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Vulcan's Most Eligible Bachelor

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Art by CanneDeBonbon

***

Jim would've settled for a thank you.

Apparently Vulcans don't just say "thank you" or don't believe in thanking people with words, which is why he's on a transport to Vulcan right now for a month-long stay as an honored guest.

It's all political bullshit. Jim wasn't the one who saved Vulcan, anyway. It was Uhura and Spock who broke through the mining ship's code. It was Chekov and Scotty (and that old Vulcan who showed up with him) who used that vulnerability to override its central computer, disabling it before the red matter could be extracted. Jim was just the one on the drill platform, but since he was the one who launched himself off to save Sulu, who then piloted the Enterprise so it could chase Nero down, Jim's the one getting all the credit.

Vulcans are big on self-sacrifice.

He fusses with his collar. Pike insisted Jim arrive in traditional Vulcan attire, which means a tailored shirt (seriously, he had to stand for an hour in front of a seamstress, and those pins hurt), trousers with an honest-to-god button fly, a pocket watch (okay, that's actually kind of awesome), and gloves. Fucking gloves. Pike took a picture of him in full regalia while Number One laughed into her hand. Jim gave him the finger.

The transport's captain announces their arrival on Vulcan in approximately two hours. Jim's pissed he couldn't convince Bones to come with him. Having him along for company would make the next month go by faster, but Bones cited work and a general dislike of planets that were a hundred degrees on a nice day. The old Vulcan and Spock travel with him instead. Spock still has on his Starfleet uniform. Jim glares at him.

"How come you get to wear that? Aren't you from here?"

"My traditional clothing is at home," Spock tells him. "I will change once I arrive at my father's."

It's easily over ninety degrees on board the transport. The old Vulcan has his own quarters. Jim bunks with Spock. Even with him in the room, Jim's got half a mind to strip down to his underwear. He's sweating his balls off. The back of his shirt is soaked. It isn't noon yet, and already he needs a shower.

It'll be even hotter on the planet, a helpful voice in his head supplies.

Do they have air conditioning there? Jim heard they don't even use aircars, preferring carriages drawn by some giant teddy-bear things. He groans and downs another glass of water.

"Are you excited to be going home?" Jim asks, wiping his mouth and flopping back on the large bench next to Spock, who has his hands folded on his lap and his eyes closed.

"That is not the term I would use," Spock says, "but I will be glad to stand on Vulcan soil once more."

"I really thought that Romulan was going to destroy it," Jim murmurs. He can feel the heat of the drill, the strong vibrations in his legs as he stood on it, the roar of fire in his ears, the stomach-plummeting sensation of free falling.

"That was his intention," Spock tells him, opening his eyes. "I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to you, for your role in saving my planet."

"You would have jumped too, if you'd been in my situation," Jim tells him, which causes Spock to smile faintly. It's a good look on him, better than the haughty expression he wore at Jim's academic hearing.

"That is gracious," Spock says. Jim shrugs and slings an arm over his face.

"I wish we had our own replicator," he complains. "I'm starving."

"A meal will be served soon," Spock tells him and closes his eyes again.

***

Spock sleeps or meditates or...whatever he's doing for most of the ride after they eat, opening his eyes rarely. When the captain comes over the speaker again to say they've arrived, he helps Jim into the jacket ("It is a frock coat, Captain."). The coat collar rises above the collar of his shirt. It's made of something like wool and causes the skin on his neck to itch violently. He finds he can't scratch properly with gloves on. He goes to remove one, tugging on the top of the middle finger to yank it off. Spock raises an eyebrow at him, and Jim stills.

"What?" he asks.

"You will stretch the fabric."

"My neck feels like it's on fire," he says, unsuccessfully alleviating the itch by rubbing at it harder with his still-gloved hand. He takes Spock's advice, however, and leaves it on.

They take a shuttle to the surface. Jim takes one last breath of sort-of-cool air, and then the shuttle door lowers into a ramp. He peers out at the red planet, the reddish-orange sky, and the gathering of Vulcans standing beneath umbrellas. A black carriage with large wooden wheels is harnessed to what looks like a giant beaver. He can't spot any glass in the windows, and it's easily a hundred and twenty degrees in the shade.

"Great," Jim mutters under his breath as he follows Spock down the ramp to where an important-looking Vulcan waits for him.

"Greetings, Captain James Tiberius Kirk of San Francisco. You honor us with your visit."

"Thanks," Jim says, fighting the urge to wipe his forehead. The sweat is already dripping into his eyes. He drops his bag and awkwardly forms his hand into the Vulcan salute.

"I am Lord Soren, the Viscount of Raal," he continues. "If it is agreeable to you, I will see you to the residence you will occupy for the duration of your stay on Vulcan."

"That'd be great," Jim says, again shouldering his duffel bag. Soren turns his head slightly to Jim's right.

"My Lord Spock, we are gratified by your safe return."

Jim quirks an eyebrow at the formal title. His first officer is a lord. Cool.

"Thank you," Spock says.

"I am to conduct you to the home of the Marquess and Marchioness of ShiKahr without delay."

Spock nods.

"My Lord," Soren says again, this time casting his gaze upon the old Vulcan, who Jim notices is standing a few feet behind them. "You will also be shown to the home of the Marquess."

"I understand," he says. Beside him, Jim feels Spock stiffen. He'd ask what that's about, but he's too overheated, and it's kind of funny to see Spock get upset because of someone who isn't Jim.

"If you will," Soren says with a sweeping gesture toward the carriage. He reaches to take Jim's bag, but Jim shakes his head.

"It's cool," he says. "I've got it."

***

The giant beaver is actually called a sehlat, Jim discovers during the bumpy ride from the dock station to ShiKahr, Vulcan's principal city. Even with the sehlat lumbering at full speed, there's hardly enough breeze to make the ride tolerable. Jim attempts to fan himself with his hand until Spock reaches into a small compartment in the door of the carriage and passes him an honest-to-god lace fan.

Seriously? Jim thinks, but he opens it gratefully and is glad for any movement of air.

"You must freeze your ass off on Earth," he says to Spock, because Spock is the only person available. He says it quietly, so as not to disturb the old Vulcan dozing across from them.

"It is cold," Spock agrees.

"It's like a sauna here," Jim says. "I can hardly breathe."

"You will acclimate in a few days' time," Spock says and closes his eyes. Jim supposes that's a sign that he should stop talking. He sighs and watches the passing landscape.

Vulcan is a desert. That's the best word he can think of to describe it, a rolling red desert stretching as far as he can see to the mountains. The scarce plant life grows low to the ground, prickly looking bushes creeping up the side of boulders. It's the sky he can't stomach, almost the same color as the ground. There's no contrast. Even on Tarsus IV, the sky had been turquoise. He wonders where the Romulan ship drilled into the surface, if it was near the city or if they chose a remote location.

***

He must have drifted off during the ride, because he awakens when the carriage stops moving abruptly and the door clicks open.

"Captain Kirk," Soren says. Yawning, Jim climbs out of the carriage and stretches before following Soren to the front door of the house—mansion, he correct himself as he stares up at it. The light-gray structure is three stories tall with a heavily sloping red roof, dormer windows, and an ornate porch which wraps around the first level. It is trimmed with a darker shade of gray, and on its roof are two brick chimneys which look like they're upside down.

Jim's apartment in San Francisco is less than 700 square feet. This is ridiculous.

"I would've been fine at a hotel," he remarks.

"You are a hero to our people," Soren says as they reach the front door. He holds it open for Jim and ushers him inside. "This is Alam, part of the estate of my lord, the Marquess of ShiKahr. He and the Lady Amanda will host a ball tonight in your honor."

The inside of the home is dark, lined with polished wood. To his chagrin, it's almost as hot in here as outside. On the wall is the stuffed head of a cat-like animal with green skin and fangs. Jim doesn't recognize it and would never want to encounter it in the wild. An elaborate carpet stretches from the door to the base of the staircase, which disappears upstairs. The ceiling is coffered, and from it hangs a chandelier. Well, at least they have electricity here. That's something.

"The house is staffed. Simply ring the bell from any room, and someone will attend to you."

"Got it," Jim says.

"At the Lady Amanda's request, the study and bedroom are being kept at human standard temperatures, for your comfort." Soren motions to the first door on his right. "The study is just here. Your bedroom is located on the second floor. Do you require any assistance at this time?"

"Um, no," Jim says, looking at the study door greedily. "I think I'm good for now."

"I will return for you this evening to transport you to the ball. Someone will be sent to assist you with preparations."

"Preparations?" Jim repeats.

"Your attire," Soren clarifies. "Everything will be provided for you."

"Oh."

Soren bows at the waist and turns on his heel, exiting the house. Jim shoulders the door to the study and pushes it open, immediately inhaling air that is at least forty degrees cooler. He strips off the jacket, peels off the gloves by the finger despite what Spock would say, and flops down on a high-backed couch upholstered in purple velvet. It's tufted. It's not comfortable exactly, but it's better than the carriage.

He glances around the room. There's no vid screen, no computer. He pulls out his comm, but there's no signal. He lets it fall to the floor. What the hell is he supposed to do for a month? Maybe they have a library. His interest piqued, he goes in search of one.

***

Jim's a quarter through a collection of Shakespearean sonnets when the old man shows up and stands in the door to the study. He is clothed in all black, except for a gray waistcoat, which accents his light hair.

"Shut that, will you?" Jim says. "It's literally a desert out there."

"Indeed," the man says. He closes the door and steps closer. Jim sits up and marks his place in the book, setting it on a low table beside the couch.

"I'm Jim Kirk," he says. "I saw you on the Enterprise. Sorry I never got your name. I was a little preoccupied."

"I am Lord Spock, the Marquess of ShiKahr."

"Huh," Jim says as Spock removes his outer jacket and hat. He sets them on a chair opposite Jim and stands in front of him. "I didn't realize Spock was a popular name."

"It is not," Spock tells him.

"Oh. So there's just the two of you?"

"Yes."

"How come you've got the same title as Spock's dad?"

Spock chuckles, which is just...weird. Jim scratches the side of his face.

"A son inherits his father's title," Spock explains.

"So..." Jim says, frowning. "The Marquess is your dad?"

"He is."

"But he's not dead," Jim points out. That's how title inheritance works, right? He swears he read about this in introductory Vulcan during his first year at the academy. "How do you have his title already?"

On Spock's lips is the ghost of a smile. He inclines his head.

"I am from your future," Spock says plainly, and he pauses for a moment while Jim's mouth forms into an O of surprise. "I came here through the same black hole which brought Nero."

The planet's heat has definitely compromised his mental faculties, because it's a full minute before Jim understands the implications of what Spock just said.

"W-wait," he stammers, holding out a hand. "Are you telling me that you and Spock, Spock as in my first officer, are actually...the same person?"

"Indeed," Spock says.

"Whoa," Jim says, slumping back against the cushions. Spock chuckles again.

"I am also to inform you that a light meal has been prepared," he says.

Jim flaps his hand in the air. "Hang on, go back to the part where you're the same person as my first officer."

"You must eat," Spock continues, "and then I will assist you in dressing for this evening. There will be ample time for us to speak while you are here."

Jim looks down at his pants. They're clean, and he really doesn't feel like changing. "Can't I just wear what I have on?" he asks.

Spock gives him a once over and raises an eyebrow ever so slightly. "Are these the same clothes in which you traveled to Vulcan?"

"Um," Jim says. "I didn't sleep in them."

"Fresh clothing will be provided." Jim sighs and picks lint from his leg. Spock noticeably sniffs the air. "You should bathe," he says.

"It's hot as balls here," Jim defends, squirming. This time, Spock's eyebrow raise is less subtle. Jim covertly turns his head toward his shoulder and inhales. Maybe Spock is right. He sighs.

"Fine," Jim mutters, standing up. "Lead the way."

***

"So if you're a Marquess or whatever," Jim asks through a mouthful of salad, because the Vulcans are apparently trying to force vegetarianism on him, "how come you're playing valet?"

"It is considered an honor to serve you," Spock explains from where he stands next to an elaborately carved buffet, hands behind his back. It's warm in the dining room. Spock has ordered the house's central computer to lower the temperature, though it's not as low as Jim would like. Also, there's a central computer. He's so going to hack it later and see if he can get a comm signal, at least. "I requested the position."

"Why?" Jim wipes salad dressing from his mouth and sits back.

"I wished to serve an old friend."

Jim considers this. Things must really change in the future if he and Spock start calling each other friends. He's not the type to hold grudges, but the guy did almost get him booted out of Starfleet. "But don't you have royal responsibilities or something?"

"In this timeline, I am technically the eldest of my father's children and first in line for his title," Spock explains. "However, I have no wish to deprive my brother or my younger self of a birthright. Therefore, I intend to relinquish my claim to the title. I will inform my father this evening. Henceforth, I shall be simply Lord Spock."

"Huh," Jim says. "Well, Lord Spock, do you mind sitting with me?"

"I am not hungry."

"I'd like the company..." Jim slides the chair beside him out a few inches. "...and it's easier to talk if we're both sitting."

"I see," Spock says and moves to sit at the opposite end of the long table. Jim sighs. At least it's better than when he was standing against the wall.

"So where you're from," Jim continues, shoving another bite into his mouth, "did we serve together?"

"We did," Spock says. He reaches a gloved hand to his neck momentarily, then drops it to his lap.

"For how long?"

He is slow to answer. "Many years," he says finally.

"I got my ship assignment before we left Earth," Jim tells him. "They're giving me the Enterprise."

"I am pleased to hear it," Spock says, resting his clasped hands on the edge of the table. "To captain a starship is your best destiny."

Jim grins at him. "I don't suppose you're hiding a steak in the kitchen, are you?" he asks hopefully as he spears something beige with the texture of a cucumber.

"I am not," Spock tells him, "but I will arrange for a change in the menu during your visit."

"Seriously?" Jim says, brightening. "That'd be awesome. Salad's okay, but I'm a meat and potatoes guy."

"Your counterpart shared your tastes."

"Hazard of growing up on a farm," Jim laughs. He sets down his fork and pushes the plate away. "Okay. Show me to my corset or whatever."

***

When Pike first told Jim that he was going to spend a month on Vulcan, Jim imagined formal meetings, a tour of the Vulcan Science academy, maybe a dinner or two. He didn't expect to be dressed in black wool and vibrant Tholian silk to complement his eyes, with pants that hugged his ass a little too well.

"You will be a vision," Spock assures him.

"Are you coming with me?" Jim asks.

"I must," Spock says. "It would be untoward of you to arrive without a chaperone."

"You know I'm twenty-five, right?"

"It is our custom," Spock says gently, "unless you are married?"

"Um," Jim says with a frown, "that's a definite no."

"Then I shall accompany you this evening."

Jim gives him an affectionate eye roll. "Fine," he says. "Whatever gets this over the fastest."

Soren arrives with the carriage after sundown, when Jim's stomach is growling loudly because it doesn't consider salad to be dinner. He climbs in and pats the seat next to him when it's clear Spock is planning to sit up with the driver.

"I don't want you leaving my side the entire night," he says when Spock raises an eyebrow.

"That will make dancing rather difficult," Spock tells him, sitting across from him.

"I don't dance," Jim informs him.

"You cannot refuse," Spock says. "It would be considered a slight, and I am certain your card will be filled for the evening. It may be already. It will be presented to you upon your arrival."

"Are you serious?" Jim says, slumping back in his seat as the carriage lurches and begins to move. "Why do I have to dance with anyone?"

"Do make an effort," is all Spock tells him. He smiles at Jim. It is barely visible, but it makes him feel better about the evening in front of him. At least it's cooler now that the suns have set. It's not comfortable by human standards, but compared to the oven-like conditions when they first touched down, this is decent.

He spends the ride to Gahv-kur chewing his fingernails, since it's dark outside and there isn't much to look at as they roll along. Even as they approach the city center, the surroundings are quiet, somewhat brighter from the quaint street lights which line the main thoroughfare. Jim shouldn't be surprised by the size of the house, he thinks as they arrive in its circular drive. After all, it belongs to the town's most important family. It's even taller than the one he occupies, decked out in ornate woodwork with a dome-like structure smack in the center of the roof. He's suddenly glad for the suit, the polished shoes, the gloves he adjusts so the fabric is smooth on the back of his hands. Spock holds out a hand, which he reluctantly accepts as he steps down from the carriage onto a crushed gravel pathway. It crunches underfoot as he walks, his hand looped through Spock's arm.

"What do I do when I get inside?" he asks.

"Simply do as I already instructed," Spock says quietly.

"Okay," Jim says. "I don't want to come across like an asshole."

"As long as you appear gracious, you shall offend no one," Spock assures him as they climb the first step.

Jim swallows and nods, gripping Spock's arm tighter as they ascend the final stair and are level with the two Vulcan men in coattails flanking the entrance.

"Captain James Tiberius Kirk," Spock informs them. One nods and retreats into the house.

"Now what?" Jim whispers.

"We await your introduction," Spock says.

"Is there any alcohol at this thing?"

"We do not consume it."

"Damn," Jim curses.

"However," Spock says, leaning in to speak directly into Jim's ear, "I procured for you a measure of brandy, remembering it to be a favorite, and knowing this evening would likely be uncomfortable for you. I have a flask in my pocket."

"Best valet ever," Jim says, grinning. "I don't see why they have to announce me."

"You are the guest of honor."

Jim sighs. "You know, I wasn't even the one who stopped the drill. It was—"

"Captain James Tiberius Kirk." The voice booms through the house and out to the porch. Jim reddens as a polite silence falls. Spock bows his head to indicate they should enter.

The guests stand in neat rows facing the doorway. They have left an aisle through the room's center, leading to a larger room beyond which is devoid of furniture. Jim presumes it'll be used for dancing. He's never stood in a room full of Vulcans before, let alone Vulcans in traditional dress. He's unprepared for the sight, which is like a scene straight out of Gone with the Wind. The women wear elaborate creations in shades of crimson and copper. The men are clothed in mainly black, except for a few whose jackets resemble tapestries. He is surrounded by affluence. Even the room itself exudes wealth, with a highly polished wood floor and walls hung with red curtains which are probably silk. Is everything on this planet red?

Never releasing his arm, Spock leads Jim across the room to where a tall Vulcan man stands beside a dainty woman in a deep purple gown. She's human, Jim realizes when she turns her head. The flash of her earring makes him look twice at her rounded ear. To their left is a smirking Vulcan with wavy hair tumbling past his shoulders. To their right is a striking man with a gold waistcoat, one hand inside his jacket, lifted chin, and alarmingly familiar eyes—it's Spock, Jim realizes with irritation, snapping his gaze back to the man and woman. The elder Spock stops before them and speaks.

"My lord, may I present Captain James Tiberius Kirk?"

"Greetings," the tall Vulcan says, bowing at the waist. "I am Lord Sarek, the Marquess of ShiKahr. You honor us with your visit."

"I am honored by your invitation," Jim says as Spock told him.

"My wife, the Lady Amanda."

"Ma'am," Jim says with a bow.

"My eldest son, Lord Sybok, the Earl of ShiKahr."

Sybok gives him a flash of teeth and tips his hat.

"You are acquainted with Lord Spock."

"It is a pleasure to be in your presence once more," Spock tells him.

"Pleasure's mine," Jim says automatically.

"I trust your accommodations are satisfactory?" Lord Sarek asks. Spock didn't brief him on this one, so Jim wings it.

"They're great," he says. "Thanks for the air conditioning."

At that, the Lady Amanda gives him the ghost of a smile.

Lord Sarek bows to him again and motions to a band situated between the family and the wall. They strike up a song Jim doesn't recognize, performed on odd-looking stringed instruments, maybe some type of lyre. A Vulcan in a red jacket bows to Spock, who still holds Jim's arm, and presents him with a silver PADD.

"Don't tell me," Jim says.

"All of your dance sets have been claimed for the evening," Spock tells him.

"Give me that brandy," Jim groans. Spock shows him to a bathroom and locks the door behind them, extracting a thin black flask from his pocket.

"You're a lifesaver," Jim says as he unscrews the top and takes a swig. It burns in the best way as it slides down his throat. He smacks his lips together. "Seriously, I could kiss you."

"Now would not be an appropriate time."

"Well, maybe later," Jim says and winks at him. He leans against the wall and drinks again. Spock clears his throat and averts his gaze.

"Your dad said Sybok's the oldest," Jim says.

"He is."

"Then how'd you end up with the title, in your timeline?"

"My father disowned Sybok for lack of propriety."

"You guys are really serious about decorum."

"It is a foundation of our society," Spock explains, "along with logic."

"All of this fanfare seems pretty illogical," Jim says, waving a hand in the air.

"On the contrary," Spock says, meeting his eyes again. "It is logical to be polite, to conduct oneself in an appropriate manner. It has allowed our society to achieve peace, to flourish."

"We could probably take a page out of your book back on Earth," Jim admits. "Might have kept me out of a few fights."

"In all my years, I have never known you to engage in a struggle without valid motivation."

"Exactly how long did we know each other?" Jim asks when there is a knock on the bathroom door. Tucking the flask into his jacket, Jim nods that Spock can unlock it.

"My lord," another red jacket asks. "Is the captain well?"

"Quite," Spock replies, opening the door further, "as you can observe for yourself."

"Lord Sybok is awaiting the first set."

"Ah," Spock says. He secures the door again and allows Jim another two sips before he takes the flask from him and puts it back into his own pocket.

"Rinse your mouth," he instructs. "It would be untoward were you to be discovered having consumed alcohol."

"Seriously?" Jim says, splashing water into his mouth and swishing it around. He spits and accepts the towel Spock hands him, drying his mouth. "Then I owe you double for going to all the trouble. Where'd you get it, anyway?"

"My father is an ambassador as well as a marquis," Spock explains as he straightens Jim's vest and shirt collar. "He keeps a variety of spirits for visiting dignitaries."

"Don't I count?"

"Yes," Spock says, "but as this is a formal event, it is unwelcome. The consumption of such a substance is meant to be done in private, if at all."

"Are you guys this uptight about sex, too?" Jim asks, and he's amused by the flush of green that appears at the tip of each pointed ear. "I'll take that as a yes. How do I look?"

"You are stunning."

Spock sounds so honest that it makes Jim smile. He fidgets with the edge of his jacket until Spock stills him. Again, he places Jim's hand on his forearm and leads him into the crowd.

***

Sybok's method of dancing is unorthodox, Jim is pretty sure. Jim practically has two left feet where coordinated movements are concerned, but he's convinced that Sybok is making up the steps as he goes along. He's got his left hand on Jim's waist, and he's clasping Jim's gloved hand in his right. His fingers knead into Jim's side a little too blatantly, but Sybok just grins wider when Jim quirks an eyebrow at him. Lord Sarek glowers from his seat, though the Lady Amanda regards the guests with a serene expression. Sybok dips him once, twice, and attempts to twirl him around. Jim feels ungraceful and is sweating when Sybok pulls him close again. When the music ends, he steps back and bows, kissing Jim's hand.

"Captain," he says and walks back to his place at Sarek's side. Jim begins to understand why Sybok was disowned in another reality.

"I know he's your brother and all," Jim whispers to Spock before the next song begins, "but that was weird. Who's next?"

"My younger self," Spock replies, to which Jim mutters "great" under his breath. Spock continues scanning down the PADD, "and the Honorable T'Pring."

"T-who?"

Before Spock can explain, Jim feels a light touch on his arm and turns to see his first officer in front of him.

"May I have the honor of your company for this set?" he asks, holding out a hand. Jim frowns. He's still pissed at Spock for bringing him up on academic charges, but at least he's not getting kicked out, and they did just save a planet together.

"Sure," Jim agrees flatly and allows Spock to escort him to the dance floor. He doesn't recognize this song either, but it's slower than the last. Spock's hand is a steady pressure against his waist, and he holds Jim's hand lightly within his as they begin to move. Unlike his brother, Spock is a practiced dancer, and he leads Jim confidently. Jim imagines the look Bones would have on his face if he were here. Even better, he decides, would be the looks on the faces of the academic review board if they could see the two of them.

Jim did cheat, if he's being honest with himself. Maybe it's time to clear the air. They are going to serve together for a few years, after all.

"Sorry about your test," he says lamely.

"I am not," Spock says to Jim's surprise. "I might not have made your acquaintance had the situation been otherwise."

"Oh," Jim says, not sure how to reply. He changes the subject. "I've never been to Vulcan before. When was the last time you were home?"

"Apart from our rescue mission, this is my first return to Vulcan since I enlisted in Starfleet."

"You're kidding," Jim says.

"Vulcans do not make it a point to —"

"Spock," Jim interrupts, feeling a little more normal, "you honestly didn't see your family for a few years?"

"That is correct."

Jim is quiet for a pause, aware of other couples brushing past them. He notices the others aren't talking, simply moving gracefully about the room, but he can't stop his mouth from running. It keeps him from thinking about the fact that he's slow dancing with his second in command.

"I probably shouldn't call you Spock, huh?" he says. "What am I supposed to call you?"

"'My Lord' is the preferred mode of address."

"I'm not calling you that on the bridge," Jim says.

"I would not expect you to, Captain."

"Jim."

"Pardon?"

"We're dancing," Jim explains. "You have your hand on my waist. It's just Jim right now."

"Then perhaps," Spock says, leaning in to whisper into his ear, "it would not be untoward for you to address me by my given name."

Spock's fingers curl gently around the side of his hand. Jim laments the lack of alcohol on this planet, because this is possibly the most surreal experience of his life, and there was that one time at the Shipyard where he got so drunk he tried to blow an Andorian via antenna. It's hot in the ballroom, he's sweating through his shirt, and his first officer might have just come onto him. He's grateful for the few swallows of brandy he managed before Spock forced him out of the bathroom.

The younger Spock's expression is unreadable, carefully neutral, like every other time Jim has looked at him. It is still neutral when he bows to Jim and escorts him back to the edge of the dance floor, where a young woman stands waiting. Spock takes his time releasing Jim's hand and walks away swiftly.

Jim focuses on her. She's about Spock's age, with the same dark hair and eyes. He's not sure how he missed her in the crowd. Unlike the others, she wears a gown the color of pearls and sheer olive gloves past her elbows. She makes no attempt to conceal the visual sweep she makes of his body.

"Captain Kirk," the elder Spock says, "may I present the Honorable T'Pring of Raal."

"Captain." Her eyes have locked with his. "Will you give me the honor of your next set?"

Even if he turned her down, Jim is convinced T'Pring would insist on him dancing with her anyway, so he takes her arm when she offers it. Her style of dance is similar to Spock's, though more rigid. She maintains a noticeable distance and speaks to him plainly.

"You are human," she says. "That is not desirable."

"Um," he says, annoyed. "Thanks."

"However," she adds, "you possess great courage and honor. This makes your humanity...tolerable."

"You know how to charm a guy," he tells her. She doesn't speak again, so he concentrates on the high angle of her eyebrows.

She curtseys low when they part.

"I hope you will permit me to correspond with you," she says, and he watches her walk away without waiting for his answer.

Jim wipes his forehead with a handkerchief Spock produces, eyeing the floor for the next Vulcan who'll come along and claim him.

"How many more dance slots are there?" he asks.

"Seventeen," Spock says.

Groaning, Jim mutters under his breath, "This is the first time I've wished for one of Bones's hypos."

"Are you unwell?" Spock asks, turning toward him, and Jim belatedly remembers that Vulcans possess sharp hearing.

"No," Jim says quickly, then reconsiders. "Unless that'll get me out of dancing?"

***

"I think my shoes are permanently stuck to my feet," Jim laments, tugging at the right one unsuccessfully. It won't budge past his heel. He falls back on the bed and lets his legs dangle off the side. "I give up."

"Allow me," Spock says, lifting Jim's ankle in his hand. He unties the laces, pinches where the boot meets Jim's achilles tendon, and slides it off easily. He does the same with the other foot. Jim happily stretches his toes.

"I've never danced that much in my life," he says, rubbing his right foot where it has begun to cramp. The bed is blessedly soft. It's the best thing about this planet so far. "I need a shower."

"I will draw you a bath," Spock says.

"Don't you have sonics?" Jim says, pushing up on his elbows. "I can just jump in, jump out."

"It will only take a few minutes," Spock says in reply. He retreats to the adjoining bath, and Jim hears the water turn on.

"Not too hot," he calls, lying back against the mattress and yawning. He's half asleep when Spock closes the tap and the room is again silent. He feels Spock pull him to a sitting position, ease his feet to the floor. He allows Spock to lead him blindly to the tub, but his eyes fly open when he feels Spock's fingers begin to work his shirt buttons.

"Um..."

"You are tired," Spock says. "If you allow me to help, you will be able to sleep sooner."

That's...logical, and he is tired.

"Okay," Jim agrees with a sigh. He lets his eyes fall closed again, feels Spock's hands ease the shirt from his shoulders. He kicks out of his trousers and drawers and steps into the water. It's body temperature, and he sinks into it up to his neck.

It's dark in the room, lit only by a single candle flickering on the windowsill. The darkness somehow helps his body to cool. He listens to the alien-sounding insects outside, not quite like crickets, but with a similar cadence. With a thin cloth, Spock begins to wash his back and shoulders. The fibers are rough, but it feels good as Spock moves it over his skin. Jim arches into his hand.

"Can I ask you something?" Jim cranes his neck as Spock washes along his hairline.

"You may ask me anything you wish."

Jim swallows and opens his eyes. Spock is watching him, face glowing orange in the candlelight.

"Where you came from, in your timeline...did I know my father?"

***

No one has tucked Jim into bed since he was five and still allowed Winona to do it. She tried a few times when he first got back from Tarsus, but it became easier just to sit up with him and watch old movies when he couldn't sleep. She'd lay a blanket on him if he finally dozed off on the couch; sometimes he'd feel a kiss she'd press to his forehead. It made him feel like a child, but he wasn't a child anymore after what he'd seen. Sometimes he still can't sleep when he thinks about the sky.

Spock doesn't make him feel like a child as he draws the sheet up to Jim's chest. His hand is a gentle press and then it is gone.

"I wish you a restorative sleep," he says. Jim falls asleep to the image of his father applauding his graduation.

***

The letter is waiting for him, neatly folded beside a glass of geffa juice when he stumbles into the dining room for breakfast. Spock is already seated at the far side of the table, reading from a PADD. He stands as Jim enters, but Jim waves him back into his seat as he falls in across from him, yawning.

"Please tell me you have coffee," Jim says, unfolding the letter and eyeing the glass of juice suspiciously.

"I remembered your fondness for it," Spock says. "The chef is brewing a pot."

"You," Jim says, pointing a finger at him, "are rapidly becoming one of my favorite people."

Spock's mouth twitches, and he resumes his reading. Jim scans the letter. My dear Captain Kirk, it begins. It is written in a small, neat script. Jim squints to read it.

I hope you will forgive me for presuming to write you without permission. Last night's ball will long be remembered by those who had the favor of your company. For me, the ceremonies of the evening were of great significance. The object of this letter is to ask your permission to visit you in friendship, with a view to closer ties should my society prove agreeable. I will not request an answer in writing but shall call upon you tomorrow morning.

Yours with much esteem, Spock

"What the heck is this?" he asks, holding it up. He tosses it across the table to Spock, who folds it flat on the table and skims it.

"He desires to court you," Spock says, re-folding the letter and placing it in the center of the table.

Jim chokes. "Court me?" he repeats. "As it courtship? Like dating?"

Spock frowns. "You informed me that you are promised to no one."

"Well, yeah, but I didn't mean—"

"Are you betrothed?"

"Please tell me this is a joke," Jim says.

"You are not obligated to accept any proposals you receive."

"Hang on," Jim says. "What do you mean proposals?"

"You are considered a hero among the Vulcan people," Spock says, steepling his hands before him. "Surely you understood that the intention of the ball last night was to introduce you to Vulcan society? To claim you as a mate would be a great—"

"Okay," Jim says, putting up a hand. "You can stop right there."

"You are upset by this," Spock observes.

"What gave you that impression?"

"You are free to refuse any undesired advances."

"I don't want to offend him," Jim says. "He's going to be my first officer. Should I just write him back and say thanks but no thanks?"

"If you write to him, it should be in the affirmative. My advice to you is to put the letter out of your mind. He will visit tomorrow, and you can give him your answer at that time."

"Okay," Jim says, slumping in his chair. "You're probably right."

A Vulcan woman in an apron enters with a steaming clay pot and pours coffee into a small round cup. Jim inhales deeply and smiles.

"Thanks," he says. She leaves the pot, and he brings the cup to his mouth. "Cheers."

Spock lifts an eyebrow and watches him take the first sip.

"Hot," Jim says, exhaling quickly, "but not bad. Another four or five cups like this, and I might be awake for the day."

***

Spock suggests he take Jim on a walking tour of ShiKahr. Jim's about to protest in favor of air conditioning when Spock mentions that perhaps it would be a better activity with one of the young Vulcans who wishes to win Jim's favor.

Reluctantly, Jim pulls on the lightest shirt and pants he has. He slings the jacket over his arm, hopeful that Spock won't force him to wear it. Isn't he entitled to a little cultural sensitivity? He shoves the letter from his first officer into a drawer underneath a pile of shirts and vows not to think of it any more today.

At the base of the stairs, Spock waits for him in a gray suit with an umbrella in hand.

"Does it actually rain here?" Jim asks, sliding on his sunglasses as he hops off the last step.

"Rarely," Spock says. "This parasol is intended to shield you from our suns."

"Ah," Jim says, shaping his hand like a phaser and pointing at Spock. "Logical."

It turns out Alam isn't located as far from the city center as Jim first believed. He was either disoriented last night from the heat, or sehlats make terrible draft animals. The house sits on a generous plot of land, but the neighboring houses aren't far off, just a few minutes away by foot. They walk side by side beneath the parasol. Although it is still early morning, Vulcan is already intolerably warm. The back of Jim's shirt is soaked through before they reach the first house, and he's panting when they pass the second.

"This is Igen-kur. The late Marquess of ShiKahr, my grandfather, had constructed this home for his wife," Spock tells him, pointing to it, "as a bonding gift. She preferred to live just outside of town."

"Some wedding present," Jim exclaims. "On Earth, you're lucky if you get a new replicator."

"That is practical," Spock says. He stops walking and takes a canteen of water from his jacket.

"Man, you just keep getting better," Jim says, taking it from him and drinking willingly. He takes three gulps and offers it to Spock, who refuses.

"The house was, in turn, given to me upon my bonding."

"So you lived here?"

"When we were not off planet," Spock says.

"Must be weird..." Jim says, leaning over to rest his hands on his thighs. He tries to take a deep breath, but all he gets is fire. He holds the hot air in his lungs and exhales slowly. "...knowing it's not your house in this reality."

"It will be mine again," Spock says. "Perhaps."

Jim rises and moves another few steps along the pathway, but Spock touches his shoulder. "We will wait until you are ready. We have no appointments today."

"Isn't there a hypo you can give me, a tri-ox compound or something?"

"It is necessary that your body adjust to our conditions," Spock says. "Were you planning to stay only a day or two, a tri-ox compound would be logical; but you are a guest here for a month. It is better to allow you to acclimate."

"I feel a little like I did when I visited the mountains in Colorado," Jim tells him.

"That is due to our lower oxygen levels," Spock says. "If you feel nauseated at any time, inform me, and we will return to the house."

"It's not that." Jim curls and stretches his hands. They feel weak. "It's like I'm doing everything at half strength. My legs are like lead."

"We will stop for tea in town," Spock says. "The shops are cooled."

"I don't suppose the tea is iced?"

"That can be arranged."

"Awesome," Jim says.

"Indeed. It is fortunate that you are visiting during our fairer season."

"This is fairer?"

A narrowing of Spock's eyes indicates a smile; he shakes his head lightly. "You were never keen on Vulcan during the hotter months."

"Oh, so I visited you out here?"

"You did."

"Was I smart enough to bring shorts?"

The walk into town takes another twelve minutes due to Jim's slower pace. He's caught by the city's layout, not on a grid pattern as as Earth, but in concentric circles with roads that cross at the cardinal directions. From the air, Jim imagines it looks like a giant compass. The outer circle consists of houses, not as large as the one where he's staying, but still bigger than anything he lived in back on Earth. As they progress inward, the houses grow smaller and shorter, built more closely together yet still elegant. Everything is so...clean: the Vulcans they pass who nod politely at him, the sweeping sidewalks which curve before each residence, even the streets. Not a thing looks to be out of place. This is probably what the inside of Spock's head looks like, methodical and organized and a little bit boring.

The tea shop is a shop only in the sense that it sells tea. It resembles a formal living room, and for a few seconds when they first enter, Jim wonders if they've walked into someone's home accidentally. There are no menus, only a server with a white towel draped over his forearm. Spock says something in Vulcan—if Jim has translated correctly, he's just ordered a pot of spice tea—and the server brings two cups and a steaming pot.

"It will cool," Spock says, pouring Jim's cup first, "and I have asked that he fetch you ice."

"I don't suppose you want to come be my first officer?" Jim quips.

"If I were your first officer," Spock says knowingly, "I would not be the one to fetch you tea."

***

Jim drapes an arm over the edge of the bathtub and water drips from his fingertips. Spock ran the bath cooler than he did last night, and Jim luxuriates in it.

"You guys should really look into swimming pools," he says.

"Impractical," Spock says from his bench beside the soaking tub. "The rate of evaporation—"

"You guys are smart. I'm sure you could figure something out." Jim soaks a cloth in water and places it over his forehead. "I think I'll spend the next three weeks in here."

"Your suitors may find it shocking."

"Good," Jim says. He sinks below the surface, letting the water fill his ears, and listens to the hum of nothingness. It's the closest he can get to the hum of space. He stays like that, floating, until his lungs begin to burn. A hand grasps his shoulder and brings him back up.

"What?" he says, sputtering and wiping his eyes.

Spock looks at him with a guarded expression, then softens, taking the cloth from Jim's hand and soaping it.

"Allow me," he says and begins to wash Jim's back. Jim is too tired to refuse. He draws his knees to his chest and leans over them, once again closing his eyes. Spock's movements are precise. He lathers Jim's skin in slow circles, but soon the cloth falls away, and he is pressing harder into Jim's right shoulder.

"You are tense," he explains. Jim inhales sharply against the pain—it hurts, but it feels so good—and moans when Spock's fingers find the knot in his muscle and begin to knead it.

"It's like you know all my sweet spots," Jim groans when Spock moves to his other shoulder. He rubs until the tension has eased and Jim slumps forward, boneless. Again taking the cloth in hand, Spock finishes cleaning Jim's back and neck, then wrings out the cloth and lays it to dry. He rises from the bench, and Jim experiences a split second of disappointment.

"You're done already?" he asks.

"You should rest before the evening meal" Spock says, rising. "It will help you to acclimate. Do you require assistance dressing?"

Jim shakes his head. "I'll meet you downstairs for dinner."

"I will wake you in an hour," Spock says and leaves abruptly. Jim presses his face into his knees.

***

"What time is he getting here?" Jim asks, pacing the study. He tries to recall the contents of the note he shoved into a drawer yesterday but fails. He could go dig it out, but he really doesn't want to re-read it.

"He did not specify a time," Spock says from the settee, laying down his book. "He merely stated that he would call on you this morning. We define morning as any time prior to our midday meal. It may be a few hours yet."

"So I just have to stand around in this jacket until he shows up?"

"You are free to sit down," Spock tells him, sounding a little exasperated, though he gives Jim a small smile.

"You're a smartass," Jim says, falling in next to him. Spock raises an eyebrow but stays put. "What are you reading about, anyway?"

"Temporal mechanics," Spock replies.

"Sexy."

"Intelligence often is," Spock says, and he meets Jim's gaze for a moment. He frowns. "May I make a personal inquiry?"

"Sure."

"Your eyes, were they blue at birth?"

"Heh," Jim says, rubbing his neck. "Not exactly."

"Corrective lenses?"

"Elective surgery."

"Oh," Spock says, looking down at the closed book in his hands.

"Did you like my eyes better before or something?" Jim asks.

"I found your eyes to be a pleasing shade of hazel."

"I haven't thought about it in years. It was a stupid thing I did on a whim when I was a kid," Jim says, leaning back and propping a boot up on the coffee table. He expects Spock will correct him, but he doesn't, so Jim leaves his foot there. "Swiped my stepdad's credit chip and everything. He was pissed. I get a lot of compliments on the color, though."

"It is an unusual shade," Spock says after a long pause.

"Yeah, well," Jim says, biting the inside of his cheek. "It's nothing like my dad's."

He's grateful for the knock on the front door when it comes, because it's been years since Jim has talked about this openly, and he really doesn't want to have this conversation now. Spock straightens his jacket and goes out into the hallway. Jim purposefully sits more crookedly on the settee.

"Lord Spock."

Jim rolls his eyes at the announcement, and then both Spocks are entering the room. The younger one remains by the door with a hat held to his chest, while his older counterpart resumes his seat beside Jim.

"Good morning," the younger Spock says, looking at him openly. "I trust you received my letter?"

Is this the part where Jim is supposed to say he's not interested? His mouth hangs open, but beside him, Spock clears his throat, so Jim says, "I did."

"Will you allow me to sit with you?" Spock inquires. Jim looks down at the settee, which is fully occupied by him and the elder Spock.

"Um," he says and motions to the chairs opposite them. The older Spock stands and guides Jim to a funny looking chair beside a (thankfully unlit) fireplace. It seats two, but in opposite directions, with an arm rest between them.

"Sit here," Spock instructs in Jim's ear. Jim falls into it with a frown. Spock glances to his younger self and nods. The younger Spock sits as well and folds his hands neatly on his lap.

"Are you enjoying your stay on Vulcan?" he asks.

Jim tries to conjure an appropriate response. Spock's head is ducked, and Jim has a perfect view of his ear. "Yes," is all he comes up with, but Spock appears satisfied. He regards Jim openly, though his face is neutral. "We took a walk this morning, into town," Jim continues.

"It was quite pleasant this morning," Spock says. "One hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit, by Terran reckoning."

"Yes," Jim replies flatly. Though Jim's got his back to him, he can feel the elder Spock's eyes boring into the back of his neck. "It was," he continues. "Really lovely."

"I hope the ball was to your satisfaction."

"Never been to one like it," Jim says honestly.

"I have attended many."

"Makes sense, with you being nobility and all."

"I have never considered it."

Jim taps his fingers on the armrest. "So," he says, chewing the inside of his cheek. "Are you excited about the ship assignment?"

"I am pleased to have been assigned to such a prestigious mission, Captain."

"Jim."

"Captain," Spock repeats. His eyes dart from Jim to his elder self and back. They fall to Jim's hand on the arm rest. "I must take my leave of you. Will you permit me to visit you again tomorrow?"

"You're going already?" Jim asks.

"I have an errand to attend to on my mother's behalf."

"Oh," Jim says. "Cool."

"But if you will permit it—"

"Yeah," Jim says hurriedly. "That's fine. I'll see you tomorrow."

Spock brightens and glances to his lap.

"I look forward to it," he says quietly.

The elder Spock comes to stand behind him after his younger counterpart leaves.

"That wasn't so bad," Jim says.

"If you intended to refuse him," Spock says dryly, "this would have been the opportune time."

"Shit," Jim says. "I didn't just get Vulcan engaged, did I?"

"You did not," Spock says. "Had that happened, you would be quite aware."

"Fancy ring?" Jim guesses.

"And a preliminary pair bond," Spock finishes, "though the family ring is impressive."

Jim recalls his first-year course on telepathic species and something Bones muttered when Jim boarded the transport about Vulcan voodoo. He remembers something he's been meaning to ask all morning.

"So where'd you hide the central computer around here?"

***

The good news is the central computer is accessible from the study, so Jim doesn't have to endure hundred-plus temperatures while he dicks with code. The bad news, however, is that it's written largely in Vulcan, and he's a little rusty. Okay, a lot rusty. Without his comm, he can't message Uhura for help. Since he can't message Uhura, he can't read half the shit the computer spews out. He resigns himself to asking Spock for help, even though it means fessing up to what he's doing.

"I just want to call a few friends back home," he explains when Spock sees him on his stomach on the floor, poking at the touch screen concealed in the lowest level of a bookshelf.

"You had simply to ask me," Spock informs him. "This house is occupied only when the family is entertaining dignitaries, so the signal is switched off. That it has not been activated for your use was merely an oversight." He kneels beside Jim and taps the screen a few times. Jim's comm blinks as it downloads new messages.

"Huh," Jim mutters, getting off the ground and rocking back on his heels as he scrolls through eleven messages just from Bones. "Well, I feel like an idiot."

***

"Hey," he says quietly, leaning against the wall when Bones finally picks up. Spock is across the room from him reading, and Jim hopes he's speaking low enough that Spock can't overhear.

"That took you long enough," Bones gripes. "For a few days there, I thought you were dead."

"Just overheated," Jim says. "I didn't have any comm signal until this morning."

"Convenient. How's it going?"

"They're trying to court me."

"Come again?"

"Court me," Jim says. "Apparently, I'm Vulcan's most eligible bachelor."

Though the signal is interrupted by static, Jim can hear Bones snickering.

"It's not funny," he sulks.

"Oh, but it is," Bones says. "It's very, very funny."

"You wouldn't say that if you were the one getting hit on!" Jim says in a tone that he hopes properly conveys the dirty look he's shooting Bones through his comm.

"How terrible can it be? I've seen some of those Vulcan women. They're not half bad."

"It's not just the women," Jim says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "I swear every Vulcan under forty danced with me the first night I was here."

"Since when does that bother you?"

"It doesn't, but—"

"Please tell me you had to dance with your favorite hobgoblin," Bones interrupts.

Jim catches his face in his hand. "Bones," he says flatly.

"I'll be damned, you did!" Bones exclaims through a laugh. "Hell, that might have been worth the trip. Wait 'til I tell Christine."

Jim squirms where he stands. He can already hear the rumor mill churning away. "Please don't," he says pathetically. "I'll never live it down."

"If you're this uncomfortable, tell them you want to return to Earth early."

"I don't want to offend them," Jim says, glancing to Spock. His focus remains on the book he's got spread across his knees. "They're really polite, just...eager."

"Then tell them you're not interested."

"About that..." Jim swallows. "I might have accidentally given Spock the impression he's allowed to come back tomorrow."

"How did you accidentally manage that?"

"I wasn't thinking."

"Obviously not. You'll be the first married command team in Starfleet history."

"I'm not marrying my first officer!" Jim says a little too loudly. Across the room, Spock lifts his head. Jim whips around, hopeful that Spock didn't catch him staring. "I'm not," he says again, voice once more in check.

"Is the room tapped?" Bones asks. "Why do you keep whispering?"

"I have a chaperone," Jim confides, and he can hear Bones laughing.

"For your protection or theirs?"

***

Spock's next visit is just as awkward as his first, as is the third a few days later. It coincides with a letter Jim receives from T'Pring, which merely states her intention to visit that afternoon.

"If it is agreeable to you," she says, sitting before him in a deep blue gown which is alarmingly similar to his eye color, "I wish for you to accompany me to view my work. I believe you will find it impressive."

"Your work?" Jim repeats.

"My father is the director of the Department of Interstellar Propulsive Research and Development." She says this without any change in her expression, yet Jim is keenly aware of her pride. "From a young age, I have assisted with his research. Now, I lead my own development team." Jim's read about the Vulcan Science Academy's contributions to ship development. There are many facets of the Enterprise which wouldn't exist if it weren't for Vulcan research. For the first time since exiting the shuttlecraft, he feels a surge of genuine interest.

He's doubly happy when they arrive (via carriage, which takes half a lifetime) to discover that the facility is air conditioned and modern: clean white walls, not a curtain to be seen. The technicians wear black lab coats and carry PADDs. With a nod to T'Pring, a doorman grants them access to a door marked "restricted." She walks purposefully beside Jim, close but never touching. He's all too aware of Spock behind him and fusses with his collar. At the end of a long hallway is another door and another doorman who clearly recognizes T'Pring and lets them pass. It leads to a brightly lit hangar alive with activity. If the Vulcans notice Jim, they do not react to his presence. He follows T'Pring up a metal staircase, onto scaffolding which encircles a strange looking craft.

"This is a prototype," T'Pring explains, moving a gloved hand over the exterior. "It is unlike any ship ever commissioned. One day, it shall be the fastest we have constructed."

"And you're in charge of this project?" he asks, peering in through the window to the pilot's seat.

"I am," she says, lifting her chin. "This ship is being developed for the purpose of transporting hazardous materials. It can be operated by a single pilot, and would be easy to overpower. Therefore, we are currently developing a pilot recognition system. However, it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the technology is suitable for practical use."

"That's smart, though," Jim admits and grins at Spock. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"Indeed," Spock says, regarding the ship fondly.

Jim turns to her and touches T'Pring's arm. "Can we go inside?" Spock clears his throat and steps between them, so Jim is forced to drop his hand. The satisfaction which crosses T'Pring's face doesn't escape Jim, however. She bows her head and motions for them both to follow her. They return to ground level, to the base of a ramp which leads into the ship's interior.

"After you," he says to her.

"If you recall, Captain Kirk," T'Pring says, leaning toward him, "it was I who invited you on today's outing."

The inner walkways are narrow, but the ship's ceiling is tall enough that Jim doesn't feel claustrophobic, even when the three of them crowd behind the pilot's chair. Spock places a hand on the back of it and momentarily shuts his eyes.

"You okay?" Jim murmurs, gripping his shoulder.

"I am fine." Spock steps away and clasps his hands behind his back. Jim shrugs and rounds on T'Pring with a grin.

"I don't suppose you'd let me test out the chair?" he asks.

"As you wish," she says, gesturing toward it.

He falls into it, realizing too late the back isn't yet padded. His spine connects with the metal, and he winces.

"Something wrong?" she asks.

"My back," he says. He feels her hands on him, gently rubbing the soreness away. "A little— yeah, right there." Must be the mechanic in her. She works his back expertly. He lets his chin drop to his chest. "That feels awesome, my lady, seriously."

T'Pring steps into his peripheral vision with a bemused expression. The hands continue to work his shoulders.

Oh.

"Um..." Jim stands up abruptly and occupies himself with straightening his jacket. "Thanks," he mutters to Spock. "That's...much better."

Spock nods at him, giving him a funny half-smile. Jim ignores the weird flutter his stomach makes and coughs, sidling up next to T'Pring, who looks pleased when he does.

"So," he purrs as he ushers her further along the walkway. "Pilot recognition, huh?"

***

He can feel Spock's hands on his back the entire ride home.

It's not like that was the first time Spock touched him. There have been the baths, Jim recollects, and the way he carefully adjusts Jim's shirt collar, just allowing his thumbs to brush Jim's neck. He knows Vulcans are touch telepaths, but Spock doesn't mean anything by it, Jim is sure.

Why is he thinking about this?

T'Pring sits across from him, maintaining eye contact for the duration. Spock is beside him, eyes closed as usual, but whether he's asleep or just resting, Jim isn't sure. His hands are folded on his lap. Jim casts a glance at them, then winks at T'Pring. It's hot in the carriage. He remembers the compartment of fans and gets one out, absentmindedly waving it at his face as his mind wanders.

Jim's been touched by a guy before. There was Gary, who occupied most of Jim's first year at academy, and Bones—though that's always been strictly platonic and in the interest of medicine. Having his best friend treat him for an allergic reaction to newfangled Risian condoms was a lot less embarrassing than letting an entire hospital staff stare at his junk.

"One day, they'll invent a hypo for stupidity," Bones told him. "Until then, I have the supreme pleasure of treating yours."

His eyes wander to Spock's hands again, but he snaps them back to T'Pring's face. It's the heat, he decides. He hasn't had anything to drink in an hour, not since they left the facility. It's hot out, and he's not fully acclimated. His brain still isn't used to the lower oxygen levels, so it's possible he's delusional. He probably invented the look Spock gave him. That isn't how you look at someone you just met. It doesn't make sense that Spock would look at him that way. It isn't...logical.

Ha. The heat has definitely gotten to him.

Jim has plans to nap in the study when they get back to the house, so he's grateful T'Pring doesn't linger. Spock climbs out first and offers a hand to Jim, who doesn't take it and jumps down without assistance.

"May I call upon you tomorrow?" T'Pring asks at the carriage door.

"Yeah, definitely," he hears himself say, and she presses a square of paper into his hand. (It contains her personal comm ID, he discovers later.)

"You claim you are opposed to being courted," Spock says once the carriage is well out of hearing range, "and yet you continue to encourage your suitors."

"I'm not encouraging anyone," Jim says a little snappishly. Spock blinks but doesn't reply. "Sorry," Jim says. "I'm just overheated. Let's go inside."

***

Pike calls while Jim is supposed to be napping.

"How's it going?" he asks.

"Did you know they were going to try and date me?" Jim accuses.

"You didn't read the documentation I sent to your PADD before you left Earth, did you."

"I'm being hit on by my first officer. Doesn't that qualify as sexual harassment or something? I'm pretty sure it violates the anti-fraternization regulations, at least."

"Don't start quoting regulations at me, kiddo. You're on Vulcan, staying as a guest of his family, and he's acting in accordance with their culture," Pike says. "Also, you agreed to the trip."

"Sir—"

"Just give them all that Jim Kirk grin."

"Can't you arrange for me to come home sooner?"

"No, I think this is good for you," Pike says, chuckling. "Besides, if you marry into Vulcan nobility, you'll never have to worry about piloting bad equipment. You'll probably get first dibs at anything the VSA is developing."

"I'm glad you think this is so funny."

"Just don't elope," Pike continues. "I expect to give you away at the altar on the big day."

"Can I be reprimanded for telling my commanding officer to go and—"

"Yes," Pike cuts him off. "So don't. What do you have going on tonight?"

"Some dinner thing at Spock's parents' house."

"Try to have a good time. Oh, and take a few holos while you're there. Number One expects a slideshow when you get back."

***

"Can't you just say I'm busy?" Jim asks as Spock polishes his shoes, a pointless task, Jim thinks. They'll only get dusty again the minute they step outside. He doesn't know what the material is. They're not leather—Vulcans are apparently anti-animal products as well as consuming meat—probably a synthetic something-or-other. Whatever the material, it's surprisingly breathable. Walking has been easier the past two days, and Spock has had him do a lot of walking.

"I cannot," Spock says, moving a chamois over the toe. "When Lord Spock inquired as to whether you would be free this evening, your reply was, 'I guess.' That translates as affirmative."

"Ugh," Jim groans, covering his face with his hands. "I should just let you speak for me."

"Unorthodox," Spock says, "though perhaps wise."

"So what's this evening entail, exactly?" Jim asks through a crack in his fingers.

"You are to dine with Lord Spock and his parents," Spock says. "Afterwards, you will be invited to sit with the family for the evening. There will be entertainment."

"Not more dancing?" Jim says in distress.

"Unlikely," Spock assures him. "There will undoubtedly be music, perhaps diversions. Do you play chess?"

"Yeah," Jim says, dropping his hands. "I'm pretty good, actually."

Spock gives him a faint smile. "If you make it known to my younger self that you play," he says, "I am certain he will indulge you in a game."

"How long do we have to stay there?"

"Two Vulcan standard hours," Spock says, "perhaps three."

"I don't suppose they gave you free reign over the menu?"

"I am afraid you will have to endure vegetarian fare for the evening." Spock's voice sounds slightly apologetic. "However, when we return home, I can have something prepared for you."

"I'll be too tired by that point," Jim says, "but thanks. You're possibly the most thoughtful person I've ever met."

"It is nothing," Spock says, waving away his words.

Jim sinks to the floor next to the bed and looks up at him. "Were you this nice to the other me?"

"I should hope he thought so," Spock replies quietly. "You should not sit that way. You will crease your suit."

"A couple minutes won't hurt," Jim says. "Besides, we have a whole carriage ride to endure." He leans his head back against the spread and closes his eyes. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Did I ever get married, in my other life?"

Spock takes a moment before he replies. "You did."

"Was I happy?"

"Yes."

"You sound pretty sure about that."

"I knew you well."

"Was I this age?" Jim asks.

"I prefer not to answer," Spock says. He sets down the shoes and begins folding the chamois into quarters.

"Come on," Jim says, "what harm will it do to tell me? My life is already significantly different from what it was supposed to be. Is it that big of a deal if you tell me how old I was when I got married?"

Placing the chamois next to him, Spock joins his hands and rests them on his knees.

"You were thirty-eight standard years of age when you married," he says finally.

"Big wedding?"

"It was quite an affair." Spock stands and extends a hand to pull Jim to his feet. "However, I will give you no more information today."

"You're no fun," Jim says, but he laughs.

***

Jim finds out the hard way that he'd rather sit in a sehlat-drawn carriage for twelve hours straight than endure another dinner with Spock's dad. It feels like Sarek is watching him constantly. Every time Jim looks up from the brownish mush he pushes around his plate with no intention of consuming, he sees two dark Vulcan eyes regarding him. The first couple times, he merely presses his lips together and nods, but now he's afraid to look down the table at him. Jim wonders if Sarek is sizing him up or if he's just an attentive host. He takes a bite of the mush out of obligation and holds his breath as he forces himself to swallow. The next time he looks up, Sarek has shifted his gaze to Sybok, who winks between mouthfuls.

It's funny that Sybok hasn't written to him or stopped by. He's easily the most expressive Vulcan that Jim has ever met, and he's adept at flirtation. His manners would be considered forward even on Earth; god only knows what the Vulcans must think of him. Jim is aware of Spock, who sits across from him and is staunchly focused on his plate. He doesn't look at Jim while they eat. The elder Spock sits to Jim's left, but he doesn't speak to Jim, so Jim holds his tongue.

They pass the meal in awkward silence, though it's better than being drilled for information, which Jim suspects is what Terran families might do: ask him about his mom and his plans for the future, where his brother is now, where he sees himself in five years.

After the plates are cleared away, the family retires to the drawing room. The younger Spock walks beside Jim into the room and moves to an instrument resembling a piano.

"Will you sit with me?" he asks, lowering himself onto the bench and resting his fingers along the white keys. "You may select the music."

With a glance to the elder Spock, who indicates that Jim should sit with a quick movement of his eyes, Jim reluctantly sinks onto the bench. He taps the playbook and skims the selections—there are too many to read them all—finally settling upon a song by Debussy that he can sort-of hum because it's used in so many of his favorite vids. Spock isn't a professional musician by any means. He stumbles over a few chords, but he's better than Jim, who sits at his shoulder and watches as his fingers move over the keys.

The Lady Amanda speaks quietly with the elder Spock, who sits across from her and Sarek on the far side of the room. Sybok perches on the edge of a chair and watches Jim and Spock with the ghost of a grin on his face.

"An odd song choice," Sybok says, passing a glass between his hands, "as Vulcan has no moon."

"It is a Terran song," Spock defends.

"I suppose it's appropriate, seeing as you are half human," Sybok finishes. Jim notes the sudden tension in Spock's hands, a rigidity that causes the skin across his knuckles to strain over them. His hands appear ghastly white, but he doesn't stop playing. If anything, his precision increases. Jim frowns at Sybok, who smirks, and for the first time, Jim wonders what Spock's childhood must have been like on this planet.

"This song's one of my favorites," he whispers. It's only a white lie, and it does the trick, because Spock visibly relaxes once Jim has spoken. There is a softening in his face as the music swells, and it doesn't escape Jim when Spock's thigh presses, just barely, against his when he leans to reach a higher octave. His wrist brushes Jim's sleeve, and there is a definite coloring along his cheekbones. Jim shifts away an inch.

"Bit warm in here, is it, brother?" Sybok asks. Jim was so young when Sam left that he supposes he missed out on the prime years of sibling rivalry. It's probably not Jim's place to intervene, but he feels compelled to say something when it's clear that Spock isn't planning to. He frowns.

"I know I'm hot," he says, meeting Sybok's eyes. He's satisfied when Sybok shakes his head and goes to join his father across the room.

"That was unnecessary," Spock says as he continues to play.

"Your brother's kind of a dick," Jim confides, "and you are my first officer."

"I thank you," Spock says, and Jim notes a smile in the corner of his mouth.

"So," Jim says, "I hear you play chess?"

***

At the front door, Spock presses something into Jim's hand before bowing and stepping back to stand beside his parents.

"Thank you for a fascinating game," he says.

"Pleasure's mine." Jim turns and bows at the waist. "My Lord, my Lady. Thanks for dinner."

"The honor was ours," Amanda says, and the warm expression on her face is echoed in her son's. Jim nods at her, clears his throat, and follows the elder Spock out to the carriage. When the carriage is in motion, Jim dares to unwrap what Spock handed him. It is a white handkerchief bearing Spock's monogram; inside it is a sprig of lavender.

"I didn't realize this grows here," Jim muses, holding it to his nose and inhaling. It's freshly cut, still grassy and fragrant.

"It does not," Spock says and looks out the carriage window for the duration of the ride.

***

Spock repeats his offer to have the kitchen prepare a second evening meal, but Jim passes in favor of a stiff drink before bed. With a stomach full of nothing but roughage, the alcohol goes straight to his bloodstream, and he's soon laughing in the armchair while he twirls the lavender.

"That," he declares, pointing at Spock with one finger, the rest wrapped firmly around his glass, "was the most awkward dinner I've ever sat through. Your dad is scary."

"He is Vulcan," Spock says.

"So are you," Jim says, "but I like you."

One drink turns into three, and Jim finds himself nodding off in the chair. Spock's arm wraps around his shoulders and guides him to stand.

"Come," Spock says. "I will help you to bed."

"I'm fine here," Jim yawns but allows Spock to take him upstairs. He shrugs out of his pants, leaves the shoes in the hallway where he kicks them off, but becomes tangled in the shirt as he struggles to pull it over his head.

"Cease moving," Spock says as he works the small buttons at Jim's throat. Jim grins.

"I like when you're bossy."

He stretches out on the bed. It's actually cold in the room; he tugs the sheet up to his chest and burrows underneath. As he's done on previous nights, Spock rests a hand on Jim's chest, fingers splayed like a starburst. Jim puts his own hand over it and moves his thumb in a slow circle over Spock's knuckles. It feels easy, like he's done it a thousand times. His action causes Spock's breath to catch, and Jim slows his hand. He glances to the sprig of lavender, which Spock must have taken from him and placed on the nightstand.

"On Earth," Jim says, "we give whole bouquets."

"It is not the quantity which is of significance."

"What do you mean?"

"To give a flower is to communicate. By presenting you with lavender, he expresses his devotion to you."

"Well, he is going to be my first officer. Devotion is pretty much his job."

"He does not mean it in a professional capacity."

"I know," Jim says. "Where did he get fresh lavender, anyway? This is a desert."

"We cultivate Terran plants within indoor gardens."

Jim lets out a breath and curls his fingers around the side of Spock's hand. Laughing, he asks, "So, did you ever give the other me flowers like this?"

He expects Spock's mouth to twitch at the suggestion, but Spock regards him with an expression which is almost melancholy.

"Many," he answers. His voice is hardly above a whisper.

"Oh." Jim calls up the feel of Spock's hands expertly working his shoulders; the fresh-brewed pot of strong black coffee, just the way he likes it; the flask of brandy. The hand on his chest is suddenly heavy like lead, but for some reason, he doesn't want Spock to remove it. He grips it tightly and resumes stroking.

"Jim..." Spock says and withdraws his hand. Jim catches his wrist and stares at him, searching his face. His heart rate has picked up; he hears his own breaths come faster. Spock's cheeks flush as Jim studies him. He closes his eyes as Jim experimentally slips a finger just underneath the cuff of his sleeve.

"We should not," Spock protests.

"Why not?" Jim murmurs.

"I am old enough to be—"

"My dad is dead," Jim cuts him off and kisses him. Spock's lips are soft, but he does not return the gesture. He gently pushes away and walks to the door.

"You require sleep," he says and switches off the light. "Goodnight, Jim."

***

The next morning, Jim is slow to head down to breakfast, even though his stomach is growling. The hangover isn't bad, just a dull headache. He shouldn't be hung over after only a couple drinks, but that's what he gets for imbibing on nothing but a stomach full of salad. Rolling onto his side and stretching, a vague memory surfaces of Spock insisting he go to bed, of the weight of his hand on Jim's chest, the way his mouth felt—

Dammit.

Jim rarely makes good decisions when he's drinking. Hitting on someone old enough to be his great-great-great-great (god, he hates math first thing in the morning) grandfather definitely tops that list. He groans his way into the bathroom, splashes water onto his face, brushes his teeth, and begrudgingly shows his face in the dining room.

Spock is already seated with a cup of tea before him and a plate of some type of rolls and red jam.

"I trust you slept well," he says. His tone is neutral, maybe even a little guarded, but he meets Jim's gaze.

"Yeah," Jim says. "You?"

"I rested sufficiently."

"Listen," Jim says, sinking into his chair and rubbing his forehead. The room's overhead lights are making him reconsider the severity of his headache. "I'm sorry about what happened last night. I can be an idiot when I drink."

"It is of no consequence."

"Still," Jim says and reaches for the coffee already poured and steaming in a mug. "I'm sorry if I offended you."

"You did not."

"So," Jim says, spooning fruit onto a plate and spearing what might be some type of melon, "anything on the schedule for today?"

"No," Spock says, "though I would not be surprised if you received unannounced guests. I expect my younger self will visit, after the success of the evening."

Spock doesn't visit, but he does send another flower, which Jim receives mid-afternoon. It is brought by one of the red jackets. Spock is somewhere else in the house, so Jim answers the door when he hears the knock. He thanks the red jacket and bows a little, then wonders if he was supposed to do that. Whatever. He's human. They'll write it off as cultural confusion.

"What is it?" Jim asks when Spock re-appears, holding the flower aloft. It is violet in color and fragrant.

"Lathyrus odoratus," Spock replies without pause, "commonly known as the sweet pea."

"So he thinks I'm sweet?"

"He is expressing his thanks."

"Oh," Jim says. "It's kind of pretty. Too bad it's already starting to wilt."

"I will locate a vase." Spock extends a hand, and Jim lays the flower in his palm.

***

After dinner, a chilled vegetable soup and dark bread, Spock runs the bath for Jim but doesn't stay.

"If you are able," Spock says at the door, "I will leave you to bathe."

"No problem," Jim answers quickly, but he finds himself scowling once Spock has gone.

The bath is less satisfying than usual. He's surprised to realize that he misses the feel of Spock's hands on his back, and his shoulder muscles seemingly tighten in his absence. Jim soaps his body and hair, rinses, and drains the water. He stands naked in the window as the water evaporates from his skin, looking down on the red landscape.

Spock isn't in the study when Jim goes in search of a new book. He sits up on the settee reading until his eyes close every other sentence, and he's not sure if the images in his head are really from the book or if he's inserting the story into half-formed dreams.

It's dark when Jim wakes in his bed with no memory of how he got there. The purple flower stands in a thin vase on his nightstand beside the drying lavender. Frowning for a reason he can't name, he turns to face the other wall.

***

Spock drops by the next morning after breakfast and suggests a game of chess. Jim is bored. His only option is to read yet another book, or take yet another walk in the heat, so he agrees. Might as well get to know his first officer; Jim will just be sure not to let it go too far. Spock talks little, beats Jim easily, thanks him for the game, and takes his leave with the caveat that he be permitted to return the next day. The older Spock still isn't talking to him, a quiet figure beside the bookshelf, so Jim agrees.

Jim is oddly happy to see Spock when he returns the following morning and the one after that. They play two games each both days. Jim finally wins the last one and pumps his arm in victory.

"You're hard to beat," Jim compliments him. "Where'd you learn to play?"

"My brother instructed me," Spock answers.

"No kidding," Jim says, leaning back with his arms behind his head. "He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's happy sitting around a chess board."

"He is not," Spock confirms, "but he is adept."

The elder Spock doesn't get up when the two of them go out into the hallway and Jim opens the front door to let Spock outside.

"It was...good...to see you," he says awkwardly, testing how the words feel in his mouth. It's not a lie, he decides. Spock plays chess like no one else Jim has ever met. "Are you coming back tomorrow?"

"I will." Spock bows at the waist.

"Okay," Jim says and smiles for the first time all morning. "I'll see you then."

***

His comm blinks with a message from Bones around lunch time, so he goes out to the porch to respond. Sweat beads along his hairline instantly, but it's better than being in the study, and he doesn't want to go back to bed. Falling into a chair, he taps the screen.

>> Having a good time?

>> i should have forced you to come with me

>> You're a Starfleet captain. Diplomacy comes with the territory.

>> this sucks

>> Don't forget to use protection. Lord only knows what quality of doctors they have on that godforsaken planet.

>> i really hate you

>> Christine wants pictures.

Muttering under his breath, Jim switches off his comm and lays his head back against the chair cushions.

***

"Look, I said I'm sorry," Jim blurts over tea that afternoon. He's endured four days of awkwardness, and Spock still won't look at him. "Is there something else you want me to say?"

Spock's hands still where they hover over his PADD screen, but he doesn't raise his eyes from his reading.

"No," he says. "It is I who should apologize for not having been more guarded."

"I'm pretty sure I'm the one who kissed you."

Shaking his head, Spock lays the PADD aside.

"I have allowed the friendship I once had with my own James Kirk to influence our interactions," he says. "For that, I admit regret. You are not that man. It was improper of me to treat you as if you were."

Jim frowns. "Is that why you agreed to be my valet while I'm here?" he asks. "Because I remind you of him?"

"Yes," Spock admits.

"Thanks," Jim huffs, folding his arms over his chest and slumping back against the couch.

"I am not proud of my reasoning," Spock says, "I am seeking to rectify the situation."

"By ignoring me?" Jim asks.

"My actions were overly familiar."

"They're not any more familiar than my first officer's," Jim counters, "and I've known you both about the same amount of time."

Spock sighs. "The friendship you forge should be with the Spock of your timeline."

"And, what, you're just going to resign yourself to loneliness? A man can have more than one friend, you know."

"I do not wish to speak about this any longer."

"Fine," Jim says and roughly pushes back from the table.

***

Jim is invited for high tea at T'Pring's two days later, so Spock is obligated to accompany him. They don't look at each other during the carriage ride, and Spock allows Jim to hold his arm only long enough to climb down from the carriage and gain steady footing. He stands along the wall with hands clasped behind his back while Jim and T'Pring converse.

As provocation, Jim makes it a point to touch T'Pring's hand and shoulder several times, assuming Spock will intervene, but he never says a word. T'Pring, however, seems encouraged by Jim's actions and, just once, trails her index finger over the pronounced veins on Jim's left hand.

"From what I can gather of your mind, it is intriguing," she says close to his ear as she refills his cup. "I should like to see it, one day. We would be a smart match."

If they were on Earth, he'd probably stick his tongue down her throat right about now, but they aren't. Besides, she could kick his ass. He drowns his arousal in tea and wonders how she manages to eat such delicate cookies with chopsticks.

Spock insists they leave early, when it's clear Jim has no intention to stop what Spock terms "licentious behavior." Jim's mood has turned foul by the time he and Spock return to the house. He's frustrated and overheated and horny, and now he can't even flirt on this stupidly polite planet. They eat dinner in silence. Jim feels like he might scream his way out of his own skin. They spend another hour and a half in irritating quiet in the study before Jim mutters "Screw it" and smacks his book closed. He unbuttons his jacket roughly, flinging it on a chair, and rounds on Spock, who watches him from beside the window.

"I'm going to bed," Jim announces. "Are you coming or not?"

Spock is rigid, but he accompanies Jim upstairs and helps him undress, touching him as little as possible.

"If you're this pissed about being here," Jim says, "why don't you just tell them to assign someone else?"

"I agreed that I would see to your needs during your stay," Spock says. "I will honor my promise."

"My needs, huh?" Jim says, stepping out of his pants. "I've got a need. Since you won't let me near anyone else, you want to tend to it?" He stands before Spock naked, his eyes hard and challenging. Spock touches the pendant at his neck—Jim has seen him do it before—and abruptly leaves.

Jim feels like an asshole, but he doesn't go after him. He crawls into bed and stares at the dark ceiling.

***

Jim wishes he had the excuse of alcohol when he wakes. He barely slept because his mind ran uncontrolled with thoughts. He washes up and dresses quickly, going downstairs in only pants and a shirt. He can bother with the jacket later. Spock isn't in the dining room, but there is a plate at his usual seat with evidence of toast and jam. The coffee is still steaming. Spock must have heard him moving about upstairs, ordered the coffee prepared, and left the room. Jim rubs his forehead and meanders back through the hallway to the front door and onto the porch.

As he'd suspected, Spock is sitting along the side of the house near the railing, looking out into the yard. His right hand rests on his thigh; with his left, he strokes the pendant at his neck.

"I'm sorry," Jim says automatically, approaching him. "I feel like I'm saying that a lot lately."

Spock shakes his head.

"It's just…" Jim leans against the railing. "You were so great to me when I first got here, and then I find out you're only being nice to me because I remind you of someone else. Makes me feel like a piece of shit, you know?"

"That was not my intention."

"Am I that different?" he asks. "I know my eyes aren't the right color, but when it comes to the important stuff, am I that different from him?"

"No," Spock says quietly. "You are not."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem," Spock says, though he doesn't raise his eyes, "is that you are so similar, I fear I will not wish to share your attention, should you bestow any more of it upon me."

Jim freezes, his eyes lingering on the way Spock's fingers have tightened around the pendant, and he suddenly understands. "You were in love with him," he says.

"Your affection, if you choose to give it, should not be wasted on me."

"I'm right, aren't I."

Spock sighs. "Yes," he says.

"It wouldn't be a waste," Jim says, laying a hand on his shoulder.

"I should not even be in your timeline."

"But you are here," Jim counters, "and I'm here. You like me, I can tell."

"Jim—"

"And I like the way I feel when you look at me. No one's ever looked at me like that."

"How do I look at you?"

"I don't know," Jim says. "Like I hung the stars or something."

"It is not right," Spock says. Jim places a hand on each armrest and leans over Spock, who looks up at him hesitantly.

"This is pretty simple. You either want to do this, or you don't."

Spock opens his mouth only to close it again.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't kiss you right now," Jim says softly. The wind picks up, blowing hot along the porch. He can hear his own heartbeat in his ears. He swallows, but he doesn't drop Spock's gaze. His stomach is fluttering with fear and arousal, so he angles his body closer.

"I—" is all Spock manages.

"I didn't think so," Jim whispers against his lips and kisses him.

It is a long moment before Spock responds, moaning faintly as he raises his hands to Jim's face. His mouth is dry and hot and feels like coming home. Everything around them dims to the single point of their mouths touching. Spock's palms are smooth and slide to cradle the back of Jim's head. We've done this before, Jim thinks, as Spock gently massages circles behind Jim's ears. Jim doesn't know how long he stands there, how long they kiss, but when they finally break apart, Jim sits astride Spock's legs. His arms are wrapped around Spock's neck, and Spock is smiling.

***

His first officer doesn't make it around for chess, but he sends a note in his place.

I regret I am unable to join you for chess this morning. Since our last meeting you have been constantly in my thoughts. From your willingness to accept my visits, I gleaned that the admiration I have for you is reciprocated to a slight degree. Am I wrong in this conclusion? I anxiously await your reply. - Spock

Jim flushes hot in the face as he reads it over quickly and shoves it to the bottom of his drawer.

That afternoon, T'Pring pays him a visit while he's acquainting himself with the spot behind Spock's right ear. Jim just has time to straighten his jacket and adjust the collar while Spock opens the door. He's flushed, and his breathing is uneven, but he hopes T'Pring will mark it down to the heat.

"I wish to court you exclusively," she says between polite sips of tea. "I hope you will consider it."

"I'll think about it," he tells her, "but I like to keep my options open."

If she notices the way his eyes keep drifting to Spock, who sits in the same chair by the window they both occupied not forty minutes ago, she doesn't let on.

He's surprised when it's Sybok who drops by unannounced just before dinner.

"My mother said I should call on you," he says.

"You might have made your intentions known," Spock says as he allows him in the front door.

Shrugging, Sybok shows himself into the study and falls onto the purple couch, setting his hat next to him.

"I've never been big on decorum," he says, motioning to Spock for a drink.

"It's not exactly my thing, either," Jim says as Spock brings them a pitcher of water and two glasses.

"Besides," Sybok continues, leaning forward so his elbows rest on his knees. "I wasn't about to write to you and make my brother jealous."

"Oh?" Jim says, aiming for nonchalant.

"Technically, I have the prior claim, being older and all, but I can't do that to him. I really came here to tell you that he likes you," Sybok says, winking, "in case he wasn't obvious enough."

He takes the pitcher and pours them both a glass, passing one to Jim.

"Cheers," he says.

"Cheers," Jim replies.

"Spock and I don't always see eye to eye," Sybok says, wiping his mouth and leaning back again, "but I don't want to see him hurt. Do you understand?"

"My Lord," Spock cautions, but Sybok tuts.

"Hush. It's my responsibility as his older brother," Sybok says, flapping his hand. "Spock is naive. He's too easily influenced by his mother's romantic tendencies."

"I thought you Vulcans were all about romance?"

"At the end of the day, it's about a good match," Sybok says. "No pair would ever be permitted bonding who wouldn't improve one another in the long term, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of Spock getting his heart broken."

"We have to serve together for the next few years," Jim says cooly. "The last thing I want to do is hurt him right before we leave on a mission."

"So we understand each other," Sybok says.

Jim nods. "I think so."

"Good," Sybok says lightly. "He's fond of the botanical gardens. Perhaps you should suggest he take you there."

Frowning, Jim takes a drink from his glass and sets it down. "Are you telling me to stay away from him or not?"

"Hardly," Sybok says. "If you like him, you have my blessing. I'm asking that you don't lead him on with false expectations."

"I wasn't planning to."

"Oh?" Sybok says. "I understand T'Pring was here earlier, and that's an interesting bruise you have on your neck."

Jim reddens and claps a hand over it. Spock clears his throat.

"You're young," Sybok continues. "I don't blame you, but if it's just play for you, do him a kindness. Write to him and tell him that his advances are no longer welcome." He stands abruptly and bows with a sweep of his hat.

"Captain," he says, and he casts a glance to Spock. "My Lord. Enjoy your evening."

***

"Well," Jim says once Sybok is gone, taking the cushion next to Spock, "at least he thought the bruise was from T'Pring and not you."

"It should not exist at all," Spock says, sitting rigidly and folding his hands on his lap. Jim notes the distress in his voice.

"Chill out, will you?" he says, and pats Spock's knee. "We're not doing anything illegal...right?"

"We are not."

"Good," Jim says. "I need a drink."

"We must eat."

"Why don't we eat in here?" Jim suggests, "or we could take things upstairs."

"We should eat in the dining room."

"I haven't gotten laid in weeks."

"This is problematic?"

"It's practically an emergency," Jim tells him.

"I have heard it said," Spock says carefully, "that what is necessary is never unwise." The words are encouraging, yet he frowns.

"Internal conflict?" Jim asks.

"Quite."

Sighing, Jim allows his head to loll back against the couch. "Dinner and chess, then?"

"I would appreciate a game."

"Best two out of three," Jim says. "Winner picks the sleeping arrangements."

The nod is slight, but Spock agrees.

***

"Checkmate," Jim says for the second time, and for the second time Spock stares at the board in disbelief. Jim laughs. "I told you I'm good."

"You did," Spock admits. "I have witnessed you beat my younger self."

"Did the other me used to beat you?" Jim asks, sliding his boot next to Spock's under the table. Spock makes a face, but Jim leaves his foot where it is.

"Occasionally," Spock answers. He folds his hands over his stomach and takes a deep breath. "He, too, had an illogical approach to the game."

It makes Jim smile to imagine an older version of himself leaning over a chess board across from Spock. "You ready for bed?" Jim asks, nudging his calf.

"I did agree to your terms."

"My room," Jim says, grinning, and extends a hand.

In the darkened bedroom, Spock reaches out his arms and effortlessly pulls Jim to his chest. They...fit, Jim realizes, a coaptation of bodies. Somehow, Spock is projecting feelings to him through his hands as they slide under his shirt: delight, longing, gratitude. Jim wonders how long it's been as he kisses Spock's cheek, his chin, the dip in his throat, the plane of his chest, his navel. He hooks his fingers in the waist of Spock's pants and looks up at him. He can just make out the glint of his eyes. He's watching. Jim buries his face in Spock's stomach, bites the skin there, and jerks his pants down. Spock hisses when Jim's mouth is on him, and this too is familiar, like they've always done this. Jim comes later, in Spock's hand, head thrown back, and Spock is chanting a Vulcan word Jim has never heard.

***

Jim wakes with Spock's arm around him. He's done a few sleepovers (most by accident), but this is the first time he can remember waking up with another person and being...happy about it.

"Hey," he says, his voice rough, turning over to find Spock awake and watching him with a soft expression. He blushes and scrubs a hand over his face.

"Good morning," Spock says.

"That was fun," Jim tells him, laying his head back on the pillow. He can't get the smile off of his face as Spock looks at him. He feels adored.

Reaching a hand to Jim's temple, Spock touches it lightly. "It was," he agrees and strokes Jim's hair.

"You up for another round?" Jim says, pressing his hips forward.

"Perhaps after breakfast," Spock says. "You should eat."

Jim grins and bites his lower lip, ducking his head. "Okay," he says.

"And you have visitors this afternoon."

His face falling, Jim puts a hand on Spock's arm and squeezes. "Can't we cancel?"

"We cannot," Spock says. "You are entertaining Vulcan youth who are interested in a career with Starfleet. They will have many questions for you. Your answers could significantly influence their futures."

"When are they getting here?"

"They will join you for afternoon tea."

"So we've got some time to kill?" Jim asks hopefully.

"We do," Spock says, sitting up and putting both feet on the floor. "And we will begin by getting you dressed and fed."

Jim lifts his head from the pillow and watches as Spock pads to the bathroom.

"Did you order me around on the ship like this?" he asks.

"Affirmative, Captain," Spock says and turns on the tap.

***

It turns out that entertaining teenage Vulcans is actually entertaining. They seem to have more of an interest in life on Earth (and more specifically, life on campus) than Jim figured. He's mid-explanation about the implication of a high five when Spock appears with tea and light sandwiches.

"And one may do this..." one of them (Syrran, Syrrek? Syrran, he's pretty sure. Jim is terrible with Vulcan names, they all sound alike) asks, fidgeting with his collar. "...in public?"

"Well, yeah," Jim says biting the inside of his cheeks and concentrating on the way Spock arranges the plates, because he is not gonna laugh at this kid, so help him.

"I have seen an illustration," Syrran confides.

"I can give you a demonstration," Jim says. "If you want." He raises his hand in the air, but Syrran flushes a cool olive shade, and behind him Spock is shaking his head.

"Alright," Jim says, "no demonstrations, but yeah, if you see two people doing that out on the sidewalk or in a bar, they're not doing what you think they're doing. It's like saying 'awesome.' The same goes for shaking hands. But don't worry, everyone is going to be respectful of the fact that you're Vulcan. Actually, my first officer is Vulcan."

"He is half Vulcan," Syrran corrects and takes a cup of tea. The others nod in silent agreement, though Jim notes slight upturning of lips, and then another begins to speak.

The questions become more routine after that: academy requirements, accelerated programs, mentorships. Jim's mind is still back at the comment about Spock's heritage, and he glances to Spock, who appears unaffected by it, quietly reading from a PADD. They couldn't possibly know who he is, otherwise they would never have dared insult him to his face. Vulcans, with their rigid adherence to polite behavior, would never be that cruel—right?

He wonders if Spock faced discrimination openly as a child, if he was as alien on his own planet as Jim's first officer appears on Earth. He's glad when they leave, keeping the smile firmly in place until the last one is out the door, and then he's standing in front of Spock so their knees touch.

"Is that what it was like growing up here?" he asks quietly.

"Somewhat," Spock says. "His comment was...mild."

"I'm sorry you had to put up with that," Jim says and takes the PADD from him. He sits on his lap, sliding an arm around his neck. Leaning his head against Spock's, he exhales.

"Do not be," Spock says. "Were it not for their taunting, I would never have joined Starfleet."

He doesn't articulate the rest, but Jim understands from the way Spock's arms wrap around his middle and hug him close.

***

He finds a handwritten note from Spock just before dinner on the floor in the entry. It must have been slipped through the mail slot. Spock didn't show up for chess this morning, Jim realizes, but he probably had a good excuse. Jim glances over his shoulder. He should open the letter, but a part of him just...doesn't want to. Not right now. Not if it's going to be like the last one. No one is watching him, so he takes it upstairs and buries it beneath his shirts without opening the envelope.

***

An important member of Spock's family, The Marchioness T'Pau, invites Jim to lunch a few days later. Her home is smaller than Sarek's, but not by much, and the furniture is dark and not a little bit frightening. Spock isn't asked into the dining room, and Jim is antsy without him. T'Pau's manner is so formal that Jim sits stiffly through the first beige course and clenches his jaw as she stares at him. Her questions mainly have to do with his career in Starfleet, phrased in such a way that he feels like an imbecile trying to answer her. As they're waiting on the second course, he decides to invent a reason to leave the table.

"That was delicious," Jim fibs, dabbing his mouth and rising. "Where's your bathroom?"

"Thee will find it just off of the main hall," T'Pau says, pointing to the door. "If thee requires assistance, my servants will attend thy needs."

"I think I'm good," Jim says, rapping the doorjamb and poking his head out into the hallway. He spots the bathroom but walks past it. "Spock?" he whispers loudly, and he is relieved when Spock emerges from a room further down the corridor. Jim checks to be sure no one is behind him, then walks rapidly to him. "Hey," he says, pushing him backward into the room and closing the door behind them.

"Jim!" Spock exclaims. "You must return to T'Pau."

"I'm fucking bored," Jim whispers, sliding a hand into Spock's hair and sucking a bruise onto his throat. "I'd rather be fucking."

"We cannot—"

"Why not?" Jim asks, insinuating a thigh between Spock's legs. "I'm pretty sure you want to."

"What one wishes to do and what one should do are not necessarily the same," Spock says, though his voice hitches when Jim slips his hands inside Spock's jacket. "Jim, please—it is disrespectful to my aunt."

Humming a laugh, Jim kisses the side of Spock's face, smoothes his jacket, and steps back.

"Okay, you win," he says. "But I can't guarantee my behavior in the carriage later."

***

Spock's next letter is longer; Jim can tell by the thickness of the small envelope. It awaits them when they return home from T'Pau's, perched on the entry table. Jim lifts it with two fingers while Spock goes to order a tea service.

The way Spock writes his name is tidy, the letters precisely formed in black ink. Captain James T. Kirk. Jim laughs that Spock even includes the middle initial. He imagines him bent over a writing table, an elegant pen in hand, looking just as he did seated at the piano. Rubbing his thumb over the "J," Jim catches himself smiling and abruptly turns the envelope over. He plans to put it in a drawer unopened with the others when the elder Spock approaches.

"Tea will be ready soon. What does he write to you?" he asks, placing a hand on Jim's lower back.

"I don't know."

"You have not yet read it?"

Jim shakes his head. "I didn't read the last one either."

"You must," Spock says. "You owe him that courtesy."

"I'm afraid of what he's going to say."

"Why?"

"I don't know," Jim says again.

"Refusing to face your fear will not assuage it. Do you recall the Kobayashi Maru?"

"I cheated," Jim snorts. It's the first time he's acknowledged this out loud. Spock is silent for a moment, and then Jim feels the brush of Spock's hair against his ear as he gathers Jim closer.

"That is something else that you and my Jim share," he says, amused. "But the point, if you remember, was to experience fear. If you were able to face your own death, surely you can face a letter."

He kisses Jim's ear and is gone from his side. Jim tucks the letter into an inside jacket pocket.

***

A third letter arrives the next morning before breakfast, and this one Jim opens because Spock hands it to him with a frown.

"You will read it," he directs.

Jim rolls his eyes but runs a knife under the envelope's flap to loosen it. He extracts the contents and unfolds the letter in front of him, setting aside a pressed flower. It is ice-blue and has six petals extending from a yellow center. He focuses on the tiny script:

My dear captain, I am at a loss to discover why you have not replied to my letters. I can only surmise that your coyness is intended to increase my affection for you. I will make a final attempt tomorrow morning with an in-person visit. If my advances are still welcome, I hope you will accompany me for the afternoon. I remain, with great respect, Spock

"Great," Jim says, rubbing his forehead. "He wants to take me on a date."

"Yes, I should think he does," Spock says knowingly, motioning to the specimen beside Jim's plate. "He presented you with Anemone nemorosa."

"What does it mean?" Jim asks, grimacing.

"It is a symbol of his sincerity."

"I'm going to write him." Jim folds the letter and tucks it back inside the envelope. "I'm going to tell him I can't go."

"Jim—"

"He makes it sound like there's something going on between us, but there's not. He doesn't even know me."

"You must allow him to know you."

"What if I don't want to?" Jim snaps.

Lowering his eyes to the table, Spock replies quietly. "That is your decision, of course."

"I just—" Jim begins. "I don't understand why this has to move so quickly. I'm only here for four weeks. Everything's happening so fast."

"It is our way," Spock says. "There is no logic in delaying a match, once two individuals are found to be compatible, and it is preferable that my younger counterpart be bonded before leaving on his mission."

"Why? What's the hurry?"

"It is partly based in tradition," Spock explains, "and part out of necessity. We are telepaths, as you know. A great deal of our physiology is based in the mind. To have a bondmate with whom one can meld, to have an outlet for our emotions, is critical to our well being. For male Vulcans, it can mean life or death."

"What are you talking about?"

"We do not speak of it. Should you ever choose to bond with my younger self, he will inform you at that time of all you must know."

He's not sure if it's anger he feels or hurt or both at what Spock just said. Jim holds his breath until his lungs begin to burn. When he exhales, he does it slowly, counting the seconds. Six, seven, eight, nine...

"Do you want me to see him tomorrow?" he asks. He won't look Spock in the eye.

"Yes," Spock says. Jim swallows and nods, and he's suddenly very tired.

"I think I'm going back to bed for a while," he says, taking his coffee with him.

***

"I am pleased you agreed to see me publicly," Spock says as they exit the carriage and enter the park in city center. It is crowded. Spock opens a parasol and holds it over Jim's head. "To protect you from our suns," he explains, and Jim casts a quick look to the elder Spock, who is not looking at him.

Everything feels wrong. He shouldn't be here. He should be curled up in bed with a book and a mug of coffee, Spock resting against his shoulder. He shouldn't be in a park with his first officer, who is speaking words another Spock said to him only weeks before, gazing at him like he knows things that Jim keeps buried deep inside.

But he promised to come. He promised to behave. He promised to give this friendship a chance. What the heck was it that Spock said— something about defining. A friendship that will define him. What the hell does that mean, anyway?

He'd give anything to be back on Earth, in a bar with Bones, listening to him bitch about something that happened in the clinic. Even the academic hearing was preferable to this, which makes him feel sick to his stomach as they walk along in the hot afternoon.

There is an art installation, great metal sculptures which arch over the park's walkways. The sculptures are menacing, the way they seemingly leer overhead like they're watching his every move. Spock leads Jim beneath them, pointing up at the metal as it glints in the afternoon sun. It's hot, and Jim is sweating, and Spock touches his arm once. He turns around, to see if the older Spock noticed, to see if he's going to say something, but he is (purposefully, Jim is pretty sure) looking in the opposite direction. Jim notes other couples promenading, and he notes the way that the eyes of these couples linger on him and on Spock, as though they are the art on display rather than the archways.

"Are you satisfied to be returning to Earth in a week?" Spock asks.

"I miss my apartment," Jim returns, which isn't really an answer, but Spock accepts it.

"I will be glad to be back on board the ship."

"Me too."

"Perhaps..." Spock begins, and he clears his throat before continuing, his voice lower. "Perhaps you will indulge me in a game of chess, occasionally."

"Sure."

Spock lowers his chin to his chest and smiles faintly. Jim feels Spock's fingers brush along his hand and jerks it away. Instantly, Spock stops walking, clasping his hands in front of him so tightly that the tips of his fingers appear green in the sunlight, the knuckles white from the strain.

"Forgive me," he says quietly. "I am overzealous."

"It's not a big deal," Jim says, taking a step forward, and he's glad when Spock falls back into step with him and drops his hands to his sides. "Just...don't touch me right now, okay?"

"As you wish."

"Look..." Jim says, wiping his forehead. "It's hot as hell out here. Isn't there somewhere we could go that's indoors, and just...I don't know. Talk?"

"Talk?"

"Actually get to know each other? You write me those letters, but I've always liked getting to know people the old-fashioned way."

It's a moment before Spock responds, nodding to a large green building in the distance. It looks like a conservatory, something out of a book, with a domed glass ceiling and a spire.

"I thought the location perhaps too intimate," he begins, "but if you prefer somewhere indoors where we might speak, I will show you my favorite place on Vulcan."

"Yeah," Jim says automatically. "That sounds great."

***

Spock, whom Jim can't even look in the eye right now, gives his younger self a cautioning look and allows them to enter the botanical gardens without a chaperone. Unlike the park outside, the gardens are nearly empty, and it's cooler by a mile. Jim spots one other person when they first enter, and then they're alone as Spock leads him from the main entrance through a series of themed gardens, to a small room which is unadorned. In the center of it is a long trough, with a strange brown soil—it's not soil, though, more like small pieces of bark—and from it grows a spindly vine.

"This is the Vulcan orchid," Spock says, reaching a hand to hover just next to the white petals.

"It's beautiful," Jim says, peering up at it. The center of the flower is golden, a brilliant color from which Jim can't tear his eyes. There is only a single bloom along the entire plant, though Jim sees buds of others forming. Spock regards it reverently.

"It is rare, difficult to cultivate, but hardy once established," he says. "We are uncertain as to its lifespan. This particular specimen has been housed in this room since before my birth, and it blooms with the change of season. Surely my elder self has explained to you the meaning of the flowers I have sent you?"

"He did."

"This orchid means kwon-sum."

"Always?" Jim translates. He dares to touch a place along the vine and feels a sting in his fingers. Thorns? He pulls his hand back, sucking the finger into his mouth, unsuccessfully biting where it hurts, then shoving it in his pocket.

"One day," Spock continues, "I hope to present it to my chosen, on the day of our bonding."

He turns his head to look at Jim, but he doesn't drop his hand. Jim glances from Spock to the flower and back, a bubble of fear in his chest.

"You're not proposing to me, are you?" he blurts.

Spock lowers his eyes. "Do you wish me to?"

"No!" Jim half shouts, though he regrets it somewhat when Spock flinches and brings his arms together behind his back. Kicking himself mentally, he recalls Sybok's words and scrambles for something to say. "Just...let's talk about something else. Please. Tell me something about yourself. What made you join Starfleet?"

Some of the tension leaves Spock's body. His shoulders round just a hint, and he tilts his head slightly to the left.

"I had planned to attend the Vulcan Science Academy," he begins slowly. "It is a prestigious institution. No one has ever declined acceptance, yet I did."

"Why?"

"They termed my human heritage a disadvantage." He colors along his cheeks as the words leave his mouth. "I acted rashly, but I refused my admission. My father has always wished me to be fully Vulcan. I suppose I no longer wished to act simply because that is what was expected of me. I did not wish to be defined by him."

For the first time, Jim feels a kinship with this version of Spock. He ducks his head.

"I can understand that," Jim says. He motions to a bench, and they sit. Jim lets his knees fall apart and leans back, folding his hands over his stomach. Sitting primly upright, Spock regards him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

"My dad," Jim says, taking a deep breath. "George Kirk. You've probably heard of him?"

Spock nods. "His death was regrettable, yet he died honorably."

"Yeah," Jim says. "Everyone figures that honor's genetic, that I'll follow in his footsteps, be a great leader. So I intentionally dicked around my entire childhood, had a few run-ins with the law, slept in a jail cell a few times, just to show everyone I was nothing like him."

"I believe you have a great deal of his courage," Spock declares. "You leaped from the drill platform to rescue Lieutenant Sulu. Most would have allowed him to fall, but you did not."

"That's because I don't think before I do things."

"On the contrary," Spock says. "You understand that what is important may be greater than yourself, that the needs of many outweigh the needs of one person. I admire that in you. I sincerely regret bringing you up on academic charges. Had I known you, had I known your temperament, your motivation, I would never—"

"You were right," Jim mutters, nudging his side. "I did cheat on your test."

"Your solution was inventive," Spock admits. "I was...injured, to have been bested by a human. I considered myself to be superior. In that moment, I felt everything that had been said about my heritage to be correct."

"Are you kidding?" Jim says. "You're smart as hell. You and Uhura got through that mining code in record time. If you hadn't, who knows what might have happened? Vulcan might have been lost if it weren't for you."

"I had assistance."

"Don't ever let anyone tell you that you're disadvantaged again," Jim says. "That's an order from your captain."

He gives Spock a small grin, and Spock's face softens in return. The look he gives Jim is familiar. Jim has seen it many times on his elder counterpart, and it causes a flutter in his stomach.

"I'm sorry for not writing you back," Jim tells him. "This whole trip has just been...overwhelming."

"I suppose you did not anticipate the pace of Vulcan courtship."

"I didn't anticipate any courtship, whatever the pace."

"I see."

"I thought I was coming out here for a few parties, maybe a couple holo ops. I had no idea..." He's not sure where he's going with that thought. "We have to serve together for years, you know? I might have to order your death. You might have to order mine. You really want to throw feelings into the mix?"

"I believe I have found my soul's counterpoint in you," Spock says, "but if you do not feel the same, I have no wish to continue my pursuit. I will be content to serve you as your first officer, if not as your husband."

The word makes Jim's eyes shoot wide.

"Spock," he protests, "you barely know me."

"On the contrary," Spock says. "I know from your actions against Nero that you are brave. I know that you are daring and resourceful, from your handling of the Kobayashi Maru. Through our chess games, I perceived your intelligence and unpredictability. You defended me against my brother, which means you are honorable. You do not think of me as lacking because of my humanity. You are the only person, besides my mother, who does not. I know all I need in order to make this decision. The rest will come with time."

"The rest?"

"Friendship and familiarity between us. If we are fortunate, one day, love."

Jim gapes at him. "So you're willing to take a chance that, one day, you might love me?"

"No, Jim," Spocks says quietly. "I am certain that I will. I take the chance that, perhaps one day, you might return my affection."

***

Jim keeps his hand concealed in his pocket until after they've left the gardens. His left index finger has swelled since touching the orchid—he can feel it throbbing—and it's beginning to itch. He doesn't say anything to Spock, giving him a half bow as they part.

In the carriage, he chances a look at it, squeezing the already swollen area as though that will somehow alleviate the discomfort. When it doesn't, he inserts the finger back in his mouth and sucks. Across from him, Spock leans forward and extends a hand.

"Let me see," he says, and Jim holds out his finger. "Ah, the favinit," Spock says knowingly but does not touch. "He should have instructed you not to allow your skin to come into contact with the vine."

"I should have noticed that he wasn't touching it," Jim admits. "It itches like hell. Can you do anything for it?"

"A salve will help," Spock says, "though the irritation will clear on its own in a few hours."

They go straight up to Jim's bedroom when they arrive back at the house. Perching on the edge of the tub, Jim nurses his finger until Spock brings a small jar and rubs a bit of ointment into the inflamed skin. The salve is medicinal smelling, almost biting, but the way Spock gently rubs it into his finger causes Jim's eyes to fall closed.

"Better?" Spock asks.

"Yes," Jim murmurs as the itching fades and Spock's hand comes away. "Thank you."

"It is nothing."

He hears the sound of a jar being screwed shut, the swish of Spock's clothing as he rises to place the jar back in the cabinet. Jim pictures him standing across the room; when he turns, he is the younger Spock, looking at Jim expectantly.

Jim's brain can't reconcile the two iterations of Spock, why he wants to cup his hand around Spock's face and kiss him, but why he also finds a part of him wishing he were back in the indoor gardens. What is he doing? He sees the white flower, its golden center, the black and white squares of a chess board, and Spock's hands, simultaneously smooth and aged—it's all too much. He opens his eyes.

"I'm so confused," he mutters. Spock leans against the tub beside him and places a hand on Jim's back. Jim presses into it and slumps onto his shoulder.

"Would you prefer I leave you with your thoughts?" Spock asks.

"No," Jim says. "I just don't know what I'm doing."

***

The Lady Amanda issues an invitation to lunch the following day, which Spock accepts on Jim's behalf.

"She is my mother," Spock reminds him, and Jim takes that to mean he's going, whether he likes it or not.

"You'll be there, right?" Jim presumes, only Spock shakes his head. "What? Why not?" Jim asks.

"I think it best if I am not present," Spock says.

"What do you think I'll do," Jim says, "try to have sex with you up against the staircase?"

"It is not outside the realm of possibility," Spock replies dryly, though Jim can see the smile hovering around his mouth.

Spock rides with him in the carriage. Jim's hand feels better, the itching barely noticeable, but he keeps his gloves on just in case. Upon their arrival, Spock tells the red jacket who helps Jim down into Gahv-kur's gravel drive that he will collect Jim in three hours.

"Two?" Jim says hopefully.

"Three and a half," Spock amends. "Enjoy yourself."

Groaning, Jim follows the red jacket inside the house, where he's relieved of his coat and hat. Loosening his necktie, he notes that the house is significantly cooler than it was the night of the ball. Whether it's a consideration for the Lady Amanda or for Jim, he doesn't care. He covertly wipes the sweat from his forehead.

"Captain James Kirk," the red jacket announces as the door opens, and the Lady Amanda rises in a rustle of silk. He's grateful to find she's alone in the room.

"Captain," she says sweetly, extending a hand. "I'm so glad you accepted my invitation."

"Thanks for having me," he tells her. She motions to a pitcher of something brown.

"Iced tea," she says. "I can't bear hot beverages on this planet. I'm sure you can understand."

"Iced tea sounds great," he says. "I don't know how you can wear that dress in all this heat."

"It took years," she admits as she pours him a glass, her wrist angled elegantly. "I hope you don't mind that it's just the two of us for now, but I wanted to speak with you before Sybok and Spock join us."

"Sure," he says and drinks greedily. She does the same and dabs her mouth on a napkin.

"Captain," she begins, but Jim shakes his head.

"Just Jim, please."

"Jim," she repeats. "I can understand better than anyone how you must feel since your arrival. When I first met Sarek, I was unprepared for the intensity of Vulcan courtship."

"It's...different," he agrees. She sets down her glass and folds her hands together.

"I hope I can speak to you frankly," she says after a pause.

"Of course."

"It has been lonely for Spock, growing up here. I have always faced some opposition for being married to Sarek. However, as I am human, I've found Vulcans willing to overlook my occasional lapses in logic and propriety."

"I guess that makes sense," Jim says, grinning at her tone, which is just this side of sarcastic.

"But Spock's experience has been more trying," she says. "He has been expected to behave as a Vulcan, even though he is my son. This has been a struggle for him since childhood. Spock was to remain here and run one of Sarek's estates, but he has always wished to explore. Sarek didn't want him to join Starfleet, but I supported it. All that matters to me is my son's happiness."

Jim nods, and she continues.

"When he arrived from Earth, I saw something in his eyes I never have before: confidence. I don't know whether to thank Starfleet or you."

"I haven't known him that long," Jim says, rubbing the back of his neck.

"That doesn't matter," she says, taking up her glass again. She sips thoughtfully and smiles. "I believe your association is beneficial to him."

The air conditioning isn't cutting it any longer, and Jim begins to feel hot again. He fans himself with one hand and eagerly accepts a refill, which he drinks straight down.

"My son is a good man," Amanda says. "I hope you see that."

"I do," Jim says awkwardly, hoping Sybok will choose this moment to crash the party. How long has he been here—has it even been ten minutes? Amanda must sense his growing discomfort, because she changes the subject.

"Would you care to see the estate grounds?" she asks.

"Sure," he says eagerly. She smiles at him and rises. He extends an arm, which she takes. They fetch his jacket and a parasol. Amanda shows him through the first floor of the house, to the back door, out onto a great, red expanse lined with neatly manicured plants in varying shades of rust. Jim holds the parasol over her head.

"I've never gotten used to the lack of green," she confides as they pass an ugly bush.

"It's pretty monochromatic," Jim agrees.

"At least Spock shares my love of flowers," she says and squeezes his arm.

They cross what counts as a lawn on Vulcan, moving toward a single-story building which Jim identifies as a stable. Jim is sweating again by the time they reach it. The air inside is no cooler, but it's out of the direct sunlight. Amanda stops them in front of a large fan angled to blow along the central aisle. Jim closes his eyes and focuses on the welcome breeze on his neck. The stable smells similar to the horse barns he visited back home in Iowa, the same sweet odor of hay and large mammals. He sneezes.

"This is where we house the sehlats," Amanda explains. "All but one are used to pull the carriages."

She begins to walk again, so he opens his eyes to see her motioning to the farthest stall. It is larger than the others. As they approach, he glimpses its occupant: a large, fat sehlat with a broken tusk. It is curled up, fast asleep.

"This is I-Chaya," she says quietly. "He belonged to my husband, and he was Spock's childhood pet."

"Spock had a pet?"

"Is that so hard to believe?" she asks. "I believe it was easier for him, befriending an animal. I-Chaya is quite old, so we don't use him for service any longer. It isn't practical to keep him, but I don't have the heart to let him go, and I believe Spock still enjoys his company."

"They seem...friendly."

"They are," she says. "They only look menacing. In reality, they are loyal beasts."

They are interrupted by footsteps approaching them on the paved stable floor, sharp boot taps which stop several feet away.

"I did not realize you had left the house," Spock says. "Forgive me for intruding."

"I was giving the Captain a tour," Amanda explains. Jim turns to find Spock holding an armful of gnarled root vegetables. He has dust on his jacket and boots, and a light sheen on his forehead. "Though I have just remembered something I must do before we eat. Would you be so good as to see the Captain back to the house for lunch?"

With that, she exits, leaving Jim staring open mouthed after her.

"I think she planned this," he says. He looks back at Spock, who is purposefully not looking at him. His face is angled away, but Jim can see the tip of one ear flushed green.

"She is aware that I feed I-Chaya at this hour," Spock informs him.

"She's crafty."

"She is human," Spock says as though that explains her actions. He glances to the vegetables in his arms. "Will you assist me?"

"Sure," Jim says, taking his hands out of his pockets where he'd unknowingly shoved them. He pulls out the handkerchief stuffed in his pocket and wipes his nose. "What should I do?"

"Unlatch the stall door," Spock says. I-Chaya growls in his sleep, shifting so his unbroken tusk is visible. Jim hesitates at the sight of it, and Spock takes a step closer to him. "He will not harm you," he says in a low voice.

"Do you swear? They won't let me command a starship with one arm."

"I am certain you could be fitted for a prosthetic," Spock tells him. Jim whips his head up to look at him, and he's surprised to find Spock smirking.

"You're a jerk," Jim says, but he smiles back and opens the stall door. Spock carefully sidesteps a pile of soiled hay and lays the armful of vegetables in a low trough. He places a hand on I-Chaya's forehead and gently strokes. I-Chaya's eyes open. He licks his chops and yawns widely. It's almost...cute.

"Good afternoon," Spock says to him fondly. I-Chaya sniffs and looks to Jim, who lingers in the stall door.

"Hi," Jim says, feeling a little stupid. I-Chaya seems to consider him for a moment, then pulls up into a stretch and lumbers to the trough. He crunches noisily. They watch quietly as I-Chaya consumes all of Spock's offerings, yawns again and curls back up next to Spock, who is crouched on the ground.

"I didn't peg you for the animal type," Jim says.

"We have a mutual understanding," Spock says and scratches behind I-Chaya's ear.

"Oh?"

"I found him an invaluable companion when my controls slipped," Spock says carefully. "He did not mind if I acted in ways more suited to a human. In exchange, I never told my mother when I-Chaya entered the house without permission."

Grunting, I-Chaya closes his eyes and buries his snout in his paws. Spock pats his head a final time and rises, coming to stand beside Jim, who sneezes.

"Is the dust bothering you?" Spock asks.

"Yeah," Jim says, sneezing again. "Though I'm not great around animals either."

"Are you not medicated?" Spock asks with a frown.

"Against Terran allergens, sure, but apparently not—" Jim scrunches up his face as the sneeze builds, whipping out his handkerchief again. He makes good use of it. "—Vulcan ones," he finishes.

"We will return to the house," Spock says, leading him out of the stall and latching it.

"Already?" Jim says. "It's kind of nice out here, more relaxed."

Spock pauses, appearing to collect his thoughts. "I feel it would be grossly inappropriate," he says, "but I will show you our hot house. You must promise not to say anything."

"Your mom left us alone in a barn," Jim points out. "Where I'm from, that's practically like getting engaged. Do you really think she'll care if you show me a few plants?"

Jim understands Spock's hesitance once they are inside the building, which has a narrow aisle around the room's perimeter, flanked by counters along each wall and a large central table. On them grow a variety of plants. There is just room for them to stand side-by-side as Spock explains each specimen, which Jim recognizes as the ones Spock has been sending him. Spock's shoulder is a pleasant pressure against his, and although Jim should pull away, he doesn't.

Spock leans in front of him to pick up a small potted flower, and Jim catches his scent as he does so, familiar and alluring. When Spock straightens and begins to tell Jim about the flower he holds, Jim leans into his side just barely.

"This is native to Andoria. The color is highly sought after," Spock says, indicating the yellow petals. He picks one bloom from the plant and reaches a hand toward Jim's lapel. "May I?" he asks, and Jim nods mutely. Spock affixes the flower to his jacket.

"Thanks," Jim says and licks his lips without thought. Spock's eyes flicker from Jim's eyes to his mouth. It's so quiet in the building that all Jim can hear is his own breathing and Spock's, both coming more rapidly. Spock's hands still grip the front of Jim's jacket, but they have stilled. Oh god. Spock's going to kiss him. His first officer is going to kiss him. The traitorous stirring in his pants tells him he apparently doesn't mind. Spock angles his face down. Jim licks his lips again, this time out of nervousness, and lifts his chin.

Just before their lips meet, Spock turns his face and leans to speak into Jim's ear. "The color is most becoming on you," he whispers. Jim shivers against the hot movement of air over his skin. "Would you care to see another specimen?"

"Yes," Jim replies breathily and is oddly cold when Spock moves away from him.

He spends the rest of the tour sidling up next to Spock, pressing closer, but Spock never tries to kiss Jim again. Jim finds himself frustrated. He's usually good at getting people to sleep with him; it's the relationship stuff he's not great at. As Spock is pointing out the pattern on a spotted lily, Jim finds his eyes drawn to Spock's lower back. He places a hand there and is pleased when there is a hitch in Spock's voice. Encouraged, he rubs a slow circle to see green appear on Spock's cheekbones. It makes Spock look...hot, actually, so Jim continues. He slips that same hand inside Spock's jacket, massages his side through his shirt, and slowly works the fabric between his fingers to untuck it.

He strokes one finger along Spock's bare skin and hears the hiss of breath. Satisfied, he works the finger slowly in a teasing pattern while he feigns interest in what Spock is saying.

"It will interest you to know that this plant is actually...carnivorous..." Spock manages, leaning both palms against the counter, his lips parting.

"Huh," Jim says. He removes his glove and dares to scrape lightly with one fingernail. Spock shudders. "That's...fascinating." He's not sure if he's talking about the plant or something else.

"You..." Spock tries, and the way his voice sounds makes Jim bite his lip.. "You should not..."

"Do you want me to stop?" Jim asks lightly, pressing against him.

"No," Spock says through gritted teeth, and Jim slides his entire hand under Spock's shirt. His skin is smooth, cool, and to splay his hand against it causes Jim to shiver again. Spock makes a choked noise and drops his head between his shoulders.

"Has anyone ever touched you like this?" Jim murmurs, learning the feel of Spock's spine, as he moves his fingers up along each vertebrae.

Spock doesn't speak but shakes his head.

"Do you like it?" Jim asks.

"Yes."

Jim swallows thickly and moves his hand further, reaching the other around to Spock's stomach. Spock tenses beneath his hands, and Jim pulls Spock's body back against his chest. Both of Jim's hands rest low on Spock's abdomen, just above his waistband.

"What about this?" he whispers.

"Don't you two look cozy." Sybok's voice echoes from the doorway, and Spock jerks away from Jim roughly, putting several feet between them. Cursing under his breath, Jim turns and glares at him.

"Did you come to check out the flowers?" he asks.

"Lady Amanda asked me to inform you that lunch is served," Sybok replies.

"We will follow you," Spock says stiffly, straightening his jacket.

"Relax," Sybok says with a roll of his eyes, glancing to Jim's crotch. "Though you both might want to think about Le-Matyas before you come back to the house."

He turns on his heel and exits, leaving Jim red-faced and refusing to look back at Spock. He hears the rustle of fabric, which is undoubtedly Spock tucking his shirt back into place. Jim bites his lip and runs a hand through his hair, then tugs his glove back on.

"If he says anything," Jim tells him in a low voice, "I'll tell them it was my idea."

He heads out before Spock has time to respond.

***

"Sweet Jesus," Bones gripes, "you're the only person I've ever met capable of getting himself into a situation like this."

Jim groans into his pillow and rolls onto his back. "What the hell am I supposed to do?" he asks, resting one arm over his head.

"You get the hell back to Earth," Bones says. "All of their nonsense has gone to your brain."

"I guess."

"You guess?" Bones says, and he can imagine him pinching the bridge of his nose before he continues. "Jim, do you want to marry a Vulcan?"

"No?" Jim offers.

"Of course you don't. You're only thinking that way because you've been immersed in this hogwash for three weeks."

Jim perks up. "You think?"

"Yes," Bones sighs.

"It's just that he said all this stuff about compatibility. What if it turns out he's right, but I gave it up just because it was moving too fast?"

"Maybe there's something in the water there," Bones speculates. "Can you just avoid all of them until your departure date?"

"Uh," Jim says as he hears the sounds of Spock bustling around in the next bedroom. "That might prove a little difficult."

"How so?"

"Did I mention that there are actually two Spocks here? One's staying in the house with me."

"There's not enough bourbon on the planet," Bones mutters.

"He's actually from the future," Jim continues. "Like, way into the future—"

"Starfleet, they said. It's a great opportunity, they said."

"—and I might be sleeping with that one," Jim adds. "Though I kind of...hit on my first officer today."

"Oh, lord."

"Bones—"

"At least your shots are up to date," Bones drawls, "and you know how your future husband will be in bed."

"You're not helping."

"You want my advice? Okay. Get your head out of your ass and on a transport to Earth as soon as possible."

"But what am I supposed to say to him? Them?"

"I'm just a simple country doctor," Bones says, "but I think 'no' probably translates."

"Please," Jim says, and Bones's sigh is audible.

"Which one are we talking about?" he says after a long pause.

"My first officer, I guess."

"If you couldn't see him again, how would you feel?"

"I—" Jim begins, remembering the feel of Spock's skin, the way his breath caught when Jim touched him, the slight smiles he gives Jim when no one else is watching. "I'd miss him."

"Well, you are impulsive," Bones says. He exhales loudly into his comm. "Jim, this is something only you can decide. I can't tell you what to do, but you know I'll support whatever damn fool decision you end up making."

"I know."

"You decide you want to marry this guy, I'll throw you a bachelor party the likes of which no respectable Vulcan has ever seen."

"Vega5?" Jim asks hopefully. Bones chuckles.

"Don't press your luck, kid."

***

Spock suggests they turn in early, but Jim isn't sure he'll be able to sleep, so he pours himself a drink and takes it out to the porch. It's not so bad here in the evenings, he decides. When the wind blows, it's tolerable, and the sound of the native insects is kind of soothing as he stretches out in a chair, propping his feet up on the adjacent one.

He's surprised—no, surprise doesn't cover it—he's shocked when he sees the lone figure approaching the house, walking in a straight line down the gravel drive. He knows it's Spock from the angle of his head, the way his arms hang at his sides. They don't swing as he walks. Jim realizes his heart is beating faster, that he's got butterflies in his stomach as Spock gets closer and his features come into focus. Jim balances his drink on the porch railing and stands, walking down the steps toward him.

"Hey," he calls.

"Captain," Spock says, lowering his head. "I did not realize you would be outside."

"I was feeling a little cooped up," Jim confesses, and he can't stop grinning. He thinks about pulling Spock to him again and shoves his hands into his pockets. "What's up?"

"I—" Spock begins. "I had not yet formulated the excuse for my visit. Indeed, the hour is late, and I had considered only approaching the house, then returning home without knocking."

"Is that the Vulcan equivalent of dialing all but the last number?"

"I do not understand."

"That's okay," Jim says, glancing to the house. The light is on in the upstairs bedroom, but the shades are drawn. Spock can't see out to where Jim was sitting, so he won't notice if Jim is gone for a little while. "Did Sybok tell your mom what happened earlier?"

"No."

Jim exhales, relieved. "You up for a walk?" he suggests.

Spock tenses, his jaw tightening, and he deliberately looks to the house.

"You should be accompanied," he says.

"I'm pretty sure I'm safe with you," Jim tells him. "Come on. I've been sitting out here for an hour, and my ass is asleep. It would be good to stretch my legs, and this is the coolest it's been all day."

"I suppose it would be acceptable," Spock concedes, "if we do not go far."

"We'll just stick to the gardens." Jim elbows his side. "Come on."

They amble along the garden wall. Jim's got his thumbs hooked through his belt loops, and he kicks at the dirt as they go along. Spock maintains a polite and frustrating distance.

"I hope you have found your stay on our planet worthwhile," Spock says.

"It's been interesting, I can say that."

"Would you wish to return?"

"Never in the summer," Jim laughs. "But yeah, I probably would. You guys are pretty hospitable. When are you coming back to Earth?"

"I have not decided," Spock says. "My father wishes me to remain on Vulcan as long as possible, but there is work to do in preparation for the launch. I had thought to return with you, but I believe he would prefer if I select a later date."

Jim finds himself frowning. "It'll be weird not seeing you for a while," he says.

"I have grown used to your company."

"Well, pretty soon, you'll see me every day," Jim says with a grin. "I'll probably drive you crazy."

"It is a possibility," Spock agrees, though there is a lightness to his tone. Jim takes another three steps and pauses, turning.

"Is this going to make things weird?" he asks. Spock raises an eyebrow.

"Please clarify."

"All of this stuff that's gone on here," Jim says, circling a hand in the air. "The chess and the letters and what happened this afternoon. Is that going to make things weird between us as fellow officers?"

Spock looks down and clears his throat. "Would you prefer it if I transferred to another ship?"

"No," Jim says firmly. "That's not what I'm saying at all. I just want to make sure that when we board that ship, we're okay. You and me."

"You will find me a faithful and loyal first officer, Captain."

"Okay," Jim says, and he resumes walking. Spock falls in beside him, and they move quietly for several minutes. Jim concentrates on the insects, on their cricket-like rhythm which almost pulses in the air. He thinks back to the afternoon, to what he initiated in the hot house. He's not sure why it happened or what Spock thinks about it, what he believes might exist between them because of it. Jim has always used sex as a distraction. A human might understand that, but a Vulcan...

"Spock," Jim says, stopping where the garden ends. "You've made it...pretty clear, what your intentions are."

"I should think they were quite clear, Captain," Spock murmurs.

"I think you're a really great guy," Jim continues. "You're someone I could be good friends with. We have a lot in common. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but what happened earlier—"

"Jim," Spock cuts him off. "I will be content as your friend, if nothing else. I am honored you would bestow your friendship upon me.

"Thanks," Jim says, and he finds he actually means it.

"May I ask a favor?" Spock inquires.

"Sure."

"If you are uncomfortable forging closer ties with me at this time, but are not opposed to the possibility of a deeper relationship, would you permit me to continue courting you once we are on the Enterprise?"

"You really like me that much?" Jim asks.

"I believe I made my feelings for you known."

Jim's stomach twists. He clenches his fists, takes a deep breath, and exhales loudly.

"Okay," he says.

"I thank you." Hesitantly, Spock reaches a hand toward him, with two fingers extended. Jim quirks an eyebrow, but he does the same. Their fingertips just brush together, and a jolt of something shoots up his forearm.

"What the hell was that?" he asks, examining his fingers.

"There— there is no Standard equivalent for the word," Spock says slowly, gazing bewildered at his own hand. "I have only heard of it."

"What are you talking about?"

"It is an ancient concept..." Spock says, almost to himself. He flexes his fingers. "...derived in our warrior past, when brothers in arms bonded with one another, pledging to protect each other with their blood."

"What does that have to do with what just happened?"

"This is how bondmates identified one another," Spock says, reaching his hand out toward Jim again. "The connection could be revealed with a simple press of fingers. I admit I never wished to perform such an act until this moment."

Tentatively, Jim touches Spock's hand again, and again the sensation shoots through his arm. He doesn't pull back this time. He feels the pulse of Spock's heartbeat, and his entire arm begins to tingle. Spock's mouth is open, and his expression is one of wonder.

He breathes something in Vulcan.

That's it, the word he heard the other Spock say once, and Jim is suddenly overwhelmed. He locks his eyes on their fingers, and ignores the way his chest heaves as he takes a breath and then another. He doesn't believe in fate. There's no such thing, and yet he can feel this, deep within him, deeper than his muscles and blood and bones. The stirring is in his soul, and he can't speak.

He pulls Spock's face to his. Spock's lips are still and warm. Jim presses a kiss to them. It's over just like that, and Jim backs a few steps away from Spock and freezes. Spock brings a hand to his mouth.

"Sorry," Jim says automatically, though he wants to do it again.

Spock shakes his head and smiles. "Do not be."

***

Jim stands in the hallway outside his bedroom for what feels like hours before he finally opens the door. He can still feel the electricity in his arm, the garden wall rough against his back, the heat of Spock's mouth against his neck. He touches the bruise he can feel blooming, and opens the door. When he crawls onto the bed, the elder Spock is waiting for him, reading.

"You are up late," Spock says, pulling the covers back for him, but Jim stays on the edge.

"I went for a walk," he says. Spock lays the PADD aside and removes his glasses.

"I see."

"I kissed you," Jim confesses, and he can feel his face redden.

"Yes," Spock says, frowning.

"No, I mean I kissed the other you." Jim stares down at the sheets. "He stopped by, so I suggested we go for a walk, and it just...happened."

Spock is silent for a moment, but then he nods. "I am glad," he says. "That is as it should be."

Jim scrubs a hand over his face "This is the most fucked-up situation."

"You are tired," Spock says, reaching out and brushing a thumb over Jim's temple, and his thoughts abruptly vanish. He allows Spock to guide him onto the mattress and bring the covers up around his shoulders. Jim's eyes fall closed, and he feels his breathing deepen.

"Yeah," he yawns. "I guess I am."

"Sleep," Spock instructs, and Jim nods lazily into his pillow as Spock's arms come around him.

***

He's not surprised when the letter arrives. As soon as he holds it in his hand, he knows. It's different from the others. The handwriting is the same, but something about it feels off. Maybe it's the weight. The outer envelope is cream, a luxurious paper stock. There is no flower accompanying the letter today.

My dear Jim: I cannot imagine happiness for myself in the future which is not identified in you. Please consider this letter a koon-ut so'lik. I will await your response. With great affection, I am yours, Spock

"What does koon-ut so'lik mean?" Jim asks hesitantly, afraid of the answer. "I don't remember that from introductory Vulcan."

"It is a formal marriage proposal," Spock says.

"Shit," Jim swears, dropping his face into his hand. "That's what I was afraid of," he tells his palm.

"You are displeased," Spock says with a frown. "Did you not kiss him last evening?"

"He's my first officer," Jim exclaims. "I can't marry my first officer...can I?"

"I am uncertain how Starfleet will react," Spock says, "as I was no longer your first officer when we bonded."

"Good. Wait...so we were married?" Jim asks, throwing up his hands. "When were you going to tell me that?"

"It was not relevant," Spock says. "Do you wish to bond with him?"

"What?" Jim says, and he begins to pace in front of the window. "No. I mean, I barely know him."

"You have spent much time with him of late," Spock corrects.

Jim rounds on him. "You made me!"

"I did not make you walk with him last night," Spock points out, "nor did I insist that you kiss him."

"Are you saying this because we were married before?"

"I say this because it is the truth."

Rubbing his forehead, Jim sinks onto the windowsill. "What happens if I say no?" he asks quietly.

"You must do what you feel is right, of course."

"What about you?" Jim asks. "And everything we've been doing the last few weeks?"

"I am in mourning," Spock says slowly, lowering himself to the bench beside Jim. He places a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Specifically, I am in half mourning. It is a state I have chosen to keep indefinitely, ever since the death of my Jim."

"What does that mean, exactly?"

"I will never bond with another." Spock's hand returns to the pendant at his neck. "Nor do I wish to. Is that what you desire for your future, to be an old Vulcan's paramour?"

"Would you consider coming back out into space with me?" Jim asks, turning to face him and raising both eyebrows. "You could be my personal yeoman and, you know. Fetch me tea."

"My place is here," Spock says with a shake of his head, though he smiles and lifts a hand to Jim's cheek.

"And mine's not, right?" Jim says, sighing. He hugs Spock tightly.

"I never dared to believe that I would have you again. These past few weeks have been as if a dream."

"You're not so bad yourself," Jim mutters into his shoulder, laughing.

"I will always be yours," Spock says against his hair. "And if you desire it, he will belong to you as well."

***

The second proposal is more straightforward and presented in person. T'Pring stands in the entry hall, extending to him a gloved hand.

"My dear Captain Kirk," she says. "I believe it best to be direct in these matters. I will not feign affection for you. I find you an interesting and worthy match, and I wish you to consider deepening our connection. If you will permit it, I propose we form a preliminary link between our minds."

"My lady," he begins, squeezing her hand. "I think you're cool as hell, and I'd love to have you as a member of my crew. If you ever consider joining Starfleet, let me know, but I can't bond with you."

She doesn't reply right away, looking at him with the same expression she used when they first met, scrutinizing and unapologetic. Slowly, her eyes crinkle, and she nods once. Jim drops her hand, and she takes a step back.

"I think you are well suited for him," she says graciously. "I wish you great happiness."

"Um," he says, rubbing the back of his neck as it grows hot. "Thanks."

"It is perhaps improper," she says, "but I hope you will reserve a set for me at your engagement ball."

"At my what?"

She gives him a sly look and curtseys low.

"I bid you good day, Captain," she says and is gone.

***

"How exactly are you attending your own engagement party if you're not engaged?" Bones asks.

"Um..." Jim says lamely. He examines his hair in the mirror, running a hand through it, his comm shoved between his shoulder and ear. The suit he has on is the same one he wore to his welcoming ball, only this time he has on a gold waistcoat to match Spock's. Lord Sarek had it sent over this morning. "Well, I didn't exactly reject him yet."

"So you're planning to do it in front of an audience!" Bones exclaims. "I can't wait for launch day, all of those warm, fuzzy feelings on the bridge."

"I'm not going to do it in front of anyone!" he snaps, adjusting his collar. It's so tight it might as well be strangling him.

"No," Bones continues, "you're just waiting until everyone has gathered to celebrate it, so you can humiliate him properly."

"You don't understand."

"That's for damned sure."

"He said we could take it slow," Jim says, perching on the edge of the bathroom counter.

"Jim," Bones says, "I'm going to try and phrase this in a way you'll understand. He proposed to you."

"I know."

"He proposed marriage to you."

"I know!"

"How is that taking it slow?"

"Well..." This collar is definitely going to kill him by the end of the night. His face is turning red.

"That's what I thought." Bones sighs heavily, and Jim imagines the throbbing vein in the side of his neck. "Does Admiral Pike know about this?"

"Sort of," Jim says. "I haven't given him the particulars."

"I'm sure you'll enjoy filling out the paperwork on your honeymoon."

"Quit breaking my balls, would you?" Jim screws a fist into his eye.

"Well, what do you want me to say. Congratulations?"

***

Jim's stomach churns throughout the carriage ride into town and is on the verge of making him sick when it pulls into the broad, curving drive and halts.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," Jim chokes out.

"It is too late to return to Alam now," Spock tells him. "They have noted your arrival. Come."

Jim groans and climbs out of the carriage, clutching Spock's hand. As they had done before his welcoming ball, he and Spock stand on the front porch, awaiting the formal announcement. Jim's heart is beating so hard and fast, he can hear it. He shivers despite the heat and holds Spock's arm tightly. Nervously, he adjusts the edge of his vest, his coat, runs a hand through his hair. His stomach plummets when his name is called; he squeezes his eyes closed. Spock doesn't start walking until Jim opens them again.

"Okay," he steels himself. "Let's get this over with."

The crowd is again parted down the center, allowing him a clear view of Lord Sarek and his family, who again stand on a raised platform at the far side of the room. Amanda smiles at him and inclines her head. As they approach, the younger Spock steps to the front of the platform and extends a hand.

"What's going on?" Jim whispers, gripping Spock's arm tighter.

"He will present you with a ring."

"What?" Jim rasps. "Why can't you tell me this stuff in advance? I thought I'd get to talk to him first."

Spock doesn't answer, stopping a few feet from the platform and bowing. He gently unwraps Jim's hand from his arm and squeezes it affectionately, then presents Jim's hand to his younger self. Spock helps Jim onto the platform and from inside his coat takes a small box. Jim can't look at it, doesn't want to look at it. He's breathing too quickly for rational thought and steps back, but Spock's hand is a steady pressure on his. It anchors him somehow, the only thing about this entire situation that feels right. Jim can't look anywhere but straight ahead; every eye in the room is on him. Behind Spock's shoulder, Sybok winks. Spock regards him with an expression that is so sweet, Jim feels his heart break a little.

"Don't—" Jim whispers as Spock presents the box to him and tilts it open.

The ring is as ridiculous as everything else he's had to wear on this planet: an ornate gold band with swirls like ocean waves, surrounding two round diamonds. In the center of the band, like the equator, runs a thin gold braid, which divides the ring into halves which appear fused to one another.

"This ring has been in my family for generations," Spock explains, his voice quiet and low. "It represents two unique souls, joined for all time. You will honor me by accepting it."

Jim says nothing when Spock removes Jim's glove and slides the ring onto his hand. The observers politely applaud. Lord Sarek's cadence overtakes the room, but Jim doesn't register the words he speaks, just stares at his hand and the way that Spock so tenderly holds it. Though Spock's is gloved, Jim can feel echoes of the strange electricity between them. Music begins to play, and he blinks in a daze as Spock leads him to the floor for the first set. He can't see Spock's face as they dance, but his breath is a contented exhale close to Jim's ear. Jim draws nearer to him without thinking, suddenly aware that their chests press together. Glancing past Spock's shoulder, Jim can see where the elder Spock stands against the wall. He stays swaying against Spock for the second set and the third. By the end the fourth, Spock has taken the liberty of slipping his right hand inside Jim's jacket and squeezing his side. Jim shudders.

"Do you wish me to stop?" Spock whispers, the teasing smile in his voice evident.

"No," Jim says and steps closer.

He dances the fifth set with T'Pring as promised, though it causes chattering and a sharp look between Lord Sarek and Spock, who immediately reclaims Jim once the song has ended and T'Pring has risen from her curtsey. He doesn't leave Jim's side for the remainder of the evening.

Since they're apparently engaged, he's permitted to escort Jim to his carriage when the evening concludes and the guests have gone.

"I didn't actually give you an answer, you know," Jim says as he climbs in. He sits sideways, so his legs hang out the open door. Spock stands just before his knees and takes his hand.

"I know," he says, squeezing it.

"Why all this?"

"I did not wish to disappoint my father," Spock says quietly. "He wishes us to bond before you leave Vulcan, but I will explain to him our decision to postpone any furthering of our relationship, until such a time as you are ready."

Jim nods, feeling some of the tightness ease in his stomach. "Okay," he says, daring to touch the ring once.

"Is it to your liking?" Spock asks.

"It's...big," Jim says woodenly.

"To see it on your hand is most pleasing," Spock tells him. He runs a finger over it.

"I can't imagine wearing this with my uniform."

The smile on Spock's face is faint but affectionate. "It would give me pleasure to see you wear it, but I will understand if you cannot."

"Okay."

"We are permitted the use of our wedding gift, if you choose," Spock murmurs, tracing the inside of Jim's wrist.

"Our wedding gift?"

"I suspected that you did not hear my father speak," Spock says. "You were...preoccupied."

"You can say that again."

"Igen-kur," Spock continues. "It was to be my brother's, but as I am betrothed first, it is mine."

"Are you saying we're allowed to shack up now, just like that?"

"I would not phrase it as you have," Spock says, "but yes, that is the sense of it."

"Maybe on the next trip out here, if that's okay?"

Spock's fingers still, but they remain pressed against Jim's pulse point. "I did not expect you would desire physical intimacy between us so soon," Spock says.

"It's not the sex." Jim reaches a hand to Spock's face and traces the shape of his ear. "Sex I can do. It's the having-sex-with-my-future-husband-in-a-house-given-to-us-by-his-dad part that's throwing me for a loop."

When Jim slides his hand into Spock's hair, Spock ducks his head. "May I kiss you?" he asks.

"Okay," Jim says, leaning forward, and is surprised when Spock trails two fingers along the back of his hand instead. His touch is light, and Jim's stomach flutters. He rests his forehead against Spock's.

"I can return with you to Earth when you leave," Spock informs him, "or I can wait and take the later ship. The choice is yours. I understand if you would prefer time to yourself. Your decision will not alter my affection for you. I will await your answer tomorrow."

He kisses Jim once, very softly, on the mouth.

"Good night," he whispers and secures the carriage door.

***

This situation sucks, Jim thinks as he slumps against the carriage wall, feet propped up on the bench across from him. He twists the ring around his finger until the elder Spock reaches out to still his hand.

He kisses Jim's forehead as he tucks him into bed, resting a hand on his chest as he did the first night.

"Aren't you staying?" Jim asks, cupping his cheek. Spock shakes his head.

"I will see you at breakfast," he says and switches off the light.

***

After hours of restless tossing and turning, Jim resigns himself to a sleepless night, so he calls Earth again despite the hour and is relieved to hear his favorite grouchy voice.

"Let me see if I have this straight," Bones says after Jim recounts the evening. "You're not engaged to your first officer, but you're sporting a giant ring worth god knows what, and his dad gave you a house."

"Yes," Jim says, rolling onto his back and looking out the window. It's eerily dark at night, with no moon.

"Being a Southern gentleman," Bones continues, "I wouldn't normally advise the dine and ditch approach, but it might be your only remaining option."

"Come again?"

"Your ship leaves day after tomorrow," Bones says. "Turn him down right before you board and hope they don't send anyone after you. Then transfer him to another ship."

"I can't do that!"

"So you're just going to carry on being fake engaged?"

"It's not totally fake," Jim clarifies. "I really do like him."

"So you are engaged."

Jim chews the inside of his lip and considers. "As far as his parents are concerned," he says.

"But you're taking things slow," Bones says. Jim can practically taste the sarcasm.

"He said I don't have to wear the ring on the ship," he tells Bones.

"Isn't he a saint."

"You could at least pretend to be happy for me," Jim points out. "You got married when you were my age."

"You're right," Bones says with a sigh. "If you're serious about this, of course I'm happy for you, kid. What time does your ship get in?"

"Who knows," Jim says, pressing his face into the pillow. "I'll message you when we're approaching space dock, so you have time to get to the hangar."

"Wasn't sure if you'd be getting a formal welcome from the Vulcan Embassy, since you're marrying one of their crowned princes."

"He's not a prince."

"Kidding."

***

Jim watches Spock over his coffee the next morning, taking long sips so he can justify the length of time he stares. Spock hasn't said a word about the ring on his hand. Jim has conspicuously avoided looking at it, but he finds himself twisting it around his finger. It feels funny on his skin, which is clammy underneath and itches. He chews his lower lip.

"Is this the same ring you gave me before?" he asks.

"It is," Spock replies, meeting his eyes.

"But I was older."

Spock nods once. "You were," he says.

"Why'd we wait so long?" Jim asks, leaning back on two chair legs. "You said Vulcans don't believe in postponing a match."

"I did not pursue you until after our mission had ended," Spock tells him. "I feared you would not be receptive to my advances, so I made no effort to court you. I regret that, as you will regret it when your chair legs give way."

Chuckling, Jim returns all four chair legs to the ground and leans his elbows on the table. "That's why you've been so adamant about me spending time with him."

"In part," Spock says in a thoughtful tone. "I also regret that my arrival in this universe altered your histories in such a way that you might not have come together, had it not been for my intervention. It is my place to correct the alterations which are my doing, if possible."

"I'll miss you."

"I will be honored to call you my friend."

Jim grins, a warmth blooming in his chest. "You're sure I can't talk you onto my ship?" he asks. "I'm sure we could make things work, the three of us."

"Tempting," Spock says with a faint smile, "but he deserves your full attention. I have already been the recipient of it."

***

Jim budgeted time to pack for the return trip, but when he emerges from the bathroom, he finds his bag open at the foot of the bed. It already contains his neatly folded clothes. He trails a hand over the stack of letters which rests on top, tied with a piece of twine. He owes Spock an answer about their travel plans tomorrow.

Does he want Spock to come back with him? Some distance would be welcome, beneficial even. Maybe all of this, the way he feels when he's around either one of them, is just an effect of being so far from home, of knowing what another Jim Kirk once meant to the elder Spock. Will he still feel this way when they haven't seen each other in a few weeks? Maybe he should tell Spock to stay. He'll see him every day soon enough. Or maybe he'll be lonely when they're apart. Maybe he'll have questions pertaining to the Enterprise launch that he'll need to discuss with his first officer.

He wonders which option Spock prefers, and that's when it hits him: the decision isn't his. All of this—the courtship, the proposal, the ring—Spock did all of it because it was what his family expected. Jim won't be just another person dictating Spock's life. He writes a letter, just four words, and asks that it be delivered right away.

The choice is yours. - JTK

As he's watching a red jacket disappear down the long drive with the letter in hand, that's when the second realization hits him, that he might actually care quite a lot about a certain pair of smitten Vulcans.

***

Jim calls T'Pring for the favor because, he thinks, of everyone on this planet, she's the one most likely to help him. He reaches her at work. She's quiet for a minute after he explains, but he knows she's going to help when she says "Hmm" and mentions she had planned to go into town early the next morning, in advance of his departure.

"It will not be a problem to procure such a bloom," she tells him finally.

"I don't know how much it would cost," Jim says.

"Consider it my parting gift to you," she says. "I will deliver it to you in the morning."

"Thanks, my lady," he says. "Sure I can't talk you onto my ship?"

True to her word, T'Pring arrives by carriage early the next morning, before Jim has even had coffee. He spots the carriage approaching from his bedroom window and yawns his way downstairs, hoping that Spock hasn't noticed it in the drive. He meets her outside on the porch. She wears simple pants and a tunic beneath a black lab coat, her hair pulled back in a low twist. She looks so unlike the T'Pring who proposed to him in the hallway that he does a double take. She extends to him a small package, wrapped in brown parchment, and immediately retracts her hand.

"As requested," she says, "though I admit I am perplexed."

"How come?" he asks.

"It is quite a declaration," she informs him, accompanied by one perfectly raised eyebrow, "for so new a relationship."

Shrugging, he tucks the package carefully inside his jacket.

"Well, I'm really grateful." He smiles at her, and he's glad to see her mouth curve as he does so. "Thank you."

"Live long," she says, raising a hand, "and prosper."

"You'd look good in science blue," Jim tells her with a wink. "Just saying."

***

He decides it'll be easier to say goodbye to Spock at the house while it's just the two of them. He's not sure if he'll make it through this in public, nor is he sure they'll get another chance alone once they arrive at the station. Spock is bent over, zipping Jim's bag closed, and Jim feels an ache rise in his chest. When he stands, Jim leans into him, and he shudders as Spock's arms come up around him.

"Thanks for everything," Jim says against his shoulder. He steps back and smooths the front of Spock's vest. "I...just...thanks."

Spock nods, his expression melancholy, Jim thinks, though he smiles.

"I'll visit," Jim promises.

"I look forward to it. Of course," Spock says, "I will not be your valet, when you do."

"No," Jim says, trailing a hand down his chest and swallowing the lump in his throat. "I guess not." He scowls. "And write me sometimes. I want to know how you're doing. Or call me. I'll make sure you have access to me on the ship."

"I shall."

He hugs Spock again tightly before shouldering his bag.

"Okay," he says, not looking back. "Let's do this."

***

Jim expected to see Spock waiting for him at the station, but he's not there, nor are any of his family members. The disappointment Jim feels is unexpected, like someone punched him in the gut. He looks down, so no one can see the flush in his cheeks. Soren stands outside the shuttle with the same group which welcomed him a month ago upon his arrival. He bows slightly as Jim approaches and takes his bag.

"Captain," he says, "on behalf of the citizens of ShiKahr, we are gratified that you chose to spend the past month with us. I bid you peace and long life."

"Thanks," Jim says. "This has been quite an experience."

The shuttle's door is already open, lowered into a ramp. He has only to put a foot on it, and he'll be on his way back to Earth. He stares at it, at the black non-skid surface, but his foot won't budge from the red ground. He feels the hand on the small of his back press gently, and he turns his head just enough that he catches Spock's face at his shoulder.

"It will be harder," Spock whispers, "the longer you delay."

Dipping his head, Jim takes the small package from his jacket and folds Spock's fingers around it. "Open this after I leave, okay?" he says quietly.

"I will."

"Just...wait until I'm on board," Jim says and retracts his hands.

Taking a deep breath, he walks up the ramp, turning left sharply and picking a seat next to the window. He opens the shade, adjusts his seat back, and fastens the safety belt. He turns his head and catches Spock's eyes, nodding once. Spock bends his head and carefully unwraps the paper, his mouth parting when he reaches its contents. Jim can just glimpse the tips of white petals and imagines the gold center. Spock looks up at him with glassy eyes. Jim beams, presses a hand to the window as his chest heaves and the shuttle door makes a sucking noise as it seals.

The view outside is obscured in a cloud of dust as the shuttle rises and begins its ascent. He can't see Spock anymore, and Spock isn't sitting next to him. Jim becomes aware of stinging in both eyes, of an unsteadiness in his breathing, a tremor in his shoulders and chest.

"That was kind," a voice to his left says.

Jim whips his head around to see his first officer standing in the aisle, a hand on the back of the empty chair beside him. He wipes his eyes quickly and feels his stomach drop.

"I cannot imagine what it has been like for him," Spock continues, "having been without you for so long."

"You knew about them?" Jim says, his eyes widening.

"No," Spock says carefully. "Not until I spoke with him yesterday."

"Oh."

Spock sits beside him, clasping his hands on his lap. "You offered me a choice," he continues. "I wished to make the correct one. Thus, I sought the opinion of my elder self, wondering what he would do in my situation, if he ever faced it."

"What did he say?"

"He said I must decide for myself, but that, given the chance again, he would not give up a moment with you. He imparted to me what his Jim meant to him, what you have meant to him."

Spock holds Jim's gaze, and it's clear he knows.

"Oh god," Jim says, feeling his face redden. He covers his mouth with his hand.

"Would you have told me?" Spock asks.

"No," Jim says automatically and presses hard back against the seat. "Maybe. I don't know."

"I appreciate your honesty," Spock says, "as I appreciate that you granted me autonomy. It is not a luxury I often enjoy."

"You chose to come with me anyway," Jim says, "even after what he showed you?"

"I came because of it." Spock takes his hand and threads his fingers through Jim's. The spark is there, just as it had been in the garden. Jim grips his hand tighter and leans his head against Spock's shoulder.

"What if it doesn't work out?" he asks. Spock kisses his forehead, and the gesture is so familiar that Jim smiles.

"I will take that risk."