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Chapter One: At Your Side

 

     The explosion was a complete surprise, and as the fire roared towards him, his involuntary last breath filled with heat and char, his last sight was of Spock’s body: blue and black thrown desperately across Jim’s own in a final, futile attempt at protection. He didn’t even have time to scream.

 

*****

 

     The afterlife was cold and the floor was unforgiving under his naked body. He thought he blinked his eyes open but everything was pitch black around him and he felt a surge of frightened panic until he heard a familiar voice next to him.

     “Jim. Be calm.”

     “Fuck.” Jim struggled to control his breathing. “Spock, am I blind?”

     He didn’t realize he had reached out until he felt the warm, dry press of another’s hand clasping his own. “Negative. We are being held in total darkness.”

     Spock’s fingers tightened almost reassuringly as Jim brought himself back under control. The captain gently released his friend’s hand and felt along the floor underneath him as well as along his own limbs. Naked, indeed, but intact, with no wounds he could feel even as adrenaline powered through his veins. The floor was smooth, and the air was fresh, apparently re-circulated somehow, with a perceptible current against his skin. He shivered, smelling the faintest scent of char. His hair? Spock’s? The flames had been so close.

     “We’re not dead.”

     He heard the smallest exhale from the Vulcan. “No, Captain. I surmise we were transported from the room nearly coincident with the triggering of the blast.”

     “And the others?” Jim almost didn’t want to ask. The diplomatic talks on Cresd’ti had been about to conclude, and the room filled with thirty-eight other souls, including a Federation ambassador and three other members of the crew of the Enterprise.

     Spock evenly replied, “I do not know. I regained consciousness four point two minutes prior to you and have been unable to detect the presence of any other beings. My time-sense indicates we have been out for six point one hours.”

     “Fuck again. Fuck it all,” Jim muttered, pushing himself to his knees and then attempting to stand, swearing again as his head made contact with a low ceiling, preventing him from rising any higher then a crouch. Another surge of panic followed, and he dropped back to his knees, placing both hands flat on the floor, concentrating on deep breaths.

     He could almost sense Spock’s furrowed brow and he said quickly, “It’s nothing, I’m okay. Are you alright? Injuries?”

     “No injuries to report, Captain. However, I seem to be in a state of complete undress.”

     Jim snorted; he couldn’t help it and the brief moment of humor helped him regain his bearings. “Me, too. Speculation?”

     “We appear to have been kidnapped as part of a premeditated act, however the motivation and identity of our kidnappers is unclear. I surmise that the bomb will act to dissuade an immediate recovery effort, as we will be presumed dead, and the number of beings in the room will make identification of remains difficult.”

     “But not impossible.”

     “No, Captain, but—.”

     “But it’ll take time. Which we don’t have,” Jim interjected. He concentrated, listening. “We’re on a ship?”

     “I can presume that we are, sir. One equipped with stealth runners, or our…enclosure is soundproofed.”

     And then Jim began to put the pieces together, remembering Fleet briefings about high-stakes piracy and trafficking in sentient beings. About Orion ships being equipped with increasingly sophisticated weaponry and shields and venturing ever more boldly into Federation-controlled space. His nakedness suddenly made him feel much more vulnerable. “Slavers.”

     “A possibility, Captain.” Spock’s reply didn’t give anything away.

     Jim curled his hands into fists. “But to plan and execute this; right under the nose of the Enterprise and on a supposedly secure Federation planet—.”

     Spock remained silent and Jim scowled. The captain of the flagship and his first officer would fetch a huge sum from the Klingons or the Romulans just for intelligence purposes, making such a risky endeavor worthwhile. And if not for that, there were other uses for slaves.

     His eyes searched for Spock in the darkness, suddenly terribly aware that his friend was the only one of his kind: the very definition of rare.

     “Spock, I—,” he began; abruptly stopping as a low hiss came from somewhere above them and he suddenly smelled the dull metallic scent of gas.

     He instinctively pushed himself back, but it was only seconds before he felt the cool hardness of the floor against his cheek, and then even that vanished.

 

*****

 

     His arms were yanked painfully behind his back, secured with something unforgiving, and a blindfold was wrapped around his eyes. His ankles were secured together so that he could barely walk and he kept stumbling, the unfamiliar hands gripping his upper arms tightening each time he fell, pulling him back up, irritated growls, snippets of the Orion dialect, and grunts of frustrated effort sounding in his ears as he was dragged along. He turned his head helplessly; wanting to call out to Spock, knowing they were being separated and there was nothing he could do about it. His body, still nude, felt heavy and lethargic, his neck and chest ached fiercely, there was a rank taste in his mouth, and he was surrounded by the pungent smell of his own urine, sticky on his skin.

     He stumbled once more and suddenly the hands released him and he fell forward, barely landing on his knees, his body twisted awkwardly. He raised his chin defiantly, though, and heard, surprisingly, the thin voice of an elderly woman, speaking in heavily accented Standard, “This is the one he came with?”

     “Yes, Lady, this is Kirk.”

     “And you’ve scanned him? Is it as the Vulcan says?”

     There was a slight hesitation from the thick Orion voice before continuing, “Our scans cannot verify what he claims, ma’am.”

     “But you think it’s true.”

     The Orion cleared his throat. “Lady, we agreed to deliver you the Vulcan, unharmed. We took the human,” Jim reeled as a rough blow descended against his back, “to give the impression that it was an assassination attempt against the command team of the flagship.”

     The old woman guffawed, “You brought him because you thought I might pay extra for another pretty boy. And when you found out that didn’t reflect my current interests you tried to kill him.”

     The Orion sounded annoyed, “The Vulcan’s life functioning ceased at the same time as this one for no reason our medic could understand. We were forced to revive the human or we would have lost both of them. If you want one of them, you have to take the other, it seems. I submit that compensation would be appropriate. After all, we discovered this—side effect before something happened that might have been irreversible.”

     She chuckled, saying wryly, “You mean you’re lucky you didn’t just shoot him. You sick bastards like to play with your food too much.”

     The Orion snorted, contending, “If they are mated, Lady, you’ve gotten a good deal out of this. The human can be used to control the Vulcan; he can’t be kept drugged indefinitely.”

     “Perhaps.” She paused. “Rohmer, give this Orion con-artist another twelve points for his extra…effort and see that he makes it back to his ship without incident.”

    Jim heard the slight emphasis on the last word, but kept his own expression under control.

     The woman continued, “Put this one with his mate and clean them up. I want all the drugs out of the Vulcan’s system before we begin.”

     An unfamiliar voice responded crisply, “Yes, madam.” There was the sound of footsteps, and Jim flinched away instinctively as two more pairs of hands grasped his upper arms, hard enough to bruise. This time he was dragged, making no effort to move his own feet, and minutes later he was dropped unceremoniously on a thickly carpeted floor. A pause, and then his blindfold was wrenched from his head and he blinked rapidly in the sudden brightness, a large room coming into focus.

     A bald, heavyset humanoid man was standing over him, a smirk on aquiline features. “Welcome home, filthy little pet.” A boot kicked at Jim’s side, flipping him over, and the man and his unseen companion walked away, accompanied by the sound of a door hissing shut behind them.

     Jim swallowed, wincing at the ache in his throat, waiting until his eyes adjusted before gingerly turning over and awkwardly rolling himself up onto his knees. And then he saw the figure haphazardly sprawled onto the floor next to the far wall.

     “Spock!” He shoved himself to his feet and hobbled over to fall again next to his friend. The Vulcan was similarly restrained, lying facedown, his arms cuffed behind him and his ankles manacled. Jim leaned forward, pressing his ear to the Vulcan’s back and feeling, barely, the slight rise and fall of breath, the flutter of an alien heartbeat. Relieved, Jim sat back, collapsing to lean against the wall when his leg muscles spasmed.

     “Fuck.” He jumped as he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to the left to see a mirrored wall.

     Frowning, Jim ignored his own disheveled and bruised image and took in the rest of the room. It was relatively spacious, with the thick carpet underneath extending across the entire space. One wall was mirrored, and the other three were plain plastisteel. The opposing wall held the door, and to Jim’s right an entryway opened to what looked like a bathroom. There was no furniture besides a large, flat pallet covered with blankets and pillows and no obvious security sensors, but Jim supposed that the mirrored wall was itself some sort of viewer. The light source was an inset fixture at the center of the ceiling, protected by a transparent window.

     Next to him, Spock’s body shuddered and the Vulcan let out a soft moan. Jim leaned over again. “Spock? Can you hear me?”

     “Jim.” Dark eyes blinked open and Spock shifted slightly, turning to his side and then his back, his bound hands beneath him.

     Jim’s eyes flicked over his first officer’s exposed body, noting the absence of any serious wounds. “You okay?”

     Spock’s normally sharp gaze was unfocused as he replied, “I am still suffering the effects of the…drug. I—.”

     His voice trailed off, and Jim nodded, reassuring, “It’s okay. Do you remember anything that happened?”

     “You were dying.” This was matter-of-factly said, despite the Vulcan’s unsteady voice. “I followed you.”

     “I don’t understand.”

     Spock’s eyes closed as he murmured, “I would not…let you go…again, t’hy’la.” His head lolled back.

     Jim stared at him in confusion and he whispered into the silence, “T’hy’la?” Almost as if on cue, the main door slid open and three men and one woman stepped into the room. All bald, with elaborate gold jewelry along the shell of their ears, wearing sheer white clothing that left little to the imagination, they each had a strangely blank expression on their faces, no life behind their eyes.

     “Do not resist.” The woman looked at him unblinkingly, her voice a placid monotone. “You will come with me to be cleansed and prepared.” She gestured to the men behind her.

     Jim felt a surge of protectiveness as they neared his first officer, pushing back against the wall and forcing himself awkwardly to his feet. “Prepared for what? Get the fuck away from him.” He moved aggressively forward, still hampered by the ankle restraints, seeing Spock’s eyes blink groggily open again.

     The woman did not answer, and the three men did not stop, and Jim had no intention of simply going quietly. His headlong rush was more of a bodily sprawl into them, a desperate maneuver with all his weight behind it. It was as if he had hit a brick wall: the men’s bodies were cold, hard, and unforgiving, and Jim hit the floor in front of them with a grunt. He heard Spock’s voice call his name, and then all was lost in the roar of blood in his ears as his throat was grasped in a fierce, cold grip and he was pulled up to dangle, his feet barely brushing the floor. He struggled, and felt panic rise and then he was suddenly released to land again, gasping for air.

     Spock had turned over, was pushing himself to his own feet, his entire body slow and unsteady, and Jim caught the glint of silver out of the corner of his eye. The woman had some sort of weapon and was aiming it at his first officer, and with a flash of light Spock went down again.

     The woman sounded unaffected, “You were warned not to resist. Now you will learn how your actions will be punished.” The weapon was aimed again, and Jim saw his friend’s eyes go wide, saw his body twist and convulse, his legs curling up.

     “No!” Jim yelled, his voice ragged, his throat burning, and he struggled, wanting to get to Spock, to stop the woman’s assault, to move. An iron hand descended on his shoulder, holding him down, and Jim cried out again, feeling something hard press against his throat, and darkness descended over him.

 

*****

 

     Awareness came back slowly, painfully, and Jim blinked his eyes open as he flexed his fingers, digging blunt nails into soft blankets, tasting something vaguely antiseptic in his mouth. His body felt strange: slightly slippery, like oil or lotion had been rubbed into his skin, and though he was now clothed, the fabric felt thin and insignificant. He shivered at the chill in the room, wincing as he pushed himself into a sitting position, noticing that most of the pain had faded from his neck and chest.

     “Spock?”

     He was alone, lying on the wide pallet in the center of the room, and he suppressed a wave of panic, gritting his teeth and looking down at himself. He was wearing loose black pants and a long-sleeved tunic, both of a fine, shimmery texture. His hands felt…different, and he held them out in front of him, noting that his nails had been manicured and minor cuts and imperfections, like where he characteristically chewed the cuticle on his thumb or abrasions where the manacles had fastened, were gone.

     “Spock!”

     He tried again, despite some inner knowledge that his friend would not hear. He stood up, fighting a wave of vertigo, catching a glimpse of himself again in the mirrored wall and then peering closer. His hair had been trimmed and combed, and the way the thin clothing clung to his body made him think of—. He swore, anger breaking through the panic, striding over to the empty bathroom and then back across the room, raising a fist and slamming it against the mirrored surface, growling, “Where is he?”

     He hit the wall again and again, feeling his hand bruise and welcoming the pain. “Goddammit!” And he barely heard the soft hiss of the door opening behind him. He whirled, and saw the same large man from before, Rohmer, looming in the doorway, a weapon held threateningly in his hand.

     “Back away, pet,” Rohmer ordered firmly, and Jim glowered but obeyed, his hands clenched into fists. The larger man looked slightly amused as he stepped further in, turning his head to call out back through the door, “He’s ready, madam.”

     A low mutter preceded the appearance of a tall, slender woman, perhaps human and quite old, her heavily lined face in marked contrast to the bright intensity of her blue eyes. She moved slowly, carefully, and her weathered hands were clutched tightly in front of her, her silver-gilt hair bound in many small braids wrapped around her head. She wore a rich, purple robe that hung to the floor, and Rohmer stepped back submissively, lowering his eyes briefly but keeping the weapon trained on the captain.

     The woman lifted her chin, her eyes skeptical as she inquired, “You are the Vulcan’s mate?”

     Jim stared at her, his anger pushed away as his mind raced. He remembered the clipped conversation before and the cryptic, confusing thing Spock had murmured. He also knew the apparent stakes should he say the wrong thing.

     He hesitated, deflecting, “Perhaps what I am makes little difference to what you want me to be.” Jim unclenched his hands, making a flippant gesture that sent the material of the tunic shimmering in the low light, his expression contemptuous.

     The woman’s eyes narrowed and she grunted, remarking, “Pretty and quick-witted.”

     “Where is my first officer?” Jim fixed her with a glare.

     She smiled slightly. “If I choose to keep you, it will be because of your usefulness, one way or another. Usefulness of body,” her eyes flicked over his figure, “or because of what you are to the Vulcan.”

     Jim’s jaw tensed. “Where is he? Why do you want him?”

     She ignored his questions, glancing casually to the side. “The former people of this world had a saying that was quite beautiful: Isn’hara gli loe’ati vni a dua di litin. It was understood as the purest expression of love in their culture, and I find it most appropriate now. Would you like to know the translation?”

     Jim remained silent, an icy pit of fear growing in his stomach as her eyes fixed on his again.

     “It means: ‘I will suffer a thousand deaths to keep you from harm’.” She smiled coldly. “Consider this a test of your usefulness. Rohmer, proceed.”

     The flash of light from the weapon was immediate, and Jim crumpled, feeling fierce agony surge along his limbs. He may have screamed; he knew nothing other than the terrible burning pain that seemed to stretch endlessly—and then was suddenly gone. Gasping for breath, his arms and legs twitching as he lay on the carpeted floor, Jim heard Rohmer chuckle.

     “It appears, madam, that your test was successful.”

     The woman made an irritated noise. “For now. To think that Orion idiot may have stumbled upon our solution.” She grunted. “It will have to suffice. Watch this one to see if he exhibits any side-effects from the procedure; considering their potential convolution I do not want to take a chance with his life.”

     They withdrew, the large hulk of a manservant behind the strange woman, and the door slid shut again, leaving Jim alone. No, not alone: he could see the mirror and knew without a doubt of who was on the other side. Spock.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Behind Closed Doors

 

     Time stretched as Jim paced. The stunned feeling had worn off after a few minutes, and he had been left to the silence and the solitude and the slight chill in the room. He had tested the door, had checked every centimeter of the walls and corners, under the pallet and in the surprisingly large bathroom. He had tried yelling, banging on the mirrored wall again, and saying grossly antagonistic things to the general room: a ploy that had actually worked once when he was being held on a Quambi prison ship. The Quambi, of course, were naturally very volatile while these people, evidently, were not.

     He had finally simply begun walking, back and forth, thinking through what had happened, and what it all meant. They had been about to kill him onboard that Orion craft; they had killed him, it seemed, and something had happened to Spock that had forced the slavers to revive Jim. I followed you. It didn’t make sense. And the Orions had assumed the Enterprise officers were mated, an assumption that held some critical significance. Jim frowned, remembering the Orion captain’s conversation with the woman. Spock had said something to them that they were trying to verify and couldn’t. And then his friend’s words to him: I would not let you go again. What did t’hy’la mean? Jim bit his lip, the plush carpet muffling the soft sounds of his footfalls, thinking of death behind a pane of transparent aluminum. His friendship with his first officer had flourished after Jim had awakened from his coma into a new chance on life: a relationship that Jim knew ran exceptionally deeply for both of them. And that depth was being exploited; it was obvious that their friendship was being used, each against the other. He kicked at the pallet angrily, unable to control his nervous energy. Finally, he simply backed away to stand against the rear wall, his arms crossed over his chest, a scowl on his face.

     To his surprise, that seemed to work. The door across from him slid open, and he stepped forward, hoping for his friend and seeing instead a petite blonde woman, flanked by two of the bald, white-clad men from before. This time, Jim was able to get a better look at the men’s features: strangely, almost eerily similar, with only subtle differences in the curve of a nose or the shape of the eyes.

     The woman’s hair was swept up in an elaborate style in the front, the rest cascading down her back almost to her waist, and she was wearing a tunic and pants of the same dark material as the captain, altered to fit snugly around her generous curves.  She smiled sweetly up at him, almost coyly, and Jim’s eyes narrowed.

     “Who are you?” he demanded. “Where’s my friend?”

    The insipid expression on her face contrasted sharply with her calculating gaze. “My name is Nerit. It is my task to welcome you to this place and advise you of the rules here. Your mate is performing his duty, presently, and will be returned. You will accompany me, please.”

     She made no move forward, but Jim felt himself shift into a defensive stance. “Where are we going?” he asked suspiciously.

     She shrugged, smiling easily. “We will visit the allowed areas of this place: where you can eat, where you can obtain daily necessities, where you can exercise. You will meet others. Of course,” she lowered her eyes briefly, emphasizing, “no one is presently permitted to touch you, by order of our Keeper. Your body is to be used for your duty only.”

     “Keeper?” Jim questioned, ignoring the rest of it.  The two men on either side of Nerit had not moved or made a noise, standing like statues, the golden adornments on their ears gleaming in the light.

     “The one who owns us; the one whose vision for a new society shall enlighten the galaxy.  The one whose mighty sword shall strike at false prophets and who shall return order and justice to all.” Nerit’s reply was delivered like a sermon, underlain with forceful righteousness.

     “Sounds like a tall order,” Jim retorted dryly. “Especially since order and justice don’t usually align with forced servitude and torture.”

     Nerit tilted her head. “Your attitude is unfortunate and you and your mate will suffer for it. Now come along.” She made a movement towards the door.

     Jim shook his head, standing stubbornly still. “Where are we? What is this place?”

     “It is here.” Nerit blinked prettily, adding, “Your curiosity is redundant. You have your duty as your mate has his.  Your role in our glorious destiny is set and nothing but death awaits along other paths.”

     Irrational. The whole thing made little sense, and Jim struggled to keep his expression under control. “And what is my duty, exactly?”

     A small, impatient noise escaped Nerit’s plush lips. “To care for your mate, of course. To keep him alive as long as possible.” She waved a hand, glancing around the room. “It is fortunate that he has such as you. The others had no one, and barely lasted long at all.”

     “Others?” Jim whispered.

     Nerit shrugged again, and the man to her right suddenly lifted his chin, announcing, “The procedure has just ended.”

     Jim stared at him. “What procedure?” he asked, desperation in his voice.

     But the man didn’t elaborate and Nerit flipped her hair over her shoulder. “We won’t be too long then. Come with me. Now.”

     “What pro—?” Jim’s question trailed off and he crossed his arms, defiantly insisting, “I’m not going anywhere until my friend comes back.”

     The second man replied, his voice an exact replica of the first’s, “You have been shown the price of your disobedience. It would be most unfortunate to inflict punishment on your mate at this time.”

     Ice ran down Jim’s spine as he remembered the pain and he quickly held out his hands.

     “Fine, okay.” He moved forward, conceding, “I’ll go. Don’t hurt him.”

     The men backed through the door, moving in tandem to stand on either side of the entryway as Jim followed Nerit out into a wide, plain hallway. Above them, Jim could see other levels, stretching up towards a vaulted ceiling. Lights embedded in the walls cast a bright glow over clean, white walls and flooring and rows and rows of identical doors. Nerit proceeded with quick, graceful steps, turning every now and then to look up at him as she talked and gestured. The doors they passed were mostly closed, but some were open to reveal interiors much like the one Jim had just vacated. There were many beings, all appearing human, walking freely and wearing clothing similar to Jim’s and Nerit’s. They did not meet Jim’s eyes, even going so far as to shrink away as he passed. And the hallway was lined with a succession of the white-clad figures, both men and women, all of shocking physical similarity and standing impassive and unblinking. Like sentinels.

     Nerit continued, “All of the workers have quarters along here. And this hallway leads directly to the common area, where you can engage in exercise or conversation, or have a meal.” She smoothed her hands down the front of her close-fitting tunic. “There is a medical station as well, and a place to obtain grooming and bath supplies, linens, and clothing. You are responsible to always keep your appearance and room proper, so that you can provide whatever service the Keeper requires.”

     “Workers?” Jim looked at her curiously. “Workers for what?”

     “That is not your concern. However, my duty is to welcome newcomers and to be of bodily comfort to those who require it.” She blinked up at him, saying coquettishly, “Your purpose is similar here, but only to your one. Your presence ensures his cooperation and survival, which is of primary importance.” She smirked, looking him up and down. “Otherwise, you might serve as I do: you are very attractive.”

     Jim visibly flinched, both at the suggestion and at the striking confirmation that it had been his suffering at Rohmer’s hands that had apparently forced his first officer’s compliance with the…procedure.

     She shrugged again, remarking, “I once thought as you, but my duties have pleasures and I am given responsibilities that no one else has. When the Keeper’s glorious destiny comes, I will be one of the selected.”

     “The selected?”

     She answered primly, “My duty also includes my silence. Here we are.” The hallway had opened up into a vast space: skylights and arches overhead. More people were milling here, standing in lines or sitting on low couches. Jim could see many with trays of food and still others holding packages, heading back towards the hallway. He stopped at the threshold, staring up at what appeared to be darkening blue sky streaked with red high above, his mind racing as he tried to narrow in on what planet this might be.

     Nerit looked back at him. “Are you not hungry?”

     “No,” he replied shortly. Despite the need to further investigate his surroundings, he needed to go back to the room; he wanted to be there when Spock was returned. Nerit’s cryptic descriptions and indifferent manner had done nothing but enflame the captain’s concern for his friend, and his worry was preventing him from thinking clearly. “No, I’ve seen enough.”

     She studied him briefly. “Very well; it can be quite overwhelming. If you wish, I will bring your food to you.”

     Jim swallowed, taking a step back, seeing her standing still and evidently not about to accompany him back. “Which door is—,” he began.

     She smiled, finishing, “Marked G-319. You are now welcome to come and go as you wish during appropriate intervals, given your continued satisfactory behavior. I believe you’ve already been informed of the consequences should you disobey.”

     He nodded tightly, and she waved her hand. “I shall come by later with your food. And for your mate?”

     “Yes.” Jim turned stiffly away, not waiting to see if she heard him, walking past cowed people and stalwart sentinels, past doors and doors with visible numbers imprinted above, his bare feet silent on the hard flooring, adrenaline pumping through his system, and he almost passed his own room before catching himself and stepping towards it, watching the door slide smoothly open and seeing a familiar figure sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the pallet.

 

*****

 

     Jim moved swiftly to his friend’s side as the door slid shut behind him, kneeling in front of the Vulcan.

     “Spock!”

     He gently placed a hand on his first officer’s shoulder, now clad in the same thin material as seemed to be ubiquitous here. Spock’s eyes were closed and his body strangely still, and Jim grasped his other shoulder, shaking him slightly, pleading, “Spock, come on, come out of it.”

     The Vulcan’s clothes were rumpled, his hair uncharacteristically tousled, and despite the meditative position, his skin was too pale, new lines of tension around his eyes, his mouth. Jim stared, his fingers tightening and the chill down his spine returning as he shook his friend again. “Spock.”

     A shudder ran through the body under the human’s hands as brown eyes finally blinked open. “Jim?” Spock’s gaze focused and cleared, and Jim could see the effort. “Captain,” the Vulcan said more firmly, and he shifted, his back straightening as the captain’s hands fell away.

     “What happened? What happened to you?” Jim eyes slid over his friend’s body, searching for injury. “Are you—?”

     “You are well?” Spock interjected neatly, ignoring the captain’s questions.

     “Yeah, just—,” Jim cut himself off, shaking his head in irritation. “Don’t change the subject.”

     Spock glanced away, towards the mirrored wall, and long fingers flexed where they lay on his knees.

     The silence stretched and Jim finally snapped, “I want an answer, Commander.”

     The Vulcan did not meet his eyes, continuing to stare at the mirror, reporting quietly, “My participation was demanded in a procedure involving the telepathic transfer of latent memory from receptacles storing the psi-patterns of the former inhabitants of this world into a virtual system.”

     “What?”

     “It is believed that the former inhabitants’ memories include information about a weapon of incredible power, which the Keeper wishes to exploit. The presence of a telepathic medium is required due to the dependence of the computer system on living engrams.”

     Jim watched him, trying to process the information, disturbed at his first officer’s uncharacteristic lack of eye contact or analysis. “You’re not alright. Did they hurt you?”

     Brown eyes lowered. “The procedure is…extremely taxing. With rest and meditation I should be able to regain…I should be able to recover fully.”

     Jim licked his lips, feeling uneasy. He knew there was more to it than what Spock had said. Furrowing his brow, he looked his friend over again, noticing that the Vulcan’s hands were trembling slightly and dark eyes were still focused somewhere on the floor. That odd phrase came suddenly to his mind: ‘I will suffer a thousand deaths to keep you from harm’.

     “Spock—,” he began, reaching out and laying a cautious hand over his first officer’s.

     As their skin touched, Spock sharply inhaled and jerked away, and Jim stared, shocked at his friend’s response, seeing unreadable emotion in the depths of dark eyes and remembering that they were most likely being watched. He breathed in and out, choosing his words carefully, “They hurt me; they threatened me in order to force you to do this—transfer. I want to know what happened; exactly what happened, starting back on that ship.”

     Spock remained silent, his expression resuming its normal impassivity, and the captain cursed his first officer’s very human stubbornness, “Dammit, Spock!”

     Something flashed through dark eyes but Spock replied as evenly as ever, an immoveable object, as Bones liked to say, “I have explained it already, Captain.”

     The irresistible force narrowed his own eyes, retorting, “What you’ve said might suffice for my officer, but maybe you’d like to try it again as my mate.”

     His sarcastic emphasis was subtle, but Jim saw Spock’s eyes flicker, saw tight shoulders draw back slightly. They stared at each other with equal stubbornness and suddenly the door slid open.

     Nerit stepped in briskly without waiting for an invitation, carrying a covered tray in her hands and smiling at them. “Kirk.” She walked gracefully across the room to place the tray onto the pallet, straightening and casting a slow look over Spock, her smile faltering and her eyes shifting to Jim, saying accusingly, “He looks terrible. You will need to work harder to maintain his condition.”

     Spock pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, swaying slightly, refusing to meet Jim’s eyes or to acknowledge Nerit’s presence aside from giving her a wide berth as he walked silently into the bathroom.

     Jim frowned, standing and glaring down at the young woman. “Leave him alone.”

     She didn’t back down. “He is your responsibility and his survival means yours; you would do well to remember that.”

     Jim stared at her, and her smile suddenly flashed again, patently false and openly contemptuous. “I shall leave you to your meal.” She turned and walked to the door, pausing to call over her shoulder, “They will be back for your mate in the morning. See that he is prepared.”

     The door opened and shut, and Jim was left alone, sparing a cursory glance at the tray before walking over to the open door of the bathroom. He peered in, seeing Spock standing in front of the sink, the faucet running unnoticed in front of him. Worry stabbed through Jim’s chest and his previous irritation was forgotten as he stepped forward, reaching across his friend to shut off the flow of water, careful not to touch him.

     The Vulcan flinched and he turned his head to regard Jim with some modicum of surprise, as if he hadn’t heard him come in.

     The captain gestured. “Come on; she’s gone, and she brought food, at least.”

     “I am not hungry.”

     “That’s bullshit,” Jim blurted.

     Spock flinched again and his shoulders curled forward. “I do not require sustenance at this time,” he maintained.

     Jim frowned, saying more gently, “It’s been, what, a day since you’ve eaten?” When he got no response he glanced down, seeing Spock’s hands clench into fists. “She said they’d be back for you in the morning.”

     “I understand.” Spock immediately crossed his arms over his chest.

     “Well, I don’t. I’m still waiting on that explanation.”

     “I cannot explain further, Captain.”

     Jim waved a hand, feeling frustrated. “Give me an analysis, then, Science Officer. Where the fuck are we? Who are these people; who is the Keeper?”

     Spock’s jaw tensed and then he drew himself up, clasping his hands behind his back. “Unknown, Captain. I can infer that we are not within Federation space, yet still inside the Orion sphere of influence. The Keeper appears to be human, as do most of the people here, but her control over them is absolute. The guards are not human, however, but a very sophisticated model of android.” The Vulcan took a breath and continued, a tremor in his voice, “The level of sophistication exhibited by the androids implies that the Keeper has access to alien technology of high order, however her approach here appears to be primarily archaeological.”

     “Archaeological?” Jim furrowed his brow.

     “She is exploiting a concept very similar to the Vulcan katric ark but,” he hesitated, “individualized.” He blinked, letting his hands drop to hover out at his sides as if he expected to lose his balance. “Captain, if you will permit me, I am in need of meditation.”

     “Wait!” Jim stepped closer, trying to ignore the way Spock immediately moved back. “Spock, I need to understand what happened on that ship.” He lowered his voice and took another step forward, seeing Spock’s stiff retreat blocked by the rear wall. “I need to know why they’re convinced that we’re mated.”

     Spock lifted his chin. “I am presently unable to comply.” His expression had sealed off and his words were clipped.

     Jim studied his friend, seeing nostrils flare with every forced breath, seeing the Vulcan’s back against the wall, literally. “Fine,” he said shortly, yielding reluctantly. “For now, at least. I’m going to go eat something. You sure you don’t want—.”

     “I am certain,” the Vulcan interrupted immediately.

     “Okay.” It was not okay, but Jim didn’t know what else to do. His friend was closed off to him in every way and obviously hurting, but human methods would do no good and the captain couldn’t help growing more and more frustrated and angry. Gritting his teeth, Jim turned and left the bathroom, crossing to sit on the pallet and lifting the cover on the tray. Two plates of something that looked like multi-colored pasta and vegetables wafted steam languidly into the air, and Jim’s stomach growled.

     Busy eating, he barely heard Spock slip past him, the Vulcan moving to sit cross-legged, this time against the rear wall, dark eyes closing almost immediately. Jim washed the bland food down with what tasted like fruit juice, supplied in a small carton, and re-covered the tray, placing it on the floor next to the pallet. There was no movement from his friend and Jim chewed his lip, watching the Vulcan until the light in the room unexpectedly dimmed.

     “Guess it’s time for bed,” he muttered darkly to himself, glancing at the door and wondering if it was still open. Rising and padding over, he confirmed that it was, indeed, locked.

     “Shit.” Kicking absently at the carpet, Jim turned back towards Spock.

     He stood there for several minutes, feeling the chill in the room slowly seep through the thin material of the clothing he wore, thinking about Spock’s curt description of the procedure. From what he understood, his first officer was being forced to interact with a long-dead alien consciousness, allowing it to move into his own mind before somehow transferring into a computer, where memories would be accessed and searched for specialized information: information about a weapon, specifically, and probably other things, too. Jim thought it all sounded like it should be impossible, but more and more in his experience the term impossible seemed practically meaningless.

     Spock’s motionless form was barely visible in the low light. The procedure had obviously taken its toll on the Vulcan, and Jim felt worry unfurl again in his gut as he recalled Spock’s haltingly enforced distance. Thus far in their friendship, each step they had taken had seemed to draw them into a closer understanding of each other, and this separation felt fundamentally wrong.

     Lost in a frustrating haze of questions with no answers, the chill in the room seeming to only increase further, Jim exhaled and reluctantly lowered himself onto the pallet, pulling the covers over his body, keeping his eyes on his first officer until sleep finally ensnared him.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: You Versus Me

 

     The sound of water running in the bathroom and the sense of light against his eyelids woke Jim with a jerk and he sat up abruptly, his head spinning and confusion surging before he remembered where he was.

     “Fuck.” He winced and glanced down at the pallet. The other side of the bed was pristine, the pillow untouched, and Jim’s jaw tightened as he realized that Spock probably hadn’t slept at all. Determinedly, the captain pushed himself to his feet; tugging at the rumpled, thin clothing over his body before walking across the room.

     Spock stood in front of the sink, bare-chested, his tunic held in his hands as he studied the material. The Vulcan’s hair had been smoothed back into a semblance of order, his posture appeared straighter and his gaze sharper, and he turned his head as the human entered the bathroom.

     “Captain.”

     Jim licked his dry lips, his eyes narrowing as he peered at his friend.

     “What the hell are those?” he exclaimed, moving forward and lifting a hand to point at dark, ugly bands of bruising that circled the Vulcan’s torso, upper arms and stomach.

     Spock stepped back out of reach, holding his shirt almost defensively. “I was restrained during the procedure,” he responded flatly.

     Jim stopped short. “Taxing,” he muttered, repeating Spock’s vague description of what he had endured. “That looks more than ‘taxing’ to me.”

     The Vulcan’s expression closed. “The procedure involves considerable transference. I was not prepared.”

     “But you are now?” Jim remarked caustically. “Spock, look, we have to talk about what happened yesterday. I need to understand if I’m going to—,” he cut his words short, lowering his voice to a whisper, “—to get us out of here.”

     Spock merely turned his attention back to his inspection of the fabric. “This does not offer sufficient thermal insulation.”

     Jim exhaled loudly. “Are you fucking serious, Commander?”

     There was no response and the captain scowled, resurgent anger and frustration swelling helplessly as he watched Spock slip the shirt back over his head.

     “I’m not going to ask if you slept, and I know you haven’t eaten and those…fucking androids or whatever are going to be back any minute.”

     “I am aware, Captain.”

     Incredulity warred with anger; Jim was not used to this…evasion and apparent resignation, especially from Spock, and the Vulcan was deliberately not meeting his eyes again.

     The captain took a deep breath, trying to center himself enough to calmly propose the thing that had occurred to him the night before. Any plan for escape or resistance would require discussion and a concerted effort that would certainly be overheard and thwarted. There was one possible solution, but Jim was hesitant to press for it, not only because of Spock’s evidently poor condition and obvious reluctance for physical closeness, but also because of the captain’s own marked aversion to the idea of mental intimacy. Unfortunately, time was running out before the Vulcan was taken again, and Jim needed the explanation that he still had not received; he needed to know more about what they were up against and his entire being was demanding some kind of action.

     He stepped closer to his first officer, lowering his voice and trying to avoid a grimace, gesturing awkwardly towards his own head. “Spock, what happened on Delta Vega, could you—?”

     Dark eyes snapped to Jim’s face and then shifted away. “Negative.”

     The captain was taken aback at his friend’s vehemence. “Why the hell not?”

     Spock blinked, and his face was suddenly completely expressionless, his eyes blank. “I cannot comply at this time, Captain.”

     Jim snorted, retorting, “Can not or will not? You gave me that bullshit line last night, too. I want to know what the fuck is going on.”

     “I—,” Spock began, and the sound of the door sliding open in the main room halted his response.

     “Fuck!” Jim slammed his hand down on the unforgiving countertop, and almost instantly two sentinels appeared in the doorway to the bathroom.

     The man on the left scrutinized Jim before his eyes moved to regard Spock. “Your presence is required. Immediately.”

     Jim instinctively moved between the man and his first officer, and saw a familiar silver device appear in the hand of the other android.

     “Captain.” Spock’s voice held an odd note, almost a plea, and the Vulcan moved forward immediately, addressing the sentinels, “I am prepared.”

     “No—.” Jim’s protest was cut off as Spock’s hand closed around his upper arm.

     “Jim,” he murmured.

     The captain shrugged harshly away from the gentle touch, crossing his arms angrily. Spock’s hand hovered for an instant before falling to his side and he walked forward without another glance, the two sentinels following him as they left the room, the main door sliding shut and leaving nothing but confusion and frustration behind.

 

*****

 

     Several hours later Jim stood stiffly against the wall in the corridor, observing the comings and goings of the others, seeing people repeatedly avert their eyes and shrink away from him, deliberately avoiding any communication or contact. He had visited the commissary and supplies area earlier, obtaining clean towels, linens, changes of clothing, food, and other items: soap, toothbrushes, and anything vaguely metallic that might be manipulated into a tool or a weapon. He had fruitlessly searched his own room again, paying particular attention to the mirrored wall and the fixtures inside the bathroom. And he had finally returned to wander the hallway in frustration, eventually seeing Nerit as she exited one of the rooms.

     “Nerit!” he had called, catching her attention.

     The blonde had tilted her head at him. “What is it, Kirk?”

     Jim had been direct. “No one is allowed to interact with me?”

     “Not in any significant way,” she had replied curtly.

     He had opened his mouth to press when she abruptly stopped, turning to face him. “You are the Vulcan’s mate. Your energy and concentration should be focused on him and him alone. To divert your attention endangers him and risks the success of our entire endeavor.” She had quirked her lips, adding, “Additionally, your need for companionship is not acute and therefore any attempt at communication can be interpreted as an attempt to obtain forbidden information.”

     Jim had waved his hands. “I can’t take care of him when he’s not here! Can I see him at least? Help him through it?”

     She had flipped her hair over her shoulder and begun walking again, replying, “That is not in my power to address.”

     “Then who—?”

     She had cast a dark look over her shoulder, saying exasperatedly, “Just do your duty, Kirk. This is the beginning, and it will get worse. His life is yours. I shall not say it again.”

     Jim had let her go, seeing her slip into another room. Now, standing and watching, Jim noticed that there appeared to be shifts: presumed slave-workers coming and going at predetermined times, returning to their rooms, heading to the common area or filing in the opposite direction down the hallway to disappear through a set of large doors which were notable in that they had not been included in Nerit’s tour.

     There didn’t appear to be a lot of options on his end, and Jim thought again of Spock’s unusual reticence. The Vulcan had no doubt seen more of the complex: behind the mirrored wall, perhaps beyond those closed doors; they needed more information and Jim was completely astonished by his first officer being unable or, worse, unwilling to supply it. And Spock’s complete refusal to discuss the pervasive misunderstanding of their relationship was particularly confusing, making Jim certain that there was something important that was being kept from him.

     He felt restless, taut, needing to do something and wondering if the most obvious, and, truthfully, only option might just work. Steeling himself, he pushed away from the wall, making his way back down the long hallway, past unmoving sentinels, past the rows of living quarters. This time, though, he kept walking past his room and around the steadily curving hallway, approaching the large doors steadily, and it was only with less than five meters to go that he heard a bark from behind him.

     “Stop!”

     Fuck. He stopped, turning slowly to see a sentinel standing in front of him, gold jewelry glinting in the soft lights.

     “You are not permitted to leave this section.”

     Jim didn’t move, lifting his chin and saying firmly, “I want to see my fr—my mate. He’s undergoing the Keeper’s procedure. In there.”

     The android tilted his head, pale eyes oddly focused, and confusing silence stretched before he spoke again, “Acknowledged. The telepath. He is serving his purpose. You are not required at this time.”

     Jim stepped forward with feigned confidence, gambling, “It’s my purpose to see to his well-being and he needs me.”

     Another tense moment of silence stretched across Jim’s nerves, and the android abruptly ordered, “You will return to your room immediately or face punishment.”

     There was obviously some kind of internal communication occurring between this sentinel and something or someone else, and Jim stubbornly didn’t move, interested in the android’s ability to engage with him as contact was made with another. A buzz of anticipation ran over his body as he thought he recognized some kind of opening: a possible connection to some central network, perhaps. He’d talked down aliens, out-maneuvered computers, conversed his way into and out of a dozen situations, and he said assertively, “I was informed that to serve my purpose I must care for my mate. I wish to serve my purpose.”

     The android didn’t blink, didn’t twitch or give any indication that he had heard Jim’s response, and in the silence Jim tried a tentative step backwards. Still nothing, and Jim had begun to turn to face the doors when the sentinel suddenly spoke again, “Your mate has been punished in your stead. To risk further punishment is to risk his life. Comply with the Keeper’s order. Immediately.”

     Jim blanched, his calculated confidence crushed beneath a sick realization of what had just happened.

     “Shit,” he muttered, whirling back and holding his hands out. “Shit, okay. Okay, I’ll go.” He began to walk, past the sentinel, seeing it turn to follow his progress as he moved quickly back towards his room, his heart pounding in his chest as he remembered the punishment, as he remembered seeing his friend’s body convulse on the floor.

     “Fuck. Fuck.” The door shut behind him, and Jim felt horrified, trapped and guilty, looking up at the featureless ceiling. Why the hell would they punish Spock if they needed him so badly? To keep one of them in line they hurt the other, and Jim grimaced as he recognized the simple effectiveness. He wouldn’t risk Spock’s life and Spock wouldn’t risk Jim’s, and though each would take pain upon himself, it was a far different thing to know it was being inflicted on someone else.

     Jim cast a desperate glare at the mirrored wall next to him, still feeling the cloying remnants of the oil that had been applied to his skin, flexing his hands and beginning to pace. Fleet regulations included language for when one officer was being used against another: curt, dispassionate words that ultimately led to the fact that their lives were considered forfeit if high-level or strategic information was at stake. From what Spock had described, though, the procedure had nothing to do with his knowledge or status as a Starfleet officer and everything to do with his abilities as a telepath.

     And if Spock’s telepathic abilities were the point of all this, then the question remained: why him? Other telepaths would have been much simpler to acquire, even other Vulcans. It was a risk for the Orions to attempt such a complex kidnapping plot, and obviously cost the Keeper a significant price. The captain remembered the elderly woman’s words, to think that Orion idiot may have stumbled upon our solution, and of Nerit’s pronouncement that the procedure had been attempted with others. The solution, evidently, was to use Jim as a threat, but what had happened to those others? Were they still here? Could they be helpful in an escape?

     The door slid open unexpectedly and Jim spun, seeing his first officer stumble through, catching a glimpse of two impassive sentinels standing in the hallway just as the door closed again.

     “Spock!” The captain was at his side in two steps, reaching out instinctively towards the Vulcan. “Are you—?”

     Jim’s question faltered as Spock abruptly evaded the touch, crossing his arms over his chest and moving haltingly away, well out of arm’s reach. His eyebrows were drawn together tightly and he looked worn, his clothes even more rumpled over his slumped frame, his eyes dull. There was a large, darkening contusion across the left side of his face.

     The captain pulled his hand back as if stung, studying his friend. “Are you alright?” he asked dumbly.

     A muscle twitched on the side of Spock’s face. “I am not,” he admitted. “May I ask why—?”

     Jim winced. “I tried to go through those doors at the other end of the hallway.” He met an unreadable dark gaze. “I’m sorry.”

     “The cause was sufficient,” Spock said simply, almost too quickly. “I require meditation.”

     Jim frowned. “Right now? Spock, we need to—,” he trailed off, glancing pointedly at the mirrored wall.

     “Negative.” The muscle twitched again in Spock’s face.

     “Why not?” Jim blurted, unable to stop himself. “Why the fuck won’t you talk to me? Why won’t you—?” he sputtered, holding his own hand up in a mimicry of the meld position, angry that he had to practically beg for something he feared and most decidedly didn’t want.

     “Ask me no more questions!”

     The outburst hung in the air, and Jim saw the faint echoes of panic in Spock’s eyes. Stubbornly, the captain took a purposeful step forward, hissing, “This isn’t a goddamn request; this is an order. Do you think I want this? Do you think this isn’t a last fucking resort?”

     “I cannot.” The clipped, almost choked response was immediate, and Spock turned away, retreating with stiff steps towards the far wall, reaching out with one hand to steady himself against it.

     Jim threw his hands up, exclaiming, “That’s it? Just like that?” He bit his lip, suddenly not giving a damn if they were overheard; he was getting tired of Spock’s intractability. “I want to know what happened onboard that Orion ship. I want to know what’s happening to you when they take you away. I want to know where you go, and why the fuck they need you.”

     Spock kept his back to him. “As I described, Captain, my telepathic abilities—.”

     “No, I meant why do they need you. There are other telepaths that would have been a lot easier for them to get their hands on.”

     “They have tried, Captain.”

     Jim was insistent. “How do you know? What have they told you?”

     Spock still had not turned, but his head bowed slightly. “It has been made clear to me that I was brought here due to my Vulcan mental discipline and the hope that my hybrid genetics might make it more difficult for me to simply commit suicide. However, because of your inadvertent presence, a more…effective means of control has been discovered.”

     “You mean they’ll kill me if you don’t comply, just like they’ll hurt you if I disobey.”

     “Precisely,” Spock replied. And now he turned, his hand sliding from the wall, but he didn’t meet Jim’s eyes.

     Jim peered at him. “And whatever it is that they’re doing to you—you would kill yourself to prevent it? The others, before you, killed themselves?” He lowered his voice, asking intently, “Spock, is it a threat to Federation security?”

     “Other telepathic species lack the necessary discipline and training and were not able to perform the function. They were terminated. Full-blooded Vulcans found it difficult to withstand the emotional strain and evidently terminated themselves.” Spock closed his eyes. “I do not know if the purported weapon is real or not, nor the extent to which it may pose a threat. So far, the consciousness to which I have been exposed has been that of civilians. Their lives were…innocent.”

     Something about the way Spock said that word made a chill run down Jim’s spine and he moved cautiously forward. “Emotional strain?”

     Dark eyes opened and Spock almost imperceptibly shrunk back. “My shields are severely damaged. The memories I am forced to absorb emphasize the manner of the beings’ violent deaths most clearly. Their emotional turmoil is profound. And their pain.”

     “Jesus Christ.”

     Spock’s eyes drifted towards the mirrored wall. “With you I am further compromised. I must not allow this weakness. I must maintain distance. And control.”

     “So you’ll shut me out.” Jim shook his head. “And how long will you last, Spock? Not eating, not sleeping? Even a Vulcan can’t—.”

     “Vulcan discipline is not absolute, but it will suffice at present as I have no other choice.” Spock’s body stiffened. “Jim, you must understand that your…our friendship is not without cost.”

     “I don’t understand. You mean that I—,” he began.

     “Introduce additional instability that will lead to further loss of control,” Spock finished, his voice colorless.

     Jim flinched.

     Spock finally met the captain’s eyes. “To touch you now in the manner you suggest would not be conducive to my continued endurance, which would mean your death. I cannot allow it.”

     “You can’t allow it,” Jim repeated, and he saw his first officer’s eyes widen at his dangerous tone. “So you’re just going to allow this to continue? Until you’re dead or close enough to it that it doesn’t matter and then they kill me anyway? Until they’ve found this super-weapon or whatever and are on their way into Federation space over our dead bodies?” He shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you’d give up, Spock.”

     “I have not.”

     “Bullshit.” Jim crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s something important you’re not telling me; our mutual instability puts a bit of a damper on your poker face. I thought Vulcans couldn’t lie.”

     Spock’s eyes were hard, distant. “I have not lied to you, Captain, but I also cannot explain further. I am…I am sorry.”

     “Me, too. I can’t believe we’re back to where I can’t fucking trust you.”

     Spock swallowed, and slid silently, tiredly, to the floor, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knees, closing his eyes in an almost defiant gesture against the strain still evident in his expression and the tension saturating the room. The captain watched him for a moment

     “Fuck,” Jim muttered, turning angrily away, forcing his thoughts back to the problem at hand. If Spock couldn’t or wouldn’t explain further, retreating into Vulcan isolation and stricture, then the solution of how to escape was left to the captain. And he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to begin.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: I Fall So Low

 

*please check the warnings for this chapter*

 

     For the captain, three nights had passed spent in fitful sleep on the pallet, fighting dreams filled with echoes of pain and the sounds of inhuman screams. Three mornings had come seeing his first officer’s continued disintegration over the day before. Spock refused to eat and refused to sleep, silently insisting on the meditation that consumed most of his time and concentration, stubbornly maintaining his distance from Jim. Even in that short time, the Vulcan had become pale and gaunt, visibly disoriented and constantly shivering. Jim’s attempts to force his friend to eat or to encourage him under a hot water shower were unsuccessful, and his own anger only grew as he watched Spock stumble after the sentinels, on his way to unknown tortures.

     Three frustrating days had been spent pacing throughout the allowed area of the complex: searching for weaknesses, mapping patterns, and attempting communication with the other beings. Rebuffed every time, Jim began following Nerit as she moved through the corridor. She, at least, would speak to him, though only to berate him for his own faltering appearance and for the Vulcan’s quickly deteriorating condition.

     It all seemed so Earth-like: the glimpses of blue sky, the gravity, the temperature, and the presence of so many humans. Jim had heard other languages whispered by others, and all seemed to be Terran variants. It was odd, and added to the overall feeling of claustrophobic disorientation, and Jim’s frustration was steadily boiling over. He couldn’t control himself. It was worst during the day when Spock was gone, when Jim’s heart would race and his hands would become clammy. When he felt surges of desperate, dark rage and crushing futility. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this way, even as a teenager in the Tarsus camps. He had lost his confidence and his command edge, dropped somewhere in the midst of trembling emotion and shimmering nerves. He questioned his sanity.

     Reduced to skulking in corners and eavesdropping on passing slaves, he had managed to overhear bare snippets of information: purportedly, the weapon was something very old and very powerful, referred to as deriving from the hand of the gods themselves; supposedly, the Keeper was a fighter who had been resurrected to oversee this divine effort that would eventually rid the galaxy of unbelievers. Jim deduced that the slaves were largely accepting of their fate and rewarded for their hard work, promised places of power and influence during the coming apocalypse. Technical information or hints of specific expertise were completely absent, though, and the fragments painted a confusing picture: complacent, ignorant slaves held under a regime of proto-religious doctrine wielded by a enigmatic woman of substantial power and relative anonymity who wished to bring to life a doomsday weapon targeting the Federation itself. Fragments only, and disordered and illogical, and now, as Jim walked down the hallway toward his room, he held his rage as a shield, as something desperate and final, for since they had arrived in this place there had been nothing but crawling defeat, and he could feel the walls closing in, his chances at escape narrowing.

     As he drew closer, Jim noticed that the door to his room was open. He inwardly swore, imagining that Spock had returned early for some reason and feeling a sharp pang of anxiety and foreboding as he considered what that reason might be. He recalled his friend’s slumped form as he had departed that morning: unsteady steps, greasy hair, blank eyes, and Jim broke into a jog, his stomach twisting in dark anticipation.

     “Spock?”

     Jim had barely crossed the threshold before pulling up sharply, seeing Rohmer’s hulking form and no sign of his friend. Jim’s arms were suddenly grabbed by what felt like steel bands, and he was practically lifted by two sentinels, brought fully into the room as the door slid shut behind them.

     “What the fuck?” Jim struggled in the androids’ hands, demanding, “Where’s Spock?”

    Rohmer’s face split in a humorless grin. “He is on his way, little pet.” Pale eyes trailed down Jim’s body and his smirk vanished in favor of a grimace of disgust. “So you have been shirking your responsibilities in every manner, I see. You look like krevalk.”

     The captain scowled. “What do you care?”

     The blow came immediately and snapped Jim’s head back, and all at once thick breath washed over the captain’s face. “I have been watching you very carefully, pet. This fabrication of a relationship with the Vulcan seems ridiculously convenient, don’t you think?”

     Jim jerked his head to the side, feeling a bead of blood run down from his lip, hissing, “What fabrication? He’s my—.”

     “Spare me your bullshit. He saved your life and continues to do so because it is either his duty or his obsession. And it is a good thing for you that he does, for you would be given away to be used most unpleasantly, I can assure you.” The bald man stepped back, his eyes assessing. “Hold him down,” he commanded.

    The breath crashed out of Jim’s lungs as he was thrown onto the low pallet and held. He fought, unable to break the relentless grip of the impassive sentinels as Rohmer bent over him, one hand sliding under Jim’s thin tunic and creeping up to touch his stomach, his chest, fondling his nipples.

     “Get your hands off me, you piece of sh—.”

     Jim’s words were abruptly swallowed into a grunt as Rohmer’s fist pounded into his stomach. The captain’s tunic was ripped open and chill air flooded his bared torso as Rohmer growled, “Turn him around.”

     He was flipped over with shameful ease and pinned again, and Jim swore as he felt his pants pushed down, Rohmer’s rank proximity behind him terrifying. A dark chuckle, and Jim’s entire body shuddered as he felt the huge man’s hands slide over his buttocks, fingers slipping into his cleft.

     He was helpless. He was at the mercy of someone else’s cruelty and whim and he was powerless and beginning to panic. Everything that had come before seemed like a dream, like flimsy pieces of arrogant freedom that had never truly existed. The common area, being allowed to wander along the hallway, the apparent solitude of his room, the belief of escape, the dogged glimmer of hope: all illusions in the face of the brutal reality of two dry fingers shoving their way ruthlessly into his entrance.

     “You fucking piece of shit. You fucking bastard,” Jim gasped into the bedding, squirming against the intrusion, tears of pain and humiliation in his eyes as the fingers probed deeper.

     Rohmer grunted, “You are so tight, pretty little pet. I believe you have never been used in this way. I believe you are a liar and a tease and no one’s mate.”

     Jim didn’t hear the door open, but he did hear Spock’s wordless, strangled cry. The captain struggled to turn his head, yelping as Rohmer withdrew his fingers abruptly.

     Spock was there, struggling mightily against two other sentinels in the doorway, his dark eyes wild and fixed on Jim.

     Rohmer straightened and pointed carelessly at the Vulcan. “This is what I mean, pet. Look at your supposed mate, whom you’ve barely deigned to touch these last days. If you look bad, then he looks triply so, and his usefulness will be at a rapid end.” The large man scowled, grumbling, “And as much as I would love to get rid of him and give you the lesson you no doubt desperately require, the Keeper’s will is law and she needs him to continue his work.” He stalked over to Spock, who had suddenly gone dangerously still, his eyes like flint.

     “I want you to bathe him; he stinks. And I want you to feed him; his strength’s been waning.” Rohmer reached out and took a handful of mussed black hair, glancing at Jim as he yanked Spock’s head back. “I want you to do your duty, and fuck him or suck him so he calms down and stops that fucking screaming during the procedure. It’s distracting and it fucks up the computer leads when he struggles—.”

     The man’s harsh words cut off into a howl as Spock’s bare foot shot out, connecting with Rohmer’s crotch. The sentinels pulled the Vulcan back as Rohmer curled up, eyes watering, and he fumbled at his waist for his weapon, still bent-over, glaring at Spock before turning and aiming the device at Jim.

     The captain heard a low growl from somewhere and then he was hit with waves of familiar pain, choking and convulsing in the sentinels’ grip, hoarse cries ripped from his throat. There was some kind of commotion and he couldn’t focus, a confusing blaze of red-hot rage and fierce protectiveness ripping through the outer reaches of his mind, and then the sentinels suddenly released him.

     Pain was still there, but it was a mere echo now, and Jim lifted his head weakly to see Rohmer on the floor, his face a bloody mess and his neck hinged at an odd angle, his eyes open and unseeing and his silver device lying next to the mirrored wall. All four sentinels were holding Spock down, and the Vulcan was still fighting. Then the door opened again and three more sentinels raced through, and they did not hesitate to press something against Jim’s neck, the human’s wavering awareness swallowed up into immediate darkness.

 

*****

 

     Jim woke up slowly, grunting as he felt bruises across his body, his lip swollen, and he was cold: his tunic gaping open. Blinking, he saw a feminine form swim into his vision, and he tried to focus.

     “Wake up, Kirk.”

     The Keeper stood almost impatiently, her arms crossed in front of her, shimmering blue robes covering her body. Jim turned his head, realizing he was on the pallet, and summoning his energy, he lifted his head slightly to see Spock facedown next to him, oddly sprawled, the Vulcan’s face turned away.

     The woman made a haughty sniffing noise. “You are of no importance except with regard to him. The procedure thus far has been successful and it must continue being successful. When he dies, or cannot or will not perform, your usefulness will be at an end. Therefore it is in your best interest to keep him well, in any way you can.”

     Jim pushed himself up into a sitting position, wincing at the sharp discomfort and eyeing the five sentinels that flanked the Keeper before his gaze swept to the patch of now-dried blood near the mirrored wall where Rohmer had met his fate.

     “No more hired muscle waiting in the wings?”

     She exhaled, ignoring his taunt. “I know about your lack of relationship with the Vulcan.”

     Jim rubbed a hand over his lip, feeling the skin split and start to ooze again, muttering, “You know nothing about us.”

     She peered at him, tilting her head and replying coldly, “I know that he will do anything to keep you from harm, and, mate or not, that is sufficient for now. The procedure will resume the day after tomorrow; I suggest you use the time wisely.” She did not wait for a response, sweeping out of the room, followed by the blank-faced sentinels, and the door slid shut behind them, leaving the two men alone.

     Jim looked down at his hand, red liquid smeared across his skin, and shifted on the bed, catching his breath at the painful pull on his sore muscles and damaged tissue. His ripped shirt hung loosely, and he gingerly shrugged it off, dabbing at his lip with it and sliding closer to his friend’s motionless form.

     “Spock?” He touched the Vulcan’s shoulder and felt a shudder of response. “Spock.”

     There was a low, muffled sound and the Vulcan rolled slowly onto his back, his right arm held awkwardly. He didn’t open his eyes. “Captain. My shoulder is dislocated. If you would—.”

     “Shit.” Jim winced and reached out, holding his friend’s arm, gripping carefully as he’d been taught. He hesitated as he saw Rohmer’s blood still staining Spock’s hands and determinedly shook his head, focusing on his task and cautioning, “This is going to hurt.”

     Spock didn’t reply, and Jim pressed his lips together, tasting iron, slowly manipulating the Vulcan’s arm, trying to avoid watching the way pale skin grew even paler, and then he heard a popping noise and a soft grunt from his friend.

     “Sorry.” Jim gently brought Spock’s arm back to his side before letting go, watching his friend’s chest rise and fall. “You beat the shit out of Rohmer. Nice job.”

     Spock’s lips parted and dark eyes slowly opened, “I believe you would say that he ‘had it coming’.”

     “Yeah.” Jim blinked at his friend’s surprising dark humor. “Yeah, he fucking did.”

     Spock had killed; he had brutally killed for Jim, and there had been no trace of logic in it. A chill went down the captain’s spine as he remembered rage: rage invoked by Jim himself, and then provoked by Jim’s own death. Nyota and Bones had been deliberately sketchy on the details of Khan’s capture, and Spock had said nothing at all, but Jim knew enough to figure it out, and he also recalled Spock’s own guarded words about weakness in the face of Jim’s presence. Instability. He sobered, suddenly wanting to change the subject, looking over his friend’s rumpled form. “The Keeper was here; said that you were off the clock tomorrow. To heal.”

     Spock pushed with his good arm until he was able to sit up. “That is…unexpected.”

     “Maybe, but I’ll take it.” Jim glanced at the door. “The lights haven’t gone off yet; do you want to try to go to the infirmary?”

     “Negative,” Spock replied almost too quickly, before taking a breath and amending, “Unless you are injured, Jim. Do you require—?” He met the captain’s eyes. “Did Rohmer—?”

     “No,” Jim said shortly. He frowned, murmuring, “He didn’t get that far.”

     A pained look flashed across Spock’s face. “I saw—,” he began slowly.

     “I’m fine,” Jim snapped. “He just wanted to make a point. It doesn’t matter now, anyway; he’s dead.”

     Spock flinched and looked down to where his injured hand lay limply in his lap, the silence extending.

     Jim furrowed his brow. “How did you break away from those androids to get to him? I know you’re strong, but not that strong; I couldn’t even move when they had me.”

     “I do not know,” Spock replied absently, still looking away. “I saw you and I did not think—,” he trailed off. “I believed that Vulcan discipline would enable me to endure this, however, it is proving to be insufficient to contend with such emotional extremes.”

     The captain watched him warily, remembering Rohmer’s taunts about screaming.

     Spock continued slowly, and there was a tremor in his voice, “During the…the procedure I feel thoughts and emotions. I know them, their very beings. I feel their fear, their anger, their love. I feel it as my own and I cannot control.” He choked slightly, dragging in a shaky breath. “I sense their pain as they die and I sense…I sense their deaths.” Spock raised his eyes, staring unseeingly past Jim, murmuring almost inaudibly, “I sense all their deaths, as I sensed yours.”

     Jim tensed. “What do you mean?”

     Dark eyes focused abruptly and Spock stiffened. “I—.”

     The human leaned forward. “Spock, what do you mean, ‘sense’? I know you felt your world fall through your…the collective telepathic awareness, and you melded with Pike, but we were separate. Both times we were separate: on the Orion ship and in the warp core. We didn’t…I mean, we don’t have a—.” His voice trailed off and Jim felt the color drain from his own face, finally putting the pieces together, whispering, “Oh my god.”

     Spock swallowed and he looked trapped. “Jim, I—.”

     “How long? How long have we…have you—?” Jim stood up, feeling panic rising similar to when Rohmer had his hands on him, on the most intimate part of his body. And this, this was his mind. The protectiveness, the anger, the hot spikes of emotion that had rocketed through his thoughts as Spock had thrown himself at Rohmer: they hadn’t been his own! And everything else: the frustration, the claustrophobic anxiety, the inability to make any progress at all on finding a way out; like he was drugged or affected somehow.

     Jim was breathing heavily, shaking his head and pressing his fingers to his temples. “This is you! All this, in my mind, and you wouldn’t even tell me! I thought I was going crazy; I thought I was losing myself.”

     “Jim, please listen to me—.”

     “No! You fucking knew how I felt about something like that, because of what your counterpart had done to me. I talked to you about it, how I felt about it. And that’s why you didn’t say anything.” Jim took a step back, saying dangerously, “How long, Spock?”

     Spock looked stricken, his eyes wide. “Jim—.”

     “How fucking long, Spock?”

     The Vulcan’s jaw tensed and his gaze lowered again. “The bond had existed before your death. I only became aware of it as Mr. Scott called to…to inform me that there was a problem.”

     Jim wasn’t looking at him anymore, his mind racing as he remembered the bridge tapes from the Marcus Affair, as the Fleet higher-ups were calling it, remembering Scotty’s clipped words, his vague words, and how Spock had looked, how he had run, pushing blindly past Nyota and not even handing off the conn.

     “And?” he prompted belligerently.

     “And I felt it when you died. I knew then what type of bond we shared; the sundering provoked an uncontrollable emotional response.”

     “Uncontrollable—! Like what just happened?” Jim crossed his arms over his chest. “What kind of bond? Is that what t’hy’la means?”

     “Yes.” Spock seemed to curl into himself. “Our close association and mental compatibility allow its spontaneous formation. I could not prevent it.”

     “But you can block it, apparently,” Jim commented drily. “I can’t feel it.”

     “It presently may only be perceptible only in instances of extreme emotional turmoil or pain; however, you are correct, I am able to shield it now that I am aware of its presence.”

     Jim felt sick, remembering the raw, focused power that had flowed through his mind on Delta Vega, remembering how helpless he had felt, how his emotions had been overwhelmed, overtaken by another’s grief, another’s pain. At least he’d been aware, then; in this he hadn’t even known, and somehow that made it all the more disturbing. “So, you’re in my head.”

     “I am not,” Spock said weakly. “Not as you think.”

     “And that’s why they thought we were mated. Because you, what, chose to die when I did? Because you could sense me die? What does this bond mean?”

     “It is complicated, but it is not unlike a traditional mating bond.”

     Jim exploded, “A mating—! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me: something like this, something that could have impacted our ship, our command. Look at what’s happening to me now! I trusted you. My god, Spock, you’re my closest friend. You’re my goddamn XO! You broke regulations; hell, you fucking walked all over them! And I trusted you.”

     Spock stood slowly; his right arm still hung loosely but his gaze was steady. “Your anger is quite justified.”

     “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” Jim ran a hand over his face, backing up another step. “I know you saved my life: with Khan and again on that Orion ship, but I should have known about this bond at least, you should have told me something! And I can’t even feel it and that’s the worst part: I can’t even fucking feel it!”

     “You shall not, Captain, as long as I am able to shield.” The Vulcan spoke bitterly, “And at the point at which I am no longer able to do so, you need not suffer it for very long.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: Break Me Down

 

     Jim could hear the water running in the bathroom, as he stood by himself in the far corner of the room, his arms crossed defensively over his chest. He had showered and changed his clothes, scrubbing furiously at his skin to erase all evidence of Rohmer’s hands on him. The dimmed light from the overhead fixture and from the bathroom itself was just low enough for him to feel as if he could hide, and while Spock’s retreat was more than likely motivated by tomorrow’s reprieve, it was probably also influenced by the captain’s present need for some semblance of solitude.

     The revelation of the perceived violation of Jim’s mind had come so sharply on the brutal abuse of his body, and now the haze of sharp, reactive emotion was slowly fading amidst a growing sense of heavy guilt and a realization that the mental contact was not a violation at all. This…bond that they shared: it had saved Jim’s life more than once, and how many other times had it subconsciously factored into their interactions? Jim recalled those occasions when Spock had not hesitated to touch him even though the Vulcan shied away from physical contact with most everyone else. He remembered Spock’s almost prescient ability to locate Jim during dangerous missions, or to show up at his cabin door when the captain most needed company. He considered that unique sense of cohesiveness that made them a formidable command team, and their tendency to anticipate the other’s moves in chess. And he thought of the sense of contentment and deepening closeness that had characterized their relationship since Khan.

     Spock should have told him, but Jim could understand why not. At the time, the near-forced mental contact in the ice cave of Delta Vega had been necessary, and the immediate shock of it shoved aside in the rush of events that followed, but the captain had never been able to get over that feeling of utter and complete exposure and vulnerability. It struck deeply to that part within him that had been hurt so profoundly by his mother’s disinterest, his brother’s escapism, and his stepfather’s subtle cruelty. It had brought him harshly back to a time when he had felt most helpless. Fear had motivated his interpretation of that meld, and assumption had informed his opinion of any other mind touch. And, as a leader, he knew that neither were noteworthy qualities.

     Jim heard the water shut off and he shifted, feeling the dull ache of strained muscles, remorse rising to the forefront of his mind as he replayed his own vicious words, picturing Spock’s broken expression. This was his friend, his closest friend: someone who was willing to defy any threat to keep Jim safe. And if it was true that the Vulcan couldn’t have controlled the bond’s formation, then he was guilty only of trying to spare Jim’s feelings, shielding him yet again. Jim softly exhaled, running his hands over his face. Perhaps, it was time for him to protect. Perhaps, it was long overdue. The captain padded over to the bathroom door, leaning inside.

     “Spock?”

     Steam still lingered in the air, and Jim saw his first officer awkwardly toweling his hair with his left hand while his injured arm hung at his side. Spock was wearing a pair of the dark pants, slightly askew on his waist and clinging to damp skin, and Jim winced as he saw the lurid contusions across the Vulcan’s torso and newer marks along his arms where the sentinels had held him down.

     “You okay?”

     Dark eyes met his briefly before sliding away. “Affirmative, Captain.”

     Jim sighed, crossing his arms again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said…all that. I feel—,” he broke off, unable to take his eyes away from his friend’s battered body. He pressed his lips together, steadying himself, finally continuing softly, “It doesn’t matter how I feel; it’s done.”

     Spock lowered the towel and his eyes cautiously met Jim’s.

     “You can’t just break it, right? And, even if you did, it would just form again?”

     “It may be broken,” Spock spoke slowly, “but I do not believe it would be possible to do so without the aid of a healer.” He swallowed. “And, given present circumstances, the consequences of severance would be—.”

     “Bad,” Jim finished, scuffing his foot on the bare floor. “I know.” He studied his friend’s face, asking quietly, “Spock, why didn’t you tell me? You went out of your way not to tell me.”

     Spock’s lips tightened and Jim narrowed his eyes, expecting another evasion or an outright refusal to answer. Instead, an expression of profound tiredness crossed the Vulcan’s face and he let out something close to a sigh. “T’hy’la is of the greatest importance to my people, representing our cultural history as well as demonstrating the most intimate aspects of Vulcan identity.”

     “I’m not Vulcan.”

     “And you would not have understood.”

     Jim’s expression hardened. “I might have, if you’d explained it to me. And now what?”

     Spock looked at him steadily. “There is nothing to be done. It is highly unlikely either of us will leave this place. And the bond can presently be completely shielded as it is yet unconsummated. You need not—.”

     Jim’s eyebrows rose sharply. “What?”

     Spock blinked, and the tiredness seemed to draw down his body, his shoulders slumping, a tight shiver beginning across his body as the steam dissipated and the chilled air from the main room crept in. “I apologize, Captain, but such discussion is immaterial.” He moved to place the towel on the sink and reached for a clean tunic, pulling it over his head with one hand and slowly maneuvering his injured arm through the sleeve, adding, “May I have use of the bed?”

     Jim shrugged, feeling completely overwhelmed, reaching for defensive humor in the face of confusion and his friend’s obviously weakening bearing, in the face of his own swirling emotions and his own exhaustion. “Well, if we’re talking about consummation—.”

     “We are not,” Spock stated firmly, and Vulcan blankness was suddenly in full force. “I shall sleep on the—.”

     “No,” Jim interrupted, sweeping his arm inelegantly toward the main room. “Take the bed. Hell, it’s big enough for both of us anyway and you need your rest.” He shrugged again, muttering, “About fucking time you slept, anyway.”

     Spock inclined his head, walking stiffly past the captain without meeting his eyes and Jim turned to watch him move over to the pallet. Normally graceful movement was disjointed, and Jim heard a sharp intake of breath as the Vulcan shifted to lie flat. And there was something about that simple, pained gasp that sent a pang through Jim’s own gut: a wrenching sense of sorrow followed by another wave of guilt.

     Flinching, he moved back into the room, cautiously rounding the pallet and sitting down carefully on the opposite side, watching Spock’s profile in the dimmed light from above as the bathroom light extinguished. The Vulcan’s eyes were closed, his hair still damp and mussed from the shower, his injured arm curled over his stomach. Jim frowned and lowered himself down, lying on his back, listening to the measured breathing of his friend next to him.

     What would he have done, had Spock told him? Demand the bond be broken? Rant a bit and then decide to just live with it? Simply accept it graciously? Jim bit his lip, imagining it would probably have been the first option. And then what would they do? He remembered what Spock had said about spontaneous formation and mental compatibility. To keep it from happening again, they would have to be separated. Could he live with that? Could he accept that? He’d been willing to accept it before, when Spock was re-assigned in the wake of the Nibiru incident, but that had not been under his control. And he’d been furious at the Vulcan and at himself and more than grateful to even still be in the Fleet, much less continue on the Enterprise.

     Now, however, he didn’t think he could accept it. Not after the way Spock protected him, fought for him, and apparently even slid into death in a final gamble to save him. The way Spock was, even now, suffering unimaginable horrors in order to keep Jim alive. The cryptic phrase, ‘I will suffer a thousand deaths to keep you from harm’ suddenly made terrible sense. All that, and Jim had rejected it cruelly, attacked his friend with defensive anger and all but accused him of betrayal. All for something Spock couldn’t help and which seemed to be most important to him. Something that Spock didn’t want to risk losing to Jim’s fear and lack of understanding. And Jim had reacted so predictably.

     That thought was like a punch to the gut, and Jim drew in a shaky breath as he realized that his weakness had been so transparent. But Spock’s weakness had also been just as exposed. Jim clearly recalled the naked devastation on Spock’s face when his planet was destroyed, taking his mother with it, and then again, when a plane of transparent aluminum separated them. The Vulcan had lost so much, and it, this bond, meant so much to his friend that Spock would fight and lie and even be willing to die for it, protecting it even from Jim himself.

     “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. And he knew he did still trust Spock, and maybe this fell, finally and simply, to that trust. A trust that he knew he needed to rely on if they were ever to see their ship again. Unsettled, he closed his eyes.

 

*****

 

     The sound of the door opening jolted the captain awake, and he blinked in the sudden brightness of the overhead lights, his head erupting in a dull ache and his body following as he sat up, throwing the blankets away.

     “What the fuck?”

     His vision focused, finally, on three white-clad, impassive sentinels and, emerging from behind them, a man dressed in black.

     The man was of medium height, perhaps a few inches shorter than the captain, and bald, but the faintest line of red along his scalp above his right ear showed that he wasn’t an android, and his dark gaze was focused and touched with something deep and challenging. Jim tensed, an elusive feeling of recognition playing on the edges of his mind. He knew this man, he could swear it, but from where?

     Spock hadn’t moved, as still as he had been the night before, and Jim saw the man’s eyes slide to the unresponsive Vulcan.

     “Wake up the telepath. We need him today after all.”

     Concern for Spock encouraged Jim to move, standing and placing himself between the androids and his friend, addressing the newcomer, “Who the fuck are you? Rohmer’s replacement?”

     The man lifted his chin, an assessing half-smile lifting one corner of his mouth. “Wake him up, Kirk.” He pronounced Jim’s name like a curse.

     “No! The Keeper said that—.”

     “She changed her mind. It’s within her privilege to do so.” The half-smile became a smirk and the man stepped forward, his voice low and silkily threatening. “Wake him up.”

     Jim’s jaw tightened and he glanced back at his friend, wondering why Spock hadn’t managed to rouse himself. The blankets were still haphazardly flung back over the Vulcan’s body, and, as the captain looked closer, he took in abnormally pale skin and an apparent absence of breath or movement.

     Fear pounded through his mind and he gasped, stumbling back onto the bed and kneeling next to Spock, shoving the blankets away and reaching for a pulse against unnaturally cool skin. At first he couldn’t find it, and he felt himself begin to panic, the stirrings of denial and grief clenching his stomach, and he heard the man say something behind him, ignoring it to concentrate on his first officer.

    “No, no, no… .” He pressed more intently against his friend’s neck, his other hand moving down against the Vulcan’s side, over his heart, and then…he felt it, he felt something: the faint thrum of a heartbeat, and he exhaled, his shoulders relaxing, keeping his hands gently on his friend’s body. “He’s alive.”

     “Why isn’t he awake?”

     The man was standing too close, and Jim felt an overwhelming protective instinct, glaring up at him. “I don’t fucking know! I’m not the one who tortured and beat him yesterday.” He looked back at the Vulcan’s features and saw a twinge, a brief grimace, and a thought crossed his mind.

     “He’s in a trance.”

     “A what?” The man’s nasal voice was slightly higher-pitched, and Jim wondered what the consequences would be for this newcomer if Spock were to die prematurely.

     “A…healing trance. It’s the way his people heal themselves.” Jim had only seen his friend in one of these once before, and his blood chilled as he considered how badly Spock must have been hurting in order to allow himself to fall into one now. And he trusted Jim to be able to see him out of it. The captain glared up at the man again, “You can’t just wake him up; he has to be ready to come out of it.”

     The man’s eyes narrowed. “He has to come out of it now; he’s needed in the lab.”

     “He needs to fucking heal; if he’s in one of these, it’s bad. You need to—.”

     “Shut up!”

     Jim bit off his angry words as a familiar weapon appeared in the bald man’s grip. “You have two choices: either you wake him up, or I’ll make you hurt until he wakes up himself.”

     “Fuck!” Jim’s face twisted and he turned back to Spock, hating himself for what he had to do. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, and lifted his hand, biting his lower lip savagely as he slapped his friend across the face.

     The newcomer jerked in surprise but did not interfere, and Jim hit Spock again and again, and suddenly the Vulcan’s hand lifted, barely brushing Jim’s wrist before falling again, dark eyes opening blearily.

     “Jim…that will…be sufficient.”

     “I’m sorry,” Jim replied softly. “Are you—?”

     “I understand.” Spock licked his lips and pushed himself up, away from the captain, and Jim noticed that the Vulcan’s injured shoulder seemed functional again.

     “You do?” The captain leaned back as Spock swung his legs out of bed and slowly stood, the man moving warily away several paces, his weapon still held out in front of him.

     “I retained some degree of situational awareness.” Spock’s voice was too flat, and Jim saw lingering unsteadiness in his posture and movements.

     His anger flaring, Jim crawled over the bed and stood up next to his friend, reaching to curl a determined and supportive hand around his upper arm. He felt Spock flinch, but Jim didn’t let go, eyes fiercely focused on the newcomer as he hissed, “How long do you think he’s going to last like this? This is fucking ridiculous.”

     The man didn’t acknowledge the captain, but his eyes swept up and down Spock’s body, his brow furrowing. “Come on.”

     The Vulcan paused, studying the newcomer, and Jim found his own gaze drawn back to the man’s face, to the pattern of faint scarring over his cheeks, to the growing anger in black eyes. Recognition surged again, and, Jim was suddenly certain that he’d seen this man before.

     Their hesitation wasn’t unnoticed.

     “Move!” the man ordered loudly.

     Spock blinked and began to step forward, but Jim’s grip was firm. “Wait! Let me come, too. I can help. Through our bond, I can help him.”

     Spock’s muscles tensed under Jim’s hand as the Vulcan glanced over, but Jim kept his own gaze stubbornly on the other man.

     The newcomer wasn’t buying it, snorting derisively, “Nice try, Kirk.”

     Jim pressed his lips together, feeling Spock pull his arm away and move towards the doorway without a backward glance. The man gestured the sentinels to follow, allowing them to precede him as he left the room, the door sliding shut and leaving the captain alone.

 

*****

 

     Jim had begged for his crew. He had begged for their lives and could only watch as Marcus smirked at him, as the hired mercenaries behind Marcus had carefully avoided looking into the viewscreen, obviously keeping trained distance between themselves and those whose lives they would shortly take. Stoic, hired mercenaries in unfamiliar uniforms, and one in particular with black hair and eyes, with faint scarring along his cheeks and a shorter build. That motherfucker had been on the Vengeance.

     All who had been aboard that ship, with the exception of Khan, had been declared dead, but the shockwaves and secrecy of Section Thirty-one’s fall had left more questions than answers and thousands of loose ends. Including, evidently, the fate of an unidentified mercenary who now appeared over two years later in the employ of yet another grossly immoral being.

     Jim’s face hurt from glaring. Glaring at the mirrored wall, glaring at the stone-faced sentinels guarding the hallway, glaring at Nerit as she peered at him curiously from across the main amphitheater, and now he was pacing inside his room again, glaring helplessly at his reflection, his mind racing. It had seemed like hours since they had taken Spock, but he couldn’t be sure, and that only made him angrier.

     A conspiracy? Some remaining connection or off-shoot of Thirty-one? Some rogue agent or slighted financier with a bone to pick? It seemed ill fitting, somehow, but the firm connection of a past black-ops scheme with this present confusing situation lent credence to the idea of an actual doomsday weapon instead of a vague threat. He had to figure this out before the weapon was realized or his friend finally collapsed, pushed emotionally and physically to the point of no return. His friend. Jim chewed on his tender lip, knowing that they were now more than that. Brothers? He sniffed to himself, thinking of their previously contentious rivalry, of his goading Spock into losing control, of Spock’s righteous and subtly underhanded reporting of the events on Nibiru. And now, in a situation where both their lives were at stake, Spock had refused to talk to him and Jim had thrown a temper tantrum instead of offering support. Just like family, indeed.

     That he couldn’t even directly sense the bond’s presence was contributing to his ire. Now that he knew about it, he wanted to be able to feel it; even if just to know what he was dealing with, if only to have some impression of control. He wanted to know what his friend was going through, and he wanted to know if he could help. The fact that Spock was somewhere suffering was eating away at him, especially given the Vulcan’s weakened state earlier, and Jim paused, sensing a thinning feeling in the back of his mind, a throbbing pulse that expanded and grew and… . Something shifted, and Jim winced, feeling suddenly dizzy, reaching out and touching the wall for support. “What the hell—,” he murmured, lifting his other hand to his head as a white-hot bolt of pain sliced through it.

     “Spock!”

     The sensations faded just as suddenly, but Jim was already moving, barely waiting for the doors to his room to open before he was stumbling out into the hallway, heading blindly for the forbidden area, knowing that Spock desperately needed him. He glanced to the sides, seeing the sentinels watching him but not moving, not intercepting him, and he broke into a jog, his breathing coming heavily, hands shaking. The doors were approaching and nobody was stopping him and then he was in front of them, searching for an access panel, for a way in, and then they simply slid open with a loud trundling sound.

     Jim took a reflexive step back as the dark-eyed mercenary appeared in the doorway in front of him, an odd expression on the smaller man’s face and a silver weapon held in his hand. But he didn’t fire, and they stared at each other in silence for several tense seconds before the man turned slightly, jerking his chin. “That way.”

     The captain moved forward warily, stepping into a smaller, darker hallway, maneuvering his body sideways to keep his back to the wall, his eyes on the other man. But the mercenary simply gestured for Jim to walk ahead of him.

     The echoing undertone of his friend’s plea was still ricocheting through Jim’s mind, buffeted by confusion and suspicion, and he glanced nervously at the corridor’s sleek, utilitarian lines, so different from the main hallway, looming with dark foreboding as the doors lumbered shut behind them. The silence was thick, and palpable, and Jim glanced over his shoulder.

     “You were on the Vengeance,” he said pointedly. “You were with Marcus.”

     The mercenary let out a low chuckle. “I wondered if you would figure it out. The last time we saw each other you seemed occupied trying to keep your ship from being blown apart.”

     Jim persisted, his steps slowing, “Where the fuck are we? Who’s the Keeper? Is this something to do with Section Thirty-one?”

     “Just keep moving, Kirk, to that large door on the left.” The man’s boots rang out on the polished floor. “I can’t say I’m not enjoying this, although I suppose I owe that fucking preening augment Khan more than anyone; ever try an emergency pod jettison in atmo? Second-degree burns over most of my body, and a hell of a time getting away.”

     Jim scowled and angrily licked his lips, his hands fisted at his sides. “So how come I’m allowed in here now?”

     The man sniffed as they approached the large, sealed doorway. “You mysteriously came running as soon as the telepath screamed your name.” He stepped closer to the wall on the far side, lifting his hand. “The transfers are proceeding quickly and the Keeper can’t afford to lose the Vulcan just yet, so we’re going to see if you can do as you claim, and help him.” Thin lips spread in a humorless smile as the mercenary pressed his palm on a nearly invisible panel next to the door. “I’ve gotta say, I’m not optimistic; he’s pretty fucked up.”

     The doors slid open and Jim let out a wordless noise as he stared into a vast space, dimly registering the swarms of slaves, hardly seeing the huge, ancient-appearing rock structures on either side, focusing on a single figure strapped upright to a metallic board in the middle of the room, hands restrained and pressed overtop large glowing spheres on either side of him. Spock’s face was contorted, and the spheres were fiercely pulsing in time with energy plots spiking along consoles on either side of him. The pulsing increased, and Jim heard his friend scream, a harsh, cutting sound, and then nothing could stop the captain from running forward.

     “Stop! Stop it! What the fuck are you doing to him?” He was grabbed five meters in, held tightly by two scared-looking slaves, and he saw Spock’s bowed head come up, saw his own name mouthed silently by trembling lips, and then the energy pulsations abruptly stopped, the spheres going dark. The Vulcan’s eyes shut and his body slumped in the restraints and Jim struggled harder against the men holding him.

     “Let me go, goddammit!”

     “Release him.”

     His arms were instantly freed, and as Jim rushed forward to his friend’s side, he cast a startled glance in the direction of the Keeper, regally dressed in verdant robes and appearing from behind one of the consoles to his right. Spock’s head hung, and his skin was chilled as Jim reached up instinctively with both hands, cradling his first officer’s face.

     “Spock, I’m here. Spock?”

     There was no immediate response and Jim looked angrily back at the Keeper, ordering, “Let him out.”

     She met his gaze levelly and raised a gnarled hand in the direction of one of the slaves near the console. Straps snapped back and Spock fell bonelessly forward into Jim’s arms. The Vulcan’s body was trembling, and Jim staggered under his friend’s weight, lowering them both to the floor, keeping Spock’s face tucked against his own neck, his own arms tight around his first officer’s body. He took a deep breath, murmuring, “It’s okay. It stopped. It’s okay. I’m here.”

     “So, you do share a functional mental link.” It was not a question, and the Keeper glided forward, still just out of arm’s reach, the mercenary standing threateningly behind her. Her green robes shimmered oddly in the glaring light.

     “Your staged conversation the night previous was not altogether illuminating in that regard,” she continued dryly, studying them. “Attempted diversion and poor acting aside, you told Hsieh that you could help your friend. And when the Vulcan cried out for you, you came. I need him to complete the transfers today, but his strength is fading; you will help.”

     Jim glared up at her. “You knew he wasn’t healed,” he spat. “You knew it and you took him today anyway. And now you want my help to torture him some more?” He could hear the desperate quality in his own voice.

     The Keeper blinked placidly. “Must we do this each and every time? Help him and keep him, and yourself, alive or stand aside and watch him die as I wring the last bits of usefulness from him. I grow bored of these games, Kirk.”

     Jim choked back a sob, all his justifications and analyses and reluctance falling apart in the simple reality of his friend’s limp body in his arms. “Fine. Fine, I’ll do it.” His hands clenched harder into the Vulcan’s tunic as he repeated more firmly, “I’ll do it.” And he knew he was full of shit. He didn’t even know if such a thing was possible, or how to begin, or even how to convince Spock of—.

     “Jim…Jim, let me—,” Spock whispered faintly, and Jim didn’t pull away as abnormally cool fingers fastened themselves to his face in a familiar configuration. He felt pressure, and then gasped as a torrent of pain and awareness flooded his mind: terrible fatigue and the edge of grief, and a sharp current of bitter resignation, all opening and making the human reel under its force. The meld on Delta Vega had been an inexorable mental force, emotions inescapable but still somehow separate from him. This was fully integrated: he felt everything, everything, flailing in pain, in torment, all of it reaching for him as if there was nothing else between where they were, together, and some depthless, terrifying abyss.

     “Oh, god!” His instinct was to pull away, and he did, wrenching out from under Spock’s hand. But the integration was still there; muted slightly, but still there, and he knew this was the bond, opened and unshielded, and that was Spock’s mind, in terrible anguish and pain, and Jim couldn’t escape fully if he tried. He understood suddenly why Spock had enforced distance between them; this was why he wouldn’t touch him: to spare Jim this awareness. And Jim had the terrible feeling that this door, now opened, would never truly close again.

     Jim looked down, seeing Spock’s pale, contorted face, seeing the Vulcan’s hand hovering, shaking, and then the captain sensed something else running underneath his own shock and fear: a litany, a mental voice, barely discernible, pleading for forgiveness even as it could not pull itself away. And he could also feel, as the powerful surges of emotion leveled, that his very presence seemed to be helping. It was helping; astonishingly, he was helping. In spite of everything, Jim loosened one hand to grasp Spock’s, pulling it back into position against his face and closing his eyes as thought and feeling crested again and the mental voice was accompanied by a deep thrum of feeling: something warm, something cherished.

     “Oh, god—.” Jim felt tears in his own eyes as he recognized the emotion: directed at him, all for him, unable to be hidden any longer.

     “Kirk!” The Keeper’s voice echoed jarringly in his ears, and Jim blinked rapidly, trying to focus as Spock’s hand fell away yet again and the voice and emotion faded back into a simmering maelstrom. “Is he ready to continue?”

     Jim could only stare dumbly as Spock groggily lifted his head, pushing gently against Jim’s arms to roll to the side, faltering visibly but making it to his feet. Jim swallowed hard and stood up gracelessly, reaching out to catch Spock’s arm as he swayed. The bond was still open, but something was preventing the worst of the transference.

     Spock’s voice was barely a whisper. “I…I am ready to proceed.”

     The captain winced; his own legs felt like jelly, his head was pounding. “You can’t…Spock, you’re hurt—.”

     Spock turned his head just enough to meet Jim’s eyes. “There is no alternative, Jim.”

     “Bullshit.” But Jim’s mumbled, unsteady reply was lost as Spock pulled his own arm away, squaring his shoulders and stepping forward to stand against the upright board. Restraints snapped into place and Jim saw Spock’s hands move back onto the spheres, the Vulcan’s face a blank, his eyes closed.

     It was conflagration, and Jim fell to his own knees as the spheres illuminated and Spock grunted. The bond was awash with pain, fear, terror that was not Spock’s, or Jim’s: alien emotions that ripped through them both. Everything was moving too fast, but Jim saw echoes of images, scents, sounds, sensations of brutality, flashes in the dark, overwhelming pain and regret, yearning, frantic loss. But, Spock did not scream this time, and Jim could sense that whatever was happening had been mitigated somehow.

     It wasn’t over after one soul had shattered through the Vulcan’s psyche, or two, and as three passed Jim lay on his side in front of the board, shivering uncontrollably, his eyes wide open and unseeing, his heart racing, his skin hypersensitive and his mind so over-stimulated it had begun to feel numb, defensively retreating into itself, away from the glaring mental conduit, away from his friend. The captain was barely aware of the restraints snapping open again, or of Spock collapsing next to him, and Jim’s vision focused just enough to see brown eyes looking into his before heavy darkness closed over both of them.

 

*****

 

     The feeling of a warm, wet cloth against his skin woke him, and Jim opened his eyes, his breath catching until he saw the figure of his friend, the Vulcan’s body in silhouette against the dim overhead light of their room. Jim took a breath and held it, reaching tentatively and reflexively for the…there it was: dimmed as well, but not extinguished, warm and calm, and with only the barest reflection of what had happened before. It was shocking in its lack of rawness, its lack of everything Jim had feared, molding so unobtrusively into Jim’s own thoughts. The captain opened his mouth, hearing his voice come soft and broken, “What happened?”

     “We were brought back to our room.” Spock’s voice was gentle and there were undertones that transmitted across the bond, almost like murmurs, undecipherable, soothing.

     “How…how long?”

     “I awoke fourteen point one minutes ago after approximately four hours of unconsciousness.”

     Jim grunted. “I can feel you.” He winced as he clenched his abdominal muscles, lifting his upper body until he was sitting up. His eyes were steadily adjusting to the near-darkness and he looked at his friend, noticing that Spock didn’t move away this time. The Vulcan silently inclined his head, and Jim sensed the murmurs again.

     “I can…I can almost—.” Jim reached out, his hand hovering over Spock’s. There was the barest hesitation, and Spock lifted his own hand, their fingers touching, and the bond snapped into sharper relief, the murmurs coalescing into the mental voice again, and much clearer.

     Jim.

     “Holy shit.” Jim knew that Spock could pick up others’ formed thoughts through touch, but he never imagined he would be capable of the same.

     Only mine, Jim, through the bond and when we are in tactile contact. This is most interesting. I surmise that if the connection were to deepen we would each be capable of communication even in the absence of touch, despite your nominal psi-null status.

     “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” Jim muttered in disbelief and curiosity, flinching as he remembered the terrifying roar of sensation as he had lain on that floor.

     “No. It does not.” Spock gently pulled his hand away, and Jim leaned forward involuntarily, chasing the clarity of the connection as it fell back into near-obscurity.

     I didn’t know it would be like this. The thought drifted through Jim’s mind and he saw Spock blink, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Evidently the bond was more sensitive for his telepathic partner.

     The Vulcan rose haltingly, the cloth held loosely in his hands. “Thank you for your assistance, Jim.”

     “My assistance?” Jim braced himself and stood up as well, fighting a sudden wave of aching dizziness. His body hurt. “Jesus, Spock, it’s more than that.”

     Spock’s reply was cautious, and his eyes slid pointedly to the mirrored wall. “Nothing has changed.”

     The captain’s breath caught, remembering their situation, and he gathered himself, gathered his thoughts. Gently, deliberately, he reached forward, catching the Vulcan’s hand again, forming words in his head. Sorry. I’ve got it now.

     Spock’s eyebrow lifted, his hand warm and firm in Jim’s grip.

     Jim’s fingers clasped harder. You said we could communicate like this all the time? Without touching?

     The Vulcan’s expression shifted incrementally. If the bond were to deepen, it would be a possibility. But we are able to—.

     Not when they take you away!

     Jim’s mind was a whirlwind, inexorable, anticipating Spock’s reply, continuing, They might not let me go with you every time and I can’t hear you when we’re apart. I need to be able to do that. Spock, Hsieh, or whatever his name is, was on the Vengeance! There’s some sort of connection…we’ve finally got some clue, some opening; I can’t figure this out alone.

     It was heady, this strange, new communication, astonishing and amazing all at the same time. Jim’s head hurt from concentrating, but it was counterbalanced by the glimmer of desperate hope he felt. There was a clue in Hsieh’s presence here. There was a chance in this strategic connection between him and his first officer, and all at once the unwillingness he had felt regarding the bond faded in the unanticipated way it seemed to fit within his mind, in the resurgent belief in the possibility of escape, in his own inborn refusal to accept defeat, to do whatever it took.

     The channel in Jim’s mind had narrowed, turning into a bare trickle before widening again almost reluctantly, and Spock’s expression retreated suddenly into impassivity, his hand in Jim’s growing completely still.

     The captain pressed, again an irresistible force, How do we do it? How do we deepen it?

      Such would require physical and mental intimacy to strengthen the connection. The Vulcan’s mental voice was clinical and dispassionate, and his eyes shifted away from Jim’s. Initiation and continuation of a meld during achievement of orgasm stimulates involuntary pathways that stabilize mental resonance.

     “That sounds like an opening line if I ever heard one.” Jim managed a faltering smile, and Spock pulled his hand away, this time with more force.

     “You do not wish this.” Dark eyes were black in the low light.

     I wish to get the fuck out of here. The abrupt thought crashed between them and even though they weren’t touching, Jim knew his friend could sense it. And anyway you said a healer could break it.

     “Now, perhaps.” Spock’s voice was flat. “Not after. Not t’hy’la.”

     They stared at each other and Jim set his jaw intractably, obstinately. “I can live with that.”

     Iron. The faint connection between them solidified like cold iron, and Spock’s posture impossibly straightened. “I would not.” He stepped back, increasing the distance between them. “I do not consent to this.”

     Jim swallowed, watching as Spock retreated to sit against the far wall, dark eyes closing and the mental ebb and flow retreating as well. The silence was somehow sickening, and there was a cold feeling in the pit of Jim’s stomach. Friends. Brothers. Lovers now? And forcibly so? He couldn’t think of the future beyond these walls; all that mattered was getting out, and if he and Spock could leverage the bond to make that happen, then it was necessary. Necessary. He allowed his thoughts to radiate outward with no restriction, almost a plea, seeing Spock’s eyes open again, pools of black in the shadows. The Vulcan’s face was impassive, discernible even in the low light, and his voice sounded depleted. “An order, Captain?”

     “Do I have to make it one? Do we have any alternative? Any at all?” The cold feeling grew.

     There was a potent and prolonged hesitation. “Negative.” Spock lowered his voice, saying slowly, “No. There is no…no alternative.”

     Jim imagined he felt some sting in the back of his mind, and he held his breath as he saw the long body unfold itself and Spock walked stiffly forward, stopping just arm’s length away, holding out his hand, two fingers outstretched. “I am yours.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: My Weakness

 

     The Vulcan gesture was something Jim understood, and he reached out in kind, meeting Spock’s fingers with two of his own. The bond widened, and Jim caught warmth that was quickly controlled, and something else, something bitter, something resigned.

     “I’m sorry,” he whispered as he purposefully stepped closer, lifting his free hand to slide into silky hair, cradling the back of Spock’s head, directly meeting unreadable dark eyes. This contact was still on the edge of familiar, within the bounds of comfort, of friendship. They could stop; Jim could stop, and indeed there was still a part of the captain that resisted, murmuring soft warnings. But he was impatient and angry, and determined: set on this action as his, as their only hope, and he knew that Spock would not deny him. Jim was used to his friend stopping him when things went past a returnable point, and Spock’s almost easy capitulation in this both confused and encouraged him.

     It was almost reassuring to be able to take the lead, to take action; Jim could do this part, initiate this physical intimacy, and trust in Spock and the murky metaphysics of the bond to do the rest. He knew his thoughts were probably broadcasting clearly to his partner and still there was no resistance, no further argument. Nodding slightly, Jim leaned forward, bringing their lips together resolutely, feeling his friend’s body stiffen even as the sense of psychic connectedness between them gleamed and expanded.

     The shock of the contact wasn’t in the newness of this kind of expression between them, but in the startling rightness of it. Spock’s mouth felt almost too good, the warmth and pliability of his lips something Jim couldn’t have predicted, and the captain let their paired fingers loosen and intertwine, keeping his other hand in his friend’s black hair, guiding the kiss. The bond shone now, almost greedy in its own right, and Jim opened his mouth, prompting Spock to do the same, and a shiver ran down his spine as their tongues touched for the first time. Too good, and Jim felt things rushing away from his control as he released Spock’s hand to slide his own under the Vulcan’s shirt, feeling taut abdominal muscles, feeling the frantic beat of an alien heart.

     He actively explored his friend’s mouth, and he felt Spock’s hands rest uncertainly at Jim’s waist, mental feedback growing to a swift, taut white noise. The Vulcan’s body was surprisingly yielding, accommodating, and the captain purposefully pushed him towards the pallet, feeling him go without hesitation. They sank down together, not relinquishing contact, their bodies touching at length for the first time, the astonishing sensation of his friend’s form under his, his friend’s mind touching his, nearly overwhelming the human. It was alarming: this intensifying intimacy, this rush of sexual energy, and lingering reluctance faded in uncontrollable growing excitement. This helplessness was welcome. This loss of control was a powerful, wanted thing, and fuck did Jim want it, feeling the dangerous, delicious throb of desire. It was addiction, and lust, and everything so wrong became suddenly so right. Only the barest knife-edge of nervousness remained, questioning whether this loss of inhibitions was sincere or merely a result of some primitive impulse toward completion.

     Their thoughts shimmered translucently; creeping closer and closer, and Jim suddenly pulled away, his mouth wet, knowing that hidden things had passed between them, sensing the reverberation of childhood rejection and isolation, of loneliness. It was so strong, as if it were his own emotion cutting to his very core, and he looked down at the Vulcan whose eyes were closed as he lay back, greenish-tinged lips swollen and parted.

     “Who didn’t want you?”

     Dark lashes lifted, and a stubborn eyebrow rose. “You did not.”

     Jim frowned. “That’s not fair. I do now.”

     “You do not,” Spock corrected. His chest rose and fell under Jim’s weight. “And I am so weak that I would have you, even now. Perhaps it is because my control is failing, or because the holes in my mind and the loss of my people are finally too much. Perhaps I am selfish. Perhaps I am finally proving my unworthiness as a Vulcan. Perhaps—.”

     “Stop it,” Jim interrupted sharply, biting his lower lip and tasting his friend on it, still feeling the icy stab of guilt in his gut. “This is—.”

     This is a soul bond, Jim. Irrevocable. I told you it was as a traditional mating bond, but it would, in essence, go much deeper. We are incredibly compatible in that respect, but it is something you do not truly desire, or even understand.

     “That’s not fair,” Jim repeated petulantly. “It’s not something I ever considered, true, but it’s not something I ever knew about. I mean, I knew about a meld, but, well, we’ve been over that.”

     He spoke again, quickly, “And besides, you were with Nyota, and even when you weren’t, you were still my XO. And our friendship itself has been,” he paused, “complicated. We approach things so differently and yet work so well together, and I’m willing to let you in and I’ve never had that with anyone, even Bones. That, for me, is like being all in, you know? Even the thought of adding anything like this, even just the physical part, would have been overwhelming.”

     He was blathering, and his voice had a low note of desperation. The mention of Nyota’s name sparked difficult memories of confusing jealousy and poorly examined fear. Jim had been almost solicitous of her after learning of the separation, holding a deeply hidden curiosity that he had never been able to satisfy.

     “I do not understand,” Spock replied flatly.

      “I want your company. I need your advice. I look forward to your…to the time we spend together and all the small reactions you show me that no one else seems to see. I like that you touch me and no one else.” Jim sighed, distinctly uncomfortable and feeling like he was trying to justify something unsavory. He furrowed his brow, collecting himself, concentrating on the places where their skin met. I want to get us back where we belong: on our ship, with our crew, and we can go from there. Can you live with that much, for now?

     Jim waited, watching as Spock studied the ceiling, feeling the Vulcan’s uncertainty, feeling his own insistence as a dark counterpoint.

     “Do you trust me?” The captain’s question was full of a conviction that was seven-tenths bullshit. He wanted to get this over with; he wanted to blindly continue and avoid this difficult introspection, he wanted to get back to that hazy place that held desire and heat and ignorance.

     “Yes.” The answer came immediately, despite everything that might have been sensed, everything that might have been transferred.

     Jim leaned forward. “Then trust me.” He brushed his mouth over Spock’s lips again, letting a hand caress over a pointed ear to slide into silky hair. This time Spock’s mouth opened to him almost immediately and warm hands trailed up Jim’s back as the human shifted to lie halfway on top of his friend, arousal intensifying at the slide of their tongues, at hot, wet kisses that were nothing like Jim had ever experienced before. Electricity chased echoing pleasure, one to the other, caught up in the mental feedback, the bond eager and feverish, and Jim’s flippant determination to see this to the end was immediately lost again in unexpected passion.

     Jim had meant it when he said he had never considered this. He knew that he was already in deep when it came to Spock, right up against the forbidden boundary layer of emotional compromise, and now that he was realizing just how strongly he reacted to his friend’s physicality, he was relieved that he hadn’t ventured across this line before. Spock’s body was warm and firm under his, lean Vulcan musculature accentuating long lines; he smelled good and tasted even better, and the added dimension of the bond was turning this initially reluctant act into something else entirely: too much, too soon, too intense, the present necessity conveniently excusing all the rules they were breaking and all the emotional lines being crossed.

     The captain made a small sound into his friend’s mouth as he felt his own body respond, pressing against Spock’s thigh, his hips unabashedly undulating, and, as if a switch was thrown, he was rolled onto his back, feeling an answering, thrilling, hardness.

     Escalation breathed through the bond, heat building and taking each of them with it as their kisses grew messy and frantic, bodies moving rhythmically, helplessly. Their mindscape was pulsing in time with their movements, widening and feeding their excitement and Jim shifted, moving a hand into his friend’s loose pants, gripping the heated erection and sliding his hand along it, hearing Spock’s choked gasp, feeling the fiery reaction along their bond. The Vulcan pulled back just enough to mimic Jim’s action, and the captain groaned as firm tactile heat surrounded his penis.

     The friction became almost too much before being swallowed immediately in the mental crescendo, building even faster now and suddenly all-encompassing, overpowering. They couldn’t stop now if they wanted to, and everything fell away: the reluctance, the resistance, the pain and the threats, the goal vanished into the moment, into their touches, into the bond’s incredible, magnetic pull. As Jim’s orgasm approached impossibly quickly he felt fingers press against his face and he saw everything exposed in front of him: his friend’s, his lover’s ecstasy building, wrapping around his thoughts, entwining, pulling them inextricably together even as they each crested and Jim cried out, pulling his mouth away to press his teeth to Spock’s collarbone, his hips jerking in reaction as Spock muttered nonsensical Vulcan words. The intensity was blinding, deafening, and then Spock’s fingers fell away and the bond shifted and calmed but did not dim, the echoes of pleasure setting Jim’s nerves alight.

     Oh my god, that was fucking good. Jim struggled to order his thoughts, struggled to find himself again, the shattering, confusing aftermath of the orgasm pushing him into a perfunctory separation, and he wiped his slippery hand on his own pants, rolling away from his friend.

     His head hurt: a throbbing internal ache that grew as the pleasure faded and was all at once disconcerting and frightening; he could feel everything. Spock pushed away, staggering to his feet and moving into the bathroom, serrated emotions and thoughts swirling in his wake: astonishment, fear, a driving need to escape, desperate grasping for control that had shattered and fallen away.

     The captain was still breathing hard and even faced with his friend’s distress, he closed his eyes, concentrating. Did it work? Can you hear me?

     Affirmative. The reply was immediate and clipped and sharply clear, and Jim’s eyes flew open.

     “Fuck.” He lay in the near-darkness, hearing water running. Waves of his friend’s turmoil tumbled helplessly into his mind and the cold feeling in his own stomach deepened accusingly as he suddenly realized the magnitude of what he had just done.

     He had bonded himself to his first officer for life. He had ignored his friend’s lack of consent and the Vulcan’s obvious traumatized and compromised state. Jim had seen a potential advantage and had pushed for it, and had it truly been the only option? He thought of the Kobayashi Maru, drawing uncomfortable parallels with his tendency to crash through boundaries with little thought beyond achieving a goal. Well, he’d achieved this one and, so far, all he’d realized was that he hadn’t understood the first thing about it. He sensed alien emotions swell and winced, realizing that his new bondmate was probably feeling as much or more from him.

     Swinging his legs around, he slowly stood, trying to center himself, feeling the urge to apologize, to explain, to do anything to assuage this blanketing hurt that poured from his friend’s mind. Hurt, and cold: cringing cold, a last hope for some sort of center, something that could be used to focus, something, anything—.

     Heaving a shuddering sigh and pulling awkwardly at his sticky pants, the captain walked over to the doorway, taking a breath to speak and then stopping, his mouth open. Spock stood, in his clothes and shaking violently under the spray of what must be freezing water, his hair slicked to his scalp and his fingers pressed against his own temples, his eyes shut tightly.

     “Spock.” The name came involuntarily from Jim’s lips and he moved to his friend’s side, reaching out and gripping his arm. The water was icy, but Jim didn’t care; with the close contact the bond was helplessly wide and screaming, and Jim could feel how truly near the edge his friend was. The pain and mental torture had not broken him, but this thing between them was coming close and it struck the captain for the first time how consequential this connection really was, and how potentially destructive.

     There was a frozen instant filled with silence and the stabbing, chill stream, and then Jim was shoved violently away, slipping and falling ungracefully to the wet floor. His mind howled, and he stared in shock up at his friend, whose dark eyes were now open and frantic. Spock was breathing heavily, and his shaking hands were now held out in front of him, his mouth open. Slowly he crumpled, falling to his knees under the water, his eyes closing again and a tortured noise escaping his lips. Too much…too much…too much—.

     Jim had to do something, and, despite his rising fear, the lost and confused expression on Spock’s face spurred him to crawl across the slick tiles again to his friend’s side. His instinct was to touch, to hold, and despite the previous, violent reaction, he reached again, this time wrapping his arms around his bondmate, pulling him close against his chest. The clarity between them came again, and Jim closed his own eyes, murmuring into Spock’s wet hair even as the Vulcan’s body tensed dangerously.

     “Spock, please, you have to know.” The seething internal tumult prevented him from forming coherent thoughts and the captain was nearly babbling, “It helped when I was there; it helped when you could touch me. For no other reason, I’d have wanted it for that. Please.”

     He tightened his grip, but the expected shove didn’t come. Instead, he felt his friend’s pain intensify, heard him moan, and Jim tried to tighten his grip mentally as well, his face contorting as he struggled to somehow project reassurance that he didn’t truly feel, protectiveness in spite of his own guilt. There was no change, and Spock’s body grew impossibly tighter, and then, all of a sudden, there was a yielding and each of them exhaled as the pain lessened and the chaos calmed.

     Jim struggled to breathe with the shock of it all, choking on the frigid air around them, and as his grip on his friend began to loosen he felt arms wrap around him, pulling him closer. Spock’s face was tucked into the captain’s neck and Jim could feel the puff of agitated breathing.

     “Okay, okay,” Jim panted, knowing that being close was somehow helping. “It’s okay.”

     I am sorry. I am sorry, Jim.

     Spock’s mental voice sounded so human, so vulnerable, and Jim felt another pang of guilt and then an overwhelming wave of exhaustion in the wake of pain’s slow retreat. For endless seconds they simply clung to each other, and then the uncomfortable hardness of the floor beneath them, the unpleasant jaggedness of the jets of water, and the sop of their soaked clothes grew unbearable. Jim’s limbs felt heavy, along with his mind, and he suddenly just wanted to sleep, unsure if the thought was coming from him or Spock.

     “We’ve got to get up; you’re freezing. Let’s get dried off and go to bed.” It was breathlessly, but matter-of-factly stated, the intensity of the previous minutes burning through any remaining reticence regarding personal intimacy. Kaiidth whispered along the bond and Jim was suddenly, starkly aware of the meaning.

     He pushed himself up, feeling Spock follow and, sensing the unwillingness of his friend to let go, kept their bodies together, disregarding bruises and any veneer of Vulcan propriety. Even with the cessation of the water, they both were wracked with uncontrollable shivering, and Jim guided them quickly over to the sink, where the pile of linens and clothing he had retrieved earlier waited. They were forced to part in order to pull off their wet clothing, and the returning buzz of discomfort along the bond hurried them both to haphazardly towel off and pull on dry pairs of pants before Jim leaned in, wrapping an arm around his friend’s bare torso. Skin-to-skin contact brought immediate mental relief, and Jim was frankly too tired and overwhelmed to do anything more than simply fall into bed, burying them both under the covers as Spock unreservedly wrapped long limbs around him.

     Jim was still shivering, as much from psychic and emotional reaction as from the cold, and he felt Spock’s body doing the same. The light from the bathroom faded, and in the near-darkness Jim tried to focus inward. The bond, however calmed, undulated in his mind like a living thing, still uncomfortable and still disconcerting. Spock’s thoughts were too fast to discern: flying again like white noise beneath the leaden weight of exhaustion. Glimmers of pain sparked every now and then, and Jim bit his lip, all too aware that the next morning was only hours away. This was too clear, too sharp, and he couldn’t help a swell of fear as he imagined having to experience his friend’s agony so transparently. And that thought racked him with remorse: he had pushed for this; he had instigated this. He had—.

     Jim cringed. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have—.” His voice trailed off and he could only admit to being a fool in his mind.

     Spock’s mental voice was steadier than it had been. You would have, Jim, and it would have been strategically correct. I regret my inability to control the bond once strengthened, and for my reaction after—.

     “You don’t need to apologize for that,” Jim muttered. It was somehow strangely liberating to know that there was nowhere to hide. “You wanted me, right? I didn’t get that wrong? It was just the way—. You thought I didn’t—.” He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but his mind finished both thoughts anyway. It was the way it happened. You knew I didn’t understand and you didn’t want me to resent you, after. He knew he was pleading; wanting to assure himself that what had happened wasn’t as cruelly selfish as it now seemed.

     “But neither could I deny you, and therein lies my weakness.” This is not as it should be; there was no true choice, for either of us.

     “No choice,” Jim repeated. He could feel the Vulcan’s certainty, and his sadness. They had to escape, and to do so they had to survive and communicate. And Spock’s choice—didn’t feel like a choice, either. Is that why you hadn’t said anything to me? Not just because you thought how I’d react, but also because you were ashamed to need me in that way? Admitting weakness for any Vulcan was difficult: admitting that Jim was needed to stabilize a fractured mind, needed to fill the gaps left by the loss of a people, needed to have, needed to hold—. The captain could sense it now: underlying warmth…devotion…love. Spock cherished him. Jim was beloved.

     “You love me. And you’re ashamed of that, too.”

     A human might have pulled away or tried to deny it, but Spock simply murmured a quiet, “Yes.” And his mind reflected it: acknowledgment, acceptance, kaiidth.

     Jim was aware of how closely they were entwined, body touching body, mind touching mind, and any uneasiness he might have felt with his friend’s revelation was gone in the realization that this was it: they were bonded, they were together, and all they had was the truth.

     Their shivering had finally stopped as the blankets and closeness trapped their body heat, and Jim tightened his grip on his friend’s form, feeling smooth skin and lean muscle. He could sense Spock’s slow re-mastery of mental controls as emotions and thoughts settled and he closed his own eyes, letting the current of connection relax him. Here, in such intimate space, Spock’s presence was as soothing and desired as ever, perhaps even more so, and it struck Jim how much he had struggled with the Vulcan’s self-enforced distance since they had arrived in this place. No longer. What would be would be, but he had his friend back, and, despite everything, he felt hopeful.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: Read Between The Lines

 

     Hazy rousing intertwined with lingering dreams in the near-darkness, soul-deep warmth extending along the captain’s entire body. He stretched on his side under the blankets, his arms wrapped tightly around his bondmate’s half-naked body. Spock lay against him, deeply asleep, dark head tucked under Jim’s chin, hands curled childlike between them. Every place their skin touched was a point of radiating contentment, warmth, and calm, and the bond was sinuous and somnolent in Jim’s mind.

     The captain exhaled, his mind drifting between what was real and what seemed to be delicately sliding imaginings. The scent of Spock’s hair filled his nostrils, and the Vulcan’s body was firm under his hands, and Jim thought: if he just didn’t move, if he didn’t fully awaken, could they stay like this? No pain, no forcing, no distress between them? He wanted to simply stay like this. His eyes drifted closed again, his hands gently caressing warm skin, falling back into needed sleep.

 

*****

 

     Sharp light cut into Jim’s vision and he gasped awake, a terrifying chill sweeping over his body and slithering into his mind. Almost blindly, he reached out and as his hand only met cool air he scrabbled desperately amidst the blankets.

     “Spock,” he croaked dryly. Panic swept through him, a fearful, frantic energy bordering on pain, whiting out his perceptions. “Spock?”

     “Jim.” The reply was tremulous and too far away.

     The captain focused, blinking, finally seeing his friend sitting against the rear wall, legs folded to his chest, his arms wrapped around his knees and holding on for dear life. Spock’s eyes were huge and his knuckles white where his fingers gripped desperately.

     Everything in Jim was screaming out for contact, and he shoved the blankets away, half-rolling off the pallet and crawling to his friend’s side. The bond was roiling: thought and emotion running deep and fast and indiscernible, spikes of energy coming from each of them, and Spock reached and Jim fell against him, pressing his forehead into the warm skin of his friend’s neck, their bodies awkwardly twisting against each other. Their breathing came in heaves, hands grasping, clutching, holding tightly. And finally Jim found the wherewithal to speak, words tumbling out of the storm in their minds.

     You were gone…what the fuck happened? Why does it hurt so much? “Jesus, this is bad—.”

     Spock’s fingers carded through Jim’s hair, cradling his head, his other hand pressed against the captain’s bare torso. To prepare for today…for the procedure…I attempted meditation and shielding, but this…I did not expect this intensity upon physically parting—.

     A cascade of frantic human thoughts broke into the Vulcan’s mental reply as Jim realized what was coming: sentinels, the procedure, separation, pain.

     Jim choked. No. He dragged in a deep breath. “Why…why is it suddenly so fucking bad? Last night—.”

     Spock simply shook his head, murmuring, “I do not know.” The bond runs far deeper than I anticipated and is even now evolving. It is…all.

     All. It was an appropriate way to describe it: thought and emotion shining like quicksilver, flashing between them, streaking: too fast, too intense, too much. Helplessness shook their mental landscape, and Jim could feel panic building with Spock’s inability to govern the feelings shivering from the depths of their minds. Everything was running away, flying away, just like it had the previous night after they’d—.

     “No!” The captain barked, his entire body tense. “No. Hold on. Just…take a deep breath with me, okay? Hold on to me.” Jim felt Spock nod and the captain concentrated, his face contorting as he applied inelegant human stubbornness, focusing on memories of the surreal calm that had existed just hours earlier in warm darkness, drawing in an exaggerated breath and feeling Spock do the same.

     “In and out. C’mon, in and out; breathe with me.” And Jim felt Spock respond as they breathed together, their bodies together, inhaling and exhaling. Jim relaxed his neck and closed his eyes, letting his head fall against his bondmate’s hand, letting his own grip loosen, knowing his blunt nails had left marks in his friend’s skin.

     “Okay. Okay,” Jim whispered as the shuddering tumult between them calmed, sharp thoughts and clashing emotion carefully blending into a singular awareness of the bond now curving gently and brightly: mental white noise and soothing empathetic vibration.

     Jim silently speculated, We need to touch and we need to be open to each other. It happened when you tried to shield from me, when you moved away from me.

     He exhaled through his nose, his eyes opening to see Spock’s brown gaze fastened on him. The odd chill had dissipated but his head hurt, and Jim was suddenly aware of their intimate position: shirtless, wound together awkwardly against the wall.

     “They will separate us, Jim.”

     They had opened Pandora’s box, and Jim suddenly realized that even Spock didn’t fully understand what the full bonding had accomplished. The potential for healing, yes, and support, but also new, confusing vulnerability that they had no time to address. Compounded with faltering shields and the disturbing possibility of mental injury, and in the face of deadly emotional energies, it might come down to a choice between protecting Jim and Spock’s own survival. Or insanity. Jim had felt the edge of hysteria behind the Vulcan’s thoughts, had witnessed Spock’s dangerous use of ice-cold water to try to regain control. And the idea of being permanently bound to a lost mind sent a shiver of dread down the captain’s spine.

     Jim blinked and felt his cheeks flush, becoming aware of the tactless transference of his thoughts as Spock lowered his own gaze, resignation and grief filtering across their connection.

     “Fuck. I’m sorry.”

     Your concerns are quite understandable. And accurate.

     Guilt colored the captain’s words. “We’ve just got to figure something out.” Jim pressed his lips together, gently pulling away, feeling Spock’s fingers tighten momentarily before releasing, allowing the captain to move slowly backward, extricating himself, testing their distance.

     Complete separation was difficult, and Jim felt a profound pull toward his bondmate that was both mental and physical, the sensation of wanting sliding through him like thirst, like lust. They stared at each other, and the bond coiled more tightly, almost defensively, in Jim’s mind.

     The human’s hands curled anxiously and stubbornly into fists. “You’re okay?”

     “Affirmative,” Spock answered shortly, but dark eyes held insistent turmoil, and Jim could feel a distinct undertone of discomfort from his bondmate.

     Okay. You want to try shielding again?

     Yes. Spock was still curled in on himself, hands now folded tightly in his lap.

     Jim felt a deliberate mental constriction, feeling the bond dim and blur. He wanted to see if they could withstand this now, before the situation became forced. The sensations in his mind were still tolerable, distracting but not painful, though he was certain that the reprieve would not last through the chaos of the procedure. Worry and anticipatory fear crowded his mind. They had to do better. They had to be able to function independently. They had to—.

     His clipped thoughts burst through forcefully, and he saw Spock blink, felt something responsively tighten even further, and the pull to his bondmate morphed immediately into fierce pain. Flinching, his own head pounding, Jim reached forward, grabbing Spock’s hand.

     Too much! Fuck—.

     What little he could perceive of the bond howled in hurt reaction and Jim felt tears form in his own eyes, gripping his friend’s hand, seeing Spock’s eyes twist shut. This wasn’t right; his intuition told him that something was fundamentally wrong.

     The door slid open abruptly, and Jim winced as a wave of startled reaction spiked across the taut connection between them, releasing his bondmate’s hand and spinning to lean forward between Spock and the door, where Hsieh had just stepped inside, followed by three sentinels.

     The mercenary took in the situation with a smirk. “I see you finally decided to serve your purpose, Kirk.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Well done.”

     Pain and his own sharp dread were cascading through Jim’s head, but he staggered to his feet, feeling Spock do the same behind him, sensing the stream of mental energy fly impossibly faster between them even through his bondmate’s shields. Anger was easy to find. “The fuck do you mean by that?” Jim asked belligerently, stepping more fully between Spock and Hsieh.

     The bald man snorted. “We thought we were going to lose your telepath yesterday, and then you did whatever you did, and we had a development.” His dark eyes flicked over Jim’s exposed torso. “In more ways than one.”

     The captain tensed, seeing a reflection of Rohmer’s brutal treatment in the context of Hsieh’s casually disdainful glance.

     The mercenary shrugged. “The Keeper discovered a potential pathway to the weapon within the minds processed yesterday. Evidently your usefulness was not exaggerated, and we enjoyed the subsequent show.”

     Jim flushed and lifted his chin defiantly. “Fuck you.”

     “Not me, Kirk.” Hsieh’s expression hardened. “Tell your Vulcan to get his shirt on and get moving; we’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.”

     Jim flinched. He could feel Spock fighting to keep his shields in place even against the strong emotions pouring uncontrolled from Jim’s own mind, and it was only getting worse. The captain’s thoughts flailed and he felt nauseous; he couldn’t even concentrate enough to attempt mental communication, and he felt Spock brush past him as the Vulcan stepped forward, toward the door.

     “No!” Jim tried to stall. “He needs to eat something. He hasn’t eaten in days.”

     Hsieh casually touched the weapon at his waist. “Not my problem.”

     Jim’s voice rose, “I want to come with you; I can help him.”

     “Not this time.” Hsieh’s eyes narrowed as Jim took two steps forward. “Never mind the shirt, Spock. Let’s go.”

     It will be alright, Jim. I will attempt to divert the worst of the transference.

     Spock’s fingers slid briefly against Jim’s as he passed him, and Jim could feel determination radiating from his friend’s mind, knowing that Spock would not voluntarily lower his shields, accepting the price for Jim’s safety in what was to come.

     “Goddammit!” Jim burst out, his hands clenching hard enough to feel his knuckles crack. Spock did not pause or turn, and Jim flinched again as shields tightened further, feeling the dimmed bond writhe and his own head pound even more fiercely. Two sentinels flanked the Vulcan as he disappeared through the doorway, and Jim shuddered in the wake of his own emotions as he watched his friend go, the new mental dimension raw and off-balance.

     Hsieh was now holding his weapon, his eyes fixed warily on Jim’s face, the remaining sentinel moving a step forward.

     Jim knew his expression must be contorted, reflecting the upheaval in his mind. He stared at the mercenary, hissing, “You fucking people. What do you expect is going to happen to him if you keep sending him in like that?

     Hsieh’s jaw tightened. “You’re going to lecture me on mercy? You?”

     Jim blinked in confusion and the mercenary scowled, shoulders jerking tightly as he drew himself up, continuing darkly, “Just keep doing your job, Kirk.”

     The captain had sensed something in the mercenary’s words: perhaps an opening, perhaps a weakness. He forced his own voice into a semblance of evenness. “It’s not too late for you, you know. Help get us out of here, and Starfleet will overlook a lot of this.”

     Hsieh hesitated and then openly laughed. “I’ve got a better idea, Kirk. I’ll sit back and watch as your first officer hands over the key to Starfleet’s demise. Your whole Federation will crumble, brought down by a cocktease and a lovesick bastard from a nearly extinct species.” He snorted, reaching into his pocket and extracting a small container, tossing it at Jim, who caught it instinctively.

     “You’ll need this, Captain,” the mercenary quipped, turning and heading for the door. “He’ll be in even less of a position to deny you tonight.”

     Jim stared down at the container, recognizing the inscription on the label as the door slid shut behind Hsieh and the sentinel. “Fuck. That fucking piece of shit,” he muttered, rage swelling, and he threw the lube violently against the mirrored wall.

      He was irate, and he bit his own lip savagely, feeling out of control. He couldn’t get a handle on himself or his mind, and even the tightly wound and shielded bond felt defiant. He felt hot tears on his face, and caught a glimpse of himself, understanding why Hsieh had regarded him so cautiously. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot, his cheeks mottled and wet. He looked fucking crazy, and his thoughts involuntarily drifted to his bondmate. His bondmate. Lover? T’hy’la? Did it fucking matter? He felt a surge of desperate longing that he couldn’t control, hearing himself whimper as he fell to his knees. He wanted nothing more than to hold his friend to him, to touch warm skin, to feel the love that had been offered so steadfastly. This separation, even now, even before any real trial, felt gray and cold and jagged, pale and empty like grief. He wanted, and his skin itched with the need to touch, his hands cramped with it, his gut ached with it.

     It was terrifying; more than the perceived intrusion into his mind, more than the loss of privacy or the fear of manipulation, this need scared him. He’d felt want before: want of food, of kinship, of safety, of sex. He’d wanted the Enterprise in a way that had resonated to his deepest self. But this need for someone, this soul-deep yearning, was too close to the edge, too close to a place he had never really wanted to go, afraid of the relinquishment that would be required. Afraid of the abandonment of everything he prided himself on being. His anger at Hsieh bled over into anger at Spock: a low, crawling resentment that he knew had more to do with anticipated pain than anything else. He knew it was coming, he knew—.

     Jim, this is not how it should have been. Please forgive me.

     “Fuck,” he murmured, more of a sob than anything else. He was bone-tired, and scared, and fucking done, and he’d never thought he’d give up, but this was pushing him close.

     It is starting. Prepare yoursel—.

     It felt like a hollowing: the bond sinking away rapidly and cold, implacable steel rising in its place. Jim gasped, an unnatural chill creeping over his body, and he began to shiver, his headache intensifying and the need crawling over his skin, along his bones, burrowing into his mind. Distant pain roared at the edges of his perception, and he bent over double, his forehead touching the carpet as his eyes screwed shut and he tried to remember how to breathe. Too close, too far: foreign emotion snaked into his mind and he choked, feeling someone’s death, bile rising from his own belly, and he felt himself fall to the side, curled into himself on the floor.

     Relief came as a bitter aftertaste, and Jim realized he was lying in a puddle of his own vomit, the carpet wet and rancid beneath his face. This was a mistake, this was awful, this was not what he had—.

     Jim!

     His bondmate’s mental cry shimmered along his throbbing psyche, and everything blurred in front of him as he focused, sensing Spock’s determination being rapidly outflanked by pain and exhaustion. Energy tore through desperately maintained shields, penetrating to the heart of their vulnerable connection, going far deeper than ever before, burning along fragile, new pathways. Failure finally caught them both, as the steel coldness thinned and fractured and the bond shuddered, and Jim felt like he was falling. And then he was screaming.

 

*****

 

     “Kirk.”

     A feminine voice slid into Jim’s growing awareness, along with the feel of hard coolness underneath his body, the smell of antiseptic, a strange ache along his jaw.

     “Wake up, Kirk. It’s over.”

     The light was too bright, and he cringed as his mind shied away from where the bond had burned before, now darkly raw and smoldering, hollow, tremulous shielding evidently having been lifted between himself and his bondmate. He couldn’t remember anything after the pain had screamed over and through him. He coughed, and somewhere above him, he heard an impatient sigh, finding Nerit’s face hovering among the light, her mouth a thin line.

     “This isn’t an act; you felt everything he endured, didn’t you?”

     Jim swallowed, an oddly sharp taste in his mouth, and he pushed away from her, recognizing the floor of the bathroom, his shirt gone and the skin of his neck and face feeling slightly abraded.

     “Where’s…where’s Spock?” He couldn’t focus again, his mental words eluding him.

     She was bluntly persistent. “What did he do to you, when he touched you yesterday?”

     “Shut up,” Jim whispered, dropping his head in his hands, pulling even further away from her, against the cold wall. “Where is he?”

     He heard her sigh again, and felt the press of a warm, wet cloth against the back of his neck. “He is on his way back here.” Her voice was gentler than it had been.

     Jim didn’t answer, and she leaned back, away from him. “You are dehydrated, and still in some mental distress, I believe. Being with him will help?”

     The captain lifted his head, seeing her kneeling next to him, her blue eyes intense on his. “Your mind, and his; the link was strengthened when you helped him, yes?”

     Jim looked away, but she twisted to follow his gaze, her tone becoming intimate. “Your efforts helped the Keeper’s purpose. Your link will realize our destiny. You should be proud, Kirk.”

     “Nerit.” He hesitated before continuing, his words slurring together, “Nerit, you can’t believe all this. You have to—.”

     She interrupted him vehemently, “I do believe it. Everything I endure, I endure for a purpose, just as you do. You live for him, and he lives for you; just as you believe in each other, I believe in this. I live for this.”

     She was suddenly so different from the detached, deliberately coy woman from before, and he saw her in a strangely new light, seeing the iron beneath the carefully decorative exterior. She must have seen some change in his expression, because her mouth twisted. “We’re the same. Have you not given of your body for your Starfleet? Has your mate not given of his? Blood, passion, pain: it is all the same, all gifts raised to the benefit of what lies beyond.” She stopped, eyeing him carefully. “The Keeper wishes to see you.”

     “Why?” Jim practically spat the question.

     Nerit’s reply was smooth. “She wishes to learn more about this link between you. She wishes to know if it can be leveraged even more for our benefit.”

     Jim blanched, and Nerit shifted, rising to her feet. “You spoke to Hsieh earlier about needing food; I brought it for you, and clothing and other items: medicinal oil, blankets. You must be sure to take care of your mate tonight. Much progress is being made and must continue to be made. I will come for you in the morning, to go to the Keeper.”

     The captain sniffed, saying dryly, “I’m not going to be in any condition to talk to anyone, especially if you take him away again.”

     She shrugged, her golden hair forming a halo around her head. “Progress was made. Your mate may be given time to recover.”

     “May be given,” Jim repeated weakly.

     Something hardened behind her eyes. “I am not one to question the methods of the Keeper. Questioning is not my place and surely not yours, either.” She drew in a deep breath, leaning forward slightly. “Kirk, why do you not accept what is happening? Why do you fight it?”

     He grimaced, asking flatly, “Why don’t you?”

     She stared at him. “Do you think what Rohmer did to you was anything at all? Far worse can happen, and you are being given every consideration, every lenience.” A scowl marred her delicate features. “This present suffering is good for you: only through pain lies the gates of salvation.”

     He swallowed hard, sensing some dark history behind her words, leaning away from the banked fire in her eyes. The sound of the door opening in the main room caused Nerit to glance away, craning her neck.

     “He is returned to you. Remember what I said.”

     The bond was still aching viscerally, but Jim could sense Spock’s proximity now, and he couldn’t help pushing himself to his knees, crawling forward before pulling himself to his feet against the doorway, ignoring Nerit’s presence as she stood up behind him, following him as he staggered into the main room.

     Spock was on his knees in front of two blank-faced sentinels as if he’d just been dropped there, still shirtless, his torso crossed with faded and fresh bruising. The Vulcan lifted his chin, and Jim choked, seeing brown eyes filled with misery. The captain stumbled, tripping over himself as he moved forward, barely seeing the sentinels step slowly back as he fell to his own knees in front of his bondmate, unhesitatingly wrapping his arms around him, holding tightly.

     Nerit murmured something that Jim didn’t hear, and the door opened and closed again without either man looking up, the sentinels and the woman departing silently.

     Spock leaned into him, arms coming up to embrace in turn, gripping just as tightly, just as desperately. The bond bent, shuddered, groaned, bleeding between them, yet still determinedly shielded. Despite the Vulcan’s dogged protectiveness, something had to give; something had to break down this wall between them. Jim knew instinctively that Spock couldn’t handle much more: eidetic recollections of death on top of death, pain on top of pain, all of it threatening, shaking the bond.

     “Let me in,” Jim murmured, his mouth close to a pointed ear. “Let me help.”

     “T’hy’la.” Spock’s voice was broken.

     “Please. Let me help. Please, Spock.”

     The Vulcan shuddered in his arms and then slumped, and, almost instantly, the shielding collapsed. Pain howled between them and desperate, haunting longing reverberated between their minds, and Jim held on, bracing himself, forcing himself to stand it, pushing aside all the fear, all the anger, to find that warm, gentle feeling that he knew was hidden somewhere. Memories and images flashed all around him: images of red sand, of human women with beautiful, dark eyes, the white, white walls of their ship, the wave of fire that had roared toward them, and there, finally, there it was. Love. Simple and clean, a banner that carried so much behind it: friendship, loyalty, and the deep, ancient drives. Sexual desire repressed and denied, a need for touch, a need to speak, also denied. An awareness of Jim’s own personal battles, of his own personal pain, and an overwhelming need to protect. My mate. Mine.

     “Why do you love me like this? Why me?” Jim had turned his face, whispering into black hair. “Why do you want me?”

     The answer was there for him to read, bright and shining in the texture of the bond itself: the perfect fit of their personalities, the give and take of their weakness and strengths, the acceptance that Spock had always sought and had never found so openly before, the loyalty that Jim had always hoped to inspire, and now found in a most unique and fascinating being. They found each other beautiful, captivating, kindred. Less noble aspects were there, too: shades of lust, of inadequacy, of perceived weakness and defiance, but paling in relation to strong undercurrents of trust and respect.

     A difficult equilibrium had been reached, the bond undulating calmly now, cooler. The pain had largely dissipated, though the exhaustion remained, and for a long moment all they could do was breathe.

     Jim…Jim.

     Spock’s mental voice was weak, almost forced, and Jim recognized the effort and concentration.

     “It’s alright.” He didn’t know if he could communicate in that way, right now. His mind felt limp.

     Jim, the weapon…it is real; it is dangerous. I cannot…we cannot allow it to be realized.

     Images sparked: theoretical diagrams, technical drawings, equations in an unfamiliar hand, sources of power, swirling and incomplete, but ominous. Specters of a devastated world filled his mind: a people cowed, slow death, disease, mistrust, brutality, executions, extinction.

     “My god.”

     The procedure…the fulfillment of the bond allowed increased sensitivity to the emotional stream and I was able to…we’re on Cassia Belomni II, Jim, archaeological colony RX-54.

     Jim pulled away, keeping his hands on his bondmate’s arms, but enforcing enough distance to look into his dark eyes. Shock somehow allowed the captain to find his mental voice. RX-54?

     Spock blinked, and Jim looked away, his mind racing as he recognized the name from the inquiries after the Marcus affair. Just inside the bounds of Federation space, near to the ever-changing Klingon border, on a Class-M planet in a system fairly close to one of the outlying trade routes, RX-54 had been one of Section Thirty-one’s minor projects, shut down and evacuated almost immediately after Marcus’ demise. Another clue, and seemingly tied in with Hsieh’s appearance, but the religious imagery? The Keeper? Questions ricocheted, and Jim felt dizzy, aware that Spock was uncharacteristically not offering any analysis, any speculation. There was only a sense of finality, of bitter purpose and grief, and Jim did not need their bond to know why.

     “No. That’s not going to happen. That’s not an option.”

     Our duty dictates that we cannot allow further progress. The sensitivity worked both ways, Jim. They are close.

     So are we. “No!” Jim’s fingers tightened, clinging to his friend’s bare arms. Hold on. Give me more time. I’ll think of something; we’ll think of something. He pushed through images of his talk with Nerit, of the threat or promise of the Keeper’s meeting.

     “Jim. I am…afraid.” If they keep you from me—.

     It was the fear of the evil that could be done, of echoes of another world lost, of another people extinguished. And more intimately, it was a fear of a loss of control, a fear of helplessly having to watch or feel Jim suffer. The fear swelled, that transparent panel coming again between them, shimmering into stark mental imagery, and Jim shook his head emphatically, pushing it away.

     “No.” He licked his lips. “I’m here and we’re alive. We’re still alive and we’re going to fucking stay that way.”

     It was all laid bare, his friend’s mind and body so hurt and yet so open to him, and he searched dark eyes, his hands loosening their terrified grip and sliding up to cradle his bondmate’s face.  He wanted to touch, to comfort, wanted to let Spock know that this vulnerability was shared, that the love and the sacrifice were known. He wanted to be worthy of such devotion.

     “It’ll be alright. Let me...just for tonight, let me—.” Jim trailed off, knowing what he wanted, but unable to enunciate it, not with his own inadequacies and guilt and shame so sharply drawn in front of him. He swallowed. “Let me do this, okay? Trust me?” It was spoken so differently from before, when he had been operating under such ridiculous arrogance. Now, his voice was full of hard-earned humility and willingly offered affection.

     No matter the difference, Spock’s reply was the same. “Yes.”

     “Okay.” Jim exhaled, moving his hands down to clasp both of his bondmate’s. “Come with me.”

 

*****

 

     Simple touch had never felt as deeply intimate as it did now, as Jim’s soapy hands slid gently over his bondmate’s shoulders and across his back. They were both naked, their clothing fallen and forgotten, the soothing heat of the shower washing away everything that had come before. Soft, cleansing caresses slid across bruised and battered skin, and pain slid further and further away with every touch, the whisper of thought and emotion swaying delicately and calmly now as exhaustion caught up with both of them.

     Spock’s eyes were closed, and his head tipped forward, coming to rest against Jim’s shoulder, and Jim turned them both slightly so that the water streamed over his bondmate’s back. He felt the Vulcan exhale against his skin, felt hands come up to rest at his waist, and the captain murmured, “Let’s get dried off; I want you to eat.”

     Wrapped towels were enough as he guided his friend back into the main room, noting that Nerit or someone had changed the bedding as well. Jim didn’t want anything to do with the thin, glossy clothing, not after its slippery presence had been associated with so much agony, not after what they had been through, not when the touch of skin was so important. Spock dutifully ate, slowly and carefully, and even though he didn’t finish his portion, Jim didn’t push, sensing that it was enough, moving the trays to the floor, mentally nudging his bondmate to lie flat on the pallet.

     The lights dimmed as Jim retrieved the oil Nerit had provided, testing it in the palm of his hand. It was light and odorless, providing a slight warming sensation, and he knelt next to the Vulcan’s left side, seeing dark eyes open and watching him. The towels had gone, and here, on the bed, their shared nudity had an added dimension that was left unspoken between them, perceptible only as a low, subtle heat along the bond, reluctant in their exhaustion, but impossible to ignore.

     “This should help with the bruises,” he said softly. Their connection was silent, full of fatigue and an unabashed need to touch and be touched, and Jim complied, gently massaging the oil onto his friend’s damaged skin, seeing Spock’s eyes close and feeling him arch almost imperceptibly into the touch. And here, with his hands on his bondmate’s body, with the bond lethargic and pleasant in his mind, it was remarkably easy to push aside the larger, crueler reality. A defense, perhaps, but a welcome one, and Jim concentrated on the feel of lean muscle, on the sensual warmth growing between them, on the contrast of black hair on a white pillow, accentuated by the semi-darkness. It was so close to that gentle perception he had felt in the early hours of the morning, and he wondered if this was how it would have been, how it should have been: letting closeness come quietly and selflessly.

     Dark eyes opened and Spock lifted a hand, sliding it down Jim’s forearm to entwine their fingers together, the oil slick between them.

     “Jim.”

     There was a pull, and Jim wasn’t sure if he had felt it physically or mentally or both, but he shifted, lowering his body to lie alongside his bondmate’s, feeling Spock’s other hand come up to card through dark blond hair. Dark eyes met blue, and Jim found himself relaxing into a subtle pattern of alien touch: fingertips exploring delicate places along his face and along his hand, their thoughts sliding together in a warm haze. Jim leaned forward and their lips met gently, tentative even with full awareness between them, softly brushing, their bodies coming into fuller contact as Jim pulled the blankets over them both. It was not overtly sexual, not with the trauma that still shuddered along the edges of their minds, but an escape, a release, catharsis. This was not forced, this was a choice, this was for them, and damn the watchers that were undoubtedly lurking behind the mirrored wall. Distant arousal stirred and subsided, and the kiss finally broke as Spock’s head moved to Jim’s shoulder, sleep beckoning.

     Jim lay awake, staring at the dimmed light, at the blank ceiling, hearing his bondmate’s breathing even and slow, the mental connection calm and bright. The pain had temporarily gone, even eidetic memory losing its immediacy in the physical presence and reassurance of a bondmate’s touch and affection. And it was affection, deep, shared affection, and Jim closed his eyes, his lips tightening as he realized just how much: something that hovered on the edge of forever. He felt sadness for the way they had been forced to come together, grief for what could have been, had they been able to discover and explore it in their own time, in their own way. And he thought of what the next day would hold, Nerit’s vague description as to the Keeper’s intentions weighing heavily with him.

     But even with the sadness, even with the grief, even with the fear, there was a new determination to fight, to escape this opaque world of pain and punishment, of fear and shame, and to return to their ship, to their family. To understand this deep new intimacy and to find what they could be, together. Jim set his jaw, tightening his hold on his bondmate, vowing to find a way to survive what would come.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Written In Blood And Memory

 

     The shock of revelation burst through Jim’s mind, waking him instantly, and he could feel reverberations flow through the bond, rousing Spock as well. For a moment, Jim blinked groggily at the ceiling, the lights still dimmed, the trappings of night still hanging all around them. Had it been a dream? Next to him, he felt Spock turn, the warm press of skin along his body reminding him of their healing intimacy hours earlier.

     “Jim?” It was a careful whisper, and Jim sensed the deeper questions skimming underneath, caught in their shared mental current.

     He bit his lip, furrowing his brow as he fought to capture and direct his whirling thoughts. I remembered something; at least, it seemed like I did: about the weapon, the schematics, and that damn procedure.

     He turned his head toward the mirrored wall, still chewing his lip as he sensed his bondmate’s curiosity swell amidst a hint of incredulity. Their connection was bright and fluid with their bodies in such close contact and their minds still rising from the depths of sleep, and Jim shifted again, looking back into Spock’s dark eyes. “Kiss me.”

     An upswept eyebrow rose and Jim raised his voice, speaking deliberately and with feigned coyness, “Kiss me and meld with me. I had a, uh, bad dream.” He shrugged slightly as his bondmate’s other eyebrow rose, and the captain moved forward to bring their mouths together, eager to convey this unlikely piece of information: this long-shot, pulled-from-a-dream thing that his intuition was screaming at him not to ignore.

     Jim sprawled out half on top of the Vulcan, reaching blindly for his bondmate’s hand and pressing long fingers to his own face even as he threw himself into the kiss. The still-unusual but pleasant feeling of the underlying mental link, though, was nothing compared to the stark immediacy of a meld, which had, thus far, meant grinding pain and trauma and forced emotional turmoil. Clarity sparked as their minds began to merge, and the captain couldn’t help the groundswell of fear, suddenly questioning himself, wanting to get this over with, wanting Spock to just fucking do it—.

     Jim. This is a light meld, nothing more.

     His mind was taut: the sensation of breathlessness surrounding him, and then the sensation shifted and Jim knew he was shaking, waiting for—.

     You shall feel no pain, Jim.

     It was elusive, but it was there. Somewhere, the maelstrom lurked: agonized memories, deep aching wounds, tiredness, hysteria—. His recognition was noticed, and then it all disappeared, definitively locked away.

     Jim struggled to finally find his words. Your shields are better.

     Your presence in this way has a profound and rapid healing effect, t’hy’la.

     But not enough—. Jim caught himself; this wasn’t what needed to be conveyed.

     He concentrated, relaxing into the contact, letting the information spill away from him: memories that had become clear only after the worst of the trauma from the transference had dissipated, recollections that had been opaque to Spock, too, at the time, now flashing between them. The schematics he had seen, the nuances of the weapon becoming clearer, but this idea of adding to them and changing them—.

     Spock’s mind was running rapidly: calculating, assimilating. You believe we can sabotage the weapon by influencing the data stream.

     Yes! The information must pass through you to get to the computers, Spock. You can intercept it, manipulate it.

     Somewhere outside their intimate mental sharing, Jim sensed their lips part, their eyes still shut and unseeing, and they breathed together. He also sensed reluctance, resignation, thoughts flying almost too quickly to process: odds being weighed, recollection, analysis.

     You don’t think we can do it.

     He envisioned Spock shaking his head in response: a human interpretation of the emotional sensations.

     No. During the procedure, I must retreat, Jim. I…threaten to lose myself. Such specific identification and manipulation is unlikely.

     Jim’s mind raced, leaving eddies and swirls of psionic energy in its wake, searching for a way; there was always another way—.

     His mental words spilled out in a rush. But if we were together…melded together, touching like this? You said this was healing, stabilizing. Maybe it would make the difference?

     Spock replied immediately, the meldspace turning murky and gray with careful disapproval, You would be vulnerable, Jim. I could not protect you even in the smallest way. You would be at risk.

     But there’s a…a chance, isn’t there? And if there’s a chance, we have to take it. Like you said: they’re close and we don’t have time for anything else.

     The Vulcan’s mental reply was flat and emotionless, a finalistic defense against Jim’s sparking dynamism. It is unlikely they will allow us to remain together, Jim.

     I’ll take care of it.

     Jim’s rapidly consolidating plan swept between them: a meeting with the Keeper and all its unforeseen dangers, the tiny chance of manipulating his way into the procedure alongside his bondmate, the even smaller chance of stabilizing Spock’s mind long enough to thwart the advance of the weapon. And, either way, this, now, might be the last time they touched in the dark and the silence, with at least the pretense that they were alone, with pain detached if not faraway.

     Longing surfaced, and behind it another idea emerged from the sparking tumult of Jim’s mind, spurred by the distant sensations of their naked bodies pressed against each other and his understanding of what had transpired the last time they had been intimate: the escalation, the deepening of their connection, the enhancement of his ability to help, to heal. They needed every advantage in what was to come, and Jim’s feverish thoughts sped on stubbornly, fueled by the growing heat within the bond. He pulled himself out of the gentle mind touch, sensing the stiffness of his tense muscles as he came back to awareness, feeling Spock’s lean form under his.

     Part of him wanted it and part of him needed it, and part of him was confusedly desperate, as if there was something still hidden between them: something he hadn’t yet experienced, a mental depth that was left unknown and incomprehensible. Just as shielded pain hung in the veiled distance, Jim could, even now, sense places in his bondmate’s mind that he hadn’t yet seen, places that called to him. The human surged forward, his mouth opening atop his bondmate’s, his lips urging, trying to excite, his mind asserting the need. Even if they were kept separate, this would help, as it helped before. You need me. We need this.

     Sadness abruptly blossomed and spread in the space between them, and Jim felt the spread of a disconcerting hollow feeling, his burgeoning arousal faltering as he shook off the haze of his own blind conviction and took in his bondmate’s mental silence and lack of physical response.

     He pulled back immediately, a terrible feeling of guilt and shock washing over him as he stared into brown eyes turned black in the low light.

     Spock’s voice was rough, but firm, its intensity unwavering even as his body remained pliant under Jim’s. “I am yours. But I will not consent to that, not now. I will keep something that is sacred to this bond for us alone, should you choose it and should I choose it, freely and without requirement and without calculation.”

     It was like cold water, and Jim grimaced, shocked at himself, at his assumptions, starting to roll off his bondmate’s body and away when his arms were suddenly grasped and held tightly, and dark eyes stared deeply into his own for a mere second before he was pulled forward and held in a tight embrace.

     It is not needed, Jim. Ashayam. Nothing of me is hidden from you.

     The conduit between them flew open as shields fell, and Jim’s body jerked as pain, now freed, crashed around him. He struggled, and then steeled himself, willing his own mind open, recognizing the need. A need that was parallel, perhaps, but not the same, and Jim understood the separation between something very human and something altogether Vulcan. Their bond ran deeply, and it was only human stubbornness that kept those dark places closed. Stubbornness, and an unwillingness to fall, sight unseen. This, in the end, was not an issue of trust, but a question of love, and as pain from the latent emotional scars grew more and more transparent, the closer their minds entwined.

     You see, t’hy’la, I do need you.

     The words soared into Jim’s consciousness and he felt tears in his eyes. But they stopped, together, before the depths were illuminated. Suspended here, Jim knew that he wasn’t yet ready; that he was holding back even as Spock was doing the same. And it was stupid and it was obstinate, denying sex, denying love, but it was also the only thing they had left. If they did escape, if that one-in-a-million chance came to pass, there would be something left between them yet untouched by this cruel experience. Something to explore, to build upon: the exclusively intimate feeling of the heat and tightness of the other’s body, the sound of a lifetime’s promise on the other’s lips. It would remain for them and for them only, and it gave them something powerful to fight for.

     I’ll take care of it, Jim repeated silently. She’ll never see it coming.

     Emotions flew between them, and Jim recognized the dark undertones of the night before.

     If you fail, Jim, and I fail, there may be only one alternative remaining.

     And Jim could not argue that the balance of their lives was not worth the potential danger to the Federation. This was their duty, and if realization of the weapon were as close as Spock suspected, to prevent successful transmission of the plans, there was only one thing that could be done.

     I will initiate a trance from which I cannot be awakened, Jim, and you—.

     His bondmate’s mental voice trailed off, but Jim could infer the rest as thoughts laden with emotion seeped through the bond. The depth of their bond and the untrained nature of Jim’s mind would virtually ensure that the human would be drawn in as well.

     His response was curt. She won’t see that fucking coming either.

 

*****

 

     Jim sat cross-legged on the thick carpet, facing his bondmate but not touching, holding his mental and physical distance as Spock performed steadily deepening meditative exercises. The overhead light had brightened, but awareness of Hsieh’s imminent arrival was pushed aside as they gathered themselves, concentrating on their connection and on the task that seemed to be their only option.

     The captain sat motionless, watching his bondmate, keeping his own breathing slow and steady, his own thoughts calm and linear. Spock’s skin was starkly pale against the dark, glossy fabric of the tunic and pants, his black hair finally smoothed back into a semblance of its normal order. The lines of tension and the discoloration from his injuries were still patterned across his face, but his lips were soft and slightly parted, and his hands lay loose and relaxed on his folded legs.

     Jim’s thoughts, presently, were entirely his own. Spock’s concentration lay deep and intense at levels beyond the bond, and Jim wondered at this surprising dichotomy of aloneness and togetherness, of the coexistence of mental solitude and kinship. Again, Jim considered how this experience might have been, had this not been forced upon them: an exploration instead of desperate, frantic grasping?

     Together at the last: there could be worse things. Jim swallowed, letting his eyes roam over dark hair and high cheekbones, over a strong jawline and upswept eyebrows and pointed ears. His friend: who complemented him so well, who supported him, who cried for him, who loved him. His brother: in arms, if not in blood, bound by a shared morality, a shared purpose. And his lover: a thing that was still shrouded in the evil that surrounded them, but was grounded in devotion, refusing to yet be defined.

     He heard the sound of the door sliding open behind him, breaking his contemplation, and he lifted his chin, determination and adrenaline surging through his veins.

     “Kirk.” Hsieh’s impatient, clipped tones rudely broke the stillness of the room.

     Jim ignored him, sensing his bondmate’s mind rising from the clouded well of meditation.

     “Kirk!”

     Jim didn’t turn, murmuring, “Spock. You’ll be alright?”

     Brown eyes opened. “Yes, Captain.” The emphasis on his title was deliberately made.

     Cold, immoveable hands suddenly descended on Jim’s arms, and he was unceremoniously yanked up to stand between two sentinels, craning his neck for one last look at his bondmate as he was spun around to face the irate mercenary. Protective fire licked over the bond, and Jim mentally commanded, Stay there. Don’t move.

     Reluctant acknowledgement crept between them and Jim blinked, realizing that Hsieh was shouting.

     “—fucking believe it! The Keeper’s waiting.”

     “And Spock?” Jim asked quietly.

     Hsieh smirked, apparently for finally getting some kind of response from the captain. “Don’t worry about your telepath. When I take him in for the procedure, I’m pretty sure you’ll figure it out eventually.”

     The sentinels jerked his arms painfully, dragging him out of the room and into the hallway, the mercenary following and the door sliding shut, another two sentinels taking up station outside of it.

     It is unlikely they will attempt the procedure, Jim.

     Unless—. Jim broke off the dark thought, knowing that speculation wasn’t worth a fucking thing now. He continued, finding it easier and easier to shift his thoughts with the bond as a tangible reference, Pretend to meditate. I’ll be monitoring your frequencies. And there it was: a touch of impossible, irreverent, characteristic humor, and Jim felt their bondspace lighten. He struggled not to react outwardly, letting the sentinels pull him along, away from his friend. It’s a good line, I know; I teased Nyota about it mercilessly. Something inside of him ached as he thought of their friends.

     Jim, that situation—.

     The captain pressed on almost manically, seeing startled looks from slaves as the sentinels passed, still largely dragging him. Hey, she knew she was out of line while on-duty; and you, too, by the way. At least she admits it.

     Spock was humoring him. Perhaps, now that we are facing similar circumstances, you would be more understanding of Nyota’s motives.

     Maybe. The forbidden end of the hallway was looming, and Hsieh moved rapidly past them to key open the large doors. I think I was also just jealous.

     Jim—.

     I’ve always wanted your attention, Spock, one way or the other. He was hanging on their banter as a way of knowing Spock was still safe and as a way to force himself into a mindset of confidence, of self-control: things that were so completely absent over the past days. He had to be himself for this next meeting. He had to find his charisma, his command persona; he had to somehow let go of all the fear and the doubt and the desperation and focus on the task at hand. At first it was rivalry, and then it was awe, and then it was friendship. And now it’s so much more. It kind of makes sense.

     The sentinels had released his arms, allowing him to walk on his own as the doors sealed behind him, and he couldn’t help becoming apprehensive as he followed Hsieh’s rapid progress further along the hallway, past the doors to the procedure-room, the dark corridor seeming to close in around him. He knew his bondmate could sense the change, and he felt the barest wisp of warmth filter along the bond. Spock would stay with him.

     I hate that you think I wouldn’t want you. I hate that you think I don’t. The hallway was sloping upward, curving so that he couldn’t see more then five meters in front of him, the sentinels silently menacing at his sides.

     “You’re not very chatty today, Kirk,” Hsieh commented, glancing back at him.

     Jim tried not to look as if he was studying their surroundings. “You gonna tell me why you seem to have a personal vendetta against Starfleet?”

     The smaller man’s shoulders stiffened, but his strides didn’t falter. “Ever hear of Belishea Colony?”

     “Of course. Belishea was an agricultural colony on Tau Pegasi V founded to research terraforming technology, evacuated by Starfleet over ten years ago because of an outbreak of then-unknown Nutik’s Disease.”

     Hsieh stopped abruptly, but didn’t turn around, and Jim noticed that the corridor was no longer lined with doors, and there were familiar conduits running along the ceiling above them. Spock! We’re on a fucking ship! This is a ship!

     Jim—. The bond held a warning note.

     “I’ve never heard it put so succinctly before. So fucking casually.” Hsieh slowly spun, and his expression was contorted. “Sixty percent mortality. And we weren’t evacuated; we were studied. We were left to die, just as Vulcan was left to die, while Starfleet fucked around, while the Federation argued about protocol.”

     The captain exploded, “Fucked around? We lost half the fleet! Thousands of lives!” He felt his bondmate’s presence flutter in his mind and an implacable hand fell on his shoulder, keeping him back.

     Spock’s mental voice flashed through Jim’s mind. It explains his involvement with Section Thirty-one, Jim. Rear Admiral Marcus unilaterally broke quarantine and allowed access to civilians on Belishea, defying a Federation edict and his own superior officer.

     Hsieh snorted contemptuously. “Starfleet is an antiquated, ineffective entity. Marcus was right, and they let him burn for it. The facts are there: Belishea, Tarsus, Vulcan, and a hundred other obscure examples of power wasted under fucking pathetic leadership!”

     “I was on Tarsus IV when the massacre happened!” Jim tried to take a step forward, his hands outstretched, but the sentinel held him back firmly. “Hsieh, I was on Tarsus.”

     Something flashed through the bald man’s eyes before they hardened and he shook his head. “You? The golden boy of the Fleet? You’re full of shit, Kirk.”

     “We are expected,” intoned one of the sentinels, propelling Jim forward. “This conversation is immaterial.”

     Jim struggled to keep his eyes on the mercenary as they passed. “Spock is Vulcan—he saw, he felt his planet die; we did everything we could. Everything, Hsieh! Whatever Marcus told you is wrong. Whatever decisions led to the delays on Tarsus and on Belishea were regrettable, but the Federation can’t be what Marcus ultimately wanted!”

     He was dragged again, Hsieh following behind, slowly. And as they reached a door at the very end of the corridor, the bald man stopped altogether and the sentinels swept Jim inside, alone.

 

*****

 

     Jim stumbled as he was pushed forward, catching himself as his bare feet slid on the polished, black floor. The sentinels did not move further in; instead, they stepped to either side of the door as it closed, their white clothing blending in with the sleek white paneling on the wall, their gold jewelry glinting in the bright lights. The captain straightened and looked up, inhaling sharply as he saw the tall, elegant form of the Keeper standing near the rear wall.

     She didn’t react as he tugged at his tunic and squared his shoulders, and her blue gaze was strangely unfocused, her silvery hair and bright red robes stark against the bright whiteness behind her, the rest of the room oddly empty and unfurnished.

     Jim sent a quick mental reassurance to his bondmate and lifted his chin, forcing confidence into his voice and posture, every inch a starship captain despite his attire and the indelicacy of his arrival. “I’m here. And I’m ready to talk about how we can address any grievances you might have without further violence toward Federation citizens.”

     There was no response from the being in front of him, and Jim frowned, taking a cautious step forward, noticing that the elderly woman’s bearing was slightly awkward, her neck tilted at an odd angle and unmoving.

     Spock, I don’t think that—.

     The swish and slide of a heretofore-unseen door sounded loudly on Jim’s left, and he glanced over sharply as a young woman stepped into the room, a smirk on her face.

     “Captain Kirk, what an entrance you made!” She moved assuredly past Jim to stand rakishly next to the immobile Keeper, the silvery fibers in the new arrival’s sharply cut suit glimmering, setting off the smooth dark tone of her skin. Her startlingly violet eyes matched the shade of her hair, cut short except for a sweeping lock that cascaded across her forehead. She tilted her head amusedly at the elderly woman. “Too bad she couldn’t appreciate it.”

     Jim narrowed his eyes, taking in the newcomer’s youth, beauty, and the arrogance that oozed from her stance and expression. She was watching him with barely-concealed eagerness.

     His frown deepened. “Who are you?”

     Her lips twitched and she answered almost too quickly, “I am the Keeper.”

     The captain’s eyes shifted to the wrinkled visage of the other. “And that?”

     White teeth flashed in a grin. “That is my computerized alter ego; a version of these other androids but with some rather…specific modifications, all courtesy of the buried technology of this goldmine of a planet.”

     She spoke rapidly, her odd eagerness shadowed by an almost predatory gleam in her eyes. “They said RX-54 was a bust when they shut it down, but they just weren’t interested in taking the next step. Hobbled by ethics and rules and stifled by a need for ‘immediate efficacy’!” She scoffed, “So I took it back. It was my project anyway: my vision, my fucking interface design.”

     Jim kept silent, watching her carefully, sensing the openness of the bond, sensing that Spock was able to read many of his own impressions.

     She seemed to catch herself, glancing at the immobile android, her words now coming with more deliberation. “It’s useful for dealing with the Orions, for anonymity, and maintaining an air of gravitas; idiots don’t believe that genius can be young and beautiful.” Her eyes drifted to Jim, moving over his form. “Possibly a problem you’ve encountered yourself?”

     Jim didn’t answer, and the young woman chuckled. “Before you comment, no, I have no sense of humility; I’m sure it makes you uncomfortable.”

     She lifted her hand, pressing the button on a small device held there. The room shifted dizzyingly, and Jim blinked as the white surroundings changed into a colorful lounge, two small couches appearing behind him, and behind her. The atmosphere was different, and he caught the hint of a spicy fragrance, seeing lights play across the ceiling and walls like art.

     Advanced holographic technology, Spock. With the androids, and the weapon…how could this all be overlooked? Shut down?

     Spock’s mental reply was grim. It required the forced participation of a telepathic medium, Jim. Something unlikely to be authorized, no matter how strong the potential for advancement, especially if Vulcans were involved.

     Her demeanor shifted, her shoulders relaxing though her exotic gaze was manically intense. “Have a seat, Kirk.” She flopped back onto the couch behind her, crossing her legs and steepling her fingers. “I have to admit I’ve been curious about you.” She sniffed. “At first, I thought you were just a means to an end, and now—,” she laughed openly, as if to her own private joke, “—well, you’re still a means, but I’ve decided that you’re more interesting than anyone else I keep around here.”

     Jim’s jaw tensed and he sat down carefully, glancing again at the silent shell still standing motionless next to the wall.

     She waved her hand at it. “It’s like a remote control—it can mimic my vocal tone, facial expressions, gestures, and there’s an emotional register, too. Simulated heartbeat and skin tonal changes as a result of my own anger, happiness, and,” she smiled, “lust.”

     Jim regarded her impassively, repeating his previous question, “Who are you?”

     Her smile faltered. “So persistent.” She sighed dramatically. “Well, I suppose I did want to talk. My name is Kellen Trislo.” Her eyebrows rose. “Does that name mean anything to you?”

     The bond widened brightly, and a slew of information spilled into Jim’s mind. He flinched and spoke quickly, trying to cover his reaction to Spock’s relayed thoughts, his shock at the information warring with his relief at his science officer’s confident analysis: something that had been so missed in this confusing place.

     “Listed as a scientific consultant for Section Thirty-One with a specialty in xeno-archaeotechnology, though not formally attached to any specific project. You are the only child of Lars and Klee Trislo, priest-leaders of a religious organization devoted to the practice of ancient interstellar rites and god-worship.”

     She looked mildly surprised. “Very good, Kirk, but you can go ahead and call it for what it really was: a cult. A cult—.”

     “Whose membership was largely destroyed with Vulcan, having made a pilgrimage there to study pre-reform mythology,” Jim interrupted brashly, presenting the reason that her family name had been particularly noted by Command during the Marcus inquiries. “Which might explain the bone you have to pick with Starfleet?”

     She rolled her eyes expansively. “That’s Hsieh’s story. He’s as brainwashed as the rest of the pathetic bastards around here; he filled in the blanks himself and promised his undying loyalty. My interest in this weapon is ninety percent ‘because-I-can’ and ten percent pure, cold revenge.”

     “Revenge? For your parents?”

     “For this.” She gestured around them. “This planet, this technology. They gave me free rein to figure it out and then yanked it all away on the cusp of discovery, all because of Marcus’ fucking posturing. All my work was classified and filed away and I was blacklisted across the board because of my involvement. They were jealous and afraid of what could be achieved; but all it did in the end was set up their own failure.”

     Jim remained silent and Trislo lifted her chin. “Most of that ridiculous cult died with my parents, but this ship had been conveniently parked in Earth orbit, still staffed and paid for by the best kind of my father’s followers.”

     “And those are?” Jim asked flatly.

     “The rich, desperate ones addicted to the fruit punch, of course; the ones who will follow a potential prophet anywhere, even to the brink of Armageddon if the speech is pretty enough and the image fits. Even to this illegal fucking planet right under the Federation’s nose. They’re not much mentally and they won’t ask a question to save their lives, quite literally!” She snorted. “But they do the grunt work and give the androids something to do.” She shook her head. “They were all pretty shocked by you, Kirk. Most of the outsiders brought in by my Orion friends were kept busy and burned out early.”

     Her gaze shifted away thoughtfully. “If only I’d thought of using one’s mate or children against them sooner.” She shrugged. “Not something I would have ever considered, honestly. I gave up pretending to understand others’ emotional attachment when I was a child.” Her lips curled in a cruel smile. “Perhaps my parents’ quest for the gods was partially driven by their need to understand my antipathy. I, on the other hand, felt a natural kinship with the Old Ones: those who were never burdened by empathy.”

     She’s a fucking psychopath. Jim stared at her. “Why are you telling me all this?”

     Trislo’s energy shifted rapidly, and she sniffed, running a hand through her hair. “Because the weapon is almost complete and because I’m fucking bored of talking to myself. Because the next procedure will probably kill your bondmate and I want to get some information out of you before you have no reason left to cooperate. Because I like to look at you and replay in my mind that lovely surveillance disc featuring you and your first officer fondling each other.”

     Jim’s jaw tensed. “And why would I cooperate now, if he’s going to die anyway?”

     “Because you don’t believe in no-win scenarios,” she quipped in a singsong voice. “And because I’m sure you want him to die peacefully.”

     “That procedure is anything but peaceful,” Jim commented darkly.

     She snickered but her eyes were like glass. “Well, sure, but a phaser shot to the head is relatively more peaceful. Or at least quicker, and easy to do before the procedure rips his mind completely apart.”

     Jim grimaced.

     “So!” she exclaimed, ignoring his expression and clapping her hands. “Tell me about your link with your pretty Vulcan lover.”

     Jim glanced down at his lap, needing to judiciously handle this line of inquiry.

     She tilted her head coyly. “Don’t be shy, Kirk. I already know most of it.”

     “Really,” he replied. It was not a question.

     She licked her lips. “It was something you didn’t want, something you rejected, even. But you cared enough about him not to want to see him suffer. Oh, so romantic.” Her gaze sharpened. “But, what happened when he touched you? The link became deeper? More powerful?”

     Jim met her eyes, seeing no reason to avoid stating the obvious. “Yes. I am able to help him.”

     “Help him,” she repeated, the eagerness returning. “And that is why the data stream improved so rapidly after your link was enhanced.”

     The captain leaned forward, his hands folded in front of him, his elbows resting on his knees. “And you want the stream improved even more.”

     “Exactly!” she crowed abruptly. “Evidently, whatever neural pathways you utilize with the link interfaced closely with the dynamic circuitry related to the receptacles, and the information stream became more transparent.  In hours, we achieved more than we had in months.  But we need more: there are a few crucial components that remain hidden from us.” Her eyes glowed. “I want your link as deep as it can get.”

     This was it. Jim swallowed, saying quietly, “Then put us in there together.”

     She blinked and leaned back, her gaze coldly assessing. “I didn’t expect you to agree to it so readily; not after the pain you’ve endured so far. What you suggest would mean far worse for you.”

     Jim shrugged casually. “It might keep him alive and you’ll get your weapon. We’d both get what we want.”

     “Yes,” she answered slowly. “And that was the key all along, wasn’t it? For both of you.” She paused, continuing thoughtfully, “Your weakness isn’t dictated by pain or wealth or jealousy, but love. How very inhuman of you.”

     “On the contrary, I think it’s completely human.”

     She shrugged. “Lately, perhaps; a veneer of…softness to pacify the primordial beast inside of you. But the instinct to survive is still strong. The instinct to do whatever’s necessary, to endure whatever you must in order to survive. A hard-wired, inescapable vulnerability, and one that I’m certain runs deeply in you, Kirk: the captain who cheated death.”

     In an instant her attitude changed again. “I don’t trust you. And I’m sure you still underestimate me.” Her lips twisted. “You think I’m crazy.” She pressed the button on the device in her hand again, twice. “There is no possible scenario for your escape; resisting will get you nowhere except a painful, slow death.” She paused. “After having watched your mate endure his own.”

     “I’m not resisting,” Jim asserted.

     “People like you always do; you can’t help it.” She shifted her shoulders, unfolding her legs and crossing them again, her eyes never leaving his. “Your problem is that you overestimate your own importance. I said before that you are nothing, except with regard to him, and that continues to be true.”  Her gaze grew distant. “He, too, is merely another tool, as is everyone here, loyal or not. All tools.”

     The captain felt a chill of foreboding run along his spine, and something along the bond shifted, Spock’s mental voice filling his head.

     Jim, do not react; I am being escorted to the procedure room.

     He fought to control his expression as her eyes focused back on him sharply. “But, showing is always more profound than telling, don’t you think? And we will demonstrate who between us is the weaker party.”

     The hardness of her eyes and implacability of her expression reminded Jim powerfully of Khan, except that Khan acted to save his people; he was capable of that, at least. She flipped her hair out of her eyes in a smooth motion, tilting her head as if she could read the pattern of his thoughts. “I do not mourn, Kirk. I do not care. I never have. The servant who falls at my feet in abject devotion is the same as the one who resists my yoke. You are different; you will do anything to preserve life. Your mate’s, or merely that of an acquaintance.”

     Spock? Are you—?

     The sound of the door opening and shutting behind him cut off his mental communication and he turned his head from Trislo’s growing smirk to see Nerit walk briskly past him. The blonde woman approached, her eyes never deviating from her mistress’ face, carrying a small, silver box ceremoniously in both of her hands as if she had followed this script a hundred times.

     Jim remained silent, seeing Nerit bow slightly, placing the box on the cushion next to Trislo and stepping back, only then casting a sidelong glance at Jim. Her expression was tight, haunted but resigned, and Jim remembered their last conversation and her assertion that there were worse things. And he knew, he knew, that this was what she was talking about.

     Spock?

     I am uninjured, Jim. They are waiting to begin.

     Waiting for me.

     Spock, we have to shut this thing down. There’s no way to reason with her and the risk is too great. Irrationality in command of the kind of energy… . She’d kill millions, and not blink an eye. It has to stop here!

     Trislo removed the top of the box with a flourish, revealing two small devices that looked almost like hyposprays. Lazy violet eyes ran over Nerit’s form, and the seated woman gestured casually.

     Slowly, the blonde woman pulled at her tunic, slipping it over her head, removing her pants in one smooth motion, and Jim averted his eyes at her bared form. But then he could not look away as she moved to pick up one of the hypos. He couldn’t look away even as she pressed it against her own neck and emptied the contents into her body. And he couldn’t look away as she stepped back again, her eyes back on Trislo, dropping the spent device on the floor, her hands at her sides and upturned, as if offering a sacrifice.

     The erstwhile Keeper looked pointedly at Jim. “You see, Kirk, she is mine. Mine to have, mine to enjoy, and mine to kill, as you are. As the Vulcan is.”

     Jim’s muscles were taut as he saw Nerit flinch, a sheen of sweat erupting over her exposed skin. She gasped and bent forward slightly, a subtle tremor taking over her hands.

     Trislo reached out and gently fingered the second hypo, lifting it and almost caressing it before tossing it lazily on the floor in front of Jim.

     “This is the antidote, Kirk; her salvation. If you let her die, I’ll let your mate live after I get what I want. If you choose to let her live, I’ll subject Spock to this same drug.”

     Jim jerked forward involuntarily before a sudden grip on his shoulders kept him back. The sentinels had appeared behind him, holding him, pressing him back against the couch. Trislo appeared almost bored as she lounged against the cushions. Her threats were simplistic and held a note of repetition; she wanted him to dance and she had decided she knew how to make it happen. He had seen the same kind of complacency in other enemies who had convinced themselves of their own superiority.

     Nerit had fallen to her knees and slid onto her back, making no attempt to reach for the antidote. Her skin was shining with perspiration, her golden hair was wet with it, and she slowly and silently writhed in visible pain, her face contorted, her back arching.

     Trislo wore a lascivious expression. “You are so quick to respond, Kirk, but can you truly picture it? Your mate exposed and in pain, his body moving so erotically for me, and for you? And I’ll enjoy it; I’ll enjoy every second of it. I may even touch him so that he knows how much I am enjoying it. So his last thought is of me and my mind, and the things I will do to you when he can no longer protect you.”

     Jim pulled against the immoveable hands of his captors as Nerit rolled on the floor, her eyes wide and unseeing, her chest heaving with labored breaths, her face deathly pale, and he wrenched his eyes away from the suffering woman to stare furiously at Trislo.

     “You’re going to kill us anyway. Spare her life!”

     Trislo responded in that singsong voice, mocking him. “Are you sure?”

     “Please!” Jim pleaded. “Let me give her the drug!”

     An exaggerated hesitation, and Trislo gestured lazily. Immediately, the hold on his shoulders was gone, and Jim fell forward, landing on his knees between the barely conscious prostrate woman and the hypospray. The thought crossed his mind to simply keep going: to keep moving and to snap Trislo’s neck. Would it be worth it? He might die, but it would give Spock a chance to—.

     The rush of feeling across the bond was nearly instantaneous: grief, understanding, love. And he knew that Spock would not stop him, would not argue with him.

     I love you too. I’m sorry. The captain’s mental words whispered between them in the blink of an eye, honest and defying everything that had come before and everything that would surely come now, and Jim’s coiled muscles propelled him onward, his hands reaching, and the powerful, thwarting impact of one of the sentinels came as a complete surprise.

     He grunted, stunned, thrown to the side and unable to move as the heavy form rolled smoothly away, rising to stand over him. Trislo had visibly jumped, her eyes wide and startled.

     “Your instinct for survival is evidently outweighed by your refusal to accept reality, “ she hissed, unfolding herself in an abrupt motion, picking up the antidote and pressing it carelessly into Nerit’s neck before dropping it next to the blonde woman and addressing the sentinels, “Bring him to the room and hook him up with the telepath; I’ll want to start immediately.” She glanced down at Jim, her violet eyes cold. “Isn’hara gli loe’ati vni a dua di litin. No wonder they died out. You’ll follow in their example, Kirk, but not before I have what I want.”

     Jim was reeling, his vision fading in and out, hardly moving as the sentinels gripped his arms again, unable to feel or touch the bond more than a subtle sensation of presence, unable to focus his thoughts. And the last thing he saw as he was dragged out of the room were Nerit’s eyes: wide-open and staring, and he didn’t know if she had lived or died.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Extinguish The Negative

 

     The strange echoing muteness of the bond was all Jim could focus on as he was dragged down the hallway. His body ached, and his head pounded, and he realized he had hit the floor far harder than he had thought under the unforgiving weight of the sentinel. Dizzy and with building nausea, he shut his eyes tightly against his wavering vision and tried to think through the pain. He was being taken to the procedure-room; he was being taken to his bondmate.

     Spock! There was only a low murmuring response, only pressure where before there had been clarity and warmth, and he moaned out loud. Every harsh, oblivious movement strained his body and lights flashed disconcertingly even through his closed eyelids.

     Spock…my friend. This might not work. But we can’t let her win… .

     He grunted slightly as his arms were jerked again, his head lolling and the fine material of his tunic ripping under the sentinels’ careless hands. A breath of cooler air swept over him, and he cracked his eyes open, seeing the vague outline of machinery in front of him before involuntary darkness began to creep in along the edges of his vision. There was a commotion and a sense of persistent pressure along the bond, a dim mental voice calling out for him, and Jim’s lips formed his bondmate’s name before the captain finally passed out.

 

*****

 

     Jim, ashayam, you must wake up.

     He was being held gently, warm fingers carefully tracing his face in a caress. The discomfort was largely gone, and the sense of mental speech now came effortlessly. It doesn’t hurt anymore.

     I am controlling your pain. It was necessary as they tended to your injuries.

     For a moment Jim imagined that it was all over and he could sink into this depthless and beautiful warmth blooming again in his mind. There was stalwart love here for him, all for him, and a companion who would never falter, a friend who could stand with him and for him and—.

     “Well?” The reedy, elderly voice of the Keeper’s alter ego jarred him from his waking dream, and Jim sensed the hazy warmth retreat, leaving aching clarity in its place, the pain rolling back. The back of his head was tingling strangely and he struggled to open his eyes, wincing in the glare.

     We are in the procedure-room, Jim. They are most anxious to begin. They know nothing of our communication, however, or the degree to which—.

     A timid, male voice sounded somewhere above the captain, replying to the Keeper’s question. “I’ve healed the skull fracture, madam, but, as you ordered, didn’t administer any drugs so that he can undergo the procedure.”

     “He is to be subjected to the procedure?” Spock’s spoken question held a cautious intensity.

     There was an instant of silence, and then the Keeper spoke again, dryly, her form swimming into focus as Jim’s eyes adjusted. “So, you can manipulate his pain, but your link cannot transfer detailed information.”

     “I can sense his distress, and am presently addressing his pain through touch. His mind is stabilizing to me but his own functional ability through the link is quite weak.”

     “Interesting.” Her reply was flat and dripped with something like disbelief. “And yet you are able to perceive thought and emotion from the stream.”

     “He is human; the people of this world were natural telepaths.” Spock’s fingers drifted over Jim’s face again, possessively, leaving soft, tingling trails in their wake. “Which leads to the question of what purpose a psi-null subject will serve. For him to function as before; assisting my focus and healing—.”

     “Your healing is the least of my concern,” she snapped. “You’ll meld with him during the procedure; you’ll achieve a full and complete mind fusion while interacting with the stream.”

     “I will not. He will die.”

     “You think I won’t kill him anyway?” She sounded agitated. “His dying during the procedure is a possibility, but otherwise is a certainty!” She stepped toward them aggressively and the skinny, male slave who had evidently acted as a healer flinched and scurried away, carrying a satchel.

     The Keeper continued, “I grow tired of these games, Spock. Now, get him on his feet and over to that board.”

     “It’s alright,” Jim whispered. “I’ll be alright.” He gritted his teeth as he fought to sit up. You were…pretty convincing about the bond. Nice…nice job. Your shields?

     Adequate.

     Unlike the subtle misdirection aimed at the Keeper, Spock’s mental statement was a complete lie and Jim could feel it, sensing nothing but vulnerability from the translucent barriers in his bondmate’s mind.

     It does not matter, Jim. I cannot shield you if we are so intimately joined, and I predict that mental barriers would simply hinder us in achieving our objective at this stage.

     The captain flinched, finally getting his feet underneath him as Spock slowly maneuvered them both up, one arm firm around Jim’s waist. The captain did not mentally reply, but he could feel the emotional turmoil beginning to pour from the Vulcan’s mind as thoughts of what was to come pushed in. Cruel recollection whirled at a dizzying speed, and fear, grief, and anger pooled thick and dark and viscous. Jim recognized the heart of his bondmate’s struggles: seeing fractured images of vacant blue eyes behind a sealed door, feeling that heart-rending mental scream of desperation and regret as their nascent bond unraveled.

     Spock…it’s okay. If this doesn’t work, it’s okay to let go. We’ll be together this time and that’s enough for me; that’s all I want. Do you understand?

     It was so much more, suddenly, than just this; more than just the two of them flanked by unyielding sentinels and walking slowly toward agonizing fate and faint, trembling hope. It was a pane of transparent aluminum, now lifted. It was a shade that had followed them since that portentous day in an auditorium, now illuminated. Their bond felt essential and natural, now, and it was so easy for Jim to simply push away all the shock and despair and anger that he had felt; so easy to simply ignore all the misconceptions, all the assumptions, and all the sharp words. And he knew that it was not fair: that he himself had inflicted wounds on his bondmate that were as painful as the ones from the procedure, wounds that they had no time to reconcile. But at this moment, they only had each other and their bond had to be a source of strength and reassurance, of loyalty and of love. At this moment, there was no past to mourn and no future to fear.

     It was only when they reached the board that the sentinels moved in on them, the slaves at the adjacent consoles scrambling in response to ringing commands issued by the Keeper: cycling the stream and loading a particular receptacle—.

     Jim paid no further attention, and did not struggle, standing shakily as Spock was pulled away from him and moved against the board, familiar restraints snapping around his bondmate’s body. His arms were kept free, however, presumably to initiate the mind-touch, and Jim held his friend’s brown eyes as the captain was pushed forward, moved to stand directly against the Vulcan’s body, the fabric of their clothing slippery between them. The sentinels continued to move, tightening additional straps around him, pressing him even closer against Spock, securing them together, and Jim finally closed his eyes, leaning his forehead forward to touch his bondmate’s, sharing his breath, hearing the hum and beeping of the consoles next to them, feeling the cold hardness of the spheres as his own hands were placed there and restrained.

     Trislo’s android counterpart continued to talk excitedly in the background, Jim’s new knowledge of the woman’s deceit making the Keeper’s exaggerated accent seem slightly ridiculous. The captain tried to breathe deeply and slowly, tried to will the tension out of his body despite the painful tightness of the straps; he could understand why Spock had been returned each time with such deep bruising. The surfaces of the spheres were already growing slick with his own nervous sweat and his mind was racing, flinching away from every new stimulus and every new noise in anticipation of the terrible emotional agony to come.

     Tell me something, anything, he mentally implored, his anxiety like a thousand needles across his skin. This feels like an execution.

     Spock’s silent reply was tentative and almost reluctant. I desire to see our ship again. I would stand at your side, never and always touching. I wish to watch you sleep, untroubled. To sense your mind with mine, uncompelled—.

     The Vulcan’s mental voice choked off as if he could not continue, and Jim inhaled at the image his bondmate had described, a vast longing rising from deep within him: longing for their home and for their friends, for a chance to rest with the thrum of mighty engines as a beloved background. For a chance to make right what had been forced on them, and to learn each other properly in this new way. The yearning was close to pain and accompanied by something like madness, and Jim abruptly shoved it away, knowing that Spock had felt the same, and had done the same.

     I’m sorry.

     He kept his eyes closed, ashamed by his own weakness, and he felt warm fingers gently touch his face, brushing over the meld points before settling lightly, Spock’s other hand reaching around to cradle his head, carding through his hair with infinite care. Jim had a split second of deep regret, suddenly wanting nothing more than to be able to feel his own fingers in Spock’s silky hair, and, needing to touch somehow, he tilted his chin, his lips softly pressing against his bondmate’s. He didn’t care who saw; he didn’t even think about the others in the cavernous room, or the sound of the Keeper’s jeeringly false voice, or the machinery or the spheres, or the pain that would erupt at any second. The bond expanded and encompassed them, and the chords of their mental joining sounding faintly in the background, supporting the gentle touch of their mouths.

     This is love, Jim’s mind whispered almost incredulously. And it was, truly: the willingness to open oneself to the other, to endure any pain for the other, to die at the other’s side. He had said the words before, reflexively, but here, in this moment, on the edge of oblivion with his bondmate’s mouth on his, with their minds so close and growing closer, he understood. And he knew that he had meant it.

     The hard chill against his palms instantaneously screamed into blistering heat and his hands flexed instinctively, his body jerking in reaction and their mouths separating as the mindlink blazed open and Jim felt the overpowering rush of the stream firsthand. It was open and hollow, a roaring, howling current of noise and sucking emptiness and he felt Spock’s mind extend around him and through him, steeling both of them for the influx of… .

 

She was a scientist, part of a team who had created this weapon. For the greater good, it had been said. It would never be used, wouldn’t even be tested. Arrogance. The potential for mutual destruction was too great, and the design was so simple, almost laughably easy. It was her job, and she always rushed to be home to her children, to her mate. Love. Deep love. Regret. Fear. They used it and it was horrible. Chaos. The world was burning. Everyone was dying. Terror. Dying! And then they came for her, and for the others, and she was torn away from her family. Dread. Panic. Screaming. They tore her mind out, saying it was her penance. She was tortured to death, bleeding from a hundred cuts, scared, alone, knowing her own fate and that of her dying world, her pain tearing through her as they whispered that her knowledge of this weapon would be her epitaph, her intimate knowledge of the… .

 

     “Oh, god!” Jim moaned, feeling it, feeling everything, and he knew her. He knew the sleek texture of her hair and the color of her skin: rich azure striped with golden brown. He knew how her partner had gazed at her in love, their minds gently brushing as they had swum in cerulean oceans, guided by vestigial fins on their backs. He knew the ache of childbirth and the wonder she had felt as she had looked nightly to the stars, wondering who else could be out there. He could feel every cut to her body and he could see her cling to memories of her children and how she had fought not to scream, how she was glad she had not been subjected to the fire as so many others had been… .

     He struggled in the emotional storm, his body shaking, tears in his eyes as he dragged in a single breath in the briefest of respites and then he was flung in again as the pain only compounded and he whimpered, his head falling to his bondmate’s shoulder. It was worse than ever before, but so, so astonishingly clear, more so than it had ever been. Jim felt the information they needed slide into Spock’s mind from the receptacle. They were so close, and time seemed to stand still in the chaos and the whirlwind as they tried, as Spock desperately held onto it.

     With their full immersion in the bond amplifying the active psychic energy, the information was immediate and obvious, and they couldn’t allow it to go any further. This isn’t going to work. It was all they could do to merely hold it, with no chance of being able to parse it and manipulate it. All was fighting to slide away into the stream, and the pain was mounting, licking over their bodies, emotional energy refusing to dissipate and tearing apart their nerves, their minds. The strain was too much and they needed to make it stop; they would die, but the crucial information and their uniquely exploited, unexpected capacity as t’hy’la would die with them.

     Let go! A gasping plea, and the bond tightened reflexively, glimmering with the last vestiges of Vulcan willpower.

     Let go. A desperate command, and Jim could feel possibilities exhausted, strength gone.

     Spock, t’hy’la, please let us go, and I’ll follow you this time. A final farewell, and Jim knew that Spock wouldn’t do it without him, wouldn’t go without him and the human threw his own mind fully into the bond, bringing with it every bit of anything he had left to give: everything he was and everything they were, together.

 

*****

 

     I’ll follow you, this time. But we’re not…we’re not… .

     “We’re not dead.”

     Jim wasn’t sure if he had spoken the words or thought them. All he could perceive was thick, blinding whiteness, his senses confused, and he remembered saying the exact same thing in the pervasive black of the Orion ship’s hold. Things appeared and dissolved and an intimate feeling permeated everything, as if the bond had expanded to include them completely, and Jim felt somehow absorbed. He felt warm, absent of fear or pain, and it caused a strange euphoria to shoot through him as he saw, felt, heard light and obscured sensations all around him.

     “Jim.” His bondmate’s voice echoed within him, so close, and Jim decided that this was in the mental realm: he could feel something working, spinning and sorting, and a spark of sudden awe engulfed them both.

     “Jim, this…should not be. I attempted the deep trance and we fell into it together. But—.”

     “—but instead of being dead, we’re in the stream, or in the bond, or some convolution of both,” Jim finished.

     “Yes. Most fascinating.”

     “Trislo said that the energies were compatible, between our bond and the stream. That it explained why the perceptions of those minds were so much clearer after our bond strengthened, but it also explains—.”

     Spock continued seamlessly, “—perhaps why I was able to break away from the sentinels when Rohmer attacked you. My reaction was based within the perception of you as my mate, focused on your feelings projected to me across our then-narrow bondspace.”

     And this was obvious, too, in the amorphous moving lights around them, all vibrating with a common energy: the sentinels, the machines here, connected in some way to the stream. The sensitivity ran both ways: exploiting the new pathways within their own minds as well as being susceptible to it.

     “And if we’re here, then maybe we can—.”

     “Yes, Jim. There.” A mental nudge from Spock, and Jim could perceive it like glimmering sparks within the white haze: that mental ghost from a long-dead world suspended weightless and transparent, suddenly comprehensible as an ordered, delicate pattern. Here, away from the pain, it was all so simple.

     The weapon, a fantastically powerful variant on a plasma cannon, was engineered based on a uniquely determined energy spectrum accessed by a combination of native material properties and a concentration of something very similar to Laird’s rays. The controlling aspect was a focusing array constructed of a series of carefully timed pulses on a singular frequency, polarizing the excitation beam in a way that would not destructively interact with the surrounding casing. The timing of the pulses was too obvious to manipulate, but the precise frequency had involved significant trial-and-error to initially pinpoint, being one of several possible mathematical solutions.

     “She’ll test the solution; can’t we—.”

     “—do not have access to the main systems of the ship, and the androids are only peripherally controlled; if we—.”

     “—do this it has to be subtle, so she doesn’t notice the tampering and—.”

     “—she is inexperienced, overly ambitious, and very impatient to proceed. Her arrogance might—.”

     “—bring this whole ship down if she tries to fire it,” Jim finished, their thoughts ricocheting back and forth, seamlessly completing each other. “She may not consider other solutions if this one satisfies the equations. I’ve made that mistake myself.”

     Even as the mental wake of Jim’s words disappeared, Spock was manipulating the pattern, substituting the critical solution and setting up the recipe for a deliberate destructive interaction. And with the change, Jim knew that—.

     “You’d have to go back; we’d have to go back to make this work, to transfer it successfully, and to make sure that nothing else comes through that can contradict it. Can we—?”

     “I do not know. If our bodies have fallen into the physical expression of the trance—.”

     “—we might be dying already.” Jim could now sense the tension around him, around them both. Tension, and the decided reluctance to depart back to that world of pain, back to the unknown, back for a chance that might not work. If they simply remained, if they kept the information and it died with them, their task might already be done. Or would it? Was Trislo close enough that she could find another telepath to complete the design, using another receptacle? Would she seek out another bonded pair? Jim couldn’t let that happen, but if they did go back, there was the chance that she would discover their manipulations anyway. It was a chance, but also a grave risk.

     “I want you to live.” It was simply and powerfully conveyed, surrounded by loyalty and depthless love, and Jim had barely registered his bondmate’s words when he imagined a sensation of weightlessness followed by the feeling of wind rushing past him, all the way to—.

     Cutting reality assaulted his senses and Jim’s throat was raw from screaming, his body shaking helplessly, and he could taste coppery blood where he had inadvertently bit into his bondmate’s shoulder. Behind him, there were raised voices, and though the spheres still swirled under his shaking hands, the emotional frenzy was absent, only a vague hollow sensation remaining. Jim swallowed, feeling Spock’s own body trembling against his, the Vulcan’s hands fallen from Jim’s face and head and his forehead dropped to Jim’s own shoulder. They slumped against each other, the restraints the only things keeping them upright, the bond weak and floundering between them.

     “Did we get it?” The android Keeper’s thin, false speech was high-pitched and anxious. “Did it come through before the disengagement?”

     “It did, madam; we have the final component,” replied an unsteady and unfamiliar male voice.

     “Show me.”

     Jim couldn’t move his hands; he couldn’t move anything, his head lolling forward and to the side to rest against his bondmate’s. Even the contact of the restraints with his skin was painful, and his muscles ached, his head ached, he was so fucking tired.

     A loud, nearby crow from the Keeper startled him as unconsciousness threatened. “That’s it!  Feed that to the main computer and set it up; I want to test this immediately. Tell Ghoudi to expect me in the control room and to prepare a surface to orbit trajectory.” There was a pregnant pause and the Keeper intoned loudly to the general room, “With this we shall achieve our glorious objective! This shall be the sword that shall vanquish our enemies and bring order to chaos!”

     Jim recognized Hsieh’s low murmur, also close-by. “And your test subjects, madam?”

     She turned her head and replied just as quietly, “If these readings are right, I won’t need either of them anymore. Give Kirk to the people; they don’t have Nerit and they’ll need someone as a celebratory fuck.” She paused before continuing almost eagerly, “I’ll deal with the Vulcan myself.”

     Hsieh did not respond, but the grip of the sentinels came immediately and cruelly, and Jim cried out as they harshly unfastened the restraints around his body, chilled air rushing in over sweat-soaked clothing as they separated him from his bondmate. Spock stirred, his head coming up shakily, brown eyes blinking, mouth falling open in a silent exclamation.

     Jim knew he had to do act, sensing something in Hsieh’s strange silence and in the slight furrowing of the bald man’s brow. The captain was too weak to struggle, but he remembered the way the mercenary had hesitated after learning of Tarsus, how he had stopped before Trislo’s door, as if forbidden to go further. Jim remembered the open contempt Trislo had displayed when she had spoken of Hsieh and the way she had casually brushed aside the Federation’s perceived failures, so completely opposite the sparking, righteous rage that Hsieh had exhibited.

     Jim summoned all his strength, addressed the mercenary in a rapid hiss, “Hsieh, she’s not what you think; this isn’t for the greater good or a stand against corruption or for reform. This is just a selfish purge of—.” He cried out again with the sudden, powerful blow across his face, seeing the Keeper’s oddly reflective eyes narrow dangerously as her arm fell. Behind her, Hsieh twitched slightly, frowning.

     Spock jerked roughly against the restraints, his hands out and reaching, a terrified and terrifying expression on his face.

     Ignoring the Vulcan and turning her back on Jim, the Keeper continued her emphatic sermonizing, “We shall lead the galaxy in establishing a new order and a new—.”

     Hsieh’s eyes were shifting between Jim and the Keeper, and the captain spoke again, his voice rough, “Listen to me! She doesn’t give a shit about Vulcan, or Tarsus, or Belishea, or—.”

     The Keeper turned again furiously, gesturing at the sentinels, and the captain was yanked viciously, his body painfully shaken as he groaned, feeling the link explode with his bondmate’s helpless and uncontrolled rage, combining with the lingering field still evidenced by the shimmering spheres.

     No!

     Sparks danced over the surfaces of the consoles as psionic turbulence rippled through Jim’s mind, and he shuddered as an oddly displaced electrical sensation flashed through him just as the androids’ grip abruptly disappeared. Unsupported, he slipped limply to the floor, hearing the loud crashing sounds of suddenly deadweight android bodies hitting the deck around him, their limbs jerking oddly. The Keeper herself fell in a cascade of blood-red robes and amidst the panicked screams of horrified slaves. Hsieh had pulled his weapon, but didn’t seem to know what to do, and Spock was struggling weakly in the restraints, his hands fumbling with the straps, uncoordinated and ineffectual, the bond a frantic, weak mass of emotion.

     Everything had come to a standstill, the spheres dark, the consoles dead, and Hsieh took two cautious steps toward the Keeper’s immobile form, tilting his head as he examined it.

     “Hsieh…please, you have to listen to me—,” Jim began almost inaudibly, overwhelmed and exhausted.

     The main door slid open and Kellen Trislo burst in, her face contorted, a silver weapon prominent in her hand, leading a phalanx of working sentinels. The white-clad androids immediately moved to the sides to take control of the cowering slaves and Hsieh stepped forward again, finding his voice.

     “Who are—?”

     A flash of light cut him off, and Jim gasped as he watched Spock’s body go rigid against the board and then slump in the restraints, the bond wavering.

     Trislo continued to move, reaching out and wrapping her hand around Spock’s neck, under his jaw, pushing his head back sharply against the board. “So, you think you can fight back? You think this stunt will get you anything?” She slammed his head back again. “You knew that with this information I didn’t need you anymore, and I sure as hell don’t need your human fucktoy.” She glanced over her shoulder to the mercenary, whose mouth was hanging open. “Get Kirk out of here; I don’t care what you do with him, but make sure he stays alive long enough to feel all of this. Every fucking second of it.”

     “Who—?” Hsieh was glancing between the sprawled, immobile Keeper and Trislo, who was growing more and more incensed.

     “That’s an android, you stupid fuck. Just like those androids. I’m in command here.” She fired another bolt of the weapon and sparks snapped along the side of the Keeper’s face, the false skin smoking and curling slightly under the beam. Trislo roughly released Spock and waved a hand, addressing a sentinel overseeing two cringing slaves near the console. “Keep that system down, but keep him tied up here.” Turning slowly, her cold, furious eyes met Jim’s, and she reached into an inside pocket of her jacket, pulling out a hypo and dangling it teasingly between two fingers, deliberately taunting him.

     “No,” Jim whispered, his own body nearly useless, his mind trying desperately to shut down.

     The hiss of the hypo into Spock’s neck seemed overly loud and the Vulcan’s body shuddered in response, his head rolling to one side.

     “He’s a Vulcan, Kirk,” Trislo said darkly. “His body will fight this dose with everything it has left. But, I imagine that will be just enough to last until our test is successfully completed. He’ll die with the knowledge that he let this happen, and that you are helpless. And I’m hoping your link will let you be aware of every bit of his suffering, and my victory.”

     “Why?” Jim slurred stubbornly, desperately. “Tell Hsieh why you’re doing this… . Who you are… .”

     “Shut up, Kirk,” Hsieh mumbled, suddenly too close, and the next thing Jim knew he was slung carelessly over the shorter man’s shoulders and being carried out of the room; away from Trislo and the sentinels, and away from his bondmate.

     Spock! There was no response, and Jim moaned. The corridor curved around dizzyingly as they moved, and he saw the lights flicker as a deep note sounded all around them. The sound was startlingly familiar and accompanied by a shudder and Hsieh’s rapid footsteps faltered as Jim, slung as he was, sensed movement. The ship was moving from the surface of the planet, headed for atmosphere and orbit. Headed out to test the weapon. Headed for certain destruction if the manipulation of the data stream hadn’t been detected.

     Hsieh was swearing under his breath, muttering feverishly to himself, but Jim’s attention was focused inwardly on Spock and on the bond. Hope was all that he had left: the kind that was bitter and relentless and stubborn and holding on until the very end; hope that the end would be soon.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: Burn And Crash

 

     The ship shook around him, rising to its fate, and the thrum of powerful engines sounded so different from those of his lady. The vibration through the cold, merciless deck under his cheek was different, too, and mimicked the taut, terrible sensations pushed through the bond. Spock was fighting, as Trislo had predicted, despite the death sentence injected into his veins and the fatal flaw introduced into the weapon. The Vulcan was fighting, and though his tormented mind did not form words, Jim reached back anyway with all of his mental strength, sending pride, sending resolve, sending love. Sending a reassurance that even without the deliberate trance, Jim would follow.

     “Kirk.” Hsieh’s grunt came from above him, echoing slightly in the small, unfurnished room. He had thrown the captain roughly to the floor and stepped away to pace back and forth almost nervously. Jim suppressed a cruel smile, feeling his own head pound mercilessly.

     “Kirk!” the mercenary persisted, louder than before. “I know you can hear me. I want to know what you meant back there. I want to know exactly what happened.”

     Jim licked his lips, forcing shaking and weakened muscles into movement, rolling onto his back, only now noticing the small viewport high on the wall, showing the deepest blue fading into black. And then he saw stars.

     The engines shifted their tone, and Hsieh knelt next to him, dark eyes intense. “Who is she? Fuck it all, Kirk, you’ve got nothing left to lose!”

     “You’re…you’re right about that,” Jim whispered. He kept his voice even, quiet, trying with his tone of voice and the deliberate relaxation of his battered body to somehow soothe the pain his bondmate was enduring. He took in a halting breath. “You were on Belishea. You understand…loss.”

     “Yeah?” Hsieh sounded wary and impatient.

     “You understand what…what someone would do for the ones they love. For their family.”

     “Yeah.” The mercenary shifted. “I know. I thought—.”

     “You were wrong about her,” Jim interrupted. “She knows nothing of sacrifice, or of loss, nothing of pain. Following her…allowing this is…only allowing what you fear to…happen again. And for even less of a reason.”

     Hsieh swallowed, lowering his voice. “Were you really on Tarsus?”

     “Yes.” Jim flinched as he sensed his bondmate’s suffering increase, pain shrieking into his own mind, barely contained within his aching, recently healed skull. “It’s…too easy to blame one entity. Too easy to think that it will all…burn clean.” He heard a low, increasing whine and the lights around them flickered. They were shifting power couplings, transferring energy to weapons.

     Hold on, Spock. Hold on, my friend. We’ll go together.

    Hsieh replied uneasily, “Something has to give.”

     Jim could almost feel it, could almost sense the powerful buildup of energy, the lights dimming even further, and a deep, reverberating note rang out through the decking. The captain finally allowed himself to smile, lips curling over gritted teeth. “Something already has.”

     The explosion buckled the floor beneath him, bulkheads shrieked around him, and alarms screamed, and for as long as he could, Jim kept his eyes on the stars.

 

*****

 

     Muffled shouting faded in and out, and Jim opened dry and gritty eyes to a blurry room filled with smoke and eerie red lighting. He was lying on top of something soft and uneven and there was someone screaming at him, screaming in his face. He couldn’t concentrate, his mind flailing and unable to grasp onto anything, dull aching discomfort surrounding him. He didn’t understand why he was still fucking alive.

     “Kirk!”

     Hands had grabbed his tunic, ripping it even more in their haste to pull him off of whatever or whomever he was draped over. He grunted as his body hit the hard deck, and again as someone began shaking him.

     “Wake up, Kirk! Wake up!”

     “Nerit,” Jim blurted, his voice cracked and pained. “How the hell—?”

     “Get up! She’s left us! She’s left us to die and the ship is going to crash. Get up!” Her voice was high-pitched and frantic.

     “Spock—.”

     “I gave him the antidote. I don’t know if he’ll live. You are a captain, yes? You can fly this ship?”

     “I don’t…I don’t know. Where’s Spock?” He couldn’t feel the bond.

     “I left him in the procedure-room. You have to get up, Kirk, we don’t have any time!”

     Jim weakly pulled away from her hands, taking in the oozing, burned mess on the upper right side of her face, her right eye swollen and sealed shut, her hair half-gone and the singed remnants hanging in clumps from her scalp.

     “I need…I need Spock.”

     “There’s no—!”

     “There’s time!” Jim insisted, a sense of the bond slowly coalescing out of the haze in his mind: still there, still alive. Spock! My god—. He felt a surge of adrenaline, somehow finding strength in utter weakness, some kind of hope in the midst of whatever the fuck was going on. “If you want me to fly this ship, I need him.”

     “Fine,” she spat, scrambling to her feet and stepping towards the door, which was half-open and angled oddly, as if she’d pried her way in. Her hands curled into tense fists, and Jim couldn’t help following her glance behind him, turning to see Hsieh, lying next to the wall with his neck at an impossible angle, his eyes open and unseeing.

     Jim recoiled, realizing it had been the mercenary’s body he had been lying on, that he had probably been thrown against it when the turbulence from the explosion hit, the two of them crashing together against the bulkhead.

     “Kirk!” pleaded the blonde woman, and Jim swallowed, reaching forward to take the dead man’s silver weapon. Nerit didn’t stop him, turning to push her way through the door, mumbling almost to herself. “The androids are deactivated. The ship is slowly falling and our…the Keeper left us. She left me, even after promising—. The weapon failed, and she blamed you, but then she left and you’re…you’re the only one who can fly the ship.” Finally clambering through to the other side, she turned, her single blue eye fierce and fixed on Jim. “But you and your mate suffered so much to gain the weapon. You would have given your life, as I would have. Yes?”

     Jim was breathing heavily, somehow making it to his own feet and stumbling through the smoky, acrid air to the door when her jumbled words and her manic intensity gave him pause. He met her wounded gaze. “Yes,” he replied simply, stifling a cough, his mind parsing through what she had said. Fuck his head hurt. The ship was falling back into atmosphere, evidently as a result of damage from the weapon malfunction. Trislo had gone: possibly on an escape pod. And the engines were down: he could hear the powerful lack of ambient sound. And Spock—.

     She was silent for the space of a heartbeat, swaying slightly, and then she nodded. “Yes. Yes, your suffering was not for nothing. The gods…the prophecy was defiled somehow. That is why the sword of our…of justice failed. We were not yet worthy. The Keeper…she was a false prophet; she should not have left us. We gave everything. Everything!” She was muttering furiously, shuffling rapidly down the dim, red-lit corridor and ignoring Jim completely.

     The captain was moving, though he didn’t know how. His body was barely responsive and felt leaden, his muscles crying out for him to stop. The bond was growing brighter, though, and he focused on that, repeating Spock’s name like a mantra or a prayer in his mind. They passed silent, immobile sentinels, and contorted bodies, lying at odd angles as if thrown like Hsieh, and even though he was clinging to the weapon, Jim was under no illusion that he would be capable of defending himself. All around them were the garish lights and twisted plastisteel, the distant blare of alarms, and the hiss of ruptured supply lines.

     Nerit kept whispering to herself, her right hand absently tugging at the strands of singed hair, pulling out pieces stained with red. “She had always awakened me, after the trial; she had always given me the antidote, even at the last possible second. Of course she would have done the same with the telepath, of course, if she had not left. He had served her; he had suffered. He had felt pain, and his mate had felt pain. He had given her the weapon.”

     “You…you did the…right thing, Nerit,” Jim said softly, but she gave no indication of hearing him, and as they rounded the corridor, Jim saw the door to the procedure-room hanging open, and, on the floor, in the doorway, lay his bondmate.

     “Spock!” Jim stumbled again, blind but for the sight of his friend, falling to his knees at the Vulcan’s side. The lighting flickered around them and Jim leaned protectively over his bondmate’s body as he heard the screech of metal and the sound of further structural collapse from inside the large room, seeing chaos and more bodies, and yet, still standing in the middle of it all was the metallic board. Perhaps the restraints had protected the Vulcan from the shockwave. Jim’s stomach clenched at the irony.

     “Now, Kirk!” Nerit impatiently called from down the corridor, “Get him and let’s go! Now!”

     Their mental connection was a miasma of dark, shifting emotions, fear and disbelief, pain on top of pain and frank astonishment and Spock lifted his head as Jim’s hands touched him, letting the captain gently turn him over. Their eyes met, and Jim’s mouth opened and closed, unable to find words, his face contorting with feeling as he pressed a desperate kiss to his Vulcan’s temple, hands gripping into dusty, slippery fabric.

     Spock swallowed and nodded silently, reaching a shaking hand to brush two fingers along the human’s face.

     “Miss me?” Jim murmured, helplessly smiling despite everything, his cracked lips sliding against silky hair. He pulled back slightly. “Can you stand?”

     “Ha, t’hy’la,” Spock whispered, and together they pushed themselves up, leaning on each other, the bond between them strengthening into a resolute, defiant thing.

     Nerit was moving again, and they struggled to keep up. Jim held tightly to Spock’s waist, feeling the Vulcan’s labored breathing, disoriented by the flood of sensations pouring across the bond. Transferred images flashed on the periphery of the captain’s vision.

 

Trislo’s satisfied smirk, glimpses of horrible throbbing pains through his abdomen, his heart racing fast, too fast, restraints biting into skin, the sense of contact with his bondmate, of finality, and then the explosion and the room seemed to curl into itself as the pain continued mercilessly, the drug still burning through his system. And then Nerit had appeared: disheveled, wounded, crazed, inexplicably slamming a hypo into his neck and departing without a word, ignoring everyone and everything else, and he had managed to claw free of the straps and crawl to the door and—.

 

     Emotions crashed one after another, and Jim reeled, knowing that his bondmate’s shields were all but gone, finally crushed by whatever the drug done to him. Spock’s fingers clung to the human tight enough to bruise and his body was shaking and there was so little left in either of them.

     Jim breathed, “Just hold onto me. We’re almost there. We’re not finished yet, goddammit.”

     “This way!” Nerit abruptly stopped next to a cracked, nondescript door near the closed entryway back to the living quarters, pressing at the wall panel cautiously and then slamming her closed fist against it. The door spat sparks and creaked open, and she slid through. This corridor was smaller and unlined with doors, and as they moved haltingly around a curve, Jim could hear a growing clamor.

     The noise was not just aural, but mental as well, and Jim pulled his bondmate tighter against him, cringing as powerful waves of fear and confusion washed over them both through Spock’s telepathy. The corridor ended abruptly at a closed door and, before it, a crowd of slaves knelt, raising their arms and their voices: pleading, begging, praying. Nerit tried pushing her way through harshly, shouting phrases in several languages, lashing out to no avail.

     Jim inhaled sharply as the artificial gravity shifted and the deck shuddered again, the lights extinguishing for a terrifying second before flashing on again in their grisly, reddish hue. Screams sounded, and Jim flinched as the waves of fear intensified. Spock’s expression was contorted as he collapsed to his knees, slipping out of Jim’s grip, and Nerit was yelling, still fighting to get to the door, and Jim lifted Hsieh’s silver weapon, seeing a green indicator light flashing. Was it set to stun? To kill? He hesitated and the deck shifted and he lost his footing, his weakened muscles finally giving out as he fell hard away from Spock, the weapon clattering to the floor as the captain hit the adjacent bulkhead.

     His vision blurred for a mere instant, focusing again to the repeated flashing of light. The Vulcan was still on his knees, the weapon in his hand, firing again and again, the slaves’ frantic screams rising before being cut off completely. As the crowd fell, Nerit wasted no time kicking her way carelessly to the door, entering a sequence on the adjacent panel and watching the door slide open.

     The bond was on fire with an almost uncontrollable intensity, and Jim knew that Spock was holding at the very limit of a spiral into madness, as if the horrific balance between stubborn discipline and days of profound emotional trauma had been finally tipped by unknown biochemistry that had been twice injected into his veins.

     “Kirk! Now!” Nerit cut a grotesque figure as she turned back to peer at Jim. She disappeared into the gloom past the doorway and the captain crawled to his bondmate’s side. Spock was still kneeling, the weapon having fallen from his loose grip, lost and desperate dark eyes fixed on the bodies in front of him. Jim spared the slaves enough of a glance to ascertain that they were still breathing. Stunned only, but the captain wished suddenly that it had been he who had pulled the trigger.

     It’s okay. “It’s okay, Spock.” We have to go.

     Icy shock suffused their connection. What have I done? What am I doing?

     Please. It’s okay; they’re alive. “They’re still alive!”

     “I killed. I would have killed.” Images of Rohmer’s glassy, unseeing eyes flashed through Jim’s mind: sparking machinery, a loss of control.

     “Hurry!” The blonde woman’s cry came from inside the door.

     “Spock, I need you. Please, I need you to stay with me. Look at me.” Jim grasped his shoulders, shaking him slightly. “Look at me!”

     Spock met his eyes, allowing Jim to help him unsteadily to his feet. The Vulcan’s expression was blank, and Jim knew there was something still terribly wrong. Something dark lurked, woven anew in the fabric of their bond, hidden in the pain that still wracked their weakened bodies and it sent a chill down the captain’s spine. It was the sense of someone backed up against a wall, someone who had given everything and more and was running on the basest part of themselves because there was nothing left to give.

     “I know,” he murmured, even as they moved toward the door. “Use it. We’ll deal with it later but right now I want you to use it. Feel it and use it.”

     Pure and primal rage ignited the bond, burning both of them: hatred and anger and a desperate need for vengeance, a wild ferocity suddenly unleashed. It was powerful and possessive and Jim knew that, before all this, he would have been terrified. But now, he embraced it, letting it fuel him, letting his being imbue the sparking mental energy, feeling transient strength return to his own depleted muscles. He mentally took, and as they entered the deceptively small room, surrounded by consoles and blinking panels, he felt Spock’s collapse into unconsciousness, the stream of energy dwindling and darkening, and Jim gently guided his bondmate’s limp form down onto the deck.

     “He’s dead?” Nerit blurted, wringing her hands as she stared at the panels.

     “No,” Jim muttered, half-falling into the seat behind the main console. “No, he’s not going to die. We’re not going to die.” He studied the configuration, ignoring Nerit’s impatient noises next to him. It was a standard civilian design, and he quickly ascertained the immediate problems. “The mains are out. Half the ship’s uninhabitable and we’re venting. Life support’s at five percent and falling. Remaining power’s at twenty-eight percent, all emergency.” He was leaning heavily on the console, the surge of energy rapidly dwindling. “Less than one minute to atmosphere.”

     “Do something!” cried Nerit shrilly. The ship was beginning to shudder in earnest and alarms sounded even more insistently.

     “We’re going in; there’s no alternative. I’m re-routing all power to thrusters for a controlled re-entry, but it might not last. We’ll be coming in hot in any case.” He chuckled darkly at his own macabre joke, throwing a concerned glance back at Spock’s unmoving body. “He’s not going to die,” he repeated to himself.

     He flipped a series of switches and programmed a new trajectory, hoping that his intuition wouldn’t fail him, forcing himself to concentrate past the pain in his head, hearing Nerit scream as the roar of the thrusters snapped on and the ship bucked around them.

     Jim locked in the pattern and turned the chair, reaching immediately for the communications panel, keying in the emergency Fleet frequency. Orange indicators flashed and an error message scrolled pleasantly across the nearest screen.

     “Fuck!”

     Locked down; and he had no time to work around it and even less energy. His mind felt thick and faraway and he blinked, knowing that he himself was on that edge, too, his back against the wall and hysteria a gentle, beckoning thing. Fuck this not being able to touch as death loomed in front of them. Fuck this fucking bullshit. Fuck that, fuck this, fuck it—.  He fell out of his chair and crawled to Spock’s side. The ship gave a mighty shake and Nerit hit the floor hard, wrapping her arms around her legs and wedging herself under the console, staring at him accusingly with her good eye. “What are you doing? Shouldn’t you—?”

     Jim didn’t look at her as he gathered his bondmate in his arms, holding the dark head under his chin and curling his body protectively around the Vulcan, replying tightly, “It’s all I can do. The computer’s got the numbers, and we just…we just have to hope the power holds out.” He didn’t tell her that he knew that it wouldn’t, and crashing was a certainty; that the only variable left was how long the free-fall would be and where they would land. Into a mountain? Into a sea? It doesn’t matter, baby, as long as you’re with me. He let out a barely audible, nearly hysterical snort and rocked back and forth, turning away from the frantic panels and closed his eyes, feeling Spock’s weight in his arms.

     The thrusters were firing constantly, and time seemed to stretch into a series of jostles and sharp jolts, the ship shaking beneath them and the roar of the engines blending with the screech of alarms into an oddly harmonic noise. And then…the roar was gone and Jim knew they were falling, feeling it in his stomach as the inertial dampeners rapidly cycled and he heard Nerit throwing up across the room. Jim had shifted over to grip the vertical supports along the wall, keeping Spock’s body tight between him and the bulkhead, bracing them both for the coming impact, hearing a high-pitched whistle from the central panel and a sweetly spoken warning from the computer.

     “Proximity warning. Proximity warning. Adjust course. Adjust—.”

 

*****

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Choosing To Feel

 

     The roar of thrusters had sounded again, unexpectedly, just before the crash happened all around him, and everything became the shriek of metal, the spray of sparks and the thick smell of smoke and coolant. Jim didn’t black out. He didn’t let go, either, and he could feel a tight sting where the metal supports cut into his palms as the ship impacted. The sudden, subsequent quiet was almost as jarring, and when he finally opened his eyes and turned his head he could see a wedge of reddish light gleaming into the dark of the interior, the hull crumpled and wrenched open in a long gash behind the consoles. The sound of rushing water slowly entered his awareness and he blinked, dazed, his nostrils picking up the tang of salt. The shock of chilled liquid against his skin galvanized him, and he looked down at his bondmate’s limp form, registering what had occurred: the ship had crashed into a body of water; they were still somehow alive, and sinking.

     Jim leaned away from the wall, his mind pushing along the darkened bond as his hands fell to cradle the back of Spock’s head. There was the barest flicker of response and he concentrated, wincing as he fought through the throbbing pain in his skull. They had to move; the rushing water was a grim reminder that time was running out. He forced a deep breath, trying to focus and to assess their options. His own strength was depleted; there was no way he could keep both of them afloat, never mind Nerit. Or anyone else… . He glanced around, seeing that the door to the control room was still closed, hearing nothing from outside of it. Trislo’s taunt about his regard for others’ lives flickered through his mind and he gritted his teeth, wondering if any of the slaves had survived the impact.

     Another spark along the dimmed connection focused his attention back on the Vulcan. “We’re going to have to swim,” he muttered, his hands sliding to his bondmate’s shoulders, gently shaking him, feeling a small shift and a tightening of muscles in response. “Spock?”

     “J-Jim.” The answering whisper was almost inaudible over the sounds of the water and the steadily loudening creaks emanating from the ship’s damaged and settling hull.

     His bondmate’s growing awareness came like lambent light between them: lingering pain, disorientation, and a dull, hollow feeling creeping relentlessly in place of vanished shields. The rage that had earlier burned so bright was absent, and the cut of looming madness had retreated into shocked numbness. But the worst of it were the sickening and horrifying echoes of a planet’s fall, of a people lost.

     “Spock, are you—?” Jim began cautiously.

     The Vulcan’s voice was ragged and agitated. “They are gone. All gone. The receptacles…the slaves… . The computer, their ark…gone. I destroyed it. I shot them.”

     Water was lapping against their legs, and Jim drew his shoulders up, fighting a shiver at its chill, suddenly terribly afraid. He sensed loss and terrible guilt, and not just for this. Jim remembered what Spock had said about the holes torn into his mind as the result of the loss of his planet: holes that were now filled with another silence, another absence. A mind that had been forced and wounded and tortured and drugged, and now was falling into blank numbness, into its own silence.

     Jim grimaced. You did what you had to do. If we hadn’t gotten in there, we’d have burned up on entry. If you hadn’t destroyed the computer, they would’ve been able to try again, and found the adjustment we made.

     Spock didn’t answer, but the numbness sunk further into near-detachment and Jim wrapped his arms tightly around his bondmate, pressing him against his body, understanding that this went far beyond logic, far beyond reason. They wouldn’t have lost so many survivors after Vulcan, if logic alone had been sufficient balm.

     “No, Spock, don’t go there, please. I know it hurts; I know it’s hard. Just don’t—.”

     A groan from across the room, rising above the sound of rushing water, interrupted him, and Jim exhaled sharply. Oh, god, Spock, don’t leave me. Not like this.

     “Nerit?”

     “Kirk—.” Her voice was tremulous, and coming from the near darkness.

     Jim frowned, not wanting to lose physical contact with his bondmate. Spock’s unshielded telepathy was full of Nerit’s building fear and nothing else and Jim pleaded, “Please, Spock, I need you to feel; I need to feel you. Please.”

     There was no answer, and Jim yelled over his shoulder, “Nerit, can you get to the breach?”

     Her reply was almost petulant. “Leave me.”

     If there was anything Jim was prepared to deal with, it wasn’t useless martyrdom, and he abruptly swore, leaning back and shaking Spock slightly, seeing dark eyes slowly focus on him. “Don’t go anywhere. I mean it.” His entire being rebelled from the action, but he slid backwards, water now lapping over his hips as he released his bondmate and turned to crawl rapidly to a pile of debris where the consoles hung broken and useless. He heard Spock shift in the water behind him, feeling something slip across the deadened bond, seeming to reach for him as he moved away.

     “Fuck,” he muttered, anxiously pushing aside the wreckage of one of the consoles and grabbing blindly until he felt Nerit’s arm. As his fingers curled around it, he felt her pull against him, resisting, her breathing harsh and rasping.

     “Goddammit, Nerit, help me!”

     She hesitated, and the captain glanced back at Spock, seeing him kneeling, a study in contrasts in the ruddy hue of the breaking light. Don’t go. Jim turned back to Nerit impatiently, trying to soften his voice, cajoling, “We’re not going to leave you; not like the Keeper did. Please, Nerit, come on!  We’ve got to get out of here!”

     The blonde woman let out a sob, muttering something unintelligible, but she moved forward, letting Jim help her crawl out from under the material. Spock had shifted even closer, and there were distant sounds of collapsing material, the flooded deck shuddering beneath them.

     Nerit let out a startled cry as she felt the chilled water fully, and Jim pushed her in the direction of the hull breach, clambering back to his bondmate and resolutely wrapping a supporting arm around him, feeling Spock lean into his body, both of them shivering.

     He panted from the effort, guiding them both toward the light as they fought the current of incoming water, hearing a faint splash as Nerit fell gracelessly outward through the opening.

     Even the light of the setting sun was blinding after the gloom of the ship and Jim lost his footing as they reached the opening, hissing as he ripped the skin of his forearm on the jagged metal, feeling Spock stagger, the Vulcan’s mind still so dangerously silent. Jim clung to him, edging them around the side of the opening, avoiding the worst of the incoming flow.

     “Spock, can you—?”

     Jim stopped abruptly, squinting, seeing the faint outline of what seemed to be land hovering on the crimson horizon, white breakers accentuating the shoreline and the faintest hint of green above. Seemingly so close, and he yet could barely stand. Out in front of them, in the water, Nerit floundered, the pale mass of what was left of her hair forming a silver trail behind her in the water. The ship shifted again, and Spock nearly fell against the glinting metal edge, and Jim decided that enough was enough.

     The water was so close, and so free and so beautiful, and Jim was so fucking tired, and he didn’t let go of his bondmate as he propelled them both forward. What was left of Jim’s tunic caught on the edge as they fell, ripping away completely, and the cold slap of water jolted the captain into kicking away from the sucking flush of water.

     They broke the surface together and Jim turned once to look back at the ship, seeing sleek silver lines tinged red by the sunlight. The bond was faltering, and what little feeling remained was stretching thin as Jim reached for their connection desperately, grabbing at Spock’s tunic as the Vulcan floundered. The human could feel his friend failing, the Vulcan’s choppy movements slowing as the silence spread inexorably between them.

     No! He struggled, his mind slamming forcefully into the bond as his fingers tightened in Spock’s tunic and he fought, shaking the other man, trying to keep their heads above water, hearing the groan of the settling ship so close behind them. Too close.

     Feel me, fight with me! You said we’d be together and I can’t follow you there; I won’t. Do you hear me? His mental words came belligerently. This wasn’t your fault; you saved me, you saved my life. With Rohmer, and again back in that hallway. I hesitated and you didn’t. Again and again you saved me, and now it’s my turn and I’m not giving up.

     “Fight!” He yelled hoarsely, coughing as water splashed into his mouth. “Feel!” Desperate, he slammed his hand across his bondmate’s face, gasping and choking, hearing Nerit’s splashing moving further and further away. What little strength he had was waning, and Jim’s head finally slipped underwater and he knew he wasn’t going to make it. They weren’t going to make it.

     He could continue to fight; continue to struggle, or…he remembered that primal fury, that deep love and protectiveness that had ignited the bond before. All of that, all for him, and if logic didn’t work and force didn’t work, there was only that which ran deepest: all that remained, and he staked his life on it, letting his limbs go limp, letting himself sink, closing his eyes.

     I trust you. I love you.

     An undefined surge came across the bond, and Jim felt arms go around him, lifting, and suddenly his head broke the surface and they gulped in air together.

     “Don’t…don’t—,” he sputtered. Don’t let me go.

     He wondered if he’d known all along, betting on Spock’s love for him to overcome the emptiness. Growing, steely determination began to push aside the silence, bridging the separation between them, and Jim clung to it as he felt the Vulcan struggle to pull them both through the water. The captain had turned onto his back, trying to fight his instinct to grab at Spock’s body and he could hear his bondmate’s gasping breaths, feeling Spock’s halting movements, knowing that Jim’s living presence alone was holding Spock away from the abyss that yawned within his mind.

     The thunder of the breakers burst into the human’s lulled thoughts along with the sharp bite of fresh pain as he felt his legs scrape over rock, feeling Spock’s grip tighten around him as they were thrown over and under the water, rolling interminably only to surface briefly. Again, and again, and he thought he was going to drown, and then he felt sand against his skin and the crash of waves was behind him and he collapsed on the beach, feeling Spock fall next to him, rolling close and pressing against his side. And he couldn’t see Nerit but he could sense her through his bondmate’s mind: somewhere near, her thoughts calm and flat, as if she were unconscious.

     The darkening sky above him and the sand below him were almost too gentle, almost too warm. And the possible dangers of their surroundings were suddenly nothing compared with what had just occurred. They were free; they had escaped. There were no sentinels and there was no ship, and that was all Jim could think of as he shifted even closer to Spock’s body. He needed to touch, to reassure, to comfort, and to promise.

     Don’t let me go. It repeated as a mantra over and over, drifting away into the wandering haze of exhausted sleep.

 

*****

 

     Jim woke abruptly, blinking open dry eyes to a thickly black sky strewn with the brilliance of a thousand stars. Sand was soft beneath him, still warm, and the lightest breeze, also warm and scented with something like flowers, played over his exposed chest.

     His voice cracked. “Now…now, we’re dead.”

     “We are not.”

     Spock’s reply came from above and behind him, the Vulcan’s voice soft and weak. But the bond was no longer numb, merely subdued, and Jim would gladly take the deep shifting guilt and sadness, the gnawing pain and profound exhaustion over that terrible lack of feeling.

     “Your shields—,” he began carefully.

     “Have begun to recover,” Spock finished, and Jim closed his eyes again, exhaling, just relieved to hear his bondmate’s voice approximate its usual tones.

     “You scared me.” The captain lifted his arm, wincing at the pull of muscles, reaching back blindly.

     The slightest hesitation, and then Jim felt the gentle clasp of the Vulcan’s own hand. Their mental connection sharpened and then wavered, and the human could sense halting attempts at control, shields barely present. All was still so dark, so unpleasant, and Jim felt a resurgence of cold fear.

     “Spock—.” He turned himself over and opened his eyes, seeing the Vulcan sitting just behind him with his back against a large tree-like plant at the edge of the sand, his legs outstretched, his tunic gone. A forest of the plants behind him faded into dense darkness, the edges of the broad leaves and Spock’s pale skin lit silver by the light of the planet’s moons. Jim could see bruises across his bondmate’s torso, and other marks: scrapes from the rocks as they had approached the beach, dried trails of blood. The captain glanced at his own arm, injured on the jagged hull, seeing it wrapped carefully in a makeshift bandage obviously made from the hated glossy fabric.

     Jim wanted to ask about what had happened as they had fled the ship; if only to be reassured that it wouldn’t happen again. He wanted to ask, but as he stared into his friend’s dark, shadowed eyes, he felt the barest hint of that edge again: not so far away after all. The cold fear spread within him and he licked his lips and shifted, pulling his body up alongside Spock’s legs, resting his head on his bondmate’s thigh as he kept their hands clasped together. Discussion could be put off, but touch was non-negotiable.

     He could hear the sound of waves crashing on the sand below them and looked to the horizon, seeing bright tongues of flame out at sea where the ship had gone down. His stomach clenched at the loss of life, and he pushed the thought away.

     “Nerit?” He spoke aloud, not wanting to risk disrupting his bondmate’s fragile equilibrium with an attempt at mental communication.

     “She is presently unconscious.”

     Jim lifted his head, seeing a dark, huddled form several meters away, patches of hair and exposed scalp raw in the crystal moonlight.

     “Is she—?”

     “I was forced to render her unconscious.” Spock’s words were clipped, guilt surging again, and Jim blinked, remembering how the blonde woman’s fear had torn through transparent telepathy in the mad rush to escape the sinking ship. He craned his neck, looking up at the Vulcan, seeing the slump of his shoulders and tense lines in his face. The fear that had quickened Jim’s pulse still lingered, and the human felt a fiercely protective upwelling of approval with the absence of Nerit’s frenzied and scattered thoughts, whatever the circumstances had been. Even with Spock sitting up and talking, holding his hand, Jim still sensed the yawning darkness: hollows in a tortured and vulnerable psyche, and he would be damned if he allowed his bondmate to fall into them again. It struck him that his own head didn’t hurt as much as before.

     “You’re helping me again,” he muttered accusingly, changing the subject.

     The Vulcan didn’t answer, and Jim sighed, beginning, “I don’t want you to—.”

     A gentle squeeze to his hand cut him off. “Jim, I…need to have something on which to focus. I cannot meditate, and my…I need—.” His words stumbled, and a pained expression crossed his face.

     “It’s okay,” Jim quickly assured. “It’s okay; do what you have to do.” The captain slid even closer, lowering his cheek back to the glossy fabric and tightening his grip on Spock’s hand, hoping to comfort, wanting to help.

     He thought suddenly of Nyota and her sharp reaction to the events on Nibiru, of her ongoing struggle to be of comfort to her lover, and the abrupt end of their relationship following Jim’s death in the warp core. She had not had a bond to connect her to the one she loved; had only been allowed to reach out in the human way. The captain wondered if it would have been harder for her if they had been bonded; for him, feeling that emptiness and reconciling the exposure and the vulnerability had been terrifying. He wondered if a bond between them would have been, however, easier for Spock. Unlike Jim, she would not have rejected the mental connection. Unlike Jim, she would have wanted only to help and to heal, from the beginning.

     “Why didn’t you—?” He blurted the words abruptly, lost in his thoughts, before trailing off, uncertain and abashed. But, of course, Spock had been able to sense his rambling and remorseful musings.

     The Vulcan replied slowly, his voice gravelly and weak. “Nyota inferred the presence of the connection with you through my reaction to your death. She was…remarkably understanding.”

     Jim drew in a sharp breath as a cascade of sensations flew into his mind along the intricate structure of their bond, seeing, understanding the love the two of them had shared, and a fury of emotion: her determined anger, resigned acceptance, and overwhelming despair. Her unhappiness had not solely been for the loss of their relationship, but for something else as well. Spock had sensed these feelings, and yet it was obvious that he had not understood them. But, for a human, for Jim, the meaning now was clear, and heartbreaking.

     He murmured absently, “She just wanted you to have someone…someone for whom you would feel.” He winced. “Even if that someone was me, and even if she knew you would never tell me. And that even if you did—.” He broke off, looking away, feeling shame well from within him and forcing himself to say the words. “And that even if you did, I would have rejected it.”

     Spock was silent, and Jim swallowed, sensing faltering controls attempting to regulate aching, heart-rending emotion. The human let his mind lay open and vulnerable, trying to find a way to explain himself, to apologize, to beg forgiveness. A warm hand moved into his hair and Jim closed his eyes.

     “Kaiidth. We are t’hy’la, Jim. Strong emotion is…logical between us, and therefore conflict almost inevitable. But, the touch of our katra is fundamental; a marriage bond alone would not have…could not have—.” His words faded, but Jim knew the rest: Nyota could not have brought Spock back from that precipice; she had never touched as deeply as Jim had.

     “I need you, too,” Jim uttered, squeezing Spock’s hand, forestalling him as he heard the Vulcan draw breath to speak again. “I understand why you didn’t tell me. I understand why you would protect the bond.” He spoke softly, acknowledging the deeper wounds.

     “Your reaction was understandable, given the circumstances. Even I was not prepared for such a profound joining and could not help you. In fact, my injuries made it worse, and continue to do so. For that, you must forgive me.”

     Jim shifted his head, feeling Spock’s fingers slide over the shell of his ear, caressing. “It was forced; we didn’t have a choice, and you were being—.” He trailed off, swallowing hard as he fought with his own cruel memories of the torture Spock had endured. “I didn’t…I still don’t know what this is, what this can be, without pain. I only know that I need it; I need you.” He huffed. “Despite all my bullshit.”

     He drew in a shaky breath, swallowing against the persistent dryness of his mouth and saying with sudden intensity, “Hold onto me; stay with me, and I promise that I’ll never turn away again. I owe you…everything, but that much at least, and Nyota, too. I owe her.” He sighed, rubbing his cheek subtly against the thin fabric covering his bondmate’s leg. “I owe her that, as well as a chance to punch me in the face. I only hope—.” He trailed off, not wanting to voice it, knowing that hope had gotten them through so much already.

     “You are her friend; she grieved at your death.”

     “Maybe two punches then,” Jim quipped tiredly. He paused, licking his cracked lips, wanting to avoid the uncomfortable mention of Nyota, and further reminder of how far they still remained from home. “So, we’re on a beach on Cassia Belomni II,” he snorted lightly, “Which is convenient. How far away do you think the archaeological colony is? Even if they’d decamped, they might have left something: a transmitter, food, something.”

     “That is likely, however—.”

     “It’s un-fucking-likely we’d be able to get there,” Jim finished, knowing the answer already. He was so thirsty. “Is there any—?”

     Yes, Jim.

     The Vulcan’s silent speech fell into Jim’s mind and he sighed involuntarily, welcoming it despite the dizzying throbbing of the bond. He felt Spock’s muscles tense under his cheek and the captain rolled onto his back as his bondmate slowly pushed himself up, standing briefly before staggering and falling to his hands and knees in the sand, dark head bowed.

     “Spock?” Jim curled up, crawling toward him. He’d never seen his friend so weakened. The Vulcan was breathing heavily, and dark emotion swirled intensely beneath broken shields, fed by sheer exhaustion.

     “There is a freshwater spring…ten meters behind us. The shells—.” Spock’s voice trailed off, but Jim, leaning up on his elbows, saw three decent-sized shells from some alien water-dweller lined up in the sand just down the slope away from the tree line.

     “Lie down,” Jim commanded softly. “I’ll get it.” His eyes narrowed with concern as Spock followed his directive without argument.

     “You need to rest. How long have you been awake?”

     Spock blinked, looking up at the stars. “We reached the shore six hours ago. I have been conscious for one point two.”

     “You’re still in a lot of pain. Can you try a trance?”

     The sharp reaction across their connection made Jim wince, and he raised a hand to his temple. Spock closed his eyes, but Jim could sense the Vulcan’s powerful aversion to a retreat into his mind with its perfect recollection of the emotional horrors of their captivity.

     “No!” he exclaimed. Then, more quietly, “No. Not such a good idea, then.” He reached out, placing a hand gently on the Vulcan’s bare chest, seeing Spock’s eyes open again. “I’m going to get some water and check on Nerit. I want you to rest.”

     “Jim.”

     “Yeah.”

     Spock’s voice was flat. “Trislo is alive.”

     Jim’s jaw tensed and he moved his hand away. “You got that from me?”

     “Yes, and Nerit was…mostly nonsensical, except for that.”

     “It doesn’t matter,” Jim replied, too quickly. “The ship’s gone, all her followers, slaves, whatever, dead. All those receptacles from the planet’s surface, and all that machinery destroyed. She’ll think you’re dead from that poison, and me from the crash. There’s no reason for her to—.” He paused, listening to his own words in his head, hearing the odd notes of desperation and pleading. He was starkly aware of their isolation, their helplessness: his own body battered and weakened, depleted, dehydrated, in pain, reeling from a connection to a traumatized mind. And Spock—.

     “Shit!” He jerkily ran both hands through his hair, remembering Trislo’s arrogant speech: The instinct to survive is still strong. The instinct to do whatever’s necessary, to endure whatever you must in order to survive. A hard-wired, inescapable vulnerability, and one that I’m certain runs deeply in you, Kirk: the captain who cheated death. She might discover that they were still alive if she had sensors; Spock’s life signature was unmistakable. And she would know that Jim would fight, unlike the others.

     “Fucking shit.” His voice hardened. “You and I both know what went wrong with that test and she’s smart enough to realize it. You and I both know the design and capabilities behind that weapon; how simple it was. And she’s crazy enough anyway to just want to see us bleed.”

     “Jim—.”

     “She’s not getting us again.” Jim hissed, kneeling in the sand, naked except for a thin, ripped pair of loose pants, knowing he was full of shit. Their options were limited, at best: they had no weapons, and no materials and were exposed on an unknown planet. Finding enough water and food would be struggle enough. Thousands of kilometers potentially lay between them and the possibility of equipment at the defunct colony, and when even the prospect of standing up was daunting, they would be nearly helpless in a physical fight.

     Spock was silent, and for a moment, all Jim could hear was the pounding of blood in his own ears, mixing with the crash of waves. And then he saw his bondmate’s hand move, trickles of fleeting thought weaving along the bond even as long fingers dug an absent, uncharacteristically nervous pattern into the moon-drenched sand.

     “She will have a ship, Jim.” And a way home.

     Jim stared at him, his mind turning over the implication. “She wouldn’t come down here unarmed. She might have more of those androids with her, picked up from the colony, or something else entirely.”

     Spock hadn’t blinked, and his thoughts flew faster, a powerful, heavy weight behind them. His voice was choked. “The android technology is vulnerable. As she is.”

     Jim collapsed backward, sitting in the sand with his hands limp beside him. The bond was choking, too: gutted shields and all that pain, all that brutally clear recollection of the deaths and agony of so many. It could be used against the woman who had forced it on them, pushed into her mind and rendering her unconscious or worse. It had a name, too, echoing in the guttural tones of Spock’s native language: kae’at ashv’cezh, an ancient thing that would never have been an option if not for the breakdown of every discipline, if not on the cusp of insanity. This was undiluted emotional transference, a telepathic weapon.

     “No,” he blurted. “No, I don’t want you to do that.” Foreboding shifted to fear, and then to anger. “No, you’ll feel it, too and I…I don’t want you to fall away from me again. What if I can’t get you back this time?”

     Spock turned his head. I already feel it.

     Jim whispered, “It would kill you. After what happened before, I’m not letting you do this.” He shook his head, looking back out at the water at the burning debris, his mind working to conjure some other path, murmuring absently, “Hell, she might not even come back.”

     He looked back and Spock’s eyes were fixed on him, fingers still curled tightly into the sand. “I am…falling now, Jim. I shall take her with me, and you will have her ship.”

     Jim grimaced, looking up to the stars to hide the tears that had suddenly formed in his eyes. “You’re not falling. I know it feels that way, but you were able to fight back before. You need to just stay with me, feel me.” He reached out with both hands to grasp one of Spock’s, lifting it from its tense grip in the sand and entwining their fingers urgently. “T’hy’la; what does the word mean again? Tell me about it.”

     Spock swallowed, his fingers moving slightly in Jim’s hands. “It is from ancient times, when brothers-in-arms would share their minds, and their bodies. It was rare enough to be seen as supernatural, as was the extraordinary depth of the connection.”

     “They fought together. They died together?”

     Spock nodded.

     “They loved each other.”

     Yes, Jim.

     The human set his jaw. “I’m not letting you go, Spock. I’m not. I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of losing you to that emptiness, and I won’t do it. Now you need to figure out something else; some other way.” He searched dark eyes, framed by long lashes made silver in the moonlight. “I don’t know anything about this, except what I feel, and I feel nothing but loss at the idea of you trying that…that revenge.” He paused, anger breaking through. “And what do you think I’ll be when I’ve felt you fade away? Do you think I’ll just fucking carry on?”

     “Jim.”

     “Fuck.” He was so tired, and his head bowed. “Let me get the water. We both need to drink something and…and sleep.” He released his hands and gently rubbed the rough patch on the back of his own head where the slave-healer had worked on him, looking up at the stars again, swaying slightly at a wash of vertigo. “She’s up there somewhere, Spock. And somewhere even further away, the Enterprise. And everyone we know thinks we’re dead.” He coughed, and the dryness of his throat caught the sound. “We’ve been on our own before, but not like this.”

     Spock’s eyes drifted shut. “Not like this.”

     Jim closed his eyes, too, sensing their profound defenselessness but also the rich structure of the still-new bond between them, guarded by flimsy shields. Layers and layers: pain and unpleasantness, turmoil and dark emotion, but also love, so many layers of love. Brothers-in-arms, the closest of friends, and this transcendent love: perhaps a powerful armament in and of itself. No, he thought suddenly, his lips curling defiantly, not like this.

 

 

 

Chapter End Notes:

 

kae’at ashv’cezh: revenge for kae’at k’lasa, or mind-rape; used on Vulcan in ancient times where the victim’s emotional trauma was mercilessly inflicted on the attacker (concept and specific word developed for this story from translations drawn from the VLD).

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: Love, Pain, Escape

 

     “Kirk.”

     Jim groaned, opening his eyes to a bright blur, feeling the prickle of heat on his back and shoulders, a weighty pressure at the back of his mind.

     “Kirk, wake up.”

     Nerit sounded oddly irritated and slightly hoarse; the hysterical rambling that had guided Jim through the dying ship having given way to more clipped, rational speech, and the captain couldn’t feel her fear anymore through the—.

     “Spock!” He muttered, temporarily ignoring Nerit and, lifting his head from his arm, looked over at the unmoving form of his bondmate. Their connection was darkly focused and intense, and seemed to indicate something like a healing trance. But there was a touch of fear there, too, oddly: a veneer of unwillingness and desperation. Spock’s features weren’t slack and relaxed, but tight and drawn; he was struggling, and Jim frowned, pushing himself up to his knees next to the Vulcan. Obviously the mental and physical damage to his bondmate had been serious enough for him to succumb involuntarily to the trance, but it only meant that the Vulcan’s demons, the very ones that had prompted his deep aversion to this technique, were being thrust upon him and he could not escape.

     “Kirk!” Nerit repeated insistently.

     “Shut up a second!” Jim snapped, his hands hovering over Spock’s limp form, wanting to strike, wanting to bring him out of it immediately. The captain’s chest ached at the idea of his bondmate reliving the memories of the horrors he had endured on the ship, and his intuition screamed that Spock needed to be conscious in case Trislo somehow found them, but he knew the Vulcan needed to heal. Too close to an irrevocable mental edge, exhausted and emotionally traumatized, his body still dealing with the unknown affects of the competing chemicals injected into his system, he needed time to heal or all could still be lost. And it wasn’t even a certainty that Trislo would return, or that anyone else would find them; this, unfortunately, was Spock’s best chance at survival.

     “It’s alright,” Jim whispered, his lips barely moving as he finally reached out and gripped his bondmate’s upper arm, knowing Spock could sense him, feeling the bond expand into a broad, throbbing anxiousness, reaching for him. Just for a couple hours, I promise. I’ll be here. It’s alright. I’m sorry.

     “Kirk!” Nerit’s annoyance was palpable, and Jim scowled, sending a final burst of reassurance along the tense connection and reluctantly moving his hand from Spock’s arm, immediately second-guessing himself for not waking his bondmate. But Vulcan physiology would not have plunged into the trance without good fucking reason, and there was a part of Jim that was desperate for his friend to avoid any more pain.

    He turned to the woman, seated cross-legged on the sand in front of him, sullen, the wounds to her face and head still garish and oozing, what was left of her hair wet and sticking to her scalp and her torn clothing also wet and plastered to her body, as if she’d ventured into the water again. Her right eye had opened again, and she held a piece of cloth tightly in her hands: it looked like the remains of Spock’s tunic, minus the makeshift bandage on Jim’s own arm. Perhaps the Vulcan had given it to her to protect her head from the sand?

     “Nerit.” His tone was cautiously noncommittal.

     She absently wiped a drip of water from her chin, her glare slowly fading as his attention focused on her. “We can’t stay here.”

     “I know.” Jim watched her. “You okay?”

     “I will survive,” she replied equivocally. Her eyes shifted from him to Spock and she frowned. “He’s dead?”

     “Jesus!” Jim burst out, pushing himself up to stand unsteadily, his toes gripping into the loose sand. “Stop asking me that. He’s in a trance, I think.”

     She shrugged, wincing slightly. “Everyone else is dead. And the Keeper has gone.”

     “Yeah, you said.” Jim bit his lip, looking past her and brushing pale sand from his torso. The waves were softly lapping at the shore, the water a glittering blue-green in the brilliant yellow sun that was rising low on the horizon. Early morning, then, and the heat was already becoming oppressive; he wondered how long he had slept. He was thirsty again, and his stomach growling, the beginnings of sunburn on his exposed skin, but despite everything he finally felt as if he had some energy. His head still ached, though, and his arm, but it was manageable, and he could taste precious freedom in the humid air.

     He scanned the edge of the dense forest, now appearing as shades of inviting green in the morning light, and Nerit’s face contorted as she clambered up to stand as well, apparently irritated at his indifference.

     “I know that she chose me, over all others. She promised me—.” She broke off abruptly, her ragged breathing calming, her fists at her sides relaxing. She spoke more deliberately, “I have considered it, and I believe we have just undergone a test. The gods have tested us for some important purpose. This,” she gestured to her face, “is my scar; the proof of my test.”

     Jim eyed her, his reactionary anger fading in an overwhelming pulse of sadness at the earnestness in her eyes. Her pragmatism and courage had always been in marked contrast to the other wandering and fearful slaves. And she had saved his life, in the end, and Spock’s. The captain was convinced that the cult itself operated under coercive means: the “fruit punch”, as Trislo had called it, and whether it was actually a drug or simply mental conditioning, it would probably explain Nerit’s paranoia and extreme devotion, and her hysterical response to the Keeper’s departure despite Trislo’s repeated cruelty.

     “You have great faith,” he said simply.

     She didn’t reply and Jim bent, gently maneuvering his bondmate’s limp body across his shoulders, grunting as he struggled to stand under the Vulcan’s weight, and wincing at the wave of disorientation over the bond.

     “Come on,” he said shortly. “Test or not, we still have to survive. Let’s get into the shade, under some cover, and find water. Grab those shells.”

     He shuffled toward the edge of the vegetation, hearing her halting footsteps behind him. Jim felt a strong longing for Spock’s conscious thoughts again, despite the pain he knew was still there. How ironic that he would now crave this, when the concept of a mental connection had previously held so much fear for him. His fingers gripped the Vulcan’s body more tightly, and he tried to distract himself from the unrest in his mind.

     “Nerit, how did you come to join the Keeper in the first place?”

     He moved carefully past the tree line, stepping as lightly as possible, feeling instantaneous relief from the heat of the sun under the thick greenery. Behind him, Nerit sighed.

     “I have always known the words of the ancient ones. My parents lived with the Keeper’s predecessors from before I was born. They perished with them, too.”

     “So you were on that ship, orbiting Earth, after Vulcan fell.”

     “I was. My duties were there, as you’ve seen.”

    “And the Keeper—.”

     “Came to us later. Promised us a new way.”

     “What about Rohmer? And Hsieh?”

     “They were nonbelievers, but useful. Like you.” Nerit hissed suddenly, and Jim paused, slowly turning to look back at her. She was bent over, holding the damp, torn tunic to her damaged scalp.

     “You alright?”

     Nerit lowered the cloth, and Jim winced as he saw a fresh line of blood, evidently from where a leaf or branch had snapped back into the woman’s face. Her expression, however, was more haughty than pained. “I have had worse.”

     “I saw.” Jim swallowed tightly, adjusting his hold on his bondmate. He was sweating profusely in the heat, even under the shade, and his hands were slick, the makeshift bandage loosening on his arm. Nerit was staring at him defiantly, and he asked, “Why did you let her do that to you?”

     Her chin lifted. “I was chosen over all the others to provide bodily comfort for the Keeper, to witness and pleasure her true form. She required the ancient tests of loyalty and I endured.”

     “You were tortured.”

     “I was tested,” she retorted quickly, her voice overly loud as she held up the cloth, clenched in a tense fist. “You don’t understand the ancient ways, Kirk. Your mate, being of Vulcan ancestry, might understand the need for absolute obedience and absolute faith, the need for constant tests. Pain is the gateway to eternity and fortitude the path to honor. The more one suffers, the purer their mind.”

     “If that’s true then Spock’s mind is fucking elemental hydrogen,” Jim muttered, looking away.

     “Yes!” Nerit’s oddly enthusiastic response caused the captain to glance back at her again. “Yes,” she continued, more softly. “He fulfilled his test, but his scars are invisible.”

     Jim glowered, jerkily turning back and beginning to shuffle again, all too aware of the damage that had been done to his friend’s mind, suddenly infuriated by the glib attitude Nerit held. The anxiety along the bond was beginning to affect him: he could feel it like an itch under his skin, and he shut his eyes momentarily, trying desperately to remember that gentle, beloved space that had cradled him and Spock both in the sleepy dark after their first intimate touch. It had been so fleeting, fractured so quickly by separation and more torture, only to be hinted at later in glimpses of love, warmth, and longing.

     A startled sound from Nerit forced his wandering attention back on his halting progress into the forest: they were approaching what looked like a sheer rock face, presumably where Spock had found the fresh water spring. Jim could hear it gurgling even now, and he pressed through the remaining stand of trees to break into a small clearing, fern-like flora creating a soft carpet under his feet and the broad leaves of the tall plants forming a sheltering canopy overhead. It was eerily quiet: no birds or other creatures’ calls and the sound of the waves was greatly muted by the dense foliage behind them. Jim exhaled, gently lowering his bondmate down to the ground. It occurred to him that the gravity of this world must be slightly lower than Earth-normal, which might explain his unexpected swell of energy. He inhaled deeply, considering the potential for higher oxygen content as well, aware of his near-ignorance when it came to this planet and its dangers, or its advantages.

     The overtones of restlessness receded as he lost immediate contact with his friend, and he stepped back, rolling his shoulders, pulling at the piece of cloth wrapped around the gash on his arm and exposing the wound. It had closed but looked overly red and puffy, and he grimaced, knowing that an infection was setting in. An alien infection and no medkit or tricorder, and thoughts of his ship flickered through his mind painfully before he shoved them away, gesturing roughly to Nerit for the shells. As she handed them to him, he forced himself not to shrink away from her; more than her injuries or the unpleasant reminder of his ordeal on the ship, he instinctively wanted to distance himself from her fanaticism, and her ready acceptance of his bondmate’s suffering.

     Oblivious, she tilted her head at him and sank down into the ferns, crossing her legs beneath her, and he heard the chirp of her voice as he filled two of the shells, the cool water splashing over the exposed skin of his torso.

     “Yes, your mate’s mind is pure, and yours as well. And mine. How else would we have survived the test?”

     Jim exhaled, irritated, and he handed one of the sloshing shells to her before sitting next to Spock, thirstily draining the makeshift cup before carefully arranging the Vulcan’s head on his lap, sliding his fingers over thick, black hair. He knew he had to find food and to try to build a shelter of some kind, but he wanted to be close to Spock, to reassure the Vulcan, and himself.

     Nerit continued blithely, “It is how the Keeper proved her own worth.”

     Jim glanced up at that. “What?”

     “She bears the scar from her own ordeal; her own test. That, and her obvious divine enlightenment revealed to us, her loyal slaves, her position as our next prophet.”

     Jim shook his head, continuing to stroke Spock’s mussed hair, smoothing it, commenting dryly, “If you only need a scar and fancy-sounding ‘enlightenment’, Nerit, you’re just as qualified.”

     She sipped her water, cradling it both of her hands, peering intently into the shell. “Yes,” she replied knowingly.

     Her accepting confident tone was a surprise and Jim studied her, choosing his words carefully. “And that would make you…what?”

     “The new prophet,” she replied primly. She was still clinging to that ripped piece of Spock’s tunic, and dipped it in the shell, wetting it before dabbing it over her damaged cheek and scalp, adding, “Or you, or your mate. But you are nonbelievers.”

     He raised his eyebrows. “And the old prophet? The Keeper?”

     Nerit shrugged. “I do not know.” She looked at him and a high-pitched sound erupted from her, a bitter approximation of laughter. “It would not matter much; everyone else is dead!”

     “Yeah.” Jim rubbed a hand over his mouth. She began folding and unfolding the piece of fabric, suddenly engrossed in it, and the captain felt an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability compounded by the taut sensations along the bond and Nerit’s odd behavior. He pressed his lips together, deciding that he would give Spock a few more hours in the trance, wake him, and proceed from there. His hand stilled on the Vulcan’s head and he closed his eyes, lulled by the moist heat and listening to the soft rustle of greenery around him, feeling beads of sweat trickle down his face and chest. The sun was not yet overhead, and perhaps waiting until past midday would—.

     A low throbbing sound from the direction of the shoreline startled him and a burst of adrenaline slammed through his system. An engine. A ship! Motherfucking Trislo, or someone else: Klingons? He swallowed, remembering how close they were to enemy space.

     Shit, shit, shit. Spock, wake up!

     Jim cradled his bondmate’s head and shoulders with both hands, guiding them to the ground as he scrambled to his knees. “Nerit!” he hissed.

     She looked over at him nonchalantly.

     “Don’t you hear that?”

     She tilted her head, and Jim heard the distinctive roar of a retro-thruster burn and the leaves swayed around them with nearby wash from heated jets. Whoever it was had initiated a landing sequence directly on the beach, only meters away.

     “A ship?” she asked slowly.

     “Listen! We have to—,” he began.

     “The Keeper!” Nerit shot to her feet with astonishing speed, and Jim made a desperate grab for her as she ran past him, plunging into the forest on her way back to the sand.

     “Nerit!” Jim yelled after her once and then turned his attention to his bondmate, still motionless, still caught in the trance, the bond echoing Jim’s own frantic emotions against a background of rising turmoil. Not hesitating, Jim pulled his hand back and slapped the Vulcan across the face. Again, and again, and he heard the thrusters fall silent. “Fuck!” He hit harder, closing his eyes as he felt along the bond, sensing his bondmate struggling against a pervasive force that fought back, keeping him under, a weakness that screamed that he was still far from healed.

     But they didn’t have time, and Jim grunted as he swung again. Spock! Wake up. Please! The Vulcan’s body shuddered, his mind reaching for Jim’s.

     The distant clang of metal was overshadowed by the sound of Nerit’s voice, raised and excited, and then a choked scream, cut off by the shrill rapport of an energy weapon. So close, and Jim could hear the rustle of leaves at the edge of the forest, careless footfalls. Whoever it was would be there in seconds.

     Jim knew they wouldn’t get very far if he tried to carry his friend. Jim licked his lips, glancing around, pulling several larger leaves off the nearest plant and draping them over Spock’s form, reaching out and clasping his bondmate’s hand tightly, feeling the smallest squeeze in return.

     I’ll try to buy you some time.

     He stood and turned, beginning to jog to the far edge of the clearing, his muscles tensing for a mad, noisy dash into the forest in an attempt to draw their attacker or attackers away. The barest glimpse of white caught the corner of his eye and he spun as a flash immediately preceded a blistering impact to his left shoulder. He cried out, thrown back and onto the ground, smelling his own singed flesh, a flood of pain ripping through him, his arm curled and limp at his side.

     Something along the bond wailed, and then was lost in a wash of fear and anger as Kellen Trislo’s slender figure emerged from the leaves, alone, her white, form-fitting jumpsuit stark against the greenery and a silver weapon of unfamiliar configuration held firmly in one hand. She considered him for a split second, a smirk on her face, flipping her hair casually from her eyes just before firing a casual shot that grazed his leg and burned a hole next to him in the ferns.

     “Miss me, Kirk?”

     Jim screamed hoarsely in pain and in frustration, rolling to the side, toward his bondmate. Trislo’s smile widened as she watched him, her violet eyes eerily blank.

     “I knew your instinct for survival would be formidable.” She studied her weapon, holding it almost playfully. “You are so satisfying, Kirk. The others were never very satisfying.”

     Jim scrabbled under the ferns with his uninjured hand, finding a rock under his fingers, grasping it and throwing it at the young woman’s head, grunting in pain at the movement.

     Trislo dodged the crude projectile easily and chuckled openly, her eyes scanning the clearing until they alighted on Spock’s body. She took a step toward him and, desperate, Jim struggled through the pain, forcing his injured leg under him and rising unsteadily to his feet. He dragged in a breath and yelled a challenge, “Get away from him!” He could feel his bondmate along their connection, fighting for consciousness.

     She took another step, slow and exaggerated, taunting the captain. “Your Vulcan looks fucked up.” She firmed her grip on her pistol and Jim heard Spock’s ragged, gasping breathing, saw one of the loose leaves fall away to reveal wide, dark eyes.

     “Not faking, is he?” Her eyes slid to Jim, who had moved closer, his arm dangling uselessly. His weakened leg buckled underneath him and he fell to one knee. Her voice came as smooth as silk, “Remember what I told you about a shot to the head, Kirk? Merciful and peaceful: at least, relatively so. I’ll grant your Vulcan that peace if you tell me what went wrong with the weapon. I know that you had something to do with it.”

     Jim could sense Spock’s weakness, his frantic and tenuous hold on consciousness; Jim’s pain had ripped him from the trance, but he was slipping.

     “You…fucking…bitch. You came back for that?” The captain was leaning forward, balancing on his good hand, fingernails digging into the rich soil beneath him.

     “Pretty much,” she remarked in that singsong tone, switching her attention back to the Vulcan. “No surprise, there, I hope.” She tilted her weapon, aiming at Spock’s legs. “Shall I up the stakes? Give him one to match yours?”

     “No!” Jim moaned.

     The energy beam flashed, and the bolt burned through the Vulcan’s left thigh, a splatter of green blood lost in the green ferns around them, and the smell of burned flesh became almost overwhelming. Spock inhaled sharply, his eyes fluttering closed, and his hands twitched. The bond was a conflagration from both sides, now.

     Trislo grunted. “I suppose I already did a number on him back on the ship,” she commented, crouching down and studying the open expression of pain on the Vulcan’s face and his weakened and sluggish attempts to move. “And I suppose I have Nerit to thank for his present survival.” A snort. “That girl was pretty, but more trouble than she was worth.” Her eyes shifted to Jim, and her weapon rose lazily. “I wouldn’t recommend coming any closer, Kirk.”

     Jim couldn’t think; he could barely breathe.

     She kept speaking, “And I wonder how you survived; Hsieh, probably. Remind me never again to double-dip in Marcus’ pathetic pot. Idealism has its place, but can be all too inconvenient at times.”

     Jim had stopped two meters away, his legs shaking, trying to stall, trying to get her to talk and not shoot. “He…he didn’t drink your…fruit punch?” Jim’s mind skittered over his bondmate’s idea of kae’at ashv’cezh, if Trislo edged close enough for Spock to touch her. But was it even possible, with Spock’s mind reeling from the trance? And it might kill the Vulcan, pulling him down with her in a wave of terrifying emotion; Jim couldn’t bring his bondmate back, not wounded like this, not with his own mind hovering on the very edge of consciousness.

     Trislo sniffed imperiously in response to his whispered question. “They did, Marcus and Hsieh, but it was Marcus’ special blend. No, my particular chemical influence was only for the members of my parents’ illustrious religion. A very convenient way to encourage subservience, but, like I said before, fucking boring.” Her eyes grew slightly unfocused. “Some of them didn’t even scream anymore, even under torture, even when they were being fucked. Just a lot of sad whimpering; like your beaten-down mate.” Her gaze sharpened on Jim. “Not you, though. I bet you’ll scream when I kill him. And again when I hand you over to the Klingons, I bet they’ll let me watch when they gut you for information, and you’ll scream for me some more.” She looked perversely eager and then her eyes narrowed. “Those fuckers better show up.”

     “The Klingons?” Jim hissed incredulously through gritted teeth.

     She bared hers. “Underestimating me again, Kirk? You think I’m dumb enough to try operating out here without greasing the locals? They’ll be copied in on the weapon design and—.” She stopped herself sharply, and the smile returned to her face. “I need you to tell me why the weapon malfunctioned. I mean, I’ll figure it out anyway, but this will be a lot easier and, like I said, will spare your mate his pathetic suffering.”

     At Jim’s silence she stood again, aiming threateningly at Spock’s stomach. The Vulcan wasn’t moving anymore, but the pain was written all over his face and igniting the bond.

     “Maybe if I aim it right, you can watch his heart stop beating.”

     “Okay!” Jim blurted. “Okay, I’ll tell you about the weapon. Just, please, don’t hurt him anymore.” His voice was broken, and he had fallen to one knee again and the pain in his shoulder was visceral, but even more than that he felt honest, desperate, crushing love. I don’t want to watch you die, I can’t. I need…I love—.

     A muscle in her cheek twitched and she flipped her hair out of her eyes. “This is your sadly predictable weakness, Kirk.” Trislo strode forward, her boot coming down deliberately on Spock’s right wrist, bending over to point the pistol at his forehead, her violet eyes still focused on Jim. “Now, tell me what I want to—.”

     The movement was swift and desperate, as Spock’s left hand shot out, gripping Trislo’s wrist with the remnants of faltering strength, diverting the aim of the gun. The weapon fired twice, burning two holes into the ground immediately next to the Vulcan’s head and Trislo growled, fumbling at her belt for a knife as she pushed back against his grip on her wrist, gaining on Spock’s obvious debility. She was winning, and the maw of the gun moved inexorably between the Vulcan’s eyes.

     No!

     Jim screamed it in his mind, seeing it all unfold, terror ripping through him as he flung his body forward, but Spock didn’t let go, and the bond blew wide and Jim sensed a powerful, brilliant wave of emotion crashing through, pouring through the Vulcan’s touch telepathy and directly into Trislo’s nervous system. It took less than a split second and she froze, her eyes wide and unseeing, and her lips moved without sound as she collapsed on top of the Vulcan, both weapons falling from suddenly limp fingers.

     The bond shuddered, aching and raw, and tears slid down Jim’s face as he lay on his belly in the ferns, the echoes from the powerful psionic pulse ringing through his mind. Love. Spock had projected love instead of hate, affection instead of agony, empathy instead of fear. Love for Jim, instead of revenge for the tortures inflicted on them. He had not fallen into the darkness again; he had found another way: a way illustrated with blazing emotional energy that struck at the very heart of Trislo’s vulnerability yet preserved the balance of Spock’s own mind. Light propelled, instead of dark, yet just as overwhelming to the young woman’s particular psychopathology.

     Jim choked, crawling single-handedly the rest of the way to his bondmate’s side and uncaringly shoved at Trislo’s body with his good arm, pushing the woman off of his Vulcan. She was still alive; that much he could sense through wavering telepathy, but soundly unconscious.

     Spock lay unmoving, his dark eyes open and facing the canopy of green and Jim simply collapsed next to him, his head falling onto his friend’s torso, and for a moment they breathed together in silence broken only by the gentle rustle of the breeze through the leaves and the muffled susurration of the Vulcan heart. Their connection ebbed and swelled, still suffused with reverberations of the mental…attack? Jim didn’t know what to call it, but it had saved them. He shifted and his shoulder throbbed and he couldn’t help a small grunt.

     Spock’s hand abruptly lifted, fingers curling gently across Jim’s face, and the pain bled away, absorbed into the texture of the bond, behind weakly erected shields.

     “No,” he murmured dumbly.

     “Let me,” Spock replied, his voice no more than a whisper. Gently, the bond was parsed, tenuous barriers rising, blocking pain, blocking the harsh clarity between them. Jim instinctively mentally reached, stubbornly trying to maintain the openness between them.

     “Jim, let me. We must…go. She will awaken. And what she said…about the Klingons—.”

     “She’s a fucking liar,” Jim muttered. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring you out of that trance sooner. I thought—.”

     “You were correct not…not to do so. Not to awaken me.”

    “You were fighting it; I could tell. You were hurting, and the trance didn’t do much good anyway.” Jim concentrated on deep breaths, the tension having drained from his body as Spock had siphoned away the sense of pain. He tried to avoid looking at his damaged shoulder, or Spock’s leg.

     “It was enough. I have regained some mental control; my shields are…functional.”

     “Barely,” Jim murmured darkly.

     “My physical condition is still a concern, however. My leg—.”

     “That fucking bitch.” Jim bit his lip and drew in a sharp breath, sliding away from his bondmate’s hand to sit up fully, throwing a glare at the crumpled body of the former Keeper before his eyes slid to the mess of singed flesh and fabric over Spock’s leg. “It’s not bleeding, but it looks bad.” His voice hardened. “Tell me we can leave her here.”

     Spock’s hand lay over his own chest, fingers splayed. “I shall not, because we cannot.”

     “Right.” Jim exhaled, reaching with his good arm to gather the knife and the energy weapon. “She’s got connections with Thirty-one.” He shook his head. “And possibly with an enemy government. And she has designs on revenge that involve blowing the hell out of Starfleet. I wonder how many other fucking acolytes of Marcus are out there, holding onto secret plans for secret projects that no one else knows about, angry because their work was tossed aside. Or, like Hsieh, looking for someone or something to make up for the sins of a bureaucracy; their loyalty for sale.”

     He looked down at Spock, and saw brown eyes gently regarding him. The captain’s voice softened and he changed the subject. “You found a way.”

     “You were correct, Jim, that such was necessary. And revenge would have…been empty, and self-destructive. She did not care; she could not care. An…interesting situation.”

     Jim watched him, still feeling the reverberations of the unbridled emotion necessary for the ancient technique, understanding that it was the dichotomy between human and alien passions that had allowed the translation from sour revenge to vivid affirmation. “Love did the trick.” And despite the pervasive exhaustion and rawness and shock that still lingered translucently within their bondspace, he could also sense the warmth and the light. Their bond was…all, as Spock had said. It was… .

     “T’hy’la,” murmured the Vulcan. And Jim leaned down, pressing their mouths together. A brief kiss, but a point of strong and reassuring contact, and when Jim reluctantly pulled away he saw the ghost of his own smile mirrored on his bondmate’s lips.

     “Can you stand?” Jim asked, letting his injured arm hang limply at his side as he struggled to his feet, favoring his injured leg. Their wounds had been largely cauterized by the burning shots, and Spock was handling much of his pain. It would get them to the ship and away from this planet; it had to.

     “I believe so, Jim, however—.”

     “I’ll drag her. I can drag her, if you hold the gun and can make it on your own. That thing has a stun setting, right?” He continued with only a slight pause, “If it does, and if she starts to come out of it, stun her. Or I’ll hit her over the head with a fucking rock.” There was only a touch of dark humor to his words.

     Spock slowly rolled to his side and then up to one knee. He hesitated, and then cautiously made it to his feet, swaying mightily. Jim sensed the wave of vertigo and inflating agony that his bondmate experienced and held out a hand, gripping the Vulcan’s arm.

     Okay?

     No. Spock’s jaw tensed. I will make it to the ship.

    His friend’s posture was slumped, and the bond was seething with desperately masked and suppressed pain, but Jim could do nothing but nod, and hand over the weapon. He managed to curl the fingers of his injured arm over the hilt of the knife and bent over, grabbing the back of Trislo’s collar with his right hand and pulling.

     The Vulcan’s shields were maintained doggedly, and everything gradually disappeared into an opaque mental haze. What was riven with anxiety before was now infuriatingly impenetrable, and Jim swore as he forced himself forward. He was going to get them to that ship. They were going to make it into space and away from this planet and he was going to fucking sweet-talk or punch the communications equipment until he got a message off. And then he was going to hand Trislo over to fucking Starfleet security or push her out an airlock and sleep with his bondmate in the medbay of their ship, in the dark, so they could find that healing calm together. He was going to see Bones again; Spock was going to see Nyota again. They were so close and they were going to get back to the Enterprise.

     Ten meters. Roughly ten meters to the edge of the thick, plant-like trees and it felt like an eternity. Jim could hear Spock behind him: awkward, dragging footsteps punctuated by ragged breaths and the occasional sound of a body leaning momentarily against a tree. Ten meters of single-handedly hauling Trislo’s dead weight through the ferns and dirt and second-guessing his decision not to simply leave her. But now they had no choice but to keep going, and the beach finally opened up before him in a blinding white spectacle. In the middle of sand and water and sky was a shiny scout-class ship, its landing pylons dug into the wash at the shoreline. And in front of the open hatch, sprawled in the sand, was a huddled, unmoving figure in shimmery, ripped fabric. Nerit. He couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead.

     Jim gave a final, brutal tug, pulling Trislo out onto the beach, the sun immediately blazing hot on his back. He glanced back, seeing Spock limping, the silver weapon clutched in one hand while the other shaded his eyes. The wound on the Vulcan’s leg had split open with his exertion, and trails of green blood were visible through the torn fabric and dripping over his bare foot.

     “Spock, can you…can you check—?” His voice trailed off into a grunt as he pulled on the woman’s collar again, dragging her forward.

     “Yes.” The Vulcan sounded terrible, but he kept moving, and Jim saw him fall to one knee in front of the blonde woman as Jim tugged Trislo up the metallic ramp.

     It was only when he was inside, in the cool, silent, slightly cramped interior, when he remembered that he should have considered the possibility of someone else being aboard. He had made a big assumption, an uncharacteristic mistake for him, and felt a wave of self-disgust and anger at his lapse, shivering as the sweat dried on his skin. He seemed to be in a corridor of some kind, and peered toward the forward section, seeing flashing lights and silver panels: the control room, evidently.

     Jim. She is alive, but barely.

     “She’s a goddamn survivor,” Jim muttered, dragging Trislo into the rear section. As he’d expected, he found a small bunk and storage area, currently empty, and he let her fall unceremoniously to the deck as he fumbled for a set of straps that were intended to keep cargo secured, figuring that they’d do just as well for unconscious psychopaths.

     He heard a shuffling noise at the hatch, and saw Spock carrying Nerit, the woman’s body limp in his arms, and the Vulcan’s face paler than Jim had ever seen it. Spock managed to get her onto the narrow bunk before his leg collapsed from under him and he sat down hard on the deck, his half-naked body shaking in the chill of the interior.

     “I could’ve gotten her,” Jim said weakly, feeling his own leg trembling beneath him, holding the straps helplessly with his uninjured hand, still clutching the knife in his other hand with a grip that was more desperation than anything else. He took a single breath before himself falling to sit on the deck, looking at his bondmate.

     Their connection was glimmering with a texture of hidden and revealed pain, wrought with fatigue and stress. Jim was so tired: even with the sharpness of his own pain gone, the shock to his system could not be removed, and his body was failing. Spock’s dark eyes were fixed on him.

     “We have to get a…fucking…message off.”

     Spock blinked. “Jim…Captain, if there is the…possibility of a Klingon presence, we should not…send the communiqué until we are in warp. Otherwise—.”

     “—we’re fucked.” Jim lowered his voice, whispering to himself. “Get up. Get the fuck up, Kirk. Get to the cockpit.” He swallowed, dropping the straps: he couldn’t secure Trislo with only one hand and Spock could barely move.

     “Shoot her, Spock. If she twitches, just shoot her, okay? We’ll bother with the restraints…later—.” He grunted with the effort of standing, seeing Spock’s head turn to follow him, the Vulcan pulling the gun from his waistband to cradle in his lap. There was a steadily widening pool of green blood under his friend’s leg, but Spock was conscious; he just needed to stay that way.

     “Shoot her,” Jim repeated breathlessly, stumbling through the corridor, wincing away from the breath of heated air that radiated inside as he made his way into the control room and fell into the chair behind the main console, dropping the knife to the floor. “Stay conscious.”

     The craft was sleek, the controls very similar to those on the doomed cult ship, and Jim keyed in the launch sequence, hearing the hatch close and the hiss of equalization, the gravity impellers coming on. The thrusters ignited readily and the deck shuddered, and Jim single-handedly punched in fast, direct, no-fucking-around trajectory directly up. Away. Go.

     It was surreal, seeing the blue, alien sky darken into the black of near-orbit, and then into the star-swept dark expanse of space. Jim took a breath and then another, his eyes searching the boards and seeing green lights: fuel status good, communications network up, navigational shields on. He directed the computer to calculate a flight vector directly for the nearest starbase; the craft was capable of no more than warp two, but if he configured the communication correctly, they might be met halfway. And halfway was better than the middle of fucking nowhere. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, stretching his damaged leg as the computer beeped and blinked. Something was wrong: this was taking too long.

     Jim?

     It’s okay, he sent back. Civilian piece of—.

     Green switched to red along one of the boards and a high-pitched alarm sounded, and Jim swore. Proximity alarm along the warp corridor and they were being scanned. He spun, leaning forward and trying to locate the sensor array readouts. More alarms sounded, and he stared at the screens, reading an unknown vessel coming in hot on an intercept course. Not Klingon, as far as he could tell, but not Starfleet either, and out here, defenseless and weaponless as far as he could tell, he didn’t want to take chances. Jim punched in a manual override code on the engines, setting up an alternate flight path out of the solar system and the small viewscreen in front of him crackled to life as the sensor array indicated that the new ship had just braked into normal space and was heading right for them.

     Abandoning the warp calculation, Jim fired the impulse engines, reversing course, enforcing distance, when a sudden powerful jolt threw him into the console and alarms screamed. Tractor beam! The engines revved and whined, and Jim increased power, trying to shear away.

     The tinny sound of the energy weapon sounded from the back of the craft and seconds later Spock appeared at the entryway to the control room, crawling on his hands and one knee. The bond was as quiet as ever, energy pouring into mental shields in an attempt to avoid distraction, but a cacophony of alarms shrieked in the cabin, the engine indicators going to red-line.

     “They’ve got us, whoever they are,” Jim hissed. “Did she wake up?”

     “Negative.” Spock crawled to the second chair, pulling himself up and looking at the boards, breathing heavily. “Insurance.”

     Jim turned his head and laughed out loud, almost hysterically. “Good job.”

    Spock pressed his lips together, examining the sensor readouts, leaning heavily on the board. “Modified…interceptor-class vessel; energy…readings indicate offensive capability, possibly smugglers, or…or pirates.”

     “Fuck. Any chance of getting free of this?”

     “No. We haven’t the…the power. Recommend—.”

     “—shutting down,” Jim finished darkly, disengaging the engines.

     A low tone indicated an incoming communication, and Jim scowled, “I guess we have to talk our way out of this.” He took a breath and hit the transfer, initiating contact.

     The image on the viewscreen blurred and wavered and finally solidified into an image of a thin, wiry-looking man sitting in a large command chair. He appeared human, wearing dark, civilian clothing and sporting a shock of bright red hair. His eyes were a hard brown behind antique glasses and the bored look on his face turned to faint curiosity as he took in Jim’s appearance.

     “I’m Captain Sears, and your vessel has been classified as a legal salvage under the Federation Combined Retrieval and Recovery Act. You will surrender yourself immediately. All goods and personnel aboard are—.”

     Jim interrupted him sharply, “This is Captain James T. Kirk of Starfleet, and this vessel was commandeered during a counterterrorism action. We are in need of immediate medical and security assistance.” He recognized bounty hunters when he saw them: operating at the fringes of Federation space, and mostly legally, they were dependent on Starfleet’s presence and firepower to maintain their autonomy.

     Surprise and confusion crossed the man’s face, followed by obvious amusement. “Bullshit. But I’ll give you props; that’s a line I haven’t heard before.” He chuckled. “And I’ve heard some good ones.”

     “Sir, we are in urgent need of—.”

     The man’s amusement faded. “You’re in need of something alright, if you think I’m gonna fucking believe you’re Captain Kirk.”

     “I’m—.”

     “Kirk’s dead, dumbass; the funeral was broadcast on official Fed frequencies, and as skeptical as I am about Fleet protocol, faking the death of a hero ain’t their style. Now, the ID on that ship indicates it’s been stolen, which is right up my alley. And it looks like you’ve been stolen, too.” He smirked. “Which, in this part of space, is also right up my alley. And I’ve got an ‘urgent need’ for—.”

     “Mike.” The audio picked up the muttered word from off-screen, interrupting the man’s solicitous tone.

     “What?” Sears barked.

     The voice came more forcefully. “Mike, you’re gonna want to hear this.”

     Sears looked exasperated, rolling his eyes and turning his head in the direction of the voice. “What? Just fucking spit it out, Lefty.”

     A large man appeared at the edge of the vid pickup, eyes wide, a battered PADD held loosely in his hands. “I just ran the voiceprint, and it’s him. It’s really him. That’s James T. Fucking Kirk.”

     The bounty hunter’s mouth fell open and he glanced back into the viewscreen.

     “Fuck me!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: End-Run

 

     The airlock hissed, the inset hatch slid open and the drift of warmer air over Jim’s exposed torso and open wounds caused him to inhale sharply, his uninjured arm tightening around his bondmate’s waist. They were balancing awkwardly together, and Spock still held the silver weapon. The bond was strung taut and unforgiving, and Jim felt none of his own pain, only heady anticipation and grim determination mixed with roiling nausea and fatigue. He could sense the weakness in his bondmate’s body, though; Spock’s head lolled to the side, his skin too cool and his face too pale, and sand still clung to both of their bodies, clotting with blood and damaged skin in shades of green and red.

     “Hello?” A feminine voice called to them from the bounty hunter’s ship, and a handsome older woman with ebony skin and shortly-clipped graying hair stepped into sight, her expression changing from curiosity to near-horror as she took in their disheveled appearance. She sounded uncertain. “Captain Kirk?” Behind her stood the large man from before, now carrying a standard first-aid satchel, his face wrinkling in a responsive grimace.

     Jim wasted no time, urging Spock forward and into the bounty hunters’ ship, his hand tightening as he felt his friend stumble slightly. He himself was running on grit and desperation, and his voice was rough and earnest as he responded, spitting out the words.

     “We need a medic.” He jerked his head in the direction of Trislo’s ship. “There are two others in there; the injured woman on the bunk is critically in need of attention, and the one on the floor, in white, is a prisoner: extremely dangerous and unpredictable. She’s under arrest and needs to be secured.” He took a breath, grunting as Spock stumbled again.

     The woman’s eyes were wide, but she moved forward immediately as the larger man slid past them to disappear into the scout ship with surprising agility.

     “I’m Keisha Moore; I’m the medic.” She reached for the Vulcan, but Spock silently recoiled, and Jim could feel his bondmate’s instinctive reluctance to being touched as a dark, throbbing fear, even with harshly maintained shields.

     Jim winced, pulling them back. “Don’t—.” He shook his head, stopping himself; he didn’t have time to explain. “It’s his telepathy. See about the women in there first; just tell me where to go.” He glanced up at the exposed metal girders above them. “Why aren’t we going to warp?”

     Moore narrowed her eyes, looking pointedly at Spock’s leg. “I don’t drive this heap, I just clean up the blood, which is currently getting all over the deck. If you’re going to take him, go straight down the central corridor and then make your first right.” She held up a hand as Jim started to move. “Captain, you both look like hell; you sure you want me to start with whoever’s in there?”

     “No,” Jim replied honestly. “But that’s what’s going to happen.”

     “Right. Fine.” Her lips twisted as she stalked reluctantly around them, and there was a sarcastic edge to her voice. “Well, you’re Fleet-trained. See if you can stop the bleeding with the regen unit and get those wounds under a localized sterile field. Hook up an auto-feed hydration IV for each of you; you should be able to do that single-handedly. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” She cast one last skeptical and frustrated look over them both. “Welcome to the Biloxi,” she muttered, vanishing into the scout ship.

     Spock was leaning even more heavily against him, and Jim nodded, limping forward, following Moore’s directions. He could hear the irregular pulse of engines around him in the spartan, unadorned interior of the bounty ship, noting unlabeled conduits, vents in obvious disrepair, and flakes of rust and dirt coating the deck. Somewhere further in the bowels of the ship, he heard the clang of machinery and a female voice swearing loudly in an impressive litany of alien languages, but saw no one else.

     Keep hold of that weapon, he sent. Spock didn’t respond, and Jim tried to move them faster, his own strength rapidly dissipating, when he heard the engine noise swell and then suddenly fall silent with a harsh grinding clatter, the tinny sound of distant alarms ringing down the corridor.

     “Captain!” A vaguely familiar and winded voice echoed from behind them just as they approached the door Moore had indicated, and Jim turned his head to see Sears jogging toward them, a sheen of sweat over his reddened face.

     The bounty hunter skidded to a stop, frowning as he took in the extent of their injuries, glancing at the trail of green blood staining the deck. “My god, what the fuck happened to you? Where the fuck’s Keisha?”

     “Attending to a more serious case,” Jim snapped impatiently, shaking with the exertion of supporting his bondmate. “Why aren’t we at warp?”

     “More serious?” Sears blinked at him, the bounty hunter’s face growing redder as he stammered, “Uh, well, we tried, but one of the coils cracked under the strain of that tractor beam so we had a coolant leak down into the antimatter pods and, uh, Captain?”

     Jim had turned away, stepping through the door as it opened and shuffling Spock over to the single biobed in the center of the small infirmary, mentally commanding, Lie down.

     Sears followed them in. “Holy shit; that’s Spock, right? Your first officer?”

     Jim leaned against the bed, managing a glare as the room spun around him, speaking haltingly, “Listen to me, Sears. We need to get into warp. We need to send a message to Starfleet Command. I have reason to believe that there may be a Klingon presence on its way, and…we need…we need to—.” He grunted as his legs finally gave out from under him and he sat down hard on the deck, seeing lights flashing in front of his eyes. He knew he was in bad shape; Spock’s manipulation of his pain level was complete enough that he was starting to feel numb, and his bondmate’s complete silence was worrying. It felt like the Vulcan was clinging to his mind almost like a drowning man. “The…scout ship…warp-capable…message—.”

     Sears stared at him, his mouth opening and closing ineffectually, and suddenly Moore’s voice came from behind him. “Get the fuck out of the way, Mike!” She burst through the door as Sears jumped to the side, Lefty immediately behind her, carrying Nerit’s limp body.

     “Put her in the stasis chamber; there’s not much more I can do and she’s failing,” the medic ordered, punching in a rapid key sequence into a wall panel and gesturing to a large transparent cylinder that slid out from the bulkhead. “It’ll keep her alive at least.”

     Lefty complied, directing his words to Sears, “Mike, I put that other woman, the prisoner, in the brig, but Izumi’s still working on the engines so there’s no one to stand guard.”

     “Good. Okay,” Sears said distractedly.

     Jim’s awareness was wavering, and he felt the cold press of a hypo against his neck, followed by another, and then another as the medic hovered over him.

     “I’m giving you something for the pain, Captain,” Moore said, her voice sounding far away. Jim closed his eyes briefly and heard her continue, evidently speaking to Sears, “I don’t know how’s he’s not screaming or unconscious from shock as it is. His fucking arm’s burned through; I can see the fucking bone.” There was the clink of instruments. “He insisted I start with that other patient, but I half expected to find him collapsed in the hallway. I don’t know what happened to these guys, but—.”

     “Help…help Spock,” Jim interrupted, his lips feeling like rubber. The drugs were taking effect, and the bond suddenly felt distant as the pain meds took over. He sensed his bondmate’s mind flail, instinctively grasping for him before slowly releasing the shielding. Pain roared, muted but still intense, and Jim moaned.

     Moore barked, “Lefty, get the regenerator and start closing up the Vulcan’s wound. And, Mike, do something useful and rig up a cot so I can get Kirk off the floor. Fuck.”

     “What is it?” Sears asked quickly.

     Another hypo, and Jim’s pain began to fade, along with his consciousness.

     “The Vulcan’s unconscious. The readings—. It was almost like…like—.” Moore sounded breathless as she worked.

     Sears sounded frustrated. “Like what? Jesus, what’s with all of you acting like I’m a fucking telepath?”

     “Telepathy’s exactly right, Mike,” Moore muttered, and Jim slumped to the side, hearing her swear again as his cheek hit the deck. “Were you able to inform Fleet that we have them?”

     Jim felt himself awkwardly lifted onto a firm, flat surface; he couldn’t even feel his injured arm as it swung limply, impacting the side of the cot.

     “Goddammit, Mike, be careful!”

     Sears sighed loudly. “I can’t fucking make a subspace call out here, Keisha, you know that! Kirk was mumbling about Klingons, and I believe him. There aren’t any regular patrols out here; we’re stuck until Izumi fixes the warp drive and that means incommunicado. You think I want to tangle with a fucking warship?”

     “I think you should get your ass up there and help her then,” retorted Moore. The angry tone of her voice changed abruptly as she addressed Jim. “Captain? Can you hear me? I’m going to put you out so I can fix your arm. Just relax, okay?”

     Another hypo hissed and the last thing Jim heard was Sears’ sullen tone. “Iz’s gonna have my ass for blanking out her engines with that tractor. And Fleet wouldn’t believe me anyway. James Kirk, my god! First I think he’s dead and then we get that flickering signal and—.”

 

*****

 

     The first thing Jim felt was the bond, its very presence comforting, but the immediate secondary sensation of extended and coldly implacable shielding forced the captain fully out of his insensibility. He opened his eyes, feeling wooziness from the pain medication and a distant throb along his injured arm. He swallowed carefully, an odd taste at the back of his mouth, and turned his head.

     “Welcome back, Captain.” Moore sat on a stool next to him, her brow furrowed and a tricorder in her hands.

     Jim licked his lips; he was now on the biobed, and he looked beyond the woman to the empty cot. “Sp…Spock?” Spock?

     “He’s awake. He went to help our engineer with the warp drive.”

     Jim felt his bondmate’s mental acknowledgement, but no formed speech, and he winced. “He’s okay?” He already knew the answer to that, and glanced across the room, seeing the stasis tube now opaqued, the faintest outline of Nerit’s form visible through the transparent aluminum.

     Moore frowned, taking a deep breath. “I packed and sealed the wound in his leg and he’s got a walking brace on it; like your shoulder. You both have been given some powerful antibiotics and you’ll need surgery but that’s well beyond my abilities. He was suffering from dehydration, like you, blood loss, and a host of more superficial injuries but—.”

     “But?” Jim prompted.

     She sighed. “Honestly, Captain, we’re a human crew, and my instruments aren’t set up for alien physiology so I’m not sure how much I missed. He woke up about an hour ago and assured me he was fine to assist, and I wasn’t going to stand in his way. I mean, we need to get out of here fast, it sounds like, and—.”

     She trailed off as Jim pushed himself up to sit on the bed. He was wearing a pair of gray shorts and nothing else; sporting a tightly wrapped bandage around his leg. His left arm and shoulder were securely and completely wrapped as well, bound tight to his torso. The absence of the hated glossy slave outfit, even as little of it had remained, was a distinct, however irrational, consolation.

     “How long have I been out?” There was something he needed to remember; something he had heard or seen before he passed out… .

     “Three hours, give or take.” Moore looked flustered at his movements. “Captain, you’re going to need to take it easy—.”

     “And the prisoner?” Jim interrupted quickly.

     The medic shook her head. “She’s still unconscious. Not in any medical danger, but—.”

     She was interrupted by the soft hiss of the door sliding open and Jim met his bondmate’s dark eyes. The Vulcan was wearing a plain gray coverall, the silver weapon tucked into the belt, and Jim could see the outline of the bulky leg brace under the thin material. Their mental connection rang with that odd sense of closure, despite their nearness to each other and Jim frowned. Even with that confusing restriction, he could read his friend’s body language, and he could see the subtle and fleeting changes of expression on his face, the struggle. Something was wrong, and Jim knew, somehow knew that he was needed desperately.

     Spock’s eyes slid briefly to Moore, but she appeared unsurprised at his sudden appearance. “I knew it,” she muttered.

     Jim ignored her, sliding off and leaning against the bed as he fought to regain his equilibrium, feeling dizzy and still nauseated. “Spock?”

     The Vulcan blinked but didn’t answer and Jim looked over at the medic. “Moore, would you mind giving us a minute, please?”

     She hesitated and then sighed again. “Sure.”

     As she left, Spock limped into the room, coming to stand directly in front of his bondmate, and as the door slid shut, he tentatively moved even closer, closing his eyes before his forehead came down to Jim’s uninjured shoulder. And Jim could feel that he was shaking.

     Jim inhaled sharply in surprise, instinctively raising his unencumbered hand and running his fingers into slightly matted dark hair still scented with sand and salt, pushing down his spiking fear at his bondmate’s unexpected behavior. He wanted to hold, and he cursed his bandaged arm, and he wanted to understand, his mind floundering unsuccessfully at the shielded bond.

     “What is it? Tell me.”

     The Vulcan’s voice was muffled. “I have regained my ability to shield, but am still experiencing…difficulty. There is pain associated with memory…with my memory. I find myself yearning for your mind; I believe that is why I insisted on curtailing your previous discomfort even beyond advisable limits, because it gave me a reason to touch you. I…cannot fall into a trance.”

     He spoke so quickly, haltingly and uncharacteristically, with none of his usual reserve or aloofness, his voice wrought with something fraught and broken. The captain shut his eyes and leaned his head gently against his bondmate’s.

     “Your memory…you mean of what happened on the ship. The torture; the procedure?”

     Spock inched even closer to him, shifting most of his weight onto his uninjured leg. “It…the condition is worsening. The poison and the counteragent acted to destabilize my mental control, but I can no longer detect their effects within my system. This is something else.”

     Jim swallowed, something in his chest starting to ache as he remembered Spock’s anguish in the healing trance as he tried to avoid inescapable memories of the torture and of all those vivid lives lost. The captain mentally pushed against the stolid bond again and huffed in frustration.

     He pitched his voice gently, belying his own fear and confusion. “You’re keeping me out. Just like on the ship, when you wouldn’t talk to me, when you dove into Vulcan discipline. I thought you weren’t going to do that again.”

     Spock turned his head into Jim’s neck, his hands lifting to gently touch Jim’s waist, fingers warm against the human’s bare skin. And Jim could hear an offered apology and an excuse in murmured words. “This is somehow...integrated with the deepest parts of our bond.”

     Jim remembered the way their bond had first intensified; in the midst of all that pain, and how the emotional torture had continued to define it and continued to force it. And he felt a sudden visceral and protective anger at the thought of their connection being affected, being touched, being hurt by anything or anyone. He took a breath, relaxing his fingers from where they had involuntarily tightened in his bondmate’s hair.

     “Let me in. Let me help.” He spoke calmly, trying to project confidence. “You’ve seen our strength, drawing from human things, too; we draw from each other. You have to trust me right now.”

     “Jim.”

     “Trust me.” This time his voice held iron conviction, and he felt his bondmate exhale as unyielding shields dissolved between them and Jim sensed the stomach-dropping sense of loss, of pain; compounding memories seen over and over, overwhelming all controls until only the vestiges of discipline remained. But these seemed more than simple memories, more than even eidetic ones; these held a psionic density behind them that pulled inexorably to that fearful edge and those holes standing bare and unforgiving at the fringes of Spock’s mental landscape. There was pain, and terror, others’ emotions and damage pounding through both of them now, and Jim understood why Spock had sought to shield him from this. But the captain didn’t cringe away, instead holding himself as open as he could, giving Spock a safe place to focus and a way to look beyond the engulfing darkness.

     Draw on me.

     The cloud of looming memories and depthless emptiness slowly faded into the background as Jim sensed his own mind embraced and held. And any fear or reservation he had about being so exposed and so vulnerable to another seemed to fade away as well. The intensity between them was powerful, almost as clear as a meld, and Jim could see that his own mind was serving as a bright contrast to the dark, a place of soothing affection against the pain, and a source of strength against the pull. He held his breath until shields slowly lifted again, gently mitigating the sharp immediacy of their contact.

     That background remained, though, dark and swirling, painful and dangerous, and now that Jim could feel it, he tightened his grip protectively on his bondmate, feeling Spock exhale shakily against the skin of his neck, still too close to what Jim feared; too close to the psionic void that had nearly engulfed the Vulcan as they had fled the sinking ship.

     For a long moment they simply stood there, and then something stirred within Jim’s memory, prompted by recollections of the crash and the subsequent escape. “A signal!” The captain’s head came up, and Spock’s did, too, and they looked at each other.

     I remember! Sears said something about a signal.

     Spock blinked. “Trislo.”

     Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Shit.”

 

*****

 

     Jim burst through as the door slid open, now wearing a similar gray coverall and soft shoes to Spock, pulled from a locker and slit roughly along the left side to allow for his bandaged arm and shoulder. He nearly stumbled into Moore and the medic reached out instinctively to steady him, her dark eyes glancing at Spock as the Vulcan emerged more slowly from the infirmary before focusing again on the blond human.

     “Captain?” She looked exasperated.

     “Where’s the brig?” Jim’s initial rush of energy was already fading, and he sensed Spock take his uninjured arm in support as he swayed, his stomach roiling and muted discomfort biting back against the medication he’d been given.

     Moore pulled back, but her voice was firm. “You need to get back in there and lie down, Captain.”

     “No.” Jim briefly closed his eyes before opening them again quickly, unable to handle the vertigo that resulted. “Spock, tell her.” He bit back a moan.

     “We have reason to believe that the prisoner might be in possession of a transmitter. Our position may be compromised, and as this ship is still unable to achieve warp speed—.”

     Moore broke in, “Real-time translation: we’re in a bad place; and you’re going to try to get us out of it.” She huffed. “Well, if I didn’t believe who you were before, then I do now.” Moore’s dark eyes flicked from one to the other before landing on Spock. “You share a mental link with him, don’t you?”

     Despite everything, Jim smiled slightly as he leaned into his bondmate’s grip. “And you said you didn’t know anything about Vulcans.”

     Moore crossed her arms. “I don’t know much, but I’m not fucking blind.” She pressed her lips together. “Look, the painkillers I gave you are probably causing a lot of the dizziness and nausea; I can give you something to counterbalance them, but you’re going to feel a hell of a lot worse unless—.”

     “I will alleviate the Captain’s pain,” Spock interjected immediately.

     She nodded. “That’s what you were doing before, when you first came aboard, right?”

     “Affirmative.”

     “That’s a nice trick.” Moore shook her head slightly. “Let’s hope it’ll be enough to get us out of this mess.” She sighed. “The brig’s back this way; I’ll show you, but first let me grab that hypo. Last I checked, the prisoner was still unconscious so—.”

     The sound of running footfalls interrupted her and Spock stepped forward slightly, his other hand going to the handle of the weapon. But it was a frazzled Sears who appeared around the curve in the corridor, stopping short when he saw them.

     “Captain! You’re awake? I thought—.”

     Jim leaned toward him. “Sears, the prisoner—did you check her for hidden devices, bugs, anything?”

     Behind him, the door slid open as Moore darted back inside, emerging almost immediately with a hypo.

     “Uh,” Sears replied, furrowing his brow. “I don’t believe we—.”

     “Here, Captain.” Moore cut in, lifting the instrument to Jim’s neck, her eyes shifting to Spock. “If you’re going to do it, now’s the time.”

     Sears turned away, striding over to a communications panel on the far bulkhead as the hypo hissed, and Jim heard the rising murmur of his voice as the dizzying fatigue and sickness dissolved and a wave of returning pain vanished into a growing awareness of the bond. He could feel Spock’s mind closely, running water beneath his own, and the sense of his own body diminished to the point of near-numbness. And there was something else, a strange euphoria that swelled and energized him: Spock’s energy, expended into him through their fundamental connection, the Vulcan’s barely-healed body allowing for a new reserve. Jim bit back an instinctive objection and straightened, his own hand rising to grasp Spock’s arm in support, their positions reversed. Beside them, Moore hovered, watching them closely.

     How long can you keep this up? The difference was stark, like night and day.

     Not long, t’hy’la. But it is necessary.

     Sears looked back at them, his hand dropping from the comm panel. “The ship was clean, but Lefty never ran a scan on the prisoner specifically. She’s awake, though; I was coming here to tell you.”

     Jim stepped forward, still limping over the inherent weakness in his damaged leg. “How long until warp functionality?”

     “I don’t know.” Sears stammered. “Iz, uh, my engineer isn’t really talking to me. If, uh, Mr. Spock is able to help, then maybe hours?”

     I’ll check Trislo. Spock, can you—?

     Yes, Jim.

     “I shall continue to assist Izumi-san.” Spock stepped away from his bondmate, squaring his shoulders before limping carefully down the hallway.

     Moore glared at Sears before addressing Jim. “Heroics or not, Captain, I’m guessing he’s a walking time bomb and you definitely are. Make it fast.” She reached through the still-open infirmary door for a medkit and jogged after Spock.

     The comm panel beeped shrilly and Sears reached for it again. “Yeah.”

     Lefty’s voice filtered through, sounding strained. “Hey, boss. That signal we picked up intermittently on approach? I just checked that frequency again and it’s still transmitting. Locator shows the brig. I’m sorry, Mike, I fucked up.”

     Sears made a face. “Fuck. Can you scramble it?”

     “Yeah, already on it. But it’s been going for a while. I mean, our ass is backed right up against Klingon space; if someone out there heard it, then, well, if they’re not here yet, they’ll be here pretty fucking soon.”

     “Right.” Sears shut down the connection and looked at Jim sheepishly. “What do you want to do?”

     Jim met his eyes, pushing along the bond to make sure his bondmate was listening, too. “The ship we came in is too small to bring all of us onboard and especially not Nerit, if she needs that stasis setup. You’re going to transfer Trislo back to the scout ship with me. You’ll take this ship into a close orbit under impulse, using the planet’s moons for cover. I’ll park out in plain sight and that signal will draw anyone to me while you effect repairs. Hopefully, it’ll buy you enough time to get away or they’ll simply overlook your presence.”

     The bounty hunter licked his lips nervously. “You really think the Klingons are coming?”

     Jim didn’t answer and Sears grimaced, running a hand through his red hair and asking quietly, “Why don’t you just take the scout ship and your first officer and leave, Captain?”

     Jim’s lips curled into a small smile. “You really need to ask that question, Sears?”

     Sears sniffed and glanced at his boots before lifting his head, managing a small smile in return. “No, sir.”

 

*****

 

     The brig was little more than a large room off one of the secondary corridors, with an old-fashioned containment field glimmering across the entryway. Jim spared a quick glance at Sears, who shrugged before focusing on the slender young woman currently standing against the far wall. Despite her circumstances, Trislo retained her arrogant demeanor.

     She spoke first, her voice sounding tinny through the gently humming field. “So our positions are reversed, Kirk, for now.” She chuckled, her head tilting slowly, serpent-like. “I’m guessing you didn’t get very far, though. This hardly looks like Starfleet security.”

     “It’s not,” Jim replied shortly.

     Her eyes flicked over Sears before her lips quirked dismissively and she looked back at Kirk. “And the fact that we’re not moving, and the stupid expression on his face makes me guess that you’ve managed to get picked up by a pack of incompetent civilians on a broken ship.”

     She shifted her stance, stepping forward. “I have to say, I’ve gotten all sorts of ideas from your Vulcan’s attack. I thought I had a handle on the potential of a psi-sensitive subject, but clearly I have a lot more to consider. Perhaps it’ll be something the Klingons would like to examine personally.”

     Jim ignored her taunts. “Take off the jumpsuit, Trislo.”

     Sears made a surprised noise beside him and the former Keeper’s eyes widened marginally as she flipped her hair back from her eyes. “You don’t want dinner first, Kirk?”

     “Not at all,” he retorted. “Show me the scar.”

     “Nerit likes to talk,” she purred, lifting her hands to the fastenings of the suit and unselfconsciously peeling the top away, exposing her naked torso, her dark skin striking against the stark white of the jumpsuit and the raised mark exposed beneath.

     The scar was unmistakable: a recognizable character cut into flesh, traced with an eerie silver coloration. A Klingon ta' qI', or obligation mark, usually found inscribed into Orion pirates and always accompanied by a subdural transmitter. The captain was not surprised, not after Nerit’s description and with their proximity to the Empire, not after the revelation of the localized signal. But it was confirmation that Klingon involvement was most likely imminent, and proof of the far-reaching nature of Trislo’s ambition and the potential vulnerability of supposedly classified and closed operations, if and when they managed to get home.

     Trislo stood challengingly, perhaps expecting fear or shock or even, perversely, lust. Instead, Jim simply turned to an open-mouthed Sears.

     “She needs to be secured and moved right away. We don’t have much time.”

     Sears swallowed twice and nodded. “I’ll, uh, call Lefty.” He walked to a nearby comm panel.

     Trislo’s eyes narrowed. “Moved where?”

     Jim smiled without warmth. “Moved back to your ship.”

     “Why?” she demanded, a muscle beginning to twitch in her jaw.

     Jim’s gaze was steady. “The downside to the ta' qI' is collection of the debt. Especially when you don’t have the information or the weapon you promised. And I’ll see that you don’t.”

     She appeared confused. “You wouldn’t surrender yourself. Your instinct to survive, your inescapable vulnerability; you’ll do whatever it takes. And keeping me alive is necessary.”

     “I don’t plan to surrender.” Jim’s dark smile widened as he quoted, “Isn’hara gli loe’ati vni a dua di litin. ‘I will suffer a thousand deaths to keep you from harm’. Didn’t think it would go the other way, too? With me, for him? And I owe you for his pain.”

     Her face twisted as Jim turned away to face an astonished, but thankfully silent Sears, beginning to limp down the corridor. “Come on, Sears, let’s get that ship ready.”

     As he herded the bounty hunter away from the brig’s field, he heard Trislo’s hoarse shout echoing behind them. “At least let me feel it! Let me feel something; it’ll be a new fucking experience! Let me feel it all, Kirk! Just like you! Open my fucking eyes!”

     “Captain,” Sears muttered apprehensively.

     Jim waited until they were out of earshot, replying, “I have no intention of killing myself, if that’s what you’re worried about. And as much as I’d like to see that woman meet her end, my duty is to bring her in.” He exhaled, glancing over at the bounty hunter as they neared the open hatch leading into the scout ship. “I haven’t thanked you for your help.”

     “That’s Keisha, not me,” Sears answered, lowering his head. “So far I’ve just managed to blow out our fucking warp drive and keep you from getting home.”

     “We’ll get there.” Jim stepped into the craft, hearing Sears follow him. He didn’t feel any pain, but the weakness in his leg was getting worse, and he felt a vague wetness on the bandage there. It was with a sigh of relief that he levered himself into the seat before of the control panel and he looked up to see Sears watching him with a dumb look of awe.

     Jim inhaled, keeping his expression and tone hard. “You give Spock command, Sears, if we do get into it. Have your engineer complete those repairs no matter what.”

     The red-haired man nodded quickly and jerked his chin back toward the hatch. “Do you want someone to come with you? To keep an eye on—?”

     “No,” Jim interjected. “If the Klingons come out shooting, then I don’t want any other lives lost.” He began tapping at the controls, warming up the engines.

     Spock’s mental voice rippled along the bond. Jim. Long-range sensors are picking up activity near the neutral zone. Two vessels approaching at warp speed, ETA ten point two minutes, and engine repair estimate twenty minutes.

     Jim furrowed his brow, pulling up the tactical settings, calculating potential trajectories. Twenty minutes? Sears said it could take hours.

     He frequently underestimates the skills of his engineer. She is most proficient.

     Right. You know what to do? The captain shifted uncomfortably. Even though he was right-handed, the restriction of his bandaged limb was making it difficult to speed through the checklist. Behind him, he heard Sears shuffle his feet.

     Yes, Jim. I have been following your thoughts.

     Good. I—.

     “Mike!” Lefty’s breathless grunt from the hatch broke Jim from his internal dialogue, and he turned to see the large man holding Trislo’s arm. The young woman’s jumpsuit had been resealed and her arms and ankles sported security restraints. Her face was nearly as impassive as a Vulcan’s, but her eyes were cold. She flipped her hair back, hopping in place to gain her balance as Lefty continued, “Interference band alpha-seven-six-beta if you want to keep scrambling that signal. Where do you want her?”

     Sears crossed his arms and glanced back at Jim.

     “Secure her here,” the captain said, jerking his head toward the adjacent chair. “Where I can keep an eye on her.”

     Lefty moved to comply and Jim met Sears’ eyes again. “Once she’s secure, I’ll punch out. Get the Biloxi hidden as best you can and run silent. As soon as warp is enabled, I want you gone. Spock says it might be sooner than later.”

     Sears shook his head, bouncing agitatedly on his toes. “Silent? But how will we—?”

     Jim turned away, his voice clipped. “Get going, Sears.”

     “Fuck. Fuck!” Sears sighed mightily and slapped Lefty’s shoulder as the larger man straightened from securing a silent and stoic Trislo. “Let’s go, man. Good luck, Captain.”

     Jim didn’t respond, focused his boards, and the sound of the hatch clicking shut and the atmosphere cycling galvanized him. He hit the release and shifted in his seat as the scout ship detached with a noticeable jolt.

     Spock?

     Eight minutes, Captain.

     I’m heading out to 500 kilometers from the planet. Jim heard the thrum of the impulse engines ignite and felt the small shudder of the deck beneath his feet.

     Sears is maneuvering the Biloxi now. Matching primary lunar orbital path and in the shadow. Cutting engines except for thrusters to maintain position. We have weapons armed: class-two phaser array available.

     And you? Jim could still feel the pouring energy and the tug of mental control over his nervous system, but he could also feel the darkness and the effort, and the growing sense of the Vulcan’s own pain and exhaustion.

     I shall endure. This will not be a protracted engagement. Seven minutes until vessel contact. Repairs proceeding.

     There was a certain comfort in this: the giving and taking of commands. But it was also masking other things, more difficult things, and Jim could feel his bondmate’s mental adherence to his duty almost as a last stand.

     Trislo cleared her throat, shifting in the restraints that held her firmly in the chair, and Jim glanced over to meet half-lidded, calculating violet eyes that were completely free of fear.

     “You can communicate with him telepathically.”

     Jim blinked and turned back to the small viewscreen, retorting, “So, no weapons on this ship, Kellen? I’m surprised. And it’s classified stolen, too. I guess not everyone was onboard with your idea of becoming the new prophet.”

     She continued, “You did it strategically, didn’t you? Allowed that link to deepen to fuck up my system. Not because you loved him, but to gain an advantage.” She sniffed. “My kudos, Jim. Maybe I can find some respect for you after all.”

     He tilted his head, still not looking at her. “And my kudos to you for managing to deal with the Klingons without getting your head sent out an airlock. You got caught poking around out here after RX-54 got shut down, didn’t you? Is that when you picked up your personal android?”

     She spat, “You always underestimate me. Everyone does.” He could feel her eyes burning into him. “What does it feel like to die, Kirk? I’ve always wondered. I love to watch it, you know, the process of death, the pain. I loved to watch your mate as he writhed on my board, Kirk, as he screamed. He’s still damaged, isn’t he? Still in pain?”

     He finally looked at her, disgustedly registering the satisfaction in her expression. “What do you know about that?”

     She lifted her chin. “I know that the others died; that the emotional pressures killed them or sent them to seek their own deaths. I could see the readings as they did it, too. Almost like their minds were folding into themselves, being sucked inside themselves. But they had nothing to live for, and he thinks he does.”

     Her words hit too close to home and Jim turned away, the knot of fear was back in his gut, that lingering, roiling darkness so close in his bondmate’s mind. But Spock’s conscious thoughts were there, too, and despite the effort, despite the pain, there was still the love that Jim knew was matched by his own. That was undeniable. That was the thing she could never understand.

     He knew Spock was registering his thoughts, feeling some of that steadfast love suffuse their bond as efficient mental speech echoed into his mind. Five minutes, Jim. Sensors indicate approaching craft configuration matches Klingon class-D interceptors. I have assumed command.

     Quickly, Jim switched gears, pushing away Trislo’s taunting along with his own fear. Fuck. So they’ve definitely violated the Neutral Zone. If we survive this, it’s going to be a shit fit at Command.

     The promise of the weapon would have been sufficient provocation for an incursion, particularly in this region of space where patrols are sparse.

     “Kirk.”

     “Shut up, Trislo.”

     “Listen to me, Kirk.” Her voice was low and quiet, in marked contrast to the singsong taunting of before. “You’re not going to be able to maneuver this thing with one hand; the control set-up is based on—.”

     Jim broke in, “I can do it. If you think I’m going to let you have a shot at the controls, then—.”

     “Listen!” she insisted. “There’s a backup system, with a old-style stick. Look in front of you.”

     Jim leaned back, seeing a closed portal immediately below the control panel. He hit the release button and his eyes widened as a secondary panel slid out and up and a control column unfolded. Lights flickered and glowed and he reached out to clasp his uninjured hand around the stick. He glanced over at the young woman who wore a smirk.

     “Not so eager to die, then,” Trislo commented sweetly. An alarm on the sensor array began to flash.

     Three minutes. They have activated scan beams.

     Jim shot a glare at the former Keeper. You obscured?

     Eighty-three percent probability the Biloxi has not been detected, given your diversionary tactics.

     Jim activated his seat’s automatic restraints, wincing as his body was pulled back awkwardly. He already had his own engines primed and on full-manual control.

     Spock, how are your engines?

     Repairs proceeding. In contrast to the Vulcan’s placid tone, Jim caught an image along the bond of a beautiful and irate woman wedged in a Jeffries tube, yelling into a comm link and frantically operating a plasma welder. Two minutes to contact.

     Jim licked his lips, his eyes scanning the boards one more time, the viewscreen rigged to show a tactical overlay. He flipped off the proximity alarms. Beside him, Trislo shifted again, muttering, “That fat fuck overdid it on the restraints.”

     Jim thought of the bruising still marring his bondmate’s body and bit back a reply, but her pointed words from earlier haunted him: instability, darkness and tortured memories and what might happen to his bondmate if Jim were to die.

     Spock—.

    I will see to the ship’s safety, t’hy’la.

     And to your own?

     There was a potent mental silence, and Jim frowned. Spock?

     Ten seconds, Jim.

     Spock!

     Eight…seven…six… .

     “Goddammit,” Jim muttered, gripping the stick more firmly, his eyes and focus narrowing completely on the readouts in front of him.

     Three…two…one.

     “Contacts entering normal space at five-seven-eight!” Trislo’s competent shout took Jim by surprise, but he reacted instantly, revving the engines and guiding the scout ship directly at the looming interceptors. A straight, fast-closing course would reduce the chance of a tractor lock. He activated the selective interference band, hopefully obscuring Trislo’s signal; the ships were close enough to track them without it.

     The comm panel lit up with an incoming transmission, and Jim saw an inset image of a pissed-off looking Klingon commander pop onto the corner of the viewscreen. He ignored it.

     “Going to warp…now!” He cut in the warp engines, hearing a high-pitched whine from the straining infrastructure as they snapped into warp space close to the planet’s gravity well.

     Both craft are in pursuit, Jim. Their top speed is—.

     Jim mentally cut in, Yeah, yeah, but they’re not as maneuverable. I hope. He couldn’t help thinking back to that pursuit on Qo’noS and to Khan. A fleeting image crossed his mind of what Trislo and Khan would do if pitted against each other and he chuckled darkly, considering that the only instance when he would be on the genetically augmented man’s side.

     The captain kept one eye on the nav panel, seeing red lights across the board as he slung the craft carelessly around the star and then in a sharply calculated trajectory normal to the solar plane, veering back and dumping velocity as he approached the system’s first planet, a class-V gas giant.

     They snapped back into normal space with a jolt, and Trislo hissed a curse as they skimmed atmosphere. “You’re fucking crazy! Fuck!”

     “You’re one…to…fucking talk,” Jim retorted, pushing the stick hard over as they spun out laterally and banked into the shadow of one of the closely orbiting moons.

     Klingon ships are holding their position 200 kilometers from the inner planet. Scanning.

     “They lost sensor lock.”

     “We’re going to lose something if we stay here! Look at the fucking heat indicators!” Trislo jerked her chin at the environmental monitors, and Jim glanced at the viewscreen, which was blazing brilliant red from active lava on the near surface of the moon, a lurid color that blended in with the steady brilliance of the proximal star and the shifting glow of heated silicate clouds over Cassia Belomni I.

     “Hull temperature rising!” Trislo called out.

     “We’ve got forty-seven seconds until it reaches red-line, and we’re going to stay here for every bit of that.” Jim tried to lick the sweat off his upper lip, feeling it roll in beads down the sides of his face, even in the craft’s cool interior. His hold on the stick was brutal, fighting the craft’s buffeting in the heated jets of gas rising from the moon’s surface and the rapid shifts in gravity between the large celestial bodies.

     Spock’s mind was racing, and slivers of pain were filtering in, the bond oddly opaque, as if the Vulcan’s concentration was focused fiercely elsewhere. Jim pushed along their connection, and felt something give, gasping as a wave of imagery assaulted him: Sears, yelling and gesturing wildly, the engineer’s confident voice over the comm, and a panel of readiness lights still blinking red.

     “Kirk! We’re fucking melting!” Trislo’s voice was the closest to panicked that Jim had ever heard it, and he heard the shrill alarms begin again, echoing in the interior.

     “I know.” Jim grimaced. There was no way out, given the way the Klingon ships were arrayed, and his small craft was already exhibiting structural strain. Capture would only be a matter of time, but maybe he could stretch that just a bit further.

     Pushing the stick, he accelerated out of the near-station and up, skimming the atmosphere of the giant planet again as he pushed the small craft, the infrastructure creaking with the abrupt change in temperature. His fingers shifted on the stick, locking it as he input commands to jump back into warp and—.

     The entire craft squealed as a tractor beam engulfed it, and suddenly both Klingon craft were looming in the forward screen. Jim increased power to the engines, trying to hold some distance, and the brilliant light of a phaser shot bloomed over their port side, blasting away the nacelle and sending the cabin alarms shrieking as sparks flew in from the port side panels.

     “Cut power! Cut fucking power!” Trislo was coughing from the influx of smoke and fire indicators flashed on from the aft section.

     Jim gritted his teeth as another blast blew away the starboard nacelle, and the lights flickered off and on again in amber emergency hues, the cabin suddenly eerily silent, the viewscreen’s tactical plot gone and nothing left to see but the blunt, deadly snout of the nearest interceptor.

     Trislo coughed again. “Fuck.”

     Jim let go of the useless control column and leaned slowly back in his seat. It would only be seconds until the Klingons secured their vessel. It would only be seconds until—.

     The viewscreen lit up and Jim blinked as the deck shuddered and the Klingon interceptor seemed to veer away as the tractor beam failed under the Biloxi’s assault, the scout craft spinning helplessly. Trislo gagged as the gravity bucked and Jim gripped the armrest of his chair, remembering the slave ship’s fall.

     Repairs effected. Stand by for transport. Hold on, Jim.

     Another flash of phaser fire blinked across the viewscreen as the craft spun, and Jim felt the welcome tingle of dematerialization and then the hardness of the transport platform under his body. He turned to see Trislo, still in her original restraints, wriggling to her knees next to him.

     “Fuck, yeah!” yelled Lefty, standing behind the control console and pounding a key with his fist. “I fucking have them, Mr. Spock!”

     The ship rocked under a weapons barrage and Jim heard Spock’s steady voice projected over the intercom. “Initiating warp speed.”

     The Biloxi shook again, but this time from the acceleration as the restored engines roared, and Jim blinked, his head spinning as the relentless energy pouring over the bond slowly faltered, and he pushed himself to sit gingerly against the nearest bulkhead, his limbs suddenly heavy, his senses dulled.

     Spock? Are we away?

     Lefty had come around the console, holding a phaser on a coughing and struggling Trislo, and the sound of running footsteps echoed outside the room.

     Jim looked up to see Moore’s worried face, her medkit already open and a hypo out. She spoke breathlessly, “We’re in warp, heading for Starbase Seventeen into Fed space, no pursuit detected. Sears is opening a channel to Fleet.” She lifted the hypo toward his neck but Jim caught her wrist in midair with his right hand, his mind reaching along the bond to find fading tendrils of his bondmate’s consciousness, and behind it was an approaching, relentless wall of his own pain. He jerked back blindly, as if physically attempting to evade the agony, and she easily shook off his grip.

     “He collapsed, Captain. Told me to give you this.” She administered the drug, and Jim exhaled into the immediate medicated haze.

     “Is he—?” Jim’s words were slurred, and he leaned his head back to watch Lefty pull Trislo out of the room.

     Moore’s hands were gentle as she checked his bandage and moved his chin to watch his pupils. “I don’t know, Captain. But we’ll get you both back soon.” She smiled almost sadly. “You both lived up to the hype.”

     The effects of the drug and the absence of Spock’s energy were overwhelming him rapidly and he almost couldn’t believe the false sense of functionality he had operated under as he had piloted the scout craft. Spock had pushed himself again for Jim’s benefit, and how far? Jim felt a pulse of anger and then a stab of guilt, both quickly vanished into a pervasive worry; he was suddenly terribly afraid for his bondmate. “I need…I need to be with him.”

     “I know,” she replied. “I need to re-seal your leg.”

     Jim’s head lolled down and he saw a thick smear of red blood over the leg of his gray jumpsuit. “No…not now…I need—.”

     “I’ll get you to him,” the older woman assured him. “Just relax. Close your eyes. It’s almost over.”

     Jim couldn’t help but follow her command, his mind churning even as the medication blurred his thoughts. They were on their way home, but it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

 

 

Chapter End Notes:

           

ta' qI' : Klingon; direct translation “the King sign”, colloquial translation “obligation mark” (developed for this story) meaning a sign that a debt is owed, the exact form of the mark identifies the person who is responsible for collecting it.

 

 

           

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: Your Hand In Mine

 

     The hum of the Biloxi’s warp drive was strangely soothing, building as an odd harmonic that resonated within the small infirmary, measuring their progress deeper and deeper into friendly territory. The door was shut and the lights were dimmed and Jim lay on his back on the small cot, wounds re-bandaged and painkillers re-administered, his right hand curled firmly around his bondmate’s.

     That singular point of contact was a source of both comfort and worry; Spock lay silent and still, barely conscious and focused on Jim’s hand, on the feel of cool human skin and the subtle beckoning of beloved energy. It was a focus that would have to suffice, as the bond between them was presently befuddled by exhaustion, medication, and the turmoil of deeply inflicted psionic injuries. The Vulcan determinedly refused the vulnerability of a healing trance and refused sleep with its threat of dreams, and Jim could hear the soft click of his bondmate’s teeth as they ground together; could feel the ephemeral shudders that ran down his arm, gauging the building tension that wracked Spock’s body.

     It had been almost an hour since Moore and Lefty had managed to get them back here and together, and Moore had ordered the large man out before shoving the cot and biobed as close as possible and quietly tending to their wounds. She had left them alone, with no comment on Jim’s immediate grasp of his first officer’s hand, and Jim had lain, woozy but awake, his eyes fixed on the chrono on the wall, listening to Spock’s breathing and contemplating the swirls of his own drug-muddled thoughts.

     They had escaped. They had overcome horrible things and faced their own demons and seen into the core of each other and now they were returning home, or at least to some pretense of normalcy. Jim frankly couldn’t believe it; expecting any second that the door would open and a phalanx of Klingon soldiers would march in or some other colossally fucked-up situation would surface. And that itself was a sobering consideration; never before had he failed to look forward to the best possible outcome. Perhaps he had been broken somehow: broken by pain and horror, broken by lives meaninglessly lost by the hollowness of evil, broken by being forced to watch, to experience someone he loved suffer again and again.

     No. His grip on his friend’s hand tightened and he gritted his own teeth. He wasn’t broken, any more than Spock was broken. They were injured, but still alive and still fighting. They were tired and run into the ground and pushed to their limits, but they were still together. And he wasn’t going to let go.

     He licked his lips, exhaling and trying to push that assurance to his bondmate. His bondmate. The depth of their bond, and the openness and truth of it was far more penetrating and pervasive, and desired, than he ever could have imagined.  The fears he had held before had been ignorant of the realization that the connection ran both ways, defined by support instead of exploitation, acceptance instead of voyeurism, unguarded and honest love instead of criticism. Its strength lay in their willingness to give of themselves for the other. Yet his own single-minded rush to solidify what he had believed to be a strategic connection still lurked darkly in his memory. He wondered if their bond would have run as deeply had they not already shared the trust between brothers-in-arms. He wondered if it would have been felt as strongly had they not already shared that regard and that respect, that love already: love in the context of an intense and vulnerable friendship evolving within a terrible crucible into love for a partner.

     The captain felt his friend’s fingers move against his own, a small hum escaping the Vulcan’s lips.

     Jim winced. “Sorry. I think I was…thinking too hard.” His words were slightly slurred, his voice cracked, and his forced humor fell flat to his own ears.

     Spock’s own voice was equally rough, and barely audible. “You are correct. T’hy’la without…without an emotional component is an ordinary link. Its strength comes from…from—.”

     “Love,” Jim finished softly.

     “And intimate connection. Of…of a kind I have never experienced before.”

     “Me, either.” Jim swallowed, knowing that, despite the physical intimacy they had shared, the deeply personal tests of pain and sacrifice had penetrated so much further. To feel through another’s senses, to drift amongst another’s thoughts, to experience the significance and power of another’s love and another’s fierce commitment and loyalty had been shattering…and resurrecting.

     “It’s almost…too much to know what this bond is capable of—.” He trailed off, furrowing his brow as he forcibly gathered his thoughts. He turned his head, watching Spock’s profile in the low light, the Vulcan’s eyes still closed, lines of tension around his eyes and mouth.

     “I’m angry.” Jim swallowed again, reflexively. “We never—.” He exhaled strongly, trying to match his words to the jumble of emotions that surged within the medicated fog. “I’m fucking angry that something so profound and…and so fucking private was dictated by…was forced by that fucking woman and that fucking procedure.”

     He heard a soft alert from the heart monitor and deliberately took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “I don’t regret it; I know you can feel that. But I can’t help thinking about what this could have been, if it had happened on our terms, if we could have grown into it and into each other, gradually. And it would have happened. Despite all my shit and all our stubbornness it would have happened; feeling it now, I know that for a fact.” He sighed. “But—.”

     “But you have my thoughts in your mind, and my emotions overlying yours, and it is too much,” Spock murmured frankly.

     “I’m sorry.” Despite the weight of their conversation, Jim felt surprisingly free. He knew Spock could sense his own love, his own determination, his own apologies. He knew that his words, however ill chosen or impetuous, would not be misconstrued. The veil of miscommunication and misunderstanding had been burned through.

     The Vulcan gently replied, “It is…overwhelming for me as well, Jim. My mind is damaged; once healed, I shall be able to largely shield the bond. It will not always be as this.”

     Jim thoughts fluttered tentatively over the future, their future. Even now, he pulled back reflexively, his mind still shrouded in pain, that feeling of ominous anticipation still lurking. To indulge in optimism seemed premature, even against the steady thrum of engines.

     “I don’t know,” he said finally, distantly, feeling helpless shame at the melancholy in his voice.

     There was a strong pause, and then Spock continued, softly, “I know, Jim.”

     “Yeah?”

     “I would…choose no other than you.”

     Jim closed his eyes, the bond becoming clearer as their energy flowed together, encouraged by the tactile contact. “And I choose you. No matter how this came about, I choose this. I don’t…take things on faith; I like to know, but, more than that, I need to feel. And beneath the pain and everything that…that woman put on us, what I feel for you is—.” He struggled to find the right word, concentrating on the ache in his chest, on the longing in his soul.

     “K'hat'n'dlawa.”

     Jim nodded silently, sensing the meaning in the slipping reflections of Spock’s thoughts. Yes.

     The press of their hands was tight and true in the soft darkness and Jim listened again to the drone of the engines. Through their mechanical pulse and the whisper of his bondmate’s mind, through the haze of subdued but trembling pain, he remembered a poem he had read, years ago:

 

Though standing on the cusp of beyond,

They no longer feared what was to come.

For they intuited that this nameless place,

(Even with strange and veiled space)

Cloaked danger and mystery and beauty within,

Was a homeland more natural than any had been.

 

He couldn’t remember the poet’s name, but he did recall those words, now ringing with new meaning. Their bond was still such a mystery, so full of hardship yet so imbued with love and understanding: a home, a natural fit, a place to rest and to seek comfort, a partnership and a sanctuary.

 

*****

 

     The sound of raised voices outside the door to the infirmary broke the captain out of his reverie and he shifted on the cot, struggling to sit up without losing contact with his bondmate’s hand. He managed to get upright, his legs swinging stiffly over the edge, before the door to their room slid open and too-bright light shone in, casting Keisha Moore’s form in silhouette. And behind her, shifting back and forth nervously was Sears.

     “Captain?” she asked carefully.

     Jim cleared his throat, biting his lip to try to keep the nausea at bay. “Did we make contact with Starfleet?”

     Moore’s back stiffened, and even in the poor lighting Jim could see the look of annoyance she cast back at Sears. The red-haired man winced and took a minute step forward. “Uh, yeah, we did, Captain, but, uh—.”

     Jim didn’t think there was anything in his stomach to throw up, but his insides were doing their best to make it happen anyway. “What?” he snapped.

     Sears’ glanced down to where the two officers’ hands were clasped before lifting his eyes back to Jim’s. “Frankly, they, uh, don’t believe us. I—.”

     “Mike lied to the requisitions officer on Starbase Seventeen about a year ago and caused a big fucking mess,” Moore cut in loudly. “Commodore Jónsson basically told him never to show his face in that sector again or face arrest.”

     “Which is fucking fine by me, Keisha!” Sears erupted defensively. “I mean, under the present circumstances, getting arrested is the least I can do.” He let out a huff. “But they still think I’m full of shit.”

     “So you need me to make the call,” Jim said flatly, licking his lips. He glanced at Spock. The Vulcan’s eyes had opened and he deliberately released Jim’s hand, haltingly pushing himself up on his elbows. The sudden dullness to the bond made Jim grimace. The medication, Spock’s wavering shielding, their mutual discomfort, and Sears’ incompetence were making impatience crackle along his nerves and he clenched his fists.

     Sears’ eyes flicked over them again. “Why were you holding his hand?”

     “Jesus fucking Christ, Mike!” Moore exclaimed. “Can you fucking focus here?”

     Jim’s answer was biting. “Because, Sears, he’s my bondmate as well as my first officer; because he was tortured and his telepathy is damaged and touching him helps. And because I fucking want to, that’s why.”

     Sears blanched. “I’m…I’m sorry, I—.”

     “Where’s the goddamn comm?” Jim slid off the cot and grunted as his damaged leg bore his weight, swaying and pressing his right hand to his mouth as nausea swelled and the room spun around him.

     Moore was quick to come to his side, wrapping an arm around his waist, mindful of his bandaged left shoulder and arm. “I’ll show you, Captain.” She shot a quick glance at Spock. “Do you need to stay in contact?”

     “No.” Spock’s reply was clipped. “I am functional.”

     Jim exhaled. “He means that he’s in bad shape and we need to make this fast.”

     “There’s a secondary communications station just down the corridor, Captain.” Moore matched her own steps to his uncoordinated shuffle as they exited the room; Sears stepping back deferentially. And Jim sensed his bondmate’s mind still clinging to their bond as his hand had previously held fast to Jim’s.

 

*****

 

     The channel flickered and a blurry image of an exasperated-looking Starfleet lieutenant gradually came into focus. The young woman began speaking even before the communication stabilized. “Sears, seriously advise that you stop—.”

     Jim didn’t waste any time. “This is Captain James T. Kirk, onboard the Biloxi. Confirm voiceprint and identity, Lieutenant.”

     The young woman stopped speaking mid-sentence as she narrowed her eyes, peering at the screen, suspicion and annoyance warring in her gaze. Her lips pressed together, but Jim could see her hands moving, and seconds later he saw an expression of astonishment cross her features as her mouth fell open in incredulity.

     “But…but you’re dead, sir!”

     “Not this time,” Jim replied dryly. “Patch me through to the base commander.”

     “Right…right away, sir!”

     The channel flipped immediately, showing a gray starbase insignia, and Jim shifted in his chair, his leg throbbing from the short walk to the cramped communications room, his shoulder a mess of discomfort as the painkillers began to wear off.

     Behind him, out of range of the vid pickup, Moore murmured, “I can give you another dose, Captain. This stuff works, but it works its way through your system pretty quickly.”

     Jim shifted again, managing a small smile. “I think you should call me Jim.”

     He glanced over to see her answering smile. “Only if you call me Keisha, Jim.” She raised her eyebrows in question and he nodded tightly, feeling the cold press of the hypo against his neck an instant before he heard the characteristic hiss. The pain sharply retreated, but a wave of dizziness wracked him and he reached out with his right hand to steady himself against the console.

     He let out a soft groan, leaning over in his chair and eyeing the persistent insignia on-screen. “What the fuck’s taking so long?”

     Moore came to kneel carefully beside him, her scanner in her hand. “Jónsson’s probably on the john.” She frowned, looking up at him. “Want to hear something funny?”

     Jim snorted delicately, recognizing her attempt to distract him. “Sure. Shoot.”

     Another faint smile played about the older woman’s lips. “Sears has a serious case of hero-worship for you. He doesn’t usually fuck up quite this much.”

     Jim grunted dubiously. “He ran his engines into the dirt before he knew it was me.”

     She chuckled. “Well, he still fucks up. I should’ve said he usually doesn’t act so shell-shocked. I think he even has a picture of you hanging in his cabin from when you first got your bars.”

     “That’s—.” Jim’s voice trailed off as he thought of everything that had happened over the past ten days, including his own funeral. His jaw tensed as he thoughts of Bones, and the Enterprise. Had they assigned another captain already? Had they—?

     The insignia abruptly faded, replaced by another unfamiliar astonished face, and Moore leaned back to sit on her heels, watching the screen from out of range.

     “Captain Kirk?” An older man with closely clipped gray hair and striking green eyes peered incredulously into the viewer.

     “Yes, sir.” Jim caught a glimpse of the man’s rank on his gray uniform. “Commodore.”

     Jónsson’s mouth opened and closed. “Hylur Jónsson.” He seemed to gather himself. “Stand by, Kirk.” He leaned over and hit a button on his desk console. “Lieutenant Harms.”

     The young communications officer’s voice filtered over the connection, “Yes, sir.”

     Jónsson rapidly ordered, “I want this communication fully secured. Code-red checks and coded to the highest clearance level. Right away.”

     The comm officer acknowledged and Jim watched as the image wavered slightly before solidifying again. Jónsson waited a full five seconds before speaking. “Captain, we have a fix on your position. What is your present status?”

     “Alive,” Jim replied wryly. “Commander Spock is also alive, but has suffered significant injuries. The rest of it—,” he began, but Jónsson held up a hand, stopping him.

     “Captain, even with the tight link I want to be careful about what’s said here. There are reasons—.” He trailed off with a twist of his lips. “Let’s just say that there’s been a significant upheaval at Command since you both were declared dead.” He paused, glancing at something off-screen. “I’m noting just under twelve hours until you make dock, assuming current course and speed. Do you require more immediate assistance? I’d prefer not to send out a cruiser; it would just attract attention.”

     Jim could feel his own confusion radiating out over the bond, but he responded reflexively, “Medically, we’re stable.” He blinked, sheer willpower alone allowing him to focus. “The…only immediate consideration is a Klingon incursion across the Neutral Zone near the Cassia Belomni system.”

     “Klingons?”

     Jónsson’s eyes widened as Jim continued haltingly, “We were…involved in an altercation within Federation space. Our sensors indicate they have since retreated.” Even through the enhanced dizziness from the new dose of medication he could sense Spock’s intense attention.

     “Noted.” Jónsson swallowed, appearing uncomfortable. “Captain, you should know that the Enterprise herself is currently orbiting New Vulcan, officially in violation of direct orders, under an imposed Fleet communications blackout, and—.”

     That cut through the haze. “My ship? Against orders? Who’s in command?” Jim interrupted sharply. He could feel his hands shaking and sensed Moore take a small step toward him.

     Jónsson’s brow furrowed as he kept speaking with barely a pause, “—and the only reason more punitive action hasn’t been taken is due to diplomatic considerations for New Vulcan jurisdiction.” He took a breath. “Like I said, Captain, there’s been significant—.”

     Jim’s voice was weak but held a sharp edge. “Don’t underestimate my crew, Commodore. Obviously, since you’re speaking with me, there’s something below-board that’s happened.” His stomach was churning from far more than just the painkillers. What had happened since their abduction for Sulu to take the ship to New Vulcan against orders? His mind whirled and he felt a struggling thought push through from his bondmate.

     My father and I share a weak familial bond, Jim. Perhaps the conclusion of our deaths was disputed.

     Jim couldn’t concentrate nearly enough to respond in kind, but he remembered Sears’ revelation of the seemingly rushed and very public funeral, his mind racing through the realizations of Trislo’s contacts with Section Thirty-one, the convenient manner of his and Spock’s capture at a supposedly secure Federation function, and Hsieh’s angry grievances against Starfleet. Conspiracy? And how far did it extend?

     On-screen, Jónsson nodded rapidly in response to Jim’s heated assertion. “I know. And that’s why this channel is problematic, but your presence should go a long way in resolving a lot of what’s going on.” He took a deep breath. “Just get here in one piece, Captain, and quietly. Good luck.”

     “Sir.” Jim hit the switch and the screen went dark. He sat for several seconds in silence before muttering, “What the fuck is that all about?” He looked over at Moore, who looked as confused as he felt. The bond was shifting in his head uncomfortably, and Jim sensed his bondmate’s presence even before the door slid open to reveal Spock leaning heavily on the threshold.

     Jim turned his head. “Did you catch all that?”

     “Enough.” Spock took two dragging steps into the small room before sitting heavily down on the floor, stretching his injured leg out in front of him. He was demonstrably pale, his hair mussed, and he was uncharacteristically breathing through his mouth, lines of pain etched on his face.

     Moore pushed herself to her feet, shaking her head helplessly. “Do you two have a good working relationship with your CMO? Because I’m beginning to think that you’re hard to handle.” She moved to Spock’s side. “Can I please give you a painkiller?”

     “Unnecessary,” Spock responded promptly, and she exhaled strongly, shaking her head again.

     Jim gave her an understanding half-smile before turning back to the console, blinking as he tried to take in the unfamiliar configuration through the miasma in his head.

     “Jim?” Moore asked. “Do you need help?”

     “Yeah,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “I want to send a secure personal communiqué on off-Fleet frequency gamma-R, transmitter number, uh, thirty-two echo four eighty-six dash seventeen.”

     Moore looked thoroughly confused. “The gamma band? That’s a pirate frequency.”

     Jim nodded, and then winced at the movement. “It’ll get through, even under a blackout; my comm officer is the best in the business and she, uh, may or may not have built an illegally boosted transmitter/receptor.” He swallowed, shifting in his chair. “I need to find out what’s going on with my ship, and why they went AWOL. And I have a feeling that we shouldn’t be alone out here, Jónsson’s good intentions or not.” He grunted at a twinge of pain, bending forward involuntarily, his good arm curling around his midsection.

     “Jim?” Moore asked intently, her hands reaching to support his shoulders.

     “I’m okay,” he said quickly.

     “For a starship captain, you’re a shit liar,” she quipped, gently pushing him back into the seat. “Just sit there and I’ll code it in. The Biloxi isn’t much to look at, but we do have a pretty fair scrambler; this probably won’t get picked up by any casual listeners.”

     Her implication was clear and Jim looked up at her, acknowledging the danger. But the cat was out of the bag, with their communication to Jónsson. “No choice, in my opinion.”

     Moore hesitated, her eyes searching his, and he was humbled by the trust he saw in her gaze. “Okay,” she agreed finally. “Let’s call home.”

 

*****

 

     Nyota sat stiffly at a long conference table in the middle of a stark room in the central governmental complex on New Vulcan. Her shoulders were fiercely tight, her neck and face shining with sweat despite the air conditioning, and harsh feelings of sorrow and shock still tore at her insides, as they had for the past week and an odd number of days.  At her right side, Leonard sat, the tension wracking his body almost palpable and, in front of her and across the table sat Ambassador Sarek and T’Shin, a healer. Both Vulcans were listening to Hikaru, seated on Nyota’s other side, the acting captain’s manner intense.

     “We came here against orders, Healer, because of Ambassador Sarek’s claim. But you have to understand that we need something more to go on.”

     T’Shin almost frowned. “And as I have told you, with respect, my examination of the ambassador’s mind is conclusive. The bond, however weak and shielded, is still intact. S’chn T’gai Spock is alive.”

     McCoy leaned forward, peering across Nyota to the helmsman. “Sulu, we didn’t find a body. We didn’t find anything, actually. Nothing. Doesn’t that mean—?”

     “Mean what, Doctor?” Sulu interjected heatedly. “We’ve already relayed that to Command, about the bond and the lack of remains, and the appearance of at least one unidentified vessel within transporter range of that room at the time of the explosion. And we all know what the Admiralty’s reaction was.” He crossed his arms and looked at T’Shin. “And what their reaction was to the ambassador’s disbelief over their assertion of Commander Spock’s death.” He shook his head. “They ignored all of it and pushed forward Jim’s funeral over any meaningful inquiry, and only diplomatic protocol prevented them from doing the same with Spock’s. They forbade us from conducting our own investigation and have done everything they can to keep us quiet.”

     The helmsman exhaled, leaning back in his chair. “Those men saved my life more than once, which is why I have no problem taking the fall and going quietly to my own court martial if this turns out to be wishful conjecture. But,” he emphasized, his dark eyes flashing, “unless we find some other evidence, something gleaned from the bond or some other intel, our hands are tied, Starfleet won’t press any further and Jim and Spock will really be gone.”

     “I understand.” Sarek’s even tones were quiet, but commanded attention in the echoing room. “But I share a familial bond with my son, which does not allow more than a simple awareness of the life presence of the other. I know that he is alive, but I do not know where he is or his condition.”

     Nyota looked down at the table. “Starfleet’s blackout of our communications is problematic. I can get around it, but it’ll just get us in deeper when they find out.”

    “That’s another thing!” McCoy hissed. “Sulu’s right about them wanting to keep us quiet more than find out the truth of all this. Since when is an automatic blackout put into place? So, we disobeyed orders to hold status around Cresd’ti. It’s not like we ran off to the Klingons or anything; we’re in orbit around goddamn New Vulcan in response to a request from a member of the High Council!” He huffed. “It’s just another piece in a puzzle of shit, and the whole thing’s starting to stink.”

     Now T’Shin did frown, and Nyota placed a calming hand on Leonard’s arm. “Let’s go through it again and see if—.” A soft beep from her PADD interrupted her and she furrowed her brow as she read the message that illuminated on-screen. “That’s…odd.”

     “What?” Hikaru leaned over.

     She shook her head slightly. “My PADD is loaded with a…unique…personal transmitter/receptor device; not hooked in with standard Fleet hardware. While dirtside, I’m able to receive on it through New Vulcan’s frequency net, but—.” She trailed off, pressing a rapid series of keystrokes to key in the origination profile, her confusion growing. “It’s coming from near the edge of Federation space, looks like from a ship, tightly encrypted but without a defined call sign.”

     Leonard shrugged. “So you can’t tell who it’s from?”

     Nyota stiffened. No one knew about the hacked T/R or this particular pirated frequency except… .

     “Except the man who had me build it in the first place for that fucking Jericho run!” she exclaimed, and she barely noticed the others’ astonished silence as her fingers flew.

     “C’mon, c’mon… .” Hope bloomed painfully and involuntarily within her and she almost couldn’t remember how to breathe as the sequence keyed through and the visual shimmered before solidifying into an unfamiliar woman’s face.

     Nyota stared as she saw the other woman’s dark eyes widen, saw her lean back, away from the pickup, and then the communications officer saw, coming into focus….Jim!

     “Jim!” The shocked cry was ripped from her throat and she almost dropped the PADD, hearing Bones and Hikaru leap from their chairs and cluster tightly behind her. This had to be her imagination; this couldn’t be true, but there he was: alive. Alive!

     “Jim?” He looked terrible: thin and pale, dark circles under his eyes and his hair sticking up everywhere, but the recognition and relief in his startling gaze could not be faked. Alive, as they had dared to hope, and Nyota’s mind raced. If he was being held…if some motherfucker was about to come on-screen and tell her they wanted a ransom, she was going to—.

     “Ny! Thank gods. Listen, I’m alive, Spock’s alive, and we’re en route to Starbase Seventeen, coordinates… ,” he paused, glancing to the side, “seven five nine mark two. Onboard the bounty ship Biloxi.” He drew in a breath and offered a tired half-smile to the two men behind her. “Hey, Bones, Hikaru.”

     Leonard reached out to take the PADD from Nyota’s shaking hands, cradling it in his own like a precious thing. He was speechless and openly crying, his gaze pouring over the impossibility of his closest friend’s living, breathing self.

     “It’s alright, Bones. I think I’m like a cat,” Jim said lamely, his own eyes dangerously damp. “We still have a few lives yet to go.”

     The doctor ignored his friend’s awkward humor, his own voice thick with emotion. “Jesus, Jim. I thought you were dead. Even in the middle of all this, I hardly hoped…I thought…I thought I might be going insane. Are you okay? You look like shit-what happened to you? Where’s Spock?”

     Nyota felt Sulu grip her shoulder in support, and she reached up to clasp his hand.

     Jim’s expression sobered. “Spock’s here, but we need a healer. I can’t get into details, but it was bad, Bones. I need to know—.”

     “We’ll tell you when we see you, Jim,” Hikaru cut in firmly. “We’re on our way.”

     The captain looked confused. “The commander on Seventeen told me that—.”

     “If the fleet can catch us then they can come along for the ride.” Hikaru’s fingers tightened on Nyota’s hand. “But I’m not letting you and Spock come in by yourselves. Not after the shit that’s gone down over the past ten days.”

     Nyota in approval, standing as well, and Bones tilted the PADD for her to look into it. “Keep this frequency on an intermittent ping, Captain. We’re coming to you at… .” She hesitated, looking at Hikaru.

     “Warp eight,” Sulu finished firmly, meeting her eyes. “Maybe even a bit more. We’ll be at your location in just over four hours, Jim.” He looked across the table to where Sarek and T’Shin had also risen to their feet. The healer met the helmsman’s eyes, giving him a definitive nod, and Sulu continued, addressing his captain, “And we’ll be bringing a healer.”

     “And myself,” Sarek added quietly, lifting his chin.

     “Four hours,” Jim confirmed his helmsman’s statement, relief saturating his expression and voice. “We’ll be waiting.”

 

Chapter End Notes:

 

K'hat'n'dlawa: (Vulcan translation from the VLD) One who is 'half of my heart and soul in its deepest sense’

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: Falling All Around Me

 

     Vice Admiral Th’rilun blinked pale eyes at the image of Starbase Seventeen’s commander. “I apologize, Commodore,” she hissed, the sibilant tones of her voice matched by a smooth sideways movement of her head as she tilted her antennae closer to the viewer. “Could you repeat your last? It sounded like you said—.”

     “Captain James Kirk and Commander Spock are alive, ma’am. I’ve just received indisputable voiceprint confirmation.” Jónsson spoke intently. “They’re currently en route.”

     The admiral straightened her head sharply, her glossy white hair falling about her shoulders, her tone carefully uninflected. “Alive.”

     “Alive, ma’am, but injured,” Jónsson confirmed. “I don’t know the specifics but it sounds like they’ve got some important intel; I didn’t want to risk it being overheard, especially after the circumstances of their supposed deaths. This smacks of insider knowledge and perhaps a larger conspiracy.” He took a breath. “Captain Kirk also reported Klingon activity near the Belomni system, but long-range scans are coming up clean and no additional breach of the Neutral Zone has been noted.”

     Th’rilun was silent and Jónsson paused uncertainly. “Ma’am?”

     “You are not to notify anyone else about this, Commodore. Set condition yellow and ensure that they and any personnel with them are fully secured and held separately upon their arrival. I want you alone to personally conduct a full debrief of both officers, again separately, to be recorded but not released except on my authority.”

     “Yes, ma’am.” Jónsson cleared his throat, his brow furrowing. “Admiral, Kirk noted that Commander Spock was suffering from significant injuries. Should I send for a Vulcan healer?”

     “Negative.” Th’rilun’s voice indicated no room for argument. “How would we explain that?” She fought to keep her expression blank as panic and rage warred within her. “I will contact you with further instructions. Th’rilun out.”

     The screen faded immediately over Jónsson’s confused face and the Andorian leaned back in her chair, the fingers of one hand trailing absently over her thin lips. Flaring anger burned through her chest and she abruptly stood, shoving her chair back with uncharacteristic violence, hearing it tip over and hit the floor. She walked quickly to the door and past her startled assistant, ignoring the salutes of passing officers as she stalked down the hallway directly through the door of Commander Drew Linn’s offices.

     “Ma’am?” His assistant jumped up as Th’rilun swept past, but the tall Andorian didn’t turn her head.

     “Open it up, Renier. That’s an order.”

     “Y-yes, ma’am.”

     The inner door slid open and Th’rilun moved inside, seeing Linn’s surprise as he looked up from his computer screen.

     “What can I do for you, Ril?” He reached out and hit a series of buttons on his desk console, activating the privacy fields as the door slid languidly shut behind the Andorian, separating them from the gawking assistant.

     The admiral’s antennae were fully laid back against her sleek hair, but she managed to contain herself, schooling her expression into a half-smile. “Why,” she began casually, “did we push Kirk’s funeral so quickly?”

     An odd expression crossed Linn’s face before he answered crisply, “He died in an explosion at a secured Federation function.  The captain of the flagship, the public face of the Fleet, reduced to ash in a terrorist act that we weren’t able to predict or prevent. We pushed the funeral forward to show that we were doing something about it; that we acknowledge what was lost. We needed to demonstrate that we care. We needed to demonstrate that we have things in hand.” The director of Fleet public relations spoke eloquently, if somewhat sarcastically, his hands forming a dramatic gesture.

     Th’rilun’s mouth tightened. “That’s the line you fed to the rest of the Admiralty. It’s not going to cut it anymore.”

     “What do you mean?” Linn frowned, his hands falling to his desk.

     She tilted her head. “Stifling the investigation? Running interference with New Vulcan? Ordering a communications blackout on the Enterprise?”

     Linn scoffed. “We’ve been through that already. You can’t prove mental voodoo. Ambassador Sarek has lost his planet and now his son; he’s damaged goods, even for a Vulcan. And,” he continued, “the Enterprise crew disobeyed orders in order to go on a wild goose chase out of blind loyalty, or, better yet, following their captain’s renegade example. If any of them want to continue in Starfleet they’ll play nice or they’ll be court martialed and silenced. And the investigation is being strung along. We’ll find someone to blame for it eventually, but it won’t matter anyway once the weapon is realized and the Klingons get involved.” He paused, as if noticing her now-fierce expression for the first time. “What exactly are you getting at, Admiral?”

     Her chin came up. “I received a message just now from Commodore Jónsson out on Seventeen.”

     “Yeah?” Linn appeared wary.

     Her voice was low and dangerous. “Guess who’s not fucking dead, Drew? And guess who knows about the Klingon involvement?”

     “What?” His voice was nearly emotionless even as his face drained of color.

     “It’s a good fucking thing I took it upon myself to keep a personal monitor on communications from that sector.” She pronounced the human obscenity with a soft click at the back of her throat. “If Jónsson talked to anyone else—.” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “I’m getting out; I’m taking the exit plan.” Her cheeks were flushed a dark shade of cerulean. “I’m not in for the ideals, like you; I’m here just for the payout.”

     Linn stood up abruptly, his hands balled into fists. “And for the glory. You Andorsu are obsessed with the idea of the glorious passion of war!”

     She bristled, her antennae flat against her scalp. “Anyone else would be dead where they stood for such a remark.”

     He held her eyes defiantly. “You’re not doing anything without me. This hinges on both of us; you know there’s no one else.”

     She exhaled in an angry hiss. “I’ve got Jónsson keeping quiet and holding status for now. Call your contact. Find out what the hell went wrong out there. If we can’t contain this, we’ll have no choice in the matter. We’ll join the others and let the chips fall where they may.”

     “War,” muttered Linn.

     Th’rilun sniffed derisively. “Destabilization. Turnover. Revolution. Remember your catchwords, Drew. War would imply a lack of control, and we’d be no better than Starfleet is now.”

     Linn hesitated and then nodded. “I’ll call Hsieh.” He licked his lips, his eyes drifting to the window. “Get the transport coordinates sent, just in case. If we do need to disappear, it will be on the run.”

 

*****

 

     The captain opened his eyes sharply at the cold press of the hypo, swallowing and blinking rapidly, trying to get his bearings. “Keisha? How long?”

     “Almost four hours now, Jim,” Moore answered, her voice low. “We’ve just dropped out of warp and are standing by.”

     She was kneeling next to him in the small communications room, where he sat on the floor leaning against the wall, Spock next to him, the two men’s hands clasped together. Jim hadn’t wanted to move since impossible contact had been made with his ship, wanting that imaginary closeness of the silent communications channel. And Spock had refused to leave his side.

     The medic continued, “Your ship sent a flash message about two hours ago confirming course and ETA. I guess they gave the rest of the fleet the slip coming away from New Vulcan, and took care of the comm blackout, too.”

     The Vulcan’s eyes were closed, and the bond was murky and slippery, but Jim recognized the flavor of desperately attempted meditation even through the persistent fog of his own pain meds. It was getting worse; Jim could feel something broken in his bondmate’s mind, jagged edges and dulled agony, harsh emotions shunted to the side, dodged, hidden, but not lost.

     “You didn’t wake me?” Jim asked accusingly, licking his dry lips. He felt cold and the dizziness was even worse.

     Moore shook her head. “It was a flash message,” she repeated. “You couldn’t have replied even if you had been awake. And your pressure’s dropping.” Her eyes slid to the tricorder in her hands, her frown deepening. “If help wasn’t on the way I’d call for it; we wouldn’t have made it all the way to Seventeen.”

     “I thought I was stable.” He winced at his own slurred words.

     She dismissed his comment with what he knew was false reassurance. “You’ll be fine, once the Enterprise gets here.”

     He eyed her, noticing the twisted set of her mouth and the tension in her shoulders. “You’re…you’re a shit liar, too, Keisha.”

     She exhaled, tilting her head at Spock. “He’s weakening. And the worse he gets the worse you get.” She shrugged. “What you’ve both been through has taken its toll.”

     “Has there been… . Has he—?”

     Jim’s question was cut off by a sharp beep from the console, and suddenly Nyota’s voice rang clearly in the room, “…Enterprise calling Biloxi; come in Biloxi.”

     The captain drew in an excited breath as he shifted forward, but Moore’s gentle hand on his uninjured shoulder kept him seated as Sears answered from the control room, “This is Captain Sears on the Biloxi, reading you loud and clear, Enterprise.”

     Spock’s eyes opened and the bond shifted in Jim’s mind, the murkiness turning to acute pain sliding between them. The Vulcan bowed his head, his body curling forward, his grip on Jim’s hand tightening.

     Uhura spoke again, “Stand by, Captain. We will be entering normal space at your location in thirty seconds. Status of Captain Kirk and Commander Spock?”

     Moore pushed herself to her feet, hitting a button on the console. “This is Moore, Biloxi medic. Your officers are in bad shape, and I’ve got one more serious casualty to be beamed aboard in a stasis tube. Recommend simultaneous transport on marker beacon and have medical teams standing by on your end. Request permission to beam aboard as well to advise condition.”

     Nyota’s voice held the barest tremble, but she responded immediately, “Acknowledged, and permission to beam aboard granted. Twenty seconds. Four to beam up, and medical team will be standing by in transporter room.”

     Moore hit the switch again and hit a series of keystrokes. “Markers set,” she said, turning to look at Jim. “I’ve activated the marker on Nerit’s tube as well.”

     There was a click over the channel and Sulu’s voice came sharply, “Biloxi, once transport is complete, advise you move immediately to a defensive position. Recommend five-hundred meters off our stern.”

     Jim could hear the confusion in Sears’ reply. “Copy that, Enterprise; will comply. Why—?”

     Sulu interrupted him, “Sensors have picked up a another ship at extreme range. Negative on an ID; it may be a hostile contact. Entering normal space now.”

     The end of Sulu’s sentence dissolved into the swelling chime of the transporter, filling Jim’s ears with welcome noise and a feeling of dissociation… .

     …and the next breath he drew was full of familiar warmth and familiar scents, the sight of the beloved walls of his ship and the determined, hazel eyes of his dear friend, the sound of raised shouts and the feel of Spock’s hand still in his as they finally, finally came home.

     “Bones,” he whispered, and felt McCoy squeeze his uninjured leg quickly and reassuringly as the doctor turned his attention to Moore, and a litany of medical stats flew over Jim’s head as the rest of the medical staff swarmed efficiently around them, encouraging Jim to lie back, scanners whirring, lights flashing, and the captain felt the room spin around him as he was abruptly lifted onto a gurney, his hand slipping from Spock’s. Their mental connection thrashed and Jim heard his bondmate cry out.

     “No!” Jim yelled hoarsely, reaching blindly as hands pushed him back down onto the gurney and he saw Moore grab at McCoy’s arm as the CMO turned confusedly toward her.

     “Doctor,” she said insistently, “you have to keep them together!”

     “What?” Bones sounded confused. “What do you mean? Why?”

     The older woman replied quickly as the Vulcan was lifted onto his own gurney, “Spock suffered telepathic injuries and he needs Jim.” She pushed roughly past one of the nurses. “Get out of the way!”

     Jim could sense Spock’s mental recoil from the unfamiliar minds, the bond flailing, the pain growing, and then the captain felt his own wrist grasped and tugged, and then felt a psionic pulse and the press of warm, dry skin as he found Spock’s hand once more.

     McCoy shook his head even as he gestured to the nurses to push the gurneys closer together. “Moore, what the fuck are you—?”

     “They’re bondmates, Doctor.” She hesitated before saying almost accusingly, “Didn’t you know?”

     “The hell I didn’t,” he muttered. There was a pause and then his voice rose in orders to his team. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get them down to medbay. We’ll prep for surgery immediately.” He took a breath. “Keep them together; and call Healer T’Shin. Tell her to meet us down there right away.”

     An unfamiliar voice answered immediately, “Yes, sir!”

     Jim felt his gurney begin to move, sensing the rush of cool air over his body as they slipped into the corridor. And then suddenly a flash of reddish lighting illuminated the white bulkheads and ceiling as the alert claxons wailed. Sulu’s voice came over the loudspeakers, “Red alert; repeat, red alert. All hands to battlestations; this is a red alert.”

     Jim whispered, “My ship… .”

     The gurney never stopped moving, and now it was Bones, jogging alongside, that pressed him back down onto its padded surface. “Hikaru’s got her, Jim. You need to get into surgery; your vitals are unstable.”  He called back to the Biloxi’s medic, “Moore, you’re with me!”

     “No… ,” Jim moaned, struggling, hearing the distant roar of the warp engines coming to life and then the soft hum of the internal energizer coils, supporting the shields. “No, I have to—.”

     The hiss of a hypo into his neck was the last thing he felt.

 

*****

 

     Nyota closed her eyes briefly, her shoulders losing just a hint of their rigidity. “Transporter room confirmed Captain Kirk and Commander Spock are aboard. Medical teams are moving them to sickbay now.” She pitched her voice to be louder than usual, and, as she opened her eyes again, she saw the flashing smiles and looks of satisfaction on the faces of the bridge crew.

     “Acknowledged,” Hikaru replied from the center seat. “Any report on their status?”

     She shook her head minutely and saw him press his lips together as he swiveled back to face the main viewscreen. The displayed tactical plot showed the position of the Biloxi, now completing the maneuver aft, as well as the unidentified craft, still holding station at the far range of sensors.

     Sears’ voice rang in her earpiece, “Enterprise, have completed positioning, but we, uh, have a prisoner to beam over.”

     “Captain, Biloxi reports a prisoner,” Nyota reported. “Requesting transfer.”

     Sulu turned his head. “A prisoner? Ask them—.”

     Lieutenant Freeman at the science station spoke up excitedly, “Captain! That unidentified craft is moving towards us at…warp nine, sir!”

     “Nine?” Hikaru pushed himself abruptly to his feet. “Sound red alert. Uhura, tell the Biloxi to belay that transfer request. Tell them to get their shields up and prepare for hostile contact.” He shook his head, and she could barely hear him over the claxons. “At that speed, we can’t outrun them; we’ll set defensive position.”

     “Aye!” Nyota relayed the message as Sulu’s voice echoed over the loudspeaker.

     “Red alert; repeat, red alert. All hands to battlestations; this is a red alert.” The acting captain hit the intercom switch again, focusing on Ensign Lauren at the helm. “Ensign, raise shields, arm weapons; prepare for warp maneuvering.”

     “Aye, sir,” the young woman replied crisply.

     Sulu glanced back at Nyota, and she could read the lines of tension on his face, imagining that his thoughts were in the same vein as her own. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to leave the rest of the fleet completely in the dust; they could use some backup right about now. Her fingers flew over her station as she reported deck readiness messages. “All stations green, sir. Alert status confirmed. General quarters confirmed.”

     “Sir! Craft will be within attack range in less than two minutes! Sensors indicate an energy field consistent with weapons activation!” Freeman was on the bridge science boards for the first time, and he was practically shaking.

     The acting captain sharply exhaled. “Send to Command: present location and alert status. Tell them we are about to engage an unknown craft during a recovery operation and that we have a civilian vessel under our protection. Then send challenge to that incoming craft: tell it to back off.”

     “Yes, sir.” Nyota flipped channels, her voice carefully pitched as she sent the first message on the standard Fleet priority-one frequency, her hands flying as she simultaneously sent the universal warning message on the cycling subspace band.

     Freeman’s high-pitched voice broke through her concentration, “Captain, the Biloxi is out of position-I’m reading fluctuating power readings—.”

     Sulu swung around, his movement interrupting the younger officer. “Uhura?”

     Nyota nodded, the channel already open. “Biloxi, report status. Have you—?”

     There was the unmistakable shrill sound of weapons discharge and obscured shouting and then Sears’ voice came over the line, breathless and gasping, “Enterprise, she’s escaped! We’re…we’re—.”

     His words disappeared into the sound of another explosion and there was an agonized scream that slid into the background as an unfamiliar female voice cut over the channel, full of something oddly satisfied and energized, “I figured it out, Kirk. The equations have more than one solution, don’t they? Nice try, but now you can go fuck yourself.” The channel clicked shut abruptly.

     Lauren called into the astonished silence, “Twenty seconds until contact, sir!”

     “Get her back!” Sulu yelled as the Biloxi spun on-screen, banking hard over and pushing on impulse, power readings on the tactical monitor indicating shield activation.

     Freeman said breathlessly, “The Biloxi’s prepping for warp, sir.”

     Nyota mouthed an obscenity, shaking her head as she stabbed at her console. “The Biloxi’s not answering! I’m picking up an odd intermittent signal, though. I don’t know where it’s coming from, setting narrow beam to isolate. Still no contact from approaching craft.”

     “Incoming, sair! One-five-seven!” Chekov’s shout from navigation coincided with a flash on the main viewer as the unidentified craft snapped into normal space, weapons ports open.

     “Craft ID’d as class-seven Hydra attack vessel!” yelled Freeman. “Weapons charged; they’re preparing to fire…targeting the Biloxi, sir!”

     Sulu pointed at the viewscreen. “Get in there! There are civilians on that ship! Phasers one and two, fire!”

     The batteries on the Enterprise opened up at the same time that the Hydra’s main cannons erupted and the screen flared with brilliant blue and yellow, the tactical plot shifting rapidly as the vessels battled for position.

     Freeman gasped, “The Hydra’s hit, sir!  Amid-ship, but their shields are still up; the Biloxi took a direct hit: shields down, they’re venting.”

     The acting captain’s voice was deadly. “Come about, maneuver us in between and bring phasers to bear.”

     “Coming about, sair!” replied Chekov.

     “Targeting, sir.”

     Sulu hit the intercom. “Transporter room, prepare to beam Biloxi survivors aboard.” He pointed at Lauren. “Fire phasers!”

     The reply from below-decks came back immediately and the ship rolled slightly as the phasers fired again. “Scott here. We cannae do it; the transporter matrix is bein’ interfered with.”

     “What!?” Sulu exclaimed, and Chekov looked up from his board.

     Scott’s voice came back sounded agitated, “’Tis my own transwarp signature. Someone’s tryin’ ta’beam right now an’ th’ energies are interferin’ wi’ each other!”

     “Freeman?” Sulu jumped from his seat, moving to stand next to Lauren at the helm, holding onto the console. “Keep them from acquiring range on the Biloxi, Ensign.”

     “I’m trying, sir,” she replied.

     Freeman cut in from the upper deck of the bridge, “I’ve reading the same signature as Mr. Scott. Transport completed; looks like only one person: I’m now reading three life-signs. One is fading.”

     Sulu ordered, “Get everyone off that ship, right now!”

     Scott acknowledged, “Transporting now, sir.”

     “They’re firing again!” Lauren cried as the viewscreen swung to capture the maneuver.

     Chekov’s hands were a blur. “I cannot keep position; they’re moving too fast!”

     Another blinding flash erupted and the screen dimmed automatically. Nyota let out a gasp as the remnants of the Biloxi tumbled haphazardly through space.

     Sulu slammed his fist on the console. “Fire again, Lauren! Disable them!”

     “They’re coming about, sair!” called Chekov.

     The brilliant light from the phasers flashed and dissipated into an image of the Hydra coming directly at them. “Collision course! They’re accelerating!”

      Freeman called out, “I’m getting that transport signature again! From the Hydra!”

     “Fire! Fire everything! Full spread, now!” Sulu met Nyota’s eyes across the bridge and she reached for her panels, keying in the intercom.

     “All hands brace for collision! All hands brace for—.”

     The thunderous echo of the phaser and torpedo bombardment, transmitted through the very fiber of the ship, ceased as a huge explosion blanked the screen and the bridge rocked with the shock wave.

     “Destroyed, sair!” breathed Chekov. “Less than two-thousand meters away!”

     Silence hung for potent seconds before damage reports began chattering over the open intercom and Sulu visibly steadied himself before reaching over to key in a channel on Lauren’s board.

     “Mr. Scott, report transport status.”

     “Ah got three people off the ship, but, uh—.” Scott’s voice trailed off, and Nyota could hear the sound of medical orders being shouted in the background. “Well, sir, th’ medics are doin’ their best for one o’ them.”

     “The prisoner?” Sulu asked tightly.

     “They said she transported out first. Tha’ musta been the first transwarp signature.”

     Now it was Sulu’s turn to mouth a silent obscenity, and Nyota lifted her chin. “All decks reported in, sir. Minor damage only and three injured: reporting to medbay.”

     “Sir!” Freeman chirped, and Nyota experienced a sudden pang, missing Spock’s measured tones.

     “Yeah, Mr. Freeman.” Sulu couldn’t hide the irritation from his voice.

     “Two ships approaching along a warp corridor on vector two-seven. Configuration suggests heavy cruisers.”

     “Friendlies?” the acting captain asked tightly.

     Nyota turned to her flashing board, touching her earpiece. “I’m getting a message, sir. Incoming contacts are the Aurora and the Excalibur. They’re responding to our request for assistance and are requesting status.”

     Hikaru exhaled. “Tell them they missed the battle.” He hesitated, and then walked across the bridge to stand next to her station. Nyota’s eyes flicked around the waiting bridge and then she also stood, turning slightly to afford them some privacy, mimicking a pose that Jim and Spock had often assumed.

     Sulu kept his voice low. “I’m not sure what to tell them, Nyota. We’ve got Jim back, and Spock, but—.” He shook his head. “Two ships destroyed, and all the evidence and the witnesses are either in medbay or in pieces out in space.”

     She nodded slowly and deliberately. “It’ll be enough. It has to be.” She shrugged. “And if they court martial us, we’ll finally get that vacation.” Her words were flippant but her tone was tense, her heart beating to the rhythm of the ominous flashing indicator on her station, awaiting a response. She could see the struggle in Hikaru’s expression, the adrenaline rush receding in favor of the brutal tension of the race to get here, the unbelievable recovery of their command team, and of the new, definite knowledge that this, whatever it was, went far deeper than anyone had imagined. She swallowed and placed a gentle hand on his arm, trying to reassure him, and herself. “We got them back, Hikaru. Alive.”

     “Yeah,” he replied softly, flashing her a half-smile that looked heart-breakingly like Jim’s. “We got them back.”

 

*****

 

     Jim’s eyes slowly opened, and for the first time in what felt like forever there was no pain. No dizziness, no nausea, just a slightly detached feeling, a near-euphoria, and, if he concentrated, a dull weight at the back of his mind. Jim blinked at the ceiling, recognizing one of the smaller isolation rooms in medbay, hearing the soft noises of medical monitors and indicators as a subtle, almost musical background.

     That weight, that amorphous and unfamiliar density underlying his thoughts disturbed him, and he mentally prodded at it, flinching as he remembered the pain, and then grimacing as he remembered the warmth and the love. A strong yearning erupted in his chest as his mind gradually cleared, and he thought he made a sound as his mental investigation became a flailing. Spock? He couldn’t feel anything beyond that weight, and it was immoveable, and he didn’t know if his bondmate was alive or dead or—.

     “Captain.”

     The measured voice beside him was recognizable enough, and it jolted Jim out of the stream of building panic as he turned his head, seeing… .

     “Am…Ambassador.” Jim managed the word, even over the dry, cracking feeling in his throat. “I—.”

     Sarek raised his hand briefly. “You do not need to speak. Spock is being examined by the healer; what you sense in your mind is a result of temporary shields put in place for the examination.” He paused, and his voice was strangely gentle as he repeated, “It is temporary, Captain.”

     Jim nodded, well aware now that his own breathing was still irregular, his heartbeat still elevated. He closed his eyes, trying to calm himself, and then he remembered the red alert.

     His eyes snapped open. “My ship! Are we—?”

     Sarek tilted his head slightly. “Your ship is no longer in danger, Captain. We are presently under Starfleet escort. One of your officers will no doubt be in shortly to brief you on the confrontation.”

     Jim nodded tightly, feeling slippery sweat on his forehead and upper lip. He couldn’t calm down, the shock of his return and the danger to his ship seeming only too close, and the abrupt absence of the intimate feeling of Spock’s mind was alarming and terrifying. He felt so alone, as he hadn’t felt since Tarsus when he had to run… .

     “James.” Sarek’s hand on his shoulder caused him to glance over again, jerkily.

     The Vulcan’s eyes were impenetrable as he emphasized, “Your reaction is attributable to the fact that the bond has been shielded externally. It…it will be alright.”

     Those last words were said carefully, as if quoting someone else, and Jim swallowed, feeling his lips tremble. “I’m sorry.” He apologized almost involuntarily for the emotional turmoil he knew must be being transferred between them, for the presence of a bond that had not been a choice, and for being unable to protect his friend, this man’s son.

     “It is no matter,” Sarek replied immediately, lifting his chin. “Spock has named you t’hy’la and that is a thing not spoken lightly.”

     The simple, warm touch and the barest hint of another mind opening to him did more than anything else to help Jim focus, his breathing gradually slowing.

     “I spoke to my son only briefly, after his own surgery was complete; the healer advised it best to proceed immediately.” Sarek’s eyes were directed at something beyond Jim. “The damage was substantial.”

     Jim’s lips tightened over a strong aversion to speak of their ordeal. “Spock saved my life.” He blinked, remembering. “More than once, and at…great cost.”

     “And you saved his, and at similar cost.” Sarek looked at him directly, an odd note in the Vulcan’s voice. “My son informed me that the bond was not initially of your choosing.”

     The captain stiffened. “It’s my choice now,” he said abruptly, his challenging reply overly loud and echoing in the small room. He felt his hands clench into fists, and a small ache began in his repaired shoulder, but he didn’t look away.

     Sarek kept his hand where it was. “I understand, James.” Something softened in his gaze. “I am gratified that he has such as you.”

     The captain swallowed and, after a pause, the older Vulcan continued, gently removing his hand and straightening in his seat, his dark robes shimmering in the low light, “Shortly after the incident on Cresd’ti, I received the announcement that you and Spock had been declared deceased. Though the link I share with my son was weak and shielded, I was yet unable to ascertain that he, at least, was still alive. However, when I relayed this message to Starfleet Command, I was rebuffed. The investigation was rapidly conducted and closed, and your memorial service was scheduled almost immediately.” He spoke succinctly, but distinct emotion colored his tones. “Aware that a formal appeal to the Federation Council would take excessive time, I contacted your vessel directly. To my understanding, your officers disobeyed direct orders in order to come to New Vulcan to investigate my claim. Shortly thereafter, your communication was received.”

     Jim swallowed again, shifting on the biobed. “Someone at Command, then? Someone wanted—?”

     “Yes.” Sarek placed his hands on his knees. “Though my son was in considerable distress, he did manage to relay the salient points of your ordeal.” He paused, his dark eyes flickering over Jim’s face. “I find that an internal conspiracy is more than likely to blame for your disappearance and the subsequent…interference in the investigation.”

     “I…I need to speak to someone right away. I need to—.” Jim grunted, trying and failing to push himself up, falling back with a groan. “Trislo needs to be questioned and—.”

     Something, some miniscule change in the older Vulcan’s posture or expression caused the captain to glance over. “What is it?”

     Sarek raised an eyebrow and his eyes lowered. “Kellen Trislo was transported to an unknown location during the confrontation. She is no longer in custody.”

     “What!?” Galvanized, Jim shoved himself up viciously to sit on the edge of the bed as Sarek stood up quickly, his eyes widening, and, almost on cue, the door to the room slid open behind the Vulcan, admitting a haggard CMO.

     “Jim, what the hell is going on in here? Your vitals are through the roof; how the hell are you even up?” McCoy glared at the ambassador. “I thought I told you not to tell him anything.”

     “She escaped, Bones?” Jim demanded hoarsely. “That woman, that…that fucking terrorist escaped? Do you know what she did to us? To Spock? Do you know how many people she…she—.” His voice faltered as he weakly pitched forward and was immediately enfolded in his friend’s warm embrace.

     The doctor held onto the captain tightly, gently maneuvering him back onto the bed, and McCoy’s reply was soft and full of emotion. “I know, Jim, I know. We’ll get her; don’t worry. Scotty’s working on the trace right now and the entire fleet will be behind us whenever we get word.”

     Jim lay on his right side, feeling his friend’s tender touch on the side of his head, stroking blond, sweat-damp hair soothingly. The captain felt tears in his own eyes and blinked angrily at his own helpless display of emotion, at his overall weakness, and at his frustration at the solid density that kept him from his bondmate.

     “Jim, you need to rest. Nyota said she’d be down as soon as she finishes up her conference with the Admiralty and she’ll fill you in on the rest. And the healer—.”

     Jim looked up, interrupting quietly, “How did she escape, Bones?”

     McCoy straightened, crossing his arms over his chest, Sarek standing like a silent shadow behind him in the dimly lit room. “She managed to get out of the brig on the bounty ship and find a weapon. I’ve just finished patching up the captain; he was almost cut in half by a disruptor beam as he shielded his engineer and other crewman.”

     “He’s alive?” Jim thought of the nervous man.

     “Barely. But, yeah, he is. And the rest of them will make it, too. Even that young woman who had been in stasis, though she’s presently in an induced coma.” He sighed. “This whole thing’s a bloody clusterfuck.”

     Jim looked away and Bones murmured to Sarek, “Would you mind stepping outside for a minute or two? I need to, uh—.”

     “Of course,” Sarek answered promptly. “I shall see to Healer T’Shin’s progress.”

     The door slid open and shut and Bones hesitated before kneeling down next to the biobed, meeting Jim’s eyes and reaching out to hold his hand.

     “Jim.”

     “I know, Bones.” Jim stared at the ceiling, knowing what his friend wanted to talk about, and not knowing if he could stand to discuss it with the bond presently so numb. He desperately wanted his bondmate’s presence; he felt like he was being smothered, or drowning, and he couldn’t escape. His breathing was coming raggedly again.

     “I can’t tell you…how much I—.” The doctor sighed, sounding uncomfortable and evidently oblivious to Jim’s mental distress. “Nine lives, huh?” He grunted once before pushing himself up and, releasing Jim’s hand, nearly collapsing into the chair Sarek had left. Jim turned his head to watch him, missing the touch but unwilling to reach for it. His mind felt so empty and he needed Spock… . He pressed his lips together fiercely, willing himself to hold on.

     Bones ran a hand over his face. “I’ve been in surgery for hours; I’m sorry.”

     Jim rolled carefully onto his back, but kept his head turned toward his friend, reluctantly saying, “You heard about the bond.”

     “Yeah.” Bones dropped his hand, hazel eyes suddenly piercing. “I did.” He hesitated before continuing, “I heard enough of what Spock was able to say to figure out that it was forced on you, but that it saved your lives, and—.”

     “I forced it, Bones,” Jim corrected. “I…it was just a…a link before; something that had formed on its own, something that could have been broken. I demanded that we strengthen it in order to…communicate. It made sense at the time, strategically, but after…it was nothing like I’d expected…or feared.”

     McCoy watched him silently, and Jim exhaled, feeling some small comfort after all in speaking of it.

     “It was…what they did to him was... .” His voice broke. “But it wasn’t just about feeling his pain; there were other things, too.” Jim swallowed, seeing unreadable emotion in his friend’s eyes and feeling a spike of irrational fear. “I know what you’re going to say, but I promised that I wouldn’t turn away again. I can’t, not after what we’ve been through, not after what I felt when he almost… . I didn’t let him go then and I won’t do it now. I saw…I love—.” He made a choked sound. His emotions were all over the place, and the silence in his mind was smothering him again.

     “Jim,” The doctor cut in softly, leaning forward. “Jim, you don’t have to justify anything to me. What you did, you needed to do, and if you love him then that doesn’t surprise me either.”

     He licked his lips. “I’ve seen the two of you together. And maybe this was forced; maybe this happened in a terrible way and all too soon, but it happened and there’s still love. Even after what you’ve been through… .” He paused, grimacing involuntarily before controlling his expression. “And I know some of it. And even after all that; in spite of it, because of it, or both, there’s love, and I can see each of you ready to fight for it.”

     The doctor looked away. “I saw him tell his father, Jim. Spock gave his…his report and he was weak and exhausted and in obvious pain. So much that the healer…the fucking Vulcan healer was looking scared at that point. But when Sarek, who’s a stubborn son of a bitch by the way, mentioned breaking the bond as a possible logical alternative, all of a sudden Spock looked fucking determined and a little scary and he called you something I’d never heard before and his father backed off right away.”

     “T’hy’la,” Jim whispered.

     “Yeah, that’s the one,” McCoy replied. He waved a hand. “I don’t know what it means, but it makes the most intimidating Vulcans show blatant emotion and change their attitudes really fast, so it must be something important.”

     “It is,” the captain said distantly. “It is all.”

     McCoy nodded. “Sarek seemed to think so, anyway. He insisted on keeping watch over you after his son went in with the healer, and I think if I’d given him an old-fashioned rifle to carry around he would have done it. Even the nurses wouldn’t dare come in.”

     Jim lifted a shaking hand, rubbing his eyes, feeling the implacable density at the back of his mind seem to harden even further. The sound of the door buzzer startled him, and he muttered a curse.

     McCoy swore out loud and pushed himself to his feet. “Maybe the healer’s done already—.” He hit the access panel, but his tense stance faded as Jim saw Nyota’s slender form appear in the doorway.

     “Jim?” She glanced at McCoy for permission before stepping into the small room, her quick steps faltering as she moved closer. “Jim?”

     He managed a small smile at the sight of her. “Hey.”

     She let out a sob, reaching out to grasp both his hands gently. “I still can’t believe it.” A series of emotions raced across her expressive face, and she bent over him, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek before pulling back, tears sparkling in her dark eyes.

     He looked at her, remembering with startling clarity what she had felt, what Spock had sensed. Remembering that she had left for a reason, and that she had known, even before he did; that she had known even as he had asked leading questions and failed to understand what she had given him. He remembered that she had seen their weaknesses and prejudices and assumptions, and that she had been right about Spock and his stubbornness and Jim and his rejection, and the hurt that each would cause. She had known, and they had hurt her, too.

     “I’m sorry.”

     “For what?”

     He opened his mouth but the words wouldn’t come. Something, though, must have shown on his face because he saw a glimmer of sudden understanding in her dark eyes.

     She swallowed, and her grip on his hands tightened. “For what,” she said again. “For his life? For yours? For who you are?” She tilted her head, her tone becoming intimate. “Do you think I did any better?”

     He blinked and she smiled slightly. “I tried pretty hard not to see any of it until it was impossible to ignore. And then I couldn’t believe the inevitability of it all. We’re all blind in some way: to ourselves or to others, and we can only fight our own battles. I couldn’t fight yours, or his, any more than you could fight mine.” She looked away briefly. “The most annoying thing about you is that it’s impossible to be angry with you for more than ten seconds anyway. Believe me, I’ve tried. I love you, too, you know, and I swear, if you ever, ever fucking die on me again I’m going to kill you myself.”

     Jim smiled weakly and she squeezed his hands once before letting go to pull the chair closer to his bedside, furrowing her brow. “I just got off of a call with Admiral Klein at Headquarters and this…this whole thing goes deeper than any of us thought. Vice Admiral Th’rilun and Commander Drew Linn, head of Starfleet PR, are both recently missing and are presumed now, and the basis of our new evidence, to be the insider connections to this plot. Th’rilun issued the stand-down orders that we, uh, ignored, so, in light of your appearance and the confrontation with the Hydra, our AWOL has been,” she shrugged, “overlooked.”

     Her intensity distracted Jim from the weight of the shielded bond. “The Hydra? That’s what attacked us when Spock and I first came onboard?”

     She nodded. “Suicide vessel. As far as we can tell it was manned by one or perhaps two people, all transported off in a similar manner to Trislo. It was running hot: warp nine, improved maneuvering, shields, but all power was thrown into the operating systems. All ID features had been scrubbed, or at least any that we could pick out of the wreckage, but we know enough to ascertain that it didn’t originate outside Federation space.” She paused. “We need a full debrief from you, Jim. And from Spock. We’re headed to Seventeen now, and Scotty should have that trace finished by then so we’ll know where we need to be looking.” She exhaled. “The only problem is, of course, that whomever they are will know we’re coming.”

     The bond twisted suddenly in Jim’s mind, the odd density feeling looser. He winced but determinedly spoke through it, “Section Thirty-one, Ny. Trislo was part of Thirty-one’s activities on archaeological site RX-54 in the Belomni system. And she employed a man named Hsieh, who was part of the Vengeance crew. Start with that.”

     “The Vengeance?” McCoy exclaimed from behind them. “Fucking Marcus again?”

     “Yeah.” Another twist, and a burst of odd pain, and Jim struggled to control his expression, the smothering feeling giving way to the beginnings of panic.

     “I thought that shit was finished.” The doctor glanced suspiciously up at the biomonitor.

     Nyota’s lips were pressed in a thin line, her brow furrowed in thought. McCoy glanced at her as he took a step toward Jim. “What is it, Nyota?”

     She shook her head slightly. “In all the commotion after the disaster in San Francisco and the complete overhaul of the SecOps division, things were…rushed.” She stood up and began to pace. “You and Jim had other things going on at the time, of course, but there was some noise in the media about how abrupt the shutdown of Thirty-one was. Everything was just ended full stop: projects abandoned, developing technology disavowed, and anyone who was problematic and had a stake in the game was simply cut off. At the time, it seemed like the only thing to do in order to bring public trust back to the Fleet; to excise Marcus and everything he stood for and to appear to have a fresh start. But maybe—.”

     “Maybe some of those dead ends weren’t tied off,” McCoy finished darkly. He crossed his arms over his chest.

     Jim met Nyota’s eyes, his entire body tightening as another stab of pain hit his mind. “That…fits Trislo, at least. Her motives were…selfish. Hsieh had other considerations; personal reasons for loyalty to Marcus and against Starfleet.” He spoke quickly, fighting to regulate his breathing, continuing even before Nyota could respond. “He was on Belishea.” Jim licked his lips. His mind was throbbing now. “He spoke of…of Tarsus, and Belishea, and Vulcan. He was…an idealist. Trislo was a fucking psychopath—.” He groaned, turning away from his communications officer and wincing as an achingly familiar pain roared fully into his mind.

     “Jim?” Bones was at his side immediately. “Jim, what hurts? What’s wrong?”

     “The bond,” the captain gasped. “Spock—.” There were no words amidst the now-howling maelstrom in Jim’s mind. No thoughts, no clear emotions, just chaos. It was worse than it had ever been, outside of the procedure.

     The door beeped abruptly and, at McCoy’s nod, Nyota moved to hit the access panel. Jim managed to turn his head, seeing a Vulcan woman in ivory robes step quickly into the room. Her eyes flicked over him, and then to the readouts over his head.

     “Captain Kirk, my name is T’Shin. I am a mind healer. I apologize for your discomfort, but I am no longer able to shield your bond from you.” She spoke in a rapid, clipped tone, and when McCoy opened his mouth, she raised a hand sharply. “Time is a factor, Doctor, please allow me to speak.”

     He frowned, and she continued swiftly, addressing Jim, “Spock has suffered significant mental injuries after being essentially subjected to unrestricted and repeated katric transfer. The pain he is experiencing is due to the continuing presence of these alien essences and it is rapidly overwhelming him. His sanity is in question, and his mind would already have been lost if it were not for the stabilizing presence of your bond. You must accompany me immediately.”

     Now McCoy spoke up, “To do what? Weren’t you able to help him?”

     “In order to transfer the alien katra I must meld with both of them, together.”

     “Wait,” Jim whispered desperately, his hands held to his temples. “The…the minds, the katra…they’re still there? They didn’t transfer?”

     “They did not,” T’Shin replied promptly. “It was only Spock’s telepathic perceptions of them that were transferred to the computer. A full transfer was impossible under such conditions. I surmise the emotional impact of hosting the katra was what led to previous subjects’ deaths or suicide, or so I was able to glean from your bondmate’s mind.”

     “So, what exactly are you proposing to do here?” McCoy demanded. Nyota looked horrified, standing silent and stiff next to the door.

     T’Shin’s posture shifted minutely. “I will meld with both the Captain and Spock. I will attempt to complete the transfer of the alien katra into my own mind and thus relieve the worst of the emotional turmoil.”

     “Why do you need both of them?” Fear had crept into the doctor’s voice.

     “They are t’hy’la; their own katra are connected. This affliction is a danger to both of them.”

     McCoy’s face had drained of color. “And what are the risks?”

     She inclined her head, replying directly, “Grave. Their bond reaches deep, and unfortunately was developed largely in the midst of the procedures that led to Spock’s present condition. In order to address the damage to Spock’s mind, I must forcibly remove the affected portions of their bond.”

     “No!” Jim couldn’t help crying out, his body curling involuntarily and defensively. McCoy reached out to grab the captain’s shoulders, holding on helplessly. Nyota’s hands covered her mouth.

     T’Shin continued as if she had not heard him, “My training has prepared my mind to act as a katric conduit, and immediately after the transfer I will enter into a trance until I am able to return to New Vulcan to complete the ritual with the proper receptacle. The katra, though alien, will not be lost, but protected. Given the extinction of their civilization, protection is Spock’s wish as well as mine.”

     The pain was pounding through him, but Jim gasped, “You can’t break it! I won’t…I won’t—”

     The healer took a step toward him, her tone softening. “I shall not, for it cannot be broken. This will result in life, or death, for both of you. If you both survive, the damage can be repaired through the same means as the bond was originally formed.” And now there was the barest tremble in her voice. “I do not wish to inflict this on you, but it is the only way, Kirk. And there is little time left before the damage to your bondmate’s mind is irreversible. If we are to save him, and you, you have no choice; we must proceed immediately.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: Uncompelled

 

     Jim crouched barefoot on the cold floor, chilled through thin medical scrubs, his back pressed back against the wall, his skin beaded with sweat and his head in his hands. The room had seemed to close around him in flashes of unreal light and a hollow creeping internal darkness that he couldn’t fight, and so he had instinctively retreated. Faces swayed and voices echoed before being lost again in a terrifying haze that accelerated over him and the bond was throbbing with pain that was racing away from any control. Chaos and whispers clashed with inescapable, intimate knowledge of others who were long dead, and somewhere a door slid open and shut.

     His bondmate’s near presence ripped at his very being; the familiarity of it, his own longing for it, and yet Spock’s faltering approach only brought the clamor so much louder and brighter and immediate. Jim reached though, fueled by desperation and clouded hope and that fierce need, and the first touch of their hands was an explosion. Fear and grief and love: all theirs, and so intense as to drown out all the rest for a brief moment of transient relief and they fell to the floor together in a sparking burst of discomfort from barely-healed injuries.

     They were not alone, but as the mental outcry rose again it didn’t matter and Jim wrapped his arms around his bondmate, his face turning into skin that was too cool and fingers gripping tightly into fabric that felt too much like that glossy material on the slave ship. And this pain, this fear, these overwhelming sensations were too much like what he had felt in that procedure room as the alien minds had ripped into them… .

     Someone was trying to pull them apart with unwelcome hands on their bodies, the cold slide of a shielded mind, and Jim growled, resisting, feeling Spock’s body begin to shake against him and the Vulcan’s mind wrap tighter around his own. Though they knew what was to come, they were both clinging to the small respite offered by their touch and to the known, if volatile, presence of the bond.

     A clipped female voice faded in above them. “—it is sufficient, Doctor. I will be able to proceed.”

     “On the floor?” Incredulity and a touch of panic, and Jim could almost feel it radiating as quicksilver under his skin.

     “Leave us. Now.”

     “No!” McCoy’s voice rolled within the slithering emotional maelstrom. “I can help.”

     “Do not interfere.” T’Shin’s voice was so close. “No matter what occurs, you are not to interfere. When the transfer is completed, you will follow my instructions exactly; Sarek is prepared to assist.”

     Warm, dry fingers pressed insistently to Jim’s face and he didn’t have time to react, plunging somewhere dark and cold, and while he couldn’t feel Spock’s body anymore, or his own, he could still sense their minds holding tight. Here, the psionic roar had separated into individual skeins, filaments, images of alien minds and alien souls; somehow so beautiful and so lonely and so desolate though so unaware. Images only, except for the dimensions of memory and perception. They were vividly real and yet not, cuttingly tangible and yet gossamer ghosts, and all possessing of that overwhelming and inescapable emotional topography.

     What had been indistinct agony along their bondspace was now, strangely, manifested as channels of sensitivity, each so bright and intense as to be astonishing. Slowly the skeins were unraveled, splitting and then streaming together, changing course, flowing outward and away and the intensity, the pain, was finally lessening. Their desperately unyielding mental entwining loosened with the mild relief and Jim could sense glimpses of what lay beneath the turmoil: his friend’s mind, so deeply and viscerally open yet so much like home, and the clouded hope that he himself had harbored hesitantly brightened. Maybe they would be okay; maybe their bond was undamaged after all—.

     The filaments were flowing away faster and faster, and Jim felt an odd tug that trembled beneath the very essence of their connection. He resisted instinctively and felt it again, and then again, and then something within their bond itself was torn and it was as if his very soul was screaming.

 

*****

           

     Leonard stood next to the empty biobed in the small room, his hands in fists, arms crossed tightly over his chest as he watched. All he could do was stand and watch, feeling guilt and fear devour his insides as his friend, his friends, suffered. Spock had entered, his expression wracked with a misery that the doctor couldn’t imagine, walking forward with steps that had spoken of a fierce dignity before the Vulcan had collapsed into his bondmate, the two men holding each other in a way that had seemed so deeply intimate, so shocking in its complete vulnerability.

     T’Shin had knelt in front of them, and her initial, perfunctory attempt to separate them had made McCoy cringe. He had protested, bluntly refusing to leave as Sarek and Nyota had done, unable to turn his back, unable to simply depart and wait. But then it had started and he had watched Jim’s blue eyes roll back into his head and the captain’s fingers loosen their fierce grip; the doctor had watched already pale skin turn ashen, bodies limply settling against the wall and against each other and it was as if he was watching death itself begin to unfold.

     Jim’s incoherent shout came abruptly and raggedly, and Leonard couldn’t stop himself from moving around the bed and toward the three on the floor, his lips forming Jim’s name as he saw his friend’s eyes open wide and unseeing, an expression of terror flashing over the younger man’s face.

     “No!” Jim moaned. “No, please.”

     Spock was silent, but his hands were open and grasping, reaching to weakly grip the healer’s wrist. T’Shin muttered something in Vulcan and pulled her other hand from Jim’s face, letting the human collapse fully to the floor as she pressed her fingers to the other side of Spock’s face.

     Jim laid still, his eyes still open and focused on some inner torment, his expression contorted, and McCoy hissed a curse as he sidestepped the two Vulcans and knelt next to his best friend. But Jim didn’t react as the doctor carefully touched his shoulder.

     The sound of Spock’s cry made Leonard jump, and he felt Jim begin to tremble as the cry came again, followed by a choked sob. Spock’s eyes were open, tears falling to slide down his face and over the healer’s fingers. T’Shin moved even closer, her brow furrowing with effort, and then suddenly she gasped, pulling herself from the younger Vulcan in a quick, desperate motion, almost as if being thrown away.

     Spock’s hands dropped to his sides as he slumped backwards against the wall, and T’Shin pushed herself to her feet, her eyes closed, her arms held out in front of her, her voice clipped. “Doctor, you will assist me to another room. The attempt was largely successful.”

     Leonard blinked, concern for his friends making his reply blunt. “What the hell you mean ‘largely?”

     She swayed precipitously and McCoy frowned, pushing himself up and taking her arm, forcing his voice into professional, unemotional tones. “Ma’am, what did you mean—?”

     “The transference was completed, and the damaged portions of the bond excised. However, secondary instability exists due to the stress his mind has endured.” She inhaled, her head tilting back as she spoke rapidly, “He resisted further intrusion and, due to the effects of the transfer, I was unable to continue.”

     “Will he be alright? Is Jim—?”

     “They now require only each other’s presence. Do not…do not interfere. I must—.” Her voice trailed off as she swayed again and collapsed and Leonard swore as he caught her, lifting her in his arms and shouting a command override to open the door.

 

*****

 

     The aftermath was silence and ice and emptiness, the abrupt euphoria of pain’s absence poorly masking the abrasion in his mind. Jim couldn’t remember anything beyond the tearing of their bond, the healer’s actions causing not mental agony, as he had expected, but a sensation of gruesome, depthless grief, of looming loss so profound that he had screamed and fought and still it had happened. He was exhausted and felt defeated and so alone, and he almost wished for the cutting emotional energies again, if only to prove the bond’s continued existence.

     Spock!

     His mental cry didn’t even echo as it was absorbed into the dark, isolated fabric of his thoughts, and he resisted coming fully back to consciousness even as he felt the solid press of the deck on his cheek, the low murmur of his ship’s heartbeat transmitted through the material. He was afraid of what he would find if he opened his eyes: if the emptiness that hollowed his mind would be there, too. If he called out loud and still Spock did not answer.

     A faint sound, the rustle of thin fabric, preceded a sudden awareness that bloomed from within the bruised depths of his mind. It seemed nothing more than passing warmth, the soft pang of some distant emotion, but it was not his own, and his breath left him in a harsh, relieved exhale as he realized that the bond was still there, however weakened and shaded. Only then did he open his eyes, blinking up from the floor to see his bondmate sitting limply next to him, leaning against the wall, brown eyes wide and beleaguered. Jim curled his own body as he tentatively pushed along their slowly illuminating link, wading through lingering grief and the stunned sense of missing that permeated his mind and radiated from his bondmate’s. The dark haze shifted into a low, insistent longing: a force that was gradually growing stronger, pressure struggling to equalize. He recognized it from before, when they had lain together on the slave ship, when the bond had driven them to completion; now, however, instead of pushing for fulfillment, it hungered strongly to fill empty places.

     “Spock,” he whispered, pushing himself up and laboring to sit, crossing his legs awkwardly under him with a grunt. “Spock?”

     “The pain is gone.” Tears still slid silently down the Vulcan’s face, and Spock made no attempt to brush them away, his hands lying listless and palm-up at his sides, his loose medical scrubs wrinkled and askew, and greenish marks remaining on his face where the healer’s fingers had pushed too hard. “The pain is gone and yet…yet I cannot find the depths of you.”

     “I’m…I’m right here,” Jim said, leaning closer.

     The Vulcan’s voice was almost too soft to hear. “It was worse…than T’Khasi. And even in the…cessation of the emotional…the emotional pain, I sense…I feel your absence more keenly.”

     “The bond’s not broken,” Jim said. “It can be repaired.” He echoed the healer’s words, willing them to be true.

     Spock’s head lolled as he murmured indistinctly, “I killed. I hurt and I killed, and I took your mind and it was not your choice. Despite…despite your acceptance, it was not as it should be. It…was survival, it was—.”

     The human interrupted, “It was love. You killed to protect me; you strengthened our bond because I asked you to, even knowing it was…it was forever. You came back from that darkness…for me.” He shifted closer, seeing raw and scattered emotions crawl over his bondmate’s stricken features. He could sense that the Vulcan was in shock and defenseless, his mind laid open and lost: no grounding, no control. He wondered where the healer had gone and then firmly pushed the thought from his head. He didn’t want her cold, unyielding presence here, he didn’t want anyone else to touch them; everything was too raw and too fresh and too fucking intimate.

     Spock’s breath hitched, his words tumbling out confusedly as he lifted his chin, his eyes darting, giving no indication that he had even heard Jim’s words. “It is not a choice, even now. The bond draws us together; it compels us—.”

     “It’s alright,” Jim insisted fervently, tilting his head to try to meet Spock’s gaze.

     “It is not how it should have—.”

     “Our friendship…our relationship has always seemed to be like this: pushing too far too fast, always catching up to something that feels like it was inevitable, struggling for some element of control over an uncontrollable situation.” Jim clenched his fists to avoid reaching out. He badly wanted to reach out, but his bondmate looked bewildered, and after the healer’s determined imposition, he didn’t want to push. Something about this seemed dangerous, and he himself was still reeling. “It wasn’t what it should have been, maybe, but I don’t fucking care, Spock. I want what it can be; I want you desperately. Do you trust me?”

     Wavering brown eyes finally met determined blue, and Jim saw Spock’s fingers flex.

     “Do you trust me?” he repeated.

     “Jim?”

     The questioning, vulnerable whisper finally impelled Jim to lift his hand to gently caress his bondmate’s tear-dampened cheek, soothing over the angry pressure points from the traumatic meld, feeling a spark within his own mind, warmth blooming keenly. He could feel Spock now: naked emotions roiling loosely and uncontrolled, the Vulcan’s mind free from the overwhelmingly painful press of alien essences but clouded and searching.

     “There is no one forcing us; nothing forcing this. Just my mind, and yours.” Jim matched the tone of his voice with gentle caresses, fingertips wet with his bondmate’s tears, sliding up to smooth black hair. He was desperate to assure, to convince the Vulcan of the truth, to soothe the confusion he could still feel. He felt Spock lean into his touch, seeing dark eyes close.

 

*****

 

     T’Shin lay silent and still on the biobed, her skin cool and her breathing barely perceptible. Leonard could feel the tension in his own body as he stood nearby, bouncing nervously on his toes, watching Sarek perform a seemingly interminable mind touch. Nyota had been paged to Engineering, presumably to assist Scotty, and McCoy was missing her calming presence.

     The ambassador lifted his hand. “She has achieved the trance, Doctor.”

     “Great,” Leonard replied tightly. “So she’ll just keep the alien, uh, souls in her head until—?”

     “Until she regains New Vulcan.”

     “Okay. Right.” McCoy licked his lips. The room felt too quiet with the monitors blanked and the lights reduced. It felt too closed-in, with the temperature raised, and too isolated, without the presence of his staff. And then there was what was happening in the room down the hall… .

     “She told me not to interfere,” he muttered, straightening as Sarek met his eyes, continuing more forcefully, “but I had to leave those two men passed out on the goddamn floor.”

     Sarek remained silent and Leonard exhaled loudly. “I’m going back in there.”

     “You must not.”

     “Why not?” Leonard threw his hands in the air. “They were in bad shape, and if I’m out here how can I—?”

     “They need only each other,” Sarek replied evenly, but McCoy could see the reflection of worry in his eyes.

     “Why?” Leonard demanded. “What’s happening?”

     Sarek folded his hands in front of him, stepping away from the biobed. “Such things are not spoken of; however, in these circumstances—.” He hesitated. “They must rebuild their bond. Normally, this involves both physical and mental intimacy, which requires privacy and—.”

     “Physical? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Leonard shook his head. “They were on the floor; they couldn’t move, for all I know. Your son was crying and Jim appeared nearly unresponsive, and they’re supposed to, what, shake it off and have sex?” He turned toward the door. “I can’t believe I left them like that; I’m going back in there.”

     “You must not!” Sarek repeated, more strongly.

     But the doctor had had enough, wheeling back, his expression furious. “Isn’t this just what happened the first time? When they formed the bond in the first place?” He rubbed his hand across his forehead, remembering Jim’s seemingly inexplicable guilt and the captain’s tormented assertion: I forced it, Bones. I demanded that we strengthen it in order to…communicate. It made sense at the time, strategically… . “Oh my god.”

     “Doctor? I do not understand—.”

     “Don’t you?” Leonard stared at the Vulcan. “They were kidnapped and tortured and god knows what else. They were forced into this…this personal connection under the worst possible circumstances and…and… .” He grimaced as he recalled Spock’s abbreviated and pragmatic description of what had befallen them. “And then it’s ripped out and we just leave them to, what, fix it themselves? After all they’ve been through?”

     Sarek swallowed, his shoulders slumping. “They are t’hy’la; their bond will guide them—.”

     “You mean it’ll force them back together,” Leonard interrupted bitterly. “Whether they’re ready or not, whether they’re in pain or not; just like before.”

     Sarek’s jaw tensed. “That is not a comprehensive description.”

     “We can’t leave them alone for this.” Leonard turned determinedly, stepping toward the door. “I can’t.” He ignored the ambassador’s call as he walked away.

 

*****

 

     Jim felt the connection between them grow ever clearer through their touch and he could sense Spock’s underlying agitation: whatever had been done to mitigate the presence of the alien essences had seemingly left its own marks, and the abrupt diffusing of the stabilizing bond had left the Vulcan ungrounded and struggling, mental disciplines out of reach and emotions run rampant.

     Beneath the agitation, despite of it, there was an inexorable pull, and as Jim raised his other hand, fingers ghosting over his bondmate’s cheekbone and pointed ear, he felt some connection between them as liquid warmth over his own body, dispelling the chill and the lingering soreness from the healer’s interventions.

     The human drew in a shaking breath, feeling his own weakened body somehow respond, leaning forward to brush his lips gently over the Vulcan’s. The kiss was soft, driven by an impulse to comfort as well as a deliberate acknowledgement of the healer’s assertion that strengthening their bond would be done as before. Driven also by that subtle insistence heating their fragile mental space in a slow, flickering flame. Jim remembered the pleasure, but as his mouth and hands moved over his bondmate’s taut lips and too-cool face, he also remembered the pain and the fear. He sensed tension and trembling and that terrible lost feeling within Spock’s mind and the lick of fire that had urged Jim’s own involuntary arousal ignited as the human broke the kiss.

     The blistering wave of Jim’s own repressed emotions took them both by surprise as the human saw Spock’s eyes snap open and he sensed the Vulcan’s mind shudder into clarity and helpless resonance even as Jim wrenched himself away. The captain crawled awkwardly, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet, taking one step backwards and then collapsing over his weakened leg, pitching to the side and landing hard against the wall with a pained grunt.

     Jim slid to the floor, turning away from his bondmate and, clenching his own fist, let out a distraught yell as he slammed his hand against the wall, feeling the bright pain of cracking bone.

     “I can’t do this! I won’t do this! Not like this!” He choked, feeling bile in his mouth at the strength of his outburst. Everything in him that had been held and controlled, pushed aside and ignored: feelings of fear and frustration and hate. Hatred for Trislo, and those fucking Orion bastards, and Rohmer and at the bond itself for driving them, for pushing them; even at the healer for leaving them like this, for leaving Spock like this. For all the pain he had seen and for the bruises that still marred his bondmate’s body. For the fear, and the wasted lives and the desperation, for the gentle things that seemed lost, burned on the pyre of too much and too soon. He screamed again, hoarsely, and curled into himself, closing his eyes and clutching his injured hand in his lap with a sob. “I just…I just want—.”

     His mind swirled, and he was so tired and the fire had faded away. He inhaled raggedly, feeling dizzy and spent and lost, and then he felt a tentative touch on his arm. “To be at your side,” Spock finished roughly, fingers sliding under thin fabric to meet skin as the thought shimmered into Jim’s mind. Never and always touching.

     The confusion had lifted, perhaps also burned away by the force of Jim’s outcry, and the sensation of their mental communication was warm. Weak, and not without struggle, but deep emotion slid smoothly now, without entanglement. The human couldn’t help another sob as he collapsed again, this time against his bondmate’s body, feeling arms encircle him immediately.

     For a moment they simply breathed together. For a moment, Jim let his thoughts drift in the wake of the emotional discharge. The urgent pull of the bond was mitigated, now, and he could recognize the change in its character. It drew, but lacked jagged edges; it called to each of them, but echoed with a question instead of a demand. It had burned in the shared emotional release, and been tempered in the heat. What remained was something that Jim could fall into, something that he recognized and cherished, something that he had never believed he could deserve nor discover so fully in himself. And as Spock’s fingers gently found his meld points, leaving trails of building warmth and needful surrender, Jim let himself go, trusting, allowing the love between them to rise and illuminate and fulfill.

 

*****

 

     Leonard walked quickly down the interior corridor of the medbay, hearing the rustle of Sarek’s robes behind him. He caught a glimpse of Keisha Moore’s startled face as he blew past the open door of Sears’ recovery room and he briefly wondered what his own expression looked like. He shook his head, thinking that probably he looked exactly like a man whose best friend’s nine lives were rapidly being used up.

     “Fuck,” he muttered darkly, and stopped short in front of Jim’s room, his hand reaching for the access panel and halting to hover in midair.

    “Fuck!” he said more loudly, and he refused to turn his head as Sarek appeared next to him.

     “Doctor,” the older Vulcan began, his voice holding a tense note.

     But the sound of his title only galvanized him and McCoy rapidly punched in the authorization key, taking a deep breath as the door slid open and stepping immediately into the room, the ambassador following.

     The lights were still dimmed and there was no sound from the small room, and as the door slipped shut behind Sarek, the near-silence seemed enveloping. Leonard stepped to the left around the biobed and saw them, and it was a sight that was intimate and exposed and powerfully compelling. Jim’s face was hidden against Spock’s neck, the human’s body curled into the Vulcan’s form. Spock’s arm encircled his bondmate, and McCoy could see enough to know that his other hand was held up to the captain’s face. The Vulcan’s eyes were closed and they were motionless together, lost in the meld, but there was no suffering that Leonard’s trained eye could detect: no pain, no anguish, no tears. No fear. There was a sense in the room that McCoy had felt before at a birth or at a death: some barely discernable significance that this was something profound.

     Sarek’s low murmur sounded overly loud, and caused Leonard to jump, startled.

     “The purpose of physical intimacy in establishing a bond is to encourage all remaining barriers, including those that are subconscious, to be lowered and involuntary psionic pathways to be initiated mutually. However—.”

     Leonard remained silent, hearing Sarek draw in a quick breath before continuing, “—however, strong emotional experience may also be sufficient, particularly if such pathways had already been utilized.”

     The ambassador’s words were hasty, and, if McCoy didn’t know any better he would suspect Sarek of doing the Vulcan equivalent of nervous babbling. The doctor didn’t take his eyes off the two in front of him, thinking that Jim’s barriers probably never had anything to do with sex and everything to do with his inability to surrender and his doubts as to his own worthiness. Fear of mental touch, perhaps, also, and trust. And all those barriers had tumbled down in the gentle, loving act in front of them. McCoy shook himself slightly and pulled the medical tricorder and sensor from his belt, taking several soft steps forward.

     His brow furrowed as he examined the readouts on the small screen. “Jim’s got two broken bones in his hand,” he muttered. “How the hell—?” He licked his lips. “They’re both in less than optimal shape overall, Spock especially. And their brainwave patterns are remarkably synchronized; I assume that has to do with the meld.” He frowned. “Their core body temperatures are down, and their heart rates.” He glanced back at Sarek. “How long will they—?”

     A soft gasp brought the doctor’s attention swiftly back to the two officers.

     “Jim?” Leonard lowered the sensor, returning the tricorder to his belt as he stepped forward and knelt beside his friends. The captain had lifted his head, blue eyes half-lidded but clear as he leaned back. Spock’s hand had dropped from the human’s face, arm loosening from around the captain’s body, but his eyes were still closed.

     “Bones.” Jim blinked wearily. “It’s alright. We’re alright, just…just tired. I want…we want to go to my quarters. Spock, too. I just—.”

     “Jim,” the doctor interrupted. “I’ve got to set your hand, and I have to keep you here for monitoring; you both just had surgery. I know you want your own bed; god knows I understand that, but I can’t just let you—.”

     Jim glared with as much challenge as he could probably muster, and Leonard frowned, glancing over to see Spock’s brown eyes open slowly.

     “What about you?” he asked, seeing heavy fatigue but no pain in the Vulcan’s eyes.

     The captain’s voice was frayed. “He’s exhausted, Bones; we both are.”

     But McCoy nodded at the Vulcan encouragingly. “Spock, are you alright?”

     “Y-yes.” Spock blinked and then tilted his chin to look up at his father. “The bond is sound. The pain is gone. T’Shin’s actions were successful, and ours.”

     “They should be kept together, Doctor,” Sarek murmured.

     Leonard heaved a sigh at the obviousness of that particular fact. “Jim, I’m sorry, but I have to keep you here.” He raised a quick hand as Jim’s mouth opened again. “You’re still not out of the woods, medically, and I don’t think you want the crew’s first vision of their miraculously recovered command team to be the two of you stumbling down the corridors.” He grunted. “If you could even walk that far, which I’m skeptical of.” The fact that Spock didn’t immediately correct him only cemented his resolve.

     “Now, I’m going to set your hand and not even ask how it happened. Then I’m gonna put you both up in the guest physician suite, which is off the main medbay. I can keep an eye on you and you won’t need to traipse through the hallways and you’ll get a real bed.” He paused, addressing them both, “Do you feel like eating something? Those IV supplements you got won’t do the trick for very long.”

     An expression of distaste crossed Spock’s face and Leonard saw Jim’s eyes turn toward his bondmate, a soft smile curving his lips, a significant silence stretching before the captain replied, “He still feels nauseous, Bones, but he’ll try to eat later. I could, uh, do with something.”

     Communication, Leonard recalled sharply, and he narrowed his eyes slightly. “I’ll get you a meal replacement shake; no sense in stressing your digestive system too much.” He hesitated. “Jim, can you and Spock—?”

     The small smile remained, despite the weakness in the captain’s voice. “It’ll come in handy for landing parties.”

     “Jesus.”

     “Such communication is indicative of a strong bond, Doctor,” Sarek intoned, and McCoy glanced at the floor to smother his own smile at the touch of relief and pride that colored the older Vulcan’s words.

     “Well, alright then.” Leonard pushed himself to his feet. “Just stay there and I’ll get you that shake and my bone knitter and we’ll get you moved over.” He sensed his own light-headedness, stress finally dissipating after hours of surgery and uncertainty and fear for his friends’ sanity and very lives, allowing himself a sigh, holding irrational hope that Scotty’s trace of that transporter signal would take at least another few hours. Something told him that neither Jim nor Spock would settle for being on the sidelines when they found out where their captor had escaped, and he couldn’t blame them. As he took one last quick glance down at the two men, his friends, their bodies and minds so recently and horribly traumatized, he knew that he himself would fight with everything he had to bring those responsible to justice, as would the entire crew. There was a good reason that the Enterprise was the best damn ship in the fleet.

 

*****

 

     They lay together under warm blankets, wrapped in darkness and in each other, their skin in blissful contact and the bond astonishingly clear and beautifully calm between them. Jim lay on his right side, his bondmate stretched against him, and the captain could feel the small, regular puffs of breath against his collarbone as Spock slept. But no matter how strongly slumber beckoned, Jim resisted, his eyes closed as he studied the gentle connection that swayed and glimmered between their relaxed minds.

     Finally without pain, without distress, finally without the threat of force or torture and surrounded by the scents and sounds and presence of his ship, Jim found himself free to be in awe of this connection that sustained them. It held dimensions of knowledge, now, of bitter experience and hard-won understanding. An undercurrent of love flowed naturally and deeply, swelling to match Jim’s emotions as he caressed his bondmate’s body, his newly mended hand moving up over warm skin to slide into silky hair. He could feel the subconscious healing that was happening in his Vulcan’s mind: shields building, strengthening, any remaining upheaval smoothing along the stable lines of the bond.

     To watch you sleep, untroubled. To sense your mind with mine, uncompelled.

     Finally, they were home, in body and soul.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: To The Heart Of The Matter

 

     A soft beeping noise roused the captain from a dreamless sleep, eyes slowly blinking open and taking in the featureless ceiling above him. He swallowed, flexing his hands, shifting his body, aware of the covers lying rumpled around and over him and the odd stillness pervading the room. The engines were quiet, their characteristic rumble fallen silent, and the only sound was the soft hiss of the recirculators. Jim breathed in deeply, assessing himself, tiredness and small aches and twinges reminding him that he wasn’t far removed from his previous injuries. But his attention skipped rapidly over those expected sensations to reach instinctively for the bond.

     Warm, present as a just-perceptible presence underlying his thoughts, far distant from any acute pain, far removed from previous chaos and uncertainty, it was pleasant and reassuring, and it was only when he mentally pressed that he felt the soft sussuration of his bondmate’s meditation: rhythmic thoughts and carefully controlled emotions.

     The captain heard the beeping again and slowly pushed the covers away, rising to drape his legs over the side of the bed, feeling slightly chilled air lift goose bumps on his exposed skin. He remembered falling into bed some hours before dressed in only a pair of loose shorts, content at the time to curl around a much warmer Vulcan body. Now, he shivered slightly, seeing Spock sitting placidly on the floor against the far bulkhead. The lights in the room were set to a soft glow, and Jim’s eyes eagerly traveled over his bondmate’s body. Spock was reassuringly dressed in his uniform blacks, posture straight and hands relaxed on his knees, hair shiny and combed, chest moving in gentle breaths and dreadful tension now absent from his face. Jim tentatively explored the bond again, not wanting to disturb the underlying calm and newfound order but feeling somewhat bereft, unaccustomed to this imposed restraint. He frowned slightly, realizing that he had become so used to his bondmate’s mind being desperately entwined with his that the Vulcan’s present reserve felt disturbing. Yet, as the captain sat there, sensing more and more of the repetitive exercise within his bondmate’s thoughts, his frown faded into a self-conscious half-smile. He had been so initially resistant to the idea of such profound contact and here he was, irritated by its temporary restriction. A pang of guilt and an urge to prove his commitment rose as he remembered the many harsh words he had thrown at his friend, ignorant of the Vulcan’s suffering and depth of feeling, and he winced, knowing that reconciliation between the insecurity of human impulses and the steadfast assurance of mental communion would take some time.

     The door in the main room abruptly opened and shut with a sharp hiss, and Jim turned his head, his attention immediately focusing on McCoy as the doctor paused at the entryway into the sleeping area.

     Bones held his hands up apologetically and shook his head. “Sorry to barge in, Jim, but I did hit the button. Twice.”

     Jim shrugged, unable to help a wide smile at the welcome sight of his friend. “Yeah, I thought I heard something.” He tilted his head toward the nearest bulkhead. “We’re docked?”

     McCoy smiled in return, walking forward to stand next to the bed, removing a portable scanner and tricorder from his belt as he threw an evaluating glance at Spock’s motionless form. “Yeah, safe and sound and all tucked in at Seventeen.”

     Jim hummed, stretching his arm and rolling his shoulders, inspecting the site of his worst injury as his friend waved the medical sensor. Soft, slightly discolored regenerated skin and lingering bruising and tightness were all that remained, and he leaned back, putting careful weight on his hands as McCoy studied the readouts.

     “Will I live?” the captain asked playfully, flashing another smile at his friend before his eyes found his bondmate again. His attention was drawn almost involuntarily back to their connection, and he found himself mentally worrying the warmth in his mind. He felt nervous for some reason, belying the calm being imposed by Vulcan discipline.

     He heard the doctor grunt and had to force himself to focus on his friend’s drawl. “Yeah, you’re okay. Everything’s back within norms except your weight, of course, and certain aspects of your brainwave patterns, but I suspect the latter has to do with that Vulcan bond.” He hesitated.

     Jim looked up. “What?”

     The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know, Jim. You look…different.”

     The captain sniffed and shrugged again, appreciating the freedom of motion and lack of pain in his shoulder. “They cut my hair.”

     “No, not that.” McCoy shifted his weight, hazel eyes studying the younger man intently. “You look…harder.” Emotion flashed over the doctor’s face. “Even after,” he swallowed, “even after the last time you died, you didn’t look like this.”

     “I didn’t die this time,” Jim replied softly, his eyes trailing back to Spock, his own emotions shifting fluidly and rapidly, and he had to fight a sudden wetness in his eyes. “But he almost did.” His brow furrowed. “And I was right there with him.”

     “Jim—,” Bones began carefully, “if you want to talk about it—.”

    “No,” the captain interrupted defensively. He shook his head quickly. “Not yet, Bones.”

     The doctor lowered his eyes to his tricorder again. “I gotcha.” His shoulders rose and fell in a deliberate breath as he looked up. “How do you feel right now, Jim?”

     The captain licked dry lips, his jaw tensing in an inexplicable burst of irritation. The nervousness was now dancing over his skin, and he wanted to touch his bondmate. He lifted a hand, flexing it as he peered up at his friend. “I don’t know, Bones. I feel a little agitated, I guess. Almost uncontrolled, if I had to describe it, and it seems to be getting worse.”

     “You’re experiencing hormonal spikes.” McCoy sighed, his eyes briefly shifting toward Spock. “Sarek mentioned something about this. He said there would be a period of settling, or instability. He was trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but I think I know Vulcan bullshit when I hear it.”

     “Shit.” Jim swallowed, sitting up fully and rolling his shoulders again. “Well, if we’re docked, we’ve got some time to—.”

     There was a distinct note of apology in the doctor’s voice as he broke in, “There’s a debrief scheduled in about an hour, and they want to see both of you. It’s why I had to come in here like this.”

     “Fuck.” Jim grimaced, aversion curling his gut as he glanced at Spock again, thinking of the questions, the intrusion, and the emotional disclosures that would be required of both of them. His emotions suddenly raged: anger, protectiveness, love, and as he felt a wakening glimmer along their bond he spoke quickly, lowering his voice, “Bones, Spock already gave a report. They just need my statement, right? He doesn’t have to be there.”

     McCoy frowned. “I’m sorry, Jim, but he does. You can imagine the state he was in when he made that report before. It gave Command something, but they have a whole lot of unanswered questions. They want a plan put in place for when Scotty finds out where Trislo disappeared, and I think they’re safely assuming that’s where those two missing high-ranking officers went, too. They want to shut this thing down as soon as possible.”

     “They’re contemplating an armed engagement.” The mention of Trislo’s name sent a shot of white-hot rage through him.

     “Oh, yeah,” McCoy replied. “The Aurora and the Excalibur are standing by, and all crewmembers are holding aboard ship.”

     “Fuck!” The bond sparked, and Jim felt a strong resonant sensation that radiated through his mind before it collapsed, fierce tension overlying the warmth that now pulsed at the back of his mind. He couldn’t help chasing it, wondering why it felt so infuriatingly restrained, lifting his fingers to his temples in concentration.

     “Jim.” The doctor’s voice was saturated with concern and frustration. “Jim!”

     The captain blinked, ignoring Bones momentarily as he saw Spock’s brown eyes open, the Vulcan’s gaze fastening immediately on Jim’s own as energy crackled between them, and Jim felt his stomach drop. Spock slowly rose in a fluid motion that approximated his usual grace, clasping his hands behind his back without looking away from his bondmate. “Captain. Doctor.” He still looked gaunt, his uniform baggy on his frame, and dark circles under his eyes.

     Jim exhaled and stood, trying to hide any lingering shakiness, stepping forward almost helplessly, driven by the anxiousness that thrummed over his body and the need that sang through his fingertips. He felt…he wanted…he… .

     The doctor was suddenly standing next to him, wielding his scanner at the Vulcan, and, startled, Jim bit back a possessive noise. Thwarted from immersion in their bond, he fell into instinctive mental communication as an impatient attempt to reach out.

     Are you okay?

     I am…uncertain, t’hy’la.

     The feeling of his bondmate’s response was liquid heat in his mind, soothing and yet leaving him wanting more, and Jim tensed. Why is the bond… ? His perceptions of its inexplicable narrowing and his own frustration were transmitted instantly.

     I am shielding, Jim. Full awareness between us may not be advisable at this time.

     The captain made a face and chewed his lip ferociously as McCoy spoke up, “Well, Spock, your physical readings are mostly back to normal and—.” He broke off, glancing from one man to the other. “Are you two alright?”

     “Yeah,” Jim said quickly, breaking his eyes away from his bondmate’s with difficulty. He felt trapped; he didn’t want to discuss this right now, he couldn’t discuss this, he didn’t want to be made to discuss this… .

     “Right.” McCoy glanced between them again and then sighed. “Jim, I hate to say this, but during the debrief you and Spock are going to need to—.”

     “I know, Bones,” Jim cut him off abruptly, licking his lips. “Look, can you give me a few minutes to get showered and dressed and, uh, caught up here?”

     “Sure,” McCoy replied slowly, looking distinctly worried. “Just page me when you’re ready; I’m supposed to transport over with you.” He hesitated. “Jim, do you want me to—?”

     “No.” Jim didn’t know what McCoy had been about to ask and didn’t watch him leave, the captain’s eyes inexorably drawn back to his bondmate, and the outer door had barely slid shut when Jim moved closer still, never breaking eye contact. “Let me in. Open it.”

     There was some danger lurking, something hidden in this unsatisfied need that vibrated between them, barely contained behind resolute shielding.

     “Do it.”

     The bond exploded between them and Jim’s breath caught in a shocked gasp, his knees buckling, and Spock’s steadying hands on his bare skin just made everything that much more intense, that much more inevitable. Brilliant and clear, streaming between them with unmitigated power, it commanded contact, touch, and the plunge of each into the other. Another gasp, and Jim surged up, their lips coming together and Jim’s fingers burying themselves in thick, black hair, feeling Spock’s hands slide along his back and shoulders. Energy sizzled everywhere: skipping along their skin, within their thoughts, in the heated contact of their bodies and the wet press of their mouths.

     Everything was spinning and then it was shut down, painfully tight, and Jim broke away with a near-whimper, trying to follow the heat behind steel mental barriers and failing.

     “What…the fuck?” he managed to whisper, and he took three rapid steps back, trying to regain his composure. His perception of the bond had returned to the unsettled presence at the back of his mind, something that was infinitely preferable to the tormented agony of their captivity, but deeply unfulfilling. He chewed his lip again, tasting iron and his bondmate’s mouth. “Spock? I thought we were okay! I thought—.” He stopped himself, staring at his first officer.

     The Vulcan was standing very still, his hands held out in front of him, the only evidence of his internal struggle being minute changes in his expression and a strangely muted shifting sensation over the bond. As Jim watched, the struggle was slowly won, and impassivity returned, his bondmate’s posture straightening, and the shadows falling from his eyes. Spock took a breath. “Jim, my mind has been largely healed, and our bond restored. However—.”

     “This is a big, fucking however!” Jim interrupted rather hysterically. He had a feeling where this was going, remembering that sense of escalation that had pushed them together before, remembering McCoy’s words and Sarek’s warning.

     He waited, wanting his bondmate’s mental voice to fill his mind, and he scowled as Spock lowered his eyes before continuing out loud, “T’hy’la, our bond is restored, but not yet settled. I must admit that I do not understand the…urgency completely, except that we are profoundly joined, and as our minds recovered, the depth of the connection sought to do so as well.” He met Jim’s eyes again. “We—.”

    Jim sighed as his bondmate trailed off somewhat helplessly. “We need to meld,” the captain finished, “and let it settle, and probably fool around and then sleep some more; pretty much anything except go and sit through a fucking debrief and then chase fucking Trislo around the fucking galaxy.” He was angry. He was exhausted and hungry again, and fucking angry. He wanted Spock and the intimate touch of their minds; he wanted to be left alone with his bondmate to find their equilibrium again. He didn’t want to be forced to discuss their ordeal in clinical terms, analyzing it strategically and watching his deeply private mate reveal the details of his torture to a room full of gawking brass.

     Jim felt the bond tighten even more and he fought to get hold of his rampant emotions, sensing that his underlying agitation was stemming from this imbalance between them. “No, don’t do that. Cutting yourself off from me isn’t going to work. I understand that opening up completely isn’t a good idea, but I need more than this. I need you.” He spoke rapidly, and then brittle humor flashed over his face, a half-smile curling his lips. “And if I can’t help climbing all over you in the conference room, then they’ll be just that much more inclined to let us have a honeymoon, right?”

     Spock was watching him intently, and then their mental connection began to open again, slowly this time, and carefully, and as the intensity increased, Jim felt his bondmate’s thoughts. The captain held his breath, sensing awe and love and longing, and realized that this was the first time either of them had considered the more practical side of the commitment they had made to each other. The pull between them grew and the bond shone, and Jim lifted his chin defiantly, maintaining the distance between them, testing himself. Now, knowing what to expect, it seemed a little easier, and Jim raised an eyebrow in deliberate mimicry of his bondmate, letting his held breath out in a tight exhale, seeing a small, answering smile offered on Spock’s lips.

     It was manageable. Not optimal, and not even comfortable, but functional. And he’d rather have Spock’s mind open to him and spend the meeting trying to fight the draw of the bond than return to that maddening shielding and get thrown out of the Fleet for gross insubordination and probably punching a superior officer.

     I do not believe it would come to that, t’hy’la.

     Jim smiled, mentally bathing in Spock’s directed thought. “Yeah, my arm’s still a little shaky; I’d probably just tell them to go fuck themselves.” He sobered, watching his mate closely, meeting large brown eyes. “I meant what I said about that honeymoon.”

     The Vulcan’s expression didn’t change, but Jim could feel Spock’s strong inclination to touch him. He could feel it: Spock wanted to kiss him in the Vulcan way, to let his hands drift over Jim’s body, exploring, to let his mouth follow in a more human intimacy. And this, too, was a new dimension for them: to openly and plainly desire sexual closeness, to touch for more than comfort and survival, to add excitement and lust to protective devotion.

     “Fuck,” Jim muttered, and he closed his eyes. His body, still weakened, hadn’t responded quite as fast as his now-overheated mind, but it was getting there. “Well,” he said dryly, “I guess it’s going to be a cold shower, then.”

 

*****

 

     Command gold had never felt so substantial, the bars on Jim’s sleeves never so personally significant. Even when he had risen to the captaincy, even after his death in the warp core; somehow the moment when he pulled his uniform shirt over his head this time caused a shift in his soul. He hadn’t understood until he had met his bondmate’s eyes and realized that, along with the roar and crash of love and pain and longing, their connection could also convey simpler feelings of pride and wellbeing, gratitude and gentle happiness. The bond was deliberately unguarded, its openness seeming to mitigate the worst of the present acute draw between them, and he could sense his bondmate’s emotions resonating with Jim’s own, responding to and complementing them in a way that, he realized, could be potentially dangerous with the instability still lurking between them.

     But despite that vulnerability, all he could feel now, as they strode shoulder to shoulder down the corridor of their ship, was a steady confidence underlying his own, a belief in himself that bolstered his own. It was significant, and he could see its effect in the crewmembers that stepped respectfully to the side as their newly recovered command team passed. There was excitement and relief, but there was also a subtle look of awe and pride. There was wonder, and on the faces of Starfleet officers that was no small thing. Jim’s misgivings and fears about the approaching debrief faded somewhat in the overwhelming feeling of home, here on their ship with his t’hy’la at his side, dressed in his uniform and free of pain.

     He soaked in the connectedness he felt within their link, considering the way it could, and probably would, define their relationship. It struck him that humans tended to assume so much and reveal so little, relying heavily on intuition and relative perception of emotion. This openness and access between them seemed so reassuring, and to be able to know, beyond a doubt, his bondmate’s regard for him was empowering, and a little frightening. Their reliance on each other was obvious, but this debrief would test their ability to maintain independence despite the bond. They were, first and foremost, responsible for the lives of their crew, and their new relationship had already presented its share of evident weaknesses as well as strengths.

     We wouldn’t be the first command team to be in a personal relationship, Jim asserted mentally as they approached the transporter room, nodding to a smiling ensign as she passed them.

     We would be the first to be involved in a telepathic bond, his mate sent, the words coalescing in the human’s mind.

     Bleak emotions abruptly swelled, breaking their calm as Jim’s thoughts scattered to uncharacteristically dwell over potential bad outcomes, and the captain sensed his bondmate’s body tense even with the distance between them.

     This could make or break us if I can’t get ahold of myself, he thought, trying to push through the heated feelings, exasperated and disgusted with himself, feeling Spock’s discipline surge, asserting some control.

     It shall do neither, Jim. It simply is. I shall be at your side in this as in all things.

     They stepped through the doors to the transporter room together, and Jim nodded to the operator, seeing McCoy standing by the platform.

     “Hey, Jim,” Bones said, peering closely at both of them. “Spock. How are you?” His eyebrows lifted skeptically. “You look a little better.”

     “We’ll be alright,” Jim replied quickly, squaring his shoulders. “As long as they don’t drag this out.”

     McCoy furrowed his brow, glancing over at the transporter technician and lowering his voice. “Afterwards, if you’re feeling up to it, Captain Sears was asking for you.  I’ve transferred him over to Base medical already, along with Nerit and T’Shin. Sarek’s arranged transport back to New Vulcan for the healer, but he’s on his way to the debrief.”

     Jim sensed a glimmer of surprise from his bondmate. “They’re letting him sit in?”

     McCoy nodded. “I got the impression that he didn’t give them much choice; he’s representing the Federation Council and I think he’s got some things to say regarding Starfleet accountability and transparency, particularly leading into this likely confrontation. Also, he’s not too happy about the two of you being dragged over there so soon, especially with the, uh, kind of obvious—.” His voice trailed off and he sighed. “And I’ll be there right with you the whole time.” He looked again at Spock, but the Vulcan exhibited no outward reaction.

     “You sure you’re both alright, Jim?” Bones persisted, tilting his head at the Vulcan. “I can pull the medical card if things get dicey in there, but the order for your presence came directly from Admiral Jung herself.”

     Spock lifted his chin as his dark eyes slid toward the doctor, replying with deliberate lack of inflection, “We are functional.” His thoughts had slid back into a near-meditative state, focused on maintaining control along the bond.

     “Great,” Bones muttered darkly, but it was obvious that his anger wasn’t directed at his two friends.

     “Gentlemen,” Jim said impatiently, wanting to get this over with. He gestured toward the platform. “Shall we?” His hands itched to reach out and touch his bondmate, and he curled them into fists, bringing them purposely to his sides.

     McCoy followed them up, watching carefully as Spock kept deliberate distance from the captain. “Jim?” the doctor murmured almost inaudibly as he stood next to his friend.

     “It’ll be fine, Bones,” Jim replied, his tone matching the doctor’s. “We’ve just got to get through this meeting and then we can deal with it.”

     “Right,” McCoy replied bitterly. “Just the meeting, and whatever clusterfuck space battle comes after.”

     Jim didn’t answer, sensing his friend’s frustrated helplessness and all too aware of his own. He recognized the doctor’s taut body language: McCoy was stewing, and ready to fight, and echoes of the doctor’s growing rage were flashing against Spock’s telepathy.

     I think the clusterfuck is coming sooner than we think, he sent, feeling the bond expand and contract in a mental sigh.

     Resigned, Jim nodded to the operator. “Energize.”

 

*****

 

     The air on the Starbase was chilly and felt slightly humid against Jim’s skin, and as the last swirls of energy faded from his vision he saw a young ensign step briskly forward, offering a quick salute.

     “Sirs, welcome to Starbase Seventeen. If you would follow me, I’ll show you to our main conference room. Commodore Jónsson and the others are ready for you.” The ensign appeared nervous, and turned almost immediately toward the door without waiting for an acknowledgment.

     Jim exchanged a quick glance with McCoy, sensing his bondmate’s controls strengthen as the captain’s own anticipation rose. He knew without looking that Spock had slid into complete impassivity, meditative exercise continuing to dominate his surface thoughts, mitigating their response to each other without forcing mental shielding between them. Jim steeled himself, stepping down from the platform and leading his two officers after the rapidly retreating ensign.

     As they walked down a brightly lit central corridor, Jim recognized the layout. Seventeen, a class-VII defensible orbital station circling the largest planet of the Beta Perseii system, doubled as a supply depot and security checkpoint, and most of the personnel who passed were wearing operations uniforms. He heard the doctor grumbling under his breath beside him and nudged his friend gently with his elbow, managing a lighter tone, “C’mon, Bones. I already have to deal with Sarek making a scene; I don’t want to have to worry about you, too.”

     The doctor snorted, replying quietly, “Any scene that Vulcan makes is completely justified and perfectly fine with me. They’re the ones who screwed up,” he jerked his chin at the hapless, scurrying ensign in front of them, “and then they’ve got the gall to demand you hurry up and get over it so you can tell them what to do next.”

     Jim pressed his lips together, struggling to contain his own emotions as the doctor’s words grew more impassioned. “Everything you’ve already suffered, everything you and Spock have already done, and they abandoned you, labeling your whole crew as traitors instead of trying to figure out what had really happened.”

     “Bones.”

     “Dammit, Jim!”

     “Time is of the essence, Doctor,” Spock said softly, keeping pace from just behind the two humans. “The security of the Federation is at stake.”

     “Yeah?” Bones threw a glance over his shoulder. “Well, you know what else is ‘of the essence’? Making sure that you two have your brains squared away after all that mental voodoo. Making sure that you’re given time to properly deal with this.” He huffed. “Fifty credits says Jung puts you right back in the center seat, completely willing to allow you the honor of dying for your flag yet again.”

     Jim shrugged. “Our duty, Bones. And in that case she won’t be giving us any shit about the bond.”

     McCoy frowned, muttering, “Or maybe she and the rest of the brass are hoping that you lose your shit and put a preemptive photon torpedo right through Trislo and the others and get rid of the problem once and for all. And even without the bond, you’re in no condition to—.”

     The doctor broke off as the ensign approached a large set of doors flanked by two security guards and Jim drew in a deep breath, struggling to center himself, aware of Spock doing the same.

     Here we go.

     The doors slid open, the ensign moving to side to allow the three officers to enter, and Jim stepped through, aware of the men inside getting to their feet, seeing the Chief of Starfleet Operations on the large viewscreen at the front of the room. The atmosphere inside the conference room was palpably tense, and Jim had never seen Sarek appear quite so severe, the lines of the Vulcan’s face hardening ever further as his dark eyes swept between his son and Jim, evidently recognizing their inner turmoil.

     As Commodore Jónsson reached to shake his hand, Jim sensed a hastily suppressed spike of possessiveness from his bondmate and surreptitiously glanced over to see Spock’s expression dangerously blank and McCoy hovering behind him.

     Jim released the commodore’s hand after only brief contact, but the older man didn’t seem to notice. Instead, Jónsson retreated almost immediately to stand next to his seat, gesturing to the others in the room by way of introduction.

     “Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, Doctor McCoy, thank you for joining us on such short notice and under such circumstances.” He appeared deflated, despite his polite words, and somewhat abashed. “I’m sure you know everyone here. Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan, of course, representing the Federation Council on this security matter, Captains Herschel Slater and Bakri Awad of the Aurora and Excalibur, patrolling this sector, and Admiral Jung at Headquarters. And, I know we’ve spoken, Captain Kirk, but it is a privilege to meet you in person, and your officers. Please.” He waved his hand toward three empty chairs nearest to the door, and waited until the three men had moved to sit before nodding to Jung.

     Onscreen, Admiral Jung lifted her chin. “Please be seated, all of you.” There was a tight silence as chairs shifted, and Jim sat down, aware that the admiral’s eyes had not left him, the assembled officers waiting with an air of expectation. Sarek’s eyes, on the other hand, were on his son, the older Vulcan’s expression shockingly open and strained.

     The admiral folded her hands on the desk visible in front of her and leaned toward the vid pickup. “Captain James Kirk and Commander Spock, on behalf of the entire Starfleet and particularly the Admiralty, I would like to apologize for your prolonged ordeal and for the negligence and failures that led to it.”

     She swallowed visibly, a muscle moving in her jaw. “As you are aware, Vice-Admiral Th’rilun and Commander Drew Linn have been declared missing. As you might not be aware, both of these officers were primarily responsible for deflecting and diverting the inquiries made by members of your crew and by Ambassador Sarek as to the possibility of your survival and your whereabouts. Given those facts and the timing of their disappearance, I am confident that finding your captor will lead us to finding these officers and uncovering the truth of this matter.”

     She lowered her eyes briefly before looking again at Jim. “Captain, I realize that you and Commander Spock have both been subjected to considerable trauma and that you are not yet cleared for duty, but you can understand that time is limited and any answers and insights you give us will—.”

     “I understand, ma’am,” Jim interrupted suddenly, his voice rough, the bond itself almost unbearably taut. “That’s why we’re here.” It crossed his mind that this was going to be even more difficult than he had anticipated.

     “Of course.” She nodded, and Jim heard another shift of movement around him as PADDs were adjusted, noting the soft beep of the room’s recorder readiness indicator. “Let’s begin with what you know about Kellen Trislo.”

 

*****

 

     The next two hours passed at a grueling pace as Jim painstakingly described their capture, the Orion involvement, and the particulars of the slave ship itself and its cult history. He discussed the androids, and Trislo’s adept and cruel exploitation of the technology from the RX-54 project. He indicated, in detail, the weapon that had been sought and the manner in which the plans had been pursued: the deaths of previous unnamed and unnumbered telepaths, including other Vulcans. And he managed to unemotionally describe the horrors of his first officer’s treatment, the reason behind their bonding, and the subterfuge that led to their escape and the deaths of almost all the others.

     His voice was raw from speaking and from withheld emotion, and his hands gripped his own knees with white knuckles under the table as he forced himself not to touch Spock, afraid of what would happen. The questions had been directed primarily to him, thankfully, but Jim had resented every curious and speculative glance toward his bondmate. He had noticed, though, that his protective anger was not unique to himself. Sarek had grown visibly pale, his mouth in a thin line, and the older Vulcan’s hands were clasped tightly on the table in front of him.

     Admiral Jung cleared her throat. “The transcripts from the engagement with the unidentified Hydra indicated that Trislo had determined the problem with the weapon’s functionality. We have to assume that it may still be a threat.”

     Jim shook his head. “It involved raw materials native to Cassia Belomni II, ma’am. I doubt that—.”

     Jung interrupted, “Those materials could have been available elsewhere, or manufactured. It seems that the larger organization which employed her could have—.”

     Now Jim broke in, his voice slightly raised. “Kellen Trislo was employed by Section Thirty-one, ma’am, hired by Marcus and overseeing RX-54. When that entity collapsed, she was essentially black balled. Her actions since then have been aimed at returning to pursue her former projects by any means necessary. She made contact with the Klingons, promising them the weapon in exchange for secrecy and operational autonomy, using a ship and personnel that had been linked to her own family. Her ambitions were her own.”

     Commodore Jónsson frowned. “But she was transported away by someone who was looking for her; they knew about her embedded transmitter signal. And the involvement of the Klingons has been officially denied by their government—.”

     “If you remember, Commodore, our involvement on Qo’noS in pursuit of Khan Noonian Singh was categorically denied by our government,” said Jim dryly. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

     Admiral Jung cleared her throat. “Trislo’s ambitions may have been her own, but that doesn’t rule out her involvement being aided by someone else, or the possibility of a larger organization pulling strings behind the scenes to get her to do what they want, letting her do the dirty work to acquire the weapon. We’ve since discovered the name of Linn’s contact, apparently in Trislo’s employ, with origination comm tags consistent with the Belomni system.”

     “Who?” Jim demanded.

     “A man named Hsieh,” she replied. “We’re currently running a search, but—.”

     “He was with Trislo,” Jim said darkly. He was reaching the end of his endurance and he could feel his emotions spiking uncontrollably, agitation boiling, his fingernails digging into his palms under the table. His voice was a taut hiss. “I knew him.”

     Captain Awad raised his hand. “Captain Kirk, how did you—?”

     “If I may,” Spock interjected, and silence swept across the room as Jim closed his eyes in gratitude for the reprieve. The Vulcan lifted his chin. “I am privy to Captain Kirk’s impressions and perceptions through our bond. Given what we know, I hypothesize that Kellen Trislo was allowed some autonomy, given her psychology and considering that her methods were consistent with overall disruption. Trislo’s mannerisms and actions during our captivity indicated that her own self-interest was paramount, and that while she may have cultivated multiple options to further her own aims, including a Klingon ta' qI', her personal end game was simply to prove a destructive force to the organization that had relegated her to obscurity.”

     Jung nodded. “You mean Starfleet.”

     “Affirmative, ma’am,” Spock replied.

     Jim swallowed, having collected himself. “Hsieh was also devoted to the idea of destroying Starfleet, but for a much different reason.

     “Elaborate,” Jung ordered.

     Jim continued, leaning forward, “He was on Belishea. He blamed Starfleet for that tragedy as well as Vulcan, and Tarsus IV. He held personal loyalty to Admiral Marcus, even going so far as to act as an independent mercenary, managing to escape the crash of the Vengeance unnoticed. His connection with Trislo was, from what I could tell, based on a misunderstanding of her own motivations, but someone had to set up that initial meeting between them.”

     Spock looked at his bondmate. “Indeed. And Trislo’s own history suggests that—.”

     Jim jumped in, meeting intense brown eyes, “—there might be other scientists that had been involved with shady Thirty-one projects that were also left out in the cold when—.”

     “—Marcus fell. Intelligent, initially selected for their questionable morals, not without independent means, and with strong personal grievances against Starfleet, it would make sense that they would seek to join with other similarly-minded individuals to—.”

     “—bring down the whole thing!” Jim exclaimed.

     Spock inclined his head. “They would have embraced the passion of survivors of tragedies such as Belishea, and Tarsus, using anger and desire for revenge.” He paused, continuing more quietly, “The existence of fringe groups of Vulcan survivors with similar motives has been noted.”

     “They’re opportunists,” Jim said. “They’d have embraced Trislo’s little deal with the Klingons. And if her situation is any indication, these people may have significant knowledge of black-ops and developmental weaponry and design, access to ships at the least, and awareness of and communication with major non-Fleet players. Who knows what else they’ve got going on, and evidently enough money and influence to bribe or otherwise influence high-ranking Starfleet officers.”

     “Indeed,” Spock continued, “they could present sufficient motive for anyone who displayed dissatisfaction or desired disruption by offering financial incentive or by reference to more emotional considerations.”

     The rest of the room, including McCoy, sat with their mouths open, apparently at Jim and Spock’s seamless interaction and analysis.

     “So,” Captain Slater spoke up tentatively, “we’re looking for whom exactly? Survivors of Tarsus IV and Belishea? Of Vulcan? Scientists and analysts who were fired after Thirty-one collapsed? Haven’t we accounted for the latter?”

     “No,” Jung said shortly. She looked shocked, one hand over her mouth. “No, we didn’t. We moved on. We shuttered Thirty-one and moved on, maybe too fast. We thought that stopping those projects was enough.” Jim abruptly remembered Nyota’s analysis; she appeared to have been right.

     “But why take Kirk?” asked Jónsson suddenly, breaking into the stunned silence. “Why the kidnapping, if all this was going on already, unnoticed.”

     In the wake of their rapid and intuitive communication, Jim couldn’t help himself from reaching out surreptitiously to his mate under the table, feeling Spock’s warm fingers curl around his, their bond widening and absorbing much of the jagged energy. He exhaled in relief, replying almost absently, “She wanted Spock. She almost had the weapon figured out, but she needed a strong telepath with Vulcan mental discipline and, as she said, hopefully without enough control to commit suicide.” He met Spock’s eyes again. “None of those she had kidnapped before lasted very long. Maybe she expected the weapon to be realized quickly, before any traction could be made on an investigation. I was just along for the ride.”

     “Perhaps not entirely,” Captain Bakri Awad said slowly. “No, I suspect that your disappearance may have been secondarily coordinated as much as Commander Spock’s, given what we know of the insider involvement. No matter what befell you after the abduction, you would be gone, and that would be enough if creating instability within Starfleet had been the ultimate goal. Response to your deaths was…quite disruptive.”

     There was a soft murmur of assent, and then Jim heard Sarek speak. “What I do not yet understand,” the ambassador said, “is the complete avoidance of my requests, and the requests of my two sons’ shipmates to further the investigation.” His voice was low and held a dangerous note, his gaze focused on the table, and Jim felt a chill go down his own spine.

     “Your two sons?” Jung had furrowed her brow, and Jim saw a muscle in her cheek twitch. She was trying to stall.

     Sarek lifted his chin smoothly to regard her, an eyebrow arching imperiously. “They are bonded, Admiral. James Kirk is now a full citizen of New Vulcan, and, under Federation law, holds all applicable rights and protections.” He placed subtle emphasis on the last word. The bond flushed with a strong sense of Spock’s satisfaction and pride, and Jim leaned forward in his seat, his fingers tightening on his bondmate’s hand.

    Awad’s eyes had widened, he, Slater and Jónsson sitting completely still in their chairs as if they couldn’t believe what was happening. Onscreen, Jung pressed her lips together. “Yes, and that’s something that still needs to be—.”

     “Despite,” Sarek interrupted, “the involvement of two or more conspirators within your command structure, the supposed deaths of these two highly decorated officers as well as other officers and members of the diplomatic corps in an unexplained terrorist act should have resulted in a more in-depth inquiry.”

     Holy shit, Jim sent.

     Indeed, t’hy’la, my father can be quite formidable. Spock’s mental voice rang with something like Jim’s own particular brittle humor and the captain had to force down an impulsive smirk.

     Jung actually stammered. “I agree, Ambassador, but—.”

     “These two officers have now twice exposed conspiracy and decay in the system, and at a time when confidence in Starfleet is at an all-time low. Perhaps their deaths were seen as a convenience that would allow a sad era of Starfleet hypocrisy to fade with their memories. As so much of Section Thirty-one’s secrets were simply allowed to fade, which is, I suspect, fundamentally why we are sitting here now.”

     The admiral’s voice rose. “Ambassador Sarek, Captain Kirk and your son are two of our greatest heroes; why would we—?”

     “Additionally,” Sarek continued, speaking over the Chief of Starfleet Operations as if it were nothing at all, “the disposition of RX-54 is of paramount importance. Considering the telepathic component of their technology, as well as the existence of the equivalent to katric essences, I find it most disturbing that such discoveries were not disclosed while the project was under Starfleet control. Federation law mandates such disclosure; indeed, partly for the very reason that Spock was taken.

     “I submit, Admiral, that the era of, as colloquially stated, ‘pushing things under the carpet’ is finished.  These conspirators will be found, and when they are, will they be dealt with completely, or will they and their motives be concealed in order to protect a public image? Will my sons be called upon again in another few years’ time to bleed and to endure torture, to personally suffer because of yet another insidious plot, abandoned by the very organization they have sworn to defend?”

     Jim mentally whistled, feeling his own heart pounding. He chanced a glance over at McCoy, seeing the doctor smiling and nodding, his arms crossed over his chest.

     Jung lifted a hand at the vid pickup. “Ambassador. I—.”

     “Their bond will not be used in judgment against their continued command.”

     Jim held his breath.

     “No!” Jung exclaimed quickly. “In fact, it is strategically—.” She trailed off under Sarek’s astonishing glare and winced, deliberately looking away to regard Jim.

     “We want you back in the center chair, Kirk. And Spock. Depending, of course, on your medical clearance,” she glanced briefly at McCoy, who had sobered and was regarding her with a near-scowl, “and your willingness to accept command.” She drew in a breath. “And as soon as possible. When we find out where the conspiracy is centered, I intend to go after them aggressively.”

     Slater half-raised his hand. “They might not have all congregated in a single place, though, ma’am.”

     Jung still looked discomfited, but she nodded, addressing the captain of the Aurora. “That is a risk, however—.” Her words trailed off as the door to the room slid open.

     “Beggin’ ye pardon!” Jim turned, unable to help a fond smile as he saw Scotty skid forward, a PADD clutched tightly in his hands and Nyota a step behind him. The engineer glanced around the room before addressing Jung, “Ma’am, I’m Montgomery Scott, chief engineer of—.”

     Her reply was brusque. “Yes, Mr. Scott. Do you have something for us?”

     “Ah managed to complete tha’ transporter signal trace, w’ a’little help from Lieutenant Uhura here.” He paused, looking at Nyota with a fond grin. “Th’ lass lives and breathes subspace tunneling an’ resonant frequencies.”

     “What did you find, Scotty?” Jim asked, reluctantly releasing his mate’s hand to turn completely, facing his two officers. Nyota was looking intently at Spock, her forehead creased with worry. As her dark eyes slid to him, Jim offered her a small smile, seeing her shoulders relax slightly.

     Scotty nodded crisply, addressing his captain. “They’re on Belishea Colony, sir.”

    Jónsson made a face. “That’s impossible. Belishea has been shut down since the plague ravaged it. It’s been under quarantine for a decade.”

     “Na, Commodore, th’ equations are accurate. Ah wrote them, didn’t I?” He glanced at Jim, muttering almost under his breath, “Well, mostly, tha’ is.”

     Jim let out a chuckle. “Yeah, you did, Scotty. At one time or another.”

     “Right.” Scott raised his eyebrows and shifted his weight. “So, uh, wha’ are we goin’ ta’ do abou’ it?”

     Jim slowly stood, sensing Spock rise next to him, and even Admiral Jung seemed to be waiting for his answer.

     What do you think? he sent to his bondmate.

     I am with you, Captain.

     Jim could feel Spock’s steadfast support and determination, and he directed a teasing thought in return, Yeah, you are. He knew that they might not be ready; he could still feel the instability tremble along the edges of their bond, but he could sense strength, too, and a powerful rapport. And he couldn’t imagine confronting this threat from anywhere but the command chair.

     “Let’s go,” he said firmly.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: Convergence

 

     With McCoy a disapproving shadow behind him, Jim left the conference room with purposefully confident strides, feeling the muscles in his leg stretch awkwardly as he headed toward the base medical facility. The ghost of his previous injury mirrored the trembling discomfort along the bond as distance grew between him and Spock; the first officer even now on his way back to the Enterprise with Nyota and Scotty. Sarek had remained behind, ostensibly to speak further with Jung regarding Healer T’Shin’s condition and the dispensation of the RX-54 site.

     “You sure you know where you’re going, Captain?” the doctor asked, and Jim could practically taste his friend’s sarcasm, the not-so-subtle emphasis on his title, and the underlying double meaning.

     “I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Jim replied tersely, hoping he was keeping the exhaustion out of his voice. The impromptu battle group was leaving within the hour; three heavy cruisers headed to Belishea Colony with the Enterprise, and Jim, in command. It was unknown exactly what they would find in terms of resistance, but the three captains had agreed with Jung on the need for immediate, aggressive action. Between the defection of two high-ranking Starfleet officers and the distinct possibility that Trislo’s involvement may have allowed the weapon’s successful realization, the consensus was that Fleet needed to strike now and strike hard and hope to hell the conspirators hadn’t built more than one.

     The captain’s words were met with an irritated snort, and McCoy easily matched his friend’s strides, lowering his voice to a hiss as they continued down the corridor. “You’re not well, Jim, you or your First. That was a hell of a lot of stress put on both of you and your relationship with each other changed drastically in ways you haven’t had time to deal with yet, personally or professionally.”

     He jabbed a finger back in the direction they had come. “And I know they don’t care; fuck if they’re thinking of anything besides getting their own asses out of this fucking mess. But I care. Jim!” he exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing his friend’s arm, forcing the captain to a stop and moving to meet his eyes intently. “Jim, I saw, and I heard what happened. I had your blood on my hands, for god’s sake, and Spock’s! I saw you together and I know what’s still there. You’re both hurting and you’re both vulnerable and that’s a dangerous fucking combination in a command team. You need more time!”

     Jim pressed his lips together, glancing around them before looking at his friend, his voice strained. “I know, Bones. I know. But whom else are they going to send? Who knows the situation better than I do? Trislo, the weapon; hell, I know the specs on the fucking thing.” He paused. “Spock and I will be alright.”

     McCoy shook his head, his hand still firm on Jim’s arm, concern evident in every line on his face. “It’s my job to make sure that the person in that chair is ready to be there, psychologically and physically, and, Jim, I don’t know if I can say that right now with any certainty.”

     The captain frowned. “You said my readings were back within norms.”

     McCoy huffed, “Yeah, but—.”

     Jim replied, “You don’t have time for a psych profile.”

     “No shit! But I have eyes.”

     “That won’t fly,” the captain countered. “Not on the record, if that’s where you want to take this.”

     “Dammit!” McCoy let go of Jim’s arm abruptly, his fist clenching as if he wanted to hit the wall next to them.

     Jim’s voice grew quiet, his eyes searching his friend’s profile. “Bones, you can stop this.” He took a small step forward, seeing the doctor flinch. “Listen! I’m not so fucking dense that I would ignore your professional opinion. But I need to know that’s what it is and not… . Bones, listen to me!”

     The captain took another step closer and reached out to place a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I need to know that it’s not just concern for me, as a friend. Because I feel…I know that I need to be in that chair, and Spock next to me.” His fingers pressed into the doctor’s uniform. “We’ve been through hell, but we took fucking notes along the way. We earned this knowledge through brutal fucking experience and we need to see it through.”

     McCoy exhaled loudly, rubbing a hand over his face, muttering under his breath. He licked his lips, glancing up and down the corridor again. “I’m not going to ground you, Jim, but I want—.” He paused before continuing, “I want you to understand that you’re not fucking superhuman. There’s a point—.” His words choked off and he took a deep shuddering breath. “Fuck.”

     Jim nodded, his grip gentling. “I know that better than anyone. I’m your friend, and his bondmate, but I’m the captain first.” Jim finally let go, squaring his shoulders and meeting the doctor’s hazel eyes directly. “Bones, you know me better than anyone except for Spock, and he’s in my head; if you can tell me that you think I’m being driven by ego or pride or vengeance or anything like that, then I’ll step down.”

     McCoy hesitated before speaking again, almost whispering in a voice full of emotion. “They tortured you, Jim; they tortured the man you love. It’s only human to want revenge. Hell, I fucking want revenge.”

     Jim took a sharp breath, involuntarily reaching for his bondmate’s mind along their connection. He wanted so badly; he needed… . He shook his head decisively, dispelling the worst of the draw by brute force of will. “I do…want revenge. But wanting something and acting on it are two very different things.”

     A silence stretched between them before McCoy slowly nodded. “Okay.” The doctor lifted his chin, taking a small step back, blinking rapidly. “Well,” he continued in his normal, louder drawl, “the way things are going, if you pull this off, they may offer you a spot on the Admiralty.”

     Jim managed a small smile. “Not a chance.”  He jerked his chin down the corridor. “C’mon, Bones. Let’s talk to Sears and then get ourselves back home.”

 

*****

 

     “Jim!”

     Keisha Moore’s happy shout echoed in the heavy near-silence of the medical wing as the captain and doctor stepped through the doors to the recovery unit.

     Jim smiled in greeting, and the older woman strode briskly toward him, looking him over critically before engulfing him in a quick, careful embrace.

     “You’re better? And Spock?”

     “Getting there.” Jim glanced over her shoulder as she pulled away and murmured a greeting to the doctor Sears was lying on the nearest bed, eyes closed and looking pale beneath his shock of red hair. Izumi and Lefty were standing on the far side of the bed and they nodded at Jim, Lefty lifting his hand in an impromptu wave, the larger man’s eyes brightening.

     The captain focused again on the Biloxi’s medic who was still watching him intently, and slightly skeptically. “We’re doing okay,” he insisted, tapping his head. “Here, too.”

     “I’m glad.” Moore frowned, her eyes following McCoy as the doctor crossed the room to confer with one of the nurses standing next to another bed. Jim barely recognized the motionless form under the blue blankets. Nerit. He swallowed, thinking of the blonde woman’s role in Trislo’s operation: the slave’s pragmatism and devotion, brittle determination, and her indomitable will to survive. She had saved their lives, and yet he could tell from McCoy’s expression that her status was not yet stable.

     Moore’s dark eyes shifted back to Jim, a smile again curving her lips as she appraised him again. “So you’re back in uniform; you look good.” She furrowed her brow. “They’re not telling us much, but one look at you tells me that you’re outbound again, and soon.”

     The captain took a breath and she lifted a hand, saying, “I’m not even going to ask. All I need to know is that you’re going to get that woman, and anyone else who’s a part of it.” Her jaw tightened. “I need to know that you’re going to make this right.”

     “I will,” Jim replied solemnly.

     “Good.” She lowered her eyes briefly and then turned toward the bed, the serious tone of her voice vanishing into taut humor. “Iz, shake Sears awake, will you? Jim’s got a ship to catch.”

     The petite engineer smiled sweetly before leaning close to Sears’ ear and saying obnoxiously, “Wake the fuck up, Mike! Your prince’s here, but I doubt he’s gonna kiss you.”

     Lefty snorted and Moore rolled her eyes, muttering, “Jesus, he’s never going to live this down.”

     The injured man’s eyes fluttered open and he blinked groggily at the ceiling. “What?”

     Izumi spoke more gently. “Kirk’s here, Mike.”

     “Fuck, really?” Sears turned his head on the pillow as Jim stepped closer to the bed. “No shit!”

     Jim smiled. “You didn’t think I’d show up?”

     Sears winced and shook his head. “I kinda fucked things up for you, Captain.”

     Jim shrugged. “I could argue that you saved our lives, too, though.”

     Lefty grunted sarcastically. “It was dumb luck.” But there was frank emotion in his eyes as he watched his friend.

     Jim continued gravely, “Spock and I might not have made it to Seventeen without medical attention. We wouldn’t have confirmed the Klingon involvement, or had the chance to contact the Enterprise. In fact, that Hydra would probably have captured us and we’d be right back where we started or, probably more preferably, dead.”

     Sears frowned and Jim said softly, “You lost your ship, and almost your life. Just know that I’m grateful. I can’t guarantee anything until all this shakes out, but I can promise that I’ll do my best to see that you get another vessel, if you want.”

     The bounty captain’s eyes lit up, and Izumi replied, a fond smile on her face directed at the reclining man, “This time, I promise he’ll be more careful with my engines, Captain.”

     “Thanks, Captain Kirk,” Sears mumbled, his voice thick and the gleam of unshed tears in his eyes.

     Moore gently touched Jim’s arm, saying firmly, “Alright, Mike. You need your rest.”

     Jim nodded to her before addressing Sears. “Good luck, Captain. I’ll be in touch.”

     The smile on the other man’s face was dazzling, and Jim suppressed a chuckle as Izumi covered her eyes and Lefty grinned broadly.

     Moore led him away, almost to the door. “I appreciate your stopping by, Jim.”

     Jim watched her. “Something tells me you’re not going to be signing up with Sears again.”

     She shook her head. “No, I’m not. I’m actually thinking of joining up with the medic corps in Starfleet; maybe see if I can get my M.D. eventually. Leonard said he’d sponsor me.”

     “We’d be lucky to have you.” Jim furrowed his brow. “Can I ask—?”

     She shook her head definitively, an enigmatic smile on her face. “I’ve got a whole life story that you have no time for right now. It’s not that interesting anyway, except for this most recent part. Thank you, Jim, for the adventure, and the inspiration. Tell Spock that I’ll be better versed in xenophysiology when I next see him.” She held out her hand as McCoy walked over to stand by Jim’s side.

     Jim took it. “I’ll see you again, Keisha.”

     She nodded tightly, her eyes narrowing and her grip firming around his hand. “Give ‘em hell. For all of us.”

 

*****

 

     The swirling transporter energy dissipated before his eyes as an unexpected spike of numbing emotion suddenly sparked in Jim’s mind: relief, longing, excited anticipation in spite of his tiredness. He was home and Spock was nearby; Jim could feel his bondmate’s presence as a powerful draw along their bond, a tense, driving pulse against his thoughts. The captain stiffened, hesitating as he took a step down, swallowing hard and clenching his fists. McCoy moved forward hastily, reaching out to touch his arm.

     “Jim?” he whispered.

     “I’m fine,” the captain responded tightly, taking in a deliberate breath and consciously relaxing his hands, nodding to the transporter technician. “Mr. Abdullah, please inform the bridge that I’m on my way.”

     “Yes, sir,” the young man replied promptly, turning to murmur into the comm.

     Jim slipped away from his friend’s gentle grip, stepping off the platform and heading rapidly for the door. He had almost slipped, not expecting the guttural effect of his immediate proximity to his bondmate. He was rattled, and didn’t want McCoy to see any more until he could get ahold of himself again.

     It seemed as if a thousand sensations streamed between them along their connection, and none of them had the coherency of directed words. The bond shivered with flashing urgency and need and floundering attempts at control, and he felt shame and love and profound frustration and didn’t know which of them it had come from. Dimly, from behind him, Jim heard McCoy’s exaggerated sigh, and then the doctor’s quick footfalls, and by the time the captain turned down the corridor, his friend had caught up, long legs easily keeping up with Jim’s driven pace toward the bridge.

     The ship was on yellow alert already, the lighting along the hallway flashing amber, and when Spock’s voice filtered over the intercom, relaying status reports, Jim felt his own breath catch, and then he knew, as McCoy’s hand gently touched his shoulder, that he was, after all, too terribly obvious.

     “Jim,” the doctor repeated, his voice a barely audible hiss, “C’mon, give me a second. Just—.” He broke off, giving Jim’s shoulder a tug as they passed one of the briefing rooms, just meters from the bridge secondary access.

     The captain stopped, swore under his breath, and then hit the panel to open the doors, motioning Bones in ahead of him. He could feel a transient sense of futility flash across the bond, followed by determination and, finally, his bondmate’s labored mental voice.

     I…apologize, t’hy’la. I am endeavoring to regain control. Our sudden proximity—.

     Don’t worry about it; it’s my fault. It was a surprise, but it’s getting better. It’s okay.

     The exchange was perfunctory, but still some kind of achievement, and Jim focused with difficulty on the worried face of his friend as the doors slid shut.

     “I know, Bones.”

     The doctor peered at him. “You can’t command like this, Jim.”

     Jim licked his lips. “I know. But, I’ve got it now; we’ll be alright.”

     “What changed? You seemed…better, at least when we were on the base; what happened?”

     “We got close again. I had steeled myself, I guess, and the transition was unexpected. We’ve got it under control now.”

     McCoy shook his head. “Jim, I can’t—.”

     The bond was abruptly locked under ferocious control and Jim winced against the sudden pain, feeling his bondmate’s attention and thoughts immediately directed in multiple directions as Spock’s voice carried over wailing alert claxons, “Red alert. Red alert. This is a class-one alert. All hands to battlestations and prepare for emergency warp speed. Captain to the bridge.”

     Jim was already moving, sensing the bond shift, a succinct message flashing through their connection as, around him, he heard the increasing hum of building energy.

     Message relayed from Sector Two sensor outpost Beta-Nine; multiple ships projected to be outbound from Belishea Colony have intercepted and destroyed an ore convoy. Thirty-two casualties.

    The captain responded in kind. The weapon’s active?

     Affirmative. Final ship automated transmissions indicate energies consistent with the RX-54 prototype.

     Jim took the last steps toward the command deck. Fuck. Guess we didn’t have to bother with that trace after all.

     “Captain on the bridge!” It was Nyota’s voice that greeted him as Jim burst through the bridge doors, feeling the deck shift under the strain of warp initiation and seeing Spock’s eyes lift to meet his briefly. The slight hitch in the Vulcan’s step as he rose from the center seat was punctuated with a flare of forced effort across the bond and Jim bit his own lip savagely to distract himself, stepping purposefully to stand next to the command chair as the swirls of warp space flowed across the main viewscreen under the glare of flashing red.

     “Report, Mr. Spock.” They had to maintain their normal command presence: their accustomed patterns, their regular interactions in view of the crew. And it was surprisingly a little easier, now so close to the Vulcan, his own powerful need for touch displaced by the surge of adrenaline in his veins and the relief of their mental communication.

     Spock stood next to him, hands clasped behind his back, impassive, every inch the officer and with no outward indication of any trial or weakness. Stubborn fortitude shimmered along the bond and Jim unselfconsciously drew on it, his own shoulders straightening and his chin lifting as the Vulcan answered.

     “We are on course for the Tau Pegasi system at maximum warp, Captain, ETA twenty-six point two minutes. Battle group includes the Aurora and Excalibur, currently following in J-formation. Relayed sensor readings indicate that the belligerent craft are holding position outside the system and have made no attempt to conceal their location or to send a message. It has been confirmed that the Neutral Zone has not been crossed; these are not Klingon ships.”

     The first officer paused as McCoy walked through the bridge doors. The doctor hesitated before moving to stand next to Nyota’s station, his hazel eyes fixed on the command team.

     The Vulcan continued, “It appears that the aggressors will be anticipating our approach; their methods suggest that they are—.”

     “—instigating a fight,” Jim finished. And they think they can win no matter what comes at them or they already know what we’ve got. He mentally sighed. We never got a chance to lock down the extent of the intelligence breach. At least the Klingons are holding back, watching for weakness, probably. Seeing who’s going to come out on top.

     “Affirmative, sir.”

     “Right.” Jim glanced over his shoulder. “Lieutenant Uhura, open a secure visual channel to the battle group.”

     “Yes, sir.” She flipped several switches, looking back at him. “Channel’s open, Captain.”

     Jim could read a question in her eyes and an obvious tension in her shoulders that was mirrored in McCoy’s stance. He ignored both, turning back to face the viewscreen as Captains Herschel Slater and Bakri Awad appeared on split panels.

     “Captain Kirk.” Slater nodded. “I guess our strategy’ll have to be done on the fly.”

     “Quite literally,” Awad commented primly, leaning forward in his seat.

     Jim inclined his head, stepping around and into the command chair, hyper-aware of Spock’s presence at his side. “They’re expecting us; and I’m willing to bet that they’re going to be anticipating a solid win or they wouldn’t be posturing like this.”

     “The weapon,” Slater said shortly.

     “Undoubtedly,” Jim replied. “As per the debrief, we’re looking at a plasma-cannon, type-six at least; peak burst power output in excess of 200 yottawatts.”

     Slater shook his head, glancing down at a PADD on his lap. “A precision shot will burn right through our shields, not to mention our hull, and if they hit the antimatter chamber then it’s lights out; we won’t have a chance in a direct assault.”

     Jim licked his lips. “Despite having multiple ships, chances are they’ve only got one outfitted with a working weapon, and it’ll take time to recharge in between firing. They might also be vulnerable energy-wise; that beam will eat up incredible amounts of available power.”

     “That you know of.” Awad commented. “They may have worked around such problems. And it only takes one of those things, and only one hit.”

     “Agreed,” Slater said.

     Jim nodded. “I suggest a modification on the N’uango offensive. The Enterprise will take point.”

     The captain of the Aurora frowned. “It’s a lot of assumptions, and that strategy will spread us pretty thin out there.”

     Awad leaned back. “I agree. And if they manage to take out the flagship—.” His voice trailed off. “That’s all they’ll need.”

     Jim furrowed his brow. “Alternatives, gentlemen? A direct assault puts all three ships in danger.”

     Slater shrugged and shifted in his seat. “But it gives us the best chance of taking out that weapon as quickly as possible.”

     The captain of the Enterprise lifted his chin. “I don’t want to show our hand prematurely.” He took a breath and continued, “We won’t know which ship is hosting the weapon until the separatists reveal it; I’m guessing they won’t make it readily apparent until they have a target located.” He leaned forward. “We’ll warp in and isolate the point ship; hopefully have a conversation and stall until the tactical landscape is more obvious. You’ll hold back until we signal, and then come in fast and firing.”

     Awad’s lips pursed and Slater frowned. “Why do you think they’ll be so willing to talk with you instead of just shooting first? All their motivations have stemmed from—.”

     Jim interrupted him brusquely. “I have something they need.”

     Awad furrowed his brow. “What is that, Captain?”

     Jim glanced up at Spock, briefly. “The only telepath that was able to survive the RX-54 procedure. There’s more technology there, and I’m willing to bet that they’re arrogant and greedy enough to wonder what else they might obtain. It won’t necessarily save us, but it just might buy us some time, and it will give you your best chance for a maximum impact entry.”

     Slater winced. “Possibly. And if they demand you and your first officer in exchange for your ship’s safety?”

     Jim’s response was curt. “That’ll take time, too. And then we’ll be onboard. Either way, that weapon must be destroyed and this insurgence cut off. There’ve already been too many lives lost.”

     On-screen, the two captains nodded solemnly and Jim caught the glimmer of an idea coalesce along the bondspace, sensing rather than seeing his first officer’s eyebrow rise.

     Jim continued, “Prior to entry into the sensor envelope, decelerate to warp six and split off in non-mirroring parabolic trajectories. Commander Spock will relay sensor readings across this frequency as we engage. Based on the confrontation with the Hydra, we should be wary of apparent suicide runs and fast maneuvering: I’m guessing these folks feel like they have equipment to burn and, given their previous usage of transporter technology, may believe that they’ve got a ticket off their ship.”

     He hesitated, glancing significantly at Spock and then at Scotty, who was standing next to the Engineering console across the bridge. “However, Mr. Scott can project a particular signal that may act to jam their transporter beams. They might panic if they realize that it’s a fight to the death for everyone.” Good idea, Spock.

     Scotty’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowing as he registered Jim’s words, and then his mouth fell open. “Tha’s right, sir! Given th’ tracing matrix, it’d be more than easy t’do!”

     Jim addressed him, “Very good, Mr. Scott. Could you send that along to the battle group? Quickly?”

     “If Uhura helps me, yes!” Scotty craned his neck at Nyota and Jim felt the slight breeze of her passage as she jogged immediately across the bridge toward the engineer, a young ensign stepping over to replace her at communications.

     ETA fifteen point nine minutes. Approaching sensor envelope. Spock’s mental voice echoed in Jim’s head.

     Jim turned back to the viewscreen. “Alright, gentlemen. Any questions?”

     Awad shook his head and Slater closed his eyes briefly, commenting, “None. Let’s hope it works.”

     Jim’s voice was firm. “It’ll work. Prepare for split. Good luck.” Next to him, Spock stepped toward his console on the upper level.

     “And you,” Awad replied softly. “Godspeed.”

     The images of the other captains wavered and vanished into the luminous swirls of warp space and Sulu glanced over his shoulder. “The Aurora and the Excalibur have reduced speed and changed course, Captain.”

     “Acknowledged. Accelerate point three, if she’ll take it.”

     “Aye.” Jim could hear the tension in the helmsman’s voice. “Accelerating to warp eight point five…mark!”

     The engines whined and the deck began to shudder in earnest. Jim’s hands closed on his armrests, calling back, “Spock, update ETA?” He had to concentrate to speak it aloud, so aware of his bondmate close behind him.

     The Vulcan answered immediately, “Five point two minutes, sir. They will have us on their sensors now.” No change in position.

     Their mental communication was swift, chasing verbal responses, anticipating commands, different perspectives coloring perceptions: all following seamlessly as the raw energy along the edges of their connection flowed through this only channel of interaction presently available. For an instant, Jim considered the possibilities, and then the upcoming battle loomed again. “I want all weapons, screens and shields ready to go. Pulse decelerate to allow for energy transfer and power-up when we’re inside sixty seconds; it’ll confound their calculations on our exact approach.” He swallowed. “Scotty?”

     The engineer raised his voice to be heard over the engines, “Jamming signal package ready now, sir!”

     Jim looked over to see Nyota point at Ensign Rand at Communications. The blonde woman nodded and punched in a sequence at her console. “Transporter interference pattern sent to battle group, Captain!”

     “Good,” Jim replied. “Scotty, get down to Engineering. Something tells me we’ll need you there.”

     The captain hit the intercom on his chair as Scott headed for the turbolift. “This is the Captain,” he began, and then stopped abruptly as the echoes of a distant cheer rose over the ambient noise of the bridge, filtering through the open secondary access door and over the open channels on Nyota’s board, mirrored by a more subdued murmur of approval among the bridge officers. Jim smiled, surprised, glancing around to meet the quickly flashed grins of his crew as they turned back to their work, feeling the steel strength of his bondmate’s mind: pride and love and the distinct sense of home.

     When Jim continued, his voice was warm, “It’s my honor to be back in this chair, and I only wish for better circumstances.” He took a breath. “We’re heading into a fight, the reason for it being only too obvious, given the events of the past days.”

     He saw Sulu nod, the helmsman’s expression grim. It was a brief acknowledgement of all that the crew had endured: the loss of their captain and first officer, the dismissal of their concerns and analyses, and, finally, the disgrace of being branded as traitors.

     Jim went on, “We’re asked to give our lives, if necessary, for this service, and the service itself must reflect that commitment with trust and transparency. Those are the things that we need to prove and defend here in earnest. Conspiracy and corruption cannot thrive where there is light and hope. You are Fleet’s finest, and this ship and this crew represent all that we must stand for. Be ready. Kirk out.”

     He could feel it, swelling as a perceptible wash against his bondmate’s telepathic mind: confidence, relief, anticipation, determination, all rising, buffeting his soul, a sense of his crew, his ship, his family and home. And behind it all was the bitter taste of anger. There was room for it here after all, amid the high-sounding words and discipline and the resolve to do right. Anger at what had been done to them, and why, and for whom. Jim felt it curling along his spine in a slick white heat and he leaned forward in his chair, concentrating on the flash of warp space, feeling the shudder of transient decels as energy shifted necessarily to the weapons and to the shields, seeing panel indicators light up with readiness green.

     Spock spoke quietly from behind him, “Thirty seconds. Sensors aligned for secure flash feed to the battle group. Entering on a direct intercept course with the aggressor craft, now numbering six: three Moritz-class cruisers, two Eskimo-Zulu-class gunships, and one modified passenger liner. Tactical plot on-screen.”

     Jim leaned forward, and his response automatically rose within their bondspace; it was just too easy, too smooth this path between them, and any remaining discomfort and taut anxiety seemed to fall away when they spoke thus. Scan the liner-they can’t help but see us. Let’s hope that we’re what they focus on.

     “Counting down to normal space: ten…nine…eight… .” There are unusual energy signatures associated with the liner, Jim, though nothing determinate. Your guess that they would delay weapon activation appears to be correct.

     Sulu called from the helm, “All weapons and shields energized, Captain!”

     It’s on the liner; it has to be. “Program initial barrage pattern on that liner, Spock.”

     “Aye. Six…five…four… .”

     “Uhura, scan comms; let me know what you hear!”

     Spock’s voice continued calmly, “Three…two…brace for entry into normal space!”

     The disconcerting snap into normal space was followed by an instant of orientation, the tactical display sliding to the right side of the screen as Jim took in the array of ships in front of them, the subtle glare of starlight reflecting off the hulls. The ships seemed almost haphazardly oriented, as if attempting to approximate a particular formation. An impression ricocheted along the bond that these were not seasoned operators.

     Uhura looked back, her hand on her earpiece. “Captain, comms are completely silent out there; I’m not getting any chatter at all.”

     Sulu barked from the helm, “Their weapons are armed, Captain! Standard phasers!”

     Jim twisted in his chair in reaction as the tactical plot glowed with phaser lock. “Evasive action! Fire!”

     The craft scattered sluggishly as the powerful Enterprise phaser batteries opened up, the viewscreen spinning in a wash of starlight and amazing energy as they plunged on a spiral course, intermittent return fire sparking off their shields.

     The converted passenger liner exploded in a brilliant burst. Too easy, and Jim knew instantly that something was wrong. “Adjust targeting and continue fire. Uhura, signal to battle group to hold back; do not approach!” This isn’t right; this was too easy. Spock—.

     “Yes, sir!” She paused. “Both the Aurora and Excalibur have acknowledged, Captain, and are holding position.”

     The battle continued around them, the smaller ships wheeling in random patterns, firing almost frantically, and Jim clenched his left hand into a fist, his mind racing. He could sense his bondmate follow his thoughts, could feel the Vulcan’s concentration as he worked the scanners. This isn’t coordinated; they’re waiting for something. Spock, they may have had the same idea as—.

     Spock’s voice broke through jarringly, “Vessel approaching at high warp, inbound from the system center, Captain! It must have been obscured by the star.” Not Starfleet. Energy signature indicates the weapon is onboard and active!

     “Sulu, project that craft’s entrance into normal space and come about to engage! This is the one we’re waiting for!” Fuck, they wanted to draw us out; see what they’re dealing with first before bringing in the big guns. Maybe not amateurs after all.

     “Coming about, sir!”

     “Incoming vessel entering normal space…now!” A Hydra snapped in front of them, and the other vessels spun immediately, wasp-like, to circle around behind it.

     “Fire!” But Jim’s shouted command was interrupted by a fantastic pulse of energy from the forward bay of the enemy ship that whited out the viewscreen, and the Enterprise screamed, alarms wailing and damage control messages streaming sharply over the loudspeaker.

     Jim gritted his teeth. “Emergency evasive! Get us out of here!”

     Sulu slammed a frustrated hand on his board. “I can’t, Captain! Engines won’t respond!”

     “Spock?” Jim tore his eyes from the viewscreen to throw a glance back at his bondmate.

     The Vulcan’s console was a mess of rapidly flashing warning lights and dead screens. “Impact to starboard main section. Hull breach on five decks; shields are down and sensors are compromised. Command control has been interrupted; energy interference from the bolt disrupted computer relays and long-range communications ability. I have only limited feedback on this station. Attempting to correct.”

     Jim pushed himself up from his chair, stumbling slightly as the ship shuddered, the noise of an internal explosion echoing through the bulkheads and smoke beginning to seep through the ventilation system. “Damage control parties to affected decks. Can we keep that jamming signal on? I don’t want any surprise transports.”

    Spock continued his rapid-fire report even as he pulled a large panel away from his station, leaning into the mass of conduits and controls behind. “Containment systems still operational; emergency bulkheads have successfully deployed. Jamming signal functional.”

     The lights flickered and the viewscreen showed the Hydra looming off their bow, the other ships remaining behind it, strung out in an irregular line.

     The air on the bridge was heavy with the acrid scent of smoke and Uhura coughed, “We’re being hailed, Captain!”

     “Put them on-screen.” Spock, get that computer back up. Let me know when we have maneuvering and weapons capability.

     The image wavered and solidified into a thin, rather unremarkable-appearing older man, dressed in quasi-military black, standing with his hands clasped behind his back and a patently false smile on his lips. The captain’s gaze slid quickly over him and then immediately behind, where, sitting limply in a chair next to a small console, was Kellen Trislo.

     They seemed to be alone on the bridge of the other ship, and her bedraggled, slumped appearance was nothing less than appalling: head crudely shaved, a rough-hewn scar curving luridly across her scalp, wearing loose, white scrubs discolored with dried blood and other stains, and a ring of dark bruising around her throat. All the arrogance had drained, her beauty faltering under helpless anger in her eyes and taut lines around her mouth. She stared silently toward the screen, but there was an unfocused quality about her eyes, and she didn’t react to Jim’s image.

     Trislo! Jim’s shock transmitted clearly across the bond, if not to his expression. She gave them the weapon.

     Spock was deep in the back-panel workings under his console, but Jim knew he had spared a glance at the screen. They appear to have forcibly removed the Klingon implanted transmitter. Her appearance suggests a lack of cooperation.

     You think she might not have wanted to talk? Why?

     Spock’s mental voice continued, Transcripts from the confrontation outbound of Seventeen indicate that she may have intended to run, instead of join forces with what we had assumed to be her compatriots.

     Maybe something we can use? Jim was ready to grasp at anything that would give them some sort of advantage.

     Indeed.

     The exchange over their bondspace had taken place at the speed of thought and Jim forced his attention back on the man, finally registering his identity. Commander Drew Linn’s beard had vanished along with his uniform, but his slight smirk was identical to his official Fleet profile picture. The older man, evidently having decided that his initial dramatic pause had run its course, lifted his chin and began to speak, one hand moving in an expansive gesture.

     “So, Captain Kirk. I knew that they would send you, or that you would insist upon coming.” His smirk widened as he tilted his head toward Trislo. “After all, our mutual acquaintance caused you quite a bit of trouble.”

     Jim slowly shifted to stand in front of the command chair, keeping eye contact. So he wants to talk, or to brag. Lucky us. Repair status?

     Proceeding. Linn has no field experience on record, Jim.

     He’s got the cocky caricature bit down, though. Let’s keep him off-balance.

     “I’m afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage.” Jim smiled subtly, without humor or warmth, and the other man chuckled almost eagerly.

     “As was intended from the beginning, Captain; you, and all of Starfleet. Resigned to your fate; helplessly crippled with indecision and the inability to enact real change. Unable to make any real progress.” He paused imperiously, his chest swelling as if he were about to embark on a speech. “After all, revolution is the way of all—.”

     Jim interrupted him dryly, “Commander Linn, you are under arrest for treason. You are hereby ordered to surrender your vessel and transport to the Enterprise and into custody.”

     Linn’s bravado abruptly faded, his mouth still open, and, in the background, Trislo’s eyes focused slightly, her lips curling. “I don’t think he’s interested in your ridiculous rant, Drew.”

     Her uncomfortably familiar singsong tone was blatantly mocking and Linn threw a discomfited glare over his shoulder. “Shut up.” He turned back to face Jim, irritation suffusing his voice as he visibly attempted to collect himself. “That’s obviously not going to happen, Captain.”

     Jim crossed his arms, affecting a bored look. “What do you want? If you were going to destroy us you would have done it already.”

     Linn leaned forward, his shoulders rising with tension. “I want not have a fundamentally stumbling and ineffectual authority interfere with the realization of free ideals. I want—.”

    Jim interrupted again smoothly, “You mean you want the ability to engage in morally questionable actions in order to further a profit margin.”

     The former commander scowled. “It’s much more than that, Kirk.”

     Spock’s mental voice slid along Jim’s heated thoughts. Relays are seven percent restored, Captain. Hull repairs are proceeding. A wave of carefully damped grief slid along the bond. Five casualties reported, sir.

     Jim managed to keep a grimace from his expression as Linn continued, hesitating between words as if daring the captain to interrupt him again. “Profit, desire for the re-acquisition of what was wrongly taken away, revenge: all these are important driving forces, but the true ambition is to fix a broken system. And it’s gone too far for simple mending.” He had ramped up again. “Revolution begins painfully, but it is like a phoenix, Kirk. It—.”

     “Whatever.” Jim broke in rudely, rolling his eyes deliberately. “Cut to the chase, Linn.”

     Trislo snorted derisively and the older man’s face flushed as he threw another glare back at the young woman. “I told you to shut the fuck up! This is my deal!”

     “Whatever,” she mocked stridently. “If you think you can fucking handle it.” Her striking eyes shifted briefly to Jim’s. “Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe.”

     “Shut up!” Linn turned his back to her angrily, and Jim saw her hands close into fists. Her eyes had moved to meet his again and there was a challenge there. The captain heard the hiss and pop of electricity behind him and dimly felt the echo of his bondmate’s pain, quickly suppressed. He couldn’t spare a look back, couldn’t divert his attention even briefly from the strangely unfolding scene in front of him.

     Linn continued darkly, “Here’s the deal, Kirk. The re-opening of RX-54 has proven to be one of our most productive ventures, and,” he glanced over his shoulder condescendingly, “the young Miss Trislo has proven to be most helpful in allowing us to understand other ways in which your Vulcan’s talents can be utilized.” He grunted. “For all her enjoyment of inflicting pain on others, she’s quite malleable, and helpful, when given the proper persuasion.”

     Behind him, Trislo’s eyes narrowed, and Jim saw a muscle in her jaw twitch. Around him, the hanging veil of smoke began to clear as the vents on the Enterprise’s bridge opened again with a push of cool air.

     Linn continued neatly, “We’ll take you in tow to a place where your crew will disembark. Your ship will be turned to our purposes, as will you and your first officer. Fitting our weapon onto the Enterprise will make us unstoppable.”

     “And if we refuse?”

     His smile had returned. “I’ll just destroy you now, along with your crew. Win-win for us, actually. Blowing up the flagship and its magically reincarnating captain can only bring Starfleet more quickly to its knees.”

     Trislo’s face had taken on a gray cast, her breathing visibly quickening even as her eyes bored into Jim’s, and, noticing his attention, she abruptly shifted her gaze toward a marked access panel, barely visible on-screen in the starboard-side bulkhead.

     Spock…that’s an emergency pod.

     Yes, Jim. I see it.

     Jim suddenly recalled the way the slave ship had gone down: a malfunction that could be easily masked, a ticking bomb. And Trislo had figured it out. It’s a big gamble to think she’d give them up just like that.

     She is predisposed to revenge but not self-sacrifice, and their treatment of her—.

     “Well, Captain?” Linn’s self-assured smile widened, “What do you say?”

     Jim leaned forward, his lip curling in a sneer, saying very clearly. “Go jump in a lake.”

     “What?” Linn’s mouth fell open again.

     The captain’s voice was deadly quiet. “You attempt to secure a tow-beam, and I’ll blow this ship up myself.”

     Linn glanced angrily back at Trislo, who had stood and moved to stand close behind him, swaying slightly, her obviously weakened state belying new energy in her eyes.

     The older man hissed, “You bitch. You assured me he would cooperate!”

     Though she directed her words to Linn, her gaze was fastened on Jim. “You’re a fucking idiot, Drew, and completely fucking predictable.”

     His hand shot out, slamming across her face, and she staggered back, blood dripping from her nose and splashing fresh stains onto her tunic. Her exaggerated stumble brought her flush against the bulkhead, and her hand splayed out across the panel for the emergency pod, a look of grim determination flashing across her face.

     Unaware, Linn glared furiously at the viewscreen, his voice taking on a manic tone, reaching out to a control panel with a finalistic gesture. “And so you’re dead, Kirk. Like they say, third time’s the charm.” The message winked out, shifting into a vision of the looming Hydra and Jim gripped the arms of his chair.

     Spock, if I’m wrong, gods help us all.

     His bondmate’s reply was calm, soothing, suffused with all the things that, again, they had no time to say. Energy increasing; they are preparing to fire.

     Jim remained standing by his chair, his back straight and his eyes focused forward. He was stubbornly unable to believe that this was anything less than a victory. He refused to believe. He—.

     Suddenly, a tremendous explosion rocked the Hydra, the rear section imploding in a silent burst of atmosphere and debris, the ship slowly spinning away.

     Sulu exclamation cut through the fierce tension on the bridge. “They’re down! Holy shit, they’re down!”       

     Jim spun. “Uhura! Signal the battle group in, now, now, now!”

     The Hydra was floating away but the other ships were now coming around, and the tactical plot lit up with phaser locks, the deck rolling as impacts began against the hull.

     Chekov glanced back, holding onto his console. “Another hull breach, sair; our shields are still down.”

     “Keep that jamming signal going! Spock? Now’s the time!”

     The Vulcan didn’t turn, but the bond lit up as he called back, “Forty-two percent of relays are active. Attempting to reroute power now to shields and offensive systems.”

     Almost on-cue, Sulu called excitedly, “Captain, we have weapons capability restored!”

     Jim pointed at the viewscreen. “Sulu, fire! Fire everything!”

     The tide of the battle abruptly shifted decisively as the Aurora and the Excalibur slammed into normal space, weapons blazing, and the smaller craft began to run in earnest before the relentless rain of destructive energy, the two newly-arrived starships in hot pursuit, vanishing again from the viewscreen.

     Jim, there is a life signature from the Hydra.

     The pod, of course. Fucking crazy… . Jim slammed the intercom button on his chair. “Transporter room; Lieutenant O’Rourke, do we have enough power for a retrieval?”

     The man’s response was tinny. “Barely, sir!”

     Jim slid into the command chair. “Uhura, temporarily cease localized jamming signal. Spock, send pod coordinates to transporter room and alert medical and security. O’Rourke, transport when able.”

     The captain heard the acknowledgments, his attention focused again on the viewscreen, where debris tumbled through the cold vacuum. He could identify pieces of his own ship’s silvery-white hull, and chewed the inside of his lip, feeling the bond roil, splinters of discomfort rising with their split concentration, with their increasing exhaustion and his own dissipating adrenaline. He would hold on. He had to.

     The intercom hissed. “O’Rourke here, sir! I have one person safely onboard with a medic looking her over now. She, uh, she says you know exactly who she is.”

     Jim shook his head, leaning forward. “I do, Mr. O’Rourke. She’s a code-prime security threat; I want her in the brig. Make sure Security’s on it.”

     “Aye.”

     The bond was pulsing now with deep emotion from each of them, the tiredness and reaction threatening a total collapse, and Jim viciously thrust it away yet again, stubbornly pushing himself up and over to Nyota’s console. His hands were shaking and he clasped them behind his back.

     “Put me through to the battle group, please, Lieutenant.”

     She nodded, touching her earpiece as she flipped a long series of switches; an obvious re-route around a half-darkened board. Her hand hesitated over the last one and she glanced up at him, her eyes widening slightly. Jim pressed his lips together, knowing that she could see his exhaustion, could probably read it in every line of his body. But she didn’t say anything, pressing the final key and nodding again to him, very deliberately. “Go ahead, Captain.”

     “Kirk!” Slater’s voice was energetic. “You’re still venting. Do you need assistance?”

     “Negative.” Jim swallowed. “Our long-range comms are down; I need you to send a message to Command apprising them of the situation. We have recovered Kellen Trislo and we can confirm that Commander Drew Linn was killed during a weapon malfunction onboard that Hydra.”

     “Sure thing, Captain.” Slater continued, “We’ve got the rest of them under control. These vessels are lightly staffed; either there are a lot more separatists hiding out back on Belishea, or their numbers were pretty meager to begin with. We got quite a number of surrender calls when they figured out that they wouldn’t make it on the run.” He made a rough grunt. “These people sound terrified. I’m not sure who got sent out here for this job, but they don’t seem to have ever done this before.”

     “Probably the idealists,” Jim remarked absently. “The young ones.” He shook himself slightly. “Good job, Captain.”

     Slater audibly hesitated before answering. “You, too, Jim. I’ll relay the response from Command when it comes in, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be ordered on to Belishea. Awad’s already got the Excalibur on a recon sensor run and there’s still no movement over the Neutral Zone. Hopefully our actions here will warn off any further Klingon interference. We’ll maintain an eye out for rogue ships and any other uninvited guests; keep us informed as to your status.”

     “Acknowledged.” Jim nodded to Uhura. “Kirk out.”

     She flipped the channel closed, her dark eyes fastened on him as he turned slightly to face her, his back to the rest of the bridge.

     “Jim?” she murmured, her voice pitched for his ears only. “Can I help?”

     He exhaled and shook his head, replying softly, “I’ll be alright.”

     Another snap sounded from the nearby science station, and Jim caught a whiff of ozone and a cacophony of sudden beeping, turning to see a series of readiness lights begin to flash on Spock’s station as the Vulcan pulled himself up single-handedly from under the board. The source of that instant of pain during the battle was readily apparent as Jim took in a deep burn across the back of Spock’s left hand, extending up to a blackened mark on the sleeve of his uniform.

     The bond swayed and Jim did, too, and he felt Nyota’s steadying hand on the small of his back as he fought a wave of powerful, visceral protectiveness, anger, and longing for the reassurance of touch. He could see the greenish coloration of his mate’s blood in the wound and he needed to—.

     “Captain.” Spock’s words were precise and clipped, breaking into Jim’s increasingly uncontrolled thoughts. “I am needed below decks to supervise the continuation of the relay repairs.” The Vulcan was fighting, too, and Jim could see Spock’s jaw work, could feel the tremulous discomfort along the bond begin to rise, begin to pull in earnest—.

     Somehow Jim found the strength to reply. Somewhere he found the resolve not to reach out, to sink into a desperate mental and physical embrace. His voice sounded stilted and raw; nothing like his usual tones. “See to it, Mr. Spock. And have a medic check your hand.”

     He turned back to Nyota, sensing Spock move away and their connection howl with denied closeness. He could see naked emotion on her face, and support, and he clung to it. “Nyota.” He nodded slightly to himself. “Nyota, please inform Security that I’m on my way down to speak with the prisoner.”

     “Yes, Captain,” she said, and the gentle emphasis on his title sounded like a tribute.

 

*****

 

     The trip to the brig was slow and painful; the turbolifts were mostly nonfunctioning and all around him was evidence of the terrible pounding the ship had endured. Limping, injured crewmembers and scurrying repair teams crowded the accessible corridors, and open maintenance panels were everywhere. It pulled Jim’s mind away from the persistent ache of the bond, but it fed into a keenly felt emptiness in his heart, and he lifted his head grimly as the sound of a whistled hail from a nearby wall unit broke into his reverie.

     “Kirk here.”

     “Uhura, Captain. I have a relayed message from Command via the Aurora.” She hesitated. “From CSO Admiral Catalina Ruiz-Morales.”

     Jim was tired enough to have to confirm it. “A new Chief of Operations? Already?”

     “Evidently, sir.” Nyota sounded sarcastic and worn. “I suppose Jung wasn’t given much choice.”

     “Sounds about right.” Jim exhaled, glancing up and down the hallway. “It’ll take me a while to get to an isolated comm; what’s the message status?”

     “Status is general informational, Captain.”

     “Okay, Nyota. Pipe it down here, will you?”

     “Switching now.”

     The channel clicked over and Jim leaned closer to the bulkhead as a group of crewmembers carrying heavy equipment squeezed past.

     The admiral’s voice carried clearly, “Message U.S.S. Enterprise under command of Captain James Kirk from Admiral Ruiz-Morales, CSO, Starfleet Command. Captain, I hereby order the Enterprise to proceed to Earth, maximum possible speed. You and your senior crew will be debriefed and the prisoner will be transferred pending an investigation and trial. The Enterprise will be put into space dock for continuing repairs.” On the recording, the admiral paused slightly. “Captain Slater has been ordered to proceed on to Belishea to assess the remainder of the threat there and the Excalibur will remain in position outside the solar system to conclude rescue and salvage operations as well as to remain within support distance of the Aurora. Confirm message receipt and estimate ETA. Ruiz-Morales out.”

     Jim tiredly ran a hand over his face. “Uhura, confirm receipt through the Aurora, and add an estimate for return ETA.”

     “Aye, sir. Right away.”

     The channel clicked closed and Jim turned away, flexing his left hand absently. Ruiz-Morales was known for being brutally succinct, but her promotion left him with a glimmer of hope. She had been a starship captain for four years until a mission gone wrong left her desk-bound at only thirty-nine. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, which had initially seemed to resign her outside the advancement path at Headquarters. Now, though, competency had apparently become more important than the ability to grease wheels at press conferences.

     Straightening his shoulders, Jim continued down the corridor, hitting a control pad for one of the internal access ladders. As he swung himself into the tight space he felt the weakness in his muscles and, as the panel slid shut behind him, allowed himself an audible groan. “Fuck.” He suddenly wanted to get this over with: the whole thing. Trislo and the limping journey home and the questions and the inevitable restructuring and sideshow. To distract himself from the pull of recently healed wounds and looming duty, he sent a questing pulse along the bond.

     His bondmate’s immediate but terse mental response and the fixated sensations across the bond told Jim that Spock was busy and focused. Be safe.

     And you, ashayam.

     The captain made a face, unable to stem the wanting and feeling a fleeting and petulant desire to simply give in to it. He paused, indulging himself in a rapid series of curses and a childish kick to the internal bulkhead before continuing three decks down, finally swinging himself around and punching in the code to open the access doors, stepping out onto the security level.

     “Captain!” A young guard jogged over to meet him. “Ensign Tan, sir, I’ve been expecting you. The prisoner’s just been released from the infirmary and has been secured in D-block. Right this way.”

     “Thank you, Ensign.” Jim felt a hysterical burst of pride at how calm his own voice sounded before stumbling slightly as he followed the young woman’s rapid footsteps. She turned back, her forehead creased in concern.

     “Are you alright, sir?”

     “Fine, Ensign.” Jim managed a smile. “Lead on.”

     Tan didn’t bother hide her skeptical expression, but followed his order without further question, gesturing to another guard seated at a central console as she led the captain to a far cell. “The screen’s presently unidirectionally opaqued, sir. We can see and hear in but not vice versa.” Tan paused as they reached the transparent screen separating them from their once-and-again prisoner. “I’ll, uh, leave you to it, Captain, unless there’s anything else?”

     “No.” Jim hadn’t looked away from Trislo, and he barely noticed as Tan turned away.

     The former Keeper, now dressed in a pale blue Fleet-issued jumpsuit, was seated on the single pallet inside the cell, hands braced behind her and long legs crossed, somehow managing to arrange her body in an odd combination of grace and nonchalance. Her previous arrogance was back, her chin lifted and her violet eyes focused on the far wall of the cell. Her beauty had returned, too: her dark skin now free of blood and the jagged scar on her scalp practically vanished, presumably by the medic’s regenerators. The bruising around her neck had also faded to a faint discoloration. The sight prompted a slew of difficult memories: Spock’s mottled torso, shivering distress under blades of freezing water, the sound of the Vulcan’s voice crying out in agony. Jim gritted his teeth, feeling his blunt fingernails dig into his palms.

     She couldn’t have known he was there, but he saw her lips move in an almost smug expression and a jolt of anger shook him. He saw his hand shaking again as he savagely punched in the command to clear the security screen, and as her eyes finally turned to meet his he deliberately clasped his hands behind his back.

     “Kirk.” She shifted her weight, lifting a hand and waving it casually. “Here we are again.”

     “Here we are,” he replied flatly.

     She hadn’t bothered to hide her smirk. “We work well together, it seems.”

     He forcibly swallowed the harsh retort that leaped to his lips, and his voice was low and dangerous. “Tell me about this movement of yours, and the weapon. What do they have on Belishea? How many people are left there?”

     She looked unimpressed, tapping her own head with a finger. “The weapon is here. They’d only had enough materials to complete one, and not enough time to double check my programming or complete the cataloging. Lucky for you.”

     Satisfaction flashed through her eyes along with a distant look. “I had to see it fired once, at least. Starfleet had to see it fired once.”

     Her head tilted. “You owe me your life, Kirk, and the lives of your crew. That shortsighted idiot Linn would have simply blown you up on the first try; I was the one who put that gem of an idea into his mind to disable you and tow you back. I set it up so that he’d be signing his own death warrant when he tried to fire again.” She sniffed as Jim’s brow furrowed. “Always underestimating me. It’s so fucking tiring.”

     He didn’t hide his disbelief. “I still don’t understand why the fuck you would help us. Given the opportunity, you were more than willing to toss me to the Klingons after threatening to shoot my bondmate into oblivion. You sent an entire ship of your own people crashing into the sea and didn’t save a single one.” His voice grew louder as he leaned forward angrily. “You kidnapped and tortured helpless people again and again and conspired to wreak fucking havoc by instigating interstellar war! Helping anyone isn’t your modus operandi.”

     “That’s the fucking truth.” She laughed suddenly, a grating noise. “I wasn’t helping you, Kirk, I was helping myself.” Her hand waved again. “A calculation, and I’m alive, aren’t I? In the hands of the ultimately greater power, effectively out of the Klingons’ reach, with information to barter, and Linn dead.” Her jaw tensed. “For a weaselly little shit, he was quite the sadist. He surprised me and that’s saying something.”

     Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever information you may have isn’t going to be enough to get you out of this, Trislo. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that you pay for your crimes.”

     “I know.” She sounded flippant. “But your Fleet will have no trouble with the colony. Their idealists have nothing but their ideals and their thinkers are only concerned with their own personal agendas.” She chortled. “I should know.”

     “But why did you do it? Our side might be the ‘greater power’, but you had wanted revenge. You’d wanted to destroy Starfleet as much as they did.”

     Trislo shrugged, looking away. “You’re forgetting that it was mostly ‘because-I-can’, Kirk. And I’d say that quite a bit of damage has been done in any case. Irreparable damage, perhaps, especially now that my point about the technology has been made most effectively. They won’t let what I can offer fade away quietly into the veil of politically correct morality, mark my words.”

     Jim made a low, animalistic noise and she focused on him again, her body moving forward sinuously. “Did you like my quote?”

     He frowned at the non sequitur before remembering the words that had confused Linn, replying dryly, “I’d have thought you’d choose something different; something regarding ruling in hell, or serving in heaven.”

     Trislo sniffed again. “I knew you’d recognize it.” She raised her eyebrows. “I, of course, would operate solely in neither place. Restriction breeds complacency and weakness.”

     He grunted noncommittally.

     She chuckled, continuing with an air of oratory, “So dear I love him, that with him all deaths I could endure, without him live no life.” She studied the captain with an air of taunting evaluation. “Perhaps a more appropriate use of Milton, wouldn’t you agree?”

     The words, even delivered as they were in her mocking tones, were striking and Jim ignored her baiting, lifting his chin and saying quietly, “Weakness or strength, Kellen? He and I did endure, after all. We did survive, and we’ve won the day.”

     She flinched slightly, her eyes narrowing. “This is not the endgame, Kirk. Not for me.”

     “It just might be,” he replied dismissively. “I don’t expect we’ll meet again.”

     He turned, not bothering to opaque the screen, and walked away even as he heard her short reply, “I do.”

     It was so different from the screaming rant that he had pointedly ignored on the Biloxi, and that fact, combined with her odd smugness, sent a chill down his spine. But Jim didn’t turn to regard her again, nodding briefly to Tan and the other guard as he passed them on the way back to the access hatch.

     His bond with Spock had been both weakness and strength, truthfully, and continued to be; he knew that now more than ever, with the weight of longing and fatigue and emotional stress threatening to crush him. He suddenly needed his bondmate with a surge of feeling that was as profoundly innate as the need for air, for water, for gravity, and he sent out a cry along the bond, following after Spock’s presence almost blindly. There had been, after all, no closure here in the confrontation of this demon. No sanctuary to be found in this victory, except that which they could create for themselves.

     He and his bondmate had endured; they had survived. Despite means that had been devastating and forced, despite trials that had been painful and terrifying and cruel, he and Spock had come to an end that illuminated each of them. But there was still struggle within the incredible depth and interconnectedness of their bond and the implications of an intimate relationship formalized by necessity. And he knew that their answers were only to be found in each other.

 

*****

           

     There, away from the eyes of the crew in a dimly-lit, smoky corridor, surrounded by equipment and recently-completed repairs, Jim slowly lowered his forehead onto his bondmate’s shoulder, keeping his hands at his sides, knowing that touching further would cause him to inevitably sink and to fall away and he would be done, as simple as that. And Spock knew it, too, and didn’t move, except to gently lean his head against Jim’s so that the human could feel the soft puff of warm breath on his skin.

     “I hate her,” the human murmured, struggling to keep himself under control. “I hate.” It felt like hate, perhaps more than hate: this fierce, flaring anger drowned in helpless witness to his t’hy’la’s agony until it had burned itself down, condensing into a dense, cold thing that ate at his insides: something he couldn’t control, something he couldn’t see his way past. “I hate that what we have is always going to be touched by this…by her.”

     “I know,” Spock said quietly. “I also…feel it. It…grieves me to sense it in you.”

     I’m sorry.

     “No. It is justified, t’hy’la. I understand; I simply do not wish you to suffer in its grasp. I wish only to—.” His voice broke off in a choked sound, and Jim sharply inhaled, overcome by a powerful, protective emotion bathed in love and terrible, soul-deep exhaustion. I wish only to be with you. I wish—.

     Jim’s mind completed the thought, I wish that this mess was over and we could simply be.

     But the echoing chatter of reports over the intercom and the low hum of energy surges in the conduits next to them were a grim reminder of the work that still needed to be done: their ship damaged, their crew damaged, a prisoner to be returned, and a long journey ahead. And not just the return to Earth, but a long path ahead for the Fleet: yet another scandal, yet another public fall of high-ranking officers. Jim’s thoughts limped ahead to endless debriefs and the media circus sure to be waiting for them and he very nearly sobbed. He was so tired. He was so… .

     Tentative fingers touched his face and warmth bloomed in his mind; gently at first, and then brighter and brighter until the bond sang with it. Energy washed over his senses: cool water over dry, forgotten sand, and he sighed, feeling strength where there had been weakness, hope in the midst of desolation. And the hate felt less bitter, the cruel density diminished, the implacable cold dissipated. The bond had widened dangerously and they were on the edge, but they were there together, sharing their energy, and Jim’s head swam with it even as Spock’s touch slid away and the Vulcan slowly took a step back, enforcing a cautious distance.

     Every fiber of Jim’s being protested the separation and he knew they couldn’t keep this up, not with their depleted strength and the emotional pressures that rang even stronger in the increased resonance between them. The captain could hear the strain in his own voice. “Until port, until we dock and then that’s it. Let’s get our ship home and then—.”

     His words trailed off, but he knew it almost didn’t matter. They would make it home; bring their ship home, and their crew, and fulfill their duty, and then he would collapse. They both would. And he could only hope that he could trust someone to catch them when they finally crumpled and fell.

 

 

Chapter End Notes:

 

“Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe.”

 

“So dear I love him, that with him all deaths I could endure, without him live no life.”

 

-quoted from the works of John Milton (1608-1674)

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: The Best Kind Of Surrender

 

     So close. The swirling energy of warp space fell away in favor of the gleaming infrastructure of space dock and, beyond, the crystal blue curve of Earth itself. The captain kept his eyes fixed forward, his chin defiantly lifted, the smooth tones of Nyota’s voice washing over him, punctuated by Sulu’s murmured replies, bringing their damaged ship home. Everything felt so heavy, and even the muscles of Jim’s face were taut with exhaustion. His hands would not stop shaking and he gripped the armrests of his chair with white knuckles, hoping no one would notice. The bond was sore and, he imagined, pleading for a touch so desperately needed and so long denied.

     Eighteen hours in transit back to Earth, limping in at a reduced and lumbering speed, trusting that the emergency bulkheads would hold and with Scotty riding the controls for the main deflector beam himself. Eighteen hours, and Jim had been in the command chair for most of it, driven by duty and determination, coordinating repair efforts and maintaining a visible and confident presence for his crew in the midst of what had become a trial by fire for Starfleet itself.

     Reports had begun to stream in as soon as Nyota had repaired long-range comms. Belishea had been largely and hastily abandoned, but with enough materials left behind to suggest a significant presence and technological footprint. It was apparent that the disrupted operation had focused on advanced weaponry, and, with the involvement of Th’rilun and what now appeared to be several formerly highly placed scientists and industry associates, the seriousness of the security breach could not be overestimated.

     For the beleaguered command team of the Enterprise, docking was coming not a moment too soon as they, and Spock in particular, had struggled to maintain the sharing of energy within their bondspace. That stabilizing, but draining, effort had steadily diminished until only painful yearning was left, the cold hollowing of profound tiredness of both body and soul. The captain could sense that what was left of his bondmate’s strength was ebbing even as the Vulcan remained seated at his station, stubbornly continuing his repair tasks. Jim wouldn’t leave and neither would his first officer, even the raw touch of Spock’s mind providing something for the captain to hold onto. So close. Hold on.

     Jim could see the glow of the mooring ports as they pulled even closer and the soft jolt of deceleration and the creak of infrastructure felt like a sigh, the bridge crew exchanging looks of relief and muted happiness around him.

     “Captain.” A warm hand fell on his shoulder and Jim turned his chair slightly, lifting his gaze to Nyota’s dark, worried eyes as she stood next to him. “Final docking procedures have been completed.” Her grip tightened and she tilted her head, lowering her voice for his ears only. “We’re home, Jim.”

     “Thank you.” His voice was raspy and he swallowed dryly. “Inform Command that we’ll require full security measures when transporting the prisoner. Tell them the transfer needs to be done right away, considering the…possible…security concerns.” He blinked, his vision temporarily going fuzzy as he sensed something on the edges of his mind fall into impenetrable silence. And he heard Nyota gasp at the same time as he saw his mate collapse, the Vulcan soundlessly sliding onto the deck.

     “Spock—.” Jim shoved himself up, hitting the medical alert on his armrest as Nyota leapt ahead of him to the upper level. But the captain only got so far before his own legs faltered beneath him, weakened muscle finally giving out, bright lights swirling around him as his vision blurred once again and he fell hard next to his bondmate’s body. In a final, brutal effort he reached for Spock’s hand, finally making contact and feeling nothing conscious spark between them. Too late. But we made it home. He knew Spock was alive and their ship was safe and that was enough, for now.

     “Jim!” Nyota’s cry sounded far away and then even farther still as the captain’s consciousness slipped after his bondmate’s, sinking away into the dark.

 

*****

 

     Hazy light seeped in through his slowly opening eyelids, and Jim blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, feeling disoriented and oddly still, the absence of ambient engine noise and the hiss of recirculated air disturbing to his space-acclimated senses. He drew in a full breath filled with crisp complex scents and finally focused on the lazy golden light streaming through partially open windows across the room, the green sway of trees beyond.

     He was lying on his side under a blanket, his head cradled on a soft pillow, and he knew that the warm, firm weight pressed along his back was his sleeping bondmate. Their connection was lulled and gentle in his mind, evidently calmed by their close contact, and he could feel Spock’s measured breath soothingly against the back of his neck, one of the Vulcan’s arms draped over Jim’s waist. The human didn’t move, not wanting to waken his friend, wondering how they had apparently transported to Earth, how long it had been since their collapse on the bridge, and precisely where the hell they had ended up. A familiar raised voice filtered through a closed door and Jim smiled and relaxed, recognizing McCoy’s drawl.

     “…I assure you that they are both recovering.” A pause, and Jim’s ears caught the nearly inaudible murmur of a female voice before the doctor spoke again, sounding agitated. “Well, I don’t know how long it’s going to take, ma’am, they were in bad shape.” The murmur came again, and the captain surmised that his CMO was speaking over a comm line.

     “Yes, that is my medical opinion, but perhaps you’d like to peruse their records again? Kidnapping, repeated mental and physical torture, the formation of a mental bond under less than ideal circumstances; they survived a crash, being shot by a madwoman, a firefight with the Klingons, surgery, a traumatic adjustment of their bond, and then another firefight followed by almost two days working nonstop to make sure that their ship got home safely. They’re exhausted and worn, suffering from malnutrition and stress; they still haven’t had time to properly recover from their surgeries, and they need to rest. I assume you’re familiar with Ambassador Sarek’s statement and the recommendations made by the Vulcan healer as to—.”

     He broke off abruptly and then his voice rose even louder. “No, I don’t think they’d be better off at Fleet Medical.  Security is aware of their present location and has taken appropriate steps. Quite frankly, I want to keep them away from HQ; based on previous experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were expected to conduct debriefs from their damn sickbeds.” He paused. “No, ma’am.” Then, more heatedly, “Yes, ma’am, I do!”

     Finally, he nearly spat. “I respectfully suggest that you come on out here and give it a try. They’re on medically ordered leave and they’re not going anywhere for at least three days.” Another pause. “No, ma’am; and I don’t think it’s out of line to remind you of what these men have done for Starfleet and the Federation. They’re in no shape to be out of bed, much less appearing before the Council and solving everyone else’s problems again.”

     Next to him, Jim sensed his bondmate stir, and the captain turned his head slightly, whispering, “It’s alright; just McCoy giving Ruiz-Morales hell. Go back to sleep.”

     Suprisingly, he was obeyed, the bond sinking into somnolence as Spock’s head settled back down, and Jim covered his bondmate’s hand with his own, knowing he was reassuring both of them with the simple contact.

     Outside the door, Jim heard his friend gruffly close out the communication. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll look forward to it. McCoy out.” The captain heard a dull thud, like something being thrown or punched, and he sighed, gently slipping out from under Spock’s arm and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He felt light-headed and hungry but already much better than before and he pushed himself up to stand, feeling an urgent need to empty his bladder.

     Shifting uncomfortably, he spotted a half-open door on the other side of the room and padded over, finding a spacious bathroom. Gratefully, he crossed to the toilet, sighing in relief and wondering again how long he had been unconscious. Washing his hands at the sink, he peered at himself in the mirror, seeing the shadow of stubble on his jawline and his drawn, still pale appearance. Jim rolled his shoulders and then bounced on his toes, encouraged when he met no resistance or discomfort from healing muscles. He was wearing a Fleet-issued white t-shirt and his own dark blue Academy sweatpants, and he took a moment to appreciate the casual weight of the familiar, loose clothing, so different from the slippery, glossy fabric of the slave ship and distinctly not medical-issued. He recognized his toiletries kit on the countertop and opened it, digging inside for his toothbrush and toothpaste and cleaning his teeth, running a hand through his unruly hair before deciding that it didn’t matter.

     He re-entered the bedroom, glancing over to see Spock still motionless under the blankets, dark lashes closed and black hair in disarray against the pillow. Jim resisted the strong urge to touch, easier now after what must have been hours of closeness as they slept. The very fact of their privacy, waking up together in their own room, in the same bed, sent a thrill of anticipation through the human. Here was implied the ability to indulge themselves in everything they so desperately needed: touch, both physical and mental, and the luxury of simply being with each other. Jim took in a deep breath and then released it, hearing his stomach growl. The idea of eating a sandwich while in bed with his bondmate suddenly seemed powerfully compelling and he felt a silly grin appear: his newfound energy together with this luxurious freedom to touch and to be touched filled him with a giddy feeling and he didn’t bother to hide his smile as he padded over to the other, closed, door nearer to the bed.

     The captain slipped out, easing the door silently closed and walking quietly down a short hallway that opened into a main living area. “Jim!” McCoy exclaimed, walking forward quickly. “You’re awake!”

     “Hey, Bones.” Jim offered a smile, looking over his friend’s civilian clothes before surveying his surroundings. Broad windows let in that same golden light, and Jim could make out the sweep of a grassy lawn leading down to a body of water, partially obscured by trees.

     The doctor pulled a medical sensor out of nowhere. “How are you? Is Spock—?”

     “Still asleep,” Jim replied, his voice gravelly. “We’re much better, though.” He glanced around the expansive layout, his gaze finding and lingering on the kitchen. “I’m hungry.” He met his friend’s hazel eyes curiously. “Where the hell are we?”

     Bones shrugged. “Maine.”

     “What?”

     “My cousin’s place.” The doctor nodded absently at the sensor before slipping it into his pocket and smiling wryly. “C’mon, I’ll fix you something to eat.”

     Jim followed him, bare feet nearly silent on the rich wood flooring. “Your cousin?” he asked dubiously.

     Bones glanced back. “She’s just a little bit rich,” he replied dryly.

     Jim shook his head. “How’d we—?” he began.

     “End up here?” McCoy finished. He stopped just inside the kitchen, turning to face his friend. “I’d gotten the two of you down to the medbay and found myself on the receiving end of an impassioned rant from your communications officer regarding the assholes at Command and the fact that you needed a proper rest this time.” He chuckled, waving Jim to sit down at the large kitchen table. “Nyota and I concocted this plan before the Admiralty could conspire to put you both in a fishbowl at Fleet Medical. Your, uh, new father-in-law was only too happy to help, albeit over subspace comm.”

    “I appreciate it.” Jim licked dry lips as McCoy rummaged through the refrigerator. “It sounded like you had your hands full.”

     McCoy glanced back and then rolled his eyes. “Oh, that? Yeah, don’t worry about that. Posturing, mostly.”

     “You sure?” Jim leaned forward as the doctor stuck his head back in the refrigerator, grumbling an inaudible retort.

     “How’s the Enterprise?” Jim asked, more loudly. He could sense a building awareness over the bond; Spock was waking up again.

     The doctor pulled out a pile of ingredients and dumped them haphazardly on the counter behind him. “You thirsty?”

     “Yeah,” Jim replied. “Bones, the ship?”

     “The ship’s undergoing repairs; Scotty’s supervising.” McCoy walked over to set a glass of ice water in front of the younger man. “I’m not going to give you any details because it’s not even close to being my field.” He grunted. “Plus, you’re supposed to be off the clock.”

     “And Trislo?” Jim took several deep swallows of the refreshingly cool liquid. Even with the present modest separation between himself and his bondmate, Jim could feel the determined draw begin again, though not nearly as uncontrolled as it had been, and he deiberately opened his mind to his mate. We’re in the kitchen. You okay?

     The Vulcan’s mental voice slid into his thoughts easily, eliciting a thrill of warmth over their connection. I am well, Jim.

     We’re in Maine. With Bones.

     Indeed.

     McCoy was building sandwiches of some sort. “That situation with the prisoner was done right, at least. A fucking phalanx of guards, and direct to the maximum security holding area at HQ.”

     Jim hummed and McCoy pointed a butter knife at him. “I mean it, Jim. Off the clock.”

     Spock’s voice provided a quiet contrast to the doctor’s assertive tones. “I believe you will find it difficult to convince the captain of the necessity of rest, Doctor.”

     McCoy wheeled and Jim smiled gently, seeing his mate standing just outside the entryway to the kitchen. The Vulcan, barefoot and wearing a similar outfit as Jim, looked tired, his posture a shadow of its usual severity and his hair, though smoothed, still slightly disordered. It was enough to make him appear shockingly vulnerable, and Jim couldn’t help a flash of worry even as he instinctively reached out a hand, craving contact.

     Spock’s dark eyes flickered to McCoy briefly before he moved toward Jim, reaching back with two fingers deliberately extended.

     Jim smiled sheepishly and adjusted his hand, biting his lip as their fingers touched and the interaction illuminated their bond. They had clasped hands so many times during their ordeal, holding on tightly for dear life and their very sanity, depending on that immediate tactile connection and ignoring unnecessary cultural implications. But now, and especially in front of the doctor, Jim recognized that they would have to include adjustments such as this.

     At the counter, McCoy visibly stifled a smile and turned away to pour what looked like soup into a pan on the old-fashioned stove. “Don’t mind me, gentlemen.” He threw a quick glance over his shoulder. “You okay, Spock?”

     Spock released the ozh’esta to slide into the chair next to Jim, adjusting his leg under the table to surreptitiously touch his bondmate’s. Jim blushed and shifted even closer, the warmth between them spreading to slowly infuse their connection.

     “I am functional, Doctor.”

     “ ‘Doctor’, really? Call me Leonard, for heaven’s sake.” The doctor sliced through two sandwiches with flair, moving them onto plates. “Hope you’re hungry.” He walked over, depositing the food in front of the two men.

     Jim twisted his lips, lifting a piece of the hearty bread to peer underneath. “This looks like vegetables, Bones.”

     “And hummus.” McCoy walked back over to the stove to stir the soup. “Your bondmate might not appreciate having to watch you wolf down a pile of meat.”

     Jim snorted loudly, stifling an irreverent retort, the energy dancing along the edges of his mind making him suddenly jumpy.

     The doctor rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Jim, I guess you are feeling better.” He poured soup into two bowls. “Look, I’m only here until you two get adjusted and I’m convinced that you’re not going to keel over again. I’m staying in a hotel in town.” He carried the bowls over, pulling spoons and napkins out of a drawer and placing them in front of his friends. He pointed at Jim. “I’ll be back to check on you daily, but you won’t be completely on your own; Security’s keeping an eye on the perimeter.”

     “Security?” Jim’s question was muffled by a huge bite of his sandwich, distracted by the heat and pressure of his bondmate’s leg against his own.

     McCoy shook his head. “From the Enterprise; they’re in the bunkhouse down the road a bit.”

     Jim tore his gaze away from watching his bondmate eat. “Bones, you seriously managed to transport us here without waking us up?”

     The doctor leaned a hip against the counter. “Well, Spock regained consciousness briefly. I told him what I wanted to do and to get the hell back to sleep.” He sobered. “He listened for once which, for me, was all I needed to know that I was making the right decision.”

     “You knew?” Jim regarded the Vulcan.

     Spock swallowed a spoonful of soup, clarifying, “I did not know our precise destination. I trusted the doctor.”

     McCoy twisted his lips, pulling out the scanner again and stepping over to wave it in Spock’s direction.

     The Vulcan looked up, raising an eyebrow, and Bones shrugged as he studied the readouts on the microscreen. “Don’t give me that look, hobgoblin. When you admit to trusting me about anything I’m understandably going to get suspicious.” He grunted, pocketing the unit again. “You need more rest; I’m still seeing some indicators I don’t like. And keep eating; the kitchen’s fully stocked.” He threw a glare at the captain, who was stuffing the last piece of his sandwich in his mouth. “That means you, too, Jim. After you finish here I think you should both go back to bed and try to sleep some more.”

     “I hear you, Bones.” Jim swallowed and licked his lips, pushing his spoon experimentally through his soup and seeing Spock’s dark eyes suddenly focused on his mouth. The Vulcan’s leg moved slightly against his own and Jim blinked as awakening arousal pulsed directly to his groin.

     The doctor made a noncommittal noise. “I meant what I told Ruiz-Morales; three days at the least. She and the Admiralty should know better than to try to call you directly, but I wouldn’t put it past you to call them.”

     “I shall ensure that the captain does not do so,” offered Spock, and the captain deciphered the heat dwelling behind his seemingly innocent words.

     Oh, really? How are you going to do that? Jim’s mouth quirked in a half-smile, mentally flirting.

     Spock lowered his eyes with exaggerated solicitousness and Jim was suddenly very, very anxious to be alone with his bondmate. “We’ll be alright, Bones,” he blurted suddenly.

     The doctor had opened his mouth, presumably with a response to Spock’s assurance, snapping it suddenly shut and eyeing Jim before affecting a decidedly nonchalant air. “Fine.” He gestured toward one of the side tables in the main room. “I put the comm unit over there along with the keycard to the place.” He frowned. “You shouldn’t need the key, though; I don’t want you running around.”

     “We won’t.” Jim said, too quickly and too loudly. He winced slightly, knowing he was sounding overly brusque. “Sorry.”

     “Nope.” The doctor raised his hands, rolling his eyes. “Unfortunately, I understand.” He sighed. “Take it easy. Get your heads in order before you, uh—,” he waved helplessly, “you know.”

     Jim felt his blush return and McCoy shook his head, saying, “I’ll see you both tomorrow about this same time.”

     The captain stood up. He wanted to shake his friend’s hand, but something hidden and smoldering was holding him back from offering the touch and so he settled for an awkward wave. “Thanks, Bones. I owe you.”

     Bones smirked. “Don’t worry about it, Jim. Just be well.” He nodded at Spock. “You, too, hobgoblin.”

     “Yes, Leonard.” Spock stood as well, his movements overly stiff, and Jim knew that had everything to do with their bond and the incredible, almost unbelievable prospect of being together, finally alone, healed, with no pain and no danger and with no threat of interruption. And the front door had barely closed behind their friend before Jim reached again for his bondmate’s hand. This time, Spock met him fully, their fingers intertwining and a wave of blissful relief coursing through the human’s veins.

     “Let’s go back to bed,” Jim breathed. “We’ll clean up later.”

 

*****

 

     It was surprisingly easy, in the silence and the deepening golden light, to fall into bed together again, to allow the touch of their hands to transition effortlessly into the curl of their bodies against each other, the closeness endlessly comforting even through their clothes. It was surreal to be finally able to touch, to cling, and Jim felt a heady, nearly hysterical burst of something undefined and powerful. Relief or happiness or disbelief, love and fear and impatience: he shuddered with the strength of it, pressing even closer to his mate with a small noise.

     “Jim.” Spock’s hand was in his hair, stroking gently.

     “This was so…so long coming.” The emotions were so tumultuous, so terribly intimate, and he couldn’t form the words in his mind. His body was wracked with another shudder and he barely suppressed a sob.

     Spock’s hands were moving rhythmically across Jim’s back, over his shirt, and again in his hair as the human pressed his face into the curve of the Vulcan’s neck, breathing in warmth and his friend’s scent. He realized abruptly that Spock was shaking, too, with the intensity of it all: the places they touched, skin-to-skin, seemed blindingly bright, raw and nearly frightening, and where clothing and blankets separated them were confoundingly muted.

     “I don’t want to go too fast. I don’t want to force this.” He wanted, so desperately, but still wouldn’t push, ever mindful of the circumstances that had come before. His breathing was coming haltingly but he stilled his hands, gripping into the Vulcan’s shirt but not pulling, his face hidden but his mind open.

     Spock’s voice was a low vibration against Jim’s body. “There is need between us, t’hy’la, but it is…it is of both of us, together. What we are, together, and what we can be.”

     “I’m scared of forcing this. I want…I need you so badly and I can’t help it.” Perceptions flashed through his mind and along the bond: helpless anger at having their relationship dictated and influenced, shame at his own behavior before he knew what he was truly initiating between them. Astonishment, love, fear, more: it was a flood of emotion, discharging finally and chaotically and for once, Jim didn’t know what to do. He wanted to stay this way, harboring some degree of safety; he wanted to pull their clothes off and lose himself in the sharp, fleeting brilliance of sex; he wanted to plunge into a meld and assure himself that he was wanted and welcomed and needed just as badly. He curled his fingers tighter, frustrated, and then felt his bondmate nod and begin to pull away.

     “No—,” he muttered, trying to prevent it, but the bond softened and he was caressed, fingers gently carding through his hair.

     Allow me, ashayam.

     Despite the turmoil, there was unshakeable trust, and Jim released his grip, letting his bondmate guide him, lying back onto the bed.

     The Vulcan knelt next to him, the delicate light burnishing his black hair, and the gentle expression on normally impassive features was mirrored by impossible tenderness within their shared mental space. Slowly, Spock reached forward and tugged at the bottom of Jim’s t-shirt, and Jim kept their gazes locked together for as long as possible as he shifted, feeling the garment slide off, the sheets warm under his back as he settled back again.

     Warm fingers started at his waistband, a touch that was full of love and protectiveness, reassurance and carefully hushed desire. Slow, intricate patterns were drawn across his abdomen and torso, brushes that would have been on the verge of being too sensitive if they hadn’t been accompanied by tenderly growing passion between them.

     Even as Jim’s emotions had spilled out dramatically, the Vulcan’s were now building, more deliberately but with no less intensity, and as sensitive fingers moved to caress Jim’s shoulders and arms, the human couldn’t help a shiver. He was now calm under his bondmate’s worshipful exploration, feeling supported in mind and soul, comforted. Memories flashed of when he had done something similar for his distressed mate, smoothing healing oil into painful bruises, sending reassurance and the strength of his love to soothe and console.

     Wordless whispers of praise and love slid between them as Jim closed his eyes, sensing the feather-light touch slide over his lips, his jawline, over his meld points where energy sparked between their skin. There was a reluctant separation, a breathless pause, and then…contact. Jim sighed as his bondmate’s mouth touched his, as the Vulcan’s now-bared torso met his. The kiss was eager and joyful, and Jim’s mind streamed open, inviting in his mate. The emotion resonating between them grew: love and gratitude and wonder and desire, and as he felt fingers press more firmly to his face, Jim laughed out loud into the kiss, letting his mind free-fall into Spock’s.

     This time, the meld coalesced around him and he didn’t fight the pull; rather, he gave into it, plunging forward, building a mental momentum that propelled them both through any remaining tension. What had been unfulfilled longing and need vanished into incandescence, and memories of painful trials disappeared into the relief and joy of finally, finally coming together freely. This mental joining held no shame, no fear of being observed or evaluated, no frantic dependence on calculated healing or protection. He was safe; Spock was safe, and they were able to weave the fabric of their bond slowly and willfully.

     And it was beautiful. This was how it should have been. This was everything: dimensions of friendship and love, depths of loyalty and pride, wonder and soulful union. It was all, as Spock had said. So different from that initial connection driven by necessity in a locked chamber on the slave ship, so different from the desperate meld in sickbay after T’Shin’s terrifying actions; this was learning each other truly and deeply and selflessly and on their own terms and in their own time.

     Exposed were the depths of their minds, unreservedly offered, and that itself was a source of wonder for each of them. Vulnerability here was not something to be feared. Exposure here was not something to be avoided. Here was the meeting, the communion of two minds, two souls; burdens and memories were shared and each was empowered in the protection and love of the other. The past drifted between them, colored by individual perception but held and reconciled by each together. And their future shone brightly, beckoning without fear.

     Slow awareness dawned as Jim instinctively resisted emerging from the warmth and closeness of the meld, becoming mindful of another form of warmth and closeness that seductively summoned, and he finally opened his eyes to the startling darkness of night and the scent and firm press of his bondmate’s body. The chords of their mental joining still rang in his mind, heated now and building, and the touch of Spock’s fingers along his jawline felt like sparks in his thoughts, the puff of breath against his neck was banked embers in a fire, and, finally, the feel of the Vulcan’s lips, sliding erotically along Jim’s throat, was an accelerant, setting his body ablaze.

     Jim arched his neck, realizing that his nails were digging bluntly into his bondmate’s shoulders, and then, as sharp teeth nipped below his jaw, he possessively clenched his hands even tighter.

     The Vulcan made a low, throaty noise and pressed their bodies closer together, messily finding Jim’s mouth with his own and plundering it with passionate abandon. The human’s hands slid down and into loose pants, grasping his bondmate’s taut buttocks and shifting to align their hips.

     They were both aroused, and the layers of soft pants were irritating and unnecessary between them. Jim grunted, twisting them onto their sides and pulling away from the kiss to struggle and shove at the offending fabric, kicking the sweatpants and most of the blankets to the end of the bed. The subsequent slide of naked skin caused Jim to sigh in mindless delight; a noise that turned into a ragged gasp as his bondmate slithered down the human’s body to nuzzle at the base of his penis.

     “Gods, Spock.” Jim had both hands in the Vulcan’s silky hair and he barely kept his hips from thrusting wildly as delicious, wet heat surrounded him. It was ridiculous bliss, every sensation echoing within their mental dynamic. The human was grateful for the darkness and the solitude as his own face contorted and he muttered frenziedly, saying every filthy thing that crossed his mind, knowing that Spock was reading his reactions and adjusting his hands and his fucking talented tongue to get that fucking spot—.

     Jim cried out, his orgasm shocking both of them, magnified within the bond, and he came down from incoherent ecstasy to the weight of his bondmate’s head resting against his hip, the Vulcan’s mind reeling in concert with his own.

     That was unbelievable, Jim sent, and then chuckled hoarsely as the first directed thought from his mate’s mind was an appreciative analysis of the taste of human semen.

     “You’re—,” Jim cleared his throat, “you’re fucking unbelievable.” He leaned his head back, sated, his eyes half-lidded.

     Spock hummed and shifted, and Jim looked down his own body to the pale, lean form laid out next to him in the moonlight, seeing... .

     “Hey, I thought…I felt… .” He paused and then reached down, weakly tugging at the Vulcan’s shoulders. “I thought you came, too.”

     Spock lifted his head, his eyes black pools within the angular shadows of his face. “I experienced the resonance of your orgasm, but not, evidently, the physical release.”

     “Well, that’s no good.” Jim smiled suggestively, reaching out and running a hand through his mate’s disheveled hair before curling up even closer to fondle a pointed ear. “Want to fuck me?”

     A powerful throb of lust, glimmering so clearly within their blown open connection, accompanied the sharp intake of the Vulcan’s breath.

     “Yes.” Spock’s whispered reply was rough and Jim’s smirk was suddenly buried in a heated kiss made even more erotic as Jim tasted his own release in his mate’s mouth, their bodies coming together, slick with human sweat. Jim reached down, unabashedly taking his bondmate’s erection into his hand and stroking once and then twice, inwardly smiling as he heard his partner gasp again.

     Runaway desire suddenly enflamed the bond, making everything seem on the edge of being too much, accelerating even as Jim felt a frisson of anxiousness, wanting belatedly to remain in that sultry space where he was comfortable and in control. This…helpless…escalation had happened before and it struck at someplace deep within him: difficult memories, consequences, hurt. Their bond was driving them, pushing, heated touches and messy, frantic kisses, and, as the Vulcan’s fingers slid between Jim’s buttocks to brush over his entrance, the unexpected burst of the human’s fear and resistance was a wash of freezing water, dousing the flame.

     Shock and confusion ricocheted between them as Spock pulled away immediately, retreating to sit on the edge of the bed and Jim lay on his back, breaths coming in heaves as he struggled to understand what had happened.

     “Fuck.” Jim shook his head, the abrupt absence of his partner’s warmth leaving him chilled, sweat evaporating on his skin. “Fucking Rohmer? Why the fuck would I even think of that now?” But it wasn’t just Rohmer and the recollection of the assault that the large man had begun on Jim’s body. There was something else there, too; something that had been ignored and excused and evaded. Something that had come crashing through in this frantic heat between them: triggered, no doubt, by the peripheral sense of compulsion and helplessness. In the midst of heady freedom, when neither life nor limb was at stake, accountability had reared its head.

     The emotions and thoughts that slipped within their bondspace were too complex and too fast for Jim to follow and the human slowly sat up in the bed, feeling shame and resignation curdle his blood.

     “I’m sorry,” he said softly, and his meaning was not simply for what had just happened, but also for the first time that they had come together, when Jim had insisted and Spock had conceded and physical pleasure had turned into a loss of control, a painful reckoning happening beneath the fiercely cutting spray of an icy shower. Jim knew that his bondmate did not blame him, the logic of the situation had been obvious, but the human side of it had been left unresolved for each of them.

     He covered his eyes with his hands, the simplicity of being together in this place now paling against the complexity of what they carried between them: the bond, of course, and a brief history of trauma that had, despite their best efforts, done its part to shape them.

     “I’m so fucking sorry,” he repeated, his voice muffled, and this time he meant all of it: for the things they couldn’t have controlled, for the evil that had found them, for the pain and the grief and the anger and the hate, for the misunderstandings and the hidden wounds. He dropped his hands to his sides, staring up at the featureless ceiling in the darkened room. He was cold and felt exposed in a way that was deeply affecting, his false bravado and determined confidence collapsing.

     A warm hand touched his arm, stroking gently, and the tumble of emotion within the bond morphed into something clearer. Spock’s voice was quiet. “You were correct, Jim, to pursue strengthening the bond, both for communication and for," he paused, “emotional support.” His fingers again traced patterns on Jim’s skin. “My reticence came from my…fear of your censure and to avoid causing you additional pain.”

     “I influenced you to do something you were unsure of,” Jim replied, turning his head away. Jim remembered the way the Vulcan had haltingly yielded to him before the bond had swept them both away. “And I know about the circumstances and everything else, but—.”

     “If we had not bonded, I would not have survived. We would not have survived.”

     “Spock—.”

     “Jim, our bond—.”

     “Why does it force us?” Jim blurted, turning back to face his mate. “It pulls and I lose myself. It makes it impossible to stop.”

     “We did stop.” Spock spoke matter-of-factly and Jim’s lips twisted, recognizing that there were limits: after T’Shin’s action he had stopped, pushing away physical intimacy in favor of something else; Spock had stopped just now, sensing Jim’s fear. There was a give and take, an allowance for care as well as consummation.

     “But why—?” Jim began, letting his words trail away.

     Spock’s hand had not stopped its tracing, and Jim sensed, within the patterns, some hidden meaning intrinsic to their discussion. The human lay still, waiting.

     “The purpose of a bond partially involves the management of compulsion as dictated by Vulcan biology.” Spock swallowed audibly. “Pon farr is a mating drive that affects the males of my species every seven years and forces us to…it leaves us no choice in the matter.” The Vulcan shifted slightly on the bed. “So you must understand, Jim, that self-condemnation on your part is unnecessary. Logically—.”

     “No,” Jim broke in suddenly, sitting up. He shook his head. “This wasn’t biology, this was me; my fault, my actions. And the situation aside—.”

     “The situation cannot be cast aside,” Spock interrupted firmly. “Under normal circumstances, our bonding would have been unaccompanied by…the difficulties of my emotional state at the time. My mind was damaged, which resulted in the pain and disruption between us immediately after. I could not control, and we were not afforded the requisite time to allow our connection to settle, to be with each other, as we are now.”

     The Vulcan leaned closer, his hand stilling to close loosely over Jim’s lower arm. “I understand your guilt; I harbor my own. However, I must ask you to see a different way. Our bond is particularly deep, and the drive to fulfill its inherent connections is particularly strong. The sense of escalation we experience is biologically derived, to encourage completion and to avoid the pain of an unsatisfied bond, to avoid death itself, were bonding to have occurred during pon farr, as it frequently does. I believe you are equating this…intensity as your own failure or as a transgression on my consent or my desire, but it is not.”

     Spock’s hand slid down to clasp Jim’s, their fingers entwining. “However, I also understand your reluctance in this case. What is logical is not always,” he paused again, “acceptable. When we first came together, I felt fear as you do now, because of an emotional dynamic that—.”

     “I shouldn’t feel threatened by you, like that,” Jim said dryly, tightening his fingers.

     “You did not feel in control. You did not understand why you were being driven in such a way.”

     Jim hummed. “Will that change? The way it drives us?”

     “I believe so. I am able to sense a difference, even with this short time in close proximity. As we remain together, it may be further alleviated. At the conclusion of pon farr, or at the conclusion of, as you say, a honeymoon, a settled bond has no pain, no such compulsion.” His head dropped. “Or so I understand.”

     The human grunted. “So we fuck like bunnies, or we meld and fool around with each other for a few days and it’ll result in the same thing?”

     “That is likely.”

     Spock’s surprisingly open expression was mirrored by a sense of dubiousness at his mate’s choice of words, but the Vulcan’s implication was clear and Jim felt some of the pressure ease, his shoulders relaxing slightly. “Well, it’s good we have options.” He shrugged sheepishly. “I, uh, don’t like being told what to do.”

     “So I surmised. I share that sentiment as well.”

     Images of the near-annoyance on Sarek’s face during Spock’s admissions hearing for the VSA flickered across the bond and Jim chuckled softly. “I guess so.” He sobered, casting a look over his mate’s unaroused body, sensing fatigue returning in each of them. The emotional discussion had been draining.

     “I suppose I messed up the ‘fooling around’ option, too.” He reached out to smooth the Vulcan’s hair, asking hopefully, “Can we meld while we sleep?”

     Spock’s lips curved slightly. “A full meld requires my conscious participation. However, I am able to initiate a mind-touch that deepens our present connection.”

     Jim blinked tiredly, tugging on his mate’s hand, lying back and arranging their bodies close against each other. “So, in other words, close enough.”

     He closed his eyes, feeling their awareness of each other broaden and expand, sensing a new degree of peace between them. There was time, after all. Here, there was time and acceptance and love. And they would be okay.

 

*****

 

     Jim awoke alone the next morning feeling almost punch-drunk. He had fallen asleep in his mate’s arms, their discussion having eased his mind and the openness within their bond satisfying a longed-for intimate mental touch. Their thoughts had drifted back and forth in an easy and rambling mental conversation and when Jim had finally fallen into sleep, his dreams had been full of that same affection and warmth.

     Settling was perhaps an appropriate term after all, as the immediacy and intensity of the bond had now noticeably relaxed into an expansive yet subtle awareness in his mind, readily accessible and ever present, blooming with bright connectivity when he called, and when his bondmate answered in kind.

     Smiling to himself, Jim swung his legs out of bed and stretched his arms, only now noticing the open duffel bags on the floor next to the bathroom door. The scent of pine was strong through the open window, along with the dappled gleam of new sunlight, and Jim leaned back, rolling his neck as Spock stepped through the door, a mug of coffee in his hands.

     “Hey.”

     “Good morning, Jim.”

     There was an answering almost-smile on the Vulcan’s lips and Jim took the proffered mug with a huge grin as his bondmate sat next to him on the bed.

     “You okay?” Jim knew the answer already, but still wanted to watch Spock’s eyebrow rise, which it did. The Vulcan was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, his hair meticulously combed and shining, and Jim leaned in, pressing a quick kiss to his bondmate’s cheek, picking up shampoo and soap mixed with Spock’s own scent. He hummed, leaning in again and breathing deeply. “Thank you for the coffee,” he murmured into a pointed ear before leaning back and taking a sip, aware that the sheet barely covered his nakedness.

     Spock was staring, both eyebrows now lifted, and Jim took another sip, reveling in the simple pleasure of mutual attraction and flirtation and the freedom to allow it to move at its own pace. His stomach growled suddenly, ruining the moment and the Vulcan’s eyes crinkled in subtle humor.

     “Shall I prepare breakfast, t’hy’la?”

     Jim smiled and shrugged. “Yeah. I’ll just take a shower.” He stood, the sheet falling away, and he ambled halfway to the bathroom before mentally sending an invitation. He glanced back to see Spock standing, eyes wide and the bond transmitting a distinct sense of tension.

     “You okay?” he asked again, this time more seriously, the mug forgotten in his hand.

     “I do not wish to…your reaction to—.” Spock trailed off, but Jim understood the flutter of thoughts clearly.

     “It’s okay,” he said. “No pressure.” He licked his lips, reaching around to place the mug on the countertop inside the bathroom before turning to face his mate fully. “Talking last night helped, and, like you said, the bond is getting…quieter, I guess? Settled.”

     He took a step forward. “It makes it feel less like helplessness and more like, I don’t know,” he waved his hands, “like something we’re in control of. I think I understand and I want to try again.” And it was true. He felt playful and excited; the heat was there, and growing, but not as blindly as before.

     Spock, he sent. Just come in. It’s okay.

     Spock blinked, and Jim smiled, turning back to the bathroom and moving to turn on the shower. Casting an eye at the half-closed door, Jim used the toilet and brushed his teeth, rummaging in his kit for the tube of lubricant that he knew was there. He glanced again at the door, still sensing Spock’s continuing analysis. Rolling his eyes, he stepped into the steam and heated water, sighing as it ran over his body, an idea taking shape.

     Broadcasting his actions was easier than he had anticipated, especially once he had slid two fingers inside of himself and the initial sting and discomfort dissipated. He slowly worked his fingers in and out, adding lube when needed, letting the sensations wash over him, feeling his penis swell in response. This time, he didn’t feel overwhelmed or carried away, and his control over his own actions left him free to fantasize about his mate’s hands, and about where this could lead.

     When the door slid open to admit a naked, aroused and slightly perplexed-looking Vulcan, Jim smiled, not bothering to remove his hand, seeing Spock’s eyes darken, the confused expression vanishing quickly into desire.

     Come here. Do this to me, Jim mentally ordered.

     His curt commands were hastily obeyed, and the rush of immediate tactile pleasure as his bondmate’s fingers gently slid into the tight heat of his entrance was magnified by Jim’s own excitement as their bodies pressed together and their erections came into contact.

     Now, Jim sensed the underlying escalation start again, seeing Spock’s eyes close and his chin tilt back, and the human decided to again take matters into his own hands.

     And mouth, he mentally teased, shifting down and waiting until Spock’s fingers withdrew before he slowly knelt in front of his mate, adjusting his weight carefully on the hard tile floor.

     Water rolled over Spock’s body, down his arms and over his hands where he lightly touched Jim’s hair, and the human closed his eyes, enjoying the delicious reactions filtering within the bond almost as much as the physical reactions that the Vulcan displayed. Soft vocalizations were met with subdued thrusts as Jim worked his bondmate’s erection, concentrating on their mental connection, feeling the pull between them as gentle stimulation instead of frantic energy.

     Yes, t’hy’la, yes. Come for me. Jim’s directed thought was met with a choked gasp and the human grunted, his own toes curling as he pulled away, unable to control his movements through their shared pleasure, his own untouched penis throbbing in release even as hot Vulcan semen met his face and torso.

     He licked his lips and tilted his head back, tasting salty-sweetness on his tongue as he blinked up at his mate through the cascading water.

     I forgot about that. I didn’t know that I’d come—. He broke off as a strong grip on his arms pulled him bodily up and Spock began kissing him. Deep, open-mouthed kisses that took his breath away and Jim responded in kind, his hands entwining in thick, black hair, the water washing them clean in more ways than one. The joy and bliss resonating within the bond seemed to sweep away the memory of another time they had clung together under falling water, and Jim threw himself into the kiss, into the contact, into the present moment where they were sound in body and mind, together finally in shared gratification and comfort.

 

*****

 

     Jim strolled lazily in the shallows of the lake, his sweatpants rolled haphazardly over his knees and his t-shirt dotted with flecks of water and mud. He bent to retrieve another stone and studied it closely before throwing it, watching it skip twice over the calm surface before disappearing underneath. The captain’s belly was full after a large lunch, making up for having skipped breakfast curled up in bed with his bondmate, their minds again intertwined.

     Spock was seated on the grassy slope that led down to the water, legs crossed underneath him, hands resting placidly on his knees, his eyes closed in meditation. Their bond sang pleasantly between them, lulled with his mate’s concentration, established even further by the morning’s intimate activities.

     Jim skipped another stone, relishing the feel of smooth rock under his feet and the lap of water against his legs. He was relaxed and satiated but his thoughts were ever drawn to his ship, and he couldn’t shake some lurking intuition about Kellen Trislo. He frowned, throwing another stone, this time with more force.

     “Jim!”

     A familiar drawl broke into the captain’s reverie and he turned, smiling a greeting.

     “Hey, Bones.” Jim began sloshing his way to the edge of the water, sensing the beginnings of his bondmate’s slow emergence from the near-trance. “I’m coming.”

     The doctor was sauntering down from the house, pausing to peer down at the still-motionless Vulcan before stopping at the beginning of the short rocky beach that led into the water. He lowered his voice. “Is Spock meditating?”

     “Yeah.” Jim stumbled slightly over a slick rock. “Fuck.”

     McCoy looked at him askance. “Jim, you look like a fucking mess. Have you been fooling around in the water all day or what?”

     Jim snorted, holding his arms out for balance as he negotiated the small distance remaining between them. “I’ve been fooling around in the water, yeah, you could say that.” He made a suggestive face at his friend and Bones rolled his eyes.

     “Jesus Christ.”

     The captain chuckled, glancing over the doctor’s shoulder to see Spock’s eyes slowly open.

     “Good afternoon, Leonard.”

     Jim’s smile widened at the irregularly soft tone of his bondmate’s voice and McCoy shook his head at his best friend. “Good fucking lord, Jim.”

     “Whatever, Bones!” Jim hopped over the rocks and up onto the grass, throwing himself down in an inelegant sprawl next to the Vulcan. “You knew the score.”

     The doctor grunted, gingerly stepping over to sit on Spock’s other side. “Knowing the score is different than hearing the play-by-play,” he grumbled, looking them each over carefully. “So, how are you doing?”

     “Better,” Jim replied, sobering slightly. “Much better.”

     “Did you eat? Sleep?” Bones waved his scanner at Jim and then Spock as the captain nodded.

     “I just had a pile of pasta, Bones. Spock, too.”

     The doctor inclined his head, intent on the readouts. “Have you melded?”

     “We have,” Spock replied.

     “Good.” Bones paused, looking them over again before pocketing the small medical unit. “Well, you’re both checking out okay, and your hormone levels seemed to have stabilized; I imagine that’s in correlation with the improved status of your bond.” He paused and then pointed a stern finger at Jim. “Don’t get any ideas about leaving early, though.”

     “I’m not—,” Jim protested weakly.

     “Nope!” Bones interrupted sharply. “I know you too well for that shit. I won’t sign off on your duty card until I’m satisfied that you’re both ready, and my physician’s sixth sense is telling me that you still need time.” He hesitated, furrowing his brow. “I’m going to insist on this because it looks like the Enterprise is going to be shipping out the minute you’re back onboard. I took a chance letting you back in the chair before you were ready once, and I’m not doing it again. For both your sakes.”

     Jim leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “What’s the word, Bones?”

     “The word is that we’re supposed to aid in rounding up the bad guys who escaped from Belishea before the Klingons or Romulans can get ahold of them. Or before they can establish a base elsewhere. Ruiz-Morales is running a tight operation, but it’s putting a damper on the primary exploratory missions.”

     “Damn,” Jim muttered.

     “Like I said,” McCoy emphasized, “don’t worry about it for now. There’ll be plenty of time later, and you’ve earned every second of this leave.” His voice softened and he pushed himself up. “I’m gonna take off, but I left something in the kitchen for you both.” He crossed his arms. “Spock, I also left a PADD in there with a message from your father. He assured me that it was nothing inflammatory.”

     Jim scrambled to his feet, his bondmate following in a smoother motion. “Stay for dinner?” He couldn’t help a surge of impatience, wanting to pick his friend’s brain about the disposition of his ship and, ultimately, their mission.

     Bones snorted. “Nah. Remember what I said about the play-by-play.” He shrugged, reaching out to clap Jim on the shoulder. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Enjoy yourselves. And keep doing whatever you’re doing; you both look a lot better.”

     The doctor turned and left, striding up the lawn and around the side of the house, leaving the two men looking after him. Jim scuffed his bare foot on the grass in frustration. “Fuck. Fucking fuck.”

     Spock stiffened and the bond dampened, some of the warmth going out. “I must listen to the—.”

     “—message from your father, yeah,” Jim finished in a dark mumble. “They’re going to fuck this up.” He pressed his lips together. “Fuck.”

     Spock was looking at him, dark eyes unreadable, and the bond was an opaque slurry of suppressed emotion. Jim frowned. “What?”

     “You wish to leave. You wish to return to the ship.”

     “Don’t you?” Jim waved a hand. “After all we went through; to think that the situation is in the hands of the very people who let it happen in the first place—.” He trailed off, seeing his bondmate look away. “Spock? I can’t…I can’t read you right now. What’s wrong?”

     The Vulcan did not respond, beginning the march toward the house and Jim jogged to catch up, a cold lump settling uneasily in his stomach. There was a moment when he didn’t understand and then, suddenly, he did, and his heart ached with the knowledge.

     “Spock, wait,” he called softly, following his bondmate into the house and sliding the screen door closed behind them. “Hey.”

     The Vulcan had crossed over to the kitchen table where three bottles of red wine sat next to a PADD and Jim hung back, his face creased, watching Spock pick up the device and key in his identity. The message was apparently nothing audible and the human paused, his own bright anger having dissipated, his restless need to get back to their ship having fallen away in the bitter understanding that Spock was, yet again, refusing to ask for what he needed.

     The bond was still tight, and Jim waited until the Vulcan had placed the PADD down onto the tabletop.

    “Everything okay?” He tried to send reassurance and comfort along their connection.

     Dark eyes lifted once more, and Jim felt the bond relax slightly, some deep resurgence of grief surfacing to mix with the oddly uncomfortable emotions that swirled within his mate’s mind. “My father has informed me that Healer T’Shin was successful in transferring the alien katra into an appropriate receptacle. The essence of the extinct culture has been saved, and the Federation Council has requested that a Vulcan-led research team investigate RX-54 in order to ascertain the fate of other potential caches of what remains of their people, as well as to properly handle the disposition of any discovered psionically-active technology.”

     “That’s good,” Jim commented evenly, his eyes searching his mate’s.

     “Sarek has also informed me that he is en route to Earth, in order to personally give testimony as to the events of the past weeks as well as to offer us his support. He inquires after you as my t’hy’la.”

     Jim nodded soberly, sensing the underlying gravity of that statement. He swallowed, stepping closer. “Can we talk about what just happened?”

     An eyebrow lifted. “What do you wish to discuss?”

     Jim peered at him. “You’re trying to protect me again by shutting me out. You didn’t want to tell me that I was full of shit and so you shielded and walked away. You’d probably even follow me back to the ship if I pressed on it.”

     Spock actually frowned and Jim took another step closer, his voice gentling. “Don’t do that. Don’t shut me out. Your needs are just as important as mine, and maybe even more so right now.” He paused, saying sadly, “So, it turns out we can still have misunderstandings.”

     “Jim.”

     “And we’ll continue to have them, as long as my first thought is of me and your first thought is also of me.” Jim grimaced. “I’m sorry.”

     “You are my captain,” Spock replied quietly. “You are my friend, and my bondmate. Your first thought is not of yourself, but of your duty and your greater responsibility. It was merely my temporary weakness that—.”

     “It’s not weakness!” Jim burst out, reaching to grasp Spock’s shoulders. “Don’t say that.” He withdrew just as quickly. “We’re…so many things to each other. So many labels and with a bond that draws them all together and makes it intensely personal: every aspect, intensely personal.” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his forehead. “Bones was right in that we have things to work on; things to figure out. You can’t protect me blindly all the time and I can’t just take your strength and loyalty for granted.”

     “Jim.”

     “I want to care for you. It’s important to me to be able to do that for you. And I want you to be able to tell me when you’re hurting or when you need something from me. Please don’t shut me out, Spock. Don’t shield and pull away and suppress what you are. Not for me.”

     “It is…what I have always done,” Spock said slowly.

     “Not anymore. Not during pon farr, or any other time.” Jim reached out again, his hand sliding to cup Spock’s jaw. “We’re together in this: this mix of human and Vulcan and duty and friendship and love. We’re together, and stronger for it. Do you understand?”

     Their bond warmed as Spock’s hand lifted to cover Jim’s. “Yes, t’hy’la. I understand.”

     “Good,” Jim replied firmly. “Good.”

 

*****

 

     Jim leaned against the counter in the kitchen, a second glass of wine in his hand, his hair damp, dressed in clean clothes and absently watching his bondmate prepare a salad. Warm from the alcohol and pliant from his recent shower, he let his thoughts drift, his eyes drawn to Spock’s hands as he remembered their strength and their heat and the way his mate’s fingers had slid into him, hard and slick and moving just slowly enough to—.

     He broke himself out of the recollection, sensing a sudden underlying tension within their connection and in the rigid set of Spock’s shoulders. Self-consciously, he cleared his throat and tried to say something more conversational. “So, are you going to have some of this, or am I going to have to finish the bottle?”

     Spock didn’t look up from slicing carrots. “I have already helped myself, t’hy’la.”

     “So, I’ll finish the bottle, then,” Jim remarked amusedly. He put his glass down and stepped forward, reaching out to run a gently offering touch along the waistband of the Vulcan’s jeans, just beneath the white t-shirt he wore. “Bones did leave three of them.”

     “I…believe he anticipated that the supply last for the balance of our stay.” Even if Spock’s voice hadn’t held a new, lower tone, the betraying notes of desire trembled across their bondspace and Jim moved his hand under the Vulcan’s shirt to press flat against the small of the other man’s back, feeling muscles tense under hot skin.

     Jim lowered his voice playfully, feeling his mate’s breathing quicken. “I thought you said that alcohol didn’t have an effect on Vulcans.”

     “It does not; unlike your present state, as I am not shielding our bond.” Spock placed the knife carefully on the cutting board and turned slightly to face his mate, his eyes narrowed. Jim kept his hand where it was, leaning even closer and letting his arm encircle the Vulcan as Spock continued primly, “This is not conducive to—.”

     The aggressive press of Jim’s mouth interrupted him, and after an instant of hesitation, the human sensed the distinct impression of a flippant mental kaiidth followed by the capitulation of Spock’s mouth opening fully to his own.

     Jim made an encouraging noise, both hands now under Spock’s shirt. The faint taste of wine on his mate’s tongue was erotic, and the feeling of the Vulcan’s hands moving in his hair and on Jim’s ass succeeded in making the human instantly hard, despite the liquor. The human moved his hips in subtle undulations against Spock’s hand, remembering how the Vulcan had tasted and how hard he had come from Jim’s mouth on him. Jim imagined what it would be like to sink into the Vulcan’s body, to feel—.

     He gasped into the kiss, suddenly receiving a slew of sharply sensate impressions through the bond: the image of his own body, wet and slippery, the scent of his arousal, the tight heat of his entrance, the exotic tastes of his mouth and his—.

     “Fuck!” he exclaimed, breaking away suddenly, flushed and excited and panting, his body practically shaking. “Fuck.”

     Spock had released him, but dark eyes were fixed on Jim’s lips, and the Vulcan’s hands flexed at his sides, almost involuntarily. “If you wish, Jim.”

     “Wait.” Jim held up a hand. “You can send porn over the bond? Like, actual, interactive fucking porn?”

     Spock blinked, his eyes focused curiously on Jim’s, his head tilting. “I was reciprocating.”

     Jim grunted in confusion and Spock edged even closer. “Your own projected thoughts were quite clear, Jim.”

     The human held up his other hand. “Wait!” He shifted uncomfortably again the distracting hardness in his pants, biting his lip. “I was sending you… ? Like that?”

     A faint hint of amusement bloomed between them. “The images in your mind while you were in the shower were quite intense. And again when you arrived in the kitchen.” He lifted his chin. “However, I promised Doctor McCoy that I would see to your needs and avoiding yet another meal would not be—.”

     “Dinner’s going to just have to fucking wait,” Jim interrupted brokenly, desire flooding him. He licked his lips, lowering his hand to palm his erection. “Did you mean it about—?”

     Indeed.

     Another wave of intense imagery superheated his mind and Jim practically choked. “Okay. Okay, stay here for…give me five minutes and then I want you in the bedroom. Literally.” He turned around without waiting for Spock’s answer and half-jogged, half-limped in the direction of the bedroom, stopping at a closet in the hallway and pulling out a clean set of sheets.

     The lube was back in his toiletry kit in the bathroom, where he’d replaced it after their activities that morning, and he grabbed it in passing, tossing it on the bedside table before hurriedly tugging at the used bed linens. The sense of amusement still sang between them and Jim rolled his eyes, knowing that Spock was following his thoughts and actions almost as clearly as if he’d been in the room with him.

     That’s cheating.

     I am…gratified by your enthusiasm, Jim.

    I’ll give you gratification, Jim sent with fumbling humor.

     “I imagine so.” Spock’s sonorous voice sounded from the doorway and Jim turned, barely finished replacing the fitted sheet over the large bed, the pillows and blankets and remaining linens scattered on the floor and his own arousal painfully obvious.

     “That wasn’t five minutes,” he hissed.

     “I am aware.” Spock stepped closer. “Leave it.”

     The steel command in the Vulcan’s voice almost made Jim whimper and he watched as Spock’s shirt was slowly peeled off, followed by his jeans and underwear.

     “That isn’t helping—,” Jim began shakily, reaching for his own shirt.

     “Leave it,” Spock said again, more firmly. “I wish to do that for you.”

     Jim swallowed, watching his mate unabashedly walk toward him in the paling light of the early evening. The Vulcan’s body appeared so different from its previous terribly bruised and battered state and the radiating desire between them was mirrored by the intense look in his eyes.

     The human’s shirt came off in one swift motion, and his world whirled around him as he was bodily spun to lie flat on the bed, his wrists captured above his head in an firm grip and a warm hand sliding possessively over his exposed torso and into his pants. Jim groaned, arching his back into the touch, gasping as Spock’s fingers glided over his aching shaft once before retreating to pull at his waistband. The human arched again, practically writhing as his pants disappeared and he was covered with a hard, hot body, their intimate skin touching and sliding together as Jim groaned again, raggedly, and Spock laved kisses onto his neck.

     Jim wanted everything and wanted it fucking immediately, rolling his hips and taking advantage of Spock’s distraction to loosen his own wrists and flip them over, scooting up to straddle his bondmate’s torso and reach for the lube. As Jim’s hand curled around the small bottle, he felt pressure on the backs of his thighs, sliding him forward just enough so that Spock’s mouth found his penis.

     Jim made a strangled noise and dropped the bottle on the bed next to him, mumbling in pleasure as he leaned forward, bracing his hands on the headboard. He wanted to come…he needed to come and he desperately tried to keep his hips from thrusting as—. The bond tightened oddly, and the immediate urgency of Jim’s onrushing orgasm was suddenly dulled, even though the mouth and tongue around him had not stopped their sensual movements. The human opened his eyes, realizing Spock was manipulating their connection an instant before a slickened flinger slid down the seam of his buttocks and over his entrance and he pitched forward again, letting a moan escape him.

     The finger slid inside and now Jim couldn’t help but thrust, simultaneously cursing and praising Vulcan muscle control as Spock took his engorged member without choking. One finger became two, and then three, and Jim gripped the headboard with white knuckles as his prostate was maddeningly brushed and everything became almost too much for a blinding instant before the mental restriction was removed and he rode out his powerful release, feeling Spock’s throat constrict around his penis, the Vulcan’s fingers still inside him.

     “Gods!” Jim closed his eyes and slumped to the side, his bondmate catching him effortlessly and gently lowering him down to lie on his back, the emptiness of fingers sliding free making Jim whimper.

     “No,” he murmured. “I want you.”

     “Jim.”

     The human opened his eyes. “I do. Please.”

     “Are you certain? After—.”

     “I’m sure. I want you.” I want you to make love to me.

     He let his legs fall open as Spock lowered his body down against him, their mouths coming together again, but less frantically. Jim’s orgasm had suffused their bondspace with hazy satisfaction, resolving most of the urgency but none of the intensity, and the Vulcan’s erection remained, as it had before, now sliding slickly against Jim’s own depleted organ.

     This way? Spock’s mental voice sounded strangely vulnerable as he lowered a hand to position himself, and Jim managed a nod, opening his eyes just in time to see a look of astonished bliss on normally impassive features as Spock slowly pressed into him.

     Further and further in, and Jim breathed deeply as the sensation of fullness adjusted to something slightly less overwhelming. And then Spock began to thrust deliberately, carefully, his open expression and the building sensations over the bond bringing Jim along with him in increasing ecstasy. Their bodies moved together, undulating together, and Jim felt held and surrounded and consumed and willingly surrendered to all of it, tilting his chin back as Spock’s fingers pressed against his psi points and their minds flew into each other.

     This was strength and beauty and an otherworldly organic fucking thrill: adrenaline that wouldn’t stop, fundamental connections shining into being, a link that exceeded anything ordinary and surpassed everything expected. They fell into each other, into the fire of their mutual pleasure and into the passion of true and powerful love and it was transcendent.

     I choose you, Jim laughed, sparking light between them on the shared mental plane.

     And I choose you, t’hy’la. Always.

     Always. And Jim suddenly realized, in their sharing, a reason why the meld with his bondmate’s counterpart had been so jarring. That mental touch that been imbibed with a helpless expectation of a kindred mind reaching back out of long practice and poignant familiarity. And his, Jim’s, mind had been so painfully familiar in so many ways: love and loss and grief so powerfully intertwined, memories of a beloved bondmate and a treasured connection. Yet the expected reciprocal sharing had been absent, the raw potential offered but unable to be returned. The complete exposure had been too sudden; without understanding, without this, it had been overwhelming and terrifying.

     The profound realization shocked Jim enough to pull him out of the meld, and he lay limply on the bed, Spock’s body curled stickily around him, both simply finding themselves again after such depth of joining.

     “I didn’t understand,” Jim murmured, wondering at the parallels, at the mirrors, and at what had happened in another universe. He felt a sense of awe, and a pang of jealousy. Had their journey together been easier? Had they come to their bond gradually? And, in the end, did it matter? They had found each other, after all, and perhaps that was the important thing.

     “Kaiidth”, Spock whispered.

     “And all complexity and dimension therein,” replied Jim softly, reverent in the stillness of the room.

     The bond was calm around them, noticeable as a comforting presence, warmth at the edge of his mind. Only when he focused on it was he able to perceive his mate’s stream of thoughts and emotions and general wellbeing, flowing rapidly and smoothly and indistinguishably unless Jim chose to quest further, opening his mind to their silent communication.

     Are you alright?

     I am quite well, Jim.

     And he was. For the first time since they bonded, Jim could sense no lingering tension, no pain, no anxiousness, no unfulfilled longing. There was only love, deep satisfaction, and gratitude. And then, slight irritation that Spock did not attempt to suppress.

     Jim smiled, knowing they needed to clean up and find another change of bedding, feeling his mate’s discomfort with their present physical state and satisfied that Spock was expressing it to him. “Ask and you shall receive,” he quipped, grunting against sore muscles as he rolled out of bed. “Race you to the shower?”

     Spock arched his brows, sitting up as regally as possible when in a state of complete dishabille. “Indeed not.”

     “I love you,” Jim said, quirking his lips.

     Spock actually sighed before the smallest of smiles curved his own mouth and he followed his mate. “And I you, Jim. Most assuredly so.”

     Jim’s smile turned into a brilliant grin, thinking that the outside world could wait for them at least one more day. They were, after all, on their honeymoon.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: Once More, Together

 

     The aircar whined into the final turn, banking around a surprisingly large phalanx of news drones and shouting reporters before accelerating through the rapidly closing security gate outside the main complex of Starfleet HQ, leaving behind the flash of holocams, overly bright in the darkness and haze of earliest morning.

     Inside, Jim sat calmly next to his bondmate, both dressed in their dress grays. Their bond hummed between them, settled and healthy and, though it ran astonishingly deeply, it seemed remarkably well adjusted. The captain sensed their connection as a pleasant and reassuring background, accessible when needed, broadening instantly to project his thoughts and emotions when desired. It was still slightly distracting, but it held a profound solidarity. They had been through hell and heaven together and had come out the other side stronger and more aware: a partnership in every meaning of the word. Reservation and uncertainty had metamorphosed into a powerful commitment, love had been declared and proven and trust had been affirmed between them. Their time in the secluded lake house had been a ceremony in every way that mattered, and now, if there was any fight left for them here, Jim was able to approach it with every confidence in himself and his t’hy’la.

     The vehicle slowed and settled against the inner curb, the internal locks clicking as they disengaged, and the young pilot looked back. “We’re here, sirs. The CSO is expecting you in her office.” The woman inclined her chin toward the right-side window, where several security officers were approaching. “And here comes your escort.”

     “Thanks,” Jim replied dryly. He and Spock had been closely shadowed by security from the moment they had officially ended their short retreat, and Jim was itching for the freedom of their ship and his soundproofed quarters. He held an unsettling impression that he’d been too loud during sex, something that he’d inferred from the way one of the contact officers had blushed vibrantly and stammered when Jim had handed him their duffels on the way to the transporter station. It wasn’t that he doubted their discretion, but he’d noticed that Spock had somehow found it all incredibly amusing.

     Even now, Jim made a face, sensing his first officer’s involuntary and purely internal burst of humor, quickly suppressed and completely unapparent on the Vulcan’s impassive visage.

     Really? You’re the most private person I know.

     Spock didn’t reply, his eyebrows arching imperiously; from the images Jim glimpsed flashing across their bond the human assumed some arcane and possessive associated significance within Vulcan culture.

     The pilot continued, “I’m so sorry about this, Captain. For what it’s worth, sirs, I’m so sorry about this whole thing.”

     Jim blinked, his sarcastic thoughts shifting to something curious. The young pilot sounded genuinely apologetic and even troubled on their behalf. And, as he considered it, after the initial awkwardness the security detail had been almost deferential, seemingly on the edge of righteous anger, and for Jim and Spock’s benefit. And then, when they had beamed into a secure location just outside San Francisco, the elderly transporter technician had grumbled quietly about Fleet mismanagement and security breaches, addressing the two Enterprise officers with fierce pride and almost fatherly protectiveness. With this latest display, Jim’s intuition was firing: the scandal had rocked Fleet to its very core, and the captain now had a discomfiting feeling that he and Spock were being unconsciously rallied behind in the face of this new upheaval.

     What do you think about that? Jim mentally sent, throwing an acknowledging smile at the young woman in the front of the vehicle, knowing that Spock was following his musings.

     Such regard is…possible, Jim, however it is not a scenario that I would wish for, as such a perception may make our interactions with the Admiralty more difficult.

     Jim snorted delicately as he slid out of the aircar, donning his hat and stepping aside to allow his bondmate to emerge. Maybe, maybe not. He mentally shrugged. And maybe I wasn’t actually yelling too loudly when you were—.

     A small, muscular man at the head of the approaching group of security officers nodded to Jim and raised a respectful ta’al. “Captain Kirk. Commander Spock. Welcome to HQ, sirs. I’m Lieutenant Commander Aiello, escorting you up to the CSO’s office. I’ll see that your luggage is transported up to the Enterprise.”

     “Commander,” Jim acknowledged as Spock returned the gesture.

     Aiello nodded again, briskly, lowering the Vulcan salute and motioning to the other guards, who immediately fanned out in a protective formation. His eyes hardened slightly before he turned, motioning the two senior officers to follow him toward the building.

     Jim exchanged a quick glance with Spock as they entered the main causeway and Aiello paused, turning haltingly to address him, the other security officers forming a watchful perimeter yet keeping a deferential distance.

     “Permission to speak freely, Captain?”

     “Granted.”

     “We’re glad to have you back, sir, both of you. The Security branch lost a lot of good people on Cresd’ti: the people we were charged with protecting and several of our own, including young officers I trained myself.” His jaw visibly tightened and when he looked over at Jim there was something fierce in his eyes. “Whatever you need to do, I want you to know that you have support. Admiral Ruiz-Morales has support.”

     “Commander,” Jim began gently.

     “Sir,” Aiello cut in, “this service depends on respect and honor, things that you yourself have demonstrated again and again. Things that have twice been violated by our highest officials.” He pressed his lips together. “But despite Marcus, and despite Th’rilun and Linn, the corruption and complacency is not endemic, sir. We still have a chance to bring Fleet back to what it should be; back to what we are still proud to serve.” He stood at attention, his chin lifted.

     Jim met the older man’s dark eyes, feeling Spock’s reluctant confirmation in the back of his mind: so, they were to be symbols. It was a position that, truthfully, he didn’t desire either. He preferred being an unknown quantity, allowing the assumptions and mistakes of others to give him a stealthy advantage. And he had lingered on the fringes for most of his life until that fateful night in a bar; always being the dark horse, always being the one underestimated. Regardless of what Trislo had resented about it, such served a strategic purpose. But if his fame could serve some reason, this would be it, and the faith he saw reflected in the eyes of the security officer stirred his heart.

     “Mr. Aiello,” he said softly, “I understand.” He thought of Marcus’ eyes and the disgraced admiral’s casual command that had sent a barrage of deadly energy, resulting in the deaths of so many. He thought of the members of the crew of the Enterprise who had perished on Cresd’ti. And he thought how he and his bondmate had been betrayed, delivered into the hands of a madwoman to be used to destroy the stability of the Federation. His brow furrowed and there was a new note of gravity in his voice. “I do understand.”

     Aiello nodded, some of the tension draining from his broad shoulders. “I know you do, sir. Thank you.” A muscle in his jaw twitched and he blinked rapidly as he turned away, walking toward the brightly lit entrance.

     Just what are we walking into? Jim sent, following the smaller man toward the building, sensing Spock follow reassuringly close behind him.

     I am…uncertain, Jim. The Vulcan’s thoughts were a halting analysis, picking slowly through unclear and unfamiliar emotion, and the atmosphere inside the main building did nothing to relieve Jim’s worried thoughts.

     Silence hung among the interior’s bright lights and vaulted ceiling, emphasized by the number of security personnel and the grim expressions on the faces of the few passing officers, scurrying about even at this early hour. Status indicators on the walls blazoned alert red, and the entire area held an almost palpable sense of oppression and depression, a disturbing gloom that lingered on the edges of Jim’s mind.

     Aiello and his men remained in formation around the command team, and their passage across the main level and toward the top-clearance turbolift was marked by a wave of recognition: murmurs and shocked expressions and the low whisper of hope.

     Aiello stopped at the lift doors, motioning the two senior officers forward. “Admiral Ruiz-Morales is expecting you upstairs, Captain.” His eyes enunciated an unspoken question, Do you see?

     Jim nodded solemnly in response to both. “Thank you, Commander.” He cast a last glance across the open space, seeing all eyes on him, and then gestured lightly to his first officer. “After you, Mr. Spock.”

     As the lift doors slid shut, affording them some semblance of privacy, Jim reached out to briefly touch his bondmate’s arm. “Spock, I could feel that,” he said softly. “I could feel their emotions through you, through your shields.”

     “Indeed.” The Vulcan appeared impassive, but the bond was transmitting the Vulcan’s concern. “Perhaps my mental barriers are not yet optimal, or—.” He trailed off, continuing mentally as the lift slowed. Perhaps we are experiencing an enhanced empathetic resonance?

     It didn’t seem to do it before, Jim mentally replied.

     Our dynamic experience with larger numbers of people had been limited, before. And the act of settling our bond perhaps emphasized your human contribution to our psionic dynamic.

     The captain couldn’t help a silent chuckle in an attempt to dispel lingering tension as the lift doors began to open. ‘Act’ as in singular? I’m pretty sure it was more than once, t’hy’la.

     With the computer’s pleasant announcement of the level indicator, Jim stepped out into what appeared to be a deserted hallway, consciously brushing against his bondmate’s shoulder. The overwhelming pull between them had vanished, but the captain still found himself reaching for any opportunity for physical and mental contact. Unlike before, however, the desire itself was comforting; the unknown and the uncertainty between them disappearing to be replaced by shared strength, the promise of passion, and unshakable trust. Not completely absent of conflict, perhaps, but with a new understanding of each other, and of themselves.

     “Captain James Kirk.” A strong and purposeful feminine voice greeted them from the open doorway of the nearest office, and Jim involuntarily snapped to attention.

     “Admiral.”

     Catalina Ruiz-Morales looked him over before her black eyes flickered to Spock and she inclined her head. “Commander Spock.”

     “Admiral,” the Vulcan acknowledged soberly.

     She sniffed, a wry smile appearing across her handsome features. “Welcome to HQ, gentlemen. My apologies for the hour, but you may have been able to infer my reasoning from the circus outside.”

     Jim exchanged a glance with his bondmate. “Yes, ma’am.”

     Ruiz-Morales nodded slightly, taking an aborted step backwards. “I’m afraid this odd meeting is going to constitute your official debrief. If you would—.” She gestured gracefully into the room behind her.

     Jim and Spock exchanged another glance and followed her slow and deliberate progress through an anteroom and into her main office. Jim watched her as she rounded her desk; her legs were braced with mechanical assists, compensating for the grievous injuries that had curtailed her exploratory career.

     “Please sit.” She punched a sequence into her desktop console and the door slid shut behind them. “My assistant isn’t here yet, obviously, but I can order you something to drink, if you’d like, from the replicator. Coffee?”

     “No, thank you,” Jim replied, and Spock remained silent.

     The admiral watched them. “Well, your condition is evidently much improved, if I’m to accept your CMO’s opinion on all matters pertaining to your health.” Her lips quirked and she continued dryly, “As he insisted, quite colorfully and repeatedly, that I must.”

     “Ma’am—,” Jim began.

     “No,” she interrupted immediately, holding up a hand. “McCoy’s point was quite well taken, no matter the, shall we say,” she waved her hand airily, “administrative inconvenience to anyone else.”

     Fuck, Jim blurted mentally, barely avoiding making a face.

     She tilted her head. “But you are recovered? Both of you?”

     “Yes, ma’am,” Spock answered smoothly. “We are functional.”

     “Good.” She leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. She hesitated a beat, her dark eyes piercing and her tone suddenly calculatingly flippant. “So tell me, Captain, how did this experience compare with death?”

     Jim sensed Spock’s sudden confusion and anger, but he himself read a subtle test in the blunt and belligerent question; Ruiz-Morales was a kindred spirit, of a type. The captain had familiarized himself with her file, knew that she herself had died on the table, brought back by sheer luck and the stubbornness and likely prayers of her own CMO.

     Jim met her gaze directly, his posture shifting confidently. “As you know, Admiral, dying itself is easy. The difficulty of this…experience came from feeling someone else do it.”

     She didn’t avert her gaze. “And that ‘someone else’ would be the extinct inhabitants of that planet, or your bondmate?”

     He didn’t answer, and she tilted her head. “I’ve seen the reports and transcripts. Your decision to bond with your first officer was shrewd, Captain, but despite the resultant advantage, I doubt that it was solely based on cold, hard strategy.”

     Jim stared at her, lifting his chin slightly. “It was not.”

     “I see.” She frowned slightly. “Ambassador Sarek has argued very strongly and persistently for this mental link not to factor into your continued command. However, despite the ambassador’s prestige, and yours, I find myself in a position where I might not want to take that chance.”

     “Admiral—,” Spock began sharply.

     She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “We’re in a precarious place. The insurgents’ plan to utilize that superweapon didn’t work, but Starfleet is nonetheless poised on the brink of disaster. Public trust in the service is gone, and with good reason, and we have only this one chance to pull out of our downward spiral and shine brightly again.” She leaned forward and pointed at Jim. “One chance, Captain. Tell me that you’re not compromised; tell me that I can set the future of the Fleet on your shoulders.”

     Jim leaned back warily. “I’m not going to campaign for my job, Admiral. My record stands for itself.”

     “It does,” she agreed smoothly. “But I didn’t mention compromise lightly. Going forward, you might find yourself in a place where a desire for justifiable revenge might overshadow your duty.”

     Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Your point, Admiral?”

     “I’m sure you’re aware of the pending orders to take the Enterprise out as soon as possible, in order to capture the escaped insurgents before they can vanish into enemy hands.” She took a breath, continuing softly, some indefinable emotion coloring her voice. “You had to feel your bondmate in pain, had to feel him nearly die, and you yourself. What wouldn’t you do to see justice done to those responsible?”

     A wrenching, guilty feeling passed over the bond, and Jim forced himself to avoid looking at Spock, who had felt that very thing in the warp core, and who had been compromised, severely, his own reaction to Jim’s death wracked with violence.

     Jim swallowed, steeling himself. “We could have killed Kellen Trislo, and instead we returned her to stand trial for her crimes. I’ve sworn an oath to uphold the law, Admiral, and despite my feelings on the matter, I’m well aware of my duty.”

     Ruiz-Morales nodded, watching him closely; there was no aggression in her eyes, only, somehow, an apology. She spoke gently, “And herein lies the problem, Captain; when your duty as dictated by your superiors betrays your trust, and the spirit of your oath. Would you go it alone, in order to see justice done? Alexander Marcus could be said to have done just that, on Belishea.”

     Jim frowned, wondering where she was leading.

     “Kellen Trislo will not be tried.”

     “No.” Jim spoke involuntarily, his mind racing, reading a hundred implications in the openness of her expression. “No.” He could sense his bondmate’s internal turmoil, betrayed by a tightening of Spock’s fingers on the armrests of his chair.

     Ruiz-Morales briefly lowered her eyes. “It was out of my hands, Captain. I’m sorry.”

     Jim stood up, anger blooming hot and fierce. “This is a mistake. This is a goddamn mistake, ma’am!”

     The admiral didn’t move, her gaze assessing. “She has been neutralized. She is no longer a threat.”

     “Neutralized. She’s not dead?” Jim edged, peering at her.

     Ruiz-Morales shook her head minutely.

     Spock leaned forward, his voice holding a veneer of calm that belied the tumult ricocheting over the bond. “Where is she, Admiral?”

     The admiral looked at him, “She has been placed in indefinite cryosleep, Commander. Along with the augments.”

     “With Khan?” Jim’s hands were in fists, his voice serrated.

     “Yes,” Ruiz-Morales said candidly, “and for the same reasons, it turns out.”

     Spock impassively recited, “Questionable jurisdiction, given the religious exemptions and independence of the cult. To avoid introducing deniable interplanetary involvement on the record, and to avoid a lengthy exposition and bring further vulnerability to Starfleet’s public perception. To prevent a highly intelligent and charismatic adversary from gaining a widespread platform and to avoid an application of martial law, again given current vulnerabilities.”

     “Yes, Commander.” The admiral sighed. “Among other reasons as well.”

     “And those might be?” Jim demanded belligerently.

     “She was one of us, Captain, or at least close enough for it not to matter. Trained and given access to high-level material; she knows enough to be dangerous, and enough to still be useful.”

     The captain spat, “Marcus died and we had hearings; the public had its scapegoat and thought things were shut down and all of us carried on, turning a blind eye to what happens when unscrupulous people are backed into a corner. And what are we doing differently now? Allowing an army of immoral opportunists and superhumans to languish and wait for corruption to set them free? We’re setting ourselves up for this whole fucking mess to happen over and over again!”

     The admiral didn’t blink at his obscenity. “You’re absolutely right, Captain, but as I said, this was out of my hands. Putting Trislo on ice was the Federation Council’s condition for my free rein in dealing with the immediate threat, and for avoiding a possible preemptive dismantling and reordering of the Fleet to satisfy a primary militaristic purpose.”

     “Ma’am?” Jim stared at her.

     Her eyes were fierce. “It’s that fucking bad, Kirk. This latest episode has only compounded the public perception of Starfleet as being a corrupt, ineffective entity, and there are those on the Council that desire a tighter leash. Add the tightrope we’re walking with regard to the Klingons and some kind of drastic change almost makes sense.” She scoffed. “Not that it would be without individual gain, of course. Suffice it to say that any feelings of betrayal you might have are not wholly misplaced.”

     “She predicted this, you know,” Jim hissed. “Trislo knew what would happen. She banked on it. Dammit!”

     “Admiral,” Spock said carefully, “if that is the case, then may I ask—?”

     “Why they put me in charge instead of someone who would accept the party line?” Her lips curved in a small smile. “Maybe they assumed that they’d be setting me up to fail. Or maybe they wanted to keep an eye on me, and on you, too. The none-too-subtle rallying of the Fleet around you is surely problematic for those who would seek to scrap what you stand for.”

     Jim’s thoughts whirled. We didn’t go quietly. We were set up, and that had seemed so easily accepted. Others may not have been involved with the conspiracy, but how deep do those shared sentiments reach?

     Ruiz-Morales’ eyes hardened. “Captain, we have work to do and this, however distasteful, gets us our opportunity. A final, crucial opportunity to preserve Starfleet as we know it: as an exploratory and scientific body, representing the best of what the Federation has to offer. Now you know what we’re dealing with, even on our own side, even in the midst of this crisis. Now you understand why our actions moving forward have to be uncolored by personal bias or vendetta or vacillation; too much of that has happened already, and is still happening. Everyone will look to you, and despite the horrors that you’ve faced, you can’t let your command be compromised.”

     Jim grimaced and she continued, getting to her feet, “You can lead us forward, Captain, as you have done before, your first officer beside you. I intend to move aggressively, and I want you with me.”

     Still seated, Spock asked quietly, “What is the next step, Admiral?”

     Ruiz-Morales straightened her shoulders. “You’ll go back to your ship. Maybe right now we don’t deserve to be explorers, but we will be again. We’re going to deal definitively with this insurrection and with the internal problems that allowed it to flourish. We’re going to regain the trust of those we represent, and then we’re going to reclaim our calling and our privilege.”

     She paused, barely restrained ferocity in her posture and voice, her inherent dynamism rippling across the psionic plane and Jim suddenly vividly saw the frontier commander beneath the admiral’s bars.

     “I believe Chris Pike once dared you to do better than those who’d come before; I’ll repeat that challenge. What do you say, Captain?”

     Jim watched her, exhaling quietly, the feeling of a deepening well opening up beneath him. He rubbed a hand over his face and slowly sat back down. “I…have no choice but to accept, Admiral.”

     “Good,” she replied sharply, and in the heavy silence she too regained her seat. “Good,” she repeated more softly, her hands flattening on the top of her desk. She lifted her chin. “Now, let’s get down to business.”

     She pushed a PADD toward Spock. “We’ve been working the problem of tracking the insurgents on their flight from Belishea. We couldn’t use your engineer’s transwarp equation because atmospheric interference and extreme range prevented the Aurora from ascertaining adequate sensor readings.” She shrugged. “No initial condition. However, tried and true methods sometimes are the best: the communications team on the Aurora has been parsing through any and all data left behind on the defunct colony and have come up with a series of message patterns. They’ve only gotten so far with searching the comm mainframes and pirate channels, but—.”

     She trailed off expectantly as Spock raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Admiral, I follow your reasoning. Assuming the Enterprise’s computers are operational, I should be able to enable a search algorithm that would be more efficient than what they are currently pursuing.”

     She smiled. “I figured as much. We’ve got one of the fastest machines in the galaxy onboard your ship, and that plus your own crack communications team and your A-7 computation rating should give us a chance at this.”

     Jim looked over at his bondmate, sensing that Spock’s mind, however immediately occupied with the new problem, had not completely divorced itself from the admiral’s previous discussion of compromise and the news of Trislo’s fate: uneasiness shifted beneath conscious thoughts, flashing memories and the struggle to suppress hidden emotion.

     The Vulcan did not meet Jim’s eyes. “Admiral, if you will excuse me—.”

     “Of course. The captain will follow you up.” She gestured to the PADD. “I already have the report uploaded to your account.”

     Spock nodded stiffly, placing the unit back onto the desk, and stood, finally glancing at Jim. “I will see you onboard, Captain.”

     His brow was furrowed, and Jim didn’t need their bond to read his mate’s subtle distress: its obvious manifestation dulling his own simmering anger and frustration.

     “Of course, Mr. Spock.” I’ll see you after. We’ll talk about this, all of this.

     Jim didn’t turn to watch the Vulcan leave, cognizant of Ruiz-Morales’ continued scrutiny, and as the door slid shut behind Spock, the admiral leaned back in her seat. “So you can communicate with him without speaking, and over significant distance?”

     “Yes, ma’am,” Jim replied evenly.

     She narrowed her eyes. “Is he aware of what we’re saying now?”

     Jim held her gaze. “He is able to shield in order to enforce privacy from either side. However, if the shielding was not in place, yes, he would be aware through my own thoughts, reactions, and emotions.”

     Ruiz-Morales grunted delicately. “Then it’s a good thing you’re both of command grade, security-wise.”

     “It made our escape possible,” Jim asserted, “and proved crucial to our operational strategy as well.”

     “I noticed that in your report about the Klingon engagement.” She folded her hands in front of her. “Which is all still being denied, of course. And we’re not pushing on that, given our own dirty laundry with regard to Qo’noS.” She hesitated, tilting her head. “Your bond makes you an even more formidable team.” A dark expression crossed her face. “Assuming it’s not exploited.”

     Jim remained silent, seeing her lips press into a thin line. She gestured abruptly. “This business on RX-54 has opened up a can of worms when it comes to the idea of telepathic weaponry and psionic computational interfaces. And even though the Vulcans are positioning themselves front and center, I have the feeling that were a more military-minded coalition to be successful, the pressure to pursue that type of offense would be significant, particularly when our primary enemies, the Klingons and the Romulans, are psi-null or close enough to it.”

     “So that’s why they’re keeping Trislo alive,” Jim commented dryly, “and quiet.”

     “Precisely.” She watched him. “As well as the fact that she knows the specs on that superweapon. And you know better than anyone the potential abuse that may be incurred if either thing were to be realized.”

     “I do, Admiral,” Jim said grimly. “I’m not likely to forget it.”

     “I imagine not,” she replied. “You have my word that we’ll deal with Trislo when it comes to it. And I know that Jung already made her apologies, as belated and empty as they may have seemed, but what you and your bondmate have done for this service will not be forgotten. You have my word on that, too.”

     Jim inclined his head. “Thank you, ma’am.”

     She nodded, her eyes lowering briefly before fixing back on his almost eagerly. “So now that I have you here, let me ask you a few more questions about the tactics you used to evade that Klingon cruiser.”

     He nodded, a small, resigned smile curving his lips.

     She smiled back wryly. “Maybe you want that coffee now, Captain?”

     “Yes, ma’am,” Jim said, shaking his head. “Yes, I think I do.”

 

*****

 

     The captain took a deep breath as he materialized on the Enterprise’s transporter pad, his shoulders finally relaxing as he took in the familiar surroundings, breathing in his ship. He could sense Spock’s presence and the Vulcan’s concentration, as well as the dim, distal press of his crew’s emotions. He blinked, considering the possibilities, both positive and negative, of such an empathic sense of the beings around him. At the moment it seemed completely nonthreatening, and subtle enough, but he wondered if that would change in a dangerous situation, or among larger numbers of minds.

     “Captain!” Scotty’s ebullient voice echoed in the chamber, breaking Jim out of his short reverie. “Welcome back, sir. Ye feelin’ better?”

     “Much better, thanks, Scotty.” Jim smiled and pulled absently at the collar of his dress uniform. “How’s our girl?”

     “Repairs ‘re comin’ right along,” replied the engineer fondly, relinquishing the controls back to the transporter technician as he came around the partition. “ ‘Bout another twenty-four hours or so, an’ we’ll be back up an’ running. We’ll ‘ave some minor fix-ups left, but we can do those while underway.”

     “That’s fast,” Jim commented thoughtfully. Ruiz-Morales had assured them that the repair effort had taken top priority, but with the damage they had undertaken, he had expected more of a layover. “I guess if you’re up here, all’s going well.”

     “Well.” Scotty grinned. “Ah wouldna be takin’ a chance tha’ ye might be misplaced again. Back an’ forth, right an’ left, an’ all at warp eight. Promise me we’ll be takin’ it easy for a time?”

     “I wish I could,” Jim said soberly, his brow furrowing as he recalled the admiral’s disturbing revelations.

     He saw Scotty nod, the engineer’s mouth tightening. “Ah understan’.”

     The captain paused as they approached the door to the transporter room, sensing Spock’s mind reach for his.

     I’m alright. Just got here. You on the bridge?

     Yes, Jim.

     Any luck?

     Luck is not a factor. Nyota and I have isolated several communication strand patterns and identified multiple potential targets. We are presently calibrating search parameters; I anticipate several more hours of work.

     Right. Jim sighed and shook his head as they walked through the transporter room doors and into the deserted corridor; Spock’s uncharacteristic lack of precision implied that it might be even longer than that.

     Scotty was watching him closely. “Ye okay, Jim?”

     “Yeah,” Jim replied. “I’m okay.” He squared his shoulders, wanting to take his mind off of the unsettling situation at Command. “Need some help below-decks? I feel like getting my hands dirty in an honest way for a change.”

     The engineer’s tense expression evaporated. “Sure thing. Go an’ change an’ Ah’ll meet ye on Deck Thirty.” He turned briskly and trotted down the corridor, looking back to throw a grin over his shoulder. “Ah’ll nae be settin’ ye up in the warp core, though! Ah figure poor Mister Spock’s been through enough already!”

     Jim snorted. “Jesus, Scotty.” He couldn’t help a chuckle at his friend’s dark humor, sensing the affection and acceptance that underlay his words. Scott smirked and was gone around a bend, and Jim was left alone.

     The ship was largely silent, the normally bright lighting dimmed and the white bulkheads appearing almost silvery gray. There was anticipation here; Jim imagining that he could sense his ship almost as well as he could dimly sense her crew. He reached out to gently press his hand to a bulkhead, relishing the feel of cool plastisteel. He smiled fondly, and, heedless of whatever his bondmate might think about illogical human expressions of emotionalism, he whispered to his lady, “Good to see you, too.”

 

*****

 

     Six hours later, Jim finally stepped back into his quarters, covered with grime and sporting more than one electrical burn. He felt good, though: in communion with his ship, exchanging sarcastic barbs with Scotty, comforted by his awareness of his bondmate’s mind on the edge of his consciousness. Despite the looming conflict and the complexities of the mission they were about to embark upon; despite the precariousness of Starfleet itself and all the weighty questions that hung unanswered in the air, he felt centered. He felt calm. And as he shed his uniform and stepped under the sonics, he heard the low roar of the engines re-energizing, the noise slowly subsiding to a more familiar background thrum, almost a vibration. It felt incredibly satisfying, and Jim smiled, closing his eyes and relaxing under the cleansing waves. The sudden proximal sense of his bondmate wasn’t entirely a surprise, and Jim’s eyes snapped open in eagerness.

     I’m in the shower; you on your way back?

     Yes, Jim. My father has sent a subspace message. The search algorithm is operational and is running. I anticipate seven point two hours for solutions to be parsed and identified, given present computing capability and factoring in load dynamics due to launch readiness.

     Jim frowned. You supplementing with the duotronic processor array at HQ?

     Negative, due to security concerns.

     Right. You need me? Want to take the message in my quarters?

     I would be most gratified for your presence.

     Jim smiled at his bondmate’s mental voice, anticipating Spock’s presence with a burst of yearning that seemed almost like an ache. They had been so intimately close, physically and mentally, on their short retreat, and even with their continued mental interaction the need for touch was strongly asserting itself.

     He punched the controls for the shower and stepped out, padding quickly into his room to pull on fresh uniform blacks and run a hand through his hair just as the door slid open, admitting his bondmate.

     “Hey,” Jim murmured, moving toward the Vulcan and offering the ozh’esta. Spock met the gesture in kind, shifting his hand quickly to entwine their fingers, meeting Jim’s blue eyes before leaning in for a chaste kiss.

     Despite the brevity, the immediacy of their contact bloomed strongly between them, and Jim sensed distinct and reluctant uneasiness still remaining from their conversation with the admiral: a heated disquiet that pooled thick and viscous under the Vulcan’s rapid thoughts. Jim pulled back, studying brown eyes and his mate’s furrowed brow before moving their entwined hands up and pressing a quick kiss to Spock’s fingers, trying to hide his own sudden nervousness at what Sarek might have to say. “Want to play that message?”

     Spock nodded in a very human gesture and began to move over to the desk. Jim turned after him and then tugged slightly on his hand.

     “Hey,” he said again, tilting his head as Spock looked back. “We’ll talk about it after, okay?”

     Lips curved just slightly and Spock’s fingers tightened on his before slipping away, and Jim followed his mate to his console, dragging a second chair over as Spock entered a series of commands. The message began perfunctorily, the ambassador starting to speak almost before the image had stabilized.

     “My sons,” the ambassador began, his presence no less diminished by the recording. “I have been in communication with Admiral Ruiz-Morales, and I believe she has shared with you her concerns regarding the Federation leadership’s consideration of the future of Starfleet. I am aware of your pending mission, and the gravity of its implications, however, that is not the reason for this call.” On-screen, the Vulcan paused briefly before continuing, “I wish to inform you that your bonding has been duly registered and confirmed with the New Vulcan High Council.” He hesitated again, his tone subtly softening. “Spock, I am certain that your mother would have most strongly approved of your bondmate, as I do.”

     Spock didn’t move or appear to react, but the bond shuddered with the suppression of deep tremors of guilt and pain, grief and love, the complexity of a long history with his father and the tragic end to his relationship with his mother. Jim had to tear his attention back to the screen as the image of the ambassador spoke again, “Your participation in a formal bonding ceremony is not required, but would be appropriate. I would be most…pleased to host such an event, should our schedules allow it.” An eyebrow rose on-screen. “My son, dif-tor heh smusma.” Sarek raised the ta’al as the image went blank.

     Jim blinked, reaching for familiar humor. “He wants us to have a wedding? I guess if it means you in a tux, then—.” He trailed off, feeling his bondmate’s unnatural stillness and the deep-seated distress that was rapidly building across their mental connection.

     “Spock?”

     The Vulcan stood with an almost harsh motion before standing and moving to pace several steps away, standing with his back to the captain. “I apologize.”

     “For what?” Jim’s chair tipped over as he pushed himself up, taking a step toward his mate.

     “My…mother. My planet. My inability to control after your…your—.” Images and recollections flashed between them: depthless grief, terrible anger, incomprehensible loss and rage, blistering rage that ignited the memory of Khan running through crowded streets, Nero’s sneer, Trislo’s arrogance, Rohmer’s brutality, slaves stunned into insensible helplessness. Jim gasped at the onslaught, lifting a hand to his temple.

     Spock spoke through what sounded like gritted teeth, “You are stronger than I, t’hy’la.”

     “No,” Jim protested immediately, biting his lip. This had come on so fast; this was felt so intensely.

     “I am—.”

     Jim broke in sharply, his voice stilted and raw, “You didn’t kill Khan, and you didn’t kill Trislo, either. When given the choice, and the opportunity, you projected love instead of hate, you didn’t use the kae’at ashv’cezh.”

     Spock’s voice was broken. “I didn’t, because you asked me to find another way. And before, with Khan, Nyota…Nyota had said your name, asked me to stop. It was only the possibility of yet saving your life that—.”

     Jim could sense his bondmate’s simmering emotions and haunting eidetic remembrance of bloodlust and grief; fleeting thoughts of accelerating just enough to follow the red matter into an enemy ship, in order to be sure. If there was a legacy from primal instinct and the holes left from the collapse of a planet, it was manifested here. And it was as dark and as deep as anything Jim could have feared: echoes of inadequacy and sacrifice, and a strong, powerful anger at those who had hurt and killed and tortured ones most dear.

     The loss of Amanda, and the loss of Jim: the bond Spock had recognized and the bond he hadn’t until he had thought it too late. It was so much, drawing on the dynamic emotionalism of his human mate, surfacing from a mind so recently traumatized, emerging from the full knowledge of what t’hy’la was and what it meant. Spock was not certain that he would not kill again. His logic, his control, was not certain. It had never been certain, never for his whole life and especially not now.

     “Nyota asked you, just as Ruiz-Morales is asking me, now,” Jim asserted darkly, his own emotions rising. He grimaced. “Do you think I don’t want to shoot my way into that high-security lockdown and thaw out Khan and Trislo just to be able to laugh in their faces as I put a phaser bolt between their eyes?” He paced across the room, his bare feet silent on the carpet. “I want to do that so bad I can fucking taste it.”

     He spun, facing the Vulcan. “Do you think Hsieh was the only one with unhealed wounds? With anger and regrets? You said yourself that there are Vulcans who blame the Federation and Starfleet; who harbor the desire for vengeance for what happened to them. We choose not to act. We find something to fight for, something that remains good, or something that we can see and look forward to, and we hold to that instead of our revenge. You…you hold to me, and I hold to you.”

     “You stopped me from playing into Marcus’ hands, when all I wanted was to seek revenge for Chris. And despite your flippant comment about not seeing the logic in allowing Nero a chance to surrender, I held to you then, too: to your example, and the fact that you had lost everything and were still willing to fight and to uphold the discipline of the service.”

     “Jim, I—.”

     “No,” Jim cut in with a gesture, “I know what you’re going to say, and it’s bullshit. Rohmer had that fucking coming. He was going to rape me right in front of you and have a damn good time doing it. And you didn’t kill those people, as the ship was going down. You stunned them, and it was a good thing you did or I wouldn’t have been able to get to the controls in time. Trislo left her people to die, not you!”

     “I am not worthy of—.”

     “You damn well fucking are. I know you.” Jim stepped in front of him, grasping his shoulders in a tight grip. “I fucking know you, probably better than you know yourself. I see you, all of you, and I chose you. Not because I had to, Spock, but because I wanted to. I want you; all that you are: the loyalty and the love that I never could have imagined, the strength and the stubbornness, and the courage.”

     And Jim realized that surrender, even to a bondmate, was as difficult for Spock as anything, with the shades of past experience as strong for the Vulcan as they had been for Jim. Protecting their nascent bond, holding so tightly, defending Jim at all costs, giving everything, offering everything; fortitude and reserve and hanging on and being resolute despite pain, despite fear, despite physical failing and the absence of anything except illogical hope.

     Jim stared into his bondmate’s eyes, speaking slowly, thoughtfully, “You give of yourself, and…and maybe I understand that now, too. You want to make up for something that you think you failed to do or what you’ve failed to be. And that’s…that’s so fucking wrong, Spock, can’t you see? Look into me to see what you are. Look into me to see how worthy you are of being loved. And I need you so fucking much. I need—.”

     Their lips came together in a passionate clash: a battle that wasn’t a fight, with intensity that wouldn’t break them. It was desire fueled by volatile emotion and they stumbled backwards toward the sleeping area, Jim grunting as Spock’s back hit the divider. This surging feeling blistering through the bond couldn’t be spoken, couldn’t be enunciated with a coherent mental voice. Spock wanted to let go: to be held, to be forgiven, to be trusted and simply accepted. He longed to fall, to find that elusive ground where vulnerability held nothing of shame.

     The power between them now had nothing to do with compulsion or necessity; the entwining of their bond was deep and true: reconciliation, instead of escalation, learning the way of each other along a now-smoothed bridge.

     “Allow me to love you,” Jim whispered against his mate’s mouth.

     “Yes.”

     And Jim smiled softly, nodding, nuzzling along Spock’s jawline, breathing in his scent and catching his soft exhalation, placing one more gentle kiss before pulling back just enough to watch dark eyes. Let me make love to you.

     Yes. Spock’s mental voice was just as gentle, and tense muscles relaxed under Jim’s hands. They gazed at each other, and Jim became aware of the low, background thrum of the engines, the slightly chilled circulating air, the feel of tight carpet under his feet, the sound of their ship all around them.

     The captain smiled, seeing the smallest answering curve of his bondmate’s lips. And then Jim leaned forward, hands moving up to cradle the Vulcan’s jaw, to slide up into silky black hair, tilting his head to kiss his mate fully.

     The bond was empty of words and full of tumbling bliss as the kiss turned passionate. Mouths opened to each other and tongues touched and moved against each other. Arousal grew heated between them, together with irrepressible delight, and Jim pulled back again to catch his breath, his smile flashing again even brighter. He reached down to tug at his bondmate’s tunic, pulling it up and over Spock’s head before leaning in to steal another kiss. He reached under the Vulcan’s black undershirt, caressing warm skin seductively before sliding the garment up and off as well. He caught the shiver as Spock’s skin met the cool room divider behind him and tugged at his bondmate’s hand.

     Come to bed. Come to our bed.

     Their bed, now, and also significant: this bed, in Jim’s quarters, the site of so many late nights discussing ship’s business and their deepening friendship; the place where Spock had stood in silent support and Jim had paced in desperate worry; the setting of so many chess games and shared meals, strategy and humor, human laughter and Vulcan stoicism. This room: so familiar and yet now to be experienced and appreciated anew. This was no pallet on a slave ship, no hard bunk on a bounty hunter’s rig, no biobed, no temporary room; this was home, and that simple fact bathed everything in a consequence that complemented Jim’s intentions.

     The lights in the sleeping area were low, and Spock’s face was cast with shadows as Jim motioned him to lie back onto the neat surface. Jim’s grin returned as he pulled his own shirts off, hopping awkwardly as he stepped out of his pants. “I’m pretty smooth,” he muttered self-deprecatingly, and stopped to hook his thumbs into the waistband of his briefs as he noticed his bondmate’s intense stare and the growing erection visible through regulation trousers.

     Slowly, Jim pushed at his underwear, sliding the fabric carefully over his own growing arousal and letting the briefs drop and slide down his legs, keeping his eyes on Spock’s. There was another shiver over the bond and this one had nothing to do with temperature.

     “Shit!” Jim’s eyes widened suddenly. “I forgot the—.” Wait here; I’ve just got to—. He caught an instant of fond humor from his bondmate’s mind as the human spun and stepped naked into the main room, pulling a small bottle from the duffle bag on the floor near the door.

     Jim hurried back into the sleeping alcove, pulling up as he saw a nonchalantly nude Vulcan now sprawled artfully across the bed.

     “Really? You couldn’t wait?” he chided teasingly, his eyes hungrily moving over his mate’s body. He could sense his bondmate’s desire for him, curiosity and anticipation, and the slightest twinge of anxiety, but the gloomy thoughts and memories from earlier had subsided.

     I’ve got you. Jim closed the distance between them, kneeling next to the Vulcan, waiting until Spock had leaned back and closed his eyes, the human opening the ornate bottle and letting aromatic oil pour into his hand before placing the vessel on the bedside table.

     His first touches, lingering strokes over broad shoulders and arms, were met with a deep chord of resonance between them, and Jim himself sighed in hazy bliss, letting his slickened hands trail over his bondmate’s long fingers and then back up again. Rich, decadent caresses extended over Spock’s torso and firm stomach, across tightened nipples and over his flank, where his heartbeat thrummed with dizzying speed. Strokes continued down narrow hips and strong thighs, moving down calves and along his bondmate’s feet.

     Spock hummed in contentment, the bond now heavy with satisfaction and underlain with building excitement, and Jim traced patterns with his fingers. At first they were meaningless, a way for him to maintain touch as he admired the beauty of his bondmate’s form laid out for him to pleasure, free of pain or fear, as accepting and open as his mind. But then, as his fingertips lingered over the paled remnants of injuries, the swirling movements of his hands became more significant, full of a choice, and a promise.

     He could sense when Spock felt the serious turn of his thoughts, and Jim moved quickly, using his hands to coax his bondmate’s legs apart as he lowered himself between, bending his head to take the Vulcan’s erection in his mouth as he adjusted his own aroused organ beneath him, moving slickened hands back up to steady his mate’s hips.

     Slow and deliberate motion, eyes shut tight as Jim concentrated on the motions of his lips and tongue as well on the transferred sensations over their bond. Saliva pooled warm and slick, slipping down over Jim’s oiled hand as he massaged the base of his bondmate’s penis. Excitement grew, shimmering, sparking, manifesting itself as a roar in Jim’s ears and a powerful building intensity across the bond and he dimly heard Spock cry out raggedly as pleasure burst between them, only mental determination and the firm, almost painful pressure that Jim exerted on his own erection preventing him following his mate into release.

     Jim hummed as he swallowed, pulling off with an erotic noise and gently pushing at his bondmate’s hips, urging him to turn over. Spock obeyed with a languid, flopping motion, and began to push up onto his hands and knees when Jim stopped him.

     No, t’hy’la, I’m just starting.

     And he intended to, drawing on every internal reserve and taking a deep breath to calm himself, looking away from Spock’s taut buttocks and willing his own desperate arousal to subside. More oil, and increasingly desperate strokes over muscle and heated skin, and Jim swallowed tightly as his deliberate ministrations prompted his bondmate to spread his legs, revealing his entrance already externally slicked with Jim’s own saliva. Panting, Jim spoke haltingly, “Okay, uh, if you’re going to do that, then you’re going to have to do whatever it was that—.”

     The bond rippled, and Jim’s overwhelming urge dampened just enough. He sighed in relief, centering himself by pouring more oil into his hands, wanting to continue his caresses along the backs of long legs and instead finding himself fixated on massaging the firm globes of his bondmate’s ass. Oil slid erotically along greenish-tinged skin and into the cleft, and Jim’s finger followed, gently sliding down and then in, readily accepted, and he bit his lip at the sheer heat and tightness of it.

     “Fuck. Holy shit and fuck.” Jim squirmed as Spock’s legs spread even wider and the Vulcan pressed back into his bondmate’s intimate touch.

     One of Spock’s hands slid back along the rumpled comforter, and Jim grasped it, keeping his other hand where it was. Two fingers gently stretched the Vulcan’s entrance, and Spock shifted, pulling one knee up, giving Jim even better access. The human leaned over, pressing his forehead to his friend’s back as he scissored his fingers, mentally chasing the sensations over the bond and praising Vulcan muscle control as he introduced more oil and yet another digit, feeling the echoed burst of pleasure as he brushed over a particular spot. Internal walls contracted and the thought of how that would feel around his dick made Jim—.

     Gods, I need to be inside you.

     His mate’s heated mental affirmative sent a thrill across the bondspace and Jim carefully withdrew his fingers, his urgency growing as he hurriedly wiped his hand on the blanket. He angled himself over his mate’s body, keeping their hands together, feeling Spock’s control over Jim’s physical release begin to shift and loosen and praying that he himself could hold out long enough to get—.

     He moaned as his penis was sheathed inside oiled heat, as he was able to push in fully, slowly, Spock’s body inhumanly accommodating him. He paused, breathing heavily, his free arm snaking under his mate’s chest, feeling the erotic sensation of hair and muscle beneath his fingers. Spock’s body was pliant, his knee moving even higher, opening himself, and Jim moaned again, beginning to move, knowing that his bondmate was aroused again, angling to hit that certain spot… . Spock’s fingers tightened on his own and he heard a gasp and then a soft grunt of pleasure, and the noises aroused him even further, the bondspace glowing and throbbing and overtaking him and Jim’s eyes rolled back in his head. He thrust deeper and faster, his nerves alight, his body shining with sweat, moving on instinct, driven by building pleasure and this union between them that was expanding even without the press of meld points.

     I want to feel you, taste you, touch you, know your mind—.

     His thought surfaced, disjointed, shared, his mouth open against his bondmate’s shoulder, teeth bared against skin, and he cried out as Spock fell apart beneath him, the Vulcan’s body shuddering, Jim’s own release helplessly pounding through him, reaching into his mind, over his body: a thousand sparks and rolling heat.

     The erotic mental throes slowly waned and Jim gasped, draped helplessly over his mate’s body. He shifted his hips, gently pulling out and sliding down to the side, feeling Spock shift to avoid the damp puddle of his own semen. The bond was still bright, resonating with lingering pleasure, and Jim felt a wave of iridescent humor and delighted bliss from his bondmate.

     “That was quite…satisfactory.”

     Jim had never heard such pleased laziness in his friend’s voice, and Spock actually sighed.

     “Good?” Jim asked smugly, knowing the answer already, having experienced it intimately, indulging in his own pride that he’d done this for his mate.

     “Extraordinary,” Spock replied. “Most fascinating… .”

     Jim chuckled. “Yeah,” he deadpanned, “it was pretty fucking good.”

     They lay sprawled together for a moment in a mess of sweat and semen, oil and rumpled bedclothes, and Jim chuckled again, holding Spock’s body even tighter. “I think we’re going to be okay,” he murmured, brushing a kiss against the back of his mate’s neck. “It’s good to be home.”

     He heard another sigh and grinned, shifting his hips slightly to indiscreetly nudge the Vulcan. “C’mon, we’ve got to get into the shower or we’re going to stick together.”

     “Aye, aye, Captain,” was the astonishingly blithe response, and Jim’s grin turned into full-throated laughter, shaking the bed and his bondmate, and he could feel Spock smile in return.  Home indeed, and the shadows and demons had retreated for a time at least. Jim felt deep gratitude for this: to lay with his best friend, his mate, to share the deepest parts of himself, to trust wholeheartedly. Knowing that he would never be alone.

 

*****

 

     The psionic energy of his crew surrounded and supported him as Jim stepped onto the command deck from the turbolift, his first officer at his side. Against Spock’s deliberately minimized shields, the captain felt collective pride and determination and subtle, dynamic strength. It was something that Jim had already intuited, but the ability to sense it was unprecedented, and powerful. Another advantage, perhaps, that could be listed in a strategic assessment of the telepathically-sensitive command team, but presently was itself both a comfort and a reward.

     Jim glanced around the bridge, meeting his crew’s smiles with his own, seeing Nyota’s unabashed grin and Sulu’s satisfied nod. Bones was standing stiffly, and predictably, next to the command chair, his arms crossed over his chest, and Jim threw his friend an amused glance as Spock moved smoothly to the science station.

     “You always look annoyed, Bones. This should be your favorite part of the mission; no injuries, no one shooting at us.”

     The doctor grunted. “Yet.” He scowled. “No one shooting at us yet.”

     “I’m happy to be back, too, Bones.” Jim replied with a grin, turning to stand in front of his chair.

     Bones rolled his eyes expansively. “Ruiz-Morales has no idea what she’s in for with you, does she?”

     “She might,” Jim said, peering over Sulu’s shoulder at the console readouts. “But I have the feeling that she knows exactly what she’s in for with you.”

     “Me?” Bones exclaimed.

     Jim shook his head. “I think she likes mouthy doctors.” He smirked. “Lucky me.”

     “Mouthy,” McCoy grumbled. “Speak the truth and be insulted. You find me a CMO who doesn’t have to speak up now and then for their risk-courting CO and I’ll sell you a ticket to a Klingon ballet.”

     Jim cleared his throat, looking forward, hearing Spock’s precise tones behind him.

     “Dance is an accepted form of honorable warrior expression in Klingon culture, Doctor.”

     “Is that right?” Bones said skeptically, throwing the Vulcan a glare.

     “Affirmative,” Spock replied primly. “Furthermore—.”

     “Gentlemen,” Jim broke in. “Let’s save the battle until we get past the outer markers at least, shall we?” A soft ripple of laughter chased across the bridge and the captain shook his head, raising his voice. “Status?”

     “We’re prepared for departure, Captain,” Sulu replied immediately, his voice bright. “All stations signaling readiness green.”

     “Spacedock is signaling clear,” called Uhura.

     “Acknowledged,” Jim said. “Clear all moorings and set maneuvering thrusters to one-quarter. Let’s take her out, Mr. Sulu.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     Jim finally settled back in his seat as the ship slowly spun, silver dock infrastructure giving way to a glorious glimpse of Earth and then the glittering panorama of space.

     “Set course to coordinate set alpha, Mr. Chekov, as per previous instructions. Warp factor four.”

     “Yes, sair. Setting—.”

     “Captain!” Uhura abruptly interrupted the navigator. “I’m receiving a code one message from HQ, sir. Admiral Ruiz-Morales on channel B.”

     Jim blinked, adrenaline pumping, and he sensed his bondmate’s immediate intensity. “Pipe it through, Lieutenant.” If she tells me that Trislo escaped, I’m gonna—.

     Next to him, Bones shifted nervously, muttering under his breath, “What the hell is this all about?”

     Jim remained silent but tense, and the viewscreen wavered before Ruiz-Morales’ grim expression came into focus. Fuck.

     The older woman didn’t waste any time. “Captain Kirk. You are hereby ordered to make for Starbase Seventeen, maximum possible speed.”

     “Admiral?” Jim leaned forward. “Can you tell me what—?”

     She looked fiercely annoyed. “Nerit has escaped medical custody on Seventeen, and she may have had help. Commodore Jónsson reports intermittent contacts near the Klingon neutral zone. Our search for the insurgents might be preempted.”

     “Klingon involvement?” Jim’s hands had clenched on his armrests, and he forcibly relaxed them. “Ma’am, is that confirmed?” Nerit?

     She is most…tenacious and resourceful, Jim, Spock silently sent.

     Out of all of them, I shouldn’t have underestimated her, Jim thought ruefully. Damn.

     “Not yet,” Ruiz-Morales replied tightly. “But I want you and the Enterprise out there as soon as possible.” She furrowed her brow. “And I’m setting Fleet security condition five; this could be the prelude to war.”

     Jim slowly stood. “Admiral, recommend increasing security around Trislo. I know it’s a long-shot, but—.”

     “Already done,” she barked. “And I’ve copied you on the details from Jónsson.” Her eyes hardened. “Good luck, Captain.”

     Jim nodded. “Thank you, Admiral.”

     Her image vanished, leaving Jim standing stiffly in front of his chair, all eyes on him, even McCoy watching him, the high spirits of moments past falling into a slow simmer of anticipation and consternation.

     “Ship-wide, Uhura,” the captain said quietly.

     He heard her hands moving. “Ready, sir.”

     Jim swallowed and straightened his shoulders, feeling Spock’s mind brushing his in subtle support. “This is the Captain. Our mission parameters have changed, and we’ll be heading back to Starbase Seventeen, possibly to confront a Klingon threat, but also just as possibly to confront something more familiar, and insidious.” He lifted his chin, raising his voice, “We’re explorers, walking the fine line between idealism and practicality, peace and force, faith and logic. Sometimes, we get to enjoy the full measure of our ideals, but other times we have to fight for them. We’ve lost precious blood to this threat already, and the instability we’ll face has the potential to unravel all that we hold dear in our service, something that we cannot allow. Let’s do our jobs, and do them well, and send a message to all who are watching that our service is not an impossible dream, but a very strong reality. And we won’t go quietly. Kirk out.”

     Jim slowly lowered himself into his chair, peripherally seeing McCoy move closer to him, Spock stepping down to stand by his other side. He glanced up at his bondmate, sensing approval and pride, and determination.

     “Here we go again,” Bones muttered, rocking on his toes.

     “Mr. Chekov, adjust projected course to Starbase Seventeen.” Jim hit the intercom to Engineering. “Mr. Scott, can you give me warp six?”

     “Ach!” came the Scotsman’s reply, followed by a resigned sigh. “Aye, Captain. An’ maybe even a bit more.”

     “Thanks, Scotty. You heard him, Sulu.”

     “Aye, sir.”

     Jim couldn’t help leaning forward, poised on the brink of action, his family beside him, and his ship, his home, holding him and all he held dear. He hadn’t been prepared for the wall of fire that had sent him crashing into captivity, conspiracy, and the greatest test of his life, but he had emerged having been annealed by the flames. Finding strength and salvation in a terrible crucible, he had been given the chance to rise anew, together with a kindred and beloved soul, ready to fight. And it would be a day well won.

     “Let’s go.”

 

           

THE END

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: I do not own Star Trek, and I make no money from this.

 

 

Author’s Notes:  Thank you so much for reading! As you can see, I’ve left it open for a sequel, so this adventure will continue! I’d like to thank all who have helped to make this story happen through their encouragement, friendship, and support.