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When the stars begin to fall

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*

“Remind me of why I moved closer to the Academy again?” Jim shifted from foot to foot on the balcony, his breath forming puffs of vapor in the night air. “You can barely see any stars from here.” He knew he sounded childish, bordering on petulant, but just because he was aware of it didn’t mean he was able to stop himself. Above the horizon, he could just make out Deneb and the spread-winged pattern of Cygnus, but the city lights - along with the ever-present fog - meant that nothing else was visible to the naked eye. Or at least to Jim’s eyes. His sight had been worse than usual lately, which wasn’t helping his frustration.

Beside him, hands braced on the railing, Spock made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Your previous apartment was less than three-point-five kilometers away, in a part of the city no less brightly lit than this one.” Spock wasn’t looking at the sky but out towards the river, where even more clouds were rolling in. “Surely it is rare to see many stars in San Francisco, Jim. As for your reasons for moving, I had assumed your new position as an Academy lecturer -”

“Yes, Spock, I know.” Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. “It was a rhetorical question, all right?” Unsurprisingly, even his most dedicated attempts at sulking couldn’t survive more than a minute of Spock’s damn implacable calm. “As for my hope of ever seeing a proper starscape again… let’s just call it wishful thinking. Seems I never do learn.”

He wished he could take back that last sentence the second it was out of his mouth. But of course Spock had heard, and would know exactly what Jim was alluding to.

“Admiral…” The switch to formality was a little jab to the heart, no less painful for its subtlety. “Regarding my promotion to Captain…”

“It’s fine, Spock. Forget what I just said.” Jim turned his face into the breeze, goosebumps standing out on his forearms. He should have put on a coat, like Spock, but then he’d never been the sensible one, and he hadn’t felt inclined to start tonight. “I wasn’t really expecting them to give me back the Enterprise. A man can dream, though, can’t he?” He put his own hands on the railing, squeezing till the cold bit into his palms. “You were the obvious choice; I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more. And I’d rather it’s you than someone else, but…” His voice caught. “I’d be lying if I said I don't envy you.”

Someone else might have argued, or tried to shrug off the compliment, but of course Spock wasn’t going to do either. Instead he said, almost apologetically, “It will not be an active command.” Repeating what Jim already knew, but maybe hearing it from Spock’s mouth would make it easier to stomach. “The Enterprise has been reassigned as a training vessel, with me to serve as an onboard instructor. I doubt we will take on any genuine missions… except, of course, the long and arduous one towards graduation.”

Jim nodded, tried to swallow past the misery that sat like acid in his gut. Even with just a training crew, she’d still be the Enterprise - the ship he’d expected to go down with, or go down saving. For her to continue while he was stuck here, giving lectures to cadets instead of showing them how it was done… it felt wrong, like he was betraying some part of himself. The only comfort was that this time, at least, Spock wouldn’t be halfway across the galaxy trying to reconnect with his Vulcan heritage. When he wasn’t away on training cruises, he’d be right around the corner from here.

“We’ll all be teaching, then,” Jim said, with an effort. “Bones, too, I heard. Part-time, of course; couldn’t give up the good old-fashioned doctoring if he wanted to. You planning to live on campus?”

“I believe so.” Spock shot him a sidelong glance - making sure, Jim suspected, that his former captain wasn’t about to fall to pieces yet. “The housing offered to instructors is adequate, if somewhat… economical in terms of living space. But I have few personal effects, so I don’t anticipate a problem.”

“Well…” Jim gestured to the door behind them. “If you ever need a place to crash, you know where I live.”

“I do,” Spock said, then seemed to hesitate. “And, of course, should you ever require company…” The sentence hung in the air, unfinished. The obvious implication - that Jim might need Spock’s company now - wasn’t stated, and Jim couldn’t bring himself to just come out and say it. Not as long as he still had some dignity left. Which in no way meant he wasn’t hoping Spock would stay.

“Talking about personal effects…” Jim waved at the door, which slid open, and ushered Spock back into the living room. The heat of the fireplace fell on him like a blanket, his cheeks starting to tingle the moment he stepped in. “I found something of yours while I was packing. It was sitting on a shelf in my old apartment - you must have loaned it to me long ago, but I forgot.”

Spock finished taking off his coat, a slight frown on his face. “I cannot recall loaning you something which you subsequently failed to return.”

“You did, though. I’ll show you. It’s in one of the boxes in the spare room.” Jim held out his arms for Spock’s coat and scarf, trying to steer his eyes away from the pips at Spock’s collar. Their fingers touched briefly when Spock handed him the coat; for a second, Jim could have sworn it was intentional, Spock’s hand lingering on the fabric just a little longer than it should. Then the moment passed, and Jim shook it off, annoyed at himself.

He went into the hallway, with a quick stop at the wardrobe to hang up Spock’s things. Spock’s footsteps tapped against the floorboards behind him, pausing as Jim opened the door.

There were… more boxes than he remembered. That was to say, he remembered packing a hell of a lot of boxes, and unpacking some after he moved here, but that had been just the tip of the iceberg. There were whole crates of old uniforms and off-duty clothing, along with keepsakes from various missions that he’d been meaning to catalog for years but never gotten around to. As if refusing to pick up the pieces of his former life would somehow have helped him get it back.

Spock drifted towards the center of the floor - ostensibly to check out the boxes, though Jim didn’t doubt that what was being scrutinized was him. He tugged at his collar, suddenly self-conscious. Compared to Spock’s neatly pressed uniform, his own shirt-and-jeans combo had to look about as faded as the rest of the room.

It took him a while to find the right crate, on top of a pile of several others, all big and bulky and - of course - unlabeled.

“There.” Jim lifted out a package, unfolding the wrapping to reveal a slim, parchment-bound volume. “I can’t believe you never missed this, Spock. Can’t believe I forgot I had this, either. Pre-reformation Vulcan poetry?” He traced a delicate finger across the Vulcan script on the cover. “Well - written down from oral tradition, it says, so not strictly pre-reform, but… this is a real antique, isn’t it?” No answer. “Spock?”

Spock’s posture had gone rigid, his gaze glued to the little book in Jim’s hands. “It is… a family possession,” he said, his voice oddly strained. For a moment, Jim wondered if that was all the explanation he was going to get; then Spock let out a breath and went on. “My father sent it to me, some time after the Babel conference. I believe he meant it as a reconciliatory gesture, conveying his acceptance of my choice to enter Starfleet… and, perhaps, of the human side of me as well.”

“Well, that’s - wonderful.” Jim frowned. “But how did it end up with me?”

Spock hesitated. “It was… a gift.”

“A gift?” Jim felt more and more like he was missing something. “I know I’m not getting any younger here, Spock, but I’m pretty sure I’d remember if you’d given this to me.”

“I’m sure you would,” Spock said, in a tone that was working so hard to be neutral that alarm bells were starting to go off in Jim’s head. “However, I did not actually give it to you. I simply… left it for you to find.”

Jim blinked at Spock, then down at the cover again, resisting the temptation to start leafing through the pages. But standing here poring over Vulcan writing wasn’t going to help him make sense of whatever was going on… and that something was going on was becoming painfully clear. There was a spare bookcase near the window, and Jim went to set the book on one of its shelves. “I don’t understand,” he said, struggling to control his temper. “Why would you leave me this - a unique piece, a present from your father, for God's sake - and not even tell me about it?”

Spock lifted his chin. From this angle, the lines around his eyes seemed more pronounced than usual; it made him look fragile, in a way that slipped through Jim’s defenses like a knife through butter. “A short time after our five-year-mission, I visited you once, here in San Francisco. Do you remember the reason?”

“I… Yes, of course,” Jim said, briefly disoriented by the change of subject. “To tell me you were leaving for Vulcan, to devote yourself to the Kolinahr discipline.” That conversation had been disturbing in more ways than he could count, though less in the things that had been said than in the things that hadn’t. “Are you saying you left this for me back then? But… why?”

Spock joined him by the bookcase, reaching out to touch the little book’s spine. The gesture was almost tender - an observation that did nothing to soothe Jim’s nerves. “I believe… you never asked me why I attempted Kolinahr.”

“Yes, I did,” Jim countered. Dammit, was Spock going to answer all of his questions with new ones? “During that visit, I tried so hard to get you to change your mind that I don’t think I asked you about anything else.”

“Quite true. I should have specified - you never asked me after I rejoined Starfleet.” Spock was still staring at the book, the look on his face as close to wistfulness as Jim had ever seen it. “Ancient Vulcan poetry,” he said, almost to himself. “Did you read it, Admiral?”

The Admiral came out so forced that Jim let it pass. “Yes, I read it.” He’d needed a computer for the translation, but once he got started, he’d torn through in a single night. It was the kind of writing that, when he was younger, he’d never have thought Vulcans capable of: raunchy yet deeply poetic, like an odd amalgam of Shakespeare, Plath and G’Trok. “It’s… riveting work, to be sure.”

Spock dipped down his head. “Riveting, fiery, passionate, tender; in turns desperately hopeful and brutally honest. All traits that a Vulcan, even a modern Vulcan, may still exhibit - except we are taught from a young age to suppress those impulses, to prevent our desires from controlling us. And yet, following our five-year mission, when you were promoted to the Admiralty…” A flicker of pain crossed Spock’s face. “… I found myself wishing for a thing I could not have. A thing I believed I could not permit myself to continue wanting. And so Kolinahr… was an escape.”

“I… can see how Vulcan tradition would paint it in that light,” Jim said, dredging up the vaguest reply he could think of. The whole conversation was starting to feel like walking across quicksand: one wrong move and they’d both drown. “Though you’ll forgive me, illogical human that I am, for not understanding how abstaining from emotion can be a good thing. But… I did respect your choice. Or tried to.”

Spock nodded. “And I would not have expected any less of you. Although I confess, at times… I almost found myself wishing that you hadn't.”

So did I, Jim thought recklessly, but all that came out was a feeble, “You did?”

“Jim…" Spock replied, as patiently as if he was dealing with some particularly thick-headed student. “The reason I wished to be rid of this book was because it embodied all the feelings I was denying myself, and had vowed to purge through Kolinahr. And leaving it in your care seemed like the only logical choice…” Spock’s voice was absurdly, impossibly gentle. “… knowing how many of those feelings were directed at you.”

Jim found himself leaning against the bookcase, one shoulder braced against an empty shelf. “Me, Spock?”

“As you were struggling to accept losing the Enterprise, so I struggled with the loss of my commanding officer - and my friend. I did what I thought was necessary for my own well-being, but I now regret removing myself from your life at a time where you…” Spock’s throat worked convulsively. “Where we would have been stronger together than apart.”

Jim squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again, startled. Spock’s hand had settled next to his on the shelf, their fingertips almost touching. In a wild rush of courage, Jim covered it with his own.

“You did what you had to do, Spock. If getting through those years without you was the price I had to pay to get you back, then I don’t consider that time wasted. I never did.”

Spock's eyes lost focus for a second, then widened. “Jim…" His voice was thick with satisfaction, as if the name was an incantation, or a reward. Spock’s fingers tightened on his, Jim taking a lurching step forward, and then he was cradling Spock’s palm to his chest, his heart slamming against his ribcage hard enough that Spock had to be aware of every frantic beat.

Spock himself hadn’t moved a muscle, was barely even breathing faster, but his eyes were full of everything that had been left unsaid - so many years, not wasted, never wasted, but too damn close.

Jim looked down at Spock’s hand and squeezed it, relieved to feel Spock return the pressure. Pure impulse made him reach out to cup Spock’s face - and, God, he couldn’t even remember the first time he’d thought about doing this, or wondered what it would be like to feel Spock’s mouth against his own. Except he’d been in command then, and it wouldn’t have been right to put any of his crew in that position, not even if they…  

“Jim? Is something wrong?”

Jim swallowed, let his hand drop away from Spock’s cheek. He’d spent too long fighting these feelings - towards Spock, and others - for the old arguments not to come rushing back. Not just that he was in command and they depended on him, but that they deserved better, deserved someone steady, not a man who’d made it his calling to court death and kept falling in love just to remind himself he was still alive. God knew he needed the reminder, maybe now more than ever… but if anyone deserved better than that, it had to be Spock.

“I’m still your superior officer, Spock,” he said, with an effort. “That hasn't changed.”

Spock’s eyebrow lifted. “No,” he conceded. “We have changed, however. After all we have been through, is rank truly more than an afterthought?”

“It mattered aboard the Enterprise.” Jim shrugged helplessly. “Or at least I thought it did.”

“Because you feared abusing a position of power. And because you felt that, in a life-or-death situation, we could not afford to be each other’s weakness,” Spock said, as if he’d laid out the argument dozens of times before - and maybe he had, to himself, just like Jim used to. “Once, I would have agreed with you, but I have come to believe our logic was flawed. If such a situation were to occur… I can guarantee that you are my weakness, regardless of anything we might or might not choose to pursue.”

Jim stiffened, realizing he knew exactly what Spock meant. The thought was both overwhelming and utterly terrifying. “Is that supposed to reassure me?”

“No. But it is the truth. There is no need to protect me from yourself, Jim. At least… no more than you need to be protected from me.”

Jim shook his head, still not daring to believe it. It seemed absurd that they’d never discussed this before; not directly, at least, although obviously Spock had guessed. But he’d never pressed for details, and Jim had always been too focused on his own dilemma - or maybe just too afraid of what the reaction might be - to share. “If I hadn’t found that book, or tried to give it back to you…”

Spock bowed his head, the corners of his mouth crinkling. “Did I not tell you, once, that you almost made me believe in luck?”

“And… you almost made me believe in miracles,” Jim said. “Yes. I remember.” He laughed, but it almost felt like a sob, his lungs straining to pull in air. Spock was right. Having come this far together was a minor miracle, and life handed out too few of those not to embrace them when you had the chance.

He held out his hand, blinking down at the veins standing out across his skin - a middle-aged man’s hand, stiff and weathered and painfully inelegant, and if that wasn’t a metaphor for something, he didn’t know what was.

Spock folded his fingers around it.

It was the most natural thing in the world to lift Spock’s hand towards his lips, nuzzling Spock’s palm and Spock’s knuckles and the soft, pink skin at the base of Spock’s thumb. Spock’s eyes fluttered shut, his breathing deep but steady, hitching for the tiniest of moments when Jim’s tongue flicked against his wrist.

“All right?” Jim murmured, pressing back nervousness when Spock made an inarticulate noise and dug the fingers of his other hand into Jim’s shoulder. All those years, and somehow he’d never tried to find out what Spock liked, or if Vulcans even liked the same things humans did. But this wasn’t just any Vulcan; this was Spock, who’d never lie to him about anything. Which didn’t mean Jim wasn’t going to worry anyway.

They fit together as if they’d always known how to, Spock’s cheek grazing Jim’s temple as Jim’s hand found the base of Spock’s spine. He felt Spock shiver, then relax and press against him. Jim held the embrace for as long as he could, hope and relief and desire piling up inside of him until he thought his heart was going to burst if he didn’t let go.

“What do you need, Spock?” He pulled back slightly, just enough that he could meet Spock's eyes. “Just tell me what you want right now.”

“To see you at peace,” Spock said, so flawlessly deadpan it was impossible to tell how much of that answer was serious. “But for now, I may settle for simply seeing you… satisfied.”

Watching Spock go to his knees in front of him was about the last thing Jim had been prepared for. It wasn’t until he felt Spock’s hand on his own, guiding it towards the clasp of his belt - asking permission, Jim realized, his throat going dry - that he managed to get control of his voice.

“Spock, no.” He reached for Spock’s elbow, trying to pull him back to his feet. They ended up in a clumsy struggle for balance, Spock's arm clutching Jim’s waist to keep from toppling. "I don't want…” Jim swallowed. “You should never have to be on your knees for me.”

For the first time, there was a flicker of disquiet in Spock’s eyes. “Jim… You are projecting symbolism onto a situation that warrants none. My kneeling in a literal sense could never imply -”

“I know,” Jim shushed him, breathing past the rush of affection that threatened to overwhelm him.

“I merely assumed it would please you if I -”

I know, Spock,” Jim said again. Somehow, the thought of Spock considering his pleasure - to the point of ignoring his own boundaries, Jim guessed, although there was no way to know that without asking - was more than he could bear right now. “Let’s just… hold off on the assumptions, all right? We can take it slow. We’ve got all the time in the world to do this properly. Not…” He gestured around him. “Not surrounded by crates and empty shelves and the remnants of an old life.” Not with Jim still raw and lonely, in a room that hadn’t seen a living soul in days, little dust clouds rising wherever their feet touched the ground. He owed it to Spock to get this right, at least.

To a stranger, the smile that touched Spock’s lips would barely have looked like a smile at all. To Jim, it spoke of melancholy and longing, and a hope more profound than any he’d dared to allow himself.

“We are the remnants of an old life, Jim, whether we accept it or not. The question is where to go from there, and how.”

“If you ask me…” Jim struggled to keep his voice steady. “We either go together, or not at all.”

“I… concur.” A muscle tightened at Spock’s temple; Jim had to fight the impulse to run his hand across it, smooth it down with the pad of his thumb.

That was it, then. No grand statements or declarations of love, but a simple promise, given and accepted. Simple, but no less life-altering for it. The realization was like a weight lifting from his chest, and he could see the same understanding in Spock’s face, the shift in his expression so subtle no one else would have seen the depth of tenderness it held.

Jim motioned to the window behind them, as much to try and compose himself as to give Spock a few seconds of privacy. “Now, will you look at that. Orion’s rising.” It shone as bright as Jim had ever seen it from the city, the pinprick of Rigel spilling out from behind the clouds.

The way their shoulders touched when Spock turned could only have been deliberate. “Ah… I see.”

“Remember when I took you and Bones to that bar on Rigel V? The one with the little pool in the back and the night sky projected across the ceiling?” The memory was so vivid Jim could still picture the stars spinning above their heads, the constellations alien yet hauntingly familiar.

“And their pointed refusal to serve nonalcoholic beverages?” Spock said. “How could I have forgotten? As I recall, Doctor McCoy attempted to order me something called an ‘Aldebaran Sunrise’.”

“As I recall, you told him to order his own damn drinks. Phrased with proper Vulcan restraint, of course.”

“Of course.”

“That was a beautiful place. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to see it again.” Jim put his hand against the windowpane, as if by reaching out to the galaxy he could draw it in closer. But that was just foolishness. When had the galaxy ever listened to him?

For a moment, the only sound was their mingled breathing, oddly distorted in the near-empty room. “You will find a way, Jim,” Spock said, the conviction in his voice absolute. “It is impossible to know the future, but I do not believe any world could contain you. My heart tells me that, one day, you will command a starship again.”

“Your heart, Spock?” Jim couldn’t resist. “Are you telling me you’ve got a feeling about this?”

Spock nodded, his hand moving to cover Jim’s on the window. “After all… I have learned from the best.”

*