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“Captain, there is a final ceremony before the treaty between our people and the Federation can be finalized.” The richly green, lizard-like Tucal-mal dignitary folded both sets of clawed hands across his armored chest and bobbed his crested head in what Kirk had learned was a show of deference. The ambassador spoke Galactic Standard clearly, though with a heavy accent, and picked his way through the vocabulary with ponderous perfection. They’d discovered that no race aboard the Enterprise could speak Tucal-mal without ruining their throat (Uhura had managed a good approximation of their vocal language, but the heavy growls and clicks necessary for inflection left her hoarse and mute after a ten-minute conversation), so the Tucal-mal had graciously learned Standard in order to complete the treaty between their empire and the Federation.

“Please, tell me about it,” Kirk said, bobbing his head in return. He felt more than a tad ridiculous with all the bobbing and weaving and arm and leg-waving that constituted Tucal-mal body language, but it was only polite, considering they’d gone to the trouble of learning a whole new language just to join the Federation. Kirk lacked the extra set of arms, tail, and crest to convey some subtle nuances, so he did what he could manage, just out of courtesy. Besides, body-language was his second-best way of communicating.

“A person of your delegation must be presented to a grr’ikt-mal on the last day of the signing. It is our most sacred animal, the representation of our people. It will be a very simple ceremony,” Tre-gotmok said, tail curling in a sign of prim stiffness, his crest the pale yellow of stubbornness. This wasn’t a request, Kirk gathered. Not following through would cost them the treaty. And with the Tucal-mal warrior tradition, that wouldn’t bode well for the crew still on the planet’s surface…

“Which person would be presented?” Kirk kept himself very still and straight, his hands and fingers stiff and flat, presenting a sign of strength. He would not be pushed around, even by an ambassador, and he saw Tre-gotmok bare his fangs in delight at his audacity, his crest going magenta.

“It is very convenient that we do not need to wait for a more diplomatic ambassador in this instance,” Spock had reflected earlier in the mission. “As it seems the Captain’s tendencies towards brashness are revered qualities in this culture.”

Kirk couldn’t disagree with his first officer. Then or now.

“The person must have impeccable virtue. He must be strong, healthy, and pleasingly formed by the standards of your species. He must be a leader of others, and well-beloved by those under their command,” Tre-gotmok declared, crest rising in interest.

Kirk quickly reflected on each member of his crew, regarded the Tucal-mal ambassador with a critical eye, and put his hands on his hips in the stance for a warrior accepting a challenge.

“Then I will participate in the ceremony,” he said proudly. Behind him, he could almost feel the entire officers’ delegation strain not to roll their eyes, say something uncomplimentary, or bury their head in their hands. Daring a single glance over his shoulder, he could see Spock standing very still and controlled, Uhura favoring him with the faintest of distasteful expressions that spoke volumes, Bones scowling at him in his usual “Kirk is going to end up half-dead in sickbay, again” look, Chekov with his eyes widened to twice their normal size to try to take in everything, and Sulu… Sulu was looking at him with a grim set to his mouth that didn’t bode well at all.

Also, he was unconsciously mirroring Kirk’s body language, for entirely different reasons. Yes, he was going to have a lot of trouble once he’d finished this assignment; there were some drawbacks to dating Sulu. Then again, the drawbacks and the perks were almost one and the same to Kirk, or he never would have started up with Hikaru in the first place.

“Then come with us at day’s end, and we will make you ready for the ceremony. It will begin at tomorrow’s dawn.” Tre-gotmok swished his tail in his version of a polite bow, turned, and left. Once all the Tucal-mal had gone, then the crew of the Enterprise descended upon their captain.

----

Normally, the Enterprise wouldn’t be doing this. First contact? Obviously. Initial treaties and aid? Their specialty. Peacekeeping? Of course. But beyond initial contact, anyone wanting to join the Federation was guided through the process by a real ambassadorial delegation.

The Tucal-mal, however, seemed to share Kirk’s distain of anything that smacked of soft-handed bureaucracy. They understood ritual, but the kind of power-play and paper-pushing that was usually part and parcel of most planetary governments they found to be a tremendous waste of time.

And when the Enterprise had helped a stranded Tucal-mal vessel defeat a band of pirates, apparently Kirk had endeared himself to them. Of course, teleporting onboard with the security detail to help the wounded Tucal-mal crew repel the remaining invaders had probably helped. The Tucal-mal enjoyed a good fight, and battling alongside them had begun an informal treaty before either could speak a word of the other’s language.

What had sealed the deal, however, was Sulu. The reason Kirk had gone over with the security detail in the first place, against protocol, was that the Tucal-mal distained energy weapons, and in fact had a field in place throughout all their ships to prevent their use. Kirk had gone because he was one of the best in advanced hand-to-hand combat. Sulu, for the same reason. And Sulu’s fencing stances, even the unorthodox ones he’d modified for Starfleet, looked a hell of a lot like Tucal-mal body language.

And no one knew Sulu’s fighting style better that Jim Kirk.

Once the Tucal-mal had realized the captain himself had come aboard their ship to help them, the Enterprise had been invited to the planet Tucal before they could blink.

When the Federation had been informed, they did their usual semi-private eye-rolling at Kirk’s way of getting results, but backed the Enterprise fully. They had been keen on contacting the Tucal-mal for years because of their unique philosophy. The Tucal-mal were skilled fighters who did not have a history of institutionalized violence against their own people or any planetary neighbors. They were ritualized, relatively peaceful warriors, environmentally conscious yet technologically adept. Starfleet academy was drooling at the thought of recruiting Tucal-mal as security officers or field scientists.

The planet was home to a dizzying array of fauna, most of it extremely fast, strong, armored, and deadly. And the Tucal-mal learned how to fight its inhabitants for survival (and only survival) from the egg. It was unlikely that any other planet in the Federation could produce something to surprise a Tucal-mal, and with the rapid-fire exploration that was happening now on dozens of newly-discovered worlds, surprises were coming all the time. Succeeding here could help save dozens, even hundreds of lives.

Even if that success meant being “presented” to one of Tucal’s most sacred creatures.

Which, obviously, didn’t sit well with Kirk’s senior officers.

“Captain, this ceremony could put you in considerable personal danger,” Spock said, his voice even and calm as always. Actually, it was slightly calmer and cooler than normal, a sure sign, in Kirk’s mind, that Spock was having second thoughts.

“The word ‘presentation,’ translated from Tucal, has at least a dozen possible interpretations,” Uhura added smoothly, right on Spock’s metaphorical heels. “You could be required to interact with the grr’ikt-mal without harming it and hopes it makes a gesture that will be interpreted favorably. Or you may have to hunt it, or be brave enough to touch it or-.”

Sulu suddenly cut in. “Or fight it.” He technically wasn’t needed to be at this meeting, being a pilot and not a senior officer or communications specialist, but Kirk wouldn’t hear of him being left out, not when he’d been instrumental in getting the Tucal-mal to accept them in the first place. And when Kirk wanted him here, badly.

“Jim, you’ve seen what some of those creatures can do!” McCoy said. “Every damn critter out there in those jungles is death on four or six or however many legs, with claws and talons and poison and God knows what else.”

“I know, Bones, believe me,” Kirk said, stopping McCoy before he could get up a full head of steam. “But I can handle this. Look, the Tucal-mal believe that understanding a creature through combat is a sacred form of communication. And that’s combat, not a fight to the death. Tucal-mal aren’t stupid, and they aren’t reckless. They’re fine with fighting to survive, or being able to run away; there’s just as much honor in tricking someone in a fight as standing your ground. If I can show them that, then they’ll know I understand their people, and that it’s safe to work with the Federation.”

McCoy bit back the rest of his words at Kirk’s calm explanation, and even looked a bit impressed. Kirk could be reckless, spontaneous, and foolhardy, but he was not an idiot. Actually, he could out-think most of the crew. He couldn’t have gotten himself through the Academy in three years, hacked the Kobayashi Maru, handled himself during the whole Narada incident, and successfully captained the Enterprise for two years with an outstanding record if he hadn’t had the intelligence to match his bravery.

“Then, Captain, I believe you have the situation well in hand,” Spock said, with a precise inclination of his head.

“That’ll probably be the first and last time I hear you say that, Spock. Go get some rest, everyone. I need to finish getting ready for tomorrow.” Kirk’s smile softened his dismissal, and everyone filed out only a little reluctantly. Everyone but Sulu, as Kirk caught him arm and held him back as the door shut.

“Come on, Hikaru,” Kirk whispered in his ear. “I need to practice.”

Sulu felt his pulse climb higher as Kirk pulled him into the lushly-foliated courtyard off of his rooms.

“Jim.” Sulu’s voice was quiet, barely carrying over the warm breeze. “You sure you know what you’re doing?”

A very brief expression of uncertainty crossed Kirk’s face, and Sulu pulled himself free so he could face his boyfriend.

“Mostly.” Kirk’s confession was topped off with one of his disarming smiles, but Sulu didn’t let it go.

“Captain, what was the ambassador implying by wanting an attractive, respected leader to do this ceremony?” Sulu asked formally.

Kirk stood up straighter, going into his “captain mode.” “If you don’t let yourself get scarred, you’re an exceptional warrior. And an exceptional warrior that’s respected by their people is, by their lights, the best possible person to handle the grr’ikt-mal.”

Hikaru scowled at that. Jim was a scrappy fighter, and very fit, but was more of a brawler than a survival-minded Tucal-mal warrior. Even learning what he had from Sulu, Kirk was still better at marksmanship than fencing. Hikaru had seen some of the local fauna, and at minimum it was formidable: spined, taloned, or clawed, with fangs, tusks, or horns. All of it heavily armored with scales, or tough hide with reinforcing bony plates, damn near anything on Tucal would be one hell of a fight for a person alone. And the Tucal-mal were built along the same lines as the creatures of their world, the shortest of them topping Jim by a half-meter and outweighing him twice over. Any single one of them wouldn’t have trouble tying even Spock in a knot.

And this grr’ikt-mal was likely to be the most formidable thing on this formidable planet.

“We need to practice, if you’re going to keep your good looks intact,” Hikaru said, drawing his saber.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Kirk said, allowing a brief flicker of worry to interrupt his grin.

-----

Kirk rolled under Sulu’s strike, avoiding getting swatted with the flat of the blade, and cursed when he realized Sulu had steered him against a wall. Shouting, he lunged forward, nearly getting himself skewered as he banged into Sulu’s legs. Sulu twisted as he went down and jabbed out with an elbow, barely missing Kirk’s nose.

Kirk didn’t miss a beat and tried to get his hands on Sulu’s saber, grinning maniacally. Sulu stopped struggling for a second, leaving Kirk open as he unexpectedly had the weapon in his hands, and turned his hip hard, rolling Kirk onto his back. Sulu set his knees wide to keep from being thrown off and forced Kirk’s arms up to take the blade out of the equation.

“Gotcha,” Sulu said, panting in the humid heat of Tucal’s sun.

“Maybe,” Kirk said, grinning. Then he lunged up and captured Sulu’s lips with his own, sending a pleased shock through him.

“Jim,” Sulu said, through very brief pauses for air. “I don’t think this is going to help.”

He could feel Kirk’s smile against his face; Sulu hadn’t let go, in fact had brought his hands down to grip Kirk’s short hair so he couldn’t get away.

“Probably… not,” Kirk agreed amicably, and used his freed arms to haul Sulu a little closer. Something about the perfumes of the Tucal flowers seemed to make everything feel just a little heady, and damn if Kirk wasn’t going to take advantage of that during his last free hours.

“If you kiss the grr’ikt-mal, I’m going to kill you,” Sulu gasped, and ground down, forcing his hardness against Kirk’s to a gratifying moan.

“Hikaru, I solemnly swear-,” Kirk broke off so he could plunder Sulu’s mouth with more dedication, waiting until they were both panting for breath before speaking again. “I swear I will not tongue the grr’ikt-mal.”

“You better not.”

“I won’t bone it either. Captain’s honor.”

“Fuck. You,” Sulu said firmly, tightening his grip so Kirk’s head tilted back, revealing a pale expanse of neck.

“Please…”

Sulu was more than happy to comply, one hand straying downward toward Kirk’s pants, when Jim suddenly stiffened, and not in the fun way.

“Someone’s coming. Tucal-mal,” Kirk said urgently.

Sulu quietly swore in ten different languages (he’d picked up the essentials from Uhura) as he rolled off Kirk, sheathed his sword, and firmly told his body to behave. Neither of them could look completely presentable, as they were speckled with soil, and hot and sweaty from their workout, but perhaps they could pass for “honestly exhausted” and not “hot and bothered.”

Tre-gotmok stepped into the courtyard, his nostrils flaring as he took in the sight of Kirk and Sulu, flushed red from exertion. Idly, Sulu wondered how well a Tucal-mal could smell.

“You are hard to read. You only have a few colors,” the Tucal-mal said, his talons spread widely on the soft ground, relaxed and easy. His crest was pale pink; curiosity, if Sulu remembered the briefing right.

“Our colors are in our faces, in the way the muscles move. They show our emotions there like your crests show your own,” Kirk said.

“Your First Officer, his muscles in the face do not move,” Tre-gotmok said.

Kirk smiled, saw blue confusion infuse the Tucal-mal’s crest, and froze his expression while he gestured at his face. “This is the equivalent of a magenta crest. This is a happy expression on a human. Spock is half-Vulcan; his father’s people don’t express emotion very often.”

“But a human with a magenta-colored face, that means anger or embarrassment, is that right?”

“Yes,” Kirk said. Tre-gotmok’s eyes slid over to Sulu, who could feel the color rising in his cheeks. He couldn’t help but resent the ambassador’s presence; Kirk’s free time was rare and precious, there had been little of it since they’d first contacted the Tucal-mal. Swallowing, Sulu took several deep breaths to center himself, and tried to look respectful.

“It is useful to know. Many things are difficult to learn from teaching programs and data entries.” Tre-gotmok clenched his lower hand into a fist and bobbed his head, and Kirk relaxed marginally at whatever the ambassador was saying without words.

“Is it time?”

“Very soon. You have questions about the ceremony?”

“Will you explain what’s going to happen? My crew needs to know,” Kirk said. He held himself back from slinging an arm around Sulu, but the quick smile he flashed in his direction was enough.

Tre-gotmok dug his talons into the ground thoughtfully.

“The ceremony is simple, but not easy. The arena will be prepared for you, made ready for all you will need,” he said slowly.

“Will you tell me more about what to expect?” Kirk asked.

Tre-gotmok clacked one set of claws together while gesturing with the other two.

“Your reaction must be true. But simply, the grr’ikt-mal will come. Demonstrate your virtues with the grr’ikt-mal, the Federation’s virtues.”

Kirk held back a smirk, which Tre-gotmok seemed to recognize.

“Do not try to mate with the grr’ikt-mal; you could never satisfy him!” he roared, the magenta of his crest showing it was with laughter.

Kirk grinned, making sure not to show his teeth, and Sulu cracked a smile. It was damn hard to figure out what an alien race found funny, and discovering how to make a joke was a real godsend.

“Ok, I’ll keep my pants on.” Kirk’s smile faded to acceptable proportions as Tre-gotmok sobered, his crest going the gray-blue of a serious attitude. “Tre-gotmok, I want this treaty to succeed, and I want to do this ceremony right, but how at-risk am I? Humans are a lot less sturdy than your people. The Federation would be pretty mad at me if I got eaten.”

Tre-gotmok brought one hand down in his version of a nod. “The grr’ikt-mal does not eat off-worlders.”

“Good,” Sulu said, more sharply than he’d meant to. Tre-gotmok looked at him with an oddly still stance, his crest going pale green. (Was that intrigue or confusion? Sulu didn’t remember.)

“Captain, it is now time. You must be prepared for the ceremony,” Tre-gotmok said. He turned to Sulu. “Cleansed in water, and shown a place to meditate quietly and rest. Nothing more.”

Sulu nodded, much to Kirk’s silent bemusement, and two of Tre-gotmok’s assistants beckoned to the captain from the edge of the courtyard.

“Mr. Sulu, tell Commander Spock he is acting captain until the ceremony is complete,” Kirk said formally, standing at parade-ground attention.

Sulu mirrored Kirk’s stance and held a precise salute. “Yes, sir.”

Kirk flicked a salute back, turned on his heel, and joined the two other Tucal-mal.

When he was finally out of sight, Sulu relaxed marginally, a faint knot of unease in the pit of his stomach. Tre-gotmok sniffed the air delicately, and Sulu had a sinking sensation that a Tucal-mal’s sense of smell was far, far better than a human.

“You are loyal to him,” Tre-gotmok said, his tail pointing where Kirk had gone.

“Yes.”

“It is good. But you are not… security.”

“No. I’m the helmsman. I pilot the ship. But everyone on board is loyal to the captain,” Sulu explained quickly.

More pale green began to color Tre-gotmok’s crest. “You carry your own weapon. Your own… claws.”

“Yes.” Sulu had to look up an uncomfortable distance to meet the ambassador’s eyes, and he had moment of almost sickening revelation that he was an extremely junior officer that was now alone with the representative of a whole planet. He forced himself to breathe and concentrated on Jim’s pep talk before they’d beamed down to Tucal’s surface.

“We’re all equals in ignorance, here,” Kirk said, pacing back and forth across the end of the mess hall as he addressed every crewmember that had been able to fit inside. “Suddenly we’ve become ambassadors, and we’re not trained for that. But that’s what the Tucal-mal want. They want honesty and directness, not doubletalk. They want to fight alongside us and shed blood for each other. In short…” Kirk had paused and grinned in a way that everyone who saw him felt it. “The Enterprise was made for this mission. We’re a young, talented crew that Starfleet trusts with its flagship.” Another heartbeat, and Kirk’s eyes focused straight at Sulu. “And we kick ass.”

The resulting spontaneous cheer probably made Chekov have to do orbital corrections afterwards.

“Yours is one of the few planets where I am allowed to do so,” Sulu said, shifting his stance very slightly, squaring his feet as if in preparation for a bout.

“You taught the captain how to speak our language.”

“No, no, Lieutenant Uhura-,” Sulu began, but Tre-gotmok cut him off.

“She speaks words…” Tre-gotmok struggled for vocabulary. “Your language has no word for speaking-with-movement.”

“Informally we call it ‘body language.’ But such things aren’t as formal with us, normally. It’s possible to send messages using only words,” Sulu explained. He knew his attention kept straying to the doorway where Kirk had departed with the Tucal-mal, wondering what effect this impromptu conference with the ambassador would have on the impending ceremony. Anything he said or did could either help Jim or hurt him.

Tre-gotmok banged his lower fists together, the equivalent of shaking his head. “Impossible, here. Even in older times, our artists and scribes are of one profession.”

Sulu nodded, relaxing a little in sudden understanding. Tucal-mal artwork was incredible, but he hadn’t quite realized the detailed pictures of Tucal-mal on every wall and sign were the equivalent of advertising and public notices. Their ambassadors must have been trying to decipher the meaning of the portraits and holos that had accompanied the minimum necessary paperwork, not knowing they had little relevance. Tre-gotmok was just trying to understand what was otherwise inexplicable to him.

“That is rarely the case on Earth,” Sulu said.

“But still,” Tre-gotmok said, crest flashing pale green again. “You still speak with your bodies, if with less intent.” He paused, and a thread of red aggression flickered through his crest. “Do you consider yourself a virtuous man, Hikaru Sulu?”

“I’d like to think I am,” Sulu started to say, and stopped himself. Tre-gotmok was open-minded, but Tucal-mal preferred directness, not the Starfleet-necessary cover-one’s-ass mentality. An officer was not supposed to brag. But Tucal-mal wanted to know you were certain of your own mind. Sulu straightened and deliberately put himself in his ready stance, as if we were going to begin a competition bout. For Tucal-mal, the placement of his hands, feet, and body signified strength, skill, readiness, and honor, all things he held dear.

“You are,” Tre-gotmok said positively. He slid to face Sulu, mirroring his stance. “You are virtuous, but you are not a chief. You must be prepared.”

“How?” Sulu asked.

Tre-gotmok clenched his talons in the soil and raised his upper set of arms, claws extended. His tail was at the angle of the Sixthe line, a traditional signal of readiness in fencing. The Tucal-mal’s crest was half-raised and aggressively red. Sulu brought his saber up to the Sixthe line position in response, his heart beginning to pound as adrenaline flooded his system.

“Ambassador, I could be court-marshaled for fighting with you,” Sulu warned, feeling unwelcome nervousness slicking his skin with sweat.

Tre-gotmok growled deep in his throat, crest going magenta briefly with amusement. “You have been with your senior officers throughout all of this. You know as much about us as any Federation being aboard your ship. What would you say if someone reprimanded you?”

Sulu felt a smirk tugging at his lips. “You would have been more insulted if I refused.”

“Then fight!” Tre-gotmok grinned savagely, showing teeth in challenge, and beckoned Sulu forward with two crooked fingers in a purely human gesture of “bring it.”

Sulu lunged, the force of Tre-gotmok’s bare-handed parry staggering him. He danced out of the way of the return fist, flicking his sword down to skitter along the scales of Tre-gotmok’s arm. Sulu jumped as Tre-gotmok’s tail swung around, and tapped it with the flat of his blade.

“You are blooded?” Tre-gotmok asked, sliding sideways. Sulu nodded, human style, never taking his eyes off the ambassador.

The Tucal-mal leapt forward and twisted, leading with a double backhand from both his right arms. Sulu didn’t even try to block such a bone-crushing blow, just dodged under both hands, rolled over the return tail sweep, and managed to tap Tre-gotmok’s lower shoulder with his blade.

“Who blooded you?”

Sulu leapt back, sliding his blade along Tre-gotmok’s spinal scales, taking him out of range so he could safely answer.

“One of the Narada’s crew,” he said shortly.

Tre-gotmok hissed. “Foul creatures. Your survival is a mark of honor.”

“Captain Kirk fought them too,” Sulu added, wanting to convey a tenth of Jim’s courage and skill.

“Never belittle your battles,” Tre-gotmok said.

“We’re not supposed to brag.”

“Let others brag for you. The man you fought and killed could have shot your captain in the back later. Discount nothing you’ve done, nothing you’ve learned.”

Tre-gotmok leapt in, upper arms poised to tear, lower arms clutching for Sulu. Hikaru dropped flat, feeling Tre-gotmok’s talons catch his uniform, and hurled himself through the tall Tucal-mal’s legs. The tail caught him by surprise, and Sulu desperately wrapped his free hand around the end to keep from being slammed into a wall.

Tre-gotmok looked down at Sulu curiously. His sword was held at a dangerous angle, up towards the thinner scales that were covered with the elaborately beaded loincloths that made up the whole of Tucal-mal clothing, and for a moment, they were in stalemate.

“You protected him, your captain.”

“Yes.”

“You would always do so?”

“He’s the captain,” Sulu said, with a touch of impatience. Of course he would protect him. Anytime, anywhere, from anyone.

“Titles are earned, as is loyalty.” Tre-gotmok broke his tail free and slammed his huge taloned leg down, right at Sulu’s head. Sulu thrust up from the ground, and felt his blade bite. His elbow slammed into the cushioning soil as his sword impaled Tre-gotmok’s foot. Blood drained from Sulu’s face as Tre-gotmok roared in pain.

Sulu scrambled to his feet, hand going for his communicator, when Tre-gotmok held his hands out for him to stop.

“No, do not call. I am fine.”

“Ambassador-,” Sulu began, wondering exactly how deep of shit he would be in if any Starfleet brass ever found out about this little bout.

Tre-gotmok grasped Sulu’s saber and pulled in free in a single swift movement. Putting his injured foot back on the ground gingerly, Tre-gotmok bowed very slightly, human fashion, as he extended the saber back to Sulu. “I yield.”

Sulu took hold of the hilt, and automatically spun the sword in a circle, slinging the blood to the ground. A square of cloth in his pocket completed cleaning the sword before he sheathed it, movements so automatic he didn’t even have to think about them. Tre-gotmok’s crest was back to blue-gray seriousness, not red anger, and Sulu’s panic began to fade.

“Your sword, what is it made of?”

“Tritanium, with a reinforced cutting edge.”

“Reinforced. Very.” A ripple of magenta amusement went across Tre-gotmok’s crest before he continued. “Tritaniuim, that’s used in spaceship hulls.”

Sulu swallowed hard. No one else knew about this, other than Jim. “After the Enterprise was damaged in the Narada attack, we needed some hull repairs. Jim- ah, the captain brought some fragments to me so I could have this sword made.”

Tre-gotmok’s crest went red, magenta, and acid yellow in quick succession, a combination of color and emotions Sulu wasn’t sure how to decipher.

“I will see you at the ceremony tomorrow, Hikaru Sulu. Be virtuous.” With that cryptic comment, Tre-gotmok slowly walked from the courtyard, leaving Sulu to face the night alone.

----------------

The ceremonial grounds reminded Hikaru of one of the old gladiatorial arenas that had existed on Earth, formed of local stone blocks on a massive scale, with tiered spectator stands and a sunken floor. One end of the arena was open to a densely green jungle. Apparently the grr’ikt-mal would arrive of its own accord.

Jim was already down on the earthen floor of the arena when everyone had arrived, dressed in a painfully white robe of some fine woven plant fibers. It made him look painfully vulnerable, despite his tough, Tucal-mal-like warrior stance. Finally Tre-gotmok leapt down to the ground and paced across the bowl of the arena, looking massive and dangerous in richly green scales and blazing scarlet crest. Beside him, Kirk was washed-out and frail-looking, his boots half-sunk into the loose earth of the arena floor.

Tre-gotmotk raised both sets of arms as he called out to the huge assembled crowd of both Tucal-mal and Enterprise crew.

“The grr’ikt-mal comes! Now we shall see the promises of the Federation brought to life before our eyes.”

The senior officers shifted slightly in their seats, unease threading through them. Though Sulu had told Spock of Tre-gotmok’s warning (though he hadn’t mentioned everything that had happened in the courtyard), nothing was going to keep the creeping feeling of dread out of his stomach. Most of the Tucal-mal around them had their crests raised to an aggressive or excited height, red or orange color highlighting their emotion. Knowing the importance of color to their hosts, Spock had had new dress uniforms replicated, blue-gray rather than the usual red. Against the brilliants colors of the Tucal-mal, the dark-clad crew felt oddly exposed.

Tre-gotmok paced off the soft dirt of the area and leapt back up the wall into the stands, leaving Kirk alone, facing the jungle. Sulu caught Tre-gotmok looking at them, his tail held at an angle Sulu remembered as being inquisitive. Why? Should they have been cheering? Had they missed something?

Uhura had come to the same conclusion before he had, and murmured to the officers, “Be watchful.” She used Vulcan; in a galaxy where only ten thousand Vulcans still existed, it was a sad fact that it was the best private language around. They crew only understood a half-dozen phrases, but that was all they needed. Everyone came subtly on alert, taut and tense as they stared down at their captain.

The massive trees enclosing the far end of the arena quivered, and suddenly an ear-splitting howl rang out in the humid air. Sulu expected to see branches break as the grr’ikt-mal appeared, but instead of crashing through the trees, it exploded out of them, using them to hurl its enormous, sinuous scaled body into the area.

Sulu could identify specifics about the creature in his mind – twenty meters long, dappled green scales, six legs, claws and talons a meter long each, huge golden eyes with heavy brow ridges, a long snout and jaws full of gleaming teeth. But all together the parts spelled only one thing to him: Dragon. And Jim was only five meters away from it, alone and unarmed.

The grr’ikt-mal paused and stared down at Kirk, his fluttering white robes apparently fascinating the creature. And to Sulu’s utter amazement, Kirk began to talk. Maybe Kirk was hoping the sound of his voice would distract it. Maybe he was praying his command of Tucal-mal body language would somehow convince it to leave him alone.

Somehow Sulu didn’t think he was going to get that lucky. He risked a glance at the assembled Tucal-mal, and saw Tre-gotmok staring at Kirk, his crest fully raised, but an odd gold color mixed in with the aggressive red.

“Lieutenant,” Sulu whispered urgently to Uhura. “What’s gold mean?” Uhura ripped her eyes away from the spectacle and looked over at the ambassador.

“Worry,” she murmured. “He’s worried.” All the other officers were some degree of pale, riveted on the scene below. Commander Spock’s eyebrows had come together in a visible show of concern, while Dr. McCoy was alternating between fury and fear.

The grr’ikt-mal roared again and stomped one foot down in what Sulu thought was aggression, judging by all the red crests in the audience. Tre-gotmok was intent, his crest now intensely gold, a color Sulu was noticing starting to tinge the entire local ambassadorial delegation. Suddenly, Tre-gotmok got to his feet and began to speak to the crowd, his voice loud enough to be heard over the grr’ikt-mal’s roars.

“The grr’ikt-mal is tough, sturdy. He can bear all things,” Tre-gotmok said, his tone almost chanting. Those around him took up his words in Tucal, from what few words Sulu could understand. “The grr’ikt-mal is strong, he carries all burdens. He is cunning, and can sense all foes. He is quick, and overcomes all obstacles.” The chanting response in Tucal seemed to energize the grr’ikt-mal, and it began to almost dance around Kirk, slashing and feinting at the air around him, making Sulu forget to breathe.

“The grr’ikt-mal is loyal, he never leaves his mate. The grr’ikt-mal is not cruel, for he only kills to eat. These are his virtues.”

Grr’ikt-mal! Grr’ikt-mal!” the crowd shouted.

The chanting became more insistent, echoing through the arena. Kirk was barely able to dodge the dragon’s claws, and Sulu felt himself press against the stone railing, about to damn all Starfleet protocol and Tucal-mal ritual to leap down to the arena floor. Tre-gotmok said the grr’ikt-mal didn’t eat off-worlders, but the grr’ikt-mal didn’t know that. Did Sulu have the right to interrupt a crucial ceremony in the last phase of a diplomatic mission just because he was worried? Nothing had happened yet. This could all just be a test of nerve.

His eyes flicked over to Commander Spock. Did Kirk have his communicator on him? Was the transporter room on standby?

The chanting heated up, and Tre-gotmok looked over at the Starfleet officers. He crest was flushed an almost glowing gold color.

“The grr’ikt-mal will test the virtue of the Federation,” he said, one set of clawed hands tight on the stone railing.

Another of Tre-gotmok’s assistants swished his tail in agitation as Kirk ducked under another deadly swipe of claws that could have taken his head off.

“Show us, damn you! No claws at all!” The remark was an insult, Sulu remembered that from Uhura’s briefing. But the remark galvanized Sulu even as Tre-gotmok’s body language became one of deep distress.

The virtue of the Federation. Show it. Teamwork, loyalty, quick-thinking, problem solving, strength, endurance. Loyalty. Loyalty. Show it.

Sulu vaulted over the railing and landed on the soft dirt of the arena floor. He cleared his saber from its sheath and dropped into his challenge stance, the blade flashing in the bright Tucal sunshine.

The crowd went insane as the grr’ikt-mal looked up from tormenting Kirk to fasten its gaze on Sulu. And then it moved. He’d never seen anything move so fast in gravity, and only reflexes gained from collision-course evasion saved Hikaru as he rolled and swung at the claws going for his head. He felt his saber slide in between the grr’ikt-mal’s scales, and a spurt of some kind of liquid hit the sand behind him as Sulu continued his roll. As he cleared immediate danger, he sprang up and hurtled the grr’ikt-mal’s tail, running straight for Kirk, needing to put himself in between Jim and danger.

The grr’ikt-mal roared behind him, and Sulu turned in time to make a desperate swipe across its snout as it ran for him, jaws open, teeth so shiny Sulu could see his reflection in them. The strike hit, and purple blood was flung across the sand as the grr’ikt-mal brought himself up short. Sulu turned and ran back towards Kirk, who was looking at him with open-mouthed astonishment.

“Jump!” Kirk shouted, eyes going wide. Sulu leapt, jumping over the grr’ikt-mal’s massive tail and landed lightly, sprinting the last few meters to put himself squarely in front of Kirk.

“What the hell was that?” Kirk demanded.

“Just showing the Federation’s virtue to the Tucal-mal, Captain.”

“I don’t suppose you’d believe me when I said I had it under control?” Kirk asked, sounding somewhere in between relieved and amused.

“No, sir.”

“Carry on, Lieutenant!”

Sulu spared enough time for a grin at Kirk before the grr’ikt-mal returned, leaping up to come at them from the sky, all six feet poised to skewer. He grabbed Kirk’s hand and ran, both of them flinging themselves out of the way as the talons slammed into the earth, the impact vibrating the ground beneath them. There was little room to run behind them, and Sulu had a flash of insight from his bout with Tre-gotmok yesterday. Pushing Kirk behind him, Sulu dashed forward and thrust into the grr’ikt-mal’s foot before it could turn to face them.

He yanked it out just in time as the grr’ikt-mal danced backwards, a final bellow shaking the very air as he retreated into the jungle.

Sulu watched long enough to be certain he was gone before turning back to Kirk, his white robe now stained with dirt and torn from passes with the grr’ikt-mal’s claws. The sight awakened something primal buried inside him, and Sulu grabbed Kirk’s hand and hauled him towards the exit, out of sight of the endlessly cheering crowd.

--------

Jim groaned slightly as Hikaru slammed him up against the stone wall of the passageway, his intensely blue eyes half-lidded in relief and pleasure.

“What the fuck were you thinking, Jim?” Hikaru demanded, pushing his thigh in between Kirk’s. “Thought you could handle that? Were you fucking joking?

Adrenaline was singing its potent song in Hikaru’s ears, the victory of an enemy defeated combined with an almost painful relief of seeing Jim whole and well. He rucked up the tattered robe, and swore silently when he realized Jim wasn’t wearing a stitch underneath. His cock was already hard, and Jim spread his legs easily to give Hikaru the best view.

“Knew you’d do it. It wasn’t about me with the grr’ikt-mal, it was about loyalty,” Jim managed, and gasped as Hikaru grabbed his hips, saber hilt still in one hand, and pulled their bodies together, letting Jim feel his answering hardness.

“You could have died,” Hikaru said, his breath hot in Jim’s ear. He tangled his hands in the ribbed fabric and spun Jim around, baring his naked, muscular ass.

“Not as long as you’re around- Fuck!” Jim shouted into the stone as two of Hikaru’s fingers slid deep inside him, surprisingly hot and slick, the way already stretched and prepared. Jim had done that, had gotten himself ready while supposedly “meditating” last night, knowing it could have been his last night alive.

“I can’t fucking believe you,” Hikaru said. He couldn’t get his trousers open fast enough, thrusting inside Jim far enough to make him curse and push back in desperate welcome.

“Yes!” Jim clutched desperately at the wall, opening himself up and taking Hikaru easily, his heat and velvet clench intoxicating.

“Don’t you ever,” Hikaru punctuated each word with a savage thrust that pushed Jim into the wall and made the still-bloody saber bang against his leg. “Ever put yourself in that situation again.”

“No,” Jim said, nodding frantically in agreement. “Not ever again.” Each word was seemingly elicited from the heart of him by Hikaru’s punishing rhythm.

“It could have been Spock that tried to pull you out of there,” Hikaru warned, and Jim shuddered, making an intoxicating little mewl of protest as his body twitched at every movement of Hikaru inside him.

“No, just you. Proved it,” Jim gasped, his face going red as his orgasm neared. Hikaru pulled Jim back and slid a hand around to palm his cock, twitching and slick with pre-come.

“Yeah? Show it,” Hikaru hissed, and stroked once. Jim arched in his grasp, white semen staining the white fabric of his robe as he pulsed in Hikaru’s grasp. Groaning softly, Hikaru thrust once more inside Jim, following him over the edge with a gasp.

“I fucking love you,” Jim whispered harshly, turning his head far enough to catch a kiss as Hikaru slowly pulled out, still enjoying the heat between them.

“You did well.”

Sulu and Kirk sprang apart as Tre-gotmok’s voice echoed down the passageway. The Tucal-mal ambassador paced into the light, holding a small padd in his hand.

“My people are well-satisfied to ally with the Federation, since you show such courage and loyalty in the face of impossible odds.” Tre-gotmok paused and his nostrils fared delicately. “And you are well-satisfied, too. Your bonding blesses the ceremony.”

Hikaru blushed, and Kirk merely smiled.

“We have sent the treaty to the Federation,” Tre-gotmok continued blithely, waggling the padd. “The ceremony is complete. You are free to come and go as you please, allies of Tucal.”

He turned to leave, and then looked back, his crest magenta with amusement. “There is a room further down the passage.”

Hikaru managed not to choke as Tre-gotmok took his leave, but Jim didn’t waste any time, pulling Hikaru towards the promise of more privacy with a look that meant he was anywhere near done being grateful for his rescue, not just of himself, but of the treaty, and was more than ready to continue rewarding his fellow officer and hero. They didn’t need any more words at all to seal what they had between them.