ambient air temperature wasn’t actually 340 degrees Celcius. Tricorders were made of sturdier stuff than a lot of other ‘fleet equipment, so anything that made one go haywire would probably kill other devices outright.

He moved on to the PADD anyway, which looked about as dead as a Tarsus IV dog. Not that he’d know, really. A fight with Frank made his mother cancel their travel plans to the planet when he was a kid, and two days later, the fungus outbreak began. Another lucky break for the Kirk boy, everyone said.

He wasn’t convinced his luck had run out just yet, so he jury-rigged it to the tricorder and figured out only the screen was having problems. Well, that and the memory banks were completely wiped.

Everything else was beyond hope. The communicator’s subspace antenna was fried. The arclight had to run constantly, and the power wouldn’t last more than a few days. He spent half an hour prying the phaser open to reveal a melted tangle of components. The power reservoir had overflowed into the body of the phaser during failure, a manufacturing flaw was supposed to have been fixed two models ago.

Seeing that was the last straw, and Jim fumed silently for a few minutes, yanking out bits of broken fiber optics and ruined fuses for no other reason than the need to destroy something. He swore up and down at blown capacitors, the fact that he felt like he belonged in a geriatric ward, and the universe in general.

He spent what seemed like an awfully long time trying to decide if the problem was his full-body hangover, or if the devices really were beyond repair, or if he was just as stupid as he felt.

Finally he decided he had to do something else, or he would lose his mind before the next minute came and went. He crawled to a sturdy-looking branch a few meters away, and between his prop and a tree trunk, hauled himself to his feet with a stupendous amount of effort. Spock was working on food and water, so he would take care of fire and shelter if it killed him.

Gathering wood was painfully slow going. He could only carry a handful of sticks or drag one larger branch at a time, and he promised himself he would stay in sight of the tree fern where Spock left him. The temperature climbed to tropical levels. But he was encouraged every time he came back from another ten meter marathon and the pile was bigger than before.

On his fourth circuit, he almost tripped over a cattlebug. Half the time they looked like hovering rocks, and he didn’t notice this one’s legs until it was too late. Jim blinked at it for a few dazed seconds as he adjusted his grip on the kindling. If a roly poly, a harvestman, and a tortoise had a baby, then decided it was too ugly and threw it out, that would be a cattlebug. It definitely didn’t look like something that could take Spock on. He pushed past it and staggered for the pile.

As he worked, his hunger grew until it felt like his stomach was caving in, but he knew he shouldn’t eat any more of the rations. Finishing off the hydration pack didn’t do any good. The temptation got strong enough that he chewed leaves for awhile to take the edge off. A terrible idea really, even if he had seen the cattlebugs munching on them, but it worked.

His headache cleared as time passed, and he started getting ambitious. He made a knife out of communicator parts sharp enough to cut down fronds for the roof of a hypothetical lean-to. He braided some vines into a reasonably strong rope. He put together a bow drill, because some moron behind a desk at command assumed phasers were all you ever needed to make fire, and phasers couldn’t possibly fail. Exhausted and feeling unduly accomplished, he had a brief, insane fantasy about building a cannon out of random natural materials.

He surveyed his work thus far and decided a nap was in order, mainly because his eyes kept closing as he was splitting vines. At the very least it would take his mind off food. And although he didn’t like the thought of being alone and unconscious, he didn’t think there was any danger. He had run into a couple drakes over the past few hours – bony, lizardish creatures with leafy wings – and even saw a tree squid from a distance, but they weren’t threatening in the slightest. Lieutenant Brady’s assessment of the wildlife still rang true in his mind, even with the addition of Spock’s minor footnote. He picked out a mossy patch in the shade and closed his eyes.

Now that he was idle for more than a few seconds, the thoughts that had been stewing in the back of his mind all morning drifted to the surface. He still couldn’t remember being inside the bulbweed, but he could remember what he felt last night.

Not pleasure, exactly. It was too primitive for that. More like the pure sensation of being alive. So alive that nothing else mattered but that exact moment, the inhale and exhale, connected and detached at the same time. Perfect apathy, total calm. Nothing could faze him. The closest thing he could compare it to was that death-defying moment from his childhood, when he dove out of the Corvette just before hitting the quarry; that same weightless feeling in a constant barrage.

He wondered if that was how non-sapient beings felt all the time, the past and the future unreal, only ever knowing what was right in front of them. There was a kind of peace to it, Jim thought. Something almost like ecstasy, but rooted much deeper, lurking in the lizard brain that humans buried in gray matter millions of years ago.

Hell, he could drift forever on that warm sea…

The sound of something big approaching snapped him back from the edge of sleep. The shadows were longer, so he must have passed out, but he didn’t feel very rested. Spock appeared before he had time to conjure up visions of monsters in his half-awake state.

“You’re back.”

Spock glanced at the piles of raw material surrounding him. “You have been more active than I anticipated.” He looked like he wanted to disapprove, but his voice was impressed.

“The tech is mostly junked. I had to do something.” Jim shrugged. “What did you find?”

“These.” Spock opened the pack to show him several clusters of small orange berries. “Common name, sungrapes. What I can recall from the Galapagos data indicates that they are probably not hazardous to consume.”

“Probably?” Jim frowned. “C’mon. Give me some numbers.”

“There is a 11.3% chance they are toxic.”

Jim peered at the berries. “I know beggars can’t be choosers, but that seems a little high.”

“It is impossible to know what a scanner does not detect,” Spock reminded him. “Either way, we have little choice.”

Jim made an abstract sound of agreement. “So have you started edibility testing?”

“There is no discernible irritation after three hours.” Spock pulled up his sleeve to show a spot on his arm that was orange with the dried juice of the berry. “You should repeat the experiment for yourself. There may be some compound that a purely human physiology cannot tolerate.”

“Will do.”

Spock proceeded to show him three water pouches made out of plant material, and explained he detached them from the vines they belonged to and dug them out of the ground. “They are probably reproductive structures, but I emptied the existing water and replaced it with water from a creek.”

“That’s… reassuring.” Each of them looked like it could hold a liter, and they had a whole bottle of purifying tablets.

Then Spock lifted a gelatinous, yellow-orange blob from a different pocket in the pack, big enough that he needed both hands. “This is Ectoprocta photolapsis, an arboreal and semi-motile detritivore–”

“It’s a tree slime,” Jim cut him off. He really wasn’t up for a few rounds of pseudo-Latin tongue twister.

Spock blinked at him. “While I admit the organism’s appearance is akin to that of a slime mold, it appears to be–”

“If we have to talk about it on a regular basis, it’s a tree slime, Spock.”

Spock hesitated and continued with a slight reluctance in his tone. “The tree slime is a potential source of easily digestible nonessential amino acids and–”

“Oh God, please tell me you’re kidding.” Jim eyed the mass, which looked about a hundred times more disgusting now that Spock was trying to call it food. It certainly didn’t help that his intestines had taken the same beating as the rest of him last night.

“I am not.”

“Can we at least cook it first?” Jim had no idea if that would help, but it was worth a try.

“I see no reason why we could not.”

“Good. You had me scared for a minute there.”

Spock almost raised an eyebrow, but visibly changed his mind. Jim could imagine every step of that thought process: raising an eyebrow would project the appearance of amusement. Amusement is not logical. Therefore, reset to default expression. New Vulcan sank its claws into Spock more than Spock would ever admit.

By the time they put together a lean-to and Spock got a fire started, the sun was low in the sky. Neither of them had an obvious allergic reaction to the found foods yet, so they decided to eat while it was light out and keep the fire low to conserve wood.

Jim tried the sungrapes first, mouth watering in anticipation. One bite and reality smacked him in the face. He struggled not to grimace like a melodramatic child, but it was really difficult when his mouth wanted to collapse on itself. “They’re a little sour,” he wheezed.

“They are high in vitamin C,” Spock said, and promptly ate a handful with zero expression.

The tree slime ended up cooking to the consistency of leather, no matter what they tried. After several failed attempts, Jim decided it had two states: disgusting mucous that tried to choke you, and impossible to chew. Spock seemed disappointed, but Jim was more than content with rations and berries for now. He mashed them together between two rocks to take the bite out of the sungrapes.

Spock finished his meal first, and gingerly unwound the cloth from his hand, revealing a second degree burn that stretched across the back. The skin there was mottled green, blistered in a few places. Something about it disturbed Jim more than he thought it should. It felt like déjà vu, even though Spock never had this kind of injury before. “You all right?”

“It is superficial. I have used an immune boosting hypospray.”

Dermal regenerators were tricky pieces of equipment to use untrained, and even if they had one, it probably wouldn’t work. Nonetheless, Jim added another item to his growing list of things to file an official complaint about. He watched Spock tear a fresh length of cloth from his undershirt to rewrap the injury. Gauze too, Jim thought. Archaic, but better than nothing.

He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the silence that fell between them. He spent most of his free time on the ship with Bones, and Scotty and Sulu came in a distant second, but Spock had turned down every attempt he made to hang out off the clock. He kept waiting for the ‘old friends’ thing to happen, waiting to feel like the perfect command team everyone thought they were, but Spock more solemn now than when Jim first met him. Somewhere along the difficult path of species resettlement, he lost his more-logical-than-thou attitude, and Jim didn’t like it. Hell, even Bones complained.

“You were so goddamn smug,” the doctor had raged last week, after failing to draw Spock into an argument over some stupid human truism. “You’re never smug anymore.”

Jim would also take smugness over stony indifference any day.

“What else happened last night?” He tried to start conversation. “I went into the bulbweed, you got me out, the cattlebugs mauled you… there has to be more to it than that.”

Spock tied off his makeshift bandage with his teeth, and he didn’t answer for a few seconds. “I estimated a forty six point eight percent chance you would not survive.”

“Oh.” Jim tried to play off his shock with bravado. “C’mon, now. I don’t go down that easily.”

“Perhaps.”

He stared at Spock, not sure whether to be insulted or flattered. For a moment, the world spun a little faster and shifted around him. He remembered a conversation, a chessboard, a narrow escape out of check. All vague, like the phantom impression of a dream that was mostly gone by mid-morning.

Jim rubbed his jaw and felt that much less grounded in reality. It had to be a side effect of the bulbweed. Who could say what being drenched in strange alien chemicals had done to his head? Maybe these flashes he kept having would stop happening and fade away over time.

And maybe his eyes kept losing focus because he was tired, although that didn’t explain why they always settled on a specific point in the distance.

Chapter Text


Spock

An erratic breeze lifted some of the oppressive heat as evening descended upon them. Spock watched Kirk’s face intently, because an experiment was about to begin. Not entirely ethical in that it did not involve informed consent or carefully controlled variables, but Spock was a third party, and not responsible for the parameters.

Sure enough, the symptoms were making themselves known. Kirk’s eyes were glazing over as he stared into the darkening forest beyond the ring of firelight.

“Captain?” Spock received no response. “Captain? Is something wrong?”

Kirk blinked and shook his head. He looked at Spock briefly and fixed his gaze on the fire, his expression troubled. “I don’t know.”

Spock shifted to a more alert posture. The pheromones were no doubt released by now, and this was his opportunity to observe the full process of attraction. “Elaborate.”

“I just feel like… I feel like there’s something…” Suddenly Kirk’s entire body tensed, and his eyes widened in horror. “No.”

In that instant Spock realized something was different, something was wrong, and three things occurred within the span of as many seconds. The faint breeze shifted directions, Kirk clambered to his feet and started stumbling into the darkness, and Spock dove toward him. Fortunately Kirk was still too weak to move with any real speed, and Spock caught him well before he could duck out of sight.

Kirk let out a strange, animalistic whine and fought Spock’s grip as he dragged the captain back toward the fire. Spock quickly determined that Kirk was thrashing about not with intent to injure, but rather to free himself of whatever irrelevant burden was holding him back. Spock ignored the flailing blows, none of which were strong enough to deter him. Nonetheless, the fierceness of it all was highly concerning.

Then Kirk regained enough of himself that he found his voice, and he started rambling senselessly. “Let me go, you have to let me go, I’ll die if I don’t, get off me!” He twisted against Spock in such a violent and desperate way that Spock almost lost his balance.

There was a faint popping sound, and Kirk cried out, his legs crumpling beneath him. When Spock tried to hold him up, he howled in pain, and Spock could no longer feel resistance in his right arm. He lowered Kirk to the ground as quickly as possible and tried to keep him still with one hand while he probed the arm with the other. Nothing seemed to be wrong until he reached the shoulder, where he discovered the humerus had separated from the scapula.

Kirk was still struggling to escape, shouting pleas and obscenities and invoking the chain of command. He would have crawled away onto his stomach if Spock hadn’t been holding him.

“Captain, you must remain still. Your shoulder is dislocated.”

“Let me go! I have to go!”

Spock wished briefly for the sedative hyposprays that were several meters away, and settled for the next best thing. He pressed his knees into Kirk’s back to pin him in place and closed his hand around the base of the uninjured shoulder. Kirk slipped into unconsciousness, and Spock slumped onto the ground beside him.

He permitted himself an almost objectionable five point three seconds to sort through these results before he addressed a more immediate concern. He carefully bent Kirk’s right arm and rotated it inward and outward until the joint popped back into the correct position, grateful the captain was not aware for the procedure.

His hypothesis was flawed. He had not anticipated such a violent outcome. He assumed he could extrapolate from existing data, that the captain’s only reaction would be the same vague compulsion he witnessed before.

This was not so simple. This was an addiction, consuming and insidious, more potent than anything Spock had encountered. Progressive also, if Lombard and Phillips were any indication. With sufficient exposure, organisms with the right biochemistry fell under the influence of the plant so completely they cared about nothing else.

Kirk started to tremble despite being neurally knocked out, and his face shone with sweat. Spock carried him back to their crude shelter and placed him inside. He identified the classic symptoms of withdrawal and treated them as best he could with their remaining hyposprays, which had little noticeable impact.

The stars began to appear, forming unfamiliar constellations across the bright band of the galaxy. Spock set to work improving their shelter by the faint light, recalculating an ever-shrinking percent chance of survival.

***

Spock was fletching his last batch of arrows when the captain stirred on the dirt floor beside him. He opened his eyes, squinting at the early morning light, and grunted in displeasure.

“Good morning,” Spock said automatically. Nine days ago, Jim complained he was tired of being interrogated the second he regained awareness, so Spock resorted to various human civilities instead.

“Mmm. Not so much.” Jim had difficulty forming these words, and his voice was strained and hoarse. He fell silent for close to a minute, staring at the roof of the shelter as he adjusted to his surroundings. “Thought I was getting better for awhile there,” he mumbled. “I guess it was just the rain.”

“What I have observed thus far supports that conclusion.” The images of the past several hours began to replay themselves in Spock’s mind, and he experienced a flash of unease before he could shut them out.

Some nights Jim tossed and turned in fitful periods of sleep, tormented by a suite of symptoms as he fought the pull of the bulbweed, while other nights the pull was so strong he did nothing but try to escape. This was in part dependant on the weather – wind direction, temperature, rainfall – and all it took to erase any improvement after multiple milder nights was one severe one. Either way, morning frequently found both of them in various degrees of exhaustion.

“Are you thirsty?” Spock retrieved a pouch from their hut’s makeshift shelving.

Jim nodded and tried to reach for the water, but met resistance from the vine ropes that were tied around his wrists and ankles, staked to the ground. He blinked and frowned, peering down at himself in a daze.

“I apologize, Captain. You were particularly belligerent last night.”

“Right. What is this, three times now?” An exhausted but sly grin crept over Jim’s face. He tilted his head back, as though he were exposing his throat. “You know, standard human protocol says you have to take someone out a few times before you get to tie them up.”

“Captain,” Spock began hesitantly, “do you feel that your mental state is–”

“Relax, Spock. I’m messing with you.” The strange intensity in Jim’s gaze dissipated as he rolled his eyes. “If I can have a sense of humor about this, you’d damn well better grow one too. Now if you’d be so kind…” He wiggled his hands and feet, and Spock freed him from the vines, resolutely ignoring the red welts.

Spock stepped outside of the shelter and into the open space they had cleared out of the jungle via intentional and unintentional means. Jim crawled after him, muttering about ‘the great glowing plant of doom.’ He hissed and grunted through some morning stretches as Spock bundled the arrows into a quiver and checked the integrity of his bow. Jim’s face was pinched even sitting still, and Spock knew the headache was particularly aggressive today.

He performed a covert visual inspection while the captain was occupied with a hamstring stretch. There were perpetual dark blotches around Jim’s eyes, and he was beginning to lose weight. The fact that his mental acuity remained largely intact despite these stressors was a recurring source of astonishment to Spock. Humans were known for being resilient under pressure, but juxtaposed against such obvious physical fragility, that robust will was impressive.

“Heading out?” Jim tried to peer up at him, but hissed and snapped his head back down, clutching the nape of his neck.

“Affirmative.” Spock secured the last strap of his quiver and looped a coil of rope around one shoulder. “I should be back within four hours’ time.”

“Good luck,” Jim said. “Bring back more slime if you can.” He nodded toward the drying racks, where he was curing tree slime into a tough, leather-like material to use as cloth. Spock nodded and set off on his daily route.

At first, the captain insisted on going with Spock on these excursions, but his nightly ordeals left him too weak. The first time he tried, he collapsed from sheer exhaustion. The second time he fell behind, and Spock found him standing at the edge of a bulbweed clearing with an unsettling expression much like resignation. In any case, he had to take frequent naps during the day to compensate for night, much of which he spent half-awake and intensely ill.

Spock passed by that particular bulbweed on the way to check his snares. Over the course of the past thirteen days, he discovered the massive plants were ubiquitous in the Sigma Nox forest, almost evenly distributed in every direction as far as he traveled.

He studied several of them for close to a week, but was still puzzled by the species’ modus operandi. The cattlebugs spent most of the day grazing in the forest, and at night they were inexorably drawn toward the closest bulbweed, where inside they regurgitated a significant portion of their stomach contents. They were released the next morning to proceed with another day of lethargy before the bulbweeds activated at dusk and called them back. Whatever benefit the cattlebugs derived from the evolutionary deal escaped him; he could not imagine how such a strange and unequal association came into being. It was almost parasitic, but instead of many small organisms feeding off a larger host, the reverse was true.

In any case, he employed the variations in bulbweed patterning to use them as waypoints in the jungle. This individual had more blue flecks than average, confirming that he was headed north.

There was nothing in the snares he set two days before except a few pincushions. Their long, jagged red spines were good for arrows and spearheads, but he had more than what he needed back at camp. Spock released the creatures, and one of them scuttled sideways and pricked his hand before he could move away. They puffed up to perhaps three times their normal size when threatened, and the danger radius was difficult to calculate.

Spock strung his bow and tested the pull. Nothing useful in the snares meant he had to hunt. While he might be able to subsist on roots and fruit and certain nutritious leaves for long periods of time, Jim’s metabolism could not synthesize all of the amino acids necessary for his survival. And so Spock put aside the pacifism and vegetarianism of his race in favor of the most nutritionally-dense food supply available: the flesh of animals. Although he had the blessing of Surak, who stated that self-preservation might require the logical application of violence, the taste of meat made his stomach churn.

Their options for food animals were quite limited. The cattlebugs were reservoirs of bulbweed pheromones, the immense, beetlelike rhinopterans were dangerous when provoked, and only the larger species of drake were worth the energy required to hunt them. Spock caught a tree squid once and never again. They were roughly similar to baboons in terms of intelligence, and they avoided him quite adeptly.

The situation was complicated by Spock’s own suite of physical difficulties. These were not the ancestral hunting grounds of his people. Vulcan physiology was not compatible with this environment. The humidity interfered with his respiration and put undue stress on his ability to thermoregulate. His heart rate was perpetually elevated as a result, and he found himself reluctant to consider potential long-term consequences of this disturbance. His eyes instinctively sought movement, a twitch against a still backdrop of sand and stone, even though his actual surroundings were constantly in motion. Leaves fanned the air, branches dipped in the slightest breeze, and the activity of animals he had no interest in all commanded his attention.

Spock shut his eyes to remove this one distraction among many. The darkness behind his eyelids helped him clear his mind, shift his focus to the other, more subtle senses. Vulcans were not merely sight hunters in the not-so-distant past, but sound hunters as well. Spock remembered when his father had taken him on a diplomatic visit the clans of the M’dun Range, strange living relics of Vulcan’s brutal past who rejected technology and existed in a pre-Reform state. They pursued le-matya at night, eighty percent dependant on hearing to guide them.

There. The throaty clicks and whistles of an adult rusty drake, approximately one hundred meters to the west. Spock picked his way around a cluster of pitcher vines and made his approach.

As he got closer, he nocked an arrow and sank into a crouch, placing every step with care to avoid startling his prey. Most of the drake species blended in with their surroundings extraordinarily well, and they never flew above the canopy. But there were several types of tree fern, all slightly different shades; Jim had named most of them by the end of the first week, which assisted in discrimination. Once Spock learned to perceive the subtle color variations, his success at spotting drakes increased roughly three-hundred percent.

The whistles resumed almost directly over his head. His target was perched high on a coral tree, well out of range. It was one of the largest drakes he had seen so far, and could probably feed him and the captain for several days. He waited for it to move, but it seemed content to stay in one place, folding and unfolding its leafy wings.

A second drake appeared then, smaller than the first. It landed much lower on the coral tree, and Spock took his chance. He drew, aimed, slowly exhaled. In the fraction of a second it took him to loose the arrow, the drake launched back into flight.

He was ninety-six percent sure he had failed when the drake jolted mid-air and began to fall, emitting a sound like a stick being dragged along a wooden fence. The other, more desirable drake hissed and fled in response. Spock hurried over to the thrashing heap of wings and bony limbs. The arrow had pierced through the fragile flesh of the wing, but the animal was very much alive. Its round, black eyes fixated on him, and it tried to lurch away.

Spock grabbed it by the head and snapped its neck. The drake shuddered and went still.

There it was, the same as it had been the past three hunts. A minute sense of accomplishment, bordering on a thrill, that bubbled up within him when his prey took its last breath. No matter how he tried to ignore the feeling, no matter how much he meditated, this primitive sense of victory claimed him every time.

He remembered a conversation he had with Nyota not long before they parted ways. As per their usual routine, he came to her quarters after his shift and found her reading, still in uniform despite the late hour. She smiled at him, but appeared distracted.

As their fingers met in the ozh’esta, Spock initiated 0.25 seconds of telepathic contact, and what he discovered alarmed him. He hesitated, regretting the action immediately, but was unable to leave the matter unaddressed now that he knew. “You remain concerned for my emotional state.”

Nyota lowered her PADD, keeping her eyes trained on the screen. “I don’t like it when you do that without asking first.”

“One could have come to such a conclusion based on your expression.” Spock should have known she would see through the ruse, but he did not want to upset her further.

“Maybe ‘one’ could. But you didn’t.” She turned off her PADD and set it aside to fold her hands on her lap. “I’m sorry, Spock. I can’t have you reading me all the time without reciprocation.”

“I apologize, but I can only reciprocate with thoughts, not feelings.”

“You keep saying that. I don’t buy it. Especially now.” Spock could tell she was angry based upon the subtle shift in her tone, the sharpness to her movements as she stood and headed for the bathroom.

“Nyota, the Terran calendar year is an arbitrary period,” he insisted for the third time, following her a few steps. “It has no significance.”

“Not when you’re half human,” she retorted. She searched the vanity and cabinet above with ever-increasing zeal. “Not when everyone around you is thinking about it. I can’t tell you how many crewmembers I’ve comforted the past few days, and they just had a mentor or friend die, not....Where on Earth did I put my brush?”

Spock touched her shoulder and handed her item in question. Her face and tone softened abruptly, and she took it from him. Her hand lingered on his, a soft palm and calloused fingertips. “I’m not asking you to act like a human,” she said. “I never will. I just want things to be how they were at the Academy.”

This assertion was new, and puzzling. “Clarify.”

“You were never emotional, but you were warm. To me, at least. You were open, and empathetic, and just… different. Nobody else knows you like I did, so I might be the only one you hear it from.” She sighed and moved past him to sit on the edge of the bed and brush her hair. There was a time he enjoyed watching her perform this nightly ritual, but now he was indifferent to the activity.

“I know you’ve been doing a lot of work with the colony,” she continued as he pondered this fact, “but you can’t let them get to you. Just because they’re becoming more conservative doesn’t mean you have to follow their lead.”

Spock slung the drake over his back and tied it into place. Nyota was well-meaning, of course, but ultimately mistaken. He attacked an innocent man in an animalistic rage. He relished the downfall of another sentient being. Perhaps his father’s people had been wrong to ostracize him for most of his youth, but they would not be wrong for ostracizing him given that evidence. All it took was a time of intense stress, and his human blood fractured him down the middle into a dangerous creature, the physical strength of a Vulcan coupled with unstable emotionalism.

Either he worked harder to live the Vulcan way, heed the teachings of the masters he helped relocate, or he opened the door to savagery. Every day spent on Sigma Nox served to reinforce this fact.

Spock searched for another two hours, but had nothing more to show for his efforts except a few small slimes, a single duskmelon, and more sungrapes than either he or the captain wanted to eat. Some part of him was grateful for his misfortune, because it meant he would not be forced to kill again today, and confront a problem he did not know how to solve.

He returned to camp to find Jim working on a new spear, or perhaps a walking stick. He had a long branch resting against his shoulder and knees, and was systematically slicing off the fronds. Spock hung the drake on the rack they used for skinning, and Jim looked at it briefly, his brow knitting together.

“Kind of a little guy, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Spock said, turning so the duskmelon was visible hanging from a sling on his shoulder. “I also found this.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so!” Jim’s mood lifted immediately, and he gestured for Spock to join him on one of the logs arranged around the fire pit. “C’mon, cut it up. I’m starving.” This was what he said at every meal, because there was never quite enough food to satisfy them both.

Spock sat down and began peeling the deep red, oblong fruit with his knife made from phaser casing. He was halfway through the task when Jim spoke. Jim frequently engaged him in idle conversation, even when he was reluctant to participate.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Captain?” Spock knew his hearing was not suspect, but perhaps the captain misspoke.

“Just trying to kill time.” Jim struggled with his knife, stuck in a frond joint on the branch. “And I’ve been thinking, lately. I know you, but I don’t know you. Superficially, I mean.” He paused to examine the problem point and kept going. “So what’s your favorite color? And don’t you dare say red or orange, because I think I might hit you.”

“It would be illogical to prefer a particular electromagnetic wavelength over another for purely aesthetic purposes.” It almost surprised Spock, how automatic his own answer was.

“No, see, that’s not how it works.” The knife freed itself, and Jim grunted and almost fell forward at the sudden lack of resistance. He looked at the tool, then the now-smooth spot on the branch, and shook his head before continuing his task. “Here, I’ll go first. My favorite is green, because that’s the color trees are supposed to be. I used to like red, but then, you know.” A vague gesture at their surroundings, and Spock was fairly confident that he did.

Even so, this topic was fundamentally frivolous. “I do not understand the purpose–”

“Mr. Spock, you’re a stubborn man,” Jim interrupted, smiling at him. “I respect that. But I’m going to win this one way or another, so humor me. If you had to pick. Imagine someone’s holding a phaser to your head, if that helps.”

Spock decided not to pursue his curiosity about the scenario that Jim’s final sentence would necessitate. “Blue,” he said, after a moment’s pause. He kept his gaze fixed on the pile of melon rinds.

“I guess you lucked out in the uniform department.” Jim chuckled. The irregular, scraping rhythm of metal on wood stopped for a moment. “How come?”

He had an answer, even though he had never contemplated the question before. It was not something he was eager to share, but he decided to indulge the captain for the sake of his mental well-being. “My mother talked a great deal about Earth when I was a child. She said that the sky and the oceans were blue. Considering that Earth is over seventy percent ocean, I was intrigued by the notion of a planet that was overwhelmingly blue. The color was rare on Vulcan.” Spock hesitated. “When I first visited myself, I found that any descriptions, including hers, were not adequate to prepare me for direct observation.”

“Spock.” Jim’s tone was incredulous, and Spock looked up from his work again to see Jim grinning at him. “Are you saying you had an emotional reaction to your first encounter with our lovely blue marble?”

Spock had read enough of human space history to recognize the reference. “Not an emotional reaction, Captain. An intellectual one.”

“I’m sure.” Jim smiled and shot him a brief look, his eyes bright in the sunlight, and blue as the Terran sky. “By the way, I’ve got something to show you later. Remind me at seventeen hundred.”

“I shall.” Spock passed him a piece of duskmelon, which he devoured in an impressively short time.

The day passed much like the others. Sometimes one of them experimented with the spare parts from the ruined electronics, usually to make a more primitive but useful tool. Sometimes they improved the shelter further, which had expanded from a lean-to against a tree fern to a structure more like a hut. Recently they had finished an underground storage compartment for food and water, and today Spock made a woven frond and stick door to keep the elements out. Jim tried softening the desiccated slime by abrading it over a rock, with some degree of success. He also made minor repairs to their uniforms and fixed Spock’s insignia, hanging by a few threads since it caught on a branch yesterday.

A significant portion of the day was spent in alternating periods of rest. Normally Spock could function with less sleep than a human, but the nature of their environment was such that he tired more readily. He meditated at night, unable to sleep knowing that neither one of them was keeping watch, so the only other time for sleep was during the daylight hours. Mid-afternoon, Jim insisted it was his turn to rest, and he was not inclined to disagree.

He awoke to the smell of dinner. Jim was remarkably creative with their limited resources when it came to cooking. In his own words, he often had nothing better to do than mash things up and stick them over the fire. His concoctions were usually more appetizing than the ingredients would have been in their natural state, with a few disastrous exceptions.

Fortunately, this meal was not one of those exceptions. Jim cooked the drake in such a way that that Spock could almost forget what they were eating. His palate appreciated the effort, even if his digestive tract still struggled to assimilate the radically different diet. Plants alone were not as calorically efficient, and he was determined to make his body adjust.

“You want to come feed the bugs with me?” Jim asked after they finished, picking up a basket stuffed with fronds. Spock nodded and followed him.

They entered a grove of blood trees about fifteen meters away from camp, where three cattlebugs were tethered to the sturdier tree ferns by vine rope harnesses. The smaller two were currently lying down, their jointed legs folded under them so that they looked like segmented, glossy brown stones on the forest floor. The largest was at the end of its tether, apparently trying to reach the one close patch of vegetation they hadn’t yet stripped away.

Jim offered this one a handful of fronds first, and it shuffled over to him, its pinchers shredding over the ends with great dexterity. They caught these specimens yesterday afternoon – although ‘caught’ was an inaccurate verb, considering they offered no resistance at the time. Last night was another matter entirely. They shrieked and struggled until a few hours before dawn. Even though the harnesses were designed in such way that they could not injure themselves, the stress of the event had taken its toll. Spock did not think it was possible, but they appeared even more listless than before.

“I kind of like this guy.” Jim patted the largest cattlebug, and it tilted its head to follow his hand, jaws working the air. “I think I’ll name him Junkie.” He frowned and glanced at Spock. “Him? Her?”

“Unclear.” Thus far Spock had not seen been successful in identifying any distinguishing sex characteristics on the cattlebugs. There were many the size of his fist roaming the jungle, but their origin was not yet obvious. Perhaps they reproduced asexually, and were all essentially clones.

Jim passed Spock a clump of fronds, which he split in half and offered to the smaller cattlebugs. “I’m starting to worry it’ll never go away,” he said suddenly.

“To what are you referring?” Spock glanced over at the captain and almost got his fingers bitten for his inattentiveness. Jim waited until he withdrew his hands to a safe distance to continue.

“The urge. The whole crazy pheromone thing.” Jim’s eyes were downcast. He gave his cattlebug more to eat, but showed no more interest in watching it feed.

“I believe it is too soon to speak in absolutes,” Spock said. It was the closest thing to reassurance he could offer.

Jim shifted his weight, bowed his head a little more. “Some part of me wants it, Spock,” he confessed, voice low. “Not just at night, either. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I forgot… I forgot everything. I didn’t worry about anything, I didn’t want anything, I didn’t care about anything.” He gave the large cattlebug a final pat and brushed off his hands. “Ignorance is bliss, I guess.”

The admission was so incongruous coming from the captain, Spock was mildly stunned. “I must admit, I could never comprehend such an illogical human sentiment.”

“I couldn’t either, until this happened. And hell, if really stupid people walk around like that all the time, I’m not sure who’s got the worse deal anymore.”

Spock squared his shoulders and placed his hands behind his back. He had noted in the past that people listened to him more carefully when he assumed this particular posture. “Statistically speaking, IQ is in no way negatively correlated with long-term happiness.”

A barely perceptible smile tugged at the corner of Jim’s mouth. “I hope you’re right. I’d hate for you to spend your whole life miserable.”

“Misery is an emotional state. Lacking emotion therefore precludes being miserable.”

“Of course.” Jim’s smile widened. “I forget myself.”

It occurred to Spock that the time Jim specified earlier was approaching within the next five minutes. He relayed this information, and Jim led the way out of the grove, hastily scattering the remaining fronds. Whatever the captain had in store seemed to snap him out of his bleak mindset, and Spock hoped the entire incident was an anomaly, one of the passing emotions humans were wont to fall prey to.

Jim sprawled out on his back in front of the shelter and patted the ground beside him. “Come here. Keep an eye on the east side of the sky, by the tree that looks like an elephant.”

Spock joined him and searched the indicated area. “An elephant?”

“Yeah, you know. That one big frond is the trunk, and there’s an ear over that way… don’t you see it?”

“Negative.”

Jim sighed. “Right ascension, six hours, seventeen minutes, hell-if-I-know seconds.”

“Ah.” There still wasn’t anything resembling an elephant under his scrutiny, but he had the correct location in any case. “Precisely what are we looking for?”

“You’ll see.”

Two minutes, thirteen seconds passed in silence. During the hour before sunset, the faint green tint to the atmosphere of Sigma Nox became more apparent due to a curious optical effect. A few drakes whistled in the distance, and the tree squid started up their high-pitched calls, somewhere between a crying infant and a siren.

Spock shifted to remove a twig from beneath his back. “Captain, are you certain–”

“Keep watching. It’ll be there.”

Not ten seconds after that reassurance, a point of light as bright as a medium magnitude star appeared overhead, drifting across the sky in a definite linear path. It was visible for approximately one minute before it vanished behind the trees on the other side of their camp.

“Fascinating,” Spock murmured.

“I’ve kept track for three days now. It’s got a regular orbit. There shouldn’t be any satellites around this planet, right?”

“Correct.”

“And it’s reflective, too. I’m betting artificial.”

“That appears to be a viable hypothesis.”

“So,” Jim rolled onto his side and propped his head up on an elbow with a self-satisfied smirk, “what massive piece of space junk do we know of that just might be drifting around up there?”

Spock raised an eyebrow. “The Galapagos.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.”

Spock spent fifteen point eight seconds examining alternative hypotheses, but indeed, the Galapagos was the most likely candidate. A great deal of questions came to mind, none of which he could answer, or even had the means to investigate. It was simultaneously an interesting and disappointing discovery.

Jim had gone conspicuously quiet, and Spock sat up and peered down at him. “Do you feel anything yet?”

“Maybe.” Jim closed his eyes for a few seconds, visibly concentrating. His face grew troubled before he opened them again. “Yeah. Coming on fast.”

They headed inside the shelter and Spock shut the door, in case the compulsion hit strong enough that Jim decided to bolt. Spock doubted he had the strength for it after the previous night, but Jim had surprised him before in that regard. He lit the small fire in the interior fire pit and watched Jim settle down on the pile of fronds that served as a cot, already shivering with fever.

“One of these days… I’m making us… hammocks,” Jim said between gasps. “You remember the… the Taril? Taught us knots. So boring. I can’t… remember any.”

A strange species, whose primary export was their skillful weaving of various alien fabrics. That particular diplomatic meeting had been punctuated by the snores of at least one Federation ambassador. “Nor can I,” Spock admitted. “However, I am certain that between the two of us, we could design a passable apparatus.”

Jim grunted in response and closed his eyes. Spock scrutinized him awhile longer, then assumed a meditative posture. He used the fire as a focal point, regulating his breathing and heart rate as close to normal levels as possible. He began seeking out the feelings that had beset him earlier, but outside of the moment, he could no longer understand them. Examining his memories was like observing the event from a distance, or listening to a secondhand account. He meditated on the Galapagos for a time to no productive end. So he turned his thoughts instead to the planet, and the unique interrelationships between its organisms that evolution had shaped with an unforgiving hand.

The next morning, the cattlebugs were dead.

Chapter Text


Kirk

“Captain’s log, stardate…” Jim hesitated, and had to resort to finger-counting due to the dull ache in his head. “Stardate 3132.4.” Probably. “No change in status since my last entry, but I’d be lying if I said the results of our experiment haven’t been on my mind.”

Lifeless alien shells he could erase easily enough, but lifeless alien shells leaking red blood was a little more difficult.

They wanted to see what would happen. They had their answer.

But Jim was alive and coping, so he tried not to let it get to him. As far as they could tell, the cattlebugs spent their entire lives under the thrall of the bulbweed. He had about three minutes of direct exposure, plus or minus Spock’s unusually generous margin of error. Chances were he wouldn’t end up dead from withdrawal. At least, not anytime soon. He rubbed his jaw and continued.

“Our attempts to salvage any communication devices are still unsuccessful. At this point, we’d have better luck burning the whole forest down as a smoke signal. Also, I quizzed Spock for about two hours yesterday on missions gone wrong, and I don’t think there’s any real precedent for our situation. I guess we’ll just keep writing the book.” He cut the recording and played it back to double check that the tricorder-PADD abomination of a device actually worked. It didn’t. He tossed it aside.

Burn the whole forest down, he thought idly. That didn’t sound half bad. It also reminded him the wood pile was running low, so he stripped off his shirt and went to cut more out behind the hut. Spock felled the trees, hauled them near camp, and left most of the butchering to Jim. Tree fern wood split easily, and all they had for an axe was a wedge-shaped rock, so Jim usually sat up on his knees and whaled on the logs caveman style.

He liked to look at the patterns in the wood that emerged when he split them crosswise and lengthwise, the dark, fractal flowers on a light background. They reminded him of old paisley rugs or wisps of nebulae. Spock said it was because of the vascular tissues, but even he admitted they were beautiful. Well, he said they were mathematically intriguing, but in Spock-speak that was pretty much the same thing.

Jim fell into a mindless rhythm quickly, standing each trunk segment on its end and cracking it in half. He was glad for the work, because it kept him from thinking too much. If he let his mind wander, it always returned to the darkness inside the bulbweed, and the hollow place in the center of his chest that the darkness left behind.

It was like a broken leg. He could work around it, even ignore it, but at the end of the day, his leg was still useless. At the end of the day, the bulbweed was always there, singing to him from that black abyss. It reminded him of a phrase he learned from Lieutenant DeSalle a few months after launch. L’appel du vide: the insane yet non-suicidal urge to leap from a high place. Except with the bulbweed, he couldn’t trust himself not to jump.

He was just about to strike down and mentally crush that thought when the log he was working on slipped. He lost his balance and buried the axe into the ground instead, narrowly missing his calf along the way. The impact jarred up his elbow, like he’d just hit a concrete wall with a hammer.

After a moment’s break to wipe the sweat out of his eyes and mutter a few choice words under his breath, he set the log upright and recovered the axe. The log shifted again before he made his second attempt, and he realized that the flat ground of his workspace was actually uneven. He brushed over the spot with his hand, searching beneath the leaf litter for a twig or a dirt clod, but instead his fingers met stone.

Jim decided that digging aimlessly for awhile was slightly more interesting than chopping wood, so he put his work aside and free up both hands for clearing the area. If it was a big rock, maybe they could do something useful with it. He pushed the dirt aside, and the more he uncovered, the more confused he became. He worked faster, and after a minute or so, stopped to survey his progress. There was an outcrop of sloping, pitted rock lying just under the forest floor, at least a meter long. It reminded him a little of Mars, except even beneath the dirt, it was clearly more red than orange.

Why the hell not, Jim thought in a burst of irritation. It was on Sigma Nox, it had to be red.

He glanced at the substantial pile of logs he had stacked thus far. It was more than enough to get them through the night.

As he cleared away more debris, he discovered that the rock had a definite shape, like the top of a large cylinder. It extended away from camp in a straight line. Eventually Jim stood up to follow it, kicking leaves and soil aside every few meters and uncovering still more of the odd stone. Uniform shape, uniform direction, uniform color. He didn’t feel sore anymore, and his headache was a distant annoyance.

The trail ended at the base of a large, gently sloped hill. Jim poked around for awhile and uncovered a different kind of stone, black and smooth, just beneath the hill’s surface. Somewhere under a tangle of roots he couldn’t break through, the red stone ended and became this new material instead. There was something huge here, and he couldn’t figure out how to access it.

On a hunch, he backtracked and followed the rock line in the opposite direction. He hit the kind of pay dirt that every away team dreamed about.

By the time Spock returned later that afternoon, Jim was about to explode like an overheated warp core from anticipation. Whipping up some torches from slime leather, fern sap, and sticks could only eat up so much time after all the major work was done.

“There you are!” he called the second he caught a glimpse of filthy blue uniform. “Come over here. Hurry up. You’ll never believe what I found!”

“Oh?” Spock clearly did not expect to be greeted with this kind of enthusiasm. The faintly startled reaction made Jim realize he was acting like an overgrown puppy, but he couldn’t make himself care. He tried not to pace as Spock set down the fruits of his foraging before heading back toward the wood pile.

“All right. Here’s what started it.” Jim pointed at the rock under his foot before Spock had even reached his side. “What do you see?”

“I would hypothesize some type of iron oxide,” Spock said, after a moment’s scrutiny.

“That’s what I thought at first. But check this out.” Jim knelt to strike the rock with the back of his axe, and a small piece chipped off, revealing an even deeper color underneath. “No exposure to air. Still red.”

Spock leaned closer to examine the spot and raised an eyebrow. “Fascinating.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Jim grinned. “See that hill over there?”

“Affirmative.” Spock glanced at him and did a double take at Jim’s filthy hands and clothes. “Why are you covered in–”

“Never mind that. Just remember the hill.”

He led Spock to the place where the rock line ended, half-concealed by a fallen tree fern, and marked with a small fire. He spent a few hours digging up this spot once he realized the curved formation stopped here, and now he jumped down into the hole, just over a meter underground. He scooted to the side, making room for Spock, who climbed cautiously after him.

Spock stared for quite awhile, apparently speechless. He approached the tunnel entrance, reaching out to run his hands along the arched ceiling. He knelt briefly to examine the flat floor, still silent, his brow furrowed in thought. Jim’s head inflated to the size of a small planet.

“I didn’t want to go inside without you,” he said. “Well, I did, but I knew you’d lecture me about safety, and using common sense in unfamiliar situations, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum.”

“I am… grateful for your caution,” Spock said, but he sounded distracted, like he had to consciously pull himself out of his head to talk. Not in a bad way, either. Jim had last heard that tone when he interrupted a lab experiment so compelling Spock requested triple shifts to complete it.

“Do you notice anything about the way this seems to be headed?” Jim prodded after a few impatient seconds.

Spock tore his eyes away from the tunnel to face Jim, alert with understanding. “You have reason to believe there is something beneath the hill?”

“Maybe.” Jim smirked. “What do you say we find out?”

Spock nodded once, quick and eager. Out of nowhere, there it was, that sense of effortless teamwork Jim had practically given up on reclaiming with his first officer. He wished he had time to savor the moment, but he was afraid it would pass if he stalled too long.

He shoved a handful of torches into Spock’s grasp and climbed out of the hole just far enough to light one of his with the fire. He passed the flame to Spock and gestured at the tunnel. “Up to you, Commander.” Spock took point, and Jim followed close behind.

The tunnel was low enough that they had to hunch their shoulders and duck their heads to get through. Jim’s back didn’t like this very much. Correction: his everything didn’t like this very much. He had to stop about five meters in, bracing himself against the cool, curved wall to wait for the fires in his muscles to burn out.

“Captain, are you well?”

“Sort of.” Jim grit his teeth together and forced himself to start walking again. “Don’t wait up.” He stared at the back of Spock’s head and hoped his legs wouldn’t give out. The tunnel just kept going, and the light from the entrance vanished completely. What if they came all this way to find nothing but a dead end?

Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the cramped passageway opened in front of them. Jim used Spock’s shoulder as leverage to haul himself upright again, and felt like he had wandered into a dream.

They gazed out into a massive stone chamber, long enough that Jim couldn’t see where it ended. The walls were formed by plain, smooth columns, one after the other, each as big around as he was tall. They soared up on either side of the chamber, meeting at the apex of the ceiling like the ribs of ancient Earth cathedrals. There was an odd, concave line where they came together that seemed to stretch the length of the room, so high it was barely visible in the torchlight. The whole thing reminded Jim of a pot made by coiled ropes of clay turned on its side.

“Holy shit.”

Spock shifted his weight beside Jim and lifted his torch higher. “I concur with the general sentiment, if not your exact terminology,” he said faintly. The sounds of their voices carried and echoed back at them, thinned out by strange undertones.

“How long was the tunnel?” Jim snapped himself out of his daze.

“Approximately twelve meters.”

“Which would put us right under the hill.” Jim shivered, from the chilled air or the sight before them, he wasn’t sure. “Did I call it, or did I call it?”

“There is no logical way to answer that question,” Spock chided him.

“Abandoned?” Jim said, after a moment’s silence.

“That seems plausible. Nothing has made regular use of this space for at least a decade, based upon dust accumulation.” Spock took a few steps into the chamber and glanced over his shoulder. “Shall we?”

“Absolutely,” Jim said. “Right or left?”

“I have no preference.”

Jim nodded and moved past Spock, keeping to the right. He held the torch out in front of him with one hand and pressed the other against the wall, following the bumps and dips of the columns with his fingertips. There were no noticeable seams between them. They were made of dark gray stone, almost black, smooth and cool to the touch. The architecture struck him as simple, heavy but not crushing thanks to all the long, sweeping lines. About halfway across the room, he ran into the first side tunnel, exactly the same as the one they came through.

“Captain, it appears there is a second tunnel.” Spock’s comment drifted to him through the darkness.

“Third, actually. I’ve got one over here.” He barely had to raise his voice to be heard across the room. He could see Spock’s torch and silhouette against the opposite wall, maybe ten meters away, and the slice of darkness beside him. “I say we leave them alone for now.”

“Yes, Captain.”

He passed another tunnel, and Spock hit two more. As the far side appeared, barely visible in the ring of torchlight, Jim realized his path had been curving outward this whole time and was bowing back in on itself more and more sharply. There were no obvious corners coming up either.

He stopped again to confer with Spock. “What do you think? A dome?”

“I believe so.”

Jim watched Spock’s torch stay put for a minute before he moved on alone, past yet another tunnel. Based on guesswork, he figured the dome wasn’t a perfect circle, but elongated into an egg shape. He assumed Spock was busy trying to calculate the exact amount of variance from some kind of geometric ideal.

New details emerged the closer he got to the shadowy far end. The floor toward this side of the room was covered in shallow scratches, like a sloppy crosshatch pattern. The columns ended abruptly at a smooth wall. And there, on the wall ahead, a net of ghostly lines surfaced out of the darkness. Jim hesitated and blinked a few times to make sure he could trust his eyes, then picked up his pace.

A mural spread across the wall, white paint on the black stone, like the negative image of bare branches in fog. The lines were flaked and faded in places, but the picture they outlined was clear.

Several slender, two-legged figures commanded the scene, standing inside a stretched out half circle that reminded Jim of the odd dome they were in. Hundreds of crude but unmistakable cattlebugs surrounded the dome in a basic forest landscape. Here and there the slender figures were spaced among the cattlebugs, each holding some kind of staff and looking as self-important as line drawings could look. The whole thing was abstract and simplistic, but at that moment, a hundred museum masterpieces couldn’t compare.

“Hey, Spock?”

“Yes, Captain?” Spock said from where he trailed behind, somewhere over Jim’s shoulder. Jim thought about what to say, and he couldn’t decide where to start. “Captain, what is it?”

Jim’s torch guttered out to embers. He muttered an Orion curse and fumbled with a second torch in his belt, hurried to press it to the fading tip.

“Captain?” Spock shouted. “Are you all right?”

The sound of Spock’s voice smashed a spiderweb of cracks into reality. Jim? Jim! The rumble of rocks, a narrow tunnel, a threatening presence. Jim focused everything he had on lighting the damn torch while his hands shook. It wasn’t real, he told himself. It wasn’t real.

“I’m all right,” he shouted back, and at last the torch caught flame. The dark veil lifted, and Spock came up behind him at a jog. Was he actually gasping for breath?

Before Jim could digest that morsel of weird, Spock composed himself. He promptly lost his composure in a very different way, his eyes wide as he stepped toward the mural. “Should I assume this is the reason for your belated response?”

“Yeah.” Jim’s eyes were drawn toward the staff-bearing figures. “It looks like we named the cattlebugs right.”

“Indeed.” Spock studied a curl of paint intently, then stood back, only to hone in on another specific area. He reminded Jim of a microscope switching magnifications.

“There’s so much space,” Jim said, turning in a circle and frowning at the darkness. “I wonder why this the only picture.”

“Perhaps it holds some sort of religious significance.” Spock swept his torch along the highest edge of the scene. “The vast majority of cave paintings on Earth and Vulcan depict successful hunts, probably as a type of sympathetic magic. One might assume this civilization painted the things that were most important to them for a similar purpose.”

“So this is their ideal.” Jim contemplated the mural. “Very… pastoral.”

“Not all species have a long and storied history of aggressive behavior,” Spock said lightly. Jim turned to stare at him, trying to figure out if that was a joke or not. If so, it would be the first time in half a year, maybe longer. Spock stared back with a perfectly neutral expression. “Captain?”

“Oh, I see how it is. Make fun of the humans from your imaginary high horse.” Jim snickered, playfully shouldering Spock as he passed him to check the opposite side of the mural. “Ever hear the biblical proverb about taking the plank out of your own eye?”

“I fail to see your line of reasoning, sir.”

“Sure you do.” He turned to stare Spock down. “As if Vulcans were always flawless paragons of logic. Sudoc could give Genghis Khan a run for his money.”

Spock’s eyes narrowed. “I did not know you were a scholar of Vulcan history.”

Jim broke into a cold sweat as he realized, quite abruptly, that he wasn’t. “I dabble,” he said, and tried to look as genuine as possible. This was hard to do when he inexplicably knew that Sudoc was a warlord from the time of Surak who had slaughtered every man, woman, and child in the cities he conquered.

Fortunately Spock was too interested in their surroundings to start quizzing Jim. He let the issue drop, and Jim pushed it to the back of his mind. He’d been doing a lot of that lately.

“The floor in this area is curious,” Spock said, shifting focus from the mural.

His comment gave Jim the foothold he needed to haul himself away from any deep thinking. “You know those patterns on the ceiling of the Andorian embassy? Designed to mimic cracks in ice sheets, I think,” he said. “They remind me of that.”

“There is a certain similarity. Very basic geometric ornamentation.”

Jim threw himself into distraction, talking about prehistoric tools and artistic tastes. They explored for some time longer, investigating the tunnels. Well, Spock checked out the tunnels while Jim tried to feel useful poking around the main room. There were six of them, spaced evenly and radiating outward like spokes on a wheel. All were blocked off by roots and soil except the one Jim cleared, and Spock revised his time estimates to at least one hundred years since the dome was deserted.

After tossing some theories around, Spock decided the bipeds had carved the dome out of a single, massive stone, deposited from higher ground by an ancient flood or glacial retreat. It probably took multiple generations to build, but they could both come up with parallels. There was only so much they could do without instruments, and eventually they wrapped up the investigation and made a reluctant exit.

As they emerged from the hole and saw the last fading rays of sunlight, Jim realized why he had been feeling strange the whole way through the tunnel. His head was already going fuzzy. Not for the first time, he wished Spock would just neck pinch him every night, ‘potential long-term side effects of overuse’ be damned.

“A primitive civilization,” Spock concluded as they hurried back to camp. “Early agrarian stage of development. Upheaval or extinction at least a century ago.” He pretended to be satisfied with his answer, but Jim knew it had to be eating him up inside that he couldn’t spend more time studying the dome. Spock had priorities, and basic survival ranked higher than archeology.

It rained the day after Jim’s discovery. He wanted to take shelter in the dome, because it had to be drier than the hut, but Spock insisted there was too much they didn’t know. He didn’t want either one of them staying there alone for a long time. And although he’d never say it, Jim had a feeling the collapse of civilizations was a touchy subject. Before he could blink, his first officer was sliding back down the scale of solemnity.

But Jim kept investigating by himself whenever Spock was out. There was something about the dome that kept him coming back, even if he was exhausted and sore and it took all his strength to make it. Sometimes he sat in the center of the chamber, listening to the inky darkness, trying to get a sense of who had lived there. He followed the stone walls, counted the columns, touched the crisscrossed patterns on the floor.

He never felt lost, and he never lost his nerve. He stopped taking torches after awhile, relying only on touch and sound to guide him. It didn’t make sense, really – he wasn’t fond of the dark, ever since Sam locked him in the basement during a childhood fight – but the darkness here was different. There wasn’t anything threatening about it, only a quiet calm and intangible emptiness.

It started to consume him. When he wasn’t there, he thought about it instead. Maybe it was the closest thing his subconscious could find to the bulbweed. On the other hand, the sensory deprivation was not without its side effects.

During his fifth or sixth visit, as he knelt in the center of the room, he could feel it creeping up on him. The sensation had become familiar over the past few weeks. A nonexistent sound, prickles on the back of his neck. He didn’t fight it. By now he knew it was pointless to try.

A stern female voice. He must search elsewhere for his answer. He shall not find it here.

Shame and dread overwhelmed him. He was on the edge of a cliff, and someone just pushed him off, and it was his fault. Jim dug his fingers into his palms, trying to keep himself anchored in the real world.

Is this all I am? Is there nothing more?

Bone-deep melancholy seized him, but it quickly turned bittersweet, because a revelation was taking hold. No joy without pain, no meaning without both. An equilibrium to all things. He could have this. He could finally have this. The most incredible peace settled over Jim, but without knowing the origin, it slipped out of his grasp just as quickly as it took him. He felt almost as bereft as he did every morning, when the last tendrils of pheromone retreated from his body.

He didn’t go back after that.

He tried to follow Spock’s example and stop dwelling on the dome, fall into everyday routine again. Ancient alien ruins were great if you had food and shelter orbiting overhead, but when meals were a luxury, it was stupid to waste energy on nonessentials. So life went on. He kept a tally of the days, but they blended together, and he wasn’t sure it was right anymore. He didn’t ask Spock either, because he didn’t really want to know.

There was plenty to keep him occupied. He had some serious catching up to do in terms of basic camp maintenance. He was surprised Spock didn’t comment on his slacking. Firewood was low, the roof of the hut needed repairs, the water pouches had to be refilled, and their knives could use sharpening. He had enough slime leather to make something large and ugly. His facial hair teetered on the edge of casual lazy and backwoods nutcase.

Finally he got around to checking the storage pit and was greeted by an unwelcome surprise.

A piece of fresh tree slime he chucked off to the side two days ago must have landed there. It had spread to the fruit baskets and helped itself to a duskmelon. Jim groaned and picked up the contaminated melon to cut the slime away when the smell reached him. He frowned and lifted the fruit closer to his nose for a cautious sniff. A sharp, memorable scent filled his senses, and he broke into an involuntary grin.

When Spock came back from foraging that afternoon, Jim had half a dozen cocktail ideas in the works. He was also buzzed. Maybe a little more than buzzed.

“So it turns out tree slime is a crazy fast alcohol fermenter,” he explained under Spock’s critical stare. “It can tolerate concentrations up to fortysomething percent. I think only the fungus Klingons use to make bloodwine can do better.” He proudly showed Spock a bowl full of orange blob, hard at work on some sungrape juice. “Also, I’m very, very sorry for ever thinking it was disgusting.”

Spock was less than thrilled. “You drank this without testing it first?”

“Maybe,” Jim said. After the first two dozen sips, it got easier and easier to convince himself a couple more couldn’t hurt. “I, uh… haven’t died yet.”

Despite the whole emotionless front, Spock looked awfully resigned. He studied Jim’s setup for a minute or so. “How can you tell the concentration?”

“Level of buzz versus sips taken.” Jim shrugged. Was he slurring? “Here, why don’t I make you a duskmelon martini and–” He paused because Spock was already picking up one of the undiluted bowls. “Careful, it’s strong stuff.”

“Vulcans metabolize alcohol at a rate approximately two-hundred percent faster than humans,” Spock said dismissively, and took a respectable sip. Jim bit back a laugh as Spock struggled to keep a straight face, pursing his lips and pretending to consider the flavor. The façade was ruined when he opened his mouth to comment and coughed instead.

Jim handed him a water sack and shook his head as Spock gulped it down like it was an antidote to poison. “What did I tell you?”

“It is…” Spock searched for a word for a long time, and Jim took that as a compliment to his newfound brewing skills. “Distinct.”

“I figured we could use it for disinfectant too, seeing as we ran out of hypos last week.”

“I expect it will prove quite effective for that purpose.” Spock quirked an eyebrow, and his entire demeanor subtly changed.

This was what he had been missing, Jim thought. This was why Spock had been aloof and unreachable since the dome, why Jim was detached and distracted. If he got lost in his own head all the time, wandering a musty old building, of course Spock would retreat farther into himself. Jim had to stay engaged, he had to be a source of novelty and erratic human behavior, or they would both go quietly insane.

In the space of that moment, he made the conscious decision to carry on. Things were about a million light years from okay, but he was going to aim there anyway, even if the only ship he had was a beat up wreck running on half impulse. If he never saw the Enterprise again, he had to keep going. And if he stopped pushing his first officer, it would be like James T. Kirk never existed.

There were still a few hours until sunset, so Jim rambled about his methods and materials like he was preparing a dissertation. The alcohol helped. Spock was going to converse with him, dammit, even if he did most of the talking. He had to make up for lost time.

About halfway through dinner, a strange sound distracted Jim from telling the story of how he’d first met Bones. The overcast sky took on a weird, faint glimmer.

Of course, he thought grimly. Of course his awesome creation would be a hallucinogen, because he didn’t have nearly enough of that in his life. But then Spock shot to his feet, gaze fixed to the sky, and Jim knew it wasn’t just him.

He stood up too, albeit unsteadily. The indistinct grumble turned into a roar. It seemed to come from everywhere now, louder and louder.

Suddenly the evening sky lit up brighter than midday. Jim squinted through the canopy to see a distant ball of light tumbling in an arc, a star falling from the heavens. It was like watching the opening shot of the apocalypse. The light punctured through a thick gray cloud, leaving behind a visible hole and trailing black smoke.

It vanished from view behind the trees, but the brilliant glow lingered. Jim braced himself on the side of the hut just before the ground convulsed beneath him. A dead tree fern fell at the edge of camp, the bowls of slime tipped over, fronds fell as thick as snow. It only lasted a few seconds. When the shaking stopped, everything was silent until the drakes started screeching.

Jim turned to Spock, whose expression told him all he needed to know.

The Galapagos.

***

It was amazing how quickly a different way of life could become ‘normal,’ Jim thought as he filled a pouch with sungrapes. So normal that changing it felt disruptive, even if that change was for a good purpose. They put a lot of work into this place, and knowing they were going leave it behind was strangely upsetting.

Jim wasn’t a nomad at heart, not really. Starship captains pretended they were these great, mysterious wanderers who would rather die than stay bound to one place, but ninety-nine percent of them were bound to one place; their homes just happened to have warp drives.

When your job was to seek out new worlds, when you saw different stars every day, the familiar became a need just like eating or drinking. And to Jim, for better or worse, all this was familiar. He was used to the hut, the chores, being hungry all the time, even coping with the nightly chemical battery.

The only thing he wasn’t used to was the memories. He tried ignoring them, but it was about a hundred times more difficult than ignoring the pull of the bulbweed. Every morning brought a new batch, and they intruded throughout the day in flashes, miniature hallucinations. Missions he had never been on, people he never met, even people he knew who were subtly different. They were all isolated little details, lacking context and surrounded by haze, but he knew they were true in the same way he knew his own name.

There was only one explanation he could come up with, and it involved a very old Vulcan in a parka.

The hows and whys were beyond him. He just wished he could shut it off. He had enough to worry about without chasing ghosts from beyond a wormhole. At this point, if a change of scenery helped, the trip would be worth it regardless of whether or not they actually found the Galapagos.

But if he was stuck with the memories, they’d better find the ship to make up for it. That falling star was a promise for better days. Equipment that wasn’t useless. A com device. A shuttle. More food. Anything.

The night before they left, a steady breeze combed through the forest, and the compulsion consumed him to the point he didn’t even have the strength for escape. All he could do was lie on his side and ride out the tremors, suffer through the fever. His body ached like he’d run ten marathons back to back. He couldn’t sleep, he was sure he couldn’t, but he faded in and out all the same. He only knew because one moment Spock was tending the fire, and the next he was sitting beside Jim with more water.

Between the cloying high of the bulbweed pheromones and the memories they triggered, Jim’s mind wandered into strange seas that night. He was trapped in a maze, searching the halls of the Enterprise for something he lost. If he ever found it, the knowledge was gone by morning.

Chapter Text


Spock

In a small mercy of nature, it rained the first two days they traveled. Jim had enough strength for them to cover perhaps thirty kilometers, which compensated for the overall undesirable conditions.

But after the second day, the rain had not abated, and large tracts of jungle were transformed into swampland. More than once Spock was forced to lead them in a winding loop to get from one point to another, simply because the area in between was impassable. Morning, midday, and evening all had the same gray pallor. The only difference came with the nights, which were so dark Spock relied on touch and sound more than sight.

After crossing four streams by the third morning, the next stream they encountered was the largest yet, too swollen with rain to safely traverse. They had no choice but to put together a crude shelter and wait for the weather system to pass.

Spock spent half an hour mentally evaluating their route under a leaking frond roof. He had only a vague sense of geography based upon a single glimpse of a planetary map, but thus far, his assumptions were panning out. If his distance estimates were correct, there was a narrow mountain range between them and their destination, high enough that the crest was above the clouds. This task took him one hundred fifteen percent longer than it should have, due to the steady drip of water on the crown of his head.

He ducked beneath the slime leather blanket Jim made, currently suspended across the shelter like a tent within a tent. It was damp and musty, but it served its purpose as a second line of defense against environmental distractions. Jim watched him with a bland expression as he attempted to find a comfortable position.

“God, this is miserable,” Jim grumbled. “Either I’m dry and sick, or soaked and feeling pretty good.” He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them in a compact yet absurd-looking position. “How’re you holding up?”

The arrhythmia was getting worse. Although the rain had a cooling effect, it did nothing to reduce the humidity that stressed Spock’s respiratory system. “I am as well as conditions permit,” he said. Jim snickered briefly and condensed himself even tighter.

“Hey, Spock,” he said, suddenly serious. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why did you stay?” Jim shifted his gaze out into the forest, where the rain fell in a thick, white curtain. “Protocol probably says you should have left me behind.”

“Protocol also encourages us to use our best judgment in unusual circumstances.”

“And your best judgment was to stay,” Jim said.

“You are my commanding officer. It was logical.” Spock could think of no other way to justify himself.

“That’s it?” Spock nodded, and Jim shook his head. “I mean, I knew you were loyal, but nothing’s put it to the test quite like this.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”

“You have proven yourself to be a great asset to Starfleet.” Not a lie, precisely, but neither was it the whole truth. It wasn’t any of the missions during which Jim had shown exceptional command abilities that motivated Spock’s sense of duty, not entirely.

The additional variable was something he could not identify. Perhaps it was most accurately labeled an intellectual fascination. During much of their service together, Spock had observed Jim from a safe distance; his interactions with others, the way he refused to yield when all logic dictated otherwise. The captain was a curious individual, part obvious, part oblivious, and part mysterious. But attachment was illogical, regardless of the cryptic promises of his elder self. Spock had learned that lesson from his mother and his planet.

Jim interrupted his contemplation, reminding him that strictly speaking, a safe distance was no longer possible. “Then this isn’t a guilt trip thing?” He peered at Spock anxiously. “I mean, you did almost kill me. You weren’t, uh, trying to balance the karmic scales?”

“Karma is an illogical human myth.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Negative.”

“Good. Because you shouldn’t worry about that. You did exactly what I needed you to do, and I was a bastard who deserved whatever I had coming,” he said, and Spock was at a loss for a response. Then Jim mumbled, low enough that he probably didn’t intend for Spock to hear. “Not like it’s the first time you’ve tried to choke me to death.”

“Captain?”

“Hmm? Oh, uh, the Kobayashi Maru hearing. You know. Metaphorically speaking.”

His tone had an unusual air of finality to it, so Spock did not pursue the matter. It was strange though, knowing the captain harbored no resentment toward the same event that caused Spock to reevaluate his entire way of thinking.

“Well, I’m glad you made that call,” Jim said, after a period of comfortable silence. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“There is a ninety-nine point eight percent probability you would be dead.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Jim’s smile told him that he need not qualify or apologize for his statement. There was something different about that smile, a subtle change, but before Spock could analyze its exact nature, Jim dropped his face into his bundled arms.

A few seconds later, he abandoned the position, sprawling out on the forest floor and heaving a sigh. “God, I wish there was something to do.”

“Would you like to continue our game?” Spock referred to the mental chess board they had worked on for the past two days.

“Sorry. Don’t think I have it in me tonight.” Jim fell silent for point eight minutes, and Spock assumed he was preparing for sleep when he spoke again. “What about truth or dare?”

“Captain?”

“It’s a game so simple, drunk people and children can play it.” Jim chuckled. “You pick one or the other. Say ‘truth’ and you have to answer one question, no matter what. ‘Dare,’ and you have to do something, no matter what. Otherwise you’re a chicken.” He concluded his explanation as if there were absolutely nothing strange about it. “You start.”

“How?”

“Just ask me that question. Truth or dare?”

“Truth or dare?” Spock repeated, mildly intrigued.

“Truth.”

Only now did the potential value of such a tradition occur to Spock. It was a method of socially acceptable and guiltless self-disclosure. An unsurprising development amongst a species as emotionally charged as humans.

He considered his question carefully. “Is it true that Admiral Pike recruited you after you were involved in a bar fight?”

“I thought everyone knew that,” Jim said.

“Rumor is often inaccurate.”

“Uhura was there. Actually, it was kind of her fault. Didn’t she tell you?”

“The topic never arose.”

“I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved she’s not spreading it around,” Jim said. “Well, to answer your question, yeah. I was kind of a reckless jerk.” His voice turned contemplative. “Still am.”

“I have found there is often a legitimate purpose to your recklessness,” Spock said. “Also, I would hesitate to place you among the cohort of humans that are widely considered ‘jerks.’”

“Good to know.” Jim snickered, crossing his arms behind his head. “Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Spock said, in the interest of reciprocity.

Silence for six point two seconds. “Why did you and Uhura break up?”

Spock frowned, as he had not expected the captain to ask so personal a question. Fortunately he had an answer; the same answer he had repeated to himself and others on numerous occasions. “We determined that despite our initial attraction, we were simply not compatible.”

Jim lifted his head to squint at Spock for several seconds. “Well, that’s a bullshit answer,” he said. “Not compatible, how? Intellectually? Emotionally? Physically?” He added the last criterion with a definite teasing undertone.

“Emotionally.”

“Oh.” Jim’s expression suggested he hadn’t anticipated an honest answer. “Really? I mean, you guys seemed so solid after Narada.”

“We were.” For a short, strange time, until Spock could reflect on his own behavior. Until he could recognize his need the same kind of logical reinforcement that the rest of his species was undergoing. He did not wish to elaborate further, and was relieved when Jim did not demand more detail. More relieved still when he dropped the game entirely.

In the dark hours of early morning, the rain finally ceased. The river shrank enough to allow safe passage by mid-afternoon.

They began making good progress again. The environment changed with elevation, and Spock began noticing new organisms at a rate of approximately three per day in addition to familiar species. There were varieties of tree ferns, tree squid, and pincushions he never saw before. There were clearings where the brushtails grew to tremendous heights. One day they stumbled upon an entire herd of rhinopterans browsing through the forest; their carapaces were semi-translucent, like thin coatings of ruby.

Curiously, the frequency at which they encountered both bulbweeds and cattlebugs began declining. Although Jim was still affected by the pheromone to the point of incoherence, his symptoms were less severe, and he slept through at least part of the night. Sometimes he whistled as they hiked, a simple auditory stimulus that Spock found himself anticipating. Typically he picked traditional Irish or Scottish songs, but on one occasion, he chose something bizarrely similar to an old Vulcan chant.

The day they met their first major setback, Spock estimated they were twelve kilometers away from the base of the range, and after that five more to the crest. From there they should be able to see the impact site of the Galapagos.

He was distracted by a strange, delicate flying organism when Jim bolted away without a word. Spock’s arrhythmia triggered before he noticed the target of Jim’s sudden attentions. He caught up and stared at the scene unfolding before him in disbelief.

“God, Taylor… I can’t believe it.” Jim knelt next to the man on the ground, who only vaguely resembled the smiling lieutenant from the debriefing pictures. He was gaunt, dangerously undernourished, slumped near a tree and chewing on its low-sprouting fronds. His clothes were in tatters, and he was missing a boot, his exposed foot scratched and bruised. He was covered in filth and smelled of excrement, and something else that took Spock a few seconds to recognize: the scent of the bulbweed’s interior.

“I’m not dreaming, am I?” Jim looked up at Spock fearfully. Spock shook his head, and Jim turned back to Taylor. “How did he get out this far?”

“It has been some time since the away team was lost,” Spock said. A poor explanation, but it was all he could think to say. Assuming Taylor went to a different bulbweed every night, random chance could have brought him far from his original location.

“He’s so thin...” Jim pulled a handful of sungrapes out of his storage pouch and placed them next to Taylor’s face. He took Taylor’s wrist in his hand, and his brow furrowed. “His pulse is messed up.”

Spock joined the captain on the ground and verified the lieutenant’s poor vital signs. He performed a few basic perception tests as well. Taylor did not respond correctly to any of them, or to almost any stimuli at all. That meant at least some degree of brain damage existed, but Spock could tell little else without a specialized medical tricorder. He relayed this information to Jim, who considered it silently, never taking his eyes off the lieutenant.

“But you’re not sure,” he said.

“I cannot be sure,” Spock corrected.

“Maybe it’s curable. Maybe he’ll end up like me if we cut him off.”

“The evidence we have suggests that organisms severely affected by the compound cannot live without it. Nor can they live with it,” Spock added as an afterthought. He glanced at the shell of a man who was consuming the sungrapes with a disturbingly vacant expression. He did not use his hands, simply eating them off the ground.

They should leave this place, Spock thought suddenly. They should leave and never look back. It was not an entirely rational conclusion, but it was an attractive one.

Jim studied Taylor for a few more seconds. “I have to try,” he said. Spock’s stomach twisted the same way it did when he consumed meat.

“Captain, I must ask you to reconsider. Delaying is unwise when we do not know the current condition of the Galapagos.”

“This could have been me, Spock. I can’t just leave him.” Unwilling to argue, knowing it would be futile at this point, Spock acquiesced.

Jim washed the lieutenant, cleaned his wounds, and fed him a worrisome portion of their food supplies. Spock contributed without comment. His strength, however mitigated, was necessary for these tasks. Even though Taylor was light and weak, he thrashed whenever someone tried to manipulate him. He was interested in food and little else. Halfway through the day, Jim sat down with Spock to discuss options, yet it was clear from the start there was only one option he would consider. He wanted to plan for ‘however long it takes,’ and Spock could not agree.

“What if you mind melded with him?” Jim said, after a fruitless discussion.

The question shocked Spock to the core. It was not a rational suggestion, but a desperate appeal, and one he could not permit. “Melding with a damaged mind is extremely hazardous,” he said.

“But you could do it.” Jim sat up a little straighter, staring at him with unnerving intensity. “See if he’s still in there.”

“In theory,” Spock said. “I could also die in the process.”

A look of intense guilt crossed Jim’s face, and he did not mention the idea again.

Taylor’s condition worsened exponentially. He fought to escape every night, even when weather conditions were not conducive to the spread of the pheromone. He never slept. He twisted an ankle once when he got loose. The third night, a windstorm blew up from the lowlands, and Spock was left alone to restrain both Taylor and Jim, caught in an identical frenzy. Jim insisted they persevere, that this could be a period of adjustment. He talked to Taylor as if he could understand, cared for him with a kind of patience Spock never knew he possessed. But by the third night, Taylor was listless. When morning arrived, it became clear he had fallen into a coma-like state.

Spock recognized the defeat in Jim’s posture as he approached the fire while the sun was still low. He sank down next to Spock and was quiet for almost half an hour.

“I’ll do it,” he said, and Spock knew immediately what he meant.

“Captain, perhaps I can–”

“It’s okay. You’re a Vulcan. I won’t let you sacrifice that.” Jim held up a silencing hand, but Spock was not about to let the matter drop.

“I have killed before,” he said.

“You’ve killed animals. You’ve killed in self-defense. Don’t pretend this isn’t different.” Just for an instant, Jim took on the likeness of a man twenty years his senior. “I’m the ranking officer here. He’s my responsibility.”

“Captain, I–”

“Spock. The best thing you can do for me right now is nothing at all,” Jim said, his face stony. “You can’t logic this away, so please, just let me handle it.”

Starfleet handbooks were designed to prepare its members for a wide variety of ethical quandaries. While euthanasia was officially prohibited, a few provided case studies suggested it was an acceptable last resort. Spock doubted this made Jim’s task any simpler. He wanted to insist, to spare Jim from this, because unlike the captain, he was already tainted. He had come close to taking an innocent life before. But he knew Jim was decided, and wouldn’t budge.

They ate the last of their rations, and Jim carried Taylor away from camp without another word. Spock sat by the embers of the fire and waited for him to return.

When he didn’t reappear after half an hour, Spock could not keep his distance. He found the captain just out of sight of camp, digging a hole with a rough wooden scoop. Spock spared a glance toward the motionless body of the lieutenant before turning his attention to Jim.

“Would you like assistance?”

“It’s okay.” Jim’s movements visibly quickened.

Spock thought about their cattlebug experiment, and the disturbing results thereof. “Perhaps I should perform an autopsy, to determine the cause of death.” He realized his poor choice of words only after they were said.

“The cause of death?” Jim stopped, the scoop buried halfway in the ground. “I put my hand over his mouth, and I pinched his nose until he suffocated. That’s the cause of death.”

“Forgive me. I meant to say–”

“Please. Stop.”

Spock picked up a split piece of wood and started to dig alongside Jim. He did not know what else to do. Almost immediately Jim ceased working and tried to take it from him.

“I said it’s okay.” His voice was a low challenge. Spock didn’t let go of the wood, and neither did Jim.

“I am not denying that you are capable,” Spock said, treading a minefield with his words. “I am only asking that you let me help.”

The captain’s demeanor changed abruptly, and a strange, wary expression crossed his face. He scrutinized Spock like he didn’t trust his own perception. Then all traces of coldness faded from his eyes, and he ducked his head. “All right.”

The work went quickly with two people. By mid-afternoon they had a sufficient hole. Jim placed Taylor’s frail body at the bottom and began shoveling dirt on top of it without comment, and Spock followed his lead.

They finished and stood over the grave in silence for awhile. Spock tried to recall typical human funereal practices. “Are there any customs you would find appropriate?”

“I’m not exactly a religious man, Spock.”

“I meant for your own peace of mind. Do you…” Spock hesitated, apprehensive that he would say something wrong again. “Do you wish to talk about the deceased? A fond memory, perhaps?”

Jim was silent for what seemed like a very long time, but what was actually seven point two seconds. “Yeah. Yeah, actually. So you remember how McCoy said Taylor was a prankster?”

“Yes.”

“One time he wanted to get revenge on us for, uh… intentionally interrupting his encounter with a lady friend. So he filled these plastic cups to the brim with med-gel, and he covered the floor of our entire house with them. We had to pick up and empty every one, and then we had to haul the whole mess to biodisposal. Took us hours to clear them out.” He laughed weakly. “We were supposed to have a party that night, but we had to cancel because the whole place smelled like a hospital. Bones was pissed. Good thing Taylor went to a friend’s place that weekend. I have a feeling if he stuck around, he would have been the next body on Anatomy 101’s dissection table.”

Jim seemed to realize what he had said a second or two after the fact, and Spock watched his expression morph from nostalgia to abject horror. He lifted a trembling hand to his mouth, then to his eyes, then hunched over, his shoulders quaking silently.

Fuck.” He took a deep, shuddering breath, shook his head a few times. “I can’t… Spock, I don’t know how…” He looked up, tears trailing down his cheeks. Abruptly he bowed his head into his hands again and took a few steps away. Spock could only watch, powerless as Jim collected himself. “It’s stupid,” Jim said at last, voice muffled. “I know I’ve killed people before. I’ve ordered the phasers to fire. Why should this be any different?”

Spock ran through a number of potential responses, from invoking Jim’s friendship with the lieutenant, to explaining that proximity is a critical determining factor in the intensity of human emotional response. It occurred to him that an explanation, while informative, would do little in the way of reassurance. “Jim,” he said, and the captain looked back to him. “I believe you did the right thing.” It was strange to hear such a human sentiment stated in his own voice.

Jim’s face softened minutely, although he seemed unconvinced. A few minutes later, he calmed enough to return to camp. Spock touched his arm briefly as they walked, as physical support was all he had to offer. He could no longer subjectively remember how it felt to grieve.

Evening came, and they each had a few dregs of juice for their meal. A faint breeze stirred as the sun set, growing to a steady wind within a minute. Spock looked to the captain, who had just come to the same realization himself. The tremors were already starting.

“God dammit, I don’t need this. Not now.” Jim braced his back against a tree fern. His face contorted in anguish, and he started muttering through clenched teeth. “It can’t have me. It can’t have me. Not like him.”

“You are safe.” Spock knelt beside him, rested a hand on his shoulder. “I will not allow you to go.”

“Still want it. Oh God, I still want it.” His last words came out more like sobs. He gripped a branch beside his head, his knuckles standing out sharply with the force of it. “Talk to me,” he rasped.

“Captain?”

“Talk to me, Spock. Either that or fuck me. I need a distraction.”

Spock was momentarily puzzled by the second half of the captain’s penultimate statement. He recalled hearing the doctor use the phrase once, apparently as an expression of extreme frustration, but the ambiguity of its current context–

He was almost grateful that Jim interrupted his line of reasoning. “Stop thinking. Just say something. Anything. I don’t care what.”

So Spock talked about his observations of the planet and its organisms. He talked about the more demanding experiments back on the Enterprise that he hoped his ensigns were taking care of in his absence. He talked about his most promising students from the Academy. He talked about the frustrating myriad of human phrases that made absolutely no literal sense.

He talked briefly of his mother.

Precisely how long he talked, it was impossible to say, but some time later he glanced up and realized that the wind had died down. The captain was asleep, slumped against the tree. Spock studied his face in the firelight, and a strange sensation swept over him, as though something were swelling in his chest. He looked away, unsettled.

Once he was certain Jim would not wake, he carried out his plan. The grave they dug was shallow, quite easy to exhume. He performed a brief autopsy before reburial. By the time he was through, his hands were shaking, and he felt ill, but he had discovered what he needed to know. He washed in a nearby stream, and could not meditate at all that night.

When morning arrived, he had not yet devised a satisfactory way to tell Jim. He concluded there was no correct way to go about such unsavory business, and so he chose a time at random, before they were completely packed.

“Lieutenant Taylor was not himself,” he said, and paused until Jim looked at him. “There were severe lesions in his cerebral cortex. The damage was so extensive, I am surprised he was capable of functioning at all.”

Jim dropped the storage pouch and stared at Spock. “You… checked?” Everything about his voice and expression was so inscrutable as he asked this, Spock was rendered incapable of speech. He knew he had to respond, but his mouth would not move. What if he confirmed, if he admitted to violating Jim’s trust, and Jim never forgave him?

Regret was illogical, he reminded himself. What is, is. “Affirmative,” he said.

Jim stepped toward him, quite close, and Spock braced himself for a confrontation. But Jim only stood perfectly still, staring at Spock’s chest.

Then he leaned into Spock, and his forehead came to rest against the top of Spock’s sternum. Through that single point of connection, Spock was caught in a gentle wave of motion as Jim inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. He could feel the way Jim’s entire body relaxed in its wake. Then Jim took hold of Spock’s arms, as if he were bracing himself, anchoring them both in place. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Spock wanted to say something, but he couldn’t find the words before the captain had let go and was halfway across camp.

They hiked in silence, rested and ate in silence. Four kilometers passed without Jim attempting to engage him in conversation at all. By the time they made camp, Spock harbored escalating concerns about the captain’s emotional state. They put together a lean-to, and Spock prepared an insufficient meal from what he had gathered on the trail, still with no communication between them.

Jim was visibly tense the entire evening. When dusk came and went without incident and nothing happened, Spock found the concept of a miracle fitting, regardless of his belief in their existence. They must be far enough from any bulbweed that the pheromones could not reach them. He suggested this theory to Jim, his voice a little hoarse from an entire day of underuse. Jim responded with a skeptical look and an ambiguous grunt.

But then he lay on his back, and his face changed dramatically. “Oh my God… look at the stars…”

Spock did. The bright band of the Milky Way was just beginning to appear. It looked much the same as it did every other clear night. “Captain?”

“It’s the first time I’ve seen them since we got here,” Jim said, voice reverent.

Indeed, until now, whenever Jim had been lucid at night the sky was hidden by rain clouds. Spock experienced a kind of awe by proxy, a reminder that he should take nothing for granted. He reclined against a tree beside Jim and watched the patchwork of stars spin overhead.

If he allowed his gaze to linger on Jim’s rapturous expression longer than the sky, he disregarded that fact as simple curiosity.

***

The terrain lent itself to quick travel due to a combination of slopes and flat areas, periods of intense exercise followed by rest. Game was more abundant in the highlands. However, at least five other kinds of berry and an edible root grew here as well, so Spock had to hunt less often. For the first time, they collected a modest surplus of food. They could forage as they hiked, and had a virtual feast ready for them at the end of each day.

Their energy expenses were still greater than their caloric intake, a fact that troubled Spock, but water became the primary concern instead. At times Spock had to range several kilometers from camp before he found a fresh water source. The streams were smaller here, unobtrusive and difficult to spot until he ran directly into them.

On the twelfth day of their expedition, he went out ranging for this purpose. He was reluctant to leave Jim alone, but the captain had shown remarkable recent improvements both physically and emotionally. Much of it was due to the fact that he had enough food and could sleep peacefully through the night. He radiated optimism, or at the very least, an impressive tenacity, even during brief spells of depression. He had laughed yesterday for the first time since the incident with Taylor.

After some thought as to why this moment was still vivid in his mind, Spock concluded that Jim occupied his thoughts approximately six times more often than prior to their stranding. This made sense on a superficial level, yet a significant portion of these thoughts were not practical. They did not concern Jim’s health or safety. Instead they were centered around Jim: his sense of humor, his idiosyncrasies, the nuances of his expressions.

Perhaps he was subconsciously tabulating these factors to monitor the captain’s emotional state. He was assessing his own explanation, and judging it inadequate, when a sound caught his attention

Something big was moving through the forest, coming slowly toward him.

Despite its size, it was camouflaged well. Spock might have mistaken it for a tree swaying in the breeze if he were less alert. It reminded him of a praying mantis, except it was three meters tall and dark red. Long spines sprouted from its forelimbs and back, and it walked almost ponderously. If it had eyes on its strange, wedge-shaped head, they were not visible.

As it approached him, he knew with absolute certainty he was prey.

He readied his spear, and without warning, it unfurled a massive pair of wings. A hundred yellow eyespots stared at him.

The giant mantis lunged, and Spock threw himself to the side. A massive spine stabbed into the ground behind him. He barely had time to dive behind a tree fern before it struck again, absurdly fast. The spine embedded halfway through the trunk with a terrific thud, and Spock seized his chance. He darted out from behind the tree and jabbed with his spear. It glanced off of the mantis’ armor plating with a sharp clang, leaving no discernable damage.

Spock turned and ran, pushed past his erratic heart rate. Mere seconds later his foot plunged through a tangle of netted roots, a natural trap he should have spotted. He fell, almost smashing his head on a tree. By the time he scrambled free, the mantis had caught up.

There it was, five meters away, watching him through a clear path between the trees. Its head swayed slowly from side to side. It rattled its wings, flashing them open and closed. Should he attempt retreat again or stand his ground?

Before his brain could process the information, the mantis’ neck extended the full distance between them, shooting out so fast it was like the jaws simply appeared around his thigh.

It was too sudden for Spock to shut out the pain. He jolted, and his concentration failed, and he became acutely aware of the mantis macerating his leg. The sensation of skin tearing away from skin and connective tissue with each shift of his muscles sent the distress calls of a million neurons shooting straight to his amygdala. He was dragged under.

Spock was not accustomed to physical pain. The last time he had felt it was in childhood, before he had learned proper control. An involuntary cry escaped him, and all he could think to do was crawl away, haul himself free.

The mantis pulled him back. Spines surrounded him like a fence. Fear poured through the cracks in his mental barriers, sweeping away any traces of logic. He did not have the strength to escape. He should, yet he didn’t, not anymore.

But then a strange, metallic thud shuddered through his body, and the mantis let go. Spock could only lie still, breathing in the scent of wet earth, desperately trying to regain his focus while his leg was on fire.

A familiar voice resonated on the edges of his perception. “Yeah, you! Ugly!”

Spock twisted his head, disoriented by his sideways vantage point. There was Jim, holding something in his arms, one hand tilted back past his shoulder. The shadow of the mantis shifted over Spock, and it started to hiss.

“That’s right. Over here!” Jim pitched his arm into a throw, and there was another ringing thud. “Get the hell away from my Vulcan!”

Spock fought to speak, to warn, but his throat closed around the words. His heartbeat was a deafening cacophony, drowning out coherent thought. The mantis charged, and Spock heard its wings unfurl. It occurred to him that he could no longer see just before he fell unconscious.

***

He awoke to a strange ripping noise. His heart rate increased two-hundred percent as he wondered if he was hearing the mantis tear Jim apart. Then something touched him gently, and he opened his eyes.

“Jim?”

The captain looked at him and smiled. He was placing a strip of slime leather over one of the deeper lacerations in Spock’s leg. The crude bandage held a thick compress of brushtail fluff in place. “Hey. You all right?”

Spock flexed his fingers and toes experimentally. His right leg was stiff and reluctant to move, but he could feel that all the muscles and bones were at least minimally functional. In the absence of immediate distress, he had instinctively regained control of the pain, and the fear was a distant memory. “I believe so.” He moved to sit up, but Jim’s hand on his shoulder prevented him.

“I’m not done yet. Hold still.” He sliced another strip of slime leather off of a larger piece. “You had me worried, out for hours like that. I cleaned you up with the alcohol. Soaked this stuff in it too. Not as sterile as I’d like, but I had to stop the bleeding with something.”

Bleeding. Why was he bleeding? “The mantis.” Spock tried to sit up again and scan the area, only to be pushed back down.

“That what we’re calling it? Makes sense,” Jim quipped. “I chased it away.”

“How?”

“Carefully.” Jim grinned, and seemed to relish Spock’s response. “There may have been a flamethrower and a mythic sword involved, but don’t quote me on that.”

Spock stared at him. The pain was constantly fraying at the edges of his control, and the confusion wasn’t helping. He realized that said confusion likely meant Jim was joking, so he collected himself enough to shoot the captain an incredulous look.

“All right, it bit me too. I guess I didn’t taste very good, because it started shrieking and bolted.” Jim shrugged. “Vulcans must be filet mignon to my Brussels sprouts or something.”

“Where?”

“What?”

“Where did it bite you?” Spock studied Jim more closely and saw the dark red stain on the side of his uniform, about the size of his palm.

“It’s nothing.” Jim shifted the way he was sitting so that the injury was no longer visible.

That’s when it occurred to Spock belatedly that according to all known variables, he should have been alone, and thus, dead. “How were you able to witness the attack?” He scrutinized Jim.

“Oh. About that.” Jim stared at the ground, as if searching the leaf litter for an answer. “You know how you tried to convince me I’m not a reckless jerk? Well, I’ve… kind of been, uh… leaving camp when you’re gone. Exploring on my own. Sometimes I pick a random direction, sometimes I follow you. I never go far.” When Spock did not respond, he continued. “I did it with the dome for awhile. I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out earlier.”

Spock had difficulty assimilating these statements. While they made sense syntactically, their content was unanticipated. “You were following me?”

“What? I’ve been feeling better most days. Getting at least four solid hours of sleep. I can’t just sit around when you’re gone anymore.”

“This incident is the precise reason I would hesitate to permit your presence,” Spock said. It was difficult to project sternness while on his back. “There are enough dangers. You do not need to seek them out.”

“Like you handle the dangers so well on your own.” Jim rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you were just about to put that mantis thing in a chokehold when I showed up.”

There was no logical rebuttal to Jim’s sentiment. Spock was both pleasantly surprised and vaguely disappointed.

“There’s not much more I can do without a needle and thread,” Jim murmured as he tied off the last bandage. “I think you should consider a healing trance.”

Spock was momentarily at a loss for words. He had never actually utilized the trance before, only knew the principle behind it. Moreover, he was ninety-six percent sure that Starfleet xenobiology courses did not go into any real detail about Vulcan anatomy, let alone healing trances. He was about to ask Jim where he obtained this information, but he made the mistake of sitting up to do so. The pain flared just beneath his consciousness, informing him that the damage was more extensive than he initially estimated.

In any case, it was not a sound proposal. “I cannot leave you alone,” he said.

“And if that wound gets infected, you’ll be leaving me alone anyway,” Jim retorted.

“What if there is a windstorm?”

“I’ll tie myself up before you go under.”

“The mantis could return. You will be defenseless. ”

“Nah, I’ll just get a nice big pile of rocks to throw.”

Spock went through half a dozen more objections, all of which Jim countered to an unacceptable degree. Eventually he stopped answering them altogether and chuckled humorlessly. “God, we’re all kinds of messed up, aren’t we?”

This they could agree upon. “It would appear so.”

“All right, look. You need to heal as fast as possible. And to do that, you need to trust me on this.” Jim’s smile was simultaneously wry and sad. “Let me help.”

A choice between two undesirable options, Spock thought. There was a human expression for this that he couldn’t recall. Unfortunately, the captain had the superior case by a narrow margin. Travel would make the wound worse, and it could be weeks before he healed. As a Vulcan, he was obligated to bow to superior logic.

He nodded his reluctant consent.

Chapter Text


Kirk

Even though he already knew what it looked like, watching Spock go into the trance was weird. Jim fumbled for his pulse a few times. He couldn’t convince himself this was safe. He waited until Spock was completely under, then covered him in the tattered slime leather blanket and forced himself to back off. The memories were unsettling, he thought, but that didn’t mean they weren’t useful. Besides, knowing Spock’s chess strategies and exactly how to counter them was undeniably awesome.

He tended to his own injury, a ring of tiny punctures on the side of his waist. The mantis never got the chance to rip into him, so the area was more bruised than anything else. But unlike Spock, he didn’t have the benefit of being unconscious while he fixed himself up. He had to bite down on a mouthful of shirt when he broke out the alcohol, or else risk teaching the other side of the planet the filthiest swears in the alpha quadrant.

Smarting and exhausted, he kept vigil, waiting for what Bones would probably call ‘Vulcan mumbo-jumbo’ to take its course. That night he tied himself to a tree with all kinds of knots, but the weather stayed cooperative, and absolutely nothing happened. He checked on Spock’s wound every few hours, and each time it was smaller, less ragged-looking and swollen.

Finally, while snacking on some mid-afternoon duskmelon, he heard the magic words: “Hit me.”

Without his unusually-obtained background knowledge, Jim might not have been able to do it. He tried to imagine Spock was the awful programming professor who threatened to fail him because he corrected her in class, which helped a little.

“Thank you, Captain,” Spock said, catching Jim’s wrist after the fourth slap. “That will be sufficient.” He seemed rejuvenated, although slightly miffed at the rude awakening.

“Are you sure?” Jim teased. “I was pretending you were Dr. Wexel, and I’m only halfway through my list of grievances.”

Spock raised both eyebrows at him, which Jim was pretty sure meant ‘humans are the most nonsensical species ever to exist for all time.’ Jim was tremendously proud of himself for that.

Unfortunately, Spock made a big fuss for awhile, insisting they rest for several days until Jim was fully healed. After a bit of cajoling and sweet-talking, Jim haggled him down to two.

But it was probably a good call in the end, because the highland hills grew steeper, more difficult to traverse. Sheer rock faces jutted out of slopes, and they couldn’t travel in anything resembling a straight line. He grew all kinds of blisters and calluses. The climb was satisfying, though. Jim had done a little bouldering back at the Academy, and he liked the challenge of high places. Much to Spock’s consternation, he scrambled up a few of these tempting miniature cliffs. He always made sure to wave from the top and savor the look of total exasperation he got in return.

As they hiked, they discussed the changing jungle around them, naming new species as they appeared. Spock called them all practical, boring things like Pseudoavis albus, while Jim went for silly in-jokes and bad puns. He didn’t care what Spock said, the only possible name for a slimy, burrowing rat thing was Harrys muddus. The whole situation quickly devolved into a contest over who could spot something first, claiming the right to name in the ridiculous or sensible manner of his choice. There were plenty to go around either way.

One day the subject of the bulbweed came up, mainly because Jim decided he wouldn’t jinx his luck if he mentioned it. Spock replied with the kind of answer that told Jim he’d been mulling over the issue for awhile.

“Typically, high altitude environments cannot support large insectoids, due to lower atmospheric oxygen,” he said. “And it appears that the bulbweed depends on the cattlebugs. If they cannot survive here, neither can it.”

“That’s a pretty tight relationship. Co-evolutionary?”

“A reasonable possibility.”

“Too bad we didn’t know that a few weeks ago,” Jim said, joking on the outside and throwing a minor frustration tantrum on the inside.

Sure enough, Spock’s hypothesis panned out. Three days in the highlands and there were no more rhinopterans, or cattlebugs, or anything else with lots of legs and no real lungs. Chances seemed good the mantis was among the vanished species, and it was not going to be missed. They didn’t come across a single bulbweed for days. Night was something Jim looked forward to now, a time to relax and reflect.

With his head so clear, he thought about Taylor a lot. He still couldn’t reconcile what he had done with the kind of person he thought he was, but sometimes entire hours went by where he was at peace with it.

He had other distractions though, because the memories were sticking around. Although the bulbweed had set them off, somehow they kept coming well beyond the plant’s sphere of influence, just as strong as before.

The strangest part was when he literally saw himself through Spock’s eyes. His alternate universe counterpart seemed so damn confident and popular and well-adjusted, but that wasn’t what bothered him. For God’s sake, he thought after the third time it happened. Do I really look at Spock like that? Then he caught himself gazing at his first officer over the fire one night, sort of idly studying the tips of his ears and basking in a general feeling of pleasantness, and he barely resisted the urge to smack himself on the forehead.

It wasn’t all bad though. One day he was busy scoping out the best way to climb an awesome outcrop when it hit him.

He knew his father.

A patient voice, the outline of a tall figure. Holos of camping at the creek, frying up the puny fish they caught that day. His parents dancing together at the wedding of a family friend. These were different from all the other fragments. There was a warmth to them he couldn’t explain, a distinct texture and flavor that was so familiar. They fit into his mind like they belonged there.

Fortunately Spock was some distance ahead of him, because he had to quietly lose it for a minute or two. He was jealous of his other self, but grateful he could have a small piece of a past and future he never got to live.

Later that night, when he calmed down enough to think straight, he came to an odd realization. His father looked young in the memories, so young that he doubted Spock could have met George Kirk yet. They had to come from the other Jim. Which meant the other Jim had shared these things with the other Spock through a mind meld.

That threw him off a little. Why would they exchange personal details that way instead of just telling each other like normal people?

Jim glanced at Spock, sitting beside him on their frond mattress, eyes closed and hands clasped in a meditative posture. His stomach churned from concerns he couldn’t quite place. Sometimes he felt like he was at the threshold of a door, his hand on the knob, and he didn’t know if he wanted to see the other side. He also wasn’t sure he had a choice.

They made camp in a brushtail clearing the next day, and Spock went to search for some much-needed water. Jim replaced the tip of his spear with a fresh pincushion spine and waited for the visitors to show up. Every day for the last three days, packs of tree squid gathered in the trees and watched him when Spock left, stealing scraps of food whenever he turned his back. Sometimes he got one, and sometimes he chased them, but he was always forced to stop before he got lost. Well, that or he collapsed with laughter, because watching a squid run was like watching ten slinkys fall down the stairs at once.

But this evening was different, because the pests didn’t show. The stillness unnerved him far more than the rustle of semi-intelligent squid. Jim kept one hand on his spear, but after a quarter hour or so, his alertness faded. Maybe they got bored of him and moved on. He started to experiment with weaving brushtail stalks into a shelter.

That was right around when he saw it.

A giant lizard. Nothing like the drakes either, not like anything he had seen so far. It was maybe three meters long, mottled brown, crawling deftly over a fallen tree fern across the clearing when he spotted it. A second later, it spotted him.

Suddenly it rose up on two legs and rushed him in a blur. He couldn’t even reach for his spear before it was on him.

A living sheet of scales met his upraised hands with all the force of a storm surge. He was knocked off his feet, the clump of delicate brushtails breaking his fall. He scrambled away, tried to jab his fingers into the narrow red eyes, but sharp claws punctured his arm and held him in place. He cried out, the air torn from his lungs.

The weight of his attacker kept him from getting another full breath. His legs were trapped under its stomach. It was all he could do to brace a hand against its neck and hang on to the foot about to crush his throat. He had to. A mouth full of long, white teeth snapped together barely ten centimeters over his nose. His muscles shuddered with the strain, seconds away from collapsing.

Damn, it was strong.

Then it started making noises, rough and terrifying. At first it was just a bunch of low growls, but suddenly the universal translator kicked in and started inserting words into the chaos. It wasn’t particularly helpful.

“Kill – kill – soft – kill – die –”

“Wait!” Jim choked out. “Listen! Can you hear me?”

He was sure his face was going to be torn off when it blinked at him, and some of the pressure let up. “Sound… strange. How?” The voice had all the delicacy of gravel scraping on gravel, yet it was definitely female. Jim sized up the hulking figure on top of his chest and wondered if the translator hadn’t gotten its chips fried like everything else.

He fought to catch his breath. “Yes. I can understand – ”

The air hissed, and an arrow appeared in the lizard’s shoulder. She jerked and flung herself away from Jim, wheeling around and searching for the source.

Jim lifted his head just in time to see Spock emerge from the trees, switching to a spear. He charged across the clearing, lowering the weapon like a lance. He was gone. Jim could see it in his eyes.

“Spock, wait! She’s sapient!” Jim struggled to his feet and moved to intercept.

He grabbed Spock’s arm and Spock threw him off easily, elbowing him in the ribs. He almost keeled over from the pain, but his tolerance had been upped to ridiculous levels weeks ago. He shook it off and limped after his wayward first officer.

“Stop it!” he shouted hoarsely. “Listen to me!”

It was amazing, how fast they both moved. Spock thrust at the lizard’s head and she twisted to the side, circling him in a cloud of falling brushtails. Her tail lashed and she launched herself at Spock’s leg. He dodged, bringing his foot down on her neck only to have her yank out from under him and throw him off balance. She was on all fours, then two legs, rearing up taller than either of them. Spock stumbled back. She sliced green lines into his chest before he could recover.

Jim fought his impulse to run between them. Getting gashed or skewered wasn’t going to help things. “Commander Spock, this is an order from your captain. Stand down!”

A sudden shift in the flow of the fight. The lizard tried to dash around Spock, but she slipped as she transitioned from two legs back to four. The way she landed pushed the arrow deeper into her shoulder, and she snarled and curled in on herself.

Spock strode toward her, switching his spear from underhand to overhand, and that’s when Jim knew for certain. He wasn’t looking at his first officer. He was looking at a Vulcan from two thousand years ago.

Jim summoned his last reserves of strength. He lowered his shoulder and charged into Spock, knocking them both to the ground.

He could barely figure out what was happening in the mad confusion of flailing limbs. He grabbed fistfuls of blue shirt and acted on instinct, all the grappling training from the Academy flooding him at once.

The struggle lasted much longer than it should have. Either Spock was holding back, or something was wrong with him. Jim got his legs in a guard, but Spock was too fast. He passed it, straddled Jim, and pressed a knife against Jim’s neck before he could blink.

Jim almost laughed. The déjà vu was incredible. But it faded quickly, and then there was only Spock, and a thin line between Jim and a slit throat.

He swallowed, his Adam’s apple shifting against the blade. Spock visibly gasped for breath above him, pupils blown like a panicked animal. Jim knew how to talk someone down from rage, but fear was different. Even less rational, even more consuming.

“Spock…” he started, and too many things came to mind at once. I thought we got over this. I thought I could depend on you. I thought we were friends.

The change happened in the space of a second. A look of utter devastation flashed over Spock’s face, so profound it was hard to watch. Abruptly he scrambled off Jim and lurched back a few steps before sinking to the ground. His gaze fixed on nothing, and the knife slipped from his hand.

Jim let his head tip back. He stared at the sky for awhile, convincing himself the miraculous rise and fall of his chest was real. He pushed himself to a sitting position and surveyed the clearing around him. His first attacker was on all fours, watching them from the sidelines with obvious interest. The slits of her pupils widened when he looked at her.

“You speak,” she said flatly.

“So do you,” Jim said. He clamored to his feet, flinching at a dozen new aches, then turned his palms up and took a deliberate step toward her. Time for damage control. “We don’t want to hurt you. And I hope you don’t want to hurt us.”

“Bad lie,” she hissed, jabbing her snout toward Spock. “Wants to kill.”

“No. Not anymore.” Jim took a few seconds to inspect the puncture wounds on his right arm. They were wide, but not too deep. With any luck his home brewed sterilizer would do the trick. “Why did you attack me?”

“Looked good to eat. But speak. Do not eat speaking things.” Her nostrils flared.

“Great.” Finally, it looked like the universe was throwing him a bone. He watched her glance at her injured shoulder and flex her forelimb. “I can help you with that.”

She snarled at him, twisted her neck at an impossible-looking angle, and ripped the arrow out with her teeth. She bit down, snapping it in half before spitting it off to the side.

“Okay then.” Jim glanced back at Spock, who was still sitting on the ground, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “Can you just… go over there and wait for me?” He shooed her toward the far side of camp. “I need to take care of something.”

She seemed wary but curious, and slowly followed his instructions. He studied her for a minute as she twisted her neck again and licked her wound with a darting black tongue. There was only one advanced lizard species that Jim knew of, but she definitely wasn’t a Gorn. She was too lean and quick, not to mention a semi-quadruped, and shaped much more like a komodo dragon than an upright crocodile who had an unfortunate encounter with a wall.

Only when he was sure she wouldn’t claw him in the back did he approach Spock. He started trembling halfway there, high on a fresh shot of adrenaline. The surrealism of the event vanished, leaving nothing but pure betrayal in its wake. It was one thing for Spock to attack a giant, aggressive lizard thing, but to attack him? That was so far out of line, calling it insubordination didn’t do it justice.

“All right. What the hell was that?” He didn’t even attempt to keep his voice in the calm and professional range.

As he got closer, he realized Spock was mumbling to himself, the same phrase over and over in a mantra. “I am in control of my emotions. I am in control of my emotions.”

That made Jim even angrier. “The hell you are!” he snapped. “What were you thinking?”

“–control of my emotions. I am in control–”

Jim stopped at Spock’s side and loomed over him. Enough was enough. “I just asked you a question, Commander. Answer me.” He seized a handful of Spock’s hair to jerk his head back.

Spock stared up at him, tears streaking his face.

A memory smashed into Jim, so vivid it made him dizzy. He knew this. He had been here before, attacking Spock while at his most vulnerable, so distressed and ashamed he couldn’t think his way out of paper bag.

Jim’s fingers let go without any conscious action. He stepped back, Spock’s eyes boring holes into him. Walked some distance away. Sank down by the lump of his ruined shelter project and stared at the ground.

The three of them sat in total silence for what felt like a long time. Jim caught his breath, gingerly cleaned his injuries, and tried to figure out what to do next. This whole situation was the setup for a terrible joke, he thought. A druggie captain, a Vulcan having a breakdown, and an overgrown lizard are stranded on a planet, trying to kill each other. He wished he knew the punch line.

Eventually he decided there was no right way to approach this, so he stood, rubbed his hands together, and pretended he was still in charge. “We’re camping here tonight,” he announced, and turned to the lizard. “If you want to stay with us, I’d like to ask you some questions. We have food to spare.” That wasn’t true, but most intelligent species had codes of hospitality. If Jim could placate her by sacrificing part of his dinner, all the better.

“Will stay,” she said, after a nerve-wracking moment. Jim was pretty sure she had just sized him up and deemed him adequate by some weird alien standard.

“Good. My name is Jim Kirk.” He pointed to his chest for clarity’s sake. “Over there is Spock. I apologize for his behavior. I think we had a… misunderstanding.” He didn’t look back. He couldn’t handle Spock right now. “What’s your name?”

“First Longclaw, Battlesister of Nine Suns, Six from Nest-by-the-Spines–”

“Longclaw. Got it.” Jim guessed that she wouldn’t quibble over that, and fortunately she seemed satisfied with his version. It was also a name he wasn’t about to forget, he thought, glancing at one of her weaponized, four-toed feet. “So, Longclaw. Can you help me gather firewood?”

“What fire for?”

“Light. Cooking.”

God, it was hard to read reptilian faces. Like playing roulette and guessing the result blindfolded. “Will help,” she said finally.

They gathered enough wood to last through the evening in a strange and uncomfortable collaborative effort. The one time Jim chanced a look at Spock, he was deep in meditation at the very edge of the clearing. Jim put together the best meal he could to impress Longclaw, pulling out all the stops like slow-roasting and seasoning. By the time he was done, it was evening, and it occurred to him that he made enough food for three people. Also, the water pouches were over by Spock. He ignored both of these things and served the meal anyway.

He watched Longclaw rip into half a drake as he thought about where to begin. “We’ve never seen your kind before.” The raucous crunch of bones made him hesitate to eat his own portion. “What are your people called?”

She picked a piece of wing out of her teeth. “Strong.”

Jim frowned. Usually the ‘people’ line translated pretty well, but it must not be getting through. “No, I mean… what do you call yourselves? My people are ‘humans,’ Spock’s people are ‘Vulcans.’ Like that.”

She blinked at him a few times. “Brave. Very strong.”

He gave up and moved on. “Is this your home?”

“No. Come from Gr’skgr’ut. Many stars away.” The universal translator didn’t bother tackling the mess of throat clicks and snarls that apparently named her planet.

That surprised him. Exactly how did this species have access to post-warp technology? Jim approached the problem as delicately as possible. “We come from far away too. A place called the Federation. How did you get here?”

“In a ship.”

“Did you fly the ship?”

“No. Thinkers do that.”

Now he was getting somewhere. “Who are thinkers?”

“Thinkers think, and fighters fight. Is the way.”

A dimorphic species, maybe? Jim turned to Spock out of sheer habit and saw that he was livening up a little, listening in on the conversation. He probably had all kinds of theories and questions of his own, but Jim doubted he would voice them. When he noticed Jim’s gaze, he dropped his own and went back to looking like he was embarrassed for existing.

“Not seen speaking things in long time,” Longclaw said. It was the first detail Jim didn’t drag out of her, and he took that as a sign of progress.

“What about the, uh, thinkers?”

“Ship attacked. Destroyed in sky.”

It looked like they weren’t the only ones who rubbed some trigger-happy aliens the wrong way. “Do you have any idea who attacked you? The same thing happened to us.”

“Do not know. Thinkers know, maybe.” She dipped her head briefly in what Jim guessed was the lizard equivalent of a shrug.

“So you’ve been here alone?”

“Yes. Battlesisters dead for many seasons.” Her face might not be emotive in the slightest, but he thought he detected sadness in her tone.

“Well, you don’t have to be alone anymore,” Jim said. “We’re looking for one of our ships that crashed here. If we get lucky, we might be able to leave.”

“Leave?” She stuck out her neck, lifting her head high. “When?”

“We don’t know yet. But we’re going to try.”

“Want to leave,” she said, losing all interest in her food. “Leave now.”

“If we find a way, we’ll take you too.”

After a few more minutes of reassurance, Jim got her to calm down before she hurt herself. He started preparing for bed, gathering frond leaves, his mind spinning like a hamster on a wheel. They weren’t the first intelligent species to find this planet, nor the first to be chased away. Who was so adamant nobody pay a visit? What could be so special about Sigma Nox that it merited this kind of protection?

What had gone so wrong so quickly between him and Spock?

He sat down to change the dressing on his arm. He was distracted enough by Longclaw fussing over a strange dirt nest a few meters away that he didn’t notice Spock’s approach.

He was surprised and a little apprehensive when he glanced up. His animal hindbrain demanded he stand to meet a threat. But he stayed put, because Spock’s posture was the exact opposite of aggressive – his eyes were fixed to the ground, and he placed every step like he thought the earth could crumble under him any second. He stopped a comfortable distance from the sleeping mat and folded his hands behind his back.

“I wish to apologize, Captain,” he said, as if he were giving a department report. “I understand if you do not accept.”

Jim thought about how quickly the other version of himself had forgiven the other Spock for trying to kill him, twice. How quickly he forgave Spock for what happened during Narada. This was different. “I might,” he said finally. “But first you need to tell me what happened.”

Spock directed his gaze upward in thought. “I suspect a combination of prolonged physical and mental stress resulted in a temporary but severe neurotransmitter imbalance which impaired my judgment.”

“Please don’t bullshit me, Spock. Not now.” Jim didn’t need a third layer to his headache when the first two were getting along so well.

“I made a mistake.”

“Clearly. That’s not an answer.”

“It is difficult to explain.”

“Try me.”

Spock started to pace, then stopped. “Surak teaches us there is never a reason for anger. Of course, any emotion is dangerous, but succumbing to anger is chief amongst our transgressions. If a Vulcan acts on such a feeling, he is… deeply flawed. Perhaps irreparably flawed.”

Hearing Spock write himself off as damaged goods was difficult to hear. Despite his intentions to keep up the stern superior officer facade, Jim couldn’t help feeling sympathetic. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“There is little doubt in my mind that Surak is correct,” Spock said simply, and continued. “When I was a child, I attacked one of my peers in a blind rage. From that point forward, I never again experienced a loss of restraint. I made sure of it. Until one year, one month, eleven days ago, I was successful.”

We’ve been through this before, Jim wanted to say. It was my fault. Why won’t you accept that? But he kept his mouth shut, because he could sense Spock was going somewhere with this. Where he actually went, Jim never could have guessed.

“You do this to me,” Spock said quietly, his face neutral as ever. “The fact that I have allowed you to influence my actions repeatedly in this way is… intensely disturbing.”

Jim had been called a lot of things by a lot of people, but ‘intensely disturbing’ was never one of them. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, so he tried to press forward. “All right. So you flew off the handle because someone attacked me. That still doesn’t explain…” A strange thought occurred to him then, but it was almost too ridiculous to say out loud. “No, you blame me,” he said slowly. “You feel like this emotion thing is my fault.”

“That would be irrational.” Spock made a point of staring at his boots.

Vulcan code-speak for yes. Jim leaned back on his hands, absorbing this new information. Spock got angry at me for making him feel anger, he thought. In the heat of the moment, he switched targets to the thing that caused the rage in the first place. The root of the problem. That was such seriously convoluted logic, even Jim couldn’t force it to make sense while he was sober. No wonder Spock wouldn’t admit it.

He should probably say something stern. He should probably be appalled or distrustful. But he didn’t have the will for any of these things, so he just sighed and let the last traces of irritation float away. He could handle this. If anyone understood inexplicable emotional impulses, it was James T. Kirk. “Okay. So how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

“It will not happen again,” Spock said firmly.

“How can you know that?”

“I know. That is all I can say. It is no more rational than the reason I attacked you to begin with.” Spock switched his focus to some point in the distance, and his voice grew strangely quiet. “If the only alternative to caring for you is to resent you, I choose to live with the former weakness.”

Jim’s insides did a little flip, and his heart tap danced across his ribs. “I’m, uh… glad to hear that. But next time, I suggest letting me know about these things before they boil over.” He rubbed a hand across his jaw, wondering vaguely why an admission of friendship could put him so on edge. “Anything else you think you should tell me?”

“I feel pleasure when I hunt,” Spock said reluctantly.

“Then you won’t hunt anymore. I can do it now, and I think Longclaw would be willing to help,” Jim said. “Don’t argue.”

“I did not intend to.”

“Yes you did. You got that face….” Spock frowned minutely at him. “Never mind. Come here.” He gestured to the space beside him. Spock started to move, but stopped halfway and looked uncertain. “What do you want, a written invitation?” That snapped Spock out of it, and he awkwardly joined Jim on the pile of fronds.

“Captain, I–”

“Shut up and take off your shirt.” Jim picked up the booze pouch and poured some onto a piece of brushtail fluff. “I know you haven’t cleaned those scratches yet.”

“They are shallow.”

“Doesn’t matter. Do it.” Spock listened and stripped off the filthy piece of fabric. Jim almost warned it was going to sting like a bitch before he remembered Spock didn’t have to worry about that. He dabbed at the narrow gashes while Spock ate his long-neglected dinner, and a slow warmth crept through him. The old bridge between them had been built out of necessity, on a shaky foundation. Jim had a feeling they could replace it with a better one.

Afterwards they lay side by side in silence, as if tonight were no different than any other night, but Jim knew Spock was determined to stay awake beating himself up. And as the captain, it was his duty to make sure nobody beat up on his crew.

“You know, I’d rather have a flawed Spock in my life than no Spock at all,” he said, and got the sudden, bizarre urge to roll over and drape an arm across Spock’s waist. He translated that into a firm pat on the shoulder.

Spock looked at his hand, then met his gaze. “I am grateful for your esteem, as misplaced as it may be.”

“Stop that. You’re insulting a good friend of mine.” Jim let go and laced his fingers on his chest. He teetered on the edge of telling Spock what he had been contemplating for the last hour, and finally decided to take the plunge. “So I have an idea. You think you lost control today.”

“I did.”

“Hear me out.” Jim took a moment to order his thoughts. He had no way of knowing if this would make sense to Spock, but he had to try. “Last year, you were put through a stressful situation. I provoked you. You attacked me. If your father hadn’t been there to stop you, who knows?

“So here we are, caught in another stressful situation. Not as severe on the sliding scale of trauma, but stressful nonetheless. I provoked you. You attacked me. And you stopped.”

He had Spock’s attention now. He could tell by the way Spock angled his head and stared at him instead of through him. He cleared his throat and kept going. “Whatever monster you think your emotions can turn you into, there’s a limit to it now where there wasn’t one before. You can control it, and you did. I guess I’m trying to say you should trust yourself again,” Jim finished, and reeled at little at his own conclusion. “Or maybe I’m saying I have good evidence you should trust yourself again. How’s that?”

“An… interesting theory, Captain.” Spock shifted beside him and went back to gazing at the stars.

“Promise me you’ll consider it?”

Spock nodded once. Not exactly the enthusiastic agreement Jim hoped for, but he checked it off as a victory anyway.

“Also, please let the record show I am so. Damn. Tired. Of things attacking us.”

“I shall make an entry in the log as soon as possible, Captain.”

Jim snickered, and Spock rolled to face away from him, tucking an arm under his head. But Jim didn’t sleep yet. He watched Longclaw for a while, who lay flat on her stomach in a raised ring of dirt, her limbs splayed out every which way like a lazy dog. He watched the fire burn low.

Bones told him once that he grew on people like an irritating, infectious fungus, but he had never believed it until now.

He did this. From the very beginning, he got under Spock’s skin by being irritating, and now he was doing the same thing in a very different way. Despite the crunchy logic exterior, despite the walls Spock had built working on New Vulcan, Jim could coax still emotion out of him. Knowing he could was almost like a power trip.

He dreamed about a lot of things that night; the Enterprise bridge, endless Iowa cornfields, being late to a class he forgot he signed up for.

He dreamed about Spock pinning him down. But in the dream he wasn’t afraid, and Spock wasn’t angry. He was doing that not-smile thing, just sort of sitting on top of Jim, holding Jim’s wrists over his head, and it felt good. Good in a way Jim wasn’t expecting.

He tried to free himself without really meaning it. Spock shifted his grip so he had Jim’s wrists trapped with one hand. The other hand shaped into a ta’al and skimmed over Jim’s neck, his chin, his forehead. Testing him. Teasing him. Spock watched him intently, waiting for him to speak, but Jim didn’t want the tension to end.

He woke up half-tangled in a frond stem and sweating obscenely.

Jim threw himself into the hike that day, clamoring over the rocky terrain like an army of rabid Klingons was hot on his tail. The trees thinned out rapidly until they were few and far between, overtaken by thorn bushes and scraggly grasses. Sometimes at a switchback, Jim could see where the mountains were barren up ahead. He felt cool yet sun-baked at the same time, and it was noticeably harder to breathe now, but Spock seemed to be doing great. Not that Jim could look at him for more than half a second.

Longclaw was nimble, her four legs an advantage, so she scurried ahead of them and scouted out the safest paths. Spock speculated she had superior vision that helped her spot flat areas, and Jim argued she was from a whole species of mountain lizards. That brief conversation took the edge off his unease, reminded him that Spock had no idea about the dream. He hastily consigned it to the same place in his head where he boxed off the memories.

They tag-teamed Longclaw for awhile with questions, but there was so much she didn’t know. The universal translator had trouble with her descriptions of her planet. The thinkers were apparently smaller than her, and very smart. So smart that was all she could talk about when they were brought up. They wanted something old out of the ground, she said, but then the ship and planetside base were destroyed. Exactly where, when, and why was beyond her. It just figured they’d run into the grunt of an intelligent species.

“So the thinkers were digging. But why were you here?” Jim asked, after giving up on working out what they were digging for.

“Had problems. Sent me to kill.”

Jim stared at her for a few seconds, almost tripping over a rock. Her face was about as indecipherable as Spock’s during full-on logic mode. “And did you? Kill the problems, I mean?”

Her pupils widened. “Yes.”

“What kind of problems?” he urged.

“Bad problems.”

“I mean, what did the problems do?”

“Kill thinkers.”

“What killed the thinkers?”

“Many problems.”

“This line of inquiry is pointless,” Spock told him from the rear of their caravan. An hour and one pissed-off lizard later, Jim was forced to agree.

They were so close now that they decided to keep going when night fell. The last stubborn trees vanished, then the last bits of scrubland, and everything behind and ahead of them became bare gravel and rock. Jim paused at the base of a challenging, boulder-strewn incline to look back.

A field of faint, twinkling stars spread across the jungle below as far as the eye could see. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, thinning out before a visible band of darkness around the highlands. The real stars overhead seemed distant by comparison. It was amazing and sickening at the same time.

Spock’s voice, just above his shoulder. “Do you still feel it?”

“Not really,” Jim murmured. Not physically, anyway.

He turned around to find Spock’s hand, extended to steady him through a tricky, narrow space between rocks. He took it.


Chapter Text


Spock

They climbed above the clouds.

This last leg of the mountain journey was taking far longer than Spock had anticipated. Longclaw slowed down as the night wore on, complaining it was too cold. She kept up with them, but her movements were sluggish and forced. Jim shivered whenever they stopped. But Spock’s body was accustomed to extremes of this nature, and now that the humidity was gone, he had no difficulty adjusting to the stark temperature drop. He took the lead and decided when they paused for rest.

As they made slow progress toward daylight, Spock attempted walking meditation. Although he was reluctant to examine the events of the past few days, he knew had to consider the issue eventually. He narrowed his focus and steadied his breathing.

Fierce and contradictory emotions had generated his rage, yet his positive feelings toward Jim canceled out the negative ones and prevented him from doing the unthinkable. It was a paradox he could not easily resolve. According to the most basic tenets of Surak, emotion built upon emotion until the entire web collapsed and took any semblance of logic with it. Was it truly possible to apply emotion in a logical manner, and curb another emotion?

A flash of starlight beneath his foot caught his eye and broke the trance. He picked up the source, a chunk of glassy black stone. “Obsidian,” he announced as Jim and Longclaw approached. “Perhaps this is a volcanic range.”

“What mean volcanic?” Longclaw peered at him.

“Like she’s five,” Jim mumbled quickly into Spock’s ear, then stepped back to address her. “Are these fire mountains?”

“Long time ago, thinkers said. Now embers.”

Jim glanced at her, then Spock. “What does that mean?”

“Do not know.” She jerked her head up minutely.

“Dormant, perhaps,” Spock suggested, and Longclaw could neither confirm nor deny.

They continued, gathering occasional chips of obsidian as they went for potential tool use. The sky grew lighter, gray-green, and the sun rose behind them, lending some warmth to his thoroughly chilled captain and their ectothermic companion. The crest of the mountain came upon them suddenly, a view of the other side appearing when Spock no longer expected it.

A vast, dry plain lay before them, a rain shadow desert, high altitude and barren. The entire area was uplifted such the base of the mountains on this side was far shorter than on the forest side. There were more mountains within sight, another chain that appeared to border the entire region. But a far more distinct feature of the landscape was the tremendous amount of geothermal activity at its heart.

Steam drifted over grassy islands in massive plumes, replenished by huge, boiling pools. Brilliantly-colored mineral deposits streaked along superheated rivers. Fumaroles poured dark columns of smoke into the thin, hazy air. Even from this height, Spock could detect the scent of sulfur in the breeze.

And there, perhaps five kilometers from the base of the mountains, was the wreck of the Galapagos, locked in the wasteland.

“No way,” Jim murmured beside him.

“Your ship?” Longclaw gazed at the steam-fogged landscape below.

“Yes,” Spock said. He held up a hand and employed his second eyelids to block the sun, assessing the damage. The ship appeared largely intact – most modern vessels were designed to survive traumatic atmospheric entry and even crash landings – but at least one of her nacelles was blown apart by what appeared to be an active geyser. Her warp core must have been ejected into space, or deactivated prior to impact.

“Looks dead,” Longclaw said.

“Why the hell did you know about the mountains, but not this?” Jim rounded on Spock, his frame tense and brow knit with anger.

“There was no reason to examine available maps so far beyond our search parameters,” Spock said, uncomfortably aware of how deficient his explanation sounded. “I studied local data and little else.”

Jim braced himself on a nearby boulder and ducked his head for a moment. “All right. How bad is it?”

“Impossible to say from this distance.”

When the captain lifted his eyes again, Spock was reminded of the moment when they decided to storm the Narada together. “We’re so close,” Jim said. “We’re not stopping now.”

Spock nodded once, and a surge of energy passed through him, as though Jim’s resolve could leap across the space between them.

They descended to the desert to investigate. The dry soil crunched underfoot, and the sun quickly became ruthless, but the slope was not very steep. They passed hissing steam vents and gurgling thermal springs, and Spock resisted the urge to study each new microhabitat and speculate on its suite of colorful extremophiles.

By afternoon, they reached the base of the mountains and began to survey the hot spot’s edge. This place was truly a wonder of nature. The constant, white-noise grumble of superheated water pervaded the simmering air. What few plants there were must be adapted to live with steam as their sole source of moisture.

Despite Spock’s warnings, Jim cautiously ventured out a few times and was driven back by an eruption or a fractured patch of ground. Longclaw was not eager to repeat his experiments. She referred to the area as ‘fire land,’ and appeared to consider it taboo, giving even minor features a wide berth.

Spock took a different approach. After several hours, he programmed the tricorder to receive inputs from PADD sensors, which were mostly functional due to their simplicity. The readouts would be crude approximations, but it was better than pure guesswork.

Using the new device, he could measure the ambient temperature of the geothermal field up to thirty meters. The ground appeared to have enough sturdy spots that, given enough time, one could pick a safe path to the Galapagos. There were tufts of vegetation that could act as waypoints. But as a whole, the heat was too great and unpredictable. Spock tried hundreds of different mental paths only to have an unexpected eruption or temperature spike occur. Jim helped him time the geysers, and while some were regular, others were entirely random.

Without some sort of thermal protection, there was a ninety-two point four percent probability any large organism attempting to navigate through the fields would be burned, scalded, or otherwise severely injured.

Spock meditated on the problem as Jim and Longclaw broke camp in the shelter of an overhang. He devised a plan with a relatively good chance of success, assuming perfect implementation. They needed something that could resist the heat, a protective hazard suit like the ones used by scientists across the Federation.

Jim frowned when Spock presented the idea over an early evening meal. “Is that doable?”

“Unknown. However, it appears to hold the most promise out of a least a dozen alternatives.” Spock speared a slice of duskmelon with his knife, but did not eat.

“What alternatives?”

“Building a boardwalk, constructing a shielded ‘sled,’ creating a glider, locating a different direction of approach, predicting periods of high and low activity–”

“Okay, I get it.” Jim held up a hand to cut him off. “They’re all too risky or too time-consuming.” He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with a ragged gold sleeve. “So let’s say we pull a hazard suit out our asses. What then?”

“One of us will cross the field and assess the Galapagos.”

“Which one?”

Spock glanced over his shoulder and up the slope, where Longclaw had retreated to build her nightly nest. “Assuming we could convince her to set foot on the ‘fire land,’ Longclaw can probably tolerate a higher range of temperatures than either of us for extended periods,” he offered cautiously.

“But she’ll have no idea what to look for once she gets there,” Jim finished for him. Almost as soon as he said this, he jabbed a finger at Spock. “What about a mind meld? Give her your knowledge of the ship.”

Spock raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you believe she is capable of understanding such advanced concepts?”

“I think it’s worth a shot.”

Longclaw wasn’t fazed by his request, and didn’t recoil at the first tentative touch of his mind. That surprised him. Most sentient creatures reacted negatively to melds at first, but she was complicit, and very easily read. Yet he could sense a fundamental incompatibility between them. To give her any direct knowledge would be like trying to set water on fire. His thoughts weren’t the right shape. Ultimately Spock was forced to withdraw, puzzled and defeated.

“Feel strange,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Too many things. You are thinker?”

Spock was at a loss for an answer, and Jim took over while he recovered. “Why, can the thinkers do that?”

“Yes.” Her tone carried a note of condescension. “Spock is bad thinker.”

“She is accustomed to telepathy,” Spock tried to explain. “I believe there is a channel in her mind, but it is highly specific. I cannot access it.”

“That’s odd.” Jim considered this information briefly, then thanked Longclaw for her cooperation and led the way back to their camp. “Psy-communication, maybe?” he speculated as they passed a gurgling mud pot.

“That seems likely,” Spock said.

“No wonder she’s so clueless all the time.” Jim paused at the edge of their crude camp, leaning against the overhang. “One of us has to go, then,” he said quietly.

“Humans do not possess the same specialized thermoregulatory structures as Vulcans,” Spock pointed out, after a moment’s pause. He ducked under the ledge and attempted to find a comfortable seat on the bare stone.

Jim settled down in the shade beside him and crossed his arms. “I knew you’d pull that on me.”

“It is a logical point to consider.”

“Well your logic can be most… annoying,” Jim muttered. He rested his face in his hand, so that his next statement was muffled. “This means we have to backtrack for supplies, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Spock admitted. “It would have been necessary anyway, as there is no way to replenish food and fuel here.”

They watched the clouds of steam turn orange in silence, and the last wash of sunlight slide off the peaks of distant mountains. The Galapagos was transformed into an amorphous, dark mirage on the boiling desert plain.

“Damn it all to hell,” Jim said weakly.

Spock thought about that. “According to the descriptions of many human religious traditions, we may already be there.”

The captain punched his arm in response.

***

They spent four days retracing their steps and set up camp at the edge of the highlands. There they tested any substance that seemed potentially useful, in multiple combinations; wood, fibers, fronds, drake hides, the shells of cattlebugs and rhinopterans, slime leather, clay, even rock slabs. The leather served as decent waterproofing, and packed brushtail fluff made good insulation. But few materials proved heat-resistant, and implementing them into a suit was nigh impossible. They were all brittle, heavy, and non-reflective, far from ideal.

With abundant blank time between failed experiments, it became clear how much Longclaw was in her element in the highland jungles. She scented out water from remarkable distances, showed them new food sources, and effectively hunted anything she could reach. The same day she shunned their spears, she snatched a drake out of the air in a feat of raw speed. There was rarely enough food for satisfaction on everyone’s part; Longclaw was accustomed to hunting for herself alone, and could only do so much, although watching her work was impressive.

But while their escort was knowledgeable, her thought processes remained highly simplistic and erratic at best. One night, Spock caught her staring at him across the fire for a disturbingly long time. He ignored her for five point six minutes, at which point his curiosity demanded he take action.

“What is it?”

“Do all your females have pointed ears?”

He thought about the best way to address a question with such an outrageously inaccurate premise, but he reconsidered and chose the most basic answer possible. “I am male.”

She turned to Jim and tilted her head to the side. “Then you are female.”

Spock recognized Jim’s tight grin as an attempt to suppress laughter. “No. We’re both male.”

She peered at him skeptically.

“We are from two different peoples,” Spock offered to clarify the issue.

Her eyes narrowed in amusement. “Are stupid. Same except for ears and silly fluff on heads.” She studied Spock again. “Must be female. Are taller.”

“I assure you, I am–” But by that point, Longclaw had lost interest in what remained of her dinner and wandered down a nearby slope to patrol.

Jim snorted beside him, then burst into outright laughter. “Sorry, sorry,” he gasped. “I was blinded by her logic.”

“She has spent five point three days in our presence uncertain of our sexes,” Spock said, unable to curb his frown of bewilderment. “She is not terribly inquisitive.”

“Nope.” Jim grinned at the spot Longclaw had occupied. “I like it. She’s all right.” He tossed a sungrape up in the air and caught it in his mouth. “She’s Porthos, I think.”

“Captain?”

“The three musketeers. You’re obviously Athos, and I’m Aramis, so she’s Porthos. It all makes perfect sense.”

Not for the first time, Spock avoided questioning Jim’s dubious line of reasoning.

Only later did he manage to get a more complete explanation out of Longclaw, or rather, what passed for a complete explanation in her mind: “Thinkers think. Fighters fight. Males protect the eggs.”

But while Longclaw was clearly enjoying herself, often at their expense, Jim and Spock faltered in the research and construction of the suit. After yet another failed round of steaming and burning tests, Spock caught the captain throwing things into the fire without purpose, muttering oaths under his breath.

Spock reconsidered their results the next morning, scribbled on fern bark with pieces of charcoal. All he was certain of was that they needed something that could reflect heat. Something sturdy enough to maintain its integrity, yet light enough to carry under physical duress. It might take months to create such a material from scratch. By then, the Galapagos could be blown apart by a wayward geyser, or swallowed in a shifting thermal pool.

Naturally, the best thing for a suit would be the duraluminum shell of the ship’s hull.

An unpleasant memory swept over Spock then, narrowed down to a highly specific stimuli: the sound the mantis’ armor plating made when struck. It was still sharp in his mind, distinct and unmistakably metallic. The pincushion barb of Spock’s spear, hard enough to scratch many types of rock, hadn’t left a mark.

Perhaps the shell of the mantis was impregnated with a sturdy composite material. It would not be unique in possessing such a feature. The armor had to be light enough for fast movement, yet tough enough to withstand a spear with the strength of a Vulcan behind it.

He found Jim at the edge of camp, digging up a starchy tuber Longclaw called redroot. “I believe I have found a solution to our problem,” he said.

“About time.” Jim laughed and straightened up, brushing off his hands on his pants. “I was waiting for you to have one of your moments. So what do we need?”

Spock told him. Jim initially asked if Spock was kidding, and upon repeated denial, he expressed his intense distaste by pacing in silence. Every now and then he would stop and open his mouth, then close it again.

Finally he settled on a statement. “You’re serious.”

“I have considered the potential difficulties,” Spock offered.

“I mean, people think I’m crazy, and I wouldn’t go near this with a ten-foot pole. Scratch that, a hundred-foot pole, because the damn things can probably reach that far.”

“You are being hyperbolic.”

“I’m being realistic. Spock,” Jim’s voice gentled minutely, “as much as I hate to say it, we didn’t stand a chance against that thing. I tasted bad – that was all we had going for us.”

Everything about Jim was atypically anxious, and Spock wondered if it had to do with his subjective experience of the creature. Spock remembered how he felt upon discovering Longclaw attacking Jim, and thought he understood the sentiment. He tried a different angle. “I was under the impression you did not believe in no-win scenarios.”

Jim narrowed his eyes and stared at Spock for eight point seven seconds. His jaw tightened, and he squared his shoulders. “All right, you got me there. We’ll do it your way.” He marched toward the slime drying racks.

“Jim, what are–”

“Tactical analysis, Mr. Spock.” Jim picked up a piece of charcoal and started to draw on the leather. “So we’ve got giant wings with a psychedelic pattern. We’ve got too many damn creepy legs and arms. With spines and grim reaper scythes. We’ve got armor plating, which we’re pretty sure is metallic. Sharp teeth, no eyes… oh right, and the neck that can stretch about a kilometer in less than a second.” He added some final details, and Spock was impressed at the overall quality of the sketch. He stated as much, and Jim shrugged and muttered something about impressing girls in high school.

“I recommend we ask Longclaw for advice,” Spock said, after contemplating the drawing. “Perhaps she has encountered this species before.”

“Good idea. Hey, Longclaw!” Jim waved her over from the middle of camp, and she crawled toward them, glancing back toward the cookfire every other step.

“Said to watch food. No burn.”

“Forget that.” Jim pointed at the sketch. “Do you recognize this thing?”

She stared at it long enough that Spock wondered if their universal translators had failed catastrophically. “Snapnecks,” she said suddenly, and bared her teeth. “Why make small one? Never small.”

“Huh?”

“I believe she is having difficulty grasping the concept of symbolic representation,” Spock said.

“So there’s no way in hell she’d understand if I tried to explain it?”

“Likely not.”

“Can hear!” Longclaw protested, her gaze darting back and forth between them.

“Sure, of course you can.” Jim nodded earnestly at her. “Snapnecks, you said? So you’ve seen them?”

“Killed for the thinkers.”

Jim exchanged a glance with Spock. “Wait, these were the problems you solved?”

“Yes,” she said, remarkably nonchalant. “Good at surprise. Hide like cowards, but strong.”

“Hide?” Spock frowned, folding his hands behind his back. “What do you mean?”

“Watch prey for many suns. Then attack.”

Spock could not characterize the feeling that came over him aside from the brief muscular spasms it incited along his spine. Did this mean the mantis had been stalking them for weeks before the first encounter?

The captain didn’t appear to have grasped these implications. Either that, or he was too focused for any diversion. “So you’ve hunted these things before?” he pressed Longclaw further.

“Never alone,” she said.

“We’ll be with you. Could you do it?”

She stared at Jim, then Spock, then Jim again, her red eyes unblinking. “Are not battlesisters,” she said. “Too soft.”

“Listen to me.” Jim stepped closer to her, his hands open and imploring. “We need the mantis to get to the ship. It has armor, right?” When she tilted her head at him in apparent confusion, he picked a piece of obsidian out his pocket and tapped on the surface. “Armor. Very hard. We need that to cross the fire lands.”

“Too soft,” she repeated.

“Come on now, that’s not– shit,” Jim hissed, and Spock glanced over to find he had cut his fingertip on the black shard.

“Soft.” Longclaw said dismissively. She occupied herself with finishing Jim’s task, her claws stirring up a storm of dirt around the redroot.

If she was unwilling, they needed an alternate plan. Spock tore a strip off the edge of the leather sketch and handed it to Jim. “Captain, you said it had an aversion to some substance native to your person.”

“Yeah, it thought I was disgusting,” Jim said, wrapping his finger. “The feeling’s mutual.”

Spock watched the dark spot soak through the leather. “Perhaps something in your blood?”

“Oh, well that’s easy.” Jim snorted. “We let one chew on me for awhile and hope it dies before I do.”

“Stupid plan.” Longclaw paused at her digging. “Snapnecks do not like nightwalkers. Taste bad.” Spock was impressed she had managed to deduce the topic of their conversation. He was about to pose a follow up query, but Jim responded before he could simplify his wording sufficiently.

“Nope, I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “If you’re not going to help us, we don’t care what you have to say.”

A change came over her as she loosened her jaw and flashed her teeth, and it set Spock on edge. She stared up at Jim, her pupils wide. “Weak males do not speak this way.”

“Too bad, because I’ll talk to you however I want.”

Longclaw rose onto her hind limbs, bracing herself with her tail, and loomed over both of them. Her pupils were so large that her eyes were nearly black, rimmed by a thin red corona.

The situation had to be diffused now, before it escalated any further. Spock attempted to step between them. “Jim, perhaps–”

“No,” Jim interjected sharply, holding him back with a raised arm. “We’ve been through enough without a walnut-brained lizard bullying us.”

Longclaw stretched higher, puffing out her chest. Spock’s heart rate increased over one hundred percent, and he shifted his hand to the hilt of his knife. But Jim didn’t move, he didn’t even blink, and just as quickly as she had levered up, Longclaw sank back down to all fours.

“Will show you hunt,” she said. “Are slow and soft, but cannot kill alone.” Everything about her tone suggested this was her idea, and Jim hadn’t just won some sort of primitive posturing contest. Spock focused on lowering his adrenaline levels back to baseline.

Jim exhaled audibly. “Good. Can you find one for us?”

“Yes,” she said. “Snapnecks hunt in hills, but live in jungle. Find nest and wait.” She watched them expectantly.

“Could you handle this?” Jim turned to Spock, lowering his voice. “Hunting, I mean?”

Spock reflected briefly on his encounter with the mantis. “Perhaps the desire to escape this planet could provide an emotional counterweight to any baser impulses that should arise.”

A hint of a smile crossed Jim’s face, but it faded quickly. “Are you sure?”

“No,” he admitted. “But statistically speaking, this is our best option.”

“All right then.” Jim rubbed his hands together and adopted the voice Spock still associated with the bridge. “Here’s the plan. We travel light, and we scout the lowlands during the day. Even if we run into some wind storms, I can take a few nights of the pheromones before I get useless. Let’s find this thing quickly, and kill it quickly.”

Only then did Spock begin to absorb the logistics of the situation. He feigned assent with his silence, but he did not fully concur with Jim’s strategy. Jim was well-rested, stronger now. If the bulbweed caught him in thrall again, there was a significant chance he could escape, and Spock would not be able to retrieve him. Experience told him that an invisible threshold of altitude or a single windstorm was all that stood between the captain and madness.

He spoke privately with Longclaw about his reservations. She seemed to think that the two of them were enough for a successful hunt, after he reminded her that he almost bested her in combat. The matter was settled. They would depart tomorrow, and leave Jim behind.

He checked the necessary equipment that night, locating a suitable whetstone and sharpening his knife. He honed the blade back to a fine point, arranging a hundred variables in his head.

“So Longclaw says we’re leaving tomorrow.” Jim’s voice from over his shoulder. “I guess it slipped your mind to tell me.”

Spock never swore her to secrecy, as she could not grasp the idea. Clearly he had either overestimated her taciturn nature, or underestimated Jim’s persistent inquisitiveness. “I intended to inform you at an appropriate time.”

“When? Tomorrow?” Jim snorted. “There’s no way I’m letting you do this alone.”

“You do not trust Longclaw’s capabilities?”

“I don’t trust her to watch your back the same way I would.”

Spock paused for half a second as Jim spoke, then resumed his task more briskly than before. “I am not open to suggestion on this matter. The facts are clear, and the most logical course of action is one that does not involve you.”

“Oh, well when you put it that way, go right ahead.” Jim circled around him and crossed his arms. “Laugh in the face of danger without me. Oh, wait…”

It was of critical importance that his point be understood and complied with, so Spock put his work aside and stood up to face Jim. “Sarcasm is not an appropriate response.”

“Then what is an appropriate response? Do you really think I’m just going to sit around, twiddle my thumbs, and hope you come back?” Jim’s face switched from irritation to anger, and if Spock were fully human, he would no doubt have flinched.

Yet he was not, and so he persisted. “The appropriate response would be to comply with my assessment,” he said evenly.

Jim grinned, but there was no warmth in it. “God, you’re impossible.”

“Captain?”

“I’m not weak.”

“I have not suggested you are.”

“Yes, you did. And maybe you’re justified in thinking that. Things the way they are lately, I can’t go an hour without…” Jim transformed from resolve to melancholy and back so quickly, Spock wasn’t certain he had seen anything at all. “But there’s what’s logical, and then there’s what’s right. I never send my people somewhere I wouldn’t go myself, and I’m not about to start.”

“One could argue your position is precisely the reason we are trapped here.” While strictly speaking, his statement was factual, Spock was no longer sure of his motivations.

“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?” Jim said slowly.

“A man who is often overconfident to the point of total irrationality,” Spock said, before he could check himself.

Jim fell silent, and looked at Spock with an expression akin to disbelief. That rarely happened when they argued, and Spock knew it meant Jim was channeling his anger into a new approach.

“No. You’re talking to your captain,” he said, an odd malice in his stance as he stepped deliberately into Spock’s space. “I am still your captain. And seeing as you’re short one other ranking officer to relieve me of command, I suggest you remember that fact.”

Five seconds passed, ten, and Jim did not look away. Spock felt very much like Longclaw, tempted to yield. Rational appeals were useless, and he struggled under Jim’s intense gaze. “I cannot risk losing you.” The words escaped him like a gasp for air, sudden and instinctual.

“I can’t lose you either!” Jim snapped, his face contorting into desperation. “I wouldn’t last a week here on my own. Longclaw’s not bad for a lizard, but she can’t keep me sane. So here are your choices. Give up this plan and find another one, or let me come with you.” He took Spock by the arms, shook him once. “If we go down, we go down together.”

Heat radiated outward from the places Jim touched him, reassuring and discomfiting at the same time. “Very well,” he said, his voice so low and hesitant he could hardly recognize it.

A long moment passed, and Jim did not release him. “Sorry,” he murmured, lowering his eyes to the forest floor. “Got a little carried away. I don’t really think you’re… impossible.” His hands slid down Spock’s arms, fingers brushing Spock’s bare wrist. Something lanced between them, a spark of conflicting emotions Spock could not process before he pulled away and reinforced his shields.

Jim did not appear to notice. He only looked at Spock with the same wistful expression he wore while gazing at the stars. “Whatever happened to you believing in luck?”

Spock could not prevent a frown, moreso due to concerns about the integrity of Jim’s mind than personal offense. “I have never once expressed a belief in such an absurd concept.”

Jim looked momentarily disappointed, then broke into a smile. “Course you haven’t. But you will once I decapitate that monster and mount its head on a pike.” Despite the smug, hyperbolic claim, Spock recognized Jim’s uncertainty in the lines around his eyes.

The next day they prepared together, packing as much food and weapons as they could easily carry. Spock did one last check to ensure nothing vital was left behind, and Longclaw confronted Jim while he slung storage pouches over his back.

“Why carry?”

“I’m coming with you,” he said.

“Males do not hunt.”

“This one does. Right, Spock?” Jim shot him a pointed look, and Longclaw turned her attention to him.

“Correct,” Spock said reluctantly. Her simplicity was a blessing and a curse; she did not challenge him further.

They set out before the sun reached its apex. As they walked, Jim and Spock questioned Longclaw about the nature of their quarry. Her answers tended to be reluctant, redundant, or ambiguous, but over time they gathered a few important specifics.

“Watch for bite,” she warned early on. “Bite makes sleep.”

“Explains why you passed out,” Jim said to Spock. “I kept thinking you didn’t lose that much blood.”

“Yet you did not experience a similar effect,” Spock commented.

Jim shrugged. “It only had me for a second. Must not have been long enough.”

“Do not like many prey,” Longclaw offered later, confused over a question about the mantis’ diet. “Wait for alone.”

“So we’re safe as long as we stay together?” Jim said.

“Maybe.”

Despite failing to elicit a useful answer twenty-seven percent more often than Jim, Spock tried once more. “Precisely how will we disable it? Is there a particularly successful technique we should employ?”

Longclaw blinked at him.

“How do we kill it?” Jim said, with a wry grin.

“Wait until snaps. Weak neck. Break neck, make hole in shell.”

“So if we encourage it to snap, we can kill it?” Spock ventured.

“Very fast,” Longclaw said, after a moment’s pause.

“I think that means ‘it’s harder than it sounds,’” Jim said.

Within two days, the steep slopes of the highlands gave way to gentler hills. They established a pattern of descending into the lowlands during the day, looking for any sign of the mantis, and retreating before dark. Due to travel time, this meant that they only had five hours maximum to search in the mantis’ preferred nesting habitat. Longclaw pointed out signs of activity, but they were so subtle Spock wondered if they were real or imagined.

“So what’s with all the monocultures, anyway?” Jim asked during a third fruitless search, as they passed a lounging cattlebug. “Up higher there’s all kinds of stuff, but down here… I’m pretty sure I could count the number of species on two hands. No screechers or white sylphs or anything.”

“There does appear to be a narrow strip of increased biodiversity in the highlands,” Spock conceded. He had not devoted a great deal of thought to the issue, so his initial answer was purely qualitative.

Jim noticed. “What, no numbers?” he teased.

After a few seconds of analysis, Spock came to a tentative conclusion. “Two-hundred fifteen percent more species between the highest density point and the lowlands. Fifty two percent increase in relative numbers.”

“So not just more, more of?” Spock nodded, and Jim glanced into the jungle. “Weird. It’s like there’s this sweet spot right on the edge of where the buggy species can still breathe.”

“And where the bulbweed begins to disappear,” Spock added, the thought arising suddenly out of a quagmire of data he had not yet examined.

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” Jim stopped in his tracks and frowned at Spock. “What does that mean?”

“I do not know,” he admitted. “Considering that biodiversity tends to be inversely correlated with altitude, this trend is… unusual.” Unprecedented, even. By the end of the day, he could not come up with a parallel example on another planet.

Late in the afternoon, on the fourth day of the hunt, they made camp in the shade of a massive tree fern. Longclaw insisted they were close, that she smelled the mantis several times while searching. “Next sun,” she told them. “Next sun, will find.”

Spock kept his doubts private.

That evening Jim moved to sit at the edge of camp, barely within sight. Upon approach, Spock discovered he was painting himself with some kind of red pigment. He already had three wide bands on his chest, one down the center and two framing it that flared out, covering his shoulders.

As Spock watched, he dipped his fingers into a leaf in his palm and spread two horizontal streaks along the right side of his face, from hairline to jaw. He noticed Spock as he did a cursory sweep of his surroundings, now habitual for both of them, and waved him over.

“Camouflage,” he explained when Spock reached his side. He pointed to a flat rock and a smaller, rounder one, smeared with the pulp of maroon leaves and what appeared to be a thin clay base. “Or war paint, if we’re right about the no-eyes thing. Take your pick.”

“Either one seems fitting,” Spock said.

“This is just a practice run. I figured we could either ditch the shirts or dye them.” He hesitated, paint-coated fingers halfway to the unmarked side of his face, and frowned slightly.

“Is something wrong?” Spock joined him on the ground.

“I feel like it should be symmetrical.” Jim shook his head with a self-deprecating smirk. “Stupid, I know.”

Spock touched Jim’s wrist to pull the leaf of paint closer. “Allow me to assist you.”

“Enabling illogic, Mr. Spock?”

“Many cultures, both human and otherwise, have upheld symmetry as an aesthetically pleasing trait,” he said, rationalizing his actions as he went. “There is a certain evolutionary logic to the preference.”

“Oh?”

“In species with bilateral body plans, it is an indicator of health.” Spock coated his fingers and positioned them to reflect the completed side. He drew them down along Jim’s face, over his forehead and eyebrow and cheekbone.

This was not dissimilar to the touches passed between bondmates, he realized belatedly. There was a pleasant tingle, an instinctive temptation to meld as he passed over Jim’s psi points. He snatched his hand away as soon as he completed the task.

“It’s weird, not having mirrors around,” Jim said, oblivious to Spock’s discomfort. “I probably look like an escapee from Rura Penthe.” He stood up, spread his arms, and gestured at himself. “Well?”

Spock studied him for a moment. Without his uniform shirt, he appeared even more slender than usual, without a gram of weight to spare. His muscles were well-developed, however, and his skin bronzed from the sun where it was not covered in paint. “You are significantly less distinguishable from your surroundings,” Spock said.

Jim laughed. “Nice and symmetrical, then?”

As they had established that symmetry held a certain aesthetic appeal, Spock contemplated the question longer than he should have. “Yes,” he said finally.

There was something secretive about Jim’s smile, but it faded quickly. They prepared more paint alongside dinner that evening in quiet companionship.

Nightfall had begun to engender an intimacy between them that Spock had increasing difficulty quantifying. He supposed that for two individuals of diurnal species, trapped in an unfamiliar environment, it was logical to seek out physical closeness at night as a defense mechanism. Nonetheless, he was still mildly surprised whenever Jim pressed against his side, well within the space allotted to each of them by a typical-sized frond mat.

After close to an hour of silence, Jim’s breathing had not yet settled into a steady rhythm. Spock was about to question this development when Jim rolled over to look at him in the dimming firelight. “Hey, Spock,” he said. “I can’t sleep. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Spock said.

His response had the desired effect. Jim gaped at him and hesitated. “Wow. Um… what can I dare you to do here that isn’t stupidly dangerous?”

“That is why I had not bothered to select that option before,” Spock said.

“Then why did you select it now?”

“Curiosity,” he admitted.

“Curiosity, huh?” Jim’s face grew serious, and he looked away for four point two seconds. Suddenly he snickered. “Dare you to kiss me.”

The darkness seemed to muffle him despite his joking demeanor, turn his voice reticent. Spock dismissed his mild surprise and pondered the issue. The captain was a restless individual, happiest when he tested boundaries and had access to novel experiences.

“I’m kidding,” Jim said abruptly. “Someone pulled that on me a long time ago. It’s just a thing humans do. Well, human teenagers anyway. You know how it is. Err, maybe you don’t, but–”

Spock momentarily ignored him to continue his assessment of the situation. He had grown accustomed to indulging Jim’s illogical whims in an effort to preserve his emotional well-being. Perhaps too accustomed.

And yet, backing out of the dare would, according to human tradition, render him the symbolic equivalent of a domesticated Terran avian. He took Jim’s wrist, silencing the extended digression, and gently shaped his hand so that he extended two fingers. Then Spock did the same, and after a moment’s indecision, he pressed the tips of their fingers together. He closed off his mind to avoid telepathic contact, but there was enough physical sensitivity that the overall effect was not unpleasant.

“That is how Vulcans kiss.” Spock withdrew his hand. “Or rather, the closest equivalent gesture.”

“Oh.” Jim stared at him for an unusual length of time, and the air between them changed, heavy with silence. Abruptly he looked away. “I… that’s, uh, different.” He rolled back over without further comment. The ridge of his spine pressed into Spock’s side, but he shifted away immediately.

Spock worried that perhaps he had offended Jim by misinterpreting a joke. Despite being more aware of human emotional nuances than he had ever been in his life, many things still escaped him. He reassured himself that Jim knew this, and would not hold trivial mistakes against him.

Longclaw passed by on her patrol. She noticed him watching her, and offered a quick nod. A display of mimicry based on observation, he realized. Perhaps he had not been fair to her; she was intelligent in unexpected ways. It was reassuring, to think that even something totally alien to him could adjust itself to find common ground.


Chapter Text


Kirk

“For the love of all that’s good and holy in the multiverse, would you stop doing that?

Spock and Longclaw shot him twin deer-in-headlights expressions, and Jim pretended he was not, in fact, a crazy person. “She keeps looking off in random directions,” he said, gesturing at Longclaw. “Really fast, you know? But there’s nothing there.”

Jim knew it sounded bad when Longclaw turned to Spock for an explanation.

“Captain, are you all right?” Spock took a cautious step toward him.

“I’m fine,” Jim said. “Okay, maybe a little on edge,” he added.

“Why?”

“Might have something to do with the fact we’re hot on the trail of a man-eating alien.” Not the whole truth, but enough to get the inflection right.

Spock scrutinized him, and Jim’s heart kicked into overdrive. It had been doing that all morning, and some stupid part of him was terrified Spock knew why.

Because really, what the hell was that about, anyway? What could have possessed him to think that ridiculous dare, let alone say it out loud?

Unfortunately, it took a whole five minutes to reassure Spock that no, he didn’t want to call off the hunt, and yes, it was a fleeting human mood. By the time Spock turned his attention back to the forest and revived a supremely bored Longclaw from her half-sleep, Jim was shaking with an anxiety he could barely justify.

It had to be the artificial sense of closeness brought about by the memories. All of them came from his alternate self now, like a switch had been flipped the day he remembered his father. He still knew things about Spock, like the fact he had a sehlat as a child, but everything was secondhand, learned through weirdly familiar eyes. All those details must be adding up, and his brain was jumping through a circus worth of hoops trying to explain it.

He couldn’t stop thinking about the sheer volume of stuff the other Jim must have shared with his Spock. Years’, maybe decades’ worth, important events and trivial moments alike. The term ‘old friend’ was starting to sound like an understatement.

Jim tore his eyes away from back of Spock’s head, glancing up at a slate gray sky and trying to refocus on the hunt. As far as he figured, there was a delicate balance between safety in numbers and a successful kill. The mantis was vulnerable when it snapped, and it probably wouldn’t snap surrounded by enemies. Longclaw’s endgame seemed to involve an ambush of some kind, but as usual, she had trouble being specific.

That’s when the straight line she had been leading them in veered off to the right, and Jim knew without looking they were skirting around a ‘stinkplant’ clearing – her term for bulbweeds. They had run into dozens over the past few days, but Longclaw always kept away from the edges.

As they passed a steep stream gully about ten meters from the clearing, she froze abruptly and did the head thing again. Jim grit his teeth, nipping another tirade in the bud, but this time was different. This time she lingered, sniffed a few tree ferns, and circled around as Jim and Spock looked on.

“Path,” she said, glancing at Jim. “Will come this way.”

“How do you know?” Jim tracked her erratic gaze, but everything seemed staggeringly normal.

She ignored him. “Hide here.” She scurried down into the gully and flattered herself on the slope. As with so many things involving Longclaw, they were forced to listen first and ask questions later.

After ten minutes of awkward whispering, they figured out the mantis passed through this place on its way to the highlands for food. Longclaw’s main line of evidence involved the direction of broken branches, and Spock’s eyebrows met his hair when she tried to explain herself.

“Now what?” Jim asked, hanging their supplies on a few close trees.

“Wait,” she said simply.

He decided not to push it. She would tell them what they needed to know, when they needed to know it. Jim had learned by now that asking her to speculate about the future was like asking a toddler where they saw themselves in a hundred years.

He pushed his hair out of his eyes, noting absentmindedly it could really use a trim. “How much time do we have?”

“Three point six two hours,” Spock said. The second decimal place was comforting.

They set up their weapons within reach, stringing bows and checking spears, and Longclaw teased them for their ‘hatchling teeth.’ Jim situated himself as comfortably as he could, braced against the dirt incline between Spock and Longclaw.

He was less than pleased about being stuck so close to the bulbweed. They were pushing their luck as it was. And yet some part of him was perversely intrigued by this situation. How could these things have wormed their way into his head so thoroughly, he still felt the itch after weeks of zero direct contact?

Spock must have noticed Jim kept peering over the top of the gully, because he put on his patented concern face. It looked strange when he was sporting lines of red paint across his cheeks like some ancient Vulcan warrior. “Captain, is something wrong?”

“I haven’t seen one in awhile.” Jim bobbed his head, trying to get a glimpse through the tangle of fronds. Slivers of color flashed between red fronds like broken stained glass. “Up close, I mean.”

“Do you feel compelled to approach?”

“I don’t think so. It’s mainly an intellectual curios–” Jim hesitated long enough to swap out a recently charged word, “um, interest.”

“It is an extraordinary organism,” Spock said, oblivious.

“Don’t talk like that.” Jim rolled his eyes. “Sounds like you’re giving out awards.” He glanced at the tree ferns surrounding the gully, most of them chewed up below a certain height. Tree ferns everywhere, so they couldn’t see well in any direction. “I wonder why it avoids the clearing instead of going through,” he muttered, mostly to himself.

“Is bad.” Longclaw flicked her tail at him hard enough to sting, which meant she thought he was being stupid. “Does not like stinkplant space.”

“But why?”

“Do not know.” She jerked her head slightly. “Good for hunt, bad for snapnecks.”

Finally it was starting to come together. Keep it concrete, Jim coached himself before he picked out a question. “You mean we want it in the clearing?”

“Yes. Trees block. Hard to see and hit.”

“But how do we get it there?”

Her face misted over into a blank stare, and Jim groaned inwardly. He could never predict how much of a hypothetical it took to confuse her, but once the line was crossed, her brain went into reboot mode.

Spock interrupted, after being strangely silent throughout the conversation. “It was explained to me that the mantis will chase a particularly compelling prey item into an open area,” he offered, refusing to meet Jim’s gaze.

“Explained.” Jim jabbed a thumb at Longclaw. “By her?”

“Yes.”

Jim was about to ask why the hell they had discussed these things without him when a thought distracted him, a glint of gold in a riverbed. “Hold on a minute. Snapnecks think nightwalkers taste bad, right?” Longclaw nodded, and Jim turned to Spock. “And where do all the nightwalkers go?”

“You are suggesting the mantis possesses a natural chemical aversion to the bulbweed,” Spock murmured, shifting to face him. “An aversion which carries over to any enthralled organism.”

The term ‘natural’ in reference to a gigantic, colorful, motile, weirdly parasitic plant struck Jim as inappropriate. “What else could it be?” he said. “Hell, what if anything that isn’t enthralled has an aversion? I’ve never noticed rhinopterans grazing in these clearings, have you?”

“I have not.” Spock leaned closer, his brow creasing ever so slightly. “Nor have I seen a drake fly over one, or any rooted plant species grow within one. It appears to exhibit a variety of strategically repulsive features.”

“Spock,” Longclaw said quietly. “Jimkirk…”

“Features unparalleled in any other species we’ve encountered here,” Spock continued, his eyes narrowing, drifting off into space.

Jim couldn’t help but be drawn in, spurred forward by that visible interest. They were close to the edge of something, the shift of snow before an avalanche. He could feel it. “A living fossil?” he suggested. “The last of its kind?”

“No sound,” Longclaw hissed, her voice far away.

“One possibility.” Spock sounded doubtful.

“What are the others?”

“No sound!” Sharp claws pressed into his back, and Jim jolted.

That’s when he heard it: the dry, ambling rasp of leaves. He followed Longclaw’s example, peeking over the lip of their hiding place.

Its limbs were so long, every swaying step covered an unreasonable amount of ground. Somehow it looked mechanical and organic at the same time, a warped piece of vegetation thrown into a blender and remade into an animal piece by piece. Its spines made quiet, ominous ringing sounds wherever they brushed against fronds. Maybe eight meters away and closing in at a steady pace, weaving through the trees.

“Ready, battlesister?” Longclaw whispered behind Jim’s head.

“Ready,” Spock said, and glanced at Jim. “Stay hidden, Captain. Ranged only.” He grabbed his spear and vaulted out of the gully before Jim could say a word.

Oh, hell no.

Spock ran, and the mantis fixated on him instantly. They both rushed toward the clearing in a flurry of motion. Longclaw leapt from the gully a second later, chasing after them, pressed low to the ground. Jim snatched his bow and scrambled to catch up, his body weightless with alarm.

The three of them burst into the clearing and out of sight. Jim was almost there when his foot landed in a knee-deep pitcher vine pool.

“Damn it!” he snarled. ‘Particularly compelling prey item,’ his ass. Spock knew Jim would refuse to let him be the bait, so naturally, he decided not to ask. Vulcan logic at its finest. Jim yanked himself free and bolted, stopping right before the cover of the tree ferns ended.

This bulbweed was on the smaller end of the spectrum, speckled with lime green and gaudy orange. It took Jim a second to see past the plant and absorb what was actually going on.

Spock circled around the bulbweed, keeping it between him and the mantis. The mantis’ movements were jerky and reluctant as it followed him. They were absolutely intent each other, bound together nearly step for step. It towered over Spock, who kept shifting away so it couldn’t get a good angle. Not when it refused to get within a few meters of the plant, anyway. And that was the strategy, Jim thought. Stay out of reach and force it to snap. Meanwhile, Longclaw crept along the other side, into a flanking position.

One person for the lure, the other for the neck-breaking. Easy as pie.

Jim fumbled with his quiver, impressed at their coordination in spite of himself. He seethed at being left out, but there would be plenty of time for an angry lecture later. He nocked an arrow and aimed. If something went wrong, he’d go for diversion.

Spock and the mantis vanished on the other side of the bulbweed, and Jim held his breath until they reappeared a few seconds later. His first officer was definitely pausing before each retreat now, giving the mantis a series of clear shots. Longclaw emerged behind them, very close, crouched and waiting. But although the mantis stopped to study Spock a few times, it never snapped.

Instead, it started to move faster.

Thunder grumbled overhead, and Spock fell back as the mantis slipped into a frenzy in the space of a few seconds. It turned into a living weapon, slicing and darting with a weirdly calculated precision, making walls with its bladed limbs. Like it was trying to herd Spock away from the bulbweed, and still, not a single snap.

“Back!” Longclaw cried out suddenly, breaking cover. “Back faster!”

Spock wasn’t quick enough to keep a safe distance. The look on Spock’s face told Jim he had just come to the same conclusion. Longclaw leapt off to the side, striking the mantis with a powerful blow. It shook a little, but didn’t react to her at all. Jim swore and struggled to pick a safe target out of the chaos.

Then it opened its wings and charged. Spock jabbed with the spear, tearing a hole into the thin flesh. The mantis shrilled and slashed wildly with its forelimbs. One of the spines ripped into the bulbweed’s fleshy pod. A fine mist escaped the gash, and a hellish screech splintered the air.

The smell smashed into Jim before he could get three steps. His vision tunneled, and his heart shook, and heat poured out from his core. The shaft of the arrow dragged along his fingertips as it fell.

Of course. This was what he needed. This was all he needed.

***

He’s gone, someone kept saying. He’s gone, over and over in a voiceless chant. Every time it felt like a stab in the chest.

I know, he thought at the bitter haze. Thanks for the reminder.

Up and left. Ran away like a coward, and it’s my fault, and who am I supposed to be angry at anyway?

“Wake up! Jimkirk, wake up!”

He didn’t want to wake up. He never wanted to wake up these days, because then he’d have to remember where he was, what he had done, what he didn’t have. He’d be forced to live another day with this strange and seductive world bleeding into his own, a world where he was still young, and Spock was still young, and the future was bursting with possibilities.

No, that wasn’t right.

The universe tilted sideways, backwards, and he tumbled into a warm sea. Forget, something urged him in Spock’s voice, but it wasn’t him, not really. Jim wanted to swim away, but the current was too strong. The sea slowly turned to ice around him.

His entire body ached. The more he tried to move, the more the ache pooled into a deep-seated hangover in the center of his forehead. Loss settled over him like a dusting of January snow, like someone had reached into his chest and ripped out a piece of him.

Cold. He was so cold, and wet, and something heavy pinned him to the ground. His weak, one-handed swat met smooth scales. He hauled his eyelids open, dragging himself back to awareness one centimeter at a time.

“Wake up!” the blurry Longclaw above him demanded.

He groaned, blinked a few times, and his vision began to clear. The weight on top of him lifted, but that didn’t seem to ease his breathing much.

It took him awhile to figure out Longclaw was saying something. Even longer for the words to pierce the fog around his addled brain. He pushed himself up on his elbows, shaking with the effort, and watched her.

“Did not know. Stay or chase? Jimkirk hurt. Did not know. No orders. No thinkers. Want thinkers.” She paced back and forth, tail lashing, talking in endless circles. Her scales were slick with water.

Jim was about to tell her to stop having a fit when the wall between reality and memory slammed down. He glanced around the damp clearing, but it was only them, a few meandering cattlebugs, and the bulbweed beneath a heavy gray sky. His arms gave out and he fell back down, minute raindrops peppering his face and chest.

Spock really was gone. The one thing keeping Jim from losing himself, body and mind, to this fucked up planet was gone.

He drifted aimlessly on the waves of pain. This wasn’t worth it. This couldn’t be worth it. He would rather live here the rest of his life with Spock than have him die for some crazy, half-baked escape attempt.

He curled his fingers into the mud beneath him and rasped out one of the most important question he’d ever asked. “What happened?”

“Snapneck took. Jimkirk nightwalker. Stay or chase? No thinkers.” Her face appeared above him again, and she stared at him pleadingly.

But Jim couldn’t hear anything beyond her first two words. They kept echoing back and forth in his skull in perfect sync with the throbbing ache, each syllable a physical blow. “When?” he said through a sandpaper throat. “How long?”

“Do not know. Clouds. Rain came.”

And washed the scent away. That had to be the only reason he was conscious right now. He’d rather not be. He listened to the jungle weep around them, dripping with the aftermath of the rain.

“Find?” Longclaw said tentatively. She nudged his arm. “Want to find now?”

“What?”

“Jimkirk alive. Should find Spock?”

“But he’s dead,” Jim said, too numb for the idea to make any sense.

“Took,” she said firmly. “Can follow path.”

Jim shook his head, not because that wasn’t a nice thought, but because he couldn’t believe her. He remembered what Spock’s leg had looked like, the scars the wound left behind. There was no way the mantis didn’t rip him apart the first second it could. “No way,” he repeated out loud.

She seized his arm, glowered at him with blood red eyes. Her grip tightened until it hurt. “Can find,” she growled.

The pain was sharp, a contrast to the steady ache that suffused him. That pain made him want to curl up in a ball, but this pain lit his nerves on fire. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

He squirmed against her hold. “Alive?”

“Yes. Come, hurry.” She charged into the forest.

Jim struggled to stand, failing twice before he found his balance. His eyes locked on the damaged bulbweed, and for just a second, he wished it hadn’t rained. He paused long enough to pick up Spock’s spear, abandoned near the clearing’s edge. He limped after Longclaw more instinctively than consciously, every step a battle.

He trailed her in a vague delirium, barely alert enough to avoid running into branches and tripping on logs. Most of the time, anyway. He couldn’t stop shivering, and the paint on his shirt and face was half streaked off. He had to use the spear as a walking stick. All of his focus gathered into the act of putting one foot in front of the other, and searching for Longclaw’s serpentine movement ahead. She waited for him, but she was twitching, getting impatient.

He was getting impatient with himself. His head cleared just enough for him to start thinking again, and that was not a good thing.

What if sunset was almost on them? How fast could the mantis travel, anyway? What if Longclaw lost the trail? What if she was wrong, and they were chasing a body?

God, they were so fucked.

Jim slumped against a tree fern, his knees buckling under him. His muscles were burned down to cinders, his lungs were too shallow, and his stomach was a painful knot. His head hosted a symphony of ancient cannons. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t think. His eyes slid shut.

And he saw the Enterprise streaking over an alien sky, a fading comet in its death throes. He mourned her passing, but not for long. She died so someone else could live. A crumpled body on a restless planet, familiar and fragile in his arms.

That memory ignited another, the moment when he first conquered his doubts and decided to break every rule in the book. Never give up on him. If there’s even a chance, he’s my responsibility. That much was set in stone, no matter the time, no matter the universe.

“Jimkirk?” He heard Longclaw scurry toward him. “Feel bad?”

He lifted his gaze and tightened his grip on Spock’s spear. “No,” he said, and he truly didn’t.

They started moving again, and Jim pushed himself hard, forcing the endorphins to flow. After that, it got easier. He could compensate now, fight the weakness in his body without distraction. Eventually he worked up to a jog, seeking refuge in the same memories that usually disturbed him. Warm looks and worried touches, and once, an unbelievable smile that lit up sickbay. Everything else melted away.

But he slowed down in surprise when the first smooth, red boulder appeared, taller than him. He came to an instinctive stop when the second and third emerged between the trees. They were all brightly colored beneath a patina of dirt, elongated and round, like giant eggs buried halfway in the earth.

“What is this?” he called after Longclaw.

“Old place,” Longclaw shouted back, unconcerned. “Come.”

“Wait. Give me a minute.” He leaned on the nearest rocky structure to catch his breath. He’d been careless with his running technique, and he was paying for it. He breathed in through his nose and stared at the weird red rock under his hands.

These had to be more remnants of the dome civilization. They were made of the exact same material as the tunnel. Some kind of village, maybe. The one he touched had a long crack the width of his hand a few meters away. He hobbled toward it to peer inside.

The clouded sunlight was faint, but enough got in that he could make out part of the interior. A few lumpy, unrecognizable objects. A pit off to the side, filled with stagnant water. There were scratches all over the floor, and pictures on the wall. A cattlebug, exquisitely rendered in white paint. Another cattlebug next to it, sloppier than the first. A third, twisted and slapdash, somehow sinister-looking.

Jim snapped out of his puzzled stupor when he realized he expected to hear Spock’s opinion any second. They didn’t have time for this. He took a few more breaths, forcing the air deep into his lungs, and met back up with Longclaw. They jogged past a few more structures as he tried to brush off a distinctly eerie sensation.

This place didn’t feel like ruins. It felt like a ghost town.

It could have been an hour later, it could have been ten minutes for all Jim knew, but Longclaw stopped dead without warning. He stumbled into her in his haste to make up for lost time. She was too absorbed in something to care. Her pupils widened and she scented the air, bared her teeth. “Nest,” she announced.

“Where?” Jim glanced around, breathless with exertion and dread, but didn’t notice anything.

“Look more.”

He let his gaze linger, and then he saw it. A wall of branches and tree trunks emerged dead ahead, sticking straight out of the ground like a sloppy palisade. It had to be at least five meters tall, and it looked out of place in the forest, a fragment of order in chaos. It was peppered with haphazard branches and white bristles. The bones of drakes, Jim recognized as they approached. There were cattlebug corpses hanging off branches too, some staked and some draped. A few were bleached with age.

“I thought you said snapnecks don’t like nightwalkers,” Jim murmured.

“For eating,” Longclaw said. “Use for show.”

A million imaginary spiders scurried down the back of Jim’s neck. “Show?’

“To get female.” Longclaw started moving again, scanning the forest around them. “Run from female. Never kill, even with battlesisters.”

That sounded like a damn huge disclaimer to be mentioning now, but it was far too late to reconsider. Jim followed her cautiously.

If Spock were here, he would probably comment on the uncanny similarity of this thing to a bowerbird’s nest, complete with the display of objects. The closer Jim got, the more random materials he noticed littering the wall, most of them alive at one point or another. Some were still alive, he realized suddenly, spindly legs twitching or thin wings beating, and he almost recoiled. It made for a gruesome scene, but none of it could touch what he saw then.

There, skewered by a forked branch, was the half-decayed body of a young woman. Jim looked away, but it was too late. The stringy hair and white bone and rotted pieces of flesh were there no matter where he looked. The dark pits of her eyes stared down at him, swallowed him whole.

He saw her stumbling into the beam of an arclight, her eyes just as vacant. Sightless, senseless, smelling like death.

…when you find Kallie Lombard, can you contact me right away?

Jim’s stomach twisted. He retched, bracing himself on the nearest tree. There was nothing to throw up, but his body was determined to try anyway. After what felt like an hour, the spasms faded enough that he came back to himself, trembling and drained.

Did that really happen? Why couldn’t he remember?

“Jimkirk?” Longclaw said softly. “Is like you.”

“Yes,” he managed. “She was… one of my people.” He groped for the widest frond he could find. He used the rainwater collected there to wash the sting out of his throat and spit his mouth clean.

He heard Longclaw approach the corpse, but he couldn’t look again. “You say female? Very small.”

Jim shoved the pieces of his mind back together into a crude and jumbled whole. “Keep going,” he said, to her or to himself, he didn’t know. He forced his legs to take shaky steps forward, but kept his eyes on the ground. “Let’s keep going.”

They rounded the nest, and a second palisade came into view, parallel to the first, framing a pebble floor. So did the gauzy white ceiling draped between the two walls, fine like spider silk. But the strange roof didn’t interest Jim so much as what was in it.

“Spock.”

He was suspended in the center of the nest, arms woven into the webbing. His eyes were closed, and his entire body slack.

That’s when Longclaw shouted for him to move. Jim did it without thinking, tossing his spear to the side and diving into the nest. A muffled thump vibrated through his gut. He got to his feet and glanced back at the scythe-like spine, thick as his arm, point sticking into the ground exactly where he’d been. The mantis attached to the spine rattled its wings and jerked itself free in an explosion of dirt.

It turned its eyeless, anvil face toward him. Jim drew his knife as it studied him, jaw working the air, spines clattering against the nest walls. Too close to snap. Way too close, and it was about to tear him to shreds.

Natural chemical aversion, Jim thought grimly. He sliced his palm open and shoved his hand onto its mouthparts. It shrilled so loud the sound was physically painful. Jim clamped his hands over his ears, his body folding in on itself. The mantis flailed out of the nest, scraping at its face with a forelimb.

In a flash, Longclaw launched onto its back. Her claws made a terrific screeching noise on its armor as she scrambled to hold on, but it threw her off in a second. She rolled with the force of it before recovering. Jim shouted for her to look out as the mantis shifted focus, spun around and faced her. She lunged, her teeth closing around a folded wing, and leapt away just as quickly. She did it again and again, hounding the thing, drawing a semicircle around it.

Understanding beamed through Jim’s fight-fogged brain. He sheathed his knife and snatched up the spear, gripping it like a bat. He peered out from behind the wall of the nest, waiting silently. Imagining he was invisible.

Longclaw taunted the mantis, danced out of reach, twisting between trees like a river of liquid scales. She moved too fast for it to chase her, pausing only long enough for temptation. It sized her up, wings shuttering, head bobbing and swaying. Jim could almost see the crosshairs coming together in its ugly skull.

“C’mon,” he mouthed silently. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”

It snapped out.

Jim surged forward, swinging down onto its neck. Every ounce of strength he had went into the blow, and the spear snapped in half over his narrow target. A sickening crunch rattled up his arms and a piercing shriek filled his ears. The mantis convulsed and slumped over.

Before he could believe it was happening, Longclaw reached his side. She grabbed the mantis’ crooked neck in one hand and the top of its back in the other. Yanked them apart, exposing a gap between the plates. Jim wedged the spear tip into the narrow joint and shoved as hard as he could.

Blood as thick and black as oil poured out, spraying in quick spurts. Sharp limbs flailed wildly around him, a storm of clicking and scratching. They bent backwards, yanking at him whenever they got a grip. The whole body heaved, and Jim lost his balance, dragged by the wave. He made himself fall forward and put more weight on the spear. Longclaw let go of its neck and grabbed the jagged end of the shaft, helped Jim force it down.

One last crunch, and finally the mantis went still. Jim twisted the spear once, twice, three times to make sure. He let go, stepped back, dropped to his knees. Stared for awhile. The weapon stood straight up, stuck in place.

Then the shock faded, and he remembered Spock. Looked up to see him, still motionless in the web.

Please, he thought dimly, scrambling to his feet. Please, no.

He grabbed a sturdy-looking log near the front of the nest and pulled. Amazingly, Longclaw knew what he was doing and clamored up the other side without being told, pushing with the full weight of her body. The log tilted in slow motion and came to rest in the crook of a branch across the nest. Jim rushed to her side of the wall and scrambled up the makeshift slope.

He climbed as quickly as he could on the slippery wet bark, and found himself almost eye-to-eye with Spock, barely half a meter away. He reached out, aiming for Spock’s waist, shoving his hand through gaps in the web. Missed on the first try, succeeded on the second. A strong pulse fluttered against his fingers.

“He’s alive,” Jim said.

“Food for female,” Longclaw called from beneath him. “Likes food alive.”

Jim chose to ignore that for the sake of his sanity. He sagged against the log, breathing hard, taking in the problem at hand. Only Spock’s top half was woven in, his legs dangling. After a little hasty planning, he decided to cut Spock free and haul him onto the log, then scoot back down supporting both their weights. A few splinters and scrapes were a small price to pay for sliding instead of falling four meters straight down.

He really didn’t have the energy for this, but he also didn’t have a choice.

The material of the web wasn’t sticky, but it was strong. Jim plucked it with a finger and wished he could estimate its tensile strength to the nearest kilopascal, like Spock probably could. The wispiest threads snapped only when he pulled them well past the other side of his log scaffold, to the point where he was about to tip off. The bulkier ones wouldn’t stretch that far. He reached for the hilt of his knife.

“Jimkirk!” Longclaw cried out. “Jimkirk!”

“What?” Jim barked.

“Listen.” The strange command drew his eyes down, to where she stood beneath him. She had the mantis carcass bundled in vines, but she was motionless overtop it, up on two legs. He heard nothing but the rustle of fronds and the distant calls of a drake.

“What is it?”

She angled her head, turned to face the setting sun. “Female is here.”

Jim’s entire world narrowed to the point in the forest where Longclaw’s snout pointed. The tree ferns shifted like water over a lurking behemoth. What he thought was just the wind was the hiss of the jungle parting around it. He only got a glimpse between trunks, less than a second, and he wished he hadn’t.

It was twice as tall as the male, pitch black and sharp as a nightmare. He was left with the impression of an obsidian swiss army knife, something that shouldn’t exist, something worse than the ice demon on Delta Vega. Jim hadn’t thought that was possible, but the universe must have had other ideas.

His hands shook. His fingers were useless, like they were trapped in five layers of winter gloves. He almost dropped his knife as he freed it from the leather sheath, his palm still slick with blood.

Noise beneath him. Longclaw was growling, but he could barely hear her over what sounded like an entire herd of rhinopterans plodding straight toward them. Jim attacked the web with a feverish energy, cutting, sawing, stabbing, twisting. Small segments broke, but the larger ones just deflected the blade.

He couldn’t do this alone, and he had seen Spock bend titanium bars in half. “Commander Spock,” he said urgently. “This is a direct order from your captain. Wake up!” The knife was tangled now. He couldn’t budge it.

He looked to the forest below, seeking out Longclaw. He caught a flash of her through the foliage, crouched and snarling. Before he could blink she was halfway up a tree, a colossal spine in her place.

He yanked an arrow out of his quiver in desperation, trying the sharp tip against the threads. It split only the thinnest ones, like cutting a rope with nail trimmers. “Dammit, Spock, wake up! Listen to me!”

Time slowed to a crawl. A dark horror loped past, as high as his head. Longclaw roared, a vacillating boom unlike anything he’d heard before. Something slammed into the other side of the nest, shaking him – a tree fern, knocked over in the fray below. None of this truly registered. It was all in the background, insignificant.

Jim dropped the arrow, tested another one. Panic crept up on him, tapped his back with pinprick fingers. “Please, Spock,” he begged. “Please, I need you to do this for me.”

That’s when it came over him, sickly sweet and thick as tar. A budding urge, curling through him, unfolding in his chest. Realization hit him like a disrupter blast. The hidden sun was setting, murky daylight fading all around him. There was a faint glow in the exact opposite direction of the last stain of light.

“Shit!” Jim pressed the cloth of his sleeve over his nose. Took a shallow breath. Held it. Not now, he thought. Not yet.

Now, the bulbweed sang.

He grasped Spock’s hand in his, squeezed the cool fingers. Wake up, he thought in a psychic scream. Please wake up. You know me, you know me better than anyone in the universe. You have to listen.

He couldn’t concentrate. Taylor invaded his mind, listless and filthy, chewing on leaves and staring into an endless pit. Ensign Lombard, shambling to her death. Both of them rotting from the inside out. How long did they fight it? How long had they still been conscious enough to try?

Now, the bulbweed demanded. Jim’s lungs begged him to yield.

This wasn’t real. This was all a bad dream, and he would wake up any second now, safe beside Spock, high in the mountains. He would wake up and cook breakfast for them all, and spend an hour pretending this was the way things were supposed to be.

It’s not real, the bulbweed murmured in agreement. Nothing is real.

Last resort. The roof was strong, but maybe it was designed to hold Spock and nothing else. Jim grabbed handfuls of web and threw himself off of the log. The stringy mess sagged beneath him, resisted. Then the branches anchoring it snapped in a deafening barrage. Jim hit the ground, and the breath was knocked out of him.

“Longclaw!” he choked out his last whisper of air.

The sea flooded his lungs, and he drowned.

Oblivion, then visions, then oblivion again. Darkness that never seemed to end, broken up by brief flashes he recognized, but could barely understand. Lost in the tropical ocean, alternately sinking and treading water.

Sickbay’s harsh lights, breathless relief and anticipation. The corridors of the Enterprise, sleek and new, confusing and exciting. Bittersweet reunion.

“You can’t just show up after two years and expect me to–”

“I expect nothing. I deserve nothing. All I ask for is your forgiveness.”

The red alien desert. The hot alien sun. A room where trails of incense smoke spun fragile patterns into the air.

These memories belonged to him. He knew because he got a brief view of his other self in a mirror, naked to the waist in a dimly lit room, but he could feel it as well. Cherished memories, shared to make a point, to show exactly what he felt and why he felt it. The memories were cherished in turn by the mind of another, and now they came full circle.

Soft sheets, warm oil. Cool skin that flared with heat under his hands. He kissed the tip of an ear, smoothed a wayward lock of black hair. Drew back to look at the man beneath him. His commander. His science officer. His first officer.

His friend.

His lover.

His mate.


Chapter Text


Spock

The shock of the fall lifted him out of the dark. He lay where he landed in a thick daze of neurotransmitters, his arms numb and his hearing muffled. He sought out the last thing he could remember to tether himself in time and space.

Darkness bracketed a strange vision on either side. Sharp pressure on his arm. His head bumped into a tree, but he couldn’t move. Jostled around, carried in a cage of curved spines. He honed his mind, reached farther back.

It came to him in a sickening blur. Spock tried to stand, but his upper half was stuck, tangled in a light, string-like material. A combination of clumsy thrashing and wriggling released him. He got to his feet, massaging the circulation back into his arms.

He was alone in the darkness, surrounded by the noise of unseen things. The only light came from a faint, indeterminate glow behind the curious wooden structure he stood within. A bundle of something large and spiny lay less than a meter away. The mantis, he realized, approaching it cautiously. Its neck was extended and bent backwards, bound to the rest of its body in a compact unit. But how?

That’s when Longclaw appeared, darting out of the darkness. She skidded to a halt on the leaf litter, her sides heaving, her eyes entirely black. There was a gash across her back, shining with blood.

“Battlesister.” She glanced over her shoulder, where the jungle was alive with raucous and disquieting sounds. “Could not stop.”

“Jim?” he managed weakly.

“That way. Go fast.” She pointed with her snout and took off in the opposite direction. He almost shouted after her before he saw something massive shift between the trees, giving chase.

He hurried toward the place she had indicated. The dim light ahead had to be from a bulbweed clearing, and based upon available information, Spock arrived at his conclusion with near certainty: Jim was in thrall. His body went weightless with a feeling he couldn’t name. He reached the clearing with the impression his feet had never touched the ground.

The subsonic drone rattled through him, and the light made him squint reflexively. An endless mass of cattlebugs crowded around the rippling bulbweed, jostling one another in their frenzied rush forward. There was the captain’s silhouette, caught in the same tide.

“Jim!”

Incredibly, impossibly, Jim stopped and turned to look at him. His expression was in shadow. He stood there, swaying on his feet, haloed by the brilliant light. Spock was paralyzed his astonishment. Then Jim began to pivot back around, and Spock’s heart rate leapt an incalculable percentage as he shoved his way into the clearing.

Jim fought him so violently it was difficult to place a neck pinch. They fell to the ground during the struggle, engulfed beneath the alien deluge. One fully-grown cattlebug was not especially heavy, but half a dozen of them together with a multitude their smaller kin proved a tactical problem. A clicking din surrounded him, and there were so many clamoring over him, they blocked the light.

Finally he found the correct pressure point and Jim stilled beside him. Lifting them both above the fray again was difficult, and fighting the flow of cattlebugs even more so, but at least they weren’t behaving aggressively.

He carried Jim’s unconscious form to the edge of the clearing and placed him down in the shadow of a tree fern. He began calling for Longclaw as soon as he caught his breath. Likely not the safest decision in a jungle full of unknown dangers, but he was at a loss for immediate alternatives. He had no supplies, no sense of direction, and very little indication of what had happened.

At last she appeared, sprinting toward them, the mantis bound to her back. Behind her a dark mass gathered, a commotion of towering limbs. A stampede contained in a single, grotesque entity.

“Run!” she shouted.

Spock heaved Jim over his shoulders and did exactly that.

He ran, and the trees exploded behind him. Splinters pelted his back. Falling fronds obscured his view. The jungle wailed with the sounds of shrieking wood and crashing trunks.

Events twisted together in his mind. Round boulders, uniform and unnatural. A river so cold and swift he barely kept his hold on Jim. It was here they lost the monstrous organism trailing them. Or perhaps later, when they passed two bulbweed clearings within ten meters of each other. Soon he was measuring their progress by distance traveled and nothing else. They could have crossed a hundred rivers and he wouldn’t remember.

In any case, eventually Longclaw stopped to replace a broken vine on her carrying harness. Spock posed a tentative query, his hands shaking with exertion as he examined Jim in the light of the nearest bulbweed.

“Female snapneck,” she responded through her teeth, pulling a knot tight. “Jimkirk sick?”

“Yes,” Spock said. “Very sick.” The muscular tremors were the worst he had witnessed yet, and the heat of Jim’s fever clung to his neck and shoulders. Such a massive dose of pheromones after so long must have overloaded his system.

He pried open an eyelid and was confronted with blown and unresponsive pupils. Jim’s pulse was rapid, his breathing ragged, his face pinched. Spock touched his cheek, attempting to gauge the fever more precisely, and was nearly devoured by the urge to meld. The strength of the impulse shocked him, and he yanked his hand back. His eyes landed on the flickering source of their light while he reinforced his telepathic shields. They had to get out of the lowlands as quickly as possible.

They traveled the rest of the night without stopping, Spock struggling to keep Longclaw’s pace. She couldn’t move anywhere near her top speed while burdened by the carcass, which kept getting stuck on debris, but she had an endurance the humidity did not afford him. At last the intermittent glow of bulbweeds ceased altogether. They reached the characteristic steep terrain of the highlands, and the sky began to clear. Jim faded in and out as they climbed, sometimes mumbling, sometimes quaking against Spock’s shoulders.

Longclaw located their old highland camp, where the products of their materials testing were scattered in heaps. Their search patterns had never taken them far from this place, but Spock could not have navigated here on his own. Longclaw said she could scent their failed results from a great distance away, and Spock was tremendously grateful for her keen olfaction.

Jim curled onto his side the moment Spock placed him under the neglected lean-to. Although he was clearly dehydrated, he didn’t respond to Spock’s attempts to give him water. He didn’t respond to anything. Spock tried to manage the fever, pouring water over pulse points until Jim’s temperature perceptibly lessened. He cleaned the mantis bite on his arm, and Longclaw rejected his offers of medical attention, adamant she could tend to herself. He wished she had not. Providing assistance to someone would have been a welcome distraction from his helplessness regarding the captain.

One point three hours before dawn, Jim showed no further signs of improvement. Spock experienced a brief but sharp envy toward the various religious species of the galaxy; were Vulcans among them, he could have the solace allegedly derived via supplication to a higher power. With so many mysteries concerning exposure, he could not banish Lieutenant Taylor from his mind.

Then Jim barely opened his eyes and restored Spock with a single, slurred phrase. “Wass goin’ on?”

Only then did Spock feel as if Jim’s weight no longer rested on his shoulders. “We are in the highlands,” he said. “We are safe.”

“Oh.” Jim looked vaguely concerned for a moment, and his eyes widened suddenly. “Longclaw?”

“She is injured, but I believe she will make a full recovery,” Spock paused. “She appears to take pride in her wounds.”

Jim laughed weakly, a reassuring sound. “Good.” His smile faded into something more subdued. With obvious difficulty, he placed a hand over Spock’s where it rested beside him. “What about you?”

Spock knew humans did not attach a great deal of significance to such contact, but nonetheless, it still seemed quite intimate. It also seemed appropriate, so he permitted it without comment. “Aside from minor bruises and abrasions, I am well,” he said. “And you?”

“My head might explode,” Jim rasped. “Also, starving.”

Spock helped him drink and eat until his eyelids trembled shut between bites. Only when he was comfortably asleep did Spock turn his attention elsewhere. The sun was rising, but he wouldn’t rest yet. There was much to be done.

He enlisted a crudely bandaged Longclaw, and they worked on the mantis carcass most of the morning and afternoon, stripping the armor plating. The connective tendons were tough, and often it took both of them hanging onto an edge and pulling back to rip a particular segment free. The rows of plates that lined its neck would serve perfectly for articulated parts, and the large one across its back appeared to be a viable breastplate.

Spock ran the necessary tests, and sure enough, the armor was remarkably resistant to steam and heat. Results indicated it was a composite material, a biological fusion of organic and metallic substances. The first sample came out of the fire black with soot but otherwise undamaged. It was at that point that the enormity of their accomplishment overtook him. Or rather, the enormity of Jim and Longclaw’s accomplishment. Spock regretted, for purely scientific purposes, that he did not witness the demise of their prey firsthand.

The mantis looked very different without its exoskeleton in place: thin, gray, and not at all threatening. Spock took the opportunity to dissect the organism. Embedded in its head he found the glands that produced its hypnotic toxin. After a moment’s consideration, he wrapped the structures in slime leather and stored them away with other samples he had collected. The fact that some part of him was considering Federation science journals was a testament to his positive mood.

By the end of his examination he was covered in alien blood and viscera. He knelt a few meters away from the mantis and rinsed his hands, washed his red-stained shirt, splashed water on his face and chest. Traces of Jim’s war paint pooled at his feet, mingled with the filth of the past few days.

“I see you brought me a present.” Spock glanced over his shoulder to find Jim standing behind him, peering at the mantis and rubbing an eye with the heel of his palm. He toed the pile of armor plates cast off to the side. “I almost mounted its head on a pike.”

“Captain.” Spock moved to greet him. “You’re awake.”

“By mollusk standards, maybe.” Jim took a few measured steps closer to the mantis, one hand always on a tree to steady himself. “It looks so… euuugh. I think I just lost my appetite. Forever.”

“I should hope not. I suspect you are on the verge of underweight.”

Jim smiled, but his demeanor suddenly shifted when he focused on Spock. “God, what happened to you?”

“Captain?”

He pointed at the bruised lines that crisscrossed Spock’s chest. Nails raking over him in a desperate bid to escape, hard enough to break the skin. “It is inconsequential,” Spock said.

Jim evidently did not agree. He reached out and touched one of the scratches with infinite care, his lips tight and his jaw set. His fingers skimmed the line with no more pressure than a gust of wind. “Did I do this?”

“Not consciously,” Spock said.

“I’m sorry.”

“It is not your fault.” Spock stepped out of reach, suppressing an inexplicable tremor.

Jim dropped his eyes and appeared intensely troubled for a few seconds. He mumbled something about foraging with Longclaw, and Spock allowed him to go once he promised to take frequent breaks.

As the shadows lengthened around him, Spock developed a template, measuring his limbs and every necessary component to ensure a proper fit. The armor was like putting together a puzzle with multiple different solutions. Eventually he had a satisfactory plan that incorporated multiple layers of protection, and what he hypothesized was a sufficient outer shell for a heat shield.

After dinner, Spock was gratified to see that Jim appeared well-rested and closer to his usual self. Jim even made a stubborn bid to clean Longclaw’s wounds against her will. She led him in a circle around the fire, waiting until he was just within reach of her tail to scurry away. Spock observed their behavior with interest.

“Would you just–”

“No touch.”

“Give me five seconds.”

“No!”

“I’m trying to help you!”

“No help. Am strong.”

“If you’re so strong, why do you keep running away?”

“Am not running.”

“Stop acting like a toddler.”

Their mutual scramble halted as Longclaw stopped abruptly and peered back at Jim. “Toddler?”

“Like a damn hatchling!” he snarled, lunging for her.

Eventually Jim gave up and threw the entire contents of the pouch at her. It was not a very effective method. Spock estimated he had covered approximately twenty-four percent of the wound surface area at best.

Nevertheless, Longclaw hissed and thrashed in a dramatic fashion. “Stupid, weak male!” She stalked away, her tail lashing.

“Overgrown gecko!” Jim shouted after her. He sank down gracelessly next to Spock and stared into the fire, his gaze distant. His face reminded Spock of the mission he was introduced to the Gallatians and informed that they regularly ate their young.

“Is something wrong, Captain?”

“I think I just channeled Bones,” Jim mumbled. He stared at the empty pouch in his hands. “I guess I need to make more booze.”

Spock was mildly surprised and pleased that he understood the implied level of connection between Jim’s two disparate statements. He did not think that would have been possible several months ago.

But although Jim seemed a great deal better, that night he broke an established pattern, maintaining a significant gap between them on the sleeping mat. Spock assumed it was out of concern for their various injuries and thought nothing more of it.

They spent the next day working on the suit, a challenge Spock welcomed. He was still energized by their success, unable to objectively evaluate costs or benefits. Although Jim was too fatigued for mentally taxing tasks, he had the patience required for stitching leather, mixing insulating paste out of clay, and stringing together dozens of armor plates.

His single-minded concentration was impressive at first, but alarming after several unbroken hours. Eventually Spock insisted he stop and rest, and put the finishing touches on the suit alone.

The final product was an eccentric amalgamation of the jungle’s resources. According to Jim, it was either the most hideous or most awesome thing he had ever seen. According to Longclaw, it looked somewhat like a young mantis, but uglier and ‘easy to kill.’ Spock hoped the second half of her evaluation would not prove accurate.

***

Between Longclaw’s laceration and Jim’s lingering symptoms, it took them four days to exit the highlands and shift camp across the mountains. As twilight spread over the desert that fourth evening, Spock performed a few short trial runs to confirm the suit’s efficacy. Afterwards he searched for the captain, who was not asleep in camp as he had anticipated.

He found Jim sitting at an overlook, damp and half-dressed from washing in a thermal pool. “Am I intruding?”

“Spock.” Jim’s eyes widened momentarily, and he snatched up his discarded shirt in a baffling display of modesty. The fabric was still mottled red with the makeshift dye from the hunt. “I, uh… not at all. Just thinking.”

“The hazard suit is acceptable,” Spock said, as Jim tugged the tattered shirt over his head. “I made a few modifications. I thought you might like to see them.”

“Sure. I was about to head back.” Spock waited, but Jim made no motion to get up. He appeared distracted, his eyes trained on the horizon.

“What were you thinking about?”

“What? Oh, nothing really.” He cleared his throat, leaned back on his hands. “Just enjoying the view.”

Spock surveyed said view, and Jim’s notion of enjoyment caused him to study it with new eyes. A fresh perspective awakened within him. Of course. Why hadn’t he seen it before? “A caldera,” he murmured.

“Hmm?”

Spock pointed at the vista before them, drawing an arc with his finger. “Look at the way the geothermal plains are enclosed. I believe these mountain ranges are actually the rim of a volcano.”

Jim sat up, eyes darting from Spock to the landscape. “Like Yellowstone, you mean?”

Now that the feature was explained in such a way, his conclusion seemed obvious. “Precisely,” Spock said.

“Well, damn.” Jim shook his head. “That’s pretty amazing.”

“Indeed. If I am correct, this would be among the largest known calderas in the quadrant.”

“Too bad we can’t report it yet,” Jim said, his tone wistful.

The last word in his statement surprised Spock. He did not think it was conscious on Jim’s part, but until this point, they had always spoken of the universe beyond Sigma Nox as something distant and inaccessible. There was a chance now, however slim, that the gap could be closed.

The mood that night was subdued with the implicit understanding that tomorrow, Spock would make his attempt. Longclaw was noticeably agitated, and Spock could not discern the reason until he caught her studying the suit skeptically, turning it over in her hands. Conversely, Jim was so motionless he could have been part of the mountainside.

He slept adjacent to Jim, who persisted in his preference that they remain an unusual distance apart. Some hours before dawn, however, Spock awoke to find Jim’s arm tucked around his waist, breath warm against the back of his neck. Spock was sufficiently rested, but saw no reason to rise as it was not yet daylight. He allowed himself to fall asleep again.

When dawn woke him, Jim was already preparing breakfast. He spoke in a voice marginally higher than his typical pitch as he passed out the food, and didn’t look at Spock for more than one point six seconds at a time.

Yet as Spock began to suit up after the meal, Jim’s odd attitude diminished. He assisted Spock in fastening the pieces together, and acted as a stabilizing apparatus when necessary.

Spock paused before donning the final components to speak with his companions. Their interdependence had been powerfully emphasized by the hunt, and he felt amiss leaving them behind.

“Good fight, battlesister,” Longclaw said, and Spock thought he detected a thread of humor in her tone. He suspected suddenly that she believed he was male after all, and referred to him as female in persistent jest.

“Good fight,” he repeated. He turned to Jim, who was visibly tense.

“Remember, that big sucker goes off every two hours,” Jim said, referring to the large geyser under the Galapagos.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Get back here in one piece. If you die, I’ll kill you.”

“Your threat is redundant,” Spock pointed out.

“Yeah, well so is your face,” Jim retorted absurdly.

It occurred to Spock that he did not know how to end this conversation. That he did not want it to end. But daylight was a limited resource, and one he needed to complete his task successfully. So in lieu of prolonging the encounter in an ill-advised attempt at proper social gestures, he moved to complete his preparations.

“Wait,” Jim interrupted as he picked up the pair of crude gloves. He took Spock’s hand between both of his own and molded it until only the index and middle fingers were extended. Then he mirrored the gesture and pressed the tips of their fingers together. “For luck,” he said with a faint, sad grin. He stepped back, crossed his arms, and trained his eyes on the ground.

Every time Spock thought he understood the captain, Jim did something so unexpected he was forced to reevaluate his theoretical framework. There was no time for that now. So he simply nodded and picked up the helmet of the suit, fitting it carefully over his head. It pinched his ears and restricted his vision to a narrow slit. The discomfort improved his concentration, assisting him in putting all other concerns out of his mind.

He set out onto the barren ground.

He passed the first thermal pools and mud pots without incident. He had been this far during testing, and knew the territory well. The wet squelch of bubbling muck sounded strange with his hearing partially blocked. The sulfurous smell was not unpleasant to him, although Jim had told him most humans found it offensive.

As a whole, this was far closer to his preferred environment than the jungle beyond the mountains. Despite the occasional clouds of steam, the air was hot and dry without any trees to trap moisture. The temperature was comfortable, and the restriction of the suit more an annoyance than a boon. That began to change approximately half a kilometer in.

The haze of vapor and smoke grew thicker. Thermal springs poured into multihued streams and boiling pools, and miniature geysers bubbled up, hissing and spitting. Spock couldn’t easily predict or avoid some of these, but the superheated spray couldn’t touch him through the suit. As he walked, he observed the mineral formations around him and felt his lack of scientific equipment acutely. Uplifted, terraced lakes bloomed around him, so blue the sky paled in comparison. Water flowed over lacy white ruffles like frozen waves. There was so much water that there had to be an underground reservoir supplying it, perhaps a vast sea enclosed beneath the caldera’s surface.

Spock hugged the grassy islands between features whenever he could. Once he had to pass through a narrow bridge of land between two thermal pools, and his reinforced boots underwent their first real test without incident. Soon after he was blasted with heat from a fumarole that roared like trapped thunder. The leather on the right side of the suit tightened as it desiccated.

Approximately a quarter kilometer from the Galapagos, conditions deteriorated further. The ground ahead steamed through numerous fractures. The collision of the ship had weakened the crust here, he realized. All of the vegetation was dead past this point, and the heat formed a visible wall around the ship, so that it took on the appearance of a mirage. Spock hesitated at the edge of the shock zone. He kept going.

The hottest days on old or New Vulcan he had ever experienced were trivial compared to this. The ambient temperature had to be at least fifty five degrees Celcius. Thin slices of heat slipped through the tiniest gaps in the suit. His blood vessels dilated in his extremities and his heart rate increased fifty percent. He consciously encouraged the process and shut down all nonessentials – digestion, various glandular functions, even clusters of tactile neurons.

A roaring burst from the geyser below the Galapagos’ damaged nacelle clouded his vision, a half hour ahead of schedule. Steam blew though the helmet’s slit, and his second eyelids snapped shut. Droplets drummed against the mantis armor, and he stood and waited for the eruption to pass, sweltering despite the protection. Finally the white fog cleared, and he could survey his target.

The ship was partly buried in its impact crater. The soot that streaked its hull was washed clean in scattered patches by the activity of energetic steam vents. Spock suspected even before he reached the lip of the crater that something was wrong. When he saw the tear in the duraluminum and the orange glow within, he knew for certain.

With the hull cracked, even minutely, the ship had become a giant oven. Meant to keep the cold vacuum of space at bay, now it concentrated and maintained an astonishingly high internal temperature. Spock couldn’t touch it. He couldn’t place his hand anywhere near an opening even with the protective armor. He couldn’t face it directly longer than a few seconds, or else risk burns to his eyes and the narrow strip of exposed skin around them. There was no conceivable way anything inside had survived, except perhaps the material of the hull itself.

No, Spock thought. The ship was compartmentalized. Perhaps only the saucer section was breached so dramatically. He moved on, shuffling over the cracks in the earth, testing the ground ahead with careful half-steps.

The main body of the ship had fared slightly better, sticking partially out of the crater. It hosted a slow-flowing river of mud and clouds of noxious smoke. Spock held his breath and stepped inside to investigate. He tried the first door he could reach, but it was melted shut. The heat forced him out again, gasping and coughing.

Emotion insisted he carry on until he observed every part of the ship. Logic informed him with over ninety-six percent confidence there was nothing salvageable here. A different emotion emerged and bolstered logic to the forefront of his mind – the desire to live, and see Jim again. This strange fusion won out, and Spock turned back.

He engaged his samuyek gland, initiating the cooling chemical reaction within. The physical revival he experienced would be brief; the organ was underdeveloped as an artifact of his heritage. He estimated he had less than half an hour remaining before he could no longer maintain homeostasis. It would take him that long to exit the superheated region around the ship.

He retreated to a place all Vulcans possessed, a kind of emergency trance that allowed him to entirely ignore the protests of his body. He moved as quickly as possible, the mountains ahead swimming through the haze. Either the suit had stiffened, or he was having difficulty walking. External stimuli began to blend into a meaningless, sensory noise.

Perhaps forty meters from the edge of the caldera slope, he stumbled. Longclaw bolted toward him, leaping across the hazardous terrain. The sky filled his vision, hot and mesmerizing, and the shouts of the captain seemed distant. Spock had enough presence of mind to feel pressure on his arm, and hear the strident scrape of his armor against rocks.

Then the helmet was yanked off, abrading his ears and forehead.

“Spock. Spock! Are you all right?” Jim hovered over him, gripping his shoulders. “Talk to me. Tell me what to do.”

He could only move his mouth silently, but Jim was perceptive enough to understand. He placed a water pouch to Spock’s lips, tilting it just enough for a careful trickle to escape. Spock drank voraciously, and if Jim hadn’t pulled it away, he might have become overhydrated in his haste.

Jim cut him out of the suit, pausing for him to drink in short spurts. Longclaw shook so powerfully she could barely stay upright, but she brought more water at Jim’s request. After a few minutes, Spock’s head began to clear, although he couldn’t speak. Reactivating his nociceptors to check for burns was a higher priority.

“Are you stable?” Spock nodded. Jim’s shoulders sagged and he folded in on himself, hands gripping his knees so tightly it had to be painful. “What happened? What did you see?”

Spock shook his head.

Jim stared at him. “You’re trying to tell me we came all this way for nothing,” he said slowly. “We almost got killed for nothing.”

Silence, however involuntary, served as an adequate reply. He watched his captain’s eyes grow distant and his face hard. In a flash of movement, Jim picked up the helmet and threw it with a hoarse, wordless yell. It bounced off a nearby boulder and rolled out of sight. He stood up and stalked off in a whirlwind. Spock listened to his retreating footsteps, followed by Longclaw’s as she pursued him, calling his name.

There was a curious human notion known as Murphy’s Law that Spock heard many otherwise intelligent people invoke during times of crisis. Countless versions of the law existed, from ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ to the more profane ‘life is a bitch,’ but most agreed upon the transitory nature of success in any venture.

Now Spock realized that invoking imaginary laws was the only way humans could cope with an unforgiving universe.

He closed his eyes.

***

When he awakened, it was due to his own violent sneeze. He was covered in a tattered leather blanket, his head pillowed on brushtail fluff. Although comfortable, a fiber of the latter substance was responsible for his minor respiratory convulsion.

He spent a minute in careful self-evaluation, testing his muscles and monitoring his vital systems. He felt better and worse simultaneously. He was adequately recovered from the thermodynamic strain, and had only a few first degree burns, but the sense of failure was sharper now. He sat up and found himself in a ring of raised dirt, a perfect replica of Longclaw’s nests. A pouch of water and leaf of food lay next to the ring, and he consumed both, listening to the sound of muffled conversation nearby.

When the sun set, he followed the firelight to Jim and Longclaw and took a seat equidistant from both of them. The latter looked at him, but the former kept his eyes downcast. None of them spoke for eighteen point three seconds.

“I’m sorry, Spock.” Jim exhaled and rested his face in his hand. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“No apology is necessary,” Spock said. “Were I in your position, I would have done the same thing.”

Jim shot him a sidelong glance. “Thrown a royal tantrum?”

“Assuming, of course, that I were also human.”

He was gratified to see the corner of Jim’s mouth turn up, if only for a moment. He studied Jim, noted the leanness of his face and form, and thought about the substantial portion of food that had been left beside him. “Have you eaten your daily allotment of our provisions?”

“Yeah.”

“Did not,” the scaly bundle across the fire said. “Gave mine, made eat. Stupid male too small.”

Jim glared at her but did not defend himself, and Spock wondered if now was the appropriate time for a discussion that would likely disintegrate into an argument. Exhausted, he looked to Longclaw in a vague bid for support, and experienced a surge of wonder at what she had done for him earlier. “I have neglected to thank you for your actions today, Longclaw,” he said. “You were brave to enter the fire lands.”

“No ‘thank you.’ Are battlesister,” she said sternly, and seemed to struggle with her thoughts. “Is… is bad idea did not work. Hurts.”

It occurred to Spock that her species may not have words for expressing regret or apology. He nodded to show he appreciated her attempt.

Unfortunately, the captain had slipped back into a gloom, and Spock could see the appeal himself. He decided not to address Jim’s neglect of his health, but rather intercept his negative outlook, distance them both from the frustrating results of their work. After a moment’s reflection, a peculiar human custom came to mind. “How much slime alcohol do we currently have?”

“Half a pouch,” Jim said, not taking his eyes off the ground. “Why?”

Spock considered the most accurate possible phrasing. “Perhaps we could deliberately overindulge in its consumption for the purpose of inducing temporary euphoria and memory loss.”

Jim stared at him for six point seven seconds, slowly narrowing his eyes. “I thought Vulcans couldn’t get wasted,” he said.

“We metabolize alcohol faster. I will drink more to compensate.”

Jim frowned at him for a moment, but then his shoulders sagged in resignation. He moved to retrieve the pouch from their pile of supplies. “Hey Longclaw, you want some?”

“What drink?” He held it near her face, and she sniffed and recoiled immediately. “Bad water. Sick water.”

“Looks like we have our designated driver,” Jim said, chuckling half-heartedly. “Make sure we don’t walk off a cliff, all right?”

She looked at them, angled her head in bewilderment, and ducked back inside her nest with a long-suffering sigh. Spock covertly examined her wounds for a moment before he joined Jim. They were healing well, new scales growing overtop the bluish scars.

Jim led them approximately five meters back from the fire, explaining the potential hazards through an anecdote involving an Academy party, a bonfire, and tripping on the tails of various alien species. They leaned against a rock wall, sitting in silence for a time. Then Jim took the first swig, made a strange face, and passed Spock the pouch.

Spock found himself in concurrence with Longclaw regarding the alcohol. The flavor was just as abhorrent as he remembered. But if this could result in some measure of peace for them both, however transient, conducting an experiment in human culture was logical. He ignored his sense of taste and drank as quickly as possible. Jim advised him to slow down, but he knew the effects would be amplified by rapid consumption, so he ignored that recommendation.

The warmth that soon crept out from his stomach and diffused through his veins was remarkable. Never before had he achieved such a serene mental state so effortlessly. He felt disconnected from his extremities, which should have been unsettling, yet was not.

Before long, the widespread patterns of excessive alcohol consumption Spock had witnessed at the Academy began making sense. The changes in his thought patterns were mesmerizing. He existed in a state of perpetual awe. Insignificant events took on a new importance. He began to pace, the physical activity assisting the flow of his ideas.

“I have a…” he hesitated, the correct word escaping him. He shook off Jim’s ongoing attempts to make him sit down, as that would hinder his ability to explain himself. “A theory,” he finished in a sudden burst of insight.

“Yeah?” Jim peered up at him. “I have theories. Lots and lots of fucked up theories.” He snickered, and seemed unable to stop. “C’mon, Spock. Sit down before you fall down.”

“No.” Spock knew his refusal was unsatisfactory, but he could not elaborate at this time. He was too preoccupied for accurate consideration of more than a single issue. “It concerns the bubweed. Bulbweed.”

“Heh. You said ‘bub.’” Jim started laughing again. “What’re you, some kind of wise guy, Spocko?”

“Jim, this is importance. Important.” The second one was correct. Most likely.

“Okay, okay. Chill out, Mr. Serious Pants.”

Spock was momentarily distracted by the turn of phrase. How could an article of clothing possess an intrinsic ‘serious’ quality? Was there a human penchant for personifying garments that had escaped him all this time?

“Well?”

“Yes, Jim?” Perhaps ‘thinking caps’ were another example, he mused.

“What’s your theory?”

He did have a theory at some point, but it escaped him utterly. “I forgot,” he said, and sat down in disappointment. He miscalculated the distance between his buttocks and the ground, and flinched when he landed. Jim laughed softly and tipped onto his back, crossing his arms behind his head.

Shivering, Spock eyed the distant fire and recalled Jim’s cautionary tale. He located an option that required less potentially dangerous movement and crawled toward the captain, the ground swaying beneath him. “The mountain microclimate is unregulated by vegetation,” he said, and draped himself over Jim. “You are warm.”

“Okay, bad idea.” Jim tried to shift away from him. He put both hands on Spock’s shoulders and pushed, unable to move otherwise. “Very bad idea.”

Spock was confused. “We are both losing body heat at an accelerated rate due to the physiological effects of intoxication. Therefore maintaining close proximity to conserve said heat is logical. Otherwise hypo… hypo… cold could result,” he explained. He ignored Jim’s squirming, and his head landed at the junction of Jim’s neck and shoulder, an especially warm location.

“We could just, you know, move closer to the fire… what are you doing?”

He was too distracted by the gentle drumming against his forehead to reply. “Fascinating. Your heart rate almost exactly matches the rhythm of Pulsar 3127-Beta.”

“Wait, what?”

Spock frowned slightly. “It has increased beyond previously estimated parameters.” He lifted a hand to Jim’s neck, seeking his pulse with uncooperative fingers. “Ah, yes. Humans cannot control their autonomic nervous systems. The prefix ‘auto-’ should have reminded me.”

He changed the angle of his head, and the scent of mineral salts and water flooded his nose, underscored by Jim’s unique human scent. “Spock, the hell are you–”

“You smell like the ocean.” This was logical. Like most intelligent life, Vulcans included, humans had descended from aquatic organisms. They were all cradled in small pockets of water during prenatal development. But Vulcans did not sweat, and so they did not produce this type of scent. It was a novelty he had found captivating in Nyota as well.

“Thanks, I guess.” Jim shifted, but acquiesced to their current arrangement. His arm worked itself out from beneath Spock, and curved under Spock’s neck and around his back. They stared at the stars for an indeterminate time. “I miss them,” Jim said suddenly, and his voice faltered. “Everyone. God, I miss them so much.”

“I grieve for their absence as well,” Spock confessed. He meant to stop there, but a sense of solidarity made him continue. “Especially Nyota. She was… most understanding of my heritage. She tolerated my forays into the realm of pure logic for a very long time. Never once did she ask if I loved her.”

“But you did,” Jim said quietly, after a long pause. “You said so.”

“I did?”

“You did.” Jim adopted a precise, monotone voice that Spock recognized as an imitation of his own. “‘In the event that I do not return, please tell Lieutenant Uhura I love her.’”

“Please tell Lieutenant Uhura I am sorry,” he corrected.

“What?”

“For causing her pain.”

“Oh.” Jim fell silent for approximately twelve seconds. “I thought… never mind.”

The topic brought to mind a conundrum Spock had been meditating on for weeks. Knowing what he knew now, straddling the space between logic and emotion once again, old doubts reared to the forefront of his mind. Was he wrong to leave Nyota? Should he have put forth a greater effort to salvage their relationship? Or could he never have discovered this strange, fluctuating equilibrium unless he was driven to extremes, and learned that both were ultimately unsatisfactory?

“What if they’re dead, Spock? ” Jim said, interrupting him before he could speculate on the answer. “What if they were destroyed by whatever attacked them and everyone assumes we’re lost?”

It was a possibility Spock had considered, but never voiced. Conceivably, his subconscious focus had been on survival for so long, and not rescue, for this exact reason. Contemplating the unknown fate of the Enterprise was a disagreeable pastime. “There are always alternatives,” he said, and paused to think of a few. It was harder than he expected. “Perhaps given enough time, we could build a communication device and contact Starfleet.”

Jim snorted. “Using what, stone knives and bearskins?”

“Further exploration may reveal naturally occurring materials that–”

“You don’t need to lie to me, Spock.”

“Vulcans do not lie.”

“Exaggerate, then.” Jim’s gusty sigh brushed over his ear. “It’s funny. Never thought you’d be an optimist.”

“Not an optimist, Captain. The possibility is indeed remote.” Spock hesitated. “I was merely attempting to ease your anxiety by omitting a discussion of the odds.”

“And what are the odds, exactly?”

“Of communicating with anyone beyond this planet, given our current status? Eight-hundred twenty-nine thousand seven-hundred sixty two to one.”

“You’re sure those aren’t drunk numbers?” Jim said.

“I am sure.” He knew because he had calculated them yesterday as part of a risk-benefit analysis.

“What about surviving a year?”

Spock thought about their recurring deficiency of food, their deteriorating physical statuses, their recent emotional upset. Dangers that surely existed, but had not yet been encountered. “Remote,” he said. “At least one million to one.”

“Those are pretty good odds.” Jim snickered, after a pause. The movement of his chest jostled Spock, but it ceased quickly. “Well, I appreciate your intent.”

His fingers began playing through Spock’s hair, dragging back and forth over his scalp. The sensation was exquisitely relaxing, and although the effects of the alcohol had faded, Spock was not inclined to move. Jim was still intoxicated, and given his extremely low percent body fat, he required a source of heat.

They dozed for awhile, or perhaps several hours. Every so often, Spock would stir and glance at the unreachable stars, until the sense of isolation drove him back to the present moment and Jim’s solid form beneath his arm.


Chapter Text

 


Kirk
 

Jim Kirk always had a talent for avoiding self-reflection, and he could probably go pro since being stranded. He compartmentalized things into ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable,’ and locked the second box away in a dark, easily ignored corner. Most of the time it worked pretty well.

But there were some things even he had trouble ignoring. Some things that dropped an antimatter bomb in his head and blasted the box to pieces.

Normally he’d go the avoidance route, but that just wasn’t possible. He glanced at his heavy Vulcan blanket, warm and asleep and blissfully ignorant. Thank God his libido was shot to hell, or he’d be in an even trickier place than he already was.

But this was getting ridiculous. He kept slipping up when he was tired or anxious – in other words, constantly. When Spock was about to waltz into harm’s way, Jim did the finger touch thing without thinking. When Spock was smashed and chilly, Jim couldn’t say no to his innocent, drunk-logic solution.

That didn’t change the fact that this had to stop.

Spock shifted against him, his head nestling under Jim’s chin.

He’d stop in the morning.

***

The day after the crushing defeat that was the Galapagos, all three of them sat around camp, aimlessly napping and eating the last scraps of food. No one spoke, no one made eye contact. It took Jim playing tic-tac-toe against himself to realize they were going through the motions in a bad way. He couldn’t let them, if only because the absolute mess in his head kept creeping up on him if there was nothing else to do.

He called a meeting together and pretended the forlorn lizard and dull-eyed, probably hung-over Vulcan were sitting in front of consoles on his bridge. “I know things aren’t looking great right now,” he said. “But we need to regroup, and we can’t stay here. Longclaw,” he rounded on her, and her eyes widened at the sudden spotlight, “where should we go? What’s a good place?”

“What mean?”

“A place you like. Somewhere different.”

“Flat mountain,” she said hesitantly, after a few seconds. “Trees, but no stinkplant.”

“A mesa?” Spock wondered aloud.

“Sounds like it,” Jim said. “How far?”

“Many suns.”

Jim didn’t bother getting her to define ‘many.’ They needed some direction, however arbitrary, and a change of scenery was better than nothing. “Objections, anyone?” Jim glanced at Spock, who shook his head.

Longclaw led them along the spine of the mountains, and Jim’s mind drifted as they hiked. They could find this mesa and build a place, even better than the first camp. Maybe make a ram pump, or a water wheel, or some other contraption to pass the time. Plant a garden and plan for the long term.

Then they just had to hold out until they won the cosmic lottery and someone found them. They didn’t have a choice. In the meantime, Jim would ignore everything he knew about the other universe. He would rebuild the mental lockbox, stronger this time. How hard could it possibly be?

Ahead of him, Spock paused and looked back for a second or two. His dark hair was long enough now that it always looked tousled. Jim’s insides knotted and his knees went weak as every damn detail from the night before rushed back to him.

God, he was in so much trouble.

He fixed his eyes on the landscape around them, taking in the tiniest details for distraction’s sake. It was boring enough to lull any thoughts deeper than a puddle to sleep. The curvature of the mountains around them was predictable and soothing. Everything he noticed was either a boulder, a shadow, or a scraggly tree. But then he saw something that didn’t look like any of the above, and he stopped without thinking.

The side of a mountain peak about a kilometer below them had a spot where light reflected in a single, even chunk. Jim stared for awhile and still couldn’t explain it, so he shouted at the leader of their three person march.

“Longclaw, what’s down there?” He pointed, and her gaze followed his arm.

“Do not know,” she shouted back. “Looks like old place.”

“Like the places in the jungle?”

She paused and stared a little longer. “Yes.”

Spock backtracked to Jim’s side for a better view. His second eyelids shifted into place against the sun’s glare, and his eyebrows shot skyward. “Fascinating,” he murmured. “Shall we investigate, Captain?”

“Why not?” Jim said.

As they got closer throughout the afternoon, they could make out what looked like a cliff face, where part of the mountain had sloughed away. There were definitely markings on the cliff, but Jim’s eyes weren’t sharp enough to tell what they were. After few difficult stretches of downhill freeclimbing, they reached their destination.

A perfectly flat rock wall loomed over a narrow ledge on the mountain’s face. It was inlaid with a red stone oval taller than Spock, which was bisected by a red line and two mirrored semicircles. The strange glyph was partly hidden beneath piles of fallen cobble.

Jim stared at it. He couldn’t shake the feeling he had been here before, that he should know something. Like a word on the tip of his tongue, as irritating as dropping a stylus twice in a row.

“This way,” Longclaw called from a few meters to the east, where she clamored over a rocky slope. “Hole inside.”

“Inside?” Jim glanced at Spock, who shrugged with his eyebrows.

Sure enough, there was a crack in the mountain’s face, large enough they could fit through easily. Longclaw went first with the kind of reckless enthusiasm that showcased ‘boldly go’ beautifully. Jim chased after her tail, and Spock brought up the rear.

They stepped into an open cavern, about five meters high, too smooth and regular to be natural. At least, that was one of about a million other clues.

Pipes crisscrossed the ceiling, made out of the same bright red material as the tunnels at the dome, and the huts in the lowlands. The broken ones poured out steam and dripped water, dampening the floor beneath them. Dim bars of light set in the walls cast shadows at odd angles. What looked like three airlock doors, low and arched, branched off in different directions. Piles of rubble were scattered beneath missing chunks of ceiling, some of them crushing tangled metal machinery.

This was not some prehistoric shepherd culture. These guys blew past the industrial revolution a few centuries ago.

“Spock?” Jim said.

“Yes, Captain?

“The dome people weren’t primitive.”

“They were not.”

“Old place,” Longclaw said dismissively, smashing the reverent aura.

The implications of her tone sank in, and Jim weighed the pros and cons of strangling her. He decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “You mean you’ve seen things like this before?”

“Yes,” she said. “Very broken. Not like here.”

“You neglected to mention the presence of an advanced civilization on this planet.” Spock’s voice was terse, and Jim bit back a laugh at Longclaw’s dull expression.

“What?”

“Forget it.” Jim inserted himself between them, smoothing things over before Spock’s head exploded. “Let’s just see what we have here.”

The three of them looked at one another for a few more seconds, then dropped their supplies in a pile and fanned out in silent agreement. Jim investigated some massive metal cylinders first, dusty and battered in a corner of the chamber.

“Tanks,” he said, peering into one of them. His voice rang back at him, amplified by the hollow space. “What could they have been storing?”

“Oxygen, most likely,” Spock replied from across the room, where he studied the edge of an archway. The thick metal door he pushed swung open with a grating screech. “All of these were sealed at one time.”

“So the air up here was too thin for them,” Jim finished for him. “Why would they have a base where they couldn’t survive?”

“The same question could be asked of many Federation species,” Spock said wryly.

“Well, sure. But what motivated them in the first place, I mean.”

“Unknown.”

There were probably all kinds of reasons, but none of them answered the question that nagged Jim. What kind of bipeds didn’t have true lungs?

The room was shadowy beyond the narrow streak of light from the outside, even with the weird, incandescent bars. Jim examined these next, tapping one with his knuckle. Luminous liquid encased in glass, tinted red and pulsing faintly. The light reminded Jim of sunlight back in the jungle, filtered through a tree fern canopy.

Water dripped onto his face, and he glanced up at the network of pipes, hissing faintly with steam. Most of the floor was slick, and little rivers pooled toward what must be a drain in the center of the room.

Jim tiptoed around the larger puddles and moved toward Spock, who kept glancing back and forth between two open doors. Off to the side, Longclaw cleared the debris that blocked the third, her claws scraping dully on the rock.

“Geothermal energy, do you think?” Jim pointed at the ceiling.

Spock faced him slowly, like he was reluctant to turn his back on the doorways. “That is a reasonable hypothesis.”

“Do we have an age estimate?”

“Impossible to say for certain.” Spock frowned, and his gaze drifted into the imaginary space where the magic happened. “We are above the clouds, so the state of preservation is remarkable. However, accounting for present damage, and assuming a fifty year major earthquake regimen – which I believe is reasonable given our geographic context – I would place any period of active use approximately a century ago.”

“I see.” Jim quashed the stupid, fond smile that tried to take over his face.

He didn’t need to, though, because Spock fixated on the open tunnels again. “Shall we split up, Captain?”

“I’ve seen enough horror holos to know how that goes,” Jim quipped, and Spock stared at him blankly. Sometimes he had more in common with Longclaw than Jim had the balls to point out. “Yeah, sure,” he added. “Just be careful.”

Spock picked the arch on the right, obviously eager to explore.

Jim crouched beneath the low ceiling of the other tunnel and started down a shallow slope. Barely a meter in from the door, interlacing lines appeared, covering one wall with mathematical precision. They were neater than the patterns that Jim knew so well from the floor of the dome. He followed them, his palm skimming over the surface. The ceiling above him lifted little by little, and the whole passage expanded outward. The light bars on the patterned wall were barely bright enough to illuminate the open space.

Silence closed over him. He felt like he was stepping into an ancient Earth grotto, a place untouched since man first discovered fire. The sensation of the carved lines against his skin was almost hypnotizing.

Dark, bumpy patches appeared in the corner of his eye. He shifted his attention to the opposite side of the hallway and found dozens of cattlebugs embedded in the pale stone. Some were small, and some had to be longer than a shuttlecraft. They were scattered at different angles throughout the substrate.

A fossil deposit, he realized suddenly, excavated and polished. He reached out and touched one of the larger examples, squinting in the gloom. He traced the segmented ribbing along its sides, the ridge of its back. Every one of the cattlebugs was formed out of a distinct type of dark, smooth rock. A type of rock he had come across once before.

He saw the giant dome in his mind’s eye. He saw a cattlebug’s articulated shell from the inside out.

Jim braced himself on the wall just in time for the trickle to become a flash flood.

The dome wasn’t a building. It was a fossil. A massive version of a cattlebug turned to stone by the eons, repurposed into a structure. Hollowed out until only the ancient shell remained.

By what?

What else but its living likeness?

Jim’s back slid down the wall until he hit the floor. His heart battered his ribs, and he tried to talk himself down. Let’s assume the ugly bugs in a constant, mindless stupor actually did this, he thought. Let’s assume they built these places and used them in the not-so-distant past. Something huge must have changed between then and now. It was unbelievable.

Except something did change. Painted cattlebugs marching in a line, each one in worse shape than the last. And Jim knew that reason well. He could see himself in those hasty brushstrokes.

Low biodiversity. Unusual monocultures. All this time they assumed Sigma Nox was just different, a backwards planet, a footnote exception for the textbooks. But maybe there was nothing special about the way it worked. Maybe the rules still applied.

This was too much crazy to take. Every time Jim’s mind settled and tried to grasp an idea, he was cracked over the head with another. He couldn’t handle this alone.

He sprinted back through the tunnel. He forgot to duck, and his head banged the ceiling when it dropped. Pain burst behind his eyes, but he kept going, shuffling awkwardly as fast as he could. He staggered into the main chamber, shouting for Spock.

His first officer scrambled out of his own tunnel in a panicked rush. “Captain, what’s wrong?”

“Invasive species,” Jim gasped, leaning on the wall for support. “It’s an invasive species.”

“To what are you referring?”

“The bulbweed seems like it doesn’t belong here because it doesn’t belong here.”

Spock looked at him like he just suggested they put melons on their heads and dance around singing praise to the tree squid. “What?”

Not the reaction Jim was hoping for, but he couldn’t stop now. “The cattlebugs built this,” he said. “They built everything, I know they did. But the bulbweed changed them, because it shouldn’t be here.”

“Perhaps you should–”

“Think about it,” he insisted. He started pacing. He had to move, or everything would catch up to him at once. “Nothing likes it. Nothing uses it. All it does is make the cattlebugs its bitches. Anywhere it grows it’s screwed up the entire ecosystem.”

“Captain, I think–”

“And I saw these drawings when the mantis had you. I forgot to tell you, I thought I dreamed them up, but now I’m sure they were real.”

“You must calm down.”

“I can’t.”

Spock took him firmly by the arms. “Jim.”

He faded out, caught in the tide of a memory. Trapped in a turbolift, helpless while his ship was taken from him. But Spock could always reach him with his name, calm him and persuade him and drag him back from the edge of madness.

He settled inside his body again and noticed the warmth in his hair, spreading down his ear. He was shaking, and his head felt like a warp core about to blow. “I’m in command,” he murmured, unthinkingly.

“You are bleeding,” Spock observed.

He was. He allowed Spock to guide him back to the wall, where he could support himself against the stone. He was much more composed, but shuddered anyway from either his revelation or Spock’s hands gently exploring the crown of his head. Eventually he shooed Spock away. “Go look,” he said between gasps, jabbing a finger at the tunnel. “It’s not far.”

“Are you certain you are all right?”

“Yes. Just go.”

Spock went, casting wary glances back until he ducked through the door. The minutes passed like hours. Jim pressed a scrap of shirt against his head to stem the bleeding. He stared at the pile of debris Longclaw must have moved aside, and the dark tunnel she exposed beyond. She was nowhere in sight, or earshot, apparently.

Finally, muffled footsteps echoed through the chamber, and Spock reappeared. He didn’t look at Jim as he stepped closer. His eyes were somewhere else.

“Did you see it?” Jim approached him, met him halfway.

“I did,” Spock said tonelessly.

“They look exactly like the dome, right?”

The way Spock hesitated told Jim he had come to the exact same conclusion. “It is… suggestive.”

Jim almost started ranting again, but he clamped his teeth together and waited for Spock to speak. He could discuss this like a rational person, and he had more patience than the average five-year-old. Probably.

“Where do the bipeds fit into your theory?” Spock said after a minute or so, the perfect portrait of level-headedness. “The dome mural appeared to indicate their role as an intelligent species.”

“I don’t know,” Jim admitted. Truthfully, he had forgotten all about them. He imagined the slender, painted figures. Then he imagined the tunnels, both here and at the dome, too low for him and Spock to get through without crouching. Either the bipeds were four feet tall, in which case the mural had no sense of scale, or the tunnels weren’t made for them. “They don’t,” he said. “Fit, I mean. Literally.” He tried to explain himself, but Spock wasn’t convinced.

“There are countless art movements marked specifically by their lack of adherence to a logical scale,” he said, folding his hands behind his back in full professorial mode. “If we were to estimate sizes based upon the mural’s depiction of fully grown cattlebugs, then the semicircle that represented the dome would be too small, and incorrectly shaped.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” The bottom dropped out of Jim’s stomach.

“Unless,” Spock began, and his brow furrowed. He considered the floor for an agonizing moment while that single word plucked tension in the air. “Unless it was not intended to represent the dome.”

He didn’t have to say it. There were only so many dome-like objects on Sigma Nox, and one of them stood out in every conceivable way. Alive. Bizarre. Sinister.

Dark eyes met his.

A ridiculous commotion snapped their attention toward the third tunnel. Longclaw rushed out of the arch and slipped on the wet stone floor. “Moved rocks,” she said. “Come. Follow.” Then she was gone again, darting back the way she came.

It took every ounce of discipline Jim had not to shout something stupid after her, like ‘we’re in a meeting,’ or ‘where are your manners.’ Spock was moving before Jim could confer with him. He threw up his hands in sheer frustration and followed.

They trailed Longclaw through the narrow opening. There were no glowing bars here, and the space seemed to shrink around them in the pitch darkness. Jim and Spock moved slower than her by design, ducking under the ceiling, driving home Jim’s point about the bipeds. These tunnels were for crawling things, he was sure of it.

Longclaw kept shouting for them to move faster, and Jim fought through the cramps and the dull pain in his head. He felt around cautiously until his hand hit Spock’s back to get his attention.

“Did you find anything on your end?” he wheezed.

“A few curious pictographs. Then a cave-in,” Spock said, in a tone a half-step above grumbling. He slowed down, and Jim almost collided with him. “Are you well?”

“I guess. ‘Cept, you know, I can’t see a damn thing.”

“Longclaw, are we close?” Spock shouted ahead. The sound skewered Jim’s skull, and he flinched.

“Close,” she shouted back, before he could recover.

Maybe a dozen steps later, the floor sloped up, and a literal light at the end of the tunnel appeared. Longclaw’s scales were fringed by it, lined in gold leaf. Jim summoned up the energy for one last push.

They entered a massive chamber that opened overhead to a perfect oval of blue sky. Jim stepped into the sun behind Spock, blinking, spots swimming through his vision. His knees were wobbling, and his muscles self-immolating.

He blinked tears out of his eyes and traced the path of Longclaw’s quick bounds across the rock floor. Jim stared, and Spock stared with him, and the world turned inside out.

Three large, reddish brown objects, bullet-shaped and segmented, rested within an alcove. They were lined with fins and tapered cylinders. Rows of round windows flashed along their sides, and they were each supported by six narrow legs.

Jim knew ships, and these were ships.

“Heat shielding,” Spock said, his voice faint with awe. “An impractical aerodynamic shape.”

Not just any ships, either.

***

“We’ve got to take the risk.”

“We have taken enough risks.”

Jim would have laughed if Spock didn’t seem so grim, so defeated. “Look, I know you’re still torn up over the Galapagos, but–”

“I am not ‘torn up’ over the Galapagos,” Spock said quickly. He looked up and met Jim’s eyes for the first time in ten minutes of pointless discussion. “What I am ‘torn up’ over, Captain, is the simple fact that we know nothing about this civilization. We assumed that we did, yet they have switched species and advanced at least three hundred years before our eyes.”

“Okay, so they snuck up on us. A lot of things have snuck up on us.” Jim calmed his voice, went for teasing instead of rebuke. “Since when you have been unwilling to learn?”

Spock ducked his head and folded his hands on his lap. “When learning involves the manipulation of potentially dangerous technology, reluctance is logical.”

“What, do think we’re pushing our luck?” Jim snorted in disbelief. “You don’t even believe in luck, remember?”

He may have been baiting Spock, and Spock may have noticed and chosen to ignore him. Whatever. Two could play at that game. Jim scuffed the stone floor of the aerodrome with his battered boot and sulked. Was Spock being overcautious? Or was Jim being overeager?

He stepped past Spock and under the alcove, running his hand along one of the cattlebug-shaped ships and trying to decide who was more wrong. Just this morning he was planning for a very long stay. But maybe subconsciously, he knew he couldn’t survive much longer without slipping in the worst possible way. Without ruining the most important thing he had built here.

“Jimkirk? Spock?” Longclaw emerged from the entry tunnel, dragging the last of their meager supplies. Jim wondered how long she had been there, waiting for a lull. “Fight again?”

“No, Longclaw,” Jim said quietly. “Not anymore.”

“Good. Nestmates do not fight.” Her tone was bizarrely paternal.

Jim shot Spock a look that had developed a specific connotation over the past few weeks – are you going to ask, or should I? Spock pursed his lips, indifferent, and Jim sighed and rubbed his head. “What do you mean, nestmates?”

“Sleep in same nest,” she said.

That made more sense than he thought it would. Jim felt a twinge of embarrassment, because sleeping next to Spock after last night was a terrifying prospect. The window of sky in the oculus was turning green, and he knew he’d have to face it sooner or later.

Or maybe not, if they couldn’t resolve this.

He glanced longingly at the ship’s open door, then through the closest portal window. The dark, egg-shaped cockpit was full of obvious control mechanism, decorative patterning, and nothing else. No arrows, or big red buttons, or user manuals. Hence Spock’s reluctance to touch anything.

Longclaw came up beside him and dropped the water pouches in a heap. “Talk in lines,” she said, staring at their notes scrawled across the floor. Jim nodded, although the words were blending into nonsense in his exhaustion. Everything they knew was spelled out there, but they reached completely different conclusions about what it meant.

She pointed at the ship with her snout. “Talk in lines too?”

The words penetrated Jim’s sour mood in slow motion. Freshly oiled gears started spinning in his head before he even knew where he was headed. He exchanged a glance with Spock, whose eyes were wide as he scrambled to his feet. They poked their heads through the ship’s open door at the exact same time and stared at the crisscrossing designs. “Linguistic, not artistic,” Jim murmured. “What do you think?”

“We have no frame of reference. Translation would be impossible without…” Spock frowned. “The pictographs I saw in the other tunnel. They were accompanied by patterns.”

***

Deep Space Six was twenty four light-years away, with sensors that scanned up to ten. Whether or not they could get that far was another issue, but they were determined to find out.

Spock memorized everything from the half-buried pictograph wall, which fortunately included the rudiments of math. They picked the ship that seemed like it was in the best shape and spent every waking hour learning an alien system from the ground up. They tore the other two ships apart and studied the wiring. Longclaw made extended jungle trips, bringing them food and water and offering helpful advice, such as ‘think more.’

Their sad PADD-tricorder hybrid could do some calculations, but more often than not, they resorted to scribbling on the walls in charcoal. Even so, Jim guessed they couldn’t get more than ten percent of what was going on. The ten percent was shaky at best, and mostly involved single, useless words like ‘sun’ and ‘tree.’ Numbers were pointless if you didn’t know what they were counting.

Jim was slowly losing his mind.

“Assuming this is environmental controls, the air conduit may be–”

He zoned in and out. Everything he saw was parade of incomprehensible lines.

“However, if I am not correct, activating this junction could result in a–”

Jim reached out and pulled a lever. A side panel lit up with the hiss of dust being zapped as current moved through long-neglected conduits. Spock gaped at him, then the panel, then him again.

“What?” Jim said.

Two hours and one heated argument later, they shifted focus from endless study to observation and experimentation – the good old-fashioned school of pressing buttons until it works. Jim liked this much better, and it was ten times more enlightening. They tried to activate things, and when a particular lever or button didn’t seem to work, they poked around the ship for awhile. If a part looked like it was cracked, or fried, or otherwise broken, they scavenged the other ships for a spare.

Even after figuring out basic functions, many instruments remained stubbornly cryptic. They couldn’t tell if the ship had a subspace communication system, for one. If autopilot existed, it was buried out of sight. Every process required a complex, manual sequence. There was only one main compartment with no clear amenities, which led them to conclude they had stumbled upon a shuttleport. They also couldn’t figure out how the warp drive worked. At least, they thought it was a warp drive. If not, the massive power lines attached to it were pretty damn misleading.

They both did the kind of cleaning cadets on official reprimand suffered. The whole ship was filthy with age, inside and out, and Jim spent hours reaching into mysterious tubes and scooping out entire extended families of dust bunnies.

He slept fitfully, and Spock didn’t sleep at all. A week passed, and not once had he taken a break for more than a few bites of food. Jim ordered him to rest only to have him rise and keep working the minute he thought Jim was asleep. It fried Jim’s nerves. He kept waking up in the middle of the night to find Spock sketching escape velocity equations on the floor beside them.

Finally Spock declared the ship ready for takeoff. Actually, ‘the first round of intensive practical testing,’ but Jim may have modified the announcement in his head.

“This vessel was designed for the comfort of beings with six legs each and compound eyes,” Spock explained to his attentive class of two. “I hypothesize that with sufficient practice, we can operate it together.”

The word operate turned out to be generous. In reality, it was like a chaotic, farcical ballet. Spock shouted orders at them, somehow juggling a million factors in his head, and Jim and Longclaw rushed to obey. They kept tangling in a mad dash of limbs to adjust a dial, or report some unexpected light. It didn’t help that Longclaw couldn’t understand half of Spock’s directions, or that Spock couldn’t dumb himself down in the heat of the moment.

After their third failed rehearsal, and a few terrifyingly out-of-control hover incidents, Jim keeled over, panting with exertion. That was the last time he would pull a belly flop to reach a button. “I just don’t see how this is possible.”

“Yes.” Longclaw agreed, snapping her tail at Spock. “Think harder.”

Instead of berating them like they probably deserved, Spock took a seat between them with more dignity than what should have been possible. He steepled his fingers in front of his lips. “I believe I have an idea,” he said, and hesitated for a long, tense moment. “A mind meld could prove advantageous to our coordination.”

Jim combed through his memories from both versions of himself, but came up with nothing that could completely explain Spock’s statement. “How?”

“It is possible to maintain a meld without physical contact, and with multiple parties. Difficult, but possible,” Spock said. His tone was practiced enough that Jim knew he must have been considering this for days. “If performed correctly, we could act as twelve synchronized limbs, the functional equivalent of two cattlebug pilots.”

Jim ran a hand through his hair. “But Longclaw couldn’t handle that, could she?”

“Not weak,” she protested.

“Bad thinker,” Jim reminded her.

“This would be a fundamentally different kind of meld,” Spock said, lifting a hand and silencing them both. “I would not enter anyone’s mind, merely provide a forum onto which we can all project information. Perception would be shared, but only conscious thoughts communicated.”

He really was serious about this. A sick feeling churned in the pit of Jim’s stomach, and he wondered exactly what defined conscious thoughts. It seemed important, when thanks to forces beyond his control, he knew that Spock secretly adored cats, why he failed at Gol, what he sounded like when he came. What they could have together.

Not this Spock, he reminded himself belatedly. A different man, from a very different universe.

He felt the pressure of Spock’s eyes on him, waiting for his input. Twice Jim had suggested a meld as the solution to a problem, and balking now would look suspicious. If this was their best shot, he couldn’t hold them back.

He had to take the risk.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to nod. “If you think you can do it.”

“I will require a day of meditation to prepare,” Spock said. Neither confirming nor denying, but he was out of the ship before Jim noticed.

***

According to popular opinion, James Tomcat Kirk had been in some weird threesomes before – one time, and suddenly you were that guy – but this was weirder than anything the Academy rumor mill could have dreamed up.

He felt Longclaw first. Her mental presence was about as overbearing as her physical presence, a solid wall at the edge of his perception. Yet the wall was made of glass, and he could grasp her mind easily than his own; fundamentally simple and linear, with an interesting focus on smell. He was hyperaware of the salty tang of his own body and Spock’s copper-and-spice scent.

Jimkirk? A thread of alarm drifted toward him. You… you are like the sun. Normally Jim would have no idea what to make of that, but because of the meld, he knew exactly what she meant. His senses were so alien to her, she couldn’t watch them without getting disoriented.

Don’t look, he thought at her. Just focus on yourself.

Then Spock’s mind intervened between them, and it was Jim’s turn to reel. Spock was layer upon carefully organized layer of information, a virtual museum of data. There were connections everywhere, countless parallel thoughts firing from place to place. Tucked away beneath it all was a deep flow of emotion, like water beneath the grate of a metal bridge. Jim only caught a glimpse before Spock shut off the view entirely.

I apologize. His ‘voice’ in the meld sounded embarrassed. That was… deeper than I intended to go.

Well, it’s working, Jim thought cautiously. Do you think you can keep this up?

I believe so.

Let’s find out.

He was distantly aware of Spock’s fingers leaving his face. Everything shuddered for a second, a curtain of static, a moment of freefall. Jim’s vision blurred and he felt a stab of nausea before it stabilized.

They drifted in this bizarre, mingled state, testing the connections for awhile. Jim adjusted to seeing through four extra eyes – one pair of which rendered the world in rich sepia tones – and hearing and smelling at a weirdly acute level. Because Spock saw everything they did, he could direct them to particular controls without constant miscommunication.

Jim had to admit this was all very clever.

The impossible officially became possible, and concrete action took the place of speculation. They packed rations, installed harnesses, covered the cockpit in labels. They quizzed each other on flight sequences over meals. While Longclaw couldn’t recite things very well, she did have stunning muscle memory. They were religious devotees, bound in worship to a single idea, fervent enough that everything else was trivial. Jim had no time to reflect on the memories, let alone worry about them, a welcome side-effect of the general commotion.

After four more rehearsals, spaced out over two days, conviction set in. On the morning of the third day, when Spock requested an hour of meditation, Jim knew this was it. The walls of the vast aerodrome closed in around him, and he decided he could use some fresh air. He mumbled something about one last look around before retreating into the dark tunnel.

He stood on the ledge outside the cattlebug base for awhile, staring down at the jungle he had thought they would never escape. It could have been beautiful if he didn’t know better, a sea of rich red, dusted over with wisps of fog. Going from hopeless to this in nothing flat was beyond his ability to process. The whiplash was incredible.

Slow footsteps approached him. “Are you ready, captain?”

“I guess so.” Jim shivered in a brief gust of wind and shook his head. “I just can’t believe this is happening. I keep expecting to wake up.”

“There is an archaic Vulcan idiom for shock that may encapsulate your perspective,” Spock said, after a moment. “Talal’eshmasu. It refers to the feeling one has upon finding water in the desert while on the verge of death.”

“I had no idea Vulcan could be so poetic,” Jim teased, facing him.

“Indeed, it is from a poem.” Spock raised an eyebrow.

“Really? What about?”

Spock’s not-smile faded, and he looked away. “In simplistic terms, it is a love poem.” He turned on his heel the instant he finished speaking, like he needed to get back to business and purge himself of some logical transgression.

Jim stared after his retreating form. “Vulcans have love poems?”

Kwonsum duvek nash-veh, t’hy’la, a familiar voice whispered in his head, and Jim groaned inwardly. Of course they did.

***

Light flashing.

Screens on.

Power nominal. Jim felt a bead of sweat tickle down his brow, but he didn’t take his hands off the controls. He tried to keep his discomfort shielded from the others and out of his conscious mind. Are we okay to go?

Affirmative, Captain. While Spock’s thoughts ‘sounded’ confident, and his movements were precise and sure, connected like this Jim could sense uncertainty behind them. That uncertainty probably had percentages attached, none of them comforting.

Jim tried to play it off, flicking the switch behind him that extended the vertical thrusters. Any last words for Sigma Nox?

Stupid rock. Longclaw thought fiercely. Hope it burns in sun.

A valid opinion, I think we can all agree. Commander?

Spock thought for a moment. If I were human, I believe I would say ‘let’s get the hell out of here.’ Jim laughed in either his head or the physical world. Feeling Spock’s sense of humor directly was a real treat, like watching sunlight from underwater. He refocused before he could get carried away on that train of thought.

The ship rose off the ground, swaying gently beneath them. Dust clouds swirled outside the portals and vanished as they climbed higher. The power conduits hummed briskly, and the pitch dropped and split itself into a slow, stable pulse. Jim watched the proximity sensors while Spock piloted them toward the oculus, and simultaneously watched the outside world through the eyes of his copilots. Namely, the windsock Longclaw had placed on a post just above the mountain aperture.

Careful, he thought. Westerly breeze.

They clipped the edge of the exit anyway. The ship tilted sideways, and the pulse of its engine leapt, trailing after Jim’s heartbeat. They drifted toward the mountains, but Spock and Longclaw leveled them out after a few quick adjustments. A small comfort, that they weren’t going to crash within a minute of taking off.

Spock guided them through pivoting the thrusters, and they began to coast forward. Jim settled back and searched for his captain’s persona to cope with the landscape shrinking beneath them. It wasn’t very forthcoming.

For so long, they had been forced to do everything the slow way. Building a fire was slow. Gathering food was slow. Walking was slow.

Flying, on the other hand, was damn fast.

Jim felt like his brain was covered in cobwebs, like it had regressed into prehistory, and now he was a caveman totally dazzled by technology. Stupid things overwhelmed him. The flashing indicators, the control panels, and especially the terrain scrolling beneath them like a holo game. Some part of his head kept insisting this wasn’t actually happening, it couldn’t be real. It was too easy.

They glided along the border of the caldera and the endless red forest for awhile, checking systems and subsystems. The ride was smooth until they started to ascend. No amount of logical reassurance about natural turbulence and necessary ballistic trajectories could stop Jim’s hands from shaking as he flipped the right switches.

Then Spock kicked on the secondary thrusters, and the whole ship jolted.

Jim fixed his eyes on the gauges and tried to keep up with converting cattlebug numbers in his head. They had a shortcut equation, but the crosshatched symbols moved too fast. Passing fifty kilometers. One hundred. One fiftyish. Um… two hundred?

Bad, Longclaw kept thinking. Very bad.

Shut up, Jim thought, dropping his numbers mid-operation. You’re not helping.

Jim, lever A-four. Longclaw, hold where you are. Spock’s thoughts sliced through the growing confusion, and Jim acted automatically.

The ship shook so forcefully now that his teeth clattered in his head. Friction flames licked at every portal, and the tremendous roar drowned out all other sound. A strange and eerie calm settled over him. He decided they were living on borrowed time, and there were worse ways to go, and hell, at least they tried. He had just about resigned himself to going out in a fiery explosion when the shaking stopped.

The g-forces let up, and Jim floated, gently tethered by his harness. He took a deliberate breath and allowed himself to focus through Spock’s eyes.

The curve of the planet swept across the main viewscreen, enveloped by a gossamer-thin line of atmosphere. Jim tumbled forward in his mind, plummeting down to the surface. All of the things that had happened to them, terrible and incredible, were contained there on a place he could probably cover with one finger. Unreal.

Is everyone intact? Spock broke the mental silence, dragging Jim back amongst the stars. They were countless, unwavering, surrounding them like frozen fireflies. The last time Jim felt this free, he had been devoured by a chemical high.

The peace didn’t last. Should not be. Longclaw’s thoughts were rapid-fire, panicked. Floating bad. Thinkers broke ship.

Floating is not harmful, Spock reassured her. Do not concern yourself.

It’s like water, Jim cut in. He felt the buzz of Spock’s frustration as he searched for a solution. He probably wanted to explore all the buttons and levers, but feared a deadly error. Well, we have airlock, Jim thought. That’s a plus.

Indeed. Spock’s hands skimmed over the controls, not touching anything.

Longclaw flailed a little, profoundly unhappy. Her visual focus darted back and forth, random and dizzying. Jim tried to keep her calm, asking her simple questions about whether the supplies were tied down in the storage compartments, or how many pieces of mantis armor they packed. Meanwhile, the ship drifted, and they drifted, and Spock seemed awfully perplexed. After several worrisome minutes, Jim couldn’t take the indecisiveness.

So. Warp, he thought, a gentle reminder.

Yes, Spock replied. I am, however, hesitant to initiate warp without the guarantee we have some gravitational control. Warping without a subspace bubble is ill-advised.

Ill-advised? Jim thought. Ladies and gentlemen, we have the nominee for biggest understatement of the year.

Do not know… what saying?

Calm down. Ignore us, Jim told Longclaw sternly before her bewilderment could drown out everything. Think about building a nest.

She did, and the warm and safe emotions she projected through the link provided a strange backdrop to the ensuing conversation.

You’re saying we’re dead in the water.

Aside from the ion propulsion, that expression is accurate.

Great, Jim thought. So we’ll hit DS6 in what, two hundred years?

Sensor range in one hundred sixty three point two years, assuming one-tenth light speed, Spock corrected.

Unless we chance it.

I would prefer to explore alternatives first, Spock thought. He placed his hands in a position Jim didn’t recognize. I believe I can improvise a communications system by short-circuiting the backup power.

The ship groaned, and the interior lights flickered.

How sure are you that was backup power? Jim thought. Half a second later, Longclaw tried very hard to drown them all in a wave of senseless dread. Jim shielded himself with frustration. For God’s sake, you take on a female mantis, but you can’t handle a few technical hiccups?

She does not understand, Spock reproached him. Longclaw, please press the largest button repeatedly. She obeyed right away, her claws tapping on the metal and her fear subsiding.

What does that do? Jim wondered.

Approximately the opposite of a useful function, Spock thought carefully, in the same tone people used for spelling out ‘walk’ in front of dogs. Jim was impressed.

Should we stop for awhile? he thought. Give you a break from the peanut gallery?

Not yet. I require a full view. Spock’s hands skimmed over the controls like a virtuoso piano player imagining a sonata. I am eliminating pathways which are definitively tied to other functions.

The Sherlock Holmes approach. Jim shifted in his harness, not sure if the circulation was being cut off in his leg or someone else’s.

An inefficient approach, Spock thought.

Doesn’t matter. You’ll figure it out eventually.

He got the telepathic equivalent of a dubious shrug. That was no good.

C’mon. We’re in space, Spock. Space, Jim thought, as forcefully as he could. Try telling me this isn’t one of the most awesome things you’ve ever pulled off.

Spock’s field of view shifted until Jim’s right shoulder and arm appeared within it. His mind was silent, but Jim could have sworn he felt an echo of amusement. Your attitude has improved considerably over the past several hundred kilometers, Captain.

I can’t help it. This is where we belong, you know? Whatever happens now, at least we have that much. Jim realized he was gushing like a kid on his first flight, and he stopped himself before he launched into a speech about challenge, or humanity’s destiny, or one of the other grand ideas that pushed him through the Academy ahead of schedule. Didn’t take long for that impulse to come back.

Spock paused, and Jim assumed he was considering the gravity issue again. Then two fingers brushed over the back of Jim’s hand, light and fleeting. Just for an instant, Jim felt both the feather touch on his skin and the sensitivity of Spock’s fingertips. He wanted to ask a question, but the words didn’t come to him in time.

Light on circle, Longclaw thought, referring to what they were pretty sure was a sensor output. Her finger stilled on her pacifier button.

Jim glanced through her eyes briefly and got the bearings. Spock was busy again, messing around with something on the main screen, so Jim stretched to the limits of his harness and peeked through a portal.

He lost himself in an unchecked flood of excitement.

The distance made her small, but he couldn’t mistake her for anything in the universe. The silver disc of the saucer section, the slender lines of the nacelles, the blue star of the deflector dish.

He didn’t even have the chance to alert Spock before the excitement doubled back on itself, compounded, detonated like a supernova. Zero-gravity was nothing compared to the lightness that suffused him, singing through the telepathic link. When the headrush died down, he turned to look at Spock. It was disorienting, seeing his face and Spock’s at the same time, and realizing they wore almost identical expressions of awe.

Damn, he thought.

I… apologize, Captain.

Your ship? Longclaw thought timidly. Her mind felt windswept in the wake of their joint emotional outburst.

Yeah, Jim thought, his chest tight as he turned back to the portal. That’s our ship. Framed by the stars and outshining them all.

Why did she not drop out of warp closer to our position? Spock thought.

Who cares? Full steam ahead, Commander. Jim started the propulsion sequence, and Spock picked up where he left off. The harness tugged on his back as they started accelerating. Probably at a snail’s pace, if this ion drive was anything like the ones Jim had known and cursed bitterly in the past.

Many lights on circle, Longclaw thought suddenly, drawing his attention back to the sensor output. ‘Many’ translated to ‘at least a dozen,’ all of them the same size as the Enterprise. A few bigger.

How do you switch views again? Jim frowned.

This button. Spock pressed it.

They squinted together at the incoming cluster of objects on the viewscreen. Jim took a slightly haphazard guess at the zoom, and it worked.

A fleet of massive, segmented ships was rallying behind them.

Longclaw’s fury reverberated in his head, a deafening echo in a small room. Killed thinkers. Killed battlesisters.

I think we found the Enterprise’s welcome wagon, Jim thought.



Scott

One week after the captain and commander went missing, Montgomery found Lieutenant Uhura alone in the observation lounge, her face wet and eyes red. He tried to console her, which was tricky when she insisted she didn’t need consoling.

“If Spock was alive when we retreated, he’s alive now,” she said, staring out at the stars as if daring the universe to contradict her. “And if Spock is alive, so is the captain.”

She said it with such conviction, Montgomery almost believed her. But then he remembered the dead lieutenant in sickbay, and the lurking sentinel ships, and his hopes were battered, if not quite dashed.

He spent endless meetings arguing with headquarters about the proper course of action. Eventually, they struck a deal. Command only gave the Enterprise missions within three days’ travel from the accursed planet while they mustered appropriate backup.

But after two months of waiting, and spending far too much time on Deep Space Six, the entire crew was running the gambit from slightly mad to just this side of raving. It was bad enough that a Neutral Zone incident kept Command from sending anyone for weeks after they agreed to respond, but then they got sidetracked by a medical milk run along the way.

Montgomery slouched in the uncomfortable captain’s chair, his stomach growling. His coffee had gone cold an hour ago.

“Sir, Admiral Fitzpatrick just checked in,” Uhura announced. “They’re exactly a week out.”

“Status?”

“Reporting nominal.”

Montgomery sighed and peered over his shoulder. “Other status?”

“Still very pissed. He grumbled something about a wild ghost-chase,” she said, tapping her stylus on her console idly. “I thought that was pretty clever of him. You know, for a walking rulebook.”

He couldn’t help but smile. Fitzpatrick had wanted to declare Kirk and Spock missing in action and bring the Enterprise home, but he was outvoted in the end. Naturally, Command thought he was the best choice to lead the reinforcements. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, but some days Montgomery wished he hadn’t held out his hat.

“Mr. Sulu, set a course for the planet, but stay out of the danger zone,” he said. “We’ll scout the edges a bit before they get here.”

Alpha shift passed without incident, and the bridge crew broke for lunch. Montgomery returned to duty far more content than he had been earlier. Dr. McCoy kept complaining about mass indigestion amongst the crew, one of many anxiety symptoms cropping up, but Montgomery’s appetite was bigger than ever. If it weren’t for a self-imposed diet, he’d have been rounder than a tribble weeks ago.

He was debating looking over the final transmissions yet again when Uhura stopped a joke she was telling Ensign Rand mid-sentence. He turned around, curious about the interruption, and was met with an intensely focused communications officer.

“I think I just heard something, sir.” Uhura rested a hand over her mouth in thought, her fingers frozen on the com panels. “Now that’s odd.”

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“A blip in subspace. Somewhere around the planet.” Just as suddenly as she had turned to stone, she snapped into action, tapping buttons so quickly he could barely follow what she was doing. “No carrier ID, an unusual wavelength, but I know it was there.”

“Are you hailing?”

“On the same frequency, sir. No response.”

A blip in subspace was nothing by itself. A blip near the last known location of the captain and first officer was a very different beast. Montgomery spun the chair back around so sharply he almost overshot and ended up talking to the turbolift. “Mr. Sulu?”

“Scans coming in now, sir. A small vessel. Same type as the sentinels.” Sulu glanced up from his console, confusion furrowing his brow.

“But zhe energy trail shows it took off from zhe near side,” Chekov added. “Zhey have never… you do not suppose…” He trailed off into a pregnant silence.

“Life readings?” Montgomery demanded.

“They’re shielded, sir,” Sulu said.

It couldn’t be. It had to be. He didn’t dare hope.

“Command says to hold position,” Uhura relayed, wide-eyed.

Perfect silence fell over the bridge as everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at him. Montgomery’s father always told him a day would come when he’d have to choose between duty and duty, and he never understood what that meant until now. He took a few seconds to guess the height of the high board before he went for the dive.

“Mr. Sulu, set a course for intercept,” he said. “Push her as fast as you can.”

Sulu broke into a grin so wide it was almost manic. “Aye, sir!”

“Mr. Chekov, get me some fine-tuned scans. If that ship so much as hiccups, I want to know about it.” Montgomery flipped the yellow alert switch and the broadcast button simultaneously. “Attention. This is your acting captain speaking. We are moving into Sigma Nox space.”

Enterprise to small vessel, can you read me? Come in, small vessel.” Uhura kept repeating her hail until it sounded like a prayer.

Zhere zhey are,” Chekov piped up. “Sentinel fleet at one three seven mark twelve, circling around zhe planet.”

“Impulse power, red alert,” Montgomery ordered. Damn it all. Never could beat the bastards’ response time.

“Shields, sir?”

“Not yet, Mr. Sulu. Ready the phaser banks.” Montgomery shifted in the captain’s chair and faced the gathering storm. “You’re a wee bit early, boys,” he muttered to himself.


Kirk

You know, they sort of look like us. Just scaled up, Jim mused as one of the larger ships overtook them, a behemoth that blocked the Noxian sun. They must think we’re with them.

Yes, Spock thought. Let us hope the misunderstanding continues.

But it doesn’t make sense. How can they be cattlebug–

What makes sense is unimportant at this juncture, Spock cut him off. I assume we are shielded, as we have not yet been transported aboard.

We are? How?

I do not know.

The red beam of a phaser sliced overhead, colliding with the dark alien ship above them in a brilliant flash. A different alien ship responded with a blue bolt of lightning. It leapt toward the Enterprise but went wide, arcing off starboard. They must be out of range.

Do we even have those? Jim thought weakly as he watched the static storm dissipate. I want those.

Want, Longclaw agreed. Shoot now.

We do not possess anything readily identifiable as a weapon, Spock reminded them.

Well, we have to reach them before those things do, Jim thought, watching the ships swarm around them like a school of sharks. Their hulls bristled with electric cannons. Can we make it?

Unknown. I will attempt to estimate our ETA versus that of our adversaries.

Should not be lying cowards. Should fight!

Approximately 500 km/sec based upon–

We can’t fight. Look at us!

Killed battlesisters.

–increasing acceleration at a rate of–

Don’t you dare touch that button.

Be silent, both of you!

The flow of information between them was seamless now. It was like the meld gathered inertia until it took on a life of its own, until Jim couldn’t imagine operating without three-hundred sixty degree vision. Spock’s knowledge cascaded through them, one of those annoying grade school problems about two ships approaching each other under impulse power.

The answer was clear. There was no way they’d reach the Enterprise before the alien ships got within firing range. And once the Enterprise shields went up, that was it. No way to get on board, trapped in a crossfire they couldn’t survive.

We’re not going to make it, Jim thought. He knew he was back in full captain mode when he jumped straight over despair to outrageous ideas. Spock, can you give us warp in the next thirty seconds?

The necessary sequence is twenty seven steps–

Yes, Longclaw replied instantly.

What? Jim and Spock thought in tandem.

Is slow. Her fingers brushed over the control panel, miming her portion of the complicated warp sequence. This faster. She modified the sequence into a new one she could seemingly complete on her own in about a dozen quick motions.

How do you know? Spock demanded.

Lines, she thought. They waited. An awe-inspiring mental silence ensued.

Hell, Jim thought. Is she right?

I… I do not know.

Whatever. We don’t have time. Jim centered the viewscreen on the distant ship. We’ll kick it into warp for a split second. Jump the gap. If I know our crew, they’ll open the shuttle bay for us.

Captain, I must point out we lack discernable computer guidance.

You aim. I’ll steer us after the jump.

The precision required for such an operation–

I know you can do it. And I learned some tricks from Sulu on Vega Five, Jim persisted. Give me the ion controls.

But Captain–

Trust me.

He felt Spock’s mind assent.

Before Jim could reconnect with his body and switch positions, Spock’s mind stepped back. Led him through to access the primary navigation controls in a totally different way. A thrumming heartbeat filled his head, ridiculously fast. His fingers were a little too long, and everything tasted and smelled and sounded indescribably different.

God, this is weird. How…

Focus, Jim.

He tightened alien hands on the dual joystick accelerators, placed his feet on the steering fin controls. Longclaw, you ready?

Yes.

On and off. Faster than a blink. Spock?

I am correcting for anticipated drag, he thought, tweaking the stabilizers with Jim’s hands. Complete now.

On my mark. Longclaw had gotten the hang of countdowns for the first time yesterday, and Jim hoped it stuck. Three. Two. One.

Light exploded across the front of the ship, and the most awful sound Jim knew tore through him. The whine of struts being compressed. The deep, anguished groan of metal plates under pressure. The sound of an unprotected hull being ripped apart by subspace. He shut his eyes against the glare.

Then the awful racket stopped, and he opened them again.

The Enterprise was much bigger than she should have been, the shuttle bay far ahead and beneath them. But a man could only resign himself to death so many times in a day, and Jim already passed his quota. He blocked out everything except the massive column of the ship’s body dead ahead. He yanked them around it, skimmed them across her back, the nacelles framing them like a portal. Their tiny craft protested as he forced a sharp, spiraling turn, its engines thrumming insanely. He pushed them into a dive.

The illuminated streaks of the landing lane appeared, and he grinned.

That was when an explosion of electric blue light scattered debris into their path. Something hit them, and they pitched wildly to the side. His target shifted to the extreme edge of Longclaw’s gaze. He smashed on the controls, probably overcompensating. Spock tried to reel him in. It didn’t feel like enough.

Ease up, steady as she goes, Sulu had said. Why wasn’t it easing up? Spock, I–

Jim–

Release and glide. –need to tell you something.

He misjudged. Suddenly the ship was all around them, swallowing them up. Only a few near misses from Vega Five gave him the instincts to throw the brakes. The shock of the reverse thrusters jolted him back violently. His head cracked against the bulkhead behind him. The world went white, and all sound faded into a sharp ring.

Jim? Jim, are you–

“all right?”

The meld shattered, and Jim floundered, completely alone. His vision was too narrow, he was practically deaf, and he couldn’t smell anything. He didn’t have enough hands. He drifted without an anchor.

“Jim, can you hear me?” Spock’s face sharpened above him. Ah, there it was.

Jim smiled, and remembered what he had to say. I love you. But Spock couldn’t hear that, could he? How did his mouth work again?

Red alert sirens blared, muffled through the fog. This he remembered just fine.



Chapter Text


Spock

His ears cleared as the shuttle bay repressurized with an audible hiss. He dragged himself away from Jim to release the ship’s door mechanism. The Enterprise heaved around them, red alert shrieking, and he fell before he could reach it. His body was clumsy, and his telepathic shields in tatters.

Two figures in clean suits tore the door open from the other side. They hesitated upon seeing Longclaw extract herself from the wreckage, but recovered in an admirably short period of time.

One of them helped Spock climb out of the portal. Nurse Chapel, he thought dimly as her unease swept over him. The other extracted Jim from his harness and pulled him free of the battered-looking craft. It seemed impossible that the alien ship could have carried them here, now that its filthy and cracked exterior was contrasted by the spotless shuttle bay.

“Bridge. I have to get to the bridge,” Jim choked out.

“Quarantine, sir,” the other clean-suited individual said. Doctor M’Benga’s voice. “We can’t let you out.”

“Damn it! Put me on with Mr. Scott.” Jim tore himself free and staggered toward the nearest console.

Before Spock could move ahead of him and open a channel, the red alert shut off, and the com system crackled to life. //Captain? Are you there?//

“Scotty!” Jim froze where he stood. “Are we running?”

//Oh, we’re running.// Scott’s voice was alarmingly cheerful. //We’ll leave ‘em with their mouths full of dust. Is Mr. Spock with you?//

“I am,” Spock said. “I trust you are well, Lieutenant Commander?”

//I’m beside myself, sirs! Didn’t believe the ship just now when she said you were actually aboard.// The audible background commotion of shouts and laughter suggested he wasn’t alone in this regard. //May I be the first to say it’s a pleasure having you back.//

“Thanks, Scotty. Give our best to everyone. Kirk out.” Jim’s entire body sagged, and he grasped his knees to support himself. Spock and M’Benga took him by the arms and helped him to the nearest storage box. Spock felt Jim’s anxiety diminishing, and the brief emotional contact, however involuntary, grounded him in the unsettling aftermath of the meld.

M’Benga started accosting them both with a dermal regenerator, but a muffled sound of distress not unlike a squeak distracted all three of them.

Spock looked up to find Longclaw circling Chapel, studying her. “Sounds different. Is female?”

“Sirs?” Chapel’s gaze flashed from them to Longclaw, her voice unnaturally high. Her arms were drawn up tight against her body, and only her eyes moved. “What is… I….”

“Yeah, she’s female,” Jim said. “Nurse, this is Longclaw. Longclaw, this is my crew. Some of them, anyway.”

“She has heard you vocalize, so she does not pose a threat,” Spock explained.

“Small,” Longclaw said, clearly baffled. “Shorter.” She crawled toward Spock, limping slightly on her back leg. One of her old wounds had reopened, and blue-green blood was leaking through the leather bandages.

M’Benga noted the injuries as well. “Will she let me….”

“Perhaps.” Spock raised an eyebrow.

“You should ask her,” Jim added. “But get ready for a chase.”

Then the shuttle bay doors slid open, and a third clean-suited figure stepped inside. His face was not recognizable at first through the glare on the viewing window, but the light shifted as he came closer, and the glare cleared.

“Bones.” Jim pushed himself to a shaky stand. Spock made an aborted attempt to stop him, and M’Benga held his arm back. But McCoy sharply thrust out a hand, halting Jim’s approach himself, and held up a medical scanner. He stared at the display with a furrowed brow while Jim fidgeted on the spot.

“Possible concussion,” he said, voice hoarse. “Fractured collarbone. Your dopamine levels are–”

Bones.

McCoy looked up from the scanner, and his expression changed profoundly as he noticed the tears welling in Jim’s eyes. He sighed and crossed the space between them, pulling Jim into an embrace. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, it became evident he was on the verge of a similar emotional display.

“Not too tight,” he said, meant for whom, Spock wasn’t certain. “Don’t want to make you any worse.”

“Shut up.”

“I missed you, kid.” Then the doctor grinned over Jim’s shoulder, so genuine it was almost startling. “You too, Spock.”

Spock feigned surprise at the welcome, knowing it would be correctly interpreted. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“Water from eyes,” Longclaw murmured beside him. “What means?”

“Many things,” he said. “In this instance, happiness.”

***

Clean-suited nurses set up temporary living quarters in the shuttle bay, and between McCoy and M’Benga, all three of the ship’s newest arrivals were subjected to a medical battery unlike anything Spock had experienced. Longclaw was even less appreciative of the harassment than Jim, but unlike Jim, she behaved herself at Spock’s insistence. Their lacerations were sealed, their blood drawn, and their necks hyposprayed with a cocktail of antibiotics and immune-boosting compounds.

Jim tired long before the ship’s chronometer read night, a side-effect of their being entirely out of sync with Federation time. McCoy decided rest was the proper treatment at this juncture, now that immediate concerns had been addressed. He fitted them with monitors and shooed everyone out. But he lingered afterward, and pulled up a chair near the two biobeds and the pile of blankets that concealed Longclaw’s sleeping form.

The captain sprawled on one of said biobeds, arms crossed behind his neck. Spock suspected his posture was overcompensating to conceal his true attitude toward their situation. “All right,” Jim said. “What do we know?”

“Why don’t you go first,” McCoy replied, leaning forward in his chair. “That way I’ll know what to cover.”

Jim nodded at Spock, who took a seat on his own bed and began. “The bulbweed selectively targets organisms with hemoglobin, or similar iron-based carrier proteins.”

“The cattlebugs bleed red,” Jim clarified. “They’re attracted to the plant.”

“So that’s the source. I told you that thing wasn’t natural!” McCoy stabbed a finger at them.

“Anything constrained by the laws of physics is necessarily a part of nature, doctor,” Spock pointed out. McCoy broke into a brief but startling grin, as if he took delight in being corrected. He proceeded to glance at Jim, who both shrugged and nodded. Spock understood nothing of their silent exchange, so he ignored it and continued. “The exact nature of its addictive effects, however, has eluded us.”

“Addictive effects,” McCoy said slowly, as if tasting the words. His absurd smile faded. “The symptoms did look a hell of a lot like severe withdrawal.”

“Oh it’s hell, let me tell you,” Jim muttered, his brow furrowing. “How’s Phillips doing, by the way?”

Any traces of levity in McCoy’s attitude disappeared. He sighed and kneaded his forehead briefly. “He’s dead, Jim. We lost him a few days after we lost you two.”

“That is… unfortunate,” Spock said.

“Unfortunate,” Jim repeated quietly, as if he were unable to supply his own descriptor.

Spock resumed the flow of conversation to distract Jim from the unpleasantness of this discovery. “Could you please explicate your own discoveries, Doctor?”

“Sure, Spock.” McCoy cleared his throat and appeared grateful for the segue. “So we think there’s two chemicals involved. One of them gradually changes acetylcholine receptors and becomes a permanent replacement, so the afflicted organism can’t function without it. We think repeat exposure causes brain damage, but it probably requires direct contact.” He frowned at the far wall. “The other one is tricky. As far as we can tell, it gets through the blood-brain barrier and throws all kinds of wrenches into the limbic system.”

“A primer and an attractor,” Spock said, missing puzzle pieces tumbling into place. He wondered how close Jim had come to total oblivion. How many instances of direct contact with the bulbweed’s interior caused irreversible change. “I imagine both foster dependence.”

“Bingo,” McCoy said, excitement flashing in his eyes. “The first one chemical, the second psychological.”

“And the second acts to facilitate the first,” Spock added. “Doctor, I believe the second chemical is a pheromone with a short half life, released at night.”

“That explains why we only found trace amounts. Barely enough to isolate,” McCoy grumbled. “And the effects were so damn subtle, we–”

“Well, Bones?” Jim interrupted them. “Clean bill of health?”

Both Spock and the doctor stared at Jim, stunned into silence. Jim’s face was utterly blank. “Captain,” Spock began, “is something–”

“I changed my mind. I don’t want to hear exactly how screwed I could have been,” Jim said, his demeanor more weary than angry. “Not now. So just give it to me straight. Am I good or not?”

“You aren’t seriously injured. Or contagious, but we already knew that,” McCoy said, visibly taken aback. “Your receptors look fine.”

“What about Spock?”

“Some minor lung scarring, M’Benga tells me. I’d like to run an endurance test later.”

“I require meditation,” Spock supplied. “My shields are mildly stressed.”

“Minor, mildly,” Jim dismissed them, crossing his arms. “So we’re free to go?”

“Complete medical profiles aren’t built in a day, man.” McCoy shot Jim a withering look.

Jim let out a grunt of frustration, and Spock knew his resolve was building when his back straightened. “Can I at least talk to Scotty again?”

“No. You aren’t on duty.”

“I need to know what’s going on with my crew. With the ship.”

“We’re flying, aren’t we?”

“What about Gates? She’s not part of the Enterprise command structure.” An astute solution, Spock thought, but McCoy sighed again and hung his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, after a period of silence long enough for perfect clarity of meaning. “We lost about half the Galapagos crew. She was… she stayed with them in the end.”

Jim did not respond, studying the floor instead. His expression was disturbingly akin to the one he wore when dazed by the bulbweed pheromone.

McCoy sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. Spock found that he wished to do the same thing, although not in the presence of others. “Why don’t you clean up and get some rest? Think you can do that?” Jim didn’t respond, and McCoy glanced at Spock, searching for assistance. Spock nodded to reassure him, despite his own misgivings. “Things will seem better in the morning,” McCoy said.

Only upon McCoy’s departure did Jim utter a sound, chuckling humorlessly. “Morning was always worse,” he murmured. He waved a hand at the partition placed down the center of the shuttle bay before Spock could reply. “You shower first. I’m hacking the synthesizer to give me a chocolate sundae.”

“Captain, the risk of digestive distress is–”

“A small sundae.” Jim narrowed his eyes.

Spock recognized that he would not be persuaded from this course of action, and it seemed an appropriate one for a human, in any case. He acquiesced and made use of the facilities set up for them, washing and changing into the simple gray garments. Discarding his tattered and filthy uniform into a matter recycler was immensely satisfying.

Later that evening, his meditation was interrupted when Jim completed his own grooming routine. “You know what’s great? Soap,” he announced as he staggered past Spock’s bed. “Soap is great.”

No sooner had he said this than a fresh, coniferous smell wafted over Spock. He had used more of said substance than was logical himself. “Agreed.” He examined the captain, clean-shaven yet haggard.

Jim was silent for over a minute as he sat on the edge of his bed, but he made no move to lie down. He fiddled with his wrist biomonitor, and Spock waited for him to speak. “How much do we tell them?”

“A difficult question,” Spock said. “According to my own standards, much of the evidence for our theories is problematic. Had I not witnessed it myself….”

“Far-fetched, right?” Jim sighed and covered his mouth with his hand. “Not just that, though. I mean everything. The stuff with Taylor and Lombard.”

“Dr. McCoy requires accurate data to make an accurate assessment.”

“Yeah.” Jim stared at his knees.

“Precisely how Taylor died is irrelevant,” Spock reminded him. “He would have perished regardless of any action or inaction we took.”

Jim looked at him, and his expression softened to the brink of a smile. The tension in his shoulders eased. “I know.”

Their gaze held together for awhile, precisely how long Spock couldn’t say. Jim ended it when he reclined on his bed, quickly shifting beneath the covers. Spock watched him drag the sheets up to his chin and roll over, facing the wall.

When Spock was certain the captain was asleep, he proceeded to the nearest console and brushed aside the security measures. He noted they had already been breached once, during the time frame in which he had been showering, and Jim left unattended.

He browsed through the ship’s records from the past several months. Nothing particularly eventful, except the three occasions the Enterprise had approached Sigma Nox. They were driven back each time by a persistently uncommunicative and overpowering foe.

Scott hypothesized in his logs that the so-called ‘sentinels’ put an active watch on the system after they first discovered a perceived intruder. They were, without a doubt, the same type of ship as the cattlebug shuttle, a mystifying development that Spock put aside for later contemplation.

Spock read two messages from his father as well, one dated shortly after Spock was lost, and the second sent earlier today. Sarek had veered into the emotional on the latter, discussing how Spock’s mother would have been joyful to learn of his survival. She was a proxy, Spock realized suddenly. She had always said the things his father could not.

He also realized that did not wish to live his life by proxy.

***

Three days of quarantine and accelerated cultures passed slowly on an objective level, as Spock was accustomed to the shorter Sigma Nox day. What had felt like two months, fourteen days on the planet to them was actually two months, four days.

Spock spent much of this period in meditation, repairing his telepathic shields. He walked around the shuttle bay on occasion, touching distinctive features of the ship until they seemed more tangible. Jim spoke very little as he responded to messages from close friends and family, and Longclaw adapted to her new surroundings. Spock showed her how to use the synthesizer, and she took a liking to bizarre – and according to Jim, nauseating – combinations of foods.

“I don’t care what planet she’s from, sandwiches, gouda cheese, and raw eggs do not mix,” Jim said. Longclaw sporadically debated him on this matter for over an hour.

At last their medical team declared they were healthy enough to resume command. McCoy seemed reluctant as he informed them, but their lingering health issues were manageable, consisting mostly of insomnia and digestive upset. They both must have passed their psychological profiles, or else a very different conversation would have taken place. There was certainly no reason to keep them confined that Spock could discern, in any case.

On the designated day, their fifth morning post-rescue, McCoy caught Spock alone at the shuttle bay doors while Jim was getting dressed. “Thank you,” he said quietly, clasping a hand on Spock’s shoulder. “You took good care of him.”

“I did what was necessary to protect my commanding officer,” Spock said.

“Just accept the damn compliment, you pointy-eared hobgoblin.” McCoy’s voice was gruff, but a faint smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“What is…” Longclaw stopped, unable to replicate the expression.

“An insult. You know.” McCoy paused for a moment. “What do you call him when he makes you mad?”

“Bad thinker,” she responded instantly.

McCoy laughed and nudged her with his thigh. “Bad thinker, eh? I like it.” Spock countered the grin directed at him with a raised eyebrow, which only increased its intensity.

“You two aren’t picking on my first officer, are you?” Jim’s voice. The three of them turned to acknowledge his approach. His uniform hung loosely on him, and there were still dark circles around his eyes, but he moved with the confidence of command.

“Me? Never,” McCoy said, resting a palm on his chest in mock affront. “Ready to show your face, Captain?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

The doctor escorted them to the rec room where the official reception would take place, his gait practically bouncing. Spock regretted their brisk pace; he wanted to take in every detail of the ship’s corridors and bulkheads, every door and control panel and service conduit. He wanted to view his quarters, despite knowing they were the same as he had left them.

The instant they stepped inside the rec room, a mass of crewmen and women flooded them, talking and laughing and insisting upon copious amounts of physical contact.

“Captain, I can’t believe it!”

“Commander Spock!”

“We are so wery glad you are back.”

“How the hell are you, sir?”

“Oh my God, what is that?”

“Calm down, everyone. This is Longclaw. She’s a good friend of ours.”

“Unbelievable!”

“Don’t crowd them like a pack of starving hyenas, for God’s sake!”

“Sir, I’m so glad you’re alive.”

Dozens of people, friends and near-strangers alike, shook Spock’s hand and clapped him on the back. The psychic echoes of their delight and curiosity passed through his shields, still fatigued from the meld. He was invaded, trampled by a hundred unique and powerful shades of emotion. It was too much. He retreated to a private chamber off the main rec room floor, and hoped that no one saw him.

Fourteen seconds passed in seclusion before he was interrupted.

“Spock.”

He turned and found Nyota standing at the doorway. She ran to him and embraced him fiercely, shaking with silent sobs. While he could have shielded, he did not. “I am gratified to see you,” he said.

“I knew,” she murmured, her voice muffled by his shirt. “Nobody believed me, but I knew.” She let him go and grinned at him, tears trailing down her cheeks. When Spock moved automatically to brush them away, as she had once done for him, she shook her head and scrubbed her face with one hand.

“I hate to throw this at you so soon, but there’s an urgent communication waiting for you, the captain, and Mr. Scott.” It was strange, the juxtaposition of her professional voice with her emotional upwelling. “I put him off as long as I could, but I promised the minute you both got out of quarantine…”

“Understood,” Spock said.

He informed the captain and lieutenant commander, extracting them from the crew with considerable difficulty. It took Jim shouting orders above the din to negotiate his release from a peculiar human behavior known as the ‘group hug.’ Nyota led the three of them to a private game chamber and linked the conference from outside the room.

A man with graying hair and a flushed complexion appeared on the viewscreen, recognizable from several official functions Spock had attended. “Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott,” he said. “You disobeyed direct orders by going for a retrieval.”

Scott stood up straighter and opened his mouth, but Jim responded first. “Hello Admiral Fitzpatrick, how are you? We’re doing great, so nice of you to ask.”

“You might be doing great, but your ship isn’t, thanks to her acting captain.”

“He was following my orders.” Jim crossed his arms and leveled a hard stare at Fitzpatrick. “And I ordered him to pick us up.”

Communication had never been established between the cattlebug shuttle and the Enterprise, but Spock said nothing. He glanced at Scott, who looked pained, but also said nothing.

Fitzpatrick’s eyes narrowed. “You might be the rising star in the fleet, Kirk, but the admiralty still trumps you.”

“Not if I make an executive decision based on the best judgment principle.”

“Best judgment principle,” Fitzpatrick scoffed.

“It is a legitimate Starfleet principle,” Spock interjected. “Had I not employed it two months, nine days ago, the captain would not be standing in front of you now.”

That seemed to make the admiral hesitate, but not for long. “And there’s another thing – the nonsense that kicked off this little incident. Complete and total disregard for standard procedure. Dozens of men and women paid for it with their lives.”

“Now sir, that just isn’t fair,” Scott spoke up, thoroughly indignant. “Whether the captain and Mr. Spock were on board would have made no difference to the Galapagos. We were outgunned.”

“You’re telling me you wouldn’t have retreated sooner had they been safe and sound?” Fitzpatrick shook his head and donned an incredulous smirk. “You’re all on thin ice.”

“Good thing I brought my skates,” Jim said.

“Don’t be a smartass, Kirk. It was cute at first, but even puppies can get sent back to the pound if they make a regular habit of pissing on the carpet.”

Jim evidently had enough. Spock knew from the shift in his stance, the slight, impudent tilt of his chin. “Pardon me if I’m being blunt, Admiral, but two weeks ago a praying mantis the size of a horse tried to take my head off,” he said. “So when I tell you I’d rather explain myself to someone who’s seen more action in the past few decades than a missing stylus, please try to understand.”

Fitzpatrick’s face reddened, and his tone clipped into a weapon. “If that’s what you want, that’s exactly what you’ll get. There will be an inquiry over this, mark my words.” The com screen went dark. Silence for five point three seconds.

“Ass,” Jim muttered.

“Sir, I–” Scott began.

“Dismissed, Mr. Scott,” Jim interrupted. “He’s right about the ship. Give her some TLC for me.” He clapped the man on a tense shoulder. “I know you’ve missed engineering.”

“Aye, but sir–”

“Dismissed.”

Scott’s face fell, but he nodded and obeyed.

Jim closed their end of the link with a few quick flicks of his fingers. “Captain,” Spock said cautiously, studying Jim’s nonchalant face, “antagonizing our escort is ill-advised. The admiral is not to be taken lightly.”

“I’m not taking him lightly. I’m giving him the exact amount of consideration he deserves,” Jim replied. “He’s just one man, and I’ve got well-wishes from everyone else in the fleet clogging up my com line. I don’t have the patience right now for has-been bureaucrats.”

“Understood, Captain,” Spock said, and he meant it sincerely. “However, regarding Mr. Scott–”

“We flew into orbit and set off a subspace ripple. The order was implied, and I’ll argue that to my grave.” Jim started for the doors, and hesitated just before they opened. “No one’s getting in trouble for my sake.”

They stepped back into the main rec room, and all traces of conversation were silenced as the crew’s eyes fixed upon them. No doubt they were curious as to what had transpired to make Mr. Scott appear so uncomfortable. There was a face among them Spock had not noted yet, familiar from the debriefing over two months ago. Gray streaks marked his hair where there were none before.

“Lieutenant Brady,” Jim said, his voice stiff as he approached the man. “Could you get the Galapagos people together? There’s something I need to tell you.”

Spock touched his arm, but Jim pulled away without looking at him.

***

The journey back to Federation territory proceeded, largely uneventful. Some semblance of a routine was established once again, which Spock found comforting. Simple things provoked an interesting warmth within him now, like tuning his neglected lute, or synthesizing a meal, and he no longer wholly suppressed these feelings.

He spent time with Nyota, and she explained the social nuances that official reports neglected. She told him how the surviving Galapagos crew had banded together under Scott’s leadership. Her presence was soothing, and her esteem reassured him that their professional relationship was intact. Their personal one was far more complex. Spock’s renewed sense of empathy, and the occasional hardness in her eyes, made him question exactly how much he had hurt her via their separation.

However, there were always tasks to keep him occupied and balance out his emotional dabbling. Much to his gratification, the science ensigns had kept his labs spotless and efficient. He assisted Chekov and Scott in repairing the Enterprise as best they could, and advised Sulu and McCoy on the properties of the bulbweed while they examined Jim’s blood. He engaged Sulu in an analysis of the various organic samples he had gathered from Sigma Nox.

Longclaw was a source of endless fascination for the crew, and she basked in their attentions. Spock suspected her many years of loneliness on the planet had fostered an intense desire for companionship. The hypothesis certainly explained why she had readily attached herself to two strange aliens about whom she knew nothing. She couldn’t point her way home on a star map, but neither did she express a desire to return there.

Yet an anomaly existed amongst the general contentment.

To one of the ship’s crewmen not well acquainted with the captain, he likely appeared normal. He told sanitized versions of their most harrowing moments on Sigma Nox to rapt audiences in the mess. He sparred with friends in the gym, he joked with ensigns in the labs, he played poker with the engineers. He was more sociable than ever before.

None of this suggested there was cause for alarm, but one inexplicable fact troubled Spock: Jim was avoiding him.

He talked to Spock exclusively on duty, and about duty. He always had an urgent appointment when Spock encountered him in the mess. He ignored Spock at group functions unless spoken to directly, in which case he provided simplistic answers. There was just enough interaction and apparent friendliness that Spock found reasons to doubt himself.

Then one afternoon, purely by chance, he caught Jim reading across the rec room, seemingly unaware of his arrival.

Spock spotted Longclaw in a side niche and advanced on her. She was occupied with a visual version of the Starfleet security training manual. Retrofitted dimensional glasses perched awkwardly on her head, so that the things in the manual appeared life-sized and more readily comprehensible to her.

“Longclaw.” Spock nodded.

“Battlesister.” She tapped his shin with her tail in what he assumed had become an affectionate gesture.

“May I sit here?” He gestured to an empty cushion beside her. The position would afford him a clear view of Jim without permitting the reverse.

“Yes.” She shifted her back legs to give him more space. Spock took a seat and examined her for a moment. Although he had witnessed her tackle a technical problem firsthand, he still experienced occasional surges of retroactive disbelief. He wondered if any alien psychologists on board would be interested in studying the exact nature of her intelligence.

He feigned meditation for a time, always keeping an eye on Jim. The intensity of his focus made the room appear to narrow until it was only them at opposite ends of a long corridor. His unease was augmented when Jim read for a quarter hour without turning the page once.

“Why stare? Go speak.” He glanced at Longclaw, who was currently watching a holographic depiction of a hostage situation. Indeed, speculating about Jim’s psyche from afar was not sound methodology.

He decided an ambush was the best course of action. He approached Jim from behind, and spoke when he was approximately a meter away. “Captain.”

“Spock.” Jim twisted around in his chair, his eyes wide.

Spock searched for something to say before his quarry could attempt retreat. The faded gold lettering on the cover of Jim’s book informed Spock he was reading Heart of Darkness. “I was not aware you owned any classical Earth literature.”

“It’s Lieutenant McGivers’,” Jim said. “I’m just borrowing.”

“Are you enjoying it?”

“It’s okay.”

His gaze darted toward the exit now. Spock had to sustain the pressure, prevent Jim from coming up with an excuse to leave. “If I am not imposing, would you like to play chess?”

“Oh. Actually, I….” Jim trailed off and stared at the book in his hands. “You know what, sure. Let’s play.” He shut the antique volume hard enough that the halves slammed together.

They claimed an open game table, and Jim set up the pieces with excessive vigor. He chose white and marched his first pawn forward, all without saying a word to Spock. At least he had not fled. Spock selected his knight and began an offensive.

He observed Jim between moves. The captain was thin, almost gaunt, which made no sense given the near-unlimited availability of food. Due to the synthesizers and adherence to McCoy’s diet plan, Spock had gained nearly two kilograms in two weeks, unparalleled in his life thus far. He would be surprised if Jim had gained any weight at all.

“Are you well, Captain?” Spock ventured.

“I’m tired of that question,” Jim said. Then his eyes flickered up to Spock for the first time during the game, and guilt tempered the lines of his face. “I mean, it’s hard being in charge of things again. But I can handle it.”

Five moves, and a defensive formation Spock didn’t recognize began taking shape. “Jim,” he said, trying again. “Have I done something to offend you?”

“What do you mean?” He claimed Spock’s bishop in a reckless leap that left his king virtually defenseless.

Circuitous prompts were not working. Spock suppressed his anxiety and aimed for directness. “One might assume you have been avoiding me.”

“What? No,” Jim said, quickly enough that he may have anticipated the question. “I’m just busy reacquainting myself with everyone. Playing catch-up. You get it, right?”

“I suppose.”

“You’ve been busy too. It’s hard to coordinate.”

Three moves. Spock’s queen was captured now, his rook threatened. He was taking careless chances, disoriented by Jim’s haphazard strategy. “Coordination requires the effort of both parties,” he pointed out.

Jim’s demeanor slipped from cautious to guarded. “I’m sorry, all right? Is that what you want to hear?”

The question caught Spock unaware, but the answer was definitively negative. Although it implied another question, to which he did not know the answer: what did he want to hear from Jim?

He waited too long between moves in this contemplative state, and gave Jim an opening. “I need to go,” he said, bolting up out of his chair. “Racquetball practice in ten.” He rushed out, scarcely below a jogging pace. Spock noted the hasty redirection of attention that occurred amongst the rec room’s occupants in his wake.

He stared at the board without any real intent as he considered the encounter. The placement of pieces caught his attention. Five moves until checkmate, in Jim’s favor.

Perhaps irrational mental priming was to blame, but from that point onward, he began noticing further anomalies in the captain’s behavior. Jim startled easily. He rubbed his eyes when he thought no one observed him. He drummed his fingers on the arms of chairs. It took him twice as long to complete simple department evaluations.

At first, Spock took Jim on his word, deciding he was simply adjusting to life aboard the ship again. No doubt being in constant contact with Fitzpatrick was taking its toll. No doubt the fate of the Galapagos crew and Captain Gates was having a negative impact on him. He required time to recover, and members of his crew should facilitate his transition.

So Spock took over the official command report of their mission, secretly revising Jim’s haphazard entries. He completed department evaluations before they made it to Jim’s desk. One alpha shift two point nine weeks after their release from the shuttle bay, Jim overslept, and Spock sent someone to discreetly wake him. When it happened again, Spock changed the duty rosters and managed the shift himself. He was more concerned that Jim didn’t demand an explanation than the fact the incident occurred to begin with.

The longer it went on, the more he rationalized. There was a certain, strange pleasure to be had in assisting the captain from afar. Spock confided in Nyota once regarding a minor incident, and she accused him of martyrdom. He rejected that theory and carried on.

Naturally, Jim chose to break this pattern when Spock least expected it.

His doorbell rang near midnight, two deliberate buzzes. Spock was in bed at the time, although kept awake by an article in the VSA journal. He switched the door open immediately when the visitor announced himself.

Jim stood in the threshold, wearing regulation nightclothes and slippers. “Can I….” He glanced up and down the corridor.

“Of course.”

He took exactly enough steps for the doors to shut behind him. He remained motionless, his jaw tight, his arms crossed. “I lied,” he said finally. “I have been avoiding you. And what you’re doing is exactly what I’m trying to prevent.”

Spock wondered if he should stand. He decided that remaining in bed would render him unthreatening and encourage Jim to speak candidly. He lowered his PADD onto his lap. “Elaborate.”

“I’m not stupid. You can’t keep covering my ass like this.”

“What is the purpose of a first officer, if not to support the captain?” Spock said. He did not intend to sound flippant, but his mild irritation did not permit otherwise.

“You won’t let me struggle,” Jim snapped. He threw up his hands, gesturing for emphasis. “I’ll work it out on my own, but I need to struggle first.”

“Then what is the purpose of a friend?” Spock murmured, without thinking.

“What?”

If he desired honesty from Jim, he should supply honesty himself. He placed his PADD on the nightstand. “If you will not confide in me, how am I to assume anything?” he said. “In the absence of evidence, I take the position of a friend, and assist you in any way that I can.”

Jim studied him, his frustration visibly fading. The last traces of it melted away with a sigh. “Fair enough. I want you to back off, you want me to confide. I can do that.” The uncomfortable stance he took leaning against the partition suggested otherwise, but he kept going. “I didn’t tell the Galapagos crew about Taylor and Lombard,” he said. “I did, but I didn’t, not really.”

“Jim, I would not have you force yourself to–”

“Shut up, I’m confiding. I’ve, uh… I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Sometimes I wake up.” He stopped and stared at the floor, and something about the way he held himself appeared timid and alone. “It’s always strange, without you there.”

Spock hesitated, weighing his options. He could direct the captain to sickbay, and most likely foster animosity between them. Or he could follow the implications of Jim’s wording and seize an opportunity to investigate further. “If you believe it would help, you are welcome here,” he said, shifting over on the bed.

Jim looked up sharply. “You’re serious?”

“I am always serious.” Spock raised an eyebrow and was disappointed that it did not induce a smile.

“Right.” Jim lingered near the partition, staring at the empty space beside Spock. “I really could use the sleep tonight,” he said, voice growing distant as he drew nearer. “I’ve got a date with Fitzpatrick tomorrow.” He grimaced and cautiously sat on the edge of Spock’s bed. He bounced a little, as though testing its deflective capabilities. His eyes darted to Spock, abruptly alert. “Are you sure?”

“I am.”

All the same, Spock was profoundly unsure of what to do once Jim stretched beneath the covers, and the lights were out. It was an entirely different experience from Sigma Nox. All was quiet, save for the constant hum of the ship’s power feeds and ventilation system. His stomach was full, and he was clean and comfortable and safe.

The bed was also considerably narrower than a typical frond sleeping mat.

Eventually Jim’s breathing stabilized and deepened, and Spock induced release of the proper chemicals to facilitate sleep. He was awakened three point five hours later by a muffled sound of distress.

“Jim?” he murmured. Hands clutched his arms, and a solid form pressed against him. “Lights to fifteen percent.”

“M’sorry. I just… bad dream.” Jim offered Spock a watery smile, which crumbled almost immediately. He ducked his head in apparent shame and buried his face into Spock’s neck, trembling.

“Was it related to Sigma Nox?”

“No.”

“Do you wish to discuss it?”

“No.” One point seven minutes later, as Spock searched in vain for a solution without a defined problem, Jim proceeded to contradict himself. “You died,” he murmured weakly. “I watched you die. I could see you, and I was trying to reach you, but I couldn’t. I wanted to touch you, but there was glass or something, so I couldn’t….” His fingers tightened around the fabric of Spock’s nightshirt.

It was difficult to think through the waves of grief that leapt across his still-tenuous shields. The dream must have been particularly vivid to incite such a powerful reaction. “Jim,” Spock reminded him gently, “I am alive.”

“But it almost happened. We came so close.” Jim shut his eyes and took several uneven, shuddering breaths. At a loss, Spock pulled him closer and rubbed a hand along his back, tracing the bumps of his vertebrae. Fortunately this appeared to soothe him, and Spock repeated the gesture until Jim quieted.

The sense of intimacy coupled with darkness began eliciting curious impulses within him. He imagined touching the hair that brushed his throat, combing his fingers through it. He imagined kissing Jim the human way, on the forehead, on the lips, until they were as close as they had been before coming home.

“I’m sorry,” Jim said at length, his voice heavy with exhaustion. “I can’t leave you alone. I’m trying, I try so hard, but I can’t fight ten battles at once.”

“I do not understand.” Spock’s heart rate increased at this confession despite his bewilderment.

“Makes two of us.”

He could not see Jim’s face given their current positions, and lacking that additional information was concerning. But Jim had already slipped back into sleep, tucked within Spock’s arms. He felt fragile, all wiry muscle and sharp bone with none of the softness he once had. The same as on the planet, perhaps worse. Spock resolved to speak with Dr. McCoy the next day.

His decision proved unnecessary, because morning was the breaking point.

Negotiations with Fitzpatrick were going poorly. Scott wanted a spare sensor array from the Defiant, one of their escort ships, explaining he could retrofit it to the Enterprise for repairs. Fitzpatrick exhibited skepticism beyond the point of logic and into the territory of being intentionally difficult.

Debate devolved into shouting, and Jim excused himself from the bridge the second the com link closed. Spock sensed something was wrong and followed him.

“Captain?” He entered the dark observation lounge.

Jim was sitting against the far wall, knees pulled up to his chest. His breathing was ragged, and his face shining with sweat.

“Jim.” Spock knelt at his side, cautiously touching his arm. He only flinched and closed his eyes. “Jim, are you all right? Can you hear me?”

“Can’t breathe,” he gasped. “Can’t breathe, Spock.”

“Jim, listen to me. You are on the Enterprise. You are safe.”

“Can’t... I can’t….”

Spock called in a medical emergency.

***

  

“Panic attack. Haven’t seen one of those since we picked up you two.” McCoy closed the curtain that separated Jim’s biobed from the rest of sickbay. The captain was under sedation, resting peacefully while Spock and McCoy experienced the opposite state of mind.

“That was my hypothesis,” Spock said. He prepared himself to provide additional details, but McCoy shooed him into his office.

“I was afraid of this,” he muttered as he shut the door.

“What do you mean, Doctor?”

McCoy hesitated, and Spock realized he might have just asked for a breach of patient confidentiality. The fact that McCoy kept talking anyway should have given him pause, but it did not. “You know that pheromone we’ve been studying? Turns out it gets conserved in fat tissue. There are tiny reservoirs all over Jim’s body,” McCoy said. “He’s got plenty of muscle built up, but he keeps shedding fat, thanks to stress. All it takes is a few lost grams to trigger one, which jolts his limbic system, and presto – more stress.”

Spock sank into an available chair to assimilate this information. For weeks now, possibly longer, Jim had been suffering from a chronic health issue, and Spock had done nothing but enable him. He wrestled his thoughts onto a more useful course. “Could this stem from some type of posttraumatic syndrome?”

“Maybe. It’s a vicious cycle now, regardless,” McCoy said, and a sudden burst of intensity gripped him. “Damn it, I warned him about this, but he never listens to me.”

Spock waited until the doctor’s attitude quieted before seeking clarification. “What were the treatments you explored?”

“Either major surgery and a shipload of unknowns, or getting back to a healthy BMI.” McCoy shrugged and began pacing the length of his desk. “Of course we picked option number two, but he keeps dodging me on follow-up. He’s got social obligations out the ears, and he fooled me into thinking… hell, I don’t know.” He stopped to glance out the office window. “I released him because the cure should have been simple, but nothing’s ever simple with Jim.”

“I presume you have spoken to him about this?” Spock followed his gaze to the curtain around Jim’s bed.

“Oh, sure. It’s always ‘eat more, Jim,’ and ‘yes, Bones,’ and then he doesn’t. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” McCoy gave Spock a searching, critical look. “He hasn’t told you anything, has he?”

“He has been experiencing nightmares,” Spock admitted, after a moment’s hesitation.

“He told you that?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

Spock thought about how to best phrase a response. Humans had an appalling number of expressions that were easily misconstrued. He conceded defeat after five point three seconds and settled for the most neutral possibility. “The captain slept in my quarters last night.”

McCoy’s face suggested Spock had just stated Jim was a Romulan spy. “What?”

“We slept in close proximity on Sigma Nox,” Spock said. “He accepted my offer that the arrangement continue to alleviate his insomnia.”

McCoy eyed him suspiciously and sat down on top of his desk. “Really?”

Spock stared at him. “Vulcans do not lie.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” McCoy frowned and fidgeted with an empty hypospray beside him. “You were all he had. Makes sense he trusts you so much.”

Spock had repeatedly been told he couldn’t understand humans if his life depended on it, many of those times by this very human, but he had a theory that seemed plausible enough to voice. “Doctor, are you jealous?”

“Of course I’m jealous, you green-blooded hobgoblin!” Without warning, McCoy fixed him in a glare that Spock, in spite of himself, found intimidating. “He was my best friend long before you came into the picture. Now he’s out of his head, and he won’t tell me anything, and you knew something but you’re as tightlipped as an Aldebaran shellmouth!”

“I apologize. I should have come to you sooner.” Spock bowed his head in capitulation. “I believed I was the only one Jim had been circumventing.”

“I thought you just said he slept in your damn room.”

“An anomaly following approximately three point six weeks of little significant interaction,” Spock said.

“Anomaly. More like the warning light before the crash,” McCoy grunted, and continued before Spock could ask for clarification. “The sneaky bastard knows we can tell,” he said grimly. “So it’s about ten times worse than he’s letting on. The man will bitch and moan all day over a hypospray, but saw off his leg and he insists he can run a marathon.”

“I am well aware.” Spock sat up straighter in his chair. “What options do we have?”

“We sure as hell can’t force-feed him. So we have to treat the stress,” McCoy gripped the edge of his desk and gazed at the ceiling in thought. “Talk therapy’s off the table. He’d never open up to a stranger. The neural neutralizer’s been under review by the ethics board since the Tantalus incident. Medical leave by itself won’t fix whatever harebrained coping strategies he must be using.”

“Anxiety medication?” Spock suggested.

“He’s allergic to half of them, and the other half he’d refuse on principle. Jim would never want to feel like he’s reliant on drugs.” McCoy rolled his eyes and paused for ten point eight seconds, at which point he shook his head. “Here’s the thing, Spock. You give me a man who thinks he’s a dolphin, and I have a pill that can cure him. But erasing legitimate personal trauma? Hell, that’s like the Grand Unified Theory for psychiatry. I doubt I’ll live to see it.”

Spock had witnessed McCoy treat so many incredible ailments, he had come to expect a cure in any circumstance. Facing his own medical naiveté was disheartening. “That is regrettable,” he said.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” McCoy snorted. He tapped a few buttons on his desk console. “Uhura came in here yesterday, by the way. She’s concerned about you working overtime.” A map of the human body flashed briefly on the screen, marked by dozens if not hundreds of red dots. “I’m sure Jim knows you’re picking up the slack. It must be killing him, but he can’t face the alternative.”

The doctor’s words were truer than he knew, and Spock could see quite clearly where this line of reasoning would lead. He could see every piece of evidence, yet did not wish to arrive at the logical conclusion. “He will adapt. He is an exceptional individual.”

“I’m not denying he’s exceptional. But everyone has their limits.” McCoy sighed, bowing over with the force of it. “I took an oath to my profession and Starfleet. I can’t just sit on my hands when he’s not fit for duty.”

Brittle silence ensued.

“My God, I just said it, didn’t I?” McCoy ran a shaking hand over his face. “Jim isn’t fit for duty. I mean, that’s my honest professional judgment, but still.”

Spock hesitated, but decided to trust the intuition he had built up over the months spent with Jim. He stood and made his way over to the liquor cabinet labeled ‘emergency supplies,’ extracting a particular beverage that he recalled the doctor favored. His hands were clumsy, and he almost dropped the tumblers.

“What am I gonna do, Spock?” McCoy dropped his forehead into his palm. “Drag him through a competency hearing? If he’s declared unfit, he’ll be lucky to spend the rest of his life as a shipyard tech. Another statistic for all those ‘captaincy breeds crazy’ studies.”

“There are always alternatives.” Spock handed him a tumbler and filled it halfway.

“You’re starting to sound like him. All that nonsense about not believing in no-win scenarios.” McCoy shot Spock an expectant look, but his posture remained slack with resignation.

“I am simply stating one of the fundamental principles behind scientific innovation. A principle we applied frequently to survive.” Spock stared into his empty tumbler. He watched the web of light cast by its facets shift, and he believed what he said. He had to. “A solution exists to every problem.”

McCoy grunted and downed his brandy. He took the bottle from Spock and poured another dose. “One day. That’s all the time I can give you. Please, just find something.”

Spock left sickbay with a new sense of purpose. He noted their course, examined their repair timeframe, reviewed available literature and Starfleet privacy laws. He called up the message sent by his father and composed a second reply.

***

He met Jim in his quarters, haphazardly packing civilian clothes into a suitcase. Jim’s method of using his entire body to close the overstuffed case did not appear efficacious.

“Can’t believe you two pulled this on me,” he grunted between half-jumps. “Well, Bones I can believe, but you?” He gave up and latched the case over the protruding fabric.

“If you had folded the garments–”

“Don’t even.” Jim wheeled around and pointed at him accusingly. “Isn’t this lying to Command?”

“Not precisely,” Spock said, squaring his shoulders. He felt the need to appear exceptionally organized in the midst of Jim’s chaos. “I require a low-humidity environment for the fullest potential recovery of damaged lung tissues. You require a degree of weight gain best facilitated by off-duty rest. New Vulcan is the closest planet upon which both of these conditions can be met.”

“Yeah, but Bones is only reporting a physical issue,” Jim said, rolling his eyes. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the worst of my problems.”

“Your condition does not cause aggressive or narcissistic behavior. Therefore it does not pose a class one danger to the ship and its crew, and full medical disclosure is at the discretion of the CMO.”

Jim ignored him, pawing through a second drawer, bunching various uniforms to the side. “Fitzpatrick’s going to be all over my case. Three weeks to what, fatten up? No way he won’t get suspicious.”

“One week,” Spock corrected him. “Considering that two of those weeks the Enterprise will be docked at Starbase Twenty-nine for repairs.”

“If you say so,” the captain grunted. “Medical leave, my ass.”

“Medical leave is preferable to a competency hearing,” Spock said, attempting to diffuse Jim’s vehement attitude. He wondered if he had made a mistake in doing this, overestimated the rapport between them. McCoy claimed he had confidence in Spock’s ability to successfully employ ‘that Vulcan tranquility nonsense’ to ‘sort Jim’s head out,’ but Spock was not so certain. “I understand I may not be the person you wish to spend–”

“Don’t say that.” Jim’s expression grew pained, although he kept fishing through storage compartments without interruption. “It’s not your fault I’m like this. I just hate that things keep happening to me, and I can’t control them.”

Spock took a seat at Jim’s desk and resigned himself to confusion. The captain had protested and complained endlessly since McCoy informed him of their plan, but the way he packed was indistinguishable from enthusiasm. Spock watched him tear open yet another drawer and triumphantly extract a faded shirt bearing the Starfleet Academy logo. His victory did not seem worth the amount of clothing scattered around the room.

Jim stared at his overflowing suitcase for a moment, and stuffed the shirt into a satchel. Then he ceased moving for first time in three point seven minutes. His voice changed, became simultaneously lighter and more cautious, a curious tonal paradox. “Maybe we can visit the other you.”

Spock had already investigated the possibility. “Ambassador Selek is currently engaged on a covert diplomatic mission into Romulan territory.”

“Oh.” Jim froze midway through fastening a clasp. “Are you sure?”

“Reasonably sure. If you wish to contact him, I am certain a secure channel could be arranged.”

“No. No, that’s okay. I just thought, if he was around….” Jim scratched the back of his head and looked somewhat lost. He closed the satchel and stared at his hands.

Spock felt somewhat lost as well. He was losing himself to the man standing before him. He had been for months now, centimeter by centimeter, so slow that what had felt like mere steps had become a vast distance. The knowledge both terrified and awed him. He had been stranded on Sigma Nox as a Vulcan, and emerged as something different, neither Vulcan nor human, walking a thin line between them once again. This time his balance was much improved.

But Jim needed him for the type of support one survivor could provide another, for a level head and a skillful teacher of ‘Vulcan tranquility nonsense,’ and that reliance made it difficult to define their association. Was it professional codependence, an unusual friendship, or something altogether different? Regardless, Jim was not himself, so any categorization at this time would be presumptuous.

It was a matter best reserved for an indeterminate future.

“Let me guess.” Jim lifted his gaze and dragged Spock out of his illogical reflections. “You packed last night like a responsible person, and your stuff is already in the shuttle.”

“I did.” Spock stood, nearly driving the chair into the divider behind him in his haste. “And it is. Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

***

“Dirty look, three o’clock,” Jim muttered under his breath. “Man, Uhura said it was bad, but I wasn’t expecting the constant death glares.”

Spock had spent the better part of the afternoon explaining a culture born out of species-wide trauma, and he was beginning to lose patience with either Jim or said culture. “If you are referring to the general trend toward conservatism–”

“The Second Awakening bullshit. All of it,” Jim said. “They disabled my universal translator, for God’s sake. Look me in the eye and tell me they aren’t flirting with xenophobia.” Spock could not, as he found himself in private agreement. He knew the fervor for revival, had engaged in it himself, yet its costs were more apparent to him now than six or eight months prior.

“I mean, I thought you had a stick up your ass, but these guys–”

“Quiet,” Spock said, as the doors began to swing inward. “Do not speak.”

“Heard you the first dozen times.”

The open portal revealed the Solkar clan’s reception hall, vast but plain, constructed from unpolished gray stone. The windows were narrow, and the ceiling in shadow. Two armored guards framed the center of the hall, halfway to the dais that commanded the space.

“Who petitions T’Pau?” the guard on their right demanded, lirpa shining at his side.

“Spock, son of Sarek.” Spock saluted the woman seated above them, bedecked in ceremonial robes. He recalled informing her once as a child that he found her favored hairstyle illogical, and that thought assisted him in speaking now. “This is James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise.”

“I was pleased to hear of thy reappearance, Spock.” Her voice carried in the chamber, the echoes lending it an imposing, absurdly omniscient quality. “What is thy purpose here?”

“Under Section Five, Article Two of the New Vulcan Accords, I am permitted one non-Vulcan guest per year,” he said.

“Indeed.” T’Pau raised a critical eyebrow as she studied them. “Continue.”

“We seek permission to stay on the lands presented to my father for three Earth weeks,” Spock said. “I will accompany the captain there and teach him the ways of Surak to facilitate his recovery from our ordeal.”

“An interesting endeavor.” Her tone implied she thought it was a futile one. “Thou hast consulted with thy father, I presume?”

“I have. He is occupied on Earth, but he sends his regards.”

“And does thou vouch for the human’s character?”

“I do.” Spock glanced briefly at Jim, who had kept his eyes on the floor in an admirable display of restraint the entire time. “Will you grant my request?”

T’Pau’s demeanor was impenetrable. Spock experienced mild difficulty breathing, and Jim’s hands clenched and unclenched in his peripheral vision. Seven point two seconds passed in silence.

“I will permit this.”

Spock consciously prevented his shoulders from slumping. “You honor me, and you have my thanks.” He saluted her, and Jim mimicked the gesture perfectly. She nodded, presumably granting them permission to leave, which they took.

“Spock.” T’Pau’s voice bolted his feet to the floor.

Jim stopped as well and looked to him, then the exit, then back to him, probably reluctant to stand alone in the public atrium. Spock nodded for him to go, hoping it would be enough to reassure him for a few minutes. Jim returned the nod and departed.

Spock pivoted slowly and attempted to appear as composed as possible. He had spent far too much time away from his father’s species; he found himself scoping out T’Pau’s face for any sign of an expression.

She waited until the doors slammed shut, marking Jim’s departure, before she spoke. “Thou hast strayed from the teachings of our masters, Spock.”

“I have developed a difference of opinion,” he said. She surveyed him neutrally, an unspoken demand for an explanation. “Perhaps insisting that the same path apply to all individuals is fundamentally illogical.” T’Pau was a reformer, but a cautious one, and he knew she would not think less of him for his dissent.

“Perhaps,” she conceded. Her gaze lifted, rested on the doors, then returned to him. “The human harbors intense feelings toward thee.” Her tone was stern, but otherwise impossible to read.

Spock mirrored her piercing gaze. “I am aware.”

This was not what she had been looking for, but Spock had no intention of giving her that response of his own volition. She leaned back in her chair and studied him. “Certainly thou knows firsthand that humans are a fickle species.”

“There are always outliers,” Spock said.

“Outliers,” she murmured. “Like thy mother and father.” She added him to that category with the force of her stare.

The way she looked at him now bothered him. He could have dealt with aversion, displeasure, any number of emotions that even the best Vulcans might let slip in such an situation. But not pity. He did not want her pity.

He decided he would not tolerate this unwelcome commentary any longer. “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” he said, as an explanation or a pointed reminder, he wasn’t certain. He turned to leave without another word. The guards looked on, motionless as statues.

She called after him when he had almost reached the doors. “Live long and prosper, Spock.”

Spock took the handle and hesitated. “Peace and long life, T’Pau.”

He stepped out into the sunlight, where Jim was waiting.




Chapter Text


Kirk

Jim felt like a plant left out in the sun too long. Even worse than that, really. There were two suns here, twice the wilting power. Count on Vulcans to find a new home planet even more unpleasant than the first one.

“Breathe in.”

Easier said than done, he thought vaguely. The mid-afternoon heat was oppressive, even under the gazebo, and the brazier about a meter away lightly cooked his face. The stone slabs beneath him forced his posture into perfection. A drop of sweat crawled toward one of his closed eyes, and he resisted the urge to wipe it away.

“Thy mind is the desert,” the smooth, monotone voice continued. “The surface is blank, devoid of thorn tree and brush, pretense and emotion. There are no clouds in the sky, nothing but the suns.”

He could recite all this from memory. Even so, he never minded hearing Spock talk. His voice was like the shade, dark and soothing, and Jim really, really shouldn’t go there right now.

“Imagine thy tethers,” Spock said. “Hold them in thy mind.”

Jim called them up in a miserable line, one by one. He forced himself to keep his distance, see them objectively in the dark desert behind his eyelids. No reaction, just observation. This part was getting easier.

“Remember thy pulse.” Spock broke the script with a reminder.

He suppressed a burst of frustration. For what felt like the thousandth time he focused on the tips of his index fingers where they pressed together until he could feel the gentle quiver there. He always forgot this part, and it always made him want to kick himself when he did.

Not to say he wasn’t making progress. Over the past week of his Vulcan meditation crash course, he had confessed his tethers – all the things impeding clarity of thought – and Spock had guided him through the process of logically dismantling each one.

I killed a man.

I couldn’t save them.

I still miss the bulbweed.

The other you put all kinds of incredible and disturbing things in my head, and now I’m hopelessly in love with you.

All right, so he didn’t confess that last one.

Spock’s voice continued, speaking over the gentle hum of the brazier. “Each is insignificant,” he said. “The past cannot be changed. The future cannot be predicted. The only appropriate course of action is to act upon the present, according to the principles of logic.”

“Acknowledged,” Jim said automatically. He knew what Spock said was true. He just had to make himself believe it.

“Regret nothing and dread nothing. So sayeth Sarek.”

“So sayeth Sarek,” Jim echoed, and for just an instant, it happened. He sank into his body and was absolutely unshakable. But he made the mistake of getting too excited, and that fast, it was gone. He fumbled for awhile, disappointed at himself, but then realized he had no idea how long he’d been focusing before Spock started the wrap-up ritual.

“Did you find this session productive?”

He opened his eyes and looked at Spock, noticed idly that his hair was getting longer again. That was all it took for his most stubborn tether to rear its dumb, distracting head.

“Yeah,” he said.

It wasn’t really a lie. After all, the new memories had stopped coming, thanks to a healthy dose of Vulcan zen, a settled stomach, and snacking almost constantly. He was up a whole kilo after a week. No weight loss, no pheromones, no random intrusions from another universe. It took Bones lecturing him after his breakdown to make the connection; the limbic system was responsible for memory formation and storage. Jim never did like anatomy class.

The only trouble was the sizable library already built up. But without the old Spock around, he was on his own with that. If he could ignore it on Sigma Nox, surely with enough practice, he could suppress it the same way Vulcans suppressed their emotions. And thanks to a sex drive that was galaxies away for all he could tell, his feelings were stupidly juvenile, so innocent and saccharine he hated dwelling on them anyway. It shouldn’t be a problem shutting them down.

He followed Spock out of the gazebo and up the hill, which seemed twice as tall as it did coming down. Sarek’s villa squatted at the top, tucked in the shade of an ic’tan tree grove. It was made out of fused dirt bricks and local shale, and blended smoothly into the landscape. The roof peaked over each room, although the floor plan inside was based on human houses – a preference Sarek had developed thanks to his late wife. Like the surrounding scrubland, it was never the same color twice. Depending on the moods of the sky, it could be anything from electric peach to dull brown to warm orange. Jim had thought it looked strange at first, but it was growing on him.

The cool indoor air probably had something to do with that. He stretched in the foyer and slumped against the wall, sighing as the rough brick sapped the heat from his skin. He grabbed his towel off the coat hook to wipe the sweat out of his eyes, and Spock set the brazier down and disappeared into the kitchen.

It was easy, living with him again. Jim forced himself to keep his distance on the ship, knowing he would lean on Spock, and not trusting himself to act professional when he did. He had failed on all three counts. But here, without the thousand minor pressures of command weighing on him, he wasn’t afraid to be around Spock. He could put all of his focus into holding back, distracting himself, and smothering the thousand minor pressures he shouldn’t have.

Spock pressed a glass of water into Jim’s hands as he crossed the foyer, on his way to the study. Jim almost held up two fingers in response before giving himself a good mental bitchslap. He silently vowed to try harder.

***

He woke up trapped in a twisted, tempting fog of clicking legs and jaws. Calm, he thought determinedly, his mantras drifting to him through the void. Examine. Evaluate. It didn’t take him long to decide that the sounds didn’t make sense, they couldn’t be real. The past was the past. Then there was only silence.

He climbed out of bed, inordinately proud of himself. The first real nightmare in four days, and he kicked its metaphorical ass. Maybe he was turning a corner. Then again, the Sigma Nox nightmares were always the easier ones.

He almost looked for a light switch in the guest bathroom out of habit, then parted the curtains instead. The only power here came from some solar collectors, enough to run communications and appliances. But there were no lights except the meditation brazier and a few oil lamps, in deference to an old Vulcan tradition. Something about ‘places of refuge’ and natural lighting, Spock had said. This was a vacation home, an escape from the city, so a lot of things were simple here.

Spock was intent on a data screen in his improvised lab when Jim passed him on his way to the kitchen. He murmured a quick good morning and got a sheepish, belated response halfway down the hall.

He synthesized four pieces of toast slathered in butter, three eggs, and orange juice. He loved food, but his body dealt with stress by getting nauseous and pretending food was optional. Being able to enjoy this again was nice.

He skimmed through the daily news feeds while he attacked the meal. One of the alerts set up for his name flashed, a report from a tabloid. He almost didn’t read it, but curiosity got the best of him.

“Inside sources tell us that Starfleet’s two golden boys of the Enterprise are currently on extended leave at an undisclosed location. Captain Kirk and Commander Spock went missing on the fringe planet Sigma Nox on June tenth and were recovered on August fourteenth. Speculation abounds as to the purpose of this current excursion. Some have proposed that the captain is not fit to command. Some say there’s a secret mission underway. As always, our reporters will keep looking for answers here at the Martian Examiner.”

The first guess stung, and the second was just plain stupid. Jim removed the alert just in case the other rags caught on.

He read the latest repair details from Scotty, and a message from Bones, who sent a more casual update every few days. Jim crunched his toast and enjoyed his ship by proxy, the doctor’s southern drawl narrating in his head.

Apparently Uhura had gotten the entire mess singing the Ballad of Drunk Klunk yesterday, a Klingon-based parody that involved screaming battle cries at the end of every chorus. Bones also noted that Longclaw continued to excel as a security intern in training. Four practice missions, never incapacitated once. He quipped that had to be some kind of department record.

He mentioned his latest technical findings on the effects of the bulbweed toward the end, but Jim couldn’t make heads or tails of it this early. For a man who always insisted he was a simple country doctor, he sure didn’t mind throwing around terms like ‘hippocampus disruption’ and ‘LHPA axis.’

Jim brought Spock some toast before he went out for his daily run, knowing full well Spock hadn’t eaten yet. His offering was received with a distracted murmur, but Spock stopped him before he got to the doorway.

“I have something to show you.”

“Something you’re working on?” Jim backtracked across the room.

“Data from Sigma Nox,” Spock said. “I brought an assortment of natural samples when we escaped. I have been analyzing their genetic material with Mr. Sulu.”

“I see.” Jim caught his arm trying to creep around Spock’s shoulders. He clenched his hand on the back of an empty chair instead. “Find anything interesting?”

“Indeed. The cattlebugs and almost every other organism share the same evolutionary history, the same fundamental code.” Spock switched the console screen to a sequence comparison map, and a diagram of the alien genetic material. Then he pressed a button, and a completely different looking molecule appeared. He looked up at Jim, eyes gleaming in the soft morning light. “The bulbweed does not.”

“No way.” Jim stared at the screen. “I was right?”

“That appears to be the case.”

Jim shook his head and grinned in disbelief. He wanted to run laps around the room and throw victory punches at the air, but reminded himself that wasn’t something adults were supposed to do. “That’s incredible.”

“In addition, the cattlebugs possess the genes for proteins commonly associated with advanced brain development,” Spock continued, passing him a PADD.

“They sure aren’t using them anymore,” Jim said, thumbing through the results. He shifted his weight and frowned at Spock. “That’s been bothering me, by the way. Why would their fleet attack us? Hell, how do they even have a fleet?”

“Perhaps they colonized elsewhere, but still guard the home planet.”

“But why? The home planet is ruined for them.”

Spock’s lips pursed the way they always did when something irritated him. It was certainly not the most distracting thing Jim had ever seen. “I do not know.”

Jim peered at the console screen again. Spock had switched back to the genetic analysis of various organisms, matched with pictures the Galapagos team took. Jim’s eyes lingered on the cattlebug. After a week or so on Sigma Nox, they had become ordinary, almost like furniture. Now he imagined them communicating with each other, bustling around the bodies of their ancestors, or their shuttleport in the mountains.

He still wasn’t convinced they were responsible for the attacks. Sure, their ships had an unmistakable aesthetic, and sure, it was their planet, but his brain couldn’t reconcile the builders of something incredible like the dome with a mindlessly aggressive species.

“Are we going to report this?” He handed the PADD back to Spock. “Now that we have some hard evidence, I mean.”

“I am writing a supplemental,” Spock said. “It concerns the invasive nature of the plant.”

“What about the cattlebugs?”

“I will postulate on their intelligence as part of the ecological impact analysis.”

“Let me guess. Any other speculations are unfounded,” Jim said.

“By conventional standards, yes.” Spock leaned back in his chair and swiveled to face Jim more directly. “We have little proof of the things we witnessed, and so I possess a great many theories that would be nothing more than storytelling to an outside party.”

“Example?”

Dark, thoughtful eyes settled on a far corner of the room. “The bipeds are somehow associated with the bulbweed. Perhaps responsible for its introduction. That is why they were depicted on the mural.”

Jim considered that for a few seconds. It sounded as good as anything to him. Better than most explanations he could come up with, and there were plenty of examples on the books. Usually smugglers, bypassing planetary customs and setting off a plague of something unpleasant. “But we can’t support it,” he reminded himself.

“We cannot.” Spock turned back to the console and called up a document in progress, probably the supplemental. He didn’t touch the keypad though, only staring at the screen.

Jim looked around the room idly, wondering if he should leave Spock to his thoughts, when something out the window caught his eye. A short rock wall, half-hidden by trees, the same dull color as the hills behind it. Spock hadn’t included the back of the villa in the tour last week, and Jim hadn’t bothered exploring there.

“What’s that?” He pointed, and Spock glanced up from the console.

“The garden,” Spock said, after a pause. “My father said he has not yet planted anything.”

“Maybe we can do that, while we’re here,” Jim suggested. “Want to go scope it out?”

“I would not object to some ‘fresh air,’” Spock said, in the careful and teasing tone he applied to human idioms.

They stepped outside, made their way out back, and found a gate in the wall. This area of the ic’tan grove was sparser, and there were a few open sections of ground marked off with red twine and stakes. Some were in sunlight, some in partial shade, each with a tiny irrigation control station installed at the edge. They strolled aimlessly for awhile, inspecting the layout, and Jim could envision a respectable harvest coming into season here one day. Then something gray and oddly shaped emerged between sandy brown ic’tan trunks.

As they drew closer, Jim realized it was an Earth-style headstone, framed by two bushy green plants. The letters on it were Standard, in a plain but elegant font. Amanda Grayson, it read, and on the line beneath: beloved wife, beloved mother. Jim and Spock stopped together and stared.

“My father must have….” Spock trailed off, and started again. “I was not aware that he did this.”

Jim didn’t know what to say. Maybe there wasn’t anything to say. He went to touch Spock’s shoulder, stopped himself, and decided it was okay after all. Spock’s frame tensed beneath his hand, so he only let it linger for a second. He hoped that Spock didn’t mind him seeing something this private.

“I considered kolinahr,” Spock blurted out suddenly. The look on his face afterward suggested he hadn’t meant to say it.

That word sent an awful chill through Jim. He tried to decide if he could plausibly know about kolinahr or not, and settled on the negative. “What’s that?” It was hard acting puzzled when his chest ached for Spock at the admission.

“The complete and permanent purging of all emotion.”

“After the Narada?”

“Before as well, but it was simply one option among many at the time.” Spock looked away briefly, out through the grove and over the arid hills. “After, it was a more serious consideration.”

“That seems drastic,” Jim said carefully. “Why were you considering it?”

“I had a great deal of questions that could not be answered. Concerns over my control, as you well know. Concerns regarding the nature of emotional pain.” Spock reached out and traced his fingertips along the top of the curved stone. “I thought, what has emotion brought me? What good can there be in feeling for the death of my people, the loss of my mother?”

“Do you see it now?” Jim ventured.

“I would hesitate to call it good,” Spock said. “Valuable, perhaps, but not good.”

“Valuable.” Jim mulled over the word. “I think I agree with you, but I’m not sure what you mean.”

Spock adopted the pose he used when reporting things on the bridge, but his voice was much softer. “Logic and emotion are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “Of course, the former should outweigh the latter in the vast majority of cases where they conflict, but they can also exist in accord with one another. Reinforce one another.”

“And that’s why it’s… valuable to feel?”

“Yes,” Spock said. His eyes were trained on the ground, but his face tilted ever so slightly toward Jim. “I am also beginning to suspect that emotion brings a certain measure of richness to one’s life that logic alone cannot supply.”

Convergent evolution, Jim thought dimly. The two Spocks had somehow reached the same place, but they got there at different times, and in different ways. For a moment he watched his first officer, awestruck by the vast cosmic randomness that had seen fit to place Spock and his counterpart on parallel paths. The silence between them was broken only by a teresh-kah bird’s call, a transplant from Vulcan like the man beside him.

Jim touched one of the plants framing the headstone to ground himself. He noted the leaf’s shape and frowned. “Tomatoes?” he guessed, mystified.

“They were her favorite food,” Spock said. He looked at Jim, his brow furrowing slightly. “Has my father misunderstood the human custom of growing plants around a memorial site?”

“No,” Jim said, grinning. “I think he got it right.”

***

Jim squinted at the morning light and shut his eyes. He thought he had closed the curtains last night, but it wouldn’t be the first time he forgot. He rolled onto his back, away from the painful brightness, and let his retinas recover.

A half-forgotten fragment of a nightmare surfaced. One of the worst memories, one he just couldn’t seem to expel. Something about being trapped in a body that wasn’t his, fundamentally different and wrong. Watching his own body march around without him, saying and doing terrible things. But Spock was there, hands framing the nape of his neck, helping him find his way home.

Jim sighed and nestled deeper in the pillows, burrowing into the delicious scent of Vulcan laundry detergent. Spock was always there, as comfortable and warm as the sheets that surrounded him. Both of their faces were clear in his mind, but the one Jim knew best stood out now.

He was striking, in his own weird, uptight way. The first time Jim saw him during the Kobayashi Maru hearing, he had been surprised the infamously strict Vulcan professor was the exact opposite of the hobbling alien prune he had imagined. And Jim always found intelligence attractive and puzzles intriguing, so it made sense that he thought Spock was a little of both. He remembered the time he caught Spock washing in a stream on Sigma Nox, waist-deep in the water, his tattered uniform folded off to the side.

All right, a lot of both.

Heat crept into his groin, and his penis stirred faintly. A flash flood of emotions surged through him, one after the other, from disbelief to anxiety to joy. Proverbial bulls in a china shop, knocking over everything and making a beautiful mess. Not quite trusting this development, he draped an arm over his stomach, teased the side of his waist with his fingertips. His hips arched automatically, and he felt himself swell, and realized this wasn’t some kind of false alarm.

Jim dropped headfirst into pure bliss. It felt so good, so familiar. Abandoned neurons were flickering to life again. He was starting to worry he would never get this back, never purge enough tension from his system, and yet here he was.

He pushed a hand into his briefs and took himself in a fist, just holding his stiffening cock, drinking up every shiver of feeling. He let go and cradled his balls, and damn, that was incredible. Like sparks skipping across his skin. The faint pressure of his briefs felt good, but he shimmied his hips out of them anyway, and the brush of smooth sheets felt even better.

He moved his palm back up the shaft and slowly circled the tip with his thumb, already slick with precome. His head tipped back and his mouth fell open at the spike of pleasure. God, he’d missed this. Right after food, he’d missed this the most. Maybe more than food.

He moved his hand, a gentle squeeze, a practiced stroke. Definitely more than food. Everything felt slightly tight and uncomfortable, but the pleasure more than made up for it. He cautiously slid his foreskin over the tip, then back down so he could touch that spot under the head with a fingertip. It was so oversensitive he gasped.

“Jim….” Spock’s voice, like a whisper from a dream. It could have come from any one of about five memories that Jim buried regularly during meditation sessions. Maybe the one where Spock was riding him slow, taking his time, waiting for Jim to break.

“Jim.” Louder this time. Most definitely not in his head.

His eyes flew open, and an orange ceiling greeted him. This wasn’t the guest room. Because last night he had a nightmare, and staggered here in a moment of emotional relapse, and this was most definitely not his room.

He turned his head to see Spock standing in the bathroom doorway, wearing a robe and holding a glass of water.

Jim shot up in a blind terror, yanking the blankets around him. He gathered them into a pile to conceal as much as physically possible, stammering like an idiot. “Sorry. God, I’m sorry. I, uh… I forgot I was…”

“Understood.” Spock inched toward the door to the hallway, eyes trained on his feet. “I apologize for intruding.”

“No, no, it’s your damn room.” Jim searched for something, anything that could explain himself. “It’s just, I haven’t been able to, not since….” He laughed, a pure nervous reflex. “So I wasn’t paying attention. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t.”

“I have some conception.” Spock’s voice was clipped, strangely low. He grabbed the door handle and looked halfway back over his shoulder. “The fact that you are capable of arousal is likely a sign of emotional improvement.”

Then he was gone, and the door swung shut behind him.

Jim swore into the silence. A helping of humiliation like he hadn’t been served since the Kobayashi Maru kicked his ass twice, and he was still hard. It was like his body couldn’t understand Spock wouldn’t come back any second, sans robe. His cock jerked at the mental image, and he groaned, scrambling out of bed.

He staggered to the bathroom, tore open the shower door, and tripped out of his briefs. The water option was supposed to be reserved for ritual cleansings or some other weird Vulcan thing, but he picked it anyway. He meant to hit the cold setting, but his finger slipped, and he couldn’t make himself change it once the warm water started pouring over him.

He leaned into the spray and breathed deliberately, clinging to his mantras. Calm. Examine. Evaluate. I am stronger than my tethers.

None of them were working. That was when the smell of fragrant spice and smoky incense undertones wafted over him. He dug his nails into his palms reflexively. Spock had just been in here, after all. He was surrounded by the man’s soaps, his towels, his alien scent. It turned out bolting for the nearest shower wasn’t his best idea ever.

The delicious ache in his groin demanded acknowledgement. His cock was heavy between his legs, and his resolve slipping away. It had been too long. He couldn’t pass this up.

He surrendered, and all the meticulous barriers he’d built collapsed at once. He was flooded with impressions, sensations, all the things he was supposed to ignore. Flashes of olive skin and quiet, hard-earned moans, of being pinned while that tense moment right on the edge was stretched out until he begged.

So close. The blood roared through his head, and every drop of water that hit him transformed into a teasing bite, the scrape of fingernails, the soothing graze of lips. He bit his lip to muffle himself, but he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. It was too intense. He came with a broken cry, doubled over against the wall.

He floated in the aftermath, half numb and half gone, watching the evidence wash down the drain.

Jim was no stranger to the occasional bout of existential dread post-orgasm, but he was never much for guilt. He didn’t have the background for it, the shaming parents or religious upbringing, or whatever it took. So the crushing regret that crept into his skull threw him off. He braced both hands on the tile wall as an ugly reality tapped him on the shoulder.

This was bad. If his erotic itch was finally back, he was screwed, and not in the fun way. Jim had a better chance of slaying a female mantis with a toothpick than controlling what went on in his head when he jerked off, and his head was absorbed in exactly the wrong thing. Which meant he couldn’t shake the memories, couldn’t set them aside anymore. No matter how hard he tried, he’d regress every time.

Water dripped into his eyes, and thick clouds of steam curled around him. He had no right to inflict his baggage on Spock, to drag another person into the bizarre and unfamiliar reality in his head. But that was exactly what he had just done, and what he could easily do again without even trying. Spock was finally coming to terms with his emotions, and the last thing he needed was a half-crazed, lust-stricken captain in his bed.

Unless, of course, he’d welcome it.

No, Jim chided himself. Sure, Spock was affectionate with him, but Jim was affectionate with a lot of people and it didn’t mean anything. For all he knew, Spock was humoring him out of a perfectly logical attempt to accommodate a friend’s strange human tendencies. Humoring him to help him recover, because recently Jim had been a needy sonovabitch.

But it was too late. The idea was unleashed now. Already he was looking back, doubting himself, dissecting the tiniest interactions. How Spock smiled at him with only his eyes. The way he reacted sometimes when Jim touched him, however innocuously; a pause and a slight tilt of his head, like he was doing a mental double take.

Was it possible?

It’s possible, the old Spock’s voice echoed through him, and that made him angry. Shut up, he thought. It’s you doing these things to me. Not him.

And that was the key, really.

The water turned cold, so Jim shut it off and stood there, dripping and sick to his stomach. Hell, what if he wasn’t attracted to Spock at all, just conditioned that way because of things that had never happened in this universe?

Logically speaking, he couldn’t trust anything he felt, and Spock couldn’t trust him. He was violating Spock, knowing personal things about him without his consent. He was operating with a planet-sized load of wishful thinking strapped to his back. Cheating them both out of an honest friendship.

This was too much for him to handle, and he’d let it go on for selfish reasons. It was time to look into other options. He had a whole planet full of telepaths at his disposal, and he’d just have to swallow his pride and take what he could get.

He reluctantly commandeered one of Spock’s spare robes, went to the bedroom com panel, and searched for a contact. Waited, bouncing his leg and drumming the wall with his fingers.

“Sorry, Doctor.” He addressed the sleepy-eyed man who appeared on the screen. “I know it’s early for you.”

“Captain?” M’Benga scratched his head, squinting in the viewscreen light half a planet away. “What’s going on?”

“Please tell me you’re still planetside tomorrow.”

“I am, sir. One more lecture Thursday night, then I’m rendezvousing with the Enterprise on her way to Deneva.”

“Awesome.” Jim’s entire body went slack with relief. “I need you to pull a few strings for me.”

***

“It’s just to check that I’m ‘making progress,’ whatever that means.” Jim leaned on the kitchen table, feigning disinterest while Spock studied his PADD.

“Dr. McCoy desires a second medical opinion, I presume?”

“Yeah. A less biased party. And M’Benga’s still here at a conference, so….”

Spock scanned the medical summons a second time. “Perhaps I should accompany you.”

“You stay here,” Jim insisted. “I’m meeting him at the central station. He knows his way around. And you’ve got research.” He used the same tone he applied to casual orders.

Subconscious influence or not, Spock nodded and agreed to drop him off after breakfast.

The transporter networks still weren’t complete in many areas, so it took four hours to get from the villa to the capital Halek by maglev. Jim pretended to read on the short sandskimmer ride to the station. Spock hadn’t said anything about earlier that morning, but Jim couldn’t look him in the eye without thinking about the sheets and borrowed robe he had forgotten to hang outside to dry before they left. Or without his heart beating him to death from the inside out.

“I will see you tomorrow,” Spock said, before Jim could escape the sandskimmer.

Jim hesitated, one foot outside the vehicle. He couldn’t describe what he felt if someone held a phaser to his head and demanded it. Everything contradicted itself, and nothing made sense, and a small but vocal part of him believed this was an eccentric goodbye.

“See you tomorrow,” he said.

He boarded the maglev, flashing a freshly issued medical pass at the apprehensive Vulcan officials. He claimed a window seat and shoved his travel bag underneath. Along the way, his compartment got more and more crowded with pointy-eared, aloof passengers.

It wasn’t hard for Jim to find amusement at first, mainly because he could understand Vulcan, thanks to hacking his disabled universal translator. Some of them used archaic or strange dialects, but he caught the gist of most of the talk going on around him. He felt like a secret operative working undercover to find out exactly how boring they all were. He always expected their conversations would be laced with random brilliance, but like any other species, ninety percent of what they talked about was mundane. Rescheduled lectures, the best place to get a meal. The weather.

That is, until they noticed him. Then they started discussing the reasons a human might be wandering around on their otherwise flawlessly logical planet. Many obviously recognized him, staring or murmuring to one another, but none of them acknowledged him. Eventually he got bored and settled back, watching the landscape blur past. Steppes turned to sand dunes, then back to something more like the American southwest before they hit the city outskirts.

He stepped off the maglev platform and into the afternoon heat and activity of the New Vulcan capital. He didn’t like being out in public without Spock. It felt too much like walking into the wrong classroom when everyone was taking a critical exam. He debated making a beeline for a teashop, just to get out of the suns, but he checked his watch first. Half an hour until his appointment. He decided it couldn’t hurt to be early, and he set off for the Solkar clan’s complex.

The decision turned out to be a good one, because he got stopped four times and asked for his papers. He made it to the complex with about a minute to spare. The guards who saw him first waved him through right away. They knew he was coming. Fortunately, as one of only five non-Vulcan doctors in Starfleet who served his residency on Old Vulcan, M’Benga had some serious connections despite the insular climate.

The reception chamber was just as gloomy and cavernous as he remembered, and T’Pau just as regal. She had a different bizarre hairstyle today, like a coiled snake on top of her head, but she wore it like a crown.

“I had expected to hear from thee, Kirk,” she said, and Jim didn’t doubt it. “Thy Doctor M’Benga informs me thou hast a favor to ask.”

He squared his shoulders and summoned up his best diplomat’s voice. “I need to see a priestess.”

She looked at him in an awful, calculating way that made him feel two inches tall. It lasted far longer than he was comfortable with. “For what purpose?”

“That’s between me and whoever will see me.”

Maybe he impressed her because he stood his ground. At least, that was what he hoped when she stood and swept out of the room without another word. The door behind the dais slammed shut in her wake.

He waited alone in the massive, empty reception chamber. After a minute or so he shuffled toward one of the statues of an ancient deity, a fearsome-looking thing with a le-matya head. A relic of the past, already gathering dust in its new home, but Jim knew that fierce spirit was alive and well in the Vulcan heart. He had seen that in two universes.

One universe even more than the other, he thought. Although truthfully, the whole pon farr thing had come to him in fragments, and he still couldn’t understand it. Either it meant Spock tried to kill him, or screwed him for three days straight. Maybe it was a failure of creative thinking on Jim’s part, but those goals seemed mutually exclusive. In any case, those memories fit well with the brutal statue. They didn’t fit so well with his shame-afflicted brain.

Finally T’Pau returned, carrying herself with stately, gliding steps, and Jim dashed to look like he was waiting where she had left him. “T’Kova is an ambassador to Earth, as well as a priestess,” she said, without taking her seat. “She will serve thee.”

Jim tried not to let all the air leave his lungs at once. “Okay. When can I meet her?”

“I communicated thy need. She will see thee now.”

“Now?” His voice came out like a squeak. He had set aside almost two days for this, and never expected to get results so quickly.

“I have arranged for thy transport. It will meet thee in the atrium shortly.” T’Pau raised an eyebrow, and Jim realized she was telling him, not offering.

“Thank you. I, uh, appreciate your generosity.” He waited for some sign that he had permission to leave. She gave him none, only stared at him some more. The silence turned awkward, and he wondered if he was supposed to bow or salute or dance like a monkey.

“Spock is among the most accomplished of my great-grandkin,” she announced suddenly, her tone almost wistful. “But he is not fully Vulcan, and as such, I suspect his future among us is uncertain. Can I trust thee will always have a place for him, wherever thee goes?”

…always been there and always will be.

Jim swallowed the lump in his throat. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.” Forget protocol. He saluted her and made a hasty exit.

His escort was one of T’Pau’s guards, taciturn even for a Vulcan. Jim tried engaging him in conversation a few times, asking about landmark-looking things outside the window of the luxury sandskimmer, but his answers had a three word limit. After a dozen or so questions, Jim took the hint and stewed silently in the chill of his companion’s superiority complex.

The Temple of the Ever-burning Forge was hidden in the side of a mountain. From the desert below, he couldn’t see anything except the lights. It was part of the landscape, molded even more seamlessly into its surroundings than Sarek’s villa.

A middle-aged Vulcan woman greeted him at the temple’s plain iron gates. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun, and she wore a white hood and simple white robes. Jim mistook her for some kind of acolyte at first, but she introduced herself as T’Kova with minimal fanfare.

She led him through narrow, rock-cut hallways lit only by the orange glow of oil lamps, then up a winding staircase that never seemed to end. Jim tried saying something a few times, but between the stairs and his nerves, he couldn’t get enough air to do it. They only stopped upon reaching a chamber with a broad picture window that overlooked the desert.

There were a half dozen or so woven grass mats on the floor, and T’Kova knelt on an elevated one, her robes billowing cloud-like around her. “You may sit,” she said, in flawless Standard. Jim thanked his lucky stars she wasn’t into the stilted, old-Vulcanized style of translation. It made her seem slightly less pretentious.

He picked the mat in front of her and sat on his knees the way she did. “I’m glad you agreed to see me.”

“Have pity on the unfree mind, for each of us was born in chains,” she said, probably quoting some ancient text. “Speak that which ails you, human.”

“I’m not sure where to start,” he said, after a few awkward seconds of mental grappling.

“Perhaps you should state your problem in the simplest terms possible.”

Keep it simple, he thought, and resigned himself to sounding insane. “I have someone else’s memories in my head,” he said. “And it’s messing me up.”

She had no visible reaction, and Jim got the impression absolutely nothing could faze her. He didn’t know whether to be comforted or intimidated by that. “Please elaborate,” she said.

He explained the situation as best he could – the other universe, the bulbweed pheromone, the onset of his condition. By the time he finished, the second sun had set, his knees hurt like hell, and his throat was dry. He waited anxiously for her to respond.

She peered at him long enough that he started to get fidgety. He was just about to ask if she really bought all that when she spoke again. “I would have your mind.” She moved in for a meld, and Jim closed his eyes and tried to relax.

Only then did he realize how different Spock was from his peers. If Spock were a museum, T’Kova was the vaults beneath, every item impeccably catalogued and sorted. Her mind was clear and clinical, as precise as an automated scalpel, and he knew then that she had mastered kolinahr. Jim guided her through the memories, showed her everything he could, forcing himself not to recoil at the tougher parts.

By the time she finished, he was sweating through his shirt and shaking with the effort of kneeling. He gave up on appearances and crossed his legs, dabbing at his forehead with a sleeve.

“They were bondmates,” she said flatly, almost the same instant she broke the meld. “Some of the memories are from this ambassador, and some are from your alternate self. The latter ones are attuned to you, and have surfaced more strongly over time.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” he said. Bondmates. He already knew, but hearing someone else confirm it was a bittersweet validation. “How did this happen?”

“You carry the shadow of their bond,” she said. She must have realized he had no idea what she was talking about, and she continued. “The minds of bondmates are changed by one another. Each forms an echo of their partner and the link between them. In the absence of adequate shielding, it appears a piece of this echo imprinted upon you.”

“There’s no way,” Jim protested, shaking his head. “How could that happen from one little meld about a psycho Romulan?”

“How long was the meld?”

“A minute? Two minutes?” Jim thought about the fire in the ice cave, the same height before and after. It couldn’t have been longer than that.

She raised both eyebrows at him. “The transfer of an entire katra upon death takes but a moment’s connection. The rest occurs without any conscious effort. It is certainly possible for the transfer of a mere five hundred sixty-two memories to take place in several Earth minutes.”

“Five hundred sixty-two.” Jim blinked at her. “You counted?”

“It is not so many,” she said.

“Five hundred sixty-two,” he repeated carefully.

“A significant portion remain in your subconscious,” she offered. “He knew your mind, but your mind did not know him, and so it defended itself accordingly.”

“Is that why it took me so long to find out?”

“Perhaps.” She didn’t shrug, but Jim got the powerful impression she did anyway. “It may be you would have remained in ignorance far longer, had you not been exposed to a powerful mind-altering substance.”

In other words, he’d be mentally intact if either the bulbweed hadn’t grabbed him or the old Spock had sketched on the wall and called it a day. “So he really did give them to me,” Jim murmured.

“I suspect it was an instinctive reaction, as you are technically the same person as the man he knew,” T’Kova said. “The broken bond reached out, found nothing, and attempted to create an anchor.”

“Wait, wait, wait just a damn minute.” Jim was already several light years into the rabbit hole, and he couldn’t believe it went any deeper. “Are you saying he tried to bond with me?”

She considered the question for several awful seconds. “His mind did.”

“And I didn’t notice?”

“Evidently not.”

“What the hell would he do that for?”

“If he was aware of the process at all, he must have resisted the impulse,” she said, nonchalant. “Understand, our people were destabilized tremendously by what occurred that day. Many minds were unraveled, and many unintentional bonds formed.”

Jim was simultaneously relieved and disappointed, and he didn’t want to examine the disappointment part. It didn’t matter anyway, he told himself. None of this mattered. He had to get to the heart of the issue, the reason he was here. He swallowed thickly and forced the question out. “Can you get rid of this? All of it?”

“Permit me a moment.” T’Kova closed her eyes, and her brow creased. “I cannot make you forget that you ever had the memories to begin with. You would go mad without being able to explain the blank areas in your katra.”

“Oh.” That sounded a lot like a fancy way of saying ‘incurable.’ Jim sure as hell didn’t muster up all this self-sacrificing willpower for nothing, so he pressed her for more. “What does that mean?”

“You would remember that you once had visions from another universe, memories that did not belong to you. You would remember that you had them removed, for the sake of your health.” She folded her hands on her lap and looked at him sternly. “What you would not remember is what they entailed.”

That seemed close enough. Jim considered her words for a minute or two. “But won’t that… couldn’t someone else see all this if they melded with me?”

“Likely not, unless they knew what they sought. The minds of sentient creatures are not easily read without some form of guidance.” Her head angled to the side, and her tone held only curiosity. “Humans in particular are a most puzzling species.”

Jim thought he knew why she was ambassador to Earth, despite being incapable of emotion. He leaned back on his hands, and tried to convince himself this didn’t sound so bad after all. “So that’s it, then? Cut them out, and it’s done?”

“You may find yourself missing time, but as a whole, your experiences will remain intact. However, anything that rests solely upon the foundation of the memories will be uprooted along with them.” Her eyes glinted in the lamplight, chips of obsidian that reminded him of Spock. “Do you understand?”

Jim thought about his father and Spock’s mother, both of them old and happy. He thought about the wisdom of a hundred missions, mistakes and useful lessons. He thought about Spock’s death, and a lifetime of experience in love and loss shared with him. The memories weren’t all disruptive, and they had lent him strength when he needed it most. But Jim Kirk always wanted to be his own man, escape his father’s shadow and set his own course in life. So why was he hesitating now?

Fake it ‘till you make it, he told himself. If he didn’t do this, he’d be paralyzed, caught between two worlds and living in neither. “I understand.”

She nodded once. “Is there anything else you wish to have addressed?”

He saw the faces of Phillips, Lombard, and Taylor, vivid in his mind’s eye. Spock, caught high in the mantis’ web. The empty ache of the bulbweed that resurfaced in his darker moments. But that was different. Those things were supposed to be part of him, and he was sorting through them on his own. “That’s it,” he said.

“Do you consent?”

“I consent.”

Without another word, she reached for his face.

Jim panicked and stopped her, leaning back and almost tipping over. “Wait. Wait a second.” Of all the times and places, he just had to think about the whale thing now. How the hell they found a whale, he had no idea. But that didn’t matter, because Spock was treading water beside him, truly looking at him for the first time since fal-tor-pan. “Does this have to be all or nothing?”

“Due to the pervasive nature of the intrusion, every foreign pattern must be excised,” she explained, with that infinite but slightly condescending Vulcan patience. “You cannot have one memory without a hundred other tethers of association.”

Jim felt a little sick, a little feverish. It reminded him of the daily hangovers back on Sigma Nox. The planet itself seemed farther every day, but its legacy still haunted him, and he had a unique chance to exorcise it right now. “Okay. I get it.”

“Are you prepared?” She lifted her hand once more, and again Jim flinched away.

“Hold on, hold on,” he said, breathless with a half-baked impulse. “There’s something I want to take care of first.”

He seized his travel pack and hurried out of the chamber, almost tripping over his feet and leaving a perplexed Vulcan elder behind. He returned a few minutes later and sat in front of her again. The way he had to tilt his head to look at her made him feel vulnerable, like a man facing his executioner.

“Do it.”

***

Six plus infinity hours later, Jim found his way back to his room at the embassy, another good deed from M’Benga. The same feeling he used to get after exams trampled him and flattened his brain and body into mush. He couldn’t think about anything except sleep. He didn’t bother taking off his boots before he stumbled into bed.

The PADD on the nightstand chimed out a message alert almost the exact second he started fighting with the covers. He sighed, stared at the offending object, and considered dealing with it in the morning. Either way he had to pick it up and shut off the alert.

He skimmed it automatically as he searched for the ‘shut the hell up, I know you have a message’ button. He read the sender line a few times before he realized it was a message from himself, received earlier that night. It contained a single sentence.

Am I still in love with Spock?

Enough of his exhaustion evaporated that he didn’t think he could sleep anymore, even if he tried. He sat up against the headboard, staring blankly at the screen for a minute or two. He stared until the words turned into meaningless symbols. He got up and paced the floor for a few laps, synthesized some water and didn’t drink.

Panic hit him, lightning down his spine. Was this what he had been trying to forget?

He thought about all of the days and nights spent on Sigma Nox with Spock. The rough edge to their relationship had smoothed out, mellowed by mutual support, honed into efficiency. Jim had done his best to sabotage it out of fear, but there was still an ease between them, a sweetness he couldn’t shake. He knew in his bones that Spock would do anything for him, and that he would do the same. He thought about Spock’s methodical patience, his unwavering loyalty, his intellect, his sense of empathy and humor. His angular features and clever eyes.

And he thought about the way Spock held him when he was upset over nightmares he couldn’t recall. The way Spock had looked when he caught Jim literally with his pants down; embarrassed, but not offended. The way Spock said his name sometimes, like the sound itself was precious.

The Vulcan kiss aboard the cattlebug ship, eclipsed by the chaos around it.

No, Jim decided. Not trying to forget. Afraid to forget.

He was fairly sure he had the answer to a question he couldn’t remember asking. What he felt for Spock was all him, one-hundred percent James T. Kirk, for better or worse. Now there was only one question left: what was he going to do about it?

Chapter Text


Kirk

All in all, the blank time wasn’t as bad as he expected. Maybe his mind shoved the gaps into the same category as the bulbweed delirium, so he hardly noticed them. But regardless, his head was uncluttered, and it was fantastic to have confidence in his own thoughts again. Meditation came easier, and he ended his morning session in the embassy suite with a light heart and a positive outlook. Suddenly, he could be sure of his feelings.

Now he just had to be sure of Spock’s.

He met with M’Benga and thanked the doctor for accommodating him. He returned the favor by cooperating with all the tests needed for a brief medical report. M’Benga was desperately curious about what Jim had been up to with T’Pau, but polite enough not to push for answers, unlike some other medical professionals Jim could mention.

He boarded the maglev after treating the doctor to brunch, and it hit the end of the line by afternoon. Spock met him at the station in the sandskimmer. Something about Spock driving a nifty, shiny hovercraft made Jim feel like swooning. He had never swooned before, but it always looked like fun.

“Was your trip beneficial?” Spock asked as Jim climbed into the passenger seat.

“Yeah,” he said, and put on the sunglasses Spock handed him. “It was great.” His grin must have been a little much, because Spock gave him a strange look. “Really, it was.”

“I have merely never heard you refer to a medical examination in positive terms before.”

“Well, it’s good news. I’m on track to hit my old weight by the end of the month,” Jim said. “Soon the witch will stuff me in the oven.”

Spock’s brow furrowed, and he glanced at Jim.

“Hansel and Gretel? No?” Spock shook his head. “You’re missing out.”

“On what, precisely?”

“Gluttony. Child abuse. Cannibalism.” Jim shrugged. “You know, a children’s story.”

He laughed as the appalled look he was going for claimed Spock’s face.

By the time they got back to the villa, Jim was downright giddy. But he was nervous with his revelation, so nervous that he kept knocking things over all afternoon, running into large objects like walls, and generally making a fool out of himself. He knew Spock was getting suspicious, because he kept looking at Jim like he was a strange new species, which only made the whole issue worse. Every time Jim turned around, those dark eyes were watching him, and every time it was like being shocked.

He went on a run after first sunset. He lost himself for awhile in the pounding of his heart and his feet on the dusty ground, mentally reciting Vulcan mantras to the steady, comforting rhythm. But the second he returned to the villa and stopped moving, he was even more strung out than before. Only after a nice, long shower could he recover anything resembling a captain’s attitude.

The real dilemma came that night. He wanted to sleep in Spock’s room again, wanted to do a lot more than sleep, but knew he couldn’t with all of his confirmed desires attached to an unproven target. A good night’s rest and a bit of careful reconnaissance seemed more appropriate.

He silently coached himself in the mirror the next morning, between shaving and taming an unruly cowlick. Act normal. Pay attention. Make a move. That last part floated in the half-assed ether of undeveloped ideas, but he’d worry about it later.

Around second sunrise, Spock recruited him in putting together a traditional dinner. Every ingredient was grown locally, and prepared a specific way that made Jim wonder if the ancient Vulcans were all obsessive-compulsives. Cut the skinny fruit lengthwise, not sideways. Never mind that sideways is easier. Remove every single pinpoint seed from a pod thing with hundreds of them. What’s that, they’re the exact same color as the pod? Oh, and never use the same knife for two ingredients. That would be crazy.

“You know, I’m not convinced I’m doing this right.” Jim tasted the simmering broth for the umpteenth time.

“Did you follow the recipe?”

“All quadrillion steps. Are you sure you’re not forgetting something?”

Spock glanced at him from where he was occupied cutting the last batch of ingredients at the table. “Do you have cause for concern?”

Jim shrugged. “Seems bland considering all the stuff we’ve thrown in.” He dipped the spoon into the pot again, cupped his hand beneath it, and leaned over the table. Testing the waters. Spock looked surprised, but much to Jim’s delight, he played along and tasted the offering. The way his mouth closed over the spoon was more than a little mesmerizing, and Jim had to remind himself not to stare.

A moment of silent consideration passed. “Ah, I neglected to explain,” Spock said. “The flavors have not yet matured. They are only released by prolonged heat. This is why plomeek takes most of the day to prepare correctly.”

“Oh. So I’m just being hasty, then.”

“Affirmative.” Spock paused his work just long enough to quirk an eyebrow at him, and a warm knot of pressure trembled deep in Jim’s chest. Spock’s stare lingered enough that Jim had to ask.

“Something wrong?” He paused with a glass of water halfway to his mouth.

“Your appearance has improved significantly.”

It was a good thing Jim hadn’t taken a sip yet, because otherwise he’d be hacking up his lungs all over their hard work. “Amazing, what a couple kilos can do,” he said. Possibly stammered.

“Indeed.” Spock had already shifted his attention back to his work. “And do you feel said improvement is paralleled by a similar psychological one?”

“Are you kidding me?” Jim was tempted to throw one of the pink raisin-looking things at Spock to prove a point. “You need to ask?”

Maybe it was trick of the light, but Jim could have sworn he saw the corner of Spock’s mouth turn up minutely. “I suppose I could infer.”

They went their separate ways while the soup cooked throughout the afternoon, Spock finishing up his supplemental on the bulbweed, and Jim breezing through a virtual pile of paperwork that would have confounded him last week. He had to revise a message to Bones about five times, thanks to all the exclamation points and reckless abuse of the word ‘awesome.’

A couple hours before sunset, the timer went off, and they reconvened in the kitchen. Jim synthesized some bread and a salad while Spock ladled out the soup, which had turned from a watery gold color to deep orange-red.

That soup was fucking delicious.

“This is delicious,” Jim said, shoveling spoonfuls into his mouth. Mild, then spicy, then savory in succession, a cornucopia of mouth-watering flavors. “I mean, seriously delicious. Criminally delicious.”

“I am gratified that you feel the need to repeatedly express your appreciation,” Spock said.

“Well, I didn’t believe it would turn out this good.”

He caught Spock up on the crew’s shenanigans between bites, and sometimes during, when he forgot his manners. They talked about the technicalities of a semi-intelligent species applying to Starfleet Academy’s security program, and the finer points of hull damage repair, and whether or not Sulu should be allowed to grow bonsai tree ferns in his room.

That was when Spock dropped the million credit question. “Are you prepared to resume command?”

Jim spent a few seconds deciding if his own laid-back attitude was because he was ignoring that issue, or because it didn’t bother him anymore. He’d been so caught up in fixing himself that the captain’s chair had been far from his mind the past couple days. “I’d be lying if I acted like I knew the answer to that,” he said, studying a knothole in the table. “I think so. I’m excited to go back, if that helps.”

Spock took a sip of water and set his glass down gently. “For what it is worth,” he said, “I believe your response indicates a presence of mind that was lacking when we first arrived here.”

Jim smiled, but it faded as he remembered how bad he had been, and what drove him to that point. Some of it, anyway. “We have to communicate better this time,” he said, poking at the remnants of his salad. “You know I’m doing well, right?”

“I do.”

“So you can’t shield me.” He scooted a piece of carrot around in circles. “I know it’s kind of an instinct, but you can’t do it. And I promise I’ll be honest with both of us about when I really do need help.”

“A logical arrangement,” Spock said.

That should have settled it, but a related concern emerged in Jim’s mind now, a chain of insecurities. “I mean, you took care of me on Sigma Nox,” he continued. “And you took care of me again on the Enterprise. And now, coming here, it’s the same thing. If we can’t fix that when we get back, I’ll start resenting you again, and–”

“Jim,” Spock cut him off. He set his utensils down and folded his hands on the table, visibly lost in thought for a moment. “I believe you are under a mistaken impression.”

“How so?”

“You took care of me on Sigma Nox as well,” he said, and lifted a hand, preempting Jim’s semi-sarcastic protest. “I am not merely referring to the mantis. The reason I have found a greater measure of peace now is because of your… ultimately stabilizing influence.”

“Stabilizing?” Jim gaped at Spock, jabbed a thumb at himself. “Have you met me?”

“I have had that privilege, yes,” Spock said. The lines of his eyebrows relaxed, and his entire face followed suit.

In that moment, Jim felt the scales shift, and he knew he had to go for it. Knew he couldn’t hold back, because Spock felt something for him, and it sure as hell wasn’t platonic. There was no way he was imagining the subtle flirtation, the furtive looks. But if all this was true, why wasn’t Spock acting on it?

He’s waiting, Jim decided. He’s come a long way, but he still can’t make the first move.

They washed dishes in a team effort, Jim scrubbing and rinsing and Spock manning the towel. Jim imagined the line he needed to say over and over again, until the words were just harmless sounds. “Mind if I stay with you tonight?” He passed Spock the soup pot.

“Do you anticipate nightmares?”

“No. No, I’m fine.” A bowl slipped through Jim’s soapy fingers and almost had a catastrophic encounter with the edge of the sink. “I just thought it’d be nice to have some company.” He almost cringed; that line was supposed to be one justification in a long mental list, from which he’d pick the best option.

But Spock didn’t seem to care how lame of an excuse it was. “Very well,” he said lightly, without pausing at his task.

Jim put an extra big tally in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ column. The last time he stayed in Spock’s room had been damn embarrassing for both of them. If Spock had no reservations whatsoever, either he had the memory of a goldfish, or the idea of a sexed-up Jim sharing his bed didn’t bother him. Survey said green light.

Jim lounged on top of the covers and read some Robinson Crusoe while Spock was in the bathroom, getting ready for bed. The sunlight faded enough that Jim lit an oil lamp on the nightstand. The New Vulcan moon was oversized and always full, bright enough to read by, but it was still low on the horizon, overpowered by the sunset.

Then Spock reappeared in his gray standard-issue sleepwear, and they traded places. Jim put on and took off his nightshirt twice before deciding to leave it off as a failsafe. Spock didn’t comment when he emerged from the bathroom. One more signal in favor of action, and now they were down to the wire.

There was less than a week of leave left. Now or never.

Spock shut off the oil lamp, and they climbed beneath the covers. Neither of them said goodnight, or any variation thereof, and Jim was fairly sure he knew what that meant. He’d been to enough ‘sleepovers’ to know when sleep was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

He was also tired, but that was probably for the best. Being tired made him more daring, more honest. Or maybe just more stupid. He could hardly breathe, knowing what he was about to try. It had been awhile, after all. At least three years if he took gender into account. Never if he counted species.

Regret nothing and dread nothing, he reminded himself.

Maybe ten minutes passed while Jim mustered his nerve, but Spock was still awake. He was on his side, facing away from Jim, but after two plus months of sleeping next to him, Jim could pinpoint the exact second the man fell asleep. So after a round of determined mental pep-talking by moonlight, he rolled over and wrapped his arm around Spock’s waist. Neutral territory, considering it had happened at least once before.

Spock moved, settling back against him, and Jim frantically thought about dissected Denebian slime devils to not get very obviously ahead of himself. Only when he calmed down did he shift his hand to the top of Spock’s arm, rubbing his thumb in short, circling strokes. Draw it further along, past the elbow, past the wrist.

If Vulcans kissed with their hands, this seemed like a good place to start.

Heart pressing on his throat, Jim traced Spock’s long fingers, the delicate webbing between them, the back of his hand, cool and smooth except for the callous left by an old burn. He started teasing circles around each joint, and Spock’s breath hitched. Jim froze, and Spock slowly turned his wrist up, exposing his palm. His neck slanted back, looming ever closer to Jim’s lips. If that wasn’t an invitation, Jim would eat his ship.

Don’t think, he pleaded silently as he skimmed the lines of Spock’s palm. He leaned in, and his mouth brushed the nape of Spock’s neck. Please don’t think your way out of this. He pressed his knuckles into the center of Spock’s hand on a whim, kneading gently. Spock made a small, inscrutable sound in the back of his throat that could have been Jim’s name.

Jim paused, doubting his hearing. “Should I… do you want me to stop?”

“No.” Spock’s voice was quiet, a draft in a closed room that you weren’t quite sure you felt. He turned onto his other side and faced Jim, who retreated to give him room. His expression was in shadow, but Jim was almost positive he was being studied. Jim lay there, completely still, irrationally worried that the slightest movement would startle Spock. They were close enough their hands touched. Far enough that nothing else did.

Jim meant to wait and see if Spock kept going, but the words poured out of him in a torrent. “What do you want? Anything, I’ll do it, I–”

Spock slipped a hand behind his head and pulled him into a kiss.

It was tentative, almost chaste, but Jim plunged straight from one to ten on the arousal scale anyway. He clutched the fabric of Spock’s nightshirt in his fists, convincing himself this was real. Spock’s hand curled through his hair and kneaded his scalp.

They broke apart too soon, and before Jim could surge forward like a clumsy teenager, cool fingers pressed against his lips. They trapped him there in a slow burn, held back while Spock traced his chin, the outline of his face, his eyebrows. “I was beginning to doubt my perception of your interest,” he murmured, and his voice went straight to Jim’s groin.

“Do me a favor and never doubt yourself again.” Jim swallowed thickly and did his best to mimic Spock. His patience paid off. When he got to Spock’s lips, Spock shut his eyes and closed his mouth around the tip of Jim’s index finger. The tension snapped in an instant.

Suddenly Spock was all over him, mouth pressing insistently against his, one arm slung around his waist. Jim would have laughed in sheer elation if he weren’t preoccupied. Spock was a good kisser. Jim had kissed his fair share of people, and Spock was a damn good kisser. His lips grasped and released Jim’s with just the right variation in pressure, and he was sparing with the tongue, and sometimes he did this sucking thing would have made Jim’s knees weak if he were standing.

Jim pushed himself against Spock’s leg and felt a similar hardness near his hip. He slipped a hand under Spock’s shirt, following his waist, and a ludicrously fast heartbeat quivered beneath his palm. Spock’s hand slid up his back, and Jim could easily imagine coming in his pants from some making out and well-placed friction.

That wasn’t acceptable.

He tossed the blankets, sat up, and dragged Spock with him, grabbing the edge of his linen nightshirt. Spock tried to help and got tangled in the process, arms caught behind him. Jim kissed Spock hard and pushed him back against the pillows anyway. Spock resisted, still trying to free himself from the shirt, but he went motionless when Jim ran both hands down his chest. The hair there was softer than it looked.

Jim touched a nipple, tried stroking and pinching while he helped Spock wriggle out of his clothing vice. He stopped mid-kiss and peered at it when nothing seemed to happen. “You don’t have a lot of feeling here, do you?” he said.

“Not particularly,” Spock said, apologetic.

Jim shrugged and leaned back. He took a moment to appreciate the sight of Spock, chest heaving, body half-shadowed, the lean planes of his muscles standing out in sharp contrast. His lips were wet and tempting, his eyes pitch black. Then Jim tucked his fingers beneath the waistband of Spock’s pants and slid them down. He maneuvered to the edge of the bed and tore them off completely. But when he went for the visibly tented briefs, Spock tensed.

Sheer panic clutched his throat. This must be it, Jim thought. He’s coming to his senses, and I’m about to get either walloped or logicked into oblivion. “Are you sure about this?” he said, hands gripping the bedspread.

Hesitation long enough to make him sweat. “Only if the divestment is mutual,” Spock said, dropping his eyes. Watching Spock go from the world’s most confident kisser to the world’s shyest Vulcan made all kinds of wonderfully perverse things start skipping through Jim’s head.

“Not a problem.” He leapt out of bed and shucked his pants and briefs as fast as he could, choosing to jump into the cold pool instead of wade in one nervous step at a time. He dove back into bed and leaned over Spock, trying to kiss him again, but firm hands on his shoulders held him back.

Spock looked him up and down, eyes lingering on his erection. Then he pushed himself more firmly against the headboard, tugged Jim closer by the waist, and wrapped a careful hand around him.

“Oh God…” Jim couldn’t take it. His legs gave out, and he slumped until he sat. His ass landed right on top of the bulge in Spock’s briefs, and he pushed his hips against it and into the cautious touch.

It didn’t take long for Spock’s strokes to grow smoother, more confident. He never took his eyes off Jim’s face, except those moments when Jim drove down hard, and they fluttered shut. He’s curious, Jim thought, head hazy. He wants me, and he’s observing me, and he’s trying to figure out exactly what makes me lose it.

They had barely started and Jim was right on the edge, thrusting mindlessly into Spock’s fist. “Hold on, hold on, stop,” he panted, squirming out of reach. “Not yet. Want to see you.”

He acted fast, hoping Spock wouldn’t have time to get anxious again. He tugged the briefs down to Spock’s thighs, baring a dark, spiraled erection, like two thin cocks coiled together. The shafts fused together at the tip, and sparse black hair curled around the base. No balls either. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but Jim had a sneaking suspicion it was green. The whole ensemble looked like something you’d see in an eccentric art show, with a label insisting it had a non-phallic interpretation.

“Wow,” he said.

“You do not find it… off-putting?”

Jim glanced up and wondered how long Spock had been fretting over this. “’Course not.” He touched it tentatively, dragging a finger along the underside. Spock gasped and arched into the touch. “More like fascinating.” He waggled his eyebrows while he hauled the briefs around Spock’s ankles.

“Similar to humans, linear movement provides the most pleasurable friction,” Spock offered hoarsely. But when Jim grasped him, he flinched. “Gentle linear movement.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Jim stammered. “Too much?”

“Somewhat, yes.”

Jim forced himself to take his time, pay closer attention. Spock’s skin was so delicate here, smooth and translucent, almost membranous. Flushed, although there weren’t any visible veins, and slick with a thin layer of natural lubricant. Jim was surprised that such a strong guy could be packing such a fragile instrument. No wonder a dry hand hadn’t worked out.

Jim floundered for a second, wondering if Spock kept lotion or oil in his nightstand, but then he had a better idea.

He shifted back between Spock’s feet and pushed his hands from the tops of Spock’s ankles up to his knees. He felt the uneven skin of the mantis scar halfway along one shin, and the desperate edge to his desire subsided. He stopped for a moment to place a line of kisses over the rough skin, massaging Spock’s thighs as he guided them apart. Spock was trembling by the time Jim pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the top of his knee.

Then Jim sprawled out on his stomach, his cock pressing into the bed, enough stimulation to keep him hard without pushing him over. He scooted into position, murmured for Spock to lie back a little more.

God, it really had been awhile. Jim had another short moment of panic during which he had literally no idea what to do with the eager appendage in front of him. It was twisty, for fuck’s sake. Only recalling the sage advice of a drunken Gaila saved him: ‘open mouth, insert dick.’

He licked Spock from base to tip and followed that advice.

He quickly found two spots that got him the best reactions. A place right under the top spiral, about where most humans had one, and what seemed like an even more sensitive ring around the base, where the two distinct halves blended together. As much as he wanted to, Jim couldn’t take Spock down that far – he didn’t trust his gag reflex after so long – but he looped his hand around the base and thumbed over the area, timing it with flicks of his tongue.

Spock gasped the first time Jim tried that, his hips jerking up. Jim had to push down on his waist to get him to stop and had a quick battle of wills with his throat. He was more sparing in his newfound technique after that.

Practice made perfect. Once he had the mechanics down, he started getting into it.  The grooved texture sliding over his tongue, warm and firm and heavy. The velvet smoothness, the clean, slightly bitter taste. He glanced up every now and then and watched Spock’s stomach hollow and flatten, his ribs rise and fall, his head tip back against the pillows. Sometimes their eyes met, but never for long, because Spock always looked away like he couldn’t handle being watched. Jim loved every second, loved knowing he could do this.

Fingers touched his hair, lighter than a breeze. They skimmed over the shell of his ear, like Spock was just as captivated with the round shape as Jim was with his points. Jim stopped for a second, grabbing Spock’s hand and guiding it back to his head with a wry grin. “Not gonna break me,” he said. He had a weakness for scalp massages, especially as encouragement when he went down on someone. Spock got the idea pretty quickly, and that was when Jim let go. His arms ached from holding himself at the right angle, but his hips rocked against the bed, and he could go for hours if Spock kept making those half-stifled sounds.

Then Spock tugged gently but urgently on his hair, and he glanced up from his task.

“Jim…” Dark eyes broadcasted a silent plea, reeling him in. He let go of Spock’s erection with one last good suck, just to watch his eyes roll back in his head, and crawled along the bed until they were face to face. He straddled Spock’s lap again and kissed him, pushing their cocks together. Spock lifted his hips to meet him, and Jim repositioned them a little so their legs were staggered, and he could rest some of his weight on his side.

“Wet enough for you?” he gasped.

Spock nodded.

Jim framed Spock with his arms and kissed the place between those dark, upswept eyebrows. Their foreheads fell together, and Jim started to move, rocking them through exquisite waves of pressure. Spock grabbed his waist and took charge of the rhythm, pulling Jim forward and pushing him back. They swayed for awhile, rubbing together, mingling tender sounds and slow kisses.

But it wasn’t enough, so Jim reached down to take them both in a loose grip. He gathered his precome into his palm and slicked them as best he could. The bumps and dips of Spock’s erection felt incredible against him. He nuzzled into Spock’s neck, sucking and kissing his way to an ear.

“This okay?”

“Affirmative,” Spock murmured. He tightened his grasp on the back of Jim’s head.

“Talk to me.”

“I… I cannot.”

Jim smiled against the soft skin of Spock’s neck. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Neither of them was going to last much longer, if their ragged pace was any clue. Jim drowned in Spock. Hot breath against his skin, spicy scent surrounding him, body lifting them both in powerful swells. He was moaning now, quick and reluctant-sounding, and Jim returned a helpless echo back to him.

Suddenly Spock seized against him, fingers digging into his back, and that was all it took. Jim shuddered and stumbled his way over the peak.

It wasn’t earth-shattering, it wasn’t mind-blowing; it felt more like collapsing into bed after a long, productive day, or drinking cold water at the end of a marathon. Complete relief followed by ridiculous contentment. Jim was a blank slate, wiped clean by a wash of pleasure. His head hadn’t been this peaceful in months, maybe years.

Spock, on the other hand, looked like a man who had been literally thunderstruck. He was still trembling long after Jim recovered, fingers tight on Jim’s hips, quiet, desperate sounds escaping him with every weak thrust. The force of his orgasm had shifted them both of them away from the headboard and halfway across the bed. Not many people could make delirious look sexy, but Spock pulled it off well.

Jim wondered if it was it always this intense for Vulcans. If that was the way it worked, no wonder they were so private about it. Talk about the exact opposite of logic. He bent over and took Spock’s chin in his hand, tilting his head up for a kiss. Spock latched onto him, his whole body shifting to accommodate Jim. He levered himself up on an elbow and clung to Jim’s back, gasping into his mouth.

Jim squeezed gently until Spock stopped moving, then let him go and threaded their fingers. Their kisses tapered, and Spock went completely limp beneath Jim with one last exhale. They lay together in silence.

Jim dismounted from his seat partly atop Spock’s pelvis. He flopped to the side hard enough that the bed shook, too tired to make his muscles work right. He bumped Spock’s shoulder with a clumsy kiss before forcing himself up and stumbling in the bathroom’s general direction.

He brought a wet washcloth back with him, and paused in the doorway, intrigued by how soft and small Spock’s dick looked. At first he thought Vulcans must be serious growers, but then he realized there was a slit at the base, and most of it retracted inside. Spock moaned and flinched away when Jim tried to investigate.

“Sensitive?”

“Very much so,” came the hoarse response.

Jim let him be with a private grin of delight and filed that factoid away for later.

Aside from his own release streaked on Spock’s stomach, there wasn’t anything else to clean up. He wondered idly if Vulcans could control that as he retrieved the bunched covers and settled back down.

“Are you okay?” He threw an arm over Spock.

“Yes.”

“Did it feel good?”

“Yes.”

“Can you say anything other than ‘yes’?” Jim teased.

“I apologize. I am merely attempting to assimilate vast quantities of data,” Spock said, absurdly serious. “Interpretation is proving difficult.”

Jim grinned. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” He touched Spock’s cheek to tilt his head for a kiss, which Spock returned distractedly. He seemed happy enough on his back, so Jim rolled onto his side. Sleeping half-draped across someone was a nice idea, but it never worked for him in practice.

Gentle ecstasy suffused him, unwinding every muscle and boosting his exhaustion. It wasn’t the blank indifference of the bulbweed void, but the exact opposite; caring so much he overflowed.

He fell asleep on a cool and welcoming sea.

***

First dawn, Spock’s badly-placed window, and open curtains conspired against Jim, slapping light into his face way too early. He woke up, groggy and irritated, to an empty bed.

He peeked into the hall, and the smell of food confirmed Spock didn’t head for the hills after all. That freed Jim up to whistle a bunch of Irish drinking songs in the shower with a clear conscience. He threw on sweatpants and his lucky Academy t-shirt, and made his way down the hall, toweling his hair.

Spock sat at the kitchen table with a plate of untouched food, reading a PADD. He didn’t look up as Jim shuffled into the room, so Jim assumed he was too engrossed at the moment and scavenged breakfast for himself. He settled on some leftovers and the synthesizer’s mediocre excuse for coffee, and sat across from Spock.

“Command will reassign us,” Spock said, as Jim took the first swig.

Jim froze with a mouthful of coffee, swallowed deliberately, and set his mug down on the table. He didn’t expect Spock to be all smiles because of last night – that would be downright horrifying – but he certainly didn’t expect this either. “What do you mean?”

“Full disclosure of intimate relationships between crewmembers is required under Starfleet protocol. As I am only half-human, we have already violated protocol by not seeking authorization in advance,” Spock said, with perfect nonchalance, still not looking up from his PADD. “Additionally, personal entanglements within the command structure of a ship have been discouraged for many decades to avoid conflicts of interest.”

Jim’s first thought was that Spock must have been up for hours dwelling on this. His second was to wonder what that conversation would have sounded like. Pardon me, Admirals, but I plan on jumping my first officer in the near future. Thought you should know.

“And exactly how often are those policies enforced?” He speared some egg and skated it around on his plate. “How many ranking officers do you know who’ve dated crewmen? Hell, with us there isn’t half the power disparity I’ve seen between married couples on other ships.”

“How many of said couples are in the same department? How many consist of a captain and a first officer?” Spock retorted. “The Enterprise is higher profile than any other vessel in Starfleet. We are on the front lines of diplomacy and life-threatening missions on a regular basis.”

“Which is exactly why they can’t split us up,” Jim said. “We’re the dream team that defeated Nero. There would be an uproar.”

“Perhaps.”

He was serious about this, Jim realized. Cold dread settled into his stomach, and the most important meal of the day didn’t seem important anymore. He didn’t come all this way and fight so hard to have Spock reel him in and change his mind.

“Are you telling me you don’t want this to happen?” he said, and the words felt like poison in his mouth.

“No,” Spock said quickly. He met Jim’s eyes, and the affection in his face was the only thing that kept Jim’s head above water. “I do want this. I think it is unwise, but that does not change the feeling.”

“Then are you saying we shouldn’t disclose?” Jim crossed his arms.

“I said nothing of the sort. However, I will point out that the exact definition of an intimate relationship remains ambiguous in both regulations and legal decisions,” Spock said.

Jim frowned and studied Spock’s neutral expression. “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t like tiptoeing around,” he said. “It’s not like I want the whole ship to know, but…”

Spock stared at him for a moment. “You do realize, of course, that the permission of the ship’s Chief Medical Officer is required as part of the disclosure process for an interspecies relationship.”

Filling out some forms and sending them thousands of light years away to Command was simple. They saw those people a few times a year, always at professional functions. Sitting down with Bones and explaining exactly what he’d like to do with his first officer, then seeing the doctor every day after was different. He could already imagine the horror-struck face in his mind’s eye. Jim knew Bones would stick by him no matter what, but he had to think on that for awhile.

He rubbed his forehead and sighed, resigning himself to Spock’s logic. “So what, we keep it quiet until we figure something out?”

“I believe that may be our best option at this juncture, taking into account a variety of factors,” Spock said, staring into his cup.

That was when Jim realized it wasn’t a protocol thing, not completely. It was personal comfort thing. Spock had only started exploring his emotions again in the past few months, and acting on them last night was a huge deal for him. He was probably reeling right now, petrified at the idea of anyone but them knowing what had happened. Of outside poking and prodding. He didn’t need that kind of attention during such a delicate time. Neither of them did.

“All right,” Jim announced. “We’ll do it your way. If anyone catches us, I guess we can claim it just started.” He still didn’t like it. There was a reason disclosure existed. Part of the process involved both parties talking about how their relationship might affect their performance, and God knew they probably needed that. But if Spock wasn’t willing, he wasn’t willing.

“Thank you,” Spock said. The simple phrase spoke volumes.

Jim decided some stronger reassurance was in order. He stood, came around the table, and opened his arms. Spock hesitated, but rose and stepped into Jim’s embrace. They stayed like that for awhile, and the awkward stiffness of Spock’s form eased until Jim didn’t feel like he was holding a statue anymore. He breathed in, Spock’s hair tickling his nose. Something about their closeness evoked a memory within him, fogged over and distant.

“I heard you,” Jim said. “When we fell in the mantis nest, and everything was going wrong, and the bulbweed had me… I think I heard you say my name.” He ran his hands up and down Spock’s arms. “Did that happen, or was it just in my head?”

“It happened,” Spock murmured.

“I remember.”

***

The last five days of leave, they made a new routine. It was nice.

God, it was nice. They spent their mornings experimenting, tangled up in bed, and once on the floor. Spock was self-conscious, and Jim overly cautious, but they made it work. During the day they meditated, read together, exercised, and debated the meaning of life over some of the most delicious meals Jim had ever tasted. Spock made a heroic effort of teaching him Vulcan, without much success. They started some mashya seeds going in the garden. When the first sun fell and the desert cooled off, they explored the New Vulcan countryside in the twilight, cataloguing unidentified species. By the time night rolled around, Jim was usually too exhausted to do anything but pass out in Spock’s bed.

Sometimes Spock would wake him up in the middle of the night, reserved and quintessentially Vulcan, and Jim would guide them both to an unhurried, gentle climax. Soon Jim started waking up all on his own, hard in anticipation of Spock’s lips against his. A bottle of lube took up permanent residence on the nightstand. Spock needed quite a bit not to chafe, and the sheets had to be washed every day, thanks to spills and general hastiness.

But Jim was getting restless. They both were. The stargazing was incredible out in the desert, and watching the Milky Way rise every night through the bedroom window made Jim feel like the universe was passing them by. Sometimes he woke up to find Spock outside on the front patio, staring at the stars.

That was how it played out the last night of their extended leave. Jim waddled up behind Spock, wrapped in a blanket to stave off the cool desert night. He tucked his arms around Spock’s waist, and a quiet thrill zinged through him when Spock leaned into his chest. “Something on your mind?”

“I wish to find out what happened on Sigma Nox,” Spock said, addressing both Jim and the mist of stars. “Precisely what happened to the Noxian civilization.”

Noxian, Jim thought. Not cattlebug. It did them more justice. “I know.” He huffed a sleepy sigh against Spock’s neck. “I do too.”

“I am uncertain regarding how to go about an investigation. It is not Federation business. It is possible we will never be sent to that region of space again.”

“Are you sure?” Jim rested his chin on Spock’s shoulder. “I’d be surprised if Command isn’t curious about a dangerous, intelligent species on the edge of known space.”

“The Talosians. The Gorn. The Elasians. The Tholians.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Jim snickered, but the humor left him quickly. So the Federation did have a track record of leaving stones unturned when it came to certain diplomatic issues. If a species clearly didn’t want them there, what was the point in provoking them? “They saved us,” Jim said, answering his own unspoken question. “They don’t know it, but they did. And so many of them are…”

Spock nodded once.

“We’ll figure something out. We always do.” They watched the moon set over the hills, fractured by an ic’tan tree’s spindly branches. Jim tightened his grip around Spock and made sure his mouth touched Spock’s ear. “Come back to bed?”

Talking about Sigma Nox must have put Spock in a more assertive mood than usual, because five minutes later, he had Jim flat on his back. Few things rivaled the sight of Spock between Jim’s thighs, intent on making him writhe.

He was getting good at this. Jim should have known better than to think Spock would be anything other than an eager student on all matters sexual. He probably memorized the exact amount of pressure and suction Jim used on him, but he wasn’t afraid to improvise either, and Jim loved being the subject of his rigorous testing. He was a little clueless about balls, though – Jim suspected he thought they were hilarious, in his own Vulcan way, and couldn’t take them seriously. Then again, most humans couldn’t take them seriously either.

Jim stopped him well before the point of no return. He was always torn between finishing like this and kissing some more, and this time kissing won out. Spock paused the action to fully extend his erection from its protective sheath and coat himself with lube. He layered himself on top of Jim, and Jim savored the press of that hot, coiled cock against his stomach. He hitched his legs around Spock’s waist, pulling them closer together.

“Want to try something different?” he murmured.

“Different?”

Jim nipped an earlobe, and Spock groaned into his shoulder. “You inside me.”

Spock stopped moving. His voice was soft in Jim’s ear, muffled by the pillow. “I… I have never… that is, with another male….”

“That was pretty obvious the first time.” Jim snickered. “Come on, you’ll like it. I promise.”

“And you would enjoy said act as well.” Spock’s tone didn’t make it a question, but he sounded doubtful nonetheless. He drew back and looked down at Jim, wearing his one of his endearing ‘humans are incomprehensible’ faces.

“Would I be offering if it didn’t feel good?” Jim swatted a skinny Vulcan asscheek and reached for the lube. The stuff from earlier was spread all over them, a recurring problem that Jim thought adding something new to their repertoire could help alleviate. He slicked Spock carefully and tried to line them up, but Spock wouldn’t budge.

“Do you require preparation?”

“Nah, I messed around earlier today,” Jim said. “When you were out hiking,” he added, and Spock’s brow furrowed. He was probably trying to work out what ‘messed around’ meant, but Jim was hard, and he didn’t feel like spending the next half hour describing the full spectrum of human masturbation techniques. “Trust me, all right? I know what I’m doing.”

Even so, it was uncomfortable at first, skirting the edge of pain. Jim focused on Spock’s expert kisses, a distraction from the ache, and urged Spock deeper with his heels. He was well-acquainted with himself in this regard, and he knew how to relax, but the stretch and fullness was a lot more than a couple fingers. ‘Messing around’ wasn’t a substitute for doing this on a regular basis, and he hadn’t done this on a regular basis for years. He was half mast and sweating by the time Spock bottomed out.

“Are you all right?” Spock said, voice strained.

“Hold still a minute,” Jim panted. “It’s been awhile.”

“Should I–”

“No. No, I’m fine.” He clenched around Spock experimentally, and Spock’s sharp inhale made him grin. Spock was very sensitive to pressure, and Jim recognized dimly this must be torturous for him. His hips were shaking, and he trembled with the stress of holding back. Jim kissed his neck a few times and sucked a bruise onto his shoulder. “You can move,” he said.

Spock did, an agonized moan escaping him, and Jim’s prostate threw a magnificent fit. Maybe it was the alien texture, or the sensation of being filled, or the fact that Spock was fucking him and making more noise than the past four days combined. Either way, Jim was absolutely gone. He cried out, and his back bowed, and his hips lifted without any conscious effort.

He couldn’t figure out if it felt good or strange. It was too much something, and Jim wanted more. He shoved a hand between them, tugging at his cock, which seemed interested regardless. But they were crushed together, and he had no range of motion. He gave up and grabbed the headboard for leverage as Spock drove into him.

Spock bent his head and kissed Jim, quick and sloppy. Then he shifted his weight to one elbow, freeing up his hand for a Vulcan kiss. He stopped moving to do it, a shared cruelty, judging from his strangled groan.

“Come on, come on, don’t stop, please don’t stop…” Jim barely recognized his own voice. He grabbed Spock’s hand where it traced his cheek, weaving their fingers together and kissing the heel of his palm. Spock gasped something in Vulcan. His head dropped beside Jim’s, his hips snapping forward. The side of Jim’s face prickled, and raw feeling arced between them, and that was it.

He came in a burst of synesthesia. He literally saw stars, winking impossible colors, and then it was just him and Spock floating through space. It kept going on and on, and the pleasure ebbed and flowed, building on itself until the whole thing collapsed in a spectacular explosion of light.

When he made it back to his body, the smell of nonexistent incense fading, he couldn’t quite feel his arms and legs. Sensation returned starting with a line across his waist where Spock’s arm was cast over him. At some point they must have disconnected. Jim had zero idea when. His stomach was sticky with dried lube, and his ass was sore, but his entire body quaked with aftershocks.

“That was different,” he said, when he had enough air.

Spock stiffened against him. “I apologize for entering your mind without permission.”

“That’s what happened?”

Silence, which meant two things. Yes, and I don’t want to admit it.

Jim laughed and patted Spock on the shoulder. Or rather, tried, missed, and almost hit Spock’s face instead. “Tell you what, I’ll forgive you if you do that again sometime.”

Spock answered with a noncommittal grunt, and Jim took that as a challenge for the future.

The whole non-ejaculating thing Spock did was nice, he thought, as he wiped his release off them both with a tissue. Less cleanup, faster transition to cuddling. Blowjobs were a little weird without it, but whenever he made a mental note to ask, he ended up not caring in the afterglow.

This was one hell of an afterglow, too. Enough for some serious basking. Jim proceeded to do that for a few minutes, but without a filter, the first coherent thought that popped into his head escaped his mouth.

“Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with us.”

“Every sentient being is anomalous in some way,” Spock said after a moment, his tone lightly philosophical. “Could you be more specific?”

Jim really wanted to kiss him for that, but there was a good chance he wouldn’t be able to stop until they went another round. He settled for stroking fingers instead. “Most people would kill to have this,” he said. “A nice place and someone to share it with. They’d never want to leave.”

“Correct me if I am mistaken, but are you suggesting that ‘most people’ in our position would resign from Starfleet?”

“I guess so. Choose the civilian life, you know?”

“In my observation, ‘most people’ do not possess the ambition and talent required to achieve a command position on the Federation’s flagship,” Spock said.

“That doesn’t preclude us being crazy.”

“It does not,” Spock admitted. “However, if either one of us were not crazy under your definition of the term, I suspect we would not be compatible. It is precisely our shared experience of an uncommon and irresistible need for exploration that allowed us to meet in the first place.”

With that little gem, Jim decided he had no choice but to toss sleep out the window. He rolled on top of Spock and kissed him fiercely

“Enough crazy talk,” he said.

***

They checked their shuttlecraft out of the embassy docking bay early in the afternoon, when the first sun was at its zenith. The heat was a watery filter spread over the streets and skyscrapers of Halek, and everyone around them swam through it, their robes fluttering like fins in a stale breeze. Jim had a bounce in his step anyway, and he didn’t care how many Vulcans he offended with his existence.

This wasn’t paradise, he reminded himself, as the city shrank outside his window. If anything, temperature and character-wise, New Vulcan was much closer to hell. He didn’t feel welcome anywhere except the villa. Even so, he couldn’t help but associate the pleasantness of the past week with the stark planet. He was probably more attached to it now than Spock.

He tore his eyes away from the window and fired up the interstellar network for the first time in a long time, scanning the feeds. “Looks like Fitzpatrick’s still bitching for an inquiry,” he grunted.

Spock raised an eyebrow. “He is a persistent individual.” Jim substituted persistent for aggravating, based on the way Spock tapped a button harder than necessary. He went back to his survey of the rumor mill while the sky turned black around them.

The tabloids had died down. So had all the rehashes of the Sigma Nox incident based on the barebones story from Command, and Jim’s junk inbox had about a million requests for an interview. But one item was a bit more colorful. It talked about the crew: how they coped with the loss of the Galapagos, their missions with Scotty in command, and how they felt about the whole experience. Jim read this one instead of skimming it, intrigued and touched by the comments of his coworkers.

“Check out this quote from Sulu. ‘I’ve never seen a more masterful piece of stunt piloting in all my life.’” Jim laughed and felt embarrassed, like he was accepting an award he didn’t deserve. “I owe him a new katana for that one.”

Spock leaned over his arm to peer at the article. “Doctor McCoy refers to you as ‘Captain Hotshot.’”

“I know, the old bastard,” Jim said. Bones had deflected a few questions, telling the reporter Jim was getting healthy again and talking about the purely physical toll of the bulbweed. Jim decided that this merited a crushing bear hug at the next available opportunity, smack in the middle of the mess and lasting way too long.

The New Vulcan space port appeared in the darkness ahead, dozens of ships hovering around it, moving in and out of holding bays and docking braces. It looked like a city reflected on the water, two halves mirroring one another, spiky with towers and sensors. They began rounding the port, and Jim scooted to the edge of his seat.

Bit by bit, she slipped out from behind her metal screen, coy and perfect. Her battle scars were gone, her hull almost as spotless as the day he had met her. Jim could just barely make out the edges of new hull plating, pale against the older sections. She gleamed in the light of New Vulcan’s suns, streaks of gold chasing over her curves and contrasting the brilliant blue deflector dish. They glided around the port nacelle, staring in silent reverence.

Jim probably looked insane, he was grinning so broadly.

He rested his hand on Spock’s shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze. “Spectacular view, don’t you think?”

Spock glanced over, gazed at him for a long moment. His eyes smiled slowly, and Jim’s heart tripped over itself. “Indeed.” Then he turned back to the instrument panels, fingers skimming gracefully across the controls. “The Enterprise is ready for docking, Captain.”

“Standard approach, Commander.” Jim settled back in the pilot’s chair and watched Spock key in the program. The hangar doors parted, and now more than ever before, it felt like his silver lady was opening her arms to them, welcoming them home.



A/N:  Thank you to everyone who stuck with me until the end!  I can only hope you enjoyed reading this monster fic as much as I enjoyed writing it.  :)