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One

 

Spock frowns when Kirk does not answer repeated requests for entry into his quarters. Perhaps the captain is in the shower, or already abed? But the likelihood of that being the case is low, given Kirk’s (surprising, when one considers his otherwise blasé attitude) work ethic.

He could return at a later time, but Kirk will only need approximately thirteen seconds to review and then approve the requisition form Spock currently has displayed on his padd. Certainly using his override code in this situation is only logical.

The office that greets him—surprisingly well-ordered and austere, at such odds with the vibrant energy of the man who inhabits it—is empty. Spock blinks and considers the situation for a moment before noticing a soft glow coming from the direction of the adjoining bedroom. Then he makes out the low murmur of Kirk’s voice, unintelligible at this distance. Tucking the padd beneath his arm, he crosses the office to peer into the bedroom.

“…and ‘yes’ to the updated replicator specs…”

Spock blinks, and stares.

Kirk stands in the middle of the darkened room, surrounded on all sides by a circle of small, tile-like holographic boxes, all glowing faint blue, each hovering in mid-air at just about eye level. Lower to the ground on his left is a holo-projection of an antique-style Terran waste receptacle, and as Spock watches, Kirk reaches up to tap one of the tiles. It instantly expands into one of Starfleet’s many administrative forms, and Kirk flicks a finger to scroll quickly through its contents. Even with his back turned, the grin is still detectable in his voice.

“An order for fifteen Sprigs’ coil mounts? Ha. Nice try, Scotty.”

He flicks his wrist and the tile sails into the trash can, shrinking as it goes. The can even makes an appropriate clunking sound as it deletes the file.

Kirk has already moved onto the next one. It is an inquiry from one of the ensigns in the Science department regarding a new carbon-based compound they are considering integrating into the Enterprise’s coolant system. Spock knows this because, not three hours ago, he was looking at the model of the molecule Kirk is peering at now—except then the model was plastered on the flat screen of a computer console, not hovering in midair like a blue phantom.

The captain taps a finger against his bottom lip for a moment, frowning at the model. Then, abruptly, he straightens and reaches forward. Spock’s eyes widen as the model pops out from the tile, becoming fully three-dimensional. Kirk holds it like a physical thing, turning and inspecting it for another minute or so before something seems to dawn on him.

“Well, duh,” he mutters, and with a tap of his finger, breaks two chemical bonds before drawing a new one three ions down. “There, that should stabilize it.” And with another wave of his hand, he sends the model—and the file containing it—flying into the darkness.

Fully interactive three-dimensional holotechnology. Spock can’t look away.

Kirk, in the meantime, has moved on.

“Medical leave for Ensign Col-Upit…yeah, I’d want some too if I’d gotten attacked by a plant…”

“Sure, Uhura, you can have Lieutenant Ramser as your relief…”

“…Thirteen gallons of gamma-ubitrium? For lubricant? You’re losing your touch, Scotty…”

Spock watches the captain review, approve, and reject five more forms in the same manner. He should probably make his presence known, but the holographic display is quite arresting, the glowing blue tiles strangely…beautiful. And the way the light reflects off the captain’s skin…

“Ah, my favorite: shore leave. Let’s see…could do Tagal VII, the crew’ll love the Orion bars…but wait. Omicron-Palestra. The Museum of Antiquated Palestran Weaponry, only known intact hal-menartan in the galaxy…huh. Spock would like that.”

Spock blinks. He is 99.77% confident that he has never in a previous conversation relayed to Kirk his interest in Palestran hand-to-hand armaments. And the only official documentation of the topic is on Page 187 of his Starfleet personnel file.

Fascinating.

He watches Kirk for an additional 8.2 minutes. The captain never turns around, too engrossed in his work, and Spock does not make his presence known, too engrossed in the display before him.

The captain does ultimately pick Omicron-Palestra. Spock leaves shortly after that, as quietly as he arrived.

As he makes his way back to his own quarters, he thinks about the glowing holographic display. Holotech is currently still in the preliminary stages of development at Starfleet HQ; even an officer as…illustrious as Kirk would not have been able to get his hands on a prototype. Which means the captain must have built everything himself, from the projectors to the sensors, to writing out each individual line of code. And the interactive function of the program—Spock will never forget how Kirk held the molecule in the palm of his hand, easy as a child’s toy—that is something even the best minds at the Vulcan Science Academy were never able to achieve.

Abruptly, Spock feels as if he has just met his captain all over again for the first time, illogical as the sentiment is. Certainly he has always known of Kirk’s intelligence, yet he had always assumed it was something like a pocket knife: brought out only for emergencies and to get something done, and then packed away again just as quickly under layers of bravado and arrogance. Never before has he considered the sheer depth of Kirk’s mind, the capacity of his reasoning.

It makes him realize that Kirk has, indeed, earned his position as captain of the Enterprise, rather than just being the arrogant cadet who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It makes Spock think that Kirk could be a man under whom he would be proud to serve.

It is not until several hours later that he remembers the requisition form, still loaded on his padd and waiting for Kirk’s signature.

 

Two

 

Spock’s running tally of the chess matches between himself and Kirk—Jim, Spock, it’s Jim when we’re off-duty—currently shows that Jim wins 82% of the time.

Before he began playing the captain, Spock was undefeated.

He cannot understand it. Chess is inherently a game of logic, and as a half-Vulcan, Spock has always considered himself at a distinct advantage. Certainly all his other opponents—from fellow cadets at the Academy to a couple of Admirals, after word got out—have been unable to break through his solidly-structured defenses, his carefully-calculated moves.

Yet, time after time when they meet in the captain’s quarters after shift, Jim checkmates his king, sometimes without Spock even noticing until it happens. And Spock suspects the times he does win, Jim is simply not focused on the game at all, distracted by ship business or the details of their latest mission.

After exactly two hundred and fifty-four chess games, Spock finally decides to query the captain regarding his strategy. He tells himself that the cultivation of multiple perspectives on a game is logical, and that he is not, as Nyota laughingly suggests, being a “sore loser”.

Jim, to his surprise, takes no time in his answer, leaning back in his chair and giving Spock a slow smile. “Sweetheart, it’s not me, it’s you.”

Spock blinks, unsure of what to do with this information. They watch each other for a moment before the corner of Jim’s mouth twitches and his smile broadens just slightly. “Spock,” he says. “You play like a Vulcan.”

The tone of his voice does not imply offense, so Spock does not take any. Even so, he only feels more confused. “I’m afraid I do not understand your meaning, Captain.”

“Jim,” comes the automatic reply. “And do I really need to explain it to you?”

“I would not have asked you otherwise.”

Jim chuckles at that. “Yeah, okay.” He leans forward and places his hands on his knees so that he can look Spock directly in the eye. “Tell me about your approach to chess. How you pick which piece to move and where to move it, stuff like that.”

The question is unexpected, and Spock blinks again. Jim seems to have the uncanny ability to engender in him emotions no one else is able to elicit. It makes Spock feel as if his world has tilted slightly off its axis, as if everything he thought he’d fixed firmly in place might not be as immutable as he had thought.

Strangely, he doesn’t mind the feeling.

Jim is still watching him expectantly, so Spock clears his throat. “Each move is planned in advance, the positions on the board taken into account, and out of all possible strategies, the one with the highest likelihood of success is selected.”

The captain nods. “It’s logical.”

“Yes.”

“Like a Vulcan.”

Spock isn’t sure where Jim is going with this. “Yes.”

Jim doesn’t say anything for another moment. Then, very slowly, he tilts his head and smiles at Spock again. Something glints in his blue eyes, amusement colored by…something Spock cannot place. “You’re only half-Vulcan, Spock.”

His words at first make little sense. Spock did indeed inherit fifty percent of his genes from his Vulcan father, and the other half from his human mother (who is dead, who perished with his planet, and sometimes he still feels the pain of her loss like a physical thing, like someone has torn a hole in his chest that gapes and swallows and can never be healed). But he fails to see how his genetic makeup relates to chess.

In front of him, Jim’s smile softens. “How do you think your mom might’ve played this game, Spock?” he asks. And all of a sudden, Spock recognizes that emotion in his captain’s eyes,  the one he was unable to place before.

It’s kindness.

He remembers something he said to Jim a long time ago, on the bridge of the Enterprise when Nero was still a threat looming in the cold maw of space. My mother was human, which makes Earth the only home I have left.

It stuns Spock that Jim knows so much about him that Spock does not know himself.

He ends their conversation after that—a little awkwardly, but Jim seems to understand and doesn’t protest. That night, as Spock meditates, he thinks about his mother, about the way she always managed to surprise him as a child—usually with a Terran gift of some sort on his birthday—despite all his attempts at reading her. Then he thinks about Jim, the illogical, human way that he plays, and his 82% winning ratio.

In their next chess match, Spock experiments. He sacrifices a rook without thinking too deeply about it, and forcibly stops himself from calculating a strategy more than three moves in advance.

He doesn’t win, but it takes Jim exactly 1.67 times as long to get him in checkmate. And the way Jim smiles at him across the board when they’re finished, blue eyes twinkling as if holding all the secrets Spock has ever wanted to know, somehow makes the loss an entirely acceptable conclusion to their evening.

After that, Spock experiments more. He trades the Vulcan logic for a touch more emotion and an occasional flash of impulsivity. Whenever his brain informs him that a move he is considering is illogical, he plays it.

By the end of the next month, Jim’s winning ratio has decreased to 57%.

The only reason it isn’t a straight fifty-fifty is because sometimes Jim will smile at him as they play, expression soft and relaxed and utterly mesmerizing, and Spock forgets completely about the game.

 

Three

 

“Sir,” Nyota says, frowning as she looks at the readout on her console. “Incoming transmission from the Hammerstein. It’s on an emergency frequency.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Spock sees Jim straighten in the captain’s chair. It’s a tiny movement, just a barely perceptible adjustment of his spine, but to Spock it is as clear as a neon sign blinking over Jim’s head. The captain is distressed.

They all know why. It’s common knowledge that Winona Kirk serves as Chief of Engineering on the Hammerstein. And emergency frequencies are only ever used for one reason.

When Jim speaks, his voice is steady. Spock, however, can sense his apprehension, his worry. He has become quite adept at reading his captain over the last few months.

“Patch it through, on screen.”

“Yes, sir.”

The viewscreen flickers before opening up into a view of the Hammerstein’s bridge. The feed is distorted, edges fuzzy with static, and the ship must have recently scraped its way out of a battle—sparks fly from broken consoles and the emergency lights flash.

Jim nods at the thirty-something, dark-haired man seated in the central chair, command gold clear. “Captain Seong.”

“Captain Kirk.” Seong gets straight down to business. “As you can undoubtedly tell from the state of my ship, we just had a bit of a disagreement with the Klingons. We gave as good as we got, of course, but there’s been a rather…worrying malfunction in the warp core.”

Jim hums. “How worrying?”

Seong smiles, but it’s grim. “I believe your mother’s exact words were ‘We’re gonna blow up if you don’t get Jim on the line right the fuck now.’”

Jim’s fingers tighten on the armrest; Spock can see the white of his knuckles. “Got it. Put her through.”

The viewscreen switches to the Hammerstein’s engineering deck. Like the bridge, it’s a mess of sparks, smoke and fallen equipment. A middle-aged woman rushes to the terminal, blond hair in disarray, red uniform smudged and rumpled. Her eyes, though, light up when she sees who it is, and Spock immediately sees the family resemblance. “Jim!”

“Mom.” Some of the tension bleeds from Jim’s voice as he smiles, a little lopsided. “And here I thought I’d be the first to break a ship.”

“Shut up, brat,” Winona answers easily, but whatever else she is about to say gets abruptly cut off when something explodes nearby, sending her ducking away off-screen from a shower of sparks. In the chair, Jim flinches, but Spock is pretty sure he is the only one who catches it.

Half a second later, Winona reappears, looking none the worse for wear. “Okay. You probably know why I had the captain hail you.”

Jim nods. “Which version of the specs do you need?”

“We had the B-57 dilithium drive installed just last month, but it’s been updated again since then…”

Jim doesn’t hesitate. “Model 449X. With the coalesced ultrasonics.”

“That’s the one!” There’s a muffled explosion in the background and someone screams in pain. Winona ignores it. “Readouts show a fatal overload in the external particle field relays, but I can’t override them—I only memorized the specs up to Model 447, and they’re networked in a completely different configuration.”

Spock rises from his station, moves to stand beside the captain’s chair, and clears his throat. “Captain, I can attempt to locate the appropriate blueprints for you, or notify Commander Scott—”

“Not necessary.”

“But Captain—”

Jim waves at him distractedly, leaning forward in the chair. Spock frowns; surely Jim, intelligent as he may be, cannot expect to navigate his way around a malfunctioning warp core drive without expert help?

Jim lets out a slow exhale. His entire body stills, blue eyes sharpening as he settles into singular focus, the way Spock has only seen him do when they are in the middle of battle. Then the captain opens his mouth, and the conversation that follows is more rapid and direct than an exchange of phaser fire.

“Radiation output for the outermost relays?”

“Sixteen hundred rem.”

“Jesus. Degree of rotation?”

“From which axis?”

“B.”

“Thirty-nine.”

“Servo-routers still in place?”

“Just the primaries.”

“Can you lock the secondaries?”

“Tried that. Nearly blew my hand off.”

“What about the coaxial coils?”

A brief pause, as something dawns on Winona’s face. “Shit, Jim. The coils—I can reroute the secondary accelerator cells—”

“—To divert the power surge to auxiliary coaxials—”

“—And drop radiation output enough to override! Hold on!” Winona abruptly ducks off screen. Something hits the floor with a bang; fresh sparks shower down across the viewscreen like perverse rainfall. A low hum starts.

Then, all of a sudden, something explodes—and the screen goes black.

Jim shoots to his feet so fast he almost tips the chair over. “Mom!

No response. The black viewscreen mocks them with its emptiness. Jim’s right hand slowly clenches into a fist, shaking with strain.

Spock moves without even thinking about it. Jim’s skin is surprisingly soft beneath his own, the tremble noticeable as Spock wraps fingers around his wrist. The captain startles a little at the touch—Spock gets a brief flash of surprise through their contact, but it’s quickly replaced by recognition, and in the wake of that, nothing but aching worry and fear. Spock takes a breath and works to project calm and understanding, though he cannot tell if Jim feels it.

When the viewscreen flickers again, Jim jerks, and all of a sudden Spock finds himself holding not the captain’s wrist, but his hand. His surprise—and not a bit of pleasure, which he will have to consider more deeply at a later time—is short-lived, however, because all of a sudden the Hammerstein’s engineering deck resolves back into view, Winona bent over the terminal. She has a small cut over her left eye, but otherwise appears unharmed.

Relief rushes from Jim to Spock as the captain straightens and lets out a breath. When he speaks, the tremor in his voice is impossible to conceal. “Mom! Thank God—did it work?”

Winona wipes at the blood running down from the cut, but it doesn’t dampen the warmth of her expression, tinged with pride. Spock realizes with a start that she and Jim have the same smile. “Like a fucking charm. Knew you were good for something, Jimmy.”

Jim laughs, the sound light and almost breathless with relief. “You owe me, like, five of your casseroles for this.” He is still holding Spock’s hand.

“Sure, if you wanna be rolled back onto your ship next shore leave.” Winona peers at Jim, and her face softens into that expression that only a mother can give to her child. “I gotta report back to the captain. Thanks, Jim. I love you.”

“Love you too, Mom. Kirk out.”

The screen goes blank, melting back into the star-speckled emptiness of space. Jim takes a breath, then turns to look at Spock. Their eyes meet, and Jim smiles. A soft thank you whispers through their connection, and Spock nods before releasing his hold on Jim’s hand.

He doesn’t think about how it takes considerably more effort than strictly necessary to do so.

 

Four

 

Spock calculates that his odds of escaping this situation alive are less than 3.86%.

The aliens they have been instructed to make first contact with tower fully three meters in height and are vaguely humanoid in appearance. The little data that Starfleet provided indicates that they are largely a peaceful species, devoted more to scientific study and mathematical theorems than violence, and Spock had actually been looking forward to meeting them, the aliens’ lifestyle reminding him much of Vulcans.

He is much less excited now that one of the aliens currently holds him hostage with an ion-based projectile weapon pressed to his temple.

He spares a flash of gratitude that apparently they picked him and not the others due to his blue uniform. It is, however, not a great comfort, considering the alien holding him now sounds more and more distressed, tones of varying frequency and pitch emerging from its exterior vocal cords while it projects bizarre geometric shapes from the small device on its palm with startling speed. It is a language no one—not even Nyota—comprehends, and Spock would admire that, except the breakdown of communication is the reason why he was taken hostage in the first place.

His only consolation is the thought that if they kill him, it might buy enough time for the Enterprise to beam out Nyota and the rest of the team.

…And there it is: shimmering white indicating transport—but no. It is not taking them, but bringing someone new. It is…

Jim.

The captain’s face, to his credit, betrays nothing as he takes in the scene: the aliens towering over the away team like cats over very small, very helpless mice; Spock with the gun to his head. The aliens themselves seem to become even more agitated by the captain’s arrival, if the way the tones increase in pitch is any indication.

Jim doesn’t even seem to hear them as he turns to Nyota. “Explain.”

Nyota swallows; Spock can tell it is only her fear of escalating the situation beyond control that is keeping her from pulling out her phaser. “Their language is indecipherable, Captain, and without an underlying linguistic pattern, the universal translator can’t build a translation matrix. And I can’t find any discernible configuration for their vocalizations. It…got out of hand pretty quickly.”

Jim nods before looking at Spock. “You okay, Commander?”

“For the moment,” Spock answers, and knows Jim picks up on the underlying message: But not for long.

The alien holding him bursts into another series of vibrating tones as its palm device projects what looks like a complicated, crystalline pattern of interlocked hexagons. Jim tilts his head and narrows his eyes, watching the projection.

The UT beeps. “Coin-flashlight-sunbathing-sheep.

Nyota curses in a language Spock doesn’t recognize. “See? Fucking useless.”

“One moment, Lieutenant.” Jim is still focused on the geometric projection, which has now dissolved into a vaguely circular collection of flat rectangles, like an antique Terran disco ball. Lifting his gaze, he looks straight at the alien holding Spock and then points at the projection.

Apparently it is the right thing to do, because Spock does not suddenly find his head ventilated. Instead, the alien responds with another series of indecipherable tones. The projection changes, rectangles sharpening into cones so that it looks like the end of a medieval flail.

Warp five-giraffe,” the UT informs them helpfully.

Jim suddenly straightens. His blue eyes flash. “It’s the angles,” he murmurs, nonsensically, before turning to Nyota. “Give me your padd.”

She hands it over without protest, and Jim sets to work. His fingers fly over the screen, and Spock can barely distinguish his mumbles, though he catches the words “vector” and “degrees of rotation”. Several moments later, he steps forward and turns the padd so that the alien can see it. A rough, pyramidal stack of rhombuses fills the screen.

The aliens all seem to take a collective breath. They turn to beep at each other, palm projections shifting with blinding speed, and Spock stares as Jim’s gaze flicks from one image to the other, processing each one, picking out the overlaps, constructing patterns. His brow furrows and he constructs another image on the padd: diamonds pasted together into a vague W shape.

The alien holding Spock emits a low tone that lasts for at least five seconds. It projects something which Jim responds to with the padd, and the exchange continues for an additional thirty seconds before a look of grim satisfaction finally passes over Jim’s face.

“Okay,” he says, and hands the padd back to Nyota.

Spock wants to ask Jim what has just happened, but is interrupted when the alien abruptly withdraws the gun and shoves him forward. Nyota catches him before he can fall, and he turns just in time to watch in horror as Jim steps up to take his place. “Captain!”

“Don’t worry,” Jim calls back. “I was probably about as articulate as a preschooler, but I told them I was in charge and that they’d want to trade you for me.” He paused. “Or at least, I hope that’s what I told them. My differential geometry’s a little rusty.”

Next to Spock, Nyota sounds strangled. “Captain, what…?”

Jim smiles, and Spock finds his surprise at Jim’s intuition overshadowed by a surge of irrational fury. How can he be trying to comfort them when he is the one who has just potentially traded out his life?

“It’s math, Uhura,” Jim says. “The projections are based on some sort of higher-order variational calculus and geometry. I’m guessing those tones are peripheral forms of emotional expression, maybe base-eight, but could also be base-ten, I’m not sure. I patched together a basic program using subroutines on the padd, but there’s only enough to communicate very broad concepts. You’ll need the Enterprise’s supercomputers to refine everything. Better get to it.”

“And you shall simply expect to remain here in their custody, unharmed, in the meantime?” Spock demands.

Jim looks at him. When he smiles, his blue eyes shine. “Yup. I’m counting on you to rescue me, Mr. Spock.” He flips open his communicator. “Scotty, beam everyone back up except me.”

What?

“That’s an order.”

“…Aye, sir.”

The last thing Spock sees before the white consumes him is Jim, giving him that soft look that says, This isn’t the end.

Eight hours later—after Spock and Uhura have pushed the Enterprise’s computational capacity to its limit, after they have returned to the planet with an arsenal of padds and tonal emitters hastily modified from tricorders, after the aliens have apologized profusely for the misunderstanding and Jim has smiled at Spock on the bridge and said No, Spock, we’re not going to blow their planet into oblivion—Spock makes his way down the hall toward the captain’s quarters. His hands tremble as he presses the button to request entry.

Jim beams as soon as he answers the door. “Spock! What can I do for you?”

He is wearing boxers and a threadbare T-shirt, apparently in the middle of pre-bedtime rituals. Spock does not let that fact stop him from sweeping right past Jim into his office. Jim scrambles backward to avoid being bowled over. “Sure, of course you can come in,” he grumbles, although there is no real anger in his voice.

Spock turns to look at him. There is a fading yellow bruise beneath his eye—one of the aliens became impatient and chose to…intimidate him a little—but otherwise Dr. McCoy has assured them (quite severely, and with many venomous glares in Jim’s direction) that the captain is in good health. It does nothing to improve Spock’s mood.

Jim must sense something of what Spock is feeling because he crosses his arms and tilts his head, face taking on a wary expression. “Everything okay, Mr. Spock?”

Spock takes a deep breath and calls on all his control to keep his voice steady as he says, “Your trade on the planet was extremely illogical.”

Jim blinks, then laughs a little. “Oh, come on, Spock, you—”

“You are the commanding officer and captain of this ship,” Spock interrupts. “Had you perished on the planet—”

“But I didn’t—”

“That is hardly the point! Logic dictates—”

“It was logical.”

Spock blinks, and Jim sighs. His gaze flicks about the room for a moment, touches on Spock, then drops to the floor. When he speaks, his voice is resigned. “Being captain doesn’t make me the most important person on board,” he says. “And trading myself for you on that planet was the best option. If we were ever going to refine that language enough to communicate beyond caveman grunts, we needed you on the job, not me.

“I’m good with mechanics and engineering and all that, but when it comes to running supercomputers, that’s your domain. If I had tried to work with Uhura to decipher that language, you’d probably still be down there on that planet. Most likely dead.” He pauses and bites his lip, lifting his gaze to look straight at Spock. “And I wasn’t gonna take that chance.”

His blue eyes glint in the dim overhead light, soft and just the slightest bit sad. Protectiveness surges over Spock, overwhelming and unstoppable, and he shakes his head, unable to keep the tremor from his voice despite his best efforts as he says, “No, Jim. You are wrong.”

Jim blinks, and Spock draws a breath. “You say you are not the most important person on this ship,” he whispers, “but you are wrong. You have no equivalent. If you were to die…if I had to continue on without you…” But he can’t finish. He does not have the words to express the boiling, churning thing inside him, the manic, burning need that sings in his blood when he looks at Jim, when he thinks of his captain’s bright eyes and the too-dry feel of his skin.

There is a word for it, this emotion, but Spock is afraid to acknowledge it, fears it will be the thing that finally shatters him.

Jim, though, seems to understand, because he moves, slowly coming to stand in front of Spock so that their faces barely inches apart. “Spock,” he whispers, and everything comes out in the name.

Spock exhales, shaky, and reaches forward to curl fingers in the front of Jim’s shirt. “You must never leave me,” he murmurs, and it’s nonsense, and he does not care. “Promise me, Jim. Please.

And there is no logic in his words, in demanding something he knows Jim cannot deliver, yet Jim just nods, reaching up to wind fingers through Spock’s short hair. His eyes shine in the dim light, sad, but also brimming with emotion. “Okay,” he answers, soft. “Okay, Spock. Anything.”

And then finally, finally, he closes the distance between them, and Spock thinks, as he kisses back with everything he has, that it is all right if he cannot tell Jim just what he feels, just how much the younger man has come to mean to him in only the short couple of years they have known each other.

Their language has never required words.

 

Five

 

When Alana straightens from the control console and turns to face them, hir expression is contrite. “I am unable to bring up either the main or backup programs,” se says. “My most sincere apologies for the inconvenience.”

Standing behind Jim and Spock, McCoy snorts. “Oh, sure. Inconvenience. An armada of Polian ships descending on the planet, intent on wiping us all out, and it’s just an inconvenience.”

“Bones,” Jim chides, before turning to the Vaali diplomat who, until approximately twelve hours ago, had only been tasked with showing them around their capital city. Funny how a planetwide attack by a warmongering neighboring species tended to rearrange one’s schedule.

“Are any of the pilots still alive?” Jim asks next.

Alana holds up a three-fingered hand. Hir bulbous eyes go from bright yellow to milky white as se searches the interconnected Vaali neural network for information. It is not quite telepathy—not in the way Vulcans understand it—and Spock wishes, not for the first time, that the Polians could have waited at least a little longer so that he could have studied the process in more detail.

Of course, that would be expecting far too much of the Polians. They have been at intermittent war with the Vaali for the better part of a century, and after nearly succumbing to an invasion three decades ago, the Vaali put all their impressive intellect into constructing a planetwide orbital defense system that they call the Skynet. Spock still does not know why Jim chuckled when he first heard the name.

The Skynet is the most sophisticated defense system Spock has ever encountered, and he suspects it is the main reason why Starfleet urged the Enterprise to form a trade agreement with the Vaali. It consists of tens of thousands of generators all hovering in low orbit, each spaced a few miles apart, forming a protective net that surrounds the planet. Each generator is capable of producing a concentrated particle laser that could cut right through the Enterprise, shields and all, and when the Skynet is fully activated, no invading force can hope to stand up against it.

Except the Polians have somehow managed to send in an advance landing party, who have disabled the Skynet’s control program and destroyed all its main components. Without the central computer to coordinate commands and control each individual generator, the Skynet is, at best, inoperable. And if they are unable to locate a Vaali backup pilot…

Alana lets out a breath, eyes turning back to yellow. Se lowers hir hand. “Their corpses have just been located.”

Tension ripples through the room. Even with the control program down, a trained Vaali pilot would have been able to operate the system—inefficiently, yes, but they would have stood a chance. Now, though, with the pilots dead, the Skynet is about as useful a defense against the Polians as the shirt on Spock’s back.

Past his shoulder, McCoy shifts and clears his throat. “Jim,” the doctor says, voice low, “We’d better get back to the ship.”

Jim doesn’t answer, but Alana looks scandalized. “You cannot—you must help us!”

“And how do you propose we do so?” Spock asks. “The Enterprise is but one ship against the entire Polian fleet. We are already fortunate that our helmsman has concealed her on a nearby moon.”

“But you leave us to die!” Alana cries. Hir eyes bulge with hurt and desperation. “Is this how the Federation treats new allies? Abandoning them in their time of greatest need?”

McCoy snarls. “Listen, you—”

“That’s enough.” Jim speaks softly, but he might as well have shouted because Spock finds himself responding to the command in his voice almost on instinct. McCoy, too, ceases speaking, though Spock can see the vein pulsing in irritation in his temple.

Jim turns from them and approaches the Skynet terminal. It is vaguely orb-shaped, roughly the size of a standard escape pod, and surrounded on all sides by viewscreens and control panels of a sleek technology the likes of which Spock has never seen. A chair designed to accommodate the humanoid bodies of the Vaali sits in the center of the terminal, but it has seen very little use—the control program has always done all the work.

The control program that the Polians have sabotaged.

Jim contemplates the terminal for a moment, expression grim. Unease settles at the bottom of Spock’s gut like a stone. A low warning warbles over the building’s speakers: “Enemy ships will breach the atmosphere in seven point four minutes.

Then Jim turns to Alana. “So. The chair have a seat belt?” McCoy stiffens, and Spock feels his heart drop into his boots.

“I do not understand your meaning,” Alana answers, but Spock is already striding forward, seizing Jim by the arm.

“No,” he says. “You cannot do this, Jim.”

The captain sighs, voice tinged with the same resignation as when he’d faced Spock in his quarters so long ago and said, Being captain doesn’t make me the most important person on board. It makes anger, hurt and bone-chilling fear surge up in Spock so that it is suddenly very hard to breathe as Jim says, “I have to try.”

“The terminal is calibrated for Vaali physiology,” Spock says, and knows he is pleading and doesn’t care. “We do not know what it would do to a human. It could kill you.”

“Goddamnit, Jim, the hobgoblin’s right for once,” McCoy hisses, stepping up too. “Listen to him! You’d be doing something that’s usually tasked to a planetwide supercomputer. Do you have any idea what sort of damage that could do to your brain?”

“Well,” Jim answers with a lopsided smile, “Guess I’ll just have to count on you to patch me up after, Bones.”

“For the love of—” McCoy throws up his hands and turns away, shoulders shaking.

Spock swallows and slides his hand down Jim’s arm to caress his fingers with his own. “Jim,” he whispers, looking into his lover’s eyes. “Please.

Jim watches him, soft. A rush of sorry-have to-love you surges through their contact, wrapping around Spock’s heart and squeezing like steel cords. “We’re talking about a planet here, Spock,” Jim says, voice pitched low, for his ears only. “Billions of lives.”

Vulcan, he doesn’t say, but Spock hears it anyway. I have to try.

Spock swallows, and can’t say anything for a moment. Jim doesn’t believe Vulcan was his fault, but standing by and letting another tragedy like that happen would break him. And though Spock wants to protest, wants to argue and plead and beg Jim not to do this, not to leave him…he knows Jim too well. This isn’t about the Vaali, or the Polians, or the Skynet or the fancy trade agreement Starfleet Command hopes they’ll come out of this with. It’s about what Jim thinks is right, and what he believes about no-win scenarios. And it’s about how much Spock loves him, enough to know when to let go.

In front of him, Jim smiles, a little sad, but genuine nonetheless. Then he moves forward, brushing his lips gently over Spock’s own. Alana clicks hir nails together in surprise, but McCoy just shakes his head, looking pained. Spock reaches for Jim when he pulls back, but his lover just touches his cheek, painfully brief.

“Be right back,” he murmurs, and turns toward the terminal. And though every cell in his body wills him to do so, Spock does not stop him.

The terminal buzzes to life as soon as Jim falls into the chair. A glowing sphere of reddish light expands to surround him, a holoprojection of the planet, as tendrils of red snake around his shoulders and head. Jim gasps softly and jerks when the cerebral connections cement themselves, but otherwise says nothing as the Skynet unfurls itself.

The display is oddly beautiful, despite Spock’s worry. Smoky, nebulous red forms surround Jim on all sides, each a subsection of the Skynet, the individual generators present but too small to be distinguished. On the outer rim, a series of large dots—the Polian mother ships—abruptly release a multitude of smaller dots, thousands of them: the attack has begun.

Alana shifts, uncomfortable and afraid. “Will he be able to—”

“Be silent,” Spock snaps, watching Jim’s gaze dart about the terminal, learning, planning. Then, just as the first of the Polian destroyers fall into range, Jim engages the generators.

Explosions sound out in the atmosphere above them, distant and muffled through the building’s metal walls. Inside the terminal, the nebulous red clumps of the Skynet suddenly turn iridescent blue as Jim pulls them into the fray section by section, dots winking out of existence as Polian ships are annihilated by lasers. The scene is deceptively calm: Jim’s fingers twitch and his gaze flicks from one end of the terminal to the other, but otherwise he does not move, the Skynet reading commands directly from his brain and implementing them with deadly accuracy thousands of miles overhead.

It’s mesmerizing, and Spock allows an instant to appreciate how quickly Jim learns the system, how seamlessly he commands each individual generator to target each individual ship, how he conducts the Skynet like a vast planetwide orchestra of death—

“Jim!” McCoy cries, breaking into Spock’s thoughts, “a separate battalion just broke off the main group, eleven o’clock—”

Jim hums and another section of the Skynet activates. Right now he has roughly half the generators engaged, but the Polians are spreading all around the planet in an attempt to find a weak point—he will soon need the entire system—

“There is another group,” Alana says, but cannot provide more information, untrained.

Spock fills in for hir, and feels his voice tremble with every word, “Attempting to penetrate the line at coordinates point-oh-seven.”

Jim waves a hand and activates the generators there—the terminal beeps, and Spock doesn’t miss it—Jim’s wince, pain stuttering across his lover’s face. Fear slams into him like a physical blow and he hurries forward. “Jim, you are over capacity—”

“I can do it,” the captain answers through gritted teeth, as more and more sections of the Skynet activate, red giving way to blue like a rapid-fire cancer. His blue eyes are determined, but his face is covered in a sheen of sweat and his hands tremble.

Another set of generators activated—he has almost the entire Skynet running now—and McCoy swears when an alarm suddenly begins to wail. “Damnit, Jim, disengage now—”

“I can do it!” Jim shouts, strained, and it’s all blue now, every one of the thousands of generators wired to his brain— “Just—”

It happens all at once, so fast Spock barely has time to blink. The last of the enemy dots disappear, eradicated in the space above. The Skynet glows blinding blue, the entire terminal seeming to shudder with strain, and Jim makes a strangled sound of half-surprise, half-pain. Then suddenly the glowing red tendrils connected to his brain pull taut and snap, and Jim gasps—and begins to seize.

An agonized sound of desperation echoes through the room, and Spock doesn’t even realize it issued from his own mouth as he launches himself forward, grabs Jim’s chair and yanks it back from the terminal with so much force the metal pops free from its base. The momentum sends Jim tumbling to the floor but Spock is there to catch him, cradling him close—but he is too late. Jim’s body gives one last wild tremor before he slumps in Spock’s arms, eyes closed and unmoving.

Then McCoy is there, running a tricorder over Jim’s body, and whatever he sees makes his eyes widen. “Shit!

Spock suddenly finds himself sitting on the floor, knocked aside by McCoy, but the rage that instinctively springs up in him is quickly quelled when he sees the doctor bend over Jim and begin to administer CPR, and then all he feels is the deep, mind-numbing fear, because Jim isn’t—he can’t be—

The doctor’s voice breaks through the oncoming shock like a bulldozer. “The hell’re you doing?” McCoy yells, compressing Jim’s chest with enough force to bounce the captain’s body against the floor, and Jim is so limp, so lifeless— “Get us back to the fuckin’ ship right now!

And it is as if the direction is all Spock needed to snap back to reality because everything becomes clear once again. The fear is still there, still grips his heart with icy fingers, but he forces it to the back of his mind as he grabs for his communicator and flips it open. “Spock to Enterprise. Beam us up immediately, and have a medical team report to the transporter room.”

“Aye, sir,” comes Commander Scott’s voice.

Spock then turns to Alana, watching them with a bug-eyed, helpless expression. When he speaks, the calm of his voice surprises even himself. “If he does not survive this, I will personally return and finish what the Polians started.”

He never gets to hear Alana’s response, white surrounding his vision as his particles disassemble, but he takes grim satisfaction in knowing the Vaali, with hir keen pseudo-telepathy, knows exactly how the true the threat is.

 

Six

 

When Spock enters their shared quarters a few minutes after shift end, Jim, seated on the edge of the bed, smiles up at him from his book. “How was your day,” he asks. The lighted blue dot on the voice generator, clipped over his ear rather like an antique Bluetooth, blinks with each monotone, computerized word.

“Adequate,” Spock answers, crossing to him for a quick kiss. “Although I anticipate it will improve considerably once you are cleared for duty.”

Jim huffs a breath out the corner of his mouth. “Me too.” He waves a hand at the rest of the room. “I’ll go crazy if I have to stay here any longer.

“Dr. McCoy’s instructions were for you to recuperate in your quarters until the neural treatments are finished.”

Jim sighs. “I know. I just feel like I’m neglecting my duties.

Spock allows a bit of delight in how his lover withers a little at his stern look. “Jim, you gave yourself a massive stroke, from the frontal lobe all the way to the brainstem. I believe Dr. McCoy’s exact words were ‘He’s lucky he didn’t become a fucking vegetable’. In light of that, some time for rest and recovery is the most logical course of action.”

Jim looks away, shoulders slumping a bit. “Yeah, you’re right.” A brief pause, then: “It’s just…between the aphasia and the IMA, I feel so fucking useless.

Spock cannot help but quirk his lips a bit at how Jim has already managed to program profanity into the voice generator. The amusement quickly fades, though, when he remembers the first few days after Jim was released from sickbay: his frustrated attempts at talking, the way he could not perform even simple tasks such as typing on a padd or brushing his own teeth. He is a bit more coordinated now, and with intense concentration can manage to move pieces on his own when he and Spock play chess, but Spock can only imagine his lover’s frustration. For Jim, who has always been so active, always moving, always looking forward, this sudden stall in his life must be more agonizing than torture at the hands of Klingons.

Reaching forward, he takes Jim’s hand in his own, running reassuring fingers over his lover’s palm. “Dr. McCoy has informed me that there are only three treatments left,” he says. “Two, if your neuronal regeneration continues at its current rate. It is only a few more weeks, Jim. You will not be like this forever.”

I know.” Jim smiles a little, intertwining their fingers. “And it was for a good cause, right?

“Very much so.”

The Vaali totally owe me, like, ten custom-built Skynets for—” The light on the voice generator abruptly turns red and Jim flinches, a barely perceptible twitch of his eye. Spock catches it like a yell of pain.

“Your voicer is reaching maximum load,” he says, and reaches for the device, but Jim shies away.

I can manage a little longer.

“No.” Because after what happened with the Skynet, Spock is taking no chances with any devices connected to Jim’s brain. But when he reaches up and Jim shies back again, he sighs and says, “I would hear your voice, Jim. Even if you cannot find the words.”

It isn’t a lie. Though it has only been about a week since Vaali and Jim’s stroke, Spock has missed his lover’s voice like a severed limb. Through all the time Spock has known him, Jim has never been quiet: always talking, laughing, smiling, joking, and Spock hates that Jim is unable to do so now. He hates it so much that multiple times he has considered throwing out the voice generator entirely, and the only thing that has stayed his hand has been the knowledge that the little device is the only thing allowing Jim some reprieve in a situation where he is almost entirely helpless.

Jim presses his lips together and looks away, unhappy, but lets Spock disconnect the voice regenerator without protest. Spock makes sure the apology is audible in his voice as he asks, “How is the pain now?”

“Um.” Jim’s face takes on an expression of intense concentration as he tries to locate the appropriate word from a lingual network that disintegrated on Vaali a week ago. “Um. Bet.” More searching, and a brief flicker of frustration. “Better,” Jim says at last.

His voice is low and raspy with disuse, yet still it is the most beautiful sound Spock has ever heard. He nods, encouraging, and strokes the back of Jim’s hand. “Would you like to play chess?”

Jim shakes his head, making a face as he points to his own temple and mumbles, “Um. Um. Hurts.”

The headaches, McCoy informed them earlier, are a natural side effect of the neuronal regeneration, and therefore cannot be medicated directly. Spock half-wants to inject Jim with a painkiller anyway, especially since he knows the pain must be quite severe if Jim is admitting to it.

He doesn’t. Instead, he tilts his head and presents an idea he has been considering for some time now. “Perhaps we could meld,” he says.

Jim blinks, suitably surprised. In all the time they have known each other, they have only melded twice, and only shallowly, in emergencies. Spock has long desired more, especially after getting periodic glimpses over the years of the vastness of Jim’s intellect. His mindscape is sure to be beautiful, and Spock wishes to walk it with Jim, to explore the nuances and brilliant edges of his lover’s consciousness.

Every time he has asked, though, Jim has hesitated. Spock is unsure exactly why—he suspects it may have something to do with the intense emotional transfer Jim experienced from his meld with Spock’s older counterpart on the icy blankness of Delta Vega, a fact of which Spock remains completely and irrationally jealous to this day—but he has tried not to push, tried to grant his lover this one sliver of space in a world where James Kirk rarely asks for anything.

It is his duty as Jim’s lover, his partner, his other half in all their endless universes. And though Spock wishes nothing more than to walk Jim’s undoubtedly breathtaking mindscape, he would never do so without Jim’s complete trust and consent.

Now, though, Jim seems less reluctant. Perhaps it is the pain, or the frustration over not being able to communicate at his usual level, but Jim actually appears to be considering Spock’s proposal. It gives Spock hope, so that he continues, “It would allow me to lessen the pain somewhat, and you could communicate without having to speak.”

He feels anticipation already welling up in his body, and barely contains his sigh of relief when, at last, Jim nods.

They shift into more comfortable positions on the bed, lying side by side, facing each other. Spock reaches out, lays his fingers gently on Jim’s meld points, and begins.

The process of mind melding has been described by many as a sensation akin to leaping from a high point into a pool of deep water. Indeed, on the rare occasion Spock has melded with others, this has generally been his experience. However, such an image cannot begin to describe how it feels to meld with Jim. Rather than diving into a pool, it is as if Spock has spent his entire life as some half-blind underground creature, rooting around pathetically in the dark before suddenly breaking through a weak spot in the soil above, emerging at last from the darkness into the bright sunlight.

And oh, the sunlight.

Spock has always known Jim’s mindscape would be bright—the brilliance has shone through even during their previous superficial melds, like magma struggling to break through fissures in a planet’s crust—yet seeing it fully for the first time, Spock can barely breathe for the beauty. It is like standing on the edge of a supernova, an ever-expanding glow of warmth and light, and Spock revels in it, stands in awe like a worshipper before the brilliance of a god. He knows, has always known, and he reaches tendrils of himself out to brush Jim’s mind, feels his lover respond with a pulse of warmth and feeling, nebulous at first but then slowly taking shape, coalescing into…

Spock?

I am here, Jim.

Colors of confusion—not uncomfortable, just new. Wow, this is pretty weird—it’s not even like you’re in my head but like you’re everywhere.

 Yes. And he is. Already Spock can feel his mind responding instinctively to Jim’s own, interweaving their beings like a seamless fabric, his own steady, cooler consciousness integrating naturally into Jim’s mindscape, the sky to Jim’s brilliant sun.

A spike of curiosity, a brief solar flare. Is it always like this?

Never. And it is true; all the other minds Spock has touched throughout the years seem mere shadows now, fleeting and insignificant. Only with you.

Jim gives a contemplative mental hum, and Spock catches a flicker of a thought. It’s private without meaning to be so, a stone skipping over the lake of their joined minds as Jim muses briefly over how this meld feels so different from the previous one, from the one with him.

Spock already knows which him Jim is thinking of. A dark thundercloud, hot and possessive, gathers before he can stop himself, and he feels more than hears Jim’s laugh.

Jealous, are we?

With some effort Spock makes the cloud dissipate, but he does not bother lying. It would be moot, here. Yes.

Another short mental hum before Jim replies, You know you have nothing to worry about, right? It’s followed almost immediately by Here, let me show you.

And really, Spock thinks, just before Jim locates the mental door and swings it wide open, he shouldn’t be surprised that his lover has already learned how to navigate and manipulate his mindscape with an ease and deftness it takes most Vulcans years to master.

It hits him like a physical wave, a tsunami of disjointed images, thoughts and feelings: he sees himself walk onto the bridge of the Enterprise, feels the rush of relief-warmth-joy as Jim accepts him as First Officer. He watches himself across a chess board, accompanied by Jim’s quiet contentment at the easiness of their friendship. An image of himself getting food from the replicator across the mess hall after shift, a long, drawn-out stare before Jim turns back to his own plate, struggling against the surge of affection and sad longing because that could never happen, Spock would never feel that way about me.

He looks down at his own face upon the rumpled, sweat-soaked pillows, flushed and broken open in ecstasy, and staggers under the flood of heat and desire and love that tears through his heart, his very being, because he finally has this, has been granted this, and he will see the universe itself torn from end to bloody end before he lets this precious, beautiful thing between them out of his grasp.

The wave recedes, broken on the beach and now withdrawing, and Spock stumbles in its wake, overwhelmed by the strength, the depth of Jim’s emotions. It leaves him breathless, reeling, so that his next words come not from his conscious mind, but from somewhere deeper, more primal, the half of his soul that has always cried for completion.

Bond with me.

A myriad of emotions flickers across Jim’s mindscape, bursts of color like brief, distorted fireworks. Uh…what?

Bond with me. Spock says it stronger, firmer, finds his resolve and projects it like lightning across the sunlit sky. If ever he had any doubts about what he wanted, they are gone now. He wants Jim with him, joined in body, mind, and soul, for however long they have left together, and then even longer after that.

Are you… It is impossible to blink here, but Jim somehow manages the mental approximation of doing so. Are you proposing to me, Spock?

This is the Vulcan equivalent, yes.

A brief silence. Then, suddenly, Jim laughs. The mindscape shimmers and crackles with his amusement, colored by a clear undertone of warmth and happiness that makes Spock smile in spite of himself.

I take it that your answer is in the affirmative?

Another laugh, bright with mirth. My answer, Mr. Spock, is apparently great minds think alike. In quick succession, Spock gets a series of three images: beaming down to Corin II during their last shore leave, Bones grumbling the entire way but dutifully helping to haggle with the metalsmith, and finally, the simple silver ring sitting in its velvet box in the bottom drawer of Jim’s desk, which he was going to bring out just as soon as they finished that stupid diplomatic assignment to Vaali.

For a moment he is too bewildered to reply, and when at last he does, it is only to say, in that offhand way one might when the remainder of his brain is otherwise indisposed to form more coherent thought, It appears we are in agreement as to the future of our relationship then.

Yes, Spock, Jim answers, soft and content. We are very much in agreement.

 Another ripple of pleasure through Jim’s mindscape, quiet and satisfied, and Spock sends back a small burst of his own, warmth and affection that ripples through the sky like a gathering wind. Jim sighs in response. Hey, Spock?

Yes, Jim.

Did you ever think, when we first met, that we would end up here? Like this?

It’s an honest question, Jim’s curiosity shining through in golden rays, so Spock gives an honest answer.

Yes.

Really? Why?

It is difficult to explain. Spock thinks back to all their interactions over the years, from bringing an arrogant cadet up on charges of academic dishonesty, to stepping onto the bridge of the Enterprise to blue eyes and a bright smile, to dodging all manner of alien projectiles on away missions to various hostile planets, to on the rare occasion not quite dodging fast enough and looking up into Jim’s panicked face as his hands smeared green and he breathed, Spock, for God’s sake, don’t you die on me, that’s an order.

From stuffy diplomatic missions to that one memorably botched assassination attempt on Beta Lambent, from Jim’s easy smile across the chess board to the gentle brush of his fingers and lips, to the way he sometimes looks at Spock and seems to see past all his fragile Vulcan facades, straight into his very human soul.

And the softening in his eyes that tells Spock he likes what he sees there.

Spock hums, a mental flutter through the not-air of Jim’s mindscape, and says, I have always known, Jim.

He can feel Jim’s skepticism and knows, had his lover been capable of doing so, he would have snorted. Superstition, huh? Never took you for a believer, Spock.

I was not, Spock agrees, and puts everything that he is, everything that he has ever wanted to be and all that Jim has given him throughout the years, into his next words.

Until I met you.

Jim’s smile sets the universe alight.