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"It is useless to say it, I know, but it rises out of my soul. For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing."
A Tale of Two Cities
His comm rang for the third time in as many minutes, and for the third time, Jim ignored it. He reached for the wine bottle instead and refilled his glass, hoping it would ward off the headache that had been forming for the last hour. The painkillers hadn't worked.
"Another?" he asked, holding the bottle aloft. Carol nodded and he gave her a generous pour.
"This is good," she remarked, lifting the glass to her mouth. "I never took you for a wine drinker."
"A gift from my former CMO," Jim said, wiping a drip from the bottle's neck before returning it to the small outdoor table. He placed a single hand on the railing and looked into the night. "I find it relaxing."
A chime alerted him to a new voice message. When he found the faculty member who gave his home number to students the night before an exam, he'd have words for him—four-letter words. The line had rung continually since he returned home at 1800 hours. He'd been foolish and answered the first two calls. The rest, he'd let the home computer manage. What quality of cadets was Starfleet recruiting nowadays, he wondered, that they would call a professor at home? No one in his graduating class would have dared. He'd mention it to Number One the next time they met for drinks. She'd raise hell about it. He took the glass in hand and swirled the deep red liquid, lowered himself into a chair, and brought the wine to his lips.
They sat beside one another on the balcony, overlooking a darkened Pacific. It was June on Earth, cool and breezy. The stars were bright. He gazed at them with longing.
"How have you been?" he asked Carol.
"Fine, but I meant to ask, how have you been since...?"
She frowned slightly, folding her arms over her waist and exhaling. "It was hard at first. As the years go by, it's gotten easier."
"We never got a chance to talk about what happened on Genesis," Jim said gently.
"I regret that. Deeply. And, for what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"What happened wasn't your fault," Carol said in a tone that belied her words. She drank deeply from her glass and avoided his eyes.
Jim leaned back in his chair, regarding her. Carol had always been a beautiful woman. Strong, self-assured, driven. They had met when Jim was twenty-seven. Their affair had been passionate but brief. When she learned she was expecting, Carol had been unwilling to sacrifice her career for Jim's. They went separate ways. She raised David on her own, with no input from Jim at her request. Excepting the odd picture she would send him, he hadn't seen David until he was twenty-four, already a man.
She was older now; of course, so was he. Twelve years had passed since Genesis and David's death. The skin around her eyes was wrinkled, her lips thinner. She wore her hair longer, swept away from her face. It was brushed by gray, but then so was his.
"I wish I'd gotten to know him," Jim said. "I wish he'd gotten to know me."
"He was a remarkable young man." Carol lifted her head and regarded Jim evenly. Her blue-gray eyes were glassy. "I was proud to say he was my son."
"As was I."
She studied his face, nodding slowly to herself and smiling sadly. "He was a lot like you in many ways: stubborn, confident." She paused. "Loyal," she added.
She motioned just inside to the framed photograph from Jim's first command aboard the Enterprise. It had been taken before the ship left space dock. He was seated next to Spock, and both of them wore expressions of wonder and excitement. Spock's was less obvious, but Jim had learned to read him in all their years together. He remembered fondly the early days of their friendship, how innocent it had been when they were still young men, how many years they wasted on flirtation. He smiled at the photograph and sighed, rubbing his forehead. It had begun to ache steadily. He should take something more but was too relaxed to stand.
"He's not here with you?" she asked.
"He's on Vulcan," Jim answered quietly, "or was, the last I spoke with him."
Carol quirked an eyebrow.
"He's an ambassador," Jim clarified, and Carol's mouth and eyes widened in understanding. She sat back and crossed her legs, dangling the glass from her right hand. "Even after almost a quarter century being bonded to a human, he still doesn't appreciate our propensity for small talk. I don't call him anymore unless I have something to report."
"There were always rumors about the two of you," Carol mused, "about the Enterprise and her inseparable command team. They even reached us in the science world. Of course, I never believed them. Jim Kirk, care for something more than he loved the stars? Imagine my surprise when I heard you were married."
"We surprised a lot of people, though we informed our close friends after he returned to Starfleet. He left for three years," Jim explained. He still hated to think of Gol. He set down his glass, folding his hands on his stomach. "We kept it private, for professional reasons. We maintained separate quarters on board. The senior crew members knew."
"Of course," Carol said. "You don't travel with him?"
"I did," Jim said, rubbing his temples, "when I first retired. I turned down a chance to accompany the Enterprise-B on her maiden voyage, which was hard, let me tell you."
"I can imagine."
"For the first few years, we traveled between our respective planets, split time between the two. Spock took over some of his father's responsibilities as the Vulcan ambassador to Earth. And I...well I learned to pass the time on Vulcan."
"I've never visited."
"It is beautiful in its way," Jim said thoughtfully, closing his eyes to conjure the red planet. "Very hot. They have two suns, and practically the entire planet is a desert. The oxygen is low, and the gravity is high. After a while, a human body acclimates to the conditions, but the first week is difficult. I've never gotten used to the sky."
He took up his glass again and sipped.
"I like Vulcans," Jim said, and he laughed. "I like one half-Vulcan in particular. I always enjoyed my professional interactions with them as a race, but to live among them is quite different."
"I imagine their lack of emotion would become taxing after a point."
"Yes," Jim agreed. "I find it frustrating at times. It can be...alienating."
Inside, the comm rang again. Carol frowned.
"You're a popular man."
"I'm a popular professor giving a less-than-popular exam in the morning," he said chuckling. "I have no idea how they came to have my home number. I stopped answering calls two hours ago."
He nodded. "I was offered an emeritus position at Starfleet Academy. I'm teaching a seminar on the importance of creative thinking in tactical planning. Well, it began as a seminar—twenty students maximum, they said—but there were so many registrations, it's become a three-hundred person lecture. At least I have teaching assistants to handle the grading."
"It's wonderful there's so much interest in the topic."
"I thought so too at first, but mostly I think they want to hear the old stories. I was going to turn down the position initially, but Spock encouraged me to stay."
"It must be nice to be in demand again. I don’t have the nerve to retire just yet."
"It’s made me restless,” Jim admitted. “The attention is flattering. It’s good to feel important again. Of course, it's hard to be away from Spock." He took a deep breath. He’d laughed at the idea initially, when Starfleet first approached him with their proposal. He and Spock had a month left on Earth before returning to Vulcan. He’d mentioned the offer casually, expecting a list of logical reasons against the temporary separation, but Spock had given him no argument against it. Jim had been struck by the possibility that Spock wished him to stay behind. Jim did not want to think about what that could mean. In the end, he'd accepted out of stubbornness. He shook his head as if to shake the thought loose. "And what about you? Did you ever marry?"
"No," Carol said. "My life is my work. I prefer it that way."
"I've always hoped you would find someone special, after..."
She leaned over and patted his leg.
"There have been a few special someones," she said. "Just none I was willing to spend a lifetime with."
He took her hand. They held them loosely between the chairs. "Do you regret that we never tied the knot?"
"No," she said. "It never would have worked out with us. For one, I never would've seen you. This is the first occasion we've had to catch up in over a decade."
"I'm glad you were on planet."
"I'm glad you called."
"How could I not?" Jim asked. "That was some talk you gave. I couldn't let you slip away without telling you how much I enjoyed it."
She smiled. "I've become quite the advocate for the strict application of ethics in molecular biology."
"With good reason," Jim said.
"For a long time, I blamed myself for his death as much as I blamed..." her voice trailed off. He patted her leg this time and winced at the pain behind his eyes.
"It's not your fault," he said. "And if you'll excuse me for a moment, I think I need to take something else for this headache before it settles in for the night."
Carol nodded, almost to herself, and looked out over the ocean. Jim went inside, opening the large sliding glass door. The apartment air was cool and smelled different without Spock living here. The musk of Vulcan incense had faded, replaced by Terran smells of coffee and laundry and dishes that needed washing. Jim hadn't employed a housekeeper on Earth in years, because Spock's neatness was compulsive, though they had one on Vulcan. Without Spock here, the place had gone back to looking much like a bachelor pad in the three months he had been absent. The ache in Jim's head began to throb, so he walked quickly to the bathroom and took down the bottle of painkillers. He tipped two more into his palm, then passed back through the bedroom and living room to the kitchen for a glass of water.
Swallowing the pills, he rested a hand on the wall next to the apartment's computer console, and his eyes scanned over the list of recent calls. A name stood out among the unknown numbers: Sarek. His face pulled into a frown involuntarily, and Jim felt a knot form in his stomach. Sarek rarely called, and when he did, like his son, it was because there was news to report. He and Spock spoke only briefly when Spock was away from Vulcan. Only Spock was not here with Jim, a fact Sarek knew. That meant Sarek had called to speak with Jim, which he had not done since Spock was recovering from memory loss years earlier. The only topic of interest to both of them, Jim reasoned, was Spock. If Spock had news for him, he would have called himself, but for Sarek to call meant something must be wrong. A chill ran through Jim's body, and he repressed it, urgently touching the screen with too rough fingers to access his messages.
"Greetings, James." Sarek's voice filled the room as the video began to play. He looked, as always, stiff and formal. "Spock has taken ill. He is under observation at the Vulcan Medical Institute. It is imperative you travel to Vulcan. I have arranged emergency transportation for you through the Vulcan embassy. I ask you confirm receipt of this message. Live long, and prosper."
Spock. Spock was sick. That explained this pain in Jim's head. It wasn't a headache at all. No wonder the pain killers had no effect. Spock had never been able to shield his discomfort from Jim entirely when he was hurt. Jim had never asked him to, but Spock considered it too much for a psi null human to be forced to share a Vulcan's suffering without the ability to block it himself. Jim realized he had not felt anything through their bond in days: not Spock's impressions of an alien world, not even a residual mood. How long had he been sick?
He punched through the screens and dialed Sarek's home number, clenching and unclenching his fist as he waited for the connection to go through. The seconds ticked by, each dragged out impossibly long—illogical, as Spock would tell him, but time itself often seemed to move relative to human emotions. There was a low tone, and Sarek's face appeared on the screen.
"Sarek," Jim said. "What's wrong with Spock?"
"He contracted a disease during peace talks on Babel. Based on his symptoms, the medical team has diagnosed it as choriocytosis," Sarek said, and his even cadence irritated Jim more than usual as fear stabbed through him. He recalled Orion pirates and Spock motionless on a biobed in Enterprise's sickbay, minutes left of his life as his oxygen-starved blood suffocated him. Bones had given Spock three days to live after his initial diagnosis; even at full warp, Jim would not reach Vulcan in time.
"The drug," Jim insisted. "I forget its name. Has he been given the drug?"
"A shipment of strobolin is in route."
"There's not a store of it on Vulcan?"
"Strobolin is naturally occurring but unstable, breaking down within weeks. It cannot be kept in supply, even with the most rigid environmental controls."
Jim rubbed a hand over his face. "How long until the drug gets to him?"
"It will be several days. However, the synthetic version has been greatly improved in the last twenty years. His body will no longer build up a resistance to it. It should keep Spock alive until the strobolin reaches us. However, there is a chance he will not survive. As his bondmate, your place is by his side. He will not ask it of you, but I know he wishes it. That is the reason for my call. My logic fails me where my son is concerned."
"How soon can the ship depart?"
"Immediately," Sarek said.
"I'll be on it," Jim said. "Tell him I'll be on it."
Sarek again gave him the customary Vulcan farewell, and again the screen became a list of numbers and times.
Jim took a deep breath and rested his forehead against the wall. His breath echoed heavily in his ears as he exhaled, trying to collect his thoughts, trying in vain to reach Spock's. How had he not realized? How had he not known instinctively that this pain was not his own? How had he been ignorant of the silence in his head? He heard the glass door slide open, and Carol walked up beside him.
"I heard voices. Is something wrong?" she asked, scrutinizing his face.
“I have to leave for Vulcan immediately,” he said, turning and gripping her hand. “Will you drive me to the embassy? I'll explain on the way.”
The trip to Vulcan took four days at maximum warp. Jim passed them in his quarters on the long-range transport, hands clasped tightly together, attempting but failing to meditate and reach Spock's mind. It remained closed to him. The pain in his head was overwhelming. He kept the room dark to quell it and lowered the temperature to a degree better suiting humans. He did not eat much. The food offered him by the crew went largely untouched. Even if he had an appetite, he found he did not want to eat. He drank water when his mouth felt dry but nothing else. He informed the Academy that he would be away for an indeterminate period by email.
For once, he was grateful to be surrounded by a crew of Vulcans. They did not disturb him. They did not offer platitudes as a human crew might. The ship was blessedly quiet and efficient. When he closed his eyes, he heard the thrum of her engines, and it was only that sound that eased him into sleep his first night on board the ship. He slept fitfully above the covers, in full clothing, and awoke after only a few hours to pace the cabin, rubbing his forehead.
At 0600 hours Earth time, he placed a call to Bones's comm, pushing his fingertips into his temples until a familiar grumbling filled his ears.
“You’d better have a damn good reason for waking me up on my only day off."
“I’m on a transport to Vulcan,” Jim said quickly, relieved at the sound of his voice. “Spock is sick. Sarek said it would be best if I came immediately.”
Bones automatically shifted into the role of doctor, as Jim knew he would. His voice evened. “What is the diagnosis?”
“Jim, there hasn’t been a confirmed case of choriocytosis on Vulcan in years! They all but wiped out the disease.”
“He didn’t contract it on Vulcan," Jim said, sinking to the edge of the bed. "Sarek said he was on Babel, at a peace conference.”
"I don't care if he was on a remote mining colony swarming with the lowest of low-lifes," Bones said. "It's just not a disease you hear much about anymore. Why, the outbreak we had on the Enterprise was an anomaly. How many days has he had it?"
"I don't know," Jim said, rubbing his neck. "He's been blocking me for at least three. Sarek said they have him in quarantine at the Science Academy's medical center."
"They had better. It's a highly contagious disease. They risk an epidemic treating him there. They'd be better off transferring him to a non-Vulcan facility. There are quarantine ships for this sort of thing. Was the strobolin administered?"
"It's en route. It will reach him before I do. Sarek said the new synthetic drug is more effective at stalling the disease's progress."
"He's right, but I would have ordered Spock on a ship to rendezvous with the drug."
"Bones, is there a chance he won't..." Jim stopped and pressed his lips together. He took a deep breath and held tightly to his left thigh, gripping so hard his knuckles hurt. "What are his chances for survival?"
"In all likelihood, he'll make a full recovery."
Jim breathed a little easier, the tension in his chest unraveling slightly. "I should have been with him."
"So you could get sick as well? You can't blame yourself."
"I'm sorry for waking you," Jim said. "Go back to sleep."
"Keep me updated on his status. If there's anything I can do, you let me know."
"I will." The call disconnected, and Jim caught his head in his hands.
Two days into the trip, Jim was going stir crazy in the cramped and sparse accommodations. He continued to pace miles around the room, checking his comm every few minutes to see if there had been an update from Sarek. The pain was ever present and wracked his neck and eyes, causing bouts of nausea, and at times he could not catch his breath. The message came through just after Jim refused to take lunch.
Doctors administered the strobolin. There has been no change in Spock's condition.
He stared at the screen, dumbfounded. Last time, the drug's effects had been immediate. He dialed Bones but only reached his voicemail.
"Bones, I—" Faltering, he shook his head. "It's Jim. Call me when you can," he said and hung up.
The furious speed of his pacing increased. He never should have remained behind on Earth. He never should have accepted the teaching position. He hadn't been sure of it at the time, but when Spock encouraged it...maybe they had been growing apart. He had sensed it, feared it, in a small dark place buried within him. They rarely melded anymore. Once, it had been as natural as breathing, a regular part of their lovemaking. Jim would often whisper in his ear and ask for it. Pressing tender fingers against Jim's face, Spock would slip into Jim's mind effortlessly. Jim welcomed him always, swimming forward into Spock's thoughts, as though propelling himself through a clear substance. Spock's mind was dark like a starless stretch of space, and his memories were encased within transparent walls Jim navigated. It was logical and structured, a haven for Jim, who loved to bask in Spock's ordered thoughts. Jim couldn't finger an exact date or time the change occurred, he only knew that it had. Gradually, Spock had stopped initiating their melds, and Jim stopped asking for them.
Now he was returning to Vulcan to watch Spock die. He did not think he could survive that twice in a lifetime.
Bones provided no comfort. His reaction to learning the strobolin hadn't worked was quiet shock.
"Jim," he said, his voice low. "You have no idea how sorry I am. I can't believe it."
Jim wasn't able to sleep the night before the ship arrived on Vulcan. It had been two days since he'd eaten. He felt weak and forced himself to drink a bowl of vegetable broth. He would need his strength. Spock's mind remained closed to him except for the pain. For Spock's sake, he would not make a fool of himself in front of Sarek with his human emotions. He would say his goodbye respectably, and mourn Spock properly and thoroughly back on Earth with Bones to console him.
The ship docked. Disembarking was swift, thanks to the efficiency of the crew. Jim nodded at them in thanks as he stepped onto the ramp and out into the heat. The double suns of Vulcan stabbed his eyes. He winced into the light. Spock's aide met him and escorted him to a waiting air car, which took them directly to the medical center. The aide, Sylak, was perhaps thirty-five—Jim had never asked—and had surprisingly ireful eyes within his calm face. He had worked for Spock for nearly three years, and he and Jim had rarely spoken more than a few words to each other during that time. Most Vulcans Jim encountered had accepted Spock's choice for a bondmate, but Sylak seemed to move around Jim with silent dislike. They did not speak a word on the ride, Sylak merely motioning toward the hospital entrance when the car stopped moving and the door opened.
The hospital staff recognized Jim immediately and rushed him to the ward where Spock was being treated. The hospital smelled of Vulcan incense and antiseptic. It was eerily quiet, nothing like hospitals on Earth. There were no voices, just the mechanized sounds of medical equipment and occasional soft footsteps. Sarek stood, a solitary, motionless figure in the hallway, attending his son through a large observation window.
"James," Sarek said as Jim approached. Sylak lowered himself into a chair with his back to the window and drew out a PADD. "I am grateful that you came."
"You know I'd do anything for him," he said, stepping to Sarek's side. Sarek met Jim's eyes and nodded. His gaze was steady but sad, as it had been when Jim returned from Genesis. It struck Jim that with Spock gone, Sarek and Jim would have only one another. Jim felt an urge to touch his arm, reassure him in some way, but remained still.
He turned his head toward the glass. Spock lay prone on the hospital bed, a mask over his nose and mouth to administer oxygen. The walls of the room were bare stone, lights at fifty percent. Beside the bed was an empty wooden chair and a low table. Monitors overhead showed weak signs of life. Spock was too still, too pale and too thin, a drastic change from only three months before when he had departed Earth. The sight of him caused Jim's insides to twist. A heaviness settled in his chest. He moved to place a hand on the glass but fought the impulse, gripping his right wrist and bracing his hands against his chest.
"He will be gratified to see you," Sarek continued. "He has repeatedly spoken your name. Your presence will give him peace."
"Has there been any change?" Jim fought to keep his voice steady.
"The strobolin has had no effect," Sarek said quietly.
"How long does he have?"
Sarek turned to look at him. "A day," he answered. "Perhaps two."
Closing his eyes, Jim swallowed and tried to maintain his composure. His throat tightened, and he felt a stinging in both eyes. He clenched his teeth and tried to concentrate on his breathing, as Spock had taught him. What escaped was a quiet sob. He covered his mouth and rested his forehead against the glass.
"Do not be ashamed of your emotions," Sarek said to Jim's surprise. "You are human. You love my son. It is natural that you grieve."
"I want to sit with him."
"I told them you would," Sarek said. "Sylak, fetch a member of Spock's medical team. Tell them James Kirk is here."
Sylak nodded, rose, and disappeared down the hallway. Sarek returned his eyes to the window. Jim took out his comm and sent a message to Bones confirming the worst. A middle-aged Vulcan male met them shortly. He wore white robes and carried a hypospray of strobolin, which he administered to Jim as a precaution.
"This is our highest level of quarantine. The room is under constant video observation. There is a protective suit within the first doorway," he instructed. "You must put it on before entering the room. It is equipped with an air tank, which contains enough oxygen for two hours. When you wish to leave, press the red button. A member of my staff will assist with decontamination. Do not remove the protective suit or mask, or you will be subject to quarantine. We must prevent an epidemic at all costs. If you require assistance dressing, inform me."
"I understand," Jim said. He took a deep breath, and the healer opened the door to the antechamber.
The suit was white and bulky. He pulled it on over his clothes. Jim realized he hadn't thought to change from the night before. A thick layer of rubber covered his hands, and his face was protected by a clear plastic mask. He switched on the air tank as instructed by a diagram posted on the wall and secured the fastenings. His movements in the suit were clumsy and awkward. He pressed the button to open the interior door. There was a pause as his request was processed. A tone sounded, and the door slid aside silently.
The hospital room buzzed with the constant whirring of a purification system. The air was hot; Jim could feel the heat even through his suit, but the filter at his neck blew a steady stream of cool air on his skin. Spock did not react as Jim entered.
Jim slumped into the chair beside the bed. Spock's arms were at his sides beneath the white sheet. His breathing was rapid and shallow, the mask over his nose and mouth fogged. His face was ashen, not even a hint of green along his cheekbones. The corpse-like appearance filled Jim with a sense of dread.
The accelerated breathing slowed, and at first Jim thought Spock must have sensed his presence. He gazed down at the sleeping face, searching it for a flicker of life. Whispering Spock's name again, Jim combed his own mind for Spock's presence, but Spock was still shielding from him. Jim placed a hand on top of the sheet, where Spock's arm rested at his side. Spock made a choked gurgling noise, and his breathing stopped. The pain in Jim's head flared and went out. Jim broke into a cold sweat.
"No," he whispered. He reached out a gloved hand and hesitantly touched Spock's shoulder, shaking him. "I can't be too late. Spock, please say I'm not too late!"
Jim's breath caught in relief when Spock's eyes opened to slivers.
"Spock. Oh, Spock, thank god."
“Jim?” Spock managed in a hoarse whisper.
"I'm here," Jim said. Spock's eyes fluttered closed, and Jim squeezed his shoulder gently. "Spock, I'm here."
"Jim," Spock murmured, and his voice was full of longing. He struggled as he tried to sit up.
"Lie back," Jim said, a lump forming in his throat. He reached an arm over Spock's chest and held him back against the mattress. "You need to conserve your energy."
"Your father," Jim said quietly, glancing toward the window, but Sarek was not there. Undoubtedly, he was granting them privacy. "I would have come sooner if..."
Spock nodded almost imperceptibly, but then his body shook as he sputtered and gasped for air. He opened his mouth but no words came out. Jim carefully removed the oxygen mask and brought the glass of water on the bedside table to Spock's lips, cradling his neck with the other hand. Spock drank willingly and turned his head so his face pressed against Jim's covered wrist. Jim gently stroked his cheek.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
With great effort, Spock freed one hand and haltingly raised it to the mask over Jim's face.
“Both times...I have...faced...death," he rasped, wheezing every few words, his fingers spreading in the approximation of a meld, "I have...been...unable to...touch you."
“You're not going to die.”
“My death..." Spock continued slowly, "is...inevitable. It is...fortunate...you did not...return...to Vulcan. You might...have become...infected.”
“I should have returned with you,” Jim insisted.
"I regret...the time...we lost.”
“We'll get it back," Jim said, and he tried to stroke Spock's hair with his too-big hand. "Spock, we'll get it back. You shouldn't talk. I'm going to put this mask back on you. We have to keep your oxygen levels up.”
"Will you eat if I get you something?" Spock closed his eyes and nodded once. Jim rose and pressed the call button. A healer arrived shortly and spoke to him from the antechamber.
"Bring him a bowl of broth," Jim ordered. "Not replicated, if possible. Something fresh." The healer looked like he might argue, but Jim's determination must have been evident. He bowed his head and retreated.
A hospital worker brought the broth. He slid it through an opening in the wall and pressed a button to indicate his side had been closed. Jim waited for the light to glow green, then lifted the flap and took the broth in hand. Jim recognized the color. It was a lighter version of Spock's favorite soup. Amanda had given Jim her recipe years before, which Jim adapted to his tastes, adding more butter and cream than was called for. They had several plomeek plants in their garden on Vulcan. When they were first bonded, Jim spent shore leave perfecting the recipe when they weren't in bed. Now Jim could not remember the last time he prepared it.
He returned to the bed, pulling Spock against him while he arranged pillows behind his back. Jim embraced him softly. Through the suit, he could not smell Spock, could not feel the slip of his hair. His eyes stung, but he told himself that he would remain strong.
Jim struggled to hold the spoon, lowering it carefully into the bowl. Spock accepted each spoonful almost greedily.
"You've been refusing food," Jim said in realization, holding the oxygen to Spock's face between sips. Spock closed his eyes. "Was that logical?"
Spock did not answer but opened his mouth again. Jim recalled his own lack of hunger and did not press him further. Jim fed him the entire bowl and ordered another. "And anything else you think might be good for him," he added to the young Vulcan at the window.
Spock ate a second bowl of broth and a small loaf of kreyla. He was more alert when Jim sent the dishes away. Beneath his oxygen mask, Jim detected a smile. He touched Spock's cheek.
"You shielded from me," he said pointedly. Spock's eyes snapped away from his. Jim sighed. "Why is it we have some of our best moments like this?"
"Jim?" Spock's eyes refocused on him, questioning.
"With you in a hospital bed," Jim clarified. "It was in Enterprise’s sickbay that I first realized...how you felt about me."
“After...V’ger?” Spock croaked.
Jim shook his head and cupped Spock's face. “Long before that. You remember the parasites on Deneva?”
“You were infected," Jim said, smoothing a thumb across his forehead and over his temple. "You were strapped to a bio bed, in agony, trying to fight your way up through the pain. And yet you said to me, ‘Jim, let me help.’ That's when I began to understand what I really meant to you, what you meant to me. That what we had wasn't just physical."
Spock’s mouth curved into the barest of smiles, and then his eyes closed in pain. The cough began as the breath catching in his throat and escalated into a terrifying fit. The harder Spock coughed, the more he struggled for air. Jim tried to soothe him, holding his shoulders against the pillows, checking the oxygen to make sure it was still flowing. A beeping from the monitor overhead indicated Spock's conditions were nearing critical, the horizontal lines indicating heart rate and respiration dropping lower and lower.
No, Jim thought, his eyes stinging. Not like this! Spock, please don't leave me like this—
He didn't know if Spock could hear him or not. Face contorted, his body convulsing, Spock wheezed and the bond remained silent. Several seconds passed, and Jim was visibly shaken when Spock finally stilled, trembling within the protective suit. Overhead, the monitor was still beeping.
If these were their last moments, Jim would not be separated from him. Infection be damned. He glanced at the surveillance cameras and back at Spock. The medical team must have been alerted; they would come into the room at any time. With a deep breath, Jim switched off the air tank and unsnapped the mask, which fell away from his shoulders. He unzipped the suit and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Spock looked at him in horror and mouthed no, but Jim lay beside him on the bed. The room’s heat washed over his skin as he took Spock’s face between his hands and kissed his forehead. He smoothed Vulcan kisses along Spock's palms, then brought one cool hand to his own face and held it there, moving each finger into the well-loved position.
"Meld us," he whispered against the pounding on the glass.
It was short, only seconds, but Jim was enveloped by that welcome blackness and felt Spock's devastation, experienced his bitterness, his anguish at leaving Jim behind on Earth. He re-lived Spock's restless nights alone on Vulcan, how he passed three months deep in work and meditation, how every day that Jim did not contact him poisoned Spock like a Le-matya. He felt Spock's recognition of his illness, the decision to shield himself from Jim, his refusal to eat, his acceptance of the inevitable when the strobolin did not work. If Jim no longer wanted him, he wished to die. He felt Spock's joy, the utter elation at seeing his bondmate one last time; and love, always love, flowing around and through them. Jim's eyes stung at the depth of the feelings rushing over him. How had he doubted?
Spock's breathing grew uneven and slowed. Their connection flickered, and Jim was no longer in Spock's mind. Spock lay too still. The monitors registered signs of life but barely. Jim gathered the limp body to his chest and rocked it, pressing his wet face against Spock's hair.
"I can't lose you again," he whispered as the medical team burst into the room. "I won't."
Sarek looked down on him through the window when Jim awoke some hours later. His head no longer ached. He blinked and wiped the sleep from his eyes, stretching. Spock slept curled into Jim's side, breathing quietly. Glancing at the monitors, Jim knew his condition was stable for now. He squeezed Spock's hand once in relief, carefully extracted himself from the sheets, and walked to the window.
"Your decision to remove the protective suit was foolish," Sarek said but Jim detected gratitude in his tone.
"I'm staying with him."
"As I knew you would. I have spoken with his healers. They have agreed you may stay and care for him. I have sent for fresh clothing."
Then Sarek was gone. Jim returned to the bed and traced patterns over the angles of Spock's sleeping face. It was wishful thinking, Jim knew, but he swore he detected the faintest green blush in the wake of his fingertips.
Sylak brought a change of clothes for Jim, and Jim welcomed the traditional black Vulcan tunic and pants against the heat of the room. He enjoyed a cool shower in the adjoining bathroom, soaping his hair and body liberally. Refreshed, he returned to Spock's bedside and crawled in beside him. Spock rolled toward him and lay his head on Jim's lap. Jim could not help but caress Spock's face. Spock remained sleeping, so Jim took out his comm and read the messages Bones had sent him in the last few hours. He called the doctor's comm and reached him this time.
"Jim," Bones said. "What's the latest news?"
"I'm with him," Jim said. "He's sleeping."
"Sleep is best for him right now, with the amount of pain he's experiencing. Has he woken at all?"
"He talked to me earlier," Jim said. "And I got him to eat."
"Any change in his condition?"
"Nothing they've told me, but he's stable, from what I can read on the monitors."
"That's good. I'm still praying he'll make it through this. How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine," Jim said.
"You're a terrible liar," Bones said. "Don't forget to take care of yourself. "
"I haven't," Jim said.
"What precautions did they make you take? I presume they've given you strobolin."
"Yes," Jim said. "Strobolin and a protective suit."
"Good," Bones repeated. "Very good."
"Which I removed, but they did provide it."
"Jim!" Bones shouted; Jim had to hold the comm away from his ear. "You're a damned sentimental fool. It's a good thing this virus hardly affects humans anymore, but you can't take chances with your life."
"I couldn't just let him...you have no idea what it was like last time. I couldn't do that again."
"I know. Common sense sometimes fails where matters of the human heart are concerned."
Jim chuckled. "Agreed. I could swear he's better since I've been here."
"So much of Vulcan physiology is based in their minds, I wouldn't be surprised if you were affecting his health. Try to keep his spirits up."
"Listen, Jim," Bones said. "The Federation is concerned about Spock's case, its implications, and they want to send a member of Starfleet Medical out to Vulcan. I've volunteered."
Jim felt a lump form in his throat, and it was a moment before he could speak. "I'm glad it'll be you, Bones."
"I figured you'd prefer my company to a stranger's. Besides, I've never seen your house there. I owe you a housewarming gift."
"We've owned the house for years."
"Then my gift is long overdue. I hope it will be celebratory. I'm scheduled to leave tomorrow and should arrive within a week."
"We'll see you soon," Jim said and closed his eyes.
Spock ate again when he awoke an hour later. He lay, staring adoringly up at Jim, who continued to stroke his face and hands. The fringe of his bangs was uneven, almost unruly, hair tangling gently above each ear. Jim smoothed it as he knew Spock would. When the healers came for their hourly check, Spock did not withdraw from his touch but nuzzled deeper into it.
"You're cold," Jim observed when Spock shook. "Let me run you a bath."
Spock protested quietly when Jim lifted him from the bed and carried him through the door and undressed him. While the tub filled, he brushed Spock's teeth and helped him to the toilet. Spock lowered his head in modesty and tried to push Jim's hands away.
"Hush," Jim said. "If the situation were reversed, you would do the same for me."
Spock's body was thinner than Jim remembered. His eyes lingered on the visible ribs and sharp hipbones. He lowered Spock into the hot water, and Spock nearly purred as he stretched into it. He allowed Jim to wash his arms and back, every minute leaning his head over the side to breathe into the mask Jim held out to him. The ashen appearance waned, and when Jim lifted him from the water and wrapped him in a towel, Spock's skin appeared almost normal in color. Jim held him close on the low wooden bench beside the bathtub. In the privacy of the bathroom, he kissed Spock softly, just for a moment. Spock's mouth was warm and wet against his. He kissed Spock's hands and face and ears. Spock clutched Jim’s arms and rested his face at the crook of Jim's neck. Jim carded his fingers through the still-wet hair and kissed his temple, then dressed Spock in a clean hospital gown and carried him back to bed.
A nurse came into the room an hour later to check Spock's vital signs. Sarek had reappeared at the window. The nurse scanned the monitors and tapped notes into a PADD, checking Spock's pupil dilation and examining his skin. Jim watched her anxiously.
"His blood oxygen level is rising," she observed.
"What does that mean?" Jim asked, pacing by Spock's bedside.
"His condition is improving."
Jim's heart began to pound quickly in his chest. "Will he live?"
"Unknown. We are continuing to monitor his progress. I will have more food sent."
"Thank you," Jim said as she exited. He glanced at Sarek and strode to the glass.
"There is an antique book," he said, "in our house, in my study. It is the only one in a glass case. Will you bring it?"
Jim spent many hours reading aloud from the book Spock had given him on his fifty-second birthday. Spock did not usually care for fiction, but he remained quiet and took Jim's arm when Jim sat in the chair beside the bed and read to him. He leaned into Jim's chest when Jim crawled beside him and held him when Jim could sit in the chair no longer.
The days passed and Jim lost all sense of time in the room, which had no view of the outside. Nurses came every few hours to check Spock's vital signs. Spock's condition continued to improve, but the medical staff remained unsure whether the strobolin had been a success. Spock slept, and Jim slept. They both ate, showered, held one another. On the fifth day, Spock sat up on his own. He walked to the bathroom with Jim's help and did not have to be carried.
"I will call for you," Spock said, his voice still rough, letting go of Jim's arm. "If I need you." Jim hesitated but gave Spock privacy and rang for food. While Spock was bathing, one of the healers came to speak with Jim.
"Spock's blood oxygen level is within acceptable limits," he said. "Our scans show no further signs of disease. His body functions are normal. Your blood scans also return negative results. Therefore, we are canceling quarantine. You may take Spock home."
"So that's it?" Jim asked. "We're free to go?"
"A member of our staff will visit your home once each day to track his progress," the healer said. "This case is unprecedented."
"I don't understand," Jim said. "I thought you said the strobolin hadn't worked."
"We believe the strobolin shipment to have been less potent than expected, so its effects took longer than is typical. We will run tests to confirm this. I will go now and process his discharge from our facility."
"Thank you," Jim said. When the healer was gone, he leaned against the wall and laughed, relieved. He pulled out his comm and messaged Bones.
We're going home.
Spock leaned against Jim in the aircar as it sped to their house in ShiKahr, not far from Spock's childhood home. Though Sarek sat across from them, Jim wrapped an arm around Spock's shoulders and rested his head on top of Spock's, smiling.
The Vulcan government had offered them an official dwelling when Spock became an ambassador, but they turned it down, preferring the home they had purchased not long after Jim was given command of the Enterprise-A. It was located in one of the city's outer rings, where the plots were more generous in size. The sidewalks surrounding the dwelling were polished stone, curving around tidy areas of red dirt. Metal structures arched over the walkways, providing visual interest and intermittant shade. A hulking piece of art with interlocking trapezoidal planes stood in a small park near the front door, a spiky blue plant growing low along its base. The house rose from the ground, as if it were a part of the landscape, with thick stone walls streaked with color variations in the hewn rock. The windows, oblong and brought to a point at the top and bottom of the glass, were bisected vertically with a strip of black metal. When he turned his head, the windows resembled an eye. He used to joke the house looked like it was sleeping. The door was also made of glass, bearing designs in the shape of the windows. Jim waved a hand before the security device, and it opened.
Spock entered the house on his own energy but immediately lowered himself onto a chaise in the common room. Jim went to their bedroom and brought several blankets, which he layered over Spock's legs and motioned for Sarek to sit. Footsteps from the den surprised him, and Sylak came into the room, clasping his arms at his back. Jim held back a scowl.
"I did not realize you would return so soon," Sylak said, looking at Spock. "I would have ordered something prepared for lunch."
"Unnecessary," Jim said, and Sylak shifted his gaze to look at him. "But since you're here, would you brew a pot of tea?"
Sylak's widened eyes flickered from Jim to Sarek momentarily, settling back on Jim with that same animosity Jim could not explain. He steeled himself against a reaction and eyed Sylak levelly.
"Of course," Sylak said after a beat and retreated to the kitchen.
"He lacks control," Sarek commented, settling into a chair. Jim went to sit in its twin, but Spock looked at him with pleading eyes, and Jim willingly sank beside him. Even at the time of their bonding, Spock had never requested Jim's proximity when in the company of his father. Jim had always granted him a polite distance. Now Jim placed a hand on Spock's back, and Spock leaned into it. That feeling was an indulgence only a human living on this alien world could understand. Jim felt his chest could positively burst with happiness.
"I am grateful that you have recovered," Sarek said plainly, regarding his son.
"I share that sentiment," Jim said, smiling. "And I want to thank you, Sarek."
"Your thanks are unnecessary."
"I realize they're unnecessary for you, but they aren't unnecessary for me. So again, I thank you."
Sarek nodded at him in what Jim supposed was acknowledgement. He rubbed a circle on Spock's back and sighed.
"Will you stay for lunch?" Jim asked.
"I will have tea with you," Sarek said, "and then I wish to return home. I am tired."
"But if you will permit it, I will come tomorrow."
"You're always welcome," Jim said. "I've always said you don't need to ask."
"It is not the Vulcan way," Spock said.
"Then it's lucky for you I'm not Vulcan," Jim laughed. He turned back to Sarek. "We're family. Come tomorrow. Come whenever you like."
The corner of Sarek's mouth twitched, and Jim was feeling pleased with himself when Sylak returned with a tray of tea and three short, round cups. Spock had purchased them some years ago on a starbase. His hand moulded around them easily, and they retained heat efficiently. Spock always claimed to have chosen them for their practicality, but Jim suspected he liked the blue glaze. Sylak poured the tea and handed each of them a cup, then stood near the wall with his arms at his sides.
When Sarek took his leave of them, Jim ordered Spock to rest and spent the day in the kitchen preparing his favorites. He sent away Sylak, to his satisfaction, and the housekeeping staff. Around dinner time, there was a loud knock on the door—a alien sound on Vulcan—then another. Jim frowned and wiped his hands on a towel. The knocking sounded again and Jim hurried to the front door, swinging it open.
"It's over a hundred degrees out here, man! Are you going to let me bake to death?"
"Bones!" Jim exclaimed, leaning forward to clasp his shoulder and guide him inside. "You didn't tell me you were coming today."
Glaring at Jim affectionately, McCoy set down a small duffel bag and wiped his forehead on a handkerchief. He was red-faced and sweating, dressed in Starfleet medical whites.
"Can I get you a drink?" he offered.
"Water," Bones said, following him to the den, "and bourbon, if you have it. I don't know how these hobgoblins live in conditions like this."
"They likely wonder how you survive with as much as you drink," Jim countered, chuckling. "It's cooler in here. I'll shut the door."
"How is Spock?" Bones asked when he was settled in Jim's leather armchair. He drank the water in three gulps. Jim poured him another glass and set the bourbon beside him on an endtable.
"His oxygen levels have returned to normal," Jim said, settling in to the low sofa. "They released him from the hospital this morning. He's upstairs resting if you want to see him."
"It's strange," Bones said. "I've never heard of strobolin taking that long to work, but his biology is unique."
"Do you think he could have built up a tolerance, since he took it before?"
"I suppose it's possible," Bones said.
"How long are you staying?"
"As long as it takes me to fill out the report," Bones said. "This is the first documented case of choriocytosis on a Federation planet in thirteen years. The Federation wants to rule out the possibility of biological warfare."
"My god," Jim murmured, leaning forward to rest his arms on his thighs. "I hadn't even thought of that."
"Spock is an ambassador, after all," Bones said. "That makes him a target. I'm sure the Vulcan government has thought the same."
Jim nodded slowly. "Are you staying on base? You're welcome here."
"I was hoping you'd offer," Bones admitted. "They don't keep the rooms below ninety, some nonsense about energy consumption. A man can't sleep that way."
"I don't know what to say, Spock, except that you've beaten the odds again." Bones switched off his scanner and stared down at Spock, who reclined against the headboard. "Why, if you were a race horse, I'd put my money on you every time. Looks like we can crack open that bottle I brought for you after all, Jim."
Spock regarded him with a raised eyebrow.
"Of course," Bones continued, "like I told Jim, you were also the first being to contract choriocytosis on a Federation planet in thirteen years. Your luck is inconsistent."
"Twelve years, nine months, and eighteen days," Spock provided.
"I'm glad his Vulcan sass wasn't affected by the lack of oxygen to his brain," Bones remarked to Jim.
"That was hardly sass, doctor."
"McCoy's staying with us for a few days," Jim said, changing the subject. He clapped Bones on the shoulder. "And he's just in time for dinner. Do you feel well enough to get up, or would you rather eat in here?"
"I will join you," Spock said, pulling the sheet aside. Jim held out a hand to help him up, but Spock refused it. Jim smiled and raised both hands in defeat.
"You're a stubborn man," Jim said good naturedly. "We'll be in the kitchen. Shout if you need me."
"I shall not."
"We'll just listen for the sound of your body hitting the floor," Bones drawled and followed Jim out of the room.
"I've got to hand it to you, Jim," Bones said, dabbing his mouth with a napkin and reaching for his glass. "You've really got a knack for these Vulcan dishes. They aren't half bad."
"He does not prepare them in the traditional manner," Spock commented.
"That's why they taste better to a human palate," Jim said, patting Spock's leg and leaving his hand there. Spock glanced down where Jim touched him, and his face softened. "I thought you liked my cooking?"
"I enjoy the dishes you prepare me," Spock said. "I simply point out that you have modified the traditional recipes."
They sat up talking in the study for some time after Jim cleared away the plates, Bones luxuriating in the air conditioning, Spock covered in the blankets Jim draped over him. Jim and Bones enjoyed a drink; Spock sipped from a mug of tea. When Bones yawned, Jim declared the evening a success.
"I think it's time to turn in," he said.
"Four days on a transport takes its toll on a man," Bones said. "I could use a good night's sleep."
"May I point out,” Spock said, “that we all spent many years living on a starship?"
"You've never slept well on transports," Jim said, slipping an arm around Spock's shoulders. "And you know it."
Bones said he would follow them up when he finished his drink. They left him in the armchair and walked to their bedroom. Spock lowered himself to the mattress instead of first meditating. Jim wondered if Spock had overdone it, but kept the thought to himself. He went into their adjoining bath for a quick shower, rubbed his hair dry, and wrapped the damp towel around his waist. He expected to find Spock asleep, but he was sitting up, watching Jim silently as he approached the bed. Jim sat beside him and studied his face.
"How are you feeling?"
"I am fine," Spock said, his dark eyes darting between Jim's.
"Can I get you anything?"
Spock shook his head and fingered the edge of Jim's towel. His fingers slipped beneath the terrycloth and brushed Jim's thigh. Jim's breath caught as Spock slid his hand between Jim's legs.
"I desire you," Spock murmured. Jim closed his eyes and suppressed a shudder.
"Is that a good idea? You haven't even been out of the hospital a full day."
Spock's hand encircled him. "Are you refusing me?"
"I'm simply asking," Jim said as Spock began to stroke him, "if it would be better to wait...a day or two."
"I desire you," Spock repeated. His grasp tightened. "We were parted for three months and six days. I do not wish to be parted from you again."
Jim groaned and leaned in to kiss Spock on the mouth, sliding a hand around his neck and into Spock's hair. He felt the familiar tightening as Spock's lust seeped into him and he began to grow hard. Spock worked him expertly, moving his thumb in the way he knew Jim liked best. Jim moaned into his mouth and kissed him hungrily. He could feel Spock's grin and reached inside his robe. Jim skimmed fingers over Spock's ribs, a collarbone, a nipple, the curve of his hipbone. Spock whimpered as Jim wrapped a hand around his cock, and they were jerking each other off like they were in their early thirties again, frantic and scared on an away mission gone wrong. Then, it had been purely carnal, lasting only a few minutes behind a crumbling wall blown apart by phaser fire. Jim was crushed against it, Spock's body covering his, shielding him. Spock had captured Jim's hand over his head and stroked his palm. Jim held Spock's face to his, sweat-covered foreheads pressed tightly, and they had panted against each other. They didn't speak of it after. It happened again in their shared bathroom and again after sparring. It became an unspoken routine, a way to relieve the tension that kept Jim from sleeping, and to reassure the first officer that his captain was safe.
They were thirty years older now, their motions gentler and less desperate. Spock kissed him sweetly, his mouth open and pliant. When he sensed Jim was close, he bent his head to take Jim into his mouth. The feel of Spock's lips and tongue around him sent Jim over the edge—it had been so long—and he bit his lip as he came. Spock rose and kissed him deeply. Jim tasted himself on Spock's tongue. Jim pressed him back against the tangled sheet and pushed the robe away. Spock's body was still slender and graceful, and Jim leaned down to kiss his stomach. Spock's hand came to rest in his hair.
Spock sucked in a breath when Jim began to lick him, the outline of his ribcage apparent as he arched off the bed. Jim massaged Spock's inner thighs with his thumbs and eased his legs apart, teasing him with darts of his tongue. He worked a finger inside and took Spock in his mouth. He crooked his finger and heard Spock gasp. Working his tongue over the head, he felt Spock grow harder and tense. When Spock came, it was with a soft cry. Jim sucked him until the pulsing stopped and Spock bristled from the sensitivity. Pulling back, Jim kissed his way up to Spock's mouth. Spock clutched at Jim and held him close, trembling.
"I'll never leave you again," Jim murmured. He smoothed Spock's hair and kissed the side of his face, pulling him against his chest. "I swear."
In the morning, they drank tea on the garden patio before Bones woke. The vulnerability Spock had shown the night before was gone, replaced by a look of serene satisfaction (though, Jim noted with pleasure, Spock slid his chair closer to Jim's than usual). Smiling through a yawn, Jim sipped his tea and inhaled the hot morning air. He usually preferred coffee but he found the tea pleasant. He preferred it to Spock's usual variety. The taste was not dissimilar to Terran almonds.
Jim had never liked sitting on the patio, preferring the climate controlled air of his office to the planet's atmosphere; but this morning, as he reached to take Spock's hand, he felt a sense of calm flow through him and took in his surroundings with new eyes.
Vulcan gardens were decidedly lacking in color by Terran standards. The desert-bred plants grew in neat rows. Their forms were perfunctory, not what Jim would term beautiful. The garden itself was small, with red stone walls taller than Jim surrounding it on three sides, and the ground was the same red dirt that covered most of the planet.
Jim brought Spock's hand to his mouth and kissed it, looking up at the dusty orange sky. Although they were in the privacy of their yard, Spock colored slightly at Jim's action and straightened. Jim could sense that Spock's Vulcan discipline was returning, but Spock allowed Jim to keep hold of his hand. He was reminded of Spock's manner following the fal-tor-pan, the many months Jim had spent trying to help Spock remember what they had been to one another. "Have patience," Sarek had advised him. "In time, he will recall your place in his life." Spock had not initiated touch until they had returned to Earth with whales in the cargo hold of a Klingon ship. Jim would never forget the feel of Spock's hand finally clasping Jim's arm on the sinking warbird, the way Spock held on to him for long minutes as they waited for the probe to respond. It had been logical, Jim knew Spock would argue, to prevent Jim from drowning. But Jim had seen his smile.
"Does it disappoint you?" Spock had asked that night, as he stared across the bed at Jim in their apartment, tentatively stroking Jim's fingers, "that I am not as I once was?"
"You're alive," Jim had said firmly, pulling Spock against him. "That's all that matters."
Jim shuddered at the memory. His life was a cycle of Spock returning to him from disease, from Gol, from death, from a mind that did not remember. Now this. How often had they failed to make time for one another? How many times had they talked about getting away but never made it? Something inevitably interjected itself into their half-laid plans. They were, both of them, workaholics—this Jim knew—and each had always understood the other's dedication. He'd never complained when Spock cancelled their pleasure tour of the Altair system because a ship of Orion pirates had just hijacked a Federation vessel. Spock had never complained when Jim preferred to spend his shore leave keeping watch over the Enterprise. They used to joke about heading to Risa or one of the Hawai'ian islands on Earth, but one or both of them was often needed elsewhere. The captain of a starship was never really off duty, but Jim was retired now. He had all the time his body allowed. He would not do things the same this time.
"Let's take a vacation," he suggested. Spock turned to look at him. "What do you say? We'll go somewhere, just you and me. Anywhere you like. Just name the planet."
"I have always wished to return to Ardana," Spock said, a bit wistfully.
"To Stratos, the cloud city? It was beautiful," Jim recalled. "I often wonder how they've fared since our mission there."
"They had a most impressive art collection. I would like to see it again. However, my responsibilities do not permit me to take a leave of absence at this time," Spock said. "And there is your teaching to consider. I regret my illness caused an interruption in your curriculum."
"I'm through with that," Jim declared. "My assistants will handle the final grades. There were only a few weeks of classes left. And don't pretend that you actually believe I value teaching more than I value you, mister. It was a mistake to accept in the first place."
"You did not enjoy teaching?"
"Not as much as I thought I would. I was lonely, for one thing. I wouldn't have stayed if you hadn't prompted me."
"I would not have suggested you stay," Spock said, "had it not been for Sylak's urging. I did not wish to leave you behind."
"Why did Sylak have an opinion?" he asked, frowning. “Why do you listen to him?”
"It is his responsibility to assist with my affairs. I regret I allowed interference where you were concerned, believing he knew something I did not."
"You honestly believed I was leaving you," Jim said, recalling their meld in the hospital. He laughed sadly. "And here I thought you'd grown tired of me."
"No, Jim." Spock squeezed Jim's hand. "We have both been foolish."
"Well," Jim said, "no more."
Despite Jim's protests in favor of relaxation, after breakfast Spock insisted on speaking with Sylak to review the details of an upcoming assembly with the Andorian ambassador. Spock agreed, however, to converse through video conference, which mollified Jim somewhat. He closed the door to Spock's office, muffling the voices. He brewed a pot of coffee, which roused Bones from his warp-lagged state and into the kitchen.
"Morning," Jim said as Bones yawned his way onto the bench beside the table. It was wooden and well used, rubbed to a dull sheen from being wiped down so often to keep away the dust that seemed to permeate every window. "Sleep well?"
"Like a baby," Bones said. Jim set a steaming mug in front of him, and Bones cracked a smile. "I feel almost human again."
"Wait until you go outside."
"I've got half a mind to prescribe myself bed rest and spend the day indoors."
"What are your plans for the day?"
"I need to examine Spock again,” Bones said between sips, “record his readings. And I'll have to speak with his medical team about getting a sample of the strobolin they administered. It still baffles me that he took so long to respond."
"His doctors thought the strobolin might have been less potent."
"Which worries me. If that's the case, and this disease makes a comeback, we're looking at a potential disaster. Strobolin is already in short supply. It could become necessary to double, triple the dosage."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that." Jim leaned against the counter and rubbed his head.
“How are you doing?” Bones asked. “This past week hasn’t been easy on you. Are you sleeping?”
“Now that he’s home, yes.”
“I can’t imagine you got much rest in the hospital.”
“Some. Those beds aren't designed for two.”
"I want you to take it easy today," Bones ordered. "Stay out of the heat."
"Will you be back for lunch?"
"I'm not sure," Bones said. "It depends on how long it takes to get what I need at the hospital."
"They're Vulcans; I'm sure they'll be quite efficient."
"Spock's an ambassador, not a member of Starfleet any longer. I don't know how willing the government will be to hand over his medical charts."
"I'm sure they'll find cooperation...logical," Jim said with a smirk. Bones scowled.
"It's a wonder your blood hasn't turned green by now."
"Stop pretending to be xenophobic," Jim chided. "You only talk like this when you don't want anyone to know you have a soft side. I know for a fact how fond you are of Spock."
"Vulcan lover," Bones griped.
"Yes," Jim said, laughing. "I have no problem admitting that." Bones made a face.
"It took you long enough. For a few years, Christine and I joked we might have to stage an intervention."
"Wasn't Christine interested in Spock at one point?"
"Oh, you caught that, did you?" Bones said in a sarcastic tone, tilting his head. "She was, until she dosed him with that love potion—what was that fellow's name, Mudd?—and Spock still couldn't keep his eyes off of you. I've never told you this?"
"No," Jim said. He coughed and sat next to Bones on the bench. "You did tell me about the pool Scotty had going. Not exactly the professional behavior I would've expected from my third in command."
"And how is being caught in flagrante in the men's locker room appropriate behavior for a starship captain?" Bones pointed out. "With your second in command," he added.
"I thought the door was locked!" Jim exclaimed, raising both hands.
"I'll never be able to get that sight out of my head," Bones admitted.
"Neither will Spock," Jim laughed and wheezed slightly. He pounded his chest.
"Jim?" Bones said, placing a hand on his arm.
"Hmm?" Jim asked, blinking. His eyes had trouble focusing, his vision doubling momentarily. It passed. "It's just the heat," he said. "It always takes me awhile to adjust."
Bones frowned and gave Jim’s arm a squeeze, returning his attention to the coffee. Soft footsteps approached from the hallway, and Spock entered the kitchen.
"Everything settled?" Jim asked.
"Yes," Spock said, coming to stand at the side of the table. "I am leaving in two days."
Jim felt a jolt of anger but did not have time to object, because Bones immediately spoke.
"Two days?" he exclaimed. "Spock, you only just got out of the hospital. Surely there's another ambassador who can go in your place."
"I am capable of performing my duties," Spock said a little coolly, "and Jim will be with me. It is not a long trip."
"Well," Bones said, looking from Spock to Jim. "I suppose that's something. I don't want to hear you over exerted yourself."
"Pardon me, doctor, but as I am no longer a member of Starfleet, you are no longer my physician."
"Dammit, Spock," Bones swore. "I'm your friend, and as your friend, I'm telling you to take care of yourself. Understood?" He threw down the rest of his coffee and rose from the table. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a cold shower before I have to endure the heat of this hostile planet."
Spock looked down at Jim when Bones had retreated to the guest quarters. "You will travel with me?" he asked softly.
"Of course," Jim said, placing his hand on Spock's where it rested on the table. "You'll be hard pressed to get rid of me now."
It started as a headache. Spock was deep in meditation after they finished dinner, so Jim retreated to the den and lowered the lights to forty percent, settling into his leather armchair. Bones had not yet returned from the medical center, but Jim kept a pan of spiced, roasted palm fruits warm for him. It was a savory dish, but it passed as dessert on Vulcan. It was a good accompaniment for bourbon, and he had a bottle standing by for the good doctor.
The headache was dull and throbbing, not unlike the one he developed just before leaving Earth. He rubbed his temples and told himself it was only the heat, lowering the thermostat two degrees. He needed a few days to adjust. The planet's conditions were harder on his body now that he was older. He should've asked McCoy for a tri-ox compound. At the hospital, he'd been running on adrenaline.
He took a favorite hardcover book of art prints from the shelf above his shoulder and opened it on his lap, flipping through the plates, but he could not focus on the images. Removing his glasses, he pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. He shivered, and a flush of nausea rose from his stomach to his throat. Attempting to quell it, he rocked forward, gripping the arms of the chair, and cleared his throat. It did not pass. The book he set aside and rested his head against the back of the chair.
Dreams returned him to the Enterprise. He walked along her familiar corridors, trailing his fingertips over the intercom scuffed from daily use, freshly painted yellow shut-off-valves, smooth gray walls, white letters on a black nameplate reading 5R 671. He was alone with the rumbling of the great engines, and he stopped to rest his forehead against the wall and feel her thrum beneath his feet. He entered the turbolift and held on as it rose to the bridge. His body felt young again, ever rejuvenating as he rode higher. There was an easy bounce to his step as he crossed the threshold and claimed the captain's chair. I didn't want to destroy her, he thought. If only...
Something shook him awake.
There was a hand on his shoulder, and McCoy's voice betrayed concern. Jim gasped in a breath as he came back to himself, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and twisting his neck to relieve the stiffness. He exhaled and rolled his shoulders.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"It's late," Bones said. "Good thing you have a housekeeper, or I'd be sleeping outside. I was knocking for a couple minutes before T'Sai heard me, and you didn't answer your comm. She’s programmed me into your security system. Where's Spock?"
"Meditating," Jim said, straightening his legs. "I must have fallen asleep."
"I was going to suggest a nightcap, but it looks like you don't need one tonight."
Jim hummed a laugh. "No," he said. "Probably not. I left some food on the stove. Are you hungry?"
"I could eat."
They settled around the table, the dish of palm fruits in front of them, Bones with a glass of bourbon and Jim with coffee. The house was quiet, not even the ticking of a clock. They didn't keep clocks here ("What would be the point, when Vulcans have an innate sense of time? That would be—" "Yes, all right, Spock."). Jim would bring an antique one back with him the next time they returned from Earth. It didn’t matter that timekeeping varied on Vulcan. The quiet had always unsettled him; the clock would just be for noise.
"Did you get what you needed at the hospital?"
"Mostly," Bones said, folding his arms on the table. "It's the damndest thing, Jim. The strobolin from Beta Canopus is just as potent as it was twenty years ago. The readings are no different. What's more, I examined a sample of Spock's blood from before the strobolin was administered. It's plain old choriocytosis. I expected to find a mutated version of the virus, but it's the same old enemy. Tests confirmed that strobolin deactivated it almost immediately."
Jim rounded his back and rested his elbows on his knees, drinking slowly from his mug. "So what you're saying is there's no medical explanation as to why he was sick for so long."
"But there's no threat of an epidemic."
"Not in my opinion, no."
A thought came to Jim, and it made him feel ill. He set down the mug and bowed his head. "Is it possible..." he began, clasping his hands together. "You said that Vulcan physiology is linked to the mind. Is it possible he didn't recover because I wasn't here with him?"
"No, Jim," Bones said firmly. "Having you near gave him the will to fight, got him to eat, keep his strength up, but your absence wasn't making him sick."
Reassured somewhat, Jim straightened, nodding. "So there's another factor here we aren't seeing."
Jim rose and went to clean his mug. He leaned against the counter, feeling the rounded edge cool against his palms. Sleep. He needed sleep. Would Spock be finished meditating by now? He rolled his head to his right shoulder, then his left, but the ache in his head would not stop.
"Are you headed back to Earth now?" he asked when he realized Bones was staring at him with that concerned look he used to get when Jim beamed back aboard, bruised and shirt ripped, saying he was "Fine, Bones, I'm fine. Just take care of Spock."
"Not just yet," Bones said. "I think I'm owed a few days of rest before I spend another week on a transport."
"What do you say tomorrow, we take in the sights? I have two days before we go off planet."
"A vacation on Vulcan," Bones muttered. "I never would have believed it."
Jim chuckled and took down two plates, spooning fruit onto both of them. "Do you want whipped cream with yours?" he asked. "Spock doesn't like it, but I do."
"That's because Spock has the good sense not to clog his arteries," Bones said.
Shaking his head, Jim decided against the addition and set a plate before Bones, resuming his seat. He speared a thumb-sized piece of fruit on a skewer and brought it to his lips. "I was in perfect shape during my last physical, I'll have you know," he said and popped it in his mouth.
The flavor reminded him of holidays on Earth. He was proud of the recipe. He'd invented it during a seven-day peace talk that had occupied Spock for two weeks leading up to its start. Jim had spent the days in his den, reading or daydreaming as he stared out into the garden at the scrubby palm tree just outside the window. The fruits would ripen and fall, staining the patio stones as they withered in the harsh sunlight.
"Can't we eat them?" Jim had asked.
"The taste is not pleasant," Spock had assured him.
"Then where's the logic in having it in the garden? It doesn't exactly provide shade." Spock could give no answer, so Jim had set about finding a way to prepare the fruit instead of leaving it for waste. Slow roasting had been the key, along with rich spices (some Vulcan, some Terran, some exotic). It took patience, trial and error, and several days. Eventually, he got the combination of spices right, and determined the proper length of cooking time needed to create a soft texture like a potato. A deep flavor developed, and it was slightly sweet. Spock had almost smiled the first time he tasted it, and Jim had sensed Spock's pride in his bondmate's resourcefulness.
"I'm saying this as a doctor and as your friend," Bones was speaking. Jim forced his attention back on their conversation. "It wouldn't hurt you to lose a few pounds around the middle."
"And you could stand to put on a few."
I find your form pleasing, Spock's voice purred in his mind, and Jim bit back a smile as Spock's desire began to curl around his brain.
"Spock's finished meditating," he said, taking one last bite. He meant to clean his plate, but his eyes were so heavy. T'Sai would take care of everything in the morning. "I'm turning in. Do you want any more, or should I cover this?"
"Leave it," Bones said. "I'd like to go over my notes, think for a while." He motioned to the bottle of bourbon. Jim nodded and patted his shoulder.
"I'll see you in the morning. We'll make a day of it," he said and left Bones in the kitchen.
"You are exhausted." Spock reached a hand to Jim's face and touched his eyelids when they continued to flutter closed.
"I just need a good night's sleep," Jim said, batting his hand away and moving past Spock into the room. The heavy smell of Vulcan incense intensified as he approached the bed. Spock's woven meditation mat still lay on the floor, beside the small carved table where a stub of incense smoldered.
"You need not have waited for me to finish meditating," Spock admonished, bending down to roll the mat neatly and slide it underneath the bed.
"I never like to disturb you," Jim said, unfastening his collar and toeing off his shoes. He yawned, and he allowed his eyes to remain closed where he stood.
"I welcome your presence always," Spock said. He paused—the rustle of fabric indicated he was rising to his feet—and took Jim's hand, drawing two fingers along its back. "It was never my intention for you to believe otherwise."
"Both of us have a lot of regrets lately," Jim said as the vertigo hit him. He placed his free hand on the wall to steady himself and took a breath, then another. Unsteady, he leaned into the points where his fingers touched the plaster. Spock was silent, but Jim could sense his concern, the way he was carefully examining Jim's mind. Jim forced contented thoughts to the surface, an image of them tangled together, and Spock seemed satisfied. "Right now, I just want to go to bed. I could hardly keep my eyes open talking with Bones. I kept daydreaming."
"Do you require anything?"
"Just sleep," he said, opening his eyes. His movements felt clumsy; he stumbled a step but caught himself. Refusing to look up, he feigned interest in his fingernails, digging a blunt thumbnail into a rough cuticle. He winced. "What time do we leave for Andoria?"
"We must depart here at 0500 hours the day after next," Spock said, coming up behind Jim and smoothing his hands down Jim's arms to encircle his wrists. Jim relaxed into him.
"I'll pack tomorrow," he said. "After Bones and I get back from sightseeing."
"Should I accompany you?"
"If you want," Jim said. He thought better of it. "Yes," he amended.
Spock kissed the back of his neck, and Jim could hear the smile in the exhale of breath against his skin.
Sightseeing on Vulcan meant a trip to the Museum of Post-Reform History, which was a far cry from museums on Earth. This was more of an archive than a collection of exhibits, and there was little in the way of visual interest. Artifacts were a part of daily Vulcan life, a constant reminder of the past, not locked away in the human fashion but lived with and cherished. Sarek's home was a veritable trove of art and design. The museum was kept cool and lights low, in order to protect the fragile documents it housed, which made it a comfortable diversion, if not exciting by Terran standards. The first time Jim had visited, he expected to find a wax likeness of Surak, but what met him were the original scrolls penned during the reformation and lengthy descriptions on well-lit plaques.
The museum was not far from ShiKahr, built into the side of a mountain, with four spires and a thick base that stood commandingly in the desert. The structure had few windows, none on the upper floors, to keep out the light.
"It looks positively medieval," Bones remarked as they approached in the car.
"As might your primitive Earth dwellings, doctor," Spock said drily, "to those possessing a familiarity with architecture."
"You haven't mellowed with age, have you."
Being a government building, the museum was open to the public, and there was no fee to visit. The three men entered leisurely. Like all buildings on Vulcan, this one was quiet and pristine. Bones motioned toward a directory just inside the large doors. Logically, the information provided was written in Vulcan and standard. Jim preferred the history of first contact with humans, Spock the indoor meditation garden. As Bones was their guest, they stood silent while he ran a finger over the categories. Jim leaned into Spock's side, his legs wobbly, and wished he'd brought a canteen of water.
"Now this might be interesting," Bones announced. "Healing and medicine. I can learn more about your Vulcan voodoo."
"Perhaps it would be wise to keep such comments to yourself," Spock said, lips quirking, "unless you wish such voodoo to be practiced upon your person."
"Play nicely, you two," Jim said and pointed toward the staircase that would take them up two levels. Bones headed up in front of him, taking the stairs easily. Jim gripped the railing tightly and began to climb, his right foot leaden and awkward. He'd slept well the night before, had never taken this long to feel normal on Vulcan. Was it the gravity? Was it his age? Determination filled him. He would climb this staircase. He was sixty-seven, far from an invalid. There was no need for a lift. He shook his head in frustration and picked up his left foot, brought it down heavy on the next step. Before him, the stairs became a blur, and he stopped to take a breath, then another. Swaying rocked him side to side, and he brought a hand to his head to catch it. He breathed again and felt his strength gradually return. He raised his right foot. A touch on his elbow stilled him. Spock silently offered his arm, his face blank. He did not ask, but Jim could feel the brush against his mind. Draping mental sheets over his discomfort in an attempt to shield, he forced a smile, placing a hand on Spock's sleeve to steady himself as they ascended the remaining stairs.
“Touching in public, Mr. Spock?” he joked quietly, intent on downplaying the dizzy spell. Spock did not answer, and Jim didn't speak again as they took each step, concentrating on each breath. When they reached the landing, Spock did not withdraw, as Jim thought he would. He curled his fingers into the dark fabric of Spock’s robe and felt giddy, the way he used to feel when Spock did not fight his casual touches when they served together. Reason had always made him assume Spock's compliance was because Jim was his superior officer, and Spock did not wish to reprimand his captain for his human behavior.
Now Jim had to wonder if it hadn't been because of their roles at all but the largely human environment, in which Spock had not been ridiculed for showing genuine affection, in which doing so was not unusual but expected. Jim had relished the times he rested a hand on Spock's arm in front of the crew, touched his back or shoulder on an exotic planet in the presence of an away team. On rare occasions Spock had reciprocated, but never in excess and never on Vulcan. When Jim had believed himself dead at the hands of Klingons, Spock would not hold him until they were alone in Jim's quarters and he had memorized the bruises on Jim's body with his eyes. Today was different. Jim reveled in the certainty humming through their bond. Spock loved him—this he could feel as if the thought were his own—and he would endeavor to make certain Jim never forgot that, even if it meant bending Vulcan societal norms. Jim squeezed his arm in approval.
Bones stood in front of a glass case filled with hypodermic needles of varying widths and lengths and age. Jim instinctually winced at a vision of Bones outfitted with one several inches long, coming at his neck. They laughed about it on the ride home, the air car speeding over the desert rocks, Jim laughing until Jim wasn't laughing any longer but coughing. It was just the heat, he told himself, just the dry air. He focused on the road. The cough morphed from a mere tickle in his throat to something deep and reverberating in his chest, an ache in his right lung, a shortness of breath, a pain in his temples that sank behind his eyes. The road before them became a blur, his hands weakly gripped the console—why did his fingers refuse to bend?—and Bones was somewhere very far away shouting "Pull over, Jim! Pull over!" as though from underwater.
He woke in his own bed, eyes opening and rolling back into his head. Lazy eyes. They wouldn't focus. What time was it? He had to give an exam in the morning and hadn't yet gone over the final list of questions with his assistants. They'd be fielding most of the inquiries. At least the phone had stopped ringing. The headache was gone. He yawned deeply, and he was just so tired, but he needed to check the time.
Spock was sitting next to the bed, and there was no sound in the room beside his quick, concerned breathing. Just silence and the smell of incense. Jim wasn't on Earth, then. This was Vulcan, and there was no exam to give.
"Spock?" Jim asked, his eyelids refusing to raise more than halfway as he pushed up on an elbow.
"Lie still," Spock directed, placing a hand on his arm. He looked pale, Jim thought. Too pale. It came rushing back to him. Spock had been sick, and Jim had come home to Vulcan. “Are you thirsty?”
Jim nodded, and Spock lifted a mug to his lips. The warmth of the tea was soothing on his throat. He cleared it and drank again until the mug was dry.
"How did I—?" he began, struggling again to sit, but Spock's hand held him firmly. He gave up and sank back into the pillows.
"You fainted," Bones said, waving a scanner over Jim's forehead. He frowned at the readings. "How's your breathing?"
"Fine," Jim said, ignoring a tightness in his chest. "How's the car?"
"The car's fine," Bones said. "I managed to stop it before you hit anything. Are you still going to try and tell me this is because of the heat?"
Sighing, Jim turned his eyes to Spock. The look on his face was anxious, and he began to knead Jim's arm in a gentle rhythm.
"This isn't because I removed the suit," Jim told him . "So stop thinking that right now."
"But you are dizzy," Spock said slowly, almost to himself, trying to work through the logic. "Your blood oxygen level is low. You are disoriented and lack energy."
"My blood is iron based. It's not possible." He turned to Bones. "Is it?"
"No, and even if it were, you've already been treated for the virus. I'm going to run some additional tests, see if anything turns up."
"Thanks, Bones." He patted Spock's hand where it still gripped his arm. "Stop worrying. It's nothing."
"I will have Sylak cancel our travel plans for tomorrow."
"No," Jim said. "You go without me. I'll stay here a few days, sleep it off, and I'll come with you on the next one."
"It is logical that you stay."
"I'm glad you agree with me."
"It is logical that I stay as well."
"I'll have Bones with me," Jim protested.
"When I was sick, you cared for me. Will you deny me the right to care for you?"
"What about your work? You said it didn't permit you to take a vacation."
"I will be permitted this," Spock said. "Another ambassador will be sent in my stead, or I shall reschedule."
"All this fuss over one dizzy spell."
"You nearly crashed an aircar and killed us all," Bones snapped. "Don't try to pretend this was the first dizzy spell you've had. Why, just last night in the kitchen, Jim, you looked out of sorts. You couldn't keep your eyes open. And don't you dare blame this on the atmosphere or the gravity. Give me a straight answer. How many days have you felt like this?"
The question irritated him, the way Bones glared and Spock's fingers tightened on his arm, no longer a reassuring touch. It was the grip of a man who feared the thing he held might slip away. Jim knew this; it was the way he'd held onto Spock at the hospital.
"I don't know," he answered after a minute. "Ever since we came back here."
"To the house?" Bones asked.
"You don't recall feeling sick at the hospital?"
"No," Jim said, "but I wasn't thinking about myself at the time."
"I'm going to take a blood sample," Bones said. "I have limited resources with me, but I should have results in a few hours."
"What are you looking for?" Jim asked, holding out his arm.
"I don't know, which makes it harder to diagnose." Bones examined the inside of Jim's elbow for his vein and held a small device to it. Jim winced at the pinch on his skin, looked away as the vial filled with blood and at Bones's face. The bags under his eyes were pronounced; they always were when he worried. Jim looked down, to the corner, anywhere but the vial. "I assume we're dealing with a type of anemia or maybe something with your blood sugar."
"But you're not sure."
"Even with all the advances in medicine in the last hundred years, there's never been an innovation that replaced good old-fashioned brainpower and deductive reasoning. There's no such thing as a panacea, and no test that diagnoses everything with the push of a single button. Of course, having my own lab would be helpful instead of this traveling version."
"Vulcan's medical resources are at your disposal," Spock said, and his fingers slipped to the bare skin of Jim's wrist.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," Bones said, tucking the scanner into his medical kit and folding his arms across his chest. "I want you to rest," he said to Jim. "Don't let me catch you out of bed, or I'll knock you out for the next twenty-four hours—or however many hours make up a day on this blasted planet. If you need something, call one of us."
Grumbling, Jim allowed his body to relax and seemingly curl inward on itself. "I promise to be good."
"I'll leave you two alone." Medical bag in hand, Bones moved toward the door, turning back over his shoulder, placing a hand on the doorjamb. "I don't suppose I need to remind you to limit your physical activities."
"No, doctor," Spock said evenly. "You do not."
"Well, this is some day," Jim griped when the bedroom door shut. "I get a little winded, Bones goes into a panic, and now you're not supposed to touch me?"
"It is for your own benefit," Spock said, rising. The inside of Jim's wrist felt cold where Spock's thumb had pressed. "I must make arrangements for tomorrow."
"You should go," Jim insisted. This wasn't like before, on Earth. There weren't any misunderstandings between them now.
"It is my choice to stay," Spock said, and with the touch of a smile and a whisper of fondness in Jim's mind, Spock left him to sleep.
Voices came to him like ocean waves breaking over his consciousness, immediate and then retreating. Spock's warm cadence filled Jim with a sense of calm. He was dimly aware of Bones in the distance, his furious whispering.
"...don't know how this could have happened. It shouldn't be possible..."
He tried to open his mouth and call out to them, but no sound escaped. There was a sudden brightness through his eyelids, a pinch on his neck and the hiss of a hypospray. A door opened and closed softly as sleep tugged him under.
The smell of jam and warm bread roused him, but he found he could not speak, could not open his eyes. The voices were softer when he heard them again. They stood in the hallway, perhaps. If he lay unmoving, he found he could just hear them.
"...you certainly, but Jim is human. It's only fatal to species with copper-based blood. Tests confirm no signs of the disease."
"And yet his body is shutting down, doctor."
"Spock, it's just not possible. There has to be another explanation..."
He would sleep, just for a moment.
There was a comforting weight at Jim's side, a heaviness that caused the mattress to dip. He leaned toward it, toward the familiar smell of home. Jim's fingers formed loosely around Spock's wrist, and he held on. There was only a single voice this time.
"I don't understand how he could have relapsed..."
"...just as bad off as Jim, his oxygen..."
"...running a series of blood tests to check..."
"But I've been staying here with them for days, and I'm not..."
There was blackness all around, black like the unexplored reaches of space. With mental hands, he grasped for the dark and held it to him.
"...keep them together. Spock especially seems to respond positively when Jim..."
The blackness was beautiful.
"...days, at this rate. I want them transferred."
The sun is warm on his face, Earth's sun, and Jim breathes in the fresh country air, listening to birdsong and the rustle of the golden corn stalks. There is something firm in his palm, Spock's hand. He holds it to his chest as the sun presses down, warming them. The sky is a cloudless stretch of blue, pale at the horizon, deep at its zenith. Jim is at peace.
"T'hy'la." Spock's voice is a murmur, a gift, a promise. "Do not leave without me."
Jim smiles though he cannot see Spock's face.
"Where you go, I go," he says, and it is a vow.
How they came to be in Iowa, he cannot remember. The wind blows, a strong wind, but Jim feels only the warmth of the sunlight, the steadiness of Spock's hand within his.
"Are we dead?" he asks.
"No," Spock tells him, and his voice is sweet, floating toward Jim as though an echo. "This is a healing trance. I have brought you here with me."
"Is it as you remember?"
"It is, very beautiful."
"Jim." The hand in his squeezes. "We are, both of us, dying."
Jim nods and accepts this, basking in the blue of the sky. "Will you stay with me?"
Satisfied, Jim inhales the crisp, clean air. "I meant to bring you back here," he says. "I meant to do so many things with you."
"We have done much together."
"I don't regret choosing you," Jim says, and the swell of pride within him is Spock's pride.
"I would claim you again."
They lie stretched between swaying rows of corn and drift together as the bright blue of the sky begins to fade. One by one, stars wink into place.
The ceiling was familiar, as was the smell of antiseptic, of processed air, of Spock asleep beside him. He did not have the energy to sit up. Opening his mouth to wet his lips, his tongue felt dry. The skin of his lips stuck together and pulled apart in little threads at the corners. How long had he been asleep? His eyelids were heavy, but the pain in his head was gone. His eyes did not water when he blinked, so he kept them closed. He was so thirsty, his mouth desert-dry. Spock's exhalations were hot against his shoulder, and he took a deep breath.
A steady hand brought a straw to his lips, and he drank willingly. Water. It saturated his tongue, and he swallowed. The next he held in his mouth a second longer, felt it wet his gums, ease the cottony feeling along the inside of his cheeks.
"Bones?" he asked when the same hand took the water away. "Is that you?"
"You scared the hell out of me for a couple days, Jim," Bones said, clasping his shoulder. "For a while, I wasn't sure if you were going to make it."
"He'll be okay, once he wakes up. He went into a healing trance last night to conserve his strength. I insisted they keep you together."
"What's...wrong with us?" Jim asked haltingly. Bones sighed, and Jim imagined the look of exasperation on his face.
"The Center for Pathogenic something-or-other has ordered a series of tests on your blood, Spock's blood, hell, even my blood since I've been staying at your house. They've asked that Sarek's be tested, and Spock's assistant, and the housekeeper."
"Then it wasn't an attempt on Spock's life?"
"We won't know that until we know what's wrong with you."
Jim nodded slowly, his eyes falling closed, and again he drank before continuing. His eyes began to water, a welcome feeling, and a yawn broke from his mouth. Thoughts swirled a chaotic mess in his head. "How long have we been in here?"
"Four standard days," Bones said, "since you first collapsed. Another couple in here, and you'll be just fine, though my prescription is a speedy return to the planet Earth."
"Thank you, Bones," Jim chuckled, though the laughter made his head ache dully. "So noted."
A tap on the glass made Bones turn his head, and a healer in white robes signaled him with a raised arm.
"They have something for me to look at," he said, patting Jim's knee. "Get some more sleep."
He did. When he woke, Sylak watched them through the glass, and Jim shifted uneasily against his stare. Spock would not be reminded of work or of duty, not right now, and Jim wished a healer would come by so he could ask Sylak be removed. He reached to the bedside table for water—the strength, it seemed, had returned to his hands—and when he looked again, the Vulcan was gone. Relieved, Jim drank and settled next to Spock, who murmured something unintelligible, but it made Jim smile all the same.
Bones had, mercifully, left his glasses and a stack of books for Jim beside the water glass. He took up the first, opening the fragile cover and inhaling the smell of dust and paper. Turning each yellowed page, he read until he became aware of Spock's gaze.
"Here we are again," he said. "The universe, it seems, has given us another chance."
The sound of Bones’s aggravated tone roused Jim from an uneasy sleep. He was arguing with someone across the room, a Vulcan female from the cadence of her voice. Spock was still resting, and Jim didn't have a sense of how much time had passed.
"Use your head!” Bones was saying. “How does a disease that has been eradicated for over a decade suddenly turn up on a Federation planet?"
"You presume too much,” said the female. "There is no reason to believe a connection exists between the virus and the exposure to a toxin."
"My god, woman, look at the facts! Spock almost died from what you believed to be choriocytosis. I read his charts. The strobolin was ineffective, you said,” Bones said, and Jim imagined his hands illustrating his point. “Only it turns out the strobolin was effective. I know because I tested it myself. That means something else was making him sick, something which just happens to mimic the virus. Now he's sick again with exactly the same symptoms, and you want to tell me there’s no connection?”
"Your reasoning supports the theory that the cause is within the home, but it does not mean there is motivation behind it."
“You honestly mean to tell me that I have to explain logic to a Vulcan?”
“What you suggest is not logical,” the woman said, “but coincidental.”
"I think the heat might be getting to you, Bones," Jim interjected, and Bones stepped over to his bedside.
“Sorry for waking you,” he grumbled. “It seems Dr. T'Vala and I are at a disagreement over your illness.”
“I maintain my position that the cause of your illness is accidental,” T’Vala said. “My colleagues are of the same opinion. We believe it to be an environmental toxin.”
Jim's throat was too dry to reply. Motioning for the glass, he drank again, closing his eyes as the water eased the discomfort. Beside him, Spock shifted, and Jim placed a hand on his cheek, fingers brushing his hair, the point of his ear.
"But Spock did have the disease last time," he said finally.
"He did," Bones confirmed. "If he had also been exposed to whatever is affecting you both now, that explains the delayed recovery and his seeming lack of response to the strobolin."
"This is conjecture," T'Vala said.
“Sarek's blood has a slightly lower oxygen level than is normal,” Bones continued speaking to Jim, turning his back to T'Vala. “It's not as extreme a drop as Spock’s, but it's relevant. They've compared his results against his medical history. He's under observation and receiving oxygen therapy."
"But my blood tested normal,” Bones continued. “So did Sylak's and your housekeeper's."
“So someone is targeting the Vulcan ambassadors,” Jim concluded.
“Assuming I were to agree with you that this is an assassination attempt, and I do not, it is unlikely an assassin would allow anyone other than the intended target to become sick,” T'Vala spoke. “This being, if he exists, is Vulcan, not human. You do not represent the Vulcan government; therefore, you are not a logical target."
"Unless I'm supposed to be included,” Jim said. He took a breath and rolled the edge of the blanket between his fingers. "There have always been Vulcans, even fairly powerful ones, who didn't approve of our bonding. T'Pau was always sore about you faking my death, Bones. Not exactly honorable, by their standards. She wasn't the only one."
"But why now?” Bones asked. “You've been married for almost twenty-five years. Why wait this long?"
"I don't know," Jim said.
Bones took a deep breath and paced the length of Jim’s bed. "It's my belief that Spock contracting choriocytosis is no coincidence."
"What do you mean?" Jim asked. T'Vala's expression remained neutral, though she lifted her chin slightly in what Jim knew to be irritation.
"What if, to ensure Spock would die, someone infected him with the virus while he was on Babel, but also exposed him to a toxin that produced similar symptoms, guaranteeing the strobolin wouldn't work?"
"What you are proposing would require a great deal of planning and foresight," T'Vala said. “As well as an understanding of the virus and of toxins necessary to produce similar symptoms, and the means to procure a strain of the virus. Such access is highly restricted.”
“You mean the virus is still present on Vulcan?” Jim asked.
“A virus stock is housed at the Center for Morbidity and Pathogenic Control and Research,” T'Vala said. “To destroy it, when it could be of future use, is impractical. It would be nearly impossible to access without the highest level of clearance.”
“Are there any others?” Jim asked. “Outside of Vulcan, I mean.”
“Yes, though it is logical that their access would be just as restricted.”
“What about systems where the virus still persists? It can’t have been wiped out everywhere.”
“It has not, but they are at a great distance,” T’Vala said. “What you suggest borders on ridiculous.”
“Crazier things have happened,” Bones said. “What better way to assassinate someone than to make it appear like a fatal disease? No one would question it."
"Assuming you're right," Jim said, "and this is an assassination attempt, who the hell would do it this way? Why not just set a phaser to overload, or blow up the air car? Or, hell, just shoot us outright."
“Because it’s personal,” Bones said. "The intent is to harm you, both of you, deeply."
“I thought you weren't a psychiatrist?” Jim teased.
“You speculate,” T'Vala said to Bones, and the disdain in her voice was obvious.
"It has to be someone with access to your house," Bones said, and Jim felt a chill run up his spine. "Starfleet Medical is organizing a team to test your home for possible toxins: the water, the plants, the food, the air quality, the furnishings. I hope you don't mind, but I approved it on your behalf while you were asleep. I can still fake your signature pretty convincingly. If it is something at your home, it's not a gas. Too hard to control. Most likely something you ingested."
"But you've been eating the same food we have," Jim protested.
"It could be your toothpaste, Jim. The point is, we don't know." Bones folded his arms across his chest and stopped his pacing, regarding Jim seriously. "What we do know is that since leaving the hospital, both of you have either been at your house or in the presence of someone else. You were already sick when we visited the museum, so that's out. You both get better when you’re here, so this place is out. That leaves your home. I'm sure even Spock will agree with me that I'm being logical, when he has the sense to wake up."
"Thank you, Dr. McCoy." The voice at Jim's shoulder caused him to turn his head and smile down at Spock, whose eyes were still closed, but the corner of his mouth twitched as he made to speak again. "I am surprised to say that I find your logic intriguing."
"When can we go home?" Jim asked.
Dr. T'Vala spoke. "It would be unwise to return to your home without first determining the source of the toxin.”
“Agreed,” Bones said.
“So we’re just supposed to sit here and wait until something is possibly discovered?” Jim said. “I don’t know about you, Spock, but my back can’t take much more of this mattress.”
“It is decidedly uncomfortable,” Spock agreed.
“We have no reason to keep you in this facility,” T’Vala said. “As we have determined your own residence is unsafe, my recommendation is to make alternate arrangements.”
“I’ve already spoken with Sarek,” Bones said. “You’ll both stay with him until we get the all-clear. I’d like a security detail assigned to you, but I guess that will have to be done through the Vulcan government. Starfleet’s influence only goes so far.”
"What does Sarek think of all this?" Jim asked.
"He thinks it's far fetched," Bones answered, "but he's not willing to take any chances with Spock's life or yours. His words."
Jim hadn't been an overnight guest in Sarek's home since Amanda's passing a few years back. Then, they had stayed with Sarek for several days, the three of them quiet, contemplative, going about daily tasks. Sarek had remained aloof, but Jim detected he was glad for the company. Jim had insisted on them staying, though Spock claimed to find it distasteful by Vulcan standards. He agreed, ostensibly out of respect for his mother's heritage. Jim had done most of the cooking that week, while Sarek put away Amanda's things, and Spock lingered over her hairbrush, her favorite book of Terran poetry, the corner of the garden she had allowed him to tend as a child.
The guest rooms were located on the home's upper floors. Sarek's home was large, its size implying the family's importance in Vulcan society. The first time Spock had invited him to stay with his parents, before their bonding, Jim thought of how Spock would react were he to see Jim's modest childhood home in Riverside. Even Vulcans, it seemed to Jim, were not above displaying their means. Bones hadn't allowed them to return home for personal effects, so clothing had been laid out for them by Sarek's housekeeper, and the adjoining washroom was supplied with new toothbrushes and grooming items.
Sylak’s call to Spock’s personal comm came through mid morning, and Jim snatched the device away before Spock could answer, shutting it in a drawer.
“You are not an ambassador today,” he said. “You can speak with him later.”
Spock conceded, kissed Jim, and left to find his father. Jim messaged Bones to let him know they were settled. He set his stack of books on the nightstand and went for a shower, slipping into a light Vulcan tunic and joining Sarek and Spock downstairs in the library.
"This has been some week," he said, sitting beside Spock on a low leather-covered bench that Amanda once told Jim she had brought with her from Earth. The room was moderately lit and smelled of books; it was Jim's favorite in the house. Sarek sat in a high-backed chair, facing away from the bound tomes lining the wall. Spock indicated Jim's spot by placing a hand on the cushion beside him. Jim watched Sarek's eyes as he regarded his son, expecting them to hold a reprimand, but they were almost envious. Jim had often wondered if Sarek would marry again, but Amanda Grayson was a tough act to follow. Her likeness, a relief carved in wood, stood unassuming beside a row of red books.
"Indeed," Spock replied, brushing his fingers against the small of Jim's back.
"Now that James is here, I will speak frankly. Dr. McCoy presents a logical theory," Sarek said. "I find it difficult to accept that there is not a connection between my son contracting a fatal virus, which has been eradicated, and your shared exposure to a deadly toxin."
"Bones will certainly be thrilled to hear that," Jim said.
"I have made calls to ambassadors on several planets," Sarek continued. "I have spoken with the Federation; I have spoken with additional members of Starfleet Medical. The delegates from Babel have been tested. There have been no reports of illness from any others who attended the peace talks. No Federation planet reports an instance of the virus. It is not possible that Spock could have contracted choriocytosis on Babel or on Vulcan."
"Agreed," Spock said.
Sarek folded his hands on his lap. "Yet he did contract the virus. If he could not have contracted it naturally, we must conclude that he was infected artificially."
"You mean intentionally," Jim said. Sarek nodded.
"You were both exposed to a toxin which produces symptoms identical to those of the virus as it infects Vulcans. That must not be overlooked. I conclude my own exposure was unintended by the person or persons responsible. Therefore, I do not believe the motivation to be political."
"We still have no idea who these people might be," Jim said. "Or why they'd want either of us dead."
"It is logical to assume a third attempt will be made against my life," Spock said. "It is also logical to assume the method will change."
"At the hospital," Jim said, "The healer insisted that it would be next to impossible for anyone to get a sample of the virus. What type of clearance would someone need to get into the stock here on Vulcan?"
"Access is restricted to three individuals," Sarek said. "Acting president and vice-president of the Center for Morbidity, and the Administrator of the Vulcan High Command. Their records indicate no recent access to the virus archive."
"Damn," Jim swore, lowering his face to his hand.
"However," Sarek continued. "I have solicited all Federation medical facilities that maintain virus stocks of any kind, to inquire whether any house this particular virus, and to determine if any has had a breach of security. I await their replies. In the meantime, it is imperative you do not leave this house."
"If someone could poison us in our own home, surely it could happen here," Jim said.
"It is my hope no one is aware of your whereabouts, for now," Sarek said. "I have requested your home be monitored, and Dr. McCoy will continue to stay there. If the perpetrator is aware that Starfleet and our government has become involved, it is logical he or she will return to your home in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence."
"I see,” Jim said. Beside him, Spock nodded.
"Shall we eat?" Sarek suggested. "The cook has laid out lunch."
After their meal, Sarek left for a few hours, and Spock ordered a tea service. He and Jim sat in the common room, and Jim lifted the mug to his mouth once it stopped steaming.
“I’m surprised iced tea hasn’t caught on here,” he commented before taking a sip. “It’s a little absurd to drink hot liquids in the desert.”
“So you have often said,” Spock replied.
Jim grimaced and swallowed. “This is too bitter for my tastes,” he said, setting down the mug. “I like the variety you brew much better.”
“I admit a preference as well, though I do not find this unpalatable,” Spock said, taking a thin biscuit in his fingers. He had long abandoned the use of utensils when only Jim was present. “I discovered the tea while visiting Altair IV two months ago.”
“Exotic,” Jim replied. “You should give your father a box.”
“I will be sure to do so, when the next order arrives.”
“You have it shipped in?”
“Yes,” he said. “I am not scheduled to return for a year, and I will have run out before that time.”
“Ah,” Jim said, selecting a biscuit as well. It was crisp and left crumbs on his tunic when he bit into it. He brushed them away casually, his eyes catching on a polished azure sphere on the bookshelf.
A vision came to him of blue tea mugs Spock cherished, of Sylak glancing to Sarek nervously, of Sylak with his back against the wall like a glaring statue. He thought of a tea service for three, of tea served on the patio, of tea being lifted to his mouth when he awoke from fainting. A sick feeling curled in his stomach, but he couldn’t speak his fear out loud, not just yet. If he was wrong, Spock would not forgive him. Flustered, he frowned and stood abruptly, attempting to keep his suspicion and panic from the bond where Spock could sense it.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he muttered. “I— I have to call Bones.”
Spock didn’t respond, just gave Jim a light nod. Hurrying up the stairs, Jim found himself out of breath when he reached the landing. He shut the door firmly behind him, so there would be no chance of his voice carrying down the stairs to Spock’s acute ears. He fumbled at his comm, pacing with a hand on his forehead until the call connected.
“Bones,” he said.
“I promise I’ll call as soon as we find something,” Bones said. “This isn’t an instant process.”
“Is there a medical center on Altair IV?” Jim blurted.
“Several,” Bones said. “Central Hospital is the best known.”
“Well...” Bones said, and Jim could hear the confusion in his voice. “They’re a leading medical research facility. They built a name for themselves working with dangerous biological agents, though they’re working more with nerve regeneration now. They’re responsible for many of the synthetic drugs we use today, including the one Spock received.”
“So they worked with choriocytosis,” Jim stated.
“Yes. We worked with it on Earth. It was a common disease once.”
“Would they still have a stock of it?”
“It’s possible,” Bones said.
“Spock was on Altair two months ago,” Jim said. “Are you at the house?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bones said. “The team from Starfleet is here. They are beginning the scan in your bedroom.”
“Tell them to check the kitchen,” Jim said. “In the cabinet to the right of the window, there are boxes of tea from Altair IV. Have them check those first and call me when you know something.”
He hung up before Bones had a chance to respond and tucked his comm into his pocket before returning downstairs.
“You are concerned about something,” Spock said when Jim sat in the chair Sarek had earlier occupied.
“I’m just anxious to hear what they find,” Jim lied, folding his arms over his chest and fighting the desire to take out his comm. He focused on the wall over Spock’s head, on the strong lines between each heavy block that made up the structure. He held his jaw firm and found himself daydreaming, imagining himself in the Enterprise’s curved corridors, Spock’s hand encircling his wrist like a bracelet.
Spock drank another cup of tea while they waited, but Jim couldn’t touch his, couldn’t eat another biscuit. He saw red, felt the anger boil in his chest at the thought that Sylak, whom Spock had worked with and trusted for over three years, could be responsible for this. Spock had always defended him. “He is an orphan,” he had said to Jim. “He strives to make something of himself.” So Jim had let slide his cold manner, his camouflaged hostility, his irritating devotion to Spock. That Sylak would wish to harm Spock made no sense, however.
The comm beeped in his pocket.
“Soltar,” Bones said immediately when Jim picked up. “Ever heard of it?”
“Soltar?” Jim repeated, and Spock looked up sharply. “It’s a fruit. I make preserves from it. We don’t grow it ourselves, but Sarek has a tree in his garden.”
“I’m told it’s delicious,” Bones said. “To hobgoblins, at least. Good for breakfast. Do you know what else?”
“No,” Jim said, “but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“The ground pits are used to control pests. They’re poisonous. They have an effect similar to cyanide, depriving the body of oxygen. We found evidence of soltar pits in this tea.”
“And that wouldn’t be normal for residents of Altair?”
Spock’s eyebrow shot up.
“Enough of this stuff would eventually be fatal to any species relying on oxygen,” Bones said. “Including the Altarians. You ingested extremely low doses, which is why the effects took time to build. There are no documented cases of soltar poisoning on Vulcan, so they don’t check for it. And I used to joke it was coffee that would kill you.”
Sarek returned home within the hour, having received a reply from Altair IV that, indeed, they had welcomed a member of the Vulcan Medical Institute for a private tour two months earlier. He immediately ordered the aircar. His face was dark as they rode the short distance between the houses. Jim kept his head bowed. Bones waited for them at the front door and ushered them inside. At Sarek’s insistence, the V’Shar had sent an agent to assist with interrogation. Jim recognized him as Stonn. Spock did not visibly react, though Jim felt a hint of displeasure emanate from him.
The Starfleet team continued to sweep the rest of the house, and they uncovered a jar of ground soltar pits in the housekeeper’s quarters. T'Sai was summoned for questioning. She stood before Stonn, her wrinkled hands clasped before her. Stonn sat on a low bench in the common room, with a PADD before him, and met her eyes.
“Explain,” Stonn said calmly, placing the jar in front of her.
“It is to control the insects,” she said plainly.
“Did you use this powder to poison Ambassador Spock?”
“No,” she replied. “You are welcome to search my mind.”
“Unnecessary,” Stonn said. “Has anyone else had access to the powder?”
“It is possible,” she said. “I cannot answer with certainty.”
“Who has access to this home?”
“Daily access is restricted to Ambassador Spock, Captain Kirk, Ambassador Sarek, Sylak, and to me,” she answered. “Guest access has been temporarily granted to Dr. McCoy.”
Stonn frowned slightly “Have you granted unauthorized access to anyone else?”
“Has anyone attempted to bribe you to gain access to this house?”
“No,” she repeated.
“Who is Sylak?” Stonn asked.
“Sylak is Ambassador Spock’s aide.”
“Where is he?”
“I do not know.”
“When is the last time he was here?” Stonn asked.
“The home’s central computer can provide a complete report. Shall I process it?”
“No. That will be all,” Stonn said. “You may go.” T’Sai left the room, her expression no different than when she first entered. She did not regard Jim or Spock as she exited. He could hear her moving about the kitchen, cleaning, as though nothing had happened.
Sarek cleared his throat. “Stonn,” he said, “Sylak must be located.”
Stonn nodded and flipped open his comm. After a pause, the murmuring of a voice was audible. “This is Stonn, requesting a detail be sent to the home of Sylak, aide to Ambassador Spock, for the purpose of detainment. He is to be brought to V’Shar headquarters for questioning. I will meet you there.”
The detainment room at V’Shar had been designed to intimidate its occupants. It lacked adornment and windows, and the ceiling was oppressively low. Jim, Spock, and Sarek sat on a bench along one side of the metal table. Bones sat across from them. The bench was hard; Jim shifted uncomfortably and angled his body so he had a better view of Sylak’s stony face.
He stood defiantly at the head of the table, hands clasped before him, chin lifted, hardened eyes locked forward. He would not meet Jim’s gaze. Stonn stood beside him.
“How long have you been an aide to Ambassador Spock?”
“Three years, two months, and four days by Vulcan reckoning.”
“Did you travel with Ambassador Spock to Altair IV two months ago?”
“I did,” Sylak answered.
“While on planet, did you visit the Central Hospital of Altair IV, providing a falsified authorization from the Vulcan government?” Sylak did not respond. “Did you steal a sample of choriocytosis from their virus stock? Did you then infect Ambassador Spock with that virus?”
Sylak set his jaw, and his nostrils flared as he began to take deep, even breaths.
“Did you poison Ambassador Spock and Captain Kirk with soltar?” Stonn continued. “Did you poison Ambassador Sarek?”
“I did not poison Ambassador Sarek.”
“But you did poison the other two,” Stonn concluded.
Sylak’s eyes flashed. His mouth twitched, and a laugh broke from his throat—a crazed, unnatural sound. Beside Jim, Sarek tensed as it echoed in the room. Spock reached a hand to Jim’s shoulder, and Jim placed his own on top of it. He glanced at Bones, who looked uneasy.
“If you will not answer, you will give me your mind,” Stonn said and reached his hand like a spider toward Sylak’s face. He flinched when Stonn’s fingers pressed against his meld points. Eyes falling closed, expression almost pained, he continued to laugh spitefully.
Stonn whispered the incantation, and Jim held his breath for a long moment, waiting for Stonn to pull words from Sylak’s mind and speak them aloud. After only a few seconds, Stonn abruptly dropped his hand.
“I do not understand,” he declared, looking at his hand, which shook. “This mind is not Vulcan.”
“Clarify,” Sarek said.
“The body is Vulcan, but the mind is not,” Stonn said, brows knit together. “It is chaotic, disordered. I place myself in danger attempting further access to it.”
“Allow me.” Sarek said, rising.
“Father,” Spock spoke as Jim said “Sarek—” Sarek held up a hand to quiet them and stepped away from the bench, approaching Sylak, whose laughter faded to quiet humming. Stonn sank to the bench across from where Sarek had been seated. Sarek raised his hand to Sylak’s face.
“My mind to your mind.”
Sarek’s touch was less aggressive than Stonn’s had been. Jim recalled their meld shortly after Spock had died of radiation poisoning, how Sarek had felt the depth of Jim’s love for his son, had finally understood what existed between them. He had not objected to their bonding, but he had not desired it, wishing a Vulcan mate for his son. After their meld, he never questioned Jim’s importance in Spock’s life again.
Sylak’s face softened under Sarek’s steady hand. His breathing became slow and even, as though he slept standing upright before them. Sarek’s face contorted as the thoughts began to enter his mind, and Spock tightened his hold on Jim’s shoulder when Sarek began to speak.
“I represent the Vulcan Medical Institute. I apologize you were not made aware of my impending visit.”
“So he did steal the virus from Altair,” Stonn said, tapping his PADD. “Central Hospital must be advised that an improvement to their security protocol is in order.”
“If Sylak had direct contact with the virus,” Jim said, looking at Bones, “How is it he’s not dead?”
“The sample would be sealed, so he wouldn't have come into contact with it until he dosed Spock. According to their records, Sylak was administered strobolin at the hospital,” Bones said, folding his hands on the table. “Probably gave himself the synthetic drug too, to ward off symptoms until he could be treated.”
Sarek inhaled sharply and spoke again.
“He fears you will not understand his reasons for wishing to remain on Earth. He desires to be more than an ambassador’s husband. Do not grieve. I will return with you to Vulcan.”
Jim’s eyes widened as he recognized what must have been the lie that convinced Spock of Jim’s desire to leave him, and he felt Spock’s shame fill him. He pushed forgiveness across their bond and smoothed a kiss across the back of Spock’s hand. Don’t think about it anymore, he thought, and Spock’s mind touched his with affection.
“We must conclude the intention was never to kill Jim,” Spock said, “but to separate us.”
“Why?” Jim asked.
“I would surmise,” Spock said, “to increase your suffering at my loss.”
“Sylak, I will miss you. You are a marvelous scientist and could have achieved much, but this is the only way.”
“Are we to understand that Sylak is...dead?” Jim asked.
“His body lives,” Sarek said in his own voice, “but his katra is not here.”
“Don’t talk to me about katras,” Bones grumbled.
“But there really was a Sylak?”
“Sylak is indeed listed as a resident of Vulcan. He was orphaned at four years of age and raised by a cousin,” Stonn said, reading the details from his PADD. “He attended the Vulcan Science Academy on scholarship at seventeen, graduating within the top 5% of his class. His postgraduate work was in archaeology, with a doctoral thesis on life-energy worship in primitive cultures. However, he left the field and applied to work for the Vulcan government six years ago.”
"There is something here," Sarek said, "that he has buried deeply. He is attempting to shield from me." Taking a deep breath, Sarek tensed his fingers, and Sylak winced.
“It took many years for me to get back here, to finish my research. Had it not been for Arthur’s persistence, I would still be on Elba II.”
“The asylum?” Bones said, frowning. “Nobody gets out of there. It’s for incurable cases.”
“Your name,” Stonn demanded. “Give us your name.”
“No,” Sylak ground out. Sarek narrowed his eyes, and his fingers dug deeper into Sylak’s meld points. Groaning, Sylak attempted to twist his head away, but Stonn quickly stood and gripped his shoulder and the back of his neck, forcing him to remain in position. Sylak ground his teeth, straining against Stonn’s grasp, and his eyes shot wide as Sarek rasped the final sentence—
“You must be my new assistant. Welcome to Camus II, Sylak. I am Dr. Lester.”
Jim gasped and stared, open mouthed. For a few seconds, he forgot to breathe.
"I'll be damned," Bones swore.
Sarek dropped his hand and immediately fell onto the bench beside Bones, breathless and shaking. Bones ran a hand-held scanner over him, scowled, and slid a glass of water before him. Stonn released Sylak roughly, who backed up against the wall and stood still.
“Janice?” Jim exclaimed when he was able to speak, standing with his palms flat against the table. He could feel Spock's astonishment. It matched his own.
“You know this person?” Stonn asked, glancing at Jim.
"Dr. Janice Lester," Jim began, "was someone I knew, long ago."
Slowly, Sylak turned his head and looked at Jim directly with a hard stare, a green flush rising along his cheeks. It fit—the ire in Sylak’s eyes whenever he looked at Jim, the obvious dislike, the jealous possession he displayed over Spock. Janice Lester stood before him in the body of a Vulcan, and Jim wanted nothing more than his own revenge, to wrap his hands around her throat and squeeze until there was no life left in her.
"Janice Lester is dead," Sylak said sharply.
Stonn tapped on his PADD, scrolling through a few screens, and pursed his mouth. “Janice Lester’s release from Elba II is on record. She was admitted in 2269. In 2284, she received an experimental psychotherapy treatment. The facility released her to the care of Arthur Coleman in 2285. Her death was reported six years ago on Camus II.”
“Camus II?” Bones said. “Wasn’t that the planet where everyone died of radiation poisoning?”
“Indeed,” Spock said. “It was also the planet where Jim and Dr. Lester switched bodies through the use of an ancient life-energy transfer machine.”
“Six years,” Jim murmured. He fixed his jaw and glared at Sylak, who continued to eye him levelly. “You’ve been Janice Lester this whole time?” he demanded, slamming a fist on the table.
“Janice Lester is dead,” Sylak repeated and turned his head away.
“The body of Janice Lester is dead,” Spock inferred, “along with the mind of the Vulcan whose body you stole.”
“If I remember from my own experience,” Jim said, “death was the only way to ensure the transfer was permanent.”
“Take him into custody,” Stonn said, motioning to the two guards at the door. They bound Sylak's wrists behind his back. “You have committed crimes against the Vulcan government, including attempted murder of an ambassador and the murder of a Vulcan citizen. Is there anything you wish to state for the record?”
Sylak regarded Stonn through steely Vulcan eyes. “I suppose you will return me to Elba II.”
“Your treatment is at the discretion of healers at the Vulcan Medical Institute. It is unlikely you will be transferred off planet.” Stonn paused, and the corner of his mouth twitched. “You will find escape from Vulcan facilities difficult.”
The absence of a fanatic media on Vulcan was a blessing, with no reporters knocking on the door or requesting a video statement on the past month’s events. Bones reclined in the leather arm chair, holding a very generous glass of bourbon. Spock sipped one as well, though less full—tea was out of the question, at least for the time being—and Jim stood next to the bookshelf with a glass of his own.
“She’ll have a long time to think about what she’s done,” Bones mused. “Another hundred and sixty years, at least.”
“I just wish we knew why she did this,” Jim said. “Why, after all these years?”
“She’s insane,” Bones said. “We’ll never fully understand her reasoning, even if she tried to explain it to you.”
“She wanted me dead before. Why did she go after Spock this time?”
“Probably to make you suffer,” Bones said. “It's likely she still blames you for her unhappiness. Killing you might not be enough for her anymore, but killing Spock, knowing his importance to you..."
"She almost succeeded."
"But she did not," Spock said.
"The way she went about it, though," Jim continued, "the complexity...I can't wrap my brain around it."
"Stop trying to," Bones said, rubbing his eyes. "You'll give yourself an aneurysm."
"She fooled us all for three years. She had the Vulcan stoicism down pat. Even Spock didn't suspect her."
"I did not," Spock admitted. "I attributed lapses in Sylak's control to his unsteady upbringing and the time he spent working with humans. He was an excellent assistant."
"Ironically," Jim said, "and with a few notable exceptions."
Spock drank. "He could have accomplished much."
If only, Jim thought and recalled his dreams of walking through the Enterprise's corridors, of Spock's hand on his wrist. Of course. He hadn't been dreaming about the ship at all. Had something in him sensed that Sylak was not who he appeared? Uhura had once said she believed him to be slightly empathic. Perhaps a part of him had recognized the mind that had once occupied his body. But if he had said anything, he would have been laughed off as a senile old man. He shook his head and exhaled, raising the glass to his lips. It was dry; he refilled it and topped off Bones's glass as well. Spock shook his head against another pour, his eyes lingering on Jim's movements.
"You know, I dreamed about her recently," Jim said, placing the glass stopper in the bottle and leaning against the edge of his desk. "About Janice Lester back on the Enterprise."
"When?" Bones asked.
"Just as I was falling sick. At the time I thought I was dreaming about the ship. I said I didn't want to destroy her. I assumed I was thinking of the Enterprise, of what happened to her when we tried to get Spock back from Genesis...but now I realize I was recalling the turnabout."
"You should have informed me of your dreams," Spock said.
"For what purpose?" Jim asked, shrugging. "Even if you had recognized them as being about Janice, would it have made a difference? Neither of us would have suspected Sylak of actually being her. We would have laughed it off as just a dream."
"I can’t believe they released her to Coleman’s care," Bones said. "The man didn't carry an active medical license. It's not like he could have walked into the facility and signed her release papers.”
“Maybe he signed as her husband,” Jim suggested. “If I remember, he was in love with her.”
“How long do you imagine she kept him around before she got rid of him too?"
"I don't want to think about it," Jim said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm looking forward to a good night's rest and waking up tomorrow morning knowing neither of us is going to spend the day in a hospital. I plan on spending it in bed." He cast a grin at Spock. "And so do you."
"Thank you for that mental image," Bones said, downing the remainder of his glass in one swallow.
"You can add it to your collection."
"Just glad to be leaving in the morning," Bones said. "I've had more vegetarian fare than I care to in a year, no offense to your cooking skills. I could do with some good old-fashioned Southern comfort food. When are you due back on Earth?"
"In three months," Spock answered.
"Though we won't come to Earth directly this time," Jim said, and Spock raised an eyebrow. "We're taking a vacation. It's long overdue."
Spock regarded Jim with a smile that widened until he saw teeth. It was probably the bourbon, Jim reminded himself, but he luxuriated in the pleasure that expression spiked in him. He'd only seen it on rare occasions—Spock's first pon farr, on the day of their bonding—and he could count them on two hands.
"Better watch out, Spock," Bones drawled, raising his glass in salute. "If that grin gets any wider, your face might crack."
Three months later
The sky surrounding Stratos was a cloudy, dimly lit orange as the sun set on Ardana. Jim had called in a favor to Vanna, who recalled their time together in the zenite mine many years earlier. She had risen to power within the city and was pleased to hear from him.
"Captain Kirk, of course," she had said in a video reply. "The people of Stratos would be pleased to welcome you and Ambassador Spock to our city as honored guests. Let me know of your plans, and I will have everything arranged for you."
The planet this evening was warm, not sweltering like Vulcan, but pleasant enough that Jim was comfortable in a light silk shirt, and Spock wore only a single thermal layer beneath his tunic. They returned to their accommodations within the main building, after a day spent admiring the city's art collections. Jim could feel Spock's satisfaction humming through him as they walked through the curved hallways, past elaborate sculptures. From the corner of his eye, he caught Spock skim his fingers along a stone carving that appeared as a length of ribbon, twisted and coiled. He sent a peal of mental laughter and squeezed Spock's free hand, which he captured in his own.
Their room was large, similar to the room they had been given years earlier, only with a larger bed within an alcove, and a small balcony. The walls were draped in crimson curtains that extended from the ceiling to puddle on the floor. A seating area consisted of a table and two low benches, and a yellow chaise on which Spock reclined to meditate while Jim showered and changed for dinner.
"Vanna has invited us to dine with her," Jim said, noting a message on the room's display. He toweled off his hair and looked to Spock, who lay on his back with fingers steepled on his chest. "Do you feel up to it?"
"Yes," Spock said, "though a part of me does not wish to share your attention."
"We'll only be a standard hour or two," Jim said, coming to sit at Spock's feet. He gripped an ankle and began to massage Spock's calf, which earned him a low purr. "If you like, I'll think suggestive thoughts while we're eating."
"That would make staying through the end of the meal rather difficult."
"Nothing too salacious, then."
"That would be best."
Vanna linked her arm through Jim's as they entered the dining hall and ushered him to his place at the table. She wore her graying hair twisted high on her head, sheer golden fabric falling from her shoulders, a flush in her cheeks. Undoubtedly, she would occupy the head chair, Jim reasoned. Visiting and local dignitaries and her closest family members sat in the remainder of the seats. She chanted names and identities to Jim and nodded at each as they passed. Spock walked quietly behind them.
"Captain Kirk, you will sit beside me," she said, revealing his chair with a sweep of her hand, "and Ambassador Spock, just across from him there." She took her place and raised both hands, elbows held at right angles, palms outstretched. "Blessings upon this meal," she spoke, and all around them were murmurs of "Give thanks, give thanks."
Jim scanned the room for Droxine, but she was absent. He fleetingly wondered what had become of her before turning his attention back to the table spread. It was laden with colorful bowls of fruit, woven baskets with sliced bread still steaming from the oven. Over his shoulder, a server presented a carafe of something that looked like wine, and he nodded that he would take a glass. Spock sat politely straight, and he accepted a glass of the drink as well. Jim sent him an intimate thought as promised (Jim settled between Spock's legs), which earned him a mental rebuke, but it was worth the upbraiding for the slight green flush that settled across Spock's face.
"So, Vanna," Jim said, smiling broadly, ignoring the way Spock shifted uncomfortably when Jim sent an accompanying image with their positions reversed. He took up his glass and drank, careful not to look in Spock's direction, though he watched him from his peripheral vision. "There have been many changes since we last visited Ardana."
"I knew you would be glad to hear of it," she said, her voice musical. "I always hoped your ship would return."
"How long did it take to integrate the Troglytes with the Stratos dwellers? I imagine there was a great deal of resistance."
"Yes," she said, "at first, it seemed an impossible task, and not just because of the Ardanan elite. The Troglytes had become accustomed to a type of life, and there were many who had no interest in a life in the clouds, but we knew their mental faculties to be compromised."
"You moved them against their will?"
"We made it law that time in the mines was restricted," she said. "That, along with the masks you provided, allowed my people to regain their cognitive processes, to function as full members of society. We eliminated most of the surface housing within a few years, though some preferred to remain. We implemented shuttles that transported workers from Stratos to the surface every morning, and returned them in the evenings. We did our best to eliminate the dichotomy, though that can never be eliminated entirely until there are no more alive who remember that time."
"And you are head of the government now?"
"I am High Advisor of Stratos," she said. "And I am a member of the governing council."
"I see," Jim said. "I'm pleased to hear it."
"And you, Ambassador!" she exclaimed, looking from Jim to Spock, who lifted his chin. "Of course, I remember you as well. May I offer my long overdue congratulations. You and your bondmate honor us with your visit."
"You honor us with your hospitality, High Advisor," Spock said.
"I never married, myself," she said, "though I have performed a few ceremonies in my day."
She laughed and directed her attention to the dignitary at Jim's right. Dishes of food were brought out, and the rest of the meal was spent commenting on the plethora and quality of the food, the city's abundance of art, and improvements in zenite processing. After a final course of mild greens and a bitter liqueur that Jim managed to swallow without grimacing, Vanna dismissed those gathered. Spock offered his arm, and they walked casually back to their room, both sated and Jim a little intoxicated.
Collapsing on the bed in full clothing, Jim lay back, yawning and allowing his eyes to fall closed. The bed dipped as Spock sat beside him and smoothed a hand over his chest.
“It means a great deal to me that you arranged our stay on Stratos.”
“We always said we’d come back here, didn’t we?”
“We did,” Spock said.
They were quiet for a few minutes, and Jim was drifting toward contented sleep when Spock’s voice brought him back.
"I wish..." Spock began, and the hand on Jim's chest stilled. Jim opened an eye to see Spock regarding him seriously. He struggled to sit up, so they sat face to face on the bed. Spock raised a hand to Jim's lips and caressed them. "It has been many years since our bonding. I wish to speak those words to you again."
"Are you sure this isn't the liqueur talking?" Jim asked, kissing the hand at his mouth.
"No, Jim," Spock said, and Jim stilled, nodding.
"If you'd like to speak them," Jim said, lowering his voice and taking Spock's hands in his own, "then I wish to hear them." He guided Spock from the bed to the floor, and they managed to kneel before one another despite aging knees and hips, palms touching.
"For as I am mine, I am yours," Spock murmured, and the words were as much in Jim's mind as in his ears, "and you, being yours, are mine; for as we are one, we are separate, free, yet bonded for all time; never and always touching and touched." Leaning forward, Spock rested his forehead against Jim's.
"Always," Jim whispered, "I like always."
Fingers came to rest in a familiar configuration along Jim's face, and Jim felt the bond flicker and spark the way it had when Spock first forged the link between them. He raised his hands to Spock's face and kissed him as Spock slipped into his mind.
They stood on the balcony after. The stars were bright. Jim placed a single hand on the railing. His back pressed along Spock’s bare chest, and Jim rolled his head to mouth Spock's throat. Spock's hand trailed the length of Jim’s arm and came to rest atop his. They both looked into the night, and Jim felt strangely, wonderfully young.
Artwork by thesecretmichan—this about made me cry