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Sha Ka Ree

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“This hardly seems like a two-ship job,” Lieutenant Carter grunted through her nose, shifting on her feet. The soles of her boots squeaked on the shining floor, leaving dark tracks that drew Jim’s eye. Carter didn’t even notice, clenching her rough hands behind her back, clenching her round jaw. The three of them had been standing at attention for almost a half hour now, so Jim didn’t really blame her for her restlessness.

In fact, in the last few minutes he’d found his own attention wandering, gaze shifting around the Enterprise ’s shuttlebay, more advanced than that of the Farragut , everything glinting as if it were brand new. This may not have been a two-ship job, but Jim was glad he had the opportunity to board the Fleet’s flagship all the same. He’d practically begged Garrovick to assign him.

Doctor Taigen, standing on Jim’s other side, cleared her throat and shot a glance at Lieutenant Carter. Taigen was an older woman, hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, dark skin creased with lines deep as canyons. She had never been overly fond of Carter, if only because Carter frequently “forgot” her safety gear while tinkering with the warp core.

“I needn’t remind you, Lieutenant ,” Taigen said, “that the Farragut is in no position for a rescue mission. We haven’t had shore leave-- or maintenance-- in months. We’re just lucky the Enterprise was in this sector to help us out.”

Carter’s pale face flushed red as her tunic, and she glared openly at the doctor.

Jim didn’t want to butt in, but he felt as though adding his own two cents might ease Carter’s ire a little. They weren’t exactly friends, but as junior officers with a lot of responsibility they got along well enough. “And it’s not like they’re taking our mission,” he supplied. “Three of us, three of them. Seems fair to me. Garrovick made the right call bringing the Enterprise in.” Jim knew half the crew already thought he was the captain’s pet, but it suited him just fine. He could admit that he kind of was.

Carter rolled her large blue eyes, dropping formality entirely to look at Jim. “Well that’s the last call he’s going to make on this mission. I hear Captain Pike’s a real harda--”

It was then that the shuttlebay doors slid open and the Enterpris e’s half of the landing party strode in. The three Farragut officers straightened, eyes forward.

Jim knew Christopher Pike’s face from the news holos and mission reports he’d been devouring since joining Starfleet. He had a strong jaw, wide shoulders and dark hair, which was peppered at the temples with premature gray. The way he moved was self-assured, arms hanging controlled at his sides, each step falling like a drum beat. The man was a walking recruitment poster.

Beside him strode Commander Spock, just as recognizable from the same mission reports-- the first Vulcan in Starfleet. Jim had seen images, of course, but nothing he’d seen had captured the green tint to the Vulcan’s skin, nor the harshly focused look in his dark eyes. He walked straight and sure as the Captain beside him, a tricorder slung over his shoulder. His hands sat clasped behind his back as though he was ready to jump to attention himself at any moment. Jim found himself staring, wondering vaguely if pure, base attractiveness was a requirement to join the Enterprise crew.

Following Spock and Pike, a nervous yeoman with a sad flop of brown hair hanging over his eyes clutched a datapad with white knuckles. He looked out of his element, which made Jim venture a guess that this was his first landing party. Carter was going to complain later about them bringing a greenhorn along.

Luckily, it looked like she was going to give the Enterprise crew their due respect while they were here, despite her attitude. Thank goodness. She was a brilliant engineer, and Jim would hate to see her kicked off the mission.

Captain Pike wasted little time and crossed the expanse of the shuttle bay, turning on the pivot of his heels face them. He dragged his eyes over each of them, a scrutinizing gaze.

“Doctor Taigen, Lieutenant Kirk, Lieutenant Carter. I am Captain Christopher Pike, this is Commander Spock and Yeoman Nelson. Thank you for joining us. I assume you have been briefed?”

“Yes sir,” they said in unison.

Pike nodded, “Well you might want to forget everything you’ve heard. We had a chance to analyze the transmission further, and details have changed. We’ll go over it on the way.”

The Farragut crew shot furtive glances at each other. That certainly explained why it had taken them so long to meet them, but what did it mean?

“Now take your seats,” Pike continued, holding out his hand to the shuttle doors, which welcomed them with a familiar hiss as they slid open. “I assume you know from the ride over, but just a warning-- It’s going to be bumpy.”

The three of them had endured some turbulence already on the brief trip between ships. Each of them had seen an ion storm or two, but traveling by shuttlecraft during one was different.

They filed in and took their seats, Carter in back near the engineering alcove, Taigen beside her. Jim sat beside Yeoman Nelson, who was nibbling the corner of one chapped lip, and he tried to give the kid an encouraging smile, which was only returned with a quick, nervous glance.

In all actuality, the “kid”-- Nelson-- was probably in his mid-twenties, same as Jim, but experience may have made Jim more sure of himself than the young man beside him. He wished he could’ve given some words of encouragement, but that wasn’t his place. Pike had obviously thought Nelson was up to the task if he’d brought him along.

Commander Spock and Captain Pike took the front two seats, Pike piloting. Jim shifted his eyes to the Vulcan, hoping to get a covert glance, but their eyes met and he looked away immediately. He’d seen a Vulcan or two in person before, but never Commander Spock. He was famous in a way, at least famous among Starfleet personnel, and Jim felt a little titter of excitement that he’d be working alongside him. This could be a good chance to prove himself to the Enterprise commanding officers, or to at least make himself known to them.

Jim’s mind occupied itself with those thoughts as Pike notified the Enterprise that they were ready to depart. Moments later, the shuttle platform pivoted.

With a few solid clunks as it disengaged from dock, the shuttle began to drift. Before them, the wide shuttlebay doors spread open to reveal the agitated space outside. It was alight with energy, flashes of lightning igniting ion clouds.

Jim couldn’t help finding the storm beautiful in its own way, with its bright, ephemeral light that recalled him of fireworks. That is, until they slipped out of dock and the energy immediately buffeted them. The shuttle rattled, a vibration that carried itself through the soles of Jim’s feet and made the Yeoman beside him sit straight as a rod in his seat, eyes wide.

“Compensating,” Spock said without being prompted, and he pressed a few glowing keys on the console. The shuttle settled a little, though a subtle vibration remained. “Shields at 100 percent,” Spock continued, “Ion storm reading force-2. Negligible, sir. ETA, 10 minutes.”

“Thank you, Mister Spock,” Pike said. He glanced behind him at the four other members of the landing party. “All right. We seem to have stabilized. You’re probably wondering what new information has come our way. Spock, you have the floor.”

Spock nodded in confirmation then turned in his seat to address the rest of them. Jim tried not to smile. The man was all limbs, tall and thin, and the twist of his waist was a little awkward, a little gangly. The Vulcans Jim had met had been so graceful, it was actually rather, well, humanizing , for lack of a better term. But the moment he spoke he commanded respect, voice deep and formal.

“As you are no doubt aware, this landing party has been assembled for the purposes of addressing a Federation distress signal, identified as originating from the planet below, Alpha Novus V. Due to the priority nature of the distress signal, it has been decided that we cannot wait for transporter functions to return before providing immediate aid to any that may be on the planet’s surface. The storm has interfered with our sensors and we cannot make out any life forms, but we cannot take the chance that there are none. What you do not yet know is that this signal is unique.”

Carter spoke up, and Jim almost put his face in his hands at her impulsiveness. “What, because we’re the only ones who’re supposed to be out this far? Garrovick already said.” Spock leveled his eyes at her, and though Jim couldn’t see without turning (which he was not about to do) he had a feeling she regretted speaking.

The shuttle began to shake a little more noticeably, but Pike took over Spock’s controls as Spock continued. “Incorrect, Lieutenant. The signal is unique because it is highly degraded. By our system’s estimate, at least two-thousand years old.”

“That’s impossible,” Jim heard himself saying, and immediately straightened in his seat, “Sir.”

Spock gave him the same hard-eyed stare and Jim swallowed noticeably. “Indeed it is, Lieutenant Kirk. We do not yet know what has caused the degradation, but our orders are the same-- investigate the signal and extract any persons on-planet. However, given the nature of the signal, extreme caution is advised. Upon landing, each of you must--”

Out the forward window behind Spock, a whip-like strand of light cracked against them, sending a brush of kinetic energy through the ship. It rippled through the metal, ricocheted through the rivets and twisted itself into Jim’s gut. He gasped at the feeling, hands fastening round the edge of his seat.

The moment they recovered their stolen breath, a second, more powerful smack of energy crashed into the their opposite side.

“Spock--” Pike shouted, but he didn’t have the chance to finish.

All at once the gravity of the ship gave out and a violent lurch lifted them, then slammed them down against their seats. A shrill alarm cut through the pall of their panic, and Nelson yelped, ducking his head against his chest and screwing his eyes shut. Jim wanted to reach out, to reassure the poor kid, but his own stomach lurched as the shuttle swelled and tipped against a massive crest of light. It felt like a toy boat breaking the zenith of a very real wave. Jim blinked past rolls of nausea and panic to raise his eyes to his commanding officers.

Something on the forward console began to blink and beep rapidly under the constant wail of the alarm, and Jim couldn’t even begin to tell which indicators were screaming. Pike and Spock moved deftly over the controls, their words to each other muted by the thumps of Jim’s own heartbeat in his ears. He took a breath and recentered himself, his senses rushing back to him. Pike’s voice was the clearest thing he could latch onto.

“Spock,” Pike barked again, “tell me what’s happening!” But Spock was already glued to his console, fingers dancing over the controls. The rest of them gripped their seats, Jim’s balance off-center, fear freezing him.

“Scans are picking up anomalous particles,” Spock said with quick, clipped words. “Attempting to identify.”

The shuttle began to quake more intensely, rattling the teeth in Jim’s skull. And the sound it was making-- it sounded like something was grinding against the hull, louder and louder with each passing moment.

“Forget identifying,” Pike said, hands hard on the steering mechanism. “Compensate and get us landed.”

Spock didn’t verbally respond, but immediately pulled up a new screen on the console and started pressing in calculations. Jim watched over his shoulder, enthralled as Spock input formula after formula, faster than Jim could even read them.

Unfortunately, it had little effect. The sound increased in volume, grating against the inside of Jim’s skull. Yeoman Nelson covered his ears, looking to Jim with wide, frantic blue eyes.

“Shields failing, sir. Fifteen percent!” Spock shouted over the din.

The shuttle pierced through the tight fleece of shimmering light and careened into the throes of the storm. A metallic groan overtook the clatter, seeping inside Jim and snaking up his spine. It waned, only to crescendo into a piercing snap of metal finally surrendering to pressure.

Jim ripped his eyes away from the forward screen to look back to the engineering alcove. Steam was seeping from one of the conduits in billowing tendrils. It began to flood the compartment, settling first along the floor, then rising.

Jim saw Carter move through the haze. She was a blur in the eddies of steam, a straight line of shoulders above a vague silhouette. Cursing loudly, she stumbled her way toward the back controls, shielding her eyes against the steam.

The vibration became more violent, sinking into Jim’s body and thrumming through him until the strands of his every muscle numbed completely. He flicked his eyes downward, seeing the screws of his chair shaking from their bolts. The steam built and swallowed his hands, his chest, until it licked under his nose.

A brilliant green light washed over them, shifting and shuddering like a flame against the wind. It cast shadows about the cabin in vivid streaks that danced, broken and distorted, against billows of steam.

“Ion storm registering Force-6, Captain; shields at ten percent,” Spock reported, and Jim heard something akin to emotion in his voice. Not fear exactly, but certainly confusion.

“Force-6?! Ions must be interfering with our sensors. Check again.”

“Captain,” Carter shouted from total obscurity in the alcove, “I can’t reach the conduit! The storm’s overloading our engines!”

It was Pike’s turn to curse. “Kirk,” he snapped, “Go help Carter--”

There was no mistaking the sick sound that cut Pike’s words short. Like paper tearing, compounded and multiplied, bursting from the walls and shattering their resolve.

Jim lifted his eyes, already knowing what he’d see. The hull was failing above him, a gash of rigid metal tearing, twisted networks of wire snapping dramatically as the wound grew wider.

“Force-8, Captain,” Spock shouted, “Shields at two percent.”

The breach moaned as a spiral of stream rushed to escape through its open maw. The air inside the shuttle dashed with it, shrieking as it cut past jagged edges of metal.

Jim had to act, it was all he had left to do. He was about to stand, to help Carter as he’d been instructed, but then the floor right behind his chair cracked, tearing the carpet to fibers.

“Carter!” Jim shouted, eyes wide as he glanced back at his crewmates, “Taigen, get up here!”

But with one horrifying screech of metal, the back half of the shuttle split, gravity and weight pulling it clean off along the starboard side. Carter was lifted off her feet and slammed against the wall as the shuttle jerked against what little of the hull still held it. There was a crack of bone against metal, barely audible over the calamity, before Carter vanished into the slipstream. If Jim had blinked, he would have missed it. He wished he had.

Jim shouted, nothing intelligible, but he heard himself vocalizing as the force of the vacuum pulled him to the floor. He scrambled for purchase and grabbed the base of his chair.

Flashing his gaze to the side, he saw Taigen whipped like a ragdoll, her grip barely holding true to a loose cord. Jim reached out with his other hand just in time to brush Taigen’s fingers as she too slipped out the crack into the shuttle’s wake. Nelson screamed somewhere to Jim’s right just as a blur cut across Jim’s line of sight. Nelson was on his stomach, limbs desperate for a wayward life line. His scream fell to the shriek of the vacuum as the storm took him too.

The shuttle jerked upwards as the back half tore off completely, falling into the slipstream and disappearing with their speed. They were in the planet’s atmosphere now, he could tell from the clouds around them, but the pressure made it hard to breathe. Jim tried to get a better grip on the bottom of his seat, even as he felt himself slipping.

Someone was shouting. Pike, Spock, maybe even himself, but the din was deafening and he’d just seen three people fall to their deaths. He was frozen, heart hammering, feeling the bolts of his chair tearing from the floor and unable to figure out how he would avoid the same fate once it ripped completely.

It cracked, pulled, and suddenly the seat was in the air and Jim was flying backwards. His belt snagged on a jagged piece of metal, jutting from the fissure in the floor, and Jim felt a sharp spike of pain as it sliced him. He cried out, felt his belt jerk as it hooked on the metal and knocked the wind out of him. At that moment a hand shot out and gripped his wrist.

Through the cloud of fear, he looked up into the dark, piercing eyes of Commander Spock, whose fingers were fastened around Jim’s wrist, even as the man’s other hand began slipping from the base of his own chair. Jim saw it happening as if in slow motion. If Spock held on, Jim would take him down with him. The shuttle was plummeting, but they were likely still too high up to survive the fall.

“Let go!” he shouted, “Let go or we’re both dead!” Spock’s determined gaze was enough of a reply. The Vulcan wasn’t budging.

In a split second, born of frustration and fear and a strange, calm certainty, Jim pulled himself up and sank his teeth into the flesh of Spock’s hand. The Vulcan released him, and Jim immediately fell back, only his belt and the bloodied shard of metal holding him up.

It didn’t last long. Just as Spock made to reach back toward him, the shard that had been holding him sliced his belt, and Jim’s body followed the path of the back half of the shuttle, of Taigen and Carter and that poor yeoman. He felt something hard smack his back, his leg, his head. And everything went black.



When the darkness faded from the corners of his consciousness, pain was the first of Jim’s senses to return, and it came back with a vengeance. He felt as though he’d been chewed up and spit out, unnaturally contorted, shredded on his side where he felt the sticky pull of fabric on blood and on his leg where--

His leg . Jim tightened his eyes shut against the pain of realization, attempting to calm his frantic heart. He could tell he’d already lost plenty of blood, and panicking now wouldn’t help. He’d been through training for this. He could handle it.

Sharp, deep breaths through his nose and out his mouth served to soothe the worst of the fear, though the air was difficult to breathe. It was heavy with humidity, and boiling hot, but it worked. The mere action of breathing served to remind him that, in spite of his pain, he was at least still alive-- a damn sight nicer an outcome than he’d predicted when he fell.

So now it was all about survival. Step one: assess the damage.

Under some kind of shaky control now, Jim took one last breath and opened his bleary eyes to the world.

Sunset, or, what seemed to be sunset, colored everything in sight with hues of reds and yellows. Immediately, that told him the ion storm had passed. He could see the orange sky through a hole in the canopy where he’d obviously fallen, breaking branches along his way.

The trees, which grew thick as the dense Pacific forests he’d explored on Earth, were towering, covered in a rough, snow-white bark that looked more like stone than wood. The branches, thick as his thigh, each bore huge spade-shaped leaves, sprouting from them like spring seedlings out of snow.

These strange leaves had no stems that he could tell, rather they stretched sideways from their branches like awnings. Each was almost a meter in length at the canopy, getting smaller and smaller as they sprouted down to the trees’ bases. Were it not for the hole he’d broken through them, the shade they cast would likely leave him in near-darkness.

He followed the trees’ trunks downward, where the branches became twigs and the leaves stopped growing. In their stead, large green bushes sprouted from tree roots, bearing fern-like leaves that reached upwards a few feet before drooping with the weight of the pink and purple flowers that sprouted from them.

The ground around him, he noticed as he turned his head, was littered with debris-- branches and shreds of leaves that must’ve broken his fall. He dug his hand into the ground, noticing that it was more sand than soil, grains leaving pockmarks in his cheek, though that was hardly the worst of his discomfort.

Luckily he did not see any immediate danger. The forest was quiet but for the farway buzz of insects. This gave him time to analyze the rest of his predicament, which did not seem like a strong enough word to describe the hell of a situation he’d gotten himself into.

Steeling himself, Jim pushed up to his elbows, biting his lip against a cry, even as his eyes watered and his vision went white around the edges. A few more sharp inhales steadied him, and he looked down the length of his body.

The red tunic he wore was darkened and stiff around a shallow gash in his side. He remembered vaguely one of his crewmates joking when he got assigned security detail that Starfleet made security uniforms red so the blood wasn’t as noticeable. Now, at least, he knew that had been a lie. He could see his own injury clear as day. The metal had sliced clean through his belt and uniform, plus a fair bit of skin, but thankfully it looked to have stopped bleeding for the most part. It wouldn’t kill him.

His leg was another story. It bent unnaturally at the calf, throbbing and swollen from knee to boot. Broken, he thought as he fell backwards onto the ground. Of course.

Step two: consider possible solutions.

The ion storm had passed. This he knew, which meant communication would be back up. But he replayed the events of his fall in his mind. If his belt had been torn off, it would’ve taken his communicator and his phaser with it. It was possible his equipment was nearby, but unlikely. With quite a bit of effort, he sat up again, glancing around. He stared into the dense shrubbery at the base of each tree, eyes narrowed, but saw nothing that didn’t look as though it belonged out here in the wild. He allowed himself a frustrated sigh and closed his eyes for patience.

So, no communicators. That left one other option before he went into problem-solving mode.

“Hello?” he shouted, loud as he could, though his throat was surprisingly dry given the humidity of the place. “Captain? Commander?” Then, even though everything in him knew it was fruitless, “Carter? Doctor Taigen?”

Silence. Only the insects’ incessant hum answered him.

Wait.

He narrowed his eyes, catching the metallic glint of bugs flitting through the leaves around him, Insects? Initial scans of the planet had shown minimal plant life and nothing else. This place was a dying desert. There shouldn’t have been insects here.

But, he supposed, ion interference could have messed with their sensors. That was the reasoning Spock had given for not picking up humanoid lifesigns in spite of the distress signal. It was possible, he decided, that they could have missed an ecosystem this lively. Possible, if improbable.

He shook his head absently, moving onto more pressing concerns. It didn’t matter what they’d scanned. What mattered was the reality of it. With no answer to his call, he really only had one course of action.

Step three: do whatever it takes to survive.

He shuffled to a sitting position, wincing and gasping with every movement, however small. It took him plenty long to get to the point that he could balance on his rear without pain shooting through his side.

Luckily, the branches and leaves that had broken his fall were close enough for him to reach without trying too hard, so he snatched two of the straightest sticks within an arm's-length and laid them on his lap, then he took up the largest of the torn leaves.

Testing its strength with a weak tug, he decided it was probably fibrous enough to work. He found a tear and shredded it into strips. That ripping sound made him swallow hard, mind flashing back to the way the carpet had pulled itself apart as the shuttle split. He closed his eyes against the memory for a moment, and returned his attention to the task at hand.

If there were anyone within earshot, they would have heard the cry he let out when he strapped his calf into the makeshift splint. That scream echoed through the trees loud enough to startle even him, which at least distracted him from the pain for a moment. His whole right side was throbbing from ankle to shoulder, the bruises, breaks and blood making him dizzy with lightning flashes of pain. It took a few minutes for him to regain his breath, to tenderly examine the straps across his leg and ensure they would hold.

He’d never used a splint before, having easy access to bone knitters for any injury that warranted one, but the only bone knitter in the landing party was in Doctor Taigen’s medkit, and Doctor Taigen--

Jim stopped himself there, closing his eyes for clarity and putting it out of his mind. He couldn’t. Not now.

It took him a long time to prepare himself to stand, so he spent the minutes going over equations in his head. Weight of the shuttle, halved before he fell, obviously. Speed and trajectory of their descent. He could guess the direction the shuttle was going based on the angle of his fall, which he could tell from the breakage of the branches, so that was something.

All told, he guessed (and it was a loose guess) that the front half of the shuttle was about a mile away, maybe a touch farther depending on how high it had been when he’d fallen. Knowing that, and the direction he had to go, well. There was nothing else for it.

As expected, whip-cracks of pain shot up his leg the second he dared to shift his weight. He sucked air through his teeth, hissing the whole way up as he gripped the rough bark of the nearest tree for support. Hand on root, hand on trunk, hands on the lowest branch. Somehow he managed to get his good foot underneath him, but by the time he was mostly upright, he was exhausted, breath coming in sharp bursts, face flushed with heat and effort, sweat already dripping down his brows and his back. Leaning against the tree for support, he tilted his head, staring upwards to the orange splash of sky.

“C’mon, Jim,” he said, trying to talk himself into moving. “You can do this. Even if all you find is the front half of the shuttle, you can call the ship. One mile then you’re home free.”

One mile. He could do anything for one mile.

He turned, patted the trunk of the tree that had held him up, and scanned it for a suitable branch for a walking stick. Finding none, he dragged himself bodily to the next trunk, falling against it as his vision went black for a minute, bright spots dancing at the corners of his eyes. He gasped for air, muscles already screaming from the strain, and blinked his eyes against the sweat that kept trying to drip past his lashes. It was going to be slow going. He looked back to the sky, hoping the light held out, at least. Days were longer here, he remembered from his briefing, so maybe that’d give him a fighting chance.

 


 

 

The consoles hissed steam, the sound of blaring alarms becoming white noise against the silent backdrop of the rest of the world around them. Everywhere Spock looked, metal split and crunched from the shuttle’s impact against the mountainside. The screens were cracked, sparking with the energy of broken wires. The forward-facing window had, miraculously, failed to shatter, but it was perhaps the only piece of the shuttle that wasn’t ruined. Excepting, of course, its two remaining passengers.

Spock dragged Captain Pike by the elbows away from the wreckage, into the fresh air where chemicals and steam wouldn’t get into the man’s lungs. Though Pike was unconscious, Spock felt an illogical swell of hope that he would be otherwise uninjured.

He knelt beside his Captain in the gray light of the storming sky, finally examining him where he could see.

Uninjured would have been too much to ask. A shard of metal stood stuck in Pike’s side like a stake, likely a piece of the front console that had torn off in the landing. It was deep, nearly all the way through his stomach to his back, and the gold tunic around already dripped red, blossoming with blood like a flower’s spreading petals.

Though the storm still raged overhead, he pulled the communicator from his belt.

“Spock to Enterprise , come in Enterprise .”

Nothing. He turned the dial.

“This is Commander Spock calling U.S.S. Farragut . Come in, Farragut .”

Nothing.

In a last ditch effort, he turned the dial again. “Commander Spock to landing party, come in landing party.”

Nothing. It was likely the rest of them were dead. Unless he acted quickly, Pike would be next.

Under the steering console, every Class-F shuttlecraft was equipped with one emergency kit, the contents of which could potentially be helpful. He made his way quickly back to the shuttle, waving his hand past the steam and slipping under his seat. When he smacked the crunched metal, it rang hollow, so he hooked his fingers into the worst of the panel’s folds, yanked once and fell backwards as the panel came loose.

Inside, he found a large plastic container, which he dragged back out toward his Captain’s prone form.

 

Contents:

Two emergency blankets, 10x10, fire-resistant and insulating

One water purifier

Two canteens, one gallon each

One standard metal knife

One laser cutter

One standard-issue phaser

One length of cord, 50 ft.

One hypospray, preloaded with two doses each of Cordazine and Melenex, plus one dose each of Tri-Ox Compound and Masiform-D

One medical scanner

One collapsable distress signal transmitter

 

Spock did not allow himself to feel frustration.

He tore a strip from the edge of one of the emergency blankets, then wasted no time in yanking the shard from Pike’s side.

The man didn’t react. Concussed, likely, but Spock didn’t have time to scan him now. He wrapped the bleeding wound in the strip of emergency blanket, making sure it was tight enough to put pressure on it, but loose enough that Pike could still breathe. With any luck, the shard had missed Pike’s organs, and now it was just a matter of stopping imminent blood loss.

It would do, but a dermal regenerator would be incredibly helpful. He made a mental note to add the device to the supply list of every emergency kit when he returned to the ship. Until then, there was little else he could do for the captain. He kept an eye on the makeshift bandage, simply waiting for the moment Pike beld through.

Though pain originated from a cut on his own head and from multiple bruises along the rest of his body, he deemed the injuries insignificant.

Pain, too, pulsed from his hand. He glanced down at the green and blood-puckered ring of a bitemark along the base of his thumb, where Lieutenant Kirk had sunk his teeth into Spock’s skin. He clenched his hand closed, took a breath through his nose and sat back on his heels to look at the sky. Anything to draw his mind from the prone form of his captain and the evidence of his failure to save another’s life.

It would take time, he knew, for the storm to pass, but he did not know how much time the Captain had. It was illogical to feel worry, or fear, but the helplessness of their situation was not lost on Spock.

His current responsibility was to alleviate that helplessness as much as he could. Part of that involved centering himself and taking stock of where they were. He folded one of the blankets and slipped it under Pike’s head, careful not to exaggerate any injuries, then stood. It was only then that he became aware of pain in his limbs, likely superficial bruising, but he pushed the pain aside. He was Vulcan, and duty circumvented comfort. He moved on.

Tricorder in hand, Spock began to scan the area around them. It seemed they had crashed into a mountainside, thousands of feet of near-sheer, black rock. It was peppered with greenery up to a point, so Spock could see the trail left by the skid of the shuttle, where it had burned a path through the sparse foliage and left scraps of shredded metal. It had collided, then, into a cluster of trees at the base of the mountain, where it now lay. The rest of their visible area was largely flat sand, intermittent trees, a few brief shrubs poking out of the ground.

His eyes wandered past the shuttle to the sparse trees here at the mountain’s base. They thickened farther off, a forest of sorts, though unlike any Spock had yet seen.

He moved toward one of the branches, broken from the shuttle’s impact, and examined it closer. The bark was thick, nearly three inches all around, which made for dense wood. It was also rough to the touch, white. Likely, there was some evolutionary purpose for this, and for the strange shape of the fan-like leaves that spread over the tops and sides of each tree, though Spock did not devote much thought to it.

He discarded the branch and ran his tricorder along the edge of the forest. Initial scans of the planet did not reveal an ecosystem this diverse. Now, his tricorder registered small animals, insects, complex flora-- though thankfully no large animals within a one-mile radius, nor did any of the insects register as dangerous. Caution was still warranted, but there was nothing toxic or predatory here. Only… strange. Unexpected. Fascinating.

The storm still raged overhead, and he was loathe to leave his captain behind, so Spock returned to where he’d laid him in the sand. He would assemble a stretcher from the trees’ debris. It was a small way he could maximize his time and prepare for the worst. Should a larger, dangerous animal encounter them, or should the storm not end before the planet’s long nightfall, he would need to protect Pike at all costs.

 

 

Approximately two hours and thirty-six minutes after bandaging the Captain’s wounds, the sky finally cleared.

He hailed the ships again. Nothing. That was illogical, incongruent with current facts, but it was what it was. It was possible the ships had left due to the sudden ion increase. If that were the case, there was little he could do but wait.

Spock did not relish the idea of waiting.

They had left the Enterprise at 4400 hours planet time, what amounted to early evening. Since the days here were 96 standard hours long, Spock estimated that he had five hours to find a suitable location to spend the night before darkness began to set in.

He would prefer to remain near the crash site, in case the ships sent a rescue party to their last known location, but it was illogical to simply assume any help was on the way. Besides, Spock understood that if they remained here, they would freeze to death as soon as total night sank in.

Scans had revealed that the Captain was, indeed, concussed. Until he could be brought to a proper medical facility, there was little Spock could do. Except, of course, keep him alive.To that end, he had to leave him for now.

Using his makeshift stretcher, Spock pulled Pike into the shuttle’s shadow. He checked his tricorder again, registering no threat-- nothing larger than a squirrel. Pike was as safe as he could be, so Spock set off.

The geological composition of the mountain was fortunate. An ancient, dormant volcano seldom had a shortage of caves, nooks and crannies. To escape the elements, they would require a deep one. The humidity on Alpha Novus V caused the whole world to freeze when the longest stretch of night fell.

It took him little time to locate a suitable cave, one that edged deep enough into the mountain that it would protect them from the worst of the elements. Though even here, it would take a great deal to keep them alive. Its opening was perhaps only 100 meters from the location of the crash. Not ideal, but doable.

Food and water, too, had been concerns, but he kept an eye on his tricorder as he walked and found a suitable amount of edible plants. The leafy shrubs that peppered their crash site contained enough protein to briefly sustain them, and the berries he found growing from fern-like, flowering plants at the edge of the forest would provide necessary carbohydrates. Tall, spindle-like trees with shingled bark like Earth’s palm trees bore round, purple fruit, nestled high in their leaves, but there was little time to harvest it. He marked their locations,  just in case it became necessary.

Spock had removed his outer shirt to carry the berries and leaves he’d picked along the way, as well as the mushroom-like fungi he found in dark corners by the mountain slope and a few aloe-like cacti whose soothing properties may be beneficial for their injuries. There was also a spring not too far from the cave’s location. It spurt out of the mountainside in little more than a trickle, collecting in a small puddle before filtering back into the rock below. But it was water, and it was surprisingly clean. Filling the canteens while balancing the tricorder and sling around his shoulder, he decided these scant resources must suffice.

He tucked his small bounty into the mouth of the cave and prepared to bring Pike to their temporary shelter. Hopefully he could wake the Captain and convince him to eat. Barring that, he could at least clean Pike’s wound. There was little else to be done until rescue.

His mind was on the logistics of preparing a meal and a campfire when he returned to the crash site to find Pike undisturbed and still unconscious. The shuttle had stopped steaming and beeping, likely having exhausted its fumes and power, and now it sat eerily quiet in the deepening orange twilight.

He suppressed any emotional reaction to the sight, and pulled his communicator from his pocket.

Once more, he tried the ships. When there was no reply, as expected, he returned to the stretcher. There was no sense wasting time.

Packing up the emergency kit, Spock kept an eye on his Captain. That the man had yet to wake was unfortunate, as a concussion could be exacerbated by unconsciousness, but Spock decided he would attempt to wake him when they were safely secluded in the cave. Then, he would compose a plan to restore communications or otherwise leave the planet.

These thoughts distracted him for a time, until he heard a shuffling coming from the woods. His sensitive ears could pick up the minutest of sounds, and he knew just by listening that the drag-crunch of an approaching creature was not one of the small rodents the tricorder picked up, but another beast altogether.

Immediately, he whipped his tricorder out in front of him, standing between the source of the sound and his captain. He scanned the forest and nearly allowed himself an incredibly human emotion.

Relief.

The creature was humanoid.

Taking the phaser from the emergency kit, Spock quietly approached the edge of the woods, straining his ears.

“Identify yourself,” he commanded into the trees. Luckily, the light was just bright enough that he could make out a form leaning against a far-off trunk, though they were in shadow. He raised his volume. “Identify yourself!”

The shadow’s head perked up, and it made its way closer, laboriously. When it emerged into a thin strip of dying sunlight, Spock could make out the bright red of a security officer’s shirt. He nearly dropped his phaser.

“Lieutenant,” a voice said weakly, seemed to pause for breath, then continued. “Lieutenant James Tiberius Kirk, U.S.S. Farragut .” Then, as if in afterthought, “Sir.”

With that, the young man collapsed, falling to the ground as though the bones holding him upright had melted. Spock rushed forward without a moment more’s hesitation, turning Kirk onto his back and resting the man’s head on Spock’s knees. He was in a bad state. Blood dotted Kirk’s temple where he’d hit his head rather brutally, and another splotch of blood stained the side of his shirt. His skin was pale, slicked with a sheen of sweat, clammy to the touch despite the air’s lingering heat.

Wrapped round the young man’s leg, Spock noticed a primitive splint. How Kirk had managed to walk on that leg was a mystery to Spock, especially considering the distance. If his tricorder hadn’t picked up Kirk’s signal when he’d last scanned, that meant he’d fallen more than a mile from where they were now.

Humans. Spock never ceased to be as fascinated by their determination as he was repulsed by their recklessness.

But if it meant one more of them had a fighting chance at survival, Spock felt illogically grateful.

Chapter Text

‘Awake’ may not have been the proper word to describe Jim’s state of mind when he next gained consciousness, but he was at least somewhat aware. The first thing his mind latched onto was the sound. Crickets, he thought somewhere distant in the back of his mind. Crickets. Had he fallen asleep outside in the field again? His mom would kill him if he were out past nightfall without comm-ing to tell her. He should open his eyes. He should--

He felt movement.

Realizing with some kind of foggy incredulity that he was being dragged, he managed to open a bleary eye. It was starting to get dark, but he could make out some features of his surroundings.

This wasn’t Iowa. The sound wasn’t crickets, but a strange, shrieking buzz of distant, alien insects, and the air was muggy, thick, heavy. On either side of him, he saw two struts of stark-white wood. Beneath him, something was suspending him, fibrous straps that dug into his back. He turned his neck much as his sore muscles would allow and saw the outline of a set of strong shoulders, two pointed ears, strong hands gripping the struts of-- what he guessed-- was a stretcher.

“Commander?” he asked through the dry scratch of his throat, but his eyes fell closed before he heard an answer.

 

 

When next Jim awoke, he was warm. Not hot, but warm , almost comfortable but for the way his whole body throbbed like an open wound. He blinked himself into consciousness slowly, eyes focusing and unfocusing on a stretch of mottled black rock that looked like the ceiling of a cave.

He was vaguely aware of something draped on top of him-- a blanket, it turned out. And underneath him, a few of those wide, flat leaves had been laid out for padding. It took his mind a minute to catch up with the events of the day. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he remembered the crash, and the subsequent trudge through unfamiliar forest. At some point he’d passed out, and at some point--

The Commander.

Jim shot up into a sitting position, immediately crying out in pain as he doubled over. He clutched at his hip, where he only now remembered the ripped floor of the shuttle had gouged his skin. The wound had been bandaged, Jim realized, with a strip of the tunic he was no longer wearing. His undershirt, too, had been stripped from him, likely to air the rest of his more minor wounds.

“Lieutenant,” a voice said from somewhere off to his side. “You’re awake.”

Jim turned his head to the voice and saw Commander Spock, illuminated by the glow of a small fire. It was frigid, Jim realized, now that the blanket had fallen from his chest, and it looked as though Spock was feeling it. The Vulcan was sitting cross-legged about as close to the fire as he could get, his hands outstretched toward the warmth. What looked to be a strip of the shuttle’s carpet lay over his shoulders.

A haze of smoke billowed from the fire, cast blurred shadows against the wall of the cave, and it carried an almost nostalgic scent, heady and sharp.

“How long have I been out?” Jim asked, though his mouth was sticky and dry from disuse. He cleared his throat, but that only seemed to make it worse.

“Nearly twelve standard hours,” Spock replied. He got to his feet, shedding the carpet from his shoulders, and seemed to shuffle around for something outside of Jim’s view. Then, he turned to approach Jim.

“But it’s still night,” Jim said, looking around the cave. “Right?”

“Indeed,” Spock confirmed, and crouched beside Jim. He held out a canteen, which Jim took gratefully. He didn’t waste a second before chugging it down. “Nights here are very long, Lieutenant,” Spock said. It was a gentle reminder, as though he were talking to a child.

Jim took a few more swallows then came up for air, coughing around the water. Every movement of his body sent pain singing through his side. It took him a few solid breaths to push the pain aside. When he’d regained himself, he met Spock’s hard gaze. “Right,” he said hoarsely, the world flooding back to him little by little, edging back into his thoughts. Feeling a strange mix between hopeful and trepidatious, Jim managed, “are we all that’s left?”

Spock shook his head, and Jim felt only a tinge of relief. “The Captain is alive. I set him closer to the fire so I could monitor his condition.” Jim squinted. Past the flames, he could barely make out the outline of a body wrapped cocoon-like in another emergency blanket.

“His condition?”

“He was impaled by a shard of metal in the crash. In the last fifteen hours, he has regained consciousness only once.”

Jim took another long gulp of water, if only to get some time to absorb that. Just the three of them, and Pike out of commission. This did not bode well. When he’d swallowed and lowered the canteen into his lap, he found he was having trouble looking directly at the Vulcan beside him.

“The ships?” He, asked, but the answer was obvious.

“Though communication should be possible with the ion storm long-over, all attempts to reach them have failed. At this time, I do not have sufficient information to explain it.”

Jim’s lips thinned. Uncertainty settled something sick in his stomach. Uncomfortable with the feeling, and with Spock’s hard eyes on him, he glanced around the cave. Spock had found them a relatively flat place to camp, the floor coated in sand, with offshoots in a few directions that varied in size and likely helped to vent the campfire. There were scattered boulders and stones that spoke to rockier terrain ahead, but all-in-all it looked like a solid location. Spock must have worked very quickly. He swallowed the fear of immediate danger, knowing consciously that they were safe for now, yet not knowing how long it would last. He glanced back at the Commander, who still knelt at his side.

“Do you know what happened?” He brought the blanket back over his body, curling it around his shoulders though his muscles ached with the effort. Without thinking, he offered the extra length of it to Spock.

To Jim’s surprise, the Vulcan took it, winding the blanket around his own shoulders and, by consequence, moving closer. He must have been cold. Vulcans weren’t known for being cuddly.

“The ion storm intensified at an impossible rate. It overloaded our engines, which caused malfunction in our systems, including shields. Due to the ferocity of the storm, structural integrity was compromised.”

Jim blanched, looking away from the Vulcan’s emotionless gaze. “Structural integrity,” he parroted, almost affronted. “We were ripped in half.” His mind returned to the sound of Carter’s bones breaking against the bulkhead, and he found it was harder to put it from his mind without the immediate purpose of survival to give him something to focus on.

“Indeed,” Spock said calmly. “I have set up a distress signal at the mouth of the cave. Should the ships regain contact, they will find us.”

Distress signal-- that reminded him.

“What about the distress signal that brought us here? The degraded one? Maybe there are other people nearby--”

“There are not,” Spock said, effectively cutting off that line of hope. “I could not identify any signal but our own. When morning arrives, I will repair the shuttle’s sensors. They will no doubt be stronger than the limited range of my tricorder.”

“So… the rest of the crew, then?”

“Unresponsive to communication and likely outside the range of our current scanning capability.”

If they’re alive at all , remained unspoken.

They were silent for a few moments. Jim tried to absorb the reality of their situation. There were still so many unanswered questions. Why weren’t the ships responding? Why had the storm intensified so suddenly? What happened to the distress signal? He stopped himself from asking, if only because he knew Spock would not be able to answer.

“Do you require sustenance?”

The question was sudden, and it pulled Jim from his own thoughts.

It was only then he realized that he was ravenous. Now that his need for water and, more importantly, information had been satiated, he found that his stomach felt like a dry, empty husk.

“Do we have food?”

Spock nodded and extricated himself from the blanket. Jim watched him walk back to where he was apparently keeping their supplies and return with a handful of small, puckered purple berries and wide, flat green leaves with striking purple veins. Hardly even enough of them to be considered a side salad.

Jim almost laughed, instead huffing something desperate and helpless out his nose. “Excuse me, waiter, I think I ordered a chicken sandwich,” he joked lamely. Spock didn’t seem to find it very amusing. He simply sat beside Jim and handed off his food.

Jim realized only then that he may have offended with the joke, even though he’d only been trying to diffuse the tension. So, thanking him quietly but sincerely, Jim set into his meager meal, glad at least that there was something to put in his empty stomach.

“I’m afraid there was little time to gather food,” Spock explained, “The portion will have to do until morning.” Spock settled back into the warmth of the blanket and wound it around himself once more. Jim concentrated on his food, bursting the hard, dimpled skin of the berries and smacking their sour juice between his teeth. He cast a look back toward Pike.

“Has he eaten?” he asked around the sticky texture.

“I attempted to feed him,” Spock said, and Jim wished without much hope of fulfilment that Spock could interject some kind of emotion into his voice. Some kind of worry or sadness. Spock had served with Pike for almost four years now. Seeing him like this wouldn’t be easy for a normal person.

But Spock wasn’t a normal person. Jim sighed.

“We can try again when he wakes up,” he said, tearing into one of the sinewy leaves and wincing at the bitterness of it.

“He likely will not keep it down. It would be logical to ration what little food we have to those able to retain it.”

It took Jim a moment to realize what Spock had just suggested, but it caused him immediate pause. He lowered the torn leaf into his lap and set it beside a few uneaten berries.

“Wait, you’re saying we should starve him? He’s sick. He needs this more than we do.” He gestured angrily at the food in his lap, eyes hardening. No one should starve, Jim thought with a flare of rage. No one should be less worthy of survival than anyone else.

“But he will not digest it. What logic is there in wasting resources?”

“It’s not a waste if we try. Besides, we can go out again tomorrow, gather more--” Spock looked about to speak, but Jim cut him off, the stress of the situation and other, buried memories causing a fire to rise in him. “You know what? He can have mine. I’m not hungry.”

Spock settled his eyes on Jim, infuriatingly calm. “You will require your energy to heal properly.”

“So will he!”

“Lieutenant--” Spock started, and Jim realized he’d almost forgotten he was speaking to a commanding officer. But fear and grief and exhaustion had dulled his rationality. He didn’t let Spock finish.

“Did you even try to find the rest of the crew? Or were you too concerned with ‘wasting resources?’”

“Lieutenant, you are behaving unreasonably.”

“What, because I care whether he lives or dies?”

“Because I am asking you to care about whether you live or die.”

There was a pause. Jim’s eyes were set on Spock’s, though he had no energy to continue to challenge him. He wanted to ask if a man who had no care whether he lived or died would’ve dragged himself through an alien forest with a broken leg, but he knew that would just lead to more animosity, which would not be productive right now. So he bit back on the impulse.

He looked down to the food in his lap, taking a deep breath. Previous experiences with starvation aside, this was a different situation. He had to remind himself of that. Spock was not systematically, willfully and gladly denying resources to anyone. They would be rescued come morning, and they would all be all right.

“To answer your question,” Spock said after a time, “I did indeed scan for the rest of the crew, and will resume the search in the morning. It is unlikely they survived--”

“I know.”

“However, we will attempt to find them. Should I succeed in repairing the shuttle’s sensors tomorrow, we should be able to locate the other crash site.”

Jim nodded, conceding, feeling a twinge of guilt at his outburst, as well as a slowly encroaching sadness at the realization of their situation. There was almost no chance that the others had survived, he knew, but his own life had been a miracle. Maybe they could hope for another. He had to believe they could.

“How long until morning, Commander?” He asked, unable to eat though he knew he should. He couldn’t bear not saving any for Pike.

“Twenty-seven hours.”

Jim’s eyes widened and he turned back to Spock. “What?!”

“Nights here are very long, Lieutenant.”

“Of course, right,” Jim said, rubbing the bridge of his nose and wondering why that little fact kept slipping his mind. He understood now why rationing resources may have made sense to the Vulcan. Twenty-seven hours was a long time.

Jim settled into silence for a while, and Spock seemed to allow him a moment to calm down, absorb, think. Just as Spock made a move as if to return to the fire, though, Jim stilled him with a hand on his arm.

“Wait--” he said, and Spock met his eyes, a question in them.

Jim continued, barrelling forward. “Thank you. For saving my life. I think those few seconds you had a hold of me made all the difference. I could have ended up--” He stopped himself, trying to erase the memory of his crewmates’ fall.

There was a pause, subtle surprise written in the lines at Spock’s lips. “You are welcome, Lieutenant,” he finally replied. “I, too, owe you a debt of gratitude. If you had not forced me to let go when you did, I would likely have fallen with you-- and been similarly injured.”

Jim offered the man a small smile, weakened by fatigue, powerlessness, pain. Before he could say anything, Spock moved away, shedding the blanket and returning to the fire. “Please,” Spock said as he settled again under the strip of carpet, “finish your meal. I will ensure there is enough to sustain the three of us until morning.”

The three of us . Well, at least he’d managed to change Spock’s mind about one thing. He did finish his meal, what little was left, and ignored the prickling feeling of lingering hunger in his gut.

Jim didn’t know how he was going to spend the next twenty-seven hours, but exhaustion still weighed down his limbs and, eventually, sleep found him again.

 

 

Sometime during the night, he awoke to the feeling of bodies beside him beneath the blanket. On one side, Spock, an almost imperceptible shiver running through the Vulcan’s frame. On the other side, Pike, still as death, though warm.

Jim could tell from the frost that bit at the tip of his nose that it was sub-zero out there, far worse than it had been when he’d first awoken, so he pulled the blanket over his head, ignored the smell of rusty blood and saline sweat, and eventually fell asleep again.

 


 

The nights here were very long, but Spock accepted this as fact. There was nothing he could do to speed the rotation of Alpha Novus V, or to make more use of the frozen night, so he meditated as long as he could. Meditation yielded less than typical results. Even though he was at it for hours while the others rested, he had trouble categorizing his turbulent emotions.

There was something akin to fear growing in him, something that distracted him, pulled at his thoughts when his mind attempted to lay dormant. It manifested in repeated glances at his companions, the concerned knitting of his brows, the restlessness he couldn’t shake. However, he also attempted to make sense of the emotion’s counterpoint-- hope, which he could only identify by its opposition to fear. It had been growing in him since the moment he’d discovered Lieutenant Kirk alive.

It was illogical to feel two discordant emotions at once, and so he attempted to quell them. By Spock’s opinion, the twenty-seven hours between his conversation with James Kirk and the drawn-out dawn of the planet’s day seemed to pass impossibly slow.

The night worsened when it started to get cold. At about 6600 hours, the planet outside would be inhospitable. In the cave, it was something they could survive, but barely. He dragged Captain Pike on the stretcher and settled him beside Kirk, then bedded himself down on the man’s other side. With the two emergency blankets and the body heat of three people, they would make it.

Pike awoke once during the night, at its coldest point. Spock gave him a draught of water from his canteen and risked the cold to bring a small portion of berries to his captain, but as suspected Pike did not eat. They spoke for a few minutes, though Spock was not sure if Pike understood the situation they were in. When the man slipped back into sleep, Spock became certain he would not wake again.

However, if Kirk were anything to go by, Spock had a habit of underestimating humans.



Dawn did arrive, quite a long time after Spock believed it should have. Spending what amounted to more than a full standard day in a cave with limited provisions was less than ideal, but they had all made it to the other side of night alive.

When Spock stirred, Kirk was still unconscious, and it took Spock a moment to realize that he’d shifted touching-close to the human in his sleep. The need for warmth had outweighed the need for personal space, and he tried not to feel any discomfort at the thought. At least Kirk’s eyes remained closed, long lashes fluttering only slightly as Spock moved away from him.

He raised his head to check on Pike, noticing immediately that the Captain’s eyes were open.

“Captain,” Spock said, voice a whisper so as not to disturb Kirk. He slipped out from under the blanket, relieved to feel the bite of the night’s chill had largely dissipated. It was still far too cold for comfort, but no longer dangerous. He scrambled over to Pike’s side, and nearly allowed himself a sigh of relief when the Captain gave him a small smile.

“Spock,” Pike said, the usual commanding tenor of his voice weakened and dry. “Water?”

Spock complied, retrieving the canteen and tilting it against Pike’s lips. Water slipped down the dirt-streaked cheeks of his captain. Pike sputtered slightly, but drank.

When Pike waved him weakly away, Spock sat back on his heels, waiting.

With a deep, rattling breath, Pike managed to speak. “How’d you manage to get away with just a bump on the head? I’m a mess,” he said with a strained sort of chuckle.

Spock had seen his captain injured many times before, but the pallor of his skin and his voice--

He had never seen him quite this bad.

“Captain, you are weak. Please do not exert yourself.”

“I know,” Pike replied, a sharp breath following the admission. “Spock, you need to find Doctor Taigen.”

Spock paused, a thread of worry gripping him, unbidden. “Sir, I do not know if you remember her fall--”

“I remember, Commander.” Pike’s tone left no room to interrupt. “I doubt she survived, but you need to find her. Her medkit--” he stopped, wincing as he sucked in a breath. He’d gotten too worked up in just a few words.

Spock felt tension pulling at his brows, clenching his hands where they rested on his knees. “My first goal is to repair the shuttle’s sensors. We will find her, and the rest of the missing crew, much faster.”

Pike nodded softly. “You read my mind. Get that up and running and maybe we can get in touch with the ships, too. It’s a stronger signal at least.”

“Indeed. Though it may be the work of a few hours.”

“I’m an engineer,” a voice spoke up, and Spock slid his eyes past Pike to the face of Lieutenant Kirk. He didn’t know how long the man had been awake, but he seemed fully aware now. “If you can drag me to the console, I can help.”

“You are the designated security officer on this mission, not the engineer,” Spock replied, tone implying that he wouldn’t allow it. He knew that citing designations may be moot at this point, but he could try to dissuade the young officer.

“And the designated engineer is… missing,” Kirk said, shuffling up to a sitting position with clear effort. The way the man winced and hissed a breath through his teeth was enough to convince Spock that he wasn’t up to the task, but when Jim settled, sitting straight, resolution made its way back into his hard eyes. “You know I have the training,” he said, somewhat breathlessly. “Or did you let someone come along on this high-priority landing party without checking their credentials?”

Kirk leveled his eyes at Spock, a challenge in them. Spock felt his eyebrow twitch upwards. Seldom did a lower-ranking officer speak to him in such a way. Maybe it was the immediacy of their present situation-- or maybe it was simply Kirk.

“I am familiar with your qualifications,” Spock replied, “and, more to the point, your injuries. You will not leave.”

Pike turned his head to Kirk, clearly unable to sit upright himself. “Listen to Commander Spock, Lieutenant,” he said sternly, though the power of it was a little undercut by his present position and the sickly shade of his skin.

Kirk seemed to war within himself, eyes searching Pike’s for something, but thankfully he acquiesced.

“Yes sir,” he said, lowly. “Just, Commander,” He turned his eyes back to Spock. “Do me a favor and bring me a few things first? I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

Spock almost sighed, meeting Pike’s eyes and hoping to find mutual frustration in them. Instead, the Captain looked vaguely amused.

“I believe, Lieutenant,” Spock said, attempting not to sound as tired as he suddenly felt, “the point of bedrest is to sit there and do nothing.”

Kirk’s hazel eyes darkened. “I slept almost fifteen hours last night. I’ll be fine. Please, sir.”

With one last look at Pike, as if for permission, Spock took a breath. “Very well. What do you require?”



Spock did not know what Kirk planned to do with a few large branches and the knife from the emergency kit, but he didn’t need to know. What mattered was that the lieutenant was satisfied and felt useful. Spock had come to the conclusion that usefulness was important to Kirk, and he could not fault him that.

He had given Pike and Kirk the remainder of their provisions and promised to return with more, and hopefully a medkit, as soon as he could. Then, he’d used the stretcher to drag the humans to the mouth of the cave. Kirk had requested as much so he could see by the natural light, and Spock wanted to ensure that Pike benefited from the fresh air.

He had also given Kirk instructions to clean and dress Pike’s wound. Pike had begun exhibiting symptoms of infection-- increased body temperature, swelling around the site of the trauma-- and Spock did not want to consider the difficulty of treating infection out here in the wilderness.

Another precaution, he’d left the phaser with them. He did not doubt that there could be larger animals on this planet than scans suggested, given the surprise of the rodents and insects, so it did not hurt to be cautious. When Kirk had looked to him and asked what he would do for protection, Spock hadn’t been able to come up with a satisfactory reply. He’d simply assured the man that he would be fine, and decided that he must be. There was no alternative.

When Spock arrived once more at the site of their crash, it seemed somehow more pitiful in the bright light of early morning than it had as the planet had edged into darkness. More out of place. He did not dwell on it.

The sensor repair was indeed the work of a few hours. Without the back half of the craft, where the engines and, therefore, the majority of the power were stored, and without the nacelles that had fallen off during their descent, he had to re-route power through auxiliary cells under the front console. He regretted the lack of excess materials and, admittedly, an extra set of hands, and doubted any repairs would last long.

But there was nothing to be done to change the situation. All he could do was work with what he had. He wasted no time in prying off panels and assessing the damage, but the process of repair continued agonizingly slowly as the sun climbed quietly into the sky.

After some time, Spock laid on his back on the tilted floor underneath the front console, where he’d ripped off all the panels but the one surrounding the screen. His fingers were raw from burns and the prick of exposed wires, but he paid them no mind. He had only one connection left to make. Twisting the last of the auxiliary units’ wires into the system input, he heard a hum as it sprang to life. Spock slipped swiftly from his alcove, knowing he had only moments to access the system before that tentative connection burst.

Settling into his chair, the first thing he did was send a signal up to the ships. He could only broadcast it once, but he coded it for priority one and hoped against logic that it would go through. Then, fingers moving fast across the screen in spite of their tenderness, he pulled up the scanner, calibrating it to locate the communicators of the missing crewmembers. The console pinged once, flashed their location, then a wire just below the screen burst and the screens went black.

He jumped back from the console, patting his slacks where a spark had singed him, and watched in futility as the wire fizzled, cracked, and died. The tip was blackened. He stared at it for a moment, but there was nothing he could do, nor would it be practical to devote more time to it. At least, not at the moment.

He thought of Pike and Kirk back in the cave, Kirk’s very human hope that the rest of the crew was still alive; Pike’s staunch understanding that they likely were not.

Spock found himself illogically torn between the two.

He slipped his tricorder over his shoulder. The sensors had given him a location, and he plugged it into his map now. The signal was about three miles off in the direction Kirk had come from the day before. He had many hours of sunlight left, but made haste all the same.

If the crew had been left out in the elements last night, they would require immediate assistance.

Spock kept his eyes on the screen of his tricorder and moved with purpose along a winding, narrow path, occasionally lifting his eyes from his device to confirm his footing. The hum of insects flitting through the air was constant, as was the smell of fallen leaves decaying, exacerbated by the growing wet heat. Small rodents skittered round the trunks of some of the larger trees, powder-white little things with sleek hair and stunted, puffy tails. They made no sound.

The insects were more vocal, and as the sun climbed higher, they seemed to intensify in volume, buzzing so loud at times Spock allowed himself flashes of annoyance. They avoided him physically, though, for which he was mildly grateful. Unable to get a close look, he noticed only that they were bright in color, hued in purples and blues, short, fat bodies with multiple small wings.

He decided that, once the immediacy of their situation passed, he would very much like to study them. But Spock of all people knew the importance of priorities, so he moved on.

           Spock received readings of lifeforms up the path a short way, something high up in the trees. The lifesigns he picked up were individually small, but tightly packed together in a seam of light on his screen. He paused there along the trail, allowing himself the briefest moment of curiosity to look up. Above him, those wing-like leaves fanned out from their branches. It was a windless morning, so when a canopy of thicker leaves began to shudder, it drew his attention.

           A cottony white head bobbed up over the lip of a leaf. It was no larger than an apple, dotted with four black eyes in two neat lines, and tipped with a stubby black beak. As soon as it appeared, it hid again behind the fan of its leaf, only to be replaced by four more curious sets of eyes.

           Spock stilled as they stared back at him. The birds ducked, then ten more popped up, followed by hundreds of those small eyes darting over their perches to take a peek at Spock, the small invader to their home. A chortle rose from the group, a hollow sound as though someone were hitting an empty metal barrel with a wrench.

One bird popped up over the lip of the sturdy leaf. It held itself there with clawed feet, balancing a pudgy round body covered in a mantle of pure white. Feathers, Spock would perhaps say, or down. Looking at it from a scientific standpoint, Spock concluded that its feathers likely expanded during the heat of the day to allow its skin to breathe, and contracted tightly at night to keep its body warm. Fascinating, really.

It tilted its head and regraded Spock, just as Spock regraded it, then it shuffled slightly into a beam of bright sunlight, and its down fluffed, expanding into an impressive bustle. In the glimmer of this new light, its feathers became brilliantly incandescent — a spectrum of purples, blues, pinks, and yellows flushed along the feathers.

And with the backlight of the sun, Spock could see the dancing shadows of thousands of these birds, massive in a community nest in the cradle of the green leaves.

Spock privately admitted to himself a moment of awe. What startling creatures existed here. So much life teeming in the depths of a forest that, by their scans, shouldn’t even have existed. And it was beautiful. If he concentrated on the echoing honk and chortle of the birds, he could almost put the rest of this planet from his mind-- his companions in the cave, the broken shuttle, the calm near-certainty of what he would find when he reached the crews’ signals. But he could not allow himself to turn away from his task. There would be time to study these creatures, this ecosystem-- or there wouldn’t be. In either case, his objective remained the same.

Tearing his eyes from the sight of the strange colony of birds, he looked to the path behind him, and then to the path ahead. It struck him only then that he had found himself half-following a game trail.

Predators stalked game trails. With uncertainty before him and only his mental map of the path back to cave, he felt himself drawing on a deep well of instinctual fear. It was coded in all living things, Spock told himself, the fear in the face of the unknown.

He dipped his head and looked again at his tricorder. He had a mission to complete, and he had already dawdled too long. As he took a step forward, the birds let out a deafening chatter that followed Spock a great distance beyond the nest.

Pressing forward, Spock felt a new appreciation of his place on this planet. Its residents had never seen a creature quite like him. His smells, his sounds, the way he moved-- it was all entirely new. Perhaps if he was lucky, though Spock did not believe in luck, the predators would find his foreign nature disagreeable to their palates.

As he made his way farther into the thickening forest, he reminded himself to exercise caution. The tricorder now began displaying the signals of larger mammals. A ways off, yes, but close enough to register meant close enough to purposely avoid.

The trees grew incredibly thick as he edged into the depths of the forest, more than twenty minutes into his trek. The trees, and intermittent moss-mottled logs, made it difficult to see and to step. Far from the flat expanse of visible sand where they had crashed, Spock could barely see his own feet for the dense shrubberies that grew from the base of each tree. The flowers, too, were larger here, wide pink and purple plumes that climbed up tree trunks and obscured his vision.

He pushed them aside, eyes squinting through the leaves, and caught a glint of metal in his vision.

The shuttle. He shoved through the foliage to where trees had been felled, flattened by the crash, and saw the twisted remains of the shuttlecraft’s back end. As he moved to examine it further, something crunched under his step. He’d trampled enough branches and twigs along his walk to know the sound and the the feeling of debris. This was different. It felt brittle beneath his boot. With a sense of dread he could not understand or expel, he lifted his foot to look.

The fractured bone was human.

Horror dawning on him in spite of his usual control, Spock took a step backwards. His back smacked against the nearest tree and he flattened against it. With a frantic look around him, Spock scanned the debris-littered ground. He identified no fewer than ten human vertebrae, three femurs, two ribs and more smaller digits than he felt comfortable counting-- and that was just what was visible. Leaves and branches had scattered over them, as though a major storm had just kicked up.

Or as though the forest’s natural entropy had been progressing here for years.

Spock stepped forward gingerly, refusing to look at the bones, fixing his eyes instead on the shuttle. It was warped from its crash, metal torn, a nacelle hanging by a hinge, its condition impossibly worse than that of its other half.

The word ‘impossible’ occurred to him again as he stared inside. The carpet had been torn and shredded, scattered with leaves and twigs, mottled by exposure to sunlight. The metal, too, bore signs of use and age, speckled with rust around its worst tears.

By his estimation, the shuttlecraft he was looking at now had endured at least one hundred years of decay, and the brittle nature of the bones indicated an equal age.

He looked down at his tricorder, where it blinked steadily, showing he was right on top of the crew’s signals. Kneeling, Spock felt that overwhelming surge of dread as he lifted one of those massive fallen leaves. He swallowed something hard in his throat.

A single rusted communicator lay abandoned in the sand.

 


 

Jim figured that, in this case, he had to get used to slow progress. Whittling was hard, and he’d only taken one survival course a couple years ago, so the fact that the crutch he was carving was really just a branch with a curvy bit at the top didn’t bother him too much. It would, hopefully, still be functional. He had decided that making something that could help get him back on his feet would at least be more useful than laying around the cave all day.

But the wood was tough. He complained to Pike as he shaved off the branch’s rough bark, little by little, even drawing a laugh from the captain when he went off about the first time he’d whittled anything (a bow and arrows) and how disastrous that simple assignment had been. He hoped it was serving to distract Pike from his pain.

“You know, when you get back to Starfleet you might want to talk to the top brass about reevaluating their survival courses,” Jim said, concentrating on the slope at the top of his branch, where he was trying to sculpt the wood to fit under his arm. Pike had been drifting in and out of consciousness all morning as Jim rattled on, but now he looked to him with an amused sort of half-smile.

“Is that so, Lieutenant?”

Jim scoffed, though he was smiling. “You went through survival training. You know what a joke it was. Take bow-making, for example. They taught us how to do it, but then they just scattered some branches for us to find later and started us with all the tools. I actually overheard our moderator telling her assistant to make sure there was enough wood to work with. I thought to myself, Mother Nature isn’t going to care if there’s enough wood. Mother Nature is just going to exist and we have to exist alongside her. I don’t know. Some of it did stick, but I learned more from my independent study than I did from Starfleet’s certified course.”

“I’m sure you’re glad you did that extra reading now.”

Jim smiled at him. “I usually am, sir,” he said. He didn’t know what his rambling was doing for Pike’s impression of him, but he didn’t much care at the moment. He may not emerge from this disaster of a mission with a glowing recommendation from Starfleet’s favorite captain, but with any luck the three of them would at least emerge from it.

That was all that really mattered.

It was some time before Spock returned. Jim spent the time working quietly on his crutch, and eventually Pike drifted back off to sleep. He’d kept an eye on the Captain, watching the rise and fall of his chest periodically. The man was weak, unable even to lift his head.

Jim just kept telling himself that Spock would be back soon, maybe with survivors if they were lucky, and he’d heal Pike (and fix Jim’s damned useless leg) and then the ships would return for them. It had to happen.

He heard the crunch of Spock’s boots outside before the man came into view, each footfall deepening the sinking feeling in Jim’s gut. He only identified one set of footsteps.

Sitting up a little straighter, Jim set his branch and knife to the side, just as Spock emerged at the mouth of the cave. He looked dark in his thermal undershirt, shoulders lax in comparison to the tautness of the morning. Jim noticed immediately, if only because the contrast was almost startling. In one of Spock’s hands, he held a medkit, in the other, he’d tied his blue tunic into a sort of tote, likely carrying more food.

Jim had been starving up until that moment, but now his attention centered solely on the medkit. If Spock had found it…

He met the commander’s eyes, but Spock broke the contact, looking instead at Captain Pike, though Pike was out cold by now.

“I located the crew.” He said simply.

Jim wouldn’t accept that alone. Blood running cold in his veins, he forced himself to ask. “Dead?”

Spock answered him with a look before he spoke, eyes narrowed. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

Something clenched in Jim’s stomach and he felt his eyes fall to the floor. He’d hoped-- it was so stupid, but he had hoped . His memory returned once again to the look of fear in Taigen’s eyes as she’d slipped, to Nelson’s scream, which had been lost to the roaring wind the moment it reached his ears. His heart throbbed, chest tight, and he tried to force the panic down. He’d been trained for this, and he tried to remember what he’d been told. Shift focus, maintain calm.

But three people were dead. Three people were dead . How could he shift focus from that?

“There is more,” Spock’s voice reached him through the tumult, and he whipped his head around to him. “But it must wait. Are you stable?”

Shift focus. Jim steadied his breaths and nodded.

Spock set the kit, looking battered, down beside Pike, and Jim shuffled closer, wincing at the pain in his leg. He kept his eyes on Pike while Spock dug around in the medkit. He pulled a dermal regenerator from its depths and peeled the bandage-- a strip of Jim’s tunic-- off Pike’s wound, exposing the swollen, reddened skin.

Jim watched as Spock ran the regenerator over the wound, making three or four passes before anything noticeable started to happen, and even then the skin barely began to knit at the edges. The small machine hummed loudly with the effort, and Jim shot Spock a concerned look.

“What’s wrong with it? Why isn’t it working?”

Spock looked up, something unreadable behind his eyes. “There were unforeseen complications.”

Jim didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t like not knowing. “What kind of complications?”

“As I said, that must wait. Allow me to concentrate.”

Spock turned the dial on the regenerator, upping its power and successfully ignoring Jim’s barbed look. But Jim knew that Pike’s health was the priority, so he remained silent.

After a few agonizing minutes of constant application, the skin over Pike’s wound was red and mottled, but at least recognizable as skin. Spock said he would not close the laceration completely, at risk of sealing the infection inside, but he could at least repair the worst of the damage. Jim could smell the regenerator overheating in Spock’s hand, but Spock used it until the last possible moment, until it made a sound like a blip and died.

They both stared at it, and Jim wondered if the Vulcan had the capacity to feel as defeated as he did.

“Do you think that worked?”

Spock shook his head. “It is doubtful. Repairs were superficial at best. It is likely the infection is deeper than the regenerator was able to address.”

“What does that mean?” Jim heard the fear in his voice and tried to shove it down. This was not the time.

“It means we have few options.”

Spock placed the busted mechanism off to the side, then dug around in the medkit. As he did so, Pike wearily opened his eyes, turning to the sound of Spock as though he didn’t even know Jim was there.

“What are you looking for?” Pike croaked, and Jim felt his face whiten, Even in the last few hours, Pike’s voice had weakened.

“We have one dose of antibiotics. I plan to use it.”

Spock emerged from the kit with a hypospray and a small tank of clear liquid. Pike coughed, and it wasn’t until Jim looked closer at the tilt of his lips that he realized it had been a laugh.

“I think we both know that’s not going to do much for me.”

“It may sustain you until the ships arrive,” Spock said, loading the dose into the hypospray and pressing it without ceremony into Pike’s shoulder.

“Come on, Spock,” Pike said lowly, “I thought Kirk here was the optimist.”

Jim watched Spock’s expression carefully, and he saw nothing. No twitch of sadness, no hopeful glint. Just… blank.

Jim didn’t even know Pike, and his heart was breaking.

They were all silent for a moment, Jim turning his eyes to watch the labored rise and fall of Pike’s chest.

“Don’t you think you’d better attend to the Lieutenant?” Pike prompted gently, and Spock seemed to break from a sort of reverie, like a computer rebooting.

“There is a bone knitter in the medkit,” Spock said with sudden authority. “Sit up straight and rest your back against the wall.”

Jim did as instructed, too numb to argue. He tried not to show the pain of movement on his face, but failed. “The knitter… It’s not in the same state as the regenerator is it?”

Spock’s jaw tightened and he circled round Pike’s still form, settling beside Jim on the side of his broken leg.

“Indeed it is. I do not know if it will completely heal you. It may also be painful.”

Jim had been treated with bone knitters before, and they did pinch a little, but somehow he didn’t think Spock was exaggerating.

“Well, if it gets me back on my feet, then it’s worth it.”

Spock nodded, removing the knitter from the kit.

“It would be good for you to get up and moving,” Pike said, almost in an aside to Jim. “I think the Commander could use your help.” Jim gave him a weak smile but Spock paid him no mind.

The bone knitter was a large, clunky sort of device, with two struts on either side that were meant to straddle the affected limb. It looked like it would function just fine, but so did the other equipment. Whatever had happened to the medkit didn’t seem to be visible.

Spock set about removing Jim’s splint as gently as he could, for which Jim was grateful. The constant ache had become background to everything else, but the second Spock shifted him even slightly, it throbbed anew.

Jim tried to concentrate on literally anything else, watching Spock’s fingers slowly untying strips of leaf from the branches. For the first time, he noticed burns and scrapes along Spock’s fingertips, green blood speckling the skin.

“Is that from the console?” he asked in an effort to distract himself. When Spock shot him a confused look, Jim nodded at the Vulcan’s hands.

“Indeed,” he said, glancing at his own fingertips as though he’d forgotten they were raw and bloodied. “I will tend to my own wounds at another time.”

Jim felt something in him soften. Though he knew Vulcans didn’t feel pain (or anything), it was strangely gratifying to think that Spock would endure the injuries to tend to his companions first. “You can do it now. I’m not going anywhere.” He gestured to his leg as evidence.

Spock shook his head, removing the last of the strips and pulling the branches gently from the sides of Jim’s calf. “It is unimportant. Please, sit still.”

Spock set the knitter up above Jim’s leg, programming it carefully and, with a look at Jim, setting it to go.

Jim didn’t consider the cave’s insistent echo when he let out a scream, part from pain and part from surprise. The knitter emitted the same strained humming noise that the regenerator had, and it clearly did not have the kind of power he was used to. Healing a broken bone had never hurt like this.

Spock put a hand on his shoulder to keep him still, and Jim pressed his forehead against Spock’s fingers, hands clenching against the ground beneath him, jaw set tight against the agonized noises his empty lungs were trying to make.

It took a long while before the machine pinged to signal the task’s completion, longer than Jim could measure in his state of mind, but Spock sat beside him the whole time, a silent sort of pillar with a steady hand. At points, Pike would say something encouraging-- albeit weakly-- from beside him, but between the humming of the machine and the blood rushing through his ears, Jim didn’t once hear him.

When it finally ended, he gasped his relief, and Spock released his shoulder. Jim lifted his head and rested it against the wall behind him, eyes closed, mouth agape, desperate for air. He’d been holding his breath as the knitter did its job.

“Was it successful?” Spock asked, and he sounded so far away past the headache that pounded in Jim’s temples.

Jim took a moment to compose himself and gently lifted his leg, too afraid to actually look at it.

There was a twinge, but nothing like the excruciating pain of moments before. “I don’t know,” he said honestly, casting his eyes to Spock. “I think I need a second before I can test it.”

Spock nodded and collapsed the knitter’s struts, tucking it back into the kit. “Very well. Rest.” He looked over at Pike. “Both of you.”

Jim huffed his disapproval. It felt like all he’d done was rest. He wanted to help. He needed to help.

“Listen to him, kid,” Pike said, eyes closed. Jim was a little startled by the demotion from Lieutenant. “Rest. Spock can handle this.” There were a few moments of silence before Jim noticed Pike’s breathing even out. The captain shouldn’t have been sleeping so much. Something was wrong. Spock was probably correct in saying the infection was too deep now.

Really, Pike’s only hope was a fast rescue.

Jim’s eyes lingered on Pike for a moment, then he returned his head to the cool, rough texture of the cave’s wall, oddly soothing against his heated skin. “Thanks, Commander,” he said, almost reluctantly. “I think you’ve saved my life a few times now.”

“It is of no consequence,” Spock replied, and Jim restrained a sigh.

“I’m trying to be grateful.”

“And I am trying to get us off this planet. The process will no doubt go faster with you in working order.”

There was a pause, and Jim cracked open his eyes to see Spock fiddling with the dermal regenerator. Prying off the back casing, Spock tilted the device toward the light from the cave’s opening.

“They wouldn’t have left us, would they?” Jim asked suddenly, giving voice to one of the myriad anxieties that had grabbed hold of him in the last day and a half.

Spock looked back to him, considering. “The ion storm reached force-8 rather suddenly; such levels can pose danger to a starship. They may have been forced to abandon the planet.”

“But after the storm. They would’ve come back.”

Spock returned his eyes to the regenerator and set his attention to the wires. Jim watched him work while Spock remained silent, but somehow Jim didn’t think the Vulcan was going to answer. He didn’t really need to. Reasons aside, Jim knew the ships weren’t coming back for them. It was a gut feeling, nothing more, but somehow he just knew.

As Spock worked and pointedly ignored Jim’s question, Jim found a kind of meditative calm in the careful way in which Spock handled each wire, extending, extracting and connecting them with absolute precision. Everything about Spock was done with absolute precision. Even with almost forty hours of stubble on his cheeks and dirt streaking his clothes and scuffing his boots, somehow he still looked like he was in control. It was comforting in a way, but also disconcerting. No one should be okay in a situation like this.

After a good few minutes, Jim was the first to break the silence, finally asking what he’d hoped Spock would volunteer on his own.

“So tell me about these ‘unforeseen complications,’” he said, and Spock stilled for a moment.

“We must wait for the Captain to awaken. I will not compromise his command.”

Jim glanced at Pike, out like a light, and returned his eyes to Spock.

“I won’t let on that you told me, I promise. I’ll even act surprised.”

“Lieutenant--”

“Mister Spock.” Jim did his best to look self-assured and commanding, though he was shirtless, bandaged, sweat-streaked and exhausted. The Science Officer of the Enterprise deserved respect, but goddamnit Jim did too, and he was tired of being treated like the baby of the landing party. “Three of our party are dead and we can’t reach the ships. As ‘designated security officer’ on this mission,” he threw Spock’s earlier rationalization back to him, “it is imperative that I be appraised of the full situation so I can do my job. I would call that a logical reason to tell me what’s going on, wouldn’t you?”

It probably wasn’t a good idea to dare a Vulcan, but Jim didn’t care. He couldn’t stand a mystery and, until he had all the facts, he couldn’t do anything. Jim Kirk was not the kind of person who could stand still.

Spock seemed to consider Jim’s words, meeting the challenge in Jim’s expression with his own. Then, to Jim’s complete shock, he tilted his head in a brief nod. “Very well, Lieutenant. You do make a logical argument.”

He hadn’t expected that.

“Thank you,” he said, more exasperated than grateful. “Now, what happened out there?”

Spock set aside the dermal regenerator, then pulled the tricorder from his shoulder. Jim watched him navigate the screen, blue light reflecting in his intensely dark eyes.

When he had called up whatever it was he wanted to show Jim, he handed it over. Jim took it gingerly, nerves setting in. If Spock couldn’t even tell him, it must be bad.

What he saw was a standard science survey readout. He looked up to Spock with a question in his eyes.

“These are the readings from the site of the crash. The back half of the shuttle,” he clarified.

Jim looked back to the screen.

 

Object: Class-F shuttlecraft, rear

Main composition: Steel, Iron, Palladium, Synthetic Fibers, Aluminum (Transparent), Plastic

Condition: Disabled

Age: 157 standard years

 

Jim shot his eyes back up to Spock, then re-read the screen. He flicked to the next read-out.

 

Object: Bone, human, left rib

Main composition: Calcium and Phosphate

Condition: Fractured

Age: 173 standard years

Continuing to flick through the survey, Jim felt a kind of frantic understanding forming in his mind. Scattered synthetic fibers, 157 years old. Single shuttle-standard warp nacelle, 157 years old. Human bone, 189 years, another at 173, one at 178. Factoring in the crew’s ages, these readings started to paint a strange picture. He’d wanted an answer, but not like this.

“Tell me the tricorder is broken,” he said in disbelief.

“Negative,” Spock said. “It was my first thought as well. I tested it on myself and various pieces of equipment from our own shuttle.”

“How can it all be more than 150 years old?.” He looked back to Spock, laying the tricorder limp in his lap. “We crashed less than two days ago.”

“Less than one planetary day, in fact. You understand why I wish to notify the captain. The condition of the shuttle’s other half is, theoretically, impossible.”

“But there it is.”

“Indeed.”

Jim scrubbed his face with his hands, took a deep breath through his nose, then returned his eyes to Spock’s.

“What’s the state of our half of the shuttle?”

“Inoperable at the moment. It required more work than I estimated.”

“Then let’s fix it. We need to contact the ships. Someone.”

“Mister Kirk,” Spock said, voice almost gentle. “I do not believe we will be able to reach the ships.”

Jim had a guess as to why, but he didn’t want to admit to it. The very concept of time travel was too ridiculous. Impossible. Though, everything about this mission so far had been impossible. The storm, the flora and fauna, the age of the shuttlecraft-- maybe they had to start reevaluating what ‘impossible’ meant.

“Okay.” Cautiously, Jim pulled his legs underneath him, testing his weight. There was a spike of pain, but it was bearable in comparison to the agony of before. Most of the pain came from his hip, in fact, where the makeshift bandage stuck to his wound. He stood slowly using the wall for balance. “Okay,” he said again, when he was sure he wouldn’t collapse just yet. “I think we should start by fixing the sensors.”

“The sensors will be unable to corroborate my working theory.”

“Which is..?”

“Undeveloped.”

Jim let out an exasperated sigh, leaning more heavily on the wall. “Then what do you need?”

Spock also stood, moving past Jim to the mouth of the cave. He looked up to the sky in the direction they’d crashed, and Jim could see him thinking in the hard line of his shoulders and the clench of his hand.

“We must wait until nightfall. I will have conclusive evidence at that point.”

Jim risked walking over to him, stepping lightly on his tender leg. “Nightfall is, what, thirty hours from now?”

Spock nodded. “Less than ideal, I am aware. Perhaps we may use the time to repair the shuttle, as you suggested.” He turned back to Jim, eyes level on him. “But first, you must rest. I will continue to repair the dermal regenerator.” He shot a pointed look at Jim’s hip, and Jim glanced down. There was a hard, dark stain on the fabric over his wound. He sighed.

“I can function,” he said, though he knew it was less a question of whether or not he could remain upright and more a question of how long.

“Please sit, Lieutenant.”

Jim shook his head in a sort of disbelieving impatience, throwing his hands in the air. “Fine, you win.” He turned back toward his sad bed of leaves, where Pike lay motionless but for his labored breaths.

“I am currently the officer in command,” Spock said from behind him, “I believe it would be considered mutiny if I did not ‘win.’”

A cord of tension snapped and Jim let out a laugh that surprised even him, something loud and barking that echoed in the cave, out-of-place. With a breath that felt like his first breath in a long while, he turned back to Spock with a quizzical smile. “I can’t tell if that was a joke or not,” he said.

Spock drew level with him, then passed, returning to the dermal regenerator he’d abandoned and taking his seat on the hard cave floor.

“Vulcans do not joke.”

“Could have fooled me.”

Though Spock didn’t necessarily have ‘expressions’ as far as Jim could tell, his face currently read as indignant annoyance. “Nor do Vulcans ‘fool,’ as I believe the term is synonymous with ‘joke.’”

“It’s an expression, Commander,” he said, sitting down and attempting to rub the ache in his temples away.

“Ah,” Spock said, looking back into the mess of wires that was the busted device. “Of course. You humans do enjoy your figures of speech.”

Jim smiled and leaned back against the cave wall. Slowly, his eyes fell shut. Now that he’d settled, he found he didn’t have much energy to talk. To move. To do much of anything. So he listened to the screech of insects outside, the subtle sounds of Spock’s fingers straightening wires. But the sound was just a backdrop, now. White noise to his swirling thoughts. It didn’t take long for the smile to fade from his face, undistracted now as he was without conversation, occupation.

The settling silence was uncomfortable, filled with quiet anxieties that buzzed around his mind. He should rest, he told himself. He needed to rest. But all he wanted to do was find the crash site and see it for himself-- maybe even give his crewmates the proper burial they deserved. That was one thing he could do, one small thing he could accomplish.

If they really were alone out here, maybe it was all he could do.

Fitfully, and reluctantly, exhaustion caught up to him.

 

 

The revolution is successful.

Jim heard the words echoing, and suddenly he was standing in shadow. Before him, bright lights switched on with a mechanical hum, flooding what looked to be a tall, stage-like platform with light. He raised an arm against the glare, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

The hum of the lights began to get louder, vibrating, and he realized that a huddled group of four people-- each in colorful Starfleet uniforms-- stood nervously on the stage.

But survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society.

The voice came from somewhere beside him, and he turned to see a darkened face, a silhouette, unrecognizable but for the words that came out of his mouth. Jim shot his attention back to the platform as the sound around him became louder, grinding rather than humming. It felt familiar in a way that caused his heart to pound frantically in his chest. He knew this sound. Why did he know this sound?

Carter, Taigen, Pike and Nelson, as Jim recognized them now, stood still on the stage, facing forward but holding each other for support, fear in their eyes. It looked as though they were unable to move.

Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore, I have no alternative but to sentence you to death. Your execution is so ordered, signed Kodos, Governor of Tarsus IV.

Taigen’s eyes met Jim’s, and he reached out to her, a scream ripping itself from his throat.

The platform exploded into a shower of flame and debris and the last thing Jim saw was the flash of fire.



His eyes flew open to the sight of Commander Spock, sitting near Jim’s feet where he’d been earlier. Jim must have just dozed off. It took him a moment to realize that his own scream had woken him. It looked to have startled Spock, too, as the Vulcan met his eyes, looking… concerned?

He looked concerned.

“Sorry,” Jim said on reflex. “Did I--?” he turned his head to the captain, still sleeping. Or, more likely, still passed out. That was a small relief. Jim had woken roommates and lovers with his nightmares, but he didn’t really want the captain of the Enterprise to see him like that.

“The Captain is undisturbed,” Spock said in response to Jim’s evident worry. Then, the Vulcan paused before tacking on, “Are you?”

The question surprised Jim. He didn’t exactly expect a Vulcan commanding officer to ask after his emotional state.

“I’m fine,” he said, straightening his spine and rolling his head to crack his neck. “Just--”

Jim rubbed his eyes to banish the vestiges of the nightmare from him, and to have an excuse not to meet the steady gaze of the commander. He didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

“Of course,” Spock said sagely, returning his attention to his work. “You are troubled by the deaths of our crewmates.”

Jim’s jaw tightened, ashamed that he’d betrayed his troubled mind in sleep. “How do you do it?” he asked, watching Spock’s nimble fingers as they plucked twisted wires from the dermal regenerator’s insides.

Spock did not look up, but he paused briefly before continuing. “I am Vulcan.”

Headache throbbing anew, Jim half-sighed. “Okay. Any tips for the rest of us?”

Spock looked to him again, meeting Jim’s eyes as he lowered the device into his lap. “You must devote yourself to pure logic, the mastery of emotion. This can be accomplished through years of training and strict meditative practices. I doubt you are capable.”

Jim thunked his head against the wall once more. He let his eyes fall closed and wondered vaguely if the sleep that took him this time might be more forgiving. “Thanks for the help,” he said.

Chapter Text

It was logical to appreciate a second set of hands, Spock decided, so he did not begrudge himself his gratitude for Kirk’s assistance. Especially considering the Lieutenant had not lied about his skill. Kirk’s knowledge of the shuttlecraft’s systems was extensive, and even through the heat of the day and the pain he tried to mask, he worked hard.

Spock understood now why Captain Garrovick had recommended the lieutenant for this mission. Though perhaps Garrovick would not have risked one of his best officers if he’d known the dangers.

It took many hours to reroute the power for maximum efficiency and safety, far longer than Spock’s rushed repairs from earlier that day. Kirk insisted on stripping and clipping each of the singed wires-- which Spock would have suggested anyway had Kirk not beat him to it-- and they worked in comfortable silence for much of the morning into early afternoon. The midday heat began to sink in around 2300 hours, but they had a little bit more time before it became unbearable. At least, by human standards.

There were perhaps twelve to sixteen hours each day that were inhospitable to humans: during the heat of midday and the freeze of the deepest night. If they should have to spend many more days here, Spock had already arranged a schedule in his mind, one that would ensure his Terran companions received their allotted rest during the least productive hours of the day. He refrained from sharing that schedule with Kirk for now. Though he suspected Kirk knew their situation was dire (and that they may indeed need to spend a great deal of time on this planet), he did not want to cause the man distress and risk distracting him from the task at hand.

Humans’ emotions were fragile, Spock had learned over the years, but he was pleased that Kirk seemed to be able to set them aside when duty called for it.

Sweat dripped down the divot of Kirk’s back as he bent shirtless over the console, pressed against it despite Spock’s warnings about exposed wires. Jim was ‘fiddling’ (in his words) with the connections to the sensor screen, some scheme in his mind that he could widen the scope of the sensors with some creative tinkering.

Meanwhile, Spock put the finishing touches on the auxiliary power, awaiting Kirk’s signal to plug the last cord into the last input. Should the system overload and begin sparking again, it would not do for Kirk to be up against it.

“Are you quite finished, Lieutenant?”

Kirk laughed, the sound reverberating against the transparent aluminum of the shuttle’s forward window. “Are all Vulcans this impatient? Or is it just you?”

Spock had the dignity not to be affronted by that comment. “We are merely efficient, Mister Kirk. Unlike humans, who are prone to excessiveness.”

“I’d hardly call getting maximum output out of our sensors excessive,” Kirk said, stepping back from the console and wiping his hands on his slacks. Spock raised an eyebrow in his direction.

“I am ready with auxiliary power if you have completed your ‘fiddling.’”

Kirk gave him a wry smile. “Take it away, Commander.”

Spock plugged into the powercell and immediately raised himself from the floor, taking a careful step back. The console hummed to life, cracked screens blinking blue before running down system startup functions.

Kirk put his hands on his hips, looking pleased. Spock begrudgingly shared the feeling. The repairs they had just completed would sustain themselves until the power cells ran dry (considering they recharged with solar power, that would take years), and given that the shuttle had not yet exploded, it looked as though it would be safe to use.

“Not bad if I do say so myself,” Kirk said. “Would you like to do the honors?”

Spock tugged his shirt straight and nodded, making his way to his seat.

The first thing he called up was the extra-planetary scan, which would reveal any orbiting bodies-- including starships.

He did not expect to see evidence of the Enterprise or Farragut in the area, so it was difficult to understand and categorize his disappointment when scans revealed clear space surrounding them. Perhaps the hopefulness of his human helper was rubbing off on him.

“There are no starships currently orbiting Alpha Novus V,” he said stiffly. Behind him, Jim sighed.

“Well, it was worth a try.” He paused, then, “Commander...” Spock looked to him, and Jim practically projected concern, frustration, anxiety. It wasn’t in his expression or the way he held himself. No, it was more Spock’s intuition than anything else. “I don’t think they just left us. And I don’t think you think so either.”

Spock would give Kirk his credit, they seemed to be on the same page. “I do not.” In fact, Spock’s working theory suggested they had never been here at all. Or rather, that they wouldn’t be here for quite some time. It wouldn’t do to tell Kirk as much without evidence, however.

Turning back to the screen, Spock initiated a planetary scan. If there were no starships in the area, the next logical thing to do was to assess the rest of the planet-- resources, lifeforms-- and to see if they could locate the distress signal that brought them here in the first place.

Immediately, it became clear that the distress signal was gone. Whether it had been destroyed in the ion storm or if its degradation had finally caught up to it, or if the signal had never existed… well, Spock did not know, but they could no longer detect it.

They turned their attention to resources, Kirk putting a hand on the back of Spock’s chair and leaning over his shoulder to watch the screen’s map of the planet light up.

“No humanoid or otherwise developed lifeforms registering,” Spock reported, “aside from ourselves. However, several species of large mammals seem to make their home deeper within the forest.” He glanced back at Jim. “You are quite fortunate you did not encounter any when you were injured. It is likely there are predators among them.”

Kirk took a breath. “I’ll take whatever good luck I can get at this point.”

Spock gave him a brusque nod, then returned to his scans. “There seems to be a large source of water within the dormant volcano,” he remarked.

“That’s good. If we can track that down, then we can get water during the night without risking our, erm, extremities . Oh! And look there.” He pointed to a swath of red, registering on the other side of the mountain range. “What is that? A mineral deposit?”

Kirk removed his hand from the back of Spock’s chair and took over the controls, tapping the red region and focusing the scans onto it. He’d practically shoved himself into Spock’s personal space, which caused Spock to lean back in his chair and cast the young man a pointed look, brow raised.

But Kirk didn’t notice, enthralled as he was by the screen he’d commandeered.

“Um… Mister Spock.” Kirk drew back, hands dropping to his sides. “What exactly are we looking at?”

Spock turned his attention back to the screen, eyes narrowed as he read. It took him a few moments to fully absorb it. The sensors were registering every metal he’d ever heard of, plus several unidentified, covering almost three square miles just over the mountains. A sidebar on the screen scrolled through them-- iron, steel, palladium, platinum, copper, silver, gold, pewter, and far too many rows of question marks for comfort. This wasn’t a deposit. It wasn’t a mine. It was unheard of.

The sheer impossibility of so many fully processed metals, many of which could not be native to this planet, existing on a world that had no record of civilization, tightly packed together so near their own location…

He turned to Kirk and their eyes met. Spock irrationally hoped he did not look as confused as he felt.

“I do not know.”

Jim sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Pardon my saying so, sir, but that’s not a good sign.”

“I tend to agree.”

There was a pause, and both of them turned their eyes back to the screen, absorbing it.

Spock did not appreciate not knowing . He should have picked up that much surface metal during his initial scans of the planet from the Enterprise . He supposed it could have been ion interference, but still. Even with an ion storm of the magnitude they had encountered couldn’t cover this up. This revelation was… uncomfortable.

“I will attempt to locate the source of these readings,” he said, standing. “Perhaps I can scale the mountain.”

Kirk stared at him with wide eyes, grabbing Spock’s elbow as Spock attempted to pass him. “Wait, what? In this heat?”

“I am Vulcan and therefore accustomed to heat.”

“But not humidity.”

“It is irrelevant.”

“No it’s not,” Kirk said, more of a snap than anything. Spock shook his hand off, but that didn’t deter the Lieutenant. “Besides, we have more pressing concerns, don’t we? We spent all morning getting the shuttle back up and running. Can’t we take advantage of that?”

Spock narrowed his eyes. “If scans are correct, there are metals over that mountain that will enable us to rebuild the shuttlecraft. Considering rescue is not imminent, that is our greatest chance of leaving this planet.”

Kirk pinched the bridge of his nose, and Spock paused, attempting to understand his priorities.

“What do you recommend, Mister Kirk?”

Kirk lowered his hand and gave Spock a suspicious stare. “You’re asking my opinion?”

“You are clearly in possession of one. I am not averse to considering multiple options.”

Spock watched a bead of sweat roll down Kirk’s temple, catching in the prickle of hair along his chin. He examined the dark circles under Kirk’s eyes, the tense line of his shoulders. Kirk was strained, emotionally and physically. Spock wanted to insist that he rest, but that course of action had not been successful the last time he tried.

“I think we should retrace the shuttle’s trajectory,” Kirk said, “see if we can’t figure out anything based on the flight recordings. It might clue us into what happened during the storm.”

Spock considered that. Surprisingly, Kirk did bring up an interesting point. He remembered registering anomalous particles during their descent-- perhaps he could identify them now.

That metal deposit-- for what else could he call it but that?-- nagged at him, a mystery he felt almost desperate to solve if only because he was sure it would solve their immediate situation as well. But Kirk was right. Even if he did find the source of the metals, he could not transport them without help, without a plan, and-- once they did rebuild their shuttle-- they couldn’t exactly leave without first examining the readings. Patience was wise, and Spock felt a brief twinge of annoyance that the suggestion had come from Kirk.

“Very well. Though I will investigate the source of the metals immediately afterwards. Leaving this planet should be our priority.”

Jim’s expression tightened, but he did not outwardly argue, so Spock returned to his seat and pulled up the shuttle’s records.

The two of them poured over every reading the systems had recorded, Kirk using the pilot’s console at Spock’s left to check on the trajectory, Spock concentrating on the particulars of the ion storm. After some time, Kirk waved Spock over to his screen with a quiet “Commander.”

Considering Spock had been making no progress himself, he stepped away from his work, standing and mirroring Jim’s earlier position by leaning over Jim’s seat.

“Look at this pattern,” Jim said, tracing it with a finger. The path outlined showed the shuttle’s entry into the atmosphere, followed by a swift descent, then an almost serpentine path that wound down toward the place where the shuttle had split in two. Recording ceased at that point.

“It is unusual. Perhaps our erratic entry into Alpha Novus V’s atmosphere has something to do with the strange turbulence we faced before the storm intensified.”

“The particles you couldn’t identify?”

“Correct.”

“Any luck on that front?”

Spock shook his head. “Whatever they are, they match nothing in our database. Perhaps if I could access ship’s computers, there would be something with which to compare, but as it stands…” He trailed off, and Kirk gave him an understanding look.

“It’s okay. It’s not like you can just pull the information out of thin air.”

“Unfortunately.”

They shared a look, then Kirk twisted his seat around, staring out at the forest.

“We should get back to the cave,” he said, “It’s been a long time since we checked on the captain.”

“You may do so,” Spock said. He knelt at the console and removed the final connecting cord from the auxiliary cell. The shuttle powered down. “I will join you there shortly.”

Kirk brows furrowed. The young man didn’t seem to have changed his mind, even though Spock had already done has he had requested. “Do you think it’s a good idea for us to split up? You saw the scans-- there are some bigger animals--”

“Deep into the forest, yes, but not along the mountain. I will be fine.” Kirk seemed to consider it. “Mister Kirk,” Spock continued, “Return to the captain. I will be fine.” Sometimes, humans were receptive to repetition.

Kirk nodded, spine straightening, recognizing that as the order it had been.

“Yes, sir. I-- um. Good luck.”

With that, Kirk turned and retrieved his homemade crutch from where he’d left it at the mouth of the shuttle. He continued in the direction of the cave, favoring his injured leg. Spock wondered if the young man had pushed himself too far. The bone knitter clearly hadn’t finished the job, nor had the hastily repaired regenerator fully healed Kirk’s hip wound-- but Kirk had not once complained about the pain, so Spock allowed himself to believe that his threshold was simply higher than most humans. Convenient, if worrisome.

Spock, tricorder in hand, turned toward the mountain. The slope here was far too steep to climb, hardly a slope at all, so he set off in the opposite direction of the cave, skirting the range’s base, eyes fixed on the jagged, steep slabs of volcanic rock. Somewhere on the other side of this mountain range was the key to their escape from this planet. It wasn’t just a matter of curiosity-- even though Spock could admit that curiosity was a driving force to his urgency. No, it was a matter of survival. He had to find it. For all their sakes.

 


 

 

Jim was glad Spock had told him earlier where to find the nearest spring, as he used far more than their canteens’ fill of water in the hours while Spock went off in search of a way over the mountain. First, Jim had helped Pike drink the last of the water they’d stored, and tried to get the man to eat-- though he refused.

Then, Jim had gone back to the spring to fill the canteens and wash himself, clothes and body. The water was just a trickle down the rocks, and it collected into hardly a puddle’s worth at its base, but it was cool and soothing on his dirt-stained skin. He spent a good long while wringing sand and dirt from his thermal undershirt-- his only shirt, now, then laid it out to dry in that blistering sunlight.

His face, prickled with stubble, was its own source of discomfort, which Jim felt free to fix. Breaking open one of the aloe-like plants that grew near the water, he managed a clumsy shave with the emergency kit’s knife, skin sliced in a few places but nothing detrimental. Next time, he’d polish up a shard of metal to look into. And next time he wouldn’t be in as much of a hurry.

There was something about leaving Pike alone that didn’t sit well with him, just as it hadn’t when he and Spock had been working on the shuttle. Even though the captain only gained consciousness for minutes at a time, those minutes were important. He was still their commanding officer, still the finest commanding officer in Starfleet, in fact, and even in his state Jim felt heartened by his presence. But if Pike slipped away silently while they were gone, Jim would never forgive himself.

With full canteens slung around his shoulders and his damp shirt in his hand, he made his way back to the cave. The pain in his leg slowed him down, as did the unruly swing-step of his crutch. He wondered vaguely if he should just discard it, but he could feel with striking, painful clarity where the bone hadn’t quite healed. If he walked too far on it, he’d risk breaking it again. That was not a pleasant thought.

So he trudged as best he could, relieved when he arrived back at the cave to see Pike conscious, at least, laid out on the bed of leaves at its opening, eyes cloudy and delirious as he took in the colorful world around him. There hadn’t been time yet to fully absorb this place, the startling green of the wide leaves, the chortling of birds far off in the forest, the way the sand almost glowed white in the bright sun. He wondered if, in Pike’s feverish state, he was taking it all in.

When Jim returned to Pike’s side, he tried talking with him a little, told him how the spring had slicked the black rock and made it shine in the sun, how it was pleasantly cool and he’d brought back plenty to drink. Pike didn’t respond but with a mumbled phrase Jim couldn’t hear and a quiet, slow blinking of his eyes.

Something clenching in Jim’s chest, he didn’t try to talk anymore, afraid he’d lose himself to the fear he felt looking at the captain’s red eyes and papery, chapped lips. Instead of conversation, he occupied himself with trying to be useful. As much as he could, at least. He sloshed some water from the canteen against a clean strip of his uniform shirt and dabbed Pike clean, for all the good it did. Between the day’s heat and the fever, the man was all sweat and salt and shakes. The heat stuck Pike’s clothes to his skin, and from time to time he drifted off under Jim’s ministrations.

For fear of exacerbating his injury, Jim didn’t move the man much. When he slept, Jim let him sleep.

After an hour or so, he leaned back against the cave wall, attempting to focus on anything but the hollow sound of Pike’s breath. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend he was on Earth. The sounds weren’t so different, really, and the heat and humidity could’ve been any summer day in San Francisco. Or-- well, a particularly muggy summer day, he supposed.

If he closed his eyes, he could pretend he was sitting in the courtyard at Starfleet Academy, propped against a tree as he dozed. Even though the sweet scent that carried itself from these alien flowers didn’t quite smell like crisp, freshly cut grass or the sea lavender that grew in the academy’s garden beds. But he could pretend that, at any moment, he’d hear Gary’s footsteps sure and steady coming toward him on the sidewalk. He’d feel the hard smack of Gary’s shoe against his own, meant to rouse him. Gary would say something about being late for class. If he opened his eyes, he might even see the face of his erstwhile friend, smiling, telling him it had all been one of his nightmares. Gary had always asked after Jim’s nightmares, even though he knew Jim would never tell him. Somehow, Jim found himself smiling, even as his chest tightened against the memories.

Losing himself in that ebb and flow of escapism, it took Jim some time to realize when Pike’s breath changed tempo. In fact, he didn’t notice until he heard the man mumble-- something unintelligible, but clearly aware.

Jim startled, pushed himself up straight and met the captain’s eyes. He was awake, but his gaze was tired. Far away.

Jim scrambled to his side, casting about for the medical scanner. It looked as though they’d left it at their campsite farther into the cave, and Jim wasn’t sure he was able to make the walk right now. Besides, he couldn’t leave Pike alone now that the man had woken up again. Settling onto his knee with his bad leg outstretched, he placed a gentle hand on Pike’s shoulder.

“What was that, Sir?”

Pike’s eyes fell closed, then opened again, glazed and bleary. “I’m sorry,” he said, or maybe repeated, “that this happened to you.”

Jim’s immediate concern softened and he felt himself heave a breath. Taking up the cloth he’d abandoned and wetting it anew, Jim wrung it out on the sand beside him before he brought it to Pike’s gleaming forehead. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts enough to speak. “With all due respect,” he said with a lame, sad smile. “ I’m in good shape compared to you, sir.”

Pike’s lips quirked. “Garrovick ever tell you you’ve got a terrible sense of humor?”

“Not lately, sir.”

Pike hummed and his eyes drifted closed again. “You’re going to have to be strong,” he muttered; Jim had to lean forward to hear. “You and Spock. This... isn’t going to be easy.”

Jim glanced out the cave’s opening, as though expecting Spock to appear and announce that he’d solved all their problems. It had been hours, but it would likely take much longer than that to scale a mountain, and it was unlikely Spock would return with any kind of solution. But Jim counted his small blessings. Pike seemed more lucid now than he had earlier, more clear-headed. Jim needed that.

“May I speak freely, sir?”

“Here I thought you had been.”

Jim set the cloth down beside him, finding himself unable to say the things he needed to say while looking at Pike. The man was dying, and Jim hated himself for turning to a dying man for comfort, but it was Pike’s condition that made him want to air his fears aloud. Something in him would be restless and anxious until he did. “Sir,” he started, one word that settled something hard in his gut. “You say you’re sorry this happened to me, but I’ve been so-- so lucky. Carter, Taigen, Nelson… you. The fact that I’m alive right now is a miracle. I shouldn’t even be here. I should’ve fallen with the rest of them. I--”

“You’re here,” Pike said, tone harder than Jim thought was possible in his current state. “And that’s what matters. You got a second chance. Take it.”

Jim frowned, and he looked down at his hands resting in his lap. “But why me? If Taigen had survived, maybe she could’ve saved you too. Or Yeoman Nelson, he was so--”

“Young?”

Jim nodded, looking back at him.

Pike took in a shaky breath. “Well so are you.” Somehow, even weak, slurring his words with exhaustion, Pike managed to sound firm, sure of himself. “Everyone’s too young to die.”

In that moment, Jim wondered if maybe Pike were talking about himself too. “Just, listen to me, Kirk.”

Sitting straighter, he kept his eyes on Pike’s. “Yes sir.”

“You and Spock are going to have to take care of each other. You hear me? Look out for each other.”

“And you, too,” Jim said, knowing even as he said it that it sounded ridiculous to a dying man. “We’ll look out for you too.”

Pike’s mouth twisted and he closed his eyes, purposely this time. “For as long as I last, at least. But the ships aren’t coming for me. They aren’t coming for you. You’re going to have to get off this rock yourselves.”

“What makes you say that?” Of course, Jim agreed, but he was curious. Had Pike come to the same conclusion he and Spock had? Given the facts, he must have, but for practical Captain Pike to consider something as outrageous as time travel--

“Starfleet doesn’t exist out here,” Pike said. “You know that as well as I do.”

There was a long pause. Jim picked the cloth up again, and pressed it to Pike’s hairline. “I’ll keep an eye on the commander,” he promised.

Pike seemed to relax. “And listen to him. He’s an excellent officer. You’ll have to challenge him sometimes but--” Pike paused, coughed, wincing as the movement pulled at the tender skin of his wound. Jim’s hand on his shoulder tightened. When Pike regained his breath, he seemed to have dropped the thread of his thoughts. It took him a second to reclaim it. “He-- Spock , I mean…” Breathing in a sigh, Pike slowed down, taking the sentence one word at a time. “Logic isn’t always the best course. I think he’s going to need you to balance him out.”

Jim could’ve laughed at that had he been in a better emotional state. Already today he’d challenged Spock more times than he’d ever challenged any commanding officer. Maybe because the rules seemed farther away here. Or, maybe, because ideologically he just didn’t get the guy. “That won’t be a problem, sir.”

Pike’s chest rose and fell in a quick breath, a weak chuckle. “I thought not.”

 


 

Jim tried not to feel both disappointed and triumphant when Spock returned empty handed, but was unsuccessful. Part of him wanted desperately to say “I told you we should wait.” Thankfully he restrained himself.

The mountains were steep for miles in all directions, according to Spock, sheer rock faces from some long-ago quake. Spock had even returned to the shuttle and scanned the range, concluding that the only way over the mountain may not be over it at all, but under. Unless they felt like taking a dangerous-- and almost certainly fruitless-- months’ long journey around it, of course.

He suggested they explore the caves, to find a way through, though thankfully he did not insist they begin now. By the time he returned, it was nearly planet’s evening, and Jim, despite having a long rest and distracting himself with whittling (deciding to try his hand at a primitive spear), hadn’t forgotten Spock’s promise to confirm their theory by nightfall.

Spock had sat on the opposite side of the cave’s opening while he relayed this information to Jim, eyes occasionally falling to the quietly sleeping form of the captain.

Jim observed the Vulcan as he spoke. The green tint of his skin looked warm in the orange of the day’s dying light. He didn’t look tired exactly, but Jim had seen him before all this, when he was all hard shoulders and angled features and stern confidence. This Spock seemed… different.

They sat in silence for a time before Spock spoke again.

“You shaved,” he said tonelessly, and Jim gave him a small smile.

“Believe me, Mister Spock, you should give it a try. It makes you feel more human.”

Spock raised an eyebrow as Jim realized his mistake.

“I trust you understand that I am disinclined to feel more human.”

Jim chuckled, then pulled the knife from his boot. He held it out, handle first toward Spock. “More Vulcan, then. At least, more alive.”

Spock considered it for a moment, then stood, making his way toward Jim and taking the blade. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“I recommend using the aloe-- or whatever it is. Can we just call it aloe?”

“It is not precisely correct, but acceptable for ease of communication.”

“Well whatever it is, it's a miracle. I’m telling you, we should take some of it back home when we leave. Market it as shaving cream.”

Spock’s lip quirked, a new expression, one that caused a genuine smile to bloom on Jim’s own face. He suspected that was as close as the Vulcan could come to a smile.

“Of all the interesting discoveries we are making, I hardly think that would be the most useful to bring back to Starfleet.” Spock responded.

“It is practical, Mister Spock.”

“Perhaps I will test it before we package it for sale,” Spock said wryly and Jim laughed, loudly this time.

“Okay, that was definitely a joke. I thought you weren’t capable.” he said, knowing the staunch commander would never admit to such a thing. It had felt like a joke, though. Jim was infinitely grateful for it.

“I am capable of many things,” Spock said, “humor is not one of them.”

“Sure, sure,” Jim replied, sharing a look with Spock that clearly conveyed that he knew better, and that Spock knew he knew better. “Well, you’d better get a move on. It’s going to start getting dark here soon, and I need your help moving Captain Pike deeper into the cave.”

Spock glanced at Pike at the mention of his name, something Jim could almost read in the depths of his eyes.

“Are you worried?” Jim asked after Spock was silent for a little too long. He was starting to think that, maybe, Vulcans lied about how much they actually felt. There was a sadness in the slope of Spock’s back, in the lines at the corners of his eyes. Or maybe Jim just wanted there to be.

“I do not feel worry,” Spock said, as expected, and stood without any preamble. “I will return presently.”

“Take your time,” Jim said, shifting to make himself more comfortable, though the pebbles on the ground dug into him. “I’ll hold down the fort.”

Spock nodded and grabbed the tricorder, setting off in the direction of the spring without another word. Jim sighed and looked back to Pike, a hard rock of worry settling in his own gut.

He sat and watched the slow sunset, unable to do much with the stiffness of his leg, and without the knife to continue carving his spear. He marveled again at the alien beauty of this place. In the sunset, light shone through large leaves as though setting them aflame, and colored the white bark of the trees.

He noticed the leaves beginning to fold accordion-like at their center, pulling themselves inward toward their bases like the sails of a ship folding against the mast. As he watched the almost imperceptible movement, he was reminded of Earth flowers that bloomed only in daylight-- water lilies and bloodroot came to mind. It was a slow process, but he suspected that by nightfall the leaves would be fully closed, likely to protect themselves from the cold. A startling display of the planet’s evolution, Jim thought. The sight was as soothing as it was terrifying-- a reminder of how far he was from home.

Luckily, Spock did not take long, maybe a little more than a half-hour, and Jim was not alone with his thoughts for more time than was bearable.

As Spock approached, Jim didn’t notice a single shaving nick on the man’s smooth face, which almost annoyed him. If only because he wanted Spock to prove he had the potential to make a mistake.

But he complimented him on his handiwork all the same with a certainly inappropriate “Looking good, Commander,” which Spock did not dignify with a response. No matter that it was true.

Touching base on the state of the Captain and the remainder of time they had before nightfall, they began preparations, dragging Pike on the stretcher deep into the cave where they’d camped the night before. Then, they prepared the site, setting up another campfire, stockpiling enough wood to last the forty hours it would take before dawn would begin to heat the planet once again. These, though, were the last of the branches that had been felled by the shuttle crash, so that was another item on tomorrow’s to-do list. Jim didn’t even want to think about the logistics of cutting down these trees with nothing more than a laser cutter and a hunting knife.

Eventually, night did arrive, though twilight here lasted longer than felt possible.

Spock had gone to the mouth of the cave the moment the sun set, and that’s where Jim found him now. Jim had left Pike for just a moment and limped his way over, abandoning his crutch for the short walk, too impatient to wait for Spock’s return.

The Vulcan stood a dark shadow against the blue backdrop of evening, head tilted upwards and hands clasped behind his back. He still looked composed, in spite of everything, still so very... Starfleet. He was an excellent officer, clearly, to retain that level of calm. Jim drew up beside him, following his gaze. They were silent for a long time.

One by one, they watched the stars appear, blinking into existence in the darkness. The leaves on the surrounding trees had collapsed entirely now, leaving dark, shadowy, spiked spires against the backdrop of space, speckled with light, awe-inspiring. And lonely.

Jim watched Spock as covertly as he could while noting the play of starlight along the piths of his cheeks. Given everything that had been happening since they crashed on Alpha Novus V, it had been easy for Jim to forget-- or at least, not notice-- how handsome the Vulcan was. But now in the quiet night with the cool air hanging thick around them, Jim observed him. Strong and calm, the perfectly precise angles of his face held in perfectly precise control. And yet, he looked somehow less alien in comparison to the world around them. Jim allowed the Vulcan silence for a time, content to observe, but eventually curiosity won out.

“Well?”

Spock glanced at Jim, as though he’d been surprised by the sound of his voice. Then, he turned his eyes back to the sky.

“I memorized the layout of this and surrounding star systems after receiving the Farragut ’s request for aid,” Spock said lowly. “As I do whenever we travel to unfamiliar locations. Moreover, I know the the placement of each constellation from the surface of each planet in the Federation, and many outside our borders.”

Jim felt himself smiling in spite of the seriousness of Spock’s tone. “I didn’t ask for your resumé,” he said. Spock didn’t acknowledge the joke.

“My point, Mister Kirk, is that I know the stars as intimately as I know my own mind. And these stars are incorrect.”

“Incorrect?” Jim’s smile fell from his face and he suddenly felt a chill that had little to do with the cool air around them. If Spock was saying what he thought he was saying…

“Pi Solaria Beta is three degrees south of its proper location,” Spock said, raising his hand and pointing toward one dot among millions. “And DV 115 should not be visible anymore, yet you can clearly see it in supernova.”

Jim followed the line of Spock’s finger toward one of the brighter spots in the sky.

“What does it mean?”

Spock returned his hands to the small of his back, and Jim watched the glimmer of those incorrect stars in Spock’s eyes, something heavy in his gut.

“It seems we were correct in our hypothesis. By my estimation, the stardate is “-2072904”

Jim’s heart nearly stopped. “Excuse me?”

“By Earth’s measurement, it would be the year 250 A.D.”

“I know that .” Jim said, grabbing Spock’s shoulder and whipping him around. He wanted Spock to look him in the eye, to tell him that year again, because flashes of fear sparked in him at the words and he felt his heart clench as though it wanted nothing more than to give out.

“I thought-- because of the shuttle… about 150 years. You’re telling me--”

“Somehow,” Spock said, interrupting Jim’s halted speech. “We have traveled more than two-thousand years into the past, yes.”

Jim swallowed. All day, he’d been absorbing the idea of time travel, trying to imagine that it was possible, but to know now that they were so far beyond the reach of their own world…

“That’s well before Starfleet.”

“Indeed.”

“Humans don’t even have space travel .”

“You are correct.”

“What are we going to do?”

Maybe Spock heard the desperation in Jim’s voice, or maybe (in spite of his Vulcan composure) he felt a little desperation himself.

“We will survive,” Spock said, breaking Jim’s hold on his shoulder and turning away from the glittering sky. “And we will find a way to return.”

Jim wanted to believe that, and maybe part of him did. The calm surety of the Vulcan’s voice was encouraging, even if Jim was sure it was fabricated.

From somewhere in the dark distance, a guttural, rumbling howl echoed, bear-like, wolf-like, unlike anything Jim had ever heard. The sound was chased by another, answering from across the oasis. It sent a chill down his spine-- an instinctual fear borne of being prey in a predators’ world-- and he shot his eyes toward Spock.

Unfazed by the lonely call of those distant creatures, Spock nodded toward the cave’s interior.

“We should return to Captain Pike. Perhaps tonight we may formulate a plan.”

Jim nodded, casting one last glance to the sky above them, to the forest before them where unknown dangers lurked. His heart was hard with worry.

Two-thousand years in the past. No wonder they couldn’t reach Starfleet. Anyone. They really were alone out here. And ‘out here’ could very well kill them.

As they turned back to the cave, Jim’s eyes fell on the distress signal Spock had set up outside the cave the day before-- a spike set into the sand with one steadily blinking red light, silently transmitting the Federation equivalent of ‘help us.’

And it struck Jim that two-thousand years from now, the Farragut would hear that cry for help.

The realization made his stomach drop.

It had been them all along. They had been their own rescue mission, and now…

Now they might fail in saving themselves.

Chapter Text

Spock was unused to constant company. However, their situation necessitated it. The cave was large in that it extended far into the mountain, but very small in that it was seldom warm enough during the night to venture too far from the fire and they really only had about twenty square feet in which to move around.

This would not be too unfortunate, as Spock did not require outside stimulus to think or meditate, but for the fact that disagreements between himself and Mister Kirk had caused a different kind of frost to settle over their campsite, which was very distracting.

“You’re not making any sense,” Kirk snapped, rubbing his forehead as though pained with a sudden headache. He was sitting beside Spock at their small fire, tension in every line of his body.

“I am making perfect sense,” Spock responded, voice allowing no room for argument, though he suspected Kirk would make room if he had to. “We must start reconstruction tomorrow. Immediately.”

“Okay,” Jim said, holding out his hands as though framing his following words. “I see where you’re coming from. I do. But we have exactly enough food to get us through tonight. Exactly enough firewood to get us through tonight. We need to forage, chop down trees, hunt for food, fur. We’re going to be here a long time.” Kirk paused, then tacked on, “sir.” The word, added as an afterthought, sounded more like an insult than an acknowledgement of rank.

“The sooner we begin repairing the shuttlecraft,” Spock said, counseling himself into patience, “the less necessary your suggestions will be.”

“So how do you expect us to survive?”

“We do not need to devote much time to it,” Spock said simply, ignoring the disrespectful tone Kirk seemed to save exclusively for him. “I was able to gather sufficient rations in sufficient time yesterday. An hour per planet’s cycle should suffice.”

“One hour out of ninety-six? We’ll starve in weeks! We aren’t all Vulcan, Mister Spock.”

“If you were, you would be able to understand my point of view.”

“I understand it,” Kirk practically spat, “I just think it’s wrong.”

Spock opened his mouth to respond, but a mumble from the other side of the fire caught his attention. Kirk seemed to notice, too, his eyes flicking to Captain Pike, who had been sleeping since the two of them had returned from outside.

In moments, Jim was at the captain’s side, and Spock followed. “Captain,” Spock said, kneeling beside the man. Kirk sat across from him, brows knit, the fire fading from him. Now, worry pulled tight at every feature of his face.

“Spock,” Pike responded weakly. “You figure it out yet?” He seemed weakened, and it looked like he didn’t notice Kirk at all.

“Indeed,” he said, instinctively meeting Kirk’s eyes for a single, flashing moment.

“You may want to sit down for this, sir,” Kirk said softly, the tone of his voice suggesting a joke, though his heart wasn’t in it.

Pike huffed, what would’ve been a laugh if he’d had the energy. “I’m listening,” he said quietly.

So, Spock explained the situation, attempting to detach himself as much as he could from it. It was easier said than done, especially because he had so few facts, and far too many mysteries, to give to the captain. He could tell him, for instance, that they were about two-thousand years in the past, though it was impossible to narrow that down to a more exact date. He could even tell him that somehow the other half of the shuttle had traveled farther, just slightly but enough to be of note. But he could not tell him how they ended up here. Why the ion storm had intensified. How they would get home.

But Pike didn’t seem to have the energy to ask.

Not many would answer the news of unexpected time-travel with an exasperated sigh, but Captain Pike did. Closing his eyes, he lifted his hand and dropped it lamely to the ground, a sign-- Spock thought-- of frustration. They were silent for a time after Spock finished speaking.

“Well,” Pike said eventually, sounding far away. It was likely he would be drifting off again soon. “I think the two of you should brainstorm some ideas, then.”

At that, Spock locked eyes with Kirk. It was strange-- they had been at-odds with each other nearly the entire time they had been on this planet, and yet with one look they managed to communicate the same idea.

Namely, that neither of them wanted to continue that particular conversation right now. It had nearly devolved into an argument, and now with the captain having broken the tension, they could each consider their plans for a time. Besides, it wouldn’t do to cause the captain undue stress. Though the man would never admit to it, he was fragile right now.

There would be forty hours to come up with a plan-- whether it ended in compromise or an order.

“Perhaps in a few hours,” Spock said gently.

“Suit yourself. You’ve got nothing but time,” Pike responded. Spock did not fail to notice that Pike did not include himself in the statement.

After a beat, Spock returned to his place on his side of the fire, joined shortly by Kirk. The captain was awake, if quiet, but it looked as though none of them quite knew what to say.

So, they didn’t say anything, which suited Spock fine. He considered attempting meditation, but before he could do more than close his eyes, Kirk had already moved to where he’d abandoned his branch and knife. Without a word, he continued whittling, the scrape-shred of the blade on wood grating on Spock’s ears. Attempting to meditate was impossible through the steady sound, but thinking? Thinking he could do.

He had not had time to go over the math-- to figure out exactly how long it would take to rebuild the shuttle-- but it had hardly seemed worth it to discuss it with Kirk. So, Spock could spend the time doing calculations. When all else failed, he found a strange comfort in calculations.

The silence lasted for a long while. Occasionally, Spock would crack open his eyes to see the rough wood in Kirk’s hand, reshaped to a steadily sharpening point. They didn’t meet eyes again.

Then, after a time, Kirk spoke up, echoing strangely in the small, quiet chamber. “You know,” he said suddenly, his voice snapping Spock out of the steady progression of numbers he’d been going over. “While we’re here, I could see if I can track down that body of water we picked up with the shuttle scan. It said it was in the caldera, right?” He set his project aside and reached for the tricorder.

“Walking too far on your injured leg is inadvisable,” Spock warned, but Kirk likely knew that better than he did.

“What, like climbing a mountain at midday looking for phantom metals is inadvisable?” Spock attempted to convey his lack of amusement through the straight line of his jaw, but Kirk continued, “According to the readings,” Kirk said, scooting beside Spock and shoving the tricorder under his nose, “the water’s less than a mile in. I can handle that much.”

Spock was not entirely sure about that, but he deferred to Kirk’s judgement of his own injury. “And the cold?”

Kirk shrugged. “It’s not so bad yet. I’ll be back in less than an hour, probably. Unless I get eaten.”

“Unlikely, considering we are the only large lifeforms in this cave. However, you may yet pass out from the pain.”

Shining a strained smile, Kirk waved his comment away with a careless hand. “I’ve told you, it’s not that bad.” He turned to address Pike, who Spock wasn’t even sure was awake. “Is he always like this, Captain?”

Pike coughed out a small laugh, surprising Spock. “He just worries, Kirk. Can’t begrudge him that.”

Spock drew himself up straighter, “I object to the inference that I am capable of worry.”

Kirk smiled at him, and Spock wondered somewhere in the back of his mind what it took for someone to smile in a situation like this, and why Kirk’s smiles were so frequent, despite his obvious stress and despite the tension between them. Though Spock hesitated to call that kind of emotional strength ‘admirable,’ he did struggle to come up with a better-fitting word.

“I’ll be all right,” Kirk said, seemingly deciding that the conversation was over. Spock had little energy to continue arguing, nor did he particularly want to order Kirk to stay. Some time without the Lieutenant’s company could be beneficial.

“Very well, Mister Kirk. Please bring a communicator with you.”

Kirk saluted in the old-fashioned way, then stood awkwardly on his stiff leg. Spock narrowed his eyes, but said nothing

“Have fun, kid,” Pike spoke up weakly from the ground. Kirk’s responding smile bore a tinge of sadness, no doubt anticipating Pike’s death. Spock, too, knew the Captain was close. He did not allow himself the luxury of sadness at the thought. Regret, maybe. He knew as well as any that Vulcans were capable of regret.

With a goodbye, Kirk grabbed his crutch and the knife he’d been using to carve his spear, then set off down the cave, using the light of the tricorder to watch his step. After a few moments, the thunk-drag of Jim’s gait faded from earshot, and Spock let out a breath.

“He’s handling himself pretty well, don’t you think?” Pike asked, and Spock glanced over, shifting closer so he could hear the man’s quiet voice over the crackling of the fire.

“He is emotionally distressed, but, yes, he is able to compartmentalize better than most humans.”

Pike hummed his agreement, eyes lightly closed. “How are you holding up?” He asked, surprising Spock.

“I am functioning adequately,” Spock responded.

“That’s not what I meant.”

There was a pause. Why did humans constantly feel the need to inquire after one’s emotions? Even if Spock could admit to feeling lost, scared and worried, he wouldn’t. Especially not when the burden of command would soon fall on his shoulders.

But Christopher Pike was dying, and Spock owed him something. “The prospect of remaining on this planet for an extended period of time is disagreeable. As is the prospect of your death.”

Pike cracked his eyes to give Spock a look. “Don’t sugar-coat it,” he said dryly.

Spock shifted. “Your fever is decreasing.”

“For what it’s worth.”

“You may yet--”

“Spock, I expect that kind of thing from Kirk. Not you.”

“Very well, Captain.”

They were quiet again for a time, and Spock suspected Pike was about to drift off into sleep again. Just in case it was his last chance, Spock asked. “Captain. Should you perish during the night, do you have any last orders?”

Pike lifted his hand slightly. To do what, Spock didn’t know. But he lowered it again, the effort proving to be too much.

“Here’s an order for you,” he said-- frustration at his own weakness, anger, sadness-- all emotions that Spock could feel even without touching him. “Get the hell off this rock.”

Spock nodded, allowing himself a quiet “yes sir,” and no other indication that Pike’s state was affecting him. They fell into silence, and soon Pike was breathing softly. Asleep once again.

Able, finally, to meditate, Spock closed his own eyes and began the process of identifying and categorizing his emotions. For all the good it did.

It was merely ten minutes before he cast a glance at his communicator, abandoned on the ground beside him. He would not say he was worried, exactly, as his meditation had been meant to purge that exact emotion, but he did consider comm-ing the Lieutenant. Of course, such an action would be illogical, so he stopped himself, giving Kirk his space instead.

It was possible, he considered, that Kirk had simply made up an excuse to be alone. Humans did that, and Spock had no doubt that after everything they’d been through, Kirk might benefit from a little solitude. Moreover, ten minutes was not nearly enough time for Spock to worry that Kirk had gotten lost-- or eaten for that matter.

So he waited, falling back into his brief and troubled meditation, which was broken when his communicator beeped.

Snatching it immediately, Spock flipped it open. “Spock here.”

“Mister Spock,” Kirk’s voice came through. Thankfully, he sounded calm. Spock did not usually play into fantasy, but he had imagined in that solitary second a plethora of emergencies that could’ve befallen the Lieutenant.

“Yes, Mister Kirk?”

There was a pause, and Spock stared at the communicator, wondering if it had ceased functioning.

Then, Kirk’s voice crackled, “If the captain’s stable… you might want to come look at this.”

Spock raised an eyebrow and glanced at Pike, sleeping fitfully, but sleeping.

“Describe the situation.”

After another beat, Kirk answered. “I don’t know if I can. It’s… incredible.”

Spock resisted the pull of annoyance and resigned himself.

“Very well. Where are you?”

Kirk must have forgotten they had only one tricorder between them. “Oh, right, you can’t track me. You know what? Just follow the largest tunnels. There aren’t many places that veer off and most of them are too small to walk through anyway. Watch your footing, though. It gets a little rocky.”

“I will be on my way presently. Spock out.”

Spock closed the communicator and turned on its illumination setting. With one last look at the Captain, he stood. The fire would hold until he returned, and Pike was at least comfortable.

The dark walk was over rough terrain, but Kirk was correct that the cave did not split in many directions. Finding the path was easy, especially with the small light of his communicator to illuminate it. He found it was not colder the farther in he ventured, which came as a surprise. In fact, the air around him seemed to warm steadily.

More surprising still, as he reached the ten-minute mark in his walk, he saw what appeared to be a faint blue glow from the cave before him. There were a few twists and turns yet, he guessed, but there was something up there.

As he approached, Kirk came limping toward him around a bend, illuminated fully in the soft blue light. His face bore a look of wondering excitement, and he clutched the tricorder in his hand.

“I saw you coming,” he said, waving the device. “You have to see this, Commander.”

Spock, suspicion and caution slowing his steps, followed when Kirk turned on his heel and walked back toward the source of the light. Rounding the bend, Spock stopped, a moment of shock freezing him in place.

Kirk stood with his back to Spock, staring out over the scene before them. When they had registered water in the caldera of the volcano, Spock had not expected this.

A wide lake spread serenely across the floor of the volcano’s grand chamber, surrounded on all sides by tall crags of volcanic rock and tall, stalk-like plants emitting a quiet blue luminescence. The path he and Kirk were following sloped downwards about ten steep feet, which faded from pebbled dirt to softer sand as it neared the lake's quiet shore.

Dark trees wound up the walls, and Spock followed them with his eyes, realizing as he looked up that they were reaching toward a rugged opening at the top of the chamber, easily seven- to eight-thousand feet high, where Spock believed he could see the faint glow of starlight.

Each leaf that sprouted from the wide branches of these trees glowed faintly in its veins, small pinpricks of light that spread softly over the cave’s walls and reached out to lay a canopy over the edges of the lake. It was not a large body, as they could easily see the other side, but it was clear and still.

Spock approached the slope slowly, eyes transfixed on the water where, beneath quiet ripples he could see more of the stalky blue plants illuminating the sand underneath.

The cave did not terminate here. Rather, across the one-hundred-or-so yards of the lake there were multiple openings that led, presumably, through the volcano, or at least deeper in. Looking around, Spock could see potential paths to those tunnels that they could clear. Unless they wanted to swim across, of course. These paths were overgrown not just with the thin, looping roots of the cavern’s trees, but with hundreds of tiny aloe plants, sprouts of the high-protein greens they had been collecting-- everything on the planet that thrived in heat and humidity.

Kirk gracelessly stepped and slipped down the slope, crutch abandoned, coming to stand at the edge of the water and glancing over his shoulder at Spock, as though asking him silently to follow. Spock did, drawing up beside Kirk, whose breathing was accelerated with the thrill of discovery, eyes alight-- and not just from the reflection of the plants.

“Everything in here is bioluminescent,” Kirk whispered, and Spock turned to him. “At least, most of it is. Can you imagine how long these trees have been growing here?”

Spock could. He was not familiar with the physiology of these particular plants, but he guessed by the height of their thin trunks that thousands, if not millions of years had gone into their evolution.

“Is there a reason you are whispering?” He asked, voice low.

A grin split Kirk’s lips and he looked upwards. Spock followed his gaze.

Kirk clapped his hands once.

The sound echoed brilliantly in the chamber, and hundreds of tiny, darkly colored birds shot from the trees, wings spreading to reveal a bright, bioluminescent glow beneath their feathers. They screeched and squeaked as they flapped, swirling in a vortex upwards to the chamber’s opening, then back down to settle once more on their branches.

Spock felt the wonder of it soothing the lines of his face, but he didn’t care that it could be considered an expression of emotion. He’d made many scientific discoveries in his time with Starfleet, but none compared to the abject beauty of this place. He only knew one way in which to describe it.

“Fascinating,” he said, a quiet contentment in his voice that he forgot to dispel.

Kirk laid a hand on his shoulder and Spock looked to him. But the touch had no purpose-- he was not trying to get Spock’s attention. Merely, it seemed he wanted to share in the moment. Spock found he did not mind.

“Bioluminescent birds,” Spock said softly, returning his attention to the trees to look for the small creatures. They were practically invisible in the darkness without their wings spread, though he thought he saw the point of a beak in the nearest branches. “These specimens are scientifically profound.”

Kirk’s hand fell and he chuckled. “That’s it? Come on, Commander. They’re beautiful. This whole place…” He trailed off, but picked back up again, a trill of joy in his voice. “And, did you notice the best part?”

Spock gave Kirk a considering look, wondering what the human’s definition of ‘the best part’ would be.

“Stick your hand in the water.”

Eyebrow up, Spock glanced out at the lake. “Are you certain it is safe?”

“Positive. It filters through the volcanic rock like that spring you found. It’s not pristine, but, well, it’s not going to kill you.”

Accepting that, Spock moved forward, kneeling at the edge of the water and realizing only then that a small sheen of steam wafted from its surface. He didn’t need to feel it to know that there was a natural hot spring somewhere nearby, but he dipped a careful hand in anyway, marveling at the feeling of warm water against his cold fingertips.

“An excellent find, Mister Kirk,” Spock said as he stood, wiping his wet hand on his slacks and returning to Kirk’s side.

Kirk’s soft smile shone bright with pride. There was silence between them for a time as they continued to stare over the water, then Kirk spoke softly. “Once,” he began, tongue darting out to wet his lips where a gentle grin still lay, “during my first deep-space assignment, I got selected for this landing party. I was brand new to the Fleet, and I’d never stood on a non-colonized world before. It was a Class L planet-- something in the atmosphere that made it about as inhospitable as it was beautiful,” He raised his arms, gesturing as though painting a scene where he stood. “The chemicals made the sky this… this bright, brilliant purple, and the plants--” he looked to the ground, seemingly lost in the memory. “Gold as my rank stripes. I’m telling you, they glittered. It was the first time since joining Starfleet that I was sure-- I mean, really sure-- that this was what I wanted to do. You know, explore . I never thought I’d see anything so beautiful again in my life.”

Spock kept his eyes on Kirk, watching the play of light and shadow over his features, the way the ripples of the lake reflected serene movement on his softly smiling face. He looked tired, but more at peace than Spock believed he had yet seen him.

“This comes pretty close, though. You know?” Kirk finished, holding out his hands lamely to take in the chamber around them.

Spock returned his gaze to the lake. “Yes. I believe I do.”

There was another pause. Kirk did not express vulnerability often, at least not in Spock’s experience, and Spock was unsure why he of all people had been trusted with such an emotionally important memory. He did not know what else to say to honor it.

Thankfully, after a time, Kirk spared him the burden of speaking.

“So you want to take a dip?” The brevity of Kirk’s voice indicated that he did not want to linger in whatever emotional state the memory had inspired in him. “I can keep an eye on the captain. I think you could use a soak.”

Spock watched steam dance over the water, tempted. Whether he accepted or not, it was kind of Kirk to offer. He seemed to have forgotten their earlier argument. In the face of this discovery, Spock didn’t blame him. “You may bathe first,” he decided, “as it was your idea to explore the caves this evening.”

Jim thanked him with his eyes, nodding. “All right. We might want to consider moving camp a little closer. The water might be good for Pike if we can get him in it. And the heat would be good for you.”

“I will consider it, Lieutenant. The opening of the chamber would still serve to vent the campfire smoke.”

“Another good point. You’re full of them, Mister Spock.”

“To my surprise, you have your moments as well.”

Kirk laughed, an echoing thing that excited the birds back into motion. He put a hand over his mouth to stifle it, eyes smiling. It was rare that Spock was able to draw laughter from people-- typically because he did not try. But Kirk’s joy came easily, and inspired in Spock a strange sense of pride.

He left Kirk a few minutes later, after gathering a few samples, starting his trek back to their campfire. The idea of staying closer to the warmth of the caldera was pleasant, though he could do without the humidity. Perhaps he would discuss options with the captain.

 


 

Jim waited for Spock’s footsteps to fade into the distance before he shuffled out of his clothes, pulling the knife from his boot and setting it beside his equipment, He’d only been wearing his black shirt, which had turned brown with dust and sand, and the sliced waistband of his slacks had made them less than comfortable or secure, so finally getting out of it all felt good.

This whole place felt good. He was enamored by the bright blue stalks, the trees’ heart-shaped leaves and their glowing veins. The water. By god, when he slipped into that water he finally felt safe, for the first time in days. Warm and protected.

He didn’t start scrubbing himself right away, rather settled himself down on a submerged shoal of sand and soaked until the grime of sweat lifted from him, watching the trees for brief flickers of birds’ wings.

After some time, he pushed off from the shoal and flipped over, sailing across the lake on his back before slowing and coming to a stop, ears under the water, the bright opening of the volcano’s chamber above him. He closed his eyes and floated. It was cooler out here toward the center of the lake, though it wasn’t much deeper. He supposed the spring must originate from somewhere near the sand.

He didn’t know how long he lay there, only that he allowed the serenity of the place to reach deep into his bones, soothing the ache in his leg, in his shoulders, in his head. But with silence came the influx of anxieties, the potential to think too hard about all the things his mind wanted so desperately to avoid, so he couldn’t let himself remain.

If he sat in silence too long, the fear came back, the anger, the sadness, the certainty that something was wrong. Aside, of course, from the myriad things that were obviously wrong.

His mind echoed with the implications of two-thousand years. No chance, no hope of rescue, on an alien planet in a galaxy made alien by its age, completely unfamiliar to them all. But even with no hope of rescue from the outside, Jim wanted to try. Leaving this planet would be difficult; returning to their own time would be practically impossible. But so was everything else that had happened to them. Maybe they could make the impossible happen again.

They had a chance.

Jim opened his eyes to the comforting blue light and allowed a sad sigh to escape, unfettered now by the company of commanding officers. He wished senselessly in that moment that the others, the people they’d lost, had been given a chance too.

Pike had told him in no uncertain terms not to dwell on it, but Jim couldn’t help it. He was nothing-- a grunt at best, and yet he was the one of them who lived to see this beautiful cavern and its birds and--

He wished he could understand why he survived. Every time, he survived, when people better, stronger, smarter, younger, older, wiser, more kind, more loving, more important, more deserving than him didn’t. Screams echoed from places deep in his memory, and he thought back to the way Tom had cried on his shoulder all those years ago, tears sinking into his shirt.

Jim pulled his head from the water and flipped again, swimming slowly back to the shore. Water ran down his hair, dripping salt into his eyes where it collected his sweat.

Now wasn’t the time to think. He should get back, give Spock his turn, maybe even help him move Pike and set up camp down here. He should get back.

Though, not right away. No longer taking his time, Jim picked one of the reeds on the bank, dipping its bristles in the water and using it to scrub and scrape at his teeth. He felt a little guilty, gargling water from an ethereal, glowing spring and spitting it out on the sand, but not enough to forgo the feeling of a clean mouth. He gave similar treatment to the rest of his body, scrubbing himself so raw the heat of the water began to sting.

When Jim did finally make his way back to camp, he still limped, but he felt infinitely better. The tension had eased, internally and externally. If he didn’t think about it, if he just pretended, he could almost believe the last few days hadn’t happened. He allowed himself a little peace of mind as he walked.

Unfortunately, peace of mind could only last so long in a situation like theirs. When he came into view of the ring of firelight, reality smacked back into him like he was falling all over again, breath beaten from his lungs.

The captain was shivering violently, breath quickened, and Spock had abandoned the few samples he’d taken from the chamber to be by the man’s side.

Jim joined him there, and the two of them hardly spoke.

 

 

Night fell hard, as it seemed to do, and once again the three of them curled close to each other under the emergency blankets. Jim didn’t consciously drift closer to Spock during the night, but the Vulcan was warm. Comfortingly so, and his body instinctively moved toward that warmth. This was, he supposed, the only situation in which cuddling his commanding officer was appropriate.

On Spock’s other side, Jim sometimes heard the rasping breath of Captain Pike, the chattering of his teeth in the cold.

Jim slept fitfully, nightmares new and old swirling through his mind, one after the other. Tarsus and Alpha Novus V became the same planet, survival the same burning necessity, the fear of death and the pain of loss connecting the two intrinsically.

Morning did come, or at least morning to his circadian rhythm came, and Jim knew the moment he awoke that something had shifted in the world. Not only because he was alone beneath the blankets, but because the very air around him felt heavy. He sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes and glancing around the cave.

The red glow of the fire’s dying embers encircled a scene Jim had almost believed he wouldn’t see if he just hoped hard enough. Spock, sitting beside the body of Captain Christopher Pike-- a body wrapped in a strip of the shuttle’s carpet.

Chapter Text

Pulmonary Embolism, the scanner had read. Complication from infection. Undetectable until it was too late.

Spock said Pike’s breathing had become labored before his heart had simply stopped, and he delivered the news with as much emotion as the medical scanner screen he read from.

Jim was frozen still, chest tight, glad he couldn’t see Pike’s face, glad he hadn’t been awake when it happened and simultaneously hating himself that he hadn’t been awake when it happened.

Spock was still speaking, Jim realized, and he attempted to catch back up, eyes following Spock as he stood and moved toward the cave wall where he’d set the stretcher.

“We have many hours before dawn, but once the sun rises we should begin preparations. I believe one of the panels from the shuttle’s forward console will function as a makeshift shovel. If you will assist me in moving the Captain we will find an appropriate place in which to bury him.”

Jim gaped at him. “Are you joking?” He labored to his feet, pushing past the pain, and strode forward. In a flash of burning impulsiveness, he grabbed Spock’s shoulder and pulled him forcibly away from the stretcher, then turned him around to face him. The Vulcan barely reacted.

“This is hardly a joking matter, Mister Kirk.”

“Captain Pike is dead. He’s dead. And you aren't even-- You served with him for four years-- doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“There is no point in emotionalism,” Spock said, voice hardened by Jim’s accusation. “We have known since the crash that his time was limited, and now the situation has reached its logical conclusion.”

Jim leveled his eyes at Spock, fury boiling away his grief.

“You can’t possibly be this cold.”

“I am attempting to give the captain a proper burial. I believe that is all that we are capable of providing. Will you assist me or no?”

That gave Jim a moment’s pause. He couldn’t tell from Spock’s stony face if that was said out of a desire to honor and mourn his captain, or if it was said out of a sense of practicality.

Either way, the anger was unlikely to fade. He held onto it like a lifeline. In a sick way, he was grateful for his rage, as it was easier to feel than the crushing weight of despair that settled on him when he looked at Pike’s still form.

“Fine,” he said after a moment. “But-- what do we do until dawn?”

He didn't think he was capable of moving onto the next thing. Of just… burying him. But Spock was. Spock made it look easy. He couldn’t believe he had started to think Spock felt more than he let on. In the face of this, Spock should be distraught. Jim was, and he’d hardly known the man.

“We wait. There is little else to be done.”

It took a few minutes for Jim to collect himself, during which Spock tightened the bindings of his makeshift stretcher. Dawn, then.

They would wait.



It took a couple hours, all told, to bury Captain Pike. Jim's leg gave out partway through digging, so he had to sit beside Pike’s body while Spock finished. Jim occupied himself with silently stewing.

They didn't speak. Jim did manage to help Spock fill the hole, but with every shovelful of dirt his heart sank a little deeper. The finest captain in Starfleet was in this grave, he kept thinking. The finest captain in Starfleet with the spotless record and the loyal crew and the responsibility of the Fleet’s flagship on his shoulders-- and here he was.

Was it Jim’s fault? Somehow? If Spock hadn’t reached out to save him, would he have saved Pike instead? If Jim had gone to help Carter instead of sitting frozen in his seat, could they have stopped the shuttle falling apart? There wasn’t enough time , his mind tried to tell him, it all happened too fast , but Jim Kirk did not believe in no-win scenarios, so losing--

Losing felt like this . Like grief and guilt and anger. And maybe he had to admit now that he was far angrier at himself than he was at Spock.

They had chosen a spot only a few yards from the shuttle, where the sand was stiff enough at the base of a large tree to hold the grave’s shape. They would have to cover it, of course, but Jim already saw some rocks up the slope of the mountain that would do-- when his leg had time to rest. Dawn was only now breaking in pink light against the mountain slope, dispelling the chill that still clung to the air. In spite of their exertion, Jim felt himself shivering where he sat upon the cool, soft ground.

No sooner had Spock patted the last grains of sand into place than he stood, brushing off his slacks and looking to Jim, who did not meet his eyes.

“I will now begin the process of rebuilding the shuttlecraft,” Spock said in clipped tones. “If you require time to mourn, you may do so.”

Outrage flooded him like a tidal wave and he felt his eyes narrow into dangerous slits. “You aren’t even going to say something? He was your captain. He deserves a few words of respect.”

Spock looked back down at the grave, and Jim searched his face for some indication that he felt something-- anything.

But his expression may as well have been carved out of stone.

“It would be appropriate,” he agreed. Turning back to the small mound of sand, he was silent for a few moments. When he finally spoke, it was in the same clinical tones he'd been using all morning.

“Today we lay to rest Captain Christopher Pike, serial number T364-281LR, captain of the Federation Starship Enterprise . He will no doubt be remembered as a fine officer and a--” Spock hesitated minutely, but just enough for Jim to notice, “friend.” Spock finished. He cast his eyes back to Jim. “Is that sufficient?”

Taking a deep, steadying breath through his nose, Jim shook his head in disbelief, “That’s fine, Mister Spock,” he said. The words felt clipped and stilted coming out of his mouth.

“Very well. I will make my way toward the other crash site and begin transporting what materials are still usable. You may remain for a time.”

“We aren’t going to discuss this?” Jim asked, gesturing first to Pike, then to the space between the two of them, where Jim sat on the warm sand and Spock stood still as a statue.

“Discuss what, Lieutenant?”

“Our situation!” Jim shouted, unable to contain it anymore, scrambling to his feet. He took a few purposeful, faltering strides in Spock’s direction. “The fact that it’s just you and me and a whole, empty planet, stuck two-thousand years in the past with no way to get home--”

He heard his voice breaking and pulled himself back together, straightening his spine in a mirror to Spock’s. “We need to focus on survival before we focus on the shuttle. We have to be prepared to be here as long as it takes. I’m not backing down on this one.”

Spock squared up to him, unwavering. “As I have said, the sooner we repair the shuttle the less time we will need to devote to such measures. I suggest prioritizing, Mister Kirk.”

Jim scoffed, “Okay, Commander, tell me-- if we happen to find a way to that metal deposit, and if it happens to have every scrap we need to repair this shuttle, how quickly can we do it with the equipment we have?”

“I estimate 11.8 months,” Spock responded without missing a beat, “with limited equipment and breaks regulated to sleeping and eating.”

That number was higher than Jim thought, which was, well, discouraging. But it proved his point better this way.

“All right, then how do you suggest we survive 11.8 months, plus however long it takes to make it through the mountain, if we devote all our time to the shuttle? We need enough resources to support us while we repair it!” He cast a hand in the general direction of their crash site.

Spock’s eyes were hard, voice losing some of its practiced calm, “We are capable of surviving the way we have thus far. The sooner we begin, the sooner we may finish. I fail to see how you do not understand this fact, as I have repeated it multiple times. These are my orders, Lieutenant.”

“Orders!” Jim threw his hands in the air and looked wildly around them. “Look where we are! I’m not following your orders if you insist on putting a hunk of metal before our lives! I don’t know where you get the right,” he continued, an ugly thought forming in his mind even as he spat it at Spock’s feet. “It’s like you were just waiting for Pike to die so you could take command.”

A heavy pause fell between them. When Spock spoke, it was with intentional calm. “I am doing what must logically be done so that you and I do not face the same fate. Christopher Pike was an excellent captain, and his loss will be felt strongly.”

Jim didn’t fail to notice, Spock didn’t say by whom.

And suddenly, it made sense. “I get it,” he said, some-- if not all-- of the fury fading from him. “This is how you deal with things. You throw yourself into something else and put your whole brain into it so you don’t have to think. Trust me, I’ve been there. But, listen, you have to think right now. Consider what our lives are going to look like for the next 11.8 months if we go forward with this plan of yours.”

Spock pulled himself straighter, but did not respond.

Jim shook his head and gave an exasperated huff. “Fine, you go tend to your shuttlecraft. I’m going to start figuring out how to cut down these trees so we don’t freeze to death.”

He turned before he could make himself watch for Spock’s nonexistent reaction, snatched his crutch from where he’d abandoned it in the sand, then stalked in the direction of the cave. Spock thankfully did not try to stop him.

As Jim walked off, as angrily as he could while practically hopping on one leg, he tried not to imagine 11.8 months and some change without a single person for company. No one but Commander Spock, who may as well have been a computer himself.

 


 

It would have been logical to take the tricorder with him, or the phaser for that matter. It was decidedly illogical to leave those items behind simply because he did not want to cross paths with Kirk again.

But that was precisely Spock’s reasoning. The human’s words had been ill-conceived, arrogant, fussy and-- frankly-- cruel, and Spock wanted to allow himself a moment to dwell on them.

He had not left Pike’s grave right away. Rather, he attempted to center himself there. Tried to categorize his emotions, understand them, purge them.

Anger surfaced as he stood staring at the ground, anger at Kirk for being unreasonable, anger at himself for allowing the Lieutenant to walk off without a reprimand, anger at Pike for leaving him here to figure this out on his own.

And, yes, maybe that was the crux of it. He was angry at Pike, more than anything else, because Spock did not know how to do this. Spock did not know what was right or what path to take. He did not know how to convince Kirk to follow him. He did not know how he could save them on logic alone. In spite of himself he recognized that Pike’s human emotions had made him the excellent captain that he was.

Spock, on the other hand, did not know how to “follow his gut.” Logically, all their energy should go to repairing the shuttle. It was true, but was it right?

He did not like indecision.

With a genuine sigh, Spock had cast one last look at Pike’s grave, stuck a strip of bare bark into the ground to identify it, and moved forward.

Moving forward was all he knew to do.

Thankfully, he did not need the tricorder to locate the shuttle, as his memory was perfect, but it was possible that in that moment, he forgot that there were other, more practical uses for the device.

 

 

The walk was long, but Spock found himself soothed by the loud silence of the forest. Nothing commanded his attention, but everything received it. He took special note of the dark purple veins within the trumpet-shaped petals of flowers, how the size of them increased the farther he made his way between the trees. He ran his fingers along the stony texture of the trees’ bark and noticed more readily the sink of sand beneath his feet, guessing at its mineral composition as he walked. His eyes followed the paths of wandering insects, watching them burrow into the dark hollow of the flowers.

It was serene in its own way, though he became conscious of the danger as he walked. Embarrassingly, it was a good two miles into his trek before a stray thought reminded him that this was where they had registered lifesigns of larger mammals. Not this precise location, but certainly this deep into the trees. It was far too late to return for the tricorder, so he kept himself aware, glancing between trunks and keeping his ears open for the sounds of approaching footsteps or breaking twigs.

There were none.

When he did arrive at the shuttle, he felt the same unease and disgust as he had the first time at the sight of the bones. The day before, he’d simply found the medkit and hurried back to the cave, unwilling to linger.

This time, he had to linger. There were five phasers stored in the back compartment that might still have a charge, two engineering jumpsuits in the alcove that would function as an extra set of clothes, or protection, plus the shuttle itself, which they would need to transport for optimization of repairs.

Unfortunately, looking at how close the trees grew this deep into the forest, they would likely have to transport it in pieces.

As he surveyed the scene, he considered the importance of these items to their eventual departure from this planet, and their survival in the meantime. Then, his eyes fell to the bones still scattered in the clearing, and he considered their importance.

With a flash of clarity, Spock rearranged his priorities. He arrived at the decision quite logically, but he had to admit that Kirk’s face came to mind, and he did consider that this simple action might help ease the lieutenant’s less than warm feelings toward him.

He made his way to the shuttle, clambered inelegantly into it (resting as it was, angled atop fallen trees), and grabbed one of the engineering jumpsuits. Tying it into a sling, Spock returned to the clearing at large.

With a deep breath, he began to collect the scattered bones, one-by-one. He knelt and sifted with his fingers through the leaves and debris, swallowing his emotional reaction to handling the bones of those that had been alive only four standard days prior.

No, he reminded himself. They had died 154 years ago, victims of a similar fate to their own. He did not know why they had traveled farther into the past than his half of the shuttle, but it was a mystery he would solve. For his own sake, for Kirk’s sake, for Pike’s sake, and for theirs.

Some minutes passed as he dug through dead flower petals and broken twigs, combing the clearing for any trace remains. It was likely that the bodies had been scavenged by local wildlife before they rotted away, so there was no full skeleton here, not even a skull, but there was at least something. Something he could bury and honor the lives lost.

As he worked, the thought of wildlife eked its way back into his mind. He tried to dismiss it, but he had what he supposed humans would call a gut feeling, a sixth sense. Somehow he knew he wasn’t alone.

Without the tricorder, he did not know where to look for these unknown animals, nor did he know how to avoid them. Senses heightened, he paused in his work, ears open to every gust of wind through the leaves, every snap of a twig and buzz of an insect.

It was a sudden, violent rustle of leaves from somewhere nearby that gave him pause.

Straightening, Spock slowly set down his bundle, eyes scanning the trees. He didn’t know what kinds of creatures he should be looking out for. Something big, his mind supplied, which did not help.

If he’d realized his danger earlier, perhaps he could have prepared himself for it, but as it was, when he heard a rumbling growl behind him, he hardly had a chance to turn before he was knocked off his feet.

Something burst from the trees behind him, bowled him over and straddled him. It was easily six, maybe seven feet in length, four or so in height, thick and muscled and coated in dappled black and gray hair. That was all Spock could make out. Quickly as he was able, he slipped under its splayed, spiked paws and struggled his way behind it, hands clawing for purchase on the sand and soil beneath him. When he scrambled to his feet and wheeled around, the creature stood between himself and the shuttlecraft, where the extra phasers remained in their compartment. Spock began backing slowly toward the trees and the creature whipped its massive head toward him, growling.

That head was a solid block of muscle and teeth, a jaw like an anglerfish closed with an imposing underbite, set upon shoulders as thick and muscular as a bulldog’s. Its eyes, though, were squinted, tiny black globes that seemed unable to focus on him if the sway of the creature’s head was any indication. One small blessing, then, it might be nocturnal, or at least unused to the glare that came through the hole in the canopy.

His eyes darted to the shuttle as the creature approached him, slow on its clumsy paws. If he hurried, he could potentially make it to the phaser compartment with little injury, but there was no guarantee the ancient phasers would still function. Still, it was without a doubt his only chance. Kneeling slowly, he picked up a fallen branch, not nearly large enough to incapacitate the creature, but perhaps enough to function as some form of defense.

Just as he began a countdown in his head, planning to time his run with the fall of the creature’s paws, a sound jolted him from the tension.

More branches were breaking in the trees to his side, far too hurried and loud to be another one of these creatures.

“Spock!” a voice shouted, and the creature turned its head to the noise, a growl tearing from its throat. Spock took the opportunity to dash to its side, then behind, just as Kirk erupted through the thick trees.

The lieutenant’s eyes widened at the sight of the creature, but there was no further hesitation. In one swift movement, he pulled the phaser from his belt and shot. It yelped, a pained, howl of a sound that echoed between tree trunks. Spock lifted himself into the shuttle, dropping his branch and glancing over his shoulder to see the creature approaching its new target. Kirk turned the dial on the phaser and shot again. This time, one of the animal’s legs gave out and it roared pitifully.

Spock punched open the compartment and heard the sound of another shot, followed by an echoing, pained growl. He grabbed the nearest phaser and turned, only to find that the creature had fallen, mere feet away from Kirk, who stood within swiping distance of its claws.

Kirk shot it once more, seemingly just in case, glancing at the phaser then back to the creature’s still form, then back to Spock.

“One stun and three kill shots,” he said in disbelief. His voice sounded almost quiet in comparison to the creature’s roars. Kirk approached the creature gingerly, leaning heavily on his good leg. He seemed to have abandoned his walking stick in his haste. “Resilient for a little guy, isn’t he?”

“Maintain a safe distance,” Spock warned, hopping down from the shuttle and making his way slowly toward the animal, phaser still in hand. Kirk waved him off and knelt beside the body. He touched its head, almost gently, and put his ear to its mouth to check for breath.

“Don’t worry, Commander. It’s down.”

Spock lowered his phaser, which had apparently been unnecessary thanks to Kirk’s overzealousness. In spite of himself, his heart was pounding. The creature had gotten too close to him, and far too close to Kirk.

“Are you all right?” Kirk asked, stepping around the body and meeting Spock where he stood.

“I am uninjured.” Spock responded, and he saw some tension fade from Kirk’s posture.

“Talk about timing,” Kirk said, a smile of relief masking his apparent fear.

Spock was about to ask how Kirk’s timing had been so impeccable when the Lieutenant answered it himself. “I saw that you had left the tricorder and figured you might need it,” Kirk said by way of explanation. “Checked the shuttle sensors to find you and, well, I was worried that creature’s lifesign was too close.”

“Your instincts are admirable, Lieutenant,” Spock said, relief of his own softening his words. “Thank you. Are you unharmed? Your leg--”

Jim waved him off. “It’s fine, I promise. It aches, but I think it’s going to ache for a while. I just couldn’t get here fast enough with that damned crutch.”

Kirk clipped the phaser back onto his belt and held up his tricorder, eyes flicking over its screen. He did not linger on it long. Dropping the tricorder to his side, Kirk seemed satisfied. “Doesn’t look like there are any more of these things nearby,” he said, gesturing to the fallen creature, “and the ones I’m picking up aren’t moving. What do you think? If these are the same creatures we heard howling last night, they’re probably nocturnal.”

“That was my hypothesis. My movement may have disturbed it if we are near its territory.”

“Small blessings, then,” Jim said, casting his eyes around the scene. Spock realized this was the first time Kirk had been here. It was fortunate he’d been able to clear the site of bones before Kirk’s arrival, but the young officer still seemed unsettled by the state of the shuttle.

Just as Spock was about to speak, to maybe thank Kirk again and send him on his way, Kirk’s eyes fell on the bundle where Spock had abandoned it. “I thought you were coming to strip down the shuttle,” Kirk said, the question ‘what were you actually doing?’ implied.

Spock watched Kirk as the man wandered past him, approaching the bones. A strange sense of nervousness gripped Spock then. He didn’t want Kirk to open the bundle without explanation.

“I believed it would be appropriate to gather the remains of the crew.” Spock said, which at least managed to effectively stop the man in his tracks.

When Kirk spoke, it was with the same sense of horror Spock had felt when he arrived here the day before. “ That’s the crew? That little… sack?”

“What is left, yes.”

Kirk was silent, his fist clenching at his side. Spock could not see his expression, but he could imagine it. Pain. Grief. Forehead drawn tight and jaw straight and that all-too-familiar fear swimming behind his eyes like a dam holding back a river. As Spock watched, though, he saw what could only be considered a transformation. Kirk squared his shoulders, straightened his back, and when next he spoke the horror was absent from his tone. “Why is there so little left?”

It was quite fascinating to watch. Kirk’s emotions clearly ran deep, and yet he was able to put them aside when needed. A rare trait in humans.

“Remember, Mister Kirk. These remains have been exposed to the elements for more than one hundred and fifty years. It is fortunate we have anything to bury at all.”

Kirk shot him a look over his shoulder, confusion and suspicion in equal measure. “Bury? I wouldn’t think that would be too high on your priority list,” he said, some of the venom of their earlier argument in his tone.

Spock moved to Kirk’s side, and Kirk faced him. Their eyes met. “I believed it prudent to reconsider my priorities.”

It took a moment for that to sink in, but then it was as though the clouds cleared from Kirk’s dark skies. The hard lines of his face softened. His expression opened into something almost warm, certainly inviting-- offering both forgiveness and respect.

“Funny,” Kirk said, a sad quirk to his lip. “I had a similar revelation.” At Spock’s raised eyebrow, Jim scratched the back of his head and looked toward the ground. “I was going to stay to help you after I dropped off the tricorder. I… I wanted to apologize for what I said. You didn’t deserve that.”

“Nor did you deserve my lack of regard for your opinion,” Spock responded. “It is forgotten.”

Kirk nodded, meeting Spock’s eyes again. “Thanks, Commander.” He paused, and there was a moment of awkward silence. Just as Spock opened his mouth to speak, Kirk continued. “Listen, I was thinking-- and, well, this is proof.” He waved a hand at the creature. “We need to work together. Take care of each other. Find some happy medium. There’s no other way we’re going to make it out of here alive. I mean, we should just…” he collected his thoughts for a moment, then continued with a hard tone to his voice. “No more orders, no more rank. Just…”

“Cooperation,” Spock finished for him. He found the thought of disregarding Starfleet’s clear guidelines disagreeable, but the thought of sharing this burden less so.

“Yes,” Jim said, “exactly.”

With a considering breath, Spock glanced at the fallen creature, then back to Kirk’s expectant gaze. Without this young man, Spock would likely be dead. Without Spock, Kirk would likely be dead. Cooperation had served them well so far. “Very well, Mister Kirk,” he said, wondering briefly if this was the wisest decision. The most logical decision. The right decision.

“Jim,” Kirk said. “You can call me Jim.”

It took a great deal for Spock to force the name from his lips, feeling somehow as though he were crossing a boundary. Perhaps he was, but boundaries had different definitions here. “Jim, then. And, I suppose you must call me Spock.”

Kirk-- Jim-- snorted a laugh as though he’d been surprised by that response. “Oh, I ‘must,’ must I? That sounded like it was almost painful for you, Spock.”

“Simply unfamiliar,” Spock said. “I will… get used to it.”

Jim nodded. “Me too.”

There was a moment they stood in simple regard of each other, meeting for the first time as equals. Spock found he did not feel threatened by the thought. In fact he could only describe this feeling as relief, maybe even comfort. Kirk had repeatedly shown his adaptability, capability, responsibility and dependability. Perhaps together they did have a chance.

“We should finish with the remains,” Jim said, voice faltering as the reality of it returned to him. He recovered himself quickly. “But there’s the matter of the dead bulldog…”

It intrigued Spock that their minds had gone to the same comparison for the animal. “We should butcher it,” he suggested, and Jim choked his surprise.

“Woah,” he said, raising a hand as if to slow Spock down, though he wasn’t moving. “I thought you would want to, oh, I don't know, study it?”

“Butchering the animal does not preclude studying it. You expressed an interest in hunting for fur. Now that is no longer necessary. Moreover, its meat could provide you with nutrients that you may not receive from the local plantlife.”

Jim considered it. “It’s rather…” he opened his arms to take in the entirety of the beast, “large, wouldn’t you say? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

“Nor would I. However, I am certain we can figure it out.”

“You’ll help me?”

“We are, as you said, in this together.”

Jim nodded, put his hands on his hips and sighed at the creature as though anticipating the work it would take to skin it. “All right. Let’s finish with the--” he cleared his throat, “-- the bones. Then we’ll get to the bulldog. No sense wasting daylight.”

“I might remind you, daylight is one of the few resources we have in abundance.”

Jim shrugged, and the small smile he awarded Spock was a welcome sight. “I never thought you’d be the one of us looking on the bright side, Spock.”

Spock found his name did not sound unpleasant when Kirk said it like that.

 


 

Jim admitted after the near-disastrous process of skinning the animal that he had only read about the process of tanning hide once in his life, and that little had stuck. As Spock had a similar base of knowledge, it took them a great long while to ensure each step was correct. First, they had to scan for salt deposits, thankfully finding one in a cave slightly less than a mile from their campsite.

Even then, after scraping and soaking the skin in salt water, then laying it out to dry the remainder of the day, the product they ended up with was stiff at best, and still smelled of the beast’s thick musk. It was less than ideal.

“Maybe it will loosen up once we wash it. A few times,” Jim said with a defeated shrug, staring at the fur laid out in the heat of the sun. They had spent the last few hours tearing up the beast’s meat, salting it and hanging it on branches outside their cave’s entrance to dry. They’d laid out the fur beside the rather grisly display, hoping to keep an eye on both to discourage any rodents from stealing their bounty, and to keep watch in case the smell of meat attracted any more predators. So far, they’d been lucky. At least in that respect. The heat of midday was starting to sink in, meaning they had more than twenty-four hours of sunlight before the bulldogs, if they were nocturnal, stirred.

“We may try,” Spock responded, “However, I believe it may take quite a bit of effort. Do not concern yourself with it. The fur will still serve its purpose.”

Jim sighed. He was disappointed in himself. It was illogical, he thought with a twinge of wry humor at the word, that he should judge himself for it. The practice of tanning hide hadn’t been used in centuries, except by those who adhered to cultural traditions that necessitated it. All-in-all, it wasn’t exactly a failure, so he tried to give himself the leeway. Besides, it wasn’t like Spock had known the process any better than he had. That in itself was a heartening thought. The Vulcan wasn’t perfect after all.

“I’d like to try again, if we could,” Jim suggested, glancing back at Spock, who raised his eyebrow. “I mean, not now. Even this--” he gestured to the meat, “is enough to last us a while. But once it runs out, maybe we can go hunting.”

“As I do not eat meat, I hope a hunt will not be immediately necessary.”

“You don’t eat meat?” Jim looked at the now-intimidating amount of soon-to-be jerky hanging on the low, thin branches of the trees. Spock had been so dutiful in helping Jim carve up the animal, he couldn’t believe the Vulcan didn’t have a stake in this. “No offense, Spock, but now might not be the time to stick to principles. You’ll need the nutrients.”

“Vulcans have adapted to a plant-based diet. In honesty, the meat would likely make me ill.”

Jim hummed, glancing back at their work. “You didn’t have to help me, then,” he said. “We spent the whole day on this.” Once it got too hot, Jim was going to have to retreat into the cave to sleep. He wouldn’t be able to help Spock with the shuttle until he’d awoken and Alpha Novus V began to move into dusk. Suddenly, a strange feeling of guilt gripped him. Had he been too petulant? Too insistent earlier that they refocus their attentions? Spock had had a plan, and Jim had trampled over it. Granted, he didn’t agree with the plan, but the fact that Spock had dropped everything--

“Given the events of the morning, it seems appropriate to consider our survival first and foremost,” Spock responded, something soft in his tone that drew Jim’s eyes toward him. In the hours since they’d buried their captain, Jim had somehow managed to change Spock’s mind. Or, maybe, he’d just managed to open it. Before Jim could speak, Spock continued. “Alone, it would have taken you well into the worst of the day’s heat to butcher the animal, given your injury,” he said, voice returning to that practiced, hard timbre Jim was more familiar with. “Lending my assistance was logical.”

So, not an emotional reaction to the death of his captain or his own near-death experience, of course. It had been ‘logical.’ Jim was starting to suspect that ‘logical’ was just an excuse, something Spock used to cover up his real motivations.

But, so long as Spock’s logic aligned with Jim’s own, he decided he couldn’t bring himself to say as much aloud. “Well, thanks all the same,” Jim said. “This evening, we’ll focus on the shuttle.”

“That is an adequate compromise,” Spock responded.

Jim didn’t know how to feel about this man, his straight-backed stance and the careful clasp of his hands. He spoke with no emotion, but clearly felt something, and he had devoted a day to Jim’s benefit, despite a desire not to.

“Are we going to be able to do this?” Jim asked suddenly, catching Spock off-guard if the widening of Spock’s eyes was anything to go by.

“Do what, precisely?” Spock asked. He shifted on his feet, subtly, but enough for Jim to notice. Who knew he had the ability to make the unflappable Vulcan uncomfortable with a single, pointed question?

“Work together. Alone. For a year. I’m not saying we can’t,” he rushed to add, “I just want to start on the same page. All we have right now is each other.”

Spock lifted his chin slightly, regarding Jim, looking at him like he was seeing him for the first time. “I believe we can. At any rate, we must. If it eases your worries, am not uncomfortable with the thought of relying on your help.”

Jim took in a breath, weighing Spock’s words. He wondered if it had cost Spock anything to say as much. As far as he knew, Vulcans were staunchly independent. Not to say that they didn’t value community and tradition, they absolutely did, but in matters of work (especially with humans) they tended to stay isolated. In any case, it didn’t cost Jim anything to return Spock’s sentiment.

“I think I can rely on you too,” he said. “So let’s make a deal.” He approached Spock and held out his hand. “We’ll get off this planet. Together.”

Spock regarded Jim’s gesture, somewhat stiffly, then tentatively reached out. When their hands clasped, Jim felt a strange hum through his arm, but it was gone-- along with the heat of Spock’s fingers-- in a moment.

If Spock had an explanation for the feeling, or for how brief the contact had been, he did not offer it. Instead, he turned his eyes back to their task.

“You should rest,” Spock suggested. “I will remain here and keep watch.”

Jim didn’t like the idea of leaving Spock to do all the work (such as it was), but he reminded himself with a sick, sinking feeling that he would have a long time to make up for it. At least, he thought, tracing the lines of Spock’s strong profile with his eyes, he would not have to do it alone.

Chapter Text

The buzz of insects was quieter in the evening than it was during the day. Right now, even though the sun had only begun its torturously slow descent a few hours ago, the incessant white noise had faded. It made it easier to concentrate.

Spock had paused in his work at the shuttle’s console and cast a glance behind him, where Jim was sitting silently at the ripped maw of their half of the shuttlecraft. The panel Jim held in his lap was large, sprouting tangled wires like an overgrown garden bed. They’d pulled the panel from the other crash site’s scanning array, and for the last few hours Jim had been attempting to repair it. Much of the time, Spock heard him mutter reminders to himself like “red wire into the main scanner input, reroute through blue conduit…”

Spock had largely ignored him, concentrating on his own repairs to the forward console’s controls, but as the background noise of the world around them began to die, he found the silence almost uncomfortable. This was rare for him, especially considering that in the six standard days that they had been on this planet, he had come to value silence more than ever. Once the sun set, he and Jim were forced into close proximity for far too many hours to avoid the freeze of long nights and the stalking presence of those alien beasts, so these moments where they concentrated on their separate projects were soothing for Spock. Meditative.

And yet, it was somewhere around the point that Jim stopped mumbling to himself that Spock had begun to feel the weight of that silence. He could not feel Jim’s emotions, not without direct contact, but a Vulcan’s emotional intuition was, by necessity, powerful. He felt more than he knew that something dark had settled on his companion. It was distracting.

Spock supposed it made sense. For six whole days, Jim had rarely complained, never once let on that he felt the massive weight of the task they were undertaking. Even Spock occasionally allowed the prospect of it to intimidate him, so he could only imagine that his human companion was feeling more than he let on. Jim put on a front of fearlessness and optimism, and Spock recognized it for what it was, but no one could maintain a constant mask. At least, no human could.

Making a decision, Spock stood from his seat and made his way to Jim, whose hands-- Spock noticed-- had stilled over their task. Jim turned, surprised, when he heard Spock approach. It was not the first time Spock had seen Jim’s expression unguarded, but he was struck by the vulnerability in his eyes, the quiet, sad slope of his brows, the part of his pink lips. It lasted only a moment, though. The second he met Spock’s eyes, the mask returned, features shifting, tightening, a strained smile presented to Spock like a peace offering.

“Getting bored?” Jim teased without mirth, eyes following Spock as Spock drew level with him and sank onto the floor beside him, mirroring Jim’s cross-legged position.

“I thought, perhaps you might be interested in sharing your thoughts,” Spock said, somewhat stilted. He didn’t really know how to do this. Spock was disinclined to discuss his own feelings, for obvious reasons, but it was basic xenopsychology that humans benefited from airing their fears, talking through their problems, and Jim had no one with whom to do so other than Spock.

They had made a deal to rely on each other.

“Well,” Jim started, looking at the panel in his lap. “I’ve made a lot of progress. I think with a little more tinkering it’ll be the patch we need to get our airborne sensors operational. First piece of the puzzle, and all that. We won’t want to weld it yet, not as though we have any equipment to weld it anyway , but--”

The moment he returned his eyes to Spock, Jim paused. Spock hadn’t been about to stop Jim’s status update, but it was apparently clear from his expression that this had not been the intended conversation.

“You weren’t asking about the scanner,” Jim said, and Spock nodded his confirmation, noting how immediately uncomfortable Jim seemed to become.

“We have discussed the shuttle repairs at length today,” Spock said. He didn’t appreciate when humans asked after his own emotional state, so he struggled with how to approach the topic now, “but I believe you may need to… talk.” Emphasising the word, he hoped, might suggest its meaning.

Jim canted his eyes up to the ceiling, taking a breath through his nose. “I’m fine,” he said, but the way his hand clenched around the edge of the panel said otherwise.

“If that is true,” Spock ventured, a knot tying itself in his gut, “then you are more resilient than I.” If Spock gave ground, maybe Jim would, too. So went Spock’s logic, at least. He did not like to admit to not being ‘fine,’ but ‘fine’ had variable definitions.

Jim’s head whipped around, and Spock met his eyes. He saw in their depth myriad emotions, but he didn’t know if Jim would give voice to any of them. Seemingly searching Spock’s face for something, perhaps insincerity, Jim’s brows pulled together. When he did look away, he let out a breath.

“It’s intimidating,” he finally said, as though it pained him to say the words aloud. “It’s not that I don’t think we can do it. Of course we can. I know what I’m capable of and I have a pretty good idea of what you’re capable of. I just-- I can’t stop thinking about ‘11.8’ months. And that’s after we reach that metal deposit. A year. More .”

Jim paused, casting a glance out the back of the broken shuttle into the forest. Out there, the leaves were slowly collapsing, rodents were digging into holes at the bases of the trees. Out there, a whole alien ecosystem lived on around its two tired intruders. “And Pike,” Jim continued, voice low, “and Carter, Taigen, Nelson… their families need to know. They need a Starfleet burial. A real one. Even if we manage to get back to our own time, we can’t promise them that.”

Spock looked Jim over quietly, noticing-- not for the first time-- that deep-running compassion in Jim that gripped the edges of every word, every movement, as though it were innate in him. A weakness, Spock’s mind provided on instinct, but he stilled the thought forcibly. He had seen nothing in Jim Kirk so far to indicate weakness. Compassion, sometimes, manifested in strength.

Silence hung between them for a few moments.

“My parents were both in Starfleet,” Jim finally said to fill that silence. Spock felt a tick of surprise. He hadn’t known that from his brief encounter with Jim’s service file, and this was the first Jim had spoken about his family. “Well, my dad’s career, but mom served on a few ships herself. They’ve always known the dangers,” Jim continued, “but my brother-- well, he was furious when I joined. I promised him I wouldn’t get hurt.” Jim chuckled sadly, looking down at the panel in his lap. “I mean, I knew it was a lie. He knew it was a lie. But the second he thinks I’ve died, he’ll never forgive me.”

“It is possible,” Spock suggested, drawing on that thread of hope that had tangled itself in his thoughts and refused to be plucked out, “that we will return to the moment in time that we left. We do not yet know the full nature of our situation.”

Jim scoffed. “And what are the odds of that?”

Considering the question, Spock performed a few quick calculations in his head. “Without more data, it is impossible to make an accurate guess. However, I might estimate that the odds are somewhere around 678,394.65 to one. That is a rough estimate,” he made sure to disclaim, just in case Jim ever felt like checking his math.

It was only when Jim looked at him that Spock realized the question had been rhetorical. He was about to apologize for the misunderstanding when Jim’s lips parted, a smile breaking over them like a rising sun. “Oh?” Jim asked, somewhat breathlessly, a chuckle falling from his mouth that sounded halfway to hysterical. “A rough estimate?”

Shaken by Jim’s reaction, Spock felt himself floundering. All he knew to do was answer the question. “Ah, Indeed. Once we know more, I will likely need to adjust--”

“Spock,” Jim said with an unnaturally wide grin, holding up a hand to stop him. That hand looked to be trembling, but Jim lowered it before Spock could comment. “Thanks. For, well-- for trying. No offense, but you aren’t exactly reassuring.”

Knowing this well, Spock couldn’t refute the comment. He looked out over the forest, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the vulnerable gaze of the man beside him. “My apologies, Jim. I understand this must be difficult for you.”

Jim didn’t say anything for a few moments. Rather, he began to twirl one of the wires of the panel unconsciously around his finger. His smile faded as slowly as the day’s encroaching dusk. When he did speak, he was quiet, barely audible over the stirrings of the world around them. “Well I can’t imagine it’s easy for you, either. Of all of us, you’re stuck here with me.”

Spock returned his gaze to his companion, but before he could speak, Jim shifted the panel off to his side and stood, only a little unsteady on his bad leg. “But that’s enough of that. It’s going to get dark soon. Want to make one more trip to the other site? We can snag a few more conductor wires to hook this panel up to the forward sensors.”

This was clearly another attempt to put on a front, but given that Jim had already expressed much this evening, Spock allowed for it. Jim was right, Spock was not reassuring, and by all accounts the two of them were strangers. Spock was, in fact, quietly relieved that Jim seemed able to carry his own emotional weight. If it did become too much, he would attempt next time to offer greater comfort than discouraging statistics and empty words, but it was possible this would be the last of their awkward conversations. He would not pry. If Jim needed help, he had to trust that the man would ask for it.

He stood as well and nodded his agreement. “Very well. Whenever you are prepared.”

And that was the key. Whenever Jim was prepared.

 


 

Routine was all that got Jim through those first weeks. Routine was safe, consistent, structured-- and necessary. He’d grown accustomed to it over the years he’d been in Starfleet, and now it saved him.

The first few days had been rough, of course. While in the tumult of mourning the loss of their crewmates and coming to terms with their situation, they’d also had to establish themselves, their camp and their relation to each other. Some of those tasks were easier than others.

Early on, they had sharpened a shard of the shuttle and strung it with the bulldog’s sinew to a branch, which functioned as an axe well enough to cut down the thinner trees for firewood. They had harvested more of those wide leaves to pad their bed, cobbled together cooking utensils from shredded shards of shuttle, mined the salt deposit they’d found and gathered oil from the trees. It had been the work of days, and only then were they able to adhere to any kind of schedule.

During the daylight hours, Jim and Spock devoted their time to collecting resources, exploring the landscape or stripping down the back half of the shuttle for parts. It was rough going with Jim’s leg still tender, still aching on each step, but he swallowed it as best he could and relied plenty on his crudely carved crutch. But he had to admit the payout was worth it.

One day, they wandered across a small pond with fish that turned out to be edible, if bony, and finally gave Jim a use for his carved spear. Another day, they spent a good few hours studying the insects, thoroughly distracted from foraging when they’d stumbled upon a kind of hive. Jim had laughed when one landed on his finger, holding out to Spock to examine even as he complained that the fuzz of its legs was tickling him. In those early days, Spock would startle each time Jim laughed, as though the sound were as foreign to him as the world they now inhabited. But, after a time, he seemed to get used to it.

When the day began to cool off outside, they would retreat to the cave, exploring the extensive system and attempting to find a path through to the metal deposit without wasting daylight. If Jim’s leg acted up or if the mood struck them, they would forgo exploring and bring what projects they could into their campsite, sheltered from the cold that encroached outside. It was a fairly perfect arrangement, as they spent as much time on Jim’s wishes as they did on Spock’s.

The shuttle wasn’t fixed-- not by a long shot, but they had begun assembling a construction plan to put it back together, at least enough to make it functional. And in the meantime they were surviving.

But ‘routine’ didn’t always mean ‘work.’ Everyone, even Vulcans, needed downtime. At least that’s what Jim tried to convince Spock to believe. At his urging, they would spend quiet evenings by the fireside, during which Spock would meditate and Jim would whittle his rough branches. He carved a bow and arrows, a ‘just in case’ backup to their phasers, and even began a special project that he hoped would make their time on the planet easier.

Each time that he laid down to sleep, at midday, evening, the deepest night and the first crest of dawn, Jim kept track of the standard days that passed with tick marks on the cave wall, where they had moved their camp closer to the lake. The marks weren’t intimidating at first, but as days turned into weeks and weeks into well over a month, Jim began to get restless. Impatient. Each day they worked until their fingers bled and they helped each other run the humming regenerator over their wounds, and they still had so little to show for it. A few repairs to the sensors, a blueprint to work off of when they finally had the materials to work with , and, well, that was it.

Jim saw it in Spock-- that overwhelming desire to leave this place, and he felt it in himself too. He would think about his mother and father, about his brother Sam, about the Farragut and his friends. But everything they did got them closer to getting home, so Jim just threw himself into it as he did everything.

And while their living arrangement and construction plan finally came together, this strange cooperative friendship they were developing took its own kind of work. After that first, awkward conversation, Spock hadn’t again asked after Jim’s emotional state, for which he was grateful.

There were days that, if Spock had asked, Jim would’ve broken down, giving into the fear and exhaustion that clung to him every day-- though he did his best not to show it. And there were days that if Spock asked, Jim would have snapped, tension tightening his words, maybe enough to shake their tentative balance with each other. No, it was best that Spock didn’t ask.

Besides, eventually the information just kind of came out on its own. They’d been washing their clothes in the hot spring one evening, sitting stiff in their jumpsuits as they scrubbed the grime from their sun-bleached uniforms, when Jim mentioned that his brother was a biologist.

It had been the bioluminescent stalks that made him think of it, how Sam would have walked into this glowing caldera and never left, intent on studying the minutest detail of each plant. He’d shared the information casually, and never expected Spock to ask questions.

But he did. He’d asked where Sam had studied and what he was doing now. He asked if Jim ever saw him, if he’d met his nephew.  

It turned out that talking about Jim’s family was one way to talk through his feelings without directly addressing them. Emboldened by Spock’s apparent interest, he felt free to share more stories over time-- stories that helped fill those long, silent nights. Sometimes it helped ease the loneliness, other times it made it worse.

Spock was not much of a conversationalist, but he was a fantastic listener. One evening, Jim told him about the time he and his brother had taken the horses off the farm at midnight and ridden them all the way to the neighboring town just for kicks. He told Spock about how his mom had been furious, and how his dad had sent a subspace message from some starship out in the middle of nowhere, just to scold them. He told the story intermixed with laughter at the memory.

“Why do you find the situation amusing if you were reprimanded for it?”

Jim had waved that away, “Oh, they were only mad because they cared. You can fight with someone and still love them.”

“That seems illogical,” Spock had said, which made Jim laugh anew.

“Humans!” he’d said with a defeated flop of his hands, prompting one of those rare almost-smiles from Spock.

Ah, and those almost-smiles were so rare, rare enough that Jim made every attempt to provoke them. Not that Spock gave him much to work with, of course.

Spock didn’t answer direct questions about himself, at least not with direct answers. When Jim had asked Spock if he had any siblings, Spock had replied that “Vulcan family dynamics are different from those of humans.”

Given Jim was pretty sure siblings were a universal constant, he’d let it slide at the time. Figuring there must be a reason Spock didn’t want to talk about it. But even though he might not learn much about Spock’s life, their proximity certainly helped him learn things about Spock as a person.

Some of these things weren’t surprising. It was a given, for instance, that Spock was curious, even about the most innocuous things. He had a scientist’s heart, after all, and they couldn’t walk ten steps in the cave without Spock picking at the wall or scanning the moss.

He was also enthusiastic, for a Vulcan at least. He liked making discoveries, solving mysteries, fixing things-- all daily joys for the both of them. In this way, they had a lot in common, more than Jim suspected Spock would ever admit.

What surprised Jim the most, though, and what was perhaps the most welcome of his companion’s qualities, was that Spock had a very quiet humor about him, a subtle streak of impertinence that made him seem so human in his least guarded moments. Sometimes Jim was sure Spock was teasing him, remarking that, for someone who claimed to go camping most of his childhood, he was a terrible campfire cook-- or suggesting Jim had been unsuccessful hunting (as he’d attempted multiple times) because he couldn’t stay silent long enough to sneak up on anything. Both comments may have offended Jim if they’d come from anyone else, but in Spock’s deadpan they read as gentle barbs, speaking to a sort of comfort. As much as Spock insisted Vulcans didn’t joke, Jim was beginning to suspect he just told himself that for his own sake.

Perhaps the most important thing Jim learned about Spock, though, was that-- at the core of him-- Spock was good . And they bickered and disagreed but never because Jim doubted Spock’s intentions. All he wanted was to get them home, and Jim appreciated that.

Neither of them mentioned the fact that, once the shuttle was rebuilt, they had no idea how to actually make the journey forward in time. One step at a time was Jim’s logic. He couldn’t guess at Spock’s.

Almost two months passed on Alpha Novus V, and they passed quickly. Jim considered that both a blessing and a curse, depending on the day.



“Listen,” Jim said one night. He held the knife and a small knob of wood in his hand, whittling by the fireside and enjoying the delicate sparks that shot up whenever he flicked a bit of bark into the flames. “I feel like I’ve told you my whole life story at this point.” This was largely true. Jim had left out certain key points, namely the more traumatic and/or uninteresting bits, but he had told Spock stories nearly every night for weeks now, and he was getting tired of Spock seldom-- or rather, never-- sharing his own. “You’ve got to give me at least some clue about yourself. Your family, maybe?”

They’d walked a long way in the caves earlier that evening, and now they were resting, which was unfortunately still necessary with Jim’s stiff leg, a daily pain that never seemed to get better no matter how much time passed. Spock sat now on the bulldog fur, eyes closed and legs crossed, even though Jim had been talking far too much for Spock to get any meditating done.

As Jim watched, lowering his project, Spock took in a deep breath. Jim liked seeing Spock like this, calm and straight, illuminated in the glow of the fire. Unguarded. There was always a quiet dignity about him, but he never looked more handsome, more elegant than he did when he was relaxed-- especially when he’d stripped down to that black undershirt that clung to the lines of his chest and arms.

Spock cracked his eyes open and cast them sideways at Jim. “I fail to see why. Discussing your family brings you joy. Since I am incapable of that emotion, discussing my family is illogical.”

Jim rolled his eyes. “I see, so there’s some bad blood there that you don't want to get into. You can't fool me, Spock.” Spock had the dignity not to look annoyed, but Jim shot him a knowing grin all the same. He knew now that Spock was certainly capable of more emotions than he let on. The funny thing was, Spock knew Jim knew, and he still kept up the act. Jim liked thinking of it as a game. Spock likely thought of it as an annoyance.

“There is no ‘bad blood’ between myself and my family,” Spock said cooly.

“Then tell me about them,” Jim said with a flippant wave of the knife. “If it’s not a big deal…”

Spock shifted and uncrossed his legs, clearly aware that meditation was not in the cards tonight. Jim gave himself a little credit-- he had tried to temper his curiosity, but something about the warmth of the cave and the way Spock sat relaxed across the fire made him think he might be more willing to open up tonight.

Although, by Spock’s expression, it looked like Jim was forcing him to open up with a crowbar.

“Very well,” Spock said, resigned. “My father is Sarek, Vulcan ambassador to Earth.” His tone was far too formal for Jim’s liking.

Jim shrugged, “Well, I knew that . You’re going to have to dig a little deeper, Spock.”

An eyebrow shot up, almost comically fast. “How are you aware of my father?”

Jim didn’t realize until that moment that it might sound a little creepy. “Ah, well,” he said, turning back to his whittling. “I read it. I followed news of the Enterprise crew pretty closely when I joined Starfleet.”

He'd never outright said that serving on the flagship was his dream, but he didn't need to. It was every cadet’s dream. He only hoped Spock would accept that. It hadn’t been true at the time that Jim was overly interested in the Enterprise ’s science officer, though that was certainly true now.

Spock hummed gently, and Jim risked a glance back to him. “I should not be surprised that certain news stories would feel fit to mention the relation. He is an influential figure.”

Something in the way Spock said that ignited a spark of curiosity in Jim. It was almost resentful. “What’s he like?”

“Logical.”

Jim sighed dramatically, twirling the knife in his hand before striking a strip of bark off the wood, “Of course. And let me guess, your mom is logical and your aunts and uncles are logical and, you know-- so on.”

Spock shook his head, looking down into the fire.

“In fact, my mother is not. She follows the path of logic more strictly than many other humans, but by Vulcan standards--”

“Ah!” The knife fell from Jim’s grasp and he raised his hand to his mouth, sucking the sliver of blood that beaded along the pad of his palm. He’d slipped in his surprise, and sliced himself pretty well in the process.

In a moment, Spock was at his side, grabbing his hand and examining the wound. Jim watched Spock’s narrowed eyes as he tilted the cut toward the firelight. That strange hum was back-- the one Jim had felt when they’d shaken hands, but it seemed muted now.

“You must be more careful,” Spock snapped, abandoning Jim’s side for a moment, just long enough to snag the medkit and fish around inside for the dermal regenerator. Jim attempted to wave him away, scooting backwards to avoid him.

“Hey, stop, I’m fine. We don’t need to waste the regenerator’s power.”

Spock glared at him. “It is vital you have full use of your hands. Please, let me.”

Jim pursed his lips, but stopped avoiding it, sitting straight and holding out his hand for Spock to take. He wasn’t even bleeding that badly, but Spock was very insistent. He held Jim’s wrist steady against his knee and ran the regenerator over the wound. His fingers were warm, gentle in spite of their urgency. Jim felt himself relaxing into the contact.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, if a little reluctantly. “I promise I’m alright, though.” If he’d wanted to, Jim could easily have operated the regenerator himself, but there was something very comforting about the touch of Spock’s hand, and something comforting about his worry.

“What is important enough that you would risk your skin whittling it?”

Jim smiled in spite of himself. Spock could be such a mother hen.

“It's a secret. And don't change the subject.”

“I am merely expressing my displeasure at your carelessness.”

Jim rolled his eyes. “I was surprised . Who knew you had a human mother?”

“I did. Many do.”

“Well, I didn’t. You’re so… Vulcan.”

Spock looked up from his task as the regenerator hummed and whined. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I endeavor to be.”

Jim’s lips broke into a small smile. “There can't be many half Vulcans, I’d imagine.”

“Indeed,” Spock responded. “I am the only one, of which I am aware.”

“What's it like?”

Spock considered the question as he switched off the regenerator, releasing Jim’s hand.

Jim glanced at it. The skin was red, tender, but largely healed. Truly, he felt the lingering warmth of Spock’s fingers more than he felt any residual pain.

“Trying, at times.” Spock answered, surprising Jim with his honesty. “Vulcans tend to view my human heritage as an impediment. The unsubstantiated prejudice of certain officials was, in fact, my reason for joining Starfleet rather than attending the Vulcan Science Academy.”

Jim grinned, proud of Spock for standing up for himself, though Jim had little to no right to that pride. “Rebel.”

Spock’s lips quirked and he met Jim’s eyes. “While intended as a joke, your statement is accurate.”

Jim sized Spock up, secretly thrilled, heart thrumming at the thought of staunch and dutiful Spock rebelling against anything . “Never would have guessed. You love rules and regulation more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“To an extent,” Spock replied, resuming his position on the fur. “You may find that what Vulcans see fit to deem logical is not always so.”

Jim snorted. “I'll remind you, I've spent nearly two months with one such Vulcan. I'm aware.”

Spock looked indulgently at him, then restored his hands to their meditative steeple. Jim was going to allow him silence, as he'd taken plenty of Spock’s time already, but Spock surprised him when he spoke up.

“When I chose to follow Surakian teachings,” Spock said softly, “I understood there were other options available to me that weren’t available to many of my kin. I have always had the option to live as a human if I desired. Granted, such a choice would have had its consequences, but there were times that it appealed to me.”

Jim stared at him, trying to imagine a Spock that would consider living a human life. His mother’s influence, Jim supposed, or maybe part of Spock knew he might have it easier in a world with more individual freedom. But Jim didn’t give voice to any of this. Spock continued, voice still calm and even. “However, in spite of the flaws in my culture, I am confident this was the proper choice.”

This was more than Spock had yet said about himself in the entirety of the time Jim had known him. It seemed he’d read Spock’s mood right, somehow. Maybe he was willing to open up tonight.

“Oh?” Jim asked, “why is that?”

Spock pursed his lips slightly and seemed to take a long time to answer, allowing the gentle crackling of the fire to rise up in the silence, echoing off the cave walls. When he did speak, he met Jim’s eyes. “When I was a child, I lost my pet sehlat,” he said. Jim didn’t know what a sehlat was, but he kept his mouth shut. Anything to keep Spock talking. “I-Chaya was his name. He had protected me from a wild le-matya-- a predatory creature-- during my kahs-wan.” At Jim’s confused look, he elaborated. “The kahs-wan is a ritual that all young Vulcans undertake, a rite of passage. I should not have allowed I-Chaya to come. At first, I was distraught.”

Jim leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes tracing the harsh line of Spock’s brow. He was trying to see any trace of that emotion in Spock’s expression, but he came up empty. Spock continued without acknowledging Jim’s gaze. “I believed it may be a sign, especially after the cruelty of the other Vulcan children that I had endured leading up to the ritual. It seemed to be proof that I was not meant to follow the path of logic. However,” here Spock paused, and Jim could see him weighing his words, something shifting behind his eyes as they caught the orange firelight. “It was only through logic that I was able to overcome my grief and fear. I-Chaya’s death helped me to understand that logic allows one to master emotion, but it is only through that mastery that one can truly honor emotion. Examine it from all angles, with all perspectives, and find a place for it in the fabric of the mind.”

Spock took a breath through his nose and settled slightly on his cushion of furs, as though he’d been holding tension invisibly within his body that only now let loose. “I apologize-- I believe that was a very long answer to a simple question. I am confident that logic was the proper choice because it always has been. Logic has served Vulcan kind, and myself, in a way that no other philosophy could.”

“And if it ain’t broke,” Jim said with a small smile. Spock looked to him, eyebrow up. His hair was getting long, Jim noticed then, so that eyebrow disappeared into his bangs. There was something endearing about it, he thought. At Spock’s sustained look, he chuckled. “Another expression. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And there it was, another half-smile. It was soft, and it could have passed for a trick of the light if Jim wasn’t sure he’d seen the lines at the corners of Spock’s eyes crinkle, but it was there. Jim’s heartbeat faltered at the sight.

“Surprisingly logical,” Spock said, and Jim felt a strange, unearned sense of pride well up in him.

“Humans have that potential, you know,” he said casually, taking up his knife and block of wood once more, vowing to keep a better hold on the blade this time. “We can be more logical than you give us credit for.”

“Oh?” Spock said, and Jim knew he didn’t misread the playful tone of Spock’s voice, even though he wasn’t looking at the Vulcan’s expression. “Then where is the logic in keeping the nature of your woodworking project a secret? As we spend the majority of our time together, it is likely I will figure it out.”

Jim’s grin widened. “You really want to know?”

He felt Spock’s eyes on him. “I will admit to some curiosity.”

“Then you’re just going to have to wait,” Jim said, a little triumphant. There was little privacy between them anymore, and it was possible Spock would figure it out, but Jim took a special kind of joy in having some secrets, as inconsequential as they were. “Or, maybe, you could tell me a little bit more about your rebellious Vulcan tendencies and I’ll consider an information exchange.”

Spock looked to consider the thought. “Somehow I doubt you will tell me, even if I do participate in this ‘exchange.’”

“You caught me,” Jim said, shaving of a strip of wood and flicking it into the fire. “But don’t get impatient. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be done with this in just a few short months.”

Spock scoffed, and Jim grinned down at his hands. Sometimes, Spock could’ve passed for human. Jim knew better than to tell him as much, though.

 


 

Even with a thick fur throw and two emergency blankets, still Spock allowed Jim to curl against him at night. It was self-serving in a way. The cold was still biting, and while the human’s warmth was not comparable to his own, it was its own kind of comfort.

He seldom slept during the coldest hours, and seldom meditated given Jim’s distracting proximity, but he did take advantage of the time to think. And, as the nights had worn on, Spock had found another purpose.

Tonight was one such night. Spock saw his breath fog the air before him, though it was quite dark with the dying fire and the faint glow of the volcano’s chamber around the corner. He laid on his back, as he typically did, blankets up to his chin, and Jim laying on his side beside him. As Spock went over calculations in his head-- square-footage of sheet metal required to rebuild the craft, weight of said metal before adding equipment, insulation and environmental controls-- he felt quiet fingers curling into the fabric of his thermal shirt. Jim sought him out like this in his sleep sometimes. Almost always when the nightmares were coming on.

Jim never spoke of it, but Spock would often feel the body beside him gripped by fear, twitches in his muscles and tightening in his eyes. When Spock lowered his barriers even slightly, he could feel that fear radiating like heatwaves. He could not guess to the nature of these nightmares, but they troubled him-- for more reasons than his own comfort.

Some weeks prior to tonight, Spock had first decided to alleviate them. Touch telepathy was a responsibility, and he would never violate someone’s mind, but he could project without absorbing. So he had been doing. It took only a gentle finger on Jim’s temple, a small, open channel between them, and he could send impressions of calm into his companion’s mind.

Now, he felt Jim’s grip on his shirt tighten, just as Jim made a sound in the back of his throat. Spock considered sometimes letting the nightmares run their course, but as he glanced to the sleeping man beside him, he found he could not. It was, perhaps an emotional decision, but he did not like seeing Jim in distress.

Spock gently dislodged Jim’s grip and rolled onto his own side, mirroring Jim’s position. Without Spock to cling to, Jim’s hand came to his own shoulder and he fisted his fingers, face contorting, eyes moving rapidly behind their lids. Spock did not know what Jim was seeing.

He lifted one finger, and placed it gently against Jim’s temple. Closing his own eyes, he began to project. In those first weeks, he had simply exuded a sense of calm, some soothing force he’d hoped would help. After a time, he came to know the images that made Jim happy-- the farm in Iowa, the mountains of Yosemite. And though he’d never seen these places in person, he could send the impression of them into his companion’s mind. He did so now, urging Jim’s thoughts toward his family, his mother’s vegetable garden, his childhood pony-- settings and characters from stories Spock had heard spoken with infinite love.

Jim stilled, breath evening out, fingers relaxing around his own sleeve. Reluctantly, Spock removed his hand and resumed his position on his back, forcing a few inches of space between himself and Jim. The contact had been simple, short-lived, easy, and Jim would be happier for it. Spock confessed to some trepidation within himself-- unsure each time he did it if this simple touch could be considered a violation, but if it helped Jim’s mental health then it could only be beneficial. Logically, it was important to their productivity that Jim receive adequate rest, and remain untroubled.

That was Spock’s justification for continuing the practice, though in his heart he knew better. The reality of their situation was overwhelming, sometimes even for Spock himself, so he wanted Jim’s dreaming to bring him some peace. And, well, perhaps there was some part of Spock that relied on Jim’s easy smiles and confident words-- it gave him strength to see Jim’s strength.

Fingers reached across the distance between them once again, a hand on Spock’s arm, a mumble spawned by some dream tumbling out of Jim’s mouth. Spock did not break the contact this time.

He had not yet told Jim that he sometimes did this, that he spent his nights soothing Jim’s unconscious worries, but he hoped that instinctively Jim might know he could come to Spock with any need, and Spock would try to fill it.

And that was almost definitely an expression of emotion, likely something he should attempt to cease. But Jim slept silently beside him, and that was worth lying to himself every once in a while.

 


 

“Wait, stop stop-- it’s another dead end,” Jim said with a sigh, drawing Spock’s attention to the tricorder. Spock leaned over, scanned the screen, and let out his own kind of sigh.

“It would seem so. Would you like to follow this one to its terminus?”

Jim glanced back at the tricorder, pretending to think about the distance and time, rather than thinking about how much pain he was in. It was so frustrating, knowing he could only walk a couple hours at best before it just started throbbing, especially without the crutch he insisted he didn’t need anymore. He hadn’t told Spock as much, coming up with excuse after excuse to stop after some time, but he suspected Spock knew and was simply sparing Jim his pride.

“I suppose we might as well. Who knows, we might find something interesting,” he said, thinking his leg could probably handle it. It was only another half mile or so, according to the tricorder. Then they could trudge back to camp and cross another cave off their list of ways to get through the mountain.

That metal deposit had been dangling in front of them like candy on a string for almost two months now. It really was their only hope at rebuilding the craft, as only some of the aged half of the shuttle was even usable. At this point, they’d done almost all they could without more materials. Nothing had been soldered or welded into place yet, (they wanted all the pieces of the puzzle before wasting power putting them together), which caused them both their own grief. Spock liked being able to fix things, Jim had come to understand. And while Jim could function in the face of certain mysteries, he wasn’t overly thrilled about them.

“At this rate, we’re never going to make it through,” Jim lamented. “what if none of these caves lead to the other side?” The question had been rolling around for a few weeks now, but he'd been afraid to say it aloud. Frustrated as he was, it had just tumbled out.

“If that is the case, we will find another cave system farther away. Or we will construct equipment to take us over the mountain. If that fails, we will make the journey around the mountain range. It will not be pleasant, but it is possible. There are options, Jim.”

Spock only ever used his name when he was attempting to be either condescending or comforting. As his tone leaned toward the latter, Jim glowed a little. He liked this even ground that they were on and he suspected Spock did too.

“I know, and obviously we aren't giving up. I'm just-- I’m starting to feel impatient.”

“I can sympathize.”

“I just can’t wait to get back to my job, you know? People. I miss people.”

Spock did not respond, merely continued walking somewhat stiffly. Often the silence between them was comfortable, but with Jim’s words something settled between them that was decidedly not. Jim felt fit to fill it.

“What are you most excited to get back to?”

“Excitement is a human emotion,” Spock responded, and Jim narrowed his eyes at him. His words were coming out short and hard again, the way they were any time they disagreed. What had set him off now?

“Indulge me,” Jim said flatly.

Spock glanced sideways at him. “I suppose I will also be pleased to return to my work. There are several ongoing projects that require my attention.”

“Yeah,” Jim said, “I bet there are.” Spock wasn’t giving him much, which wasn’t wholly unusual, but in spite of that ‘human emotion’ nonsense, it was obvious the man was upset.

They walked in silence for a little while, then Jim spoke, a flash of inspiration that was accompanied by a strange trill of nerves.

“Do you, you know, have anyone waiting for you back home?”

Spock seemed surprised by the question if those eyebrows were anything to go by.

“You have already inquired about my family.”

Not that he’d gotten much for it. “That’s not exactly where I was going,” he said, then, “well, okay, maybe a little. I meant more romantically . You know, a partner.”

“That is a very personal question,” Spock said almost cautiously.

“Sorry,” Jim said, wondering why that answer disappointed him, aside from the fact that Spock was being opaque again. “Forget I asked.”

They were quiet for a moment, but then Spock surprised Jim once again, as he had a habit of doing. “I am... disinclined to pursue romantic relationships,” he said. Which wasn't exactly an answer, but was enough of one. Jim supposed it made sense that Vulcans would be, on the whole, aromantic or asexual, since feeling emotion was involved in both. But baby Vulcans had to come from somewhere. He realized suddenly that he didn't know if he would've been glad to hear that Spock had someone in his life or not, so maybe Spock’s non answer was as good as he could get.

“Ah,” Jim said, “I was just curious.”

“Curiosity is not a negative quality. However, I do not understand why you are curious about my personal life.”

“We’re going to be on Alpha Novus V for a long time,” Jim responded somewhat defensively. “I don’t think I’m out of line wanting to know more about the person I’m stranded with.”

Spock considered that. “Perhaps not. However, since it is clear you do not consider me adequate company, I trust you understand my surprise.”

Jim’s steps stuttered and he gave Spock a hard look. “Excuse me?”

“I am referring to your earlier admission-- that you ‘miss people.’”

Ah, suddenly he understood why Spock had become a little frosty. He stopped, putting a hand on Spock’s shoulder to halt him as well. “I didn’t mean it like that.” Spock looked him over, face impassive, listening. “Just, you probably understand-- you’ve been on a starship for four years. There’s always something going on; people in the corridors, the rec room. I miss that-- that movement. And, yes, conversation. You’re not the chattiest person, which isn’t a bad thing,” he rushed to add. “It’s just different. It’s been hard to adjust to seeing exactly one other person every day. And, listen, Spock.” He paused, shrugging. This was edging into dangerous territory, but he couldn’t stop himself now. “I used to call my family once a month at least, even if I had to schedule time to do it. I know it’s only been, what, nine weeks? But I feel it. I think about them all the time, what they’re doing, how they’re doing, whether they have any idea I could be alive--” Jim stopped himself. It was a testament to how comfortable he’d become with the man beside him that all of that had just tumbled out. He’d been trying, really, to hold it in, but sometimes he just couldn’t. If anything would convince Spock that Jim considered him ‘adequate company’ confiding in him like that-- especially accidentally-- should’ve done it. But he bit back on the rest of it, huffing a breath out his nose. “My point,” he said, “is that I’m used to people. A lot of people. Different people. Strangers, family, friends, crewmates… You understand, right?”

Spock’s lips were thin, but he didn’t look angry or offended anymore, which was good. More as though he were thinking. “I understand,” he said softly. “I do not empathize, but I understand. As a social person, this is no doubt difficult for you.” The inference there was, obviously, that Spock was not a social person.

“Thank you,” Jim said, a little frustrated but also relieved that Spock wasn’t going to get into a fit about this. “It’s not like I don’t like you, Spock.”

Spock’s eyes narrowed, almost suspicious at the admission, even though Jim found as he said it that it was true. He didn’t not like Spock. In fact, he liked Spock quite a bit. He’d never thought of it in exactly those terms, simple as they were, but it was true. Somehow, they had forged a kind of friendship. When had that happened? “And,” Jim continued, if only to cover his own stumbling thoughts, “I think we make a good team.”

With the lines at the sides of his lips relaxing and the tilt of his brows drooping, Spock seemed to absorb Jim’s words.  “Indeed,” he said. “I apologize for misunderstanding the intention behind your earlier statement.”

“No harm done,” Jim said, slapping Spock good-naturedly on the shoulder and gesturing with the tricorder in his other hand to the cave before them. He wanted to move from their conversation about as much as he wanted to move forward down the path. “Now let’s see what’s at the end of this tunnel. I wouldn’t mind getting back to camp before it gets cold.”

Spock nodded, and they continued on. The silence that lay over them now was a little more akin to the kind Jim liked to hear.

Unfortunately without the benefit of distraction, his leg did begin to bother him quite a bit more. He kept telling himself that it was just another quarter mile, but that wasn't figuring in the long walk back. Maybe he should've planned it out better.

By the time they reached the end of the cave, he was exhausted. Enough that he didn't even register what the sight of it meant.

Rather than a sheer wall or a tapering off of a walkable trail, what they saw was evidence of an old cave-in. Boulders, stones, slabs of rock. To Jim, it read dead end.

To Spock, too, it seemed. Spock grabbed the tricorder from Jim's hip, disregarding that it was still strapped to Jim's shoulder, and plugged in a note at their coordinates. “Very well,” he said, letting it fall again to Jim's side. “We should return presently.”

Partly out of a desire to linger a moment and rest, and partly out of a sense of curiosity, Jim took up the tricorder himself. They had been walking a very long time. There was a possibility...

“Spock,” Jim said, even as Spock had begun to walk away. “Wait a second.”

“Do you require rest?”

Jim was a little embarrassed by the question, if only because he thought he'd done a pretty good job hiding it. “No,” he lied, “Look at this.”

Spock came back to his side, looking over his shoulder at the tricorder screen. “Can you specify what it is I am looking at?”

Jim pointed to the map, which displayed both their travels throughout the cave system and the tricorder’s scans. “Look, there’s not much space between this dead end and the other side. 6.43 feet, according to this.”

“Indeed. We have, however, encountered dead ends that came closer. Without a drill--” and then it hit Spock, just as it had hit Jim. Spock’s eyes shot up to the cave-in, the rock that was solid enough to block their way, but nowhere near solid enough to require a drill.

They could, potentially, clear the rubble.

“It would take months,” Spock said, and Jim could see the calculations running behind his eyes. “And there is no guarantee that there is not solid rock between us and the other side.”

Jim pulled up a cross-section of the volcano on the screen, zooming into their location. “No, but look at this, we’re only about fifteen feet above where it registers the ground on the other side to be. And the metal deposit is right there . Spock,” he turned to Spock, only realizing now their proximity. Even in the dim light of the tricorder and its flashlight, he could see flecks of gold in Spock’s deep brown eyes. He blipped over what he’d been about to say for a second, distracted, but reigned himself back in. “I-- we’ve been all through these caves. We’ve got, what, two? Three options left before we have to start looking somewhere else? Is there any harm in trying?”

“Time,” Spock said, drawing back and taking the circle of his warmth with him.

Jim shrugged. “And how much time will it take to make climbing equipment from scratch? Or go backpacking around a whole mountain range?”

Spock seemed unconvinced, and Jim sighed, not wanting to play this card but supposing it was one more tick on his side of the scoreboard. “And,” he said, swallowing his pride. “With my leg... honestly I don’t think I could get very far either route-- and I’m not letting you do it alone.”

Spock’s eyes fell to Jim’s leg, which he probably knew Jim had been favoring for some time. He brought his eyes back to Jim’s. “You make a logical point.”

“I usually do.”

“I would be reticent to agree to that, but perhaps we could discuss this as an option. For now, we should return.”

Jim agreed, but damn if there wasn’t a line of pain shooting from his calf to his lower back. He swallowed it and nodded. “Right. Let’s go.”

 


 

While reluctant to admit it, Spock could not deny that he typically found these walks through the cave system pleasant. While much of what they did had a sense of urgency behind it, exploring the caves felt more like a routine science survey than anything else. Occasionally, they would make discoveries such as insects they never saw closer to their oasis, or mineral deposits that seemed to become more frequent the farther they ventured in.

When they discovered plants, whether moss or reeds or more bioluminescent stalks, Jim would almost always pick a sample. At first, Spock thought he was collecting them for study, but Jim would merely turn them over idly in his hands as they walked before discarding them somewhere down the line. He did the same with flowers in the forest, or interesting-looking weeds.

It was a peculiarity, if somewhat endearing.

And so the study was pleasant, of course, but more than any of this, Spock found he rather looked forward to the conversations they would have as they walked. Jim had a fondness for storytelling. He would recall his friends at the academy, faceless nobodies to Spock but for the fact that they had some influence on Jim’s life. Jim would speak fondly of their name-calling, uncreative though it may have been (“Stack of books with legs”? Truly?) and express a hope that they were alright, “ when ever they are,” Jim had once said with a chuckle.

Jim had a remarkable ability to find humor anywhere. Spock appreciated that.

It was, however, becoming clear that for all he enjoyed their conversations, and for all this was more socialization than Spock could recall engaging in, it was not quite enough for Jim.

Spock tried not to take it personally, a feat which should have been easy given that he had never taken criticism personally in his life. But even when Jim had reassured him, he couldn’t help shaking the-- the feeling . The feeling that Jim was steadily becoming more important to Spock, while Spock remained an orbiting body to Jim’s life-- existing here only because of circumstance.

Such thoughts were illogical, made moreso by the fact that they stung with an emotional pain. He suppressed the feeling as much as he was able, but with meditation time restricted and Jim occupying not just his thoughts, but his space as well, it was challenging.

Today, along their walk back from the caved-in dead end, Spock mulled over these thoughts, comfortable in their silence yet uncomfortable with the revelations that silence brought.

However, Jim was not quiet for long. Merely a half-mile into their trek back to camp, Spock became aware of harsh breaths coming from the man beside him. With each step, Jim sucked air between his teeth, quietly enough that a human may not have noticed any difference. Spock did, however.

He did not want to mention Jim’s injury. For some reason, it caused Jim embarrassment, contrition even, but he was clearly in pain. In the blue glow of the tricorder’s screen, Spock could see sweat beading from Jim’s hairline, despite the fact that the cave was starting to cool with planet’s night.

Spock turned away. It was not his place to say. Jim knew his own limits.

At least, until that moment Spock thought he did.

“Ah!” Jim finally vocalized a few minutes later, step faltering. Spock immediately reached out to steady him, even as Jim leaned against the wall of the cave, looking pale.

“Jim,” Spock said, holding Jim up against the wall to make it easier to take pressure off his leg. “Are you injured?”

Jim let out a strained laugh. “No more than usual,” he said.

“You need to rest. Please, sit.”

He helped Jim sink onto the ground, kneeling with him, only releasing his shoulder when Jim was settled with his pained leg outstretched. He winced. “Spock, it’s getting cold. We need to get back, light the fire--”

“There is time to rest.”

Jim leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, frustration knitting his brows. “I’m sorry, Spock. Just… give me a minute. This is so humiliating.”

Spock sat back on his heels, giving Jim a hard look. “In what way is this humiliating?”

Jim huffed, fingers clenching on the ground. “I should be able to handle it. I’m stronger than this.”

“Jim, may I remind you of the origin of your injury?”

“I’d prefer you didn’t.”

Spock ignored both the words and the derisive laugh in Jim’s voice.

“You fell from an impressive height, splinted your own leg--”

Jim held up a hand. “Spock--”

“--And dragged yourself nearly two miles. After suffering undue pain by a malfunctioning bone-knitter, you refused to allow yourself time to heal naturally and set about foraging for resources, caring for our ailing captain--”

“Spock, please--”

“-- And saving my life.” Spock paused. Jim had opened his eyes and was looking at Spock with some unreadable expression. “I have been attempting to respect your illogical human pride, but if you continue to treat your injury as a sign of failure I cannot promise I will stay silent.”

Jim blinked a couple times, clearly taken off-guard.

“I-- Ah…” he stopped, scratching his head awkwardly.

Spock probably should not have spoken so much, nor allowed himself the frustration, but the words were out now, and he found he did not want to take them back. “It was not my intention to cause you discomfort.”

“I know that,” Jim said, rushed, “I just…That was unexpected. I didn’t think you thought much of me.”

Spock’s eyes narrowed. He had believed that he was transparent to the point of embarrassment-- obvious in his respect for the young man who sat before him now, but somehow he had succeeded in hiding his growing attachment. Unfortunately, he had done so to Jim’s detriment. He could hardly believe that Jim could be unaware of his regard.

“On the contrary,” Spock said, attempting to convey sincerity without conveying too much else. “Your strength is admirable.”

Jim didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He ducked his head as though attempting to hide his smile. For as much as Spock appreciated it when Jim talked, he found a certain satisfaction in striking him speechless.

“Are you able to continue on?” Spock asked, graciously saving Jim from the trouble of responding. He had come to understand Jim’s myriad insecurities, and now hoped to alleviate at least this one.

“I-- I’m not sure. Let me try. Help me up?” Spock took Jim by the forearms and met Jim’s eyes. Jim nodded a confirmation, and Spock stood slowly with him. The moment Jim bent his leg to get it under his body, he slipped, back scraping along the wall. Spock did his best to steady him, but Jim sank back down to the floor.

“Okay,” Jim said, taking a breath. “Okay, maybe I overdid it. A little.” Spock raised an eyebrow and Jim sighed. “Or, more than a little. Why don’t you get back to camp. You can get the fire going and keep warm. I’ll catch up.”

If it were possible for Spock to raise his eyebrow further, he would have. However, he simply maintained a steady gaze. Jim seemed to pick up on what Spock was attempting to convey.

“You’re not going to leave without me,” he said with some hint of exasperation.

“I believe it was you who said we must take care of each other,” Spock replied.

The strain in Jim’s shoulders eased, and suddenly he looked sad. A pause settled, and Spock wasn’t sure why. At least, until Jim spoke, voice quiet. “That was Pike, actually. One of the last things he said to me.”

“An order?” Spock didn’t know how that felt. Part of him felt a sense of renewed loss, that in some of Pike’s final hours he had thought of the well being of his crew. Another part of him was almost disappointed that the sentiment had not been Jim’s own. Illogical. Words were words, no matter where they came from.

“No, no,” Jim said with a wave of his hand. “More a suggestion, I guess. A… strong suggestion.”

Spock felt his lips twitch. He remembered the captain’s propensity for strong suggestions.

“Then it would not do to disappoint. Allow me to help.”

“I can--”

“Jim. Please, let me.”

Jim met his eyes, and Spock saw the resolution fading from his expression.

“Ah, fine,” Jim said, rubbing his eyes with one hand. A little dirt from the cave floor smeared onto the bridge of his nose, but Jim didn’t notice. “What do you suggest?”

“I could carry you.”

“All that way?” Jim gestured down the cave, indicating how long it had taken to get here in the first place.

“Vulcan strength is greater than that of a human. It would not be difficult.”

“Spock, the only thing that could make this more humiliating would be you carrying me out of this cave.”

“As there would be no one to witness this, and I have already expressed that I find nothing humiliating about your situation, your concern in that regard is entirely illogical.”

Jim squinted at him in a way that suggested to Spock that the argument had been won. Attempting to suppress his pride at that, he turned around. “Put your arms around my shoulders.”

Jim hesitated, and Spock looked over his shoulder.

“You don’t really like… touching,” Jim said. “I mean, I know I forget sometimes, and sometimes you don’t care, but this is, well, quite a bit of touching.”

“I am aware of the necessity of our physical contact. I assure you my mental barriers are sufficient.”

Jim sighed, resigned. “All right, all right.” He placed his arms over Spock’s shoulders, crossed over Spock’s chest, and Spock effortlessly lifted him. When Jim was upright, he knelt and fit his own arms under the crooks of Jim’s knees, then without preamble set off down the cave.

Jim was correct that this was, indeed, a great deal more physical contact than he was used to, but none of it was skin-to-skin, and it was worth it to get Jim to a place where he could rest comfortably.

As they walked, Jim rested his head against Spock’s shoulder, breathing steadily, the heat of it seeping through the fabric of Spock’s shirt. “Please don’t tell anyone about this. I want to be a captain someday,” Jim said quietly.

“And how does allowing yourself to rely on a fellow officer preclude you from becoming captain?”

“A show of weakness?”

Spock considered this. Jim was exhausted, physically weak, but in no other way Spock could sense. Yet there was little way to change Jim’s mind.

He told himself with increasing frequency that the things he did were for Jim’s mental health, to support him in order to maximize his usefulness. Though that may have been a benefit, it was not the core reason. Spock knew this, but as Jim rested against him, projecting his insecurities, Spock allowed himself to lie to himself one more time.

Jim enjoyed storytelling. This would make Jim happy.

“I once carried Captain Pike for ten miles in order to reach the nearest medical facilities,” he said gently.

Jim raised his head, and Spock felt Jim’s laugh against his back. “You didn’t.”

“Vulcans do not lie, Jim.”

“It’s an expression,” Jim said with a chuckle. “So what happened?”

Spock felt a warmth in his chest, illogical given the dropping temperatures in the cave. “It was two standard years ago,” Spock began, familiar with the structure of storytelling only through exposure to Jim Kirk. “And we had been called to an assignment on Federation Colony Magnus III--”

“I remember that report,” Jim interrupted, sounding a little confused, “wasn’t that just a routine training exercise?”

Spock’s lips quirked, though Jim couldn’t see it. “It was meant to be,” Spock replied gently. “A batch of new recruits had recently been assigned to the Enterprise , and it was important to Captain Pike that they receive extra crisis training-- due to the often unique predicaments we find ourselves in.”

Jim chuckled at that. It was likely, if Jim remembered details even from the Enterprise ’s training reports, he was familiar with the more outrageous of situations the flagship had encountered. Spock continued on.

“The captain made a large show of explaining the difficulty of the training to our recruits, then allowed them some time to prepare while he and I walked the course to ensure everything was in place. In spite of what he had told them, he assured me that the obstacles were actually simple, and he doubted anyone would fail. It was only the first stage, after all.”

Spock felt something rising in him at the memory, a sad sort of feeling. It was not difficult to talk about Captain Pike, necessarily, but there was a certain nostalgic pain that accompanied memories of him. Spock filed those feelings away for later meditation and concentrated on the story.

“We walked the obstacles-- the swamp we had filled with Denebian slime devils, the climbing course that mimicked a tilted starship, the antigravity chamber-- and then we made our way to the ropes course. Below the ropes, a bed of Tellarite Briars had been placed.”

“No,” Jim said in disbelief, predicting what was about to happen. Spock could feel the man’s smile against his shoulder.

“Indeed, the very same briars that exude a natural paralyzing agent when disturbed,” Spock said. He stepped gently over a few rocks in their path, tightening his hold around Jim’s thighs as he did so. Jim’s arms pulled themselves a little closer around Spock’s chest and Spock felt himself swallow.

“At any rate,” he said, regaining footing on the flattened path and regaining the footing of his tale. “The captain insisted we test the ropes course to ensure each of the ties was secure. We did so. I crossed first with no incident, of course--”

“Of course,” Jim echoed with a rumbling little laugh that Spock could feel against his back.

“But when Captain Pike mounted the first rope, he became aware of one of the training moderators testing the weight of the final platform. From what I understand, the two of them had once been very well-acquainted. He maintains-- maintained-- that any man would have fallen for her. It turned out that he fell quite literally.”

Jim barked a laugh against Spock and patted his chest with what Spock could only consider glee. “Right into the briars?”

“Right into the briars,” Spock confirmed.

Jim ducked his head between Spock’s shoulder blades. “Augh, he must have been so embarrassed.”

“Indeed. At first I assumed he was suffering an allergic reaction, but the red tint to his skin turned out to be a blush of embarrassment rather than a rash.”

“So what happened?”

“I extricated him from the briars with the help of the moderator. None of us were equipped with communicators so I took it upon myself to carry the captain back to the medical facilities that had been set up for training. Though I am certain Captain Pike was mortified, our rather dramatic appearance at the training grounds did what he had attempted to accomplish in the beginning. The recruits were terrified. If the course had felled the captain, how would they fare?”

“Of course, they didn’t know about his weakness for cute moderators, did they?”

Spock felt himself dangerously close to an expression, his face warm and lax with the comfort of knowing that Jim couldn’t see him. He seldom spoke this much, but it was pleasant, engaging in conversation wherein he could prompt laughter. He decided that, if Jim wanted, perhaps he would attempt to tell stories more often.

“They did not. Nor did any have the same weakness, as it turned out. Each completed the course without incident. When Captain Pike regained use of his limbs, it took him quite a few more training exercises to regain their full respect.”

Jim’s nose was pressed against Spock’s spine, warm breath coming out in even waves, matching the gentle rise and fall of his chest that Spock could feel against his back. He felt some of the humor drain from Jim then. “But he regained it, all right,” Jim said with surety, “There’s not a captain in the Fleet people respect more.”

“Indeed,” Spock replied, the sadness in Jim’s voice weighing down his own. He thought, perhaps, he should allow them silence. It seemed his goal-- to cheer Jim up-- had not been achieved.

But then, Jim placed his chin on Spock’s shoulder, looking sideways at him, far too close for comfort. “Say, Spock,” Jim said, breath ghosting across Spock’s cheek. Spock felt himself stumble slightly, but he hoped Jim wouldn’t point it out. Thankfully, Jim simply continued his thought, hands a little tighter around Spock’s chest, but nothing more. “I’ve always wondered, and the mission reports were so vague-- what happened on that planet in the Lodiris System… ah, what was its name?”

“Tecl’ten?”

“That’s the one! Where the crew ran into those mind-reading aliens? I feel like the reports left out some key details.”

“For good reason, I assure you,” Spock replied. That particular mission had been needlessly exposing, and that was coming from a telepath.

Jim laughed heartily. “Come on, I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

Spock and Captain Pike had spent hours deciding what to include in those mission reports and what to leave out. That he should consider violating that agreement now, even if it was just to one person, said a great deal. More than Spock was comfortable unpacking. But he trusted Jim, and-- really, who would he tell anyway? It was likely the story would be forgotten by the time they returned. If they returned.

So, Spock sighed and began the story, continuing down the path with Jim’s gentle weight against him.



By the time they returned to the campsite after a few more tales from the Enterprise ’s more notable adventures, Jim seemed perfectly distracted, resting comfortably against Spock with his arms lax over his shoulders. Spock lowered him to the cushion of the blankets and allowed himself a small smile.

“Thanks,” Jim said fondly, eyes meeting Spock’s with a look that was becoming familiar, but still unidentifiable.

“You are quite welcome, Jim,” Spock said, voice softer than he meant it to be. He was grateful for the darkness of the cave, illuminated only by the faint blue glow of the nearby cavern. Sometimes if he looked at Jim too long he worried what his expression might reveal.

Respect, regard, attachment-- all words he used in his own mind that sounded much more logical than what this feeling actually was. Fondness, affection, desire--

Spock moved to the fire as that thought entered his mind, setting up some logs and gathering some of Jim’s wood shavings to use as kindling. He silently set about his task as he heard Jim flop backwards onto the blankets.

Desire. Where had the thought of desire come from? Jim was his friend. There was little more he could want or expect. Spock filed that word away for later reflection. The fact that it had even come to mind was troubling. He was not capable of desire in any sense. At least, he never believed himself to be.

But as he remembered the warmth of Jim draped over his back and the softness of Jim’s breath against his shoulder, he realized that where there was a capacity for fondness, there was a capacity for longing.

Strange, uncomfortable, not thoughts worth dwelling on now.

Chapter Text

As expected, the rest of the cave system yielded no further results. The few passages that they still had to traverse were almost immediate dead-ends, and suddenly discussing clearing the cave-in was no longer a matter of ‘should we?’ but a matter of ‘how?’

It was times like these Jim liked to remind Spock that he was an engineer, and times like these he was reminded of just how smart Spock himself was. They took some cord from the engines in the busted shell of the old shuttle, enough for about a quarter mile. Then, using some scraps that were unfit for space travel but perfect for a wheelbarrow, they made a kind of makeshift mining cart to run along the cord. It was not perfect, but it would save them time.

It had been genius of Spock to suggest using the old phasers as welding implements. Their degraded power was such that they would likely never function again as phasers, but with a low-level beam they could crudely solder metals together. It made for ugly work, but functional.

Spock did the math-- clearing the caves would take months. Three and a half to be exact, and that’s if they also spent the warmth of the day inside the tunnel. Jim wasn’t too keen on that, as he had been attempting to maintain their food stores and he needed sunshine to survive, but Spock seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. Jim did figure that, as long as they still ate, they would be all right.

So they spent those first few days breaking up rocks with the laser cutter, which they amped up with a bit of borrowed power from one of the phasers. Then, Spock would load up the cart, push it down the cord to Jim, Jim would unload it and they’d do it all over again. When the pile of rocks at Jim’s location got to be too much, they’d flip the cord around, carting those stones farther toward the cavern of the volcano where there was more room to store them. It took forever, and it was exhausting work, but Spock did most of the walking. The nights that they had worn themselves down and physically couldn’t lift another rock, they would forgo the work. Urgency falling behind whatever this was-- comfort, maybe, simplicity.

Jim whittled a lot, his personal project coming together piece by piece. Spock continuously questioned him about it, but Jim insisted that Spock hadn’t yet told him enough to warrant that information exchange he’d discussed. He hid the finished pieces in their emergency kit, hoping Spock wouldn’t find them, even though he had a feeling Spock wouldn’t recognize what it was just by sight.

So when he finished, one of those nights his leg just couldn’t take it and Spock had graciously offered to cook their evening’s food, he decided he’d been withholding long enough.

“So,” he said as Spock served him his meal of mushrooms, roots and jerky, cradled in a leaf. Jim set down his knife and the final piece, gratefully taking the food. “Are you ready to find out what I’ve been working on?”

“With the time and attention you have devoted to it, as well as the secrecy you have ascribed to it, I have come to assume that it is a miracle solution to our predicament .”

Jim laughed, assuming that had been a joke. “Not hardly,” he said, slurping a salty mushroom through his lips and smiling around the bulge in his cheeks. Spock gave him an indulgent look as Jim swallowed.

“May I assume that your question insinuates you are about to finally reveal your work?”

“You may,” Jim said, setting his food aside and getting up to dig through the emergency kit. “It’s not a ‘miracle solution,’ but I have a strong feeling it’s going to make it easier to stay here as long as we have to.”

He grabbed a couple handfuls of his small wooden carvings, then came to sit beside Spock by the fire. It would be easier to show them to Spock if he were close, he told himself, at least in this dim light. The fact that Spock was warm and smelled like sand and salt was no motivation whatsoever.

“Voila,” he said triumphantly, holding out his hands, in which lay a few crudely carved chess pieces. He’d used the thick, rough bark to craft the white pieces, and the darker trees’ core to carve the black. It had taken forever, but now (a little more than five months in, according to the tick marks on the wall), it was done. The only thing missing was the board.

Spock plucked one of the pawns from his palm, holding it up to examine it. “You may need to explain the significance of these figures.”

“Haven’t you ever seen a chess set?”

Spock’s mouth turned into a little ‘o’ of understanding, and he set the piece back in Jim’s hand. “Ah, these do bear a crude resemblance to the chess sets I have encountered.”

Jim narrowed his eyes, but he could tell by the slight smile at the corners of Spock’s lips that Spock was teasing him, so it was without malice.

“I’d like to see you do better,” Jim teased right back, shoving Spock slightly to try to offset the Vulcan’s balance. It never worked, but it was worth a try.

“Woodworking is not my forte,” Spock replied, and Jim laughed.

“Nor mine, clearly, but at least you can tell which piece is which. Want to play?”

Spock looked back to the pieces in Jim’s hands, mulling it over. “It would be a waste if I were to decline,” he conceded, and Jim smiled brightly.

“That’s right it would. It’s not like I have another partner waiting in the wings,” he laughed.

Spock nodded, “Nor do I have another occupation which currently requires my time, at least nothing I can accomplish at the moment.”

“You know, Spock, it doesn’t do much for a man’s ego when you tell him you have nothing better to do than spend time with him.” Jim said with a chuckle as he scooted back. With the flat of his hand, he smoothed out the ground between them and began to trace a square in the dirt with his fingers.

“I believe, Jim, that we spend a great deal of time together as it stands. Playing chess will not increase or decrease that time.”

“But it will be fun,” Jim said, outlining the squares and digging into the ground to make the darker ones.

“I will take your word for that, as I have never played.”

Jim raised an eyebrow at him. “You, Spock? You haven’t played the greatest game of strategy in the galaxy?”

“In fact I have played Kal-toh, the greatest game of strategy in the galaxy; I have simply not played chess.”

Jim twisted his lips in a wry grin. “I’m assuming Kal-toh is Vulcan chess?”

“Kal-toh is quite a bit more sophisticated than chess.” Spock must have noticed Jim trying not to grin at that.

“Of course, right,” Jim said, “wouldn’t do for anything Vulcan to be unsophisticated, even tic-tac-toe.”

“Kal-toh,” Spock corrected. “I will teach you someday if you would like.”

Still in playful banter mode, it took him a moment to realize the sincerity of that offer. When it hit him, he felt a spark of happiness ignite in his chest. He took a moment to regard Spock, eyes softened. “I’d really like that,” he said. “I’ll whittle you the pieces. After I teach you chess, of course.”

“As the pieces are magnetic, I doubt they can be whittled. However, I will procure a set when we return to our own time.”

Jim felt something in him tighten, a stutter of giddy disbelief making him fumble a little over his task of tracing the board. Spock seldom spoke so optimistically, nor did he ever insinuate that this strange friendship could continue if they ever returned. It felt validating in some way.

Spock’s eyes were alight when Jim next looked toward him, the fire glinting in them and making them warm, inviting, the way they often were anymore. Jim didn’t know if Spock had become more free with his expressions, less stony over the months, or if Jim just saw more in him than he had before. But with his steadily growing hair tied back in a small, loose ponytail and the zipper of his jumpsuit pulled down just slightly-- with his partly-lidded eyes and the gentle curve of his lips-- he looked comfortable, more real than the statuesque vision of a Vulcan he had been when they crashed. Somehow, it made him even more attractive.

Sometimes, Jim told himself that this feeling-- that visceral, physical ache he sometimes felt when looking at Spock-- was just the result of exposure and proximity. He was growing attached because Spock was the only other person he would see, likely for years, and feeling this way about him was some kind of defense mechanism. His mind’s way of saying ‘hold on tight because this is all you have.’

But times like these, when their eyes lingered together for just a little longer than normal, Jim truly believed that it was just Spock. And if their eyes were meeting over a table in a crowded rec room rather than a fire in an empty cave on an empty planet, it would feel the same.

Ah, Jim , he reprimanded himself as he turned back to his task and set the pieces up, a quiet contentment between them. You can like Spock, but please do not like Spock. Do not complicate things. Do not…

“Are you quite well, Jim?” Spock asked, maybe noticing Jim’s internal distress.

Jim just gave him a small smile, hoping to mask the thoughts that had pushed themselves to the front of his mind again. “Better than ever since I’m about to beat a Vulcan at a game of logic.”

Spock raised an eyebrow. “A challenge?”

“Yes, Mister Spock, a challenge. You’re looking at the president and champion of the Riverside Elementary, Middle and High School chess clubs.”

“Then I won’t ‘go easy’ on you,” Spock promised.

“Big words, Spock,” Jim said, laughing. “Let’s see if you can back that up.”

Jim didn’t know how long they played that night, nor did he remember how many times he beat Spock before Spock started picking up on his strategy.

All he knew was that with each checkmate, each resetting of the board, and each gentle look Spock laid on him, things were starting to get easier. The world felt a little safer, a little more normal. Comfortable.

 


 

“Jim!”

It had been a long time since Spock had felt any true sense of urgency. Looking at the sensors now, he felt it speeding his heart rate, causing his blood to run cold. He was grateful in that moment they had decided to spend the day outside, continue planning the construction of the shuttle to give themselves a break from the manual labor of clearing the cave.

It had been a feeling, nothing more, that had caused him to turn on the shuttle’s sensors. As they’d worked, the hair on his arms had begun to stand up, which usually heralded a very particular weather occurrence.

Jim must have dropped whatever he was doing the second he heard Spock’s voice, because in a moment he was at his side, leaning over the back of his seat, fingertips leaving imprints in the dust. “What, what’s happening?” he asked, voice harsh with immediacy.

Spock leaned back to give Jim a better view of the screen, where a readout was scanning the planet’s atmosphere. It blinked a steady warning.

“Ion disturbance?” Jim’s voice smacked of disbelief. “We’ve been on this planet for five and a half months and there hasn’t been a single ion storm!”

“Barring the one that stranded us,” Spock confirmed, leaning forward to calibrate the sensors. “If this is a prelude to a storm, which it seems to be, we can study it and, perhaps, find out what went wrong.”

Jim slapped Spock hard on the back, and Spock could feel the excitement radiating off of him. “This is amazing. All right. We’re going to have to boost power if we want to scan anything-- there’s going to be a lot of interference here soon.”

Spock nodded his agreement. “Indeed. I recommend using whatever equipment we can sacrifice to strengthen sensors.”

Jim straightened and ran a hand through his hair. Spock turned to him, his own mind running down a list of possibilities. They could not in good conscience dismantle any of their medical equipment, not when they could suffer injury at any moment. For that matter, the power they would receive would be negligible.

“We can’t use the medical equipment.” Jim echoed Spock’s thoughts and took a seat at the pilot's console. “Or the phasers. We’ll need them.”

Spock nodded. “Nor do we have time to assemble a solar panel. Even if we did, it would not have time to charge before the storm.”

Jim steepled his hands and rested his chin against them, eyes tight. “Right.”

They were quiet for a moment, and Spock went over their scant resources, considering and dismissing everything except-- “The nacelle,” he said suddenly, and Jim lifted his head. “The warp nacelle at the other crash site. The other is missing, but that one may yet hold enough power--”

Jim jumped to his feet, then glanced again at Spock’s screen. “How much time do we have before the storm starts in full force?”

Spock pivoted in his chair, quickly manipulating the display. “5.68 standard hours,” he said, the reality of it sinking in. They would have to retrieve the nacelle, strip it down, remove the power cells that operated the plasma conduits, avoid any dangerous materials and somehow safely connect the power cells to the shuttle’s auxiliary. It would be a task, and they were already physically exhausted.

But it was the only chance that had yet been presented to study the cause of their crash beyond the shuttle’s recordings.

“We can do it,” Jim said, the confidence of his voice pulling Spock into the present moment. Spock met his eyes. “We can do it. Spock, we can’t pass this up.”

“Will you be able to manage the walk? With the power cell’s weight--”

Jim smiled, something that could have been considered cocky if Spock did not know Jim as well as he did.

“I can manage whatever this planet has to throw at me.”

Spock nodded and stood. “Then we should hurry.”

They did hurry as best they could. Three miles to the crash site took longer than either of them liked, then using only the laser cutter, it had taken hours to dismantle the nacelle and extract the power compartment, a thick, heavy, three-foot-long black box that weighed a good hundred pounds.

They’d hardly spoken but to coordinate their efforts, dragging the compartment out of the nacelle and getting the best hold on it they could manage. Were it less awkward in size, Spock could have carried it himself, but he had to admit that he needed Jim’s help. The thought did not sit well with him.

Spock could see Jim’s face wracked with pain, his leg stiffly dragging as they carted the compartment back to the site of their own crash. The sky above them had darkened steadily as the ion storm kicked up, and now it was laced with flashing light. Though there was little danger of rain during an ion storm, the possibility of lightning still existed, so Spock kept an eye on the skies. It was one way to stop himself from insisting they rest for Jim’s sake.

Jim was correct. They could not pass this up.

When they did return to the shuttle and finally drop their burden onto the sand, Jim’s chest heaved with labored breaths. Three hours had already passed, but the hardest part was yet to come. Spock stared dubiously at the sky before his eyes fell on his companion, slumped against the cool metal of the craft.

“Jim, please sit. I will--”

“Spock,” Jim said, frustration making the single syllable of his name harsh and cold. “I can do this.”

Spock thinned his lips, but nodded, kneeling to extract the connecting cords from the compartment. The nacelle had not been damaged in the crash, but the cords were clearly aged. It was simply a blessing that they had not been exposed to the elements. They looked as though they would still function.

As Spock dragged the cell bodily toward the shuttle’s fore, he heard Jim hammering open the forward compartment. This was a more direct, if impermanent, access point to auxiliary power.

It took a great deal of time to connect the cables. They had to power down and unplug nonessential functions from the shuttle’s computer, mainly piloting, and re-route that energy through the nacelle’s power compartment. Spock’s fingers fumbled over the harsh metal of stripped wires, recalling himself of the time he had attempted to repair the shuttle on his own.

At least this time, he had help. Jim worked furiously and quickly, eyes narrowed in concentration as he went about the delicate task of figuring out the balance between safety and haste. Together, they finished the connection just as energy began crackling in the sky above them. The compartment lay in front of the shuttle, strung up to it by a series of sloppy wires that crossed and twisted at angles that would strike fear into the heart of any engineer. It was dangerous and temporary, but it would function.

Jim wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow, wavering as he climbed to his feet. Spock reached out to steady him, but knew better than to suggest he sit. So instead he gave Jim what he hoped was a look of encouragement, though with the rush of their situation he supposed it may have come off more hard-edged than that.

It was no matter. They both knew what needed to be done. At Jim’s nod, Spock turned and made his way into the shuttle’s cockpit.

The power surged on and he wasted no time in calling up the shuttle’s extra-planetary scanner. Ion interference already caused error message after error message to appear, but Spock circumvented them as best he could. The boosted power from the nacelle made it easier, ensured that the scanners could sift through the worst of the disturbance.

“Don’t forget to record it,” Jim said from behind him, “We’ll want to look at this all later.”

“I am aware, thank you.”

“No need to get defensive.”

“I am not defensive, I merely--”

Lightning cracked the sky above them, and Jim jumped, a hand on his heart. “It sounds like a bad one,” he said glancing over Spock’s shoulder. “What does it say?”

“Force-7,” Spock responded, eyes tracing the lines of information that scrolled down his screen. “And I am registering those anomalous particles again.”

Jim leaned over the back of his chair, “Identify,” he said, sounding for a moment like the captain he wanted to be. Spock complied without question, but the command was, of course, easier said than done. It took a few minutes for Spock to access even the composition of the particle.

At that point, he felt Jim leave his side for a moment, but did not concentrate on the man’s absence. Instead, he studied the properties of the particle’s makeup as it appeared on his screen.

“Spock,” Jim said from somewhere outside, and Spock took in a quick breath through his nose.

“One moment, Jim. Scanners are attempting to process a wider sample--”

“Spock,” Jim repeated, voice harder this time. “You need to see what I’m seeing.”

Spock turned, eyes falling on Jim who stood out behind the shuttle with his head tilted toward the sky. Hurrying, Spock moved to join him.

He squinted upwards, attempting to see what had made Jim sound so forceful, near-panicked.

“There,” Jim said, pointing to something above them, “look hard. Can you see it?”

Above them, the dark sky was streaked-- no-- patterned? No. Embedded. It was embedded by what looked like glowing tubes of energy, forming a kind of erratic web. They were faint, nearly too faint to see, and practically the same steel-silver as the rest of the sky. But like an optical illusion, once Spock noticed them they were easy to pick out. Some tubes broke off into small sections, then terminated over the forest, others extended well past their line of sight. All of them sparked with some kind of intent. Spock followed the largest with his eyes, one that must have been hundreds of yards in diameter, extending well above the atmosphere and well into it. It terminated a few miles into the forest but pointed toward the mountainside. A theory began to form.

“Spock,” Jim intoned softly, “what is this?”

Without answering, Spock rushed back into the shuttle, resuming his seat at the scanners and taking another look at the particle’s properties. He closed the screen, then pulled up the wider scan. The web, whatever energy it was they were registering, covered the entirety of the planet and the space around it.

It was so obvious, he allowed himself a feeling of defeat that the thought had not occurred to him before.

He heard Jim’s uneven footfalls, then saw the man take the pilot’s seat out of the corner of his eye. Spock simply stared at the screen, the truth of it sinking in.

“Wormholes,” he said softly, perhaps too softly for Jim to hear. So he turned to Jim, attempting to wrap his words around what he now knew. “Alpha Novus V is surrounded by a web of wormholes. They seem to be interconnected.”

Jim opened his mouth, then closed it again, then cast his eyes outside as if some answer would fall from the sky.

“But Jim,” Spock said, drawing his attention again. “These are not simply wormholes through space, but time. The ions are… activating them.”

“What?” Jim asked, outrage at the impossibility of their situation coloring the word. “How?”

“Chroniton particles, unless I am mistaken. Chronitons have been identified in only some isolated instances. Their connection to time travel is theoretical at best, and yet the properties indicate--”

“Chroniton particles.” Jim interrupted, “Chroniton particles?!”

Spock nodded, wondering briefly if Jim were on the verge of hysteria. “Unless I am mistaken,” he repeated.

Jim ran a hand through his hair, then met Spock’s eyes. Not hysterics, then; Jim just wanted to understand. Spock could see it in the hard lines of determination that branched from his brows, in the stiff set of his jaw. “Of course you’re not mistaken, Spock,” he said, resigned. “You’re the smartest person I know.” He paused, staring at the screen as though he couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. “So what does this mean? What happened to us?”

Spock pursed his lips, attempting to form his theory into words, though even he only half-understood it.

“I believe we may have flown into one of these wormholes as we entered the planet’s atmosphere,” he began slowly, forming his sentences like puzzle pieces. “It is likely the back half of the shuttle slipped into one of these offshoots, one that also claimed the bodies of our crew.”

Jim swallowed. “So if I had fallen a few seconds earlier…”

“You would likely have entered the same offshoot and been trapped one-hundred and fifty-four years in the past, yes. Or, rather, one-hundred and fifty-four years farther into the past than we are currently.”

“I’ve already thanked you for saving my life, right?” Jim asked with a sort of scared chuckle. Spock worried over the sound of his voice for a moment, his own mind wandering down a dangerous path of ‘what if’s. A few seconds. That’s all it would have taken for Jim to have died with the rest of them. It was all-too clear now.

“Indeed you have,” Spock managed to say after a moment. Then, as though his words refused to listen to logic, “I am also grateful I did not find your remains with the rest of the crew.”

Jim’s responding look was surprised, but Spock could almost sense the undercurrent of pain in him. After a moment, Jim looked away from Spock, returning his eyes to the screen.

“So… well, this also explains the ion storm intensifying. We’d time-traveled by that point and the storm on this side was worse.” Jim rubbed his jaw, considering. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the storms were less temperamental in the future. With how much this planet has changed in two-thousand years? It makes sense.”

That flash of insight surprised Spock, but he did not have the capacity to compliment Jim on it just now. There was too much to absorb, so many questions now answered and yet so many rising in their place.

They were silent for a moment, and Spock returned his eyes to the scanner, so shocked by the discovery that he didn’t know what the next step should be.

“Can we map it?”

“Excuse me?” Spock cast his eyes sideways to Jim, who had an intensity about him, almost vibrating with it.

“Can we map the web? Figure out which path we took and how to get back?”

Spock quickly stared down at the readings again, tracing the web with his eyes. There were hundreds, if not thousands of offshoots, but there was no harm trying.

“Inputting the information from the crash,” Spock said, tapping the proper calculations into the screen. “When the shuttle split in two, our recording stopped, but if we can--”

Something hummed, then buzzed, then with a grinding sound that shook the console, the screen in front of him blipped and went black. Spock’s fingers stayed in their positions, shock freezing him in place.

“No,” Jim said, standing and looking out the shuttle’s forward window. “No no no.” Spock followed his gaze. On the ground in front of them, firey sparks rained down from the nacelle’s power compartment.

Spock stood, practically running out the shuttle and making his way around its fore to the cell. Something had burst, one of their delicate connections. Tracing the wires with his eyes, he found the offender and reached out to grab it.

It should have occurred to him that it would be overheated, but the urgency--

He gasped a breath as the wire burned his fingers, a solid line of heat that made his skin smoulder. Clutching his hand with a flash of unwelcome pain, Spock stumbled backwards. He pulled the sleeve of his shirt down over his hand and suppressed his pain receptors, ready to try again when Jim gripped him by his shoulders. He turned to see the harsh light in Jim’s eyes, the thin line of his mouth.

“What are you doing?” Jim barked, concern and anger warring in his expression.

“It is vital we repair the connection before the ion storm--”

“It’s not worth hurting yourself for. We recorded the whole thing. We can map it when we get power back.”

Spock looked back to the sparking remains of their afternoon’s work, then turned his eyes to Jim’s. “There was more I wished to see. Perhaps if we--”

“Spock. I’m sure this isn’t the last storm we’re going to see. I know how you feel, believe me, but we have nothing but time. Two-thousand years of it.”

The tension left Spock’s shoulders, and Jim dropped his hands.

“I suppose you are correct,” Spock admitted. He was embarrassed. In his haste, he had acted emotionally and irrationally. He did not expect that someday Jim would be the one talking sense into him.

Jim looked down to Spock’s hand, taking him by the wrist and lifting his injury to examine it. It reminded Spock of when he had done the same after Jim sliced his palm open.

But this felt different-- being on the receiving end. Jim gently uncurled Spock’s fingers, tracing around the line of the burn. His skin was rough with callouses but the way Jim handled him was soft, with care and compassion that was wholly alien to Spock. He felt it now flowing through him, a gentle brush of concern that lapped at the shores of his mind. Though Spock was in pain, a very different emotion began to surface. Vulcan hands were sensitive. To both pain and--

“Are you alright?” Jim’s voice sounded very far away. Spock realized he had been watching Jim’s fingers as Jim stroked the pads of his own. He had also neglected to breathe for a few moments.

He drew himself up and pulled his hand from Jim’s grasp as quickly as he’d removed it from the overheated wire. “I am fine. I will make use of the regenerator when we return to the cave.”

“That’s not what I meant. Are you upset? About the power going out?”

“Upset is a human emotion, Jim.”

Jim’s sideways smile was kind, understanding. “Right. Silly me. Let’s leave it for today, all right? We asked a lot of that machine.”

“And ourselves,” Spock responded. “You have over-exerted yourself again.” It was clear from the way Jim leaned on his good leg and from the sheen of sweat on his brow that he was strained. Jim waved him away with a hand.

“Not any more than was needed. Come on, let’s get back.”

“Please, allow me to help,” Spock said, taking Jim’s wrist and draping Jim’s arm over his shoulder.

Jim rolled his eyes. “I’m fine, Spock.”

“Do not make me carry you.”

Jim laughed, sinking a little as he ducked his head. “Are you threatening me, Mister Spock?”

Spock pulled him back up. “Quite the opposite, in fact,” he said.

Jim just gifted him a smile and they began the trek back, Spock half-dragging half-supporting Jim.

It was difficult to understand how Jim could maintain his humor after all this. They had just overloaded their equipment, both of them were injured, and now they would have to wait an interminable amount of time for another ion storm before they figured out how to get home.

And yet, Spock did not feel the weight of any of that as strongly as he once would have, not when Jim’s weight reminded him that they did not have to weather any of this alone.

They made it back to the mouth of the cave where Spock gently set Jim down on the ground. There was still plenty of daylight, so Spock offered to return to their campsite and bring food and water.

Jim looked grateful, the events of the day catching up to him if the lax tilt of his shoulders was any indication.

So Spock wasted little time, returning to Jim with an armful of fruit and greens and both canteens strung over his shoulders. Setting the food down beside Jim, Spock sat in front of him, eyes tracing the lines of exhaustion in his companion’s face.

“Would you like me to retrieve a blanket? It may be prudent to lay down for a time.”

Jim waved him away. “Not necessary right now, but thanks. I’m all right.”

“You are not, but I will cease ‘pestering.’ I understand that can be counter-productive.”

“You know me so well,” Jim laughed, a tilted grin on his face. Then, Jim held out his hand, a motion which Spock watched with some confusion. “Now hand it over.”

Spock raised an eyebrow.

“The regenerator?” Jim asked, nodding to the device that was clipped to Spock’s belt. “I can take care of that burn.”

Spock unclipped the regenerator, but shook his head. “Please, eat, I am fully capable of--”

“Spock, please. Let me.” Jim held out his hand further and, reluctantly, Spock placed the device in his palm. He was fully capable of operating it himself, but he thought back to the gentle way Jim had cradled his hand earlier. It was perhaps selfish to wish to feel that again.

He held out his injury for Jim’s inspection and Jim scooted closer, clicking the device on and wincing at the loud hum it emitted. They were silent for a time, Spock attempting not to think about how Jim’s fingers held him steady, while simultaneously trying to absorb the feeling of calm surety that emanated from his touch.

It took a few loud minutes for the effects of the device to become apparent.

“There,” Jim said, switching it off. The regenerator would never again have its full power, but with Spock’s repairs it could at least heal the worst of a wound. Spock looked to his fingers, which bore only the ghost of a red streak. It would not scar, and it no longer hurt.

“Thank you, Jim,” Spock said as Jim released him, setting the regenerator on the ground beside them.

“Least I can do. We have to take care of each other, after all,” Jim said with a smile, still looking strained even behind the look.

Spock nodded, something hard in his throat that he was having trouble swallowing. Their eyes lingered on each other, the urgency of moments past finally fading, the storm casting gray shadows over them both.

A thought had occurred to him many times in the last few months, and now it returned to him, unbidden. Looking at Jim, who seemed tense even in his relaxed state, Spock found that thought forming into words. Perhaps the offer was ill-conceived, but--

“If I may,” Spock started, nerves surprising him with their insistence. He had no cause for nervousness. “There is a Vulcan technique-- massage-- neuro-pressure. I believe it would benefit your injury.”

Jim’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. “Massage?”

Spock didn’t rush to explain himself, exactly, but he didn’t want Jim to misunderstand the intention behind the offer either. He understood the human mind often went to the least likely explanation. “The practice stimulates certain pressure points, aiding in all manner of ailment-- including pain and muscle fatigue. I could restrict the focus to your leg.”

Neuro-pressure was a decidedly intimate practice. It was for that exact reason Spock had hesitated to propose it for so long, but it could be beneficial if Jim allowed it. And Spock believed his mental barriers would be up to the task. And if they weren’t, it would still be worth it. Jim couldn’t continue at this pace without relief.

“I mean-- I wouldn’t object,” Jim said, scratching the back of his head, “but are you sure? It’s more contact that usual--”

“I would not have proposed it if I were not capable,” Spock assured him, perhaps a little too strongly. Jim gave him a pointed look, appraising him. Then, somewhat awkwardly, he shrugged.

“All right, then. Thanks, Spock. What do I need to do?”

Spock felt that trill of nerves again, then beat it down, reminding himself that neuro-pressure was a medical practice. He should simply be thankful, not surprised, that Jim had accepted the offer.

“Please roll up your pant leg. I will return presently.” Without any more preamble, and without allowing his gaze to linger on Jim a moment longer, he stood and made his way out the cave and in the direction of the nearby spring, heart beating unnaturally quickly. The prospect of touch was so often abhorrent to him, and yet here he was-- allowing Jim to run his fingers along his hand, then actually offering ...

The word ‘desire’ returned to him as he scanned the ground around him for those little aloe plants. He found one about halfway to the spring, plucked it, then turned round to make his way back to Jim.

He seldom considered desire as it applied to physicality, but he recognized this emotion now as… as desiring Jim’s touch, even in the most innocuous ways. Physical contact was important for humans as means of socialization, this he knew. Maybe (and maybe he was justifying it to himself) latent human instincts now drove him to this-- to wanting.

It made sense that he would become more dependent on someone when that someone was the only other person on the planet, so perhaps it made sense that that dependency would take different forms. In either case, Jim did not object to touching Spock. In fact, Jim probably required the contact more than Spock even did.

Framing it for Jim’s benefit helped. This was something he was doing for his friend, hardly something to satisfy a dependent and selfish impulse.

Confident in his new understanding of his own motivations, Spock returned to the mouth of the cave, where Jim leaned with eyes closed against the wall, his boot discarded to the side and his leg exposed up to just above his knee.

Spock knelt beside him, moving the untouched pile of food, and Jim cracked his eyes open. “Where did you run off to?” he asked, and Spock held up the aloe as explanation.

“This will make it more comfortable. Please relax.”

Jim was already rather relaxed, leaning heavily against the wall with half-lidded eyes, but Spock saw fit to instruct him all the same.

He cracked the aloe open, dipping his fingers into the slick, cool substance while Jim followed his movements with sleep-heavy eyes. “Thanks for doing this, Spock,” Jim said again, resting his hands on his belly while Spock spread the aloe over his palms. “I know you’re probably as tired as I am.”

“I am functioning adequately,” Spock responded, then met Jim’s eyes. “Now, begin taking deep breaths. At the end of each third breath, hold for five seconds.”

“Why?”

“Your mind will be more receptive to the practice.”

Jim gave Spock a skeptical look, but closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose all the same. His chest rose, then sank, then rose again, the sound even soothing Spock to an extent.

“Good,” he said, waiting one more breath before shifting forward and settling on his heels. With slick hands, he lifted Jim’s leg onto his lap. Steadily, he began running his fingertips along the bone of Jim’s calf, feeling the knot where the bone had misaligned and healed improperly. It was no wonder it caused Jim constant pain. Spock had not realized the extent of the damage until this moment.

Putting it from his mind, he circled his thumbs on either side of Jim’s knee, then pulled downward, eliciting a pleasant hum from Jim. “Are you maintaining your breathing, Jim?” Spock asked, and Jim nodded lazily, though Spock could hear the pattern had faltered.

Jim seemed to realize that too, and so corrected himself, another deep breath pulling his thermal tight over his chest. Spock kept his eyes on his task, finding the pressure points along the yielding muscle of Jim’s leg, watching the slick sheen of the aloe as it flattened Jim’s wiry hair with each pass of hands over skin. He felt the trails of heat his own touch left behind as he pulled upwards and pushed down, hands finding the joint of Jim’s ankle and rotating it softly.

Jim hummed again as Spock pinched the pressure points on his achilles tendon, then returned upwards. They continued like this for a good few minutes, total silence but the sound of Jim’s steady, deep breaths and the occasional crackling of the sky above them. Inch by inch, he felt Jim relaxing in his grip, tension fading from the muscles of his leg, yes, but also from the rest of his body.

Spock allowed himself a feeling of pride. Jim was never this serene, not even when he slept. Though he knew, of course, the technique would work, he did not expect it to work this well. Perhaps, he thought, he could do this regularly. Maybe even extend his area of focus to Jim’s neck and shoulders, help the man sleep better, reduce headaches, run his hands along the slope of Jim’s back and--

Spock sucked in a breath through his nose and returned concentration to his task. It would not do to let his mind wander. Neuro-pressure could be a delicate process.

But soon, the pattern of Jim’s breathing faltered again. Spock lifted his head to remind him, but realized the second his eyes fell on his companion’s expression that Jim had fallen asleep, face resting against the rough stone. He could not possibly be that comfortable, Spock thought incredulously, but there he was, eyelashes fluttering, mouth hanging open, cheek flattened against the wall.

It was ridiculous that the sight of him could make warmth spread through Spock’s heart, make a smile tug at his reluctant lips, but as he gently set Jim’s leg back on the ground and stood to stretch the stiffness from his own limbs, he decided that he could allow the feeling to settle for now. Ridiculous, illogical, inadvisable or not.

Sometimes the emotions Jim inspired in him were tumultuous, sometimes they were frustrating and complicated, and sometimes they just felt good, comfortable, simple. This, right here, felt simple.

 


 

Jim didn’t know exactly where Spock’s suggestion had come from, but he practically laughed it off, kneeling to pick some berries from one of the bushes near the mouth of the cave.

“You’re going to have to repeat that, Mister Spock,” Jim said fondly, a joking sort of ease in his tone. Spock knelt beside him and helped with the berries, deft fingers plucking at wiry brambles.

It was planet’s late afternoon, and they were recovering from another few weeks spent clearing the cave-in. The blue skies stretched overhead, clear and bright, the kind of air Jim wanted to breathe in and keep in his lungs. The volcano was beautiful and fascinating in its own way, but he loved the outdoors. For once, it hadn’t been difficult to convince Spock to spend a day foraging.

“As a crewman of an exploring vessel, I believe you are familiar with the concept of shore leave.”

Jim gave him a look, “Yes, I’m quite ‘familiar’ with shore leave, Spock. Just not sure why you’re suggesting it when we aren’t exactly in a position to take it.”

“We are in an ideal position for shore leave,” Spock said, taking the sling of fabric where they’d collected their berries and standing with their small bounty. “We have not indulged in one full day of rest since arriving on this planet nearly six months ago. As a Vulcan, I do not require the respite. However, it is not just advisable that you accept shore leave; it is regulation.”

Jim climbed with some effort to his feet, arranging the bow and arrows he had strapped to his back so they didn’t keep knocking him in the head. Then he led them onward, tricorder scanning for more of the greens they’d almost eaten their supply of.

“Are you really citing regulation right now?” He asked with a chuckle, giving Spock a smile over his shoulder. “I thought we threw all that out the window when I stopped calling you Commander.”

“Certain regulations are still beneficial, in spite of the unusual nature of our situation.”

Jim mulled it over, supposing Spock was right on that count. But still, the idea of shore leave when they had been, well, ashore for months seemed silly.

“It’s not like we can go to a starbase with recreational facilities,” Jim supplied, edging into the forest a little bit. Spock followed close behind, and Jim could almost sense that he was getting frustrated with Jim’s stubbornness.

“No, that is true. However I suggest eight days of rest-- two planetary days-- to spend as you desire. Though I do not require it myself, I will join you. I suspect that is the only way you will agree to the arrangement.”

Jim turned and gave Spock a look. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Is there anything in my manner that would suggest otherwise?”

“Not usually,” Jim laughed weakly. Spock maintained a level look, hands clasped behind his back.

It was funny, Spock was wearing one of those dun-colored engineering jumpsuits-- their backup clothes while their uniforms dried-- with a strip of crude leather holding back his hair, and yet he looked as much the picture of a composed Vulcan commander as he always did.

Jim thought of what he himself must look like, sweat-stains on the fabric of his own jumpsuit, tears in his knees and choppy knife-cut hair sticking up like a sunburst. No wonder Spock thought he needed a vacation.

He sighed, scratched the back of his neck where a dull ache made him stiff, and hoped Spock had the decency not to pull that “I win” face.

“Fine,” he conceded finally. “You make a good point. We’ll probably function a lot better after some rest, and what’s a few days to how long we’re going to be on Alpha Novus V anyway?”

“My thoughts precisely. I am pleased you agree. It will do you well to rest.”

Jim gave him a tilted smile then returned to his foraging, Spock in tow. “You know, Spock, I’ve been thinking. Alpha Novus V is a mouthful. What do you say we give this planet a proper name?”

He was, of course, attempting to change the subject. If he had a credit for every time Spock told him to rest...

Thankfully it seemed Spock was willing to go along with the new conversation.

“Alpha Novus V is a perfectly suitable name, and correct.”

“But it’s not much fun to say.”

“Does that matter?”

“I don’t know, every planet that has any meaning usually has a proper name. Earth sounds much better than Sol III.”

“Considering in our time this planet is nearly inhospitable, I struggle to believe anyone with the official power to name it would consider it meaningful enough for such a designation.”

“Well, this isn’t our time, is it? And we’re the only ones with any kind of official power. I say we name it.” The tricorder beeped over a little sprig of greens at the base of one of the trees, and Jim knelt down to pick them. Spock held out the sling for him.

“I assume you have a name in mind?”

“Not even a little bit,” Jim said with a laugh. “Although-- well, we could name it Anne. That’s a nice name, and you know, Alpha Novus? AN?” He straightened up, brushing off his knees.

“Anne is a human name.”

“Yes?”

“This is a planet.”

Jim laughed, getting to his feet once again. “Okay, then what do you suggest?”

Spock thought on it for a moment as they walked on, glancing around at the leaves, the ground, the insects. He looked contemplative.

“I require more time to think about it.”

“All right, I’ll keep floating suggestions by in the meantime. What about... Jim Jr.?”

“I will raise the same objection.”

“That was a joke, Spock. Ah, how about Spock Jr.? That’s not a human name.”

“Jim…”

“Fine, no people names, human or Vulcan. You need to learn how to have fun.”

Spock’s lips twitched and Jim responded with a wide grin of his own. He was glad Spock knew when he was teasing him.

“Perhaps shore leave will help me in that endeavor,” Spock replied. Jim considered that. They hadn’t really had a chance to have fun . They played chess, sure, and Jim whittled and sometimes they told stories, but they hadn’t explored anything for the sake of exploring it, or laid around in the sun doing nothing or gone swimming together just for recreation. The more he thought about it, a few days of shore leave did sound nice.

“Yeah,” Jim said, “maybe so.”

Chapter Text

“Come on, Spock, put that superior Vulcan strength to use.”

Spock pulled back harder on the bowstring, though his face smacked of skepticism. “Jim, I object to this training exercise.”

“It’s not a training exercise. It’s recreation. Now shoot.”

Spock released the bowstring and Jim’s makeshift arrow lilted to the right, falling uselessly to the side of the tree where Jim had carved a sloppy bullseye earlier that day.

“My accuracy rating with a phaser rifle is 99.896 percent,” Spock said, almost moodily.

“Well, if we were playing target practice with a phaser rifle then I would be very impressed, Mister Spock.”

Spock handed him the bow, stepping to the side as Jim knelt to the stack of arrows he’d set beside him. They were standing nearby the shuttlecraft, if only because the trees were thinner here. Day’s heat would be beginning soon, which meant it was almost bedtime for Jim, but that was the only way Jim had convinced Spock to indulge him in an activity. “You can spend eight hours doing whatever you want. Let me have this one,” he’d said.

At first, Spock had resisted because he had no plans to go hunting, nor did he see how target practice with a crudely carved bow and arrow would benefit him in any way in the future, but when Jim had pitched it as a game…

Well, Jim had thought it would be fun. Spock, it seemed, did not agree. He stood off to the side with his hands on his hips as Jim drew the bowstring back, wiggling his fingers on the grip. Until he’d carved this thing, it had been many years since he’d used a bow, but he hadn’t been doing too badly in his solo hunts, all things considered.

“See, you have draw it back straight, not to the side. Don’t worry that it’s going to clip you-- it won’t.”

“I am incapable of worry,” Spock said, and Jim smiled. He let his arrow fly, and it smacked into the tree trunk, ricocheting off the second-to-inside ring.

“Ah,” he said, disappointed. “The bark’s too thick. Well, we can still shoot it. At least now I know I should make them sharper. Did you watch my stance?”

Spock shrugged slightly, a surprisingly human expression that had Jim grinning. “I did, but I do not see where my mistake lies in comparison.”

Jim handed the bow back and watched as Spock notched another arrow into place. He pulled it up, and Jim stepped in.

Moving forward, Jim rested a hand on Spock’s shoulder. He immediately noticed Spock tense, but the contact wasn’t skin-to-skin. He hoped that was okay. “Relax your shoulder,” he suggested.

Spock’s mouth thinned, but he did as he was instructed. Jim ran his hand down to Spock’s elbow, tucking it closer to his body. Then, unconsciously, he ran his loose grip from elbow to fingers, laying his hand over Spock’s to urge his fingers tighter.

The contact of their skin hummed again, insistent this time, and Spock shook off Jim’s touch. The arrow fumbled and fell as Spock released the bowstring and lowered the weapon, face tight.

“I’m sorry,” Jim rushed to say, pulling back with his hands held up in deference. He knew not to risk a touch like that, no matter how comfortable he was or how much he wanted to. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“It is of no importance. I was merely unprepared.”

Jim knelt to pick up the fallen arrow, guiltily holding it out to Spock. “Verbal direction only from now on,” he said with an attempt at an encouraging grin.

“Thank you. You have been very respectful of my personal boundaries.”

Jim felt a strange flush hit his cheeks. It was nice of Spock to say that, even though Jim knew intimately how often he forgot about them-- and how often he wanted to cross those boundaries on purpose. Since that massage Spock had given him after the ion storm and-- Jim could admit-- quite a while before that, he almost craved the feeling of Spock’s gentle hands. He had to be conscious of that if he were to combat these urges. Even and especially the unconscious ones. “I wish I didn’t forget so often,” he said, scratching his head, “I-- I’ve been told I’m a touchy person.” That was the only way he could explain it-- the way he was always grabbing Spock’s shoulder or patting his back, always risking longer contact when he knew better.

“Is that what you were referring to when you said you missed people?”

Thankfully, Spock was good at distracting him with nonsense like this. Jim rolled his eyes with a sigh. Weeks ago, and still Spock brought up that little phrase occasionally. “Are you still hung up on that? You know it wasn't anything against you.”

Spock reestablished his stance, not meeting Jim's eyes but focusing instead on the target. Jim noticed his shoulder and elbow were in their proper positions.

“I am aware,” Spock said, only a little frosty, and let the arrow fly.

Straight into the bushes.

Jim laughed loudly, doubling over and only looking up when he felt Spock’s glare on him.

“I'm so sorry,” he choked out. “You're just taking this so seriously.” he straightened up and tried to look apologetic. “Just relax. Breathe.”

Spock knelt and stuck another arrow in the bow, shaking out his arm before trying again. Jim didn’t mind that Spock had skipped Jim’s turn. It meant he was invested, at least. Spock straightened his back, still tense. He seemed to know it, too.

With a huff of breath out his nose, Spock cast his eyes to Jim. “You may assist me,” he said, which came as a surprise.

Jim blinked at him. “Really?”

“I do not believe I am a ‘natural.’ Please simply avoid my hands.”

Jim’s grin widened and he approached, a hand coming to rest on Spock’s shoulder as the other took his wrist, just along the line of the fabric.

“Why no hands? If you don’t mind me asking,” he said. He’d been curious for some time, especially because Spock himself had broken that rule more than once. In fact, they touched frequently, but Jim had come to understand that skin-to-skin contact was the kind that bothered Spock. And barring certain instances, almost always initiated by Spock himself, they refrained from it.

Spock allowed himself to be moved with Jim’s gentle pressure, eyebrows tight together. “Vulcan hands are far more sensitive than those of humans. We use them to sense thoughts and to establish physical intimacy.”

Suddenly, Jim was the tense one. He froze in place, meeting Spock’s eyes. “So, wait, just now--”

“You needn’t concern yourself,” Spock said, turning his eyes back to the target. Jim realized he’d stopped positioning Spock and hastily nudged Spock’s foot with his own, prompting him to widen his stance. “I would need to initiate a proper meld to hear your thoughts. However, unless my mental barriers are well-established, I can sense certain impressions and emotions.”

That was a bit of a relief, though Jim had originally been more concerned about the ‘physical intimacy’ part of the explanation. Spock had mentioned mental barriers before, and Jim doubted he ever left them less than ‘well-established.’ His mind flashed back to the times their hands had touched, when they’d had that first, awkward handshake, when Spock had healed the cut on his hand and when Jim had used the regenerator on Spock’s burn. He understood now why Spock had been so hasty to pull away each time. If touching someone’s hands was physically intimate, well, Jim decided he had better be more conscious of it from now on. He was doing well, restraining his physical urges when it came to Spock-- if only because he knew they would never be reciprocated-- so he would just have to add hand-touching to the list of what to avoid. The last thing he wanted to do was make Spock uncomfortable.

“It’s not just hands, though, right?” Jim stepped back, framing the scene with his fingers to ensure Spock was set up properly for his shot. He was, and talking seemed to help him shift his focus.

“No,” Spock said, fingers tightening on the grip as he let the arrow fly. It smacked the tree just above the target.

Jim cheered. “There you go! See, three shots and you’re already getting it.”

Spock lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “I hardly consider missing the target to indicate that I’m ‘getting it.’”

Shrugging, Jim stepped forward and took the bow from Spock’s hands, kneeling down for his own arrow as Spock stepped away.

“It’s refreshing,” Jim said, setting up. “Seeing you do something less than perfectly, I mean.”

Spock put his hands on his hips as he watched Jim’s arrow hit above the target’s bullseye. “I would not call this refreshing.”

Jim chuckled, “of course you wouldn’t.” He stepped back and handed the bow back to Spock. They only had three arrows left, aside from the ones that had flown into the forest, but Jim suspected Spock didn’t want to keep at this particular activity long enough to warrant retrieving them right away.

As Spock stepped back up to shoot and Jim backed away, Jim found he wasn’t quite ready to let the conversation fall off yet. “Poor aim aside,” he said, retrieving the thread of his thoughts, “I’m actually really interested in how this touch telepathy of yours works.”

Spock gave Jim a look over his shoulder. “May I ask why?”

Jim indicated with his hand that Spock should go ahead and keep shooting. Spock complied and fired one off. It missed, again, but it at least hit the tree.

“I don’t know. You’re the first Vulcan I’ve spent more than an hour with. And I think we know each other well enough at this point that you can let me in on a few of your secrets.”

“Vulcan telepathy is hardly a secret, Jim.”

“Well it’s news to me.” That was only half-true. He knew that Vulcans did have some kind of psychic abilities, and he’d heard of these mind melds that Spock mentioned, but the particulars of it all were new. “So, you said it’s not just the hands-- any skin-to-skin contact?”

“Indeed,” Spock said, falling into his stance easier this time. “Though, again, only provided my mental barriers are not optimal.”

“So the massage--”

“Did not bother me, as I was in perfect control.”

Jim felt his lips quirk at that. Of course Spock had been in perfect control. Jim had just been thankful he was too exhausted to get an erection.

“What can mess with your mental barriers?” he asked, partly out of curiosity and partly to divert his thoughts from that particular path again.

Spock shot, arrow hitting the tree, but narrowly this time, and not near enough the target to be notable. He took a breath and lowered the bow.

“Emotional distress, surprise, physical pain. There are many catalysts.”

Jim considered this. “So you really can’t touch anyone just, casually, can you?”

“I can. It is simply that my definition of a casual touch is different from your own. I view any skin contact to be an expression of intimacy. Humans do not feel the same.”

It made sense that, culturally, the attitude would be different. If humans could sense someone’s thoughts just by brushing their hand, he doubted most people would tolerate the contact with any frequency.

“That would drive me insane,” he said, shaking his head and reaching out as Spock offered the bow.

“What would?”

“Oh, just not being able to touch anyone. Or, being expected not to. Or,” he paused, thinking. “Or maybe more knowing that if I did, I’d feel their emotions. That would be a big responsibility.”

“It is,” Spock said, “but it is not so dire as you make it sound. So long as one maintains control over oneself, maintaining control of the impressions one receives is simple.”

Jim smiled at him, then set himself up and took his shot. It flew into the bullseye with a loud crack, and he cheered, pumping his hand in the air. “Aha! I knew I’d get it eventually.”

“I thought you were an expert at this device.”

Jim scoffed, “Hardly. But, I take some comfort in knowing I’m better than you.”

Spock’s lips twitched and he turned to the forest where the arrows had fallen. “I will retrieve the arrows. You would do well to sit down for a moment.”

“You want to keep going?” Jim’s surprise echoed in his tone.

Spock gave a noncommittal tilt of his head. “You keep insisting this is a game. I believe I have been told to ‘have fun.’”

Warmth spreading in his chest, Jim dipped his head to hide how happy that simple statement made him. What Spock was telling him was that he was already having fun. Along with that understanding, Jim came to realize that he could tell as much just by the way Spock had spoken. Somewhere along the line, he’d learned how to translate Spock-speak into plain old Standard. The thought brought him no small amount of pride.

“You’ll start enjoying yourself when you get your first bullseye,” Jim promised, playing along for now. Sometimes he didn’t mind indulging Spock in his emotionless persona, if only because he could see right through it, and it probably didn’t do much for the Vulcan’s ego to be called out all the time.

Though, as Spock returned and handed the arrows to Jim (both of them careful not to let their fingers brush), Jim caught Spock’s smiling eyes and knew it was a bit of a game to him too. No one’s looking , Jim had often wanted to say, you can let go sometimes . But this was Spock letting go.

Jim was grateful he was the one who was allowed to see it.

 

 

Jim didn’t know what Spock did while he slept during the heat of the day. All he knew was that Spock did not join him for his midday rest, and usually only spent a couple hours at his side during the dawn and evening. During the night, they needed to curl up to each other for warmth, but in the midst of that oppressive midday heat, Jim just lay facedown on top of the emergency blankets, on top of the furs and passed out. Spock said he didn’t need as much rest as Jim did, and that the heat didn’t bother him, but Jim never actually asked what he did to pass the time.

All Jim knew was that when the nightmares shook him awake again after their fourth standard day of shore leave, Spock was gone.

He shot up in bed, a hand flying to his racing heart. Gasping breaths to fill his fear-frozen lungs, Jim cast about for something-- a weapon-- no, a person. Spock. Something.

It took a good few moments for the air to reach his brain, for the world to catch back up to him. Settling into reality, Jim ran his hands through his hair, sweat dripping from the heat and the fear. The only light this far into the cave was the blue glow from the caldera around the corner, and it cast an unearthly hue on everything: the quiet, cold charcoal of their fire pit, the rumpled and empty blankets beside him.

Jim checked his communicator, contemplating calling Spock to come back, but he would be pathetic if he couldn’t handle his own nightmares anymore. He’d been having them nearly nightly since he was thirteen years old, but maybe it was because they had become less frequent that he was more affected by them now.

He almost never suffered a nightmare when he slept next to Spock. That was probably why his immediate instinct was to comm him. It was, maybe, a little pathetic. Certainly a little over-dependent, and it was enough of a warning sign that Jim decided he should put the communicator down and try to stifle the panic that had gripped him. He knew he depended on Spock for a lot-- they depended on each other, after all-- but that emotional dependency is what worried him. In a vacuum of human contact, it only made sense he would cling to whatever support he could, but it wasn’t healthy. And it wasn’t fair to Spock.

The blue glow drew him toward the belly of the volcano, so he stood on shaky legs and made his way inward. A dip in the water would do him good, and maybe he could go for a swim in the colder parts of the lake.

First, he shed and washed his clothes, torn and dirtied and sweat-soaked. The steady task of scrubbing, soaking and wringing felt good, soothing, and it provided at least a little distraction. Especially when his fingers found holes in the hems. It got him thinking that, one of these days, they were going to have to improvise some new clothes.

Jim thought with some amusement as he wrung out his shirt that he certainly wouldn't mind running around bare-assed in this heat, but he had a feeling Spock would raise objections, and frankly Jim didn't know if his starved libido could get used to a naked Spock. Already he’d spent enough alone time with the fabricated image of calloused, long-fingered hands running over him-- though he refused to give the shadowy figure in his fantasy a name or a face-- and he had a feeling anything more risque than the glimpse of Spock’s bare chest as he worked in the midday heat would kill him.

He laughed at himself, gratefully distracted, and slipped into the water, floating lazily along the ripples. Sometimes all he could do was laugh at himself. It was nearly inconceivable that all the way out here, two-thousand years before he was even born, on a planet with literally one other humanoid person, Jim-- hopeless romantic that he was-- would still find a way to fall in love.

Oh, but that was being far too dramatic, he thought with a roll of his eyes, staring up at the small shine of blue sky visible through the top of the volcano. ‘Love’ was a different kind of word than the nonexistent one that fit what he felt for Spock. He liked Spock, a lot, and sometimes he’d have these little intrusive thoughts about what his chest hair felt like or how his arms had gotten stronger over the last few months and pleasantly filled out his faded blue tunic. But that was a mix of being sexually deprived in the company of an attractive person, and being socially deprived in the company of a person he got along with.

None of this was real, he kept having to remind himself. It was all a trick his mind was playing on him to help him cope with the loneliness. At least, that was what he had to tell himself to get through it. Part of him knew better, knew that whatever this feeling was would’ve surfaced anywhere, in any time, with enough exposure, but that was the part of himself he tried to take the power out of with his laughter. He was being ridiculous.

Jim floated there in the center of the lake for a good bit of time before making his way to shore to get dressed. His slacks were still drying and he'd left the jumpsuit back at camp, so he slipped on his briefs and shirt and perched on one of the rock ledges near the entrance, looking out over the lake. It felt weird to relax, when just months ago the urgency of their situation felt ever-present.

Of course he wanted to work, and was ready to do whatever it took to get home, but this place, this planet... he couldn’t bear to ignore it entirely, to concentrate on one pursuit and one pursuit only while they were here. Alpha Novus V (or whatever it was they would end up naming it) was scientifically fascinating, beautiful beyond compare. It felt good to take it all in, sometimes. Even he and Spock couldn’t work every waking hour for a year straight, though Jim was sure Spock was determined to try.

He huffed a little chuckle at that and stared into the water, finding patterns in the gentle ripples caused by floating leaves. Unsure how long he sat in silence, it took time for him to notice the sound of footsteps approaching.

When he did, he twisted at the waist just in time to meet the glare of the tricorder’s forward light.

“Jim,” Spock said as he approached. “You have not yet received your regulated eight hours of rest.”

Jim turned to look as Spock stepped over a few roots and stalks, making his way toward him. He looked sun-kissed, a flush of green standing out on his cheeks, even visible in the dim glow. Jim smiled, thinking to himself that Spock’s tone was reminiscent of his mother's, whenever she'd find him up late reading.

“I guess you have no choice but to court martial me,” he joked.

Spock looked unamused as he sat beside Jim on the rock, crossing his legs as Jim pulled his own knees up to his chest.

“Did the nightmares wake you?” Spock asked.

Smile falling from his face, Jim turned back toward the water. A need to fidget gripped him, so he plucked a leaf from the shrub to his side and began twirling it in his fingers. Spock never mentioned the nightmares. Jim didn’t even know Spock knew about them until now, but he supposed it made sense. They’d been sleeping in the same bed for months.

“Yeah,” he said, finding little point in lying. “They usually do.”

Spock contemplated it for a moment, then, in a voice that surprised Jim with its soft concern, “Would you like to discuss them?”

Jim met his eyes, though he found he couldn't maintain the look. There was something about the way Spock looked at him sometimes, like he could already see everything Jim was trying to hide, and-- more to the point-- that he accepted it.

It was a little too much for him.

“You don't want to hear me complain,” he said with a forced smile. “It's just a dream.”

“Dreams often have their basis in reality.”

Jim twisted the leaf in his fingers, plucking off the tip and tossing it into the water below them.

“Well, if you must know… I showed up naked to a cadet review.”

He could feel Spock’s blank stare.

Chuckling weakly, Jim plucked another piece off the leaf, worrying it between his fingers. “Sorry, bad joke. You really want to know?”

“I am asking,” Spock said as though it were obvious. And Jim supposed it was. When had this happened? Jim had told very few people about the skeletons in his closet, but somehow he felt as though he could confide in Spock, and that he should. Somehow he knew that Spock wouldn’t react with judgement or pity. He’d just be there.

It was nice, knowing Spock would be there.

Jim took a moment to think of how to phrase it, where to begin.

“Have you ever heard of the Tarsus IV massacre?” A hard stone sank into his stomach finally saying it aloud. How long had it been since he’d openly discussed it? Since Ruth, easily. He’d never even brought it up to Gary and they’d been together-- well, in some sense of the word-- for more than a year.

“I have,” Spock confirmed, which Jim should have guessed. It would be easier to ask what Spock didn’t know. “Four-thousand people were executed at the hands of a tyrannical governor. If I am not mistaken, the man was an advocate for eugenics.”

Jim nodded, suddenly unable to tear his eyes from the water. Unable, even, to blink. “Well,” he said with a hard weight in his stomach, “I could’ve been one of those four-thousand. Sometimes I wish I had been. Just because I won some kind of twisted genetic lottery doesn't mean I deserved to live any more than they did, but here I am all the same.”

“You were there?” Spock’s tone seldom contained outright emotion, but Jim could hear the subtle notes of surprise, even anger, in him now.

“I was,” Jim said, and the leaf he’d been twisting in his hands snapped. “I saw the moment he killed them-- my friend’s parents were in the crowd. Almost every night I see it, or some version of it. What, eleven years later? Sometimes it just feels like it’s never going to...” He stopped, collecting himself. Even recalling it in so few words was enough to bring the images back, the smell of disintegrated flesh, the rapid beat of his heart as he grabbed Tom’s arm and tried to force him away from the scene.

Silence fell between them, and Jim suddenly regretted saying anything.

Then, a gentle hand came to rest on Jim’s back, warm through the fabric of his thermal. “I grieve with thee,” Spock said, a formal weight to his words that made Jim think it must be a common Vulcan saying. The hand on his back, though? That was human, and it gave Jim human comfort.

“Thanks.”

“I understand now. Why, in our first days…” This time, Spock was the one to trail off, likely not knowing how to phrase it delicately.

“Why I was an emotional wreck?” Jim filled in with a half-smile, meeting Spock’s eyes.

Spock allowed his hand to fall, but it rested on the ground just behind Jim. “I will admit I did not understand your reactions.”

“Sometimes I don’t either,” Jim said, tossing the remainder of the leaf into the water and lowering his knees, extending his legs so they hung out over the water. “Some things just bring it back, you know? Losing so many people so quickly when we crashed… I don’t know. Sometimes they show up too-- in the dreams. Carter, Taigen and Pike. And Nelson. Sometimes Kodos is the one killing them.”

Spock didn’t seem to know what to say to that.

“Have you discovered any remedy?” he offered after a moment.

Jim almost laughed at that, a kind of half-chuckle falling out of his lips before he could stifle it. “Of course your first thought is ‘how do I fix this?’” he said.

Spock straightened up slightly. “My apologies. I did not intend the question to offend.”

“It didn’t,” Jim assured him, and just because he was vulnerable and lonely and scared he put a hand on Spock’s knee, leaving it there just long enough to draw comfort from Spock’s warmth, then removing it. “I want to fix it too.” He wondered briefly if he should say the next thing that came to mind, but he was already saying it by the time he realized it might be a bad idea. “It’s funny, the only times I don’t have nightmares are when I’m sleeping next to you.”

Spock stiffened, and Jim tensed a little himself. He should have known that it would make the Vulcan uncomfortable to hear that he was Jim’s own private security blanket. But it was true, and Spock had asked.

“On the contrary,” Spock said, words stilted as though he were reluctant to say anything. “You do have nightmares when you are beside me.”

Jim raised an eyebrow. “I think I know when I have nightmares, Spock.”

Spock pulled his arm back, clasping his hands in his lap as though trying to make himself smaller. “You may not remember them because I--” he paused, his own internal battle with what to say raging behind his eyes. “I alleviate them.”

“Excuse me?”

Shifting, Jim turned to Spock and steadied himself with a hand on the sand. Spock was definitely uncomfortable, but maybe not for the reasons Jim thought.

“You are aware now of the particulars of my touch telepathy? The channel goes two ways. It is possible to project emotion without absorbing any. When you stir, you reach out to me and I reach back, so to speak.”

“You get into my head?” Jim felt a kind of anger flaring, a sense of powerlessness gripping him. Spock’s eyes widened.

“No, not precisely. It is more along the lines of my actions just now-- placing a hand on your back. An-- an expression of comfort.”

“But mentally.” Jim was struggling to wrap his mind around that.

“Yes.”

Warring between discomfort and gratitude, he pursed his lips and turned away from his friend.

“I apologize,” Spock said again, and Jim held up a hand.

“Don't,” he said. “You were just trying to help. It's okay.” There was a pause, and it was likely Spock didn't need telepathy to know Jim was feeling a little conflicted. “It's just strange to me,” Jim said after a moment, “that Vulcans think holding hands is more intimate than touching someone’s mind.”

Spock shifted, a clear expression of unease. He, too, looked downward into the lake. Maybe the glow of this place soothed him as much as it did Jim.

“In fact, what I do for you is more intimate than is considered appropriate. I overstepped. However, I hope my intentions are at least understandable.”

Jim turned to him fast as whiplash, wondering if he needed to add mixed signals to his list of current problems. It seemed a little innocuous in comparison to time-travel and near-certain death, but still. Just yesterday Spock was asking him to avoid touching his hands, and now he was saying that he was, what, comfortable with intimacy? So long as it served a purpose, Jim guessed.

“I-- I mean, yes. I understand why you did it, but…” Jim trailed off. Sure, Spock should not have messed with his head without asking first, but at the same time-- “You say you didn’t see anything? In my head, I mean. You weren’t-- this sounds so ridiculous.” He rubbed his forehead, “You weren’t spying?”

“I would never without your express consent.”

Jim stilled. Spock had crossed a line, but he knew it and he was apologizing. Jim supposed, while they were stuck here together, boundaries might start to blur a little bit. In all honesty, that scared him more than anything.

But already Jim had crossed those boundaries in his own thoughts. Could he really blame Spock for crossing them in action? Besides, he had never slept more soundly than when he was next to Spock, at least not in recent memory. That wasn’t a bad trade. He just wished he’d known about it.

He had been quiet for a long time, during which Spock became steadily more straight-backed and stiff. Jim didn’t even realize until Spock spoke. “I understand you have requested I not apologize again. However, given the circumstances--”

Jim patted him on the back to silence him, a soft touch meant to convey the reassurance that Spock’s mere presence always conveyed to him. “Really, it’s okay. I was just surprised. I should probably thank you. Without sleep, this whole situation would’ve been even worse.”

“Would you like me to stop? I do not relish the idea of allowing the nightmares to run their course, but I will concede to your wishes.”

Jim considered that for a second. What did it matter to Spock if Jim had a few bad dreams? He really was much more worrisome than he ever let on. “No,” Jim decided, the idea of being cared about warming something deep in his chest. He’d never expected to find compassion and affection in the man beside him, but there it was. Whether Spock ever felt the same kind of affection Jim did, well, that didn’t matter. This was what mattered. “No, keep it up. Please. Like I said, without sleep this would all be so much worse.”

“We have to take care of each other,” Spock echoed softly, meeting Jim’s eyes.

Jim realized then that he was still touching Spock’s shoulder, and he was was reluctant to move his hand. Reluctant, really, to move at all. Spock’s expression was soft, lax, vulnerable, hued in soft blues that made him appear as alien as he did familiar. Jim hated how easily he could be captivated, how easily he could be convinced to forgive, to move on.

Somehow, he had to break the moment, before he did anything stupid. Oh, but he wanted desperately to do something stupid.

“Apostle Islands,” Jim said, dropping his hand and looking away. “We could name the planet Apostle Islands. It’s a national park in Wisconsin.”

Spock seemed to take a moment to redirect his train of thought. “As we are neither apostles nor on an island, I do not believe the name fits.”

“What are planets but the islands of space?” Jim postulated dramatically with an attempt at a smile.

“Jim, your philosophical musings are often lost on me.”

Jim laughed, “fine, fine, Mister Spock. I’m still waiting on your contribution to the name game.”

“I was unaware this was a game.”

“Might as well be. It’s shore leave, isn’t it? Everything’s a game.”

“For the next four days.”

Jim grabbed Spock’s shoulder to heft himself to his feet, then brushed the sand off his briefs. Spock followed, rising in one fluid motion.

“So you won’t play the name game. Any requests for our next activity, then?”

“Are you determined to stay awake?”

The way Spock deadpanned the question made Jim laugh. “It’s not like I meant to wake up early, you know.”

Spock’s eyes widened and it looked as though he was about to apologize again. Entirely unwilling to suffer any pity, Jim held up his hand to stop him. “How about a swim?” He suggested.

Jim didn’t fail to notice how Spock’s eyes raked him up and down, but much as Jim wished there had been anything lustful, or even appreciative, in Spock’s blank expression, there was not. “Were you not swimming before I arrived?”

With a shrug, Jim peeled off his thermal and tossed it over a tree branch next to his drying slacks. “Soaking, really. Besides, it’s more fun to go swimming with other people, and we haven’t done that yet.”

Spock looked skeptical, but Jim just quirked his lips, glanced over the edge of the ledge and shrugged. “Well, I’m going swimming.” With that, he stepped back a few paces, took a running start, and cannonballed into the lake.

As he sank into it, water rushing past his ears, he imagined the sound must have echoed fabulously in the cavern. Sure enough, when he came up for air, the birds were swirling about the place, their chittering echoing until it was a cacophony, their wings flashing like strobe lights over them. Jim turned his eyes to the shore and wiped the water from his face, wearing a smile that fell the moment he settled his gaze on Spock.

Pale stretches of skin revealed themselves as Spock pulled the tunic over his head in a motion that seemed slow, almost unsure. Then, shirtless and shining with flashes of the birds’ wings, he folded the tunic with gentle hands, careful hands. Jim watched the soft stretch of his arms as he set the shirt aside, watched the line of his spine curl when he knelt, watched the muscles of his back pull him upright again. Spock’s hands moved to the zipper of his slacks before-- as though a sixth sense had alerted him to Jim’s stare-- he met Jim’s eyes with a side-eyed look of his own.

Covering the moment with a smile, Jim tore his eyes away and slipped through the water toward the center of the lake. The birds settled again on their branches and the flashing of their wings faded.

His heart was pounding, but it had no reason to. He’d seen Spock shirtless a few times before-- it wasn’t like he was incapable of containing his libido. But there was something about how gentle Spock looked in the blue light, hair springing out of its tie from the humidity, his strong figure unusually pale against the black backdrop of rock. Maybe swimming had been a bad idea. He didn’t want to oggle Spock, but if this was how his body reacted when he just shed his shirt, he had a bad feeling about the rest.

It was only when he was sure Spock would be done undressing that he turned back to the shore. Sure enough, Spock had stepped into the water by their little path, and now, thankfully, only his head was visible from Jim’s distance. The only problem with that was that Spock had taken out his hair tie. Those silky black locks, shining from the oil Spock often used, cascaded down his head and neck, the tips brushing the water and laying upon its surface like the branches of a willow tree. Jim breathed in a steadying breath and paddled over to him.

“Are you satisfied, Jim?” Spock asked, but he could tell from the tilt of Spock’s lips that he hadn’t been wholly opposed to the idea of a swim.

“Absolutely,” Jim replied without missing a beat, though the voice in the back of his head piped up that he wasn’t close to satisfied-- and never would be when it came to Spock. “Remember those first few weeks when you never listened to me? I’m glad you’ve come to understand that I am full of good ideas.”

Spock’s half-smile grew and Jim swam off to the side, unsure if he could handle Spock’s tender expression right now. So, he did the only thing he knew to do to wipe it off.

Shooting Spock a grin, he splashed him, a great wave of water rising from his hand and hitting Spock square in the face. Spock sputtered, slipping back, a hand coming to his eyes to wipe away the water.

“What was the purpose of that?” He asked almost angrily. He pushed the hair back from his face to keep it from dripping, and Jim realized he’d shot himself in the foot.

Yes, he’d seen Spock shirtless before, but not with wet hair, too. Ah, but he was in a bad state, wasn’t he?

“That’s what you do when you go swimming with people, right?” he joked to cover the moment, “It’s either that or--” Jim glanced at the other side of the lake, then back to Spock. “Race?”

“Excuse me--”

“Last one to the other side has to cook dinner tonight!” Jim challenged, practically tossing himself onto his stomach and beginning to paddle. It took a moment before he heard Spock do the same.

Jim lost, in spite of his head start, but he lost laughing. The nightmare had left him fully now, and as he watched water run in rivulets down the side of Spock’s face and met those warm, dark eyes under dripping lashes, he felt calmer than he had before. Safer.



They made the most of the rest of the day, once they’d finished their swim. Spock suggested a walk, which Jim accepted gladly, and the two of them wandered the forest for a while. It felt good, to shed the weight of heavy conversations and focus on the skittering rodents around the trees’ bases. Jim kept trying to name them as Spock insisted he would never be able to tell them apart, and it felt as though something had settled in Jim’s heart. Something simple, Easy.

Unfortunately, distracted as they were, they neglected to keep an eye on their tricorder and wandered far too close to a sleeping bulldog. Casual stroll abruptly interrupted, they’d tripped over themselves to get to safety. Following the mad dash with a laugh of relief (on Jim’s end, at least), Jim had suggested keeping out of the depths of the forest if they were to walk around much longer. So, they picked flowers for their crewmates’ graves, mixing the larger pink and purple blooms on those fern-like plants with the button-like yellow flowers that dotted the slope of the mountain. As it began to get dark, Spock allowed Jim some alone time with the crew, which was kind. But Jim found he didn’t much care for the silence, the emptiness around him, so he didn’t linger there long.

Before the sun set entirely, he carved a sign for their cave, something he’d been meaning to do for a while. Haunched over his work to prevent Spock’s prying eyes, it didn’t take very long. The bark was just a thin, long sheet he’d pulled from one of the younger trees earlier, and the carving was, well, poor.

He hung it triumphantly in the comfortable warmth of Alpha Novus V’s sunset, enjoying Spock’s unamused reaction to adding signage to the tree beside their cave which read “Starfleet Command.” It hung angled right above the distress signal, which still blinked a steady red light. Honestly, Jim had almost forgotten the thing was there, but now it illuminated the lettering. Somehow it felt appropriate, and Jim even found it in him to laugh. “We’re technically the founders now, right?” he had said.

Spock had acknowledged the half-truth of that statement, but added that it was unlikely they’d be changing Earth’s history from all the way out here.

Jim had called him a spoilsport before they’d gone inside, lit the fire and played a few games of chess. Spock was getting better, but Jim still managed to trip him up with his strategy-- or lack of strategy, as Spock would call it.

It wasn’t so bad, only having one person to spend the day with. There were times-- much of the time, really-- his heart ached for his family, for his friends, and other times he was insurmountably grateful that the one person he had been stranded with was Spock. He remembered thinking at some point early on that he wouldn’t be able to stand 11.8 months with the Vulcan, but even as the task ahead of them added time onto that sentence, he felt the only way he could weather it was with Spock at his side.

 


 

Knowing the cause of Jim’s nightmares had changed something in Spock. He always sought to alleviate them, and he had been pleased that they had become less frequent, but now…

Now he knew the horrors Jim had seen even before the trauma of crash landing on this planet. Now he knew that he would never fully understand the sights and sounds that plagued his companion in his sleep, nor would most. Jim had endured a singular kind of tragedy, and Spock was more determined than ever to allow no thought of it to enter Jim’s unguarded mind.

That night, he shifted closer to Jim as they laid down beneath their blankets to sleep, granting unconscious permission to rely on him for warmth, comfort, anything. Jim had smiled at him as though he understood the gesture, and appreciated it, and it had not taken long for the man to curl onto his side and fall asleep, the gentle flutter of his lashes the only indication that he dreamed at all. Spock only ever slept on his back, but he found himself turning his head to the side that night as Jim slept, keeping careful watch.

This protective thrum of emotion below everything else had been startling when it first appeared, intense in a way he could not have anticipated. Almost possessive in nature. He supposed it was natural to wish to protect his only companion, to want to keep track of him, to want to be close to him. But the way Spock’s heart clenched with an unnamable longing when Jim clung to him at night was not natural. He had never felt anything like it until Jim came into his life, and so he spent that night, like many before, attempting to categorize the emotion, to understand it.

He had never been successful, and he doubted tonight would yield any greater revelation. Jim’s proximity was so often too much for his shaky control, his emotions too vibrant and his very nature too bright, so Spock could never seem to understand why he wanted Jim to be closer. And he wanted very much for Jim to be closer. Illogical, impossible, incomprehensible, but true.

At some point when the cold began to set in and the slight freeze tickled the tip of his nose, Spock felt Jim’s fingers curling into his sleeve as they often did, and the simple action was enough to pull Spock from his introspective thoughts.

He knew he could not cure Jim, nor could any amount of rest, but he had hoped that airing his fears earlier may have helped Jim overcome them. It was a silly thought, but Spock was disappointed all the same.

Spock studied his companion’s face. The blue glow that crept around the cave’s corners to their campsite illuminated him only slightly, just enough to make him visible. He looked pale, a trick of the light, but instinctively Spock wanted to comfort him.

There were nights Jim sought him out in his sleep for no other reason than his presence, so Spock waited to be sure it was a nightmare before jumping to conclusions, but he could tell by the movement of Jim’s eyes behind his lids that he was seeing something in there. Maybe speaking of Tarsus IV earlier had put the thought of it in Jim’s unconscious mind.

Jim shifted closer and pressed his face inelegantly against Spock’s shoulder where Spock could feel his hot breath sighing through the fabric. He shivered slightly at the sensation, considering pulling away when he noticed the minutest uptick in Jim’s pulse, which he could feel through the wrist against his arm. As Jim’s breathing became more rapid, Spock resigned himself to the fact that this was, likely, the proper time for him to intervene, especially now that he had Jim’s permission.

Ready to roll to his side, Spock shifted slightly, but Jim’s fingers curled tighter, a fist against his arm. Then, when Spock had stilled, Jim rolled forward, pressed flush against Spock’s side. Spock clenched his hands where they lay over his stomach, startled by the sudden warmth against him, the hand that moved from his sleeve to his chest, the heavy weight of Jim’s arm over him.

Jim smelled of the aloe he’d spread earlier along the sunburn of his neck and shoulders, and his hair carried the delicate scent of sweat. Something in Spock ached as he breathed it in, but he was in no place to examine the feeling now. He tried once again to extricate himself.

With a small noise of protest, almost inaudible, Jim clutched Spock harder and laid his leg unconsciously over Spock’s lap.

Spock stilled instantly as Jim nuzzled into his shoulder and released a humming sort of sigh. For a terrifying moment, Spock’s mind went blank. Then, the realization that this wasn’t a nightmare smacked into him with a force that knocked the air from his lungs. Though it was subtle, Spock could feel the beginnings of an erection against his hip.

Mouth suddenly dry, Spock swallowed, apparently obvious enough for Jim to feel. That hand on his chest moved slowly-- agonizing in its tenderness-- to the collar of Spock’s shirt and gripped it, knuckles brushing Spock’s skin in a touch that felt like fire. Against Spock’s shoulder, Jim let out a quiet, hot mmf , and his hips-- his hips hitched softly against Spock’s thigh.

In spite of Spock’s barriers, he could still feel certain impressions through the touch of their skin and over the tentative mental link that existed between them, and he willed himself to stay as still as possible lest he wake the man beside him. Nightmares, he understood and could alleviate, but sexual desire? Through their contact, Spock could feel a flood of instinct and want, uninhibited by the waking mind, something powerful enough to pound at Spock’s barriers, which, in moments, felt as though they might break.

But, of course, this was a human need like any other-- food, water, companionship, relief-- he knew Jim was lonely in ways he could not ease, but this . This had not occurred to him. Of course Jim required sexual stimulation. Perhaps he had even been addressing the issue himself, alleviating his needs with his own hand during the hours of the day he spent outside Spock’s company. The thought brought a heat to Spock’s cheeks.

Jim’s body seemed to gravitate toward friction, moving so softly it would be almost unnoticeable if Spock weren’t hyperfocused on where their bodies touched, on Jim hardening against him.

He realized he had forgotten to breathe.

Unclenching his hands where they gripped each other, white-knuckled over his stomach, Spock tried to focus-- meditate, even-- focus himself inward rather than outward, but as Jim’s hand dragged against his skin and pulled down the collar of his shirt, he realized that his inward self was no more at-peace than his outward. Jim let out a small, sleepy groan, lips open against Spock.

Horrified, heart pounding, Spock felt what could only be arousal, a heat that spread from his stomach into his groin and seemed to throb within him. Unbidden, against his will and all his control, he felt himself harden.

It was rare that feeling the emotions of another could cause a physical reaction, even with his mental walls crumbling by the second. Even so, he attempted to tell himself it was simply Jim’s impressions affecting him through the touch of their skin, through the mental bond that often formed between two people in close proximity.

But he would be a poor Vulcan indeed if he could not distinguish another’s emotions from his own. The stirrings of physical desire were not solely Jim’s, but Spock’s as well. He was not nearing his Pon Farr, nor did he know if he ever would, so there was no explanation for this reaction. Especially not with so slight a stimulation as the rapid breathing beside him or the erection against him. Except, of course, that beside him lay Jim Kirk, who was perhaps singular in the way he affected Spock.

And that was, after all, the key, wasn’t it? To the very emotions Spock had been attempting so unsuccessfully to understand. Now the answer appeared to him in startling clarity.

This had been building for a long time. A feeling of vague longing that had mounted upon itself day by day with each accidental brush of their hands, with each gleaming smile in the sunlight, with each night spent sharing the warmth of each others’ bodies. And now it manifested into one coherent desire-- a desire he could not allow himself to feel, let alone act upon.

Because this was Jim , who Spock could care for but could not become attached to. Because Jim was the only other person on this planet. Because Jim was human and male and not Spock’s intended and a thousand other things that warned Spock away from him.

But, still, it was Jim . And Spock wanted Jim to be close, in any way he could be-- every way. He attempted to pull out of these thoughts, to center his mind even as his desire mounted with the breath and the body against him.

Jim was unconscious, Spock reminded himself forcefully, some fantasy playing out in his mind while he drifted toward the nearest warmth. In that moment, Spock understood. He wanted Jim. Perhaps he had wanted Jim much longer than even he knew, and clearly in ways that he had not prepared for, but Jim--

Jim simply wanted . And though Spock stung with arousal at the feeling of Jim rutting gently against him, the thought that Jim did not know what he was doing was enough to stifle those dormant urges that had only now begun to awaken. Pained by the realization, he forced himself to pull away.

He didn’t get very far before Jim stirred and instinctively tightened his grip on Spock’s shirt, stilling him. Just as Spock was about to consider another tactic, the steady thrum of Jim’s emotions changed, no longer a heady background noise but louder, more insistent in the way they touched Spock’s mind. Spock went motionless, and then, to his dread, Jim began slowly blinking himself awake.

Spock could feel the wheels turning in Jim’s mind as his eyelids fluttered, could feel the world catching up to him as he focused on Spock’s face, glanced once around the cave and settled again. When full consciousness returned to Jim, it was in one, glaring moment. In the dim glow of light, Spock watched Jim’s eyes widen in horror.

Through the skin against his own, Spock felt flashes of Jim’s emotion, painful in their intensity: embarrassment that sank into his stomach, fear rolling in like thunder, a flash of anger-- directed at Jim himself-- and still, yes, desire . And as those waves crashed into Spock, overwhelming, he felt that desire directed toward him , something instinctual and animal and lustful that he could feel Jim trying to beat down but all the same it left him breathless. Jim didn’t just want; he wanted Spock.

They lay suspended in time for a moment, Spock attempting to absorb this revelation just as Jim attempted to suppress it. His own breath quickened and he stared into those wide, terrified eyes, unable to believe for a moment that his interpretation of these emotions was correct, but he could see it in Jim’s naked expression as he pulled away his hand.

“Spock,” Jim rushed to say, and of course it was Spock’s name that tumbled from his lips first, sounding nearly desperate, half-choked. “I’m so sorry, I-- I am so sorry .”

Jim shuffled backward and raised himself on his hand as Spock mourned the loss of contact, the loss of that affirmation. Jim wanted him. Jim wanted him with an intensity that set fire to Spock’s blood. And all Spock wanted was to feel that desire again, and to feel it satisfied.

An intention solidified in his mind, even as part of him screamed that it was a violation, illogical, unreasonable, ill-conceived--

He lifted himself up, then found Jim’s hip with his hand and shoved the man over onto his back.

Jim gasped, choking out, “What are you doing?” before Spock, in one swift motion, climbed onto his lap, legs straddling either side of Jim’s hips, hands framing his midsection. The blankets fell from his shoulders as he instinctively pressed down against the groin beneath his own.

It was like lightning, the spark that lit in him with the barest brush of friction, shooting through him and half-blinding him. This was pleasure , but in a way he’d never experienced it.

A surprised ‘ah’ fell from Jim’s lips, sharp and breathless, echoing in the quiet of the cave and he jerked beneath Spock, eyes falling onto Spock’s with a look that was torn between lust and hopeless confusion.

Jim had said it himself, ‘we have to take care of each other,’ and maybe this was part of it. Food, water, companionship-- relief . Spock’s hands, trembling slightly, moved to the zipper of Jim’s slacks, pulling it down with equal parts hesitancy and determination.

“Spock,” his name again, now folded in the depths of a dangerous moan. “What are you doing ?” The strain of his voice was as obvious as the bulge in his briefs, and Spock wanted to reply but couldn’t, not with words. Even he wasn’t sure what he was doing.

Jim’s hands came to the fabric of Spock’s shirt and clutched the folds, half pushing Spock away, half tugging him forward, though without any intentional force in either direction.

“Please,” Spock said, surprised at the choke in his own voice. “Let me.” He lifted himself and prompted Jim to lift his hips with two gentle, shaking hands. He didn’t want Jim to feel his fear, wanted only to slide his fingers against Jim’s skin and absorb that feeling-- being wanted, wanting, aching.

Jim drew his lower lip between his teeth and complied, allowing Spock to tug his slacks and briefs over the hump of his rear and down his thighs. Spock’s determination stuttered at the sight of him.

Erection exposed, laid out in the dim light, Jim looked beautiful, lean from months of labor, a tantalizing line of fine golden hair reaching from bellybutton to groin. Spock lost his breath for a moment, regarding the expanse of his skin, the stretch of his tight, torn thermal shirt along his chest, the jagged line of white where his hip wound had healed. Jim’s fingers tugged weakly at Spock’s shirt, urging Spock into action.

Then, “Are you sure?” Jim whispered, as though the question had cost all his control to ask. Spock met Jim’s eyes, the wide shine of his pupils, staring at Spock as though he was hungry for him.

No, Spock wasn’t sure; he was terrified. But he was hungry, too.

One hand went to Jim’s shirt, shoving it up his torso, exposing him further before Spock splayed his fingers over Jim’s stomach. His other hand curled without a second thought (for if he thought twice he may have convinced himself to stop) around Jim’s length. Jim stifled his gasp with a hand over his lips, the other fisting tighter into Spock’s shirt. The sound of muffled breath and the thick weight of Jim’s erection made Spock’s own strain against the front of his slacks, and he pressed himself down against Jim’s legs, completely unconsciously.

His grip around Jim tightened as he tried to bite down the raw, gasping sound that came from him. Then, almost in an effort to distract himself, he began to pump his hand slowly, sensitive fingers feeling the strain of skin, the steady hardening, the roll of Jim’s hips that eked just a little more friction out of the touch.

Jim’s hand dragged itself from his lips and came around to the back of Spock’s neck, pulling him down. Elbow falling to the side of Jim’s head, Spock steadied himself, his hair hanging like a curtain against the dim blue light until Jim’s fingers stroked that hair back and tugged, grasped at the nape of Spock’s neck. Their breath mingled, foreheads almost touching, and Spock wanted so much in that moment-- he wanted Jim to touch him, to bring his lips to Spock’s, to clasp their hands-- but he concentrated on Jim’s pleasure, Jim’s need. Slow, deliberate movement, loosening then tightening his fist to affirming gasps and shudders from the man below him.

Then Jim uncurled his fingers from the folds of Spock’s shirt, coming to the button of Spock’s slacks and undoing the fastening with surprising dexterity given his compromised position.

“Jim,” Spock warned, pulling his body back just enough to discourage Jim’s reach, though he did not want to dislodge the hand that still gripped and pulled at his hair. “Don’t.” He was embarrassed by the thinly veiled lust in his voice. Did Jim know how much he wanted to feel those rough hands against him? Did Jim understand why he couldn’t? The moment he allowed Jim to give him pleasure, this was no longer for Jim’s sake, but for his own. He couldn’t, didn’t deserve--

“Please,” Jim said, a half-whisper, “let me.” The echo of Spock’s own words, said so sweetly, so close to his lips, nearly undid him.

In that moment, Spock could deny Jim nothing. He moved forward slightly, slowly, granting silent permission, and Jim cupped him through his briefs. The touch, obstructed even as it was, sent his blood rushing south. The rhythm of his hand faltered, but he gripped tighter, giving a purposeful pull that drew a quiet groan from between Jim’s lips. Jim slipped Spock’s erection out of his briefs, no hesitation in his movements as he wrapped his fingers around him.

Spock gasped, nearly a groan, forehead falling against Jim’s, the speed of his fist failing as he bucked into the touch. Then those fingers began to move and Spock’s whole body shuddered.

Jim exhaled a breathy whine as he explored the ridges of Spock’s penis. His thumb brushed the tip and his hips jerked forward as though he’d felt it himself. Touching Spock actually excited him. Spock could feel it in Jim’s mind, a mounting pleasure through exploration, delighting in the differences in their anatomy. Jim tilted his chin to nip at Spock’s bottom lip, rough fingers tightening. Now Spock was the one to allow a bare whimper to break through.

Jim grunted his pleasure at the sound, breath hot as his lips sought Spock’s. Spock pulled back as much as he was able, mirroring the movements of Jim’s hand as he did so-- a distraction. He couldn’t allow himself a kiss. If only because he wanted one with such desperation it frightened him. The idea that he was allowing something so intimate, rutting into each pull of Jim’s hand, gasping sounds that beat bare echoes against the walls of the cave-- it was too much. He had taken too much when he should have been giving, and a kiss? A kiss would ruin him.

With a huff of disappointment, Jim tried again to bring his lips to Spock’s, curling his fist around Spock’s erection and making Spock bite his lip against the sounds he wanted to make. Spock twisted his own hand and Jim’s head fell back, letting out a groan as his spine curled.

“Spock,” he breathed, though he didn’t complete the thought. Spock panted for breath, Jim’s breath, his hips rolling in time to the beat of the body below him, the pressure inside him building even as he felt it building in Jim. And he felt it-- the thrill of desires satisfied, the aching, pulsing need for release, the longing for more. More. The word beat against his mind as it rolled off of Jim in waves, body and mind screaming it. What more could Jim want? Even this was beyond anything--

Jim rolled his hips under him as their speed increased in time, and Spock could feel pressure building in his groin, a feeling of pooling heat and aching static. It clouded him, thoughts failing, replaced with instinct and necessity. Powerless against the flood, Spock lurched forward, free hand coming to Jim’s head and tightening in his hair to shove their foreheads together.

Without thinking, he opened the gates of their mental connection-- not a full meld, but enough to feel bright bursts of emotion from Jim’s mind, waves of awe and gratitude, waves of bliss and longing, lust and affection, waves Spock wanted to sink into because they were the same as his own. In that moment, he didn’t care that Jim might have a window into the depths of his feelings for him, he just wanted to be as close as he possibly could to that bright light that always shined from within Jim’s soul, offering warmth and refuge, peace. Spock wanted Jim, everything Jim was, and he needed him.

Through the mental connection, Spock felt that ‘more’ again, louder as though Jim were shouting it, and he wanted to give it to him, whatever it was. Anything. Anything.

And then Jim’s hand tightened and tangled in the long strands of Spock’s hair, and he forced Spock’s lips down onto his own, a kiss that was sloppy with heavy breaths and too much tongue, but one that set Spock aflame all the same. He surged into it, logic undone along with his restraint, swallowing Jim’s moans into his own mouth and feeling something burst in his mind-- Jim’s mind.

Of all things, that had been the begging need in Jim, the nameless ‘more,’ he’d wanted. A kiss, which seared sweetly and satisfied such an innocent desire. Then, finally, relief.

Jim broke the kiss as an aborted cry tore itself from his lungs. Then with a painful tug on Spock’s hair, he came, his erection pulsing in the grip of Spock’s sensitive fingers as he spilled himself between them. Spock followed the moment Jim’s grip tightened around him, thrusting desperately into his rough fist. Jim’s name left his lips in a groan as his mind blanked out, chasing a feeling that sent him reeling, a burst of bliss so hot and hard it felt like agony.

And, slowly, it faded. Spock continued to pump his hand, slowing as Jim’s rhythm around his own erection slowed. Semen dripped between his fingers and slicked his grip, easing the friction of those last, lazy pulls. Jim’s fingers went slack before his hand fell to his stomach, and Spock heard himself, as if from far away, let out a quiet whine at the loss of contact.

Dizzy with the wet heat of Jim’s breath, Spock dropped his head to Jim’s chest, which rose and fell rapidly, the sound of his pounding heart an unsteady rhythm. Spock dragged his hand up Jim’s stomach and gripped Jim’s shirt, fingers fisting into the folds as he tried to regain his mind, to clear the flash of white that still seemed to blind him. The hand in his hair released its vice grip and began to stroke the crown of his head, gently soothing.

Jim’s touch was soft, his fingers trembling slightly, his emotions slipping like fallen leaves along the stream of their connection. His breath came in shallow bursts against Spock’s hair, evening out moment by moment, the high of release ebbing away, replaced with something else-- something it took a moment for Spock to identify.

He began to feel Jim’s heartbeat slow, but his own was still beating far too quickly, more nervous now than he had been when this started. Instinct, desire, only took him so far, and now-- now whether he willed it or not, everything would change.

With effort, Spock lifted his head, but he found it difficult to meet Jim’s eyes. Using the hand on Jim’s chest, he steadied himself and pulled himself upward, something in him yearning to remain as Jim’s hand fell from his hair.

The sight of the man beneath him seemed unreal, too vulnerable, too stimulating, too much. Jim was always too much, but now he was ethereal in the dark blue light, shirt rumpled and hiked up to his chest, hair a mess, the slope of his skin from ribs to abdomen to hip splattered in his own seed and Spock’s. But he wore a look of vague concern, a concern that Spock could feel now as clearly as though it were his own.

“Spock,” Jim whispered, voice barely more than a croak, “are you okay?”

“I am.” Spock said, admitting to himself even as he said it that he was not. “I apologize for my lack of-- of delicacy.” Words suddenly felt awkward in his mouth, saying and meaning nothing in comparison to what his actions moments ago had meant.

Jim’s face bloomed into a soft, lax smile. He rested a hand on Spock’s thigh, and the gentle brush of his fingers over the fabric of Spock’s slacks was so kind it almost undid him.

“Don't get me wrong,” Jim said, and the tenor of his voice felt like ripples lapping a quiet shore, nothing like the tidal waves he’d moaned into their kiss. “I'm not-- I’m not complaining, but where did that come from?”

Spock’s mind supplied that it had come from desire, from wanting, from this growing bond between them that Spock couldn’t define, from a place deep inside him that whispered a word he was far too distracted now to explore, from proximity and compatibility and possibility-- infinite possibility that terrified him in ways he could hardly begin to convey.

“This is a conversation best suited for morning,” he said instead of giving voice to his vulnerable thoughts. “I woke you. You should rest.” He clamored off of Jim, the cold of the cave finally hitting him without the warmth of their bodies pressed together.

“Again, not complaining,” Jim said with a smile, sitting up gracelessly and pulling off his shirt. His muscles flexed as the hard lines of his chest and shoulders became visible. Using the fabric, he wiped himself clean.

Realizing he was staring, Spock removed his own shirt before Jim could notice his gaze and tucked himself back into his slacks, still sensitive even to his own touch.

Tomorrow, he thought by way of distraction, he would wash their uniforms in the spring. In the meantime, the chill was starting to get to him, and he was having trouble thinking of anything to say that didn’t reveal too much. Even revealing himself physically was uncomfortable now that the frenzy had passed. What had he been thinking?

Ah, but that was exactly the problem. He hadn’t thought . He’d felt , and he’d chased that feeling with an impulsiveness that caused his cheeks to flush with shame.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Jim was already looking at him when Spock finished folding his thermal. The cold caused goosebumps to prickle Jim’s arms, pebble his nipples. He had a slope to his back and a crumpled shirt in his lap, and a look of worry in the blown pupils of his eyes that Spock hated to see.

“I am quite well, Jim. Please, rest. We will speak in the morning.”

A flash of something passed behind Jim’s eyes, but it was only a flash. Then, he was giving Spock one of those frequent, encouraging smiles, though this one looked far away.

“Of course,” he said, and lifted his hand briefly off the ground as though about to reach out. Spock sucked in a breath through his nose, and Jim met his eyes, parted his lips to speak, then second-guessed whatever it was he had been about to do, to say. His hand fell back into his lap as he turned back to his shirt. Spock watched as Jim’s fingers squeezed the fabric slightly before he tossed it gently to the side.

With another look in Spock’s direction and a quietly sad expression that forced a fresh feeling of longing from Spock’s heart, Jim laid back down and pulled the blankets over his bare shoulders. “Spock, come on, it’s freezing out there,” he said, holding the blankets up like a tent.

Spock’s heart had not yet slowed, a rapid drumbeat in his side that practically hurt, but he could not let on that he was distressed. Jim’s eyes eked hope, fondness, a look too loving for Spock to be allowed-- and a look he could not bring himself to destroy.

“Of course,” Spock said as he slipped back under the blankets himself, the air inside them still warm, smelling of sex and Jim’s sweat.

Spock laid his hands on his stomach, resuming his position before all this started. Jim did not touch him, but Spock felt the curl of fingers mere millimeters from his skin, as though Jim wanted to reach out, but refrained. Spock was grateful for that.

“Spock, I--” Jim started, which drew Spock’s gaze toward him. Their eyes met for a moment before Jim looked away. “Ah. Well.” With a small pause, he restarted. “Good night, then,” he finally settled on. Spock found he could not allow himself to wonder what Jim had wanted to say.

“Good night, Jim,” he said, voice choked with emotions he could hardly begin sift through.

But he had to sift through them. They insisted, pounding against his mind the way his heartbeat pounded in his side. Fear was the first to make itself known, beginning to cloud his thoughts like a storm, darkening (though not fully destroying) the bliss he’d felt for those brief minutes-- bliss that surged again at the return of a single thought: Jim wanted him. Spock did not know he was capable of feeling both ecstasy and anguish at once, as he did now, but before Jim he hadn’t known he was capable of desire, either.

At this thought, shame cast a shadow over the rest of his roiling emotions, encroaching like an eclipse and making him shiver with sudden cold. Desire was the basest of impulses, and Spock had allowed himself to get swept away by it. Here, of all places, where it was more important than ever he keep himself in check. And with Jim, of all people, who was more important than…

More important than anyone.

This feeling was dangerous. The soft, quiet, beautiful man beside him was dangerous. And Spock could handle the threat of this world-- be it nature or creature or starvation or the futility of rebuilding-- but he did not know if he could handle this.

It took him many hours to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

When Jim awoke, it was still dark, as it always was, though thankfully the glow of the firelight flickered over his eyelids and warmed the air around him. He took his time opening his eyes, feeling warm, satiated, strangely tired and something else that it took him a few moments of wakefulness to identify.

Worried? He was worried. Why was he worried? With a start, his eyes widened and he stretched out a hand to his side, though he could see Spock wasn’t lying there. That wasn’t unusual, but after last night it could mean a great many things.

He shot up, blankets falling from his bare chest, and settled his eyes on the fire. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Spock sitting beside the flames, legs crossed, eyes closed and fingers steepled. He was still shirtless, Jim noticed with more than a little appreciation at the fact. It also felt like a good sign, though he didn’t know why. Vague, sleepy thoughts of vulnerability floated through his mind.

Spock was deep in his meditation, Jim could tell, and he’d been told more than once not to disturb him in that state. So he slowly extricated himself from the blankets and grabbed a fur to drape over his shoulders.

It dragged along the ground behind him, but he didn’t care. Hunger prickled at his gut and, if he were being honest, he had always been a nervous eater. He shuffled over to their stores, which they’d been keeping in the tub of the emergency kit, and grabbed a handful of berries. When Spock was finished meditating, he’d offer to make him breakfast. A real one.

It had been a while since he’d slept with someone, longer than he cared to admit, so he’d almost forgotten the routine. It would only  be gentlemanly to cook Spock breakfast, especially considering he had some incredibly pointed questions to ask, and a warm meal might help add some ease to the conversation.

Jim watched Spock silently, sometimes tossing the berries into the air and catching them in his mouth, one at a time. It was a pleasant enough distraction from going over things too much in his mind.

Namely, how do you ask a person with whom you’ve just had a strange sexual encounter if they’re interested in having more, less-strange sexual encounters. And does the wording of that question change if that person is the only other sentient lifeform on the planet? And does the wording of that question change if you want more than just sex?

Without knowing what exactly had happened last night, Jim was left to guess at Spock’s motivations-- and his desires. At some point during these last six or so months, Spock had apparently grown at least a fraction of the feelings Jim had. Jim thought back to the moment their foreheads had pressed together, to how much he’d felt and how he’d somehow known that it wasn’t just his feelings coming through. Spock had wanted him. So much that his famous Vulcan control had just dissolved. And Jim didn’t think that wanting was limited to a rushed handjob in the middle of the night.

At least, he hoped not. And that was where he was getting hung up. How much of this was hope and how much of this was real? Everything had happened so quickly and he didn’t know how to disentangle Spock’s emotions from his own.

Jim watched the firelight brightening the tips of Spock’s lashes as they fluttered in his meditation. He watched the steady rise and fall of Spock’s chest, gripped by a sudden desire to run his fingers through that wiry hair, plant a kiss on his lips-- a proper one this time, something more tender than desperate. He had missed his chance last night, hesitated at the look in Spock’s eyes that had seemed so scared and somehow still so indecipherable. But now he hoped.

Hope. How many times had it come through for him? He supposed maybe it would again this time.

Minutes passed as Jim listened to the softly crackling flames and worried the fur between his fingers, but it became obvious the moment Spock was about to extract himself from his meditation. Jim had watched the process before. His chest would expand with deeper breaths, his hands would relax and rest themselves on his knees, and after a few moments he would open his eyes.

Now, he did. And immediately met Jim’s.

“You’re awake,” Spock observed.

Jim curled the fur a little tighter round his shoulders, giving Spock a nervous smile. “So are you. Have you eaten?”

“I have not. Please, allow me to make breakfast.” Spock stood in a single, graceful movement and walked over toward the emergency kit, before Jim even had a chance to answer.

“I was going to do that,” he protested, but Spock had already grabbed the shard they’d been using to cook with, and now dug around in the kit for an armful of veggies.

“It is no trouble.”

“Right. I-- Thanks.”

Spock emerged into the ring of firelight with the makings of their meal, then reclaimed his seat in the sand. Procuring the knife from somewhere off to his side, he set to work slicing the greens. An awkward silence settled between them. Spock didn’t seem awkward. He was always like this after he meditated, calm and generally quiet. The difference here was that Jim usually knew how to fill the silence. Today, he had no idea.

“So,” he started, hoping the rest of the sentence would come out naturally. It didn’t. He closed his mouth, watched Spock’s hands delicately handling the knife, and decided he should probably focus his attention elsewhere if he wanted to avoid being distracted. So he turned his gaze to the fire, watching the gently sparking logs, white bark turning black in the flame.

“Are you all right, Jim?”

The question was a natural one to ask, given Jim was the one behaving strangely. Still, it surprised him.

“Sure,” he responded, trying for a casual shrug. Though the gesture may have been lost with the bulk of fur on his shoulders. “Why wouldn’t I be?” Ah, that was the ticket. If he turned the onus on Spock to bring it up, he wouldn’t have to figure out how to phrase it.

Spock studied him for a moment, then returned to his work. “You are not as talkative as usual,” he responded, which didn’t answer Jim’s question-- or solve his problem-- at all.

Jim curled a little deeper into his fur, unsure how to respond but deciding in that moment that all he could really do was throw himself into the situation head first. That was usually what he did best.

“About last night…” he started, and almost winced. What a terrible way to start such an important conversation. But there was nothing for it now. He’d struck the match and had to light the fire. “I, um. Well, you said we could talk in the morning. I’d like to talk.”

“Please,” Spock said, extending a hand by way of invitation. “I welcome your thoughts.”

Jim looked back to him then, studying his face. How could he be so collected when Jim was a mass of turmoil on the inside? Didn’t he have doubts? Reservations? Didn’t he have thoughts? Last night he had seemed so introspective, nervous. None of that was coming through now.

“Well, I guess I’ve got more questions than thoughts,” Jim said with a weak attempt at a smile. “Where-- where did that come from?”

“Where did what come from, precisely?”

That . You know. You . Shoving me down and having your way with me last night.”

Spock’s eyes widened, a reaction at least, and he broke their eye contact, setting down his knife and looking into the makeshift pan.

“It was not my intent to-- to have my way,” he said, sounding almost affronted. “I do not believe I misread your own intentions.”

“No,” Jim said, hurriedly, scooting unconsciously closer. “No, that was an expression. You didn’t misread anything-- not at all. I just didn’t think that, you-- you had an interest in me. Or anyone. Like that.”

And now Jim was blushing. He only hoped it wasn’t obvious in the warm firelight. He had never been good at talking openly about sex. And this situation was decidedly more abnormal than others.

“Last night was not meant to be about my gratification,” Spock said delicately. He stood again, retrieved the salt and tree oil, then resumed his previous position.

“Then what was it ‘meant’ to be about?”

“Yours.”

Jim straightened. “Excuse me?”

“You expressed a need, and I endeavored to fill it.” Spock’s tone was as light as if they were discussing the weather. He made it sound so simple. But last night… last night had been the result of months of something growing between them. Last night had been layered with implications and possibilities. Last night had not been simple.

“That’s not all, though,” Jim said, unwilling today of all days to put up with Spock’s Vulcan opacity. “You-- I mean-- you wanted it too, didn’t you?”

He didn’t like the way this conversation was making him feel. Like somehow he’d taken advantage of Spock when really he’d been the one to try to pull away, to apologize.

“I--” Spock stuttered, finally some indication of mixed emotions. “What I want is irrelevant.”

Heart sinking, Jim felt a knot of guilt tying his intestines together. “It’s relevant to me.”

There was a moment of silence, during which Spock shuffled the pan onto its struts and set it over the fire. It began to sizzle before Jim continued, realizing that Spock would not. Though Jim probably should have taken more time to think about what to say, rather than asking the first question that came to mind.

“Was that your first time?”

Spock’s eyes shot up, and Jim saw the answer in them before Spock even opened his mouth. Suddenly, Jim felt even worse about himself. “That is also irrelevant.”

Blanket falling from his shoulders, Jim threw his hands in the air. “Stop telling me what’s relevant and what’s not. This is important , Spock.”

Spock’s mouth became a thin line as he looked into the fire. His hands were holding each other in his lap, fingers clenching, then unclenching subtly. Something was troubling him. Something was desperately wrong. And if Spock was to be believed, it was completely Jim’s fault. He hadn’t known Spock was a virgin, hadn’t known that Spock had done this for his sake. But did his ignorance excuse the fact that he’d just let it happen?

Jim ran over the events of the evening in his mind again, fast forwarding through the memory as he watched Spock struggle for words. He didn’t know what either of them had hoped to get from the encounter. Except, probably, that neither of them were thinking that far ahead. In the moment Spock had been all hot breath and wandering hands. He’d been so insistent, so determined. And Jim had been desperate for that. He didn’t even know how desperate until he’d gotten a taste.

“What would you have me say?” Spock finally said. His voice was low, tired almost, all the composure of his meditation leaving the lines of his shoulders.

Jim honestly didn’t know what he wanted Spock to say, but he needed more than ‘it’s irrelevant.’

“The truth,” he said finally. “Just… be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you and we can figure this out. Okay?”

Spock took up the knife once again and stirred the vegetables a few times, likely requiring some kind of occupation for his hands.

“I have told you the truth,” Spock replied, obviously and purposely ambiguous. Jim was getting more than a little fed up with his evasiveness.

“But not all of it, right? I-- Spock, I felt you last night.” Raising a hand to his face to cover his embarrassment, he screwed his eyes shut for a moment. “I mean, I felt your-- your emotions. I know there’s something else. I know there is.”

‘Something else.’ Was that the best way he could phrase the intensity of what he’d felt in Spock’s mind? ‘Something else’ had felt a lot like what he felt. Like affection, passion and longing-- a longing that extended beyond what had just transpired between them.

Spock looked embarrassed, cheeks and ears flushed green, unable, it seemed, to look Jim in the eye.

“The truth, Jim,” he said lowly, as though he were in pain, as though he had to force the words from his lips, “is that you have an uncanny ability to affect me. In ways that I am unable to address. I have never experienced this-- this feeling. And it is uncomfortable. Illogical. To-- to want to be closer to you when our proximity is already overwhelming. To want to fulfil your needs when I am unsure of my own.”

Jim listened, chest tight as his heart tried to stop beating. Though Spock’s tone was clipped and formal, and his face forcefully impassive, Jim could tell he meant every word. For once, he’d dropped his mask. Most of the time, Jim craved moments like this-- moments he saw Spock as he was, under everything. He’d never seen Spock so honest, and now that he’d asked for the truth he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it. He waited and, after a short pause, Spock continued.

“However, what I want is irrelevant in this case, as we cannot establish a sexual relationship.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed at that, part confusion and part suspicion. Yes, it would probably be a bad idea to ‘establish a sexual relationship,’ but should not and could not were very different things.

“Cannot?” Jim echoed, “It seemed rather easy last night, wouldn’t you say?”

“Easy,” Spock said, hard edges to the word, hard edges to the lines at the corners of his eyes, hard edges to the clench of his shoulders. “Yet inadvisable. You cannot tell me you are unaware of the uniqueness of our situation.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Jim shot back, eyes leveling.

Spock’s face hardened, “In fact, it is extremely relevant. I acted irresponsibly, putting your needs above the mission.”

My needs?!” Outrage flooded him, and he shifted forward, slamming a hand on the ground between them. “What about yours? I don’t recall you complaining when you were writhing around on top of me.”

Spock met that with icy silence, staring straight into the fire.

Suddenly furious,Jim shuffled out of the fur, reaching out to grab Spock’s shoulder and turn him, force him to look him in the eye. Spock couldn’t be allowed to hide from this. Not after last night.

But through the contact of their skin Jim could feel anger and fear rising like a tide, most definitely not his own. It froze him in place, the buzz that traveled up his arm, spikes of energy that shot through him. It hurt , but he didn’t know if the pain was physical.

“Very well,” Spock said coolly after a moment, taking Jim’s wrist and forcibly removing it from his shoulder. “ Our needs. If that pleases you.”

Jim straightened and, with a clench of his fists and a clench of his jaw, he struggled to his feet. He needed to move, so he walked a few steps away from the firelight. He took a few deep, steadying breaths and put his hands on his hips, staring into the dark of the cave. It was easier than looking at Spock right now.

It took him a few seconds to collect his thoughts before he trusted himself to speak. “I don’t think what happened between us had anything to do with needs, all right?” he said, stumbling already over what he was trying to say. “I-- I wanted it. Enough that when you gave it to me I just let you-- and maybe I shouldn’t have. But you can’t tell me you didn’t want it too.” He turned. “So here’s what I want now.” Spock’s spine was straight, and he stared at Jim as though expecting him start shouting at any moment. But Jim’s voice smacked of despair, not anger, when it came out next.

“I like you, Spock,” he said, hating himself for having to admit it now, when the lingering feeling of Spock’s anger still burned a hole in him. “And I would like you even if you weren’t the only other person for lightyears I could hold a conversation with. I know that for a fact because sometimes I can’t hold a conversation with you and I still like you. Do you see what we’re up against here? We’re trying to rebuild a shuttle that’s in pieces-- most of which are completely unusable. We have no equipment, no materials except the ones that are maybe on the other side of this damned mountain. If somehow we manage to get off the ground a year from now, who can say if we’ll make it into space? And if we do, who can say if we can navigate the wormhole web when we don’t even know where to begin? We might be on this planet for years. We might never make it home. We need to survive, Spock, but survival doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t living , too. I want to try this.” At that, he spread out his arms to eclipse the cave, their strange, makeshift home. “I know it’s not a good idea. I know it’s illogical and ‘inadvisable,’ but it’s what I want. And after what I felt from you last night, I-- I think it’s what you want. We deserve to find a little happiness out here, right? Do you...” Jim paused, arms falling lamely to his sides, momentum failing him and turning into one quiet, sad plea. “Do you want that too?”

The smell of smoke reached his nose and he cast his eyes to the pan over the fire. Spock seemed to startle out of a kind of reverie, following Jim’s eyes and using a strip of blanket to remove their burning breakfast. He practically tossed the pan to the side, then took a deep breath of his own.

The moment hung long between them.

“I believe it would be prudent to distance ourselves,” Spock said.

And that looked to be it. Jim’s heart sank.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Our emotional dependence upon one another is unhealthy--”

“That’s not what I asked!”

“And yet that is the only answer I am capable of providing. I apologize if it is not to your satisfaction.”

Expression souring, Jim felt the rage rise back up.

“And here I thought this was all about my satisfaction ,” he spat.

Spock said nothing, even though Jim could practically feel the unsaid words hanging in the air between them. So much Spock wanted and couldn’t-- or wouldn’t-- admit to wanting. But Jim wasn’t going to force him. Spock had already constructed some bizarre narrative where this was all Jim’s fault, and Jim couldn’t let himself play into that.

“Fine.” Jim turned again, kneeling to retrieve his crumpled shirt, then moving onto Spock’s. “Just sit there, then. I need some air.”

“You haven’t eaten,” Spock’s voice carried no inflection. No indication that he felt any of the pain Jim was feeling. Though by his words Jim wondered if some part of him wanted Jim to stay.

Want. What good had wanting gotten either of them?

“I’ve lost my appetite.”

With that, he stalked off in the direction of the lake, thinking he could probably do with a little serenity right about now.



Times like this, Jim was used to having someone. Anyone. When Ruth broke up with him, he’d run to Gary with his troubles. Years later, when Gary had broken his heart, he’d called his brother. This situation wasn’t exactly parallel-- there was nothing between Jim and Spock to break-- but Jim would have given anything he owned (which was, what, a couple of stiff furs and a pile of berries and leaves?) for some kind of sounding board. Some kind of comforting presence or sage advice.

He wanted to call his mother so she could remind him that life took time. That no problem was insurmountable with patience and work. He wanted to sit with Sam and play with his nephew to remind himself that there were things in the universe that were so much more important than his own problems. He wanted to visit the Farragut ’s observation deck with Carter and just complain for a few minutes, knowing she’d be on his side, maybe even throw some creative insults out. She’d always been good at creative insults.

Instead all he had was himself-- himself and his angry, stewing, despairing thoughts, plus that gaping hole of loneliness that was going to be a lot harder to fill if he never spoke to Spock again, which was looking likely.

So, he washed their clothes, scraping all evidence of the night before from the fibers with his fingernails, all the while thinking in circles to himself.

Spock had come onto him . Jim couldn’t control his wet dreams-- it wasn’t like it had been his intention to force Spock into an uncomfortable situation. And he hadn’t . Spock had been the one to straddle his lap-- the first to touch, the first to hike up Jim’s shirt and lean over him and fist his fingers...

Jim let out an angry sigh, trying to put the resurfacing feelings of last night from his mind. He had to dissect the situation, not relive it.

It had been one thing when Jim thought Spock didn’t have a sex drive. It had been one thing when Jim had thought Spock wasn’t-- nor ever would be-- interested in him the way Jim was interested. Jim could’ve been content like that. He had been content like that.

But now. Now he was furious, feeling guilty and tired and alone, but as he scrubbed his hands red and the argument’s fallout caught up with him, he began to second guess himself as he always did.

This wasn’t the result of malice. He knew that. For all Spock’s stubbornness, he did care about Jim. It turned out, he cared about Jim a lot . That right there was more than Jim had ever hoped for. But it was also the problem. He cared about Jim and Jim cared about him, and the second they became aware of that fact, Spock shut down. Jim wasn’t angry that Spock had rejected him-- he had dealt with rejection enough times in his life. What frustrated him was that they could have something. They both wanted something. But Spock, when offered fulfilment, denied it to himself and, in fact, suggested stepping back even farther , when all either of them wanted was to be close. Why?

Spock had tried to frame it as ‘filling a need.’ Maybe, at worst, ‘acting on impulse,’ but those were just excuses for allowing himself to feel an emotion for once.

No, this was all about fear. At least Jim could understand that much. Hell, he had plenty of those fears himself. If they built something together, a real relationship, it might fall apart. Then where would they be? Or, it could work out, and work well, and they’d return to their own time and have to go back to their lives as they were before each other, learn to live without each other. Or, still, there was the ever present possibility that one of them could die. Even now Jim didn’t know if he could go on without Spock, let alone if anything more grew between them. The very thought of it made his chest ache.

From all sides, adding something like romance into this equation spelled disaster. And yet, to Jim at least it made sense. Why deny themselves the rare and beautiful opportunity to choose, when all other freedoms had been taken from them? Why deny themselves the opportunity to happiness when they could easily never make it home?

But Spock saw it differently, and he had his own reasons for seeing it differently. And, really, how many times had Jim repeated those reasons to himself? He’d spent hours, days trying to convince himself that these feelings he had for Spock weren’t real, if only because he knew they shouldn’t be. Jim had told himself that they were getting too close. Jim had promised himself to step back. Jim had reprimanded himself for needing Spock-- his help, his company, his humor, his touch.

Maybe it was best to train themselves not to need. At least, not to need each other.

If only Jim knew how to stop himself from wanting , too.



After some time, and a long soak to calm himself down, he did return to their camp. Spock was still there, as it was probably still too cold for him to go very far in the other direction. Jim was grateful for that. He’d spent the better part of a couple hours trying to come up with something to say, and he thought he might lose his nerve if Spock hadn’t been right there.

At his approaching footsteps, Spock looked up. He was in the proper position for meditation, but it was clear he’d just been sitting and thinking. Jim could relate.

“Jim,” Spock said in greeting. It was almost meek, as though he were prepared for another monologue.

Well, Jim had to hand it to him. Spock knew him well.

Without a word of greeting, Jim made his way to the fire, which had burned down to a dim glow, and sat to Spock’s side. He crossed his legs, put his hands on his knees, and finally dared to look at the man beside him.

“Listen,” he said-- no preamble, trying to keep every ounce of emotion from his own voice. Even looking at Spock was hard, though. His eyes fell at once to the man’s lips, to the set of his jaw, the slope of his neck where Jim’s fingers had--

“I am listening.”

Jim shook himself out of it, focusing on Spock’s eyes. Nothing else. “Okay. I-- I understand.” By the look Spock gave him, he hadn’t been expecting that. Jim powered on ahead, barreled forward in case his nerves kicked back in. “You’re scared, and that’s-- that’s okay. This, us, everything, is terrifying. I feel it too. And the only way I know how to deal with fear is to power through it, keep going no matter what. But that’s me. That’s not you . You deal with fear by putting it in a box and putting that box in the back of your mind and leaving it there collecting dust. And I can’t-- I don’t want you to compromise yourself. You’re trying to do the-- the logical thing. That’s admirable. It really is. So, what I’m saying is…”

He paused, forcing himself to look away from Spock so he could rub his forehead where a definite ache was forming. “What I’m saying is, you win. But if we’re doing it your way, then we’re doing it your way. You want distance, and maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s what’s best. Maybe we are overly dependent on each other. If we’re going to get back home, and if we’re going to be okay once we get there, it’s best we-- we keep this professional. All function, no form.” He dared a look back at Spock for his reaction, seeing something akin to sadness in the slope of his lips. “So,” Jim continued, “we’ll work together just fine. We always do. Just, that’s it. That has to be it.”

Spock stared impassively following Jim’s speech, seemingly digesting it all. Jim couldn’t believe he of all people was delivering an ultimatum. But this was what Spock thought was best for them and Jim wanted to respect that, even if he hated it. And he hated it. Already his thoughts turned down dark corners. He couldn’t tease Spock anymore, couldn’t draw out those near-smiles with a joke or a gentle barb. He couldn’t touch, not even the brush of their shoulders as they walked through the forest. The target practice, the swimming, the companionship they’d developed-- it had to go. Of course it had to go. It was logical, wasn’t it? Yes, it hurt now, but when they returned to their own time and to their separate lives, it would be easier. They could part ways without having to rip themselves apart.

Even if it felt like something was ripping out of Jim right now.

They didn’t have the option of avoiding each other, so that left only one solution. Not lovers, not friends. Just this. Whatever this was. It left a hollow feeling in his chest.

“I apologize for causing you distress,” Spock said, “That was not my intention.”

“Please,” Jim entreated, “don’t.”

Spock paused and considered, face unreadable as it had ever been. “I accept the terms you have laid out,” he said, as though signing some kind of contract. “And I am grateful you understand my logic.”

“I never said that,” Jim all but snapped, trying and failing to restrain the anger that was still right there under the surface. Ah, and he had done such a good job beating it into submission, turning it into a quiet sadness instead. “I said I understand how you feel.”

Spock obviously did not know what to say to that. Jim tossed him his clean shirt, which had been laying in his lap, then nodded toward the cave. “Before it warms up out there, we should get a move on clearing that cave-in. If you don’t mind, I’d like to cancel shore leave.”

Nodding, Spock held his shirt in his lap for a moment, only the delicate clench of his fingers around the fabric to signify any emotion at all. “Of course. If you will allow me a few moments, I will meet you there presently.”

Jim didn’t ask what he needed the time for. Mere hours ago, he would’ve pestered, but now-- now he had to reign himself in. Distance, his mind kept repeating. Distance.

So he stood, grabbed their equipment and walked back toward the chamber. He felt sick to his stomach, aching all over, exhausted, but maybe he’d take a leaf out of Spock’s book and try his damndest not to feel anything at all.

 


 

In his own way, Spock had mourned Captain Pike. Not outwardly, the way a human would expect, but by meditating often over the emotions his death inspired, and by honoring his memory the best way he knew how, he had managed to find a sense of peace within himself at the loss.

This loss was much more difficult to categorize, to understand and honor, because Jim was not lost wholly. He still existed within the sphere of Spock’s life. He still worked alongside him, diligently clearing the cave-in, diligently mapping the wormhole web, diligently throwing himself into every task he took on. But something was missing. This was not the same Jim he had grown to know the past six months.

Time ticked forward, counted with the tallies on the cave wall that Jim carved faithfully each standard day. Spock saw few smiles on Jim’s lips, and none prompted by any action of Spock’s. The clever wit and confidence that had been so encouraging was replaced with quiet, staunch duty. Not hopelessness-- Jim had not nor would ever give up-- but the fire had left him.

It was the loss, then, not of Jim, but of whatever it is they had shared, that truly affected Spock. Especially knowing that it was his doing.

Jim had said Spock was scared, and perhaps he had been right. But logic had always been Spock’s safety net when fear took hold, and he could not understand why it wasn’t working now. Everything they were doing was logical. Putting distance between themselves was logical. And, true, Spock was no longer as afraid as he had been that morning he’d woken up beside Jim and realized what he’d done. But whatever it was that replaced that fear was overwhelming in its own way, and it bore deep into him every time he looked at his companion.



The sound of stones falling on sand echoed throughout the cavern as the two of them lifted broken rock from their slapdash mining cart and deposited it in the open air of the caldera. They were making headway, but Jim seemed to tire easily.

Spock did not mention his leg, nor did he suggest Jim rest. Jim was capable of making his own decisions, and it was not Spock’s responsibility if he pushed himself too far.

He did, however, ensure he himself took the heaviest of the rocks first. It was practical, he decided, because of his superior strength. It had nothing to do with care and concern.



A little ways away, somewhere to his left under the wide swath of blankets, Jim was shivering. They had passed colder nights together recently, unwilling to curl against each other for warmth as they had done for so long. Or, perhaps it was less that they were unwilling and more that they knew it would be unwise.

Space. Distance. Applied physically as well as emotionally.

But tonight, Jim was shivering, and Spock knew it wasn’t just the cold. He could tell by the quiet mumble of Jim’s voice, the way he clutched at his own shirt the way he used to clutch at Spock’s.

He knew that with one careful touch, he could stop whatever nightmare plagued Jim’s sleeping mind. He knew that with a gentle finger on the pulse in Jim’s temple, he could do one small favor for this person who was so important to him.

But it was because Jim was important to him that he had to restrain himself.

It should never have gone this far, he thought. Spock had allowed himself to need Jim, just as he had allowed Jim to come to need him.

It should never have gone this far.

He let the nightmare run its course and pretended to be asleep when Jim shot up in bed, clutching his chest, breath heaving with whatever hell he’d awoken from.



It was Spock’s turn to make dinner. Jim silently sat on their bed, eyes scanning tricorder readings for some kind of pattern to the back half of the shuttle’s decay in relation to the wormhole it had fallen from. Spock only knew this because he had asked earlier, and Jim had answered in stoic, professional tones.

Spock had tried to train himself not to ask, not to initiate conversation if Jim did not, but even when they discussed the practicalities of their mission Spock clung to the sound of Jim’s voice-- that voice that used to tell him stories during quiet evenings, used to laugh around mouthfuls of food, used sing off-key Terran songs he only knew half the words to. In many ways, Spock hardly recognized that voice when Jim spoke now.

Spock dug through the emergency kit, finding a fair stock of mushrooms and roots, a handful or two of greens. It would do. Digging deeper to ensure he’d gotten all of them (as it was hard to tell in the dim light) his fingers found the top of a small knob of wood. He pulled it from the depths of the kit and held it in his hand. The white bishop from their makeshift chess set. Of course, Jim had buried the pieces in here. They no longer utilized them, but the set had been the result of months of hard work. Distantly, Spock was glad Jim had not thrown them out entirely.

Spock clutched the bishop in his palm for a moment, an emotion he didn’t dare identify attempting to break through. Then, he set it back inside, took up his armful of food, and replaced the kit’s lid.



Shivering slightly in the cool breeze of early morning, Spock ducked inside the shuttle’s shell, plugging in auxiliary power and calling up their scans from the last ion storm. He had offered to gauge the intensity of the wormholes they’d passed through, to continue Jim’s work and see if he could find a clue as to why they had been sent to this particular point in time.

Jim had agreed that it was a good use of daylight, then announced his own plans to go gathering. Before Spock could request his presence (even though he didn’t need his help), Jim had grabbed his spear and his bow and arrows and gone out into the forest alone. Jim often went out into the forest alone anymore. Spock had watched him retreating through the trees, a communicator he wouldn’t use clipped to his belt. He walked stiffly, leg clearly causing him pain, but the desire to leave Spock’s company was apparently enough motivation to make him move past it.

Suddenly, Spock realized he had called up the map and had yet to even look at it, eyes unfocused on the screen while he lost himself in thought. Knowing he would be distracted if he didn’t, he brought up the planetary scan, found Jim’s lifesign and kept watch on the surrounding area. If any bulldogs got too close, he would know.

They still had to take care of each other.



The mouth of the cave looked different. It took Spock a few moments to understand why, and a few moments longer than that to understand how it made him feel. The “Starfleet Command” sign that Jim had crudely carved and nailed to the nearest tree was gone, as were the two bouquets of dried flowers that Jim had hung on either side of the opening.

Jim had told him when he’d picked those flowers, weeks ago on the first day of their shore leave, that it might be nice to bring some comforts of home into the cave. He had laughed about the human urge to nest, and told Spock the story of his first time away from the farm. It had been a good, calm day. Spock remembered the sun glinting on the golden crown of Jim’s head, the way he’d shined easy smiles over his shoulder as Spock had followed him through the trees.

It seemed, now, that Jim had second-guessed the necessity of decoration. Spock should have been pleased-- it was a logical way to think and act. But it did not feel natural. Unsettled, he went about his day, wondering at the logic of wishing someone to be the exact opposite of what he had asked of them.

 

Air. Spock could feel it when he raised his hand to the tiny crack in the wall of stones that still barred their way. It drifted quiet and cool over his palm, like a sigh, and carried with it grains of sand that slipped down its stream to Spock’s feet.

Months of tireless work, and they’d finally broken through.

Chapter Text

“Are you on your way?” Jim’s voice crackled through his communicator. It had been a good few minutes since Spock had toppled the last of the rocks blocking their exit out the cave, and he was due to arrive at Jim’s location with another cart of rubble, but that wouldn’t be necessary anymore. The hole he’d managed to make was easily large enough to step through, and the sight of what lay beyond it had arrested him.

Spock stood, statue-still, staring out over the dark expanse of a wide desert. White sand swirled in eddies along crags of black, volcanic stone, and the glow of starlight on the scene speckled the drifts and dunes like glitter. A chill breeze, heralding the freeze of night, blew steadily, stirring the stale air of the cave where he stood and tickling the scrub brush that grew along the mountain’s base. But the desert, though beautiful, was nothing in comparison to what it held.

Like the mast of a sinking ship reaching from the waves of a vast ocean, a crag of metal split the dunes, rising toward the sky and framing the stars with the angled tip of its wing. Whatever it belonged to was lost to Spock’s view, obscured by mounds and banks of quiet desert, but it was right there, within reach, some ancient wreck of some ancient vessel.

“No need,” he finally managed to say, reminding himself that awe was an emotion. “I suggest you make your way toward my location.” His voice was as numb as he was. All he wanted to do was to strike out into those dunes, to crest them and finally find whatever it was that had been tantalizing them all this time, the metal deposit that held the key to their escape from this planet. But it wouldn’t be right to do so without Jim.

“We’re through?” Jim’s voice eked hopefulness, relief, excitement, more emotion than Spock had heard from him in almost two months, emotion that Spock was sure he could feel even across their distance if he had let his barriers down. Spock found he was too distracted to examine the warmth that spread through him at the thought.

“We’re through,” Spock confirmed. “I will wait for you here.”

He only hoped Jim would be quick. They had mere hours before the night began to get too cold, and-- whatever it was they were about to explore-- it would be far too much work for the few habitable hours of evening they had left.

After a short time, Spock heard Jim’s footsteps approaching, gratefully without the dragging sound that meant he’d pushed his strength.

Spock did not turn at Jim’s arrival, merely waited, scanning the wing with his eyes, from the harsh angle of its tip down to where it disappeared below his view. Time had worn away whatever paint may have identified the vessel, but something about its construction looked familiar.

“Holy ship!” Jim half-choked when he came to Spock’s side, falling to the wall as he took in the sight before him. “That’s a-- that’s a ship .”

“It would appear to be,” Spock said calmly. He had the advantage of many minutes’ more time to digest the sight than Jim.

“Not a metal deposit, then,” Jim uttered softly, “a ship .”

He did not wait for Jim to compose himself before he moved forward, climbing over the last of the rubble and slipping slightly down the short slope to the base of the mountain, where stone turned to sand.

“The air is so dry here,” Jim remarked, a little breathless as he moved along behind him.

Spock checked his tricorder. “Humidity is in fact down by 70 percent.”

“That’d do it,” Jim said. “I’m not used to this.”

“Nor am I.” Spock could have said that the dry air was reminiscent of Vulcan. He could have said that if it weren’t for the chill that already tickled the air, he would feel at home with the air in his lungs and the desert beneath his feet. But he had not said something so personal in many weeks, nor would he start now.

Before them, the dune between them and the ship rose, high enough to obscure most of the wreckage from view, everything but the bent tip of its wing. His feet sank as he began to scale the sand, making progress torturously slow, but he held the tricorder out, scanning, picking up the structure of the shipwreck even before it came into sight completely. Behind him, he heard Jim laboring, but he did not turn to offer a hand. He did not slow his own steps. His heart was racing, and he had to know. After all these months, he had to know.

As Spock began to crest the dune, he let his eyes trace the wing downward, noting the way it thickened at its base, the way it held tight to its hull with rivets the size of his head, then the hull itself, bulbous and broken.

And, finally, as his feet found the top of the dune, he could see the crashed vessel in its entirety.

The hull had buckled-- a raw ripple of twisted metal against the ground, though only half seemed visible now. The desert had buried much of the wreckage, sand resting in slopes and waves along its jagged, torn edges. The metal was scorched from ages-old fires, pock-marked with sand from erstwhile windstorms.

The lack of humidity had kept the metal, if not the already damaged ship, in good condition, hardly a speck of rust on the shards and slices that had resulted from its crash. But it was stripped in many places, panels and consoles torn off, leaving bolts and loose wires hanging. Those wires swayed gently in the desert wind as glittering sand swirled itself into the exposed innards of the ship.

But his eyes did not linger long enough to take in much else. Instead, they moved outward, past the wreck that had arrested his attention, and scanned the rest of the landscape.

What he overlooked now was not one shipwreck, but hundreds. Maybe thousands. From this distance Spock could identify none, but they ranged in size from their own shuttlecraft to the monolithic vessel, the centerpiece in a disturbing tableau. Sand had laid itself in wind-blown layers over many of these ships, leaving wings or warp nacelles sticking out like seedlings. Others were piled on top of each other, shards of sharp wings slicing into cockpits, full decks of larger vessels completely destroyed by the impact of small cruisers. He looked upwards, mentally tracking the path of the wormhole exit they had seen. This must be where it deposited ships that slipped through its stream.

Jim drew up beside him, finally, laboring a little for breath. When he straightened, Spock could almost feel realization setting into him. Spock said nothing, eyes returning to the largest vessel, wondering why it smacked of familiarity in spite of its condition and age.

He turned his attention to his tricorder, attempting not to focus on Jim’s awestruck silence, the way his eyes lit up with the fire of discovery as they took in the ship and all that surrounded it.

“My god,” Jim muttered to himself. Spock did not reply.

Instead, he did the only thing he knew to do. “Scans show this vessel is-- was -- warp-capable,” he read out from the tricorder screen. “Three decks, five-hundred-thousand square feet. Likely meant for colonization. Capacity: four-hundred individuals. Age: 3,489 standard years. Origin--” Spock stared at his readings, some unnamable emotion tightening his throat. He would say it was a mistake, but the moment he looked back at the wreckage he could suddenly envision what it would have looked like in its prime, with paint streaked along its wing in perfect geometrical precision, with the script of its name flowing along its hull.

“Origin?” Jim asked, prompting Spock to continue, though Spock had entirely forgotten he’d said anything aloud. “Spock, what’s its origin?”

Spock swallowed, and as a cool gust of wind buffeted him he felt himself shiver.

“Vulcan,” he replied. “This ship is Vulcan.”

Jim turned back to it, and though Spock was not looking at his expression, he could only imagine Jim’s shock mirrored his own.

“How did a Vulcan colony ship end up here? And the others-- Spock. This is a graveyard .”

“They must have suffered the same fate that we did.”

“So, what, this is some kind of interplanetary Bermuda Triangle?”

“That would seem to be an appropriate metaphor,” Spock said, scanning the seemingly endless sea-- the carcasses of empty ships. Silence echoed around them, broken only by the whisper of the breeze over soft sand.

“Are you alright?” Jim’s voice was low, such that Spock almost hadn’t heard.

Spock turned to Jim, the question surprising him out of this strange sense of mourning calm that had come over him. Jim had not asked something so personal in a great long while.

“Yes,” he answered simply, though he no longer knew if that were true. A Vulcan vessel, carrying hundreds of souls, lost. Swallowed by this planet just as they had been. He wondered if any had survived, but part of him hoped their deaths had been quick. And then there was the matter of the other ships, the-- yes, it was a graveyard-- that stretched before them to the rolling white horizon. How many lives had this planet claimed?

“We should get back to camp,” Jim said after a moment, for once the voice of logic between the two of them. “Look at you, you’re already freezing.”

Spock looked to his hands, realizing only then that they were shaking. He didn’t know if it was due to the cold or the shock. In either case, he should not have expressed his discomfort so outwardly. He clenched his hands into fists and settled them at his sides.

“I am loathe to leave now. We have only just discovered--”

“Spock,” Jim said, voice hard enough to draw Spock’s eye to him. His face, far from the tightly clenched, expressionless mask he’d been wearing for almost two months now, looked concerned. “These ships have been here for, what did the tricorder say? Three-thousand years? More than that for most of them, I’d guess. They’ll still be here tomorrow.”

“You are not curious?”

“I’m tearing out my hair curious,” Jim responded, “but we have to do this the right way. Come back with something to carry materials, food so we don’t keel over, daylight to see by…”

“The starlight is quite bright,” Spock supplied.

“I’m putting my foot down on this one, Spock,” Jim said, though he did not sound authoritative. In fact, the tenor of his voice seemed almost gentle.

Spock took a moment to absorb his words, to look back over the scene. Then, he resigned himself to logic, as he always did eventually. “Very well,” he said. “Tomorrow.”

After that, it still took him a moment to turn his back, but when Jim began to descend the dune, Spock followed. Something in him was hurting, so he focused on the spot between Jim’s shoulder blades, forcing himself to think of nothing but the shift of fabric before him, something solid to set his eyes on.

But that only lasted until he drew level with Jim and they walked side-by-side back up the slope, into the cave, and forward.

Along the long trek back to camp, Jim occasionally muttered quiet, awestruck expressions, “amazing,” being the most common. Spock seldom responded but to agree, though he assumed Jim was talking more to himself than Spock anyway.

Until, of course, the questions started coming. Then, it became obvious that Jim sought an answer. So each question Jim asked, Spock jumped on it like a starving man jumped on food.

“How many do you think are out there?”

“According to the tricorder, scans identify six-hundred and twenty-one unique vessels. We could likely discover more buried under the sand if we had stronger sensors.”

Some time passed before the next question.

“Any others we might recognize? Federation?”

“Unknown. It is likely tomorrow will yield greater understanding.”

“Do you think any of them are in better shape than our shuttle? Something that might be easier to repair?”

At this one, Spock looked to Jim, to the hope that gleamed from the bright shine of his hazel eyes-- unnaturally bright, truly, in the dim light of the tricorder. “Given their age, unlikely,” he responded, but because Jim’s hope had a way of inspiring hope in him, he added. “But possible.”

Looking at Jim often reminded him that anything was possible. He had the light of exploration in him, steps strong and confident despite his fatigue, an adventurer’s curiosity fueling him. Spock ached physically with the emotions inspired in him by that confidence, especially when he felt his own so shaken by what they’d just seen.

They walked in silence for a while longer, and Jim began to cast glances at Spock which Spock pretended not to notice. If Jim needed something, he would say so. Spock had trained himself well to allow Jim to initiate.

Finally, he did.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay, exploring that ship tomorrow? We’re going to have to scavenge it, and-- Spock, they are your people.”

Spock took a breath through his nose and tucked his hands behind his back, looking forward. He did not wish to see the expression on Jim’s face that accompanied his tone-- that caring concern. It was so rare anymore that he could not allow himself the strange affirmation it instilled in him.

“Thank you for concerning yourself. I will be all right.”

Spock did not know if that was true. But he had done well controlling his emotions over recent weeks, in spite of the circumstances. Though he was shaken, it would take more than a millennia-old shipwreck to break him.

“Do you want to go over the scans together when we get back to camp?” Jim asked, and Spock turned to him, surprise almost causing him to halt his steps.

‘Together’ was a word Spock did not expect to hear Jim say again.

“Certainly,” he said formally to cover his surprise. “We can, perhaps, come up with a plan to maximize our time tomorrow.” It was likely Jim meant nothing by the offer. There were certain things they had to do together. Certain things made easier when done together. ‘Together’ didn’t mean anything more than what it meant. It couldn’t.

Jim nodded, looking straight ahead. “Great. Let’s do that, then.”

Spock felt a flash of longing even as he tried to stop it. He thought of the necessity of closeness, looking over the tricorder’s small screen. Jim’s knee near-touching his own, heads bowed together over the light. Except at night when warmth necessitated it (and even then only sometimes) they had not been that close.

But there were more important occupations for his mind than these selfish wants; his world was larger than the man beside him. Even so, he had to admit to himself that the implications of that world were easier to deal with knowing Jim would be there.

Conflict. Indecision. Spock was far too used to going to war with himself.

 


 

Jim didn’t know how they were going to explain to Starfleet when they returned exactly what they had found on Alpha Novus V. If anyone dared another landing party, they could probably find the ship graveyard, but it would be another two-thousand years buried under the sand.

And two-thousand years might wear away the paint on the bow of the modern Romulan trading vessel he uncovered with its bright stripes of red and yellow. Two-thousand years might rot the cushions in the bedchamber of an unidentified single-person cruiser he’d found smashed into the hull of a larger, shredded ship that looked Klingon if Jim squinted. Two-thousand years may cause the inevitable decay of the humanoid half-skeleton he’d discovered in the cracked window of a highly advanced escape pod, which was decorated with faded markings that could have been letters in the Standard alphabet. Two-thousand years might shove sand in the circuits of computers that, if he just had the time, he could probably figure out how to work. The knowledge of countless cultures was buried here.

But they focused the majority of their attention on one.

As the ship in the best objective condition, with the most usable and familiar metals, the Vulcan colony vessel was their obvious choice. Spock familiarized himself with the design, aided by having briefly encountered blueprints of such ships in his studies, and delegated tasks to Jim that he did not outright say were low-impact. It wasn’t hard for Jim to guess, though. Spock’s own projects had him scaling the tilted side of the ship to reach metal panels at the base of the wing. Jim’s projects had him pulling circuitry out of walls in the ship’s mess hall from a safe and comfortable seated position.

It was fine, if a little maddening. Spock did things like this-- quietly and sometimes subtly proving that underneath that emotionless mask, he did still care. Honestly, it made Jim feel terrible, but over the last two months he had gotten used to feeling terrible, and he doubted taking on more demanding tasks would help.

Even when they worked beside each other, Jim missed Spock. He missed Spock’s quiet jokes and mother-hen hovering. He missed the warm looks they used to share over their meals; he missed their philosophical debates, their comfortable nights of chess, the ease with which he could fall asleep beside him knowing Spock would be there to soothe the worst of his nightmares.

They were efficient together now, which was good. It had been the point, after all, of severing their friendship, but efficient was all they were. And Jim had been, so far, unable to stifle that overwhelming longing to have Spock back. Even just as a friend, a companion. Anything but this.

But it was probably for the best, given what they’d found-- this massive graveyard that still shocked Jim each time he looked out over it. If he had the option of coming to Spock with his grief at all this lost life, with his fear that they could have ended up in the same state-- well, he may well have dissolved. And that wouldn’t be good for either of them.

Maybe Vulcans had the right idea. If Jim were able to shut off his feelings, he would too. So now he tried to do what Spock would do. Treat everything like a project, a science experiment, and stop caring so much-- or, rather, stop letting on that he cared so much. About the ships, yes, but about Spock, too.

That was the secret. They both cared. They both cared so deeply it ate them alive, but neither one of them was willing to say so. It was times like these, though, Jim wanted to make sure Spock knew that he would drop everything to comfort him if he needed it. He wanted to let Spock know that he wasn’t alone, and that it was all right if scavenging the remains of this ship was unsettling. Hell, it was unsettling to Jim, and he couldn’t read the inscriptions on the walls or recognize the equipment they tore apart. For Spock, it was a part of his history, and Jim knew in spite of what he said that he was affected by it.

So Jim was glad their projects those first few days kept them separated. It kept him from trying to be that emotional rock to Spock. His comfort wasn’t wanted, nor did it apparently help, so it was best to keep his head down and allow Spock to process it all on his own.

But, of course, that meant Jim had to process it all on his own, too. He spent a lot of time thinking about his family, holding fake conversations in his head, cataloguing all the things he would tell them when he returned. This place, this beautiful planet with its endless surprises, had begun to feel more like a prison than a paradise. Jim couldn’t appreciate its beauty or marvel at its secrets without someone to share it with, so he had to share it with the people in his head, memories and hopes for the future. Perhaps that was a fault of his. He did miss people, and Spock couldn’t be even that to Jim anymore. Nor could Jim be that to Spock.

So they moved on, separately and together, existing in a strange limbo that Jim was still figuring out how to navigate.

With their attention on the ship graveyard, they packed up camp and moved themselves closer, still deep enough into the cave system to stay warm during the night, close enough to a spring to fill their canteens, but it no longer took two hours to trek to the site. Each day, as heat sank in and Jim was forced to get his mandated eight hours rest, Spock would cart their bounty back to the shuttle-- metal panels, still insulated; all the wires needed to reestablish some semblance of environmental controls and shields; support struts for the shuttle to sit on; and even some construction equipment, rudimentary welding materials. Spock assured Jim that he could get them functioning again with enough power, and Jim didn’t doubt it. Not if Spock said he could.

It would be nice not to rely on their precious phasers for crude welding. Especially because one miscalculation while, say, fastening panels around the power cells, could easily kill them.

But for all the progress they were making and how satisfied they both were by that progress, Jim began to nurse a steady worry. Spock was acting differently. Not like before, not the kind of different they had agreed upon, but the kind of different that spoke to something deeper.

Sometimes, on the occasions they scavenged the same section of the ship, Jim would notice Spock run his fingers down intricate lines of Vulcan script, inlaid into the metal. He’d look contemplative, sad, even. Far away. Jim never commented on it, still working to maintain that distance they needed to maintain, but it killed him not to say anything.

If they had still been friends, they could have comforted each other through the worst of this. If they had still been friends, he could have laid a hand on Spock’s back when he looked like he needed it, or helped him translate the emotional weight of this ship into numbers and statistics and tasks they could complete.

But he held back, just as he saw Spock holding back, and he just kept telling himself-- in a refrain that became as familiar as his favorite songs-- that distance was what they needed. Distance.

Until the day that Spock finally came to him. Not the way Jim wanted in his loneliest moments, but in a way Jim had missed.

Jim had been gently clipping copper wires from the inside of what looked to be the pilot’s console on the half of the bridge that hadn’t been crushed on impact. The whole ship was on its side, so the console hung over him, wires draped like the fringe of a tapestry in front of him. The copper would be useful if they could get long enough cords of it, so he untangled, snipped, untangled, sliced, the work of a few hours with his crude metal knife.

Partway into his task, he heard Spock’s footsteps approaching on the harsh metal, a sound that rang through his ears, tucked as he was into the console above him. He pulled out, casting his eyes to the corridor that led off the bridge.

The interior of the ship was a sort of dark, green-gray, oppressively dark much of the time, and incredibly Vulcan. Thankfully, there were enough gashes in the hull that light filtered in, impressive, stark shards of it that laid over dusty consoles and, sometimes, made the ancient metal gleam.

When Jim looked to the corridor, Spock was walking along the wall, illuminated in one of these slices of light, which cast thick shadows along half his face. He had his tricorder in-hand, looking a little lost even though he knew his way around this ship by now.

Jim tried not to look concerned when Spock met his eyes.

Veh El’es Ekhlami ,” Spock said, his voice curling around the strange syllables of the language and echoing in the empty carcass of the bridge.

Jim raised a brow. “Excuse me?”

“The name of the ship,” Spock explained shortly. “I managed to repair a computer in one of the living quarters in an attempt to learn more about this vessel. It was called Veh El’es Ekhlami , and it crashed in the year 2056.”

“Two-hundred years before our own time,” Jim mused. He labored to his feet, then made his way over to Spock, who stood purposelessly in the opening of the corridor, fingers slack around the device in his hand. Jim leaned against the wall (or, rather, the floor), crossing his arms over his chest. He wondered why Spock had made the special trip just to tell him this, wondered if maybe Spock had needed to talk about it. “What does it mean?”

“By its age, it means that they did not go through the same wormhole that we did. However, they were deposited in the same place. Therefore--”

“I meant, what does the name mean,” Jim asked, holding up a hand to pause Spock. He’d inferred what Spock was telling him from the date of the ship’s disappearance, and the implications of that were terrifying, but they were also big. They had to focus on one thing at a time. He saw the pain in those eyes, try as Spock might to hide it, and he wanted Spock to talk about what he’d come here to talk about. They could go over the rest afterwards. Jim hated himself for it, but he still considered Spock a friend, would still bend over backwards if Spock needed him.

Selfishly, Jim hoped Spock had come here because he needed him.

Spock met Jim’s eyes, the vulnerable look he was giving him entirely at odds with the clinical tone of his voice. “Loosely, the name translates to ‘Surrounded by Freedom.’”

Jim bit the inside of his cheek, looking down at his feet, and suddenly Spock’s sadness made more sense. “An optimistic name for a colonizing vessel,” he said softly, grief gripping him. As they’d torn the ship apart, he’d tried to push from his mind that these had been real people. Spock’s people. Vulcans. Now it was all too apparent.

“And sadly ironic, given the ship’s current state,” Spock said. “However, we know there were survivors. The lack of remains-- the fact that the ship has already been stripped in multiple places…” He trailed off. Rare for Spock. Jim stifled the urge to reach out and place a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“If you’re interested, we could scan the rest of the desert,” Jim suggested. “See if we can find evidence of where the survivors went.”

“That is not relevant to our mission,” Spock practically snapped, his face hardening. “It is likely the survivors died a slow death out in the desert. The search would be fruitless.”

Jim stood straight, arms falling to his sides in surprise. He had been so careful, and still he said the wrong thing. Talking with Spock was like walking on landmines anymore. “We don’t know that, Spock,” Jim said, voice hardening to match Spock’s tone, admittedly more angry at his anger than anything else. “Don’t you even want to consider it? If they survived long enough to scavenge the ship, they probably established some kind of campsite.”

“I fail to see what bearing that has on our situation.”

Jim shrugged, tossing his hands. “I don’t know. None, I suppose. But aren’t you curious? These are Vulcans.”

“They were Vulcans,” Spock corrected him. “And now they are gone. The past should not affect the possibility of our own future. We should concentrate on the vessel itself and what we may gain from it.”

Jim didn’t buy that explanation alone. Every day, he saw it breaking Spock’s heart to scavenge something that once belonged to his own people, and Jim thought that, if anything, the past should be honored, respected. Maybe acknowledged with more than a list of facts and figures the way Spock wanted. But he remembered the way Spock had spoken when they’d buried Captain Pike. His voice had borne no emotion, and Jim had had to practically beg him to say a few words of recognition. This was just how Spock dealt with things. Jim had been trying, and needed to continue trying, to understand and accept that.

But he was doing very poorly.

“Then why did you repair the computer in the living quarters?” he asked, somewhat harshly, if only because he knew Spock wouldn’t have a logical answer, at least not one that would satisfy. “Because you were curious, right? The same reason I want to look for evidence of the survivors.”

Spock’s eyebrows drew together. “My reasons for repairing the computer were entirely logical. With a more detailed blueprint of the ship taken from the memory banks, I am now able to identify areas which may contain useful materials.”

Okay, so that was actually a pretty good point. Even if they had been doing a fine enough job finding those areas on their own.

But this was simply another, ever-present reminder that Spock did not want to feel anything. Jim tried to get his brain to change tack, to calm his momentary ire and keep his tone neutral. It was just infinitely frustrating that Spock would seek him out, seemingly for comfort, then pull away the next moment. But Jim had been dancing this dance for two months now, so he regained his steps, diverting the conversation.

“Fine,” he said, trying to pick up the pieces of his earlier, fractured thoughts. “So... Do you have any working theories about how the ship got here if it didn’t go through the same wormhole we did?”

Spock seemed to consider this, his face shifting slowly back into his usual, collected sculpt. It was such a subtle transformation that Jim wondered how he’d even noticed, but he knew Spock. He knew Spock well . And he knew that this is what Spock needed and wanted to concentrate on now. Something that could be fixed.

“It is possible the intensity of the wormholes varies from storm-to-storm. I am, however, reticent to believe it.”

“Why? It’s as good a theory as any.”

“Comparing scans from the ion storm that stranded us to the storm we last recorded, it is far more likely that the web shifts.”

Jim felt himself dangerously close to a sigh, so he closed his eyes for patience. At this point, so little about the hopelessness of their situation would surprise him, but still. That thought stung.

“Of course it does.”

“That is just a theory,” Spock said, almost in reassurance, but Jim tried telling himself that he didn’t need his reassurance. Nor did he want it.

Distance, he kept reminding himself. Distance.

“But it’s one of the better ones we have. So, what, the biggest wormholes open up just over the mountains, and the ships that come through crash here?”

“Likely. Though I would not be surprised if there were similar crash sites elsewhere on the planet,” he said.

“So how did we avoid ending up in this one?”

“Velocity,” Spock responded simply. “A shuttlecraft missing its engines could not make it over the mountain.”

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. He supposed that made sense. If only the rest of it did.

“So, theoretically , the wormhole web shifts and theoretically there are multiple, large wormholes that open up in the same general area as the one we came out of?”

“Theoretically,” Spock confirmed. Jim wished his immediate reaction hadn’t been to smile at that gentle echo, but he had to fight the feeling all the same.

“So, theoretically, we have no idea which one is ours.”

“That is my understanding of the situation, yes.”

It was a shame that Spock was the smartest person Jim knew. He trusted Spock’s guesses more than he would trust most people’s facts, so these theories to him spelled disaster. Mostly because they were likely true.

“But we only have data from one and a half ion storms. So,” he paused, resigning himself to it, even though the thought settled something sick in his stomach. “So I suppose we’ll have to wait for the next storm to know for sure.”

“That is correct,” Spock said, something tightening his brows, and Jim wanted to tack on something positive. Of course we’ll figure it out. Of course we’ll make it. Of course everything is going to be okay.

But he didn’t feel it. The words would have been empty, and they would have played into a desire he shouldn’t have felt-- to comfort Spock. The very man who rebuked Jim’s comfort if it was offered, even if it was offered subtly.

“I believe we should return to our tasks,” Spock said after a moment, and Jim straightened, trying to reclaim some of the brief flares of frustration that had colored their conversation, only because it was easier to deal with than the rest of his emotions. He could at least keep the distance between them if he was angry at Spock. It was decidedly harder to do so if he was worried about him.

But as he agreed with a quiet, “Let’s get back to it,” and Spock turned to move down the corridor, Jim felt his face fall, the careful mask he had crafted for Spock’s sake fleeing him. No matter what he wanted, he did worry about Spock. He would just have to do so in the privacy of his own thoughts.


“Spock, can you come take a look at this?” Jim asked, the fifth planet’s day into their scavenging. He had been using the tricorder to locate other ships in the area, hoping to find one newer than three-thousand years. Though, sadly, he was out of luck on that front. The Vulcan ship seemed to be the most recent crash, or, at least the most recent crash that wasn’t decimated by its impact. But, while he’d been searching, a strange blip had come up on the tricorder. Not a lifesign necessarily. It was too far away to tell, but it was moving.

They were both at the base of the crash in the ship’s shadow, Spock slowly digging at the insistent sand beneath the vessel, attempting to get at panels that hadn’t yet been stripped by themselves or the long-dead Vulcan survivors. At Jim’s voice, he stood, dropped his shovel beside the rest of their supplies and made his way to Jim’s side.

He leaned over Jim’s shoulder, breath coming out sharp from his labor. Jim felt it ghost across his ear and he shivered in spite of the heat. “What do you think that is?” he asked, pointing to the strange reading. It didn’t move far, or fast. If Jim were to say it was doing anything, he’d call it pacing or, perhaps, swaying.

Spock reached around him and took the tricorder from his hands, and Jim released it immediately. Spock must be distracted to risk touching him like that, but they’d avoided the contact, thank goodness.

“I do not know. Perhaps the tricorder is malfunctioning.”

“I think I might go investigate,” Jim said, voice a little too eager if the way Spock’s eyes shot up to meet his was any indication.

But Jim was far too tired to hide it. He hated working closely with Spock like this. Some time away might be good for him. Though they tried not to wander off without each other in the desert-- it was still a dangerous, uncharted area of a dangerous, uncharted planet-- Jim figured a phaser and a tricorder could be protection enough, and nothing was quite as dangerous as staying in Spock’s company, risking the chance of accidentally smiling at him, snapping at him, teasing him, touching him.

“I do not advise it,” Spock said cooly, handing the tricorder back to Jim and stepping out of his personal space. That was, at least, a small blessing.

“Oh? And why not? Don’t tell me you’re worried.”

“Jim,” Spock said, a subtle warning in his voice.

Jim huffed, bringing a hand up to pinch at the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, sometimes I forget we’re still playing this game.” He didn’t, really. But it was easier to say that than to admit that sometimes he just wanted to get a rise out of Spock. Anything to prove he still felt something. Even though Jim knew he did. It was childish, but Jim had been at the end of his rope for a while now and he just didn’t have the strength to stop himself. “If you’re not worried, then why do you ‘not advise’ it?”
“The reading is approximately two miles away, in an area of this desert we have not explored. In addition, Its properties are entirely unknown.”

“I’ll have the tricorder with me. If it starts to read anything dangerous, I’ll come right back.”

“And your leg?”

“I’ll take a lot of breaks. And I’ll keep my communicator on me. It’s so close, Spock. I go farther than that when I’m hunting.”

Spock considered him, brows curling inward. “Why are you so determined to run headlong into danger? Do you not understand the risks?”

Jim rubbed his head. Even when Spock claimed not to worry, he treated Jim like he was made of glass. “Nothing risked, nothing gained,” Jim said simply. “Who knows, it might be something useful. Or at least interesting. The ecosystem out here is entirely different from our oasis. Wouldn’t it be a waste if we didn’t look?”

Maybe it was a little underhanded to take advantage of how well he knew Spock, but appealing to his scientific curiosity was the easiest way to convince him to do anything.

“I will go with you,” Spock settled on finally.

Unable to restrain his sigh, Jim dropped the tricorder to his side, trying to put all of his exasperation into one look. “You’re in the middle of something. I’ll be fine.”

“Since you cannot guarantee that assertion, it is only logical--”

“Spock,” Jim said, inelegantly flopping his arms at his sides, “don’t. I’ll be fine. And, frankly, I could use some alone time.”

That hurt to say aloud, though it was true. He had to just keep saying what was true. He’d decided months ago that honesty was the only way the two of them could function, even if it felt like all the honesty was loaded on his side.

Spock considered him, and Jim wished he could see that his comment had hurt him in any way. Not that he wanted to hurt him, far from it, but he wanted to affect him. According to Spock, he had that ability-- if only it ever showed. Jim knew he shouldn’t be testing boundaries like this. He had agreed to maintain distance. In fact, he had insisted on it. But actually following through on that worked much better in theory than in practice.

“You will check in via communicator every five minutes.”

“Spock--”

“Every five minutes. And you will keep me appraised of the situation as the readings become more clear.”

Jim took a deep breath. “Alright. Thank you. For letting me go.”

“I am sure you would have gone whether I allowed it or not.”

Oh, and it was happening. He felt a wry smile trying to make its way to his lips, the kind of smile that came from knowing that Spock knew him, understood him, even. The kind of smile that came from getting a reaction out of the man who, lately, felt more like a statue than a person.

“Right,” he said, moving past Spock toward their supplies, hopefully before Spock noticed his expression. “I’ll be back before you know it, and I’ll keep you updated.”

He grabbed one of their phasers and a canteen, ensured his communicator was at his belt, and began to walk in the direction of the blip. All he gave Spock was a wave over his shoulder, not even a look back. That was all he could really muster.

Maybe a part of him wanted to cast a glance behind him, just because he knew Spock didn’t expect him to and maybe Jim could finally catch him unguarded for a half a second, but he resisted the urge.

Instead, he trudged forward, plugging his destination into the tricorder then heading west toward the reading. He could follow the mountain range, where the sand was a little more shallow, and where the rock curved toward the horizon. Then he wouldn’t have to trudge through deep shoals and he’d have some kind of landmark to guide him.

The midmorning air was warm, and a breeze ruffled his choppy hair as he walked, feet sinking on every step into the white sand.

In spite of the heat, it reminded him of the aftermath of those heavy Iowa blizzards on the farm, when he’d pull on his boots and run out into the white morning-- snow reflecting light and light reflecting snow until it blinded him, flurries shining like sequins as they swirled over pale, rolling banks.

But the air was too dry, too hot. As Jim reached the base of the mountain range, finding that middle ground where sand met slope, the memories began to fade-- replaced instead with the stark reality of this place. The mountains weren’t quite as sheer here as they were on the other side of the range, but they still stood dark and fierce, reaching high into the blue skies. The landscape around him, too, was speared by dark crags of volcanic stone, and he didn’t doubt that larger formations could lie ahead. No, this wasn’t Iowa. This was nothing like Iowa.

Sometimes he forgot how homesick he was-- he’d been traveling for years, after all. But remembering the farm when he’d never been so far away from it always shot sadness straight into his gut. What he wouldn’t give for a blizzard, the chance to make snow angels outside with his brother, the chance to curl up in the living room with a book and a mug of coffee.

He shook his head, attempting to dislodge those impossible wishes. All these months, he had done so well, pushing aside the pain in favor of forging a way forward. He had to keep doing that, even without the extra support of Spock’s presence.

After a few minutes, he pulled his communicator from his belt, pausing as he’d promised. “Still alive,” he practically sing-songed over the channel, receiving a stiff “Confirmed,” in response.

Rolling his eyes, he clipped the communicator back to his belt.

Jim didn’t know what kind of mood had gripped him today. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and maybe he was letting some of that exhaustion color his already volatile emotions.

It hurt, keeping Spock at arm’s length, but he was so tired of feeling sad about it. Now he just wanted to lash out a little. Jim had no right to it-- he was being petulant, immature, and willfully so, but he’d been alone now for two months and he was scared. He needed some kind of human interaction. Even if it was negative. Even if it was just the frustration in the lines of Spock’s face when Jim called him out on being worried.

Jim moved along, noting the contrast of this place, white on black, stone on soft sand, heat on a landscape that looked like snow. It was a reminder of the infinite diversity of Alpha Novus V, and maybe a reminder of the lessons it had to teach.

In spite of the pain, or maybe because of it, Jim had learned a great deal from Tarsus IV. He’d learned how to survive, how to make himself strong, how to be there for people and how to take care of himself. Maybe Alpha Novus V-- be it paradise or prison-- would teach him something too.

But, god, that was still a terrible name. He ran over some more possibilities in his head to distract himself. Then, after a few minutes, he flipped open his communicator again.

“Still alive,” he said lamely. “And Spock--”

“Is something the matter?”

Jim almost laughed at the interruption. Incapable of worry, Spock had once said. Right. “No, no. Just wondering. What do you think of Alcatraz?”

“The old Earth prison?”
Jim shouldn’t have been surprised Spock knew what it was. The island that housed the Alcatraz museum was right off the shores of San Francisco, after all. “No. Well, yes, but I meant as a name for the planet.”

A few moments of silence followed the suggestion, and Jim felt more than a little self-satisfied. “If this is your attempt at humor--”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Fine, I’ll keep thinking. Kirk out.” He closed the communicator, hoping the suggestion had offended Spock a little. It had been decidedly less pleasant than previous proposals. But maybe it was the most appropriate name he’d floated by Spock so far. Though Spock hadn’t outright argued with him just now, Jim imagined what he would have said if he did. Probably would’ve brought up that no one had trapped them here for any purpose, and that neither of them were criminals. Logical reasons, of course.

Spock always had logical reasons for refuting his names, but Jim found as he trudged forward that it didn’t feel like a game anymore. Now that he’d said it, he wished he hadn’t.

As promised, Jim took frequent enough breaks, sitting in the shade of the stone and taking short sips from his canteen. Progress was slow thanks to the sink of the sand, but he was getting closer. With each small bit of distance covered, the tricorder picked up more. He registered plants somewhere just before the strange reading, likely growing near another spring in the mountainside. He also registered a few nooks and crannies a ways ahead, formed by larger walls of rock. It seemed, whatever this reading was, it was tucked into one of those nooks. That was likely why the sensors were having trouble with it. It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes into his trek that scanners actually revealed what it was.

“Still alive,” he said wearily into his communicator, tired of saying as much. “And, Spock, I’m finally getting a better read.”

“And?”

Wow, not even a ‘confirmed’ this time.

“And it’s a lifesign alright.”

“What are its properties?”

“Don’t get too excited,” he said, barreling ahead so Spock couldn’t protest the emotion. “It’s not humanoid. Certainly not developed, but it’s some kind of small mammal. And it’s not alone. I think it’s part of a herd.”

Even as he spoke, he watched the small group of purple dots, moving in the same wandering fashion as the first.

“I request that you return. We are unfamiliar with the life on this side of the mountains. You say it is a herd, but it could easily be a pack.”

Jim couldn’t really refute him on that one.

“I understand, but I’m going to keep going. At least see what else I can pick up before I head back.”

There was a crackling silence, then, “Confirmed. Spock out.”

A little surprised by how easy that had been, he kept going, wandering into an area that became decidedly rockier than where he’d begun. While he still tread along sand, the volcanic rock jutting out of the desert was taller, wider, forming overhangs and rocky slopes. Off to the north, toward the desert at large, he could see what looked to be paths leading under and around some of these crags. Nothing purposely constructed, but something he’d imagine the local wildlife using to reach the shade of the rocks.

Looking ahead, he seemed to be headed for one such path. Between the towering mountains beside him and the increase in height in the rocks to his other side, it was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, in spite of how much space he actually had, at least fifteen feet between the walls.

It was another five minutes or so of walking before the tricorder registered something new-- something almost certainly impossible.

It had only been a few minutes since his last check-in, but this was huge. He fumbled over his communicator in his hurry, flipping it open and nearly dropping it into the sand. “Spock,” he said, forgetting to tone down the urgency of his voice.

“Are you in danger?” came the immediate reply. Jim was too shocked to be annoyed.

“No, I just-- you won’t believe what I’m picking up here.”

“I’m en route to your location,” Spock said, without missing a beat and without even asking what Jim was looking at.

“You’re what? No, Spock, I’m fine. I--”

“I left six minutes ago.”

“You what?”

“I left six minutes ago,” Spock repeated, in the same, even tone.

Jim dropped his tricorder to his side, running a hand through his hair in frustration. “Why?”

“You claimed there were multiple creatures--”

“And we agreed I could handle it.”

“You agreed--”

“Spock--”

“I am concerned for your safety.” Spock said it in the same voice he’d said the rest, calm, cool, collected, as though this didn’t phase him at all. But Jim of all people knew what it meant for him to admit as much aloud. There was a pause, “It would be unfortunate if you were to be eaten.”

“You--” Jim sighed, rolled his eyes upwards and tried to find a little patience in the strip of blue visible through the crags of rock. “Okay, so you’re on your way. Can I please keep going?”

“You will remain in your present location.”

“Oh I will, will I?”

“Jim.”

“‘Jim’ isn’t a logical argument.”

“Jim, please remain in your present location.”

With a defeated flop of his hands, Jim glanced down at the readings. Mere feet ahead, just around a couple bends, the herd (or pack) of purple dots was still meandering, but it was what they were meandering through that had arrested Jim’s attention. Structures. Legitimate structures. Buildings . Signs of civilization, however old. How could he just wait?

“How will you even find me? I have the tricorder.”

“I noted the location of the mysterious reading in case this became necessary.”

“Of course you did.”

“I know it is difficult for you, but please exercise patience.”

A moment passed and Jim bit back the impulse to complain.

“Confirmed. Kirk out.” With that, he clipped his communicator back to his belt, and kept walking.

Spock wouldn’t know for sure that Jim had disobeyed, or, rather, ignored him. And all-in-all, the difference really was just a few feet.

He pulled out his phaser, deciding that Spock at least had a good enough point about the lifesigns being potentially dangerous. As he walked, he kept the weapon raised, ready just in case. And as the sand beneath his feet began to deepen, signifying an opening in the passage just ahead, he heard small noises that may or may not have warranted the caution.

What sounded like something between a goat’s bleat and a bird’s chirping reached his ears. At first, it seemed to be just one creature, but it was soon answered by a few of its fellows. The sound they made was surprisingly delicate, and Jim could only imagine the animals that made it were either harmless or deceptively deadly.

He took a breath, rounded the last corner, and leveled his phaser at the first thing that moved.

It turned out that ‘goat’ wasn’t too far off the mark. The animal that shuffled around in the line of his phaser was small, with what looked to be some kind of hoof shaped like a wide, flat disc, seemingly adapted to walk along the sand without sinking. Its legs were mere spindles covered in wiry white hair, which blended into a fuzzy dun brown the higher it climbed up the creature’s body. The little thing was thin, its neck long and curved, with a head almost like a deer that tapered into a trunk-like snout. It had no tail, no ears that Jim could tell, and baseball-sized eyes deep-set into its skull. As Jim watched, it turned toward him, pointed its snout upwards and flared its nose like a sunburst, like the nose of a mole. It made that sound again, and the rest of the herd looked up.

There were perhaps ten of them, and each began to squawk, pulling their noses from the sand where it looked as though they’d been foraging. Jim readied himself in case they were about to attack, but the one closest to him simply turned and began to hop off, discs slipping quickly along the sand. He followed it with his eyes as it gathered its herd with it, disappearing back into--

Into the nook he’d found himself in, which had widened into an open clearing with a wide passage on its far side. The place was large, at least a hundred yards wide and quite a bit longer than that. Along the lines of the walls and spread throughout the clearing in a perfect grid, were small, sandstone structures. He lost sight of the creatures, enraptured instead by the sight before him.

It was a town. A village.

Straight-cut and crafted sandstone had been used to construct the buildings, each small, square things; each with openings that likely functioned as windows at some point long ago. Some of these openings bore what he supposed he could call shutters, slabs of metal from the scavenged ship that hung from hammered hinges on the walls. There were no roofs, though he suspected anything made of wood or leaf would have rotted away by now.

Twenty structures in total (at least that Jim could see) were each large enough to hold, he assumed, a small family. Along the sides of some of the central homes, raised beds housed what his tricorder identified as workable soil, which must have been harvested from elsewhere on the planet, though it was intermixed with sand now. Whatever plants had once grown in them were long dead.

His stomach clenched at the sight as he walked forward, holding his breath, listening to the sound of desert wind over the rocks that still rose high on either side. Sand swirled slightly along the tops of the structures’ walls, eerie movement in a place that was otherwise still now that the creatures had disappeared beyond the passage.

Jim wandered forward toward the nearest structure, a perfect mirror image to the others, and peeked through the opening in the stone, hoping to find more evidence of the lives of these people. But even sheltered as this place was, the desert had reclaimed it. Sand laid a thick layer over the interior of the homes, and drifted up to the sides of the northernmost buildings where it must’ve fallen from the rocks above, creating dunes that had likely already buried a few buildings outside of Jim’s vision. In another two-thousand years, it might be completely consumed.

No wonder surface scans had concluded no record of civilization. In their own time, this would be lost history.

He stepped carefully, as though he might disturb whatever rested here. As though it were sacred ground and he didn’t belong. This place felt like it could have been a home, just not his own. And he was intruding.

He could practically see Vulcan families living here, the adults turning the sand into paste, drying it for rock, sleeves of their long, torn robes rolled up. Children helping their parents braid leaves for rope. Vulcans were known for working well in a community, and it looked as though they had established one.

How lucky were he and Spock, that they arrived just in time to find evidence of life-- evidence that someone else had crashed on this damned planet and done something with themselves.

He steadied himself against the solid wall of the nearest home, feeling a rush of heartbreak and hope. He wanted to lose himself in this place, to dig through the sand and uncover whatever had been left for him to find.

And there was even more . This clearing was large, yes, but Jim looked in the direction the small creatures had trotted, through that wide passage that led farther along the mountain range where the tricorder read more buildings. He wanted to move forward, to see how the Vulcan survivors had expanded beyond this tiny village, but the moment he took his first step, he thought of Spock.

Spock was on his way. Spock would walk into the thick of these buildings and the past would be right there -- something he couldn’t ignore or pretend not to see or pretend not to care about.

Jim couldn’t let him go through that on his own. Nor could he stomach the idea of exploring any further without Spock at his side. These had been Spock’s people. He needed to see what lay ahead even more than Jim did.

So Jim walked back the way he had come, head swimming with thoughts and impressions and feelings he didn’t even know how to begin to sort. And questions. Myriad questions. If the Vulcan survivors had made it this far, established solid homes, then what happened to them? Where were they now?

He leaned against the wall, stone digging into his spine, and waited.

It didn’t take long for Spock to arrive. Without the need for frequent breaks, and with the urgency his worry had likely instilled in him, Spock’s footsteps became audible mere moments after Jim had settled against the wall. When Spock rounded the nearest corner, his expression melted as much as it ever did into one of relief.

“You are unharmed,” Spock said, a breath escaping his chest as though he’d been holding it in.

“Of course I am,” Jim said, and he was about to tack on something teasing to diffuse his own unsettled emotions before Spock continued, taking a minute step forward.

“What is troubling you?”

Jim paused, surprise freezing him. Was he so transparent? Whatever lessons he thought he’d been taking from Spock in the quiet stoicism department were obviously failing. He didn’t know if he could explain what he’d seen, so he opened his mouth, closed it, then worried his lower lip between his teeth, forcing himself to look away.

“Jim, what did you find?”

Jim raised his eyes again, meeting Spock’s. He could see the concern in them, but Spock shouldn’t have been concerned about Jim of all people.

Please, don’t worry about me, Jim wanted to say. It’s my turn to worry about you. But he couldn’t say it aloud, so he said it the only other way he knew how.

“I think you just need to see it. Just-- stick close to me, okay, Spock?”

The request likely confused Spock, since ‘close’ was off-limits and since he’d been assured moments ago that there was no danger, but Jim asked all the same. He wanted Spock to know that he was right there. Spock was probably the last person on Alpha Novus V to need emotional support, or to admit to needing it, but damn if Jim wasn’t going to provide it anyway. No matter what they’d decided to be to each other, no matter how Jim had wanted to cling to his frustration and sadness, he couldn’t let Spock handle what lay ahead on his own.

Spock nodded, suspicion pulling his brows together and deepening the divots at the corners of his mouth. “Very well,” he said, and came level with Jim, holding out his hand in the direction of the opening. “Lead the way.”

Jim did, but made sure he never left Spock more than a step behind.

When they rounded the corner, Jim stepped to the side, allowing Spock a clear view of the town. He held his breath, eyes laser-focused on his friend.

Spock moved forward at the same steady pace, passing Jim, arms stiff at his sides. Jim didn’t fail to notice the way his whole body seemed to tense, the way his jaw clenched and his breath all but stopped. Then, Spock halted and stood just inside the grid of homes. A breeze fluttered his hair in its tie, the only part of him that moved.

Jim came forward, wanting nothing more than to reach out and place a hand on Spock’s shoulder, his elbow, the small of his back, anything to show he was there, but he didn’t want to shake Spock’s foundations any more than they were already.

He at least knew one way to help. Spock was terrible at dealing with emotions, but excellent at dealing with information. All they needed to do was to turn all this, everything that was too big to handle, into something Spock could categorize.

“Spock?”

Spock seemed to startle, glancing to his side where Jim held the tricorder lamely out to him, trying not to look concerned.

“Did you want to…” Jim trailed off, offering the tricorder a little more obviously. Spock seemed to take a moment to understand what Jim was asking, but he ended up delicately removing the device from Jim’s hands, nodding in thanks. He seemed very far away.

Pulling his eyes from the scene before them, Spock looked down at the tricorder, initiating the scan. Jim had already done as much, and he’d recorded the composition and age of the stones, the layout of the town. But Spock needed to do this for himself.

“This village has been here for more than three-thousand years,” Spock said, half in wonder. “However, additions and repairs are as recent as nine-hundred years old. The masonry and architecture is of Vulcan technique, as is the grid-pattern of the layout. It seems we have found the… the home of our survivors.”

“And if they built additions and repairs as recent as nine-hundred years ago,” Jim said, throat tight, “they lived a long time. Generations.”

Spock gave a stiff nod, but didn’t look at Jim. Instead, he moved forward, eyes falling to the tricorder whenever they lingered too long elsewhere. “This collection of dwellings would have housed, at most, a hundred Vulcans,” he said, voice so purposely stiff that it scared Jim a little. “Based on the crash, there would have been more survivors.”

“The animals I found ran in that direction, toward some more buildings according to the tricorder” Jim said. “They were obviously prey, so it’s probably not dangerous.”

Spock looked to Jim, and Jim saw his hands clench almost unnoticeably around the tricorder. “Then we will proceed.”

Spock’s voice was calm, but his eyes held something heavy and dark. It was like watching a hurricane blow in. Jim didn’t want it to get to the point that those winds picked up, didn’t want to see Spock break. But they had to keep going. They were both explorers at heart, and neither of them would’ve turned away from the promise held in the passage ahead of them.

After a moment suspended between the understanding in their eyes, they turned at the same time, moving forward. Jim stuck close to Spock’s side, but let him lead as his eyes traced the path on the tricorder screen.

Jim kept one eye on Spock and the other on the passage before them, already seeing a few feet ahead where it opened up again-- and already seeing the corners of what must have been another structure through it.

It turned out, there was much more to this village. Larger buildings on this side, set up in a similar grid-pattern, boasted more than one level, though time had crumbled some of the remaining walls. It was wider here, more open, and about twice as large as the space that had preceded it. The rock walls on either side of this clearing stood higher but without any overhang that obscured the blue sky. It made the sunshine glint stunningly bright off the old white stone.

What drew Jim’s eye, though, wasn’t the composition of the buildings so much as what cut through them, A constructed path-- wide enough to be called a road-- split the middle of the town, flattened slabs of volcanic rock that divided the area in two and led through to the next passage in the rock. Much of the road was covered in sand, but Jim could tell with a glance that the Vulcans had sliced the stone off the mountain with a laser cutter, or something akin to it. It made for a beautiful effect, if eerie. The passage to which the road led curved southward toward the mountain range, clearly laid with intent. Jim glanced at Spock.

“Where do you think that leads?” he asked, and for some reason he felt a knot of dread in his stomach at the question. Maybe it was Spock’s reaction to it, the narrowing of the space between his shoulder blades, as though steeling himself.

“There is only one way to be sure.”

Jim agreed, and they soldiered on, silent but for the crunch of sand between their boots and the stone. Jim felt himself tensing, a kind of fear sinking into him as they passed under a craggy overhang, between the thick rock walls, and rounded the corner.

The scene that opened up before them existed in startling, perfect contrast to the world they had just passed through. An acres-wide bay of grass lay in the hollow of the mountain range, where towering spires and walls of stone hugged the field’s southernmost curve. The grass, made up of wide dun-green shards, started sparse and sporadic near their feet, but thickened the closer to the mountain it grew.

Jim’s eyes darted round the meadow-- if it could be called a meadow-- noting a stream that ran along its eastern edge, springing from the mountain in a tumbling waterfall and slipping back into the rock just a few yards away from where they stood. It was beautiful, and its sound echoed gently around them. He thought suddenly that there must be more of these natural springs around for the grass to grow so thick here, so he scanned the mountain range for signs of waterfalls, but what he saw instead gave him pause.

Jim reached out a hand instinctively to Spock’s arm, gripping his elbow without once taking his eyes off the sheer mountainside.

Vulcan script was scrawled along the towering rock at the far edge of the meadow. It was carved deep into the stone, deep enough that they could see it even from this distance. He doubted Spock could make out what it said from here, but Jim had no doubt he recognized it for what it was. It looked to be some kind of monument, and inspired in Jim a hollow feeling of mourning that nearly made his knees buckle.

Spock didn’t seem to notice the hand on him, but broke the contact when he moved forward, zombie-like toward the meadow. The tricorder fell to his side, followed by his arms. Suddenly, his shoulders were lax. He knew something Jim didn’t.

What could this mean? What had this place been to these people?

Spock stopped a little way ahead of Jim, eyes downcast. It took a moment for Jim to collect himself, jogging forward the best he could to Spock’s side.

“Spock,” Jim said, quiet and entreating. He didn’t know how to follow it, didn’t know what to say or ask. He just had to say something to break the silence that felt taut between them. Without a glance at Jim, Spock got to his knees, and Jim followed the line of his eyes downward.

The grass where Spock knelt had been flattened by a small metal panel, likely taken from the ship, cut into a perfect square and set here with some sort of intent. It was a little overgrown, but Spock brushed off the grass that lay on top of it. Vulcan script was carved into the metal, something Jim couldn’t even begin to read. But it obviously carried some weight. When the entirety of the message revealed itself, Spock sat back on his heels. His eyes lifted, scanning the meadow. Jim followed his gaze, noting other places where the grass wasn’t growing. More of these panels, Jim guessed.

“Spock,” Jim said again, kneeling beside him and noticing only now that Spock’s shoulders were trembling. The motion was slight, so slight that Jim thought it might be a trick of the sunlight reflecting on the nearby stream. But as he scanned Spock’s face for answers he found that the storm had darkened in his eyes. “What is it? What are all these?”

Spock didn’t look at Jim, merely pulled the tricorder from his shoulder and shoved it into Jim’s chest, knocking him off balance. Then, Spock stood, turning on his heel and walking back in the direction they’d come. Jim pivoted, following him with his eyes. “Spock!” he shouted, but Spock didn’t seem to hear, an unknown purpose speeding his steps as though he were fleeing. Jim looked down to the screen, trying to figure out what it was that had set Spock off.

And then he saw the readings.

Jim struggled to his feet immediately, catching sight of Spock disappearing around the corner back toward the town. “Spock, wait!” he jogged to catch up, a little lopsided on his leg, gripping the tricorder whose readout screen listed the number of bodies buried in this meadow. Two-thousand and fifty-seven Vulcans. Each with a panel marking their grave.

Jim was not nearly as fast as Spock, so even jogging as Spock walked he didn’t actually catch up to the man until Spock was almost completely outside the village. Jim lunged forward, grabbing Spock’s elbow and wheeling him around. “Spock, stop!”

Spock’s eyes met his, and Jim saw it-- something in him was screaming, and it was taking every single bit of control he had to hold it in.

“Spock, calm down. It’s okay.”

"Two-thousand and fifty-seven of my people lived and died here,” he said, voice wavering. “two-thousand and fifty-seven--”

“Spock,”

“Jim, please.” Spock turned away, pulling his arm from Jim’s grasp and heading down the passage they’d taken to get here.

Jim followed, heart pounding with worry. “Spock, talk to me.”

“That would be unwise.”

“Okay, then tell me what you need.”

“I need meditation. Quiet. I need…” Spock trailed off, slowing then stopping in his tracks, fists clenched at his sides. Jim was afraid to move too close, but he approached anyway, a hand outstretched.

“What do you need?” he asked again, chest tight.

Spock forced his hands open, tried to smooth out his shoulders, tried to straighten his spine. But he had curled in upon himself like a dead insect, stiff and unmoving, whether he willed it or not. “I do not know what I need,” he practically whispered.

Jim’s heart broke at those words. Spock knew everything , and if he didn’t know something he damn well figured it out. Jim could only imagine the kind of war that was waging in him-- grief and heartache compounded by the shame of feeling anything at all.

Jim put a hand on Spock’s arm and stepped in front of him. Nervously meeting Spock’s downcast eyes. “Please, Spock,” he said, stepping a little closer, “let me.”

Whether or not Spock knew what Jim meant, he gave a stiff, curt nod, an expression of trust Jim wasn’t sure he had earned. But even though neither Jim nor Spock knew what Spock needed, Jim did know what helped him when he was gripped with fear and sadness and loss.

Hesitating for the briefest of moments, Jim raised a hand to the side of Spock’s face where it hovered just above the skin. Jim waited for Spock to draw back, to smack him away, but Spock simply stared at him, eyes wide.

There wasn’t any turning back now. With a hard swallow, Jim drew the corner of his lip between his teeth, then softly brushed his fingers against Spock’s temple, a caress so light it barely felt like they’d made contact at all. Without knowing exactly how to convey it, he tried to exude everything into that touch, soothing calm, affection, assurance that Spock wasn’t alone, that he was going to be okay.

Then, in a moment that stole the breath from Jim’s lungs, Spock leaned into the touch of Jim’s fingers, eyes fluttering closed as he breathed through his nose. “There,” Jim said around the choke in his throat, “just breathe.”

He cupped the curve of Spock’s face, more sure of himself now, curling his fingers slightly, afraid to move in case he broke the moment or scared Spock away. But they stood like that for a long time.

He didn’t know if it was the emotions he tried to project through their contact or the simple matter of his touch that calmed the storm in Spock, but under his hand Jim felt the release of tension, inch by inch, heartbeat by heartbeat. He timed his own breaths to the rise and fall of Spock’s chest, willing it to slow.

Finally, Spock parted his lips, a soft sigh escaping. “I am troubled,” he said, voice so quiet Jim had to strain his ears to hear, “because they simply... gave up. They resigned themselves to their fate. They established a settlement rather than attempting to repair their ship. They never tried to return to Vulcan. They--” he stopped himself, perhaps hearing the emotion in his voice that he’d been so good at stamping down.

This was too much for Spock, Jim could tell. The final straw. And though touching him so intimately hurt, and though Jim knew they would have to return to their detached efficiency after all this, he couldn’t be selfish right now. He couldn’t protect his own heart when Spock’s needed him.

“They were colonists , Spock” Jim said, urging Spock to lift his eyes. “These people fell into a horrible situation and lived through it, did exactly what they were meant to do. How many generations do you think that was?”

“Likely ten, though their numbers must have dwindled--”

“Spock, ten generations . That means they had spouses, families. Life . How is that a failure?” Jim tried for a smile, something warm, encouraging.

Spock’s brows tilted upwards, surprise and something else smoothing the furrows on his forehead. They were silent for a moment, Jim hyper-aware of the heat of Spock’s skin, the sound of the breeze billowing around them, the coarse fabric of Spock’s shirt under his touch.

Then, slowly, Spock raised his hand and laid it over Jim’s, the pads of his fingers stroking Jim’s knuckles with such delicate wonder that Jim almost forgot to breathe. And through that touch, he felt his own emotions reflected in Spock, coming from Spock. Affection he wasn’t sure Spock still felt for him now projected as clearly as though Spock had whispered it against his lips.

It overwhelmed him, like a tidal wave rising and wetting the soles of his feet until his whole body fell into its current. After everything, this had remained the same. Spock cared for him, so deeply Jim wondered that he had ever doubted it, ever thought Spock’s affections had waned with the force of distance.

As Jim stood dumbstruck before him, heart hammering against his ribs, Spock laced their fingers together and pulled Jim’s hand from his face, bringing it between them and cupping it in both of his own. Jim pulled his eyes away from the contact, focusing on Spock’s face, the tips of his ears tinted green, a softness to the way he held his lips. Jim ached, watching Spock’s guard fall like this, completely undone, and he was sure Spock could feel the admiration and awe and relief that Jim exuded through their contact.

Because he could also feel Spock’s. He had missed this feeling, the simple comfort of warm eyes and gentle understanding, the way Spock looked through him and Jim looked through Spock and they always saw each other at their worst, their most vulnerable, and never balked at what they found.

Oh, but this would hurt later, when it all went away.

After a few breaths, Spock gently pressed their clasped hands to Jim’s chest and released him, arms falling to his sides, saying something in his expression that was just as incomprehensible to Jim as the Vulcan script had been.

“Thank you,” Spock said, and maybe that was it. Gratitude. He still wasn’t looking directly at Jim, but that was alright. Jim could barely look at Spock either, but he suspected he was in a better emotional state than the man before him.

Jim felt a soft, reassuring smile touching his lips, unbidden, but he felt too much to hide it. He held his hand against his own chest where Spock had left it, fingers still tingling from the contact. Slowly, he released Spock’s arm.

“Better?”

“Calmer,” Spock corrected gently. “But I would like to leave this place.”

“Of course. Right,” Jim said, realizing he was standing directly in Spock’s path and stepping to his side. He gestured forward, suddenly embarrassed by the way they’d touched, embarrassed to have been so vulnerable at the moment Spock needed him to be strong.

But it had worked. And though Jim was terrified to speak, to somehow ruin the delicate balance Spock had achieved, he wondered that Spock had allowed him to help. Under all the frosty silence they’d crafted these last couple of months, he still trusted Jim.

They walked on together in silence, but not the kind of silence that they had become used to. No, this was much more akin to the quiet contentment they shared when they had allowed themselves the comfort of each other. Jim tried telling himself not to get used to it. But savor it? That, he could do.

 


 

It was kind, if unecessary, for Jim to dance around the subject of the Vulcan village. The entire walk back to their cave, he was silent, and Spock felt reticent to break that silence. The last hour had been enlightening in myriad ways, and there was still so much to digest, to consider, to meditate over and then, only after that, to discuss.

There would be much to discuss. For now, it sufficed to tell Jim that he needed time to meditate. Jim was reluctant to leave Spock alone, and Spock was insistent that Jim not go wandering again, and so they retreated to camp. Spock to absorb himself in the darkness and Jim to get a much-needed meal and some time to rest.

“Will you attempt to sleep?” Spock asked as they made their way into the cave’s depths. He could hear Jim’s fatigue in the rhythm of his steps, an obvious limp.

“Sleep? There’s at least six hours before bedtime.”

“Then how will you occupy your time?”

Jim kept his eyes forward as the light from the tricorder illuminated their path, his voice hesitant. “I might go over some of these readings,” he said. It was delicate, as if he worried even saying that much might cause Spock another emotional outburst. But Spock was under shaky control now, still processing so much he didn’t know how to process. If he let his mind wander for more than a moment, it would retreat to the village, to those falling structures and silent graves. He couldn’t allow that until he was safe, seated, and able to close himself off. After meditation, he would be fully functional. Or so he hoped.

“That is wise. I regret I am not able to assist you.”

“It’s a small screen,” Jim provided. “You know, always hard to go over these things together.”

“Indeed,” Spock said, though he knew that was an excuse to make him feel better. They had spent many hours huddled over that screen together in the past. “Please inform me if you have any revelations after you have had a chance to examine the data.”

“I think we’ve had plenty of revelations for one day.”

Spock didn’t know if Jim referred to the revelation of the Vulcan survivors, or the revelation Spock was slowly undergoing, but he was right that much had come into startling clarity. Still, Jim didn’t know the contents of Spock’s mind-- the revelations he himself had come to. Would come to. If he let himself come to them.

But even considering the weight of these thoughts without delving into them was too much, and he found he could only concentrate on the bouncing beam of light that illuminated their path, the crunching sound of their footfalls, the impressions in the sand where they’d dragged their mining cart, the footprints they’d already left through the now-familiar passage. Physical, tangible things.

They neared their campsite, remains of last night’s fire in view, and Spock moved forward to tug that stiff, heavy fur off their makeshift bed.

“I do not know how long I will be in my meditation,” Spock said, clutching the fur between his fingers out of Jim’s view.

“Don’t worry,” Jim said, and Spock heard a small, nervous smile in his voice. “I’ll be here-- and quiet-- the whole time.”

When Spock turned back to Jim, he knew his own expression contained gratitude, maybe too much, but he had regained such control over so many of his myriad emotions that if gratitude was the one that chose to show itself, he counted himself fortunate.

As Spock crossed his legs on the cushion of the fur, he could feel Jim’s restlessness. Whether it was the remnants of the tentative mental link that had been formed by the touch of their hands or the fact that he simply knew Jim preferred to remain active, he did not know. However, after a few minutes, he heard Jim settle, likely absorbed now in the readings. But Spock was trying to force his attention inward, where the real battles lay.

He focused on his breaths for a few minutes, mentally repeating mantras of control to center himself, falling into the familiar words and allowing them to sweep him away, into the parts of his mind that rolled and shook like a ship on choppy waves.

two-thousand fifty-seven people. Ten generations. The numbers swirled through his mind like riptides and they hurt . He tried to categorize that hurt, to understand its origins.

They had estimated that four hundred people had been on the colonizing vessel, and one hundred fifty people may have survived the crash. That meant that the majority of the two-thousand-fifty-seven lost souls in that graveyard would never have known the planet Vulcan. They would never have seen the spires of Shi’Khar, known the taste of redspice. Their katras would have been lost at the moment of their deaths, with no one to transfer them to a katric ark. They would have suffered great hardships after losing the majority of their original number and creating so much from scratch. And yet as far as Spock could tell, they had not attempted to leave this planet.

Had the challenge proved too much? Had they discovered the wormhole web and calculated the odds of getting home as Spock had? But even in the face of those odds, wasn’t it worth a try? They had not attempted to solve their problem. They had not tried to get home. Why?

But Jim’s words came back to him. ‘They were colonists.’ How simple an answer, and yet how logical. Of course, if they had been assigned a purpose, these Vulcans would execute it. By a miracle, they had crashed in a hospitable desert. Given the changing climate of the planet, it was likely it had been warmer three-thousand years ago. Warm enough that the heat waves rising off the sand may have whispered something like home.

It was easy to allow his imagination to wander, though he tried to suppress it. It was easy to think of the trek from shipwreck to shelter, the green blood that would have dotted the white sand as they carted their injured, their tired children, long robes trailing. It was easy to imagine the endless toil of burying their dead, the way they must have dug into the dirt of that meadow with makeshift tools the way Jim and Spock himself had dug the graves of their crewmates.

But the Vulcans would have buried far more people after their crash-- somewhere around two-hundred-fifty of them. They may have lost children. Elders, even. Friends, family, colleagues. Bondmates. Then, they had given up. Resigned themselves to their fate. Trapped.

Perhaps Alcatraz was a suitable name for the planet after all.

Or, Spock forced himself to remember, they had continued on. Fulfilled their purpose. Lived. Thrived-- for a time.

Was their legacy one of resignation, or of hope? Jim thought the Vulcans had succeeded in something. And, perhaps they had. Perhaps they had even been content.

But Jim frequently saw hope where Spock did not. Jim saw promise where Spock saw none. Jim saw potential and possibilities where Spock saw challenges. He wanted to believe as Jim believed, to feel as Jim felt, but it had become clear over the last two months that their beliefs might always be at-odds. Even (and especially) when their feelings were not.

And then his thoughts slipped again wandering from the source of his pain, which still burned like a fresh wound, to the source of his comfort, which pulsed and shined like sunlight in the recesses of his mind. For all that they had tried to distance themselves, Spock always unconsciously sought thoughts of Jim when he needed reassurance, comfort, hope.

Jim wanted to try ‘this,’ he’d said those months ago. In spite of the illogic of it all. In spite of Spock’s inexperience and the fact that he could never give Jim the emotional connection that Jim wanted-- needed.

And Spock had acted logically in the aftermath of that tumultuous mistake, done the reasonable thing. He had chosen not to complicate their lives. And now Spock was sick with wanting, just as Jim was. To what end? Reducing the pain of when they returned, reducing the risk of staying here alone as long as they had to, but at the cost of something else. Contentment. Maybe even happiness if Spock would allow himself to feel it.

Perhaps their success, like the success of the Vulcan survivors, should not be measured in their tangible goals, but in the way they used their time, their life, their energy.

It had taken two-thousand and fifty-seven of his people, buried in ancient graves on an unnamed planet, to make him reconsider the balance of logic and emotion. But now he reconsidered it. And when he was able to sift through the sights, smells and sounds of that abandoned village without the pang of loss to cling to him, he would be able to understand what that meant.

Hours must have passed as Spock mulled over these thoughts, but he took his time with them. On the edge of a decision that would change his life forever, he could not afford to hurry. To rush headlong into something just because he wanted it.

He breathed deeply, steady in the knowledge that this decision would be reached logically, and at peace with the fact that it also had to be reached emotionally. The two could not always be treated separately.

More time, he decided. Just a little more time. He could not allow himself to decide anything in the wake of what he had felt today, but he could promise himself that a decision would be made.

Slowly, Spock pulled the hooks from his thoughts, distancing himself from the village, his people, from the graveyard and the empty ship and the whole of this planet that had claimed the lives of thousands of individuals. When he took his last, deep breaths and opened his eyes, he found his gaze moving thoughtlessly to the side, where he still felt Jim’s presence.

Jim was lying on his stomach on a rumpled cushion of blankets, holding the tricorder out in front of him and scanning its screen with sharp eyes. Only his face and hands were fully illuminated in that white-blue glow, and it was likely he couldn’t see Spock had come out of his meditation. Spock took advantage of that to watch him for a while. Jim scratched his head, gnawed on the corner of his lip, ran his tongue along his teeth, all the while dutifully reading. Jim could be reckless and overactive, but when he focused on something, he gave it his full attention. It would make him an excellent captain someday, Spock thought fondly.

The emotion welled up against his will, but it did not surprise him. Fondness. Longing.

More time, he reminded himself.

Spock began to experience a moment of guilt for continuing to watch Jim while his presence was unknown, so he cleared his throat, finding it almost comical when Jim practically tossed the tricorder in his surprise.

“Spock!” Jim said, scrambling to a sitting position and shining the light of the tricorder at him, “You’re awake. Well, you know what I mean.”

Spock shielded his eyes against the brightness, which prompted Jim to lower it. He set the tricorder down on the floor between them so the light shone upwards and cast a dim illumination over them both, throwing impressive shadows along the rough cave wall. “Indeed,” Spock said, unable to repress the flash of pride that his voice now sounded steady to his own ears. “I am surprised you did not decide to wander off.”

“I was under strict orders to stay right here and rest,” Jim said with a twitch to his lips, though Spock knew that ‘orders’ were the last reason he had stayed. “How are you feeling?” Jim tacked on before Spock could respond.

Spock considered the question, unwilling to lie or dodge after the insights his meditation had given him.

“I feel fine,” Spock replied, and his answer must have surprised Jim because the man’s eyes widened before his smile warmed, smoothed, softened and spread itself, crinkling his eyes in that way that was endearing and sorely missed.

“Good.”

“Did you make any discoveries?” Spock gestured to the tricorder.

Jim looked to it, then shot his eyes back to Spock. The smile slipped. “Are you sure you want to talk about this now? You’ve had a long day.”

“The day has not been longer than any other, by pure span of time.”

“You know what I mean.”

Spock appreciated the concern, but he was alright. Somehow. After everything he’d learned today, somehow he was still alright. “I am quite centered now, Jim.”

Jim looked skeptical, but beckoned Spock over all the same as he took the tricorder from the ground. Spock stood and approached, watching as Jim smoothed out the blankets to make him a place to sit, then crossed his legs with the tricorder in his lap.

Spock settled beside him, knees a bare millimeter from touching as they were every time they shared the small screen. Perhaps he was more aware of it now due to the contents of his meditation.

“So, I did find out a few notable things,” Jim began, and it sounded as though he was warring between sadness and excitement. “Those garden beds we found? Alongside some of the homes? They actually grew Vulcan plants in them.”

“It would make sense for a colony vessel to contain seeds. I am, however surprised they did not plant them on a wider scale. If the meadow is any indication, there are areas near the established village that could have been agriculturally useful.”

Jim gave a noncommittal tilt of his head. “Maybe, but they probably wouldn’t have risked disturbing the natural ecosystem. Some of the plant evidence we picked up indicates prolific species.” He pointed to the readings, and Spock nodded.

“That is an insightful observation, Jim.”

Jim glanced at him with a smile on his lips, then as though realizing their proximity, hurriedly looked back to the screen. “Right. Thank you. And, ah, let’s see. Oh, I also went over the scans of the buildings themselves. Looks like the sandstone was handmade, as expected. I haven’t seen any naturally occurring sandstone here, but you have to admit that’s impressive. If they started with, what did we estimate? About one-hundred-fifty people? They must have worked quickly.”

“Necessity does breed ingenuity,” Spock said. “Our own situation is a rather perfect example.”

“I suppose so,” Jim said softly. “But I can only imagine how much work it took to make a whole town from scratch. Let alone one that lasted three-thousand years.”

“Indeed. That they accomplished so much with so little is admirable.”

Jim raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve changed your tune, Mister Spock” he observed, and the warmth folded in the sound of his name made Spock’s heart thrum.

Spock nodded, eyes on the screen as he suddenly found looking at Jim directly to be difficult. “During my meditation, I reconsidered a great many things. You are correct in saying their survival was not a failure. My people are… resilient. These colonists took the most logical course of action to ensure both their survival and the fulfilment of their purpose, and they did well. Should we make it back to the Federation, I would like to find a way to commemorate them.”

Jim’s shoulders fell a little and his chest rose with a deep breath. He waited a beat before he responded, but when he did his voice contained all the awe and affection that Spock had felt flowing through his touch earlier. “I think that’s… an excellent idea. And, Spock?” Spock met his eyes, a question in them that he did not ask, “I’m glad you feel that way.”

Feel. Spock immediately corrected Jim in his mind. He thought that way, but he didn’t feel that way. Then again, perhaps they were one in the same.

“Thank you, Jim,” Spock said gently.

“For what?”

He should have expected the question, but still it took him off-guard. Spock thought on it for a moment, wondering how to begin. He felt he owed Jim so much, and none of it was easy to translate. Nor would all of it be wise to say aloud. Though he was centered, he still felt the undercurrent of emotions within him, powerful enough to give him pause. Powerful enough to warn him not to get swept away.

Nervousness rose, and it took him only moments to identify its cause. There was much he needed to express, and perhaps he could allow himself to express some of it now. He simply did not know how it would be received.

“Our conversation earlier opened my mind to different perspectives. About the Vulcan colonists, yes, but also--” he paused, and Jim scooted sideways so he could get a better look at Spock. As this also pulled Jim farther away from him physically, Spock did not know whether to feel relief or disappointment.

With a breath, he continued. “I find it strange that, at the moment I felt most emotionally unstable, it was neither logic nor meditation that calmed me. It was... you. For all your impressive ability to affect me, you are also able to center me in a way I did not know was possible. I thought, erroneously, that I needed to distance myself. That we needed to distance ourselves from each other. But, Jim.”

Spock kept his eyes on Jim’s, knowing Jim knew what he was about to say. He would have felt it when their hands had met so intimately before. But it was important that Spock say it aloud-- for both their sakes.

“I miss you,” he finally finished, the emotion rising in his throat and choking on the last word. He swallowed, averting his eyes so he couldn’t see Jim’s expression. “I apologize for the emotionalism of the comment, but it is true.”

“Spock,” Jim began, but Spock held up a hand to silence him, knowing if he stopped now he might not gain the courage to begin again.

“Please, Jim. I am attempting to apologize. I am sorry I allowed my fear to control me. I am still afraid, because I already care for you more than is wise. But I have come to realize that I will care for you no matter what we choose to do and I am… I am happier when we are not cold toward each other.”

Jim’s breath was accelerated, and Spock could dimly hear his heart beating a staccato rhythm. Fear or anticipation, he didn’t know. He’d established his barriers as strong as he could, and he could not afford to drop them now. Unsure how to continue, Spock felt himself bring his hands into his lap, touching his own fingers the way he wished he had the courage to touch Jim’s.

“So,” Jim said, voice a quiet choke, “what exactly is it you want?”

And there was that word again. Want. What did Spock want?

Immediately, his thoughts supplied one word, ‘Jim.’ He wanted Jim. But that could mean a great many things, and just because he wanted something did not mean it was his by right.

“I want to return to the way we were,” Spock replied, unsure if the answer was correct but finding no better way to phrase it. “I understand this may not be satisfactory, but I cannot be more or less to you than I am.”

He only hoped that Jim would not ask what that meant. Spock did not know what he was to Jim, he simply was. Just as Jim was to him. It was undefined, perhaps undefinable, but it existed, and they could not ignore it forever.

Spock couldn’t feel Jim’s emotions, but he saw them clear as day when he raised his eyes to Jim’s face. He had not looked so vulnerable in so long, eyes wide, lips lax, and his heart--

It was racing. Spock could hear it now, pounding against his ribcage, and he remembered the way that heart had beat against his back when he carried Jim through the cave so many months ago, or when his chest had pressed against Jim’s in a mess of breath and wandering hands. Oh, but Spock wanted that , too. And still there was so much in the way.

They were quiet for a time, and Spock thought he could allow Jim time to process the request. But impatience gripped him, sudden and hard, and he wanted Jim to speak. If only so he knew if his own desires, even the deepest of them, were even possible anymore.

“What do you want, Jim?” he asked gently.

Jim’s lips pursed and he looked down, eyes falling to Spock’s hands. Spock wondered if Jim was perhaps thinking back to the brush of their fingers earlier. Through that contact, Jim would have felt that Spock wanted more than he was currently proposing, but he may also have felt that Spock was not prepared to ask for it yet. Spock hoped Jim would understand and respect that. He had before.

After a moment, Jim chuckled, raising a hand to scrub his face, his smile humorless and somehow sad.

“I think what I want is impossible,” he said, voice low.

Spock gave him a quizzical glance, almost concerned, but Jim wasn’t looking at him. Maybe he couldn’t.

“Are you familiar with Zeno’s paradox?” Jim asked.

“Of course,” Spock replied immediately, almost offended that Jim hadn’t just assumed that he would be familiar with such rudimentary theory. “Which one?”

Jim huffed a laugh and in spite of Spock’s walls he could almost feel the hollow amusement that flowed from his companion. “I shouldn’t have even bothered asking. You probably know it better than I do.” At Spock’s maintained stare, Jim continued. “I was thinking about Dichotomy. You know, before you can travel any distance, you have to first travel half that distance. But before you can travel that distance, you have to travel a quarter, then one-eighth, meaning it’s impossible to actually get to your destination because you have an infinite number of tasks to complete.” He paused, then lifted his eyes to Spock’s, a small smile touching the corners of his lips, but reaching no higher. “Does that sound about right, Professor Spock?”

It took a moment for Spock to realize Jim was teasing him, albeit gently. Spock shifted slightly, confusion making him uncomfortable. “Indeed, but may I ask what bearing that has on our situation?”

With a half sigh, Jim’s smile faded. “You see, Spock,” he said, “I want to travel this-- this distance. And I feel like I’ve been moving in halves and quarters and eighths all this time, and--” he stopped, cast his eyes upward as though searching for the words in the rough texture of the rock above. “And I guess I’m saying that maybe this is as close as we can get-- as close as we should get. And maybe I need to accept that.”

Something clenched in Spock’s gut at the quiet admission, a feeling of guilt and sadness rising in him when he searched the depths of Jim’s eyes. He knew in his heart that Jim was mistaken, that they could be closer, could defy the paradox and occupy the same space-- become one rather than two. But in the torrent of emotion that had gripped Spock today he could not ask for that, nor could he ensure that he could maintain it. Jim deserved certainty. Jim wanted certainty.

And they both knew Spock could not provide him with certainty. Not now.

After a time, Jim spoke again, likely realizing that Spock had been struck a little speechless. “I miss you, too,” Jim admitted softly, the words lighting a fire in Spock that had been dulled to embers, but still burned. “And I’d rather have you as a friend than nothing at all. Even if that much is too much. Even if that much is-- oh, ‘unhealthy.’ ‘Unwise.’ I hate this-- the way we’ve been.”

Spock felt himself take in a shuddering breath. “As do I,” he said. It was all he knew to say.

Jim swallowed, scooting forward almost imperceptibly. “So, friends, then?”

“If you will allow it.”

With a breath, Jim ducked his head, that sad smile returning to the curve of his lips.

Once again, somehow, they had found a way to meet in the middle. Consistently, they found themselves on opposite sides of what seemed to be a divide-- philosophically, ideologically, practically-- and yet all it took was a conversation. A few honest words. And when Spock reached out, Jim reached back.

He found he was infinitely grateful for that. He could not instill hope in Jim-- the idea of a ‘maybe someday,’ but he felt that hope rising in himself. Maybe someday, they would travel the remainder of that distance.

More time, Spock reminded himself once again. A mantra now. Just a little more time.

Chapter Text

They didn’t return to the Vulcan village for quite some time, and Jim didn’t push. He was burning with curiosity to explore it, of course. He’d gone over the readings countless times, but the readings didn’t tell him everything. The readings reduced the incredible sight of those structures to numbers and facts, which somehow took the weight out of the place, the infinite, powerful, overwhelming weight that Jim wanted so desperately to feel. But if Spock didn’t express a desire to go, then Jim wouldn’t either. He would wait. Even if he felt shaken-up and carbonated with the anticipation of it sometimes.

But he didn’t want to make Spock go through something that could be so damaging for his emotional control. Already the two of them had faced so much loss and heartache. Could Spock really be blamed for wanting to avoid this?

And, on Jim’s end, it was probably for the best. He would never say as much aloud, but seeing Spock the way he’d seen him that day-- dams broken, trembling, expressing so much and trying so hard to hold it in-- it had shaken Jim. Sometimes he thought the only thing keeping him sane on this planet was Spock’s surety. His calm. His quiet. Jim needed Spock to be strong. Maybe it was selfish, dependent, unhealthy, all the things they had been worried about being. But Jim knew Spock needed him to be strong too, which at least meant that they were selfish and dependent together. In a situation like this, they had to draw strength from each other.

So, they made themselves strong. They channeled their combined nervous energy into doing what needed to be done-- scavenging the last pieces they needed from the Vulcan ship, sifting through sands to find the right-shaped piece of metal, the right kind of conductor, the right components to finally begin constructing the shuttle that they had been meticulously planning for months.

It had become clear that they could not recreate what the back half of the shuttle had once looked like, nor could they make it warp-capable. What they could do-- all they could do-- was construct something that would be air-tight, environmentally controlled, ion-powered (up to pretty impressive speeds if Jim’s calculations were correct), flyable, and durable enough to withstand an ion storm of the variety that had grounded them. And even that was asking a great deal. If they could just get to the other side, to their own time, send out a distress signal and fly in the direction of Federation space, then hope and luck would have to take them the rest of the way.

But they were on their way. Over the next few days, Spock took time in the evenings to tinker with the rudimentary welding tools they’d found in the ship, getting them functional. Jim devoted his time to planning the repairs, adjustments and power-ups to their navigational system, which they would need to fly themselves through that web in the midst of a storm.

They did not talk about ‘them.’ How could they? And what more was there to say? In the conversation after Spock’s emotional fallout, they had established two things: They cared about each other and wanted to be with each other, but they could not allow themselves to go farther than that. Spock had drawn a shaky line in the sand, and they did not need to talk about it to know it was there.

But they did talk.

It started slow. Jim felt at first as though he were treading delicate ground, that a joke too familiar or a story too personal would scare Spock back into hiding, that overstepping any line might cause Spock to push those lines farther away. But Spock had found some kind of peace, Jim guessed, with their relationship as it stood now. The chess games they resumed were gently competitive, the meals they shared included conversation, the walks they took felt companionable and unhurried.

One night over the chessboard Jim had beaten Spock brutally, teased that he should get his eyesight checked because he should have seen Jim’s checkmate coming a mile away.

And in a move that had made Jim forget for a moment that he’d won the match, Spock had gifted him one of those almost-smiles that had been so sorely missed. Jim had taken that as permission. Slowly, he started to tease Spock again, to reprise that back-and-forth that had always made him feel at ease. Maybe, sometimes, at home.

He knew, and thought often, that when they did return to their own time, he would have to learn how to be a person again. Without Spock. He knew that he cared for Spock too much and needed him too deeply and that it wasn’t smart to become so connected to another person like that. But he also knew that he had to become connected to Spock like that, and that no matter what he told himself to try to stifle it, he would. This gentle feeling they had begun to nurture again was all that kept them sane. Two months without it had proven as much.

Companionship. It was a simple need, one that Jim had taken for granted his whole life, and now he knew the ache when the need wasn’t filled.

But even still, in his darkest moments, he could admit to himself that he had needs beyond companionship, desires that had been satisfied once and so grew with the memory of Spock’s hot breath against his lips and his hands on Jim’s skin. Jim wanted all of Spock, in every way he was able to have him. But if this, this quiet companionship and distant wanting, was all he could have, then he would seize it with both hands.

This was as close as they could get. Jim was trying to learn to accept the concept of Dichotomy.



Laying on his back under the Veh El’es Ekhlami ’s navigational console, Jim didn’t immediately notice when something felt wrong. He’d been absorbed for a good hour now, arms reaching upwards into the console’s innards, pulling apart cords and wires that held tentative, ancient connections to tentative, ancient systems, and looking for the positioning system that would help center them in any weather. Spock assured Jim that even two-hundred-year-old Vulcan ships were equipped with highly advanced navigational controls, but now he just had to figure out how they worked .

But it was some time into this that he began to feel something. It was physical, almost an itch but without the burning necessity to satisfy it. It was a prickle. A tingle. Something that he had felt before but didn’t connect to the present moment-- at least not right away.

He ignored it as long as he could, until he rolled up the torn and tattered sleeves of his shirt and saw the hair on his arm rise all at once. For a second, he stared at the small forest of golden hair, then he shot up so quickly he smacked his head on the navigational console.

Cursing quietly and holding his forehead where he was sure a bruise would form, Jim pulled himself out from his project and cast around the deserted bridge of the Veh El’es Ekhlami.

“Spock!” he called, though he remembered Spock saying something about scavenging the rest of the ship graveyard for working power cells. Just in case, he tried again. “Spock?”

Nothing. A good reminder to keep his communicator on him rather than leaving it in the sand with the rest of their equipment.

With a grunt of effort and frustration, Jim lifted himself from the floor and began to run, fast as his busted leg would carry him, through the tilted corridors of the ship. Luckily, the thing was so damn full of holes, it took little time for him to find one of the openings they’d been using as a doorway. He flung himself out of it and into the cool, purple light of evening. It was only just before sunset, and the world was beginning to dim, though it would be many hours before the sun set entirely. He cast around for Spock in the lavender-hued sand.

“Spock?” he called again, and finally an answer came. From not too far away, just around the aft side of the ship, Spock’s voice called back.

“Jim?” it sounded anxious, the harsh single syllable of his name. Before Jim could follow the sound of Spock’s voice, the Vulcan rounded the ship and came into view, looking harried. “Jim? What is the matter?”

Jim strode up to him and held out his forearm, expecting it to speak for itself. Spock glanced down at the hair standing on end, then back to Jim’s face. There was clear confusion in the narrowing of his eyes.

“Jim, what--”

With an exasperated sigh, he grabbed Spock’s wrist and, without thinking, shoved the sleeve of his tunic up to his elbow. Spock inhaled sharply through his nose at the contact of their skin, but Jim wasn’t thinking, too caught up in the urgency. He lifted Spock’s arm to eye level, and Spock saw his own thick hair sticking up. Slowly, his eyes widened.

“An ion disturbance,” he said.

“The first one in months,” Jim confirmed. “We’re two hours away from the shuttle but--”

“But we must confirm our theory--”

“See if the web really is shifting--”

“And we cannot do that with the recordings alone.”

“We need to get back,” Jim said, and Spock nodded immediate agreement. He pulled his arm from Jim’s grip and slipped his sleeve back down to his wrist, almost pointedly. Jim didn’t think he imagined the blush on Spock’s cheeks, but he really didn’t have time to unpack that, or the fluttering feeling that accompanied it, just now.

“The skies aren’t gray yet, there’s probably plenty of time before it starts up,” Jim said, watching as Spock turned and made his way back the direction he’d come. Frustrated, Jim began to follow him. “But, only probably. Whatever happens, we have to map that wormhole web. Find out if there’s a pattern, if it’s moving like you think it is.”

He rounded the corner just after Spock did and watched the Vulcan retrieve the phaser and tricorder from where they’d stashed them in the shadow of the ship. He came forward and handed Jim his abandoned communicator. “Indeed. Will you be able to hurry?”

“Of course,” Jim responded immediately. He could push aside any pain for the promise of information. So much of their lives were still a mystery right now. They had to find out. It was time to find out.

With this storm, they would learn how to get home.



Jim secretly adored it when Spock talked to him like he was obeying orders, like Jim was already a captain, but his mind helpfully reminded him that now was not the time to dwell on that.

“Compensating for interference,” Spock said as though he were on the bridge of a starship, rather than sitting in the cockpit of a broken shuttlecraft. “Recalculating trajectory.”

“Try finding the one that was over the mountain last time. That’s our best bet for the one that spat us out.”

Spock narrowed his eyes at the screen, his mouth a straight, hard line. “There is a wormhole over the mountain, but it is not the one that we saw in the last storm.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s diameter is 17.8 feet smaller.”

“What?”

Jim knelt beside Spock’s chair, back aching from how long he’d been hovering over his shoulder, leg aching from the long run through the cavern.

They’d been at this for a while now, scanning the storm. Already they’d had the time to confirm their previous theories-- that the wormhole web was only activated during ion storms, that they had slipped through one or more of the tubes when they’d crashed and that the back half of the shuttle-- and their three crewmates-- had slipped through a different one-- and now they could map it. Theoretically. But if the tube over the mountain was different…

He cast a worried glance in Spock’s direction. “Okay, let’s not panic.”

“I am not panicking,” Spock responded with infuriating calm. “The web does seem to shift. My theory was correct.”

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. “So all that mapping we’ve done since the last storm? Was it worthless?”

Spock turned his head, eyes meeting Jim’s with a sort of steely certainty in them that Jim thought for sure he’d never be able to stop clinging to.

“Nothing is worthless, Jim,” Spock reminded him.

In his heart, he knew that, but sometimes it helped to hear it aloud. “Alright. Then let’s figure this out.” They both turned their attention back to the screen, a moment having passed between them. “The wormholes must have some consistency,” Jim said. “They can’t just collapse and reappear. If they’re moving like you suggested, there has to be a pattern to it.”

“That would seem likely. It is possible we can trace the ones which our own shuttle passed through by comparing the intensity of chroniton particles in individual tubes.”

Jim had done some of this already, during the time he and Spock hadn’t been speaking. It had been a good use of time, a good distraction, tracing the intensity of the tubes they had recorded in the last storm, but he hadn’t yet compared them to the intensity of the tubes of their descent. And now they had a third point of data to triangulate.

“Good thinking,” Jim said as Spock pulled the readout up on the screen. He overlaid the wormhole web that they were currently mapping with the one they mapped during the last ion storm a few months before. As suspected, they did look different, but it looked as though, both times, one of the largest led to the mountainside. Spock then laid the shuttle’s path of entry on top of the map. Percentages sprang up at each wormhole juncture, layering on top of each other in a way that was overwhelming to the eyes.

“We began the journey through time in a wormhole whose intensity registered…” Spock paused, tapped the shuttle trajectory and ran his eyes over it. “28.916 percent. If we can find a wormhole that currently registers at 28.916 percent--”

“Then that’s the one we entered from. Genius!” He slapped Spock on the back, but Spock looked up to him, expression not quite as gleeful as Jim’s.

“Unfortunately, the recording stopped when the shuttle split in two,” Spock reminded him as he found the wormhole they had entered from. He isolated it on the screen and zoomed in. “We may have entered through that wormhole, but we do not know if we exited from it, as it connects to eight others. That means we still do not know which tube to enter when we are ready to make the return trip.”

Jim’s smile faded and he stared at the screen, willing the jumble of tubes and numbers to start making some kind of sense. “Then we’ll figure it out. What about the back half of the shuttle? Any chance we can guess which tube that went down?”

Spock pulled up previous recordings, fingers flying over the controls. “Indeed, we can estimate based on flight recordings that it fell through this one.” He pointed to the screen, zooming in.

“79.236 percent chroniton intensity,” Jim read. “Okay, so if we can match the intensity to the amount of time it sends you back…”

“I beg your pardon?” Spock raised an eyebrow at him, and Jim shrugged.

“Well, my guess is that the intensity ties to how many years it sends you. The shuttle traveled about 2,154 years, right? So we can assume that 79.236 percent equals about 2,154 years.”

“That is an incredibly unsubstantiated guess.”

Jim huffed, “Well I’m open to other ideas, Spock.”

Spock gave him a level stare, then returned his eyes to the screen. “It does seem as though the intensity of individual wormholes increases as they branch into the atmosphere. If we assume the intensity builds upon itself from the point of entry, then it would be logical to assume that your estimation is correct. If that is the case, our initial drop would have taken us roughly 706.32 years. Then, the shuttle split, and we entered another part of the web that carried us the remaining estimated 1293.68 years. So we would be looking for a wormhole within the atmosphere that registered at, roughly, 49.58 percent.”

It was a little ridiculous that Spock doing quick math while indulging him in an unfounded theory could make Jim’s heart speed up like it did, but there was something about that cool and collected voice rattling off numbers--

“It’s worth looking,” Jim offered, and Spock nodded and input something into the controls.

“There is one such wormhole,” he said, tapping the screen and pulling it up. “Registering… 49.643 percent, well within the margin of error I would ascribe to our rough estimates. It currently opens 68 miles west of our present location. It does also directly connect to both the 79.236 percent and the 28.916 percent tubes.”

Jim smiled, and Spock met his eyes. Something like pride flashed in them, or maybe respect, which made Jim glow. “Perhaps your theory is not so far outside of the realm of possibility as I first believed.”

“We’ll need to be sure before we fly,” Jim said, “but with the recordings we have from this storm…” He trailed off hopefully. They could do it. It wouldn’t be easy, but they could do it.

“Very well,” Spock said, following it with a deep breath. “However, attempting to find the proper wormholes after they have shifted will be problematic during the worst of the storm. We will review the recordings when ions are not interfering with our scans and attempt to find a reliable pattern to their movement. Should that fail, how close are you to completing the updated navigational system?”

“Hard to say,” Jim admitted, settling down in the pilot’s seat. “Once I get what I need from the navigational console on the Vulcan ship, it’s probably only a few more hours’ work. Then there’s actually installing it. A foreign, two-hundred-year-old positioning system isn’t going to mesh well with modern Starfleet computers. And the fact that it’s three-thousand years degraded might cause trouble.”

“Yet your work will no doubt make a noticeable difference when we get airborne,” Spock said. “I believe we are close to a solution.”

“Does that mean we’re done here?”

“For now.”

Jim glanced back to the screen, still overlaid with map after map. Navigation had never been his strong suit, nor had it ever been his favorite subject of study, but when it was literally a matter of life or death, it was incredible what human beings were capable of. He allowed some tension to fade from his shoulders, then pulled his eyes from the physical reminder of the task ahead of them.

Instead, he settled his eyes on Spock. At least when the rest of the world felt uncertain, the two of them had solid ground again.

“Admit it,” Jim said with a small smile, leaning forward, elbows on knees, “you’re a little impressed I figured that out.”

“We have yet to determine whether or not you have ‘figured it out,’” Spock said, though the tilt of his lips meant he was teasing. He swiveled his chair to look at Jim.

“But…?” Jim cajoled.

“But it is an admirable theory.”

‘Admirable theory’ was about the nicest compliment Spock was capable of paying a person, so Jim wore it like a badge. Especially because, for once, thinking about the tender way Spock looked at him was less painful than thinking about what they’d just discovered. If Jim was right about what they’d discovered, at least.

“Are you nervous?” Jim asked suddenly and softly, perhaps projecting his own nerves onto the quiet calm of the man before him. But it wouldn’t be the first time Spock had successfully feigned certainty.

Seeming to consider it, Spock mirrored Jim’s position, elbows on his knees, though he brought his hands into a steeple against his lips. “The prospect of mapping our trajectory with only estimated numbers and half the information we require is intimidating,” he replied. Jim didn’t mind when Spock shut down questions like that with his ‘human emotion’ excuses, because they both knew Jim knew better, but he was always glad for the small moments that Spock admitted to his emotions-- even in his own roundabout way. “We will, of course, manage, but I do not relish the idea of flying blind.”

“Neither do I,” Jim admitted, “but we’ll figure it out.”

Spock nodded, then straightened his spine. His gaze suddenly turned almost scrutinizing. Jim found himself straightening his own posture under the look.

“What?” He asked, somewhat suspicious.

“There is more troubling you.” Spock was not asking, which meant he already knew that much. Jim wondered if Spock was able to read his mind without touch after all, or if he really was that transparent.

Jim hefted a sigh and allowed himself a moment to collect his thoughts.

“I think--” he paused and looked down at his hands, wondering if he should continue. He didn’t like airing his fears, but, well, he had once told Spock about Tarsus. If he could do that, he could confide in him now.

“If I’m right,” he said slowly, “there’s no chance we’ll get back to our time at the point in which we left it. If we find the exact path we took, we’ll end up exactly as far into the future as we are now in the past. So however long we’re on this planet, that’s how long we’ll be missing. In our own time, I mean. I just keep thinking…”

He risked a glance at Spock, who was looking at him with patient consideration, eyes soft, warm.

“I never told you,” Jim continued, “about when we thought my dad had died.”

Spock shook his head minutely and he watched Jim with practiced patience. Though there was no judgement in his look, Jim found he couldn’t exactly meet Spock’s eyes, so he focused on the ripped, sand-dusted and stained carpet under his feet. Even though they had established this-- well, Jim supposed he could call it a halfway point-- he still felt reticent to confide in Spock. Though he knew consciously that there was no reason to. Spock had said he couldn’t be more or less than he was to Jim, a friend. This was part of friendship.

“He was pronounced missing in action during an assignment about, oh, eight years ago,” Jim said, recalling the subspace call they’d received in the early hours of that horrible morning, “Dad had been in Starfleet my whole life-- longer. None of us ever thought something like this would happen to our family.” Jim shot his eyes back up to Spock, just to be sure he was still there, still listening, then looked away once more. “After six months, they basically told us ‘if he wasn’t dead before, he sure as hell is by now.’” Jim found it in himself to chuckle at that, only because his father laughed every time he mentioned it. But the mirth was brief as the memories-- and their current implications-- returned.

“We had a funeral for him, boxed up his things, all of it. We were all a mess. I was just-- just horrible to him after Tarsus, and we had just started to get along better before he disappeared. And Sam had been at school and-- well. The point is, it was a year before Dad fought his way out and came back. It was--” Jim paused, remembering the way the old farmhouse had echoed almost nightly with the sound of his mother crying. “It was a really bad year. I just can’t stop thinking about Mom and Sam, going through all that again-- and Dad going through it for the first time. Burying me. No idea that I’m alive.”

Spock was silent for a moment, as though waiting to be sure Jim was finished. Infinitely grateful for that kind of patience and respect, Jim lifted his eyes to Spock’s, a confirmation.

“You will return to them,” Spock said, his voice almost harsh in its surety. Jim’s eyes widened at the tone. “I have no doubt they will miss you, but you will return. I promise we will ensure they needn’t wait a moment longer than is necessary.”

Jim felt his lips tick upwards, a small smile borne from Spock’s confidence. “That’s a big promise, Spock. Even if we finish the shuttle, we could still explode in midair.”

“I object to the inference that our repairs will be less than flawless,” Spock responded, sounding affronted but for the small smile on his lips.

Jim’s heart thrummed. He knew this would hurt, being friends with Spock after everything, but it hurt so much less than not talking to him at all. In that moment, he just needed someone to tell him they would be alright. He needed Spock to tell him it would be alright.

“Right,” Jim said with the beginnings of a smile blooming, “We’re two of the finest officers in Starfleet. Well, currently we’re the only two officers in Starfleet, but my point still stands.”

“And it is an excellent point,” Spock said.

They lingered for a moment in that rapport, Jim’s heart a little lighter, Spock’s expression a little freer. But much as Jim would have liked it, they could not linger forever.

“Shall we return to the Vulcan ship before night sets in?” Spock said after a time. “It would be wise to bring some projects back to the cave to work on.”

Jim glanced covertly at his leg, already aching from their near-run through the cave system. But, Spock likely knew that. He would make sure they took it slow on the way back. He always did.

“Sure,” Jim said, standing with the help of the back of his seat. Spock followed in one fluid motion. “Let’s go.”

 


 

For days now, Spock had felt a pull, like gravity, like instinct. A curiosity tugged at his thoughts though he tried his best to ignore the itch. The Vulcan village called to him, even though he wanted nothing more than to avoid it. He knew, somewhere inside him, that there was a promise to be satisfied there, the promise of history, of knowledge, an answer to a question he hadn’t asked.

But each time the thought of that place entered into his mind, the memories returned-- emotion too overwhelming to suppress that had nearly broken him. Had he been on this planet alone, had Jim not been at his side, it would have broken him. Spock did not like to be reminded that he was weak-- people had been telling him as much his entire life. So the thought of exposing himself willfully to something that had the profound ability to affect him seemed illogical.

Although, he had done so with Jim. To the point that he began to wonder not so much what was it that he was afraid of, but why he should allow that fear to control him. When it came to Jim, he knew the reward for facing fear was greater than the reward for suppressing fear, so perhaps the same could be said of the Vulcan village. Perhaps if he allowed himself to be afraid, allowed himself to grieve and process, then he could reclaim the logic that he felt had largely fled him. And then, only then, might he make the decision he’d been on the precipice of for a month now.

But he had said nothing to Jim about it. They were busy. They were scavenging. They were completing plans. They were about to begin rebuilding-- truly rebuilding-- after months of collecting and tinkering. And they could not afford to waste any more time. Not when they knew now, or at least strongly assumed, that they would never again see the year 2258, and may indeed miss the entirety of the next year as well. Jim’s family would worry. Somewhere across time and space, they were worrying. Maybe Spock’s family was doing the same. Had there been a funeral for the landing party? Or did Starfleet still consider them a solvable mystery?

But even with the weight of time on their shoulders, Spock fell into the gravity of that village, and before they abandoned this planet completely he had to see it without the haze of shock that had colored his vision before. And after a month, during which he and Jim had regained some of their uneven footing, he knew that he would not be judged for asking for help.



Jim was rolling up the blankets, setting them in their makeshift mining cart to transport back to the campsite closer to their oasis. He was saying something about how nice it would be to camp out near the caldera again, near the forest where he could smell the flowers. Spock was only half listening, his eyes focused on the cave’s exit toward the desert where, logically, they had no reason to return. They had every material they needed to repair their shuttle, and they could leave the ship graveyard-- and the Vulcan village behind.

“Spock?”

It took a moment for Spock to realize that Jim had said his name. Twice, in fact. It was only the third call that broke through the fog that had been settling over him all day.

“Yes, Jim?”

“What’s wrong?”

He didn’t ask ‘are you okay?’ Spock noticed, which suggested he knew the answer to that question. Not for the first time, Spock wondered if Jim could feel this mental connection that had grown between them, or if he recognized it for what it was. There were times Spock could feel Jim’s emotions without being near him physically, if he let his guard down, and he thought perhaps Jim could do the same. Mental bonds were natural consequences of proximity and familiarity, but this one strengthened daily, ever-present, especially now that he had begun to allow it to grow. Spock had never encountered something quite like it before. Though humans were psi-null, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Jim felt it to an extent.

Or, perhaps, he was just intuitive.

Spock did not answer right away, but he did settle his eyes on his companion. Jim-- in his torn jumpsuit with his ridiculously cut hair and his cheek smudged with volcanic dust. Spock did not want to ask Jim to devote any time to his sake, but they were in this together. They had to take care of each other. He had acted selfishly in regard to Jim so many times, but Jim had always allowed it, often understood it and never judged him for it.

“Jim, may I ask a favor of you?”

Straightening his spine, Jim set his hand on the edge of the mining cart, his full attention now focused on Spock. “Anything,” he said without hesitation.

Spock took in a breath. “Will you accompany me to the Vulcan village? Before we leave this campsite? I will not require much time but I find myself…”

He trailed off, somehow unable to find the right words to express this feeling. Luckily, he felt Jim’s encouraging smile before it even curled his lips.

“Of course,” Jim said, “I would have suggested it, but, well, you know.”

“You did not want to risk upsetting me.”

Jim scratched the back of his head, somewhat awkwardly. “That was a… a strange day.”

“I could make the journey alone if you prefer.”

Jim pushed himself off the cart. “No, no, I’m glad you asked. I’ve been wanting to go back, too. And, to be honest, I don’t much like the idea of you going alone.”

“The company may be beneficial,” Spock admitted. Not for the first time, he saw Jim’s thoughts as if they were projected on his face, recalling what had passed between them that day he’d calmed Spock down from the upheaval that had gripped him. Perhaps Jim was considering what would have become of Spock’s emotional control had he not been there. Or, perhaps, his memories had returned to the gentle touch of their hands, the way Spock’s own memories often did. But Jim gave no outward indication of the exact direction of his thoughts. He merely nodded, looking around for the tricorder.

“We have a good four or five hours before midday, so that gives us plenty of time,” he said. “Let’s go check it out.”

They  hadn’t made the trip there since that first day, so Spock felt a hint of trepidation. But he did not dwell on it. Jim would be with him, and Jim had done an excellent job centering him last time. If he required it, he would do so again.



They took their time walking. Partly, Spock wanted to keep an eye on Jim’s leg, as they would still have to make the journey back to their oasis campsite before midday and he didn’t want him to tire. But Jim kept the pace slow too, shooting furtive glances at Spock out the corner of his eye that he likely thought Spock didn’t notice. It was validating in a way. Jim seldom outwardly expressed his worry, though he seldom hid it, either.

But he shouldn’t have worried. At least, not about Spock’s emotional condition. The midday heat beating down on the dunes rose in waves along the horizon, casting the scene in a blurry haze that reminded Spock of home. The dry air felt good in his lungs as they walked, and he found himself feeling almost comfortable. It made sense now, he thought as they traveled along the mountain range toward the Vulcan settlement, that the colonists decided to stay. At least some part of him understood it.

But there was still much to understand.

The lives of these people after they crashed were a mystery, as was their fate. Spock had guessed at a reason for their slow extinction, but he did not know for sure if it was true. And still, it was possible he would never know. But even though the mystery was part of what drew him back to the village, it was not the whole reason. Nor, truly, the most important.

He wanted to honor the dead-- his people-- the Vulcans who had touched down on this world and made it theirs long before Jim and Spock had been forced to do the same. And he wanted to settle his feelings around them.

He had often visited the graves of their fallen crewmates. Often meditated at those sad piles of stone. It had only been through that meditation, the constant parsing and categorizing of his emotions, that he had been able to come to terms with the loss of these four lives. Then, honoring them had been simply a matter of continuing on. Doing the work that ensured they would someday be recognized for their sacrifice.

And yet, he knew that simply continuing on was not enough to honor the dead of the Vulcan colony. For that, he would have to allow the weight of the place to sink onto his shoulders and he would have to learn the best way to carry it. It was simply fortunate that he did not have to carry  that weight on his own.

After a silent mile or so trudging through shifting sand, they arrived at the opening of the passage where the first of the Vulcan homes lay. The world seemed eerily quiet, breaths of wind quavering over the rock, without even the strange call or the shuffling steps of those small deer-like creatures to give the scene any life.

Beside him, Jim’s voice sounded louder than it was, echoing. “You still want to do this?” he asked. Spock turned to him, noting the way Jim’s eyes stayed steady on him, searching for any sign of hesitancy.

Spock felt soothed by that look, by the pillar of Jim at his side, though he kept the sentiment from his face. “I do. It would be a waste otherwise.”

Jim looked skeptical, but did not outright argue. “Then before we go in there,” he said gently, “tell me what you need.”

Spock turned to face him more fully. The hot breeze through the passage ruffled the rugged, flyaway locks of Jim’s hair, sure as the column of sunlight that broke over the crest of the rocks on either side of them set a shine in his eyes and gleamed against the sweat on his skin. Looking at him, Spock knew exactly what he needed. You , his mind said, and he almost allowed himself to voice it aloud.

“I am unsure,” he said instead. “If you will simply walk with me, I believe that will help.”

Jim’s serious expression softened at its edges and he nodded, a surety in him that Spock wished he had. Jim held out his hand, suggesting that Spock take the lead. With a short, subtle breath, Spock entered into the clearing that hosted its tiny complement of tiny buildings.

Spock surveyed the desert vegetation that grew sporadically between cracks in walls and sprung up in the middle of long walkways, walkways he hadn’t trod the last time they’d been here. The layout of the town was logical, flawlessly mathematical in its design, and yet overrun with the wild now that hundreds of years had seen these buildings empty.

What struck him more than the design of this place, though, was the sheer durability of it all. Whatever they had used for insulation had long rotted away, and yet the town itself stood three-thousand years after its creation. Even the rivets holding metal shutters to stone held strong to their berths. Had it been practicality or optimism that had inspired the Vulcans to create something so long-lasting? If they had arrived in more numbers-- or not lost so many in the initial crash-- perhaps they could have thrived. Perhaps Alpha Novus V would not be the mystery in Spock’s time that it was.

But he knew even as his eyes settled on the centuries-old sandstone that these empty shells weren’t what had called to him. And the answers to his questions wouldn’t be found within their walls.

“Would you like to go inside?” Jim asked, nodding toward the nearest house.

Spock paused, as if considering it, but in truth he’d already decided. “Not currently, no. If you would accompany me to the burial site…”

“Of course,” Jim said. “It would only be right to pay our respects.” He stepped forward without thought, taking the lead this time, and Spock found he preferred it that way. Jim did not question his destination. He simply led him there, calm and confident.

When they reached the ancient pathway of volcanic rock in the larger part of town, each step they took rang strange against the high mountain walls and crags around them, echoed between the large empty buildings they now passed. Jim looked around, eyes falling on the crumbled walls of the largest building in the square, peering inside where a staircase had rotted away and an empty second floor still stood unsteady on its pillars. Spock felt his curiosity as though it were a tangible, heavy thing he carried with him.

“What are you searching for?” Spock asked.

Jim met his eyes. “I don’t know. Nothing, I suppose,” he said honestly. “It just feels so empty.”

“It is likely the sands have long covered most artifacts, if there are any to be found. The last living Vulcans may also have cleaned out the unused homes.”

Jim’s face tightened at that, and he looked back toward the buildings as they passed them. “What do you think happened to them?”

“The Vulcans?”

“The last Vulcans,” Jim clarified. “Do you think there was ever a point where there was just… one left?”

Spock found his steps slowing as the weight of that question sank into him. Though he attempted to control the emotion. “It is likely. When a species goes extinct, the process is seldom instantaneous.”

Spock didn’t think he imagined Jim shift his steps, walking minutely closer than he had before. “That must have been horrible.”

“We will likely never know,” Spock replied pragmatically, but in truth the thought bothered him as much as it looked to bother Jim. Both of them had come dangerously close to being alone out here before. The idea of total isolation was not a pleasant one. And the idea of being here without Jim...

“If you would like to go inside one of the homes,” Spock said, seemingly startling Jim out of a reverie, “you can join me at the gravesite in a moment.”

Jim gave him an almost admonishing look. “Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of me coming along? Spock, I’m your moral support, remember?”

He gave Spock a smile that took the seriousness out of his words. Spock found it in him to return the expression, as much as he ever did, some tension fading from his shoulders.

They wound through the passage at the other end of the town and into the desert’s open air. To the south, the mountains cradled the meadow like arms reaching, wrapping round its sides-- an embrace. In the quiet, the stream that ran along its edge splashed loudly over the rocks, disturbing the morbid peace of the place. Spock considered the irony that the only sound of life in the whole village now came from the graveyard.

He saw once again, as though through a fog, the Vulcan lettering on the far mountain, and he drew his eyes from it to rake across the length of the meadow itself.

Suddenly aware of eyes on him, Spock glanced to his side where Jim remained. “What would you like to do?” Jim asked quietly, raising a hand and resting it on Spock’s shoulder. Spock swallowed at the contact, the quiet strength it instilled in him. “Do you want me to wait here?”

“No,” he said immediately. “No, please. Let us continue.”

Jim nodded, dropping his hand. Spock attempted not to dwell on the loss of the feeling and tore his eyes from his companion, beginning the trek toward the far side of the meadow.

Sporadic scrub brush thickened as they walked into those wide, dull-green blades of grass, dancing softly in the desert breeze. The further they went along the edge of the stream, the taller the grass grew, reaching up to his calf at its tallest. It bent under their boots, surprisingly pliable, fibrous.

In the distance near one of the far springs that trickled down the mountainside, a herd of the small deer-like creatures seemed to be congregating by the water. As his eyes fell on them, they let out a chorus of trilling cries, which echoed against the mountainside. It was oddly peaceful.

“They’re kind of cute, aren’t they?” Jim asked softly, as though he didn’t want to disturb the silence but had been unable to contain the comment anyway. Spock found something in him warming at the thought.

“I am aware of the human compulsion to domesticate wild animals, but please refrain,” Spock responded, and he looked to Jim just in time to see the man smiling. Good, he had recognized that for the gentle tease that it had been. Spock was not often the one attempting to ‘diffuse the tension’ as Jim put it, but Jim kept casting his eyes to him as though he was ready for Spock to break down at any moment. Spock wanted to convey, somehow, that Jim had no cause for worry. It was disturbing, yes, to walk through these graves, but the promise of resolution was enough to force Spock past the emotion. If only he knew how to say as much aloud.

Jim, thankfully, seemed content with silence.

They kept close to the stream as they walked toward the mountainside, stamping down a winding path of grass. The flattened blades mapped their trail, a sight that disturbed Spock slightly, as he did not want to leave any mark on this place. But he kept his steps as careful and unobtrusive as possible, noticing Jim doing the same.

When Spock had first seen the inscription on the wall of the mountainside, he remembered recognizing it immediately as the Vulcan language, but from the distance he could only make out none of it. At the time, the sight had sent him reeling, but now he looked over the words calmly as they approached.

“What does it say?” Jim asked after a moment. Spock was unaware that he had stopped moving until Jim drew up beside him. They were about halfway through the field, and Spock could read the lettering clearly from here. It was remarkable, really, how smooth the script flowed, though it must have been carved with a primitive laser cutter. They had put great care into this monument.

“Here lie the the colonists of the Veh El’es Ekhlami ,” he read, heart hard. “As it was in the time of the beginning so it is now.’” He paused, the familiar phrase ringing somehow hollow. This was not the way it had been in the beginning, not the way Vulcans were meant to be buried or honored. Their souls should have been bound to a katric ark. But this had been the only way to honor them with the resources at hand.

He attempted not to let the thought inspire emotion in him, but it was difficult-- made moreso by what he read next. “The rest are names,” he said, realizing then that the mountainside inscription stretched tens of yards in the other direction. Names. Hundreds of people. Spock felt himself swallow, something attempting to rise up in his throat.

Beside him, Jim seemed stiff. “The names of the ones lost in the initial crash?”

“It would seem so.”

“Then the rest…” Jim cast his eyes over the meadow, where each grave marker left its own impression in the grass. From this angle, it was easy to see where each of them lay. Another perfect grid. “The survivors. Their families.” Jim’s own voice contained the emotions that Spock could not allow in his own.

Spock turned from the mountainside and looked over the meadow. With a breath, he walked, leading Jim down the nearest row, glancing downward. Some of the plaques were overgrown, but Spock could still make out their inscriptions.

“Would you like me to read them to you?” Spock asked, looking to Jim who still walked almost uncomfortably close. Jim’s eyes widened slightly and, suddenly, he looked uncertain. Spock had been grateful for the steady strength Jim had exuded in the village, but he found he was more grateful for the bare feeling in his expression. This was Jim, the Jim he knew, the one who felt without reservation, without apology. It was inspiring, Spock thought without meaning to, the same kind of quality that had made Pike an excellent captain.

When Jim spoke, he did so delicately, “Would that be all right? I… I feel like an intruder here.”

“You are not,” Spock replied. “No more than I.”

“But these are your people.”

“These are people who once colonized this world,” Spock replied. “We both share a kinship with them in that regard.”

It took a moment for the implications of that statement to sink in, but then Jim’s lips quirked, albeit a little sadly. “Then thank you, Spock. I think it would only be right to know some of their names.”

Spock nodded and turned back to the plaques. When he spoke, translating the flowing script of names and dates, he attempted to keep the sadness from his voice.

“Nakaratik Skon, 2024 to… to 2057.” Immediately, he stopped, something clenching in his gut. He had been so young, Spock thought with a start. But, of course, it was to be expected that some would not have made it out of adulthood. He shook it out, hoping Jim did not notice his pause. “Velik T’Peha,” he continued at the next. “1900 to 2060. Taluhk T’Rilen, 2031 to 2061. Al’rig-pseth Sevet…”

He read for a while as they stepped carefully along the row. Jim did not interrupt. Didn’t speak at all. He simply let Spock lead him as Spock read the names of people who they had never known, yet felt connected to somehow. Spock did, at least. He felt the pull of these Vulcans as though they were his own family, and he felt the harsh sting of each of their losses.

There was nothing flowery in their epitaphs, he noted. Merely names, dates, occasionally a listed relation if it were deemed important (bondmates, usually). The more plaques he read, though, the more a disturbing pattern seemed to emerge.

Many of the Vulcans buried here had died young, younger even than the first he had read. The kind of objective youth that spoke to Spock’s theory about why the population had dwindled. While it was impossible to conclusively state that they had died in Pon Farr, the evidence was staggering. Many had met their end in their twenties and thirties, and so few had the names of bondmates listed.

But of course they hadn’t had bondmates. Starting with a complement of two-hundred people at most , how could the youngest among them hope for a compatible mind, someone to soothe Pon Farr’s fires? The odds had been against them, insurmountably so.

A spike of guilt shot through him, which caused him to slow his steps, then come to a stop. He stood before the grave of a Vulcan who had died at the age of 34, no bondmate beside his name. It took him a moment to identify the emotion that welled up, and a moment longer to identify its cause. The truth of it burned him, and he could not pretend otherwise. The odds had been against these people, but the odds--

Jim seemed to notice his discomfort. “Spock,” he said softly, “are you alright?”

Spock swallowed, then turned to his friend. He could see in Jim’s eyes that some part of him understood Spock’s pain. That he, too, had noticed the pattern of youth. But Jim didn’t know, couldn’t possibly know, that these people had died because they had been unable to find a counterpart among their small number.

And Spock couldn’t quell the surge of understanding in him, the overwhelming awareness that if these colonists had succumbed to those odds, then what were the odds that they now faced? For once in his life, Spock didn’t even want to consider the math, the fact that here, on this deserted planet, in a situation that should have killed them both, he had been given Jim. If he calculated the possibility of it, the numbers would be astronomical. And Spock was not prone to exaggeration.

Yet, here they stood. Together in spite of everything, their minds constantly reaching toward each other and and never meeting. Denying it now felt like a slap in the face of the people whose graves they now stood atop, dishonoring a bond when these people had died for want of one.

“I--” Spock stopped, looked back over the meadow. It was possible they would not be able to return here, that they wouldn’t have time, or that the trek would be too far to justify, but he found he could not bear another moment in this graveyard. “I would like to return to camp.”

Jim’s brows knit, but he did not argue. Spock felt a flash of remorse that he would deny Jim the opportunity to explore, to learn, when he knew such pursuits were important to him. But something had begun to happen in Spock’s mind, and he could not follow the trains of his thought while surrounded by the feeling this place inspired in him.

He cast another long look around the burial ground, his heart clenching. He hoped they would have the chance to return, to honor the dead more fully, but Spock’s father had told Spock many years ago when his grandfather had died that the only way to truly honor the dead was to continue on. That was what Spock had done to honor the landing party, after all. And it had been Jim’s own words that survival meant nothing without living , too. So Spock--

Spock’s life needed to change.

Jim’s expression was curious when Spock moved past him, heading in the direction of the village, but he followed all the same, walking up beside him and matching his steps.

They were quiet as they moved back through the town, between the empty homes. Spock’s mind buzzed with possibility, with fear and with abject certainty as his attention returned to Jim. He was being so patient, Spock realized, almost uncharacteristically so, following without thought or protest. Spock was grateful for it, and yet… this quiet Jim was too much like the person Spock had known briefly in the two months they’d been distant with each other. He could not be content with distance.

Not anymore. For more than a month, since they had discovered this village, he had meditated over his emotions, considered the possibilities. He did not know if the decision he made now was the best decision, the wisest decision, the right decision, but it was his. And he was certain.

They moved into the smaller part of the village, and Spock felt he could breathe again. The graveyard seemed farther away here, the world a little less suffocating even though the rock rose in high walls on either side of them and the steadily encroaching sand laid in massive dunes on the northernmost edge. It still felt so far removed from the lives that had been lived in this place.

Still it took a moment for him to find it in himself to speak.

“Did you notice the pattern?” Spock asked tentatively, knowing the answer to his question yet needing to ask. It was the only way he knew to communicate the revelations he had come to. “The ages of the Vulcans?”

Jim startled beside him, stopping in his steps, but only for a moment. Then he drew the corner of his lip between his teeth as he continued forward. He didn’t speak right away, but when he did his eyes met Spock’s and held them. “Are you sure you want to talk about it?” he asked gently, faltering. “I-- I know this is hard for you.”

He was not wrong, but Spock knew the importance of putting comfort aside for purpose. It was hard. It would always be hard, but their lives here could only ever be difficult, and he could not let difficulty scare him. “It is not a matter of wanting to discuss it,” Spock replied truthfully, though he felt his heart rate increase at the idea of what was to come. “Suffice to say that we must discuss it. There are certain truths you deserve to know, Jim.”

Jim raised a brow at that, but he lost the uncertain tilt of his lips. His eyes fell to his feet and his hands tucked themselves behind his back the way Spock often held his own.

They reached the passage leading back to the desert before Jim found it in himself to speak, to answer Spock’s question. “So many of them” he finally said, “died in their twenties and thirties. I thought malnourishment, but, well. I guess it’s safe to assume I’m wrong.”

Malnourishment, Spock thought, would have been one thing, something understandable given the hostility of the planet, but Spock worried how Jim would react when he learned the truth. He attempted to show none of it on his face as they emerged into the open air of the desert, still interspersed by crags of rock, but no longer overwhelming in height and proximity. So Spock concentrated on the slight brushes of wind that blew past them, mind attempting to organize his thoughts so that when they came out, they would be correct.

“Malnourishment is unlikely,” Spock said eventually. He did not rightly know how to explain to Jim the nature of the Pon Farr, but Jim’s natural curiosity deserved an answer. He turned his eyes to Jim, his hands clenched tight behind him as they walked. “It is… complex. No outworlder may know. Except those few who have been involved.” It felt strange to imply that Jim was an outworlder, to think of him as an outworlder when Spock had never been closer to another person in his life. Yes, Jim was human, but he was so much more than that to Spock.

“No outworlder may know,” Spock continued, voice quiet, “but, Jim,” his steady pace seemed to waver and he kept his eyes forward, “you are not an outworlder to me. I-- wish to tell you.”

Jim took in a breath that Spock could hear over the shuddering breeze, and Spock risked a glance, noticing Jim’s shoulders fall. He looked at Spock as though somehow he knew how much that statement meant. Maybe he did.

Because Spock knew how much this meant, knew the only possible conclusion to the conversation they were about to have, but he was gripped with a sudden sense of urgency that he tried not to convey. A sense that he had to tell Jim. Now. And that the timing was all wrong but it was the only time, and he had already wasted so much of it.

“We should rest a moment,” Spock said suddenly, looking toward the thin shadow cast by the mountain range at their side.

“I’m fine, Spock,” Jim protested, but Spock ignored him, crossing Jim’s path to settle at the foot of the mountain, where pebbles of volcanic rock slid down the slope. He crossed his legs and looked to Jim expectantly.

There was a beat, but then Jim sighed, shooting Spock a look that Spock had come to understand meant fond exasperation. Jim slipped into the mountain’s shade and kicked out his bad leg out first, then sank down onto the slope beside Spock. In spite of what he said, Jim let out a breath of relief through his nose. Between the heat and his leg, he would likely be taxed, but Spock didn’t want to say that they had paused for his own benefit as much as Jim’s.

They were quiet for a moment as they stared out over the rolling dunes. The ship graveyard wasn’t visible from here. Nothing was. Just the wide expanse of desert that would someday consume this planet. When Spock turned his eyes to Jim, he decided that the windswept man beside him was a far more pleasant sight.

“Have you ever wondered how Vulcans choose their mates?” Spock asked, and he should have expected Jim’s surprise. Jim stiffened, his spine straightened, his relaxed face turned hard. A sting of guilt shot into Spock at the sight. It would no doubt be painful to discuss, for both of them, but they had to. Spock had to.

“I think you know the answer to that question, Spock,” Jim said, and Spock looked down at his own hands, centering himself.

He took in a breath. “Indeed. And I believe you should know.” When he shifted his eyes back to Jim, there was something sad in the man’s expression, something soft and somehow lonely. But Spock had to forge ahead, for both their sakes. “We, Vulcans, are typically betrothed as children to someone with a suitable mind. This betrothal is arranged by the families, and by Vulcan healers who can gauge compatibility. The process is strict, and nearly always a necessity. Because finding a proper mate is vital to a Vulcan’s survival.”

Jim’s eyes had narrowed, a kind of fearful confusion pulling at his brow. “Are-- Wait. Are you betrothed?” It looked like he had missed the last part entirely. Spock couldn’t blame him. After what they had done, what they had become to each other, of course it would be a shock.

Spock’s mouth tightened and, suddenly unable to look Jim in the eye, he laid his gaze on Jim’s shoes, where the false leather had scuffed and torn and left the hard toe of the shoe exposed. He couldn’t answer that question. Not yet. First he had to explain. “The reason,” he continued, as though he hadn’t heard Jim, “that so many of these colonists died young, Jim, is because there were so few people on this planet. So few suitable companions. Vulcans are betrothed in order to prevent such a death. The process ensures that when the time comes, we will have a proper mate.”

Jim ran a hand over his face, “I…” He paused, took a breath, reconsidered. “Okay, I think I need you to go over that for me one more time. How do Vulcans die without a mate?”

Oh, but this was uncomfortable. Spock knew, logically, that speaking of this should make sense, but no Vulcan was able to discuss it openly without discomfort. Not even his own father. He forced himself to remain still though he wanted desperately to fidget-- perhaps a habit he picked up from Jim.

“It is called the Pon Farr, the Vulcan... time of mating. If we do not find a suitable partner and fulfil our biological need, we die. Our blood burns. It is theoretically possible to stop the process through meditation, but I have seldom heard of that ending in success.”

Rubbing his forehead and closing his eyes, Jim looked as though he were trying to digest this. “So, if you don’t mate during Pon Farr, you die. And you can only mate with someone who’s ‘compatible.’” He met Spock’s eyes, and Spock nodded, confirming.

“That is correct.”

“And so by getting engaged as children, you have someone, oh, I don’t know. Waiting in the wings, so to speak?”

“While that is a simple way to phrase a complicated process, it is essentially correct.”

“So all those people,” Jim nodded in the direction of the village, “all the young ones, at least… they didn’t have a mate.”

Spock nodded once, casting his eyes forward. “That was likely the cause of the death of the colony as a whole. They would have been unable to reproduce without extreme discomfort-- mating with someone who was incompatible-- and even if they had produced children they would have died too early to take care of them. The Pon Farr cannot be satisfied through--” he paused, cleared his throat, “through intercourse alone. It requires a meeting of the minds, a meld. A marriage.”

Jim swallowed and leaned his head against the rough rock behind him. Spock watched Jim’s fingers worry the fabric of his thermal, and he felt a tangible ache that he couldn’t suppress.

“So you do have a partner, then.” It was not a question. A bare chuckle accompanied Jim’s next words, “‘Disinclined to pursue romantic relationships,’ you said. It’s all about semantics with you, isn’t it, Spock?” Jim turned his eyes to him. He was smiling, but it looked pained, tight, wrong. “You didn’t pursue a relationship, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t in one.”

Spock suddenly felt a chill that could not have originated from the stifling air around them. He attempted not to shiver. “That is true,” he said, and he knew that he should either stop speaking now or dive ahead, risk every single thing he knew. But Jim Kirk had often proved to him that risk yielded reward, and Spock found that thread of hope in his own mind again. “But, Jim, I have not cemented my betrothal through Pon Farr. Such bonds have been known to dissolve in the case of mental incompatibility. Or, in rare instances, when the mind forms its own connection to another.”

Jim looked at Spock out the side of his eyes, his fingers clenching in his lap. Swallowing, Spock continued.

“Jim, the colonists on this planet faced unimaginable odds. The prospect of each of them finding a suitable mate among their numbers was miniscule, nearly impossible. It is astounding so many made it as long as they did. I--” Spock paused, his heart pounding, a physical pain in his side that he seemed unable to suppress. “I am now aware, and considering the meaning--”

Jim turned to him fully now, the confusion on his face replaced with concern. Spock had never stuttered so badly over his words. He had delivered speeches to the highest authority in the Federation, the highest authorities of Vulcan. He had back-talked his own father and taught classes at the Academy in lecture halls filled with hundreds of people, but when it came to this, to Jim, he couldn’t find the words.

“The probability,” Spock continued, almost allowing his frustration with himself to break through, “of finding a compatible mind in their situation was miniscule. The probability of finding a compatible mind in our situation is not simply improbable, but impossible. Incalculable. And yet, of all people, we found ourselves stranded here together. You are the only person I have encountered, and perhaps the only one in all of existence, whose mind is suited to mine in this way.”

He paused, took a breath and continued. “I do not believe in miracles, nor do I believe in luck. However, I believe that what we have is…” Exactly that , his thoughts filled in. What we have is exactly that. A miracle, incredible fortune, something rare and therefore something to be treasured.

Spock’s mouth was dry. He watched Jim’s eyes widen, his lips part. He heard Jim’s heart rate climb. And he looked at Jim now, truly looked at him. The man who had patiently walked with him, listened to him, the man who understood him and cared for him and lived alongside him in a harmony neither could have anticipated. Of all people, it had been Jim.

Jim was singular. Jim was incalculable. Jim was impossible. And yet he was . And he was here .

And he wasn’t responding. Unwilling to let the silence settle on that admission alone, Spock continued, shifting so he faced Jim. He forced his voice and expression to harden. “You recall our conversation about Zeno’s Dichotomy paradox?” The question, said in the same stiff, scientific tones Spock used when discussing work, seemed to pull Jim out of a fog. He looked vaguely confused, vaguely scared, but he answered all the same.

“I do.”

Of course Jim remembered. It had been his metaphor, after all. Spock tried to organize his thoughts before he next spoke. Metaphors were not his strong suit. “Perhaps you are familiar with the response of the German scientist Hermann Weyl? He… he took issue with Dichotomy because he said that one could not assume in the first place that there was any distance between these two points in space. If the points occupy the same space, if there is no distance between them already, the paradox is resolved.”

Jim blinked, blank-eyed and staring. Spock felt himself dangerously close to a sigh. How could he explain?

“I am saying, Jim, that there is no distance between us. Not between our minds. A connection has formed and it will remain. This is not ‘as close as we can get,’ as you have said. We are… instrinsic. Dichotomy would suggest that traveling this distance between us is impossible. But that is not the case. Maintaining this distance is impossible. I want--”  He fumbled over the word.

‘Want’ had been a war in him since he knew of conscious thought-- wanting to be Vulcan, wanting to be human, wanting to feel, wanting to feel nothing. He had always wanted, but those desires had always conflicted. It was only now that he had finally chosen. It was only in this that he was certain. Maintaining distance was impossible and...

“I want to...  to stop trying, ” he finished.

With a breath through his nose that heaved his chest, Jim searched Spock’s eyes. Spock felt that fear, that longing, burn into him, but he did not balk from it. There was nothing else for him to hide.

After far too long, when the only sound was the pounding of blood in Spock’s ears and the bare whispers of wind against sand and stone around them, Jim looked out toward the desert and pulled his knees up to his chest.

Spock felt his heart drop at the motion.

“You can’t do this to me, Spock,” Jim said, and his voice wavered somewhere between resignation and despair. “I care about you, you know I do, but you’re always the one saying that we should try to pull back. After everything-- if you wake up tomorrow and decide this was some overly emotional decision--”

“I will not,” Spock interrupted, the force of his voice surprising even him. It caused Jim to turn once again to him, eyes wide. “I wished to tell you this the day we found the village, but I could not trust my troubled mind. Weeks, I have meditated over our situation, considered every angle. And now with the understanding of this place I know-- I cannot--” he paused. He didn’t know how to convey the revelation he had undergone, the way his world had shifted fundamentally on its axis. “I owed you certainty, Jim,” he finally said, the only thing he knew to say. “I am certain.”

Jim’s brows drew together, that look of vulnerability, of fear that Spock had seen often enough to never wish to be the cause of. But he waited, waited to see if his reassurance was wanted, waited to see if Jim’s desires were still the same as his own.

Then, Jim took in a deep breath, searching Spock’s eyes in a way that made him feel exposed, completely undone and completely understood. Jim was picking him apart the way he picked at machines, the way he learned how things worked by examining connections and cogs and wires. And Spock wanted Jim to figure him out, to see who and what he was. He wanted Jim to solve the puzzle that Spock never had.

“So what does this mean?” Jim asked suddenly, a question that surprised Spock, though it was a logical one to ask. “What do you want from me?”

Spock opened his mouth to speak, but the despair in Jim’s tone caught him off-guard. He didn’t know what to say, except that he wanted Jim. Wasn’t that answer enough?

“I do not understand,” he finally said, and Jim pressed his lips together, turning his eyes to the sky.

After a moment, Jim set a hand behind himself on the slope of the mountain and pushed himself up, getting to his feet. Spock watched with stilted breaths, feeling his fingers clench into the fabric of his slacks. Fear rose up in him, unchecked, something he had no hope of suppressing.

When Jim had walked a few paces away, he finally spoke, one hand on his hip and the other cradling his head as though it were aching. “I mean… Spock,” Jim turned as his lips formed the familiar sound of Spock’s name, a sound that Spock clung to now as he had for months. “Is this real? For life? Or is it just for now-- while we’re here on this planet? Is it a commitment or are we… are we testing something? I just-- you can’t tell me about this Pon Farr, tell me you’re betrothed, and in the next breath ask me to be-- to be what? Your ‘mate?’ Your paramour?” The pauses, stutters, fumbles in Jim’s speech spoke to the emotions Spock saw in his eyes and felt over the tentative connection he’d been unable to break. Jim was confused, frightened, and Spock hadn’t even considered that what he’d said could hurt him.

“Jim,” Spock said, getting to his own feet to follow Jim into the blistering sunlight. “I do not know the contents of your mind.” He drew level with Jim, meeting his gaze and attempting to convey his sincerity as the next words practically rushed from his mouth, “I know only that my affection for you will always remain and that, if you are willing, I would be honored to be yours.” He paused, sensing Jim’s worry even as he sensed a bubbling, awed disbelief.

“But your fiancee...” Jim said, looking a little lost, a little scared. “Spock, I’m not a cheater.”

“Nor am I,” Spock assured him. “There is no love between T’Pring and myself. We long ago decided that if we were to pursue outside romantic relationships until the time of our bonding, such an arrangement would--”

“Until the time of your bonding,” Jim echoed. His voice carried all the weight of a door slamming shut, and Spock’s heart seemed to stop its incessant pounding, frozen. He attempted to stop himself from rushing forward, attempted to keep himself in check. He needed to explain this well or it would all fall apart. He couldn’t let it fall apart.

“Jim, if I were able, I would dissolve my betrothal this moment.”

Jim tossed his hands in the air, turning to face the desert as though unable to face Spock. “But isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell your paramour? That you’ll leave your wife or--”

Unable to stop himself, Spock grasped Jim’s shoulder, and turned him around to face him. Jim’s step faltered, but Spock came forward, steadying him with the hand on his arm. “Jim, listen to me. Please.” Jim stilled under his grasp, eyes searching Spock’s. Through their touch, he could feel how desperately Jim wanted this-- this proximity, the offer that Spock had handed to him. He could feel the intention in Jim’s mind, to lean forward, to press their lips together, to damn the consequences. But he was denying it. For what? Morality, reacting to a situation he didn’t fully understand.

“The bond I have with T’Pring is tentative,” Spock explained, “existing only in the barest threads of my consciousness. The bond I share with you is…” And he was fumbling again, making every mistake it was possible to make, unable to express the most important thing he had ever expressed. He tried to regain himself with a breath through his nose, allowing his grip to tighten slightly in the fold of Jim’s sleeve. “Even if you were to decide that you did not wish to be with me,” Spock continued, unable to keep the grief at the thought from his voice, “I would dissolve my betrothal. Having known this connection, having known you-- I do not believe I could--”

He didn’t know how to go on. He didn’t know how to explain that he could never feel the way he felt now about another. It was not a blind, romantic statement, but an abject certainty.

“You mean that,” Jim said, wonder rising in him, as though he couldn’t quite believe whatever it was that had slipped from Spock’s consciousness to his own. Like he’d felt Spock’s fear and affection and desire and maybe, hopefully, his certainty too. “I-- you actually mean it.”

“Of course,” Spock said, and he released Jim’s arm, looking downward. “I cannot return to the life I once had planned. Nor do I wish to. I would like to make… to make a new plan.”

“Because of me?”

The tentative awe in Jim’s voice was astounding, that he should be so unaware of his own soul-- how brightly it shined, how he had changed Spock’s life irrevocably from the moment they met.

“But you needn’t know now if you wish to be my mate for ‘life,’ as you say,” Spock said, realizing only then the way his previous statements may have sounded. Of course, he knew within himself that he wanted to be with Jim as long as he was able, but that was too much, too soon to say aloud. “The future holds many mysteries that neither of us may know or predict, but I am asking if, at least for now, you might be mine. Might allow me to be yours.”

“So, this isn’t a marriage proposal,” Jim stated, voice begging clarity.

“No, Jim,” Spock replied. “I simply wish to-- to try this,” he said, echoing Jim’s own words from months ago. “If that is still what you want.”

A gust of breeze blew past them, slipping sand along their shoes. In its wake, he thought he heard Jim sigh, but there was no outward indication, simply a hesitant, heartbroken face. Spock wanted only to see him smile again.

Tentatively, Spock held out his hand, middle and index fingers extended. Jim glanced to the gesture, then back to Spock’s eyes.

“Jim,” Spock said, an emotion even he couldn’t identify weighing him down. He didn’t know how to ask. “Please.”

Understanding, at least in some capacity, dawned on Jim’s face, but then moments stretched long between them, something thick and heavy in the air that made it difficult to draw breath, to think. Spock felt himself wilting, felt the understanding bloom that Jim would not meet his hand, that he had hurt Jim so fully that they could not recover, that he had been given something rare and precious and beautiful-- that Jim had given himself freely-- and Spock had thrown that gift away.

Then, timid in a way Spock had never seen him, Jim met Spock’s eyes and raised his own fingers to Spock’s.

The hum that traveled between them at the first flush of contact was charged, a tangible vibrating buzz of electricity that shot from every nerve and carried with it a weight of longing, affection, fear and remorse and anticipation and loneliness so profound that Spock felt as though it might drown him. And, still, the overwhelming flow of emotions bore the strength of surety, something Spock needed to convey, something he urged through the touch of their fingers. If Jim did not believe his words, he had to believe this.

“I have no more doubts,” Spock said. His voice was barely above a whisper, unable to focus with the force of the kiss against his fingertips. But Jim looked hyper focused, lips parted, staring at the touch of their hands like suddenly he understood, like suddenly his own doubts had begun to dissolve with the force of what he felt, and Spock felt it in him.

Jim’s breath hollowed his chest and he huffed, a disbelieving laugh, partway hysterical, falling out of his lips. “None?” he asked, canting his eyes up to Spock, “are you sure ? Because this is a monumentally terrible idea, isn’t it? We both know that. You-- you have to know what you’re signing up for here.”

Spock’s reaction flowed through them both, strong enough that he could see it in Jim’s expression when he felt it. Relief. Relief. Relief. Reflected in infinity between their minds.

“I do,” Spock promised.

Jim’s wondering expression bloomed, softening his lips into a kind smile, casting a flush of red over his already sun-kissed cheeks. Keeping the contact of their fingers, Jim reached out his other hand, hesitating for only a moment before resting it along the curve of Spock’s neck. The sparks that flared inside Spock at the simple touch were intoxicating, and he found himself leaning down even before Jim raised his lips to Spock’s.

In the moment before they made contact, Spock felt Jim’s shuddering sigh against his own lips, and when finally they pressed together the tension bled from him. He went boneless, sank forward, chest pressing to Jim’s where he could feel that heartbeat racing. They shared a breath of wet heat, a brush of their noses as they tilted their heads to pull themselves closer, a quiet hum of delight that could have come from either of them, or from both. The impressions that slipped between them, through them, felt like fulfilment, like the heat beneath blankets when the world around them froze, like the sun cresting over the edge of their oasis, like the sweet scent of the forest, like the tranquility of a glowing lake, like fire and water and warmth and quiet and like finally there was something right in the world when it had been wrong for so long. Something settled between them, something fell into place, something centered Spock in calm clarity that years of meditation had never instilled in him.

After a moment, Jim pulled away with a quiet breath and broke the contact of their fingers. Spock heard himself make a small noise at the loss, but it was distant. His focus laid instead on the hand still resting on the back of his neck, shooting pinpricks of joy and longing into his skin as Jim tugged him gently forward. He settled their foreheads together. Emotions, almost loud enough to become words, flowed through the contact.

“You are afraid,” Spock remarked gently, hand seeking Jim’s where it laid at his side and brushing against his knuckles.

“So are you,” Jim replied, but he extended his fingers again to meet Spock’s touch.

“I am,” Spock admitted, “The future is uncertain.”

Jim’s fingers laced themselves through Spock’s, a light movement that carried with it a sense of trembling anxiety as he pulled away to look Spock in the eye. “If you’re already having second thoughts, Spock--”

“Never,” Spock interrupted.

At Jim’s raised eyebrow, Spock tilted his head downward to hide the expression that attempted to break through. “Never again,” he clarified.

Jim’s affection thrummed through their touch and his fingers grazed along Spock’s, sending a shiver through him. He would have to explain to Jim how Vulcan kissing worked, lest Jim inadvertently cause a reaction he did not intend. Though, as Spock returned his gaze to Jim’s face, he decided that maybe Jim had intended it after all.

But Jim’s eyes were open and unguarded, and Spock wanted to sink into that stare, to absorb himself into this person whom he did not deserve, whom he could never deserve but wanted so desperately to try to deserve.

For a moment, they simply looked on each other, and Spock was reminded of that moment so long ago when they’d stood in the forest and shaken hands and agreed to work together, to find even footing.

Now, after almost a year, they had.

“We still need to talk things through,” Jim said after a moment. Softly, as though he were afraid to say anything. “The future, our careers, your--your fiancee…”

Jim was correct, there was much to discuss. Problems to address, air to clear, but now?

“We do have two-thousand years to engage in such conversations before they become pressing,” Spock suggested.

Jim’s lips split in a smile and he barked a laugh as though his own amusement had taken him by surprise, ducking his head against Spock’s chest, though Spock wanted nothing more than to watch him laugh. “I never thought of you as a procrastinator,” Jim chuckled, raising his eyes. Spock’s heart stuttered at the sight of him, the bold, easy smile that spread his lips. “But as always you make a logical point.” He paused, fingers brushing Spock’s so softly it was almost imperceptible, still exuding waves of disbelief, wonder, happiness.

“So what now, Mister Spock?” Jim asked, still standing flush against Spock with all his salt-sweat smell and shining grin. The brightness of him, the warmth of his touch, rivaled the sun that beat down on their shoulders. He consumed Spock’s senses, as he always did, and Spock found he no longer cared if he was consumed.

“Whatever you want,” Spock answered, and Jim’s smile widened.

Their hands tightened together as Jim stepped away, tugging Spock along with him. “Right now,” he said, some of the natural tenor of his voice returning, the easy, teasing lilt. “I’d like to get out of this sun. Between you and the heat, I think I’m melting.”

Spock raised his eyebrow at the tentative flirtation, but Jim’s soft smile was his only response as he pulled Spock forward. Even when they released each other’s hands a little ways down the path, they walked close enough for their shoulders to brush on each step.

Allowing himself to let down his walls, Spock felt a constant flow coming from the mind of the man beside him, an acknowledgement of the connection he had tried so hard to deny. Emotions, infinite in their variety and intensity, that should have scared him now only assured him--

Jim was singular. Jim was incalculable. Jim was impossible. And yet he was. And he was here.

And they were here together.

Chapter Text

 

Gleaming with sweat, Jim leaned shirtless over the roof of the shuttlecraft, ancient goggles strapped to his face as he wielded ancient equipment that, without the power cores of four of their six remaining phasers, would never have worked in the first place.

The recklessness of it caused Spock a difficult-to-suppress level of anxiety. But Spock, with his superior strength, was the logical choice to hold up the very metal panel that Jim was welding, so it wasn’t as though he could trade places. He stood now on top of their emergency kit to get a good height, while Jim carefully (by Spock’s order) and painstakingly ran the Vulcan welding equipment across a seam of metal. Already today they had sanded down the jagged edges, pounded out dents in panels they planned to affix, and now they worked with strained muscles under the still-boiling sunlight of near-evening.

Even still, one solid day of work, and it was starting to look like these repairs were possible. Theoretically, of course, they always had been, but even Spock had admitted to moments of doubt. He’d often wondered if the two of them could really do this on their own.

It began to look as though they could. And if they kept up this pace, his earlier estimation of 11.8 months might turn out to be false.

Spock had never been quite as pleased at the prospect of being proven wrong.

The grinding hum of the welding equipment ceased and Spock peeked over the edge of the panel to meet Jim’s eyes. Jim sat up, shoved his goggles into his hair and wiped the sweat from his eyebrows. He had two strips of fabric they’d torn from their emergency blanket wrapped around his hands like bandages (or mittens) in the absence of welding gloves, and Spock came close to finding the sight of him comical.

“That’s, what, three panels down?” Jim said, his voice sounding strangely quiet after the seemingly interminable sound of his welding. He leaned back on his heels, “Forty-eight to go?”

Spock nodded, releasing his hold, but keeping his hands close in case the panel decided to snap off. It looked to be steady, though. Jim had done a fine job.

“Indeed, however we are making excellent progress.”

Jim smiled at him brightly, the shine of his teeth catching the dying sunlight. He looked red, and Spock worried that, in spite of the aloe they’d used earlier, Jim might have succumbed to a burn. But it didn’t seem to bother Jim, who seemed relaxed in spite of his labor.

“It’s a relief to hear that from the task master,” Jim said with a chuckle. “Think we’re making enough progress to call it a day? I wouldn’t mind relaxing for a few minutes before I pass out for the night.”

Spock looked at the sun’s position in the sky, then back toward Jim. In an hour or so, Jim would have to lay down for his evening rest, and If Spock were being honest, his own body weighed heavy with fatigue. For the first time in a long time, he considered joining him.

“That would be sufficient,” he said. “If you would like, we may set up the blankets at the mouth of the cave.”

Jim’s responding, widening grin was answer enough. Feeling his cheeks heat at the sight of him, as they often did, Spock dropped down from his perch on top of the kit and watched Jim crawl to the edge of the shuttle’s hole. Reaching down as Spock reached up, Jim grabbed Spock’s forearms with his clumsy welding mittens, hopping from the height gracelessly, but with some help.

His boots hit the ground with a floof of sand and he smiled up at Spock. “Thanks,” he said sweetly, releasing his hold on Spock’s arms and holding out his hands.

Understanding the gesture, Spock began to unwind the strips of fabric, a small smile on his lips. “It will do us both good to rest,” Spock said as he pulled, unraveled and folded, eyes on his task rather than the face of his companion. “I thought perhaps I might lie down with you for a time.”

Over their connection, Spock felt a thrum of happiness that made his fingers fumble on the fabric for a moment.

“I’d love that,” Jim said sincerely. “You’ve been at this longer than I have.”

Spock removed the strip from one of Jim’s hands and laid it over his own bare shoulder, moving onto the next. “Only a few hours,” he responded. In truth, he’d spent most of his time while Jim slept earlier meditating by the graves of their comrades, but he had spent a little time on the shuttle as well. Perhaps the meditation had exhausted him more than the labor. His thoughts were often tumultuous anymore.

But even still, he preferred this to the way things had once been. At least he knew that when mediation failed, Jim would be there.

As he pulled off the last of Jim’s mittens, Jim flexed his fingers. He’d been welding for hours-- Spock could only imagine they ached.

“Come, let’s return. We should attend to your sunburn, too.”

Jim glanced down at his own shoulders and winced. Though he’d developed quite the tan over the months, long exposure like this still wasn’t good for him.

“As long as I get to sleep afterwards, I’ll do whatever you want,” Jim responded. He stepped a bit closer and took the strips of emergency blanket from Spock’s shoulder, then ran his other hand along Spock’s bare arm. The touch was tender, not meant to be incendiary, but there was a definite ember-glow in Jim’s eyes. Spock leaned forward, sensing the desire, and met Jim’s lips.

Each time, it felt like the first. His eyes would flutter, Jim’s lips would press hesitantly against his own, and then the rush of affection would flood him. Jim had told him to let down his mental barriers if he wanted to, and he found he often wanted to. There was something about feeling Jim’s fondness in each kiss that felt validating. It helped him to realize, each time, that this was real.

So much had changed in recent days, but as long as he concentrated on Jim, on the glowing world around them, on the warmth of a campfire or the warmth of Jim’s touch, he found he didn’t fear change as much as he once did. Living as long as they had alone on an alien planet had taught him that there were worse things to fear than the possibility of happiness, even if he sometimes had to remind himself of that fact.

The kiss did not linger long, nor did it need to. When they pulled away, Jim gifted him a soft smile, ran his hand down the rest of Spock’s arm and brushed their fingers together. He nodded toward the cave. “I like the idea of setting up the blankets at the entrance,” he said conversationally, turning to make his way home. Thankfully, there was very little limp in his step. “This is my favorite time of day.”

Spock took up the emergency kit in both his hands and followed Jim dutifully, casting one glance back at the shuttle, two-toned in the steel of Starfleet and the deep green-grey of the metal they’d scavenged from the Vulcan ship. It would look messy when it was finished, but it was beginning to look like a ship, at least.

“Why is that?” he asked, almost having missed the statement as he lost himself in his thoughts. He drew up beside Jim, sticking close if only to feel the warmth that radiated from him.

Jim shrugged, flopping his hands to his sides and letting loose some of the fabric. It began to trail behind him, but he didn’t notice. “Oh, the leaves start collapsing and the insects stop screaming and it cools off and the whole world just turns... golden . It’s beautiful.”

Spock glanced around. It was true, the closer they got to sunset (though full night was still many hours away), the more the world took on a yellow-orange hue. Once, he recalled thinking it looked eerie laying over the scene of the quiet shuttle, but now he could see why Jim liked it. Jim did have an affinity for the color gold. And, yes, the leaves had just begun their accordion-fold, the light filtering through them beginning to resemble waves along the sand.

When they reached the cave, Jim insisted he could retrieve the blankets on his own, so Spock remained at the mouth, pulling a couple of pink fruits from the kit and rinsing them with water from the canteen they’d placed in there. The water had heated over the hours they’d spent in the sun, but it was clean, at least.

When Jim returned and set the blankets up in a small cushion, Spock joined him. For a time, they sat and shared their fruit. Jim, though clearly tired, was happy to fill the time talking about their progress. He told Spock he was excited to connect the bussard ramscoop to the engineering alcove they hadn’t yet built, which got him talking about how they would have to recalibrate it to collect ions for the engine, rather than the hydrogen that would normally power a warp nacelle. He went through their plans for the engine, adding notes to the points they’d yet to agree on. Spock listened intently the whole time, though he occasionally found himself hyperfocused on the sticky pink juices running down Jim’s chin and fingers each time his teeth broke the skin of the fruit.

Spock had trouble not staring, even though he knew he was allowed to now. It had only been days since that permission had been granted-- to touch, to taste, to feel-- and yet it still felt each time as though he were crossing boundaries that shouldn’t have been crossed. But then Jim would smile, like he did now around an endearing mouthful, and Spock would forget about boundaries for a moment.

When they’d finished and tossed the fruit pits into the forest, Spock’s overtaking Jim’s by a few feet (“every time,” Jim complained) they rinsed their hands and settled back on the cushion. Almost the whole time they’d been eating, Jim had been shooting Spock happy little glances, anticipatory. So as Spock patted his hands dry on his torn slacks, he finally asked.

“Is there something on your mind, Jim?”

The corner of Jim’s mouth drew up in a lopsided smile. “Isn’t there always?”

“Indeed. Usually you are quite willing, if not over-eager to share.”

Jim laughed, nudging Spock’s shoulder with his fist, “You can’t tell me I talk too much if you insist on staying strong and silent,” Jim said. He paused. “But-- well-- there is something on my mind. I was wondering if you might indulge me.”

Spock raised an eyebrow and Jim’s grin widened. He brought a hand to Spock’s hair and began to stroke down the strands that had risen with the humidity, starting at the crown of his head and ending where he’d tied it at the nape of his neck. “Your hair has gotten so long,” he said, and Spock wondered briefly what that had to do with Jim’s plans. “ Just past your shoulders when you let it down.” He slipped his fingers into the strip of leather that held Spock’s hair back and slid it off. Spock felt his hair tickle his shoulders, but his focus was decidedly elsewhere.

There was something sensual in Jim’s voice, a husky sort of wonder that made Spock swallow. But he allowed Jim to card his fingers through his hair, and soon his eyes fluttered closed at the sensation. “There’s something I want to try,” Jim finally said.

Spock’s eyes shot open and he met Jim’s. “Something?” Spock asked, attempting to keep any fear or judgement from his tone. Jim’s smile turned indulgent as though he knew Spock’s thoughts, and he ran his thumb over the pith of Spock’s cheek.

“I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not that,” Jim laughed.

Granted, Spock had immediately assumed Jim was suggesting intercourse, but now he felt a simmer of confusion. If he hadn’t been hinting at that...

“What is it you would like to try?”

“Stay right there,” Jim said with a wink. It was boyish and charming and playful and Spock found himself averting his eyes in hopes that Jim could not see his reaction to the gesture. But Jim had already gotten to his feet. He walked over to the tree closest to the cave’s entrance where he’d hung a bundle of flowers to dry the day before. In the humidity, they still retained their shape and smell for days, but Jim didn’t seem to care. He returned with the bouquet and set it beside Spock, then moved behind him and settled on his knees.

“Jim?”

“Patience, Spock” Jim said, running a hand along Spock’s arm as though to soothe him, though he was undisturbed.

But then Jim’s fingers were back in his hair, slipping through the strands that Spock had oiled earlier that day, separating locks between his digits. The motion was soft, comforting, and Spock felt his eyes closing once again. Whatever Jim had in mind seemed to be innocent, which was both a relief and a disappointment. Though they had draped their arms over each other at night and now allowed themselves the permission of each other’s lips, and though Jim had become incredibly fond of the concept of Vulcan kissing, Jim had not made a move beyond that to suggest he wished to re-establish-- or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say establish for the first time-- a sexual relationship.

But Spock had decided nearly immediately not to do so himself. He felt as though he had already pushed too much on Jim, and the fear of his own inexperience was an ever-present thought. In this, he shifted responsibility to his companion. Besides, it had only been a few days since they had agreed to do whatever it was that they were doing. Spock was not entirely familiar with human methods of courtship, but a three or four days did sound a little soon.

Then again, his mind was very helpful in reminding him often that this-- again, whatever it was-- had in fact begun many many months ago. So perhaps Spock’s mild impatience was more warranted than he told himself it was.

But even innocent actions like this, the soft caress of Jim’s hands through his hair, Spock melted into. He was so caught up in his thoughts and the gentle feeling of wandering fingers that he hardly noticed when Jim picked up one of the flowers, a trumpet-shaped pink plume with bright violet veins, and set it against Spock’s head. It was then that Spock became aware of Jim’s fingers twisting strands of hair around its stem.

“What are you doing?” Spock asked, and he felt Jim’s smile over their bond, though he couldn’t see it over his shoulder.

“Braiding,” Jim replied. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do this.”

Spock attempted to turn his head, but Jim’s hands held him steady. “Nah-ah, this is delicate work,” he admonished gently. “Eyes forward, Commander.”

It had been many months since that title had slipped out of Jim’s lips, and now it sounded more a term of endearment than anything else. Spock quite liked it.

“May I ask why?” Spock said as Jim grabbed another flower from the bouquet and continued his work.

“Because if you turn your head you’ll mess up the braids,” Jim chuckled.

“I mean to ask,” Spock said gently, a half-smile on his own lips, “why you wish to braid my hair.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jim admitted, “I thought of it a few months ago, when you first started tying your hair back. I thought how good you’d look with a braid and then the flowers just kind of… came in later.”

Spock felt himself flush at that. The idea of Jim thinking he looked ‘good’ with anything was oddly affirming. He had never considered himself to have any aesthetic appeal, nor had he ever cared whether or not he did, but somehow it had become important to him that Jim at least saw something in him that he liked.

“And I’ve never seen a Vulcan with long hair before,” Jim continued. “It makes you look, oh, wild? Untamed? Sexy?”

Swallowing, Spock felt his spine straighten. Jim adjusted the placement of his hands for the height and let out a small, snorting laugh. He laughed so easily anymore.

“It is not so rare,” Spock said to cover the moment. “True, since the Awakening few Vulcans wear their hair long, but some do. Especially those who connect more fully with our ancestors.”

“Did ancient Vulcans wear it long, then?”

Spock resisted the urge to nod, not wanting to get reprimanded again. “Indeed. It is somewhat fitting that I now wear it this way, as the planet Vulcan is currently one-hundred years before the Awakening.”

Jim’s fingers stilled for a moment.

“Wait, really? So you’re saying somewhere across the quadrant right now, your ancestors are running around bare-chested and long-haired and living a life of complete and total illogic?”

Spock shrugged slightly. “That is a reductive summary, but generally accurate.”

Jim ran a hand along Spock’s shoulder for a moment, squeezing lightly. “That must feel strange to think about,” he said.

In truth, Spock had hardly considered it. But now the thought entered his mind. ‘Bare-chested, long-haired and living a life of complete and total illogic.’ It described his ancestors, yes, but currently it seemed to describe him, too. He looked down at his chest (as he had shed his own shirt in the day’s heat hours ago), and considered the fact that a human man with whom Spock had established a strong mental link was now braiding flowers into his hair. Illogical, by any measure.

He let out a little puff of breath, feeling the corners of his lips tick upwards. A breeze ruffled by, and he hoped the sound of the wind had covered it.

“What?” Jim asked, a laugh on his own lips. “What’s so funny?”

Spock looked out over the forest, eyes tracing the paths of jewel-bright insects while, in the distance, the chortling of those little fat birds echoed throughout the oasis. Something in him softened-- something that had remained hard and clenched for a great deal of his life and only now seemed to want to let go.

“It had not occurred to me,” Spock responded, “that I am likely more akin to my ancestors at the moment than to most Vulcans with whom I am acquainted. It is a fascinating thought.”

Jim continued his braiding, and Spock realized he’d lost count of the number of flowers in his hair. It didn’t matter, though, the weight of them was pleasant, as were Jim’s ministrations.

“Does that bother you?” Jim asked after a moment, a sliver of insecurity in his tone.

“It simply is,” Spock responded, which was true. He thought then of the Vulcans on his homeworld. They had been such primitive people, so eclipsed by whim and desire and rage, but they had been his people, and somewhere in his blood he still felt them. Though he would never wish to abandon Surakian teachings, he supposed there were lessons to be learned from all of one’s ancestors.

And the pre-Awakening Vulcans did have their own lessons to teach. Even some of their beliefs had continued to affect Vulcan culture into modern day. The Gods, the mythology, the ancient rites…

“There,” Jim said from behind Spock, patting his shoulder and flopping back on the cushion of blankets. He scooted to Spock’s side to get a good look at him and let a wide smile break over his lips.

Spock reached up a hand and gently traced his fingertips along the blooms of the flowers. It felt as though Jim had braided a few separate chunks and then twisted them all together. The arrangement felt heavy on the back of his head and neck, but not unpleasant.

Spock had no idea what he looked like, but Jim seemed ecstatic. “Oh, Spock,” he said, patting Spock’s knee excitedly. “I wish we had some kind of recording device. When we get back to Starfleet-- holo recorders in every emergency kit.”

“I am sure we could think of more useful items to include. There are few emergencies that require a holo-recorder.”

Jim shoved his shoulder lightly, laughing. “This is an emergency,” he said, “I need to remember this forever.” With a gentle hand, Jim reached up and touched the blooms himself, his smile turning softer, giddiness fading into something else Spock couldn’t quite place. There was a pause as something shifted in him, something Spock could feel almost physically. “Now you really look wild,” he said.

Spock looked down to the bouquet beside him, now just a few scattered flowers, and took up a sprig of yellow buttons. Turning back to Jim, he tucked the stem gently behind Jim’s ear and trailed his fingers down Jim’s temple and cheek, ghosting over meld points where he felt flashes of thoughts, though nothing tangible. But he didn’t need to feel anything to see the naked expression in Jim’s eyes at the gesture, the same look of wondering joy he wore when the sun set and the leaves collapsed and the world turned golden.

“I believe, Jim,” Spock said gently, “I have a suggestion. Something to name Alpha Novus V.”

Jim seemed to startle out of a kind of trance, taking a moment to absorb what Spock had said. When he did, though, his eyes widened and he scooted closer. “Finally! I must have suggested a thousand names by now.”

“Thirty-five,” Spock corrected.

Jim smirked. “You know I may have to disagree with it just on principle, since you’ve contradicted all of mine.”

“I am still convinced less than half of them were proposed with any seriousness,” Spock teased back.

“Alright, Spock,” Jim said sweetly, “what’s your pitch?”

Spock glanced back out the cave, then to the man beside him, the yellow flower behind his ear making his eyes shine. Golden.

“Sha Ka Ree,” he said simply.

Jim’s brows tilted downwards. “Sha Ka Ree?” He tried out the unfamiliar syllables on his lips. “Is that Vulcan?” At Spock’s nod, he smiled. “Appropriate, given everything. What does it mean?”

“It is a place in the mythology of my ancestors, much like Earth’s Eden. The origin of life.” He paused, then, “Paradise.”

Jim seemed to pull back for a moment, the smile fading from his face. At first, Spock worried at the expression, but he only felt thoughtfulness, not judgement or distaste, radiating from Jim in that moment.

“Sha Ka Ree,” Jim repeated. He looked out over the forest as Spock had done, and Spock wondered what he was seeing. Maybe he thought of the deaths of their crew. The traumatic crash, the fangs of the bulldog that had nearly killed them. Maybe he thought of the Vulcan graveyard, the hundreds of crashed ships.

But the longer he stared, the more Spock felt Jim’s thoughts turning elsewhere, to the pond where they sometimes speared fish, to the place by the shuttle where they’d practiced shooting the bow and arrow, to the caldera that glowed softly and warmed them when they were cold, to the evidence of generations of colonists, and-- possibly-- to Spock himself.

When he turned his eyes back to Spock, there were oceans in their depths, so much said without words.

“I love it,” Jim said softly, emotion choking his voice. He cleared his throat and his lips quirked, smiling something soft and almost timid, “I’m just… I’m surprised you think of this place as a paradise.”

Spock conceded to that. By all rights, he should not, yet… “Perhaps not fully. This planet has seen more tragedy than I believe either of us will ever know. But I-- I feel at peace here.”

“Me too,” Jim said. “And it is our planet. We can name it whatever we want.”

Spock hesitated to consider Alpha Novus V, or rather, Sha Ka Ree, their planet, but it may as well have been. And they had both lost so much, it seemed only appropriate they should gain this paradise in exchange.

“Sha Ka Ree is acceptable then?” Spock asked, a trill of nerves at the thought of naming this place something so intrinsically personal, though somehow it felt right.

The origin of life.

“Paradise,” Jim responded with a widening grin. He brought a hand to Spock’s cheek and stroked, leaning forward. Spock did not hesitate to do the same. He tilted his head and met Jim’s lips in a gentle kiss, the heat of Jim’s breath ghosting over his mouth. He tasted like the remnants of that sweet, pink fruit, and Spock wanted nothing more than to drink him in. On the blankets between them, their hands found each other, fingers lacing. A hum traveled up Spock’s arm and he quivered, breath faltering.

It still overwhelmed. Moment by moment it overwhelmed. This feeling that surged through him every time they made contact and carried with it a thousand impulses and desires. T’hy’la , he thought to himself, ashayam, beloved, treasured , things he could not yet bring himself to say aloud, but had no choice but to admit in the privacy of his own thoughts.

But he knew Jim could feel them, and in a way that understanding freed him. He could tell Jim without words that when they touched he felt as though an intrinsic piece of himself had finally been reconnected. He could tell Jim without saying it that when Jim licked the seam of his lips he would always open for him. He could convey through the way his fingers clenched between Jim’s knuckles that he didn’t want to let go ever again, which meant forever, which meant a word far too large for either of them to say, but one they could at least touch.

As these emotions poured from him, Jim shifted closer, breaking the contact of their lips to lay kisses along Spock’s jaw, up to the lobe of his ear, cresting its point and then traveling back down until the breath of his nose tickled the hair at the back of Spock’s neck and his lips pressed a careful kiss to the side of Spock’s throat. Spock’s eyes flew open and he brought his free hand to the back of Jim’s head, whether to pull him away or press him closer, he hadn’t decided.

Jim pulled back just enough to meet his eyes. “Is this alright?” he asked.

“I thought you wanted to rest,” Spock said instead of answering, nervousness causing his voice to quaver just slightly. But Jim smiled, the kind of smile that always managed to dispel most of Spock’s boiling emotions.

“Sorry,” Jim replied, and he began to edge away further. “I didn’t mean to get carried away.” Spock kept his hold on the back of Jim’s head steady, stopping him mid-motion. Those eyes searched his own for a second. “Unless, you want me to get carried away?” It was said as a question, a clear request to define the terms of the interaction. It would be logical for Spock to specify his own desires if he could simply pin them down.

He wanted Jim to continue, desperately, but he feared the implications, the possibilities. The idea of hurting him or disappointing him was necessarily unpleasant, but he had promised Jim -- and promised himself-- that he would not let his fear control him anymore.

“I do not want you to stop,” Spock finally said, feeling his cheeks heat in spite of himself. Jim’s eyes seemed alight at the admission.

“I don’t want to stop either,” Jim nearly whispered, bringing his free hand back to Spock’s jaw and coaxing him forward, a kiss that soothed at least a fraction of Spock’s fears.

Jim licked into his mouth and Spock felt himself wilting into the feeling as Jim’s hand moved from his jaw to his neck, then his collar. Spock’s breath hitched when he felt Jim’s fingers curl against his chest, tangling up in the hair and tugging slightly.

There was a trail of fire in the wake of Jim’s touch, but he found himself pushing forward into the burn all the same as Jim smiled against his lips. Jim’s hand came around Spock’s back and the whole of him pressed forward. For a moment, the position was awkward, but then Jim pulled his legs around, settling a knee on either side of Spock’s, and he used the gentle pressure of his own body to lay Spock down on the blankets.

Their hands parted, but Spock only mourned the loss for a moment before Jim steadied himself on Spock’s chest and lifted up, coming to settle on Spock’s lap.

Jim’s lips were shining from their kiss, his cheeks flushed. He raked his hands and his eyes down Spock’s chest to his abdomen, then back up, wearing an expression Spock had only seen once before in the dim light of the cave.

But now, Jim was illuminated-- gilded in the day’s setting sun, and though there was desire in his eyes as plain as if he’d spoken it aloud, he was smiling. He leaned down and captured Spock’s lips again, weight on Spock’s chest. Embarrassment that Jim might feel his already quickened breath dissipated as Jim hummed something content into his mouth, so Spock lifted himself into the kiss, into the body against him, feeling sparks of awed pleasure flowing to him, even though the brush of their hips bore so little friction. He brought a hand to the back of Jim’s neck, moulding their lips, glad for the practice of the last few days because he knew that when Jim paused for breath he could lick at the back of Jim’s teeth to draw a pleasant sound from him, to make the kiss deeper, to make it last longer. Jim’s fingertips curled a little harder against Spock’s skin.

When Jim broke the kiss, he regained his path from Spock’s jaw to his neck, sucking tenderly at patches of skin on his way down. Spock shuddered, his hands coming to Jim’s back as his hips lifted unconsciously.

No, he could admit to himself that he didn’t want Jim to stop, and as the man rolled lazily against him, Spock allowed himself to give in. He tilted his head back to allow for better access, feeling the crush of flower petals against his crown, but his attention was far more focused on the tongue that darted out to trace the line of his neck, to the hands holding steady against him, to the heat spreading through his groin, and to Jim’s own hardening arousal, which brushed him with each roll of his hips.

That hot mouth trailed down his neck, down his collar, and Jim ceased the movement of his body to pull himself lower. Spock missed the friction, but the wet press of lips against his sternum was a fine distraction. Fingertips moved to his nipples and brushed them almost too softly to feel and Spock hiked his breath as his fingers dug into Jim’s shoulders. Jim chuckled, his smile pressed against Spock’s skin like a tattoo.

“Is this still okay?” Jim asked, trailing his hands down Spock’s sides, resting for a moment over his heartbeat, then settling his fingers along the waistband of his slacks.

Spock nodded, not trusting himself to speak. But Jim understood and lowered himself further, nipping gently at Spock’s abdomen with his teeth, humming his appreciation when Spock’s hips jerked slightly.

Eyes glued to the golden crown of Jim’s head, Spock watched Jim slip his fingers along his waistband then come to the fly of his slacks, popping the button as deftly as he had that night when it had been Spock on top of him , desperate hands grasping and breaths coming out in short bursts. This felt so little like that night, so unhurried, natural. And still, surreal.

As Jim lifted himself and hooked his fingers into the fabric of Spock’s slacks and briefs, Spock felt himself swallow. Even the bare brush of hands over his hipbones was overstimulating. But Jim met his eyes again, and Spock allowed himself to send some encouragement over their link, grateful to Jim for taking control, grateful to Jim for asking if he could continue. Spock had wanted this for so long, but he didn’t know how to treat Jim gently, how to be intimate without that cloud of lust and desperation that had gripped him all those months ago. Instinct had allowed him to bring Jim to climax once, but he could not rely on instinct to do it right.

But Jim knew what to do. He coaxed Spock’s hips upward, peeled the slacks off his legs and climbed off him just long enough to undress him fully. He tossed Spock’s clothes to the side and Spock felt exposed, the chill of the breeze obvious now that it wafted over him.

“One-- one second,” Jim said, grabbing the waistband of his own slacks and shoving them down his thighs unceremoniously. Spock bit back his reaction to the sight of Jim, all hard, tanned muscle, a tantalizing landscape of skin that looked smooth and sweat-slicked and he wanted to touch him, wanted Jim to return to him, wanted--

Jim practically tore off his boots and slacks, tossed them somewhere near Spock’s, then turned back toward him. He seemed arrested for a moment, the rise and fall of his chest obvious even from Spock’s position. Spock felt a flush of embarrassment, being laid out like this, bare, half-hard already under Jim’s gaze. He began to sit up, but Jim caught the motion and laid a hand on Spock’s leg, stilling him.

“Sorry,” Jim said, crawling up Spock’s lap and hanging over him once more, hands planted on the blankets on either side of Spock’s head. “I just… I can’t look and touch at the same time.” He laughed a little at himself and Spock felt waves of wonder and reverence coming from him. It hardly registered that the sight of Spock could be the cause of such a monumental emotion.

“I far prefer that you touch,” Spock said, though it was difficult to force the words from his constricted throat. Jim’s responding smile was reward enough for the effort, shining on Spock in a way that made him feel somehow important, somehow worthy, though he knew he could never be worthy of this.

Jim leaned down for another kiss and Spock breathed relief into it, his worries fleeing him with the warmth of Jim’s lips, with the breath that bled into his own, the tiny noises Jim made each time their tongues brushed. Being naked was uncomfortable, but kissing he could do. Kissing distracted him from any fear of vulnerability.

Jim’s hand found his and pressed their fingers together, the hum of a Vulcan kiss passing between them even as their lips moved together gently, as Jim sucked at his tongue and pulled Spock’s lower lip between his teeth.

“You’re sure about this, right?” Jim asked a little breathily when they parted, and Spock felt his eyes widen at the question.

“Of course,” he barely managed to say, as though it weren’t obvious how he already strained for Jim’s touch, pushing himself up on every heartbeat to try to press against the body above him.

Jim, smiling his satisfaction with that answer, trailed his fingertips like the brush of feathers down Spock’s stomach, tickling the hair that speckled his groin. Then in an excruciatingly light caress, he traced the line of Spock’s shaft. Biting his lip, Spock tried to force his hips still, though that bare touch alone had already done too much to shatter his control. Perhaps sensing this, Jim’s fingers curled one-by-one, almost teasingly slow, around Spock’s girth, eliciting a shuddering whine-- a sound Spock didn’t even know he was capable of making.

The roughness of Jim’s hand around him made his ridges swell in anticipation, and Jim brought a thumb to trace them, pressing almost too hard, but agonizingly stimulating. They took in twin, broken breaths at the sensation, Spock’s eyes fluttering closed, his head falling back and his fingers digging into the skin of Jim’s shoulder.

Jim brought his other hand to the pith of Spock’s hip. Then, he sank down, lips and teeth tracing a line from Spock’s ribcage to his groin.

Spock gave himself into it, the sensation of the body above him that sent shivers singing from every nerve. A breeze cooled the places where Jim had kissed him and run his tongue along his skin, leaving a trail.

Clear intent suddenly colored the ripples of Jim’s mind, and Spock looked to him, feeling the ghost of hot breath between his legs where Jim hung over him. Jim’s hand moved slowly up and down Spock’s length, gentle, but there was something decidedly less gentle in Jim’s expression. When their eyes met, Jim’s lips curled into a smile, and he flicked out his tongue to taste the tip of Spock’s cock.

Spock’s breath caught in his chest, his hand flying to Jim’s hair and tangling in it, yanking his head up without meaning to as his own fell back against the cushion of blankets once more. He couldn’t possibly bring himself to watch, but he tried to force his tense muscles to relax, tried to force his hips not to buck, tried to loosen his fingers.

“Jim--”

“Is this--”

Yes ,” Spock cut him off, hardly recognizing himself in the single strained syllable of that word.

Jim’s trill of excitement slipped across their bond as his rough fingers settled around the base of Spock’s cock and his tongue drew an almost maddeningly tender line from the seam of his hand to the tip.

The sting of Spock’s arousal made him bring a hand to his mouth to stifle a bare whimper, just as Jim’s lips sank around the head and he sucked , his tongue tracing the path of his thumb from moments before, outlining the ridges softly, sensuously, as though he couldn’t get enough of the taste.

Spock clamped down every amount of control he could on himself, for what good it did. With each brush of Jim’s tongue, he felt himself releasing shallow breaths, light-headed whether from pleasure or lack of oxygen, he didn’t know. His eyes were screwed shut to the world, absorbing himself in the feeling as Jim’s fingers brushed the bulge of his testicles. Spock’s hips jerked forward, forcing himself farther into Jim’s mouth. That intoxicating wet heat encircled his length and his fingers tightened in his lover’s hair. Jim grunted at the sensation, a sound that vibrated around him.

Jim’s hand found his hip again and forced him down, dragging his lips up Spock’s length as he went, cheeks hollowed. Spock couldn’t stop himself from groaning aloud, his body trembling as he held himself back, as Jim swirled his tongue along the head of Spock’s penis where he already felt himself leaking. When Jim sank down again, his hand tightening around the base, Spock felt his spine arching, shoulders pressing into the padding beneath him.

A satisfied hum of pride reached Spock across their connection, and with a final lick along the hard vein that ran along the underside of his length, Jim pulled off. Spock looked to him, distraught by the loss of that feeling. Already he was dripping with need, throbbing like an open wound but Jim--

Jim was smiling, something far too warm and innocent for what his mouth had been doing moments before.

“Not yet,” Jim practically sing-songed as he pulled himself up and laid over Spock, his erection rubbing against Spock’s between their stomachs. Spock whimpered in spite of himself as Jim breathed against his lips. “Still okay?” he asked, still smiling, a little gentler than before, and Spock didn’t know if he had the capacity to answer with words.

So he brought his lips to Jim’s, fisting his hand roughly in Jim’s hair and forcing him down, forcing his lips open with his tongue, forcing him to tilt his head with more strength than he meant to use, but Jim groaned into his open mouth and pressed against him and Spock didn’t even care that it was too much. He wrapped a leg around Jim’s hips and pulled him tighter, closer, rocking into him.

It took some time for Jim to effectively break the kiss, though he kept trying, pulling away to catch a breath before Spock brought him back in. He wanted to consume this man, to feel everything he felt, to pull him inside himself and to push himself inside Jim, to occupy the same space. And if he were in any more control he’d meld them right now, share the same waves of want and need until they drowned in each other.

But finally Jim managed to pull away with a steady hand on Spock’s chest, holding him in place. His lips were bruised-red, and he looked wrecked already, pupils blown, smile returning with all the force of the midday sun, as though he hadn’t been expecting Spock to take control of their kiss.

A feeling rose up in Spock like steam, something heavy and warm and too big to be called ‘fondness’ or ‘affection.’ He loved this man, and he had loved him all this time and now that the word took root in his mind he wanted to nurture it, to give himself fully to it as Jim had given himself to Spock. And Spock didn’t care that Jim could feel every overwhelming swell of emotion coming from him. He wanted Jim to feel it, to know that this was important, that he was important.

With only a twinge of hesitation, borne of nerves rather than doubt, Spock reached between them and curled his fingers around Jim’s length. Jim bucked into his touch, dropping his head to Spock’s shoulder and releasing a small sound that it seemed he had tried to stifle. “S--sensitive,” he mumbled with a self-deprecating kind of chuckle. Spock smoothed back Jim’s hair and began to pull gently at his erection, hoping Jim didn’t sense the tremble in his touch. Jim’s hand fisted against Spock’s chest and he gasped, the hot breath on Spock’s skin sending shivers down his spine.

He tightened his hold, twisting his hand and rubbing his thumb along Jim’s slit where the slick of precum slid against his skin. Jim shuddered bodily at the sensation and Spock felt his own flash of pride as Jim’s hands came to Spock’s shoulders, clenching into them.

But then Jim pushed himself up and pulled away. Bereft, Spock met his eyes to find an explanation for the movement. It was only then he realized that Jim was trembling too.

“Stay right here,” Jim said, not for the first time that day. He pulled himself out of Spock’s hold and stood. Shakily, Spock noticed.

Then he straightened, completely bare in the half-sunlight of the open air, the half-shadow of the cave. Spock could have stared at him like that forever if he weren’t so desperate for Jim to return to him. He sat up, impatient, and watched with bated breath as Jim moved toward the emergency kit.

Jim knelt, the muscles of his thighs and back clenching as he dug around in the kit for something. When he turned, he held an aloe plant in his hands. Spock questioned it for a moment, but when Jim returned to him, placed the aloe on the blankets, and crawled back into Spock’s lap, he forgot about it entirely.

Gently, Jim slotted their erections together and laid his body flush against Spock’s, wrapping his arms around his back and sinking in for another lingering kiss. He rolled his hips, cock dripping and smearing along Spock’s abdomen with each brush of movement. Spock moaned into his mouth, unable and unwilling to stop himself, shifting to balance on his rear as his hands moved to Jim’s back and pulled him impossibly closer. His hands ran down Jim’s sides and grasped at the hard muscle, the soft skin, the coiled tension in him. Jim was unyielding, esurient, and he was Spock’s .

Jim parted from their kiss with a nip at Spock’s lip, then a hitch of a breath that sounded like Spock’s name. It took him a second to continue, his heart hammering against Spock’s chest. “I’ve been thinking about this for so long,” he whispered. Spock sympathized, but now was not the time to discuss it. The fact that Jim could even form coherent sentences was astounding to him, but Jim kept going, his fingertips drawing soothing patterns along Spock’s spine as he continued to rock against him. “And, Spock, I want to-- to feel you inside me.”

There was a hint of embarrassment in the tone, in the feeling Jim exuded, as though he’d been reticent to say anything at all, but Spock lost breath for a moment, hands ceasing their movement along Jim’s back as his erection throbbed almost painfully at those words. Their meaning sank into him and his fingers dug into Jim’s skin.

“Would that be alright?” Jim asked, almost shyly. Spock would have found the obviousness of the question comical if he’d been capable of feeling any emotion other than overwhelming arousal.

“I--” Spock stuttered, undone, unsure how to convey-- “I do not know how.” The admission caused his cheeks to heat, but Jim just laid a kiss on his forehead, on his nose, on his cheek, on his lips, and brought his hands to thread into Spock’s hair. A flower fell from the careful braids, but Spock hardly noticed it.

“I’ll show you,” Jim said.

Spock’s mouth was dry, his throat raw, his mind moving too slow to keep up, but he felt himself nodding moments before he felt Jim pull away again.

Jim reached for the aloe, and suddenly Spock understood its purpose. He tried to keep his own hammering heartbeat steady as Jim settled back on the knees of Spock’s outstretched legs and broke open the little plant, revealing the slick substance they’d been using for months to soothe their skin. The scent of it had been erotic before, because it recalled him of Jim’s bare shoulders and back, strained and tanned and shining in sunlight, but now it carried a completely different meaning.

Jim dipped his fingers into it, a motion which Spock watched intently, fixated on the way the aloe clung to the space between his fingertips, on the way it shined, the way it dripped down to Jim’s palm.

Then, Jim set the plant aside and raised himself on his knees again, scooted forward so his erection pressed against the hollow under Spock’s chest. He reached his slick hand behind himself. The moment Jim began to spread it along his opening, Spock felt pleasure shoot through him like phaser fire, Jim’s quiet gasp and the eager thrum of his mind at the barest brush of his own fingertips making Spock bite his lip.

Spock laid his forehead against Jim’s ribcage and found his hands climbing Jim’s thighs, grazing along the swell of his ass and pulling the cheeks apart, hyperfocused on the feeling of skin beneath his fingers, the emotions that flowed through him. On impulse, he pressed a kiss to Jim’s stomach, found the line of the scar along his hip and traced it with his tongue, reveling in the taste of salt and the shudder that passed through Jim’s body at the feeling.

“Getting impatient, Mister Spock?” Jim practically purred, the tone shooting straight to Spock’s erection.

“Ardently,” Spock managed to respond. He wasn’t sure he could go beyond single-words, but he tried, “Jim, I…”

“I know, I know,” Jim soothed, “but you have to prep me.” His voice was tight with restraint. “Gently at first. One at a time.”

He coaxed Spock’s head backwards to look him in the eye. “Do you want to try?”

“Yes,” Spock responded immediately, voice a husk of what it usually was, hardly a voice at all. Jim returned his hand to Spock’s shoulder, still wet, slicking the lubrication along his skin.

With a steadying breath, Spock rubbed at Jim’s opening where Jim had spread the aloe, letting it coat his finger and exploring the pucker of Jim’s skin. The body against him shook with delicate tremors and Jim’s cock hardened obviously against Spock’s chest.

“Spock,” Jim whined, tightening his hold on Spock’s shoulder, “I didn’t know you were such a tease .”

While that had not been his intent, he rather liked the surge of anticipation coming from Jim’s mind, the way he shivered each time Spock’s finger brushed against him. But Spock’s own impatience met the encouragement of Jim’s grasp and, slowly, he slipped a digit inside.

The sensation of it made Spock clench his teeth, the feeling of friction on his sensitive finger compounded by Jim’s own pleasure, which throbbed through his mind and made him lay his head against Jim’s stomach in surprise. The buzz of contact that normally passed through their hands now passed through Jim, and he could feel Jim’s nerves electrify with the feeling. He pulled in and out gently, as Jim had said, eliciting an encouraging hum from the man above him. Jim rocked back into his hand as he gripped at Spock’s hair, pulling out one of the braids entirely.

There was an undercurrent of discomfort, almost pain, in the thoughts that brushed his own, but it did not seem to be enough to bother Jim. “More,” he said, and Spock didn’t waste a moment complying, adding his middle finger to his first. When he twisted and crooked them, Jim bit back a moan, curling his back and cradling Spock’s head against his chest as his legs trembled. He cursed quietly against the crown of Spock’s head, shoving himself back onto Spock’s fingers even as Spock reached deeper. After rotating his hand slightly, Spock slipped a third finger in alongside the first two.

Jim rolled his hips languidly, as though savoring the feeling, sending sparks of pleasure along Spock’s fingers as he met each gentle thrust. Spock felt a tongue dart out and lick at the point of his ear, the feeling of Jim’s hot breath making him shudder. His already painful erection ached anew at the sensation.

Spock lifted his lips to Jim’s chest, licking along the line of his pecs and brushing his tongue along the pebble of his nipple. Jim hissed through his teeth, a whine suck in his throat, his fingers tightening. “Please,” he whimpered. “Please, I’m ready.”

“I-- I don’t want to hurt you,” Spock managed to say, worried at how tight Jim still felt around him, worried that anything more might cause him pain.

Still wrapped around Spock’s shoulders like a mantle, Jim took in a deep breath. “You won’t,” Jim said with effort, “Spock, please.”

Swallowing, Spock tilted his head back to meet Jim’s gaze, sensing him for surety, unwilling to cut corners simply because Jim begged it of him, but the moment he saw himself reflected in Jim’s dark pupils he realized that he would give Jim anything he asked for, and if he begged ...

Jim let out a broken, soft goan when Spock removed his fingers, as though the pull out had felt just as sweet as the push in. As Spock smeared the rest of the lube down the hard line of Jim’s thigh, Jim took Spock roughly by the shoulders and practically shoved him down on the blankets beneath them. The suddenness of it knocked the breath out of Spock’s lungs, but Jim was breathless too, and breathtaking, an intensity in his eyes that Spock had never seen. But then, this was Jim too. Under the quiet humor and delicate smiles, under the startling intelligence and overwhelming kindness, there was this. Passion. Spock didn’t believe in luck, but he could not help but thank fortune that he was the one who was allowed to see it.

Reaching back for the aloe, Jim coated the whole of his palm, returning his hand to the swell of Spock’s erection. He stroked it a few times, slicking it from base to tip with a grip that had Spock biting back a groan. But the movement ceased so quickly he barely had a chance to buck into it. In moments, Jim had shifted, bracketed his legs on either side of Spock’s hips, and now steadied himself with one hand on Spock’s chest.

Their eyes met and Jim let out a strained breath, his hand spreading against Spock’s skin as if to soothe him. Then, Spock watched transfixed as Jim took his lower lip between his teeth and sank down around the head of Spock’s cock.

The flash of pain that hit Spock over their bond was buried under layers of hunger, need, drawing him deeper as Jim clenched tightly around him. Spock groaned without restriction now, and Jim’s visceral reaction to that sound-- the hitch of his breath, the palpable spike of his desire-- was enough to make Spock forget why he was supposed to hold back in the first place.

Spock’s head fell against the blankets as he sheathed himself fully inside, trying to stop the instinct of his hips that told him to move. Jim pulsed around him, stilled above him, breath heaving as Spock brought his desperate hands to Jim’s thighs. He needed an anchor for this feeling that felt like floating, flying, the pleasure of connection making him dizzy.

And Jim-- Jim’s whole body shook with pent-up energy, restraining himself just as Spock was. “You feel--” Jim whispered, eyelids fluttering. “You feel incredible.” He rocked experimentally back onto Spock’s cock, and Spock bit his tender lip, wondering if ‘incredible’ encapsulated this feeling-- being completely surrounded, straining against the tight heat that restricted him. He felt himself throb, a kind of agony in anticipation, ridges flaring. And he knew by the clench around him and the hitch of Jim’s breath that Jim could feel it-- every shudder, every twitch. The thought of it made his nerves sing, fingertips tingling where they pressed hard into Jim’s skin.

When Jim raised himself up, Spock clutched the firm muscle of Jim’s thighs, the tight pull of Jim’s ring dragging friction between them. Jim was open-mouthed, heavy-lidded, looking into Spock’s eyes like nothing else existed. He sank back down, carefully, making a noise in the back of his throat.

“In…incredible,” he repeated. Spock couldn’t speak, couldn’t concentrate on anything but Jim’s burning stare and his overwhelming heat and the way he moved, hips rolling slowly at first, torturously slowly.

As Jim’s body relaxed around Spock’s cock, he grew bolder, picking up momentum with each roll of his hips and letting out small, sighing sounds that were barely audible over the brief breeze that brushed over them. After a few easy rolls, Jim brought a hand to his own length, stroking it in time, eyes never leaving Spock’s.

Spock tried to keep his hips still, to let Jim set the pace, but the drag and pull and the careful rhythm and the way he could feel himself dripping already inside Jim’s body and the way Jim looked at him like he was starving for him made Spock lose his sense of self.

Without thinking, he thrust into the roll of Jim’s hips, meeting him halfway, harder than he meant to but worth it for the way that heat drew him in. Jim cried out-- an “ah!” that echoed around them as he dropped his head to his chest, seizing around Spock’s cock.

“I--ah-- I’m sorry,” Spock managed to say, though he could barely think for the blood rushing southward. “I could not--”

“No,” Jim whispered, raising his head to meet Spock’s eyes again. There was something dark in them, something animal. “No, p-- please. Do that again. Just like that.”

“You are certain?” Spock had felt Jim’s flash of pain. He didn’t want to hurt him, but Jim-- Jim rolled back, harder this time, groaning against clenched teeth as Spock felt that intoxicating tightening around him.

“God, Spock, yes .”

That ‘yes’ had been more a growl than a word, and it made Spock quiver-- he felt tight, coiled, desperate. On the next roll of Jim’s hips, Spock bucked up again to meet him and Jim’s whole body tensed. He moaned, guttural and thick, and Spock lost his breath at the sound, driving into him again. There was pain, yes, but he absorbed himself instead in the pleasure, the way Jim pumped his hand in time to his rocking hips, the way they moved in perfect rhythm, the way Jim seemed to crumple each time Spock stroked that sensitive bundle of nerves inside him.

Jim brought his free hand to his mouth, eyes rolling upward, losing himself in the sensations with bare whimpers pressed into his own palm. But Spock wanted to hear him-- it became a single-minded desire, to let the world around them fall away, to absorb himself in Jim’s vocal pleasure for as long as he could draw it out.

And they were alone, fully alone, where it didn’t matter if their voices echoed around them, if they lost themselves in the simple bliss of each other because they only had each other. And this was all Spock needed.

He grasped at Jim’s back and pulled himself up and against him, taking Jim’s hand away from his mouth and tossing it over his own shoulder. Jim gasped at the sudden switch in position, crying out when Spock bucked up into him. Stealing Jim’s lips in a kiss and digging his fingers into the hard muscle of Jim’s back, his hips hitched again, a groan breaking through as Jim’s teeth sank into his lip.

Needing more, Spock shoved Jim onto his back, instinct taking control once again with the hunger for Jim’s body, for completion and connection and this man whose flood of desire blinded him like a rush of white noise in his mind.

He’d slipped out in the movement, but now Spock took the base of his own cock and pushed it back inside the waiting ring of Jim’s opening, moaning his bare pleasure at the drag of skin along skin, the way his ridges swelled against the tightness around him.

Jim raised his legs and wrapped them around Spock’s hips, pulling him in. With a snap, Spock found that spot again and Jim was crying out, gripping at Spock’s hair like a lifeline. The pain was intoxicating, and Spock rolled himself into Jim, once more setting up a pace that left Jim quaking, made him dig his nails into Spock’s scalp, harder on each thrust. Jim wasn’t trying to stifle himself anymore, and neither was Spock, too absorbed to regret the panting breath that fell from his lips as it matched Jim’s in perfect time.

“Spock,” Jim groaned, curling his back and lifting his body against Spock’s, rubbing his erection along Spock’s stomach and smearing him with precum. “Spock, please--”

Spock folded himself over the body beneath him, as close to Jim as he could get, foreheads mere inches from each other as he felt one of Jim’s hands leave him. Jim gripped his own erection, pulling and tightening with each beat as their heartbeats reached a crescendo. Jim whispered Spock’s name, over and over again, interspersed by gasps and grunts and unsteady breath. His eyes were shut, but Spock couldn’t bear to close his own, even when Jim clenched around him and dragged delicious friction along his cock. Instead, he watched Jim, watched his flushed cheeks and the slackened hold of his mouth, the way he could barely form the single syllable of Spock’s name through the pleasure that seared him. It built upon itself in Spock’s mind, Jim’s ecstasy melding with his own and creating a single, burning ache inside him.

With a startled groan and an agonizing hold on Spock’s hair, Jim shuddered and jerked beneath him, painting their chests with white spurts of semen, his hole clenching and pulsing, trapping Spock inside. The thrill of it flared over their bond and Jim tossed his head back, gasping as he grasped at Spock’s shoulder with cum-wet fingers, urging him deeper, begging whether with voice or mind, Spock wasn’t sure, to be filled.

Spock buried himself in Jim, crying out, dropping his head to Jim’s chest and feeling his own release mount with a few more shallow thrusts. Then, a flash of white and the sound of static obscured everything but this feeling, reflected a hundred times through the mind that reached desperately for his own, completion, heat, anguish, bliss, relief, too much, too much, more, please, more . He felt his testicles tighten as he spilled himself into Jim, his own seed coating him and slicking those last frantic movements.

Jim’s back arched, Spock’s hands clenched too tight on Jim’s hips and Spock drew skin between his teeth, knowing Jim could feel the fire of possession in him, and knowing by the impressions that screamed from the skin under his hands that Jim wanted to be possessed.

And finally he collapsed, spent, over Jim’s body, keeping himself buried inside so he could feel the unsteady rhythm of Jim’s pulse around him. He pressed wet kisses to the hollow of Jim’s collar, tasting his sweat, his hands running up and down Jim’s sides with the urge to keep touching him, never stop touching him, to stay in this cloud of bliss for as long as he could. The tight fingers in his hair loosened their hold, brushing the twisted remains of braids and flower stems as they stroked, soothed, just as Jim had caressed his head that night they’d first found release in each other. But this was different, wholly different. Better.

They laid like that for a time, the sound of birds echoing in the distance, the cooling air breathing over their bare skin. It took a long while before Spock could raise his head from where it rested in the crook of Jim’s neck. When he did, he met shining golden eyes, half-lidded.

Jim was smiling.

Yes, this was infinitely better than last time, because the emotions that bled between them weren’t tinged with concern or fear or sadness. Instead, all he felt was love, the aching, thrumming high of release, contentment and exhaustion and fulfilment.

“Doing okay?”Jim practically croaked, voice wrecked, eyes bright because he already knew the answer to that question. After the connection they’d formed over all these months, after melding their bodies so intrinsically, it was impossible that he hadn’t felt at least a fraction of the overwhelming emotion that swallowed Spock now.

“I am,” Spock said softly, though ‘okay’ was a rather drastic understatement. At least he could think clearly again, for the most part. He pushed himself up on shaky arms and pulled his softening member out of Jim’s body. They both hiked their breath, still sensitive, and Jim chuckled, weak and giddy as Spock shifted to the side and collapsed bodily onto the blankets. It took a second for Jim to roll to face him, but he did, completely limp but for the hand that rose to Spock’s chest and began tracing lazy patterns against his skin.

“How… how do you feel?” Spock asked, returning Jim’s sentiment, but remaining intentional in his choice of words. He remembered that, once, many months ago, he’d had no idea how to ask after Jim’s emotions. Now, it seemed effortless.

Jim’s smile widened and he took Spock’s hand. Softly, he placed it against his own face, stroking Spock’s fingers with a gently humming energy that made Spock melt a little further into the blankets beneath him. “Can’t you tell?”

Spock could. He could feel Jim’s wondering affection, his giddy contentment, his ever-present desire, but he wanted to hear it.

“In words.”

Jim laughed like the sunrise, scooted forward and nuzzled his nose into Spock’s neck, draping an arm over Spock’s side and nudging their feet together.

“I’m happy,” Jim breathed against his skin.

Spock’s heart clenched at the words, and he carded his fingers through Jim’s hair, still shaking from exertion and nerves and relief and, now, another emotion that he was having trouble identifying. He had never truly believed he had the capacity to make Jim happy, even when he could feel the emotion coming off him so strong it was palpable, but here they were.

Here, Sha Ka Ree, the origin of life. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that Spock’s new life had begun. A life he had shared for months with the gentle, warm, intoxicating, fascinating and overwhelming man in his arms and a life that, perhaps, he could share much longer than that.

 

Chapter Text

Jim hadn’t quite managed to fall asleep yet. But it wasn’t as though he’d tried very hard. He hadn’t even laid down. It was early evening, and he was supposed to be resting while Spock did, well, whatever he did while Jim slept, but he was frozen where he sat, the light of his communicator illuminating the wall where he’d been carving tick marks every day before he fell asleep. Even when they’d been at their other campsite, Jim had kept track of the standard days and eventually consolidated all of them here, onto the rough stone of the cave near the caldera.

And now, he stared at them all, neat little rows lined out by the laser cutter, tallies that made the wall of their home look a bit like a prison, though it had stopped feeling that way quite a while ago. He counted those tallies again, one more time, just to be sure. And the outcome was the same.

Three-hundred and sixty-five.

One year. The second Jim laid down to sleep, it would be the beginning of year two on Alpha Novus V. Or, well, Sha Ka Ree. Paradise.

Something ached in him at the thought and he lifted himself to his feet, shining the light of his communicator over the first few tallies. Day one. He stroked the line softly with his fingertips. The day of the crash, the day Carter, Taigen and Nelson had died. Day four. Pike.

Guilt rose in him again as he scanned the three-hundred and sixty-one tally marks that came after, remembering the day he’d finished carving his chess set-- around here, Jim thought as he touched a mark about five months in-- shore leave, somewhere about a month later. Eight months, the ship graveyard. Nine, the day they’d kissed in the blistering sunlight of the desert and Jim had felt so happy he thought he could burst.

And now, day three-hundred and sixty-five.

The way the two of them had been carrying on, it had begun to feel like nothing in the world existed. Because nothing existed. Not here. Not in this world. They had made such progress on the shuttle, taken long walks in the forest, gone swimming, made love, spent their nights curled around each other and breathing each other’s breath and Jim had smiled and laughed and felt so light he’d allowed himself to forget that this place was supposed to feel heavy.

Maybe he’d wrapped himself too much in that relief. At the sight of three-hundred and sixty-five tally marks on the wall, Jim felt the first shot fired in what could only become an internal war. Happiness shouldn’t come with the price of guilt. At least, that’s what he told himself. The likelihood of living through this was so slim that finding solace, even joy, was a blessing. He should try to be happy, strive for it.

Even, a part of his mind whispered cruelly to him, if that happiness wasn’t sustainable. Even if his life here could never fully coexist with his life in their own time.

Jim didn’t like the direction of his thoughts. He seldom did when he was left alone long enough to fall into these pits of clarity and heartbreak. But he couldn’t risk wandering around without the tricorder that Spock had, wherever he was. As much as he wanted to clear his head.

He glanced at the communicator in his hand, not for the first time. This had been what they were afraid of, hadn’t it? Becoming too attached to each other? Too dependent? But Jim wanted Spock here to calm his anxieties. To assure him that he wasn’t selfish for only now realizing that three of their crew had died a year ago today.

Jim shut off the light, turning away from the wall and laying himself on top of the bulldog fur, which-- after a year-- didn’t smell like the beast’s thick musk anymore. It smelled like home, the smoke of the campfire. He curled up on it, closing his eyes and trying to reach for the sleep he knew he needed. His leg throbbed from the day’s work, his muscles ached, a steady beat of pain pounded between his temples and still he couldn’t get his mind to turn off. Not now.

A year ago today. Jim still saw it in his dreams, the nights that Spock didn’t sleep beside him. He hadn’t forgotten the sound of Carter’s bones breaking against the bulkhead. Hadn’t forgotten the way Taigen’s body had been whipped around with a hold on a frail tether as she got swept into the unforgiving wind. Hadn’t forgotten Nelson, his hands scrambling for purchase as the floor tore beneath him. And then there was Pike, a man Jim had looked up to, had idolized and dreamed of serving under. And he was gone, too.

Spock was right. The odds of the two of them surviving, being trapped here together, finding each other, were miniscule, but it had been a stroke of excellent luck that Jim did not deserve. Once again, he profited where others lost, when even now he would trade his own life for any of theirs in a heartbeat.

Jim buried his face in the fur, heaving a sigh. There was no sense dwelling. He knew that. The facts were the same. He was here and the others were not. He had lived a year on this planet and the others had not. He had found happiness, love, a kindred spirit, and the others had not. He should thank his fortune, not curse it.

But the pain remained, and he couldn’t help it.

A few long minutes passed in that dark, overwhelming silence. Jim felt himself beginning to trail down that rabbit hole of dangerous thoughts before he became aware of a presence. It was hard to pin down, as there were no outward sounds to suggest any movement through the cave, but he supposed it could be called instinct.

He sat up, glancing around their blue-lit campsite, but saw and heard nothing.

“Spock?” He called.

But, of course, that was ridiculous. He was probably just getting lonely, wishing Spock was there hard enough to make himself think he was. But a few moments later, he heard the crunch of boots on rock echoing a way’s away. He turned in the direction of the cave’s entrance and narrowed his eyes.

“Spock?” he called again.

“Jim,” a voice returned, and Jim didn’t know why he breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t as though the footsteps could have belonged to anyone else. But he was glad Spock had come back of his own accord. It meant Jim didn’t have to add the guilt of calling him to the guilt that already weighed down his shoulders.

Spock rounded the corner after a moment, and Jim sat up, giving him a smile that probably bore his relief too noticeably. “I knew you were coming,” he said.

“Indeed?” Spock asked. He settled himself beside Jim on the blankets and shut the tricorder off. Then, he raised his hand with two fingers extended and Jim met them without hesitation, absorbing the calm, loving comfort that buzzed between them. “The link between us does strengthen daily,” Spock continued, “I would not be surprised if you were able to sense my impressions more fully as time goes by.”

Jim stroked his fingers along Spock’s, concentrating on the catch of his skin, trailing his touch down his palm and circling around to brush against his knuckles. Spock took in a little breath that made Jim grin up at him.

“I’m sensing a few ‘impressions’ right now, Mister Spock,” Jim flirted gracelessly, but Spock broke the contact of their fingers rather than give in, as he usually did. Instead, he leveled a look at Jim, his hard-eyed expression shadowed and blue and somehow concerned.

“That is not the reason I am here, Jim.”

Unsurprised, Jim laid a hand on Spock’s knee, rubbing circles with his thumb, concentrating on the movement rather than the eyes that bored into him.

“Then what are you doing back already?” he asked, hoping Spock knew the question wasn’t accusatory.

Spock shifted subtly closer, his own hand coming to rest atop Jim’s. “Another product of the connection. I felt that you were in distress.”

Jim almost laughed, if only to cover the discomfort that arose at those words, but he restrained himself, flashing a dismissive smile instead. “I’m sorry,” he said. “‘Distress’ is just such a dramatic word for me being a worrywart.”

Spock knew Jim was deflecting. It was clear in the way his hand curled around Jim’s, in the feeling of understanding that flowed through him. Perhaps Jim had forgotten when they started this relationship that there may be downsides to having a telepathic boyfriend. God, if any of his previous lovers had been able to hear his emotions--

“What is the matter?” Spock asked.

Though Jim had wanted Spock here to calm his less than calm emotions, he found he didn’t exactly want to talk about them. He wondered if Spock sensed that in him, too. If, maybe, he could convince Spock that it didn’t matter. But as far as he knew, Spock couldn’t hear his thoughts, just his feelings, so he wouldn’t know that the memories that were hurting Jim were entirely outside their control.

So, he resigned himself to addressing it, tightening his own fingers around Spock’s. “It’s been a full year,” he said softly. “I was just thinking about them. And this place. Us. All of it.”

“Would you like to share your thoughts?”

Spock was good about asking these things, and thankfully good about accepting it when the answer was no.

“No,” Jim said, “It’s unavoidable. I’ve never stopped thinking about Tarsus. I doubt I’ll ever stop thinking about the crash either. I just--”

So maybe the answer wasn’t no. If he were ever to say it aloud to Spock, maybe now was the time. He’d said it once to Pike, almost a full year ago, but the feelings hadn’t gone away. They’d faded, been pushed aside again and again for the opportunity at happiness, but they never really left. And he’d never shared them with Spock.

“I don’t deserve this,” he said finally, giving voice to the worry that shook him awake at night, that slipped every once in a while into the current of his everyday life and, sometimes, poisoned it. “To be alive, with you, to be happy on the same planet where they died.”

Through their contact, a flash of anger seared into him, and he raised wide eyes to Spock, jerking his hand away from their touch. It felt familiar, the bitter barbs that pricked him and buzzed up his arm. He’d only felt it once when they’d sat across the fire from each other and he’d grabbed Spock’s shoulder with his own rage boiling over. He’d hoped never to feel that kind of emotion coming from him again. What could he have done to make Spock angry ? But Spock, too, looked surprised, as though he hadn’t meant to-- to what? To feel it?

“I apologize,” Spock said immediately, holding up his hand as though to still Jim. “I should have--”

“Why are you angry?”

“It is no fault of yours--”

“Obviously it is, or you wouldn’t--”

“Jim, please.”

The gentleness of his voice took down a few of Jim’s defenses, and Jim felt himself cautiously uncoil a little tension, though he kept his hands in his lap.

“It was a selfish, emotional reaction,” Spock explained, contrite in the way he looked down, clenched his hands, knit his brows. “I-- To me, the value of your life is limitless. The idea that you might-- you might not understand that fact…” Spock trailed off, and suddenly Jim thought he understood, at least in some capacity. But Spock continued, collecting his thoughts. Jim could almost feel the gears working in his mind. “It is illogical to value one person more than another, and yet, selfishly, I am gratified that it was you who survived. But you, Jim-- you will always value others more than yourself. It is an admirable quality.”

Jim still felt that sting of anger, still felt as though it had been meant for him, but Spock clearly regretted his reaction, and his words were soothing. Somehow Jim always managed to forget that the force of his own feelings was returned, that Spock cared about him just as much as Jim cared about Spock. If Spock had expressed what Jim just had, he supposed he would’ve been upset, too.

There were a few moments of silence before Spock placed a hand over Jim’s once again. Through the touch, the anger had gone, replaced now with a softly flowing affection. “You said once,” Spock said, “that we deserved to find happiness here. Those words have comforted me in recent weeks. Please do not second-guess them now.”

Jim searched Spock’s eyes for a moment, then returned the clasp of his hand. With a sigh, he leaned forward, placing a small kiss to Spock’s cheek, raising his free hand to tuck a wayward lock of hair behind the tip of Spock’s ear.

“Thank you, Spock,” he said softly. The sadness had not left him, but maybe it was the great duality of man that he could feel that sadness with such force and feel happiness, too. One emotion did not, nor could not, sacrifice the other.

A minute may have passed as these thoughts floated through him, solidifying into a sort of truth, something he thought he might be able to hold onto next time the guilt caught up with him. He was glad Spock didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. Glad that Spock always seemed to know when he needed room to think.

“Funny,” he said softly after a time, thumb tracing the line of Spock’s jaw, “No offense meant, but I never expected a Vulcan to teach me how to deal with my emotions.”

Spock rewarded him with a half-smile, leaning into the touch. “Nor did I expect a human to do so for me.”

“So it’s okay?” Jim asked, vulnerability coloring his words, though he found he wasn’t as ashamed of it as he once may have been, “to be-- well-- to be okay ?”

Bringing his free hand to Jim’s knee, Spock gripped him slightly, strong and comforting. “It is, in fact, preferable. The ones we have lost would not wish to see us lose hope. Nor would the ones to whom we are attempting to return.”

With a sigh, Jim found he agreed. Though the feelings remained, they were quieter now, and sometimes that was the best Jim could hope for. They stayed like that for a time, Spock gently holding his hand, conveying acceptance and calm which murmured through him as though Spock were whispering reassurances into his ear. Jim stroked his fingers. “Will you stay for a little while?” he asked, giving voice to the very impulses he knew he should have fought against. But he needed Spock as much as Spock needed him.

“Of course, Jim,” Spock responded. He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Jim’s lips. “As long as you would like.”

And Jim knew then, in that moment in the dark of a cave on a planet so far removed from everything he’d ever known, that he loved Spock, though the possibility of it had occurred to him before. The understanding dawned on him as they laid together on the fur beneath them, as their hands clasped and Spock brought his warm lips to Jim’s once again. It wasn’t so much a realization as it was a recognition, a single moment among many, a confirmation of a truth that had been blooming for a long, long time. And a small part of him said, almost loud enough for him to hear, that he deserved this.

Maybe with time he would be able to believe it.

Chapter Text

Six months later

 

If they had been going for pure aesthetics, the shuttlecraft that now stood before them on improvised struts would be a massive failure. They’d repaired panels on the shining Starfleet steel with metal that was pock-marked with sand, that dull gray that bore the dents and scratches of an ages-old crash. The entire back half looked boxy, unwieldy, a wide, solid rectangle that flared out at the end to hold the engines that they had, basically, made from scratch. Half the shuttle had been nearly unusable, so the majority of it it had been made from scratch. It wasn’t exactly pleasant to look at.

The interior was even worse, though it was currently obscured by the door they’d only just gotten functional a few hours ago. They hadn’t replaced the carpet-- what could they replace it with? So the floor consisted of hammered-flat metal shards they’d scavenged from the graveyard, fused together like Frankenstein’s monster with sloppy welded lines. The tanks in the engineering alcove had been tied to the wall with rope (braided from stripped saplings) to prevent them clanging together in the turbulence and bursting again. They’d even used hardened clay (dug from under the sand) to glue bits and pieces in some of the less-essential-to-survival controls. Jim imagined his engineering instructors at the academy taking one look at their handiwork and either commending them for their resourcefulness or tossing them out an airlock for their recklessness. Something like this should not be able to hold together.

But it would. As they stood in the twilight staring at it, they both knew it would. Spock had spent days, months, on calculations to ensure they cut no corners, and Jim had spent plenty of time himself securing panels and cords and connections to be airtight, durable, perfect.

Nothing could be less than perfect.

Jim leaned against Spock’s shoulder now, grateful for the arm that practically held him up, wrapped around him with a strong, calm grip. They’d toiled longer than usual today, if only because they knew they were so close and Jim was sure they could finish before sunset.

And here they were. The orange light had begun to fade to lavender and the leaves were starting to collapse and in the distance they could hear the dangerous, stirring howls of bulldogs, but they had finished.

Well. Mostly. They had at least assembled the edges of the puzzle. Now all they had to do was fill it in with those last pieces.

“So let’s go over it one more time,” Jim said, weary but with a thrill to his voice he couldn’t contain. He straightened, turning to Spock and holding up a finger.

“Jim--”

“One, we need to get the environmental systems functioning. Right now the console controls only affect that one vent, so that’s going to mean messing with some internals.”

“Jim--”

Jim held up another finger, “Two: the ramscoop. I know we’ve calibrated it, but we have to be sure it will interface with the rest of the propulsion--”

“Jim.” Spock lifted his fingers to Jim’s, though that had not been the point of Jim’s gesture. The hum of the kiss distracted him, long enough for him to forget entirely what he was saying.

“You-- Did you just kiss me to shut me up?” Jim asked incredulously, laughing a little bit as he pulled his fingers off of Spock’s. “You know that is not nearly as effective when you use hands instead of--”

Spock leaned forward, an arm coming around Jim’s waist as he brought his lips to Jim’s, effectively cutting off his train of thought. Jim sputtered around the kiss for a second, but Spock’s rough tongue managed to divert his attention and soon he found his arms around Spock’s shoulders, fingers tangling up in his hair, mind going a little blissfully blank. Oh but he was weak when Spock kissed him like that. And Spock knew it, the bastard. Jim could feel Spock’s satisfied spike of pride over their link, though Jim found he wasn’t quite as annoyed by it as he pretended to be.

When they came up for air, he whapped Spock on the side of the head, lightly but admonishing. But he made absolutely no effort to break the hold of the arms around him. “If you recall, Mister Spock, you were the one who said we should concentrate on the shuttle and nothing but the shuttle,” Jim reminded him gently.

Spock awarded him a half-smile, leaning in to brush their noses together. “We have spent the greater part of twelve hours doing so.”

Jim stroked Spock’s cheek lightly. “Can we talk about it a little, though? We’re doing so well, Spock. In a few days, it could be air-worthy. Do you know what that means?”

Something like fear floated across their connection, something that trembled and wavered and made Jim go stiff in Spock’s arms. And then-- it ceased. “I do,” Spock responded, somewhat evasively.

Narrowing his eyes, Jim examined Spock’s expression, hoping to find a hint of that fear so he might be able to unpack it. But after a few long moments, he saw nothing.

Sometimes, since Spock’s flare of anger almost six months ago, Spock would do that, cut off Jim from a certain emotion to avoid worrying him, or to give himself more time to process it.

At first, it had driven Jim crazy. If he were being honest with himself, it often still did. He wanted Spock to trust him with his emotions, especially considering Jim had, hopefully, never given him cause to think he wasn’t allowed to feel something.

But Jim had been trying to understand. This connection they shared didn’t allow for a lot of privacy. Spock always knew when Jim was upset or excited or horny or anxious, which was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that he didn’t really have time to think through his immediate reactions. So he’d trained Spock pretty well to accept ‘not yet’ as an appropriate answer to ‘would you like to discuss anything?’

In a way, Spock cutting Jim off from his emotions was his way of saying ‘not yet.’

So Jim wouldn’t press him about his flash of fear, but he didn’t want to drop the subject of the shuttle just now.

“Can we just maybe run down a list of what’s next? Quickly?”

“Of course, Jim,” Spock replied, sounding somewhere between resigned and caring. “But we needn’t do so here. The bulldogs seem to be waking.”

Jim smiled gratefully, only now extricating himself from Spock’s arms.

“They are, aren’t they? I swear, I’m never up this late,” he said with a laugh. “If I collapse on the way home, promise you won’t leave me here to be eaten.”

“As you are of little use to the mission in pieces, I promise I will take it upon myself to carry you,” Spock joked, though he would deny it was a joke until the day he died, Jim was sure. He left a hand on Spock’s elbow as they walked, a steadying thing, as he was  limping more obviously than usual. He was tired of taxing himself like this, but their progress had been worth it. And at least it meant he could coax another neuro-pressure massage out of Spock tomorrow. Those massages had become nearly routine, and Jim could admit that Spock’s gentle hands were the only thing that helped the pain anymore.

“So,” Jim continued, shaking out those distracting thoughts for now. “The shuttle. Environmental controls, ramscoop and a test-flight. I think that’s all we need now, isn’t it?”

Spock hummed, considering. “I believe so. It would do well to test it during an ion storm so we can be sure that it will hold through the turbulence.”

Jim’s brows knit, “With how seldom those storms kick up? I’m not sure. If we get an ion disturbance, we should just go. It’s been months since the last one. So long as it holds off a few more days, gives us time to put together those finishing touches… I mean, we’ve mapped our trajectory--”

“Theoretically--”

“And the rest...” Jim interrupted, trailing off with a hopeful lilt. “I think we’ll be ready.” Spock seemed to close off slightly, his eyes darkening. But whatever he was feeling was cut off from Jim again. Jim didn’t know how to feel about that. “Don’t you?”

“Hmm?” Spock glanced to Jim. It was seldom Spock was distracted enough to not hear him. Although Jim half wondered if Spock had wilfully not heard him. Or pretended not to. A tic of frustration rose in him, in spite of himself.

“Don’t you, Spock? Think we’ll be ready?”

Spock shrugged slightly, the fabric of his sleeve shifting under Jim's fingers. Jim tightened his hold. “Perhaps,” Spock said. “We will review the state of the shuttle at next daylight.”

Jim gave him a suspicious look. It was clear that, whatever Spock was thinking, he did not want to talk about the journey home right now. When had that happened?

There was something Jim wasn’t understanding, and he couldn’t force Spock to open up about it. The best thing to do would be to allow Spock the respite for now. Spock had done the same for Jim hundreds of times over the last year and a half-- ignoring what he believed to be pressing concerns in order to indulge Jim in a hunt, a day of foraging, a day of relaxation. So, Jim could do the same for him. He let out a sigh, releasing the tension he’d created within himself.

“Okay,” Jim agreed. “I’ll drop it.” He cast around his mind for another topic of conversation, but found himself turning again and again to the subject of the shuttle, to the possibility of home, to the last steps in their long journey, to his optimism and then, again, to Spock’s fear. Drop it , he told himself forcibly.

As they made their way into the cave, he nudged Spock’s shoulder. “Hey, do you want to join me for a bath?” The water always soothed them, both of them, and he could tell Spock had not unwound the tight coils of his mind just yet.

“That would be satisfactory,” Spock responded, a note of relief in his tone that Jim didn’t fail to notice. Or maybe he simply felt the relief in Spock’s mind. He hadn’t quite gotten used to the connection yet, despite the months now that they had allowed it to grow. Or maybe he was so used to it that he couldn’t tell the difference between a normal interaction and one that took place in his head. It was hard to say.

But he never dwelled on the connection itself. Whatever it was, however it worked, it sustained him. Under everything they did, he felt a consistent wave of affection flowing through him. Whether they were touching or yards away from each other.

Now, he tried to project that affection himself. He released Spock’s arm when they got to their campsite, but even over that small distance he attempted to send a kind of reassurance. To let Spock know he wasn’t mad. He understood. And it was okay.

Jim removed his belt with its communicator and phaser and set it off to the side, but his slacks sagged without anything to hold them up. They’d been torn and slashed, the elastic had broken, and Jim had lost so much weight that they could hardly even function as pants without their belt. It struck Jim then that he didn’t even know what he’d do when he had access to new clothes. Crisp, clean uniforms, soft flannel shirts, jeans and boots whose soles hadn’t worn through their traction. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about it before, but now it looked like it might be possible.

And soon.

Drop it , he told himself again.

Spock held out his hand to rest on Jim’s shoulder as Jim drew level with him. Then, they made their way quietly but contentedly to the lake and shed their clothes, sinking into the hot spring. Jim sighed at the feeling of the water cradling him, and noticed that Spock seemed to relax the moment he stepped in, too.

The hard edges softened on him, and maybe it was the glow or the sheen of steam that rose from the water, but he looked ethereal.

“Feeling better?” Jim asked gently, sending a little splash Spock’s way. It barely crested over his chest, but it made Spock offer Jim a soft, indulgent kind of look as he sank deeper into the water.

“We may have overexerted ourselves,” he said fondly.

Jim swam over to him, reaching out to brush their fingers together as he approached and balanced his toes on the shoal of sand beneath him. Spock relaxed into the touch, the fear and whatever else gone from the threads of his mind.

“Well, we can take the night off-- not much to do in here anyway.” They’d long finished any portable projects, so lately they tended to spend their nights playing chess, talking, recharging themselves so they could push themselves to the limit at each daylight.

“I believe we can find some way to fill our time,” Spock said, voice low, the tone of it sending an immediate shiver down Jim’s spine.

He smiled and shifted closer, happiness welling up inside him as it always did when Spock looked at him like he was looking at him now-- dark eyed and purposive. With one wet hand, he reached up to Spock’s head and ran his fingers through his hair, which flowed freely and laid along the surface of the water. It had grown longer over the months, now reaching halfway down his shoulder blades. Jim delighted in this hair, braided it, fisted his fingers in it when they made love, pulled it into pigtails and ponytails and whatever else Spock would let him do-- and it turned out he let him do almost whatever he wanted. He hoped, with a sudden pang of heartache, that he didn’t have to add those daily joys to the list of things he would miss about this planet.

“You aren’t going to cut this when we get back, are you?” Jim asked, voice almost a whine. Spock pulled himself close to Jim under the water, hands curling softly around his waist, humming as Jim ran his fingers along his scalp.

“I likely will. It is considered unprofessional in most circles to allow it to grow long.”

Jim puffed out a dismissive sound, running his hands down Spock’s shoulders and arms to wipe away the sand that had streaked his skin.

“Are you still concerned with professionalism? After all this?” Jim gestured to the cave at large, which he hoped encompassed the whole of their situation, their relationship, the last year and a half. But he smiled when he asked, if only because he knew Spock would always be concerned with professionalism.

“When we return, I must be,” Spock replied. And a surge of sadness rushed over Jim’s mind before it cut itself off-- abrupt and halting. Smile fading, he took Spock’s hand under the water and looked down, watching their fingers lace in the blue glow.

They were silent for a moment, and Spock seemed almost apologetic, like he knew Jim had sensed that momentary lapse in his emotional control. Jim wasn’t nearly as adept at stifling his own emotions, so Spock could probably feel his concern. But maybe that was okay. Concern wasn’t always such a bad thing, and Spock needed to know that sometimes Jim worried about him.

“Do you want to talk about anything?” Jim asked suddenly, raising his eyes to Spock’s. They had vowed to be nothing but honest with each other, after everything. He didn’t think Spock was being deliberately untruthful, but he wasn’t being as open as he usually was. And maybe that was on Jim. Maybe he just needed to ask.

Spock met his eyes, something shaking under the surface of them, but it was like looking at their hands through the ripples of the water. There was an image, almost tangible, but obscured by flickers of shadow. Jim didn’t have time to examine the expression much longer. With a little splash, Spock slipped forward through the water, touching their foreheads together where Jim felt the hum of Spock’s familiar mind against his own.

“I would like to cease talking for a time,” he responded, tilting his head and leaning in for a kiss. Jim didn’t exactly want to get distracted by Spock’s lips again, but they pressed tenderly to his own, as if asking permission.

So he granted it. Spock would talk when he was ready, but for now his free hand had come to the curve of Jim’s lower back and he pushed himself against him under the water, and the heat of his body combined with the heat of the spring made Jim dizzy and maybe he melted, just a little bit, into the feeling.

When Spock got into this kind of mood, where he ran his hands along Jim’s body and released happy little moans into his mouth, Jim couldn’t help allowing it. In honesty, he loved it. Besides, if this was what Spock wanted, who was Jim to deny him? Sometimes they needed to sink into each other, forget the world-- Jim knew that better than anyone.

They held each other there in the spring, hands wandering, hips hitching softly and causing ripples around them, Jim gasping wetly around Spock’s shoulder as they rocked against each other, moving like one in the water. Though the sounds they drew from their breathless lungs sometimes stirred the birds into motion, their world was restricted to the space they shared. Jim would hardly have noticed the birds’ wings if it weren’t for the impressive, fractured lights they shined on Spock’s face, the glint they left in his dark eyes.

When they came, sharing twin cries as the same swell of pleasure crested over their bond, Jim pressed himself into the crook of Spock’s neck, lips meeting Spock’s skin under the water. Spock’s hands stroked at Jim’s back, running up and down his trembling muscles as Spock breathed heavily against his ear. The trail of his fingers felt delicious, as delicious as the mouth that moved to claim his own again as they slipped together into the depth of the water.

They cleaned themselves up after that, unhurried, willing to linger in the quiet of afterglow in the heat of the spring. But eventually Jim laughed at his pruning fingers and Spock remarked on the time and Jim realized that yes, he was bodily exhausted.

They air-dried on the ledge overlooking the lake, Jim casting looks at Spock who seemed so unashamed to be naked anymore. It felt surreal, even after all these months. Perhaps it would feel surreal for a long time. Maybe even for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes he thought about the rest of their lives. They still hadn't talked about what would happen when they returned, the direction they’d walk now that they had crossed each other's paths, but Jim knew that, whatever happened, he wanted his life to include Spock. Someday soon, they would have to start the conversation, but in this Jim was as avoidant as Spock was. Out here, the future seemed so far away, two-thousand years away, in fact. And as desperately as Jim wanted to get home, he still worried sometimes, wondering what home meant anymore. Wondering if he could take any of this with him into the rest of his life.

Eventually, as Jim rested his head against Spock’s shoulder and allowed himself to get swept into his thoughts, he felt his eyelids falling shut. Even though he felt an aching hunger in his empty stomach he thought that maybe he’d rather just sleep as soon as they got back to camp. Or here. He wouldn’t mind falling asleep right here with the gentle warmth of the man beside him keeping him safe.

Spock’s hand had been stroking Jim’s thigh absently for a while, and now stopped its caress, gripping him gently. “Are you alright, Jim?”

“Mm,” Jim mumbled, but that seemed to be answer enough. Spock turned to lay a gentle kiss on the crown of Jim’s head, and Jim felt all his soft, sighing, loving, protective energy through their contact. He sank into it, into Spock’s shoulder, into the feeling of stability he never expected to find here.

“You are tired,” Spock said, but he sounded reluctant to move, almost as reluctant as Jim was. “We should return.”

Spock made to stand, but Jim stopped him with a hand on his arm, pulling back to catch Spock’s eyes. “Wait, Spock,” he said, though as Spock settled back down beside him he realized he didn’t know exactly why he’d said anything at all. He was still a little sleep-heavy, a little groggy with the heat of the spring that wafted over them, a little drunk on this feeling that spread through him hot as whiskey, but he was happy here, and he wanted Spock to know that before they returned.

He lifted a hand to Spock’s cheek, knowing he should have reached this moment a long time ago, but the vulnerability that colored Spock’s anxious mind made Jim wonder if maybe Spock needed to hear it now more than he had before.

So Jim’s lips ticked into a smile and he stroked Spock’s cheek, making sure Spock’s eyes stayed steady on his own. “I love you,” he said, offering up those words as reassurance, commitment, understanding. He’d said them many times in his life, but somehow never to Spock. And somehow they’d never felt quite like this.

Spock’s eyes widened, beams of disbelief and hope and trilling joy shining from his mind as his breath faltered, but Jim wasn’t about to backtrack or apologize. It had been impulsive to say now, but it was true. And he knew-- had known for a long time, in fact-- that his feelings were returned.

With a swallow, Spock looked down to the clench of their hands, then back into Jim’s eyes. Jim didn’t expect him to say it in return, nor did he need him to. But Spock looked as though he wanted to speak anyway. So Jim stayed silent, feeling soft and a little giddy and maybe a little nervous-- though he had no cause for it.

Finally after opening and closing his mouth more than once, Spock spoke.

“Explain,” he said.

Jim snorted his surprise, bringing a hand to his mouth to stifle the noise. When he was sure he wasn’t going to laugh, he lowered it, smiling so hard it almost hurt. “Excuse me?”

“Explain,” Spock repeated, spine straightening. Somehow, buck naked, cross legged with half-wet hair, he still managed to look convincingly Starfleet.

“Explain ‘I love you?’ You can’t be unfamiliar with the sentiment, Spock.”

Spock searched Jim’s eyes, an intensity to him that Jim hadn’t really been prepared for. Jim felt his smile slipping. It wasn’t even close to possible that he had misread Spock’s own feelings, so where was this coming from?

“I understand the sentiment,” Spock said, stilted as though he wasn’t sure how to frame the words. “However, I do not understand why.”

“Why?” Jim asked, resting his hand on Spock’s leg and squeezing it. “You’re honestly asking me why I love you?”

“I would like to know,” Spock said, voice softer now, “so I may continue to do the things that inspire this emotion in you.”

Jim laughed fully now, resting his head against Spock’s shoulder. Spock laid a hand in his hair, and it remained there as Jim reined in his laughter and lifted his gaze once more. Spock’s look of confusion, and the trembling kind of worry that slipped across their connection, only made Jim’s smile widen.

“Because, Spock,” Jim said, laying his hand over Spock’s and bringing it to his own cheek, “you’re the kind of person who would say ‘explain’ before you’d say ‘I love you, too.’”

“I fail to see how that is a desirable reaction.”

Jim shrugged, laying a kiss on Spock’s wrist and releasing him, allowing Spock to drop his hand. “It’s just you,” Jim said. “It’s just… very you.”

Spock didn’t seem to know what to make of that. He looked down, then back to Jim as though requesting something more, but that was all Jim had. The only thing he hadn’t yet shared with Spock. And somehow he didn’t mind that he had no secrets left, that Spock knew everything that was in him and everything that he was. It felt freeing, fulfilling, and-- more than that-- it felt inevitable. If anyone could ever know him like this, it would be Spock.

Jim nodded toward the campsite, setting out to save his stunned lover from the pressure of a response. “Shall we?”

Spock looked to him with knit brows. He seemed to be in a kind of fog, disoriented, caught off-guard. Jim rather liked the thought that he may have surprised him.

“Of course, yes,” Spock said after a moment. “Allow me to collect our things.”

They stood, Jim a little shaky from fatigue, and Spock gathered up the clothes they’d been sitting on. Jim took his hand again when he’d straightened, twining their fingers together, and held steady as they walked naked and barefoot back to camp, wanting Spock to know that he didn’t regret what he’d said for a moment.

Truly, he should have said it a long time ago, but it may have been Spock’s influence that made him keep it in. The fact that outwardly Spock didn’t express everything clearly, that he often danced around the subject of emotion as though it would burn him. But Spock loved Jim for his humanity-- Jim had felt it in him. So really it was only logical to tell Spock he loved him. And to tell him often.

As they returned to their quiet camp, Jim vowed to do so.

Spock got dressed quietly in the dim blue light, then set about starting the fire while Jim slipped into the other jumpsuit. It was softened from too many washings and torn now along its elbows, but at least not sweat-stiff like his uniform. Laying himself on the bed, he watched Spock blow on the logs to encourage young sparks. He made a rather striking tableau in the orange glow of new fire and the blue light that shone from the caldera.

“You should not sleep before dinner,” Spock said gently, casting a glance to Jim who obviously looked as though he were about to pass out.

Jim smiled, something soft. “I won’t, I promise,” he said, though he wasn’t sure he could keep that promise. Already he was drifting. Spock moved over to him now that the fire had sprung to life, and settled down on the blankets somewhat near Jim’s head. Jim craned his neck to look up to him, not failing to notice something heavy in Spock’s gaze.

Spock grazed the back of his hand lightly along Jim’s face, expression unreadable in the flickering shadows.

“What?” Jim asked sweetly, reaching to lay a hand on Spock’s thigh.

Spock stared at him for a moment longer, swallowing something hard then turning his eyes down. “I love you too,” he said quietly, and Jim felt it again, that swell of despair, the undercurrent of fear, the emotions that now felt as though they were too big for even Spock to put a stop to.

And suddenly Jim was wide awake, his smile falling. “What’s wrong?” he asked, raising himself on his elbows as Spock dropped his hand. Love wasn’t supposed to feel like that. It was supposed to feel like flying, giddy and weightless and warm. The reverence Spock had felt when Jim had said it was absent now, replaced with a feeling Jim thought could swallow him whole if he let it. What had happened in the last few minutes?

Spock breathed through his nose, turning to look into the fire, clearly upset. Jim could tell by the way he held his expression in stiff lines, as though trying to fit it into a grid. Sitting up fully now, Jim shuffled over to Spock’s side.

“Spock, you don’t-- you don’t have to talk about it, but you’re starting to scare me a little.”

With a sideways look, Spock let out a small, stunted breath. “I apologize, Jim. That was not my intention. I simply wished to reassure you that your feelings were reciprocated.”

“I know they are,” Jim said, bringing a hand to Spock’s back and stroking gently. “That’s not what I’m worried about.” He paused, hoping Spock might volunteer something, provide him with something, but he remained still, silent. Jim’s fingers curled against Spock’s back. “What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Spock settled his hands in his lap, twisting his fingers the way Jim sometimes did when he was nervous. Jim watched the motion for a few moments before laying his hand over Spock’s to still him. God Jim hoped his nervous tics weren’t rubbing off on Spock. The Vulcans would never take him back if that were the case.

“The end of our time on Sha Ka Ree is imminent,” Spock said after a minute, his mouth a thin, straight line. Jim hadn’t seen him look so staunchly Vulcan in a very long time, but it looked like he was trying to wear his old mask. “I have not allowed myself to consider the possibility of our return with any urgency, but with these repairs… Whether we die or return to our own time, the moment we take off in that ion storm, everything will change.”

Jim scooted a little closer. “But, Spock. That’s what we’ve been working toward. Everything has to change, doesn’t it? We can’t… we can’t stay here.”

“I understand; however--” Spock stopped, stuttered slightly, and Jim swallowed. He hated seeing Spock so unsure. “Should we make it back to our time, you will once again be surrounded by people. Though I know your feelings are genuine, I confess I am afraid--” He paused again, a tick of frustration making its way to his forehead. But he didn’t need to go on for Jim to pick up the meaning. Suddenly, even with the warmth of the fire and Spock beside him, Jim felt a chill spike along the network of his nerves.

“You think when we get back to our own time, I’m going to stop loving you.” He didn’t ask it as a question. In fact, his tone surprised him with its insistent edge. The accusation stung. He wondered if Spock could feel just how much.

“That--” Spock took in a breath. “That is my fear. When you have the choice of anyone, you will likely decide that I--”

“Spock,” Jim interrupted, angry in spite of himself. He tried not to send it over their link, but he didn’t know how successful he was. Spock seemed to draw away from him, folding almost unnoticeably upon himself like the leaves of their forest when night began to set in. “You honestly think the only reason I feel this way about you is because we’re alone?”

Spock turned to him, eyes hard. “You cannot tell me that the thought has not occurred to you, too.”

Jim’s immediate impulse was to deny it, but he bit back his reaction, pulling away to give himself room to think. Sure, in the beginning he had questioned his feelings. In the beginning he’d worried it was exposure, proximity, need and dependency, but everything had changed. Jim knew his own heart. And if this were truly some product of desperation then he would have been aware of it, and been able to put a halt to it. Right?

But he couldn’t stop himself from loving Spock. It had been such a steady, natural progression in him, something that had woven itself into everything he did, every thought he had. Falling in love had been organic, slow, and beautiful , and he didn’t like the insinuation that it could also be false.

“I love you,” Jim said again, “and I’ll love you when we get back to Starfleet. We could be rescued by a crew of beautiful, dancing Orions and I’d still--”
“Jim, please,” Spock said, and Jim’s heart broke at his voice. “You cannot promise--”

“Oh, come on, Spock,” Jim practically groaned, rubbing his forehead. “That’s what love is, isn’t it? A promise? Of course I can.”

Spock fell silent, the firelight flickering in his eyes. Somehow even that wasn't enough. Spock had felt his mind, hadn't he? Spock had to know how overwhelming this feeling was, how it had gotten its hooks in him and refused to let go and how every time he looked at Spock he felt that same, all-consuming longing to just exist beside him. Spock had to know that. But maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he couldn’t believe in it.

God, but they were both a little damaged, weren’t they?

“Why don’t you check?”

Spock looked to him, surprise written in every line at the corners of his eyes, no longer wearing that carefully constructed mask. “Excuse me?”

Jim took Spock’s hand and held it to his face, a challenge in his own eyes. “Look in my mind if you don’t trust it. I know you keep saying you don’t want to meld--”

“It is a massive violation of privacy--”

But I’m asking you to. I don’t know how to reassure you other than that,” Jim said with finality. “I don’t have anything to hide from you, okay? You can look in every dark corner if you want. Tarsus, my exes, my Academy transcript-- anything. Just... ” Jim paused, his momentum faltering with his breath. “Just look,” he finished lamely.

Spock’s eyes locked on his own. “Perhaps now is not the time. You are tired.”

“I’d rather you check now than spend all night worrying,” Jim chided gently, spreading Spock’s fingers along his face. He didn’t know the meld points, but he knew which parts of him reached out when Spock’s hand grazed his temple, his cheek. He felt the buzz of electricity between them that sparked to life whenever they made contact.

And he knew Spock felt it too.

Spock seemed to soften, his shoulders falling, his brows tilting downward. “Are you certain, Jim?”

Jim swallowed, nodded, trying to convey his insistence rather than any lingering trepidation. He’d never trusted anyone in his life the way he trusted Spock. In the beginning, he had needed to trust Spock. He’d needed to believe that the only other person on this damned planet would look out for him, so he convinced himself to rely on him. Now he knew Spock would look out for him. He just wanted Spock to know that the street went two ways.

But Spock didn’t make any move. He seemed arrested, stiff. Jim tried to relax himself, resting his hand over Spock’s. “I’m not mad, Spock. I just want you to-- to see it. How else can I prove it to you?”

“I do not want you to think that I do not trust you,” Spock intoned gently. Jim could feel Spock’s guilt like a sickness in his own gut.

“I know,” he said, attempting to give Spock a small smile, some kind of encouragement. “You don’t trust you . That’s your problem.”

“If you are positive--”

“Spock. Please.”

Breathing in, Spock arranged his fingers, a motion so smooth it felt like he must have done it a hundred times. His fingertips pressed against Jim’s temple, his cheek, the point below his ear. A long moment hung between them, the space of heartbeats. Then, finally, he heard Spock whisper, strained.

“My mind to your mind. My thoughts--”

“To your thoughts,” Jim finished for him, but he didn’t know those words. He shouldn’t have known those words. Confusion pulled at the edges of his mind for a moment-- a single moment before he slipped.

He closed his eyes in immediate fear, his stomach flying into his throat as he fell. Air flew past him, whipping his hair and roaring in his ears and blowing him backwards as though he were being pulled into a vacuum and suddenly he was weightless. He remembered this. Remembered falling, remembered flailing against unforgiving winds. Panic gripped him like a fist around his heart, and his hands-- some part of him-- flailed, reached out. He couldn’t scream, couldn’t cry out, but who would help him even if he did? The others had fallen and the captain was at the controls and--

And something grabbed him. He jerked to a stop as the rush of wind swept past him, leaving him floating, completely still in a feeling that couldn’t be eclipsed by sight, by sound, by touch. It surrounded him, a soothing sort of darkness with a blue glow at its edges. His frantic heartbeat began to ease as something familiar licked at the shores of his consciousness, and he felt like he was waking up from some dream, some nightmare.

Spock? he asked, but the word didn’t manifest in the sound of his voice, that single syllable that was now so familiar it should have come easily to his tongue. Instead, in appeared in a feeling-- warmth, the smell of salt and tree oil, the coil of flower stems around strands of hair, dark eyes with gold flecks and wide pupils and something soft that brushed against his fingertips and his lips and that feeling that swelled and bloomed like petals inside him.

A light flickered, as though the first sparks of a fire had started, and he heard his own name whispered in his mind. But it wasn’t his name , not in a way he’d ever heard it, just as Spock’s name hadn’t been ‘Spock.’

‘Jim’ was a golden glint of hair in dying sunlight, a feeling of calloused hands brushing along the sting of a burn, a ringing, echoing sound of laughter, the smell of aloe and the splash of water against his face and he felt calm, solid, safe and certain.

But he didn’t feel it. It came from somewhere around him, this consciousness that floated through and within him and he knew it was Spock because of course it was Spock. It could only ever be.

With the recognition, Jim’s heart thrummed in his chest, in his abdomen, and if he could smile he would have smiled but his body didn’t exist here, even when he felt it. Confusion seeped into him, around him, immediately soothed by explanation. He knew intrinsically now that everything he felt and saw and sensed was a memory.

What do you want to see? He asked without asking, consciousness swimming alongside Spock’s. Swimming. And before Spock even had time to answer they were swimming, racing to the center of the lake and Jim knew he was losing because he was laughing too hard to keep his breath and he kept swallowing mouthfuls of water. And that water-- he remembered watching water pour down Spock’s face, knowing even then that he was in trouble because Spock was blue in the lake’s light and beautiful and shining.

Then, something pulled him reluctantly out of the memory, echoing the feeling of clasped hands with the scent of open air as though they were walking through the forest, one of those quiet morning strolls. The flowers were just opening around them, releasing that morning-sweet scent. He sighed into it and followed without thought, the same way he would always follow because he trusted that hand to lead him. He felt in that moment Spock’s whispering assurance that if he led, he too would be followed, he too would be trusted.

But where were they going? Back , a voice responded without voice and Jim felt nervousness grip him. Now was good. Now was wonderful. ‘Back’ could mean a great many things.

Then, suddenly he was warm again, but everything hurt . His leg throbbed, his head throbbed, and when he opened his eyes he saw the image of the Enterprise ’s Vulcan commander sitting by the fire, a strip of carpet around his shoulders to keep him warm while Jim laid stiff and injured in an emergency blanket, trembling. The image floated too far away and it felt wrong .

Shaking from the hold, he felt himself resisting. He didn’t want to go back because that was a different time and a different life and it wasn’t what they were here to see. What were they here to see?

The consciousness returned to him, folded him in its comfort as an apology floated through him and he sank back into it, like coming home, and he was coming home, opening the door to the farmhouse while his father and mother stood at the sink doing the day’s dishes. A dog barked from somewhere inside and Jim called its name. But, no, this wasn’t his home now.

No. Home. What was home? His mind wandered into a brightly lit corridor, packed with people in identical uniforms carrying padds and slugging bags. A cadet walked beside him, gesturing widely, and Jim was laughing. Of course he was laughing. This was Gary. Gary always made him laugh even when Jim wasn’t sure he could and Jim loved him, didn’t he? Even though sometimes Gary shouted too loud, too hard and sometimes he said things that hurt, Jim still loved him, right? But then he was back under a swath of blankets-- home, the Academy-- and he’d just whispered that word, ‘love,’ and the man beside him stiffened just like Ruth had stiffened when he said the word to her and in the memory Jim hurt .

The mind within his own hummed with regret and secondhand sadness but it was okay, Jim tried to say. He wasn’t hurting anymore, didn’t regret it because if Gary hadn’t broken his heart he wouldn’t have been so eager to leave, wouldn’t have accepted the Farragut assignment so readily, and then he was back on the Farragut . Home. Surrounded by the constant hum that had become background noise to his life. A starship, the sound of the engines flying him through space. Space , exploration, his life now. The sparse room that surrounded him, his room, smelled clean and stark and Jim felt comfortable and happy but--

This wasn’t his home now either.

No, this was his history, part of the path that brought him here but here was something else entirely. Here was--

Here was the sweet scent of flower petals in silky hair where Jim pressed his face, breathing in, here was a warm body in his arms at night and the comforting presence that slipped into his nightmares and shooed them away and a solid figure beside him, sitting on the sand outside a village built three-thousand years ago by a group of people who had beaten the odds and here was a pile of blankets at the mouth of a cave where a kiss pressed against his chest and here was home, too.

Here was peace and pleasure and companionship, the rise of an eyebrow and the tilt of half-smiling lips, the gentle tenor of a voice that didn’t joke but teased and every time he spoke Jim hung on his words and every time he almost smiled Jim glowed with pride because he loved making Spock smile, loved it when Spock looked at him like he respected him, loved it when Spock kissed him, shared his ideas, played chess across from him and ran down lists of numbers and helped Jim pick flowers and missed the target with the arrow every time and suddenly Jim felt his fingers curl around a single chess piece with the crushing weight of loneliness on him but again the feeling wasn’t his own. The memory wasn’t his own.

Why was Spock lonely? Why would he ever be lonely when Jim was right here and Jim loved him and Jim wanted him? But a feeling, whether his or Spock’s, insisted that Jim had been lonely too. Jim was still lonely-- he missed his family and his friends, the clatter of trays in the mess, the steady beep of the phaser bank where he leaned back in his seat and chatted with the other officers and he was lonely and Spock could not fill that gaping hole in Jim no matter how much he wanted to.

And how Spock wanted to. Jim felt it smack into him like he’d been knocked off his feet, how Spock wanted to be everything that Jim was to him. Everything. How the only way he knew to hold onto him was to stay on this planet that had brought them together. Paradise. A place where thousands of his people had lived and breathed and loved and died and it was the only place that Spock knew he could do the same. But when they returned he would just be another person, another person who saw Jim’s light shining and flew to it.

But Spock could never be just another person to Jim. Spock was connected, intrinsic, a miracle, right? Jim had never believed in miracles, had laughed at the idea of them and called them coincidence or luck, but isn’t that what you said, Spock? A miracle?

And he had no intention to squander it. It had been a miracle to survive Tarsus, to make it into Starfleet, to survive the crash, and then, God, to find Spock here of all places, a planet that had claimed countless lives but let them live-- and maybe it let them live for this. For each other. Maybe everything had been worth it because here they were together and they would stay together no matter what waited for them beyond that wormhole. Because Jim loved Spock. Because that love had saved his life and changed him and he couldn’t imagine a world in which this feeling would fade. Couldn’t imagine a world, even the world he had left behind, without Spock in it.

All Jim wanted was to bring Spock home.

The rush of wind returned, blew through him and froze him without feeling and he felt himself wrench a gasp from his empty lungs and then--

Firelight. He blinked into it, raising a hand to shield his eyes against the glare, but he smacked into something, someone-- Spock.

Jim startled, eyes focusing on the face in front of his, wide-eyed, fear reaching across the connection of their skin. Why did he hit me? A voice in his head asked, and Jim raised his hand again to soothe the side of Spock’s face, stroking gently.

Spock’s fingers fell from his meld points and Jim could no longer hear his thoughts in words, only those vague impressions that floated through him.

“I didn’t mean to,” Jim said aloud, voice shaking and raw. “I… I forgot where I was.”

“I thought perhaps I had gone too far,” Spock responded. “It was not my intention to--”

Jim pulled Spock forward, resting their foreheads together, silencing him gently. “I told you, Spock. Every dark corner. It’s okay. And, really, the worst thing you dug up was Gary Mitchell . I think I’ll live.” He found it in himself to chuckle weakly.

Spock swallowed, still contrite and hesitant. So Jim pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose, a reassurance, a physical connection to somehow maintain that feeling-- not just closeness, but wholeness. Entirety. Completion. He’d never felt anything like it before. The world around them didn’t seem real, even as it came back to him-- the crackling of the fire, the smell of smoke, the warmth of the hand that had fallen to his knee and the way it rubbed gently through the thin, soft fabric of his torn clothes.

Somehow even this, sharing breath, wasn’t close enough.

And Jim felt raw, an exposed nerve that stung and ached, but he knew the salve was there.

“Are you still worried?” Jim asked, a whisper against Spock’s lips.

“I--” Spock started, but he paused and collected himself, longing and love flowing through Jim with currents strong enough to pull him under, but there was something else, too, a tingle of awed amusement. “I am incapable of worry,” he finished.

With a laugh that started in his belly, Jim dropped his head and rested it on Spock chest.

Incapable of worry. Isn’t that what he’d been saying from the beginning? Incapable of worry, anger, sadness. Love. And, according to Spock, incapable of humor. Jim was beginning to think there was nothing Spock was incapable of.

“Of course you are,  Mister Spock,” he said affectionately when he had his voice back. He raised his head and met Spock’s eyes. “Silly me.”

Spock stroked a line down the side of his face, a touch that sparked against his skin and made Jim want to be back in that place, that strange fusion of their minds, the connection that had been so alien and yet so familiar.

“Can we do that again sometime?” Jim asked after Spock had been silent for a while. Spock drew away slightly, an eyebrow raised.

“You could not have enjoyed the meld,” he deadpanned, and Jim shrugged.

“Well, maybe we can stick to better memories next time, but…” he trailed off, unsure of how to say it. He had liked feeling close to Spock. He had always liked feeling close to Spock. Sharing their thoughts without barrier or restriction was, undoubtedly, the closest they could get. Dichotomy be damned, he thought with some amusement.

Spock seemed to pick up on the emotion, because the hand on Jim’s knee squeezed slightly, and his lips quirked. “If you wish,” Spock replied, “but only if you have had adequate rest. It was difficult to keep you on-track.”

Jim chuckled. “Isn’t it always?”

Spock, thankfully, didn’t take that bait. He simply stroked a hand through Jim’s hair, and pulled away.

“Please relax now, Jim. I will make dinner before we rest.”

The exhaustion had returned to Jim now, full-bodied, and reaching into the back of his mind where he tried not to fall into its currents. So he didn’t object to Spock making dinner. Instead, he laid back on the blankets and watched Spock work, hoping now that his lover felt as at-peace as he did, that Spock could allow himself excitement at the idea of returning.

Because Jim was excited to return. This, what they shared, didn’t need to be sacrificed. Maybe he could transfer to the Enterprise (if he was lucky) or Spock could transfer to the Farragut (if he wanted to), and Jim could introduce Spock to his family and visit Vulcan with him and they could take shore leave together, or go camping for ‘old time’s sake.’ He could build his life and career like he’d always dreamed, but with a surprising addition that, somehow, made the possibility of the future shine all the brighter.

As Spock risked intermittent glances at him, almost shy in the way he would avert his eyes each time he met Jim’s, Jim hoped-- and believed-- that Spock could see some of that brightness too.

 


 

The hum that subtly shook their seats was almost alien. While they’d booted up the shuttle many times to scan and test systems, they had never once turned on piloting controls, never once kicked the engine into life. Now, the shuttle seemed to waver the way a beast’s shoulders would shuffle as it prepared to pounce. There was a pent-up energy beneath them, anticipatory, as though the machine itself had been waiting to rise.

But, of course, machines did not have a will or a goal. Machines were extensions of their users. So perhaps it was they who were suffering the worst of the anticipation.

“Disengage struts,” Jim said beside Spock, his voice coming out in short syllables, hard with concentration.

Spock complied, tapping some controls on his screen.

The shuttle clunked dangerously, but did not falter. Spock could swear he heard Jim let out a sigh of relief, but when he looked to him he saw only hard determination in the lines of his face.

“Status?”

Spock scanned his screen. “Temperature, eighty-nine degrees fahrenheit; humidity at ninety-four percent; wind at ten miles per hour; clear skies. Power at one-hundred percent. Shields at one-hundred percent.”

Jim cast a look to his side, and Spock was pleased to see a smile on his lips. “Good weather for a test flight, wouldn’t you say?”

Not trusting himself to speak with the inexplicable nerves that took hold of him, Spock nodded, something hard in his gut. It would be better, he thought, if they had waited for an ion storm, but Jim was right. This was an optimal time to at least figure out if the shuttle would fly. And the next time ions darkened the skies, they had to go. There was no option anymore.

Jim’s hands rested on the controls, his arms steady and sure in their placement. He had claimed to have flown ‘plenty’ of Class-F shuttlecrafts in practice at the Academy, and though Spock had piloted more in practical application, he knew he was most useful at the sensors-- not to mention that Jim had expressed a rather vocal distaste for navigation. He only hoped Jim’s practice flights returned to him easily.

“Alright. Let’s go,” Jim said, and Spock felt nerves that mirrored his own float across the connection of their minds. That didn’t stop Jim, though. He simply took the controls and pulled them back with one hand, his other tapping the glowing keys that would stutter the trigger of the ion engines. With a rather unpleasant jerk, Spock felt his stomach fall into his feet, and they began to rise.

Jim’s let out a low whistle, as though he’d been holding his breath but didn’t want to let on. “Okay, a bit of a shaky start. That’s fine,” he said, more to himself than Spock. Spock wanted to reach across their small distance and lay a comforting hand on Jim’s shoulder, to reassure him that, so far, they hadn’t fallen apart and he doubted they would. But his eyes remained glued to the screen, reading system outputs as quickly as they appeared to him, and he didn’t want to risk looking away just yet. These first few moments were critical.

Jim pulled back on the helm and the shuttle shook as it climbed off the ground. Out the window, Spock watched the slope of the mountain out of the corner of his eye. It rose with them, and, slowly, receded. Jim was taking it inch-by-inch, hardly engaging thrust at all, but that was wise, patient.

“Holding steady,” Spock said, and he felt Jim relax beside him, pulling back just a little more, encouraged.

“Tell me the second that changes, Mister Spock,” Jim said with a nervous chuckle.

“It will not,” Spock replied, though he kept an eye on it all the same. “We were meticulous.”

Even as he said it, he reminded himself of the clay that held together sensitive connections in the interior of the shuttle’s panels and of the rope that twisted round the tanks in back. He swallowed.

As they cleared the tops of the trees, Jim tapped some of the controls, eyes flicking between the console and the forward window.

“Trajectory?” Jim asked, glancing at him briefly. Spock looked out over the wide canopies, the green leaves dotted with shining white colonies of fat little birds off in the distance. They hadn’t decided where to fly, had they?

“The village?” he suggested. “We could land in the desert off the grave site. It is also close enough to the cave system that if we break down we will be able to return to our materials with little trouble.”

Jim looked to Spock, a note of surprise in his mind and his eyes, but Spock maintained a steady gaze. Jim should know by now that the village and its graveyard did not carry the same painful weight as it once had. “Lay it in, Spock,” Jim agreed after a moment.

Spock did so, plugging in the coordinates and looking to Jim when the task was done. Jim gave him a tentative half-smile and returned his gaze to the window, tapping the key that would send them forward.

And it did. The shuttle jerked again, slamming Spock against the back of his seat, but Jim compensated for the surprise of it quickly, easing the helm up as they sailed over the canopy of trees and turned gently through the still air.

They rose steadily as they flew, the canopy receding, the intimidating slope of the mountain’s height suddenly surmountable. Spock recalled walking along the range’s base, staring upwards in futility, but now as they climbed higher into Sha Ka Ree’s atmosphere it became nothing more than a small hurdle, something they could hop over and fly past. Spock’s eyes unfocused from the screen, settling instead on the green world outside. From their height, and as they climbed, the clear blue sky stretched out wide and bright over lush trees, which seemed to grow even taller out in the distance than they did in their own part of the oasis.

And, from here, they could see now that it was an oasis. Though the scans had told them as much before, it was startling to see it in such contrast-- the lush greens and purples, the deep blue of far-off lakes that reflected sunlight like mirrors-- all of it cut off from the desert by high, rising, black mountains and plateaus. It was clear now, for all that they had explored in the last year and a half, the area with which they were familiar was miniscule when the rest of the planet and its infinite mysteries now stretched out before them.

A black canyon in the distance sliced into the landscape like a charred scar, surrounded by white sands that spread in waves to the line of the horizon and well past it, a harbinger of the fate of this world. In two-thousand years, it would be nothing but desert, nothing but sands. Everything their eyes looked over now was temporary, ephemeral, and--

“Beautiful,” Jim muttered beside him, his voice almost lost in the hum of the shuttle. “Do you see that canyon, Spock? What I wouldn’t give to explore it. Looks like there’s a river…” he trailed off, pulling the shuttle off-track just slightly to fly closer to it.

The navigational console beeped, alerting them that they were diverging from their course, but Spock ignored it, tapping the control to turn off the alarm. He found he would much rather fly over the canyon or see their oasis from a bird’s eye view than stick to an arbitrary destination right now. Sometimes it was okay to veer off the path, so long as one regained it eventually.

Jim glanced at him sideways with a tilted smile, but didn’t comment. Rather, he simply engaged thrust and sped them forward, flying them over the mountain range and in the direction of the canyon.

“Status?”

“Still stable,” Spock responded, unable to help the touch of amazement to his voice. In spite of the confidence he projected, the fact that nothing had yet broken down or exploded was a bit of a surprise. “How does it feel?”

Jim looked down to the console, shrugging. “Fine. Smooth, believe it or not. We did something right.”

“For our sakes,” Spock said with an undercurrent of amusement, “I hope we have done everything right.”

Jim snorted a laugh, then pulled the shuttle down, speeding her along the canyon, the deep gash that it carved in an otherwise smooth desert. There was a river, as Jim had suspected, far below the sharp walls of volcanic rock. It looked to be dotted with green, and as they flew lower it became clear that some kind of wildlife wandered at the river’s banks-- small white dots that could have been those desert-dwelling deer or something else entirely. Something new. Spock could feel Jim yearning to touch down, to explore, but Spock looked to him pointedly.

“Jim,” he said. And that was all he needed to.

“I know,” Jim groaned. “You see it, though, don’t you? I just wish--” Jim let out a sigh, pulling up the shuttle and turning her around. “I just wish all of this would still exist in the future. There’s so much here . So much we could study and learn and--” Shaking his head, Jim straightened himself. “But you’re right. We have a mission.”

“And it would not be wise to fly too far from our camp. Should we become stranded--”

“More stranded,” Jim tacked on with a wry smile.

More stranded,” Spock conceded, “it will become infinitely more difficult to return home.”

Jim sighed again, turning the shuttle round and returning in the direction they’d come.

“Okay, to the graveyard then,” Jim said, “lay it in, Mister Spock. Again.”

Spock’s lip twitched and he set in the course, though they could see their destination from here. What mattered was testing the navigational systems.

And, when the console began to complain, Spock became infinitely grateful that they had done so.

The whining beep that accompanied the error message on Spock’s screen blared through the small cabin, and Jim shot a glance over to him, mouth thin. “What’s happening?”

“I am unsure.” Spock circumvented the error message and called up a diagnostic, eyes focused on the screen as Jim flew. “It claims the navigation system is malfunctioning.”

“What?” Jim barked, anger and embarrassment flashing over their bond. “I spent hours on the navigation. And it was working a few minutes ago! What could be wrong?”

Spock read quickly through the diagnostic. “Unreliable connection,” he summarized. “The positioning system is unresponsive, though the navigational sensors seem to be working.”

“So it knows what’s around us but doesn’t know where we are?”

“In short.”

Jim let out a frustrated groan and jerked the shuttle to the side, causing Spock to grip the edge of his seat.

“I’m sorry,” Jim said harshly, his brows knit, his jaw set. Spock attempted to send something soothing to him, but Jim was clearly perturbed. “Let’s just land this thing so we can figure out what’s wrong.”

Spock remained silent for a moment as Jim guided them back to the shuttle’s original crash site, where their tools still lay in the sand. He was unsure if he should express his theory, but he may have neglected to remember that their mental connection went both ways.

“What’s on your mind, Spock?” Jim asked, somewhat exasperatedly.

Spock cast him a gentle look. “The positioning system is what you pulled from the Veh El’es Ekhlami , yes?” he asked.

Jim shrugged, hands still hard on the helm. “Yes,” he said, “but it looked fine.”

“It is more than three-thousand years old, Jim,” Spock reminded him. “It is possible that it has simply ceased to function.”

Jim’s fingers tightened their grip and he let out a breath. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he admitted, and Spock felt some of the anger drain from him, replaced with a sort of despair.

Guiding them back to their landing site, Jim didn’t speak but to ask for confirmation of flight status. It was a blessing, if not a miracle, that all other systems were functioning perfectly-- even the environmental systems that Jim had been concerned about. But Jim was a harsh critic when it came to his own work, Spock had noticed. Though a malfunctioning device from an ancient ship could hardly be considered his fault, it was obvious Jim would find a way to make it seem so.

They landed softly on the sand, much smoother than their initial departure, and Jim powered down piloting functions as Spock powered down sensors.

For a moment, they sat in silence.

“If the part’s broken,” Jim began, staring down at his hands, which rested purposelessly on the console in front of him, “we’re out of options. It was the only positioning system in that whole graveyard that wasn’t damaged. Well, at least the only one that would work with Federation-standard equipment.” They had, of course, stumbled upon ships whose navigation looked to still be functional, but there had only been a couple of them, and each had utilized systems that were indecipherably unfamiliar to them both.

Spock swiveled in his seat. “There are options. Rather, there is one option,” he said, though he knew Jim was aware of their last hope. But he was unwilling to suggest it until they knew for certain.

Jim sighed, suddenly looking tired, worn-down, shoulders slumping, all the excitement of their test flight leaving the light of his eyes. “Right. Well, let’s see the damage.”

Spock pressed the key to open the shuttle door, which slid only somewhat creakily into its sheath, then made his way outside to their tools.

By the time he returned, Jim had already pried off the panel over the sensors. He was seated on the floor, bad leg kicked out in front of him, reaching into the mess of wires and circuits with recklessly bare hands.

Spock settled on the floor beside him, handing him the knife. It was not the most delicate of tools, but Jim took it without a word and deftly sliced at the wires that connected the positioning system to their sensors. Pulling it out, he turned it over in his hands, then handed it moodily to Spock.

Steeling himself, Spock took the tricorder from where he’d set it on the floor and ran it over the device, gut clenching painfully at the readings.

Jim clearly didn’t need to hear him say it.

“Dead?”

Spock met his eyes. “Jim--”

“Shit.”

It was seldom Jim cursed, seldom he felt even a fraction of the hopelessness that now radiated off of him like heat. Spock set the system and the tricorder down and placed a hand on Jim’s knee.

“Jim,” he said again, harder this time, forcing Jim to meet his eyes with the word. “There is another option.”

Taking in a deep breath, Jim set his hand on top of Spock’s, looking down at the tricorder. “We can’t, Spock. We don’t know when the next ion storm is going to be.”

“It has been months since the last one,” Spock reminded him. “It must be soon.”

“But we don’t know that. Without the tricorder, we’re blind out here. The most it’s going to be able to do without its positioning system is read the weather. We won’t know where the bulldogs are, we won’t know where to find each other if we separate… I don’t like it.”

“Nor do I, but it would take many more months to assemble a new device from scratch. We have survived on this planet so far. If we remain outside the depth of the forest and retreat to the cave before nightfall, we are in no danger.”

Jim gripped Spock’s hand, worrying the corner of his lip between his teeth. “As designated security officer on this mission,” he said lowly, “it’s my duty to state on-record that I’m opposed to this idea.”

“If it helps,” Spock started, but he paused and took a breath before he continued. “I am rather opposed to it myself.”

Jim’s lips twisted into a slight smile, though it held little humor. “Then I guess we’re both on the hook if this goes south.”

Spock felt a tinge of fear that he forced himself to suppress. He had done much to protect the man who sat in front of him now, just as Jim had done much to protect him. He doubted either of them would be comfortable with this decision, despite the fact that they both knew what needed to be done. The tricorder’s positioning system would mean the difference between plotting a sure course through the wormhole web and trying to navigate it by sight in low visibility. There was no alternative, and they could not leave any aspect of their journey home to chance.

“Very well,” Spock said, straightening his spine and removing his hand from Jim’s. The contact was missed, but the hum remained, a pleasant sensation that spread through him every time they touched. It served now to remind them that they really were in this together, even the worst of it. Especially the worst of it. “I will disassemble the tricorder if you will ensure the console is prepped.”

Jim swallowed and nodded, heart hammering loud enough for Spock to hear.

“Let’s just hope a storm hits soon,” he practically mumbled to himself.

Chapter Text

Jim missed the pond where he used to go fishing. It lay a little way into the forest, maybe a mile or so. The path that led to it was well-trod after all this time, a wavering white line of worn sand, a small mark they had left on this planet. Giant flowers always bloomed around the lake’s edges, encouraged into growth by the rising humidity off the water and the break in the trees’ canopy that let in the golden wash of sunlight. It always smelled sweet, and sometimes Jim could catch one of those fat birds snapping silver, shining fish in their beaks before the sound of his footsteps scared them off.

But as the days turned into weeks, then into another long month, he came to terms with the fact that abandoning that pond, and their strolls through the forest’s depths, was worth it to stay safe.

The good news was that they no longer needed the tricorder to tell them where to get food. Jim knew the location of every sprig of greens and every clutch of mushrooms and every towering fruit tree, and he knew the types of places to look when they’d picked a resource dry. This planet was familiar to them now-- at least their oasis was. And they could survive as they had for as long as they needed to, with or without that valuable positioning system.

If only there was any indication that their time on Sha Ka Ree was nearing its end. For more than a year and a half-- God, almost two years now-- they had been working toward one, single goal. Repair the shuttle. Now that it was done, it sat a staunch reminder of how little of the future was within their control. They had no idea when another ion storm would stir the skies. It had already been months since the last one, but every day they walked outside to find the same vast expanse of blue above them. The birds chortled their awkward little songs, the leaves shone green swaths over the white sand, and Jim ached.

He wanted to go home. They were so close to going home. Spock tried to soothe him over their bond any time he caught Jim thinking about it, but it was difficult to stay soothed for long. All this time, Jim had shoved aside his homesickness, his fear and anger and anxiety and now that they were ready he felt restless.

So they occupied themselves the best they could. While reluctant to explore too much without the tricorder to keep them safe, they now had a fully operational shuttlecraft to fly around the planet. They never went too far at risk of getting stranded for the sake of recreation, but they were able to visit the Vulcan village another few times, which was gratefully distracting.

Spock seemed able to walk its paths now without the weight of grief on his shoulders, and so he talked idly with Jim about the architecture, the Vulcan technique for making sandstone, the way the colony may have functioned in order to maximize their resources.

He talked, too, about Vulcan’s broken history of colonization, how attempts had been few and far between and how the planet had consolidated its efforts into its own betterment over the centuries. There was so much about Vulcan culture Jim had never thought to learn about, and now he found himself gripped with curiosity. Luckily, he had a library of information in his companion, and Spock seemed happy to discuss it.

Spock seemed happy much of the time, in fact. It made Jim feel better about his own less-than-consistent emotions. When Spock was happy, Jim let the feeling swirl into him, and oftentimes he could muster his own excitement and interest. His own joy.

While they talked, they’d sift through the sand, attempting to find any remnants that they could of the Vulcan colonists. Mostly, they were unlucky. In some of the homes, they found old metal sleeping platforms, likely taken from the crashed ships. In one, the tiny home of what Spock assumed was a bonded pair, they found three small magnetic cylinders. Spock had gone quiet for a time after that, then informed Jim that those were pieces of kal-toh, the ‘greatest game of strategy in the galaxy,’ as he’d once called it.

Jim had imagined them then, a nameless, faceless couple with a game set up between them, whiling away one of Sha Ka Ree’s interminable evenings with what he was sure they had considered an incredibly logical use of recreational time.

And then he had looked to Spock, whose posture was relaxed unless he thought about it, whose hair grew long, whose decidedly illogical emotions Jim could feel constantly thrumming under his own consciousness, and he wondered if the Vulcans here had maintained their Surakian teachings or if they had felt the kind of freedom he knew Spock felt.

Not that the two were mutually exclusive, of course. Spock loved logic, if that could be said without massively contradicting itself, but outside of Vulcan society he seemed to have come to terms with what that word meant to him. So Jim wondered if, maybe, these Vulcans had done the same.

It was one evening, a month or more after they had fully repaired the shuttlecraft, that they had flown it up to the mountaintop, finding the flattest stretch of stone on which to land. It had been Jim’s idea, to watch the slow sunset from on-high, and Spock had not refuted it. Without any other occupation that required their time, it was as fine a pursuit as any. And they didn’t have to worry about wasting power thanks to the solar panels they’d constructed along the shuttle’s sides.

So they sat on the roof of their ship with their legs hanging off the back as the sky took on its evening violet hues, Jim shifting now and again as the welded seams of metal dug into his legs. But Spock’s hand laid gentle on his thigh and he felt comfortable, for the most part.

Which is why he felt free to ask, finally, what had been kicking around in his head for a while now. They’d been silent for a long time, trailing their eyes over the forest far below them, watching from an angle they’d never seen as the leaves collapsed. Now, Jim looked upwards, toward home.

“Do you think the Vulcan colonists followed Surakian teachings?” he asked.

The question seemed to surprise Spock. He took a moment before answering, following Jim’s gaze toward the sky. “Undoubtedly,” he said eventually. “Even two-hundred years ago, few did not.”

“I meant in the end,” Jim said, glancing sideways at Spock to gauge his reaction. “After all those generations?”

Spock seemed to consider this, his brow furrowing. “I could not say. It is likely they passed down their traditions. Vulcan places great value on custom. But perhaps they ‘let loose’ as you would say? At least to some degree.”

“Like you have?”

Spock turned to him, a half-smile on his lips. “As I have, yes.”

Jim grinned and wrapped his arm around Spock, pulling him in until his head rested on Jim’s shoulder. Though the sun had only barely set, he felt a chill inching in-- it was far colder up here than down below-- but the warmth of Spock beside him staved off the discomfort for now.

“Is that why you’re nervous?” Jim asked, “about going back?”

He felt Spock stiffen slightly, but thankfully he only felt a small pinch of anxiety from his mind.

“It is. At least in part,” Spock said, not bothering to deny the feeling, for which Jim was grateful. “Our time on this planet has altered me in ways that I did not expect.” He paused, tilting his head almost imperceptibly so the soft corner of his lips pressed to Jim’s collar. “When we return, I will be changed. It is unlikely it will be simple to step back into the life I once led.”

Jim heard the hint of mourning in his voice, even before he felt it. In honesty, Jim had nursed similar fears, similar feelings of loss. Change, even for the best, always meant something would be left behind.

“When my dad came back,” he said softly against the crown of Spock’s head, “after we thought he had died-- he was different too. It took a few years for things to settle back into place. At first, I hardly recognized him.” He nuzzled into Spock’s hair, “and I’ve been a little worried myself that my family won’t recognize me. But, well, my dad was still my dad when he came back. You’re still going to be you and I’m still going to be me. We’ll just have an adjustment period.”

Spock relaxed against him, a calm fondness in the brush of his mind alongside Jim’s.

“I believe the adjustment period is what concerns me.”

Jim smiled. “You don’t think your parents will take too kindly to your long hair and human lover?” he joked, tilting his head to meet Spock’s eyes. He was disappointed to find little humor in them.

Suddenly, Jim felt a little more nervous himself. “Wait, your mother is human. They won’t be upset by this, will they?”

“Upset is a human emotion, Jim,” Spock reminded him, almost ironically.

Jim let out a breath through his nose. “I mean it. Are they going to-- I don’t know-- disown you?”

Spock thought on that for a moment, sitting up straight and turning his eyes back to the forest below them. The cold nipped at Jim as the wind blew past, and he noticed Spock shiver.

“My mother will simply be pleased I am alive, I would imagine.” The way he said that settled something heavy in Jim’s chest, as though Spock didn’t know for sure that his own mother would have missed him. Or, maybe, as though he didn’t know if she would have missed him enough to overlook whatever perceived new faults weighed on Spock now.

“My father, however...” Spock paused, expression unreadable and emotions cut off. “I hope you will not take it personally when he objects to our relationship. It is to be expected. He has convinced himself that I will someday marry T’Pring, and I have never given him reason to suspect that such an arrangement is undesirable to me. This will come as a shock.”

Frankly, it had come as a shock to Jim, too, so he could only imagine Spock’s staunchly Vulcan father might faint. But Spock’s words brought another thought to Jim’s mind, one that he’d done a rather fantastic job pushing aside thus far. “And T’Pring?” he asked, the name unfamiliar on his lips. “What will she think?”

Spock didn’t appear concerned by the question, his shoulders rising and falling subtly in his version of a shrug. “It will be an inconvenience to sever the bond between us,” he said lamely, “but I do not doubt she will have no emotional reaction to it. Finding another mate will be a simple task for one of her status, and I believe it would please her to be free of me.”

Jim raised an eyebrow. He could hardly imagine someone wanting to be ‘free’ of Spock . “How can you be sure? You’ve been engaged since you were seven. I would think that would take precedence over some guy you met in the woods.”

The flash of amusement that colored their link made Jim smile slightly, though it didn’t assuage all of his worries.

“What takes precedence is mental compatibility.” Spock assured him. “T’Pring would have been a suitable mate, but you...” his hand found Jim’s on the metal between them, fingertips brushing Jim’s own ever so slightly. He didn’t need to finish his thought. The word ‘miracle’ seemed to float unsaid in the air, and it made Jim’s heart ache beautifully.

“Won’t your father respect that?” he asked, tone soft, inquisitive, “He married a human after all.”

“For logical reasons,” Spock responded.

“Of course.” Jim rolled his eyes, taking a deep breath. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

The amusement returned to Spock then, and his fingertips lightly stroked along Jim’s.

“I believe he will come to respect you,” Spock said, “as will my mother. At any rate, I will give them little choice in the matter.”

Jim broke the kiss, running his hand along Spock’s wrist where he began to trace mindless patterns along his veins.

“Well, my parents are going to be thrilled,” he said, shooting Spock a warm smile. He’d thought a lot about how they might react to Spock, and he’d come to this conclusion a long time ago. He couldn’t imagine a world in which they wouldn’t adore this man, gentle as he was, intelligent as he was, as much as he loved Jim.

Spock raised an eyebrow, and Jim nearly laughed at the disbelief he felt rippling from his lover. He could almost hear Spock’s thoughts, as though he’d said I doubt that very sincerely, Jim aloud. But with that doubt came a humming insecurity that Jim sought to alleviate.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he said fondly. “My family’s liked a couple of my partners, but Gary .” He laughed, “Gary was a little wild-- and I think we only went out because I joined Starfleet and started feeling nostalgic for my rebellious phase. Trust me, in comparison alone, you’ll look sparkling.” Gary was the most recent of his partners, as he hadn’t exactly found time or occasion to date on the Farragut . And in spite of how he’d hurt Jim, he always stood out as the most important romance of Jim’s life. Until now, of course. Often, he could think of Gary fondly, in spite of how his parents had felt about the match.

He paused, shifting his eyes to Spock. A new emotion had begun to slip through, subtly enough that Spock may not have even been aware of it. If he had, he probably would have cut it off by now. “Wait,” Jim tested, searching Spock’s face. “Are you jealous?”

Spock stiffened slightly, and Jim felt a hum of annoyance coming off of him that ceased abruptly. Jim wasn’t even upset by it.

“No,” Spock lied easily, and Jim snorted.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Jim said, though Spock knew as much by now.

Spock looked to where Jim’s hand laid softly over his wrist. “It is simply strange to be reminded that you-- you have had lovers before me.” The insinuation hung in the air: different from me , he seemed to tack on. Better than me , his emotions hinted.

Jim nearly rolled his eyes, but stopped himself forcibly. They had melded enough times now for Spock to know that, in Jim’s mind and heart, he was paramount. “Sure I have,” he said, “but you knew about them. It’s not like I told you I was betrothed three months after sleeping with you.”

With a start, Spock met Jim’s eyes, suddenly nervous, but Jim was smiling. He’d long forgiven Spock for the surprise of it all, given everything that had followed. He looked back out over the landscape, sighing.

“You know how I feel about you,” Jim reminded him softly. “And like I was trying to say, my family is going to be so happy. Finally, a logical choice for their son.” He smiled at the word, and felt Spock relax under his hand.

“Humans are not always receptive to Vulcans. You are certain they will approve?”

“Positive,” Jim responded, “and, better yet, if any illogical humans can get on your dad’s good side, it’s my parents.”

“I will take your word for that.”

Jim laughed, squeezed Spock’s wrist. “It’s going to be alright,” he reassured softly, “all any parent wants for their children is someone to make them happy. Even Vulcans, right?”

“Happiness is a human emotion, Jim,” Spock reminded him again, this time without any of the mirth of before.

Jim felt his stomach clench at the tone, but he didn’t want Spock to succumb to those anxieties that Jim could practically feel consuming his mind. “Well,” he said lightly, turning to Spock, “then we’ll just have to come up with a logical reason for our relationship, right?”

Spock looked at him with bare confusion, and Jim smiled, something encouraging. “How about... Ah, alright. I’ve got one. It’s logical to date a Starfleet officer, because your career will never get in the way of your relationship. That’s a fair reason.”

“Given the fact that Starfleet discourages relationships between officers whenever possible, that would likely not suffice,” Spock tested.

Jim hummed, feigning deep thought. “Okay, then how about the fact that it’s logical to date a human when you’ve chosen a predominantly human profession. Research.”

“Researching humans and establishing romantic mental bonds with humans are two very different things, Jim.” Though Spock protested, Jim could see the corner of his mouth lifting.

“Okay, different reason, then,” he said brightly. “Because I’m a compatible mate? That’s logical enough for you .”

“My father will no doubt argue that T’Pring is also a compatible mate. And Vulcan.”

Jim pursed his lips, thinking. “Well, it would be illogical to object to your relationship after you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, right? It could cause you undue emotional distress.”

“As a Vulcan, I should be able to quickly process all forms of undue emotional distress,” Spock said.

It had started out as a game, but now Jim paused, unsure if he could think of any other logical explanations for what existed between them. By all accounts, this was a terrible idea. They’d established as much from the beginning. But this was the first time in a long time it seemed to matter. For a second, he felt his own trembling trepidation well up. Then, Spock let out a short sigh and met Jim’s eyes.

“Perhaps, the only explanation that needs to be given is that I care for you. Whether my father understands that or not, he must respect it.”

It was Jim’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “He must?”

The cool air blew past them and the first lonely roar of a bulldog called out from the forest, echoing in the evening.

“He must.”

Jim felt a small smile tugging at his lips, the anxiety ebbing away. Spock, concerned though he was, had kept his promise. He had no more doubts, even in the face of rejection from his own family. Jim marveled at the feeling that inspired in him.

They were quiet for a while, staring at each other, Jim attempting to absorb Spock’s surety. Somehow, just the look in his eyes was enough.

“We should get back,” Jim said lowly after a time. “It’s getting late, and without the tricorder--”

“Of course,” Spock responded. He took Jim’s hand, asking silently as he did sometimes, and Jim obliged, leaning in to place a gentle kiss to his lips. His eyes fell closed as he breathed in Spock’s warmth.

When he pulled away and their eyes met again, Jim felt that familiar bloom inside him. Love, and all its overwhelming, beautiful, terrifying implications, some of his own, some of Spock’s.

And though he liked having Spock all to himself, and though the complexities of life outside Sha Ka Ree still scared him, he found he couldn’t wait to share Spock with the world, with the people he cared about. Any hardship was worth that, and neither of them would have to endure such hardship without the other.

 


 

The fire flickered over them both, lighting Jim’s skin in hot, orange hues and casting shadows at the hollow of his collarbone, the slight dips of his ribs, the curve of his arm. He glittered with sweat, and his chest, dotted and streaked with evidence of their lovemaking, rose in deep breaths. Tiny, purpling bruises were beginning to appear along the juncture of his neck and shoulder, but Spock could not muster a feeling of guilt for them, knowing how Jim had felt as he’d sucked at that sensitive skin. The world seemed to be catching up to Jim again while Spock watched, transfixed, awestruck as he always was by Jim’s warm beauty after he’d come completely undone by Spock’s hands. He never looked more human than in these vulnerable, intimate moments. And Spock loved him like this.

Jim’s eyelids fluttered, a soft smile on his face that crinkled the corners of his eyes as he floated in that blissful haze. But Spock’s gaze fell then to Jim’s hand, which lay at an awkward angle on Spock’s chest. His fingers absentmindedly stroked Spock’s skin, and Spock found that was what drew his focus-- the soothing quiet of Jim’s touch, his hand still trembling slightly. Goosebumps prickled his arms, raised his fine hair in a golden forest, but Jim didn’t seem to notice or care. He always drifted a while in the afterglow.

“Jim, you must be cold,” Spock said softly, drawing his lover’s attention. Jim had shoved Spock off of him as soon as they’d gotten their breath back and tossed the blankets to the side, seemingly to shed the heat, but the night was beginning to freeze and Spock could not imagine Jim was comfortable. With the cold creeping in through the far side of the cave, Jim would be frozen in moments.

“Burning up, actually,” Jim said, turning to Spock with a grin on his kiss-bitten lips. “I don’t think you realize how hot you are.” Spock raised an eyebrow and Jim chuckled. “Yes,” Jim said, though Spock had not asked a question, “in all meanings of the word.”

Feeling soft lines at the corners of his eyes, Spock nearly smiled. “Would you like me to get you some water?”

Jim cast his eyes to the canteens by their emergency kit, then looked back to Spock. He seemed to consider it. “You know what I want?” he said, rolling to his side. The angle worked better, and he laid his hand flat on Spock’s chest, running it down his body until it rested over his heart under the blankets.

Spock didn’t pick up any further arousal from Jim, and he assumed he was quite satiated, but there was something decidedly lustful in his tone. “Jim, the average refractory period for a human male is thirty minutes. I find it hard to believe you are already interested in intercourse again.”

Jim laughed, dropping his head. Spock felt his heart beat uncomfortably hard at the music of that sound and he was sure Jim could feel it through his fingers, but all Jim did was lift his eyes back to Spock, looking at him through those impossibly long lashes.

“No, no, but it’s just as good.”

“Then what do you want, Jim?” Spock asked indulgently.

“Ice cream.”

As one eyebrow would be unable to convey the proper amount of disbelief, Spock raised both. “It is below freezing outside.”

“Thanks for the reminder,” Jim laughed. He scooted forward, patting down the blankets over Spock’s chest and setting himself up so his chin rested on his folded arms. “But it’s a sauna in here. What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of mint chocolate chip. Or, oh, pistachio. Rocky road .” Jim let out a prolonged groan, sinking his forehead onto Spock’s chest.

Spock had only ever heard Jim make a noise like that during sex. He found it hard to imagine that the thought of ice cream, of all things, would inspire such a reaction.

“Yeah,” Jim continued with a lazy smile when he raised his head, “if I could have anything in the universe right now, it’d be a bowl of rocky road. We used to make ice cream on the farm-- real cow’s milk. Real sugar. I know it’s not quite the same, but ice cream will be the first thing I eat when I get my hands on a food synthesizer again.”

Spock raised a hand to Jim’s head, stroking through his hair gently. Jim leaned into the touch, his eyes closing. “You’ve had ice cream before, right?” Jim asked, voice rumbling with a sort of warm contentment.

“I have not,” Spock replied. He knew it was considered a treat for humans, but he had never understood the human propensity for sweets. “Sucrose has inebriating effects on Vulcans. I do not know what a bowl of ‘rocky road’ would do to me.”

Jim’s eyes opened and a wicked grin made its way to his lips. “Inebriating? Oh, Spock,” Jim crawled up him, swinging his leg to Spock’s other side and straddling his hips over the blankets. “I would give anything,” he said, leaning down and brushing his lips lightly along Spock’s, “to see you under the influence of ice cream.”

Jim tilted his head and Spock met his lips gladly, hands running down the hard lines of his arms. Rocking his hips lazily, a motion that was stimulating even through the layers between them, Jim hummed into Spock’s mouth. The average human refractory period may have been thirty minutes, but Spock certainly felt a twitch of interest himself. He had to remind himself that they were already staying up too late. It would be wise to get some rest.

Spock pulled away from their kiss gently, attempting not to watch as Jim’s tongue darted out to lick his lips. Bringing his hands back up Jim’s arms, he tried to smooth down the hair that stood on end.

“Jim, you are cold,” he chastened softly, “lay down.”

“I told you, I’m burning up,” Jim scoffed, “ you’re cold.”

Spock looked to his own arms where goosebumps raised his own hair on end. It took a moment to digest the sight, to contrast it with the undeniable fact that he was perfectly, comfortably warm, and to notice now-- distracted as he’d been-- that something seemed to prickle and tingle beneath the surface of his skin.

Then, it took a moment longer for the implications of that to sink in.

Jim felt the shock in him even before his expression changed. Spock could tell by the way the man above him stiffened, the lust leaving the light of his eyes. “Spock? What’s wrong?”

Unable, it seemed, to speak around the stone in his throat, Spock took Jim by the wrist, raised his arm and held it up at Jim’s eye level. Jim, confused for a moment, looked to it.

It took a second for everything to fall into place. But Spock felt it the moment it did. A jolt of surprise shot through him, fear and uncertainty, and he could practically hear Jim screaming not now with every thought in his head, but--

“Now?!” Jim half-shouted, scrambling off of Spock and limping, barenaked to their equipment. He knelt to fish the tricorder out of the kit. It had been all but useless since they had removed its positioning device, but as Jim had said-- it could still tell the weather.

Spock threw the blankets off of himself, moving to Jim’s side where he crouched just outside the ring of firelight. Jim was staring at the screen, worry radiating from him as its blue glow lit his face from below. It shadowed his eyes, drew dark lines at the corners of his lips.

“Well?” Spock asked, surprised by the edge of his own voice. It sounded desperate, not like himself at all.

Jim’s shoulders fell. “Ion disturbance,” he said, voice almost lost in the crackling of the fire. “Spock,” he looked up, eyes wide, “Spock, we have to go.”

Body tensing like a taut rubber band, Spock didn’t even bother to cut off the feeling of fear he knew he emanated. Jim would have felt it anyway, and Spock knew in that moment that each of his worries was reflected in the mind that reached out to his own for comfort, for assurance.

But how could he provide comfort when the very ground beneath his feet seemed to shift?

“Jim, we have not yet tested the shuttlecraft in temperatures this low,” he said, mind providing a thousand more arguments in this one’s wake. “Nor will visibility be at its height.”

Jim set the tricorder down and stood, moving past Spock as though he hadn’t even heard him. Frustration prickling, Spock turned, watching Jim as he moved to their bed, toward the messy pile of clothes they had shed earlier.

“Moreover,” he continued pointedly, “we could quite easily freeze to death--”

“I know ,” Jim said, voice harsh, “but Spock, this is the first storm in nine months.” He turned to Spock as he wiped his chest and abdomen with one of the leaves he’d pulled from their bed’s padding. “ Nine months . We can’t risk staying here without the tricorder that long, waiting for another. And who’s to say the next one won’t be at night, too?” He tossed the leaf to the side and slipped his thermal over his head, tugging at its torn hem. He then knelt for his slacks. “How many do you think we’ve missed because we’ve been sleeping or distracted or--”

Spock approached as Jim yanked his slacks up to his waist and buckled the belt, only noticing now that Jim’s hands were trembling. Spock’s heart stuttered at the sight.

“Jim--”

Spock ,” Jim interrupted, the syllable short and clipped. Their eyes met, and Jim held him there in that gaze, brows tight, mouth thin, jaw set as though no argument in the world could dissuade him, even though Spock could feel how scared he was, how the reality of what they were about to do had finally hit him after months of optimism and restlessness, how he wanted to be sure they would make it, that they would be okay, and how he knew now that he couldn’t be sure of anything.

After a few long moments, a series of pounding heartbeats, he felt rather than saw Jim soften, a kind of resignation weighing down the corners of his lips.

Stepping over the furs, Jim came up to him, putting his hands on either side of Spock’s face, a tender touch that belied his outward confidence. “I know, Spock. I-- I know,” he said softly, his countenance melting into something tremulous, scared.

What it was that Jim knew, he didn’t say. Did he know that Spock had been attempting to mentally prepare himself for this for months? That Spock still feared what would happen to them if they made it back to their own time? Or, worse, if they didn’t? Did he know that Spock had imagined Jim’s death in countless ways and could not stomach the thought of putting him in danger? Did he know that Spock loved him too much to take anything on chance, to risk losing him when he was everything Spock had?

But as they stared at each other in perfect stillness and Spock felt the rising, billowing, familiar thrum of love through the hands on his face, he understood that Jim likely knew all of this.

But it didn’t change anything. They still had to go.

Spock brought a hand to one of Jim’s, pulling it from his face and pressing a gentle, human kiss to his knuckles.

“Very well,” Spock said, though his throat felt hard, his voice stiff. He released Jim’s hand and stepped out of the sphere of his warmth, moving past him to collect his own clothes. “We will require tools.”

Jim was already behind him. Spock heard him begin to dig through the emergency kit to ensure everything was there. “I say we bring the whole kit — medical and everything,” he said. “And some food, just in case. We don’t know how long we’ll end up drifting when we make it to the other side.”

Spock did not fail to notice that Jim did not say ‘if.’

“That is an adequate plan,” Spock replied as he pulled his tunic over his head. “We will use the communicators for illumination on our way to the shuttle. The storm clouds will likely obscure the stars.”

Concern spiked across their link and Spock turned to Jim as he buttoned his slacks. “Jim?”

“It’s going to be dark,” Jim said, standing. “And our tricorder-- We’ll have to hurry once we get outside. We don’t know hunting patterns, or...”

Suddenly unsure if the concern wavering along his consciousness came from himself or from Jim, Spock swallowed, then knelt to pull on his boots. “I am far more concerned about the flight itself than the short distance to the shuttle, Jim. Please, do not worry.”

“Right,” Jim said. Then, softer, “right.”

“How much time until the storm starts in earnest?”

Jim seemed to startle, casting around for where he’d set the tricorder. Picking it up and dusting off the sand, he looked over the scans. Spock didn’t necessarily need an answer when Jim ran a defeated hand over his face. “It’s already started,” Jim said stiffly, “The tricorder’s reading Force-1.”

“Then it has only just begun.” Spock made his way over to Jim, gently taking the device from his hands and looping it over his own shoulder. Jim looked to him-- for comfort, for support. All Spock wanted to do was provide it, but his own fear caused his stomach to ache, pulled at the frayed threads of his emotional control. It already took everything he had to simply maintain a steady set to his shoulders, to appear assured in their decision.

Maybe sensing this, Jim stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Spock’s waist, tucking his face into the hollow of Spock’s neck.

Within him, Spock felt something cracking, a fissure in his already shaken foundation, and he buried his nose in the crown of Jim’s hair, bringing his hands to Jim’s back as Jim did the same to him. Jim’s heartbeat pounded against Spock’s chest and his breath warmed Spock’s skin and Spock’s fingers curled into the fabric of Jim’s tunic because the moment he released him, he could not guarantee that he would ever hold him again. It was possible they would survive the storm, but the odds were against them. The odds had only ever been against them.

But they had made it this far, hadn’t they?

They stood like that for a long time, too long, as Spock inhaled the scent of him. Jim felt like home in his arms.

“We’ll be okay, Spock,” Jim said softly, voice muffled against Spock’s neck. And Spock was sure he was attempting to convince himself as well. “I’m scared too, but we can’t stay here forever. I want--” Jim pulled away just enough to meet Spock’s eyes. There was something swimming in them. “I want to introduce you to my family,” he said, a choked laugh falling out with the words. “I want to take you to all the national parks I kept trying to name this planet after. I want to play kal-toh and go on dates . To-- to restaurants and museums. I want to… ”

“Go home,” Spock finished, bringing a hand to Jim’s face to stroke his cheek, thumb ghosting over his skin. “You want to go home.”

Jim sighed, closing his eyes and leaning into Spock’s touch. “I do.”

Spock’s heart clenched. This place, this tiny stretch of sand in a cave on a planet lightyears from his own, had become a home to him. To them both. But it was not where they belonged. They had lives to lead and it was simply selfishness and fear that made Spock wish to stay, to keep Jim at his side, to absorb himself in the freedom he’d found here.

But the steady presence of the man in his arms reminded him that, while they had to leave this planet, their paradise, they did not have to abandon all that it had given them.

An understanding flowed between them, wordless but powerful, and Jim let out a breath of relief and apprehension that Spock felt as though it were coming from his own lungs.

“Okay,” Jim said. “Let’s… let’s go.”

 

It took a few minutes to gather their supplies, all of which they tossed rather unceremoniously into the tub of their emergency kit. They pulled their jumpsuits over their uniforms for warmth, for all the good they would do, and Jim slung his bow and arrows over his shoulder. He had wordlessly handed their last phaser to Spock, communicating with a tinge of amusement underneath his ever-present anxiety that Spock’s accuracy with the bow had hardly improved.

While discontent at the idea of Jim relying solely on the bow for protection, especially while carrying the emergency kit too, Spock reminded himself of the distance. One-hundred yards. In the dark, yes, but they would manage.

There was little else they could do for warmth or protection, so, steeling themselves, they took one last, long look around their home. There was no time to return to the caldera, to dip once more into its warmth, to stir the birds into motion before extinction swept the species into history. There was no time to run their fingers along the tallies on the wall or visit their crewmates’ graves or allow themselves the grief of knowing they would soon lose this place forever.

They had spent the last month exploring Sha Ka Ree, absorbing everything it had to give them, watching sunsets from the mountaintop and bathing in the lake’s blue glow and gathering flowers that, soon, would not exist and maybe that was the best goodbye they could hope for. Weeks of unhurried exploration, an idle paradise that they’d always known they would have to destroy someday. Today. Now.

And all they could do was meet each other’s eyes and agree to move forward.

So they did. Silently, they set set off side-by-side down the cave, just the light of Spock’s communicator to illuminate the way. He tried not to dwell on the thought that this would be the last time he would walk this now familiar path, but the truth of it sank into him all the same, carrying with it an unnamable pain.

Spock began to shiver in the cold before Jim did, his breath coming out in barely visible gusts of steam, but it was many feet before the cave’s mouth that he could feel Jim’s discomfort grow too. A crack of lightning burst somewhere outside, a rumble of thunder following it. Jim jumped at the sound.

Teeth chattering, Jim managed a laugh. “I’m-- I'm a little paranoid,” he admitted, words coming out stuttered.

“It is only the storm, Jim,” Spock reminded him, just as he attempted to remind himself.

With a single glance beside him, half reassuring, half attempting to anchor himself in Jim’s presence, Spock set forward around a bend, down a passage, and finally into the dark cold of open air. The moment the mouth of the cave became visible, he leveled his phaser along the line of his eyes and scanned the world that opened up before them.

The light from the communicator illuminated the nearest trees of their forest, a side of Sha Ka Ree neither of them had ever seen. Tall, naked trunks stood cracked and angled against the dark sky with branches like bony fingers reaching upwards. When a whiplash of lightning burst above them, Spock realized in its light that their white bark was luminescent with a sheen of frost. Frost, which also clung like cracked paint to the leaves of ferns where only the barest flush of green broke through. The flowers that dotted the edge of the forest had long since collapsed into icicle-laden buds, leaving a frozen, still tableau that seemed too harsh, too angular, colorless and lifeless.

Spock scanned the trees, phaser at the ready, feeling Jim’s trepidation as Jim drew up beside him. Jim shifted the weight of the kit in his arms. “It’s f-- freezing,” he said between shuddering breaths. Spock suppressed his own reaction to the cold, grateful at least that his Vulcan control allowed him to do that much.

“Indeed. Let us hurry.”

They began to walk quickly, side-by-side into the darkness, the small beam of light from Spock’s communicator illuminating frozen white sand. When another flash of lightning hit, followed by another swell of thunder, Jim glanced at him.

“Did you hear that?”

“The thunder?” The barely contained panic in Jim’s voice was enough to give him pause, but Jim was paranoid. He had admitted it himself. Spock’s hold tightened on his phaser.

“No,” Jim said. Spock turned his head to see him worrying his lower lip between his teeth, steps slowing. “No it wasn’t.”

“Jim, hurry, we--”

Then, he heard it. Though faint, disguised under the echo of insistent thunder, something snapped within the forest. Spock pointed his phaser at the trees, a chill gripping him that had little to do with the cold itself. As his communicator beam split the darkness and cast dangerous shadows over the sand, he felt Jim move closer to him.

The sky itself faded from its brief flashes, leaving the world dark and eerily quiet, but for the rumbling growl that Spock could now hear lingering in the air.

It could only be coming from one place.

With a hard swallow that seemed to freeze his throat closed, he moved the beam of light against the shining tree trunks, catching a prickle of black hair between branches.

Behind him, Spock heard the emergency kit fall to the ground. In the next instant, a hand shot out to clutch at Spock’s elbow. “Run!” Jim croaked.

Another flash split the air above them, and without thought they sprinted. The light on the ground before them shuddered with each footfall, cutting through the cold air. Spock scanned the trees as they hopped over roots and stones, their feet slipping on the sheen of ice that laid itself over the sand. He could see nothing, even when light flashed in the sky again. Everything was indistinct, frozen in a haze of his own breath before his eyes. He could feel Jim’s pace lagging behind his own, his sharp breath panting, and so he forced himself to slow.

Just as he made to turn, to pick Jim up and carry him if necessary, a mass of muscle and meat and hair slammed him to the ground.

Skull cracking on the stone of the mountain slope, Spock’s vision blurred, ears ringing from the impact, but he forced himself to roll onto his back. A beast hung above him, black fur obscuring his vision as it straddled him. Its deafening roar echoed in the otherwise silent air, but-- no, it wasn’t silent. Jim was screaming, and Spock was sure he heard his name on the outskirts of his consciousness.

All he knew to do was to scramble against the cold ground beneath him, to push himself beneath the bulldog and slip through its legs as he had managed to do once before so many months ago, but the beast growled again before he could even find purchase on the sand and a paw the size of a boulder swiped at him. Pain shot from his arm where the piercing drag of massive claws slashed through his skin, pulling a cry from his lungs. The force of it sent him rolling to the side, clutching himself as the phaser fell from his grip.

Then, the creature was above him again and he heard a crunch as it stepped on their last line of defense.

Well, not their last.

From somewhere to the side, Spock heard a swoosh, a thunk, and the bulldog roared again, pained and primal and penetrating as it reared back. Then Jim’s voice rang out. “Get off of him!”

Spock opened his bleary eyes to see an arrow sticking out of the beast’s thick neck. Its pinprick eyes were focused on a spot to Spock’s left, and Spock craned his aching head to look.

Jim stood in the white beam of the light that glowed from Spock’s dropped communicator, shivering from head to foot but with his hands steady on the bow and arrow he held. His eyes were steely, in spite of the fear that Spock felt rolling off of him. They hung suspended in time, the space of a moment that allowed Spock to draw a breath from his frozen, straining lungs, and then the bulldog advanced.

On Jim.

Spock could feel blood freezing to his tunic where the bulldog’s claws had slashed him, could hear the breaking branches and scrabbles of claws on stone that heralded the approach of another creature, but he had one single objective. Light flashed in the sky above them again, a spiking tendril of energy that illuminated the scene, and his stiff fingers reached for the busted phaser. It could no longer function with its intended purpose, but it was not wholly useless.

Spock grabbed the phaser’s core, which glowed a faint red with its leftover power, and struggled to his feet. Jim let loose another arrow, and Spock watched it smack into the creature’s eye. It howled, answered by another growl between the trees. So close, too close. Too close to Jim.

The bulldog fell bodily against the sand, arrow lodged in its skull as it jerked in its final throes, and Jim looked toward Spock, face pale with fear and cold in a flash of lightning as he began running for him. Only a few feet separated them, but that was enough.

Out of the forest, a black mass surged, slamming into Jim with the force of a linebacker, knocking him into the sloped mountainside as Spock felt a cry rip itself from his own lungs. He felt Jim’s pain as though it were his own, causing him to stumble backwards, clutching his head. But Spock was Vulcan. He was Vulcan, and he could suppress--

Then, the pain ceased-- Jim’s pain-- and Jim’s body rolled down into the sand as though he were made of rubber. The bulldog straddled him, as the last one had done to Spock, and Spock surged forward. He ran, fast as his frozen legs would carry him, and leapt onto the creature’s massive head just as it raised its claws above Jim’s body.

With a primal shout that rang loud against the mountainside, Spock shoved the phaser core into the bulldog’s eye. Its violent growl ripped through him as its claws ripped through the skin of his back, raking into his flesh with intent and fury, and the pain seared him, agonizing and debilitating and he couldn’t stamp it down, couldn’t focus for the feeling of hot blood soaking his clothes.

The beast shook him off like he was nothing more than a fly and he fell hard onto the ground, crying out and clutching his injured arm, trying to blot out the pain that shot through the torn flesh of his back and into his spine.

The creature pulled back and shuffled away a few feet, shaking its head fiercely, black blood oozing from the wound which carried the scent of charred fluid over the air. But its pain did not prevent it from its hunt. It pulled its head around like a ship pulling off of a dock, weighty and slow as its remaining eye met Spock’s own.

He felt dizzy from loss of blood, scrambling to his knees beside Jim’s limp form. Three thick gashes stung his back, one arm hung limp and useless at his side, and he couldn’t feel Jim’s pain, or his fear, or anything that made him Jim, human, t’hy’la.

In a moment of rash decision, he took up Jim’s fallen bow and grabbed an arrow from the cluster that had spilled out of Jim’s makeshift quiver. He forced his injured arm to grip the crude wood as tightly as he could, forced himself to notch an arrow against his trembling hand.

Just as the creature lunged forward, Spock took a breath, let his shoulder fall, tucked his elbow to his side, pulled back straight and shot.

A flash of lightning exploded above them and the arrow flew straight into one of the beast’s massive nostrils. It roared, reared up on its stubby hind legs, and Spock didn’t waste a moment before he laid another arrow against the bow, fumbling in the cold and the clouding pain, but he had to shoot again, had to do something . Pulling back with all the strength he had left, he forced himself to remember the feeling of Jim’s hand on his shoulder, the intoxication of his sparkling laughter as he told Spock to relax, to breathe. Jim’s hand traced down Spock’s arm gently, coming to the crook of his elbow and Spock could almost hear his whisper against Spock’s ear. Shift your focus , remember? With a shuddering breath through his nose as the bulldog let out a deafening growl, Spock let the arrow fly.

Whether by luck or miracle, a sickening smack rang out around them, and the arrowhead embedded itself in the back of the creature’s throat.

And then it fell, paws twitching and digging at the ground as blood poured from its wounds, soaking black into the pale sand. It choked, some disgusting, sputtering noise like an unsteady metronome against the high-pitched whine in the back of its throat. But its tremors soon ceased, its pained cries died, and it went still. As Spock watched, the fog of its breath disappeared into the air above it as though it had never existed at all.

Spock couldn’t hear for the ringing in his ears; couldn’t breathe this air that felt like icicles in his lungs; couldn’t move for the pounding, throbbing feeling that reverberated over his body like a drumbeat in time with his pulse; couldn’t think for the way his head swam, but Jim was laying there motionless beside him and it was only the quiet ghost of his steaming breath, illuminated in the next flash of lightning, that indicated that he was alive at all.

Spock struggled over to him, grabbing him and shaking him, his strength gone.

But Jim’s eyes began to blink open and his fear and pain came rushing back into Spock’s mind as though a dam had broken between them, and he was alive and waking up and maybe with that shred of hope Spock could force himself to stay upright, force himself to remain the solid rock he knew Jim needed him to be.

But Spock let out a choke of relief, of pain, of terror and regret and he wavered, vision turning to static at its edges, finally collapsing against the cold stone of the mountain slope.

The world went dark around him.

 


 

Every muscle in Jim’s body clenched tight with agony, his head throbbed, every limb and extremity felt frozen solid and that combination of sensations shook him with violent tremors. His awareness began and ended with that full-bodied ache, the cold that clutched at him like death, but the moment his senses returned to him he remembered where he was.

His eyes began to flutter and he braced himself, preparing for the puncture of claws, preparing for the deafening roar of the creature that had felled him, but he thought he saw a figure hanging above him, and the world was quiet but for the crack of lightning and rolling rumble of thunder-- and the panting, labored breath that pulled itself from his own lungs.

Then, a presence fell against the ground beside him, and, with a flash of despair and relief and fear that cut through him like a knife, something intrinsic and important and connected severed itself from his mind.

Jim shot up, a hand coming to steady himself on the slope behind him even as the chill of ice burned his fingers. Confusion swam around his clouded mind, swirling in eddies alongside that mounting sense of terror and rising with each frantic beat of his heart. And then everything came rushing back.

Spock.

Jim scrambled to his knees, casting around until his eyes settled on the still form beside him.

Spock was curled in upon himself, deep gashes leaking the green of his blood along his back and his-- his arm , which lay in shreds beside him and bore the wounds of those same, massive claws. His hand lay millimeters from where Jim had passed out like Spock had reached out to him in his last moments of consciousness. And Jim felt the ghost of fingers on his shoulder, his chest, as though his body remembered Spock’s touch. Even if he didn’t.

Panic tearing through him like the freezing wind that whipped around them, Jim grabbed Spock by the shoulders, hefting him onto his lap and pressing a hand to his skin. But he couldn’t feel heat-- not through his own frozen fingertips and not in the pale skin he touched. Lungs laboring for breath whether through cold or dawning horror, he didn’t know, Jim ran his hand down Spock’s side, feeling for that ever present humming heartbeat that he’d felt flutter under his fingers a thousand times-- a thousand times. And he couldn’t tell if it was beating.

Shouting wordless fury into the silence of the night, Jim’s fingers curled into Spock’s clothes, eyes stinging and blurring and a sense of hopelessness rising in him like water, like a flood, and he couldn’t stop it-- didn’t know how to stop it because he’d never been able to stop feeling anything in his life,not like Spock could, and how could he force himself not to feel this ? Spock’s name tumbled from his lips over and over again as he tried to force himself not to shake him, as his trembling hands came to Spock’s face and he began to rock back and forth, forcing warmth into his limbs.

But he had to stop feeling this. He had to push it aside. He had to move so he could make sure Spock was alive, so he could get him home, so he could introduce him to his parents and take him to Yosemite and serve alongside him and live alongside him because he couldn’t live without Spock. Not now that he’d known him. Never again.

Jim hooked his arm under Spock’s back, attempting to avoid his gaping wounds, and he slipped his other arm under the crook of Spock’s knees. Before he stood, Jim glanced to the carcasses of the bulldogs around him, in complete disbelief that they were actually dead, that they wouldn’t rise up the moment he did and strike him down again.

They hunted in pairs. Jim and Spock had always suspected from tracks and broken branches that they hunted in pairs. They should have been more careful. They should have been--

It didn’t matter what they should have been. What mattered was now. Moving. Getting Spock to safety. He had no strength left, still reeling from the smack of his head against the mountain, but he lifted all the same, grunting with the effort, near crying out with it but biting his lip against the sound. Somehow he managed to struggle to his feet, casting his eyes in the direction of their shuttlecraft. The beam of light from Spock’s communicator only illuminated a thin strip of sand before him, but the lightning in the sky was bright, incandescent, and its flashes were beginning to come fast enough to see by.

Besides, they had walked this path every day for almost two years. Jim could carry Spock the rest of the way blind if he had to.

He struggled forward, resting Spock’s head against his shoulder, limping with the weight of him and the pain in his leg that shot up his thigh. Full-body tremors made his grip weak, made his shuddering breath come out in waves as it rose. But he kept going.

The shuttle became visible in shimmering shards of light as Jim rounded a bend. He choked out a cry of relief, ears open to the world around him, praying that no more creatures approached. He should have grabbed his bow, or the phaser-- what had happened to the phaser? But all he could think about was Spock, Spock. Getting him warm, getting him inside, feeling for that heartbeat that Jim knew was there because it had to be. They had promised to get off this planet together and, God, they would. No matter what, they would.

He smacked the door controls with his elbow, nearly losing his grip on Spock’s body as he moved, but it dragged itself open against the crunch of ice that froze in sheets along the shuttle’s hull, and he managed to practically dump Spock over the threshold before he climbed inside too.

His breath fogged before him as he closed the doors again, stumbling his way to the control console and punching the system on.

It revved to life, internal lights glowing painfully bright to his sore eyes. But he heard environmental controls kick into action, humming around him as the shuttle spurt warmth from its vents.

With the light to see by, Jim stumbled back to Spock where he’d left him on the cold metal of the floor, heart hammering as he turned Spock over onto his back. Jim brought an ear to his lover’s chest, trying not to think of the way he’d laid over this body barely an hour before, trying not to think of the warmth of their campfire or the half-smile that had graced Spock’s lips or how the light had flickered in Spock’s gleaming eyes and he’d looked at Jim like nothing else in the world mattered.

Breath rose the ribcage under his cheek, subtle but present, and Jim fisted his fingers in the frozen-stiff fabric of Spock’s jumpsuit, clenching his teeth against tears and begging himself not to break-- not yet. He could handle this. He’d gone through training for this, hadn’t he? Training. Survival courses at Starfleet where they scattered resources and started him with all the tools and he’d been told to save crash test dummies from impossible situations, not people. Not lovers. Not Spock.

Who was he kidding? He hadn’t trained for anything like this in his life and nothing could prepare him for it. Not Tarsus, not the Academy, not years of flying around on a starship as though he were acting out some kind of childhood fantasy… nothing could prepare him for this.

But he had to do it. Spock was dying. The storm might not last much longer, and there was no way their meager equipment could heal the wounds that still bled fierce and hot along the floor. Spock needed a doctor, and all he had was Jim. A nobody, a grunt at best, worthless and undeserving and unable to do anything but sit here frozen in fear. But Jim couldn’t fail Spock in this. It wasn’t an option.

Their mission had been to find the people who had set up that distress signal, to bring them home. He wanted to be a captain someday, didn’t he? What kind of captain would fail in the face of something so important?

Jim pulled himself up, swallowing the tears he had barely begun to shed and flexing his fingers in the steadily warming air. They’d abandoned the emergency kit, which held the medical equipment, the blankets, and they had to leave-- but at this rate Spock wouldn’t make it ten feet off the planet.

Steeling himself, Jim pulled Spock closer to the forward vents, where warm air slipped out like a quiet breath, the kind of sigh that Sha Ka Ree gave as it edged from midday into evening. He laid Spock gently on his side, stroking back the hair that had fallen out of its tie, trying not to focus on the pallor of his parted lips or the way his usually hot skin froze beneath Jim’s touch.

Standing, Jim wobbled toward the door controls, commanding them open before he could convince himself not to. At the gust of cold air that hit him, he squared his shoulders and stepped back into the frozen world.

He didn’t have time to falter, much as his body begged him to. He didn’t have time to hold Spock to his chest and let loose the sobs that beat against his lungs trying to break free. He hardly even had time to run back to their supplies. But he did, and he did it as fast as he could.

The air felt like gravel in his lungs, and he labored to breathe it in as he practically dragged himself to where he’d dropped the kit. He had to dance around the bulldogs’ carcasses as he ran, trying not to linger too long in their stench, in the thick smell of blood that clung to green splotches of sand.

The tub lay on its side where Jim had left it, and Jim didn’t waste a moment heaving it into his exhausted arms. Every nerve in his body screamed at him, but he pushed forward.

In the distance, he heard another roaring howl, reverberating under the rolls of thunder that shook the sky, a sound that shot fear into his gut. He let that fear speed his steps. If he could just harness it instead of panicking, he could move forward. He could fix this. He could still save them.

When finally he made it back to the shuttle, he was shivering bodily. A gust of warm air hit him as he smacked the door controls, and he tossed the kit inside, scrambling in and closing the door as quickly as he could manage.

He threw the kit open, impeded by the tremors in his arms, but managed to dig out the first of the emergency blankets, which he draped over his shoulders. Then he dug under the few aloe plants, the greens, the mushrooms, the berries and the chess pieces that clattered loudly as they tumbled, and finally he found the dermal regenerator.

Struggling over to Spock, he rolled him onto his stomach, gently setting his injured arm to the side. Without preamble, he gripped the torn edges of Spock’s jumpsuit and ripped it open at his back. Claw marks gouged his lover’s flesh like canyons, seeping blood that streaked his skin, but Jim felt a flash of relief that those claws hadn’t hit his spine.

He fumbled over the regenerator’s controls and held Spock steady, hand stroking a soft, terrified reassurance along Spock’s good arm as he ran the device over the wounds. But the regenerator hummed and whined with the effort. It had been losing power consistently over the months, hardly even healing the brief burns they’d gathered in their work, but he couldn’t allow it to die now. “Please,” he said aloud as the regenerator buzzed in his fingers, barely knitting the skin even after pass after pass after pass. “Please, please, please.”

It became a mantra, and his frozen lips formed the word as many times as they could, even after his breath failed him and he stopped making sound at all. It took too long, the work of agonizing minutes, and hardly any progress had been made. There were green stretches of skin where the wound had tried to close itself, forming into ugly half-scars, but Spock was still bleeding and the regenerator’s little light began to blink rapidly and it whined so loud Jim’s ears ached.

And they had to go.

Jim cursed loudly, throwing the regenerator against the wall as he felt himself breaking down. They were running out of time and Spock was bleeding out and they had a working shuttlecraft humming around them that they had built with their bare hands. And they had to go .

Tearing his own jumpsuit’s sleeves into strips, he bandaged the wounds as best he knew how, then tugged the blanket off his own shoulders to wrap around Spock’s limp body. Color had bled from the tips of Spock’s ears and from his cheeks, but Jim couldn’t look at him, couldn’t risk looking at him until this was done.

Laying a hand along the curve of Spock’s jaw for the slightest of moments, Jim stood and took a seat at the sensors.

This shuttle was made to be flown by two. A scientist at the sensors and navigation, where he now sat, and a pilot to fly them forward. And that was in the best of conditions. Somehow, Jim had to handle it all on his own. He hated navigation, always had. Though he’d never scored much less than perfect at the Academy, it had always been navigation that had kept him late at the library, that had made him wake up with his face pressed to his padd where textbook after textbook listed indecipherable coordinates and processes. How could he ever expect to manage this?

And the readout screen read Force-6.

“Is this a test, Commander?” Jim shot over his shoulder, a half-hysterical laugh tumbling out of his lips as a single hot tear ran down his cheek. He tapped the readout screen, bringing up the course they’d mapped, scanning the storm for the wormholes they needed. “See if the bumbling security officer has what it takes? Because I swear to God , you might as well just court martial me now.”

Security officer. Jim almost scoffed at the thought as he compared ion intensities and begged the computer silently to hurry. He had failed phenomenally as a security officer, hadn’t he? Four of their landing party were dead and the other...

Yes, he’d failed in one regard. But even if he was a shit security officer, maybe he could find some thread of reliability in himself and, maybe, he could be a pilot. Maybe he could be a navigator and a science officer and an engineer and whatever else he needed to be. If there was ever a time to make himself better than he was, it would be now.

Jim tapped the trajectory onto the screen and identified their exit wormhole, now the one they would have to fly through. Their course through the web would lead them out the one that had sucked them in in the first place, if he could just get a damned lock on it. Ion interference made inputting the trajectory difficult-- intensities seemed to shift and the course kept trying to set itself into adjacent wormholes, but after a few frantic minutes he managed to circumvent the worst of it, plugging in alarms that would blare if they veered even slightly or if the computer lost track of their path.

Course laid in, he programmed alarms for all the other possible things that could go wrong, and there were many. In lieu of Spock’s steady voice, he would need to know if the force of the storm increased, if any systems began to shut down, if their shields were damaged. Spock was right; they had never tested the shuttle in this temperature. It was possible that the complex mechanics that had functioned so perfectly in test flights would fall apart.

Possible, but unlikely. “We were meticulous,” he said under his breath, reprising Spock’s words, words that he had repeated to himself a hundred times since their first test flight.

Then, he returned to the pilot’s seat and disengaged the struts.

The shuttle clunked, and Jim cast a look back to Spock. There was no way to strap him in, no way to make him safer than he would be where he lay, but Jim knew how bumpy this was going to be, and his heart ached. He tore his gaze from Spock’s prone form and took a breath, tapping the controls and pulling back on the helm.

The shuttle rose, smoother than expected, and Jim didn’t bother keeping his speed slow for the ascent. The wormhole registered one-hundred miles west of their present location, so he had to hurry.

He slipped above the white spires of the trees, illuminated in the shuttle’s forward lights and looking skeletal, frightful, haunting, but he didn’t dwell on them. Instead, he sped them westward over the oasis, thrusters at maximum speed for atmospheric travel.

“Computer,” he barked, his voice hoarse, “ETA to the wormhole?”

“Three minutes and eighteen seconds,” a calm female voice crackled. Jim huffed.

“Glad one of us is keeping their head,” he said, swallowing through the hard clench in his throat that he couldn’t seem to get rid of.

The three minutes seemed interminable. Out the front window, Jim watched the storm raging, flashes of light in the atmosphere above them already heralding a rocky ride. From in here, he could no longer hear the constant crescendo of thunder, so its dazzling display of electricity and fog seemed surreal, as though he were watching a holo rather than staring out the window of a glorified tin can.

But the reality of it became ever present as they climbed higher into the sky. If he squinted, he could see a few wormhole entrances, but he trusted navigation systems to guide them, even as the shuttle started shaking and he had to white-knuckle the helm to keep it steady.

The rattling echoed in his skull, forcing memories of the crash back to the forefront of his already taxed thoughts -- the sound of rivets shaking in their hold, screws coming undone with the force of the pressure around them.

A crack of lightning split the sky in front of him and he veered, a little too late. It smacked against the side of the hull and sent them reeling, fishtailing in the unsteady winds. He pulled tight on the helm, wheeling her around, setting them back on their course and keeping his eyes straight on the flashing gray sky ahead of them. The beams of the shuttle’s forward lights cut slices through the fog before them.

“Status!” he shouted over the din.

“Storm at force-7,” the computer read, nearly impossible to hear through the rattle and metallic humming that surrounded his senses. “Shields at 80 percent. Entering wormhole in five…”

Jim swallowed, wanting nothing more than to risk a look back at Spock, but he couldn’t. Stay on course , he told himself. Please God, Jim, stay on course .

“Four…”

“Here we go, Spock,” he said under his breath.

“Three…”

“I’m going to get us through this storm.”

“Two…”

“I’m going to get you help.”

“One…”

“I’m going to take you home.”

A grinding sound breached the hull and Jim kept his hold as steady as he could, tapping controls to compensate as their center of gravity shifted. It felt as though they’d been caught in a riptide, and he wondered if this was how Pike had felt at these controls when they’d crashed, weak against the current of time and space that flowed past them, that carried them like they were weightless through the atmosphere.

He forced his mind back into the present, focusing on the silver streaks of sky that rushed them as they sped forward. The shuttle jerked under his hands, then it dropped, making his stomach fly into his throat as he levitated off his chair. Then, with a thunk, he fell back down.

“Status!” he shouted again, but this time it was too loud to hear the computer over the sound. The tanks in back clanked together, straining against their ropes, and he heard a pop and a hiss of steam as something behind him burst. He couldn’t look away, though. He had to keep his burning eyes on the flash around him, the nearly blinding blend of greens and purples that sped past and sparked with intent.

“...environmental…” the computer said over the din and he strained his ears to hear the rest. “...ields at 35 perc…”

Cursing under his breath, he held steady. 35 percent was better than nothing, better than it had been the first time. But before he could allow himself a moment of optimism, another spike of lightning shot against them in a sudden and blinding flash, buffeting them sideways. If Jim’s fingers hadn’t been clenched round the helm, he would’ve fallen out of his seat, but he held strong, panic gripping him as he locked the helm and struggled over to the sensors. Under that incessant, screeching grind, he heard an alarm blaring.

“No no no,” he muttered to himself, gripping the console for support as he looked at the readout screen. It looked as though they’d been knocked a few degrees off course. They hadn’t gone through another part of the web yet, but he didn’t have much time.

Taking the system off auto, he plotted the course himself, manually entering the formulas for his trajectory by sight. 30 degrees west, compensating for wind, should put them back on track, at least for the moment. He plugged it in and fit the rest of the computer’s earlier trajectory into it like a puzzle piece, fingers dancing flying madly over the screen even as sweat dripped down his nose and fractured the blue glow of the console.

With the course laid in once again, he rushed back to the pilot's seat, not sparing a glance behind him to see if Spock had been injured further in the turbulence. There would be time to check once they made it through.

Jim’s breath came out in shallow bursts, his body succumbing to the kind of feeling that began to stab at him like needles when he was on the edge of a panic attack, his fingers tingling and his mind trying to drain into despair, but he watched the air crackle around them and took control back from the helm and tried to breathe, though the air felt thick and heavy on his chest.

Everything became too bright, too fast, a flash of white that had him shielding his eyes though he knew he should be looking, should be watching to be sure they made it through, but then--

Then, suddenly, the echoing scream of the hull ceased and the flashing faded into the background and they emerged as though bursting into a swath of inky black, clouded with flickering stormclouds. But those clouds no longer surrounded them, no longer swallowed them, they simply glimmered off in the distance, soundless and surreal. When he shouted for status, this time he could hear the computer through the ringing in his ears.

“... force-2,” it was saying, “shields at 20 percent. Environmental controls failing. Vents three and five inoperable.”

Jim groaned through his teeth but sped them forward, out into the darkness where, once the light faded from his eyes, he could make out stars shining like nightlights in the distance. But whether or not these were the stars of the year 2259, he had no idea. Whether or not this was his home, he had no idea. He set autopilot and shot from his seat, casting one look to Spock who had rolled, but not awoken. Then, he moved to the sensors. One single-minded objective.

Tapping madly, he called up diagnostics. They had held together, and it looked as though they had traveled the path Jim had set in, in spite of the fact they’d been ripped one way and another along their course.

Jim let out a choked breath of relief, then called up environmental controls. A few of their delicate connections had burst. He shut off the two inoperable vents, and the hissing sound that had faded into the background of his thoughts ceased.

“Computer,” he said, voice almost failing him. “How many hours of oxygen do we have?”

“Six point three five,” the voice read out.

Jim’s heart sank, but he had no time to dwell on it. Instead, he pulled up another screen and pounded out a distress signal, priority one, the highest power he could sacrifice. Then, he laid in a course for Earth, full impulse. That, he thought with some kind of trembling consolation, was a much easier course to follow than the one through the web.

Out the forward window, he could just see the disappearing edge of Sha Ka Ree, and he craned his neck to get one last look at the planet.

It looked from here to be a husk. Dun-brown and white with sand and cloud, and somehow small. What had been their world for two years was now this: A nameless planet in an unremarkable star system that no longer held the paradise they’d crafted. Sha Ka Ree was gone, maybe two-thousand years gone, and they now left Alpha Novus V in their wake.

Only when it faded from view and they sped forward at full impulse did he sink back into his seat, chest heaving and vision wavering. With the helm barely trembling and the course set, Jim allowed himself to swivel in his chair and, finally, to fall to his knees at Spock’s side.

The turbulence had shifted Spock, but he remained nearly where Jim had tucked him by the seats, now laying dead-still on his back, wrapped in the emergency blanket like a swathed child.

Jim lifted him gently, resting Spock’s head on his lap, and stroking back the hair that had fallen into Spock’s eyes. He only realized then that he was shaking horribly, fingers fumbling through the strands of soft, oiled hair, shock and fear and exhaustion making him weak.

But he didn’t have to be strong anymore. They had made it, at least through the worst of it, and now all he could do was wait for rescue. Or for their oxygen to run out. It was possible-- likely, even-- that they had been wrong, that the path had taken them to another time, another life, but he hoped, prayed, begged whatever deity that would listen that in this he hadn’t failed. That he’d finally done something worthy of the man in his arms and the life he wanted to lead. That he’d done something right and maybe, maybe there was hope yet.

Taking in a trembling breath, Jim curled himself over Spock’s body, tears spilling out of his eyes before he even had a chance to stop them. His hands clenched in the folds of the blanket and gripped as tight as he could, though every single nerve and every single joint was exhausted from effort. Shivering bodily, though no longer from cold, he let his tears slide against the fabric as he sniffed and sucked in air and heard himself, as though from far away, begging “wake up, wake up, wake up,” with everything he had.

But when his voice gave out, and when his pleas fell on deaf ears, he sobbed quietly against the crown of Spock’s head. Trembling hands that didn’t even feel like Jim’s own stroked Spock’s hair and his cheeks and sometimes in desperation he would press his forehead to Spock’s, begging for the feeling that sparked in him whenever their skin touched. Begging for a sign of life. A sign of Spock in the body that barely breathed and bled steadily in his arms.

Unsure how many hours he sat there, he only knew that space flew past their forward screen, that they beat a slow course for home, that someone, somewhere, had to hear their signal. That he didn’t have much time before Spock succumbed to his wounds and he succumbed to the thinning air.

And when he felt his limbs prickling with sleep, he laid down at Spock’s side, tucked his head against his shoulder, and cried until unconsciousness took him. Wherever and whenever it took him.

Chapter Text

Jim didn’t know why he was back in the fog. If he remembered, and he wasn’t sure he remembered, they had broken past the fog, hadn’t they? The flashing lights, the shaking, grinding, deafening pain. If he remembered, and he wasn’t sure he remembered, they had flown through it, suffered through it, navigated their way and emerged from it. He held the vague recollection of the shuttle’s lights shining against that fog, fracturing like a mosaic against the sky.

But he wasn’t sure he remembered. At least not correctly. Because now the fog was all around him. It crowded his senses, filled his ears with static, suffocated his chest and clouded the stretch of black he usually saw when his eyes were closed, pinpricked by ebbing colors the way the night was pinpricked with stars. And he wasn’t even sure his eyes were closed. Except that he couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear or feel anything. He knew only, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he didn’t want the fog to clear, not really. He knew only that if he pushed past it, the world would be too bright, too big, too scary, too loud.

Too loud , a humming sound buzzed its way into the back of his consciousness, slipping through the white noise in his ears, a gentle, steady sensation that he knew. For some reason, it smacked of familiarity. Ceaseless, but not unpleasant. If he could open his eyes, maybe he could place it.

But the sense of sound was the only sense that had yet returned, and he didn’t want to feel anything else just yet. Feeling hurt , he remembered, though he didn’t remember why. What had he last felt? Something hot and sticky on his fingertips. Blood? But he hadn’t been bleeding. He’d been flying. They’d been flying. No, he had been laying down on something cold, arms wrapped around something warm.

At the edge of his awareness, something beeped, joining the humming with a steady rhythm. And Jim thought he may have heard footsteps. But they sounded all wrong. They clanged rather than crunched, muffled by the soles of soft shoes, muffled by his mind because he didn’t want to hear it. Anything. Not now. Not yet.

Then, a voice. It faded in and out, as though he were on the wrong communicator frequency. “...like he’s… to.”

It was a man’s voice, hushed-- or maybe Jim just thought it was hushed.

Another answered. “... want… monitor him?”

This one sounded louder, less broken, and Jim strained his ears to pick up a response.

“No, no, I’ll handle it, sir, thank you.”

A full sentence, then a set of footsteps retreating until they faded away entirely. A few moments passed and the first voice spoke again, but it sounded closer. Directed toward Jim, maybe. “You just take your time there, Lieutenant,” it said gruffly. Then, he felt contact through the haze, a hand that patted his shoulder gently, then pulled away.

The touch jarred him, and he felt breath returning to his lungs in a weak gasp. That hand had carried no charge, no spark of energy, no flash of feelings. It wasn’t the touch he was used to. It wasn’t…

Jim’s eyes shot open, and the glare that met his gaze half-blinded him, but he couldn’t raise a hand to his face to shield it. It felt like weights had been tied to his limbs, like he was being pressed between two slabs of rock. But none of that mattered, not really, because a word fell from his lips in a voice that sounded too rough to be his own and suddenly he felt himself trying to struggle upwards. “Spock,” he said as his vision cleared, and the hand returned to his shoulder to urge him down. He was too weak to resist.

The light faded from his eyes and he blinked through it, through the shine of bright bulbs that ran in rows upon the ceiling, which was itself reflective and too smooth and too close, God it was so close . But then, the person whose hand held him down moved forward, hovered over his vision, obscuring the lights. It took a moment for Jim to focus on the man’s face.

He had deep lines at the corners of his eyes and at the dip of his frowning lips, creases along his forehead that spoke to concern-- a lifetime of it. His hair was brown, tufted, a little mussed as though he’d run his hands through it enough times to make it grow that way. When he met Jim’s bleary eyes, he frowned.

“State your name and rank.” Those practiced words were tinged in a gentle, southern drawl that sounded thoroughly alien to Jim’s ears.

Jim tried to think past the pounding in his head. How long had it been since someone had asked him that?

“Lieutenant--” he started, breath hollow, blinking past the confusion and the fear. “Lieutenant James T. Kirk., U.S.S. Farragut ,” he said, a refrain he’d uttered a thousand times now returning to him.

The man nodded in approval, and Jim felt that hand pat him twice and release him. The shadow moved from his vision and he blinked again against the lights. It felt like the ceiling was falling in on him and his vision blurred around it, heart pounding as he felt claustrophobic, sick, and still so heavy. “Spock,” he managed to say through his choked throat, turning his head to take in the form of the man standing beside his bed.  He saw now that he wore medical blues, a doctor. A Starfleet doctor. “Where…?”

“Don’t worry, Lieutenant, the commander is alive.”

Jim drew in a shaky breath, closing his eyes and tilting his head back on the pillow beneath him. A pillow . It held his head gently just as blankets wrapped warm around his body and he felt clean, cradled, alive, safe. And Spock-- Spock was alive. Spock was safe . He remembered now, the near silent breaths that shuddered through Spock’s laboring lungs, the way Jim had laid against him and tried to hold him without touching his wounds, the way he’d felt the stick of blood where it seeped through makeshift bandages and he trembled too hard to fix them. But Spock was alive. He was safe. Against all odds, they both were.

“Year?” Jim asked, heart in his throat.

“Yes I imagine you’d want to know that, wouldn’t you?” The doctor replied, as though somehow he knew what Jim had just gone through. But how could anyone know what he’d just gone through? “2259, December by Earth’s calendar.”

Jim clenched his jaw against the overflowing flood of relief that threatened to consume him, unable to stop the searing-hot tears that spilled out the corners of his eyes and slipped into his hair. His chest heaved and his heart pounded and he managed finally to raise his hand to his eyes, clenching his fingers into his forehead as he half-sobbed against his palm. 2259. They’d made it. All this time, and they’d made it. Alive. Home. Here. Alive.

  1. This was a starship. They were in space. In their own time. How long had he been out? What had happened to their shuttle? Where was Spock?

“Lieutenant,” the voice said again, and Jim forced his eyes open, forced himself to drop his hand, vision swimming over the doctor beside him, blending him into vague impressions of blue and skin. “You’d best rest up. The captain’s going to want to speak with you soon as you’re able, but I’m not gonna tell her you’ve gained consciousness until you’re good and ready, you hear?”

There was something kind in the doctor’s voice, and Jim wanted so desperately to rest, to do as he’d been told, but he found himself shaking his head even though that bare motion was enough to make it ache anew. “No,” he said hoarsely, and he wiped the tears at the corners of his eyes, trying to steady himself as his whole body trembled. “No, please. I need to see Spock. Where is he?”

From where he lay, he could see three other biobeds, all empty. And if Spock were here, in this room, he would be able to feel him. He should be able to feel him anyway, right? He could always feel him. If the doctor were lying to him, if Spock wasn’t okay--

Jim tested the mental connection that he had never had cause to search for before. It had always just been . But as he worked through the recesses of his mind it felt as though it had vanished, broken, like someone had bored a hole into his brain and removed something innate in him, vital to his survival, an organ, a lung, his heart .

“Listen, you’ve been through one hell of an ordeal--”

“What’s his condition?” Jim asked, voice harder than he thought possible, though still bearing the quake of unshed tears. He dammed them up, unwilling and unable to give into the flood just yet. He tried to get his hands under his body and heft himself up, but it took some effort. Especially as the doctor reached out and pressed back on his shoulder.

“Lay back; you’re going to exhaust yourself.”

“I’m fine. What’s his condition?” He was not fine. His head swam and all the relief he’d felt moments ago was replaced with fear, pulsating and heavy in his chest. But he forced himself to a sitting position and leveled his eyes at the doctor.

The man huffed, flopping his hands uselessly at his sides. “If I tell you are you gonna lay back down like I said?”

“Yes,” Jim lied.

“And are you going to go back to sleep?”

“Yes.”

The doctor searched his eyes for a moment, as if looking for any sign of duplicity. Luckily, Jim was about as good at poker as he was at chess.

“Fine. I’m not going to lie to you, he’s been unconscious since we picked you up. About twelve hours now.”

Jim felt the breath leave his lungs, hollowing out his chest, but he bit back any other bodily reaction. Unconscious was better than nothing. God, anything was better than nothing. “How bad?”

The doctor ran a hand through his hair, blue eyes canting downwards to the floor as though the force of Jim’s gaze were too heavy. Jim didn’t blame him, he felt fury welling up in himself, but it was directionless, lost.

“He lost a lot of blood from whatever it was that scratched him, and it looked like he might have an infection. But while we were doin’ surgery he slipped into this trance--”

Trance ?” Jim blinked himself through that word. What the hell did that mean?

“It’s a Vulcan thing. I’ve never understood what goes on in those green-blooded machines, but we’ve got a  Vulcan nurse who’s staying with him. She’s supposed to update me or Doctor Boyce the second something changes.”

“Wait,” Jim barked, “where is he?”

The doctor’s lips pursed. “Private room. I’m under strict orders not to let you go anywhere until you’ve spoken with the captain, though. And you aren’t doing that until me and my CMO clear you to leave Sick Bay.”

Jim grit his teeth, looking away and clenching his hands on the red blankets under his fingertips. “Then bring the captain down here. I’ll talk to them and then I’ll go see Spock.”

“This trance thing is delicate, Kirk, you really don’t want to--”

“Don’t tell me what I want!” Jim cried, but he regretted it the moment he did. Even that slight exertion was exhausting. His vision went a little black at the edges and he felt his balance waver. Settling a flat hand on the bed to steady himself, he looked into the doctor’s wide, blue eyes then closed his own. Balance , he thought to himself as he took a steadying breath. He had to find balance, physically, mentally. Wasn’t that what Spock was always talking about? Focus, logic, balance.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally, using all his strength just to remain sitting. “I know I should be thanking you-- and honestly, thank you -- but,” he cracked his eyes open to see the man’s expression had softened. “But please, I just need to see him.”

Those deep-set eyes seemed to speak to a kind of apology, one that the doctor didn’t voice. “I can’t let you do that just yet, Mister Kirk, all right? You need to lie back down.”

Jim shot him a withering look. “Then get the captain. Bring them here.”

With a sigh, the doctor gave Jim a wry smile. “Garrovick said you were stubborn,” he said, and Jim’s mind almost blipped past the name of his own captain. Was this… was this the Farragut ? “We called him when we figured out where y’all were from. Said ‘if anyone was to come back in a homemade shuttlecraft after two years being dead, it’d be James T. Kirk.’”

The man chuckled, but Jim found he didn’t have it in him to feel amused or happy or proud. He didn’t care what Garrovick had to say, didn’t care about the captain of this ship or this doctor. He just… just needed…

Jim’s vision blackened, and he vaguely registered that he was falling backwards, head dropping against the pillow as it throbbed with fresh pain. It felt like he’d been floating and someone had just turned on the gravity.

“Alright, then,” the doctor’s voice, ringing with finality, washed over him just as Jim’s vision cleared. He turned his head to watch the man tinkering with something out of his sight. “You’re going to sleep a few more hours, then we’ll arrange everything, okay?”

“No,” Jim protested, trying again to right himself, though his body was barely responding. “Please, Doctor-- Spock .”

“Name’s McCoy, not Spock,” the doctor corrected, misunderstanding Jim’s plea-- or perhaps trying to put him at ease with a joke. “Leonard McCoy.” He approached Jim with a loaded hypospray in his hand. Jim tried to shuffle away from it, but was unsuccessful, barely shifting an inch from center. McCoy pressed the hypospray against Jim’s shoulder, and Jim felt his eyes fluttering immediately. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant.”

“Spock,” Jim requested once more.

But if there was an answer, Jim didn’t hear it. Sleep encroached upon him with all the force and urgency of a tornado, whisking him off against his will and making him weightless, flying, falling, but-- at least-- no longer in the fog.



When Jim came to, it was dark, but the darkness wasn’t opaque. He thought for a moment that it was strange-- how he could vaguely see the reflection of flashing red lights on his retinas when he should’ve only seen a dark blue glow. It should have been cold. Or maybe hot. It should have been hard, under his back. There should have been a body beside him, or maybe not. The air should have weighed heavy on his lungs with humidity, but--

But he lay in the Sick Bay of a constitution class starship, and he was alone and the air was perfectly environmentally controlled and somehow still it felt too thin. The wrong temperature. The bed beneath him was too comfortable, the fabric that shifted against his skin as he moved was too stiff.

At least he was actually awake this time, he thought, attempting to find some silver lining, something he could cling to. His vision didn’t blur anymore, his heart didn’t pound, and exhaustion had faded largely from the tension of his muscles. He wondered how long he’d been asleep, wondered at the strength of the tranquilizer the doctor had shot him with.

But he didn’t have time to wonder. No matter how long he’d been out, and it must have been hours, he’d left Spock alone too long. He had to see him.

Tossing the blankets off his body, Jim tested his strength, pulling up his knees one by one and dragging himself upwards. His hands were trembling slightly, but that was probably just the after-effects of the tranquilizer, rather than the result of injury. Instead of dwelling on it, he tossed his legs over the edge of the bed, pulling in a deep breath.

It was ship’s night, and someone would be in Sick Bay-- those were the rules-- but maybe they’d be more likely to let him go if they saw him up and moving around already.

He was surprised to find he wasn’t in pain. Not much, anyway. His head ached, but it was likely they’d healed whatever injuries he’d sustained in their escape. He rolled his ankles before setting his bare feet on the cold metal floor, leaning heavily with one hand planted on the mattress while he tested his weight.

His legs were weak, wavering, but they would hold him, so he pushed himself off the bed and took a tentative step. Something felt different, and he couldn’t quite place it. It took a moment to orient himself, to move forward one more time.

And then it struck him. The constant channel of fire that shot from his calf to his thigh was gone. He bent the knee of his left leg and shifted weight to his right, experimental, tentative. It held him, though obviously weaker than its counterpart from nearly two years of limping, dragging.

Awestruck and a little terrified, he took a few more steps away from his bed into the dark of the room, arms out just in case he needed to grab the wall for support. But he barely limped.

It had never occurred to him that they could heal the misaligned bone. He’d grown so accustomed to pain, to gritting his teeth each time he walked. And it had been well over a year since he’d resigned himself to living with it. Forever, if need be.

But now he rested his weight on it on every other step and marveled with a bubbling sense of disbelief that he could do so without biting the inside of his cheek against the anguish. His throat constricted, choked on wonder and reverence. He wanted to take a lap around Sick Bay, to run out those doors, to escape and wander the halls and find Spock, but he was distracted before he’d made it more than a few feet from his bed.

The sound of footsteps alerted him to a presence and he wheeled around, meeting the blue, disapproving eyes of Doctor McCoy, who commanded the lights on. Jim raised a hand to his sensitive eyes, unused to the pure white glow that shot from the ceiling. “You couldn’t wait ten seconds after waking up, could you Kirk?”

“You still on shift?” Jim asked, walking shakily back to his bed and holding onto its edge. He couldn’t focus on his leg right now. So, he shifted tack, shoving every overwhelming emotion to the back of his mind where it had to fester. At least, for a time. “I was hoping I would wake up to a doctor who didn’t tranquilize his patients.”

His anger wasn’t incendiary, just a hum under the surface of every other emotion it was possible for a human being to feel. In truth, he hardly cared anymore that he’d been knocked out. He just wanted to pick up exactly where they’d left off. And make his way to Spock.

McCoy walked over to him, pulling a medical scanner out of his pocket and running it over Jim’s head. “Don’t act like you didn’t need it,” he said somewhat gruffly. “If I’d’a let you, you’d’ve dragged yourself down the hall til you passed out anyway, and I’d’ve had to carry you back to bed.”

He clicked the scanner off, glanced at it seemingly satisfied and gave Jim a once-over. “How you feeling, Lieutenant?”

Jim looked down at himself now that the light had stopped blinding him. He was shaking slightly, but nothing like the full-body tremors he’d felt upon waking the first time.

“I’m fine. I want to--”

“To see Spock, right?”  McCoy deadpanned, sounding impatient. “I think I picked up that much, but the captain says--”

“I know,” Jim interrupted in turn. “Tell them I’ll talk to them now. Please.”

McCoy gave him a long look, eyes narrowed, sizing him up. Jim stayed steady. “You stay right there--” he finally said, “and I mean that-- but I’ll go make a couple calls.”

Some tension eased itself from Jim’s taut back.

Turning away from Jim, McCoy paused, then cast a look over his shoulder. “For the record, don’t you dare try sneaking out while I’m gone. I’ve got eyes in the back of my head and you know I’m not afraid to use another tranquilizer.”

Jim managed a weak smile at that. He was out of practice, but he thought he recognized that as a joke. Then again, the sting of the hypospray still smarted his shoulder, so he wouldn’t put anything past the good doctor.

When McCoy left the room, he hefted himself back onto the bed, feeling the shift of soft fabric against his skin where, for so long, he’d only felt the crinkle of an emergency blanket or the prickle of fur. If he absorbed himself in the comfort of it, he worried he’d fall asleep again, so he just kept his eyes glued to the wall across from him, looking over the biobed scanners that lay dark and dormant, wondering where those private rooms were. He wanted to look for Spock in his mind again, wanted to seek out the connection that he knew just by feeling wasn’t there, but he tried not to let himself think about it.

If he thought about it, he’d think about Spock’s pale lips, the way his blood had soaked hot and thick into Jim’s clothes. If he thought about it, he’d think about him lying motionless somewhere, completely outside Jim’s reach, his protection, his care. If Jim thought about it, he would run straight out those doors and find him, find the remains of their mental connection and follow those strings the way he knew Spock could do with him.

So he didn’t let himself think about it.

Instead, he thought about what he might tell the captain, and how he could condense the last two years into a conversation that wouldn’t keep him from Spock any longer than necessary. It wasn’t easy. What could he say? How could he explain Sha Ka Ree to her? To anyone? How could he explain everything that planet was, what it had taken, what it had given them? And how much was he willing to reveal?

It felt private, somehow, everything that had happened. Even the ship graveyard, the Vulcan village. It felt as though Sha Ka Ree had let them in on a secret, the mysteries of its past that had long-since been covered with sand. It felt as though the planet had created a world for them, and now that it was gone what did it matter to Starfleet what they had seen?

But of course it mattered. Sha Ka Ree didn’t belong to him and Spock. Or, maybe it was more apt to say that Alpha Novus V didn’t.

He remained with his troubled thoughts for a time, feeling his energy return, little by little as he sat impatiently, fingers digging into the mattress each time he felt restlessness and apprehension rising in him.

After what seemed like hours but must have only been minutes, he heard the doors on the other side of the divide swish open. In short order, McCoy wandered back through the little doorway between Jim’s room and Sick Bay’s entryway. In his wake, he pulled an older gentleman, stooped at his back and with flyaway gray hair. He, too, wore medical blues, and for some reason he looked somewhat familiar. McCoy stepped to the side and allowed the man to move forward, his eyes on Jim.

“I’m Doctor Boyce, CMO,” he said without preamble. And suddenly Jim knew where he’d seen him before. The Enterprise ’s holotapes. Recordings of their missions and briefings.

Boyce ?” Jim asked almost incredulously. “This-- this is the Enterprise ?”

Boyce shot a look at McCoy, unruly silver eyebrows furrowing. “You didn’t even tell him what ship he was on?”

Jim hardly heard him, sinking instead into the revelation. The Enterprise . Of all ships, the one that found them had been the Enterprise . Had they been looking for them? Or was it coincidence? Luck?

A miracle?

“With all due respect,” McCoy responded, “he didn’t give me much time. He wants to see the captain.”

“I want to see Spock,” Jim corrected immediately. “But I’ll see the captain first if that’s what I have to do.”

“Well you aren’t seeing her until I’ve cleared you,” Boyce said, stepping forward with his own medical scanner. He ran it over Jim, eyes glued to the readings. Jim shot a look at McCoy. He didn’t know why, but somehow he got the feeling McCoy was on his side, in spite of the fact that the man had sedated him earlier. Maybe it was the kindness Jim saw under his gruff demeanor, or-- more likely-- the fact that he was the first human Jim had seen in two years. He found he didn’t quite care for the idea that he may have imprinted on the doctor like a baby duck.

Boyce clicked off the scanner and tilted his eyes back to Jim. “You aren’t in the best shape of your life,” he said, “but you’re at least functional.”

Jim allowed himself a breath of relief.

“So, the captain?”

“She’ll see you,” McCoy said, stepping in. “‘So long as Boyce doesn’t have a fit,’ she’d said.”

Boyce turned to the doctor, eyes half-lidded with exasperation. “I’m going back to bed. You’ll take him to Captain Robbins?”

“Yes sir.”

It felt surreal to shift his eyes between two people, to watch them address each other, to hear the rise and fall of two separate, unfamiliar voices. McCoy had that distinct southern accent, his tongue falling lazily on each consonant. Boyce spoke brusquely, but largely gentle, the croak of age in the back of his throat. Neither of them had that calm, practiced tenor that had become Jim’s normal. Neither of them spoke formally, purpose hefted behind each word. They just… spoke.

For many months, Jim had missed that, but now it felt almost wrong, and certainly uncomfortable.

Boyce huffed, not even sparing another glance at Jim before shuffling away. Jim thought he heard him mutter, “I’m getting too old for this,” before disappearing out the door.

Jim turned his eyes to McCoy. “Thank you,” he said, meaning it.

“Don’t thank me yet, Kirk,” McCoy said with a chuckle. He moved toward one of the cabinets at the far side of the room, removing what looked to be a pair of Starfleet issue slacks and a black thermal. When he turned, he was smiling. “You’ve still gotta deal with Number One.”

Jim swallowed. He’d heard stories of Pike’s first officer, seen her in holos. She had a reputation of being calm, cold, calculating, and almost scarily capable. He’d wanted to meet her all those years ago, but now he found himself a little intimidated by the prospect. She wouldn’t be Number One anymore. Now she was Captain Robbins of the U.S.S. Enterprise . And she probably had a lot of questions for Jim.



He stood on weak legs outside the briefing room, marveling on every breath at the slacks that fit his waist, at the solid, stitched hem of the shirt that stretched over him. Two years since he’d worn clothes that fit, that weren’t threadbare and peppered with worn holes. Somehow he felt intensely uncomfortable. The fabric was stiff and unyielding and each fold felt like it would leave creases in his skin.

Beside him, McCoy pressed the call for the door, and Jim jumped when it swished open.

God, he wasn’t used to this. The clang of their boots on the floor, the bodies that had occasionally passed them in (blessedly) near-empty corridors, the bright colors and the artificial lights and that humming sound that never went away. And the insistent slide of the doors. He tried to calm his heart as he stepped into the room, eyes scanning the empty chairs at the large table and falling, finally, on the one that was filled.

Captain Robbins stood from her seat, immediately recognizable by the victory curls at her temples, her shining black hair, the straight line of her mouth and the gold tunic whose rank stripes gleamed in the room’s bright lights. Jim stood straight at attention the moment he strode over the threshold, Starfleet decorum returning to him out of sheer habit more than anything.

“Lieutenant James Tiberius Kirk,” she greeted him, holding out her hand to indicate that he should sit. “And Doctor McCoy. Thank you for bringing him. If you will please wait outside?”

“Ma’am,” McCoy confirmed with a nod of his head, meeting Jim’s eyes once more before turning on his heel and walking out the door. It swished shut and Jim realized he had forgotten to sit.

He did so now, taking the seat across from her, folding his hands in his lap and trying to keep his posture straight.

Robbins had all the practiced confidence of a captain, all the composure and professionalism that Jim had admired so deeply in Pike. And now he saw it in his first officer. Or, rather, the woman who had succeeded him.

She retook her seat now, eyes running over Jim. Her gaze was steely and sharp, and though Jim had learned that it was, in fact, about two in the morning, she looked as awake and aware as if she’d just been in the middle of her shift.

They looked on each other in silence for a time, Jim attempting to bite back the impatience he felt welling in him. Every moment she spent staring at him was a moment wasted. He didn’t know how many times he had told these people that he needed to see Spock, but still they pulled him around like a toy car.

“Captain--” Jim said eventually, but Number One held up her hand to him, silencing him.

“Lieutenant. I understand you are in a hurry. Let me first assure you that Commander Spock is alive, if unwell.” McCoy had told him as much, but he kept his mouth shut. “You are incredibly fortunate that we were nearby when your distress signal reached us, as the area around Alpha Novus V has been quarantined since your landing party disappeared. Had we not been on our way to an adjacent star system, it is likely the two of you would be dead.”

He didn’t know exactly why she was telling him this, except perhaps to satisfy his unvoiced curiosity or to fish for thanks, but he did feel as though those thanks were deserved. So he offered them, attempting to keep his voice sure and steady.

“Thank you, sir,” he said.

She straightened her jaw. “Thanks are unnecessary. You can imagine that this entire crew has long wondered about the fate of our captain and the lost landing party. We hope that you might be able to enlighten us. Settle some… some very unsettled emotions surrounding the tragedy. Before we begin, is there any possibility that the rest of the landing party survived?”

Jim thinned his lips and looked downwards, trying to keep the rapid beat of his heart from expressing itself anywhere else. “No, sir,” he said. When he glanced back to her, a flicker of sadness passed over her expression. It settled in her eyes, but bled quickly from the lines of her face.

“I thought not. Very well, Lieutenant.” She took a small, silver device from her pocket and pressed a button. A red light began to blink steadily and she set it on the table in front of him. A recorder. Well, of course, it wouldn’t do not to get his testimony on the record.

“You will be required to submit to a formal interview when we arrive on Earth,” she said, “but until that time we need a preliminary report. I understand this may be difficult,” there was a pause, a quiet breath Jim wasn’t even sure he heard, “but I need you to tell me everything that happened on Alpha Novus V. ”

Jim’s mind stuttered again over the name, immediately correcting her in his thoughts, but she wouldn’t know that Jim and Spock had christened it anew. Nor did he know if he should tell her. If he wanted to tell her. He didn’t know if he wanted to tell her anything. The dam he’d begun building in Sick Bay began to crumble, to crack, and he thought in one flashing second that he couldn’t do this. That he couldn’t relive the last two years when the most vital, integral piece of this puzzle was missing. He needed Spock. This wasn’t right without Spock. He couldn’t be strong without Spock.

But he knew that wasn’t true. He had managed to be strong without Spock so far. He had managed to get them off of Sha Ka Ree. He could manage to talk about it all, too.

“Right,” he said after what felt like a very long time, delaying himself now. “Of course. I… I suppose I should begin with the ion storm.”

Shifting to make himself more comfortable, he met Robbins’ eyes, deciding to hold them as long as he could. And, with a breath, he began.

He started with the crash, the circumstances surrounding it, the immediate loss of their three crewmates. Barely able, in spite of his resolve, to sustain eye contact as he described the nature of their deaths, he resisted the urge to fidget with the sleeve of his thermal, heart hard. He had to keep his heart hard as he spoke, had to keep the emotion out of his voice. There wasn’t time to crumble right now. Nor could he allow himself to do so in front of Robbins.

He described Spock saving him, described Captain Pike’s condition those first few days, then his death. He didn’t fail to notice the way Robbins gripped her own hands on the desk, knuckles white, nails digging into her skin. Her expression didn’t change, but her teeth were clenched behind the straight set of her lips, and his heart ached for her. There had been rumors, as there were with most command teams, that there had been something more between Pike and his first officer. But whether or not those rumors were true, Number One had lost someone very close to her, and Jim had been one of the last people to see him alive.

So he didn’t linger long on those memories, delivered them with cold, solid facts and continued on. Number One did not want his sympathy, especially not on-record. What she wanted was the story, so he did his best to tell it. He described the planet itself, and how it had seemed so different from their original scans. When he began to explain why, Captain Robbins didn’t stop him, but he felt her straightening her spine in disbelief, felt her skeptical gaze. But he didn’t leave out a single detail about the wormhole web, not one. If the Federation had quarantined the planet, that meant they knew it was dangerous, but it also meant they hadn’t studied it at all. Every word he said, he watched Robbins’ expression change from disbelief to quiet, controlled astonishment.

He tried to summarize the next year and a half-- the cave, the wildlife, the ship graveyard, the crashed Vulcan colony vessel, the Vulcan village and all of its generations of implications. But for all this, he didn’t discuss his personal relationship with Spock. In fact, he hardly mentioned Spock’s name when it wasn’t relevant. It was always ‘we,’ ‘us.’ It had been ‘them’ for so long that it felt strange to parse anything about their lives into ‘he.’ Into ‘me.’

When he finished with the account of their tumultuous journey forward in time, his voice hoarse and his exhaustion peaking, he met the captain’s eyes with a look that he was sure begged for that to be it. For that to be enough.

She studied him for a moment when he’d finally finished talking, and Jim thought at the irony that it was easier for him to read Spock’s expressions than it was hers.

“Well, Lieutenant,” she said, “scans of your shuttlecraft indicate that you are telling the truth, at least about the time travel and the Vulcan ship. As no one has explored Alpha Novus V, I cannot verify your account of the village and the rest of the crashed ships, but I also cannot fathom a reason for you to lie.”

A flash of anger lit up in him, tired as he was, and he attempted to keep it from his expression. “I understand,” he said cooly, “that my account of our experience will be sent to Starfleet Command. I’ve told you the truth in every regard and I need you to believe that. Trust me, I’ve lived it for nearly two years and sometimes I’m not sure I believe it.”

“You are questioning your own sense of reality?”

Had this woman been raised by Vulcans? She took things more literally than Spock did.

“No, sir,” he said, trying to counsel himself into patience. “I mean to say that it’s incredible and unbelievable, but it’s exactly as it is.”

She considered him for a moment.

“Then, Lieutenant,” she said quietly, “I believe I must thank you for returning our science officer to us.”

Something caught in his throat and he felt himself nodding, though he knew he didn’t deserve her gratitude. Without Spock, he’d have died a thousand times over. But now may not have been the proper time to say so.

“Thank you, sir,” he said after a moment. Unable to say ‘you’re welcome’ when the credit was not his to take. Especially when Spock may still not--

He forced those thoughts from his mind, swallowing the fear that rose unbidden in his throat.

With a sigh, she stood, taking the recording device from the table and shutting it off. “You would do well to rest. Doctor McCoy says he’s been monitoring your condition and you’re stable, but I can see that you’re in no shape to go wandering around. You have been assigned temporary quarters close to Sick Bay.”

Jim sat up straighter, decorum leaving him for a moment. “What?”

“You are to rest. McCoy will take you to see Commander Spock when you’re fully functional.”

Attempting to contain his frustration, he clenched his hands in his lap. “Sir,” he said, practically a plea, “when I last saw Spock he was bleeding out on the floor of a shuttlecraft that was falling to pieces. All I have is your word that he’s alive. I have to see him, do you understand? I have to see him with my own two eyes to make sure he’s still breathing and--”

To his horror, he heard his voice break. The Jim Kirk of two years ago would have been mortified that the captain of the Enterprise now saw him in such a state, but it was impossible to hold all this together, to keep water in his cupped hands, to feel so much without letting something slip through.

Some hard emotions softened in Robbins’ expression. “You won’t rest until you see him, will you?” She asked, as though she already knew the answer.

Pulling up and squaring his shoulders, he tried to rein it in again, to pull himself together just a little bit longer. Then, he shook his head curtly. “No, sir. Not unless Doctor McCoy sedates me again. And, no, that was not a suggestion.”

Her lips quirked somewhat subtly, a familiar kind of smile that, in spite of himself, put him at ease. “Alright. But you need to listen to everything Doctor McCoy and Nurse T’Sik tell you, do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” Jim responded immediately. He wasn’t incapable of following orders, after all. Just a little out of practice. “And--”

Robbins stood, looking down at him very literally, but no longer in a way that made her seem imposing or intimidating.

“Sir, have our families been told? I’d like to send a message to my parents-- my brother.”

She tucked her hands behind her back and looked him over once more. “We’re on our way to Earth,” she informed him, “just four more days’ travel, but we have waited to inform your families until-- well, now that you are stable we can arrange a subspace call, but allow me some time to converse with Starfleet. Much of what you have seen is still classified information-- as is the mere fact of your existence. If you will be patient, I will see what I can do.”

“Yes sir,” he said again, though his heart felt a little hollow. Two years he’d been working toward the goal of seeing his family again. But he was close. Four days from Earth, from his parents, from the life he had thought, in his darkest moments, he might never see again.

Robbins strode to the door and pressed the command as Jim struggled to his unsteady feet. His head went a little fuzzy, but he held himself up with a hand on the table until the brief fog cleared. When it did, Robbins was looking at him.

“After Doctor McCoy has taken you to see Commander Spock, you will go immediately to bed. Is that clear, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, a little numb, wholly exhausted.

She nodded in staunch approval. “ Alright. Thank you for your testimony, Kirk. I will speak with you again soon.”

With that, she turned on her heel and walked out, her footsteps echoing eerily down the empty corridor.

Jim didn’t have time to register her absence before McCoy strode in, giving him a rather appraising look. “How are you feeling?”

Jim didn’t let on he was a little dizzy, just managed a small smile. “Oh, you know,” he said with a sore attempt at humor. “Reliving two fairly traumatic years and trying to readjust to sitting in chairs. Just… feeling fine.”

McCoy pulled back the corner of his lip in a near-grimace as he took a small medical tricorder from his pocket. Jim stood as still as he was able, impatiently shifting on his feet while McCoy ran the scanner over him. He waited for the whirring to stop before McCoy snapped it back into his hand and gave him a hard look.

“Well, Captain Robbins says you can go see the commander, and according to this thing you aren’t liable to pass out just yet, so if you’re ready--”

“Please,” Jim interrupted him. “I’ve been ready since I woke up.”

“Until you passed out.”

“Until you tranquilized me,” Jim corrected, and McCoy gave him a wry smile.

“Six of one. Come on then.” He beckoned Jim to follow and Jim did, trailing after him like a lost puppy until he caught up to him, which wasn’t easy. McCoy walked in wide, sure strides through the halls, but Jim was still a little shaky. Of course, the last person he was going to say as much to was the doctor.

“We ain’t staying long, okay?” McCoy said as they walked, and Jim was about to speak up when McCoy continued, raising a hand like he’d sensed Jim’s protest. “Nurse T’Sik was clear about that much. This Vulcan healing trance is delicate. So you can go in, take a look, sit with him for a minute, then we come right back. No touching, no talking. It might, erm, ‘distract’ him, she said. Understand?”

He remembered his promise to do as McCoy and T’Sik said, but no talking? No touching? How could he just--

“Understand?”

Jim swallowed and nodded.

“Alright. As long as I get to see him.”

McCoy gave him a side-eyed look, but didn’t say anything, so they walked in relative silence for a time. Jim was glad the corridors were nearly empty this early. They passed only two crewmen. One nodded her head at McCoy and shot Jim a suspicious look. The other was absorbed in their padd and didn’t look up at all. Each time someone walked past, though, they felt too close.

Even the walls felt too close. Their steps echoed. Everything around him shined and gleamed and glittered, even with the lights down to fifty percent to indicate ship’s night. It had been two years since he’d been on a starship, and it felt as though he were walking inside a shadowbox, or a rat’s maze, something small and surreal and fabricated. So much of his life, he’d believed a starship was exactly where he belonged and now-- now it just felt wrong.

But it wouldn’t forever. Consciously, of course he knew that. All he had to do was get his space-legs back. He chuckled weakly, humorlessly at the thought, comparing the swell of the sea with the quiet, sure way a starship sailed through the sky. Maybe he was more tired than he realized if that was enough to make him laugh. But, god, sometimes laughing was all he could do, and he knew he wasn’t laughing because he’d actually found the thought humorous.

“What’s so funny?” McCoy asked from beside him as they made their way into the turbolift. Jim leaned against the wall as they sped downwards. His stomach fell to his feet and he could actually feel his body speeding unnaturally down the lift’s tube, nausea swirling in his gut as it had on the way up, but decidedly more insistent.

“Just-- this,” he said to cover the moment, steadying himself with a hand on the wall. “This whole situation. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

McCoy looked at him, “You talkin’ about traveling through time twice only to end up number one on Starfleet’s ‘how do we explain this one’ list?”

The hollow laugh that burst out of Jim’s lungs almost surprised him. He hadn’t expected it. Although, to be honest, he hadn’t expected any of this.

“That’s one way to put it,” he croaked.

The turbolift slid to a blessed halt and the doors swished open. As they stepped out, McCoy gave him a quick look and took a breath. His voice was hard, almost authoritative when he spoke. “I’m no ship’s counselor,” he said, “-- you’ll be talkin’ to one of them tomorrow-- but I do know two things. For one, you’re alive . And for two, what you just did is impossible accordin’ to every physicist on this damned ship. It’s ridiculous, don’t get me wrong, but if I were you I’d be thanking my lucky stars right about now.”

His lucky stars. Jim huffed at the thought. He was lucky. Insurmountably lucky.

“Spock doesn’t believe in luck,” he said, half to himself.

McCoy scoffed. “Of course he doesn’t. I tell ya, Kirk, I don’t know how you spent two years alone with a Vulcan. I can barely spend two minutes with one.”

They reached the doors to Sick Bay and Jim followed McCoy through them, wondering how much offense he should take to that comment. Except for the fact that he had felt exactly the same way before he had actually spent time with Spock.

“It wasn’t so bad,” he said instead of arguing, feeling a bare twitch of a smile, thinking about the way Spock’s eyes smiled, even when his lips didn’t. “Of all the things I can say about, ah, Alpha Novus,” he continued, glad he hadn’t let ‘Sha Ka Ree’ slip, “I can’t complain about the company.”

But his smile faded as he remembered where they were going, and why, as the memory of Spock’s face faded from his mind and his eyes focused again on the unblemished, silver floor stretched out before them.

McCoy led him through one of Sick Bay’s side passages, into a short hallway. Only four rooms branched off of it, each behind a solid green door. Narrow walls pressing heavy on him, in spite of how much room he actually had, Jim felt himself labor for his next breath. But McCoy didn’t seem to notice. Instead he moved forward, leading Jim to the last of the doors.

Just as Jim looked to him for confirmation, McCoy gave him one last warning look.

“Alright, Kirk. What are the rules?” he asked, almost motherly.

“No talking, no touching,” Jim parroted, heart pounding.

“You’re damn straight,” McCoy said, leveling a finger at him. “And if you aren’t scared enough of me to listen, you’d damn well better be scared of T’Sik. She’s not gonna give you any passes. You hear?”

Jim nodded, clenching his hands at his sides. “I understand,” he said said with more emphasis than the words needed, begging McCoy to hear his impatience.

And, finally, McCoy tapped the door controls. When it slid open, Jim swallowed, trying to keep his shoulders straight, trying to keep his heart from leaping out of his chest, trying to tell himself that, no matter what he saw when he walked in there, he would keep it together.

Jim vaguely registered the presence of another person in the room the moment they walked in, an olive-skinned Vulcan woman who sat in a straight-backed chair in the far corner, but his eyes didn’t stay on her. Instead, they slipped immediately to the biobed, where-- beneath a set of glittering red sheets-- Spock lay as still as death. And yet, if Jim hadn’t known any better, he would say Spock was sleeping. He always slept on his back, his hands laid over his stomach, his lashes fluttering gently and his chest rising and falling with steady breaths. Jim thought with an aborted choke in his throat about all the times he had waved his hand over Spock’s sleeping face to see if he was really out, all the times he had shoved himself under one of Spock’s arms and curled against him, all the times Spock had stirred, opening bleary eyes to shine on Jim as he pulled him close. As the flood of tender memory tore down his defenses, Jim’s heart stumbled over itself, vision blurring as his knees felt like they might buckle underneath him.

The door closed behind them, but Jim didn’t hear it. He moved forward a few steps, hands trembling, buzzing with the need to touch, to feel, to press a hand to Spock’s heartbeat, even as he saw evidence of it blinking above the biobed. He needed to feel the pound of it under his fingertips, to lay his hand against Spock’s warm skin.

The vague presence of Doctor McCoy hung back by the door, and Jim knew consciously that the Vulcan nurse had stood, but when he reached the edge of the bed, his world narrowed to eclipse nothing but the quiet form of the man he loved. Spock looked pale, green veins standing out along his neck, in his temples, lips tinted verdant. His hair lay flat on the pillow beneath him, no longer frizzed with humidity, no longer carrying that familiar scent of tree oil. Jim swallowed something hard in his throat, and all his composure, his professionalism, his training, everything faded from the tension of his shoulders. All he wanted to do was reach out, to run his thumb over Spock’s lips and card his hands through his hair and tell him softly that he loved him and he was sorry he couldn’t take care of him and he was going to stay right here with him as long as it took, but somehow he managed to restrain himself.

He felt the burning, steady stare of the Vulcan nurse on him, as though she were waiting for him to slip up so she could kick him out, but he wouldn’t let her. His eyes were starving for the sight of Spock, the one, singular, familiar thing in his life. An anchor for the feeling of disbelief and terror that hadn’t shed itself from his mind. If he could just sit here with him, he would be okay. If he could just stay beside him, wait for him to wake up, then they could figure out how to navigate this world together, just as they had figured out how to navigate Sha Ka Ree.

He needed that surety, that second set of hands, that rationality to balance out his recklessness, that logic to balance out all of his overwhelming emotions. He needed Spock .

Thankfully, Nurse T’Sik didn’t know that Jim could speak to Spock without speaking to him. He’d done it a hundred times. Not with words necessarily, but with thoughts and feelings and impressions. He’d once managed to call Spock from more than one-hundred yards away just by being sad . From right here beside him and feeling the veritable natural disaster of his anguish welling up in him, of course Spock would feel him.

So he tried once again to find the remnants of the mental connection as he clenched his fingers along the edge of the mattress.

I’m here, Spock , he thought as loudly as he could, I’m here and I love you and we’re safe. We made it. I’m sorry I let you get hurt. I’m sorry you’re lying there but you have to come back to me now, okay? I need you. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t do this without you. Please wake up, please --

“Remove him,” the harsh words of the Vulcan nurse cut through his thoughts and he shot his eyes up to her.

“What?” McCoy asked, affronted. “He was doing exactly what you said--”

“He was not.” Her voice was as stoic and devoid of emotion as Spock’s had once been, and Jim found that while he’d thought he had gotten better at reading Vulcans, he’d really only gotten better at reading one of them. “He is attempting to wake my patient before the healing trance has done its work. I was not informed that these two were bonded.”

Jim’s eyes widened and he stared at her, confusion and panic draining his face of heat. Had she heard him? How had she heard him?

She approached, hands behind her back, staring down her nose at him, though he was taller than her by at least a foot. “Your bondmate did not teach you how to think quietly,” she said, voice venomous in its calm. “You have not learned how to utilize the connection and, even if you had, you could have irrevocably damaged my patient’s recovery. If you care for him you will leave immediately.”

Swallowing, Jim straightened, feeling himself falter on his exhausted legs, but McCoy’s arm shot out to steady him as he drew up next to Jim. “Now don’t go advancing on my patient, alright? We’ll get out of here.”

“But--”

“Kirk,” McCoy said, meeting his eyes with purpose. “Come on. You’ve seen him, haven’t you?”

Jim swallowed, casting a look back at Spock. All this time, Spock’s presence at Jim’s side had begun to feel like a certainty, as if he’d always been there. How could Jim leave him now?

He shifted his gaze back to the nurse. “I’m sorry. I’ll-- I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. I wasn’t trying to--”

“You have distracted his mind enough. Leave.”

McCoy’s hold on Jim’s arm tightened, and he made to turn him.

“No!” Jim snapped, shaking McCoy’s hand off of him, but desperation immediately replaced his brief flare of anger. “Don’t do this. Please, I’ll-- I’ll just sit here quietly, I promise. I won’t think, I won’t-- Please, let me.”

“Kirk,” McCoy said as T’Sik huffed her disapproval. He barely registered the sound, barely registered his name. He just turned his eyes back to Spock and suddenly he was gripping the sheets in his fists and forcing himself not to reach out. This was all they could ask of him, wasn’t it? This was all they could possibly expect. He wasn’t strong enough--

“Kirk,” McCoy said, softer this time. His hand returned to Jim’s arm, and Jim recognized that it didn’t feel right, recognized the lack of humming contentment. And, finally, he allowed himself to fall into the hollow feeling that gave him. “It’ll be better for him if we leave, alright?”

He felt himself going boneless, resolve leaving him, everything he had leaving him until he complied almost unconsciously with the guidance of McCoy’s touch. That hand turned him toward the door, though he kept his eyes on Spock until the last moment.

He wanted to reassure Spock that he would be back, but frankly his fight was gone, and he was terrified of the woman who stood like a wall between them-- the cold, hard bite to her eyes. He couldn’t feel her emotions, not the way he could feel Spock’s, but he knew just by looking that she was furious. And maybe she had a right to be. Maybe Jim’s presence would hurt Spock more than it would help him.

McCoy half-dragged him through the door, and the second it swished shut behind them, Jim let out the breath that had stuck itself in his chest. He leaned bodily against the wall, holding himself up, but barely.

A moment passed, awkward and uncomfortable, and Jim tried not to let the sadness rage inside him like it wanted to. It felt like the eye of a storm, as though in moments the winds would whip through him and his whole world would be uprooted.

Although, the second the thought occurred to him, he knew it already had been.

“She can be a little intense,” McCoy said after some time, though he looked strained himself. “Are you okay?”

Jim ran a hand through his hair, feeling the prick of tears behind his eyes. God, but he was exhausted. Emotionally, mentally, physically. He wasn’t strong enough to see Spock like that, but he wasn’t strong enough not to see him, either.

“I’m okay,” he said, but it was a lie. He hadn’t been okay since the moment he’d gained consciousness, and now he was about as far from it as he could be. But he tried to keep himself steady. He owed it to Spock to keep himself steady. Spock would need him to be strong when he woke up to the same, scary world that Jim had.

McCoy nodded, pursing his lips and tilting his head down the hallway, as though inviting Jim to take the first step. But Jim could almost feel Spock on the other side of that door. He couldn’t leave him now. Jim shook his head, trying to steady his roiling stomach, and McCoy seemed to understand.

“I’m sorry,” McCoy said gruffly after a moment. Jim didn’t like the way those words felt. As though McCoy were consoling him for the loss of someone he hadn’t lost.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Yet , his mind suggested savagely, but Jim shut it up with a clench of his teeth.

McCoy shrugged, and he seemed somewhat uncomfortable. Jim didn’t have the energy to wonder at it, but it looked as though the doctor wasn’t exactly the type to keep his thoughts to himself.

“What I meant is I’m sorry you had to see him like that. I mean, I suspected there might be something going on between you two. There were some, erm, bruising patterns --” It took all of a half a second to realize what McCoy was implying, but then Jim felt a flush overtake his cheeks in spite of himself. Still, of everything he’d felt today, the worry that someone had noticed hickeys on his neck didn’t really measure up. At least Jim didn’t sense any judgement in McCoy’s tone. “But I didn’t think y’all were-- what’d she call it?”

“Bondmates?” he suggested.

“That, yeah.”

“I didn’t either,” he admitted lamely, “I thought we were just dating. But, you know. Vulcans, right?” a weak chuckle fell out, forced and truncated. “Gives us something to talk about when he wakes up, I guess.” His voice sounded empty and tremulous to his own ears. Unstable. For a moment, he worried McCoy could feel it in him, but he had to remind himself forcibly that his emotions were his own. At least, around humans they were.

“Well in either case,” McCoy said, crossing his arms. “I’m sure it ain’t easy.”

Jim hadn’t expected such a soft admission from the doctor, but he also hadn’t really thought of what to expect. It hadn’t occurred to him beyond their individual families how people might react to he and Spock as a pair. But McCoy, for all his apparent distaste of Vulcans, gave Jim the courtesy he likely would’ve given anyone in that position. So the least Jim could do was give him a smile; small, sad and powerless though it may have been. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m… I’m sorry I had to see him like that, too.”

McCoy nodded and they stood in silence for a moment longer. Finally, with a sigh, the doctor beckoned him. “Alright, Kirk,” he said, as though the sentimentality of moments before had passed. “Let’s get you to your temporary quarters. Mister Spock will still be here in the morning.”

Jim struggled not to ask ‘will he?’ because he knew McCoy couldn’t promise him anything, and knew that the medical team was doing everything they could. So he just swallowed and forced himself to follow as McCoy began walking back toward Sick Bay’s front room.

“Before you go passing out, though,” McCoy said, “I gotta tell you the ground rules, okay?”

Jim straightened, blinking his confusion, walking a little unsteadily in McCoy’s wake. “Ground rules?”

“I’ve discharged you from Sick Bay, but you’re still in my care, and I take my job more serious than a cat on a floor full’a marbles. You’re going to get in there, synthesize yourself something more substantial than that nutrition pack you sucked down earlier, and then you’re going to go straight to bed, you understand me?”

“I-- yes, I suppose--”

“And you’re going to sleep at least six more hours because it’s nearly four in the goddamned morning.”

“Okay, but--”

“And if you so much as think about coming back here to visit your-- ah, what in hell did she call him again?”

“Bondmate?”

“Jesus, Vulcans. That. Then I’ll hypo you into the next quadrant. Got it?”

“For a doctor, you sure threaten your patients a lot,” Jim joked a little weakly as they made their way out of Sick Bay and into the darkened corridors. McCoy twisted a smile at him.

“And for a patient you sure mouth off a lot. Listen, the least you can do is rest up and try to get your mind off all this.”

‘All this?’ ‘All this’ could only mean one thing. Spock. How could anyone suggest he get his mind off Spock when Spock was everything. All he had left? How could anyone--

“Kirk?”

“I--” Jim stuttered, drew his lip between his teeth. His head pounded with the beginnings of a nasty headache, and he took in a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll try.”

“Good.”

They moved quietly through the corridor, only making their way past a few identical doors before pausing in front of one. McCoy tapped the controls, waited for the door to swish open and nodded into the room, whose lights had flashed on. “Here we are.”

Jim turned to him, realizing only then exactly how tired he was. But he tried not to show it. Instead, he leveled a look at the doctor. McCoy had been good to him so far, so maybe…

“Will you please tell me if he wakes up? Or if anything changes? Anything at all.”

McCoy’s shoulders slackened slightly and he looked concerned. Though Jim was starting to think that might be his natural state-- well, concerned and grumpy.

“I’ll tell you,” he promised. And all Jim could manage to do was give McCoy a brusque nod.

“Good night, then,” Jim said. “And-- thank you.” He stepped into the room and turned just as the door closed behind him, before he even heard McCoy respond.

And then Jim was left on the threshold of a room he only recognized because it was exactly like every room he’d stayed in since joining Starfleet, with the addition of a food synthesizer, which he assumed was included in outpatient medical rooms. There was a standard-issue computer console on the standard-issue desk, a chrome divide that half-obscured a small, impeccably made bed, a whole room filled with empty drawers and empty cabinets. He looked around, lost, remembering his promise to get some sleep but finding himself as restless as he was exhausted.

So he walked a little weakly around the perimeter, shoulders slumping now that no one was