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* * *

James Kirk stood gazing at his ship.

Floodlights traced her outline, shaping her elegant curves against the gridwork of steel which housed her. The arc of her sheltering hull promised sanctuary. Unaware of the stir his presence had engendered, Kirk had been drawn irresistibly to the window-wall; he was quite oblivious to the busy comings and goings of the officer's club, and to the subdued hush which had followed his entrance.

The resident brass knew the significance of this homecoming, knew the finality of it. The low voices that had trailed in Kirk's wake carried mixed reactions: awe and respect from the younger officers, sympathy from those who knew better.

In the hangar bay, the Enterprise serenely awaited her fate.

Finally, recognizing the self-destructive direction his thoughts were taking, Kirk made a sound like bitter amusement and turned away from the glass, meeting his companion's gaze for the first time. "She looks like she's glad to be home," he said softly. The other blinked, and Kirk's lips twisted faintly in acerbic self-mocking. It was not a statement which could be answered logically. "Never mind," he sighed, and moved toward one of the small tables nearby...one which did not face the hangar bay. "I guess I'm not making much sense. I think I need a drink."

The Vulcan sat across from him, watching in silence as Kirk punched in an order on the tabletop touchpad. "Probably should make it a double," Kirk murmured, the irony heavy in his voice. Spock did not comment, only reached to place his own order: Terran mineral water.

His concern, carefully concealed, was rapidly turning to unwelcome certainty. Kirk leaned forward, resting his elbows on the tiny table, covering most of his face with his hands. Weariness was written in the lines of his body, a kind of resigned defeat which served to confirm Spock's suspicions about what exactly had transpired behind the closed doors of Nogura's office.

The Vulcan had filed his own preliminary report with the Records office some hours before. It would be at least a day before they would call him for debriefing--and that would be a long, exhausting affair at best. Logically, he should have found quarters on the officers' level and made use of them, in preparation for the ordeal ahead. But he had delayed, trying to make himself inconspicuous in the commanding Admiral's outer waiting room.

He had waited nearly an hour before Kirk appeared in the doorway, looking faintly shell-shocked.

Kirk's eyes had registered Spock's presence, communicating grateful acknowledgment. Neither of them had spoken. Kirk had led the way to the officer's club in silence, and Spock had followed, knowing that Kirk would tell him what had happened in his own time. Now he found himself increasingly uneasy in the face of growing suspicion.

Their drinks arrived; Kirk's glass contained a conservative portion of amber liquid. Its potent aromatics teased the Vulcan's nostrils even from across the table, and his misgivings increased. Kirk was not, by habit, a whiskey drinker.

The human raked one hand through his hair, and tossed back half the contents of his glass. The liquor made his eyes water. He eyed the beverage wryly, eyebrows arching in an eloquent tribute, and he flashed Spock a fleeting grin of appreciation. He seemed content to drink in silence.

Watching him, the Vulcan found himself struggling with a steadily increasing tension, pressing on him from within.

All these last months he had succeeded in concealing the truth from himself--had gone on, allowing himself to imagine some future that would surelrise. Had not imagined himself anywhere but at Kirk's side, as if five years was not a finite measurement of time.

The self-delusion seemed painfully clear, now.

The Vulcan's gaze was pulled toward the great panes, toward the vessel which hung suspended beyond them, a silver bird captured in a durasteel cage. Somehow he had allowed the realities of Starfleet Command, the wanton capriciousness of the universe to catch him unawares. Somehow, he had managed to deafen himself to the voice of logic.

His eyes returned to the human's and found Kirk watching him over the rim of his glass.

Some time in the last few minutes, Kirk had polished off the shot of whiskey and ordered a second. Spock registered that fact, one eyebrow lifting involuntarily, and Kirk interpreted the look with a sardonic grin. The hazel eyes lowered a fraction, some kind of apology.

And then the human closed his eyes and sighed, looking suddenly weary to his soul. He took a sip of the fiery drink and grimaced, his blunt, square-tipped fingers cradling the glass as if he could draw strength from it.

Spock felt the sudden, irrational desire to flee, escape to a place where he would not have to hear Kirk's next words.

"They took her from me, Spock," the human said, in a small voice devoid of emotion.

The Vulcan was unable to prevent the convulsive contraction of the muscles in his throat.

Having gotten the words out, Kirk drew a breath and looked up again, capturing Spock's gaze with his own. The Vulcan saw him try to smile; he didn't quite make it. Spock's lips parted, but the human shook his head wearily.

"Don't say it," he said quietly, odd shadings in his tone Spock could not identify. "There's nothing you can do-- nothing anyone can do. It's out of our hands." He drained the whiskey in one swallow and set the glass down with a deliberate thump; he reached to order a third.

The Vulcan moved, preventing Kirk's hand from completing the motion with a touch, warm fingertips on Kirk's wrist. Surprised, the human looked up, hazel eyes wide.

Spock drew his hand back uncertainly, but did not drop his gaze. "Tell me what happened," he said in that low voice, the first words he had spoken.

Kirk swallowed, visibly touched by the simple fact of the Vulcan's hand on his wrist. He had obviously not expected it.

He smiled, the smile too bright, and suddenly Spock could read the anger in him, the despair. "I've been promoted," Kirk said, looking, for the first time in Spock's memory, every day of his thirty-seven years. "My friend, you're looking at the new Chief of Starfleet Operations." His lips curled downward, as if the news left a bad taste in his mouth.

Spock searched for words, but the chaos of his thoughts did not provide him with any. "It is... rather sudden," he said at last, and immediately chastised himself. He was not doing this well.

Kirk gave a derisive laugh, short and without humor. "But it's not, Mister Spock. I should have seen it coming." His mellifluous gaze slid away from Spock's; he stared into the distance. "Nogura warned me. He warned me, and I didn't listen. At least--not hard enough."

The Vulcan sought some logical response, some magical answer for the bitterness in the other man's face, for the finality of his words. But logic deserted him; the sinking feeling in his abdomen worsened. "It is an important posting," he offered quietly. "A great deal of responsibility." The words were true, of course. But he did not believe in them, any more than the man sitting across from him did, and Kirk had the grace to ignore them.

"They asked me for a recommendation," Kirk said softly. He met the dark, questioning gaze. "For my replacement," he clarified, and managed to keep his voice neutral.

Spock only gazed at him.

"I recommended you." His voice was even. But his eyes were hooded, unreadable.

The Vulcan could not immediately find words. He had never envisioned this moment--for the simple reason that he had never envisioned an Enterprise without Kirk at her helm. In that moment, certain self-truths struggled to make themselves known. There was suddenly an unsteadiness in the region of his heart.

"Captain," he began uncertainly, "your confidence is appreciated." He looked down at his hands, unable to hold to that bright, searching gaze. "However, I should like to..." The words lodged in his throat; he had to swallow. "That is, my preference would be to... remain here. At Starfleet Command." He looked up, unable to stop himself. The words were on his lips, inexorable. "With you."

His words fell into a sudden silence, a stillness which stretched out across the little distance between them, shaping truths neither of them had foreseen. For a long moment, they did not speak, or move, each testing the feel of the words, weighing them. They might have meant only, in that pedantic Vulcan fashion, "I see no logical reason to separate an efficient command team."

Might have... but Spock had been saying something else entirely, and both of them knew it.

At last the Vulcan could not bear the pressure of Kirk's gaze any longer, and he looked away.

Jim Kirk found himself studying the chiseled profile, searching his friend's face for answers to the chaotic jumble of questions in his head. He didn't trust his instincts, couldn't quite believe what they were telling him. He felt an uncontrollable need to get out of this place, to be somewhere far away from Starfleet and duty and the vessel which hung motionless in spacedock behind him.

He stood up, suppressing the rush of vertigo as the alcohol he had consumed worked its will on his equilibrium. Across the table, Spock stiffened, startled by his sudden movement. He looked up.

"You wanna get out of here?" The words came out in a rush. Kirk's heart was beating too fast, with an emotion he could not define--something willful, reckless, dangerous. It grabbed hold of him, and he was powerless to fight it.

Spock got wordlessly to his feet.

* * *

A warm breeze wandered across the open square, carrying with it the scent of the ocean. Midafternoon sunshine filtered intermittently through the sullen clouds, struggling for dominance of the skies, the clouds painting their shadows on the ancient bricks at Spock's feet. He stepped off the transport platform, breathing deeply of salt air heavy with the fragrance of magnolia.


The wrought-iron sign read: Garden District, New Orleans.

"I thought you might appreciate someplace warm for a change." The Vulcan turned in time to catch the glint of affection in Kirk's eyes. The expression unsettled him in ways he did not want to contemplate. "I know Earth-normal climates don't exactly agree with you."

Spock did not have an answer for such a statement, did not know how to react to the unexpected directness of the human's gaze. The first officer seldom admitted to any kind of physical limitation. He had certainly never complained about the ambient temperature aboard the Enterprise, though in truth, he had never gotten used to the persistent chill which humans found comfortable.

"I do...appreciate it," he said awkwardly. Kirk rewarded him with a smile, the first real smile he had displayed in several weeks. Spock felt himself responding involuntarily, a sudden lightness in his stomach, an irregularity in his pulse he could not quite suppress.

They descended the steps to the walkway below.

It was springtime in the northern hemisphere, but here at the mouth of the Mississippi, summer had already taken over. Heat rose from the uneven brick. There was something dreamlike about this place, about the lazy movement of the air, the enveloping warmth. Spock trailed in the human's wake, some Vulcan within him quietly apprehensive, asking in a small voice what he thought he was doing here.

The breeze off the gulf promised rain.

"New Orleans never changes," Kirk mused, as they followed the curving walk along the river. Out on the water, a riverboat made its stately way inland, carrying sightseers up to Audubon Park. "Ignore the superficial, and you could almost believe you'd stepped into another century."

They walked, watching the antique behemoth churning through the brown water. "I have never been here before," Spock said finally.

Kirk glanced at him sidelong, veiled meaning behind his too- long eyelashes. "Well, I'll have to give you the tour, then."

They passed a couple on the path, a young man and woman, deeply engrossed in one another. The two did not spare the Starfleet uniforms a glance, did not even seem to notice them. Spock averted his eyes. He felt a powerful desire to make Kirk stop, ask him the dangerous questions which hovered unsaid on his tongue. Demand an answer for that provocative look.

"What is our destination, Captain?" he asked instead, a much safer line of inquiry.

And then that, too, backfired on him. Kirk laughed, amusement mixed with bitter irony. "Captain," he repeated softly, in a tone which made Spock look at him. "Not for much longer, Spock." And then his face altered, as if making a conscious decision to ward off self-pity. "And not today. I intend to lose this gold shirt at the first opportunity. And as to where..." his eyes glinted mischievously "...you'll just have to wait and see, my friend." The eyes widened, mock innocence. "You do trust me, don't you?"

They had stopped under the arch of a moss-draped oak. The Vulcan gazed back at him for a long moment, feeling as if he stood abruptly, inexplicably at the edge of some deceptively deep chasm. But there was, of course, only one possible answer to that question, and Kirk knew it without having to ask. "Yes," he said simply.

Kirk's lips smiled, but his eyes were suddenly serious. "Then no more titles, at least for today, all right?"

Spock could only nod, accepting.

At some point Kirk cut away from the river and headed up a residential street, ungainly antebellum houses looming out of snarled green jungles, manufactured diamond panes sparkling in the windows. Most had been restored over the last century. Here and there contemporary aircars gleamed through ancient foliage-laden trellises, a surreal juxtaposition.

Nature had triumphed in places, green vines and a tangle of tree roots taking over many of the old streets. No one had bothered to reclaim them; the sidewalks, however, had been fiercely defended. At Saint Charles Avenue, Kirk turned and began heading east again, toward the Quarter. The avenue still ran unhindered in a mostly straight line, though the old street cars had been replaced by their twenty-third century counterparts. Huge oaks drooped over the flagstones, heavy with Spanish moss and their own immensity.


It came to Spock that he was wholly exhausted, and he realized that it had been a month since either of them had gotten two consecutive nights of uninterrupted sleep. Recent Klingon forays into Federation space had meant weeks of Neutral Zone patrol for the Enterprise, on constant yellow alert. The resulting skirmishes had not left them unscathed, and the prolonged stress had taken its toll on both captain and first officer.

He glanced at Kirk, unobserved. And now he will lose his ship, he thought uneasily. That thought led to others, images of an uncertain future. He didn't want to think about what it would mean for James Kirk to sit behind a desk. Didn't want to think about the unnamed hollow feeling the idea gave him, an emptiness behind his sternum.

They came upon an ancient cemetery, crumbling stone and rusted iron, the crypts almost entirely smothered in tangled growth. Kirk stopped, leaning on the decayed fence.

"Look at this place," he mused quietly. "I wonder how old these are."

The Vulcan came to a halt beside him. What little was visible of the gravestones had long since eroded to illegibility. "Unusual," he said thoughtfully. "These above- ground sepulchers..."

"The water table's too high for proper graves," Kirk explained. "There aren't too many like this in the western hemisphere. And this one looks really old."

"On the order of five centuries, I would say," Spock agreed. "Perhaps older than the surrounding neighborhood."

Kirk wandered a few meters further down the sidewalk, studying the epitaph fragments. "I wonder who this one was," he murmured, reaching through the iron fence to brush fingertips across the barely discernible relief of a sailing vessel.

"A smuggler, in all likelihood."

Kirk chuckled absently. "Probably." He scrubbed at the inscription with his fingertips for a moment, trying to make it out. At last he gave up and resumed walking, more slowly than before. Spock caught up with him; the human cast a pensive look up at him as they walked. "I'm curious. Do Vulcans believe in such a thing as an epitaph?"

Spock blinked, eyes on the path ahead of him. It was a vaguely repulsive thought, though he was not certain why. He supposed that most beings found the death rituals of other cultures to be disquieting. Such customs were difficult to explain without a common frame of reference. "No," he said neutrally, "we do not." He hoped Kirk would leave it at that; it was not a thing he felt comfortable discussing casually. But Kirk only nodded, respecting the veiled hint.

Then he grinned, an expression of self-mocking. "What do you think, Spock?" he said, only half-joking. "What will my epitaph be? I shudder to think."

"Sir?" The Vulcan was startled by the question.

"Come on, Spock. Admit it. You and Bones never thought I'd manage to keep my skin in one piece long enough to see this day."

Spock had no words to answer that. It was only the truth, of course--one he and the doctor had shared for years, an understanding which had nothing to do with their frequent personal discord. But he had not known that Kirk was aware of their collusion, their unspoken agreement to protect their captain from himself.

Kirk was going on, unrelenting. "Now that the Enterprise is home, we can joke about it, right? How about this one... 'Here lies James Kirk--'"

"Jim, don't," Spock said harshly, wanting to stop him before he said too much. Not wanting to think about the images such words would shape between them.

The human stopped, taken aback by his companion's tone. He looked askance at the other man. "It's only a joke, Spock--"

"Not to me." The Vulcan halted a few steps further on, not turning. "It is not a joke to me."

They stood like that for a long moment, Kirk trying to find his voice, his throat suddenly very tight. "I'm sorry," he said when he could get the words out, his voice small. Spock only nodded, an almost imperceptible motion in the shadows. At last they walked on in silence, each lost in his own dark thoughts.

In the French Quarter, the noise of shops and restaurants seemed to revitalize the human, for he shook off his distracted look, inclining his head toward the Vulcan with a little smile. "What do you say? A change of clothes first, then something to eat?"

Spock had not intended to abandon his uniform, but a quick visual survey of the local population told him that their regulation garments would be painfully conspicuous here. "As you wish," he said resignedly. Kirk seemed entirely in control of this situation; the Vulcan surrendered to his will out of force of habit.

The human strolled unhurriedly from shop to shop. Near the waterfront, he found what he was looking for; the rich, unadorned fabrics in the window display drew him through the doorway.

Inside the shop, he pulled something from a display shelf and disappeared into a changing cubicle. The Vulcan chose a simple black tunic and stood looking at the garment for a moment, draped over the blue velour of his sleeve. It was the first time he had made such a purchase in years, having long ago ceased to feel comfortable in anything but Starfleet blue.

He brought it to the clerk, who ran his credit chit through her scanner with a laconic sweep of her wrist. She handed it back to him and asked if he wanted his purchase wrapped, her dark eyes watching him with some intensity. He declined, uncomfortable in the face of that open appreciation.

Just then, Kirk appeared, his uniform tucked under his arm. He had donned a pale green silk tunic and loose-fitting trousers in a slightly darker color. They suited him as if they had been made for him.

"Ready?" he asked cheerfully, handing his own chit across the counter, the question aimed at Spock, his attention on the young woman. He was smiling at her; she fumbled with the small storage wafer, the Vulcan forgotten.

"Affirmative," Spock said dryly, observing her reaction to Kirk's smile with a mixture of irony and something darker, more primal. He interred the flash of jealousy before it could fully register.

His own gaze had been drawn to the other man, captured by that frank physical appeal. Not for the first time. He subverted that, too, and moved to escape the suddenly confining space.

It wasn't until he was standing on the sidewalk, outside the shop doorway, that he realized he had forgotten to change his clothing. He stared for a moment at the tunic in his hand, blinked, as if seeing it for the first time. What was the matter with him?

"You all right?"

Jim, at his shoulder, hand half-raised. Not touching. Spock was saved from having to answer; at that moment, it began to rain.

Kirk gave a small, startled laugh, and looked up. Rain beaded on his face. He ducked under the balcony of one of the old row houses saved in some long-ago renovation project-- pulled Spock in after him. For a moment they stood there under the cover of cast iron and oak, watching the water come down.

The shower was an unhurried, gentle affair, as rain often is in New Orleans. For the starship captain, it was boyhood memories, dimmed by long years in space. But for the Vulcan, a native of a desert planet where every drop of moisture is conserved, hoarded--it was a kind of scandalous excess. The very air seemed to coalesce in moisture. It puddled on the bricks, murmured secrets to itself on the ironwork above.

After a moment, Kirk smiled to no one in particular and stepped out from under the shelter of the balcony. He lifted his head very slightly, tilting his face toward the clouds, and closed his eyes.

Spock's gaze followed beyond his will. He could still feel the place where Jim's hand had gripped his arm. He suddenly wanted to feel the drops on his own face, to step over that threshold and not look back. But the training went too deep in him; he stood watching the human from the refuge of the covered walkway, not crossing the narrow line of the curb.

* * *

They sat drinking coffee, dark and sweet, in a cafe that was open to the square.

The room was crowded, fragrant with spices and the odor of fresh seafood, but the great glass wall panels stood open, diffusing the noise. Green moss and wet brick smells wafted back in, so oxygen-rich, the Vulcan suspected, as to make one faintly euphoric. Kirk had found them a table in one of the open archways. The afternoon had turned considerably cooler, and Spock was grateful for the dark warmth of the hip-length velvet tunic he had donned in the restroom of the cafe.

"You don't have to drink that, you know."

Spock followed Kirk's gaze to his own rapidly-cooling beverage, realized he had been staring out at the rain for some time. "It is not unpleasant," he said quietly. "I was merely... enjoying the ambiance."

Kirk's eyes lightened, approving him. The lines of weariness in his face had eased considerably. "Spock, you never cease to amaze me."

The Vulcan gave him a questioning look. "Specify, please."

The other smiled, wistfully, studying his fingertips. Then he lifted his gaze to Spock's. "Why are you here with me?" he asked, his tone deceptively gentle, his eyes suddenly penetrating.

For an instant the Vulcan felt an odd constriction in his lungs; he forced himself to lightness. "You did not provide much alternative," he said, eyebrow canting, just the right shading of long-suffering tolerance.

But Kirk only smiled, a kind of private irony. "No, I suppose I didn't," he said softly. And now there was a sadness in him, fleeting and poignant. Spock immediately wished he had chosen another tactic.

"Jim..." he began awkwardly, had to drop his gaze "...it is not a hardship."

He risked a glance at the human in time to see him swallow heavily, something shimmering briefly in the gold- flecked eyes. Spock felt an answering tightness in his throat.

"Thank you," Kirk said unevenly, not specifying. He turned his gaze toward the fountain in the center of the square, and the Vulcan perceived the heightened color in his face. Kirk was, perhaps, as uncomfortable with the unaccustomed emotion as he.

That revelation made him brave.

"Jim," he said, and suddenly the question was on his lips again, the question he had not asked beside the river. And it was, after all, the same question Kirk had asked, or another side of it. Another step in a set formation, dancing around the truth.

Kirk's head turned slightly, waiting.

"Why am I here with you?" Spock asked simply, surprising himself with his daring.

Kirk was still gazing out across the square, still watching the rain fall into the moss-choked fountain. For a long moment he said nothing, as if weighing the answer to that, searching for a way to explain. His expression was distant, opaque. And then he turned back to Spock, smiling that little half-smile, eyes alight with some unidentifiable secret. "I believe I would like to postpone the answer to that question, on the grounds that it may incriminate me." There was an odd glint in the hazel eyes, daring Spock to speculate.

That look awakened unspeakable whispers of heat in the Vulcan's insides. Speculation ran rampant in the unordered tangle of his thoughts, despite his best efforts to subdue it, the possible answers too outrageous to contemplate. What was happening here?

He found himself sinking deeper into those liquid gold eyes, found himself unable to look away.

It was Kirk who broke eye contact finally, spreading his hands, palms down, on the table in front of him. "Are you scheduled for debriefing yet?" he asked, too casually.

The non-sequitur caught the Vulcan off guard. He had to make himself focus on the question. "No," he answered carefully. "It is unlikely that I shall be called before eleven hundred tomorrow, San Francisco time."

"Well, then..." Kirk's eyes flickered to Spock's, then down again. "...would you like to have dinner with me? If you don't have plans, that is?" There was a long pause, in which Kirk seemed to be holding his breath.

Spock gazed over the human's shoulder, seeing shapes of a future he could not guess at. It was a crossroads, one he did not fully comprehend--one he had never, in any forbidden corner of his most deeply buried imaginings, anticipated. Out in the courtyard, the rain had stopped.

"I do not have plans," the Vulcan heard himself say, in a voice not his own.

And the other looked up, searching his face. Whatever he sought, he seemed to find it; the ghost of a smile found Kirk's lips. "I'm glad," he said simply, his voice low, suddenly intimate. "I know just the place."

The late afternoon sun chased the last rain clouds out of the sky.

They took the monorail out onto Pontchartrain, the lake reflecting a sky streaked with madder and gold.

On the trip, they talked of history, safe subjects. Kirk waxed poetic about the heyday of the peninsula, a barbaric era of slavery, piracy and unrestrained carnality. When Spock expressed this opinion, the human evinced mock offense.

"You've got it all wrong, Spock. It was a slender line between those people and the wilderness. They carved a rich and lasting culture out of a few dozen miles of bayou. They were living on the frontier--and you know as well as I do that the same rules don't apply."

Spock knew he was being baited, but shook his head. "You cannot mean to say that you would wish to actually experience such a barbarous culture firsthand."

"But we are experiencing it," Kirk protested lightly. "That 'barbarous' enclave has outlasted more than four centuries of history. The Quarter has remained virtually unchanged since the 1800s--at least, unchanged in any significant detail."

The Vulcan gave him a knowing look. "I suspect it is the clipper ships of that period which appeal to you most, in truth."

Kirk chuckled softly. His eyes grew distant. "Yes, I suppose you're right," he admitted. "Some things never change." The image of billowing sails seemed to awaken unwelcome thoughts. Melancholy overtook him, and Spock could see the reflection of the morning's ordeal in his face.

"Nor would we wish them to," Spock murmured. Kirk shot him a startled glance, but the Vulcan kept his expression carefully bland. Their eyes met, something flashing between them, a fleeting communication.

The monorail slowed, nearing its destination, and Kirk leaned over to look out the window. "Look," he said quietly. Spock followed the direction of his gaze.

A crystalline structure rose gracefully out of the water. Silhouetted against the evening sky, it traced a single arcing line, upswept in an inverted wing shape. The curved transparent panes reflected the purpling sky behind them. Adjoining shapes annexed on to the original sprawled outward across the surface of the lake, making the little cluster of buildings an island unto itself.

Their car glided silently to a halt.

"Shall we?" Kirk smiled, and got to his feet. The Vulcan nodded slightly, followed him out onto the small docking platform. A number of private yachts and other vehicles of varying description were moored at the foot of the dock. Iron gas lamps swayed in the evening breeze. They strolled up the walkway toward the beckoning lights inside.

It was a club of sorts, Spock saw at once. Kirk led him through a kind of courtyard lined with Japanese trees in planters, tiny white lights winking from their branches. Through the latticework of the flooring, the dark surface of the lake reflected them like stars.

Glass was the predominant building material--real glass, made from silicon, with all its imperfections. Scatterings of iron and red brick mitigated the pristine austerity with hints of warmth. Abundant vines and bromeliads lined still, rectangular pools on either side of the elongated courtyard, and concealed the lighting fixtures overhead.

They reached the entrance, and the glass doors slid apart to admit them. A wave of sound spilled outward from the open portal, enveloping them, drawing them in. Spock caught a glimpse of the club's name, etched in glass above the door: The Lily Pad. Baroque representations of water lilies framed the words.

"Welcome, gentlemen," said a woman's voice, and Spock lowered his gaze to find a pair of large, blue-grey eyes meeting his own expectantly. "May I ask your pleasure this evening?"

"Indeed you may," Kirk offered warmly, and they moved off, discussing particulars. The Vulcan trailed a pace behind, allowing his gaze to wander over his surroundings as the hostess led them deeper into the club.

Tiers of tables with bench seats rose up to the right, following the sweeping shape of the glass enclosure. Many tables were occupied, though the room had not yet neared capacity. The acoustics directed sound upward, so that a hush subdued the animated conversations from above. To the left, at the base of the lowest terrace, there was a kind of raised platform. Spock suspected it was a stage of some kind, though he could garner no clues as to what type of entertainment might take place there. Soft music was playing from hidden speakers: a NeuRomantic concerto by a twenty-first century Terran composer.

The hostess led them up a curving flight of steps to the third level. Her long sweep of blond hair swayed as she walked. The Vulcan's gaze returned to her pleasing shape, admitting in some dark corner of his brain that she was, indeed, lovely-- refusing to admit to that brief, sharp wave of possessiveness which rose as he witnessed the easy repartee she maintained with Kirk, the effortless exchange of trivialities.

She seated them at a table overlooking the stage. From this vantage, they commanded a one hundred-eighty degree view of the lake. To the west, the sun was just sinking below the horizon, while below, on the docks, the gas lamps were coming on. "Lovely, thank you," Kirk murmured to the woman, and with a final smile and a small nod, she left them.

The table was, in actuality, a kind of booth, with a semi- circular bench built into the floor in place of chairs. The high back provided a considerable measure of privacy and quiet; in addition, Spock perceived, the shape would allow the sound to carry from the stage below without amplification, catching and drawing it in like a shell. He turned to find the human watching him.

"Do you approve?" Kirk asked shyly, with the tone of a little boy, wanting to please.

"It is most pleasant. May I ask what sort of entertainment--?"

"Would you care for something to drink?" a soft tenor inquired, unintentionally interrupting. They looked up, unexpectedly, into the startlingly beautiful face of a young Deltan male.

"Yes," Kirk said after a moment, forcing himself not to stare, feeling the sudden warmth he knew must be visible in his face. "Spock, may I?" He glanced at his companion, was surprised to find the Vulcan equally discomfited. Spock blinked, finally, and seemed to shake himself.

"Yes...please."

Kirk ordered a beaujolais, the warmth fading slightly in his face by the time he got the words out, though his body was still painfully aware of the proximity of the young man. "Very good sir," the waiter said when he had finished, the model of propriety and restraint. Poor kid Kirk thought fleetingly, all these immature, uncouth humans lusting after him all the time. How does he stand it? Then it occurred to him that hiring a Deltan wait staff in this place could be nothing but intentional.

Well, he had known what he was getting them into, even if the Vulcan had no idea.

And that thought awakened a voice of rational conscience in him, and he suddenly asked himself what the hell he had thought he was doing, bringing Spock to a place like this. For a long moment he hovered on the brink of chickening out, one breath from standing up and running down the stairs, making a break for it. It wasn't too late. Yet.

Then he looked up, his gaze resting on his enigmatic companion, dark and severe and supremely elegant in his black velvet, and Jim seemed to hear that deep voice, caressing him. My preference would be to remain here. With you.

Now, or never, Kirk thought fatalistically. He did let me order the drinks... He decided to take encouragement from that fact. The moment passed, and he did not make a dash for the door.

Instead, he picked up the translucent sheet of display crystal in front of him and began to peruse the menu.

* * *

Kirk glanced up, over the top of his menu, catching his companion's gaze.

"Do you trust me?" he said aloud, for the second time that day. He had spoken casually--had referred only to the selection of the evening's repast. But when the words were out he heard the vulnerability in his voice, the search for some unnamed reassurance.

Spock inclined his head, an eloquent gesture of acquiescence. Had he heard? Or was it only the spoken question he answered?

The young waiter brought the wine, and Kirk found that preparing himself in advance for the effect of the man's blatant sensuality made little difference. Intellectually, he knew the Deltan pheromones didn't give his body a say in the matter--but that didn't help much, sitting here, in this place, next to his imperturbable Vulcan first officer.

Kirk glanced at the bottle, hardly seeing it, and nodded to the waiter. A pleasant buzz of awareness was singing in his nerves.

The Deltan uncorked the bottle with practiced smoothness, pouring the rich liquid into two glasses. He turned, fluidly graceful, and set them on the table, his lithe, white-skinned hands seeming to caress the stems before leaving them. Kirk couldn't quite make himself look away.

Then the waiter bowed faintly, and stood waiting with an expectant air. Kirk realized, belatedly, that he was waiting for them to order. "Um, yes," he said finally. It sounded all right. He ordered for both of them: Altairan truffles and pasta and green nut salad for the Vulcan, shrimp creole and spiced rice for himself. He added a loaf of dark bread, and more wine.

"Very good, sir," the young man said, with another faint bow of his head. He turned and headed down the steps; Kirk prevented himself from watching him go with some effort.

He looked up to find the Vulcan's eyes on him, and his face felt suddenly very hot. He suspected that he was blushing furiously. He lifted his wineglass and smiled brightly to cover it. "What shall we drink to, Spock?"

Spock's eyebrows quirked upward a fraction, and he tilted his head. He lifted his own glass slowly, considering . "To homecomings," he said finally, the rich timbre of his voice a low murmur. He met the human's gaze above the rim of his glass.

Kirk smiled at Spock's choice of toast, eyes approving. "To homecomings," he echoed, and they touched their glasses together with a low chime, eyes locked as they sipped the sweet, tart liquid.

Warmth followed the wine down Kirk's throat, heating in his stomach. He knew it would go straight to his head; he had eaten nothing all day. But that was what he wanted, what he needed. If he was going to go through with this, he definitely did not want to be cold sober. He watched the Vulcan surreptitiously, relieved to see that he displayed no visible hesitation in downing the pungent liquid.

Jim wasn't sure what effect the wine would have on that alien physiology, but figured it couldn't hurt.

The idea had seemed so natural, so right, sitting in the cafe with the rain falling all around. Now that they were actually here, the nervousness which had been curiously absent up till now was catching up with him. Butterflies in my stomach, like a goddamned teenager, he thought uneasily. Spock seemed to sense his agitation; Kirk could feel the weight of the dark eyes studying him. He couldn't make himself look up, face that self-possessed curiosity.

Kirk glanced toward the stage involuntarily. Perhaps an hour before showtime, or a little more. And then there would be no more veiled hints, no more unreadable looks between them. Even a Vulcan would have little difficulty reading that message, loud and clear.

He gulped down another mouthful of wine, found it reassuringly fortifying.

The room was fast reaching capacity, though the soundproofed booths kept the noise to a low murmur. The sun had dipped below the horizon. As if in response, the indirect lighting dimmed a fraction. Out on the lake, stars danced on the surface of the water, the lamps swaying gently in the evening breeze. They looked a little like living creatures, made of light.

Kirk gazed into his glass cradled between his hands, feeling the Vulcan's scrutiny. He couldn't know that his eyes were pale green, in this light, the precise shade of his elegantly cut silk tunic. He couldn't know how the soft light played over his face, shaping his sensuous features as if sculpting him out of shadow, concealing the expression in those eyes behind the dusky crescent of his lashes. Couldn't know that the afternoon spent out of doors had drawn a golden flush from his pale skin--or that the combination of these things was awakening a curious feeling in the Vulcan's stomach, like a hunger for something other than food.

"So," Kirk said, the silence finally too much for him. He was gazing out over the lower terraces, as if there were something fascinating down there inviting his attention. "What do you think of Dixon?"

Spock blinked. It seemed to take him a long moment to realize that Kirk was referring to the composer of the cello sonata currently playing over the club's speakers. It took him a longer moment to assimilate the uncharacteristic question, to formulate a coherent response. "Somewhat romanticized," he said at last, as if musical critique were something James Kirk asked his opinion on every day. "However, extremely compelling."

Kirk turned, meeting his gaze curiously. "I'm surprised. I would have thought him a bit too... theatrical, for your taste."

The Vulcan gifted him with a brief softening of the severe mouth, fleeting and sardonic. "I suspect it is my long association with humans which allows me to appreciate many forms of Terran art," he said quietly. Kirk smiled, sharing the long-standing joke. The low, warm notes of the adagio washed over them.

"Don't worry," Jim offered in the same tone, "I won't tell McCoy."

"Appreciated." Spock lifted his wine glass to his lips. He sipped at the tart liquid and sat back.

Kirk sensed the restoration of that unspoken accord, that indefinable rightness which had always existed between them. It spread through him like a low current, and suddenly everything was all right. He sighed, surrendering to the inevitable tides of fate without regret. It was out of his hands, now--no going back. He had lived his life by following his instincts, and he would just have to hope that this time they would not prove faulty.

"More wine?" he asked innocently.

They had finished the bottle by the time dinner arrived.

Kirk was feeling dangerously euphoric, alternating between nervous anticipation and morose fatalism. As far as he could discern, Spock remained unaffected, though the first officer had downed two glasses of the potent beaujolais. Jim's own face was very warm, the warmth spreading outward from his belly, curling pleasantly in his extremities.

He could not keep his eyes off the waiter. Something about being in this place--or maybe it was just biochemistry, and months of deprivation. Kirk's body didn't seem to care which.

Impervious, the Deltan arranged the dishes before them and opened the second bottle of wine, setting it on the table in front of Kirk. "Will there be anything else, sirs?" he inquired in that low, melodious voice.

"No--" not unless you want to do something about this incredible hard-on you've given me "--no, thank you. That will be all." Kirk murmured aloud, amazed at his own acting ability.

I guess bluffing your way out of a confrontation with a Klingon battlecruiser is good practice for something, he thought, a little hysterically. He barely managed to keep a straight face until the man had gone.

The smell of garlic and cayenne reminded him that he had not eaten since the previous day, and he dug into the peppery shrimp with enthusiasm, a different kind of gratification, but no less satisfying. The food was as good as he remembered.

Spock, too, appeared to be eating with relish, though his precise maneuvering bore little resemblance to Kirk's all- out attack. Nevertheless, the truffles disappeared with alacrity. The Vulcan caught the direction of his glance, and bowed his head slightly. "They are delicious," he acknowledged. "Thank you."

Kirk felt himself redden slightly with pleasure, and inwardly cursed his fair coloring. "I'm glad you like it," he returned. He had felt a little uncertain about ordering for both of them after he'd done it...after all, Spock was a grown man, perfectly capable of deciding such things without Kirk's intervention. Command had become very ingrained in him, and it occurred to him now that he would have to watch that. It could get him in trouble.

"Your judgment has always proven sound, in my experience," Spock said, as if reading his mind.

Kirk made a choked sound, amused disbelief. "You may not think so, after tonight," he muttered, under his breath.

The sharp eyebrows drew downward in puzzlement. "I beg your pardon?"

"I said, you didn't always think so." He looked up at the Vulcan, a sidelong glance, enigmatic and unreadable. A little smile played about his lips.

Spock considered that, nodding finally. "It is true that I did not, at first, understand your methods of command. But I always respected them," he said with that guileless honesty.

Kirk's smile deepened, reaching his eyes, full of shared memories. "We've come a long way since then, my friend." He looked shyly down at his hands. "Can I tell you something?"

"Yes, of course." The Vulcan was obviously intrigued and trying not to show it. James Kirk seldom volunteered any information of a personal nature. In that respect, he had always been as reticent as any Vulcan.

The blush in Kirk's cheeks darkened, spreading to his ears. "I was terrified of you, back then," he blurted. "I mean, not literally, but--"

"Of me?"

"Well, yeah." He grinned self-consciously. "I mean, there I was, thirty-two years old, still wet behind the ears, and suddenly I've got command of a starship. And not just any ship, but Chris Pike's--Pike the paragon, the textbook example of what a starship captain should be. And there's this Vulcan science officer, see, and he's brilliant, and experienced, and superbly aloof and unreachable, and I'm so scared of screwing up in front of him that I can't bring myself to talk to him for two whole weeks except to give a direct order, and that only when necessary--"

"I was...'terrified' of you, too," the Vulcan said quietly, when Kirk stopped to take a breath.

Kirk's eyes went wide, incredulous. "You?"

Spock nodded. He folded his hands in his lap. "Yes. I knew something of your history. You had become known to me, your actions aboard the Lydia Sutherland... your penchant for ending up in the middle of any spectacular crisis. I did not know if I could trust you. But more than that... I did not know if I would be able to work with such a person without losing--perspective." He glanced up.

"You thought I'd be a bad influence on you," Kirk translated, eyes glinting with wry humor.

"Indeed," Spock conceded, making Kirk smile. Then one eyebrow lifted eloquently. "Unfortunately, I did not foresee the arrival of Doctor McCoy."

Kirk chuckled outright at that. He reached to pour more wine, his eyes on Spock's as he did so. "And am I not, Mister Spock?" he asked provocatively. "A bad influence, that is?"

"Frequently," Spock admitted, in a tone of chagrined resignation, and lifted his glass to his lips. Kirk raised his own, making the Vulcan hesitate.

"To the Enterprise, for bringing us together, all those years ago." He saluted the Vulcan, and drank.

The words were out, the affirmation of that presence, that shape which had been sitting invisibly between them all along, waiting to be spoken. Kirk had said the name, and now the other truths were there, crowding silently into the space left by that acknowledgment.

Kirk's eyes were on the Vulcan, suddenly bleak. They locked gazes for a long moment.

"To her captain," Spock said at last, surprising them both. He set the glass deliberately on the table in front of him.

And then the waiter was there, clearing their dishes away, shattering the moment with perfect ease. Kirk gave a start, blinked. He broke the hold the dark eyes had on him. Then realization hit him, and his breath caught, and he turned to look out over the terrace.

On the stage below, the footlights were coming on.

* * *

Kirk turned back to his companion, a sinking feeling in his stomach that did not seem to end. An expectant hush fell over the room, as the last melancholy strains of the sonata died away softly.

The wall sconces dimmed further, until the Vulcan was only a shadow across the table from him. Kirk opened his mouth. He didn't know what words he intended, knew only that he had to do something, now, before it was too late.

Spock was looking at him. Kirk made the muscles in his throat let go. He started to say the Vulcan's name.

But then the stage went dark, and there was music, and it was too late to stop the inevitable downhill course of events. Too late to turn from the path he had chosen. As if in slow motion, Spock turned and looked down on the stage below.

The music whispered through the hushed audience like a fluid thing. Soft at first, the liquid, silver notes unfurled, undulating ripples of some stringed instrument played with the fingertips. Haunting and ethereal, the sound wove its spell in the expectant silence. For long moments, there was only the music, and the darkness.

Then there was a faint sound, like a sigh. At first, the subtle illumination of the footlights made it difficult to understand what was happening. The mosaic set into the stage floor seemed to be moving, the stylized lilies reshaping themselves, as if the visual metaphor had suddenly become reality and they had transformed themselves into real flowers, floating on the surface of the lake. Tiny points of light appeared, spreading outward in a slow bloom, faint and incorporeal.

The mosaic set into the floor had concealed an elaborate seam. The stage, which had appeared solid, was in fact comprised of several curving shapes independently mounted on a sophisticated hydraulic system. These shapes had begun to separate. The center of the stage had risen slightly, while the flanking sections had withdrawn into some hidden recess in the floor. Hidden beneath the stage, now revealed, was a semi-circular pool; the tiny lights were stars, reflected in the water through the transparent ceiling.

The music paused, as if taking a silent breath. In that hush, Kirk was certain the Vulcan would hear his heart pounding audibly, even from across the little table. He felt sudden dampness on his palms.

Pinpoint lights came on beneath the water, all at once. At the same moment, the music began again, slightly faster now, the first instrument joined by others, minor key of exotic harmonies and soft percussion. The lights began a slow, rhythmic dance in time with the music. The wall sconces had dimmed entirely, so that the only light emanated from those underwater lamps, and from the stars overhead. The firefly glow silhouetted the single remaining section of stage which remained.

The visual metaphor was now complete. They were now looking down into a sea of stars, upon which the shape of a single lily pad, sculpted in mosaic tiles of green and blue, appeared to float serenely.

"Remarkable," Spock said faintly, under his breath, and the human felt his heart skip, felt a dark blossom of hope in the center of his chest. He swayed toward that lean shape in the darkness, his pulse suddenly accelerating in anticipation.


There was movement, then, where there had been none a moment before. A tiny ripple, a silent, collective intake of breath, ran through the audience. Outlined by glints of light from the water below, supine on the glistening tiles, a figure moved languidly. Separated itself from the shadows in one luxuriant, unhurried motion.

Spock blinked.

Beside him, the human was holding his breath. He, too, was captured by the unfolding drama.

He was like some dark water nymph--or a god, risen from the sea. As they watched, the fingers of light found him, tracing his shape for a moment. Shadow sculpted the smooth curves and planes of him, the dark mane of his hair spread beneath him, and he turned his head, very slightly, toward the audience. His eyes were closed. And then the music altered, and he moved, a fluid gesture of muscle and bone.

It was a kind of dance, hypnotic, that sinuous figure always in the shadows, never quite entirely visible. There was something disturbing, darkly exciting about the way he danced with such unselfconscious sensuality--the eyes closed, as if totally unaware of anyone watching him.

Then he moved, so that the rippling light from the pool touched him for a brief moment, and it became apparent that he was touching himself, caressing himself with unabashed pleasure as he danced. A graceful, dark-skinned hand teased one erect nipple for an instant, before melting away into the shadows. The music pulsed softly, expectantly.

Spock went very, very still.

And suddenly he could feel the human close beside him, could almost feel the low, heavy pounding of the other's heart. Spock's own pulse was racing in his throat. His mouth was suddenly very dry. There was a moment in which he could not think, would not have been able to move or speak if his life depended on it.

In that instant, he felt something fundamental give way inside him.

He could not look at Kirk, could not summon the necessary strength that motion would require. He thought that if he saw Kirk's face in that moment, it might drive him right over the edge. Incoherence was shouting in his head, a ragged cacophony of disorder.

Did he know? Did he mean--no, no, he cannot have meant-- I know just the place, Kirk's voice said in his memory, that low, intimate invitation.

The Vulcan's eyes were riveted beyond his will to the stage below. The music had altered again, the pinpoint spotlights shifting with it. And then there was another figure in the shadows, pale hands entwined in the dancer's dark hair. And the second figure moved, and Spock could see his face clearly, chiseled features under a shock of dark gold silk. The image imprinted itself on the Vulcan's brain

Absolute clarity. Inarguable certainty.

Even a Vulcan could not fail to see it.

Kirk felt it, in the moment when the second dancer appeared--felt the abrupt stillness in the other's body, sensing it across the scant inches between them. That's it, then, he thought despairingly. And then a sudden calm came over him, the visceral relief of knowing it was out of his hands. His stomach unknotted, sending tremors through him. It felt like the fleeting moment of serenity after falling from a very high place, when one comes to terms with the inevitability of hitting the ground.

For a long space of heartbeats, the Vulcan did not move. He could not seem to draw air. All thought deserted him. And finally he could not bear it any more, watching the erotic performance below, feeling the heat radiating from the human beside him.

He turned, feeling like the effort tore something out of him. He felt his hands trembling, locked them together beneath the table. A tremor he could not suppress ran through him, and he looked up.

Kirk was sitting very still, less than twenty centimeters away on the velvet bench seat. His hands were clasped around his empty glass. Spock could not see his eyes.

A lifetime of training reasserted itself, slicing mercilessly through the Vulcan's awareness, setting off a chain reaction of inner alarms. Get up. Now. Go far away from here and do not look back, it commanded, the cold voice of reason. Sudden rationality returned, shocking him with the reality of the unspeakable thing which had risen in him, a terrifying beast looming out of some dark fissure within. The shape of it filled him with profound mortification. The need to escape became an imperative, driving him inexorably away from Kirk and that perilous chasm.

Then his companion looked up, met his gaze across the little distance between them. The human's eyes were burnished copper in the shadows, clear to their depths, full of the single, overwhelming question, which had grown so large it seemed to fill the room. In the face of it, Spock could not make his limbs obey the directive to flee.

Do you trust me, Spock? The Vulcan's heart had begun that uneven pounding again, a nearly unbearable pressure against his ribs. He felt himself answering silently, against his will, the only answer there could ever be. Yes. Always.

Acknowledgment of that, in the wide, expressive eyes.

Kirk moved then, a subtle shifting in the dim light, and awareness narrowed to the two of them, shutting out everything else. He brushed the back of the Vulcan's hand lightly, an almost nonexistent caress.

Then trust me. Spock's lips parted slightly. A current seemed to follow the touch of Kirk's fingertips on his skin, electric and overwhelming. And suddenly he wanted more, wanted to feel those hands on him, the wanting a bright flame he could not deny. It threatened, in that instant, to ignite the dry tinder of his soul.

He couldn't look at Jim. Couldn't bear it, that too- familiar gaze reading him without effort, witnessing this catastrophic breakdown of Vulcan discipline. Couldn't bear it any more than he could escape it.

And so he turned, and there was nowhere for his eyes to go except down.

The dancers twined together now, and still it was a thing of stark beauty, more than a seduction. The dark one's shape appeared in flickers of light, in relief against the other's luminous paleness. The alabaster hands wove a dance of their own on that ebony skin. Still the first dancer's eyes were closed, as if the pale one were some dream conjured from his private imaginings, touching him with innocent reverence...his hair, his hands.

The Vulcan's pulse throbbed dully in his ears.

Then Kirk touched him, warm fingertips brushing his thigh under the table. The touch was feather-light, only centimeters above his knee--but Spock felt it like an electric shock. Liquid heat curled in his stomach. His hands clenched into helpless fists.

Kirk felt him stiffen at the touch, felt the tiny, aborted movement, as if Spock would leap to his feet and run from him.

But he did not.

Kirk was having difficulty breathing. Some voice of sanity was demanding to know what abyss of dementia he had jumped into. But he could not take his eyes from the place where his hand rested against the Vulcan's thigh, trembling almost imperceptibly. The sight was making him utterly crazy with disbelief, and dismay, and sudden, crippling desire. He tried to swallow, couldn't.

He realized, with a kind of dull shock, that he was picking up the barest trace of Spock's own natural scent: charcoal and copper and something fainter, indefinable. The melting in his belly seemed to go on forever.

He could feel Spock trembling.

And that undid him. He couldn't stop himself--he reached up with his other hand, very slowly, and stroked the ebony silk of the Vulcan's hair behind one elegantly upswept ear. He was utterly hypnotized by the vision, by the feel of that inhuman softness against his fingers. He thought he made some sound.

Spock's eyes closed.

There was a slackening in the Vulcan's rigid form then, a kind of shudder passing through him. Kirk felt it touch something vital in him. Spock leaned back, very slightly, pressing his body against the velvet cushion; his face turned imperceptibly toward the human, lips parted.

Kirk thought he would go right out of his head.

His fingers were laced in the dark strands now, beyond his control. Then lower, tracing the warm, soft hollow behind that gorgeous ear, feeling the rapid pulse leaping beneath the skin. His touch trailed along Spock's throat, slid around the back of his neck, that heated softness cupped against his palm. The short, silky hair at Spock's nape teased his fingers. The angular face was still, expressionless, eyes closed so that Kirk could not read his reaction--but there was a kind of taut vibration in the Vulcan's stillness, which told him all he needed to know-- told him his instincts had not been wrong. Kirk's other hand trembled with the effort it was taking to keep it still, on the Vulcan's thigh, and not slide it upward.

He suddenly knew that he was perfectly capable of ravishing Spock right here and now.

It occurred to him, like an afterthought, that they were sitting in the middle of a crowded room. There was no way they were going to get out of this place unseen before the performance ended. For an instant he didn't care. Darkness and the curve of the booth enclosure would have been shield enough for him, he was so hot. But this was Spock--and Kirk's fear of screwing this up gave him strength to gain some margin of self control.

He felt the slender body tremble in response to his proximity. The rush which followed that realization almost undid his noble intentions. He had to stop for a moment, master the overpowering desire to press his lips to the place his fingers had caressed at the Vulcan's throat.

When he was able, Kirk leaned forward, until his lips were only millimeters from that delicious curve of the other's ear. He had to draw several steadying breaths before he could make the words come.

"Spock," he whispered, very softly.

The sound of his name in that breathy, intimate voice, the feel of it teasing his ear and throat, sent a wave of shivery electricity all down one side of Spock's body. He was drowning.

"Spock," the human said again, in that rough-soft rasp, "I want to take you somewhere. Where we can be alone." He had to stop, had to swallow against the sudden upsurge of emotion. "But I'm scared to death that if we move from here, you won't let me keep touching you like this." The Vulcan's head moved against the cushion, a tiny, involuntary response. Kirk found Spock's hand, clenched on the seat between them, covered it with his own. "Will you promise me that if I get us out of here, you won't change your mind?"

He waited; after a long hesitation, Spock nodded, once.

Kirk swallowed, had to hold himself still against an overpowering flood of lust, and relief, and a deeper emotion he could not name. When it subsided, he reached a trembling hand to the side of the table, touched the control which would signal their luscious Deltan waiter to bring the check.

* * *

That silent promise was the only thing which prevented Spock from bolting to the nearest available ground transport station--back to San Francisco and Fleet Headquarters and the safe haven of familiar sanity.

Somehow, Kirk got them down the steps past the room full of curious eyes. Spock could not have said what thoughts were in his head during that seemingly endless journey, could not have said what force of physics prevented him from simply splintering into unidentifiable fragments. They reached the foyer and Kirk said something to him, words which barely managed to penetrate the numb disbelief cloaking his brain.

"Don't go anywhere." The words meant little; it was the sharp vulnerability in his eyes which communicated itself, pleading with the Vulcan silently to do as he asked. Spock managed to nod affirmation. Kirk left him standing there beside the oblong reflecting pools, went to find the hostess.

Spock waited, eyes fixed on nothing. A curious stillness seemed to hold him in place. It was not a sensation of calm, not an absence of feeling--but a kind of inert panic, as if any motion might shatter what fragile control remained to him.

By the time Kirk finished making arrangements over the club's comphone, his body's urgency had damped down a little, enough for him to breathe. He had to force himself to focus on this linear course of action, not to think too much about just what he was doing, and with whom, or he would lose it. In spite of his fiercely exerted control, he kept remembering the feel of that midnight silk sliding between his fingers. His feet carried him across the lobby on autopilot.

Then he saw the Vulcan standing motionless in the lamplight, all planes and shadows and ebony softness, and that electric vibration started again, singing up from some deep place. I'm going to make love to him, the thought came, very clearly. He stopped, neural commands shorting out somewhere between his brain and his feet.

Spock's eyes lifted, dark and unreadable.

After a small forever of looking at him, drinking in the unreal, forbidding, utterly beautiful sight of him, Kirk managed to make his lungs perform their function again. Words deserted him; he could only turn and lead the way back through the courtyard in silence. He heard, after a moment, soft footsteps behind him.

The taxi he had summoned was waiting at the dock, idling on its air cushion a meter above the surface of the lake. The passenger door slid open at their approach. Kirk stopped at the edge of the walkway and half-turned toward the Vulcan, a little motion of uncertainty. The dark eyes were distant--as if Spock had gone somewhere far away inside himself, leaving behind only a physical shell. That look sent a stab of unease through the human. He hesitated, searching for words. But Spock only moved past him, stepping up into the little craft, without looking at him.

Then, unexpectedly, Spock turned in the doorway. Looked down at him, his eyes beckoning, an infinite velvet darkness. He extended his hand.

Kirk knew, then, that it was going to be all right. Better than all right. His heart was suddenly beating very fast. Knowing Spock would hear the ridiculous, illogical jumble of his thoughts when they touched, not caring, he reached up and took the Vulcan's hand. The warm, strong fingers closed on his; Spock lifted him easily inside.

For a moment, they held to each other, standing too close, not speaking, their joined hands the only point of contact. Then Spock let him go, even that touch more than either of them could bear for long. Kirk turned away, felt for the chair behind him. Sat in it before his knees could give way entirely.

Somehow, he managed to give their destination to the navigation computer.

They sat next to each other, facing forward, in chairs separated by a small aisleway. The aircar pivoted silently away from the crystal contours of The Lily Pad, and began its long, slow arc back across the lake, toward the winking lights of the peninsula. Unreality seemed to cloak them. The little craft sped soundlessly across the silvery surface of the water.

Kirk ventured a glance at the Vulcan. Spock was facing away from him, gazing out the window as if watching the moon. It raced alongside them, painting fragments of itself on the wavetops. Seeing him like that, silhouetted against the transparent pane, moonlight tracing his outline, Kirk felt a painful tightness somewhere. It came to him, in that moment, just what Spock had risked for him this day, just how vulnerable the Vulcan had left himself.

Just when I needed him, he thought wonderingly. He tried to remember back to the morning, to that hour-long purgatory he had spent in Nogura's office. But it felt like another lifetime, someone else's. How the hell had they arrived at this moment? He decided he didn't care. Didn't care how, or why, or what this constant, sweet ache in his chest meant. Soon he would be able to pull the Vulcan to him and just bury his face against his neck, just inhale the essence of him, and in the face of that, nothing else mattered.

Soon! God, not soon enough, he thought wryly, and turned to look out the front window of the taxi.

They were over land now, featureless dark as they passed over the bayou--protected acreage which had been allowed to return to its natural state two centuries earlier. Once the city had extended to the lakefront, smothering the cypress and palmetto; in this century, there was only darkness, speeding below the aircar's nose.

In moments they were crossing over the park, faintly illuminated boardwalks snaking between the trees, and then they were in the city proper.

The taxi descended toward a lamplit, walled expanse of gardens. Flagstone paths curved away from a central patio, disappearing into a profusion of green leaves and hibiscus blossoms. Spock caught a glimpse of the oak-lined street beyond the wall. Then the craft touched down, quiet hiss of hydraulics and pressure valves.

He turned, as the passenger door slid open, and caught the breath of sweet humidity which swept into the antiseptic interior of the taxi, washing it clean. And then he was looking at Kirk, couldn't help it. The human's hands were very pale, clenched on the arms of his seat, and for a second Spock thought Jim would look at him, break this silence which held them captive. But Kirk moved, swift economy of motion, swung down from the aircar to stand on the rose- colored flagstones. His back was to Spock, and he did not turn.

There was something so vulnerable, so irresistible about the way he stood there, compact form outlined in flickering light. Standing in the hatchway, Spock felt it reach out across the intervening space, grab hold of him. He wanted, with a sudden, overpowering intensity, to just go to him, hold him, protect him from the willful wrath of a universe not made for such brightly lit souls as his.

It was no more than he had wanted to do for years.

That truth came home to the Vulcan in the instant before Kirk turned, met his gaze. They stood like that for a long moment, speaking in the silence things long left unsaid. Then Kirk smiled, small upturn of the sensual lips. "Come on, Spock," he said softly, the words filling the silence as if they had been shaped long ago, for just this moment. "We've waited long enough."

His words freed something in the Vulcan, and Spock stepped out of the hatchway, crossed the little distance between them. Took Kirk's upraised hand in his own. The falling sensation he had been feeling for the last hour ceased, as the human's fingers closed gently on his.

Kirk led him deeper into the garden, following one of the broken, twisting paths through clusters of jasmine and oleander. His hand was warm in Spock's. That low current hummed between them.

They came out into a second, smaller courtyard, an overgrown pool at its center. Ancient cherubim observed their approach with wise, knowing expressions. A little cottage stood beyond. Cloaked in vines, windows glowing softly, it invited them closer.

Spock stopped beside the crumbling basin.

Kirk felt the Vulcan's hesitation, turned, smiling reassuringly. "It's all right. I arranged everything through the reservation desk."

But Spock only looked at him. The Vulcan's fingers tightened on his, holding him there, an insistent pressure. The dark eyes threatened to swallow him up. And then Spock let go of his hand.

Without warning, the panic rose up in Kirk, total and overwhelming. The terrible certainty gripped him, that Spock would refuse to go on, would leave him here in this garden and not look back. A wave of desolation threatened to close his throat. "Spock--please, if you can't... I mean..."

"Jim," the Vulcan interrupted him, the familiar baritone soft, layered in enigmatic shadings. It made Kirk stop, made him catch his breath. Still Spock was looking at him with that peculiar intensity, as if he would consume Kirk whole, where he stood. Very gently, he reached up, brushed the backs of his curled fingers fleetingly against the human's temple. And Kirk became aware, with a kind of visceral shock, that he could feel the whisper of Spock's thoughts as he did it--brief and indistinct and exquisitely intimate. In that moment there was nothing but honesty between them.

"I am not so fragile," the Vulcan said at last, a low murmur. And suddenly, astonishingly, there was amusement in Spock's eyes, in the warm tone. "You need have no fear that I will run away from you." His gaze deepened, a look that made Kirk's knees go suddenly watery. "I could not, even if I wished to."

Kirk made a sound, low in his throat. His heart's pounding made it impossible to breathe.

And then that heat was flooding through him, threatening to incinerate him. He stepped forward, a motion he could not control, and his hands were lifting, his fingers twining in the dark hair, and he pulled Spock down, lifted himself up. Their lips touched.

The shock jolted down the Vulcan's spine. For a second it was all he could feel, a white-hot impact like raw voltage. Then Kirk moved against him, the velvet of Kirk's lips so much softer than Spock had imagined--

--and that awareness came crashing through him, tearing down layers and levels of carefully placed defenses. Imagined, yes, in all those dark, forbidden hours of the night. Dreamed of, yes, though Vulcans claimed not to dream such things. He had wanted this for so long that he could not remember a time before he had wanted it. His eyes closed against his will, and he moaned faintly against the human's mouth.

Kirk felt it, felt the shudder which ran through the Vulcan's body. He drew back a fraction, ran his thumbs down the soft hollows on either side of Spock's nape, coaxing the other to open to him. They were kissing in slow motion, ragged, clinging caresses, little retreats, pulled back each time by the inexorable current of electricity between them. That feather- light contact was almost more than Kirk could stand. His fingertips were pressing lightly against the base of the Vulcan's skull, trembling with the unbearable exquisiteness of it.

Something shifted, and Spock moved, his hands closing around Kirk's waist, sliding against the silk of his tunic, pulling the human against him with irresistible power. The feel of that compact form, steel softness and silken warmth, sent fingers of heat through the Vulcan's insides. And suddenly he could not stop ravaging Kirk's mouth, could not get enough of him.

Kirk gasped, leaned into that embrace, the Vulcan's hands at the small of his back the only thing holding him up. They were kissing open-mouthed--deep, soul-shattering kisses, the heat of it a forest fire, out of control. Spock tasted-- incredible, indescribable, like some forbidden drug. He could not think. Somehow he had backed Spock up against the fountain. The Vulcan's arousal pressed against his own rigid erection through their clothing, throbbing between them. Kirk knew suddenly that if they did not stop, he was going to come right here and now.

He broke away, clinging to the Vulcan for support, crushing the velvet of his tunic. Fought for breath. "Spock--" he grated, battling for some measure of control.

"Yes," the Vulcan breathed, interrupting him. He was shaking, waves of tremors overwhelming him. "Anything you want. Yes."

Kirk swallowed, pressed the side of his face against the other's sharp collarbone. That exotic, heady scent reached him again, and he had to close his eyes. "Let's go in," he choked, hardly able to find breath for it.

For an instant Spock's arms tightened on his waist, as if the Vulcan would not let him go. Their trembling seemed to reach some kind of harmonic convergence. Kirk pushed slightly against the other's chest, a gesture that did not have his heart in it. But Spock, after a long moment, released him. They stood unsteadily, inches apart, fighting for the will to move. Kirk made himself open his eyes, focus on the stone walkway beneath his feet. He couldn't look at Spock. If he did, he would never be able to move from this spot.

Those last steps, up the little path to the French doors of the cottage, were the most difficult Kirk had taken in his memory. His feet did not want to obey. In the end, Spock took his hand and led the way.

At the threshold, a small keypad glowed expectantly; Kirk gazed at it blankly for nearly ten seconds, before remembering that the desk clerk had given him an access code. His hand was shaking as he entered it.

Candlelight and flowers greeted them within, flickering illumination glinting in the deep luster of antique mahogany. A great four-poster stood in the center of the room, draped with muslin. Glass bowls stood on a low table near the door, white blossoms floating in water. The faint scent of magnolias embraced them.

Kirk found himself standing on the Spanish tile of the entryway, staring at that bed, his mind utterly blank.

Then Spock touched him. It was only the barest brush of his fingertips, warm on Kirk's wrist--but it broke the spell which had captured him. He turned, lifted his eyes to Spock's solemnly.

That electric jolt again. Spock felt it in some deep place, couldn't breathe for looking at him. Kirk was all softness, in this light, gold and copper and rose, eyes misty green with desire. The molten heat in Spock's insides welled up, threatened to drown him. Sudden unspeakable urge to bury himself in that softness, throw the human down on the deep pile rug, right here on the floor, and just take him in all his golden glory. The violent, terrifying need robbed the Vulcan of breath.

And then Kirk's hands were on him, gently demanding, and they were kissing again, Kirk's tongue in his mouth, stroking him, and the need burned white hot, consuming him.

Spock's hands were in the human's hair. He didn't know how that had happened. That crisp softness slid between his fingers, the whisper of the human's thoughts dancing just below the surface. Kirk's hands spread against his back, pulling him closer, Kirk's arousal a searing heat against his stomach.

Spock felt the dark imperative closing in on him. His fingertips were close, so close, the scintillating pattern of the other's thoughts a siren call, tantalizing. Just a slight motion, just let go for a moment, and they would be one. The instinct to reach for that link was almost irresistible.

He fought it, barely retaining enough control to remember why he must not do it.

They were moving together now, an inferno between them, a kind of swaying dance, clinging to each other to remain upright. Kirk moved against him, delicious scrape of silk and velvet and hot human flesh against Spock's urgent erection. The flood of pleasure surged in the Vulcan's blood, nearly sent him over the edge into oblivion. His knees gave out. Kirk caught him, held him against it, held himself up.

Their mouths broke apart, and they stayed like that for a long moment, trembling against each other.

Kirk wanted to make this feeling go on forever. But his body was warning him otherwise. It overrode his efforts at self- control with laughable ease. He could feel the Vulcan's readiness, too--wet heat through the layers of clothing.

He backed up, pulling Spock with him, until he felt the soft crush of the small, luxuriant rug beneath his feet. He made himself draw several deep, steadying breaths. Then he buried his face against the velvet-clad shoulder, found Spock's hands with his own. "Spock," he managed, a hoarse whisper. "I can't--I'm not going to be able to wait much longer." He made himself hold to the hands. "I'm sorry--I wanted..."

The Vulcan didn't want to think. He wanted to be lost. "Jim, please. Do not talk any more." The words came out of him like wild, winged things released from captivity.

Kirk's grip tightened on his hands. There was an electric stillness, in which Spock could hear the human holding his breath.

Then Jim's lips were on him.

And Spock was falling, falling into the incandescent core of him, last shreds of control melting into nonexistence. His knees gave out entirely, and he sank down onto the bed, pulled the human down on top of him. Delicious weight, silk and heat and softness fitted perfectly in his arms. Jim's tongue was touching his again, licking him like cool flames.

The human's scent assaulted him, raw and overpowering. Spock thought he might drown in it. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this primal joining, this intoxication of James Kirk's mouth on his, devouring him entire. Jim was straddling him now, the incredible heat of him pressed against Spock's thighs, his sex pulsing against Spock's with every beat of his heart. The Vulcan wanted it never to end.

But they had to stop, had to come up for air. Oxygen reached starving nerves, and Spock gasped with the force of his own need, suddenly sharp and overwhelming. Jim's hands were at his waist, at the hem of his tunic--and then they were sliding underneath, spreading against the Vulcan's ribs. Kirk's fingertips drew upward, dragging waves of shivers along the heated flesh. Spock made a sound of incoherent pleasure. He clenched his fists against the bed.

He wanted, with a ferocity he could barely contain, to just let go, pull the human against him, rip the elegant green silk off of him with his hands. But the need had become too great; it would be impossible to touch him like that and not surrender utterly to the inner imperative. Impossible to put his hands on that golden, satiny flesh and not touch him everywhere, not reach for the link, reach into him.

"Don't fight it so hard," Kirk whispered, feeling the tension vibrating in the lean body under his hands. He stroked the inhumanly silky skin at Spock's navel, coaxing with his fingertips. He felt himself shaking with the effort to go slow. "Just let go, Spock," he urged softly. "Give in to me."

It reached something in the Vulcan, something unexpected, and a kind of peace spread outward from Kirk's touch on his bare flesh. He felt it shift in him, miraculous surrender, and suddenly he found that he could let go. It would be all right. Jim would catch him.

He said the human's name, breathless prayer in his throat. And then his hands found Kirk's hips, shifted upward, shaking with the sudden need to feel more of him, feel that rich smoothness of human skin against his fingers. Kirk was helping him, fumbling with the hidden seam. He found it; the silk garment parted, and Spock's hands were on his bare chest.

Kirk moaned, arching back at the feel of that superheated touch. His nipples were instantly hard, pulling a deep, tingling rush of pleasure up from the base of his cock. The soft slide of fabric as his shirt fell away was an almost unbearable sensation. Then the Vulcan cupped his palms over the hard nubs, brushing them gently, and the waves of pleasure didn't subside, only mounted, shuddering through the human's body. Helplessly, he began to rock back and forth against the other's thighs, his scrotum rolling gently, exquisitely against Spock's. He was breathing hard, nerves singing with that torturous, overwhelming vibration. Spock shifted under him, and the pleasure leapt upward, threatened to spill over.

"Gods!" Kirk gasped out, forcing himself to stillness, trembling on the edge of coming in his pants.

The sight of him made sudden heat rise in Spock's throat. Kirk was more beautiful than he had imagined, arching above him, smooth and golden and tousled, flushed with passion. The lion eyes were closed as he fought for control, the bronze softness of Kirk's lashes curling against his cheeks. The Vulcan had to swallow. "Jim," he said hoarsely.

A little tremor ran through the human; his hands closed on Spock's forearms, as if seeking to draw strength. Finally, he opened his eyes. They looked at each other, each seeing, in that moment, his own profound wonder reflected back at him.

Spock didn't say anything more, couldn't. But the communication passed between them, sent and received with crystal clarity.

Kirk slid backward, pulling Spock with him, moving to stand on unsteady legs. His eyes never faltered, only gazed at the Vulcan with that open certainty. His lips were trembling faintly.

Spock let himself be pulled upright, until he was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face centimeters from the warm satin of the other's belly. Breathing the scent of him. Then the human lowered his gaze, a curiously vulnerable gesture. That little, demure dip of the too-long eyelashes captivated Spock utterly, and he watched, breath held, as Kirk shrugged out of the silk shirt. It slid to the floor in slow, liquid motion.

Kirk moved, then, smooth poetry of muscle and sinew and bone, bending to unzip the side fastenings of his Starfleet boots. He stepped out of them, one at a time.

Little flicker of the molten eyes, up to Spock's and back down, as if he could not prevent himself from gauging Spock's reaction. What he saw in Spock's face made him blush, faintly; that shyness annihilated the Vulcan. Spock couldn't think, or breathe, for watching.

Incredibly, Kirk turned his back, with a little glance over his shoulder and that delicious heat in his face. He reached around to the side of the silk trousers, unfastened the hidden catch, the muscles of his back rippling fluidly under the skin. Pushed the waistband down, palms brushing the creamy skin at his flank. The fabric slid into a puddle at his feet.

Too-brief vision of luscious curves, assaulting the Vulcan's senses. But then Kirk was turning around.

His face was flaming, but a tiny curve shaped his mouth, sardonic acknowledgment of his body's eagerness. He stood still for a moment, as if waiting for some appraisal, some sign of approval. Spock could see him trembling.

But he could not spare eyes for it. Could not stop drinking in the vision of him, rose and gold and umber curves shaped by candlelight, hard little nipples, standing up against the golden expanse of his skin. His cock arched proudly forward, framed by bronzed chestnut curls. Moisture beaded at the silken tip.

The god made flesh.

Before the Vulcan could move, or draw breath, Kirk had dropped to his knees at Spock's feet. "Shh," he whispered, soothing the small, involuntary sound of protest the Vulcan made. "Let me..."

He was unfastening the boots, removing them, Spock sitting stiffly on the bed, looking down at the top of that tousled head with a kind of dull shock. The unreality of this situation was suddenly hitting him, hard. This is Jim undressing me...these are Jim's hands on me. He is going to--

Somehow Kirk was kneeling, in all his naked glory, between the Vulcan's bare feet. Gazing up at Spock with those molten eyes, tilting his head a little on one side, that recalcitrant lock of hair curling over his eyebrow. He was waiting.

Let me... Asking permission.

...please... Spock moved, in answer, hands opening in an awkward gesture of invitation.

And then Kirk was coming up from the floor, against him, into his arms, and the feeling of unreality shattered--and suddenly everything was very, very real. Kirk bore him down full length onto the bed. Then the human was working at the velvet tunic, his hands encircling Spock's narrow waist and drawing him up, his lips and tongue and teeth attacking the delicate place where Spock's shoulder met his throat. The Vulcan moaned aloud, unable to stop the sound. Delicious, unbearable suction, wet caresses against his neck. His hands found sweet curves, kneaded that luscious flesh with desperate force. The heat within seared his fingertips.

Kirk's head bowed for an instant against his shoulder, and Spock could hear him panting. The human's hands were between them, fumbling with the Starfleet fastenings, then shoving Spock's trousers down savagely. The Vulcan arched upward, struggling to help him. Between them they got the confining fabric out of the way, all the way off.

Kirk was between his thighs then, unbearable friction of skin on skin, simultaneously sliding the black velvet upward, off- -and teasing the Vulcan's nipples with his mouth. Spock's sex was crushed between them, slick with arousal, sliding against the cool, satiny smoothness of Kirk's belly. The sensations were too powerful; Spock closed his eyes, unable to do anything but lay shuddering beneath him, little mindless sounds of pleasure escaping him. His hands opened and closed on the muscular shoulders.

Kirk lifted him, pushed them further up on the bed. For an instant they only held together, helpless in the tide of desperate hunger. Spock was aware only of the damp heat of Kirk's face against his neck, the infinitely hotter wetness pressing against his flank. He was burning, flaming, ablaze with light.

And then they were kissing again, Kirk's mouth on his, that unbearable, consuming, open-mouthed kissing--and the human began to move against him slowly, helplessly, grinding their hips together. His hands found Spock's ass, cradled that sensitive flesh gently against his palms. Guiding him gently into that overwhelming, voluptuous rhythm.

The rigid, silken heat of him scraped against the Vulcan's cock, his scrotum, the tender skin of his upper thighs; Kirk's tongue stroked his in slow counterpoint. Spock moaned into his mouth, again and again, felt the vibration of the human's answering cries against his lips. Waves of excruciating pleasure were welling up in the Vulcan, unlike anything he had ever experienced, shattering him utterly.

Too much, for both of them. Annihilating scrape of skin on skin, wet silk on silk, and the Vulcan's hands found the back of Kirk's neck, the long fingers lacing in his damp curls, and he went rigid in the human's arms.

Shuddering, obliterating explosion of heat. A deep, ragged sound was torn from Spock's throat, raw ecstasy, and he clutched Kirk to him, helpless in the face of it. His teeth found Kirk's shoulder. He cried out again, the waves of pleasure going on and on.

That suddenly slick friction, the throbbing pulse against his sex, that sharp prick of the Vulcan's teeth--orgasm crashed over James Kirk, slammed through him, destroyed him.

He fell into space, went on falling, until he couldn't bear it anymore. He did not recognize the sounds coming from his own mouth. Spock's hands in were in his hair, touching more than his body--that fierce, unendurable awareness of that presence, all around him, inside him--

Finally, mercifully, the pleasure released them.

* * *

James Kirk woke to the sound of the rain.

For a long moment he could not remember where he was, or how he had gotten there. These seemed like unimportant questions, and so he forsook them in favor of drifting back into the warm, weightless euphoria which seemed to be singing in his veins.

The soft patter on the roof lulled him, whispering private things, and for a while he was in his mother's house, in his childhood bed, listening to the rain in the willow tree outside his bedroom window. But there was something wrong with that theory. After a little while, the discrepancy pulled him unwillingly toward awareness, and he knew what it was.

It had never rained like this in Iowa.

New Orleans, his brain supplied, and he came the rest of the way into wakefulness.

Spock.

Kirk turned his head slightly, and he was there, less than a foot away. The sharply carved features were slack, softly beautiful. One elegant hand was flung outward, palm up, fingers curled in sleep.

Kirk swallowed, turned on his side a little to study the Vulcan's sleeping countenance. It came to him that he had rarely seen Spock asleep, had never seen him sleeping like this, with such peace in his face, such serenity. The dark wing of his hair spread against the bedspread, softly mussed, infinitely fragile and alluring. The flicker of reflected auburn in the ebony strands made him realize that the candles were still burning.

There was a real, antique clock on the bedstand; it read half- past midnight. Kirk was surprised to realize he had only been sleeping for an hour, or perhaps a little more. It felt like forever.

He couldn't remember the last time he had slept like that.

He caught himself wanting to touch the other's hair, smooth it back to its customary order. Or maybe just wanting to touch it. He contented himself with imagining the way it would feel, not wanting to wake him. He wanted to go on watching Spock sleep for a long time.

The softly falling rain had cooled the sultry evening considerably. Kirk's toes found a folded summer blanket at the foot of the bed; he reached down to grab a corner, pulling it up gently to cover the sleeping Vulcan. Spock stirred faintly; the angular face turned slightly, so that Kirk could see the full curve of his lips. He did not wake.

How have I never noticed how sensual his mouth is? Kirk thought wonderingly.

But he knew the answer to that. Knew all the reasons why this could never, never happen. Except that it had.

Me and Spock. My god. Years since the last time he had been with another man. Years since he had even thought about it. Not since Gary.

Kirk had, he could admit now, believed he never would. Not again, not after Gary died. All the frustration, the anguish of that ill-fated tryst, came back to him, and Kirk let himself remember it for the first time in half a decade.

We can still be friends, James. Kirk seemed to hear that mild tenor in his memory, mocking him. You know it's for the best. And it had been, of course. They had known it was impossible from the beginning. Had succeeded in suppressing that buried hunger for years, before a violent brush with mortality on Deneb Four had culminated in a moment of weakness, a desperate reaffirmation of life.

In his heart, he knew that Gary had acted in self- defense, putting distance between them before duty could make Kirk choose his ship over their stillborn, doomed relationship. It had been for the best. In time, their friendship might even have recovered from the shock.

But he had died, of course. And Kirk had gone on, pretending that those ugly scenes had never happened between them, trying to remember the friendship.

The unwelcome memories filled him with undiluted fear, and he wanted, with a fierce, overpowering longing, to wrest time from the hands of the universe and prevent its motion, never go forward from this moment. Just go on watching Spock sleep forever. He gazed at the chiseled profile of his best friend, willing him not to wake, not to shatter this sweet reality.

Please don't hate me, Spock, he whispered silently, a kind of prayer. And suddenly the dull misery welled up, as the memory of Nogura's words returned, the realization that as of today, he was not a starship captain any more. The awareness that the next time the Enterprise flew, she would fly without him.

He didn't know what he would do if Spock turned away from him, now. Didn't know how he would bear it.

And with that thought, the desolation in him became too great, and he could not stand the loneliness of his own thoughts any more.

* * *

For a long time, Spock knew only sweet oblivion, warm darkness stroking him with feather-light caresses. It was safe here. No thought, no memory, no feeling save a kind of euphoric peace, gentle and undemanding. He drifted on a sea of night.

There were stars here...so many stars.

But after a time, the waves which bore him up began to wash over him, lapping at his belly, the tender flesh below his ribs. Shivers flowed in the wake of that tide, warm fluid caress followed by chill air on damp skin. It was a singularly delightful sensation. It came again, washing over him in a gentle swell of pleasure, and he could not hold to the darkness any more.

He woke, to candlelight, and the sound of rain murmuring softly against the Spanish tile roof.

"Good morning," Kirk murmured huskily, pausing in his current activity to gaze up at Spock, that lush mouth canting in a lopsided smile. The damp trails of his tongue glistened on the Vulcan's olive skin, unmistakable.

He was naked, nestled comfortably between Spock's thighs, a warm softness against the Vulcan's body. His hands were braced gently against Spock's hipbones. He had licked the flat stomach clean of the evidence of their passion and begun to work his way up; it was the sensation of his teeth grazing one responsive nipple which had brought Spock finally all the way out of sleep.

Spock could still feel it tingling, the little aftershock of that nibbling caress.

Something so fundamentally shocking about that, about the stunning intimacy of Kirk's hands on his hips. The human's hair stood up in damp whorls. Spock could only gaze at him, feeling the heat rising in his face.

"Do you like what I'm doing?" Kirk asked in that low tenor, teasing him. His grin widened a fraction, and that tousled head bent to nuzzle the dark fur dusting Spock's lower abdomen. The Vulcan jumped; his breath drew inward, sharply. He closed his eyes, unable to bear the profoundly disturbing sight of those flushed lips against his own skin.

Kirk shifted against him, chest rubbing exquisitely across the sensitive underside of Spock's sex, and the sudden rush of blood to his groin made the Vulcan gasp faintly.

"You're so sensitive," Kirk marveled, faint vibration of his lips against Spock's abdomen.

"Jim--" He tried to find words, couldn't think. Kirk's mouth was describing wet circles on his stomach, descending to the hollow below one angular hipbone. There was something important he should remember...

"Shh," Kirk scolded. "Lie still."

...but it seemed to be escaping him at the moment.

Something deeply erotic about the low, guttering candlelight, the drumming of the rain, the feel of those strong, capable hands spread against his waist, holding him still. Spock felt control slip easily from his grasp. Sudden astonishing rush of sensation--Kirk's fingertips raking along his ribs. His nipples were abruptly hard, tingling.

Kirk's lips against his thighs, brushing like the wing of a butterfly, then nibbling, teasing soft flesh. Spock's instincts made him want to draw away from that scandalously intimate touch, but Kirk's position made that impossible. The Vulcan trembled, excruciatingly aware of his own nakedness. "Shh," Kirk soothed again, gently this time. "Don't be afraid of me, Spock."

"Jim..." the Vulcan breathed involuntarily.

The lips traced their way upward again, feathery kisses along his thigh, the underside of the other pelvic bone. At that indentation, the human's tongue lapped at him gently.

At first the sensation was a mild one. But awareness of it increased, until the little caresses were transmitting shivers along the bone, a faint, delicious vibration. When Spock shuddered slightly under his ministrations, Kirk moved on.

He traced the delicate line of dark hairs on the Vulcan's abdomen, alternating the tip of his tongue with little nips of his teeth, until he could feel the Vulcan's cock brushing his throat, radiating unbelievable heat. "So hot," he murmured between caresses. "I wondered..."

That confession made Spock's breath catch in his throat. He couldn't open his eyes, couldn't look at him. The human's mouth was still tracing his flesh, driving all thought out of his head, but he focused on the word with effort. "You wondered...?" he heard himself ask faintly.

The slow teasing stopped for an instant. There was a little pause. "Yes," Kirk said finally. "I wondered." A long silence, the warm hands stroking him absently. "I just didn't let myself imagine that it would ever go beyond wondering."

Spock lay very still, the human's admission filtering slowly through the soft haze of pleasure fogging his brain. He stored it away, unable to focus on it.

For Kirk was sliding down, the faintest brush of his cheek against Spock's growing erection, the soft yielding of his lips stroking the dark curls at the Vulcan's groin. Spock heard himself make a little, unidentifiable sound. Then the unmistakable, excruciatingly pleasurable sensation of Kirk's lips on his scrotum, gently nibbling. Spock struggled to regulate his breathing, couldn't prevent the little gasp which escaped him.

"Mmm, so hot," Kirk murmured between kisses. Spock was trembling under him now, his response encouraging. It seemed that mother nature did not vary much from her basic design.

Kirk was getting drunk on the smell and taste of the Vulcan, aware that this was a pleasure he could easily become addicted to. He stole a glance at Spock, had to pause, his breath catching at the sight of his logical Vulcan, flushed and trembling and deliciously, incredibly exposed. Spock's eyes were closed, but his face was unguarded, revealing everything.

"Spock," he whispered, unable to help himself.

The dark eyes slitted, watching him. Spock was breathing raggedly.

The human didn't drop his eyes, only lowered his head, Spock watching him all the while. Deliberately, Kirk nuzzled the heavy tautness of the other's sac, then stroked it with his tongue. He did it again.

Spock's closed his eyes, the shudders running through his taut form in waves. He moaned softly.

Kirk tongued him there very slowly and thoroughly, until the Vulcan's cock was a rigid ache. The human's hands were caressing him, petting his flanks gently in time with the motion of his tongue. "Jim--" Spock gasped out, unable to prevent it "--please." His hands fluttered ineffectually at his sides.

Kirk smiled to himself, private satisfaction, and this time his tongue did not stop its upward sweep. He caressed the other's arousal from base to tip, an unhurried tribute.

Spock could not even gasp, the pleasure was so great. The fragrance of magnolia and jasmine and rain washed over him, overpowering. That delicious wet contact again, licking some essential core of need in his body. And again.

"Oh," Spock heard himself say, a kind of revelation, surrender. It was a raw sound, naked longing. He wanted to speak the human's name, beg him to go on doing this forever, not to stop, lest he should go utterly mad. But he could not make the words come.

And he was not stopping. He was bathing Spock's heat in moisture, bringing him higher, higher. Pleasure was singing in the Vulcan's veins, heating in his belly, and it was a pleasure without end. Perhaps he would go mad, after all. The tip of Jim's tongue found the tender place below the second ridge, teased it, and a surge of pure ecstasy shot down the buried nerves.


The Vulcan's breathless cry, drops of sweet moisture against his lips, warned Kirk that he was coming close, very close to the point of no return. He was high on the feeling he was getting from this.

He uncurled himself from his shelter between the Vulcan's thighs. Spock made an incoherent protest, a sound which did unprecedented things to Kirk's insides. The human shifted upward slightly, kneeling now on the rose-colored bedspread; he slid his hands down to the Vulcan's lean hips, and lower, slipping them under the other's body. Unable to resist, he touched his tongue to that tiny bundle of nerves again.

And then Spock's hands were in his hair, and the Vulcan was panting, unbelievable sight of that austere profile lost in passion, flushed with need.

Something leaped between them, at the touch of Spock's fingertips on his scalp. For an instant, Kirk forgot to breathe.

Please... The word came clearly, desperate supplication, so powerful that Kirk could not spare thought for the unexpected intimacy, the feeling of that headlong rush to oneness. Could not fail to answer it. His hands tightened on the other's tender flesh, lifted him up; he took that rigid length into his mouth.

The electric awareness of Kirk's essence stabbed deeply into the Vulcan's soul, an ecstasy even more intense than the incredible wet heat enclosing his sex. It struck him like an inner explosion, sudden, critical overload, the thing that had been nibbling at his memory. He could not even struggle against it, the undertow was so strong. It shattered him.

Spock was coming even before Kirk's tongue could move against him, racked by deep waves of shuddering release. His breath compressed in explosive gasps, threatening to rob him of consciousness. The universe narrowed to the place where they met.

Reason fled away from him, and the solidity of the human under his hands was the only thing preventing him from flying apart.

He returned to awareness slowly, pulled by the sensation of James Kirk trembling against him, unmistakable whisper of that vibrant presence in his mind, breathing his name. Spock tried to answer, tried to lift his hands from the place where they lay entwined in the damp curls, palms cupping the pulse at the human's throat. Could not.

Kirk was a delicious heaviness against him, pliant and very warm. Spock thought he could just lie here forever, holding him like this, smelling the rain and the scent of sex on their bodies, feeling that slow, steady heartbeat against the undersides of his fingers. Just lie here forever and don't think about the insidious tendrils unfurling in his veins, don't think about the quicksilver dance of Kirk's thoughts under his hands.

Don't think about what it means, this thing I have done. Not yet.

Little whisper of thought not his own, sweet jesus what happened spock-?
No answer to that, no words for it.

gods, I came all over the bed, and you never even touched me Sudden awareness--warm, sticky wetness on his stomach, his thighs, puddling between his legs unpleasantly. The human's weight on top of him, limp, spent.

but you did touch me...are touching me... Poignant amazement, that innocent wonder. The first, bright stab of remorse lanced through the Vulcan, a blade so swift and clean he almost did not feel it. It lodged in his heart, buried to the hilt, and he could feel the tightness of it there, waiting for later, when the pain would come.

spock--? The name...first drop of blood welling forth.

spock, what is it? what's wrong? "Nothing, t'hy'la," the Vulcan said hoarsely, and made himself let go, drew the iron gates of his mind firmly shut against that gentle invader.

But it was Spock who had...invaded.

Jim shifted against him, weak in the aftermath of the powerful orgasm which had taken him entirely by surprise. "Spock?" he said uncertainly, as if unsure whether he had imagined the silent communication.

"Here," Spock reassured him, his voice stronger now. He drew a breath, the first in what felt like a long time; he pulled the unresisting human up against his chest, into his arms. Kirk made a little sound of contentment and nestled into the embrace. His head found Spock's shoulder, stayed there.

"What does that word mean?" Kirk asked quietly, after a moment. His tone was full of beguiling shyness; Spock could feel him swallow. It took the Vulcan a moment to realize he had spoken the endearment aloud.

"There is no Standard equivalent," Spock murmured against his hair. The simple truth. But an evasion, just the same. He hated himself for it, for his utter cowardice. Tell him, his brain commanded. But he could not make the words come. He hugged the compact shape of the human closer, rolled him down onto the bed. Curled protectively against the lush curves of him. Kirk sighed with pleasure and settled more firmly in that shelter, a soft weight against the Vulcan's chest, the tops of his thighs. Spock buried his face in the heated softness at the back of his neck, breathing the smell of him, and closed his eyes.

A gift beyond price, this moment, sweet respite and heart's home. A gift he did not deserve.

Kirk was asleep almost immediately. For a long time the Vulcan only held him, listening to the sound of his breathing. Too much joy in that--impossible for the stirrings of guilt and apprehension to fully take hold of him. Impossible not to feel the single, overwhelming note of exultation singing dangerously below the surface of conscious thought.

Perhaps he will not turn away...if he is strong enough to bear what I must tell him. Perhaps he will be, impossibly, against all logic--no, do not dare to hope for such a thing-- mine.

The candles were going out. Outside, the rain had stopped. Kirk slept on, in blissful oblivion. After a time, Spock gave in to the inner compulsion; he propped himself up on one elbow to watch that peaceful countenance in the fading light, drinking in the sight of him like a man in the desert. And when he could not resist the temptation any more, he touched, very gently, the thing within himself which had not been there before. The tiny, whisper-soft seed of the Vulcan bonding link.

Kirk stirred, though Spock had not touched him--at least, not with his hands.

The immensity of that welled up in the Vulcan, taking his breath. It was true, then; it had begun between them. How had he failed to foresee what had surely been the inevitable outcome? How had he allowed himself to believe that he could surrender to Kirk, share with him what they had shared this night, and remain unmoved by that bright essence? The extent of his own blindness could almost make him laugh aloud--or weep.

More than half-joined already, how could their minds fail to reach for each other, intertwining as surely, as irrevocably, as their willing flesh?

And how, by the mercy of all his ancestors, had he forgotten that James Kirk was a man who sought pleasure with his whole self, a man whose loves were fierce, intense--and fleeting as the bloom of a flower?

Spock watched the sleeping human until he could not stem the siren call of sleep any more. No choice but to tell him. No choice but to bear the outcome. Illogical to dwell on that which cannot be changed.

That was the voice of his father, and it accompanied him down the long descent into the temporary haven of darkness.

* * *

Oh-six-hundred hours, ship's time.

Kirk opened his eyes to unfamiliar darkness, blinked, disoriented. The computer did not raise the lights in his quarters, and for a moment he wondered if something was wrong with internal power. That little rush of adrenaline brought him instantly wide awake.

Two things penetrated his awareness then: the warm, almost fevered shape at his back, pressed against him, and his own rather pressing need to relieve himself.

Reluctantly, he slipped free of the encircling arms, stood up, his feet sinking into the wool rug beside the bed. Spock made a little, reflexive motion, as if to prevent him from going. The Vulcan did not wake; after a moment, his arms drew protectively about himself, perhaps trying to keep warm. Kirk retrieved the discarded blanket, drew it over his pale form in the darkness.

He padded across the room, cool tiles and warm oak floorboards against the soles of his feet. At the opposite wall, his searching fingertips found the door frame. Smooth brass doorknob in his hand. He turned it and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him with a soft click. "Low level lights," he murmured.

A diffuse glow spread outward from a smoked-glass globe on one wall, illuminating most of the huge bathroom. Blinking, Kirk made use of the antique porcelain commode.

At the sink, he glanced up at his image in the brass- framed mirror. The soft yellow light caught answering flecks of amber in his eyes, reflected them back at him in the glass. It had been a long time since he had really looked at himself in a mirror. A long time since he had liked what he'd seen looking back at him.

Kirk moved to turn on the water--stopped. Sticky remains of his own fluid on his stomach. He brushed at the dried evidence of it with his fingertips. Not imagination, or fantasy, but reality. He still didn't know how that had happened. The mind-link--? Must have been.

The things they don't tell you in command training about seducing your Vulcan first officer. He didn't know what time it was here, but it was still dark, and it felt early. Perhaps hours still before dawn. Years of habit and training had synchronized Kirk's internal clock to that of a vessel no longer his; even thousands of miles away, she was in his blood.

Kirk shivered involuntarily, suddenly feeling his own nakedness.

His head was throbbing dully, a low ache, mild hangover from the wine. What he really wanted was a bath, hot water, soap, honest-to-god submersion in that monstrous tub in the corner. He glanced at the closed door, sensed, though he didn't know how, that Spock was still asleep.

He let the tap run into the great marble bathtub until steam had filled the room, and then he stepped, with a sigh of satisfaction, into the scalding water. It lapped at his calves, caressed his feet; he found a low seat shaped out of the marble and sank down into the bath, letting the water embrace him.

For a long time, he drifted in mindless relaxation, the heat soaking in through his pores, lulling him into a stupor of contentment. A little unit built into the side of the tub kept the bath hot, its whisper-hum vibrating faintly against his spine, evoking memory. Kirk rested his head on the edge of the tub and closed his eyes. He was thinking of Gary again. Second time in less than a day-- he didn't know if that was a good sign, or a bad one. Most of the time he didn't let himself remember.

Gary, you always were a sensualist. He caught himself smiling. Like Spock.

And who could have predicted that one? Who could have predicted that a day which started out like yesterday had would end with Spock in his arms--in his bed? Crazy universe. Crazy, stubborn, beautiful Vulcan. What did I ever do to deserve you? That led to thoughts of the way Spock had looked in the candlelight, flushed and hectic with desire, trembling under his touch. The way he had felt-- ebony silk and alabaster smoothness. The way he had tasted--

Kirk groaned softly, feeling his body start to sing the old tune. But gods, it was just such a turn-on, to think about Spock letting him do those things, responding to him like that. Thank god we didn't know it would be like this years ago, or we would have never made it to the bridge, he thought wryly. And his brain was incorrigible--it started summoning up images of the two of them in the turbolift, lost in that inferno that happened whenever their lips touched.

Lazily, he reached up and squeezed a small drizzle of spice- scented bathsoap into his palm.

...in the lift...his tongue in my mouth, god Spock you taste good...

He shifted, the faint currents his motion engendered teasing the curls at his groin, the hairs on the backs of his thighs. Hot water lapped at his nipples. He dipped his hand into the water, spread the soap between his palms, until they were sheathed in a light, fragrant lather.

...Captain, please, we must stop this...

His hands moved over his shoulders, his upper arms, spreading the soap unhurriedly; he did not open his eyes.

...no, Spock, I won't stop, not unless you beg me...

Slippery caress of pectoral muscles, sliding down over his ribs, tracing his stomach under the heated water. Tiny whorls of down under his fingertips

...Jim, please...


and back up, palms skimming hardened, hypersensitive nubs. Little gasp. Again, teasing.

...please what, Commander? what do you want?...

Kirk gently pinched his nipples between thumb and forefinger, moaned, low in his throat, at the rush of sensation to his already considerable erection. Unable to stop himself, he slid his hands toward his groin, braced his feet, legs spread, against the opposite side of the tub.

...I want your mouth on me, Captain...

Just then, a whisper of cool air raised the hairs on the back of his neck, making him shudder faintly. A corner of his brain warned him that it was something which required his attention.

Then it struck him. Cool air--

He turned; his eyes found the Vulcan's shape, standing in the open doorway.

* * *

The blood rushed to Kirk's face. Spock was cloaked in the deep folds of a forest-green robe, his eyes hooded, face utterly expressionless. Well, maybe not quite expressionless--his mouth seemed somehow softer, fuller, the precise lips faintly bruised-looking. The Vulcan was standing very still, arms folded at his waist. Jim couldn't see his hands.

"How long have you been standing there?" Kirk choked, unable to prevent the question slipping past his lips. Spock didn't say anything for a long moment. Jim couldn't hold to that gaze, dropped his eyes. His hands moved involuntarily as if to shield his arousal from the penetrating gaze; he stopped the motion, realizing how ridiculous that was.


Then Spock moved, stepped closer. He pulled the door shut behind him. "Not long." The mild baritone was rough with sleep. He crossed the space between them. Kirk could not lift his eyes from those narrow, graceful, fine-boned feet on the tile. He tried to keep from swallowing--had to, finally. His face was flaming.

Spock was less than a meter away now. Kirk could feel the weight of his scrutiny. "But long enough," Spock murmured.

There was a brief pause; it felt like an eternity. Then Spock said, very gently, "You do not need to be embarrassed, Jim. You are...so beautiful, I do not have words for it."

Kirk lifted his eyes to Spock's, unwillingly. What he saw there made him catch his breath, forget his embarrassment as if it had never been. Spock was--no other way to say it-- smiling. His heart skipped, tried to find its rhythm. "Spock..." At last he found his voice. "Join me?"

The mahogany eyes were very deep, seemed to see into him. For an instant, something shifted behind that enigmatic gaze, an inner conflict Kirk could not quite read. Then it was gone, and there was only brightness. Spock let the robe slip gently from his shoulders to pool at his feet.

Slender shape of him, revealed by falling cloth, arcing hardness of that gloriously elegant cock framed against midnight curls. Seeing him like that awoke dangerous stirrings in the human, possessive and compelling. He got that way from watching me, he thought wonderingly, nearly undone by it. That rush again, the feeling of being utterly powerless and completely in control at the same time. Gods, is it always going to be like this with us?

The long, tapered fingers found Kirk's upraised hand, and Spock stepped over the marble edge, lowered himself gingerly into the steaming bath. Jolt of that unnamed current, whispering through his nerves at the Vulcan's touch. He ran his thumb gently across the backs of the elegant fingers; Spock met his eyes, threatening, for an instant, to swallow him up in that depthless, chestnut gaze. His lips parted, as if he would speak. "Turn around," Kirk said huskily, preventing whatever words he would have spoken.

Spock obeyed, turning on the low seat so that his back was to the human. Pale, graceful lines shaped his shoulder blades, the curved indentation of the fine muscles along his spine. Short, dark hairs tapered to a point at his nape, delicate and inviting. "Beautiful," Kirk murmured, hardly knowing he'd spoken.

He cupped the hot water in his hands...lifted them to pour the liquid slowly over the angled planes of the Vulcan's shoulders. Spock shivered, very slightly. Kirk dispensed a good portion of the fragrant soap onto his fingertips and rubbed them together. A moment's hesitation, instinctive reaction to the idea of touching him like this, so intimately. He had spent more time with Spock over the last five years than any other living soul--and he could count on his hands the number of times he had dared, even fleetingly, to touch the Vulcan's bare flesh.

The thought made him smile faintly. Before yesterday, that is, he corrected himself. And he touched his fingertips to the other's skin.

He massaged slowly, thoroughly, kneading Spock's shoulders and the muscles of his back as he spread the luxuriant lather. They didn't speak. But the language he spoke with his hands was profound.

Kirk gave attention to the neat contours of Spock's deltoids, soaping the slender arms one at a time, amazed by the steel strength under that velvety skin. Easy to forget the raw power that deceptively slender form concealed. Especially now--Spock was melting under his hands.

Kirk smoothed the silken foam over the delicate bones of Spock's hand, his wrist, between the graceful fingers, caressing. He caught himself wondering if Spock had ever done anything like this before--couldn't quite picture it. It was a thought he didn't want to deal with. Better to imagine the Vulcan undefiled, born new and virgin under his touch. He gently kneaded the other's palm with the pads of his fingers.

Spock moaned, very softly.

"You like that?"


"Yes..."

Kirk continued the hypnotic motion of his fingers for a few moments, until he thought Spock's whole body might transmute into a liquid on the spot. "Give me the other hand." Trance-like, the Vulcan complied.

This time Kirk did not stop at the wrist. He worked his way up the arm, alternately massaging the taut muscles and petting the soft underside with long strokes. He glanced up at Spock's profile, saw that the dark eyes were half-closed, the lips parted slightly. He smiled to himself.

He shifted around to the other side, balancing in a half- crouch, not stopping the little circles he was making on the Vulcan's skin. Ripples trailed in his wake. He traced the graceful line of Spock's collarbone, dipping into hollows and curves.

The crisp dark curls dusting the other's chest and belly were a new one for him; Jim combed through them with his fingertips. "Fascinating," he murmured, barely audible. Spock was leaning back against the rim of the immense tub, eyes entirely closed now. Maybe he'll purr for me, Kirk mused. His hands circled the small nipples, not touching.

After a moment he shifted backward, finding the low seat on the other side of the tub, hands tracing down one well- shaped Vulcan calf as he did so. He drew the fine- boned foot into his lap. Spock let him do it without protest, as if he had fallen into some deep trance state.

A little more soap...It really did give off a delicious odor-- spruce and faint musk. Kirk started at the ankle, applying pressure with his fingers and the balls of his thumbs.

When he reached the graceful arch, Spock made a little sound, faint and indistinct. Kirk glanced up at him, captivated by that open sensuality. He felt the sudden, fierce desire to prolong the Vulcan's enjoyment, to go on pleasuring him for a long, long time to come. Spock had permitted precious little physical gratification in his life-- little pleasure of any kind, Kirk knew. He doubted that anyone had ever massaged these elegant, beautifully-made feet before. He worked at the tension in the high arch for a while, until the fine muscles were pliant and relaxed, and then he started on the long toes. "You are beautiful, you know." He gently massaged the undersides, the soft spaces between. "Every part of you...like a work of art."

I am not beautiful, Spock wanted to protest. I am not-- like you. But the waves of pure delectation washing over him made speech impossible. Kirk's hands worked at the pad of his heel. He moaned, voicelessly, a subtle vibration in his chest.

"Yes," Kirk confirmed, as if he had heard the protest Spock had not made.

Nothing like this, in all Spock's existence. The human's hands on him, the things Jim was doing to him, had done--a miracle, unprecedented. Spock was helpless to prevent his own mindless capitulation. No being had ever touched him thus. His own limited experiences with physical pleasure now seemed pale and insignificant by comparison.

Gentle tug on his other ankle: Kirk asking his permission. Spock gave in willingly, shamelessly, wanting nothing more than to go on feeling this overwhelming pleasure for as long as possible. What have you done to me, my sweet corrupter? The thought, fleeting and insubstantial; drifted away...and a lifetime of training and control went with it. He arched against the cool stone, feeling ribbons of sensation cascade upward from those strong fingers kneading the sole of his foot.

"Yes, that's it." Kirk was watching the Vulcan's face. Spock's arms were drifting beneath the surface of the water, utterly relaxed.

There was a second dispenser on the wall, next to the soap: an amber-hued bath oil. Kirk's eyes shifted to it, then back to the Vulcan's rapt expression. He's so relaxed, maybe...Before he could talk himself out of it, Kirk squeezed a dollop of the rich liquid into his palm.

His lungs and throat tight, he dipped the tip of his finger into that fluid, moved closer to the Vulcan. Very gently, he anointed one small, bronze nipple with a drop of the fragrant oil; when Spock did not flinch, or open his eyes, Kirk rubbed it slowly into the skin.

Spock sighed, very softly. The pleasure was intense-- but he was so relaxed, it only flooded through him and then dissipated, a delicious, shuddering wave. The scent of the oil was intoxicating. For a long moment, nothing happened; he found himself aching, longing for Kirk to touch him again. "Jim," he said faintly, a whisper, pleading, letting him know his need.

Kirk answered it, bringing another drop of oil to Spock's chest, rubbing it slowly into the other nipple. He did this twice more, until the tiny nubs were standing upright from the stimulation. Kirk's fingertips were slick, warm and tingling.

"Keep your eyes closed," he said softly, barely more than a whisper. And moved closer still.

Spock started a little at the touch of those warm fingers on his inner thigh, but did not open his eyes. Kirk was coaxing his legs apart, slipping his other hand beneath Spock's body under the water, so that he was supporting the Vulcan against one palm. "Jim--what are you--?" Spock tried to ask, but the human shushed him.

"Shh. Trust me," he murmured against Spock's neck. And then his gentle, oiled fingertips brushed the tiny entrance to the Vulcan's body.

Spock drew a sharp breath in, shuddered from the unexpected touch. But Jim was holding him, fluttering kisses on his throat, those blunt-tipped fingers stroking him, soft caresses in that most intimate of places...and he was stunned by the same low, shuddering waves of pleasure that warm touch had wrought by massaging his feet-- magnified to the tenth power.

Then Kirk's mouth was on him, nibbling and sucking the tender flesh behind his ear, shifting to nuzzle the ear itself, and Spock made a sound of shocked pleasure, gasping as gooseflesh ran down that side of his body. His hands found the human's arms, held on, as if to keep from drowning. Compact shifting of muscle, satin skin against his palms. Holding him. Touching him...

The tip of the human's tongue brushed the inside of his ear, did it again, and he was lost.

Kirk's fingertips exerted a slippery, insistent pressure, circling the tender opening, stroking him in a place he had never been touched, and Spock felt himself responding beyond his will, beyond any hope of stopping. Dimly, he heard himself moan, unmistakable sound of surrender.

"Oh, yes," Kirk murmured huskily against his ear. "That's it, Spock. Let me in..."

Shocking, irresistible power the words had over him. The faint vibration of the water heater aroused sympathetic harmonies against the Vulcan's pelvis, a delicious resonance, and Spock pressed his hips harder against the marble, shifted against the human's hand, unable to stop himself. One oiled fingertip slipped inside his body.

Kirk had to look down at the incredible, stunning vision of his hand between the Vulcan's thighs, the place where his own flesh disappeared into Spock's. The sight brought a rush of images, all of them mind-shattering, and the human was suddenly hard again, aching to fulfill them.

Spock was pushing against his hand, lips parted, eyes closed. Between them, brushing the underside of Kirk's forearm, the Vulcan's double-ridged cock radiated heat greater than the water's temperature. But that was nothing to the heat enclosing Kirk's fingertip. Spock shifted, yielding to the penetration; he made that sound again, sweet submission. Kirk's arousal throbbed in response. He had to clamp down hard on the sudden, almost overwhelming desire to bury himself in that searing heat.

Not yet. Go slow. Make him want it as much as you do.

Slowly, he eased the invading digit deeper into that heated softness, stroking lightly. Then he was all the way in.

Spock wasn't quite breathing--was waiting, very still, as if poised on the edge of some elusive understanding. He was trembling very slightly. In that moment, Kirk could feel every point of contact between then with agonizing sensitivity--a staggering perception which made him hold his own breath. The furred heaviness of the Vulcan's sac against his wrist. The faintest vibration humming in low waves through that engorged flesh, pressing deliciously against his forearm. The incredible silk and mind-numbing hotness surrounding his finger, pulsing against him with the rapidfire cadence of the Vulcan's heartbeat.

For a long moment, the perfection of that awareness overwhelmed the human, and he could not move, or think. From somewhere came a fleeting shadow of comprehension. One flesh, it whispered. Then it was gone, and he was pressing, very gently, against the small, tender place he had not been certain of finding. But Spock's hands were tightening painfully on his shoulders, and the Vulcan was gasping, shuddering against him--and Kirk knew that the differences in physiology were, in this at least, insignificant.

Then the intimacy of it was too much, and he could not stop himself from crushing Spock to him. He touched his tongue to one spiced-oil scented nipple, closed his eyes, supporting the Vulcan's weight with one hand against the narrow waist, his other hand cupped hard against Spock's pelvis. He was buried in the other's heat, stroking that sensitive gland. Spock's arousal hummed warningly against his flank, and Kirk's own cock ached in answer. But he couldn't stop.

now, oh, please now Kirk's body was crying, desperate--and suddenly he could feel it in Spock, too, the same insistent demand, undeniable.

Unexpected--that double awareness. It stopped Kirk for an instant, made his breath catch. Spock trembled, silent plea, that lean, overwhelmingly powerful frame stretched almost full length beneath him in the water. The feel of him--furred softness against his chest, taut steel against his thighs, silken heat against his hand--was blowing Kirk's mind, making him crazy with need. He moved between the slender thighs, his whole being narrowing to the single imperative. His hand slipped free of its enclosing sheath.

"Spock," he whispered raggedly, hardly knowing he said it. He looked up, wanting to see the incredible vision of the Vulcan's utter abandon as he took him.

But seeing it, he stopped. Crucial tectonics shifting in his chest, his stomach. And suddenly he could see, with startling clarity, the shape of all that they were, and could be, if only he could surrender to this man in fullest measure, as Spock had already done for him.

Spock's hands were iron on his biceps, urging him on. Then, as if sensing Kirk's hesitation, the Vulcan went very still; the dark eyes opened, heavy-lidded, searching his face. Unspoken communication, then, acknowledgment of all that had happened between them this night. Acceptance, untempered, of elemental needs that went deeper than words.

Steam and the fragrance of spruce rose from the surface of the water, a protective curtain. It sheltered them from the rest of the universe, and for that moment, only the two of them existed. The human's eyes were dark with desire, the pupils so dilated that only a ring of green remained. Spock felt himself sinking into that velvet night.

Kirk moved then, by centimeters; reached back without turning and dispensed amber oil into the cup of his hand. His gaze never left Spock's. He lifted his other hand and poured some of the mellifluous liquid into it, the oil sliding languorously, like honey. Hypnotized, the Vulcan watched him, utterly unable to move, or breathe. He was so far lost that he did not know if he would ever find the way back. Kirk smoothed the bath oil slowly between his palms.

And then he was reaching for Spock, and his eyes were saying, unmistakably, yes, I want this from you, yes.

His hands closed on the Vulcan's aching arousal, engulfed him in exquisite, unbearable sensation. He smoothed the oil over Spock's rigid flesh as he had smoothed it between his palms. And then he turned.

Madness. No other name for this violent, uncontrollable need. It rose in Spock, caught him up with it, and he was moving, water sheeting off his body, over the edge of the tub and onto the floor, and he was gathering the human up, bending him over the lip of smooth marble. Swell of firm, satiny flesh, yielding against his belly. Then his hands were on the other's hips, and he was moving still, finding that sweet, tight opening, pressing against it helplessly, sliding in, deeper, all the way in--

James Kirk cried out, impaled, a moment of sheerest agony at the rough penetration. Helpless, he braced his hands against the edge of the tub and held on. No, no, not to be taken like this--! But the instinctive rebellion subsided, and he knew that he had surrendered when the first jolt of visceral pleasure shot outward from his buried nerves.

Then Spock was fucking him, thoroughly and deeply, long strokes that made him want to scream from the pleasure- pain of it, but he could not scream, could only hold on, and pant for air, gasping with the force of the Vulcan's assault. Spock's breath was hot on the back of his neck. That strength was overpowering, irresistible, and it dominated him utterly. No choice but to submit. The slick heat of him inside Kirk's body demanded it.

The deepest recesses of Kirk's soul demanded it.

Sweet agony, and triumph, and Spock's arms encircled him, held him. The long fingers suddenly closed on his swollen cock, stroking. Crushing his thighs against the cool stone. With a powerful surge, ecstasy rushed up from the pit of the human's stomach, shattering, absolute. He cried out, incoherent, sobbing.

They plunged headlong into that conflagration.

* * *

A long, uncertain road back to reality... a long space of time before Kirk inhabited his own body again. He was floating, drifting in a warm place. The arms which held him shaped a safer haven than he had ever known.

Reality? Some part of him laughed inwardly at that. This could not be reality. For if it were...if this were really happening...

Spock shifted under him, and the dull ache in Jim's insides flared for a moment, receded. No mistaking that low throbbing in his vitals, or the steel strength which held him. No mistaking the soft lapping of spruce-scented bathwater on his chilled nipples.

Reality, then--though wildest fantasy could not have been more unreal.

The human shivered, unable to prevent it, and Spock stirred under him, his arms tightening. Jim lifted his head a little. They were still in the immense marble tub, sprawled in a tangle together, most of his weight borne by the Vulcan's chest. He said the name voicelessly, having to remember the steps required to form the word.

It was only a faint whisper--but the dark eyes opened a fraction. Spock's fingertips brushed the side of his face.

"Jim." The Vulcan moved slightly, with the same look of trying to remind his brain how to send the commands to his limbs. There was a long pause. Then, faintly, "Are you--?"

"Fine," Kirk rasped hoarsely, swallowed. His insides throbbed. "Wonderful. Better than wonderful." He drew a ragged breath and shivered again, involuntarily. "But cold."

"The ambient temperature of this room does seem to have dropped," Spock agreed absently, not stopping the slow, stroking rhythm of his fingertips at Kirk's hairline.

Something about that so-typical response made Jim want to laugh, made him want to pull the Vulcan to him and never let go. But something odd was happening to him, something disturbing, strangely miraculous. With each brief contact of the other's fingertips, a subtle harmonic vibration rose at the base of Kirk's skull. It was mesmerizing, more than a little intoxicating. For long moments he found himself drifting in it, instinctively reaching for more of the delicious sensation.

"Spock?" he whispered, breathless.

"Yes, Jim?" Faint, distracted answer, as if the slow rhythm worked its hypnotic effect on Spock, too.

It came again, stronger this time, a definite current trailing in rivulets behind the Vulcan's touch. For an instant, Kirk could not speak, could only drift, nerves singing. "What is that--?" he whispered finally, in a voice he did not recognize.

Spock's hand stilled, resting against his temple. His voice, when it came, sounded oddly uncertain. "Specify."

But Kirk could not find words.

Spock was moving then, shifting the human off of him gently, sitting up. The low vibration subsided. "Perhaps we might...adjourn to a more temperate location?" he suggested. Kirk nodded numbly, let the Vulcan help him to his feet. They stood unsteadily for an instant, holding to each other for support. Kirk's legs wobbled, threatened to give out. He flashed a trace of the old grin at Spock, acknowledging the unsteadiness. Saw the answer to that in the dark eyes.

There seemed to be a great deal of water on the terracotta floor. Spock handed him a thick, folded towel and bent to touch the control which would empty the tub. Kirk averted his eyes, feeling his face grow warm. Still so hard to come to terms with this, with the reality of their nakedness, and what it meant. What he had done.

What Spock had done to him.

Unexpected shyness struck Kirk as he ran the towel over his bare skin; he was sharply aware of the Vulcan's proximity. He glanced up to find Spock's eyes on him. Knew his self- consciousness would be evident in his cheeks. Something unnerving about doing this in front of Spock, his nudity making him feel painfully vulnerable, as it had not in the heat of passion.

The Vulcan's lips quirked upward. "Surely the time for such concerns has passed."

Which of course only made the human blush harder. "You would think so," Kirk murmured, face still warm. "But I can't quite seem to get used to this." He wrapped the oversized towel about himself, not meeting the other's gaze.

For a long moment the Vulcan did not say anything. They were standing very close, bare inches separating them. Kirk's hair stood up in a damp, coppery halo, and his skin glowed, tawny and pink from the hot water. The white terrycloth outlined the perfect curves of him, a potent reminder of the intimate invasion Spock had wrought upon his body only minutes before. Spock swallowed, transfixed by the image his perfidious thoughts summoned forth.

Sudden, reckless courage hovered in his throat... would you like to, Jim? would you like to get used to it? because I could easily become accustomed to this intimacy...

Now, some inner voice commanded. Speak now--or you never will.

Then Jim moved, and the vulnerable innocence was gone, and he was moving toward the bathroom door, the towel slung casually about his hips, gathered in one hand. Spock became abruptly aware of the chill in the room. The words died on his lips. In that instant, he knew himself lost, knew he had indeed stepped into the abyss--and that whatever happened, there would be no going back to the safety of solid ground.


And then the moment was past, and he followed the human through the open doorway, dissipating ribbons of steam trailing behind them.

Dawn greeted them, grey light filtering in at the windows of the little cottage, the first hint of morning. It caressed the human's form in shadow. Kirk crossed the room to the great four-poster, his bare feet silent on the warm oak, and Spock found himself standing near the bathroom door, just watching him. There was a faint stiffness, in the other's movement; the recognition of it, and of its cause, awakened raw tenderness in the Vulcan.

The words he had not spoken felt like bands around Spock's chest, suffocating; his heart felt suddenly too large for its confines. It beat unsteadily, too loud, against his spine.

Near the bed, Kirk stopped. He turned, gazed at Spock over one shoulder, eyes half-lidded. The momentary shyness had left him, and he was once more self-possessed, the very model of unabashed sensuality. He yawned, not bothering to suppress it. "You coming?"

Wordlessly, Spock closed the distance between them. He could not form rational thought. No possibility of resistance, no denying the unspeakable longing which rose in him at the thought of holding that compact, delicious form against him in sleep. The man undid him, utterly.

It had always been so.


Kirk abandoned his towel in an unceremonious heap, not far from the scattering of discarded clothing on the floor. Then he was climbing under the coverlet, sliding over to make room for the Vulcan in the huge bed. He held back the edge of the bedclothes, silently welcoming. Spock could feel the weight of his eyes in the shadows.

There was a moment of unexpected awkwardness, as the Vulcan slipped into the space Kirk had made for him. Then the human relaxed against him, curling into the curve of Spock's body with a sound like a sigh, as if that moment had never been.

Sweet warmth, softness pressed against his groin, his thighs. The smell of him--faint scent of evergreen and human male, overpowering. Spock could only hold himself still and drink it in.

Oh, father, not you or all of Vulcan will save me now. It is too late. Bittersweet despair. And somewhere, in spite of it-- exultation. The knowledge that some things could not be predicted, or controlled...not even by Vulcans, though they might wish it otherwise. Some things transcended logic.

The morning was already coming for them, marching forward inexorably to make its claim upon them, and he drew the human against him, held him as the light grew in the room, and the night became day.

* * *

For a time he did not measure, Spock buried his face against the back of the human's neck and closed his eyes, drifting. Exhaustion was catching up with him, and he did not fight it. He wanted only to sink into oblivion. But too much had happened. Too many disturbing shadows lay in the grey area between what had been, and what would be--and in the end, sleep eluded him.

T'hy'la. He had spoken it in the language of his ancestors, and he could not unsay it, any more than he could unsay the betrayal which had followed it from his lips.

There is no Standard equivalent, he had said--when what he meant was, I cannot find the words to tell you what it means, cannot bear to look at you when the moment comes and I cannot keep it from you any longer.

Parted from me, and never parted... What dark reservoirs of need I have concealed from you... so deeply buried and so long denied I concealed them even from myself. How could you know what beast you would awaken with your touch? How could either of us know its appetite, suppressed mercilessly all these years, would devour you entire?

Ever and always touching, and touched... What will you say, when I tell you what I have done? Will you turn from me... or can there be another way for us?

The thought was too much, the yearning too close to the bone. Spock silenced it, with the efficiency of habit. No choice but to tell him, in any case--and soon, before another day passed.

Another day...

Some kind of quiet shock, at that. Less than twenty-four hours ago, they had been on the Enterprise. The Vulcan found that he couldn't quite grasp that, couldn't quite encompass it. The steps which had brought them to this moment stretched behind him across that handful of hours, formed an immeasurable chasm between yesterday, and today. There would be no crossing it, no going back.

Spock pressed his lips to the hollow at the base of Kirk's neck, breathing in. He could not regret, even in the face of this terrible uncertainty, one moment of those twenty-four hours.

Then Kirk moved, stirring against him.

"I can't sleep either," he murmured huskily, his low tenor filling the grey quiet. He drew a breath, his shoulder blades shifting against the Vulcan's chest; Spock realized, with a kind of fatal awareness, that he could feel Kirk's heart beating.

"My apologies if I prevented you--" he began, but Kirk stopped him.

"No, it's not your fault." Kirk rolled on to his back, moving subtly away from the Vulcan. Spock could make out the shape of him, knew that he was staring up at the ceiling. "Just--can't sleep."

Something was in the Vulcan's throat, some tightness he could not identify. "You are accustomed to sleeping alone." he said hoarsely, in the same hushed tone. "Perhaps..."

But Kirk made a sound, a low vibration in his chest. Spock realized it was a kind of laugh, choked off. "I don't think I could sleep right now if McCoy shot me full of drugs." It was said bluntly, the attempt at lightness not quite concealing the deeper turmoil. The human turned then, came up on one elbow, his wide-set eyes finding Spock's in the growing light. For an instant Kirk's fingertips brushed his shoulder, and the Vulcan could see the faint outline of his mouth, curving in a half-smile. "Sorry. Didn't mean to sound so...grim."

Spock found himself utterly unable to make coherent syllables come out of his mouth. The shock of it was catching up with him again. Utter madness, to be here, in this bed, with this man--not even clothing between them. Impossible. His lips parted, but nothing came out.

The other's eyes cast downward, shadows within shadows. "This is just so strange," Kirk whispered, shadings of that same fundamental disbelief in his voice.

"Yes," the Vulcan said faintly.

"Being here with you, I mean."

Spock said nothing.

The human's eyes flicked up to his, brief shimmer of burnished copper, and back down again. "Do you think we could just...talk?" Kirk asked uncertainly. In the close silence which followed, Spock could hear him holding his breath.

The Vulcan turned his head against the down pillow, unable to look at him any longer. So soon. Lying on his back, hands at his sides, Spock swallowed, closed his eyes. "What do you wish to talk about?"

With a brief shifting of the mattress, Kirk turned onto his back. His tousled, damp head made a slight indentation in the soft down, the warm curve of his shoulder pressing, very gently, against Spock's. The almost imperceptible, inviting fragrance of his skin teased the Vulcan's nostrils.

That raw intimacy made Spock want to run, very fast and as far away as possible from this steady current of madness, this undertow slowly sucking him under.

But he was already drowning.

Kirk swallowed, an exposed sound, fragile. "I don't know, exactly," he admitted. That fragility touched the Vulcan in too many places. The starship captain simply did not show vulnerability, not like this, not even to those closest to him. Riptide, swallowing him up.

"Jim?" he whispered, unable to stop himself.

"Yeah?" Rough answer, almost inaudible.

"I--"

Silent, held breath.

"Don't," the human said hoarsely, preventing him. "Don't say it, Spock. You don't have to."

Spock held himself very still. The blade which he himself had driven in, cold steel buried in his heart, twisted--and something in him began to bleed.

The human drew a breath. "Spock, I need to say something to you." There was a long pause, in which fundamental structures rose, collapsed, crumbled into dust. Kirk's voice, when it came again, was very small, utterly unprotected.

"I've never--" he swallowed again. "I mean, I've...been with a man before, but--" he broke off. "That was the first time for me, Spock," he finished in a whisper.

"For me, too," the Vulcan answered, his throat unbearably tight.

"But what I wanted to say to you is..." Kirk hesitated again, struggling for words. He kept thinking of Gary, of that awful scene in his quarters and what it had done to their friendship. The memory was paralyzing him. But he had to speak. "Spock, what I wanted to say is...it doesn't change anything. For me, at least--" This was coming out all wrong. "What I mean is, I hope it doesn't change anything between us. I want us to be able to be friends after...after this is all over. God, I--" He made a little, choked sound, naked and uncontrolled, had to stop for an instant. "--I don't know what I'll do if you can't." And suddenly Spock could sense him trembling, though they were not touching.

After this is all over...there was a brief numbness, before the dull impact of that struck the Vulcan, robbing him of breath. Spock shoved the words away. He still had not moved, had not opened his eyes. They were lying very close in the immense bed, heads nearly touching on the pillow they shared. But the distance was increasing steadily. "Your friendship is too important to me, Spock," Jim was saying, his voice low now, intent. "I can't risk losing that."

There was a terrible constriction in the Vulcan's chest, a feeling of standing at the edge of a jagged precipice. Somehow, there were words on his lips. "What is it that you wish to say to me?"

"I'm saying--please don't hate me, Spock. Because I couldn't take it if you did."

Impossible to remain still, impossible to shield himself against the precariousness in that plea. The Vulcan moved, unable to prevent the motion, turning his head on the pillow until his cheek rested against the other's hair. He had to swallow, make his throat let go. "There is nothing you could do that would make me hate you." Impossible to hold the words back, though each one brought him a step closer to his fate.

Kirk felt his throat close entirely, and there was sudden wetness on his face. He forced it back, not wanting Spock to know how desperately he had needed to hear that. For a long moment they only stayed like that, both struggling to regain some measure of equilibrium.

At last, Kirk murmured softly, "Thank you, my friend. I was afraid..." He trailed off.

...of what, Jim? the Vulcan wanted to ask. What are you afraid of? But he couldn't make the words come. The blade in his heart was too sharp, the blood from that nonexistent wound choking him.

"I thought I might have ruined our friendship," Kirk finished, his voice stronger now. He drew a deep breath, forced himself to steadiness with an effort of will. "You have to believe...I didn't plan this, Spock." He chuckled softly, a little unevenly. "At least...not consciously."

Something in the Vulcan teetered perilously close to hysteria.

"I believe you," he said numbly, without expression.

After this is all over... oh yes, I believe you did not mean for this to happen.

Spock had known, of course. Had understood, at the heart of things, though the understanding had not stopped him from responding to Kirk with all his being. It seemed so clear, now.

So inescapably obvious, now that it was too late.

Kirk's life had been ripped from him yesterday morning, in the course of an hour's time. In his pain, needing something, anything to hold on to, the human had reached out to him with the desperation of a drowning man. His need had pulled them both under, and Spock had let it happen. Utter foolishness, to let himself believe that there could be anything more than that.

"You're awfully quiet," Kirk said uncertainly, after a long moment.

Spock said nothing, struggling upward against the pull of some deep ocean current, struggling for air to breathe.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes," Spock lied, in a shockingly normal voice.

The other shifted beside him on the bed; the Vulcan knew that Kirk had propped himself up on one elbow, was now looking at him. The first rays of morning sunshine were slanting in through the French doors, warm on Spock's face, his closed eyelids. There would be no hiding in shadow from that penetrating gaze.

"Then say something," Kirk said softly, pleading.

No escaping that gentle imperative. Spock swallowed, drew breath. He opened his eyes.

The human's gaze was on him, as he had known it would be, the hazel eyes capturing that first light of dawn and holding it, liquid gold dancing in pools of ocean green. But they were faintly bloodshot, perhaps from fatigue.

Something about that vulnerability caught at Spock's heart, squeezed it, and he found himself unable to look away.

"May I ask you something?" he said finally.

The human's lips parted; he nodded, slightly.

Spock's mouth was very dry. He sat up, cross-legged under the fragile shelter of the coverlet; swallowed again, unable to prevent the instinctive working of the muscles in his throat. The look Kirk was giving him held no guile, only that forthright openness which had never failed to make the Vulcan's logical heart falter in its rhythm. The human's eyes followed Spock's, waited.

"What do you want to ask me?" Jim said finally, very gently.

For a long moment, the Vulcan could not speak. Then finally, he heard himself ask, "Only...why, Jim?" His voice sounded odd, even to his own ears. The hazel eyes went very wide; the Vulcan was afraid to know what his face was revealing. But he could not stop the words from spilling forth, the flood of them bursting the fragile dam of his control. "Why would you bring me here, to this place? To that club?" The unanswered question came back to him with vivid immediacy, sharp and suddenly overwhelming. "Why here, of all places? You never did tell me."

He stopped, seeing the blunt impact of his words in the human's face.

"I--thought you'd like seeing someplace different," Kirk said uncertainly. "Someplace warm. I figured you'd never been here," he added, obviously confused.

Spock looked down at the coverlet, at the place where his hands rested uselessly in his lap. Invisible blood, running out of him as if from a fatal wound. "But you had," he said in a low voice.

Kirk sat up, too, feeling like he was suddenly, inexplicably up to his neck in quicksand. "What?"

"You had been here," Spock said, inevitable certainty. "That is why you did not want to answer yesterday, in the cafe." I know just the place, Kirk's voice echoed in his memory. "You had been here before. Not merely to New Orleans, but here. To this inn, or one like it. To the Lily Pad." Spock's voice was very flat. It was not a question.

What memory were you recreating, Jim, and whose part did I play?

Kirk found that his mouth was open, gaping stupidly as if someone had pulled the floor out from under him. He was having trouble breathing properly. "Yes, of course," he said finally. "But I don't understand what that has to do with anything--"

The dark eyes lifted, met his. Spock's were utterly opaque, unreadable. "Who?" the Vulcan asked bluntly.

Quick jab to the solar plexus. Kirk felt the air go out of his lungs. "Spock--"

But the Vulcan wasn't looking at him any more. "Who was it, Jim?" And something twisted in his face, something which made Kirk's heart stop mid-beat. "I know that I have no right to ask, I know that it should not matter--" the Vulcan's words spilled over themselves, only slightly faster than normal, tight with barely restrained intensity "-- but I must know. Please."

It was so unexpected, Kirk could not for a moment think clearly. And then the guilt welled up, though he not meant to cause pain.

"Gary," he said woodenly, clenching his fists in the cotton sheet. "Gary Mitchell." And he closed his eyes.

Silence.

"Spock, why does it matter? It was years ago, before I even knew you. You can't seriously think that I--"

That I what? What thought had been hovering there, waiting to come out? Kirk didn't know.

"You never told me," Spock said, very quietly.

Kirk laughed, a short and humorless sound. "Of course not! God, Spock, I never told anyone. Why would I? It doesn't matter anymore, he's dead--" His breath caught, and he found himself suddenly, inexplicably, on the brink of tears.

And he understood.

Oh, gods, he had not seen it until this instant. But Spock had.

James T. Kirk, galactic user extraordinaire, had done it again. He couldn't look at the Vulcan. He was afraid that if he moved, his precarious control might shatter.

Repeating a pattern, James? Gary's mocking voice said from somewhere.

"I only thought--" he began, but the words failed him.

"It is all right, Jim," Spock said, fatally calm. "You do not owe me an explanation. I made a choice, and made it freely." He looked away.

Kirk grabbed his shoulder, desperate to stop this awful downward slide. "No, Spock, listen--maybe I needed someone yesterday. Maybe I was scared, alone." He swallowed painfully, made the Vulcan meet his eyes. "Maybe I'm still scared. But you are not a substitute, dammit!" He broke off, tears threatening to spill. "You're part of me."

Spock wanted, in that instant, nothing more than to pull Jim to him, never let go. "Yes," he said simply, the only possible answer. The sudden full awareness of that made Spock stop, suppress the instinct which would have brought his lips to the human's then. It was a temptation he couldn't afford.

Instead he found Kirk's hand with his own. "Jim," he whispered, barely able to make the words come. "You have done nothing wrong."

And the starship captain shuddered then, leaning forward to bury his face against the Vulcan's bare shoulder, his fists clenched tightly between them. "Oh, god, what's wrong with me, Spock? Why can't I stop hurting people I care about?" The words choked off on a harsh sob, a sound of almost- surrender from a man who never cried.

Sunlight streamed in at the windows, warming them, and Spock held him finally, not strong enough to resist.

* * *

It was a long time before Kirk could speak again. He swallowed, hard--made himself draw a shuddering breath. He tried to lift his face from the warm hollow at Spock's throat. "I'm sorry-- "

"It is all right. It will be all right." The Vulcan held him, awkwardly.


Kirk tried to will himself back to some semblance of composure. But Spock was stroking him, his back, the back of his neck, those long fingers making it very hard to move from the overwhelming shelter of that embrace.

He had not been held like this in his lifetime.

Spock murmured something against his ear... a collection of syllables the human recognized, didn't understand. Jim's breath caught in his chest; he closed his eyes and lost himself in the heat of the other's body, in the gentle rocking of the arms which held him. Bitterness, despair, and self-loathing ran out of him in a steady flood.

Finally, gradually, the steady rhythm of the Vulcan's fingertips at the base of his skull penetrated his awareness. It was that same electric euphoria, that same nameless dissolving he had felt in the bath--as if each brush of Spock's hands reached a little deeper into his nerve endings, pulling him down into some deep well. This time he didn't fight it, couldn't. It caught him up, and he let it happen.

After a time, Kirk realized that somewhere along the line he had forgotten to keep drawing air into his lungs.

He breathed, then, found that he could. He swallowed, his raw throat protesting. Spock's fingers laced in his hair, feeling as if they touched him from the inside out.

Eyes closed, he made himself come back far enough to say the Vulcan's name. It came out a hoarse croak.

"Yes?" came Spock's answer, gruff whisper against his temple.

"What is that?"

"What?" Spock said distantly.

He stroked Kirk's nape again, softly.

"That."

The stroking fingertips faltered; a faint tremor ran through the Vulcan's form. His other hand tightened on the back of Kirk's arm, drawing the human instinctively closer. A little sound escaped the Vulcan's throat.

"Spock?"

The trembling in the other's frame increased, almost to match his own. And the sound came again, a raw, low grating, like gravel in Spock's chest. Alarmed, Kirk tried to lift his head, look at him.

"Spock, what is it?" he asked, hearing the raw defenselessness in his own voice. Trying to pull himself back together, make some sense of that frightening vibration in the other's body. Spock's hand was cupped against the base of his skull, holding him. That grating sound came again, harsher this time, and suddenly he understood what it was.

Spock was laughing.

It was a terrible sound, dry and without humor.

"Tell me!" Kirk demanded, sounding anxious now, trying to disentangle himself from the Vulcan's hold. Then more gently, "Tell me what's wrong."

Spock could feel him-- really feel him--that panicky upwelling of concern, confusion, the effort to come back from the edge of despair, come back to him. It surged under his fingertips. He could not seem to stop the harsh, silent laughter. He let the human go. Couldn't look at him. The time for flight was long past.


He knew without looking how huge, wounded the eyes would be, fragile, crystalline green in the morning light. Knew that to look at him in that moment would surely be the end of him. He let Kirk go, averted his face. Truth, only truth would serve now.

"Do you feel it, too?" the human whispered. Such wonder, in that small question. Such cruel innocence. The bitter laughter caught in Spock's throat, and he had to stop it, had to cut it off brutally, lest it should turn to something else.

"Oh yes." Acceleration of his pulse, despite every effort he made to prevent it. No. There must not be this hope, this anticipation. No. "Yes, Jim. I feel it." His hands dropped to the coverlet. The impulse to look at him, watch his response, was very strong. Spock closed his eyes.

"What is it, Spock?" Kirk whispered, his voice very small. He was holding his breath, watching the other's face for any change in that rigid, still expression. For a long time Spock did not say anything, just sat, unmoving, at the edge of the bed, half-turned away from him.

Then the Vulcan drew a breath.

"'More than a betrothal...but less than a marriage,'" he quoted, in a strangled voice. He would have said more, but his throat closed, making speech impossible. Wrong, wrong, so bitterly, hopelessly wrong to tell him now, when everything was crashing down all around them. He could not go on.

Silence, from the other side of the bed. Silence, growing in the room with them, until that absence of sound seemed to penetrate Spock's skull, choking him, suffocating him.

"Spock...what are you saying?" Numb confusion, wariness. The Vulcan's stillness was scaring the shit out of Kirk--and it showed in his voice. Guarded, oh so well shielded against his best friend, defenses already rising to his rescue.

Spock did not flinch outwardly. Did not allow even the smallest chink in his armor of stillness. Voice flat. Utterly flat.

"I have made a bonding link between us. Without your permission. I had not intended it."

Hollow mitigation, even to his own ears.

Kirk was moving, getting up, sudden understanding reaching him through the already considerable layers of shock and exhaustion, driving him from the bed. Spock did flinch then, though Kirk did not see it.

For the human was seeing another day, more than three years past--a painful confrontation in his first officer's quarters, on the day when he had made Spock confide in him, and had learned something of Vulcan biology. More than a betrothal, but less than a marriage, Spock had said of his link with T'Pring, that day when he had nearly died rather than speak of it aloud.

The link, which had drawn Spock to the sands of his ancestors. The link which lay at the heart of that brutal seven-year cycle--which could be a Vulcan male's salvation, or his destruction. The link which led to the bonding of life mates. Understanding welled up, immediate and absolute.

"Oh god," Kirk whispered, hardly knowing he had spoken, unaware that he had begun to pace, stark naked, beside the bed where Spock still sat, unmoving. "How did this happen?"

"I assure you," Spock said, and knew that he had slipped over the edge of reason, "that no deity was involved." That awful laughter was pressing against his lungs again, struggling to escape. He did not look at the human. Could not.

Kirk stopped, at the edge of his vision. "This is a joke to you?" Disbelief, and something else in his voice.

Spock shook his head, unable to find words adequate for expressing what he wanted to say. If he opened his mouth, the thing in his chest would surely come out. He could only shape the human's name, voicelessly. Jim. Oh, t'hy'la.

James Kirk realized he was staring wide-eyed at the other man's profile, that he had clenched his fists. That they were both utterly naked, the evidence of their physical joining the bed which separated them. He made himself stop, get a hold of himself. The dark thing which had risen in him subsided. "No, of course it's not," he said hoarsely, in a softer tone. "I'm sorry, Spock. I know it's not." He began to pace again, helplessly. His heart was suddenly pounding, impossibly loud against his breastbone. He didn't know if it was in terror, or excitement. Maybe both. More than a betrothal...

Then the other thing hit him, knocking the air out of him in a swift rush. I had not intended it...

Kirk stopped, as if struck. Looked at Spock. And suddenly there was a terrible sinking sensation in his gut, the sudden pull of gravity. I had not intended it.

He felt the irony bubbling up dangerously, some kind of unbalanced self-mockery. No, of course you didn't, he thought, words on the tip of his tongue. Of course you didn't intend to do it, Spock. You're not crazy, after all. You knew what I was capable of. You knew.

You know me better than anyone. Of course you didn't plan this.

"Can it be broken?" he heard himself ask, as if from very far away.

The Vulcan felt himself closing in, shutting out. Only the necessity of sitting perfectly still on the edge of the bed. Spock focused on that with the effort of his life. "Unknown," he said. One more thread in the bitter tapestry they were weaving.

Kirk read the lie immediately. Took a step toward the bed, and that rigid, unmoving form. "Spock," he said, and it was the starship captain's voice now, full of steel and irresistible. "Tell me the truth. Can it be broken?"

"There is a way," Spock whispered, feeling a small thing inside of him crumble, turn to dust. Seleya, and the desert... not a way he had ever contemplated for himself. But there could be only truth between them now.

Kirk drew a breath, the first in too long. All right. There was a way. He turned and made his feet circumnavigate the bed, made them take him to Spock.

He stopped beside the Vulcan. Looked down at that sleek, ebony cap of hair. He said the name.

Spock didn't move, didn't look up. Sunlight streamed from a skylight overhead to cascade over the sculpted planes of his shoulders. He might have been made of stone.

Kirk swallowed convulsively. His heart's drumming threatened to shake him apart. "Spock," he said, breath catching in his throat, "what happens if we don't break it?"

Something altered in the Vulcan's still form. He didn't, for a long moment, move. But Kirk could see it flow through him, low current, running along those invisible lines of force between them.

Then Spock did look up, utterly unable to stop himself. His eyes found Jim's. He could not speak, for drinking in what he found there. Not the betrayal he had feared. Not even doubt. Only traces of ordinary apprehension, and vulnerability, and light. So much light...

He couldn't breathe. It was blinding him, that light. Kirk was standing in it, silhouetted by it, his eyes full of that unrestrained radiance. It shone in a halo about his hair. In that instant, Spock thought that he could drown in it forever. Then his heart began to beat again.

"Jim?" he whispered, desperately uncertain.

Kirk couldn't hold to that fathomless gaze. He lowered his eyes, feeling the blood in his cheeks and a constriction in his throat. "I know I'm not what you deserve," he said softly, unable to keep the sadness completely out of his voice. "I know I'm not what you expected, Spock." His lips twisted, small smile of wry humor. "I could say the same." He swallowed, searching for a logical way to express the turmoil of his heart. "But it's been... good, between us. Hasn't it?"

"Jim--" the Vulcan said again, almost unable to make the words come, "--what do you want?"

Kirk made a little sound like uneven laughter, ran his hands through his hair. Spock could see they were shaking. He clenched his own in the bedclothes, trying desperately to hold on to some anchor, prevent the mad leaping of his heart in his side.

"I don't know!" Kirk burst out finally, a tremor in his voice-- but it was a bright sound, as full of light as his eyes. "I guess--" and his breath caught, harder this time. He had to swallow again. He made himself stand still, made himself meet Spock's stunned gaze, though it was the hardest thing he had ever done. "I guess I'm saying I don't want to lose you. Not now. Maybe we could try for a while... and see where it goes?"

He wanted to say more, needed to say more, but he was holding Spock's gaze now, and the words wouldn't come. He tried to communicate it with his eyes. With his hand, half- raised, not quite touching the lean shoulder. Don't leave me, Spock. Not now, not when you've shown me how to feel again...

The Vulcan was transfixed, was slowly coming apart. The other's words rang in his head like silver bells. So much brightness. It was washing over him, waves of sunlight, washing over his face. Cutting off his air. So bittersweet, this moment, and so fast upon him, he could not quite encompass it. James Kirk was looking at him, was offering him that light in the wells of his changeable eyes. Offering him all that he could, all that it was possible for the human to give.

Offering, in all probability, more than he had ever been able to give another living soul.

And it was almost, almost enough. Spock could not breathe for a moment. It was a close thing--much closer than he expected. For that briefest of instants, he could taste the temptation of those molten eyes, of the shiver of anticipation on his bare skin. Just a few centimeters, and Kirk would touch him. There would be such beauty in that simple physical sharing, he knew. Had been. For a moment, he could believe that it might be enough.

But then he was remembering the electric dance of Kirk's thoughts under his hands, remembering the exquisite ecstasy of taking him in the bath, that unrestrained delirium. And Spock knew that it would not be enough, would never be enough, that he would never stop wanting to possess this man with all that he was, body and soul and mind. There would be no refuge in friendship or in physical passion, no loving him by half-measures. He had spoken the name t'hy'la, and he could not take it back.

"Stay with me?" Kirk was saying, that husky entreaty in his voice, in the too-bright eyes. And he was smiling, the age-old smile working its will on a Vulcan heart despite the defenses Spock called in against it. But the eyes were changing, sliding from green into gold, and in that mercurial shifting, the unspoken was sharply, painfully clear. Don't leave me, Spock. I need you. Just stay a little longer...

And the Vulcan drew a breath--reached up, caught the blunt, trembling fingers in his. Pulled the naked human down against him, into his arms. The breaking thing inside him gave him strength, pushed him past that turning point, and in the face of it he allowed himself the fleeting luxury of holding that warm, compact softness, just for a moment. Pressed his lips to the damp waves of his hair. Nothing Kirk could say to him or be for him would take away what he had done. It was unforgivable, and a true Vulcan would not have done it. No choice but to face that.

There was heat, so much heat behind his eyes, in his throat, struggling to get out. Kirk's shape in his arms felt solid, reassuringly strong. He could make himself believe, feeling that solidity, that Kirk would be safe without him. He had to believe it.

Stay with me, Spock. Unmistakable. Uncomplicated. Pleading with him silently.

"Oh, Jim." He closed his eyes, the name catching in his throat. The heat rose up, overwhelming. "It is not enough."

Light, and heat, spilling down and down until there was nothing but that incandescent, brilliant sorrow, inevitable.

* * *

In the end, there were only shades of silence.

Sunshine was spreading itself across the purplish flagstones, liquid honey, filtering through the leaves with oblivious good cheer. Spock passed noiselessly between the softly swaying boughs of magnolia, hibiscus, jasmine, oleander, the perfume rising all around him, narcotic and heady. The crumbling stone cherubs watched them go.

Kirk was walking in front of him, not speaking. Something so painful about the human's straight-backed posture, about the carefully leveled shoulders. Impossible to suppress the images of him, soft and vulnerable, lost in pleasure, impossible to believe it had been only hours ago.

Impossible not to see the way that sunlight caught in the bright hair, glinting in shades of gold.

Everything had been said, and nothing. Kirk had begged him, at the last, had pleaded with him to stay, not to throw away the friendship, at least. Spock could not beg. Could not answer him, could not say the words which would make him understand. Could not say the words which were lodged in his throat. Parted from me, and never parted, oh t'hy'la, oh please.

I will go, he had said. I have no choice. He had not spoken the Vulcan word for the hell he would consign himself to.

Kirk's pride had risen, finally, and there had been nothing more to say. He had gotten up without another word, grabbed his rumpled clothing off the floor and gone into the bathroom, closing the door behind him, soft click of finality.

Spock had retrieved his own scattered clothing, pulled the garments on, numb.

He was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, when Kirk came out of the bathroom. The human had not looked at him. Had only turned, gathering Spock up with him in that indefinable way, marching toward the French doors with head held high, a defeated commander leading his troops off the field of battle.

Spock had seen, in the moment before he turned away, the closed impenetrability of the expressive face, the shuttered masking of the chameleon eyes.

They reached the central courtyard, and Kirk slowed, turned to wait for the Vulcan to catch up. His eyes glittered gold in the sun. For the first time in five years, Spock found himself utterly unable to read him. Instinct rose up in him, dark and primal, and he wanted to reach out with that other sense, reach out along the silver threads of the link, wanted, desperately, to know what Kirk was thinking. He forced the need down with merciless brutality, silencing it.

And then it struck him, dull impact, that he would never touch James Kirk's thoughts again.

He blinked, realized that Kirk had spoken. Dimly, he registered the inquiry, nodded. Coffee, yes. Certainly. Why not. He followed the human through the rusted iron gates, out of the shade-dappled garden, and into the sunlit street.

Kirk brought them to the same cafe, to the same table, sat in the same chair facing the square, and Spock understood then that it was meant as a punishment, though which of them Kirk meant to punish, he didn't know. Perhaps both of them. Or perhaps it was only a desperate wish to delay this ending, even for a little while.

What other reason could he himself have had for agreeing?

He took the chair opposite Kirk, sitting stiffly, precisely. For a long time, Kirk only gazed out across the square, not speaking, while Spock waited, head bowed as if for the executioner's blade. Their coffee came, stood steaming in the morning coolness, went cold. The fountain sang its silvery melody undisturbed.

"I am sorry," the Vulcan whispered, when he could not bear the silence any more.

The hazel eyes found his, and Kirk's mouth twisted faintly. "So am I." And suddenly Spock could feel the human's anger crackling between them. He became just as abruptly aware of his own. Their eyes held, an unspoken confrontation, and the accusation in Kirk's rang in the silence. You did this to us, damn you. Why did you do it, Spock? I gave you everything I could. Why wasn't it enough?

Why are you leaving me?

The Vulcan did not look away, could not. So much pain, liquid agony below the bright fury in those eyes. So much loneliness. For an instant icy dread swept through him, and he saw the shape of what it would be like for Jim, grounded, behind a desk, alone. Saw what it would do to him. And then his own anger and hurt leaped outward, in answer, beyond his control. Why could you not go on as before? Why did you let this flame burn between us, when you could not be what I needed you to be?

Why couldn't you love me enough?

"Where will you go?" Kirk asked hoarsely, his eyes too bright, and Spock had to look away then.

"Vulcan." Dry, desert sand in his mouth. "Seleya. There is... a discipline, an order of study..."

Silence. So many shadings of it.

"Spock, what about--?" Kirk swallowed. He couldn't say the Vulcan word. I haven't heard a word you've said. But he had to ask. Had to know. "Will you be... all right?" The dark eyes turned back to his, and they were bleak, utterly, utterly empty.

"I will not die." Truth. But a lie, just the same.

Kirk stared into his cold coffee for a long moment, fighting the tears he had not known were in him. He could feel his hands shaking under the table. He suddenly knew that he had never been so scared in his life.

"And you, Jim?" Will you let them take your ship from you? Spock wanted to ask. Couldn't. The betrayal of his thoughts would surface, would show in his voice, in his eyes. "What will you do?" he asked instead. And the human went very still.


Somewhere, James Kirk found a ghost of that infamous smile. It graced his lips, fleeting and infinitely expressive, reached his eyes for a fraction of an instant. He met the Vulcan's gaze steadily, steadily. "I will not die," he said, the irony double- edged, and Spock wondered if Jim had perceived that subtle betrayal after all, the selfish relief he had felt at the thought of Jim safe, at the Admiralty on Earth, out of danger.

"Jim--" He didn't know what he was going to say. Perhaps he only needed to say the name again. Last drink before a long drought.

Then Kirk stood up. "Duty calls," he said, and the roughness in his voice might have been bitterness, or only sadness. The sun was behind him, and Spock could not see his face. "I have a meeting with Bob Wesley at oh-eight- hundred Pacific time."

Spock drew a breath. Lifeblood, running out over the uneven bricks in a steady emerald stream. He got to his feet. "I will walk with you," he said, and Kirk nodded, once.

The wrought-iron sign read: Garden District, New Orleans.

The transport station was deserted; it was a weekday, and rush hour long past. Kirk gave his destination to the travel computer, turned to the Vulcan behind him. "Where to, soldier?" he said softly with an attempt at a smile, his voice betraying him. His eyes didn't quite make it to Spock's.

Hours yet before Spock would be called for debriefing...and many more hours still before he could file his resignation, arrange transport to the planet of his birth. Those hours stretched before him, a suddenly suffocating eternity. "I shall remain here for a time," he said before he could think. Fitting, somehow, that it should end here. And he needed to walk, needed to breathe this ridiculously oxygen-rich air, store it up for the days which would follow. He needed to store up the memory of this heavy, golden light, of the smell of the ocean, of the feel of these bricks under his feet. Of him, standing there on the steps, that light caught in the spun gold of his hair.

Burn the image into his brain, for it would have to last him a lifetime.

"Well, then," Kirk said at last, turning to face Spock directly, gazing at him with that same look of memorizing him. He stopped, as if unwilling, unable to say the words which would follow. Swallowed, hard. He offered an uncertain gesture; Spock made himself look away from the eyes, look down. Kirk had raised one hand to him, palm outward, fingers paired. The hand was trembling.

The heat came up again, without warning, gathering in the Vulcan's throat. The name was on his lips. He didn't say it. Didn't look up at him. Didn't answer the symbolic gesture. Couldn't.

And in the end, Kirk could not make himself say the words, and he only laid his hand, still in the Vulcan salute, very gently against Spock's midriff, above his heart. Hoped Spock would understand, would hear the unspoken.

Don't let it be forever.

After a long moment, Spock heard the human draw a breath. Kirk straightened, turned. He started up the shallow brick steps. The ending of things, under a blue, cloudless, starless sky.

Two steps from the platform, he turned back.

His expression shifted, suddenly fierce, dangerous. And then he was moving, covering the space between them in less than two seconds, purposeful economy of motion, and Spock could not move, could not breathe, could not stop his hands from lifting to meet him, could not stop himself. Jim's hands were on him, on his face, in his hair, blind, delirious incineration.

Their lips met. Held.

Parted.

"To homecomings, Spock," Kirk whispered fiercely against the Vulcan's neck, his fingertips still buried in the shining hair, his hands shaking. He didn't let himself look at what answer might be in the other's face. "You know where I'll be."

He let Spock go. Let his hands fall.

And then he made his final turning, and the Vulcan could not see him in the last moments before he climbed the steps, could barely see the shimmer of the beam being activated. Could not see for the blinding brightness shimmering in his eyes.

Could only feel the absence of him, and hear the sound the transporter made as it took him.